Last month, Jules Temple had the pleasure of catching French beatmaker Onra, following his sold-out London show at the Royal Albert Hall’s Elgar Room.
Coffee in hand, I was lucky enough to enjoy a chat with Arnaud Bernard, or Onra, at Bar 190 and have some questions answered that I’ve been eager to ask.
You’ve always claimed you are a hip-hop musician, despite incorporating many styles and tempos in your work. When would be the point that your music ceased to be hip hop – is it a consideration of equipment or your mindset as a musician?
I think it’s about the equipment. All the music I’ve done, except this jazz album that I did last year, is hip-hop even if it doesn’t sound like it because of the way it’s made. When Gill Scott Heron used to be asked about his music, people would be like: ‘is it soul or funk, soul/funk or funk/soul? What is it?’ He’d say that it’s all blues. It might be a different way of seeing it, but it’s all related to one thing. For me, my blues is hip hop.
On your ‘Chinoiseries’ albums you blend hip-hop with old Chinese and Vietnamese records. How did you go about looking for these samples?
There was a lot of crap so I had to buy a lot. For the first one actually, I only had to buy maybe 30 or 40 and it was enough. But for the second one, because I was looking for different sample sources and different sounds, I had to buy maybe 100 records…only to do like 32 beats. For the third one I have like 150 records to go through (laughs). My Chinese collection is insane now man! Maybe I’ll sell it in 50 years to some super rich Chinese man. I’m sure it will be worth some money one day.
I understand that your track ‘I Wanna Go Back’ samples a cover of Paul Mauriat’s ‘Love is Blue’ by a Cambodian singer. Were there many examples of Western cover versions you found whilst crate digging in these areas?
Yeah quite a lot…Beatles, some Beach Boys…like major 60’s pop artist’s covers, even French covers. They even covered a lot of their own material – really famous Chinese stuff would sometimes have five other artists singing the same song with different instrumentation.
As you mentioned, you’ve also released a spiritual jazz record as part of ‘Yatha Bhuta Jazz Combo’. How did this come about?
This was just me and my friend, Buddy Sativa, who’s a composer from Paris, and we were just hanging out. Usually we don’t really make music, we just smoke and chill and listen to some records. One day I just got really hyped out of nowhere. I hit the table and was like ‘switch on the fucking computer now, we’re doing a Lonnie Liston Smith song’ (laughs).
As a beatmaker, did you feel like this was perhaps a step back as you were working directly with instruments instead of sampling from them?
I think it was a step forward…or a step to the side. Everyone was just like ‘you should do some trap,’ two years ago, and it was an allergic reaction to that. I didn’t know how to do that stuff, so I did the exact opposite of this major influence that everyone had at the same time.
Are there many artists that are exciting you currently?
Walter Mecca; I can’t say it enough but this guy is one of the only real musical geniuses that I know.
What kind of stuff?
Everything…funk/rnb/jungle/house…prog rock (laughs). It’s the best. I love the new Flying Lotus record too…and there’s this young beatmaker called Geotheory from New York. He’s doing some crazy future beat shit.
I’ll definitely check those. So what do you hope to achieve musically in the future?
I don’t know…I want to win a Grammy (laughs). Shoot for the stars man, who knows.
Tune in to ‘Lost in Light’ on Wired Radio for more artist interviews.