Producer Michael Brun speaks with Notion about the energy that courses through his new 'Melanin' EP and creating "music that feels good, that might make you dance".
For his 2019 debut album, ‘Lokal’, producer Michael Brun wanted to introduce the Haitian sounds he was raised around in a modern context. However, on his new ‘Melanin’ EP, Brun wants to extend those ‘Lokal’ sounds to connect with the entire Afro-Caribbean diaspora worldwide. At five tracks and with five multicultural features, the condensed project is easily repeatable and as easy to bust a move to as it is to cook, clean, or do at-home workouts too. As an electronic dance project, Brun has created bridges to all of the styles he wants to empower, whilst making something you can’t help but dance to.
Brun’s influences for the project range space and time but centre on the Haitian drum electrified. He describes the island’s percussion as the core of Haitian music. That same rhythm has extended to his own heartbeat for his country and its worldwide perception. Brun has fervently defended and re-contextualised Haitian culture and history, showing what it has to offer rather than what it needs. From his BAYO Haitian block party series (both live and virtual) and his Haitian Heat Spotify playlist to his action-based critiques of large institutions and political figures, Brun is unrelenting in his home island pride.
Where are you located?
I’m in Bushwick, Brooklyn.
How is it?
My neighbourhood feels alive right now. The last year fluctuated so much, but I’ve only been here three and a half years, and I was in Miami before, so it still feels fresh and exciting.
What was Miami like?
I lived there after college and when I started my career up until 2016. It was really fun and a great city to learn how to make music in. The Caribbean Diaspora, there’s so much there. I definitely appreciate the time I spent, but New York was always one of the places I wanted to visit when I was a kid. So when I had a chance to live here (I did). It feels like what I saw in movies. This is like Home Alone 2. It’s a lot more, of course.
Congrats on the release of ‘Melanin’ EP! What energy were you trying to push with it, and why is now the right time for it?
Putting out an EP like this right now feels like exactly what I wanted to say. My Haitian album, ‘Lokal’, I spent four years on that one. I learned so much about being an artist, doing my tour and block parties, and traveling. I felt like I experienced a lifetime of music in a short amount of time. After, I really wanted to create global connections. Being Haitian and Guyanese, then seeing how that links to Africa and Latin America. Along the way, I worked with J Balvin on Latin stuff and Mr. Eazi on African stuff, as well as a bunch of other collaborators. It was so inspiring, and I wanted to keep developing that with this project.
I wanted to create bridges between these different cultures. The African Diaspora in New York and the rest of the world is so vast. It’s so cool to see distinct places around the world with sounds created from that. I wanted to do a project focusing on some of my favourites: R&B, Reggae and Caribbean music, and Baile funk in Brazil. It’s tough to capture in five songs, but to me, those were five unique mixes that were a taste of what I’m listening to.
Was there any hesitation to put out a dance project in a pandemic?
To be honest with you, I didn’t really view it as a dance project. I saw it as music that feels good, that might make you dance. All these songs are somehow both chill and hype. I can play all of them in my set, but people can play them in their own setting and still get a vibe.
But more than anything, it’s telling a story. “Destemperado” has no lyrics, but it takes you on a journey. If you look into the DNA of the song, you see Baile funk, Bossa Nova elements, and Jazz elements. You see mouth percussion that Barbatuques is so famous for. You put that together with Haitian Raboday sounds I brought in and electronic stuff; that’s a story.
Does the cover art display a traditional Haitian band set up?
It’s a fusion of a Kompa band and a Rara band. So it’s the traditional with the new generation. I appreciate when an artist does their research and gives credit to what came before them. I felt like that was an Easter egg in the artwork to show that we’re aware of where these sounds come from.
My sister made the artwork. She’s seventeen, which is crazy cuz she’s so young! She’s been painting for a while, and I think she’s really talented. I talked to her about the project, and she just started painting these profiles. It was really cool to see it come to life.
What were the specific influences for the production styles on the EP?
I was listening to a lot of classic R&B, a lot of Motown stuff. A lot of 70s stuff. Then in terms of the dancey elements, what Kaytranada has been doing. He’s another Haitian producer. I also was listening to classic hip-hop producers that really understood grooves and vibe like J Dilla. In the realm of really emotional, but still dancey and timeless.
