Tangram by Material Girl Album Cover
A track-by-track interview with sound collage rapper Material Girl about his latest release, Tangram, and his thoughts on online music community culture.
Young Fenimore Lee | June 22, 2020

Musician and rapper Material Girl creates sonic collage work in the form of songs. His grand, ambitious soundscapes created entirely through sampling mimic the freneticism of everyday life. Going out for groceries, walking down the street, breakups, hearing about atrocities on the news, all within the confines of his city of Philadelphia - the sounds and emotions build up through sample layered over sample layered over sample, exploding softly into a clay ball of a song.

His latest album, Tangram, which has seen great success on rateyourmusic (debuting at #8 on the 2020 album charts), takes great inspiration from the radio plays and sound experiments by Chapel Hill rapper Coin Locker Kid. Like the namesake puzzle, Material Girl lays piece next to piece to create an image in sound. To celebrate his debut’s success, I caught up with Material Girl about the new record over the phone recently. Here’s our conversation.

Tangram by Material Girl Album Cover

Young Fenimore Lee: How do you feel after the release of Tangram? How do you feel about all the success it has garnered through rateyourmusic and the like?

Material Girl: It’s been somewhat surreal, honestly. When I initially released it, I didn’t think it would catch on, but when it started gaining an audience and people started talking about it organically, it felt very… I almost had to dissociate from it because I couldn’t believe it was happening. But I’ve been over the moon about it. I actually got a really nice email from Coin Locker Kid just the other day congratulating me on the success and saying he wanted to keep talking, so it’s been excellent, really.

YFL: Speaking of which, would you say Coin Locker Kid is a big influence for you?

MG: Immense. He’s been one of my primary influences. I really stressed this in my email when I responded back. I don’t think an album like this would have existed if his music hadn’t existed beforehand. He’s often unfairly classified as hip hop, in my opinion. What he does with song form and his self awareness as an artist is absolutely unprecedented.

YFL: His work as Coin Locker Kid or as C’est la Key?

MG: Both, I think. Coin Locker Kid is the more condensed album version. A lot of the sonic elements of my music come directly from albums like The Salmon of Doubt or Traumnovelle, especially my forays into jazz or drone or ambient, which he sticks his hands into. I think his radio plays, where he goes into these extensive monologues and dialogues about artists and the doubts he has about releasing art, are really important touchstones. Superflat, too, was a really important touchstone for the content of this album.

YFL: Who else would you say were your major influences for the album?

MG: City Light Mosiac and I have influenced each other, obviously - we’ve known each other for the better part of 6 years. As for influences independent of that… I think there are a lot of artists where it’s not just their music, but rather, their approach to creating music. I owe a huge debt to Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor not only because of the content of their music, but how they codified and understood their music as not just jazz, but as - I think Braxton called it - a new black music. Although I’m not black myself, that entire approach of forging your own context through songs and improvisation and music in general was really influential to how I wanted to appraoch making music myself. I owe a huge debt to them. In terms of hip hop, I think my music wouldn’t exist without groups like Standing on the Corner, or Slauson Malone. That new generation of lo-fi, more abstract hip hop, definitely. Those two worlds are the most important for me.

YFL: It seems that we’re approaching a hypermodern age of what hip hop has managed to do.

MG: I think it’s been around for a while, though. If you look back at even the late 80’s in hip hop… You look at Public Enemy, and the idea of Public Enemy is very very strange, really, in some ways, because their music is essentially a sound collage. They’re trying to mimic the sound of riots, race riots, and as music like hardcore hip hop edged into the era over things like Death Certificate, these really dense, dissonant beats just layered sample on top of sample expressing this huge cultural trauma. And stuff like Cannibal Ox, or Company Flow, some stuff that El-P produced, a lot of the stuff that any number of producers were involved with in that scene, really reflects that. I think discord in music has always been really experimental and really evocative of a certain place and time, and I feel that fits into my approach quite a bit. That’s no different for Standing on the Corner as well.

YFL: Do you, though, feel that there’s something different emerging nowadays with artists like Coin Locker Kid?

