Onra is Arnaud Bernard, a Parisian beat maker who started to turn heads around the globe after the critically acclaimed 2007 release of Chinoiseries, an album strung together using samples from old Chinese and Vietnamese records he found while crate digging in Vietnam. His second full-length offering, 1.0.8, released in 2009, was influenced by the sounds of Bollywood, while his latest LP Long Distance is a throwback to the funk, hip-hop, R&B, soul, boogie and electro sounds of the 80s and 90s.
While it was ostensibly a record devoted to the past, Bernard still has one foot firmly planted in the present, fusing the kinds of textures and sounds that future funk and leftfield hip-hop producers like DâM-Funk, Hudson Mohawke and Flying Lotus have been bringing to the masses. Juno Plus writer Helen Luu caught up with Onra in Toronto during his recent North American tour to talk about being cheesy, his love for concepts and why he adores his Akai MPC.
You’ve been touring around North America. How has it been going so far?
So far, I feel like the tour is just beginning right now. We’ve had four or five shows so far. Two college shows, one festival in Pittsburgh, and one show opening for !!! in Williamsburgh. So far, the best show has been the festival in Pittsburgh – it was really nice to play there. And Toronto was a great show as well. I really enjoyed myself.
I’ve heard that you’ve played in Vietnam. I was just wondering how you hooked that up? What was the reception like and how did people take to you? Is there an underground music scene in Vietnam?
There is, but only in Ho Chi Minh City because there’s a DJ there called DJ Jase who’s organizing some parties and he’s doing a lot of stuff for the beat scene over there, and dubstep as well. I did two live shows, one in Hanoi which wasn’t really good because people were expecting something more uptempo maybe, more electronic shit… but Ho Chi Minh City was really good. The crowd was mixed as well, contrary to Hanoi. In Ho Chi Minh City, it was half Vietnamese, half ex-pats so it was good to play there, especially when I played this one song from Chinoiseries called “Last Tango in Saigon.” When I played it I got goosebumps because it means a lot to me.
When I’ve read reviews or interviews with you before, people always seem to bring up your Vietnamese background, so I was wondering how you feel about that?
I don’t speak Vietnamese. Vietnamese culture has not been part of my education, except for food. For sure, I feel more French than anything else… but in France, as I don’t look French because I’m half Vietnamese, it’s kind of weird, you know. In Vietnam, I don’t feel Vietnamese… in France, I don’t feel French.
Your new album Long Distance has an obvious 80s funk and R&B theme going on, and what I’m amazed by is that you manage to take the good parts of that music because there’s a lot of cheese coming out of the 80s…
I love cheesy shit! I am a very cheesy person. Even in my relationship with girls, you know, I am cheesy. I think romance and romantic stuff still has to be a part of my life. Even if it’s kind of whack in a way, but I still like it. Sorry (laughs).
You managed to take the good parts from that music and make it relevant to now. What was your creative process like when creating that album?
I listened to a lot and I was basically looking for good samples. For this album, maybe I did like 40 songs and I only picked half of it. On the album, there’s only 21. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s just a feeling. When I hear a sample, I know what I’m going to make. I know if it’s going to fit with the album vibe. Some songs are cheesy, like “Send Me Your Love.” It sounds so ’90s, right? If it had AZ or Notorious B.I.G. singing over top it would be like a hip-hop anthem.
“I love cheesy shit. Even in my relationship with girls, you know, I am cheesy; romance has to be a part of my life”
So you didn’t have a conscious process about taking out certain parts… whatever sample you kind of liked, you worked with it?
I was listening to a lot because I fell in love with this music a few years ago, and basically I was asking myself, “how come this has not been sampled before?!” because it sounded so obvious to me.
What has the reception been like for you in France? I’ve read that people know you more outside of France. Has it changed since you released this album?
I still have a lot of listeners in France but I tour a lot more outside of France now. It’s weird because there’s just no scene in France, no concerts, no parties. There’s maybe one promoter that I know who throws parties I can play at.
You’re not part of any real scene in France, then?
