Spectacular Diagnostics: The Cabbages Interview

The tastemaking producer recalls early 2000s underground hip-hop and discusses his current career renaissance.

Spectacular Diagnostics: The Cabbages Interview

Illinois native and designer Robert Krums has lived a few lives in hip-hop. Even before rising to contemporary indie rap prominence under the production moniker Spectacular Diagnostics, he made beats under the guise of Earmint and worked with emcees like Diverse, Murs, and Psalm One. Since 2015, he's been dropping mixtapes with prescient features from some of the most respected independent rappers in the game today. Coming hot on the heels of his other 2021 projects Natural Mechanics and the Kid Acne collab NULL AND VOID is his latest album Ancient Methods.

It might be worthwhile to start the conversation by talking about your history, going back to the Earmint days. Many if not most people who know you now as Spectacular Diagnostics might not be aware of that earlier work. Could tell me a bit about that period of your career or in your life, so that people understand what you were doing at that time?

It was when the indies really started popping off, like the late '90s, early 2000s. A lot of the releases that came out then were so influential to what I was doing. I think Lootpack [Soundpieces: Da Antidote] came out in '99. Quasimoto [The Unseen] came out in 2000. Def Jux was starting up. There was all this exciting music that was coming out, other than Rawkus, which had been like the face of underground hip-hop at the time, you know? So I was just a fiend for it. I was like, okay, Nu Gruv is putting out this. I'd check this out; I'd check that out.

It was really coming out of that, and a more traditional label structure, of me sending CDs to people and trying to see if anyone would listen to it. I was working with a few artists and we had like a group called The L with my friend James, who was rapping. We never put anything out that ended up on a label or anything, but I think it was like a lot of people where they were swept up in all of the music that was coming out at the time. I was a lot younger and way more naive to how everything worked.

And you were in Chicago at that point?

Yeah. I grew up in the suburbs and then, through college and everything, I eventually moved to Chicago. Earmint came out through a label that was based in a Chicago suburb called Evanston, which is just north of the city on the border. And that studio was recording a lot of the Chocolate Industries material. And Chocolate Industries was a label that I was really interested in. I had sent them CDs. And Seven from Chocolate got back to me like, yeah, the drawing of the boombox flower pot you did, it's on my fridge. I'm like, that's cool.

I knew a friend that was deejaying and then he knew Diverse's DJ, who was deejaying for him on tour. That was like the first time where I was like, well, would Diverse do a song with me? He was kind of a big deal, coming up, and we managed to work it out. I recorded this one song with Diverse, and then I was just kind of sitting on it like, okay, well, this is going to be an album that I do. I have this Diverse song. At the time I was just hanging on to it until something comes out. From there, I got to record another song with him that was actually for Chocolate. That was on a B-side of the Jus Biz 12-inch, which Prefuse [73] did, and the other B-side was Madlib. So that was like the first thing that I really had bigger that was put out. That's still like a gold plaque to me, you know?

This is why I wanted to ask you about this period, because some people assume you came out of nowhere in 2015 and started working with these really great rappers. It must've been an incredibly cool thing just to have that happen, to work with someone like Diverse.

It was crazy. People in Chicago didn't really know who I was, so probably when they saw Earmint on the B-side, they were just like, who the fuck is this? In Chicago, for the most part, the Molemen were like the big players, All Natural, they were the big thing. And that's because they came up through Chicago. They were doing a lot of shows and it was very organic. I think with Chocolate, it was a big deal, but Seven moved to Chicago. I don't know the politics of it back then. I wasn't very involved in it. I mean, they were certainly very popular. There was probably a lot of jealousy towards them, because they were doing so well. I still work with some of these people today. The guy who mastered Ancient Methods, Keith Kreuser, that's K. Kruz. He produced for Diverse. He was the engineer at EV Records. He's a chef now. If he needs a logo for like a catering company, he comes to me and we'll trade. I still occasionally hear from Diverse. I hope he comes back out with stuff. I know that he's been working on things for years. He's a perfectionist; when it eventually comes out, I know it's going to be really good.

