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With Wanderlust Behind Him, Simon Smthng is Ready to Refine and Define Charlotte's Sound 

Home again

click to enlarge Simon Smthng in action (Photo by Alex Yllanes)
  • Simon Smthng in action (Photo by Alex Yllanes)

Simon Gordon was barely out of his teens when a remix he'd produced while living in Spokane, Washington, bored out of his mind, wound up going viral.

Gordon, whose DJ name is Simon Smthng, had transformed Rich Boy's "Throw Some D's" into an almost life-affirming meditative chant, pitch-shifting the rap part down to a murmured growl and adding a sweet sample of what sounds like the South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing la-la-la's over a breathy, bossa nova-like flute. It was beautiful — and the internet loved it.

"Sounds even better than the original," one fan wrote in a comment on the Majestic Casual record label's popular YouTube page, where Gordon's remix eventually landed. "This is so good!," another wrote. "It puts me in a mellow feel-good mood."

Gordon wasn't ready for all the attention, he admits, as he munches on pretzel chips and hummus at a table at the back of Tip Top Daily Market on The Plaza. Wearing an Obey Records T-shirt and MF Doom ballcap, he's in his element next to the market's bins full of old vinyl records. This is the spot where Gordon hosts his Repainted Tomorrow series, the regular beat show and live-painting event he curates. The next one will be August 11, but before that, on August 2, Simon Smthng will perform at Snug Harbor's weekly psychedelicized DJ party Le Bang.

The Rich Boy remix, Gordon says, was just a little something he'd put up in 2012 to grow his Soundcloud profile.

"I was trying to get my name out there and I had spent maybe 30 minutes on this remix and just threw it online, not really thinking anything," he remembers. "I was just like, 'Hey, here's some new music, guys.'"

A Lithuanian collective on Soundcloud, which had supported some of Gordon's other tracks, posted the Rich Boy remix on its YouTube channel. When the German label Majestic Casual later posted it, too, Gordon's remix went from a few hundred plays on his personal Soundcloud to a few thousand on the Lithuanian Soundcloud to more than half a million on Majestic Casual.

By the time Gordon returned to Charlotte in 2012, he was on a high. "I was in my early 20s and that was the first big thing that had ever happened to me," he says. "Truthfully, I wasn't prepared for it. I'm getting all this attention and people are hitting me up for production, because they see this song getting bigger and bigger, and it was weird for me. Eventually, I'm like, 'Damn, all these people like this random remix I put out, but what about my other stuff?'"

What about his other stuff? For one thing, it's anything but random. Gordon's most recent Simon Smthng release, titled you will know fear, is part of a trilogy for which he's currently in the process of recording the third installment, such is life. The music is soothing, warm, emotional and highly experimental

The 10-track you will know fear begins suddenly, with a bright piano and bouncing bass line juxtaposed against a vocal loop that feels somewhere between a pop-song chorus and a Gregorian chant, with strings sliced into the mix at strategic moments. The track, "numbness," then segues from a found spoken sample at the end into the stuttering smooth-jazz guitar that kick-starts "mirrors," which is then followed by the spooky, almost Brian Wilson-like melody of "igetnohugs," ladled over horn sounds, tinkling keys and drums that lope like an irregular heartbeat.

But the high point of you will know fear comes way near the end, in the rubbery acoustic bass and meditative guitar loop of "ascension." For that track, Gordon collaborated with artist Hnin Nie on a stunning video featuring Kenyan-American writer and filmmaker Makena Mambo toting a spear and seeming to be searching for herself in a lush, wooded area.

"I had made that track with the concept of feeling release, moving on past previous obstacles," Gordon says. One of his inspirations for it was the final scene of Korean director Bong Joon-ho's 2009 film Mother. "I explained that to Hnin and sent her the [film] clip and she wrote the [video] treatment from there."

Gordon's musical trilogy, which also includes you will know fear's 2017 predecessor here, for now, runs in reverse chronological order and is based on the grieving process he underwent following a grueling divorce

click to enlarge Simon in the light (Photo by Marc Mangra)
  • Simon in the light (Photo by Marc Mangra)

He explains: "here, for now is the end — it's me telling about the actual breakup; you will know fear is the Purgatory period in a relationship, where you know you're going to break up, but you're still trying to work things out; and such is life is the beginning of the relationship. So each one is a prequel."

Though it may seem unconventional to some listeners for a story to be told backwards and through music alone, it's not only refreshing to be unencumbered by a literal storyline — it's incredibly moving. Every nuance in Simon Smthng's mixes evokes a specific emotion, and when you've reached the end of each of his recordings, you feel the weight and the release of each stage of Gordon's grief.

A few years ago, Gordon released a four-track EP called Charlotte Coliseum, whose songs were named for things that are no longer in Charlotte, such as "Freedom Mall," "Eastland Mall" and "Midtown Square."

"I didn't put any information at all about the songs on the album, but I have a friend who writes about music, and he doesn't even live in Charlotte, but he figured out, 'Hey, these are places that aren't in Charlotte anymore,'" Gordon says. "He figured it out just by listening to the music. When people are able pick up on things and be able to relate to them" — he pauses — "well, that's what it's all about."

Born and raised on the west side of Charlotte, Gordon, 26, played violin and piano when he was a kid, and listened to the old soul, disco and rock his parents loved. "I didn't really get into hip-hop at all until late middle school," he says. "I was 15 and being homeschooled and still doing violin. But I would go to the library and I started getting these books to keep myself entertained."

Among the books he gravitated to were Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton's classic Last Night a DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey and How to DJ (Properly): The Art and Science of Playing Records.