For the song “Melanin” feat. Kahlo, does it intentionally represent the feeling of wanting to be able to go back outside?
Kahlo is my neighbor, so we hung out a bunch before the pandemic and during the pandemic. She’s one of ten people I’ve seen in person since everything started. We would end up just hangin’ and talkin’ music. I remember I made the beat, and it was just drums. Kahlo poked her head out like, “Yo, what’s this?” She was so hyped with it. Then she was like, “This makes me think of drinking on a rooftop and partying.” The first line of “Melanin” was her description of what the beat sounded like. Anybody that’s worked with me knows when I hear something I like I pull out my phone and voice note that one line. That became what basically created the song. We went from that drumbeat to the finished song in literally twenty minutes. No further thought needed to go into it; it was exactly how we felt.
“Love Me, Suffa” feat. Shirazee is the most R&B-centered song on the project. What were you drawing from for those melodies?
At the time, I was listening to a combination of classic Motown era stuff but also more recent stuff that fuses those elements with hip-hop. Ariana Grande’s albums I thought were really interesting, even sample-wise. Like the “My Favorite Things” flip, I thought was really cool. I wanted to put that in the context of African music, Benin music, and Nigerian music. The chords are a really classic progression, but I wanted to spice it up and make it more Caribbean and Nigerian with the guitars.
On “Baby Who” feat Shay Lia, you make a few different real instruments sound filtered and distorted for effect. How’d you accomplish that?
I really wanted to make things that sounded sampled. It was an approach I loved from Kanye as a producer. I was doing a session with another producer Tim Suby a few years ago. We made a melodic bed of chords with keys, guitars, and bass. Then we would take it and export it and re-sample it so it would sound like something we sampled ourselves. “Baby Who” was one I did like that.
Can you talk to me about the whistle sound on “Oh Mama” feat. Paul Beaubrun? I can’t get it out of my head.
I’m happy that came to mind. I started the song with that. The first time I visited New Orleans, I was working with Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Arcade Fire, and Paul Beaubrun. We spent a couple days working on music, hanging, and visiting the city. I never knew there was a link between New Orleans and Haiti before I visited, so I was really inspired. One day I was walking in the street, and I had my phone with me cuz I like to put ideas down. That whistle was just a voice note I recorded. I’m 99 percent sure I saw a poster of a Spaghetti Western or something. So I was like, “What does that sound like modern?” So I recorded that really quickly before I forgot. That version on there is literally the voice note version cuz I knew I’d never be able to get it right again the same way.
For “Destemperado” feat. Barbatuques, can you talk about all the layers of different flute sounds?
There used to be a FIFA and Nike campaign in the early 2000s. This was pre-YouTube like Kazaa, Limewire era when videos were sent back and forth on P2P networks. Somebody sent me this video of Joga Bonito, which is this Brazilian campaign for football, and they had the Barbatuques sample in there. I remember being blown away by the mouth percussion, the flutes, and the combo they were doing. I wanted to take that classic-sounding vibe and put it in the context of today. I think Baile funk is global music. It’s a cool fusion. The flutes and layers are all Barbatuques. They went in and put so much detail into the melodies.
Unfortunately, Fernando Barba, who’s a founder of Barbatuques, passed away a few days ago from a brain tumour. We didn’t get to meet in person. That’s the saddest part. We only spoke on email with the team. They were so awesome and supportive. They were so excited because they thought this song could help revitalise and bring their sound to the world. I hope we can do that in his honour.
What are the three things you love the most about Haiti?
I think food. It’s so diverse in terms of all the types of things you get in the mountains versus the beach and different regions. It’s a really cool combination of Caribbean food and African food with some Latin American elements. Then music, absolutely. Haitian music, in my opinion, is the perfect combo as well of all those regions. Haitian artists influence so much of modern American music. In the long-term scope of my artist career, I hope I can shed more light on that. The creation of Jazz and Blues came from the slave trade. What happened when Haiti became a free nation was extremely influential to the region. The music is beautiful, and there’s so much cool stuff to listen to, both old and new. Then, the last thing is the mountains and the beach. Off the north beach in Cape Haitian, there’s this one place called Île à Rat that’s an island in the middle of the ocean. You look everywhere, and you don’t see land, just the bluest waters. In the mountains, there’s this area called Belot that my family has a piece of land on. Looking into the horizon, you just see mountain after mountain. One of the sayings of Haiti actually is “dèyè mòn, gen mòn’,” which means; behind mountains, there’s more mountains.
