Free the Robots: 'Freeing the robots is the last thing we humans need'

We talk to the LA producer-DJ ahead of his Shanghai set

Underground hip hop producer Free the Robots, aka Chris Alfaro, has been one of the biggest pioneers of the Los Angeles beat scene, developing his own unique style for over 15 years now. His five albums and numerous EPs draw from jazz, hip hop, psychedelic and electronic music to create passionate tracks that have a timeless feel, and have earned him spots on stage with Flying Lotus, DJ Shadow and Afrika Bambaataa. Back by popular demand, he is hitting Dada this weekend during his fourth trip to China.

Your music is described as combining an eclectic range of genres from psychedelic to hip hop, but would you say there is any underlying consistent quality or characteristic to the music you aim to make?

I mainly like to focus on lo-fi textures with a heavy concentration on drums. Rhythm and the subtle details that go with it are the backbone of it all. I grew up on hip hop as a DJ, but it wasn't till I started collecting records that hip hop sampled from that I advanced my exploration and understanding of music. Jazz, soul, psychedelic, library and even old punk music always piqued my main interest. There was a certain texture to music that was recorded during those years of the '60s and '70s that consistently affects my sound process.

Was music encouraged in your life or something you found on your own? Was there a point in your life at which you saw yourself taking a different path?

Music was never encouraged in my life and I never really had a path. The 'American dream' never really spoke to me and as I'm from an immigrant family, and I was more on the receiving end of the negative aspects of American life. Certain things my friends and I had to struggle with growing up pushed us in different directions that didn't follow rules; we had to figure out an alternative for ourselves. In the '90s gang life, party crews, hip hop culture, reggae culture and punks kind of all co-existed in the same areas where I grew up. I was attracted to it all at different phases and when I came of age I began to understand it. I eventually found my place as a DJ/musician through my salvation in American subculture.

I'm from California as well and, let's be real, it can be a quite image-based place. How much thought do you put into the image you present along with your music?

Not much thought. I understand as part of this LA music community an image has been somewhat associated with it, but that image was never premeditated as a goal to be part of the music. The people behind it are just people from different backgrounds who found and vibed with each other through ideas. Everyone has their own style of music and the way we all dress is influenced by the neighbourhoods and cultures we come from. It's not about fitting into a persona that is expected of us.

What is the story behind your name? Do you actually want to free the robots? In other words, what is your opinion on advancements in AI and their drastic, and possibly damning, consequences for the future?

Honestly, I just thought it sounded dope when it clicked in my head. I was on 'shrooms, watching some old sci-fi flicks and somewhere between what I was watching and tripping out on, the words 'Free the Robots' just came to me. I later formed a story behind it that made sense, but as deep as I can go with the meaning of the name there was literally no thought behind the actual process of naming my alias. As for the advancements in AI, it actually creeps me out. Freeing the robots is the last thing we as humans need, but it looks like we're headed that way.

To take that further, what is your relationship or feelings towards the advancements in equipment and DJ tools? As someone who started in the early turntable era, have you welcomed or had to adjust to the changes in the field?

My preference as a DJ has, and always will be, turntables, but I've adapted to learn everything so I can be prepared for any situation. More and more, the standard is becoming CDJ's or controllers and sometimes I just don't have a choice. Even though I can perform best on turntables, I mainly just enjoy playing and sharing different music. For myself as a DJ, the real work is the collection, risk selection, timing and execution. How I do it will either be bonus, skilful fun for myself or straight-forward easy playing.


Have you been to China before? If so, what have your experiences been and if not, do you have any expectations of what it will be like to both be and perform here?

This will actually be my fourth time in China. My first time was about a decade ago during what I understand was the first experiment with what, at the time, was left-field LA and low-end-theory-esque music tours in China. I had no expectations then, so clearly my mind was blown with what was happening. The scene in mainly Shanghai and Beijing was and is very open minded and responsive to every set that I played. And I have played very different sets, from live to DJ. I have been to other cities that were great as well. Although sometimes my performances left people confused, but amused.

For people who are unfamiliar with your music, can you list three tracks that are not necessarily your favourite but ones that would give the best window into your body of work and style?

'Jazzhole' is definitely the song that kicked everything off, but having been releasing records for this long, there have been many turns in different directions. 'Soul Control' is a more heavy electronic beat version of me from the 'Ctrl Alt Delete' era. 'Opic' is something more of a psychedelic song with a vocalist off of 'The Balance.' And bonus track 'Mixed Signals' off of the recent Karavan album is more going back to the 'Jazzhole' vibe, just slowed down and more playful. These would be solid examples, but there are a lot more that are in even more different directions. Fact is, I grew up as a DJ into a lot of different music, and that translates into the different music I love to create.

By Yinmai O'Connor