No, and the most important thing is I’m not part of any crew. I do my shit on my own and I don’t fuck with any other crews. I do my stuff and I raise it on other labels and whatever happens, happens. In France, it’s kind of weird because I feel like France is a bit late on this kind of music genre, like the beat scene and stuff… they’re kind of late. They’re just starting to discover about it and appreciate it, so it’s going to take a little more time than anywhere else.
It’s kind of surprising because I’ve always heard France has a big hip-hop scene… but I guess it’s separate from this kind of more underground stuff.
There’s a big hip-hop scene for sure, whether it’s really commercial, like what you hear on MTV but in French, or really underground, but the underground French hip-hop scene is more like 90s hip-hop, so it has to sound kind of old school. So with this new kind of hip-hop, it just takes a little more time. And being French in France doesn’t help you. I feel like I have to blow up outside of France and then France will think, ‘oh that shit is good’ and they’re gonna be proud of it… maybe!
Places like Los Angeles have such a big scene like this, and I often see you compared to a lot of producers like Dam Funk, Flying Lotus and other producers like that. How do you feel about being compared to those kinds of producers?
I think we’re part of the same scene, but the music is totally different. Dam Funk has been inspired by the same music that I’ve been inspired by for Long Distance… but Dam Funk plays and composes his own stuff, his own melodies, so Dam Funk is more of a musician. He’s not a beat maker. He doesn’t sample anything… maybe some drums here and there but he’s more of a composer. And Flying Lotus, he’s like the main guy of this whole beat scene but I feel like I chose a different path. I think Flying Lotus is a really good mix between hip-hop, electronic music, prog rock and abstract jazz. His music has a bit of everything.
“Hip-hop is part of my culture, even though I’m from France and didn’t grow up in the US”
Each of your albums are very different, but you can still definitely hear this common thread, and at the end of your set tonight, you played this kind of dirty stuff, and then reggae. I was just wondering where you’re headed next in terms of your sound?
The next album is going to be the second volume of Chinoiseries, which is the Chinese and Vietnamese inspired music. I’m going to do a second one. Then I have a dub album coming out which is going to be more reggae. And then I don’t know. I don’t have a plan. We’ll see what happens… see what inspires me, see what I feel like making.
A lot of the past stuff is based on themes. Is your future stuff still going to be based on themes?
Yeah, I guess so. I like concepts.
There’s so much technology now for DJs and producers. What do you think about how that’s affecting music nowadays?
I think it’s really good, but I’m trying to stick to a hip-hop way of making music, which is sampling vinyl straight into the MPC. I think that’s one thing that sets me aside from most other producers in this genre because a lot are using software. I like that I make my music with the MPC and I think the MPC is really a hip-hop tool. That’s what I like – I’m such a passionate person about hip-hop. I’m just trying to be as real as possible because hip-hop is such a big part of my life. It’s part of my culture, even if I’m from France and I haven’t been living in the US or Canada.
Tell us about what you were doing tonight. How do you do your live set? What kind of stuff are you using?
I play my beats out of my MPCs, no tricks, no software. You know, it’s raw… I’m playing the layers live. You basically have your beat and you put layers on top. And I have Buddy Sativa who’s playing the synthesizer on top of my beats. We worked on what he can add on top of my beats to make things more interesting, more live feeling and musical.
Do you have any particular albums that you really liked over this past year?
This year, my favourite album has been Tame Impala’s Inner Speaker – they are a rock band from Australia. It sounds like it was made in the late 60s and I have a thing for this genre, just like I have a thing for the 80s funk shit. I really like late 60s, early 70s rock and they sound exactly like what was being made at that time. It’s amazing. The singer is great, the lyrics are great, the music is dope, the compositions are dope. It’s a classic.
Aside from the things we have already discussed, what else is next for you?
I don’t know yet. There are other things I want to do but they’re just ideas, and I’m not sure if it’s gonna happen. I know that I want to work with Buddy Sativa on a project, and I want to work with Walter Mecca who’s on Long Distance as well. I want to make a collaboration album as well. There’s a French label that offered me a role so maybe I’ll work as an artistic director. I’m not going to make beats but I’m going to pick some artists that I believe in… like my friend Hazel, a producer from France. If I have my own label, this is going to be one of my first releases for sure.
Interview: Helen Luu