10 January 2019
Photos, Interview & Text: Martin Hufnagel
Brenk Sinatra is, without a doubt, one of the most exciting rap producers. For 2 years now, his LP Midnite Ride has accompanied me during almost every car ride. We met on a rainy day in Vienna to talk about making music for a living, burning Biggie records in a park, Krautrock, and other things.
The Reichsbrücke in Vienna links the Kaisermühlen district and the city centre. The numerous cars driving over this bridge above the river Donau produce a monotonous noice. Additionally, it rains heavily when I meet with Brenk Sinatra at the metro station Kaisermühlen.
Brenk, born Branko, was born and raised in Vienna. His mother was an employee, his father a truck driver. Not a typical environment to become a musician. However, from early on, he was fascinated by music and its rhythm. When I ask him today what exactly fascinated him back then, he explains, 'There were certain moments on records that I can explain better now. Back then, it was just a feeling. When certain harmonies or voices fit perfectly together for 7 or 8 seconds. Take 'Liberian Girl' by Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, for example. Both in their top form, the way he sings and the way Quincy brings in the choir at the end: It’s incredible. Back then, I couldn't describe it, but it made me feel great. That's what I used to chase. When I found this feeling somewhere, I stuck to it.'
At the end of the 80s, Brenk heard the first rappers laying down their disjointed verses over 120 BPM dancefloor beats. This was completely new to him. 'Nobody knew what rap was, at least not in my social environment.' A few years later, he bought his first hip hop records with his tediously saved pocket money (Ice Cube's Lethal Injection) and started his deep dive into rap music. 'Today, I laugh about it but for the first few years I was totally into rap. No, that doesn’t even come close. I was literally crazy for it. At that time, I hated all other musical genres apart from hip hop. The music combined with the lyrics was a fusion that provoked something in me every time.'
Like punk in the 70s, rap music was initially the music of the underdogs. The lyrics spoke about violence, the rappers posed with weapons and were dressed in baggy, oversized clothes, and the media was biased. For a 15-year-old, it provided proper depth to form his own identity. While others were listening to DJ Bobo or hardcore techno, Brenk was playing West Coast recrods over and over again.
About the same time, the East Coast/West Coast feud between Bad Boy Entertainment from New York and Death Row Records from L.A. escalated. That resulted in the deaths of 2pac and Notorious B. I. G. 'When that whole thing happened, we were clearly rooting for the West Coast. I remember how we went to a park and burned expensive Biggie records that we'd bought with our dear pocket money, pissed on them and danced around the fire like devil worshippers. Of course, today, I wonder, ‘What were we thinking?’. But explain this to 15-year-old in the 90s who takes those events too seriously.'
Brenk Sinatra, Midnite Ride (Full Album)
Brenk wanted to make music himself and learn why a beat sounds the way it does. So, he delved deeper into the matter. It was the end of the 90s and in Vienna, there was only 1 producer who made music on a level that would make Brenk buy one of his records: Saiko had already worked with a handful of rappers and had released a few tracks on vinyl. He became Brenk’s mentor.
With the same passion he had as a rap fan, Brenk began making his own beats. Like an obsessed top athlete, he trained every day. The first attempts to produce consisted in randomly pushing buttons to figure out what sound it creates. The next step was developing his own sound. Through the analysis of his favourite beats he gathered more and more components. Especially at that time, rap-music was full of samples. Producers reused a part or sample of a sound in another recording.
Of course, the sound of the West Coast had a great impact on him, but through his opening up to other musical styles he was able to add more and more different elements. From soul music ('When you’re listening to a good soul recor, you can hear harmonies that make you cry from heartache.'), to jazz ('I never got into jazz the same way I did with soul.') to Krautrock.
'Before I started to sample Krautrock records, I loved listening to them because they were unpredictable. When you're listening to a 4-minute soul song, you know after about 10 seconds what to expect. Listening to a Krautrock or Progrock record, you have no idea. Next thing you hear are flutes, then there’s a double bass or a synthesizer, and the singer starts singing about his mother. It's an unpredictable and incredibly creative style of music, which I think was what appealed to me as a producer.'
Even though money, success, and above all, the way to achieve these things dominate rap lyrics, none of that was Brenk's motivation to make music. 'What drove me wasn't money or success, but just an urge to make music. When I started, the thought of making money with beats was crazy. It was more likely that I'd become a wildlife manager in a rhino enclosure in Africa than making a living out of music.'
