Blue Sky Black Death navigates a rise to popularity as a production team | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Blue Sky Black Death navigates a rise to popularity as a production team

At BSBD's best, it's impossible to distinguish the triumphant from the tragic

Eyes to the skies: Blue Sky Black Death
Eyes to the skies: Blue Sky Black Death

As their various projects mount in scope and ambition, the days of production team Blue Sky Black Death responding to their own band emails directly are surely waning. At the moment though, the duo consisting of Kingston Maguire, who produces under his first name only, and Ian Taggart, who produces under the name Young God, share the duty. This simple gesture speaks volumes about their approach to production: They like as much control as possible.

Kingston and Young God have collaborated in various capacities since 2003, making their partnership official for 2006's A Heap of Broken Images. Since then, they've released four instrumental albums, including the brand new Glaciers, and a number of collaborations with hip-hop and indie-rock artists, many of which they've shrewdly released for free on their website. 

Blue Sky Black Death take their eminently Googleable name from a skydiving term describing the narrow line that separates the feeling of freedom and openness that the upward rushing sky evokes, and the totality — and fatality — of a misstep. The name also describes the duo's career to date very well. Through business acumen and a diligent hustle, Kingston and Young God have managed to sidestep most of the pitfalls to which growing artists fall prey.

For 10 years, Blue Sky Black Death, or BSBD, has built a steadily increasing fan base in the trend-heavy, often fickle landscape of hip-hop and electronic production. The pair has done so by crafting an intelligent sound as distinctive as their moniker, and by going so far as to develop a visual aesthetic to match. Each has also benefitted from building an implicit trust in the other's understanding of the Blue Sky Black Death sensibility. 

"We do quite a bit of stuff on our own," Young God says. "If Kingston and I [each] make a separate beat, we may not collaborate a lot on it, but it'll still be under the BSBD name." This trust effectively doubles the potential BSBD output. It also increases the ease with which they can work remotely. Currently, Kingston resides in Seattle, Wash., while Young God is in Oakland, Calif.

Though their music is all over the map, their marketing approach is squarely in the hip-hop camp. Kingston and Young God treat BSBD as a brand. The identity of that brand includes more than just the BSBD sound. There is also the imagery which is street-brand-standard: skulls, occult symbols and sepia washes. Kingston guides the visuals and directs the videos under the "They Shootin' Films" moniker. "I started filming our videos out of necessity. We couldn't afford videos for those projects, so I bought a camera and taught myself how to film/edit/direct as well as storyboard the videos," Kingston explained to CP via email. "As far as Ian's role in the visual aspect, he always has input into the imagery or direction, but for the most part trusts my vision." You can see similar imagery in Kingston's clothing line, Life of Villains.

The recognizable quality and reach that the BSBD name provides has allowed the team to take equal billing with the hip-hop artists with whom they collaborate, a parity that is somewhat rare for producers. One of the most successful examples of this model, BSBD's 2012 collaboration with Seattle rapper Nacho Picasso, Lord of the Fly, was billed as Blue Sky Black Death & Nacho Picasso. "If we're going to put all this work into it, and not just musically—we recorded him, we sent it [to press contacts] — it would seem like kind of a waste not to put ourselves on equal billing," Young God says. "For the past couple of years, we've been working with people that aren't as established [and] it's more fun that way, they're more open to trying new things."

The BSBD sound takes cues from early-'90s hip hop, which often featured sped-up soul music samples and dramatically sweeping strings. BSBD ups the ante by layering those components in increasingly complex ways to textured, dense and dreamlike results. Their true skill, though, is their employment of samples. On "Sleeping Children Are Still Flying," from 2011's Noir, they sample the classic '80s friendship flick Stand By Me. In the sample, the boys from the movie discuss dreams and stolen cigarettes against a backdrop of haunting strings and whistling winds. The feelings brought to bear by these and other BSBD compositions are as varied as the myriad sources from which the samples are drawn. 

That's what keeps the music so compelling for play after play after play. At BSBD's best, it's impossible to distinguish the triumphant from the tragic, and the sound becomes a cipher for what the listener is feeling, serving only to amplify the emotions with which the listener arrives. In this way, the best BSBD compositions might be compared to literature or cinema of the thoughtful variety: While the sound is always affecting, it requires some analysis on the listener's part to realize exactly how.

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