In a dark room near the Brooklyn/Queens border, a veiled figure kneels in supplication, illuminated in the flickering light of a bank of electronics. Like most sacred rites—be it meditation, mourning, or exorcism—the set starts slowly, voices swirling abstractly as static swells. The spectral samples’ message is, at first, unclear, offering only a chorus of grief, ache, and illness as songs slowly take shape from noise—doomy instrumentals coalesce into slow-moving boom-baps—invocative rap beats forming from primordial ooze.
The voices become easier to parse as the set swells toward its ecstatic peaks, even as they murmur and duck under the hiss of tape-sampled drum hits. They cry out against injustice, both personal and societal, lamenting both the immediate circumstances and broader systems that bind them: state-sanctioned violence, unmitigated mental illness, the outright torture of solitary confinement. It is hard to listen to and that seems to be the point. Eventually it swells into a distorted soul song, peeking through the hour or so of fuzz, drones, and imposing beatwork that preceded it—an earned moment of catharsis.
When it ends, the figure stands removing the black veil to reveal the face of the New York underground mainstay known mostly as Geng, performing tonight as King Vision Ultra. The majority of the sounds and voices he was drawing on tonight came from that project’s just released tape Pain of Mind, which the liner notes describe as “an audiobook about mental illness, memory, and a broken system.” It was ushered into the world by the Arizona label Ascetic House, which in 2013 established a program providing free copies of their tapes to any person incarcerated in the United States. This particular Monday night show—an eight-act bill of friends and other acts on the label he runs, PTP—served as Pain of Mind’s release show, but it was also book drive and benefit for people incarcerated at Rikers Island and across the country. From the stage, Geng makes it clear that this is music with a motivation.
“I hope you feel cleansed or whatever,” he says, thanking the assembled crowd for sticking it out through a marathon show on a Monday night. “We’re a real community, on some real shit.”
Later that week, we’re sitting in a South Indian restaurant in Jackson Heights, the neighborhood in which Geng lives. He’s picking at the late afternoon feast he’s ordered for us—a spread of dosas, idlys, and daal, vegetarian food meant to be shared among friends—as he explains the emotional journey toward Pain of Mind. The 37-year-old producer has made some life changes of in the last few years, quitting drinking and smoking and trying to distance himself more from his phone, realizing that none of those things were contributing productively to his life.
“There’s a lot of crazy shit in the universe to take in; it’s not just Sesame Street out here,” he says. “But my whole joint is this. Do you wanna live your life and create a legacy of tumult and chaos? And then what happens? Something happens one day and you’re not there anymore. That’s tragic, but the real tragedy is this person wasn’t even able to acknowledge the good and the positive around them, and take in whatever happiness they can achieve—enjoy these little moments.”
It’s a mindset he says he’s adopted from Buddhist teachings—which his mother imparted upon him while he was growing up. Acknowledge the bad stuff, and its hold on you starts to lift, just a little. “Don’t deny that some shit’s happening,” he continues. “Even if it’s a challenge, then what makes you a warrior is realizing that that lack of peace is there—that the never ending assault is there. The peace comes from that.”
In conversation, Geng himself has a generally centering presence. Today he’s wearing a collared shirt seemingly quilted together from a few different rugby shirts and a Carhartt beanie that sits low on his ears, augmenting his architectural features. He speaks slowly and calmly, articulating complicated ideas in unpretentious tones. And yet, it’s that willingness to recognize the tough shit in life that has that’s fueled the music that he’s been responsible for shepherding into the world over the past few years, both as a musician—as King Vision Ultra, Geng, and Wormwatcher—and as the head of PTP. “The music is a release, it’s a balance system,” he explains. “[Making dark music] is why we’re able to then be relaxed and navigate with some sort of tact.”
