Published on February 14th, 1999 | by Gerry Galipault0
SPY dabbles across genres
To say 23-year-old Joshua Ralph is all over the map is an understatement. His debut Lava/Atlantic album, “Music to Mauzner By” (released Feb. 3), dabbles in hip-hop, funk, classical, soul, gospel, pop and world music. It’s enough to make Beck’s head spin.
“As you can see, I don’t believe in categories,” Ralph said recently. “My rule is that you can put anything over a strong hip-hop foundation of a beat and people will groove to it, as long as the beat was heavy enough.
“I wanted to do something that had never completely been put together and with each song get crazier and top the next and go further away from what I was doing but still staying within melody and rhythm, yet in its scope it would be ‘How out of control will it be?’ I would call up my friend James Cox and go, ‘Dude, I think I’m firing up the Uptown Horns over this mariachi shit,’ and he’s like, ‘You’re crazy, dude.’ The next song, we had to get a gospel choir, and the next one have an orchestra.”
The Beck spirit is evident in such genre-bending tracks as “Baby,” “Desert Suite Conspiracy” and “Untitled 17.”
“Everything in the album, those aren’t influences as much as people I admire who are working today,” Ralph said. “I totally dig Beck, but a lot of this music was done before I had even heard a lot of his stuff. I always tell people that Beck breaks up these things within each song; for example, we both have a broad scope of music and an appreciation for music, whereas Beck will do it in each song, especially with ‘Odelay’ and the stuff earlier. It was more chopping up and throwing in influences in between songs; he definitely has a jovial manner to his stuff, whereas I was writing songs on what I was raised on – verse, chorus, verse, chorus.”
Ralph attended New York University’s film school but seemed more preoccupied with his home recordings. A friend hooked him up with Alex Weil, who was working on another project with engineer Louis Scalise. Both played big roles in helping Ralph piece together his SPY demo, which eventually got into the hands of Lava president Jason Flom.
Last year, Ralph holed himself up for his virtual one-man show in an abandoned silent movie theater on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
“When I got there, there had been this primer paint put down,” he said. “It was completely raw, so I got my hands on some Oriental rugs and a disco ball and antique Moroccan lamps and decadent red lights. I made it real warm and cozy. There were no windows, so you never knew what time of day it was.
“I did it from August to September, then we brought it back uptown in October and everybody wanted to sign us. After speaking to Jason, that guy is absolutely the best person, the best human being working in the business today, as far as standing behind acts and really meaning what he says … not to sound naive. He would go to the mat for you. You’re looking at somebody who signed SPY because of ‘Baby’ and then let me do a $60,000 orchestra piece on one song that for 90 percent of the people who buy that record I think won’t care about that piece. I’m not saying people won’t like it; people might not get it because it’s so far from ‘Baby.’ “
Not only does Ralph now find himself being called upon for soundtrack work with Dr. John, he and Cox are making waves in Hollywood. Their 10-minute short film, “Atomic Tabasco,” recently was awarded honorable mention at the Sundance Film Festival. Cox, who wrote three SPY tracks, has gone a step further: He signed a deal with producer Jerry Bruckheimer (“Beverly Hills Cop,” “Top Gun”) to write and direct “The Rock Star,” a film based on Cox’s own rock aspirations.
Ralph said that as long as he stuck to his goals, he knew good things would happen.
“Maybe this record’ll be the hugest thing,” he said. “Maybe nobody will care about it. There’s all these different levels to it. To an unsigned person, yeah, I got a great deal, but to someone who’s sold 5 million records, I’m just another ant, another band that got signed. Then someone who’s sold 5 million, to Dr. John, he’s like ‘So what, dude? What have you done that’s worth anything?’
“It’s not just about selling records and making money; yeah, it’s about money but on stuff that you feel is unique and can change people’s perceptions and catch them off guard. That’s what I’m trying to do.”
BWF (before we forget): Mauzner all you want with SPY on the Web @ www.atlantic-records.com.