Something you’ve done relentlessly is combat the tunnel-visioned representation of Haiti. What has prevented a more holistic view of Haitian history and art, and how does that change?
Everything comes down to who’s telling the stories. With history in general, it’s usually written by the biggest power. There’s a lot of things that are hidden. It has an effect on the way the world perceives different things that happen. In the case of Haiti, it arguably had the most explosive revolutionary experience in the last 200 to 300 years in the Western Hemisphere. This was a slave nation that overthrew their colonisers and became free and powerful. A black nation that were formerly slaves in a world where slavery was still very much legal. It was the first country to actually ban slavery. When you have somewhere that’s ruffling all the feathers and getting everybody pissed off; there’s gonna be consequences to that revolutionary spirit. That came economically and in opportunities for their stories to be heard. If you’re a nation that still has slaves, you don’t want your slaves to know that other nations overthrew their colonisers. That had deep effects on how Haiti was perceived.
Also, internally because of all the economic sanctions, it caused the country to really start backwards. They started with a ridiculous debt, and despite the debt, they still helped a bunch of other nations with their revolution. I really do feel like I’ve had a lot of privilege in my life to be able to get to have success, get to do what I love, and not have any worries. It’s a personal responsibility for anyone who reaches that point to set the record straight. The way I can have the biggest effect is by sharing the history, the music, the poetry, and sharing the love of country and culture. Putting other artists on. I see community as the most powerful way to rewrite those stories. Around the world right now, there’s a big push for accountability and for people to understand what black history is actually. I think personally, as an artist, I wanna use my platform to tell as many stories as I can. I can lead you to more of these stories, so if you wanna know more, you have an opportunity. At least you’re not just sold on this is the truth, and that’s it. It’s not that. There’s a lot more grey.
So one thing you’re already doing to spread community is the Spotify Haitian Heat playlist. Can you tell me how that’s helped your mission?
That was one of the first really interesting wins, having Spotify create this playlist with me specific to the Haitian diaspora. Then to create financial return for the artists, that was amazing. In this and any industry, exposure is a currency but it can’t sustain you by itself. You have to have financial reward for what you do so you can keep doin’ it. It was the perfect fusion. Apple also was really supportive in highlighting stuff like Ebro (Darden) and his whole team. It feels like the DSP’s feel like they have a responsibility to highlight new stories. Then my responsibility, if I get that attention, is to make sure I’m not just keeping it for myself.
How’d your BAYO Haitian block party series further the mission? Then what specifically sets a Haitian block party apart from others?
If you got to a Haitian event, you won’t be able to tell the difference between a crowd and the performer. Haitian music is so deeply rooted in the people and the culture, and everybody’s an artist. In doing these and traveling around the country, I got to see all this talent across the board. Seeing regular day-to-day people make music with a passion and expertise was insane when it’s not a career for them. That’s Haitian culture—ingenuity at every level.
Because people see Haiti as a place that always needs to receive, I wanted with BAYO to show Haiti actually has so much to offer. I see it every day; it just needed an outlet and to be formatted in a way to create exposure and wealth. When you go to BAYO, there’s also a spiritual component to it. You feel like you’re connected to everybody around you. It’s transformative.
You talk a lot about finding commonality in music. What’s a commonality people can hear in Haitian sounds who may not regularly listen to Afro-Caribbean music?
I think it’s the rhythm. That’s the core element of Haitian music, the drum. The Tanbou, that’s the life and blood of the music. It’s wild, but most Haitians just know how to drum. I don’t know how, but they can hold a beat without even thinking. There’s something in the ancestry, and you can never remove it. Haitian rhythm really speaks to people. You can dress it up in a way that sounds like Konpa music which is very similar to Zouk or other Caribbean-sounding genres. Then it can be really stripped down and sound super tribal like ceremonial and Rara music. It’s all the same rhythm at different tempos.
Can you expand on your previously expressed thoughts about technology empowering Haitian artists?