MG: Oh, absolutely. What I ultimately think has been the difference is that hip hop (and, really, a lot of different genres in that sort of cultural grouping) originated as music that just came from DJ parties, throwing breaks onto certain samples or certain records that were popular at the time. A form of dance music. Over time, evolving into something like Mike or Slauson Malone… I feel like hip hop is venturing into a very similar direction that the New Thing and free jazz was in the early to mid 70’s, where it’s becoming a much more cerebral (not that it wasn’t always a really intelligent genre), sit down and listen music. Elements of music that are more communal and danceable are coming away, and a lot of hip hop artists are launching into this incredibly abstract and demanding direction. Just like the New Thing or free jazz, or, like, post-punk if you want a rock equivalent.

I think that’s been a really interesting direction. We see even in the mainstream with To Pimp a Butterfly. Overwhelming, it’s not a party record. Even though his proximal albums have pockets, that album isn’t ever meant to do that. Just sort of a sit down, listen, and absorb type of album. That’s the direction that hip hop in general is going, and that’s been really exciting for me.

YFL: In that context, why do you think trap made its commercial boom during this era?

MG: I was referring more to indie rap and experimental rap scenes, white label stuff. Along that direction, we’ve evolved from Boogie Down Productions being the underground to MIKE or something like that. In the mainstream, trap is really fascinating. I actually have a huge love for a lot of trap music across various eras, from the foundations in southern hip hop to the more modern iterations of it. I don’t think that trap is necessarily a response to more cerebral music - I mean, definitely a lot of those people have moved on from the conscious rapper archetype and boom bap, they’re not really trying to do that. But I think where trap is really revolutionary is that it’s thrown in so much stranger and more transgressive elements into the music. If you listen to one of Future’s songs on DS2 or you go on Soundcloud and check out people proximal to Spaceghostpurrp or some of Spaceghostpurrp’s own stuff, you hear all these very incredibly strange elements that also have this long basis in black experimental music, black electronic music and hip hop, and I think that rather than focusing on the lyrical content to get across these bundles of cultural associations, trap is sort of something different. You know how when you’re trying to feed children something you’ll put it in a food they already like? I feel like that’s what trap does with the mainstream with injecting strange sounds and experimentation. If you put a hot 808 under anything, you can get a pretty sizable audience listening to some really really strange sounds they wouldn’t otherwise be keyed into. I think that’s sort of the ultimate route that trap is taking. And it doubles as party music. It has a sort of dual role.

Photo of a Piece by Canyon Clark for Tangram

(Photo by Canyon Clark.)

YFL: That’s almost the same thing as industrial hip hop, then, if you think about it that way. I want to go back to something you were saying a little bit earlier. You were talking about this authentic black expression - do you feel like you’ve transported that into your own understanding of your ethnicity? Are you comfortable saying what cultures you’re drawing on for your own music?

MG: I’m middle eastern, and I come from a very ethnically fraught part of the middle east - that doesn’t really narrow it down, but I have a particular cultural background that’s always informed how I approach music and life in general, and the sorts of norms that are imposed on you as a male in that culture. I wouldn’t want to say, “oh, I’m channeling Anthony Braxton’s type of black music,” or that it’s directly comparable, because I don’t feel that anything can be easily reduced or compared to the American black experience. Obviously, that would be reductive. I would say that I’m definitely drawing on the density and the sort of cultural miasma and chaos that comes with a lot of my personal ethnic background and what I’ve had to confront in life, whether that be norms regarding my own sexuality relative to my culture or something like that. All I’d say is that I’m making the authentic Material Girl music. I wouldn’t make any claims beyond that, but I feel that my background certainly plays into that and how I see culture, music, and everything else.

YFL: How’d you come upon the people in No Agreements?

MG: For some time, we had crawled musical forums and began talking about our own musical interests and the music we made at the time. We were obviously amateurs, young teens at that point, but we all shared some commonalities in our tastes and our interests: indie rock and post-punk and weird experimental stuff. How many other kids can you find at the age of 14 listening to this stuff when you just go to a small high school? So we just got together and were like, “you like CAN? I like CAN, that’s crazy!” We all started making music communally, and over time we really wanted to do something more organized, and so in the past year or two, we pulled together under the label No Agreements just to unify our efforts. And we’d all matured as musicians at that point, we were ready to make albums and singles. City Light Mosaic is the figurehead for the label. He’s the reason why everything happens. We’re all very democratic, but he’s the prime mover.

YFL: Why did you choose not to include the lyrics with the bandcamp release?

