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Tiffany Chung

Date

04 Feb 2021

Text by Tiffany Chung

ØLÅF CITIZENS: SANGO

04 Feb 2021

If you’re not familiar with the name Kai Wright, you might know him better as the renowned hip hop/electronic artist, Sango. He’s the talented DJ and record producer behind genre-melting sounds and albums like ‘Moments spent loving you’, ‘In the comfort of’, ‘Da Rocinha’ and ‘North’. In this edition of Citizens, Kai talks to us about how fatherhood, family, and the ‘Pacific Midwest’ have shaped who he is and influenced his career.

 

Hi Kai, phrases like ‘future of music’ and ‘visionary’ have been used to describe you. Yet you refer to your work as ‘regular, real beats’. Why’s that?

“Yeah, regular means understandable, relatable. A lot of people think that regular means basic and the word normal is bad. In my opinion, you can get too creative where you're not taming the art for it to have a message. That’s the beauty of creation because you have artists that are pushing boundaries and doing stuff that just does not make sense to anyone but them. But you also have creatives, like me, that are willing to reach out to people and understand culture and patterns in how we think and tie it into music and art. When it comes to creating things, I think we have to take what exists already, learn from our past, and repurpose it. You got to take things from the 70s, 60s, 1800s and kind of update the idea, you know. So regular music, regular beats are just ideas and sounds that you are familiar with but in a new way. That’s how I would put it. We’re already so complex as human beings, why add on to that?"

 

Were you raised in a musical household?

“Yeah, my mom still plays piano. She’s amazing. She actually started out making beats on a Casio controller. She was doing that while she was in the Navy. My father was more of a fan of music. He was definitely responsible for my influences, more so than my mom. He was like, ‘whatever you like, enjoy it.’ He wasn’t showing us death metal and stuff like that, but it was stuff that he felt we should hear. The trade off is that my mom was more technical with it. She taught us how music works. She sat me down, explained how to download programs that could help me and explained music theory to me. She was a really great mother because she allowed her children to have their own playground with constraints. She wasn't really controlling as a mom. She was like, ‘Oh I see something in you, and you should go for that. Embrace it.’ Musically that did really help a lot. I found myself knowing myself early on."

 

 

So, did you always know you were going to have a career in music?

“I knew I was going to be a creator. My mom was always telling me this story, I was maybe 3 or 4. We were at this computer store, I think it’s called Circuit City or something like that, and there was this computer that I was using really well. I was drawing on Microsoft Paint and people in the store were watching me like I was demoing how to use the stuff. It was the early 90s, so this stuff is really kind of new and they were like, ‘how did this kid learn this so fast?’ It was because we had computers at school, but I was just geared toward it."

 

Is that why you chose to study graphic design over music?

“It was kind of like a confidence thing. I knew I would be able to teach myself the things that I needed to know in music but not with graphic design and I was really into it at the time. I’m still into graphic design now, but I use it as a tool for my music. I really save a lot of money doing it, ha. Although I’m not opposed to working with other graphic designers, I feel like I have a sense of what I want to create, so why shut that off? But yeah, I chose graphic design because it was out of fear that I wasn’t going to make it in music. I mean I loved music, but I thought I needed to get a degree in graphic design so I can get a job at Sony, RCA, or Universal. I wanted to design album covers and help an artist brand themselves or maybe work at a company that makes clothing. But I ended up blowing up in college and going on tour multiple times. If I had studied music, I maybe would've fallen out of love with it. I know a lot of people who have gone to school for music and found it a waste of time."

 

Sango with Rick Rubin.

 

Out of all your projects, which has made the biggest impact on you?

“I would say my album called North. It was the first album that I ever fully thought out, worked on and saw from start to finish. The times before, I was just experimenting a lot and didn't have any solid ideas. But when I was making North it was a firm idea that I had created and filled it up until I saw the body of work that I was seeing in my head. Then I got together with this record label called Soulection. They put it out and it did pretty well in my opinion. I still had a day job, and I was hoping to quit, but it was a long time until I actually could."