There was this hiatus period, like eight years between the end of Earmint and the start of Spectacular Diagnostics. How does the latter emerge from this dormant period?

I don't know, maybe a bit of a midlife crisis. You hear music coming out and it kind of inspires you. I don't think it goes away. It certainly didn't go away when I was dormant. I feel like I got lost where when the industry really flipped towards putting out your own music, not using a label, the blog era. Then like certain things that were coming out of the blog era, maybe I didn't like it, but that's because I wasn't looking hard enough. Now I hear about music that came out at that time that I just totally missed. I think I was just a bit burned out. And then in 2015, I was like, ooh, maybe I'll do a single, maybe I'll do a song. I started looking into people to get on it and it spiraled from there.

When you look back on like The SPEC Tape and Raw Studies, you have features from these rappers whose profiles have grown substantially in subsequent years. You've got locals like Chris Crack and Vic Spencer who are name brands in the right communities now. And then there's these Griselda types, Westside Gunn and Conway and Rome Streetz. When you were working with these guys at that time, did you have any idea that they would become marquee names in hip-hop?

I don't think I knew it was going to get to them working with Jay-Z, because I didn't know the industry would necessarily go there. But I had a very good sense that they would do something way bigger. After years of doing it, you get a good feel for it. When I was looking at rappers to get on it, you know, I saw what The Purist was doing and I was like, oh man, everyone that The Purest has touched is just gold. And you heard Westside Gunn, and I'm like, wow, that guy's crazy. Working with Westside Gunn, that kind of just came through very early in his career.

I think I was like one of the first people to feature Conway. I heard Conway's—it was like a tape, I can't remember what tape it was. It wasn't Reject 2; it was something he had before then, pre Hall & Nash, a few verses. I asked Gunn, like on the song, like, can we get Conway to do the second verse? And he's like, oh yeah, that's my guy. I'll have Conway do it. At the time, Conway did it for such a small fee. It was a funny time. Oh my God, I could have had a Benny The Butcher feature, which I really wanted. I just didn't have this small amount of money that it would have cost me to get it. I just like look back at it like, oh Jesus. I really should have just spent that, like put it on a card or something.

You got two out of three. That's pretty good.

It was pretty good. But that was right after like "Shower Shoe Lords" off of Flygod. And I was like, who is this? He's impressive.

He's just signed with Def Jam. It's all clicking for him now. And I want to just point out that you're not the only person who passed on Benny. When Shady picked up Westside Gunn and Conway, they didn't pick up Benny. That, to me, just boggles the mind.

That was ridiculous. I mean, Shady's made some not so great business decisions here and there, so it doesn't really surprise me. The W.W.C.D. track where they got Eminem, "Bang," his verse on that Griselda album was just like, why did you guys do that? Why would you do that?... At my age and being from Chicago, I always knew Eminem stuff's like, oh yeah. Eminem battled Juice at Skribble. It's just a different era, you know? I think Eminem's incredibly talented. I just never really listened to Eminem. He's great in quantities, I guess, but just wasn't my cup of tea.

Someone else that you've worked a lot with in recent years is Kid Acne. You have multiple full lengths together, including the most recent NULL AND VOID. He's someone I got turned on to from Lex Records' Lexoleum compilation, with "Rap Dracula." What's the dynamic like between the two of you when you're working together?

I think we're very realistic, you know, in what's gonna happen. We're working with certain labels and I think we're really doing it for ourselves. We have no illusions that 20 year olds are, all of a sudden, gonna hear this and go, oh yeah, this is my shit. No, this is older guys that like grew up on the Beastie Boys and like obscure references. His references get incredibly obscure and British. I'm like, okay, you said you're chilling with a clanger. I have to look it up. A clanger is a baked sandwich, kind of like an empanada, with a sweet end and a savory end. Like, I doubt people in the UK know that, let alone here...