MG: A lot of the lyrics are purposefully obscured. I really like mondegreens, I often really like when people mishear lyrics because they’ll often mishear much cooler sentences than what you write. I wanted to see what people got out of it because people tend to mishear lyrics based on what the song makes them feel to begin with. Sometimes I feel like it might even be more powerful than what I originally wrote. I was just trying to maintain a degree of separation from my voice being the dominating thing on the album. I didn’t want to give people lyrics and say, “here, you’re supposed to think this about this song.” Anything they “mishear,” I wanted them to bring to the album.

YFL: Why’d you chose the moniker of “Material Girl?”

MG: It was a mix. I love the original Madonna song obviously, but it just popped into my head one day, and I thought, “that would be a strange name for a hip hop artist to have.” At the same time, I thought, “well, a material girl is quite the opposite of who I am.” I’m quite an idealistic guy, so maybe calling myself Material Girl… I wish there was a deeper meaning to it than that, but I really just thought it was a head turning name that would create an expectation I wanted to break.

I was talking with a friend the other day about how people are seeming to impose themes of gender dysphoria or LGBT-centric themes onto the album based on my name. And that was very interesting to me, that wasn’t even something I necessarily considered but if that’s what people are getting out of it and it’s helping them visualize and project that, I’m over the moon about that. That would be really interesting to me. It’s not even a dimension I considered, but I thought I’d mention it.

YFL: Especially since you’re queer yourself, I think it still makes sense.

MG: Yeah, a good part of the album was me wrestling with my own sexuality. That was definitely an underlying theme in many of the songs, like Platypus. Even the song title was inspired by the idea of a combination of two animals. That I was stepping into this world of heteronormativity with my own homoeroticism, or attraction to nonbinary people. That’s a part of why that song came to be, and not really being able to express that in day-to-day conversation with people.

YFL: Talk a bit about the album art and what working with Canyon was like.

MG: Canyon was a fairly recent friend of mine, I only found about them through some mutual friends. But we started talking and I mentioned that I was on the look for album art, and they mentioned that they design collage based album art. And I really was looking for something based on collage. I really love collage based work. 3D cubism type stuff, or Dubuffet’s art brut collaged together crude art. I started talking to Canyon and telling them about how it was going to be a collage based work based on a tangram board with every piece corresponding to a song with different facets of the album and the artist itself. I drafted that concept up. And they asked me to send them images corresponding to each song, that they’d match that with collage material they have. So for Funeral Parade of Roses, I sent the original album art, that Basquiat tribute, and for Swoon I sent images of water, or spider webs, these delicate gossamer things. Then they started sending back their own interpretations of these images in collage form, and we did the cover that way. They were a huge voice in the process, they did a lot of the legwork on that.

Photo of a Piece by Canyon Clark for Tangram

(Photo by Canyon Clark.)

YFL: I’m curious about something. You mentioned that you grew up with mu-core music. In these internet music communities, there’s a somewhat contrived sense of what music is. Everything is hyperfocused on creating hierarchies and narratives of what music is. Do you feel like that’s unhealthy to some degree? What do you make of that, now that you’ve grown into your own artist?

MG: I was talking about this with Coin Locker Kid the other day. We were talking about how his music is very difficult to categorize and is kind of thrown into the category of experimental hip hop, etc. and we both agreed that that approach is somewhat reductive, this genre taxonomy of “this is a member of this genre, and this is post-avant new wave core” or something like that. The splitting of hairs about these minute and often ahistorically incorrect details about music is really frustrating. But on the other hand, this weird microcanon that comes out of spaces like rym or online boards is actually really fascinating because it allows for these new contexts in which music maybe ahead of its time can get fixated on in these new digital spaces. Or a new album will come out that no major outlet is talking about, but it’ll pop off on Soundcloud, and people will say that this is really forward looking. An example I can think of is on rym is how Reptilian Club Boyz or that avant-garde soundcloud rap scene really popped off in a way that I feel like it wouldn’t have if that digital space of rym didn’t exist.

YFL: Or even Brave Little Abacus.

MG: Brave Little Abacus. Or Sweet Trip. A lot of mu-core is just classics that have been revisited over and over again, and there’s not anybody out there who’s not going to know what Blonde on Blonde is, or Future Days if they’re into music. That stuff has been around for decades. But there’s also stuff that’s come out of nowhere that’s blown up in that time. That weird potential where these microcanons that are formed, since they’re not really bound to traditionalmusical history, you can get into really weird scenes or really weird footnotes in musical scenes that come out of nowhere. It’s a double edged sword, definitely.