"They go over everything, in terms of how to handle yourself as a DJ," Gordon says. "And I learned a lot from them."

He was obsessed, and his parents noticed it. When his father saw an ad in the Charlotte Observer for the local DJ school With These Hands, he enrolled Simon into the program. "It was an immediate match for me," Gordon remembers. "I was getting into a little trouble, so it was the perfect time for a young inner-city kid to find something he's passionate about. And I hit the ground running.."

click to enlarge Simon in the clouds (Photo by Hnin Nie)
  • Simon in the clouds (Photo by Hnin Nie)

Within a couple of years, Gordon moved into producing when a friend, who worked with Job Corps, approached him about collaborating on a mixtape. "He had come home to Charlotte for winter break," Gordon remembers, then pauses and laughs. "He wanted to make a mixtape so — in his words — he could go back and get bitches."

Gordon and the friend would hop on a bus every day and ride to the Uptown library, where downstairs they could check out a Reason 61-key MIDI controller for two hours at a pop. "I taught myself how to use Reason and put loops together, then we'd go back to my house and use this crappy conference microphone and record into that," he says. "Eventually, we made a little 14-track mixtape. And it was terrible, it was horrible — but it was a starting point."

From there, he bought a copy of the digital audio workstation FL Studios, then known as FruityLoops. "I was being homeschooled, so after I finished my school work, I'd spend the rest of my days just making beats — with Jerry Springer in the background."

The Charlotte hip-hop scene wasn't as progressive in 2008 as it is today, Gordon says, "especially on the west side, where everybody just wanted to make Gucci-sounding music. Within a couple of years, he'd found out about Full Sail University in Florida, a school that started out as a recording studio before expanding into a center for the recording arts. Gordon was about to have his mind blown.

He enrolled into Full Sail and immediately learned about artists like Doom, Quasimoto, Madlib and other experimental DJs, producers and emcees associated with the Stones Throw label. "I never heard any of that stuff before I got to college," he says. "So I started diving into Madlib's discography, and all his aliases, and Burial, who was a huge influence on me. Those were things I just wasn't exposed to growing up in Charlotte."

One of Gordon's biggest influences is Nujabes, whose music he had heard earlier. "I got put onto Nujabes when I first started producing, and he had this beat called 'Peaceland' that's like eight minutes long. At that time, anybody making a hip-hop beat that's eight minutes long is like — I mean, that's long. But when you listen to it, it's engaging. It's just a loop — for eight minutes — but everything he does with that loop over those eight minutes keeps you focused. And that taught me about arrangement."

After graduating from Full Sail in 2011, Gordon got married and bounced around the country for a few years. "I had lived in Charlotte my whole life. I had never even left my time zone until I went to college," he says. His wife was in the Air Force, which is what sent the couple to Spokane, where Gordon did his Rich Boy remix. They moved from there back to Charlotte and then to New Jersey, where the marriage began to break down. In the midst of the 2015 split, Gordon moved to Los Angeles because, he says, "I'm a producer!" He laughs. "Seriously, that was always my mindset, especially when I was in school. I was like, 'I'm gonna get my degree, move to L.A., be part of the industry.'"

He got a place in North Hollywood, started making pilgrimages to all the great record stores, like Amoeba, and explored hipster spots like Low End Theory, the psychedelic/avant-rap night at the Airliner club. "It was cool being out there, but for the first time, after all the traveling, I got to feeling homesick," Gordon says. "I was seeing the stuff my homies were doing back here in Charlotte, and things were happening in a way that they weren't happening before.

"I felt like I was missing out," Gordon says. "So I came back home."

Back in Charlotte, Gordon continued working on the trilogy he'd begun in Los Angeles. And he hooked up with musicians he'd worked with during a brief pit stop in Charlotte in 2013. That's when he'd fallen in with a music collective called the Middle Ground Fly High Club, which included singer Autumn Rainwater and rapper JaH-monte Ogbon. The group had put on an early hip-hop show, called Goodstock, at Dupp&Swat in NoDa. "At that point no one had really done anything like that at Dupp&Swat, whereas now it's kind of expected, it's the cool place to do things like that," Gordon says. "So it was nice to be part of that."

When he eventually returned home for good in 2016, Gordon dove back into that scene, and now he's producing the follow-up to Rainwater's 2017 album Leaf. He says the new material sounds very different from that.

"This is no dis of Leaf — and Autumn and I both agree on this — but Leaf was a lot safer than what we're doing now," Gordon says. "The subject matter, the sounds on it — a lot of the production is much harder than what someone might expect from her. But it ties into a lot of the things she's talking about in the lyrics, things she's experienced, things she's been through just being a growing young woman in Charlotte, North Carolina." The project will be released this fall.

In the meantime, Gordon is also working on tracks for Charlotte R&B singer Dexter Jordan and Mara Robbin, Davidson's Cuzo Key and Detroit collective The Black Opera. And of course, he's finishing his own such is life.

Gordon is excited about Charlotte's music scene, which he says is on the brink of getting national attention. "I felt like a kid in a candy store when I came back here," he says. "There's so much going on. I was amazed at how much people were doing here and how much attention they were getting. It's awesome seeing Elevator Jay doing what he's doing. It's awesome that Lute's been signed. It's great here now."

All Charlotte needs is a bona-fide sound, which Gordon says may finally be happening. "I feel like we've become this really interesting mash-up of that soulful jazzy feeling you get from New York along with the bass-heavy music from Atlanta and Miami."

After living away from home, Gordon is here to stay. "It's always been important to me to represent that I'm from the South," he says. "Even in the more clearly New York hip-hop-influenced music I make, I try to add things like 808s, to sort of bring that Southern feel to it. That's a conscious thing for me."

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