Moka Only on Exclaim
To call Moka Only a hard worker would be a serious understatement. Starting with his 1995 debut Upcoast Relix, the former Swollen Member has recorded over 60 albums, including solo efforts, collaborative albums and beat tapes. It all happens in Moka’s cramped Vancouver, BC home studio, where the man born Daniel Denton produces, records and engineers his own albums.
Moka has come a long way since his first recording in ’86, created by dubbing between two tape recorders. After recording off and on in other people’s studios for years, he began building his home studio in 1999 after scoring a publishing deal with EMI. “I’ve been collecting keyboards for the last ten years,” Moka confesses as he runs down his extensive keyboard collection: he has various models from Moog, Sequential Circuits, Korg, Roland and Yamaha ― dating to the analog sound of the mid-’70s ― as well as newer models like the Micro Korg 1 and 2, and a Rhodes ’73 electric piano. Moka also employs modules like the KAOS Oscillator and samplers like the SP-303, the SP-555 and the Korg Triton. The Triton is his mainstay (he’s already worn out three pads) along with the SP-303, which he favours for its distinctively gritty sound. He records everything on the Roland VS-2480 digital workstation. Moka also has an impressive collection of unconventional instrumentation scooped from music stores and pawn shops, including a Theremin, a banjo, and a pink toy piano. The rapper/producer is quick to dismiss any pretence of his musical mastery, admitting that he’s “not so crazy like I can play the flugelhorn in my sleep upside down underwater. I’m just super-obsessed with music, tones and textures.”
Moka is entirely self-taught and prefers to play his instruments live, with the exception of the sampler. “I usually start with the sampler, because I like to establish drums first,” he clarifies. When starting a beat, he usually brainstorms a lyrical idea or theme and works from there. Ideas typically arrive while skateboarding, and Moka dashes home to record the keyboard or guitar figure, possibly even sampling his initial recording to create a beat. He often writes on a keyboard, seeking a main melody and a bridge piece that deviates from the main groove for variation. Rather than waiting for inspiration, Moka quickly decides whether a song will be an instrumental or have lyrics. The average song takes him an hour to record, from making the beat to mixing the vocals.
Moka’s efficiency is even more striking considering his affinity for older technology; he remains an analog soul in a digital age. Moka splits his recording 50/50 between digital and analog processes, even going as far to export his digital recordings to cassette and then export them back to digital; he claims the process “changes the character and tone” of the music. Digital recording certainly makes editing easier; “physical tape splicing with two inch tape, I don’t really miss that,” Moka says with a laugh. Yet Moka values the historical value and sound of tape, and retains the masters for his older catalogue on cassette. He’s even experimenting with recording vocals to eight-track for the dusty, hazy sound it produces.
Though he loves his home studio, the physical space is unimportant, says Moka. He’s certainly aware of the importance of microphone positioning and the like, but as he points out, “You could put me in a log cabin and it’d be essentially the same thing.” Modern technology also helps blur the line between physical and auditory space: “With digital gear and compression, a lot of background noise is buried in the mix so I don’t worry about [space] too much.”
After a little prodding, Moka begrudgingly reveals a few production secrets. He disdains computer-ordained timing, and chooses to keep his drums unquantized, partly inspired by the sound of departed Detroit beatmaker J Dilla. It’s not done to sound intentionally sloppy but rather to preserve the music’s human element. “I make a lot of mistakes but I keep those mistakes, so when I go back and listen to older recordings, I’m always pleasantly surprised,” Moka says.
Even with four releases under his belt this calendar year, the Vancity beatmaker has more he wants to accomplish. “I want to try some heavier punk, thrash stuff. I want to make some real aggressive, horrible-sounding stuff. Or maybe something different like thrash-jazz.”