words by Nate Patrin
photography by Asha Efia
If it's stark enough, a vast contrast between an artist’s present and past could potentially be the first thing that defines them once they make contact with a wider audience. An out-of-the-ordinary backstory can help contextualize an artist for an enthusiast, giving them something memorable to cling to by giving the artist a way to stand out in an oversaturated landscape. Mndsgn, born Ringgo Ancheta, had an upbringing that has been alluded to frequently in the press surrounding his work as a beatmaker, sometimes in terms that border on the sensational. His parents' broken-off affiliation with the pre-terrorist incarnation of the Aum Supreme Truth cult led to their fleeing from the Philippines and finding political asylum in the States in the late '80s before Mndsgn was born. Given his family's background, and his subsequent time growing up on a rural New Jersey commune, his formative years risked being depicted through media hype as some kind of wilderness experience completely detached from city life.
It's an attention-getting backstory – but as Mndsgn himself alludes during our conversation, it's also a bit reductive. In fact, he seems largely uninterested in dwelling on it, in a way that hints at both an unease in the narrative around his past and a determination to focus on a more wide-open future – the familiar young-artist progression of wanting to find something bigger than his home turf. “Growing up in New Jersey was OK,” he says, speaking via phone from his old stomping grounds, which he was visiting for a family get-together. “But it was pretty cultureless out here, so it was kind of a challenge to stay inspired.” His early experiences with music weren't completely isolated, though; by the time Mndsgn was in middle school, his older brother was already making beats. With that a familial influence in his life, it wasn't long before he found himself--like a lot of other kids of the home-studio era--tinkering with the demo version of Fruity Loops and trying to figure out the working process that the star producers of the day used to earn platinum plaques.
The difference between most other '90s-rap students and the artist that would emerge as Mndsgn is the route he took to get there. “When I downloaded Fruity Loops I was making straight Dre[-style] beats. But it was cool... I thought [Dre] was playing [all the instruments], so I was trying to play everything. I didn't really know the concept of sampling at first. It was all synthesized sounds, I didn't have a MIDI keyboard at the time.” But he still learned how to operate the non-QWERTY side of things. “I was kind of getting mentored by my sister's boyfriend at the time, he was a piano player for a gospel church. Every time he came over he'd teach me crazy gospel shit on the piano – very much entrenched with jazz, too. I didn't even realize what I was learning at the time. But having access to that early on, just playing, definitely opened me up. By the time I started making beats, I was trying to implement that into it, too.”
The other pivotal pieces of his beatmaking education would come later, through fortuitous, if somewhat improbable, circumstances. Visits to nearby Philadelphia led him to the tutelage of a stranger who hooked him up with some sampler-time before receding into the background like some mysterious supernatural catalyst. “I would always go to Philly shortly after high school, just come through and make beats on his machines. Access to different kinds of technology and different kinds of gear slowly opened my knowledge up.”
But from a strictly musical perspective – one that lays out his influences, his affiliations, and his in-studio approach – Mndsgn's most interesting roots lie in more recent times and places. His already five-years-deep discography includes a production team-up with Danny Brown (“Sweeney Song,” from 2013's Classic Drug References Vol. 1 compilation) and multiple collaborations with fellow cassette-rap merchant and Stones Throw labelmate, Jonwayne. Some of his earlier Bandcamp-era projects – like his Miles-revamping contribution to 2011's Blasphemous Jazz: The Bitches Brew Sessions project, 2012's beautifully distorted limited-release cassette Oblique Kitchen, and the floaty soul-jazz swoon of his Spring '13 mixtape Frugal Earth – bolster his rising-star status with a deep background in adventurous sample-manipulating, lo-fi beats that work on multiple levels both stylistically and in terms of mood. The points of influence are clear: he deliberately set out to take residence in the Los Angeles that nurtured the abstract hip-hop laboratories of label Brainfeeder and DJ night, Low End Theory, and his music is a natural fit to place Stones Throw catalog numbers alongside Madlib. But more than that, he belongs in a scene where an enterprising beatmaker can approach his style with hip-hop, jazz, IDM, and soul all at once and reach a crowd receptive to all of it. “It took me a few times for it to really sink in, the energy that was in L.A., but every time I would go out there I would just see how tightly knit everyone was. Especially going to Low End Theory early on, before it really blew up into what it is now, you'd see all the heads who were making all kinds of different music. That's such a contrast to where I'm coming from, in Jersey it's not like that at all.”
A bit of that L.A. influence can be found in two Mndsgn projects released this summer, the meditative yet lived-in keyboard glimmer of Yawn Zen, and its companion tape-release Surface Outtakes. “A lot of the material was made at a period of time where I finally took that risk of quitting my day job and putting complete trust into my art. And in doing so, you really have to discipline yourself, having that much free time. Those songs are pretty much what came out of me, trying to find that balance between everything and trying to stay focused. It ends up being this neutral place that's neither good nor bad – it is what it is.” This is one of those rare instances where that well-traveled truism actually makes sense. Yawn Zen and Surface Outtakes have an immediate pull for anyone who's paid attention to the L.A. beat scene over the last five years, but it's apparent that there's more than just a like-minded sense of smeared-color ambience, tectonic bass murmurs, and staggered percussive interplay that gives the albums their spirit. It's in these moments where Mndsgn's own voice cuts in: sometimes it's deliberately atonal, wobbly, and distorted like it is on “Sheets,” acting as both a melodic contrast to his synthesizers' sweeter chords and an added element of woozy unpredictability flirting with the upending of all balance. And sometimes it's more at peace, smoother, calmer, like it is in “Exchanging,” where he murmurs out the line, “I guess it's somewhat necessary/to get where we belong.”
In the end, the conversation with Mndsgn highlights the difference between a backstory's hook and a life actually lived – one still in artistic development, at that. In Mndsgn's music, the past is present largely as a motivator to give that development's progress some important context. “Growing up was kind of dark,” he admits near the end of our conversation. “My family did have a pretty dark history. But I think being able to come out of any dark path and transcend that, you end up having this power that's almost an advantage compared to other cats who maybe grow up in a family that's already well-set. I definitely had to make do with whatever I did have and learn how to be frugal, always appreciate what I have and not think about what I didn't have. When it came time for me to express myself through some kind of artform, there's a lot of honesty and passion going in because it's my life that I'm expressing through the music. When you're listening to it, you're feeling the third eye and you're just being above all the bullshit.”