Words by Luke LaBenne
Sona Elango has been making instrumental hip hop under the name Elaquent for over a decade now. He gained a following by sharing music online during the early days on online music distribution. Though he lives in Guelph, Ontario he was embraced by the LA beat music scene and gained the respect of his peers and heroes alike.
His latest album Forever Is A Pretty Long Time is his first feature-packed release. He enlists hip hop veterans like Odisee, Guilty Simpson and Blu, and introduces promising newcomers like Saturn, Alexander and Brainorchestra. By sharing the spotlight, Elaquent further demonstrates the originality and versatility of his music. Dusty samples of old jazz and soul tracks create the warm, vintage vibe that is consistent throughout the album. While these tracks are soothing and smooth they remaining engaging and impressive. Elaquent displays his astute compositional acumen, while leaving space for MC’s to shine.
Off Shelf: How is your quarantine going?
Sona Elango: Much like everyone else’s. I’ve just been making lots of music, which is good, and just Netflix’ing like it’s going out of style.
OS: You’re a native of Guelph, Ontario. Is that a smaller town or a bigger city?
SE: It’s a college town mostly, it’s about an hour away from Toronto. It’s the burbs. I grew up there so it’s all I know.
OS: What was the music scene like there, before you got involved, and how has it transformed?
SE: I guess I can only speak for hip hop. By and large, there was not much of a scene to write home about, before I started making music. Since then, to be honest I’m pretty disconnected from the local scene. I would like to think that there’s some local artists cutting their teeth right now, but I don’t know who any of them are.
OS: How did you get started making your own music?
SE: It was largely just myself and my older brother, just being avid hip hop fans and complaining about the stuff we would see on BET or MuchMusic or MTV. Some of the more mainstream stuff that didn’t really speak to us. The idea was instead of complaining about it and do something about it. He ventured more into the actual rap realm as far as writing bars I’ve always been more of a behind the scenes type person and production was always more fascinating to me, so that’s the lane that I went to. Luckily at that time the internet was starting to become resourceful. So I could go on Google or better yet Yahoo, because that was the main one was back then, and just read up on how it all works: what programs to download, what other people use, how people flip samples. A lot of it came down to trial and error.
OS: Did you get your start sharing your music on the internet?
SE: It was mostly MySpace, that was the social media platform at the time. You would just kind of come across a whole lot of artist from around the globe and you start to realize there’s a world out there beyond just the regular type of production I was making. Producers obsess over and mold their style after guys like Dilla and Madlib and the people that everyone knows, and I’m certainly one of those. But I started to see like, “Wow, there’s this incredible artist in Cologne, Germany that I’ve never heard of before and he’s making stuff that I wanna listen to over most of these other guys.” You just come across more people with similar mindsets and as time goes on a lot of those same people become your peers, and a lot of them are on the forefront of the scene nowadays. It’s a neat little full circle thing.
OS: I used to get music on MySpace all the time back then too.
SE: Yeah I mean that was before Soundcloud was really a thing. Before Twitter, before even Facebook. As far as a community is concerned, there were web forums, but MySpace was really that first community where people beyond my city or my small circle of friends got to hear what I sounded like and got to know who I was.
OS: Now with those steaming services you mentioned, people have unlimited access to music. How had that affected your career and the DIY music landscape?
SE: It’s a blessing and a curse, mostly a blessing. I think nowadays with all these DIY platforms and social media it’s changed the business. The need for a major label is almost non-existent now. Obviously they still exist but if you have a good product and you’re smart about how you market yourself, you can definitely get over without needing to entrap yourself into a real shitty contract or deal. You can do it yourself and you can collect a higher chunk of your money. At the same time, just the advent of technology has certainly lead to saturation. There’s just so much music out there. I can’t be a hypocrite, I’m definitely a product of that system as well. In a way, it certainly increases accessibility, at the same time it saturates it. So it becomes a challenge to find a clever way to stand out.
OS: You’re a staple of the beat music scene even though geographically you’re very far from LA, the scene’s home. What has that been like, remotely being a defining figure of this style?
SE: It’s humbling that many of the guys out there sort of respect me on that levels. So I can’t say that I belong to the LA beat scene because I don’t, but I’m kind of that second cousin who pulls up to the family reunions here and there. With the internet, we’re all interconnected in some way anyway. So if it’s not LA, it’s Tokyo. If it’s not Tokyo, it’s England or France. With the internet you can kind of be everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
OS: Why did the beat style speak to you?
SE: There’s just something about the way the songs bounce and move and swing. Then, you know everyone has their own particular tastes as far as what speaks to them. I got into music, first and fore most, to make things that I liked. Before there were any dollars made I really just wanted to impress myself. Coming up I always really liked the more soulful, the more jazzy stuff. What I discovered very quickly was that a lot of artists reaching out to me wanted a very specific sound that wasn’t something that I was passionate about. So instead of sending beats and being told that the artist can’t find the pocket in them or they wanted something that sounded like something else that they heard on TV I just said, “F it. Let me just do it myself.” I noticed that, at least in LA, there was a market for instrumental releases where people could be as daring and experimental as they wanted to. I really gravitated towards that freedom to do whatever I wanted. Ultimately, regardless of what anyone thinks, I’m proud of the stuff that I’ve done and I wouldn’t change it.
