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smth savant: Kindred Spirits in Beats

November 12, 2018

Story by John Morrison. Photo by Megan Matuzak.

Backyard Bxss (pronounced “Backyard Bass”) was founded in 2017 as a monthly showcase for local women, gender-nonconforming people and people of color who produce and perform electronic music. By being intentional about booking and the work it highlights, the event brings a totally new energy to the scene and challenges the stifling homogeneity of experimental music.

Recently scaled back to a quarterly event, Backyard Bxss has featured live sets from a variety of electronic musicians. In its short time in existence, Backyard Bxss has built a rich community of diverse performers dedicated to pushing the sound and social mores of electronic music forward.

The event’s founders, multi-instrumentalists/producers Ada Adhiyatma (aka Madam Data) and Kilamanzego (who goes by K) met through a mutual friend when Adhiyatma moved to Philly from the West Coast. Upon hearing Madam Data’s electronic sound, Kilamanzego invited them to play at her birthday party/BBQ in South Philly. From that event, a desire to create a new space for Philly’s beat-making community was born, and that became Backyard Bxss and smth savant (pronounced “something savant”), a collective and independent record label.

“A mutual friend of ours in Oakland hit me up saying that we should meet because their experimental style reminded him of mine,” Kilamanzego says. “I checked it out, and it sounded like some boiler-room-ready set to me. [laughs] Anyway, I immediately hit them up and was like, ‘You’re playing my birthday party.’ They agreed. It’s funny because this was before we even knew each other, but I was super-confident in their abilities, and their sound amazed me, and still does so much.”

“From that BBQ, I wanted to replicate the same mood and have it be monthly, because Philly’s beat scene has gone through a lot of phases,” Kilamanzego explains. “I just happened to be a part of it at a time where locating that particular scene wasn’t the easiest. So I tapped Ada on the shoulder to partner up with me on smth savant.”

In a scene that sometimes does not tolerate diversity, their event and label celebrated it.

“I know so many artists who have run into complications getting booked or getting paid properly due to their gender or sexual orientation. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it is,” says Kilamanzego.

Despite their aligned visions, Adhiyatma and Kilamanzego came from two very different musical backgrounds. A formally trained multi-instrumentalist and composer, Adhiyatma dove deep into the post-Bop work of Miles Davis’ late quintet as a teenager, a discovery which led them into a musical journey through the avant-garde.

“And from then on there was always something just out of my reach,” says Adhiyatma, “that I didn’t quite understand, and I could never put it down, ’cause I need to know what these people are trying to put into the universe.”

Adhiyatma would eventually enroll in Mills College in Oakland, and had the opportunity to study with Roscoe Mitchell, the legendary avant-garde composer and cofounder of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. It was this relationship that helped open their ears and heart to the spirit of community that music could help create when it’s done the right way, with care and compassion.

”The jazz world nowadays is not a good place to be in,” Adhiyatma says. “It’s very macho, very masculine, very competitive, in a completely non-productive way. … It’s, like, dominated by institutions where white people have a lot of power, which is bizarre to think about.”

Adhiyatma says what saved them at the time was going to AACM concerts in New York, a place they felt was more open and caring.

“It was a community thing,” they say. Everyone was open. They were listening for new sounds.”

Playing music since she was a kid, Kilamanzego spent her formative years playing bass in a variety of bands, from ska and punk to hardcore and death metal. She eventually was inspired to dive into hip-hop production after being blown away by J-Dilla’s iconic second album, Donuts.

“It had either come out that year or I found it early the following year,” she says. “That’s how quickly it must’ve blown up. Anyway, I listened to some snippets and bought it. I was completely floored. I didn’t stop playing that album for months.”

It was simply different.

“It was the first time I started asking questions like ‘How do people produce?’ I remember my roommate at the time smiled as he saw me listening to it and was like, ‘You could use a program called Fruity Loops.’ ”

So she did just that, eventually moving on to more sophisticated programs like Abelton.

Marked by pounding drums, oceanic basslines and elegant synths, her tracks are like a sonic funhouse of glitchy twists and turns, not unlike the twists and turns in their own lives that led them to where they are now in Philly.

The artist collective/record label has been busy since the two first met and realized they were kindred spirits, with Kilamanzego releasing genre shifting singles like “Red Light Green Light” and the gorgeous dancefloor burner “Stay Floated in the Tribe.” Madam Data recently put out their 2018 experimental opus A Thick Band of Orange Light and the label’s first compilation, featuring local producers and electronic musicians. Coupled with Backyard Bxss, which relaunches as a quarterly event in January, the smth savant crew has made an invaluable contribution to Philly’s music scene.

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