Features I by I 02.02.17

Perfect Skies: How James Laurence and Friendzone helped shape cloud rap

This weekend, James Laurence of hip-hop production duo Friendzone died unexpectedly. FACT’s John Twells charts his considerable influence.

“We’re thinking about putting out [another] album,” James Laurence told me when I interviewed Friendzone at South by Southwest in Austin in 2015, two years after the release of the duo’s debut, DX. “I don’t wanna say prog, but…”

We may never get to hear whether his grand plans reached fruition. Laurence died on Sunday, January 29, leaving behind a discography whose influence has rippled across hip-hop and electronic music. He was only 27 years old.

I first stumbled across Friendzone in summer 2011, hastily googling their name after hearing ‘Chuch’, a track by Oakland rap duo Main Attrakionz. This wasn’t like any rap I’d come across before. Any familiar tropes had been dialed back almost completely; dusty drums and memorable loops were replaced by glassy textures and video game sounds. It was even built around an Italian new age sample that I was already obsessed with – it had been already used prominently by To Rococo Rot and Björk. I needed to know more.

Friendzone comprised Laurence and his old friend Dylan Reznick. The two met in 2005 and had been slogging away in noise-pop band Destroy Tokyo before shifting to rap, an experience that helped position their style a few steps away from their peers. They shot to popularity as beatmakers, racking up production credits for A$AP Rocky, Deniro Ferrar, Antwon, Yung Lean and plenty more. But they also managed to develop an identity as a solo act, releasing several acclaimed instrumental records and expertly curated compilations, sitting close to the center of what became known as ‘cloud rap’.

Their woozy, idiosyncratic beats sat comfortably alongside sounds from Lil B, Clams Casino, Keyboard Kid and Young L, forging a genre that would fizzle out quickly but leave its mark indelibly. In 2017 you can hear echoes of Friendzone’s gauzy production in plenty of rap and R&B – from The Weeknd and Rihanna all the way to Father and Lil Yachty. These days, a dissociated flow over an ambient backdrop can be considered mainstream pop music – and part of that is thanks to James Laurence. These are his defining moments.

Main Attrakionz
(Self-released, 2011)

Why Dylan Reznick and James Laurence thought that sampling Gigi Masin’s ‘Clouds’ would be a good idea for a rap track is beyond me. Maybe it was the title? At this stage the ‘cloud rap’ name had already been coined by Main Attrakionz’s then-manager Walker Chambliss, so that could be all there is to it, but I like to think it goes deeper.

Either way, this track – along with the J-pop-sampling ‘Perfect Skies’ – marks the beginning of a shift towards softer, gauzier sounds. They still sound perfect and alien, inarguable focal points of Main Attrakionz’ breakout mixtape 808s & Dark Grapes II, one of the most important albums of the cloud rap era.

Kuchibiru Network
(Self-released, 2011)

Friendzone weren’t just producers. The duo worked tirelessly to support a burgeoning scene – their Tumblr page became a resource not only to promote their own music (and offer it for free download), but to shine a spotlight on tracks from similar rappers and producers. They solidified things even further with a series of influential compilations entitled Kuchibiru Network.

Joining the dots between video game ambience, anime soundtracks, Memphis and Houston rap, experimental electronics and fuzzy noise, Friendzone helped introduce listeners to Bruiser Brigade’s skywlkr, Ryan Hemsworth, Main Attrakionz’s Squadda B and others. They cultivated a scene that informed cloud rap for a moment, and still feels urgent now.

A$AP Rocky
‘Fashion Killa’
(From Long.Live.A$AP, Polo Grounds/RCA, 2013)

Following in the footsteps of fellow cloud rap originator Clams Casino, Friendzone caught the attention of one of the genre’s first breakout stars – A$AP Rocky. Rocky has long since moved on, but ‘Fashion Killa’ is undoubtedly one of his career highlights.

Laurence and Reznick managed to swerve the “worthy” vibes spread awkwardly across the rest of the album and instead allowed Rocky to take a step back. Even better, Rihanna appears on the video version, which took the official video to almost 40 million views on YouTube. Who said cloud rap had to be underground?

(Self-released, 2013)

Friendzone’s lone solo album is the most distilled example of their sound – a sunny, hopeful fusion of 16-bit melodies, anime joy, IDM fuzz and Atlanta beats. On ‘RETAILXTAL’ they transform Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works classic ‘Xtal’ into an overdriven soup of bright, machine-gun percussion and booming basses. Elsewhere, ‘Passion Breathing’ sounds like a vivid precursor to CLUBKELLY’s Crazylegs belter ‘Mitsuki’.

DX is Laurence and Reznick at their most pure – we can only imagine what its prog-influenced follow-up might have sounded like.

Yung Lean
(From Unknown Death 2002, self-released, 2013)

It’s hard to believe that a Swedish teenager was responsible for taking cloud rap to a wider audience. With his rapping influenced by Main Attrakionz (particularly Squadda), Yung Lean’s team of producers took their cues from Friendzone and Clams Casino, so it’s hardly surprising that Lean tapped Laurence and Reznick to add an air of authenticity to his debut mixtape. It’s the album’s final track, and is a fitting end of an era.

Main Attrakionz
808s & Dark Grapes III
(Vapor, 2015)

Friendzone’s longest-running and most important collaboration was undoubtedly with Bay Area rappers Main Attrakionz. From their early start with ‘Chuch’ and ‘Perfect Skies’, the four artists built a unique and coherent sound that’s near-impossible to replicate. It made sense that Friendzone handle the production of the entirety of 808s & Dark Grapes III.

A tight 12 tracks, the album was pared down from years of work. We just get to hear the absolute cream of the crop and it shows. It might be the last pure cloud rap record (unless Black Ken ends up surprising everyone), built from the elements that empowered the scene in 2011 but refined to a sharp point. It was never intended to mark the end of Laurence and Reznick’s collaboration, but it’s a fitting legacy.



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