Even in the face of an increasing popularity of rap nowadays, there are only a handful of artists in Austria who earn their living with their music. Brenk is one of them. Early on, it was his calling to make beats, and in the last 5 years, it’s also been his job. 'For a long time before that, it had been the centre of my life. I used to go to work, even though I had made beats until 4 am, and when I came home from work, I continued where I had left off the night before. I still got the dark circles under my eyes as a souvenir from that crazy cycle.'
Brenk used to work manifold bread-and-butter jobs: assembly-line work, working in warehouse for a shoe company, and working for Persil. However, according to him, he was always a bad employee and had difficulties with his bosses. 'I was always bad at being submissive. Perhaps, I kept my mouth shut a 2 times, but after the 3rd time, I told them, “Fuck it, I’m not doing this.” Many people obviously don't take this very well, and I get it, but in the long run, I think that's the right way to get by in life.'
In the course of our conversation, it becomes clear that this attitude is one of his guiding principles. That’s what makes talking with him so refreshing. Through his respect for his counterpart, he masters the thin line between being clear and being arrogant. As a producer, he works with a lot of different people. What’s most important to him in a business relationship? 'The most important thing is that we get along. We don't necessarily have to become best friends but meet on equal footing and talk to each other respectfully.'
MC Eiht, 'Where We Go' (Prod. by Brenk Sinatra)
Cooperating with arists, especially those with a growing reputation or musicians from the US can be difficult at times. 'I've noticed that they’re not used to someone who says "No" or "Can we do this differently?". They're used to being with “yessir” or “yesmam” people. So, they expect everyone around them to act as they were told. And that’s something I just won’t do, no matter who you are.'
To some, straightforwardness in the music sector is equivalent to a life-threatening event, but Brenk is appreciated for his honesty as well as for his constant discipline. A typical day for Brenk starts at 8 when he gets up together with his wife. Two hours later he’s sitting in the studio. The only thing that interrupts his flow: riding a bike to increase his blood circulation. 'Sometimes it’s 13 or 14 hours in the studio. I don’t see anything besides my equipment, and I feel the electrosmog. Yet, there’s no other way, my experience has shown that the best stuff happens after long sessions and trying.' And with time pressure. He tells me that he finished the beats for 'Reinwaschen' and 'Pusher' for Said’s latest album the night before the release.
His studio is filled with synthesisers up to the ceiling. 'Each machine is a world of its own. When you’re willing to dive into it, you can get the most amazing sounds out of them. That’s why I got to know each one of them thoroughly, so that I now know which machine to use to get a specific sound.'
I can’t put it into words, it rather is the feeling I get when listening that makes me recognise one of Brenk’s beats in an instant. Not because he has been doing the same stuff over and over again, not because of his famous 'Brenk Sinatra' sound tag at the beginning of his productions, but rather because he has found his signature sound that’s apparent despite constant updates.
Said, 'Pusher' (Prod. by Brenk Sinatra)
Due to his enduring interest and enthusiasm for new tones, Brenk's sound keeps up with the times. While other producers these days confine their creativity to recreating the beats of other, often unknown artists, Brenk finds ideas everywhere. 'I can’t watch a movie without constantly coming across sounds that I want to use for a beat. My whole world is made of beats. I’m doing something somewhere and randomly think, "This could be a nice high hat, I could use that as a bass."'
This isn't a hobby or job to Brenk. 'It's my profession rather. I'm driven by being successful with my music, while staying true to myself. I'd lie if I said that I didn't care how much I sell. No, I do care. Who wouldn't be happy about royalties or payouts? Anyone who says otherwise is definitely lying. Everyone wants money. But I’m not putting money before music. I'm putting music first, and that's the most important thing. It often gets confused.'
To make money, some artists are working in camps, put together by a label and following a default formula to produce the next hit. 'You wouldn’t believe how many camps exist out there. Of course, it’s tempting, and you start to think about how with 3 days' work could pay 3 months' rent… but no! Perhaps under a different name, but if you’ve already made a name for yourself, you’ll destroy it.'
Apart from monetary success, Brenk's key motivation comes from the inside. 'There’s no perfect beat, only the chase after the perfect beat that exists in my head.' Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why he doesn't listen to his productions after he's finished them. 'When I listen to my songs on vinyl or another medium, and I notice something that bothers me, if there’s something too loud or too quiet, I get mad. Incredibly mad! That’s why I seldom listen to my finished albums, because I’m sure I’ll find a fault somewhere.'