​'Examples' shows us the musical law of Eric Lau

Lau has been in Johannesburg promoting his new album. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Lau has been in Johannesburg promoting his new album. (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

Eric Lau confesses a little secret — he would like to meet and work with pianist Afrika Mkhize. Lau, an electronic music producer based in London, encountered the pianist some years ago when he was touring abroad as part of Simphiwe Dana’s band.

Lau remembers that Dana and Mkhize were “incredible” but there was something about Mkhize’s energy, — “very up and electric” as Lau puts it — that reminded him of his dear mentor, the prolific and gifted pianist and producer Kaidi Tatham.

“They have the same eyes and hands,” says Lau. “Their spirits were very similar.”

That Lau, whose latest album Examples was released on January 13, describes Mkhize in mystical rather than musical terms explains something about his outlook on life. Lau considers the process of making music as channelling the energies of “the source” as opposed to an exhibition of one’s ego.

A point he stressed consistently during the Q and A portion of the Examples listening session, held at Ants in Parkhurst, Johannesburg, the day before its release, was the interconnectedness of people and how music should be used to further this idea.

Observing the session, and how Lau turned it into a free exchange of ideas as opposed to a narcissistic platform, the song Not Alone (featuring Tawiah) from Lau’s album One of Many sprang to mind.

“You’d be surprised to see how much love is really on your side/ Open your eyes,” sings Tawiah to a beat with its feet firmly on the ground, but its heart from a source altogether celestial.

Lau was born in England to Chinese parents from Hong Kong. He encountered music while studying towards a business marketing degree in London. Playing around with music production software, Lau was soon shopping his demos around London while working as an intern at a record label.

A positive response led to a deal with United States-based Ubiquity label, when he was 24, just before the age he had set as his cut-off time for changing careers.

“It was great, it was my ideal home at the time,” he recalls. “I had just started making music for one or two years. SA-RA was on there. The Platinum Pied Pipers with Wajeed were on there. They did a lot of compilations that I really liked.”

When Lau started interning at Barely Breaking Even, the label had recently put out J Dilla’s Welcome 2 Detroit, a modern classic of an album that stretched Lau’s ears.

“I was learning by myself, just learning people’s techniques and applying them to my music,” says Lau of his early attempts at production. Some of the names he lists are The Neptunes, Wajeed, DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Kev Brown. But Dilla’s influence towered above the rest.

“I knew Tribe [A Tribe Called Quest] and Pharcyde and stuff [both groups who have worked with Dilla] but when he did Welcome 2 Detroit, it was so advanced musically. You’ve got Brazilian Groove, Rico Suave Bossa Nova, then you’ve got African Rhythms. Then you’ve got Think Twice, which is a Donald Byrd cover. You’ve got hard-hitting hip-hop tracks on there too. You’ve got an electro track. It’s like no one was doing that then. No one has done it since. It still blows me away — to have so much range.”

Lau widened his palette too, but his approach has been more of a subtle synthesis of his influences as opposed to Dilla’s wildly swinging approach. From listening to the 45-minute Examples, you can sense a man nodding to all his influences, ranging from Pete Rock to Dego, but still leaving his own fine imprint on these traditions. You can sense Lau’s openness to experimentation with beat patterns, but all these shades are packaged with a beguiling sense of quietness, as if he is still tuning in to the inspiration even though the music has been fully mixed and mastered.

During the listening session, Lau unveiled snippets of work-in-progress tracks from an upcoming album called The Love Principle. They reveal a more emboldened Lau, heading even further off the beaten track but still with a finely tuned sense of sonic clarity.

To borrow a Roots Manuva lyric, “decent people keep decent friend”. In Lau’s case two among them would be Tatham and Dego of 4Hero fame. Alongside Marc Mac, Dego has guided the evolution of Britain’s electronic sound from drum ’n bass to nu jazz.

Alongside other collaborators, notably the likes of IG Culture, Tatham and vocalist Bembe Segue, 4Hero stewarded the globally influential broken beat scene, a musical approach saddled with a descriptor that did not do its fierce musical and philosophical outlook any justice.

Last year, tweeting under the moniker @2000black_dego, Dego set the record straight, writing “know this: nothing here is ‘broken’ or ‘bruk’ or ‘faulty’ in anyway or form. doing this shit for years & you ain’t NEVER heard us say the above”.

Lau met Dego at a Dilla tribute. “I didn’t know him but I gave him my CD, with my number on it. Like a month or so later, I got this text message, ‘Who the fuck is Eric Lau?’ That was his way of saying he had listened to the CD. And then we started talking.”

The two have become solid friends. “He may not see this but I see him as a big brother,” said Lau. “He has given me direction and so much guidance in terms of how to carry yourself as a man in this industry, in terms of integrity. To me he is leading by example on that.”

Of Tatham, whom he met through a fellow musician friend, Lau says: “I play his music to everyone. He is a genius. He is one of the most phenomenal people on the planet. I don’t think there are many people who do what he does. I’m like his biggest fan.”

If one senses a growing musicality to Lau, put it down to the company he is keeping but also to his refusal to back down. Of his involvement in Seven4 off Tatham, Mensah, Lord and Ranks’s 2012 eponymous album, he says: “They were like, ‘Eric’s here, let’s make the track.’ And I’ve just met them. I thought I was chilling in the studio, just saying hi. And they’re like: ‘Make the track. It can’t be four/four.’ I did this 7/4 drum pattern.

“It was crazy, I thought it was just a jam. And when they released the album, Dego had chosen it to be the first track on the album. That meant a lot to me, coming from them.”

If Examples sounds like an offering to the heavens, it probably is — a cyclical, almost mantra-like thanksgiving for the past half-decade. It is also a signal to where this gifted and understated presence on the music scene is headed.

It is an instrumental hip-hop record not hungry for rappers, a soulful record communicating to the human spirit, a testament to both the power of one and the sustenance of community.

If you didn’t see Eric Lau coming, it’s because he wouldn’t have it any other way. 

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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