Drawing on legacies of heavy music (metal, noise, and the like), and the history of musics of pain that stretch back even further, Geng and his friends use sound as a meditation of sorts, processing shared and individual memories and trauma through gnarled sounds. There are records on PTP, born from chaos that gesture toward peace. One of my favorites, Flora’s City God, is a jagged collection of asymmetric beats and stretched-out samples named for the idea of a deity in Chinese folk religion that oversaw a town’s physical defenses. It is ambiguously tonal and full of noisy abstractions, but it is, per PTP, a gesture of “audio therapy and self-love.” This is music that offers a way of confronting life’s tough parts head on, making sense of it for themselves in the process.
“Do you wanna live your life and create a legacy of tumult and chaos?”—Geng
That’s part of how King Vision Ultra came about in the first place. One of Geng’s childhood friend ended up in prison “as a result of a horrible addiction” at the same time that some of his loved ones were struggling with severe depression and substance abuse issues on his own right.
“I had this idea of recording meditation tapes for those locked inside but wanted it to make sense and recalled how loops, namely repetitious hip-hop beats, would affect me in a trance-like way,” he says. “You could have a single 2-4 bar sample, and after enough repeats, you hear different elements in the music come forward that weren’t so apparent at the cursory listen. I took this idea back to writing music and realized there was a lot of power in memory and frequency as well, like instantly recognizing how something was dubbed from radio, or that hiss and distortion you got on a worn cassette.”
The resultant record is a pretty astounding thing—a nearly 50-minute assemblage of chittering static, pitch-shifted vocal samples, and lumbering drum work, that moves in a hallucinatory way, fading from beat to melody to noise and back again. It’s not catchy, luxurious, or bombastic, at least not in any traditional way. It’s caked in tape hiss, and street-level grime; this is the handmade masterpiece you fantasize you’re picking up when you rescue a shoebox of cassettes with yellowing J-cards from a street corner on trash day.
The idea, he says, was especially resonant because it came from a hip-hop framework, which he says was the music he first really developed an intense relationship with. “I literally grew up with it since single-digits, only because I sought it out that early,” he says. “Through this oral tradition I first learned about incarceration and inner turmoil—then by my teens, a lot of those stories became reality among us, to varying degrees.”
Geng was born in Manhattan to two busy parents, and mostly lived there his whole childhood. As an only child he says he spent a lot of time alone, playing with toys in his room and talking to himself—which he says he still occasionally slips up and does to this day. During that time unattended he gravitated to music. “That was the voice that I was responding to,” he remembers. “The radio.”
It was an era where daytime radio wasn’t playing rap (“People were scared of it I guess,” Geng says) so it took the crossover success of Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s “Push It” for him to encounter the music that’d provide him with several decades of nerdy obsession. Even the sound of that record was formative. “Shit is a dark ass record,” he says, simply.
He recalls watching MTV shows like Video Music Box and trying to talk to other first graders about rap. Needless to say, they didn’t quite get it, so he continued to dig on his own, eventually on the internet. In middle school, he made a CompuServe account and met some friends online who would steal CDs from their local record stores and trade them with him through the mail. He’d stay up late chatting with friends in Hawaii, shooting the shit and trying to chase down mythical records he’d read about in XXL or The Source. He had no way of knowing if these fabled collaborations between the great rappers of the age actually existed in the pre-centralized streaming service era, so he’d do his best to dig, through record stores and internet forums, priding himself for hoarding rarities.
In high school he started DJing and learned to produce with his friends in the experimental rap crew Atoms Family—including Vast Aire, later of Cannibal Ox, who taught Geng many of his beatmaking fundamentals. Things got serious once he graduated college and he made serious efforts at placing some of his beatwork with rappers. He’d been making small attempts at rapping himself before—including one memorable show thrown at CBGBs by Ron Morelli, now known as owner of the beloved techno label L.I.E.S., but then known as Hardcore Ron—but he decided to focus on “hustling beats” as a way to make money.
