Happy 10th Anniversary to Exile’s Radio, originally released February 24, 2009.
The shared musical experience is a thing of the past. The ubiquity of Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud, etc., has eliminated the “Where were you when you first heard…?” anecdote. In 2019, these stories begin and end with, “I was sitting in front my computer / playing on my phone.”
But for decades, people first experienced new music through the radio. Listening to it on the way to school or work, or during evenings or weekends at home, or out on the streets with their friends. The radio was central to establishing the communal dimensions of listening to music. So when someone first heard a new song by Prince or Snoop Dogg or Madonna, they might not have been in the same place as thousands of others, but they were all experiencing the enjoyment of musical discovery at the same time.
Furthermore, the idea of waiting by the radio until you heard a particular song is another relic of days gone past. Now, control of when and where someone first hears a song is almost completely under the listener’s control. The radio as it was understood in the 20th century is barely a factor anymore when it comes to musical consumption.
Of course, the radio helped pave its own obsolescence, for reasons too numerous for me to get into here. Speaking as someone who likes to control things when it comes to music, I haven’t used the radio as a musical delivery system since the mid-’90s. But for many, it remained a central part of their musical experience. Ten years ago, Alex “Exile” Manfredi released his dedication to the medium, the aptly titled Radio, a celebration of all things AM/FM.
Exile has been an active hip-hop producer and DJ for nearly 25 years. He began releasing mixtapes under the name Eksile in the mid-1990s, and recorded and released music with Egebert Nathaniel “Aloe Blacc” Dawkins around the same time. Back then, Aloe Blacc was a rapper, and the two released music as both Emanon and Exile & Aloe Blacc. Throughout the early to mid ’00s he produced both indie and mainstream hip-hop acts, creating beats for artists like Mobb Deep, Ghostface Killah, Jurassic 5, and Blame One. His most noted project was teaming with L.A. emcee Blu to produce the entirety of Below the Heavens (2007), one of the best hip-hop albums of the ’00s.
The Los Angeles based Exile conceived Radio as his love letter to the radio, which he considers one of his “best friends.” It’s an instrumental album, with all the sounds and samples coming from live radio broadcasts. As in, he took his sampler, plugged it into the radio, and sampled and transformed the broadcasts into unique arrangements. All of the songs stand on their own as musical compositions and never sound like instrumentals in search of vocals. Exile manages to convey his thought process and values through his music with ease.
Los Angeles-based radio DJ Carlos Niño writes in the album’s liner notes, “All I can say, is that this record is a tribute to a very special part of our lives…It’s a celebration of possibilities and perceptions, of moments captured and reinvented. A multi-track, hip-hop pause tape of grand proportions that journeys the spaces of schizophrenia and serenity.” As evidenced by the album’s artwork (speaker-faced monks worshipping at the altar of boom-boxes fashioned into the shape of a cross) and the titles of the album’s tracks, (“The Sound is God”), Exile views the radio as a spiritual instrument.
Exile had previously been known for using soulful sounds, occasionally looping but mostly chopping samples. But usually his albums were laid back in feel. With Radio, he switches up his production style a bit. Though he still favors chops, the sound is more in keeping with the experimental hip-hop vibe that artists/producers like Flying Lotus, Four Tet, and Prefuse 73 were creating at the time. During the late ’00s, Los Angeles was a hotbed for instrumental hip-hop music, with artists developing their production techniques at Daddy Kev’s Low End Theory club night. Radio often sounds like it was influenced by those sessions.
Much of Radio’s appeal comes from how Exile integrates the unique sound and feel of the medium into the tracks, making them sound like distorted broadcasts from a broadcast station on a different plane of reality. He takes the squeals, pops, buzzes, clicks, and other white noise that figure heavily into the radio listening experience, and transforms them into components of the tracks he creates.
The album-opening “Frequency Modulation” uses the fluctuating wails of radio interference as the foundation of the track’s melody, as half-heard vocals from other stations filter in and out. Static plays a major role in shaping the music on the bare bones “We’re All in Power,” buzzing away as slowed-down distorted vocals and fuzzy electric guitars scatter across the beat.
On “In Tune – Static,” Exile transforms the sound of turning the radio dial into the track’s percussion for much of its length. “Mega Mix” plays like a listener scrolling through their radio dial, with each channel playing a different dope instrumental. Exile showcases the breadth and depth of his production styles, crafting beats that evoke the straightforward jazziness of Below the Heavens to a tribute to the late J Dilla, with the hallmark sirens and clipped production style.
Some of the tracks on Radio seem mechanized. “Population Control” sounds like the transmission of a race of robots, as metallic voices chime in over snippets of various commercials. Exile is able to manipulate the sounds and alter the speed of the track at the drop of dime. “The Machine” marches forward with motorized precision, while constantly shifting in tempo. “Watch Out! False Prophet” has a power-driven feel, but integrates elements of a Klezmer opera into the beat. As apparent from the vocal snippets from newscasts that Exile integrates into each song, there is a strong subtext of distrust towards the government, with repeated references to the unpopular Patriot Act.
Exile plays with the perception of reality on “San Pedro Cactus,” Radio’s psychedelic entry, a trippy dedication to the use of mind-altering substances. The song glitters with energy, as wailing saxophone samples filter in, accompanied by staggering vocals and keyboards played at odd, almost offbeat time signatures.
Yet the overall tone of Radio is both hopeful and celebratory. Songs like “Your Summer Song,” and “In Love” shimmer with energy, encouraging the listener to seek musical salvation through the AM/FM dial. Exile channels his state of mind through a vocal sample on the soaring and inspirational “It’s Going Down”: “Just remember, we’re not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience.”
These days, I don’t really use my radio for much beyond sports news and traffic reports. But I do acknowledge that my relationship with radio stations did help shape my enjoyment of music. And I certainly do miss the days when I would show up at high school on a Monday and discuss what the Wake Up Show played on the previous Friday night. These days we’re all our own musical islands, but it’s nice to remember a time when we could really share our enjoyment with others.