 

 

What was your day job?

“I made baby oil. It was a night job. I would go clock in and fill the tubes up with baby oil. I did quit that job eventually, but I still needed to work so I did catering. That actually made me fall in love with cooking. Cooking is my hobby."

 

What can you cook?

“Oh easily, jambalaya. Louisiana-style jambalaya. My great grandma’s sister, who’s still alive, she’s from Louisiana and I get all her recipes. I love southern cooking. I love Louisiana because my family is from there. Also, my wife is from Mexico, so I make a mix of Louisiana and Mexican style food. I love cooking."

 

Sango with Xavier Omär.

Jambalaya is a Creole rice dish of West African, French, and Spanish influence, consisting mainly of meat and vegetables mixed with rice.

 

 

What else do you do on your off time?

“Play video games — NBA, FIFA, Spiderman (my favorite superhero). But I’m getting older now, so I like watching my nephew play. It’s fun hanging out with him. I do a lot of working out as well. I was an athlete in high school and parts of college but gave that up for music. I ran track and cross country. I was a runner runner. I was running the 800m dash, doing marathons, 5ks and competing."

 

Do you prefer live performances or studio recordings?

“Live. For sure."

 

 

Big crowds or small groups?

“Big crowds."

 

Are you an early bird or night owl?

“Night owl."

 

When you work on a project, how do you know when you're done?

“You know it’s funny, the first project I ever put out ever on the internet was called ‘Unfinished and Satisfied’. So that’s been me, I’ve never known when I’m done, but I’ve always been finished and been like, ‘I'm definitely putting this out.’ I’ll feel confident though, knowing that it might not be finished. If a project is finished, I’ll maybe feel like I’m not thinking enough because there’s always room for improvement or ideas. But my process starts as an idea from a conversation or maybe something that I saw on TV or the Internet that was dealing with a style of music. Or like something historical that I find and I dive deep into figuring out how they did that and why they did that at the time. Or just a mindset, right now my mindset has been about pacing yourself. At first, I liked to go fast, like jump from one thing to the next. Since COVID hit I've been embracing pacing myself again. I would go fast because I was worried that I needed to make as much money as I can or get opportunities while I can because I don't know if it's going to last. I’m literally traumatized by that feeling. I’m never going to be able to rest. Like I went on my first vacation maybe last year. Yeah, I was always thinking I can't afford to go on vacation, I have to pay rent. But yeah, my music is created by starting with an idea. Then it morphs into these little bubbles. I take whatever makes sense and use it on the album or project that I’m making. Whatever doesn’t make sense, I’ll put those ideas aside and save those for later."

 

 

Who do you go to for feedback?

“I would say my peers, definitely. A few people that I work with. These guys that I work with in Michigan. If your stuff is not good, they’ll let you know. They’re hardcore. Also, my wife and I’ll put stuff on Instagram or Twitter and let people respond to it. It might not be something I’m actually working on, but similar, so I’m going to keep trying it out. I have three types of music making: I have music where I’m helping someone else out and it’s not my stuff. I have music where I’m totally locked in and this is an idea that I’m working on. Then, I have stuff that’s like practice and trying out. The stuff I try out I post. "

 

You’ve said that you love change. What has been the most notable change you’ve experienced in your career?

“I think it was when I first started traveling. I remember the first places I went to were Toronto and Montreal. It was with Kaytranada, a really popular DJ from Montreal. They were literally the first places I’ve been to for music outside of the country. What changed is I started realizing that people really want to see me in person opposed to having music being played in the room, or on the Internet, or in the car. It’s cool that they want to hear me play it. Traveling made me more confident and it made me interested in seeing more people and how they lived. It opened my mind to other people who grew up in a totally different way. When we travel, we should always try to learn. I feel like a lot of people just travel to show that they went somewhere and use it as a backdrop, rather than learning and experiencing someone’s culture or someone’s place of origin."

What else inspires you? Name a person, place, and thing.