Through a friend of a friend, he connected with Dipset, for whom he’d end up producing a couple of colorful beats, including the kaleidoscopic horn workout that forms the backbone of “Wouldn’t You Like to Be a Gangster Too?” Some of his other beats travelled around, ending up on Kay Slay mixtapes and getting bootlegged by Papoose, but Geng quickly tired of the industry side of this new gig—meaning, mostly, that he had little patience for dealing with lawyers.
So around 2005 he decided to go it on his own, and form his own community. He started a label on Myspace first that functioned as a home for all his many experiments, including his beats, a grindcore band he was a part of, and anything else that fit within his wide-ranging interests. He decides against giving me the link, but it seems like a project that spiritually anticipated what he’d eventually do with PTP, a blog-turned-label that formed around the time he started DJing again in 2009. Since then, it’s now become home to some of the most boundary pushing music being made—from ritual doom metal to distended spoken word experiments, stretched out club tracks to noise music to sound collages that come with smoothie recipes (these are accompanied by surprisingly sincere YouTube tutorials for, like, peeling ginger—Geng tends not to do things halfway).
Geng’s own releases over the years since he started the label have been pretty sparse—there’s a collection of chopped and screwed Black Sabbath edits, a few noise experiments and a host of collaborations. He’s mostly tried to foreground the voices of his friends, and those in his community, and to orient the label’s efforts toward giving back. In addition to the benefit shows, he also put together a compilation called Shine as a benefit for Hurricane relief funds for Puerto Rico and co-organized a gear drive to send instruments and electronics to musicians based there. His music hasn’t taken a backseat necessarily, but his role over the past decade or so has been more in a support role—making everyone around him great. Which is part of what makes the fully-formed emergence of Pain of Mind—released on Ascetic House because, as he told The Wire, so as to “not take up space on the PTP platform with my own stuff”—so surprising.
As he proudly points out in the Pain of Mind liner notes, Geng’s studio is in an anonymous cluster of office-y looking buildings in Long Island City, a block away from a RIP Prodigy tag. It’s mostly bare, just four white walls, some desk space, a shelf with an assortment of samplers, loopers, guitar pedals. Like the music he’s drawn to, it’s functional and austere. It’s here that he put together the two long pieces that make up Pain of Mind over the course of about a month last year, and it’s here that we’re sitting as he explains the situations that motivated it.
After his childhood friend ended up in prison and he had the idea to put together meditation tapes, he drew on some research he’d been doing at the same time, about the idea of “resonant frequency healing”—the idea that certain sonic vibrations can cause physical healing—and the idea that meditation can be used to help those who’ve experienced trauma. He wondered if he could replicate the principles employed in those schools of thought by drawing on his own history of production in hip-hop. So he set about making small loops and sample collages, throwing things together and basking in the repetition.
Like everything Geng does, there’s a purpose to it. In addition to being a meditation on music and memory and his own history, he’s clear that he wants to underscore the abuses that our criminal justice system exerts on the people who end up caught up in it. He says it’s easy to look at the numbers and see that there’s something broken in our system, but we don’t often enough put a human face on the problem. All of the voices on this tape—though largely sourced from YouTube—belong to real people, humans with rich inner lives.
“When you listen to it, you figure that these are the conditions that support [mental illness] rather than work as rehabilitation,” he says. “Locking someone up for 23 hours out of the day in a very small room with no windows, no light. How is that going to help anybody?”
Geng admits, because of the practicalities of getting tapes into prison—there is a whole shadow industry around the legal sale of music inside the carceral system—that he never got his beats to his friend in the way he first intended. But Pain of Mind is almost a nobler effort—a dark meditation tape for those with the power to change things from the outside. It’s harrowing and heavy, but that’s because the reality of the broken system is. That’s why Geng does everything that he does.
“We as people need to reconnect and see that shit hurts,” he says. “There’s a lot of pain out there that’s easy to just overlook.”
Colin Joyce is an editor at Noisey and is on Twitter.
Sam Clarke is a New York-based photographer, you can find him on Instagram.