Vivian Host speaks to Dre Skull, the enigmatic producer whose ten-year old label is fanning the flames of the Brooklyn-Caribbean connection.
It might be possible to hear all these genres in one DJ set, but it's relatively rare for an independent label to traffic in such a wide swathe of sound. It was even less common back in 2009, when Dre Skull launched Mixpak out of a loft space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. For a few blessed years, I lived there with Dre and future Mixpak artist Jubilee, next to a barbershop called Fade 2 Famous and an enormous wastewater treatment plant. At the time, Jubilee and I already referred to Dre as "the guru." Not only did he look like a young Rick Rubin, he also had the music mogul's preternatural sense of where music and technology were going next.
Dre Skull hasn't changed that much in the past 11 years, at least outwardly. The beard may be longer but he's still sipping green tea, musing about the future of the music industry and softly padding around the studio. Yet these days he has Wizkid on text and Roc Nation (who also work with Rihanna and DJ Khaled) on speed dial. His production resume includes bops with Afro B, Burna Boy, Mabel, Lily Allen and Snoop Dogg.
The Mixpak office and studio (just five blocks from that old loft) is a tidy space that's been blessed by Lee "Scratch" Perry, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie, Mr. Eazi and Santigold, adorned with classic dancehall art and fun merch from Mixpak releases and events—mostly the brainchild of longtime Mixpak label manager Suze Webb, who DJs as The Large. A look around the room reveals popcorn-scented Popcaan air fresheners and a lifesize cut-out of Poppi, club flags used to celebrate Mixpak's mighty win at the 2016 Red Bull Culture Clash, lighters that remind you to "Bun Bad Mind."
"The curation for Mixpak was definitely super intentional," Dre says. "I knew I wanted to do dancehall, rap, club music and some kind of version of leftfield pop or vocal-driven electronic music. I saw that most people had an iTunes library or mp3 collection that was quite diverse, but the way culture was being sold to people was very singleminded, like 'This is this kind of party' or 'This is this kind of label.' I definitely did and still do want to live in the world where things collide with each other."
Mixpak's Dre Skull and Jubilee celebrating on stage with Popcaan and Spice after winning the Red Bull Culture Clash 2016 at London's O2 Arena.
Mixing it up was always part of the ethos. Growing up between California and Massachusetts, Andrew "Dre Skull" Hershey was more interested in what made songs tick than pledging allegiance to a certain subculture. Inspired by a friend's cousin who was making Pixies-esque pop, he bought a four-track and started teaching himself about composing songs and the recording process. Voracious in his musical tastes, he acquired hundreds of records and 8-tracks on the cheap at garage sales and thrift stores, and listened to the entire catalogs of labels like Rephlex and Warp via file-sharing sites. Rap, reggae and dub were also big influences. "Lee "Scratch" Perry was super foundational," Dre says. "This idea that he was not necessarily the musician, but he was using the studio as an instrument."
"When I was a teenager, music was very therapeutic. I didn't have a good grasp on the inner workings of my mind and how to process emotions. I think of music like a magnet—it can bring forth certain emotions and you can let them pass through you without them just being bottled up inside. As a fan and as someone who makes music, I've always looked for the edge between the minor and major key, so you have some sad poignancy and you have a euphoric element. I've always liked music that played in that space."
Something else also lodged in Dre's brain that would inspire Mixpak years later. "There was an Eric B & Rakim record from 1997, a collection of remixes, called the Mixpak Elpee," he recalls. "I always liked the way that looked and I also wanted a label name that signified nothing to the average fan. Something like RCA Records, not like Tropical Nightlife Records or Club Filler Records or anything with some motivational aspect."
The label also owes a debt to a long history of collaboration between Jamaica and New York, extending from outfits like Wackie's and Massive B to artists like Sean Paul, Shaggy and Kranium—Mixpak's website calls the label "a contemporary encapsulation of the classic Brooklyn-Caribbean connection."
In his teens and early 20s, Dre was enmeshed in the DIY punk and noise scenes on the East Coast, spending summers in Providence, Rhode Island and becoming friends with bands like Lightning Bolt and Forcefield and visual artists like Jim Drain and Paper Rad. "At the time, I strongly did not like the term DIY," he says. "I felt something should not be considered worthy solely because someone 'did it themselves.' But the ethos had a big impact on me, the idea that you could create a good label and try to make it impactful. You don't have to wait for someone to tell you that you can do something."
Although Dre knew what he liked, it took a while to find his musical footing. He moved to New York in 2004, landing in a warehouse full of up-and-coming painters; they involved him in "sculptural performance things" and conceptual art bands that performed at places like the MoMA and Deitch Projects. (Many of the artists he met during this time have subsequently blown up and done Mixpak covers, including animator Devin Flynn, illustrator Brian Blomerth of Pups In Trouble and Robert Beatty, whose airbrush-like digital artscapes adorn Jubilee's Call For Location and Andy Petr's Rapper Turned Singer.)