“I would say a person that inspires me is definitely my grandfather, Alandus. He’s the epitome of raw self-expression and I always struggled with that. I was really kind of shy growing up and I always had a lot of people around me that helped me be more out in the open and more upfront with who I am. It really helped with my music career because a lot of times when you’re on stage DJing or producing in a room with people, you have to be a vocal person. My grandfather is like the absolute most vocal person I can think of. He had a rough life. He’s from Chicago and he spent most of his early years in a gang and he changed his life around. Every time I have a conversation with him it’s always so robust. He’ll say the most outlandish things and you just have to accept what he's saying. He’s really passionate.

 

A place...ah man...okay, I was born in Seattle and I moved to Michigan when I was 10. I spent a lot of time going back and forth. So, because I’m from the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, I have this thing where I call it the ‘Pacific Midwest’. I would say that’s the place that inspires me. They inspire because of the working class feel I get from Michigan and the mix of the futuristic forward thinking I get from Seattle. That’s me. I’m very forward thinking as a person and how I treat my art, but I’m very grounded in tradition.

 

 

Fatherhood is the thing that inspires me. It’s very important to me. I have two kids. It challenges me every day. That stuff just brings the best out of you because you're not living for yourself. It’s a blessing for me because I get to see myself in them. I think kids are put on the planet to teach you how to be grateful for people who are able to have kids and be grateful for family and the community you have."

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views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

ongoing conversations across the globe

views from different key figures

exploring different countries and cultures

Text

Tiffany Chung

Date

21 Feb 2021

Text by Tiffany Chung

ØLÅF CITIZENS : Nicole McLaughlin

21 Feb 2021

Designer, artist, and social media phenomenon, Nicole McLaughlin, has changed the way the fashion industry thinks about upcycling and sustainability. It’s her unexpected translation of materials and tongue-in-cheek concepts that make her a leader in innovative design. In this edition of Citizens, Nicole reflects on how her career started and where she wants to take it in the future.

 

Hey Nicole, you’re a highly sought-after designer working with international fashion brands. What gravitated you to the industry?

“Yeah, I have kind of a weird backstory. I went to school for speech language pathology. I had a deaf boyfriend when I was in high school and became fluent in sign language. I was very passionate about it, so I went to school to pursue it. Then I got to school and realized that I liked sign language more for the art of it and the visual form of communication. I toyed around with switching to an art or design school, but I ended up staying at the college I was at and started doing a general media program. I was doing more design, website design, packaging, that kind of stuff. That led me to my internship with Reebok right after I graduated. I still don’t know to this day how I ended up getting this internship because I had zero experience in terms of the fashion industry and footwear. But they had me come on as a graphic designer making graphics and prints for sports apparel, like running tights and tanks. That’s really when I started to learn about fashion; the patterns and the construction that comes with making clothing as well as the production side of it, like going to factories and understanding timelines. It was really during that time where I was curious to know how things are made. That's when I started to mess around with footwear, taking samples and things that were just laying around the office, cutting them up and frankensteining them together, just seeing what I could make out of it. During that time, everything was exploration and that’s kind of where I still am today. Everything I do is always practice. It’s always exploration. It’s never anything that’s meant to function perfectly or to be sold and mass produced. That’s never the intention behind it."

 

Yeah, it seems like a lot of your pieces can also be considered art.

“I get that question quite a lot, ‘Do you consider yourself more of a fashion designer or an artist?’. It took me a little while to figure out where I sit in the space. To me, I think I’m more of an artist and it just so happens that my medium is fashion. A lot of the pieces I make do function, they can be wearable pieces, but it’s just more about concept and an idea. So, I think that would sit more in the art space."

 

Sushi slide.

 

How long does a project usually take?

“Uhm, it depends what I’m making. I think footwear is probably the thing that I’ve gotten the fastest at because I make shoes the most. I think a shoe would take me up to 1 or 2 hours. It involves the least amount of material and pattern making. I’ve spent days on things, and I’ve spent 20 minutes on things. It varies. The funny thing is — in terms of social media which is the more instant gratification type projects — the less time I spend on a project, the better it does in terms of engagement. The things where I just think of an idea that’s kind of stupid and it only takes me a couple minutes to put together are the ones that tend to do really well. It’s never the ones where I painstakingly spend hours stitching, sculpting, and figuring it out. But I always hope that the people that really understand what I’m doing in terms of construction are the ones that see it and can appreciate it."

