Nguzunguzu: Freedom in the Club

A Conversation with the LA-Based Music Duo on Minimalism in Pop and Apocalyptic Politics

  • Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
  • Photography: Cameron McCool

As a duo featuring co-producers Asma Maroof and Daniel Pineda, Nguzunguzu’s music has become genre-defining in its mix of dance music with soundscapes that evoke the dystopian zones of factories, prisons, and dungeons. During a time of hyper-nationalist upheavals across the world, the meaning of this aesthetic has taken on a new dimension. Yet Maroof and Pineda, who have thrown parties in Los Angeles for years as part of Fade to Mind, argue that the club can create its own type of radical communities.

Zoma Crum-Tesfa spoke with the duo in Los Angeles.

Zoma Crum-Tesfa

Daniel Pineda (DP), Asma Maroof (AM)

You gave an interview somewhere talking about your love of Top 40 hip-hop—more specifically, DJ Mustard.

Daniel Pineda and Asma Maroof :[Laughs]

No, I thought it was great for you to, like, claim that.

DP: In a way, it’s just a very stripped down and simple formula for a banger. It’s also an extension of West Coast that re-articulates this hyphy and jerking style rap that’s laid back, but slacked.

AM: There is something so cool about the simplicity. It’s very democratic. Because it’s so simple, you can sing to it and more people can enter it in a kind of sophisticated way.

DJ Mustard is also kind of complex then, too, right? To me, it’s like Japanese military music, where there is just a drum, tempo… sometimes a total absence of noise, which seems to be where your emotion comes into it.

DP: Minimalism often helps articulate things that stand by themselves if they’re strong—like one note, or maybe there is a percussion on that note as well. It’s just way more articulate than if you’re trying to decipher and hear a bunch of different things.

AM: Especially when you have vocals too. That negative space, as if it were a drawing, is so important for a producer. You need to find a pocket where the singer is going to ride. What are the Top 40s in Germany?

I’m so out of touch with radio. Maybe that Sean Paul song?

AM: The one with Sia? I kind of liked it! But I also just have a soft spot for Sia.

I guess that’s the incredible privilege of being musically talented, you can find some way of adjusting something to make it valuable. Has the way you’ve gone about selecting samples for your music evolved since you started?

AM: It’s an evolving, ongoing process. Sometimes when I hear something and it catches my attention, immediately I’ll just write it down. And it takes you on a little journey. You’re like, “Oh! What is that?” And then when you find out what it is, you’re like, “Oh! It’s from this song?” And then you end up buying the record to get the a cappella. You end up somewhere totally unexpected, sampling something totally new.

Do you ever go into it looking for something?

DP: I like to think I’m pretty open. Sampling for me really comes out of listening and having something catch my ear. Then there are the technical elements. Like, going back to this minimalism thing, a more isolated sound is more sampleable than something that has a lot going on. If it’s isolated, you can add to it and manipulate it.

You are credited as being Fade To Mind’s first release. But Fade To Mind was a party before it was a label, right? When did it begin?

DP: No, Fade to Mind started as a label, though we all threw parties together already under various names. But, yes, our Timesup EP was the first release on the label in 2011. We get asked sometimes, “So, how did you come into contact with Fade to Mind?” And it’s kind of funny that Fade to Mind is thought of as this sort of corporate entity, when we’re just like, “that's the homies!"

AM: We were all already talking a lot, exchanging music and ideas, DJing and having parties together, basically what friends do! I still remember the hand-written note Ezra and Will showed me of all the potential names for the label.

Before that it was a party called Wildness.

AM: Yeah, Daniel and I, Total Freedom, and Wu Tsang threw Wildness at the Silver Platter in MacArthur Park. From that party, we already had a scene in the area. So when Fade started throwing parties, it shifted a bit to become this new thing, but you would still see familiar faces. It was so nice because L.A. doesn’t always feel like that. L.A. can be so much about the Hollywood clubs.

I like to think of your music as being in this category I call “Anarchist Sex Dungeon Music.”

DP: Damn. That’s so good. I actually have tracks called “Dungeon” that didn’t make it out there. But it’s about scary places, sinister architecture, prisons, factories, and stuff like that.

Do you think the club and this apocalyptic music has prepared us for this period international hyper-nationalism that we seem to be entering?

DP: [Laughs] No, unfortunately. It’s a nice thought, but what has happened is just too real. It’s funny, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve focused so much attention on this apocalyptic sound, and whether it could prepare you for an apocalyptic reality. But I think it’s a stretch to equate this sound with the reality of that experience. They may relate to one another, but the indulgence or pleasure you get from being in the club is different than the actual buy into it. You want to be with people when you hear these things. You dance and move.

Are you saying that music—or, at least, club music—operates too romantically to be taken into the political sphere?

DP: Club music could operate in so many different ways. For example, say you’re in a place and time where it isn’t even legal for two men to dance together, and then you have the Stonewall Riots. There’s a real sense of resistance that happened in the scene.

Or later in ball culture of the 1980s, like in the documentary Paris Is Burning.

AM: That’s such an important example to me of a dance and club culture that is really unique and powerful. Spaces where you can totally be yourself are… Freedom! And the more we can build on the community, the stronger and bigger we can become.

DP: The music can be about feeling love or feeling rage, bonding over the range of emotions. It’s really about how that scene functions as a space-slash-community.

But should people still be at the club? There can be a lot of talk about woke-ness at the club, but I often wonder if I am really contributing spending so much time in that space.

AM: People definitely need to be doing more than just partying, but dancing your pain away is a real thing. In Los Angeles, or these major cities, we can be in such a bubble. We are with people who believe in diversity and multiculturalism and go to protests—which is amazing—but it also gives the impression that it’s like this everywhere else in the world. Then you imagine clubs in the Midwest, like, a gay club in Oklahoma, that must be so important right now.

DP: When you think of the club, there’s a lot of different levels to it. The club can be the last place you should be. It could be like the place of extreme capitalism, but you could also be in a club that’s totally the opposite of that, where you can congregate with like-minded people, break down taboos, find a sense of community, and resist those things.

Do you think this situation is going to enter the production of the next record?

DP: I don’t even know. It’s funny, I saw some people posting this really annoying idea that, “At least the art is going to get really good.”

AM: Although A Tribe Called Quest’s album was really refreshing. People are calling the genre “post-Trump!” Obviously, they were speaking out on these topics and made these tracks before Trump was elected, which exemplifies these issues existed regardless of Trump being president.

DP: People need to be more conscientious about the art they make and the music they make. There’s a certain level of consumption in pop music, and this tired misogyny. Like, do you really want to hear somebody rapping about money? I feel like that’s what Donald Trump would do, just talk about money all the time. Some people are on social media just posting themselves with a bunch of cash, like Soulja Boy or something. I’m not hating on Soulja Boy, but I also don’t fuck with that right now.

What’s the mood on some of the upcoming stuff you’re creating?

AM: The first thing I’m putting out is my solo EP. That’s sounding like… What is it sounding like?

DP: It’s like sofa, laid back.

AM: Yeah, it’s laid back. There are happier melodies. Alexandria, on Awful Records—this super dope, passionate, and eloquent singer—is featured. Although, we’ll see! When I think something sounds kind of happy and poppy, nobody thinks it is.

DP: Even jazzy.

AM: Yeah, I guess my EP took a turn. Even when Daniel says “jazzy,” I’m like, “Oh! It sounds jazzy?” I think it’s more lovey, laid back, in love with sounds.

  • Interview: Zoma Crum-Tesfa
  • Photography: Cameron McCool