Belfast is All Ears

LA beat music is the subject of Belfast-based documentary filmmaker Gus Sutherland's first feature. Next stop Austin, Texas and SXSW

With almost half the population of Northern Ireland under 30, it's no wonder that Belfast's cultural scene has flourished in recent years. And whilst the city has unleashed a colourful splash of cultural colour across the arts map of the world – with many Northern Irish artists making names and careers for themselves in other countries – it has also attracted artists inward.

So it was that Gus Sutherland moved to Belfast from northeast England in 2009 with a degree in fine art under his belt. The city has since launched Sutherland down a creative path that he might not have pursued otherwise.

Like many post-grad artists, Sutherland wondered how he might transform his creative ambitions into a tangible, paying career, when he stumbled into Queen's Street Studios and began experimenting with photography and video. Thereafter he set out on the MA in Film and Photography at Queen’s University.

After reading an article written by Andres Reyes (aka Sweeney Kovar) entitled ‘The Beat Generation’ – which shed light on the emerging LA beat music scene – Sutherland was inspired to delve deeper. 'The subject matter led me to want to focus on under-represented musical styles through experimental documentary.'

Sutherland began work on All Ears in 2012. In order to shoot the documentary, he spent many months interviewing artists and frequenting clubs in LA such as Low End Theory that have also been championed by the likes of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke in recent years.

Now, Sutherland is preparing to showcase All Ears at the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, on March 13, 2013. Sutherland hopes that All Ears will help to spread the word about beat music, and create a fanbase right here in Northern Ireland. 'I think other people who have seen the film are taking it seriously,' says Sutherland. 'So I feel like I have to do it justice.'

The LA beat scene remains somewhat embryonic, not yet classified, compartmentalised and commodified, perhaps because it is still evolving. However, according to Sutherland, 'it's a music that will always be associated with hip hop due to artists sampling old records. Yet it has remained difficult to label, as producers are carving their own sounds that are separate from any genre-tradition.'

In the introduction to All Ears, an artist by the name of House Shoes likens the skill of utilising the MPC equaliser a digital decks to that of playing a traditional instrument. The outflow generated from this type of technology cannot be limited to one musical style anymore than that of the guitar, which helps to explain how beat music can be so diverse.

'With it being predominantly instrumental, it's more open,' adds Sutherland. 'I like it because it’s all about recycling. Whether it’s an old record that’s been reworked or chopped up in a different why, it’s all coming from the same place.'

One thing that everyone seems to agree on in All Ears is that the beat makers value the instrumental element (previously thought of as ‘background’ music) over the vocal, rap element of traditional hip hop. There is little room for the MC on the LA beat scene.

Sutherland is careful about seeming to appear as a spokesperson for an emerging form of music that is rooted over 5,000 miles away. Yet his interview subjects have responded positively to the documentary. One LA producer was so impressed he suggested that Sutherland submit the film to SXSW. 'I was pleased that these guys were happy with the film,' Sutherland admits.

Through a serious of contacts and serendipitous leads, Sutherland was able to attract the attention of Insect Records, resulting in the SXSW screening. One of the things he is most looking forward to in Austin is the line-up of artists central to the LA beat scene.

Confirmed to appear are Karriem Riggins, Dibia$e and Computer Jay, whose shows Sutherland describes as 'some of the most accomplished I've seen, from making beats on an Atari Joypad to his Moogadore keyboard customised with commodore 64 sounds'.

Outside of America, gigs by beat scene artists are extremely rare. On October 6, 2012, an event promoted as ‘Beats of Mind’ took place during the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, featuring a screening of All Ears followed by a gig headlined by Dak, Ras G and Kutmat.

'No money has been involved with the film, but because of it and the Queen’s Festival we were able to bring Dak here, a guy who had never left the states,' recalls Sutherland, 'which I was super excited about. We can do anything here,' he beams.

Following SXSW, Sutherland will spend five days in Royal Oak, Detroit, to take a closer look at Midwest legends like J Dilla. 'Detroit has an amazing record culture, so it feels essential to be able to glimpse the birthplace of so many amazing sounds and gain more understanding of the environment that bred them.'

In maintaining the mantra of Belfast punk filmmaker, John T.Davis – who said, 'I’ve really only ever followed my obsessions' – Sutherland hopes to be able to concentrate full-time on the work that inspires him most in the longterm. SXSW might just be the opportunity to make that possible.

For those interested in beat music, check out the Hungry Ear DJ collective, who perform regularly at The Menagerie, Belfast. They will be mixing on March 22 at the Leaving Records Showcase with Matthew David, Diva and The Cyclist.