 

Which projects were the quickest to make but had the biggest impact?

“Recently, I did a glove made out of bread which surprisingly did super well. I literally just carved out a piece of bread and stuck my hand in it. The idea was ‘warm and toasty’. That project only took me less than half an hour to make and it did quite well. It had a little bit of a viral moment. I also did a project where I put a stamp on the bottom of a high heel. It was such a simple thing and did so well."

 

Warm and toasty.

 

Is there a project you’re particularly proud of?

“It was a personal project. I did an auction in June last year for Black Lives Matter. I put my head down and was grinding and made 6 or 7 pieces by hand in less than a week. I put them up for auction. I didn’t really know what was going to happen, but I just felt like I needed to do something to help in some way. I think we raised $20,000 in a couple of days and that’s probably the most fulfilling thing I had done as a freelancer. To share and help as much as I could through creating art was very rewarding. I was very happy about that. It inspired me to go and pitch to work with brands for more charitable opportunities. Finding ways to do auctions and have them donate, raise money, and raise awareness."

 

 

When making the transition to freelance, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

“A lot of things. I never intended on going freelance. I always thought I was going to work in a company. The way I grew up, my parents taught me that secure jobs are a good thing, growing in one company from start to finish is a good thing. So, when all this started to take off and I was talking to my parents about the opportunity to work for myself and be a freelancer, they were freaking out and were like, ‘What about your 401K? What about health care?’. It was really nerve-racking to take that jump. You do lose this sense of security. At the same time, it's a very rewarding decision. Working for yourself, you're making your own luck in a way. Everything that you do, you can take a step back afterwards and say, ‘I did that. That was mine and take ownership over it.’ It's a good feeling. I’ve always kind of gone with my gut and that usually tends to work. But there are a couple things I wish that I was a little bit more knowledgeable in and on myself about, like understanding taxes, establishing my residence and my studio residence, and all of the more logistical things of running a business. I’d also say, maybe save a little bit more before you quit your full-time job."

 

You went freelance just before 2020 and the pandemic. That must’ve affected you.

“Yeah, that was such an ‘oh shit’ moment to go through. Especially to have that happen in less than a year of being freelance because a large part of my business was traveling for workshops, meeting with brands, and hosting events throughout the world. Right before the pandemic, I just finished teaching a workshop in China, I was about to leave to go to South Africa, and the following week I was going to be in London, then all of a sudden all that just gets pulled out from under me. I was like, ‘Woah, woah, what's going to happen now? That's a huge part of my business. If I can’t travel and I can't do these things, what’s about to go down?’ I freaked out a little bit. I was nervous but I took a step back and let everyone regroup because all these brands were in the same situation where they're freaking out too. Two weeks later, all these brands came back to me and proposed digital workshops and social media things. It was a way to leverage being home and because so many people are consuming content in masses which is a big part of what I do, I was like, ‘Okay, what if I work with brands and help find cool ways to help their brands on social media?’ So, my business became a little bit different during this time, but I've embraced it and it's been fun."

 

Jacquemus.

 

Have any of the places that you visited influenced the work you’re doing now?

“Yeah, I’m really fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I have. I mean obviously not during this time, but when I was working at Reebok traveling was a really important part of our job. We would go to the factories in China and Vietnam. From there, I would always take trips to Thailand, the Philippines, and Japan. I loved that part of my job. When I left Reebok, I was really nervous that I wasn’t going to get to travel as much. It was so amazing when Adidas reached out and invited me to come to Shanghai and teach a workshop. So, I went to China and that was a cool experience because I felt a connection to sign language by teaching a workshop to people where we don’t speak the same language at all. We were making something together but had to communicate and speak to each other in a visual way. That really inspired me. I want to continue to travel to other countries and try to find ways to teach workshops to young people and people who are just curious about the industry."