YFL: What do you think is going to be in this new canon of music from the digital age? Maybe Coin Locker Kid?

MG: That’s a very interesting question. If you really narrow your scope to the last 10 years, I feel like 2010 to 2020, in that range, I feel like definitely people who slip into the scene are Coin Locker Kid. A lot of stuff on Soundcloud that’s super insane, like the crushed trap scene (heavily bitcrushed lo-fi inspired by aesthetics from Final Fantasy and Second Life and all these weirdly utopian games and music from the 2000s), I think that’s going to be really interesting. Stuff like Reptilian Club Boyz, Fax Gang has been really popular lately on rym. There’s been a stunning outflow of trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people in the noise scene, like that Uboa EP that blew up a couple of months ago. That scene is going to really become big and influential.

YFL: Sewerslvt?

MG: Yeah, like Sewerslvt. If I had to name any one figure from the past 10 years whose influence is going to be unmatched on people who make music, it’s Lil Ugly Mane. I’ve noticed a lot of producers on soundcloud and bandcamp taking up the mantle of what he did and implementing it in their own music and it’s really fascinating. I’ve talked to producers from very, very different musical backgrounds in these rym-centric scenes and all of them take him or music that’s influenced by him as a touchstone. I think him and Spaceghostpurrp are enormous influences that have emerged in the past 10 years.

Now, Reptilian Club Boyz is this really strange thing. I don’t know how to describe it, but they really take myspace era rap motifs, like Soulja Boy aesthetics and music, and they take every element of that to the nth degree. There’s a thousand producer tags, the synths are incredibly sugary and sweet, and everything’s chaotically dense and mixed, but their sonic interplay, how they produce their vocals… I’ve already heard it have an impact on people making music in the scene. The sonic palette is really strange to the point where it already has imitators months or maybe a year after they’ve popped off in that scene.

This comparison is done to death, but there’s this weird punk aesthetic with a lot of this music coming out. An example of this is an artist my friend showed me, Backxwash. My friend had shown me their music months and months ago before the new album came out, and they were rapping with these really odd themes drawing from black folk tales and the occult. It was really fascinating. I thought about how much punk ethic that sort of thing has. Something highly on your own terms. Your mixing, your mastering, what you chose to sample, and everything. I think there’s this really interesting punk generation that producers and rappers are embodying right now, and I’m really interested to see where it goes.

Frankly, the most exciting thing is that I don’t really know what’s going to become popular. Scenes shift so fast now, and the most random things will just pop off. If you described Backxwash to someone in 2007 and told them “this is going to be a big thing in indie music,” they’ll just be like, “what are you talking about?” This gender-nonconforming occult rapper is just going to light up the underground? The music that our generation listens to in terms of the underground, even describing it to the older generations is impossible to some extent. The appeal would be impossible to describe because it comes from this huge network of references and online culture, this entirely different understanding of themselves and the world at large.

YFL: It’s this almost ahistoric iconoclasm for what is important. What we think is important is important. That can be really powerful, and it’s really important nowadays, more than ever, to say what’s important to us and what we value.

MG: Precisely. I think the funniest experience is the difference of opinion over Lil B between my generation and oldheads. Iconoclasm is a good way to put it. Choosing these really strange figureheads is a sign of the times, or visiting older stuff that wasn’t really given its due at the time.

Photo of a Piece by Canyon Clark for Tangram

(Photo by Canyon Clark.)

“Clutch”

(YFL: People have begun to piece together that the sample here is from the “hijacking” incident on WKCR that was re-uploaded to 4chan, I think.)

The only reason that this track really exists is that I needed an intro for the album, but a fun fact is that the reason that I found that sample to begin with is because I have a terrible addiction to Tik Tok. That audio was trending on it, with teenagers trying to scare the shit out of each other with it. I heard that sample, and I thought, “I need to use this on the album!” I hadn’t heard the original Youtube upload and didn’t know the backstory, but I thought, “that’s interesting.” People were saying, “omg, this sound gives me massive anxiety!” and stuff like that.