OS: You’re now on Mello Music Group, which is my go to source for great hip hop and you worked with one of my favorite members of the Mello roster, Oddisee. I read you grew up listening to him, so what what that like working with Oddisee?
SE: It was humbling. I’ve been fortunate to have shared a stage with him three or four times in the past. I’d met him a few times and it just so happened when Mello reached out and asked for me to be on board he had already known who I was. It’s one thing to just meet someone at a show, but then when they actually know who you are and what you do it kind of hits different. So that was a blessing in and of itself. I know that he doesn’t have any obligation to work with me. As a result, I reached out and was surprised he was really open to doing it, and you know he’s a really busy guy. He’s got a lot going on. It seems like he’s always doing something. So the fact that he took time out of his day to do that favor for me, that definitely meant a lot to me. It also helped that it was one of the best songs that I’ve been a part of.
OS: You also have a ton of other great features on the album. How did you select this lineup of artists featured on the album?
SE: That album was supposed to be another instrumental record. I got two or three songs in and just wasn’t feeling it. It felt like I was just doing the same thing that I did on the first Mello records. Instead I just pivoted and said, “I’ve never done that album working with a series of artists. Why not? This will be the first one.” Now, while it was awesome to get Oddisee on board, the one thing that I really believe in and strive for as a producer is really just to introduce new artists. I wanted people to check out the record to hear Oddisee and Guilty and Blu. Come for them and stay for Saturn, stay for Allie and stay for Brain and Lost Like Alex and Chester and everybody. I mean I guess I could’ve just reached out to every big name I could think of but one that costs money, but I also just saw this golden opportunity to get some ears on a few people that don’t have that same sort of spotlight on them and just give them that opportunity to make some new fans. Personally when people tell me that they listened to the album and they really liked it and their favorite song was “Annoyed” or “Lottery Check” or “Time,” any of the ones that don’t have the big name features on them, that’s something that I take the most pride in. Ultimately, those are the songs, for me, that were the most rewarding to do. I just feel like I’d be doing myself a disservice if I have the opportunity to get some attention on a record that I’m doing and not bring some of the people I believe in along as well. If Saturn, Alexander makes one new fan who goes out of their way to buy her albums, or even one person decides to go pick up Brainorchestra’s new album on vinyl because they heard him rap on my album, then my work here is done.
OS: How did you come up with the album title Forever Is a Pretty Long Time? The word “pretty” changes the meaning to make forever seem less overwhelming.
SE: We’re all just trying to do something in life or have a body of work or contribute in some meaningful way that will last beyond your years. I guess the title itself is kind of a “duh,” like of course forever is a long time, but that’s what we all strive for. That’s what I strive for. I just want to make something that hopefully people will be able to vibe with and inspire beyond the forty minute runtime. That’s kind of the mindset I was in when I did it. The title itself happened to be kinda of catchy as well and I’m always just a sucker for a catchy title. I always want any project or record I do to be open to interpretation. So as much as forever can be a benefit when you’re critically acclaimed or lauded, it can be terrible too if you make that mistake. The moral of the story is to think things out carefully and proceed. Have some respect and be aware of what that really means.
OS: The album cover has a very striking photo of a city. Is that Toronto?
SE: It’s a shot of Toronto. For the actual visuals and the release, I had come up with the idea that this is really a movie, and not just a movie but and old, vintage 70’s crime thriller. The general sort of sepia tone for the trailer and all the posters and everything. That was all by design to be consistent to the theme. When the artist showed me the cover we just decided that everything else we do has to be in the same vein, because this does look like a movie.
OS: There are some tracks on the album that don’t feature any artists. How did you decide which tracks you wanted to remain instrumental?
SE: While this is the first feature enriched record I still wanted to incorporate a bit of what I’m best known for. For everyone who doesn’t want to hear raps I just like to make sure that there are a couple breaks in there. Just let the beats be the star before getting back to the lyrical stuff.
OS: What’s your process building a beat? Do you have a routine or is it different for every one?
SE: I always get in a routine until I feel bored doing the routine. Honestly, it always varies. I like to start with the drums but sometimes you just have a melody or you hear a sample you really like and you just roll with it. In the spirit of this particular record, knowing that there’s going to be features, I had to sort of plan accordingly. I put the list together of like 30 artists that I potentially wanted to reach out to for this record, then narrowed it down. I send them beats and I know if none of them go for it, maybe I’ll leave it instrumental.
OS: What do you hope people take away from this album when they’re finished listening?
SE: Really I just want people to be able to enjoy the 40 minutes. I’m mostly known as an instrumental guy but I’ve got more in my bag than just that. This was my first time doing this type of record that’s predominantly features. The next step would be, maybe I’ll do an R&B album down the line. I’ve got a bunch of ideas of things I want to do beyond the instrumental stuff. This is a good opportunity to just show everyone that do have a different side and I can do more than what I’ve been doing for the majority of my career.