 

What advice would you give to up-and-coming designers?

“I’d say this is probably the most important advice as a freelancer, it’s kind of corny, but don’t lose the reason why you started doing it. I think sometimes it gets really blurry and all these amazing commission projects come into play — and obviously you have to make a living, that’s first and foremost — but a lot of the time you lose the passion of why you started creating the things, or writing the things, or doing the things you were doing that inspired you to want to be a freelancer. Personal projects are still something that I feel very passionate about and something I carve out a lot of time to try to do that. A lot of the time it ends up being late nights and weekends to still maintain those projects. It’s tough but you have to make sure you do it or you’re going to lose your sanity."

 

 

What’s the most challenging part of your career right now?

“Finding the balance between the commissioned projects versus the personal projects. It gets busy sometimes and the first things to go are your personal well-being and mental health because you’re just in grind mode and sometimes that can last a really long time. Right before Christmas, I was back-to-back-to-back on so many projects and by the time Christmas came I slept for like a week straight. It was amazing but I realized that I pushed myself way past my limits. It was kind of funny because the week that I was able to sleep and rest and not check my email, my skin was so good."

 

Do you ever have to overcome the feeling of imposter syndrome?

“Yeah, I mean I still do. Full transparency. It’s really hard not to feel like that sometimes. Especially not coming from a fashion background or product design background. I just kind of show up and am like, ‘Oh look at these things that I’m making that could fall apart at any moment.’ It’s hard but you have to find this level of confidence and ride that. Ride the line of staying open and humbled by what you're doing, but also feeling confident in what you're making and your ideas. You don’t have to be an expert. You don’t have to come from a prestigious school where you learned all the tricks of the trade. You can learn as you go and own that and be okay with that. I’ve always kind of been this way. If I’m curious enough about something I’ll figure it out. I think a lot of people are that way. You just have to be confident enough."

 

 

What career milestones or goals are you hoping to achieve?

“I would love to continue to build upon the workshops and become more of a non-profit. I see myself going in less of a brand direction and more of an educational direction or become a resource within the industry to support younger people who are looking to get into design. Kind of what I’m doing now but on a larger scale. I hope to have a team of people that can help come up with solutions for brands that have excess materials and get those materials to schools that need it. I hope to still be making things for fun too. I want to explore homeware and larger scale things. I started working in the furniture space, like chairs, but it'd be great to do bigger installations with upcycled materials."

 

Nike chair.

North face puffer umbrella.

 

 

You’re an outdoorsy person.

“Yeah, I rock climb. That’s my preferred sport. I love outdoor anything: clothing, accessories. There is just so much design detail that I think also gets lost quite a bit, like reflective details or trims, stuff that we don't always look at and get excited about. I love that kind of stuff."

 

What’s your go to outdoor activity outfit?

“Ooh. Well, I’m always wearing a beanie. Mainly, I like Carhartt for beanies. I’m kind of traditional like that, I guess. I’d say Arc’Teryx jackets are my favorites. If I’m to buy anything new, Arc’Teryx would be the only outdoor brand I would go buy a jacket from. I find a lot of Patagonia, L.L. Bean, and Colombia in thrift stores. I usually wear climbing pants, Gramicci or North Face. Then shoes, I have National Geographic shoes. They’re really cool and no one really knows that National Geographic has shoes. They’re really sick. They’re like my prized possessions. I like Smartwool socks too. Socks are very important to me. Even for my projects too. The way I style my stuff, my socks are usually visible, so I don’t skimp out on the socks. Gotta go all in."

 

Gummy.

Toolbelt.

 

 

For a thing that inspires me, this is kind of weird and I guess it's ‘things’ plural, but I like oversized objects. Things that are meant to be in store displays. I have this oversized Vans shoe for example. I actually have a couple of these. I like the idea that things could be taken out of context completely and I think store displays are the best example of that. They just go crazy with it and then the stuff is always on eBay for really cheap after because no one knows what to do with it. So, I’d say my giant shoes have inspired me."