For years, Steven Julien, aka FunkinEven, didn’t think the music he was making was good enough to release. Then he met Sam Shepherd, aka Floating Points, and DJ/producer Alex Nut and signed some tracks to their fledgling Eglo label — and hasn’t looked back since. Now he’s working with hip-hop emissary Mos Def and nu skool Detroit cat Kyle Hall, amongst others, and funkin’ floors everywhere…
Last month, Steven Julien found himself in the odd position of being on the same bill as platinum-selling, Billboard chart-topping New Jersey hit-maker Fetty Wap, for a show in the rarified confines of Ivy League US college Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
“It was the weirdest gig ever. It was me and Kyle Hall on the same bill as Fetty Wap,” he says over the line from Los Angeles, where he's winding up a whistle-stop tour of the US. “Definitely the weirdest line-up I've ever been on. But it was fun.”
It's safe to say that things have taken off for Steven of late. As FunkinEven, he has, over the past six years, gone from being unknown to being an integral part of Floating Points' Eglo Records crew (his track ‘Kleer’, the first of many, was the label's third release).
He’s now a label owner too, with his own Apron Records imprint flourishing and home to releases from the likes of Seven Davis Jr and Greg Beato. He's also formed a deep musical connection with Detroit wunderkind Kyle Hall, releasing as FunkinEvil, though Hall's feted Wild Oats.
Now he's poised to release his debut album, ‘Fallen’. It's taken a year for him to finish, but it's incorporated tracks he wrote as long as 15 years ago — long before he hit this current form and its accompanying notoriety. The 'skeleton' of the track ‘XL’, as he calls it, was written when he first got his Akai MPC. “I always had it there, and I knew it banged, so I always wanted to release it in a special way,” he says.
He's been making what he calls 'bedroom beats' since he was 14, when he 'borrowed' a Yamaha keyboard his friend had got from Argos. (He neglected to give it back, and still uses it today. “I guess I might owe him some royalties, eh?” he jokes).
And remarkably, those early bedroom beats that have been re-animated have also caught the attention of an unexpected and rather high-profile new collaborator — one Yasiin Bey, the rapper formerly known as Mos Def, who has Julien on board for what may be his final album (to be called ‘Negus’), after the rapper announced his retirement from the music business in January this year. Bey is using three tracks that Julien made when he was a teenager on that very same old Yamaha.
“What's old to me isn't necessarily what's old to anyone else,” he says. “It's fresh to everyone else, so it's still relevant.”
Julien met Bey through a friend — the producer DJ Tusk, who is also going to have his own beats on the album — and it all came together very naturally. “He resonated with that stuff I did on tape as a young guy. It's quite sick that most of [the new album], if it does come out, has been produced by me and my mate! He's a very cool guy.”
The young Julien would likely not quite believe what's happening now, particularly the work with Bey. Raised in Acton, West London, he was a hip-hop head from childhood. Various cousins and uncles were DJs, so he was never far from a soundsystem. “They played music from hip-hop to house, boogie, soul, reggae. I was into ragga a lot, too. People like Supercat and Ninjaman. I used to dance hip-hop. I used to rap.
But I was kind of wack, so I gave that up and thought I'd try production.
“My first beats were like house and hip-hop at the same time. My uncle Brian had a soundsystem called Platinum Sound back in the ‘80s, and my mum would throw a lot of house parties when I was a toddler, and growing up. So I'd see people coming to my house, DJing, drinking and stuff, and I'd just absorbed it all.”
His uncle Brian was also known as Darkman, who released a handful of hip-hop tracks in the early ‘90s, ‘Yabba Dabba Doo’ being the most notable — a west coast-style party jam. For his secondary school work experience, Julien worked at his uncle's management's office, and toured with him around the country. “I got to see what that life was about,” he says. “I got to sit in studios and saw how a sound engineer worked for the first time.”\
Julien’s schooling in house music came from both pirate radio and from his Uncle Roger, who was a DJ too, playing his nephew tracks by Inner City and other now veteran Detroit and Chicago artists. He lived on the eighth floor of a tower block on the South Acton estate and could shake the flats on the first floor with his soundsystem.
Through his love of the likes of A Tribe Called Quest, Julien discovered the soul, jazz and boogie records that they'd sampled, from the likes of Roy Ayers and Chick Corea. Learning to DJ himself was foregone, so he did so on “shitty Soundlab” belt-drive turntables as a teenager. While he was DJing for parties and club-nights that friends had put on, he was also producing in his bedroom, and working as a barber by day in a room underneath his Auntie's salon in Shepherd's Bush.