“No Runner”

When I was making this song, it was about last year at some point. I was beginning to feel very overwhelmed at the state of the world. There were incursions into Syria by the Turkish government, and a lot of the situation in the middle east and America were getting very bad. I felt really frenetic. I felt very on edge at the time, and I was listening to a lot of avant garde jazz, because it was really channeling that kinetic nervousness that was just in me at all times. I felt I needed to get that stress out in some sense, so I was working on this one track really chock-full of dense neurotic stuff like house music and free jazz slapped together, and I added all these samples in to act as instruments bouncing off each other. I felt like it was really reflecting what I felt was the state of America and the state of the world at the time, and that’s only gotten more and more persistent, really; if anything, I feel like if I made that track now it would be even more hectic and busy because of how everything is bubbling up and precipitating now. My stress is at an even higher level. But either way, venting that out without necessarily having to take a break from being vigilant and countering all the problems in the world, it was pretty cathartic for me.

I sampled the vocals at the end from the Jimmy Eat World song “Goodbye, Sky Harbor” from Clarity. There’s a really beautiful vocal section that comes in. I really wanted this sense of relief. I didn’t want to make something that’s stressful and abruptly ends. I really wanted to give this sense of relief, that at some point, if you persist through this really dissonant, turbulent time in history, that things have to improve at some point through human effort. That was my sign to myself that, you know, things are stressful, but you can’t let yourself get complacent - there’s some light at the end of the tunnel in terms of inner and outer turbulence.

“Platypus”

The lyrics on that are difficult to make out. A lot of the phrases are made up from sections of Jewish apocrypha, mystic texts, and nonsense phrases from Dante’s Divine Comedy and from 8 1/2 by Fellini. And I just made this entire verse that was rhyming made up of these nonsense phrases. But that entire song was about how sometimes to express particular notions in a situation or a context, often words come up short, describing these things verbally can be incredibly difficult, so you almost have to reach for nonsense or gibberish. A lot of that song talks about how I came from a family of immigrants, we’re all expected to speak the cultural language of the West and America even when that cultural language comes short when describing who we are and what we lived and what we feel at a certain point in time. And that was taken away from a lot of people through colonialism or the need to assimilate. It was this Tower of Babel moment, this inability to express yourself through words. That’s what that verse was about.

“Flood”

Flood was a song I wrote at a time that I was getting into a new relationship, and at the same time I was sure how my future was going to go. Things were not going so hot for me, and at the same time, as I mentioned, the state of the world wasn’t so great. And I was just wondering if it would be fair to this person to make this sort of investment in them to promise them a future that maybe I couldn’t give them. A lot of the song was about this feeling of anxiety just flooding over you. The use of that one SWV sample was almost ironic or sarcastic. That’s one of my favorite love songs of all time, it’s a beautiful R&B song, but it was also this sureness and love and giving yourself fully to somebody that I didn’t feel I could really do. That’s what that song was about, with the second half really bursting into the more stressed out self analysis, that’s what that was entirely about.

“Swoon”

That song was pretty much just dedicated to my partner. It was my followup to Flood, like, “despite all this uncertainty I still want to have a life together with you.” Despite the fact that I had all these doubts, I still wanted to be together with them.

“Funeral Parade of Roses”

That song was me dealing with the deaths of several of my family members. I originally had a verse I penned for it, but the way Coin Locker Kid described the death of his mother and the displacement of his household through various metaphors was just so perfect that I felt like putting my own verse on it would be extraneous and redundant. But that song was about me feeling like a failure to my family and the cultural expectations thrown on us going into a new world, America, and also not being able to be there for my family members who had died or who I hadn’t really had a chance to speak to before they passed on. And that’s what “On My Way Out” was about, too.

“On My Way Out”

I needed to finish the album off. I think that was the last song I recorded on the album. At the time, I was thinking back to a lot of family members on my dad’s side who had died in the past years and how I hadn’t really been able to go back to my home country to speak to them for a very long time. At the time, I felt like I was letting myself down in my personal and professional life, and in some ways, my idealized version of what I wanted my life to look like was really falling apart. That entire song came from the fact that I felt like I couldn’t be there for people, and I was not only failing them, but myself in a lot of ways. So that thought was just a section just about not pulling through on people, and whether they’ll remember you when you depart from this world. Or, when you’re no longer doing something, if they’ll remember you for what you did do.


cute drawing here
Editor-in-Chief
Young Fenimore Lee
(he/him)
Pictured: Henry, his pet Jellybone

Young is the child of two Korean musicians and was born and raised in the Chicago metropolitan area. They identify as queer and non-binary. They’re currently going through emocore/screamo essentials, and they love indie rock, indie folk, emo, post-hardcore, and math rock. Feel free to take a look at their rateyourmusic account, their last.fm, and this collage of the 100 albums they consider most personally important.