People feel like Haiti’s not up to date. Technology has advanced so much in the last twenty years that it feels like hundreds of years compared to any other generation. It’s allowed cultures to skip steps. What happened in the US from the 90s to early 2010s in the music industry, Haiti skipped over. But now we have people in Haiti making music on their phone. They’ve been able to adapt to what’s currently available. Everybody in Haiti has a phone, and it’s allowing people to DJ, produce, and shoot videos. It’s so cool for technology to democratise the future of the industry. Having a phone is having a studio essentially anywhere you are. There’s moments now that are captured that wouldn’t have been at any other time. Technology combined with a deep understanding of the history of Haitian music is creating really unique mixtures. There’s producers coming up with the craziest organisation of things I’ve ever seen in my life. Making global hits, any DJ around the world would drop. I hope there continues to be more development and even a little infusion of money to support them so they can reach the world.
Keeping on the theme of the value institutions with money can have, what effect has your Grammy award for working with J Balvin had on your career? Then what needs to change in how these institutions represent the vast diaspora of artists you speak about?
Getting that Grammy win was ridiculous. I never imagined that would happen. J Balvin told me when we were working on the project, “This is gonna be your first Grammy. It feels really special.” On a personal level, as an artist that’s been doing this ten plus years, to have that stamp of approval does feel good. I don’t seek it, but I appreciate it. It’s important for artists to be celebrated. I would like there to be more like this, not just for Haitian music, but in general.
The big-name brand institutions and awards have a really hard job. They have to figure out how to properly commemorate and support not only the popular genres but everything else. They get side eyes from everybody when they’re not properly labelling stuff or labelling things they shouldn’t. They’re trying, and I appreciate that. I truly believe if you did something wrong and you keep doing it wrong, you deserve all of the fire that you get. Especially if people tell you. But if you do something wrong and try to fix it, like what the Grammys did changing world music to global music, that’s a step in the right direction. Is that the end goal? Probably not. There’s more work that has to be done. Eventually, give credit where it’s due and uplift those genres and people. I would love for there to be an equal playing field around the world. I think we are starting to get to that point. It might not be tomorrow, but in Bushwick, in an hour, I hear a Dembow song, an Afro-beats song, whatever the big rap song is right now, and a rock song. That’s just in people’s cars. It’s happening already; it just takes time to show in the institutions.
So you often find opportunities in mistakes or even in negative energy. When Trump said the “shithole countries” comment, you said that created an opportunity to “create a new paradigm.” Since then, how have you seen progress shift towards that goal?
That was an example of peak ignorance. To say some shit like that without any repercussions was the extent of people turning a shoulder. That experience was the paradigm shift. I don’t wanna see anymore of that. I now do see less and less of people doing that. If something comes up that’s wrong, I’ve noticed people are more vocal, especially in younger generations. They actually point to historical precedence, saying this is why shit is the way it is, and actually do something to be more equitable and respectful of each other. Hopefully the next generation will be even more vocal in standing up for others.
How do you think “Melanin” EP helps create that new paradigm?
“Melanin” EP is just friends having fun and making music they love from all different backgrounds. I think being able to do that and also get support, that’s how it changes. Whether it’s from listeners to editorial to DSP’s to other artists, it just becomes part of culture that this is normal. It doesn’t have to be preachy. Just existing and being who you are, that’s enough. There’s something profound about you just speaking from the heart and other people connecting.
Ok last question, how have you changed as an artist and a person from dropping “Lokal” in 2019 to now dropping “Melanin” EP in 2021?
Last year was such a turning year for everybody emotionally, spiritually, physically, and mentally. I’ve always cared about what I wanna do as an artist, but I also care about what I wanna be as a human. It started informing my decisions with “Lokal”, but especially with “Melanin” EP. I want to make sure that the legacy I’m leaving is one that represents inclusivity, uplifting cultures and others, and happiness without sacrificing success or success without sacrificing happiness. Another part was understanding you can live a balanced life. I personally felt imbalanced last year and the year before. It was a crazy twelve months in my life. That feeling of everything potentially disappearing, then being saved from that, and then being able to keep doing it made me very aware of why balance is so important. You have to take care of your mind, body, soul, others, and you. When you see “Lokal” to “Melanin” EP, it’s moving from the more focused perspective of just Haiti to the world. My background is many different cultures. I find out a new part of my heritage every time I speak to my family. I wanna be able to reach the world with that cuz that’s what I am.