Also massively influential was the West London sound emerging in the early 2000s, from the likes of 4hero, Bugz In The Attic, IG Culture and Afronaut, as well as clubs like Co-op at Shoreditch's legendary Plastic People. “I was heavily into that. I'd record Phil Asher and 4hero's show from the radio. Those shows were my bible. From there I discovered Patrick Forge and Phil Asher's nights at the Notting Hill Arts Club. I'd go religiously, absorbing all that goodness.”
From his hair-cutting money he slowly started building up a studio, buying his first Akai MPC sequencer. “I was quite intimidated by it, it just looked so complex to use, so it sat under my bed for about three months before I started using it,” he admits. “But once I started using it, I found that it was quite easy. I made so many beats from it. That's what I made ‘XL’ from on the album. That changed everything.”
But while he was making discs full of tracks, he was sitting on them, without the confidence to play them to anyone. “Looking back at them, they were more than ready,” he says now. “If I'd had the right person to back me, I could have been releasing tracks from when I was a teenager. I just didn't really believe in it.”
It was some years later that he met the vocalist Fatima, who had been working on Sam 'Floating Points' Shepherd and Alex Nut's fledgling Eglo label. “Sam loved what I was doing,” he says. “I'm not too sure if Alex was convinced about it. But I played two or three of my tracks for them at Plastic People. People went berserk. They were with me behind the booth and said, 'Yeah, we're ready, this is what we want [on the label]'. It started from there. That was 2009.”
Things have been building ever since. “It's definitely a dream come true,” he says. “I'm not saying that I've 'made it', though, or I'm content yet, because I'm not. I still want a lot more from this. But it's definitely a dream. I get to travel the world, to cities I barely knew existed. I never thought I'd be playing in Tel Aviv, going to Japan, coming to LA, and play for people who appreciate what I do.”
He's honest to a fault about his work. Not many producers — at least not the excessively 'brand-conscious' ones — will admit to having become bored of their own material. But Julien is very matter-of-fact on that score. “I'm probably being hard on myself, but I think 50% to 60% of stuff I've released in the past I don't really like that much,” he says. “I don't know if it's because I loved it before it came out, and once it's out, you keep hearing it, and you end up disliking it.”
Luckily, fans of his raw, jazz-heavy house music and vibrant edits think otherwise. He feels the same, to some extent, about his adopted moniker. Though he says he's fine with people using the name FunkinEven, he admits that it does make him 'cringe' slightly these days. “I chose it when I first started, and it made sense then, but I feel like I've grown out of it,” he admits. “For the album, and as a piece of music, I wanted to use my real
name, for sure.”
As such, ‘Fallen’ will be released under Steven Julien rather than FunkinEven. And it will also be released under his own Apron imprint, which, he says, came into being following something of a “lightbulb” moment.
After a series of well-received tracks for Eglo, he approached Nut and Shepherd with some edits he'd been working on.
As they were so sample-heavy (the track ‘Chips’ somehow managed to turn the theme from ‘80s motorbike cop show CHiPs into a dub disco mash-up), they were reticent, instead suggesting he just release them himself. By that stage, through Eglo, he'd become firm friends with next generation Detroit star Kyle Hall, who was already running his Wild Oats imprint
to much acclaim. “He introduced me to distributors, told me what I needed to do to make a record, about the mastering, and all that. And I thought, 'Cool, I can do this myself'.”
After a first EP, he released the ‘Chips/Sweets’ 12-inch on candy-coloured vinyl, and things took off, selling out in double-quick time.
“As well as club twelves, I want something more substantial for Apron,” he says. “I want it to grow, not necessarily financially, just grow with some serious catalogue. So not just club tracks, something more musical. In the way that you might put on a jazz record, and just listen to it.”
There are elements of this ethos found on ‘Fallen’, alongside the woozy, funk-laden club tracks like ‘XL’ and ‘Carousel’. Making tracks like ‘Chantel’ — an ethereal, beatless, jazz-fusion jam — has got the self-taught Julien interested in getting some serious studying done. “I'd love to make those kinds of tracks more often,” he says. “That's all my jazz-fusion influences right there. George Duke, Jaco Pastorious, Stanley Clarke. That sound is a massive influence. I guess when I get to my 40s, I'd love to make a pure jazz album.”
“I think, and I hope, that the album is something that I can listen to in a year or two year's time and still love it,” Steven says. “I've been listened to it non-stop since it's been finished, and it's been a while. I'm not sick of it so far.” Always a good sign, particularly for an artist who feels like he never quite stops moving.
He makes tracks, he moves on, and we then have to try and keep up. “I like the fast life. It keeps me on my toes, you know?”
* ‘Fallen’ is out now on Apron Records.
Words: Ben Arnold
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