So, we're continuing to work on stuff. I've just been a fan of his art for so long. We weren't expecting it to turn into all these albums. It just kinda clicked. He had worked with people in the past that, I think, they didn't share his vision of how much he wanted to do and what kind of music he wanted to make. So I think it's just been kind of a natural click. When we recorded the Lex record [2019's HAVE A WORD], I actually went over to Sheffield, my wife and I. We stayed with him and we recorded down the street. It was my first time in the UK. So yeah, that's just like family now.

Some might say he's esoteric. His reference points are deep. But it seems he hasn't really quite gotten the full appreciation he deserves. Still, there is a fanbase for him and what he does, and it seems like you guys are in sync on how that should play out.

Yeah, definitely. He's one of those people that is so well known in the UK that certain people check for him. Giles Peterson will spin it, then you're kind of like, whoa, we were on Giles Peterson, that's fucking cool. We're always getting BBC spins from big DJs, because they know him, they know what we're doing. I mean, his music is just incredibly British, something to be proud of. Don Letts of Big Audio Dynamite playing it, you're like, all right, good deal. That's not why you do it, but it's great to see that appreciation.

Sure. I was never a big fan of Mike Skinner or The Streets, but I respect that he was connecting to a community and connecting to a particular aspect of culture. Being from New York, well, birds means something different here. I think that's the same thing with Kid Acne. When I listened to Kid Acne or even to some of the earlier weirder Lex stuff, I appreciated that that there were aspects of the culture that we, who were immersed in American hip-hop, had no connection to it, that uniquely British experience.

It was a shift. You know, people will talk about how early UK emcees would try and rhyme with American accents. That kind of went away after a while. People were like, nah, we're going to do British hip-hop. To bring it back even to the stuff that I recorded as Earmint, the studio EV Records, one of the producers there, Copperpot, he worked with a lot of these guys. He worked with Braintax who was running Low Life Records. So we were distributing Low Life Records in the U.S. And I just remember being excited, getting the CDs in the studio. I'd go by and be like, oh man, what's this one, Skinnyman? I haven't heard Skinnyman. I wanna hear this. I was in the minority of people who wanted to hear it, but it was always cool to me.

So the records you've put out this year, Natural Mechanics and Ancient Methods, unlike some of your prior projects, these are less like producer showcases and more like albums. Did you start out either or both of these projects with that particular intent?

For Ancient Methods, I absolutely did. Natural Mechanics started out where Morriarchi from [Group] BraCil, he's from Sheffield where Kid Acne's from–that's who linked me with Morriarchi. We started talking about beats and just kind of hit off. We're both producers, and I had a folder that I was sharing with him of tracks of what he thought he'd like to hear on the label. And then he had a few emcees in mind. Then I was like, why don't we get a few U.S. emcees? So that grew as we were both talking about it. Ancient Methods was just me saying, I'm going to make this record and it's going to be definitely more of a concept record. I'm going to try and get it to really tell a story.

And it absolutely does. The prevalent sci-fi themes that play out in the speech samples definitely hit you over the head. You're meant to be thinking about this version of what the future was meant to be. Are you a particularly big sci-fi head?

The sci-fi element on hip-hop records has always been interesting to me. I always really liked all of the Planet Of The Apes stuff that got pulled in, whether it was from Mo Wax and, you know, Nigo and some of the early stuff. I obviously like Dr. Octagon. I have always liked the kind of goofy–Prince Paul in general–just goofier concept records that are kind of tongue in cheek, kind of serious. So like Ancient Methods is kind of tongue in cheek sci-fi, kind of dark in terms of some of the dialogue that happens. I like good sci-fi and I enjoy trash sci-fi too.

One of the first samples I recall from the record talks about being 10 minutes away from the end of the world. What was your sense of finding balance between the dystopian side of it versus the more joyful and fun side of those sci-fi themes?

2020 and 2021, you know, they've been horrible. So that's definitely been prevalent. I keep up with with politics and we're living in such a horrible place right now, in terms of media. I'm pretty far left, so I just can't handle it. I can tell you, very easily, what kind of a government structure I would want to have, I'd want it to be like Denmark or Sweden, or a democratic socialist state where you don't have to worry about going bankrupt if your kidney explodes. We live in dark times, in that regard.

