Los Angeles’s Stones Throw records is one of the more idiosyncratic labels in hip-hop. Among its artists is Madlib, a prolific local producer who sometimes masquerades as one-man jazz outfit Yesterdays New Quintet, and sometimes as Quasimoto, an extraterrestrial thug who raps at helium pitch. The label’s latest signing, Koushik, is just as hard to pigeonhole: he is a Canadian thrift-store crate-digger whose music imagines the Age of Aquarius punctuated by pulverising breakbeats, or Pet Sounds-era Brian Wilson exploring the possibilities of a sequencer.
“I grew up listening to all kinds of stuff, all out of context,” offers Koushik Ghosh by way of explanation. His childhood was soundtracked by a mix of his older brother Himadri’s Van Halen albums, his parents’ collection of Indian music (his mother is a trained Indian classical singer), and the 1960s pop and 70s rock programmed by the radio stations in his home town of Dundas, Ontario. He says he “caught the hip-hop bug” aged seven, after his brother brought home the first Public Enemy album and, a short while later, a Casio SK-5, one of the first home-use samplers. “It wasn’t like I sat and analysed the Bomb Squad’s productions, or thought sampling was something separate from ‘making music’ with any other kind of instrument,” he says. “It was all just sound, really.”
Sound swiftly became Ghosh’s passion. When he was 14, he bought his first multitrack recorder and began making music, armed with a microphone, a bass guitar and an echo pedal. To get beats, he would wallop his mattress with a drumstick. He sometimes played in his friends’ bands, but was often happiest tinkering away on his own – “doing things my way, getting everything how I wanted it”.
In his early 20s, Ghosh made an important ally when the London-based experimental musician Kieran Hebden, aka Four Tet, flew to Toronto to DJ at a club night Koushik ran with fellow Canadian electronica artist Caribou. “I took my music seriously, but I wasn’t serious about making music as a career,” he remembers. “But I gave Kieran a CD of some tracks I’d made, and he ended up releasing some of them as my first EP, Battle Rhymes.”
That release, in 2001, won the attention of Stones Throw founder Peanut Butter Wolf, who signed Koushik to the label. Two further EPs (since collected on an LP, Be With) sketched out Ghosh’s sound: psychedelic vignettes filled with sampled flutes, strings and guitars and Koushik’s gossamer vocals, sharpened by colossal breakbeats. Stones Throw then commissioned Ghosh to remix a track from Madvillainy, the label’s acclaimed collaboration between Madlib and rapper MF Doom.
Ghosh rescored Madvillainy’s grimy originals with queasy soul-jazz and ghostly easy-listening harmonies to create a surreal and funky triumph. Then, by way of a flourish, he transformed a track by 1970s soft-pop band the Free Design into a delightfully syrupy ballad for rapper Dudley Perkins.
Now he has released his own debut album, though he seems uncomfortable when discussing his own music. He is reluctant to intellectualise his work: “I just listen to stuff, and ideas pop out at me,” is as far as he’ll be drawn.
But then, Out My Window, his album, doesn’t really demand explanation; it simply seduces the listener into Koushik’s dreamworld. His jigsaw of influences should be a jarring mess. But, thanks to Ghosh’s expert arrangements, the disparate elements come together into Spectoresque walls of sound, excursions into airless funk and passages of ethereal psych-pop.
A hip-hop production job is his next project, but Ghosh seems in no particular hurry. His life right now revolves around “buying too many records from thrift stores, looking for stuff to sample and maybe getting a second of nice sound from them.” It’s a life he has come to love.