The plan, as hatched by Seattle producers Nice Nate and DJAO (Nice&AO): I should bring a song to the latter's Capitol Hill bedroom studio for them to sample and then mold into something they can play at their next show at Lo-Fi. I brought three songs instead: Edgar Winter Group's "Free Ride," Et Cetera's "Lady Blue," and Sensations' Fix's "Music Is Painting in the Air"—none of which they'd ever heard.
Nice&AO immediately started working digital magic on them. AO fast-forwarded and rewound the songs on Serato Scratch software, seeking sweet segments to manipulate, like a massage therapist homing in on sore points. When he'd secure a loop, Nice would add beats, rim shots, cymbal hits, and hi-hats as needed. AO instinctively zeroed in on the tracks' dopest elements, usually dropping the pitch way down for maximum poignancy, and Nice quickly improvised new rhythms over the foundations. AO hit the buttons on his sampler with exaggerated torque, as if the surfaces were scorching, while Nice punched out percussion on his Akai MPD24 pad controller. Wholly in the zone, Nice&AO bobbed their heads in sync to the beats, their skinny bodies hunched over the workstation in deep concentration.
Within minutes, Nice&AO had laid the groundwork for three amazing cuts of what they like to call "future beats." Funky and psychedelic, the twosome's music has its head in the clouds and its feet in the gutter. Nice&AO readily admit their allegiance to Dilla and Flying Lotus, but their "zoned" sound isn't outright homage; rather, it's a Northwest, hyper-internet-savvy extrapolation of those artists' techniques.
Nice (25, real name Nate Pringle, drama major at UW) and AO (26, real name Alex Osuch, Apple store employee and writing tutor) began collaborating in the summer of 2011. Earlier this year, I caught two of their live performances at Lo-Fi's future-beats incubator/hiphop mecca Stop Biting. Both times, folks of various races, ethnicities, and genders were head-nodding and brazenly smiling at Nice&AO's lucid, stream-of-consciousness cuts. Still buzzing from the fresh slants on post-Dilla beat science I'd just witnessed, I thought these guys could be foot soldiers for one particular battalion in hiphop's ongoing war on sonic conformity.
Looking at these unassuming dudes in AO's small bedroom studio—with its Logic Pro 9–equipped Apple computer, M-Audio KeyRig 49, and Serato Scratch hooked up to a laptop (and a map of Earth's ocean floors on the wall)—many might scoff at such an observation. So would Nice&AO. "I think we've practiced for a total of five hours since we started this project," AO says.
Nevertheless, the two have a natural affinity for improvisation that's impressive, even if they claim what they do isn't that difficult. They also admit that they don't rehearse their shows. "There are maybe a couple of tracks where we know what each of us is going to do," Nice says. "But there are other tracks where we keep it open-ended. It ends up changing every time, but in a good way."
"We're homies," says AO, who met Nice through the wonders of Soundcloud; they later linked up after a Beatmakers showcase at Lo-Fi. "We just have similar tastes and levels of talent. We don't try very hard, but everything we do is so fiery, so people are gonna hate on us," he concludes with subtle sarcasm. "It sounds kind of douchey," Nice adds, "but we just hang out and make beats, and it ends up being something cool that people like."
Nice grew up in Spokane in a "super-conservative Christian" household and got turned on to hiphop via positivity-pushing artists like Jurassic 5 and Blackalicious. AO's parents rarely listened to music when he was growing up, but he had his hiphop epiphany with the Beastie Boys' underrated 1998 classic Hello Nasty. Then, while studying English literature at University College of London, AO had his sonic horizons expanded, including immersion in J Dilla's oeuvre. Nice and AO share a devotional respect of Dilla, and it clearly resonates in their solo output and collaborations.
"Dilla was the bridge for everything I'm into now," AO says. "I think Donuts is one of the best pieces of music in all of humanity, starting with Gregorian chants. [Donuts] is clearly the blueprint for the stuff we're doing here."
Nice&AO champion the chopped-and-screwed approach to production that DJ Screw pioneered in the '90s. "It's cool to find the different sounds within a finished song that the people making it maybe didn't pick up," Nice says. "But you pick it up with your ear for the kind of music that you want to make."
AO observes, "You're breaking down a song that has structure and conventional elements to just the tones and the harmonies and the base sonic elements and enjoying them on their own. It's warm and meditative. When you slow a beautiful song down, you pay even closer attention to everything. It's just an easy way to make something sound fuckin' zoned out, to make something sound really thick and meaty."
Though their music often moves at a sluggish pace, Nice&AO's work rate does not. Since 2011, Nice has uploaded three albums to Bandcamp, and AO has released tracks on Car Crash Set and Dropping Gems and just issued a collection called Screwmixes for Hush Hush, wherein he reinterprets tracks by Grimes, Janet Jackson, Mount Kimbie, and others. AO's first solo album proper is slated for a summer 2013 release on Dropping Gems. Both gentlemen would eventually like to work with MCs, particularly with Rik Rude and young local rapper J'Von.
Nice&AO's first show was at Chocolate Chuck's Concord night at the defunct Faire Gallery. There were five people there. Now they're opening for Guilty Simpson, House Shoes, Samiyam, and Knxwledge—all mighty disciples of their hero, Dilla.
The interview over, Nice&AO eagerly return to their instruments. They play a half dozen tracks that scramble the molecules of R&B, soul, and gentle rock. Big Star's "Thirteen," Chi-Lites' "Have You Seen Her," Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," and Ariel Pink's "Round and Round" sound as if they're entering a druggier dimension and then dispersing into gritty aural mist.
All this, and they just started their own Tumblr. "Game over," Nice concludes, with subtle sarcasm.