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Potatohead People Continue Building their Legacy Beyond the Hip-Hop Underground

The Vancouver-based instrumental duo fuse their extensive musical backgrounds and inspirations on Eat Your Heart Out.

by Ben Boddez

Photo by Thomas Maxey

If Vancouver-based hip-hop production duo Potatohead People were actual Mr. Potato Heads, you’d see AstroLogical in a bomber jacket with a cup of coffee, a joint, a skateboard and a keyboard in his arsenal of accessories. His counterpart Nick Wisdom would go with a simple pair of headphones his trademark nose piercing, and a bathrobe.

Vancouver’s answer to the scores of jazz-rap inspired producers who idolize the instrumental hip-hop sounds of J Dilla, Madlib, and Q-Tip, the duo have been dropping music together since 2011. Since then, they’ve linked up with an impressive list of collaborators that includes some of their personal heroes, like De La Soul, Phife Dawg, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Slum Village, and, most recently, Redman.

Locking into a groove together more than 13 years, they feed off of each other, but at the end of the day there’s no real method to their madness – Wisdom and AstroLogical are happiest in sessions just hanging out together, experimenting, and stumbling on something great. Despite often being pictured with enormous stacks of vinyl records behind them, when asked about influences, even those were tough to nail down.

“There’s not really a record or anything specific that’s influencing our record musically,” says Wisdom. “You’ll notice that there’s a lot of different styles and songs, but under the same sound that we do. We put our own twist on it. That’s because we like all these different styles, hip-hop, jazz, new wave, boogie house music…” AstroLogical completes his sentence: “80s funk, jazz fusion… It’s a culmination of all the records that we listen to. We listen to a lot of different styles, and what we compose comes out of that.”

You’d think that when a collaboration with a legend like Redman, who has a firmly established and beloved style, comes together, the duo might change their approach, tailoring a beat for an artist that they’re fans of and comes with a legacy. Instead, Wisdom replies to the question with a shrug and a “We just do our thing and hope that they like it,” AstroLogical noting that their collaborators usually pick a beat that’s already a Potatohead favourite out of the couple options they send over.

Nick Wisdom’s parents were both radio hosts, and he was first introduced to the world of vinyl records through them – even working in a record store himself later on in life. Coming along with having his own show on CBC, his father’s collection was particularly impressive. Some years later, the two beatmakers met in a community baseball league in high school and joined forces through a shared love of their aforementioned musical heroes.

“It was super exciting back then to meet anybody who was into the same style of beats. The modern beat scene was very fledgling in 2007, so it was super exciting. I was impressed and stoked to meet a like-minded individual,” says AstroLogical, before Wisdom adds “It was a hit-it-off-right-away kind of vibe. We both respected each other without having to prove it too much.”

When asked what draws them both to someone like J Dilla, it’s clear why attending a Potatohead People live show – where they come accompanied by a 10-piece band exhibiting top-notch displays of musicianship and virtuosity, making things feel a little more like the mind-bending complexity of a great jazz performance – has been noted by many as such a great experience.

“Why is Dilla special? There are so many reasons,” says AstroLogical. “We all know why he was so great in what he did for rhythm, but something that doesn’t get talked about is his harmonic skills. His ear, the chord progressions and the music he incorporated into the beats. Super complex harmonies, jazz, and that complexity that separated him from a lot of other beatmakers.”

Although the duo do collect vinyl extensively, being inspired by as many obscure historical sounds as they can possibly find, they haven’t been the type to sample music off of them directly ever since they were signed to the Bastard Jazz label, after putting out their first three EPs in 2011 and 2012. Since then, crafting only original beats, they’ve put out three full-length albums and a large handful of additional singles, culminating in their latest project, Eat Your Heart Out. Instead of a sampler, AstroLogical refers to himself as a “professional excavator” of the sounds he feels drawn to.

When it comes to a collaborative experience that sticks with Wisdom, instead of an artist that might come from the world of sounds of the past that the duo draws from, he brings up someone a little more contemporary – fellow Canadian and similarly-minded producer Kaytranada, who the duo worked with while crafting some beats for frequent collaborator and labelmate Illa J of Slum Village’s album.

“One that lives with me is when we were working on that album when I was living in Montreal over the course of a year,” he says. “That was a really fun experience, he would come over every other day and we would just make music all the time. One of the sessions was with Kaytranada. We made two or three tracks together, just played music back and forth, our own beats. That was a really memorable session for sure – really cool to just hang out with him and vibe out.”

While the two have always dabbled in putting their own voices on record, Potatohead People are stepping out from behind the boards a little more than usual on their latest project, lending their voices to the hooks on many of the tracks in their typical style – combining their voices and doubling them in the mix, ultimately giving the effect of the two producers melding into one, with a single voice.

“We have a vision. We make a beat, and when we put our own vocals on it, it’s the quickest way to put down our vision for what we’re hearing on it before sending it to an artist.”

“We have a vision. We make a beat, and when we put our own vocals on it, it’s the quickest way to put down our vision for what we’re hearing on it before sending it to an artist,” AstroLogical says, as Wisdom adds “I also find that writing lyrics can be a kind of meditative process. A lot of the writing is trying to get something out – you’ve got something on your mind and you need to let it go. We’re also just big fans of pop writing, pop hooks.”

Eat Your Heart Out begins with a track titled “The Formula,” but there’s nothing musically formulaic about it – in fact, the duo played with the idea of calling it “No Formula.” The intention behind it was to give listeners an introduction to the classic Potatohead People sound, the blueprint of the duo’s umbrella containing the wide array of sounds that they’re about to hear. As long as the duo stay locked into that understanding of what makes their work tick, fans of instrumental hip-hop should expect more quality tunes in the future.