But the end of the record has that, well, I guess this is actually kind of a beautiful world sample and I should join the human race because the world is pretty great. You know, I don't want us to commit suicide, but how do you keep your head when you have things like the Rittenhouse trial and these things going on where the people that you're against, in terms of how they view the world, you can't even reason with them. And that's definitely where the record was coming from, this sort of a gallows humor feeling of helplessness about it, where you're just kinda like, I can't even talk to you about this. It's like the idea of people talking about critical race theory. It's like, so you don't want to talk about history? Just things that happened in history? It's history... Are we in the end of the world? I don't know. Probably not. The earth is going to be fine. What's the end of the world?

Jazz is, obviously, a constant presence across your recent projects, and certainly on Ancient Methods. Have you always been into jazz?

Jazz music has definitely played into sampling more than listening. I'm always listening to jazz and trying to find pockets of jazz. To me, it's the most interesting music to sample. You sample a traditional song structure, you know what you're getting. Jazz, you scooch it over an eighth, over a little bit, it's completely different. There's always this moving pocket with it. And I think jazz music, especially '70s and even '80s jazz music, once people start bringing the synths into it, it's just a very addicting thing to listen to. It was just really free music...

When you hear people that are doing drumless beats, some of those guys, they know those pockets. They just find them. You can find them on soul records. I try to shy away from soul records because I don't want to get caught. I really try not to sample anything that shows up on WhoSampled. I actually like look at it and if it showed up on there, I don't want to touch it. I don't want someone to flip it better than me or take something that's done. I'm always looking for something that someone hasn't heard. I just don't want to touch anything that guys like Dibiase, Obliv, these guys that are just beasts on 404s, where they can take these well-known songs and just chop them so well. I know they could kill me. I'm not going near. And I'm like, no, that's fine, you guys do this, I'll do my thing over here.

While Ancient Methods is predominantly instrumental, you also worked with three incredibly talented and lyrically cerebral emcees: Nosaj, ELUCID, billy woods. To have those people in your camp is pretty extraordinary.

It was crazy when they announced the Alchemist thing earlier in the year. I had just finished the features. I had no idea the Alchemist thing was coming. And then they announced that. I was like, holy shit, are you kidding me?

So how did these three rappers respectively come to be involved in Ancient Methods and, specifically, how do their contributions fit in with the record's wider themes?

With Nosaj, I knew that he does what he does. He's going to do something that–I don't know what he's going to do, you know? When he did that song and it was almost like this slightly changing chorus mantra that just went over and over again, I knew he was gonna fit the record. I wanted the record to have this psychedelic quality to it. And then billy and ELUCID, like,  I worked on Raw Unknown with billy and I'm like, I absolutely want to get him again. And ELUCID, I wanted to get him on the record because I hadn't worked with him yet. He's an amazing emcee. These are the guys that I was rating the highest, in terms of they're gonna fit into the project, they're going to shine on their songs and they're going to like, just be these little blips. It stands out, but it also blends in. And I know that they understand the brief.

The history of rappers who've appeared on your records is really impressive. Some people would look at that and call that prescient or call that tastemaking. Do you see yourself in that role of a forward-thinking curator or is this a function of the universe and its cosmic flukes?

I think it's a bit of both. I'm certainly trying to be a bit of a tastemaker with it. I always liked compilation records, like late '90s compilation records, DJ Krush or DJ Cam, Honda, just stuff that was coming out then. I liked the comps and the presenting of different artists together. It's more of a refined mixtape. I'm definitely trying to find artists. The new record that I'm working on for next year, I've got some people on there that, like a ton of people haven't heard them and they should. I'm excited for that. Hopefully a cosmic fluke happens and they blow up. You just never know. I mean, there's artists right now where it's just criminal that they're not getting the attention that they should, like the amount of streams if you want to look at that. It's just absurd that they're not seeing it.

Photo courtesy of the artist

Purchase Ancient Methods and Natural Mechanics, as well as NULL AND VOID (with Kid Acne), on Bandcamp or listen wherever music is streamed or sold.