Spotlight: After struggles with substance abuse and mental illness nearly ended the Sad Boys, the Swedish producer finds his sound.
Photos by Damien Maloney.
Gud, the producer formerly known as Yung Gud, is Skyping me from a studio in Stockholm's Södermalm neighborhood. Though English isn't his first language, the Swedish-born musician—whose real name is Micke Berlander—is a thoughtful, precise speaker, one who will often double back on a point to make sure he's understood. When he speaks of the as-yet-untitled solo EP he's been tinkering away at recently, that emphatic quality becomes especially apparent: "It's scary," he says, he says of the new material, his voice quickening. "It's murder. It's blood. It's fucking slaughter."
From the way he talks about his new music, it almost sounds like a reflection of some of the hard knocks life has thrown him during his past two years as a member of the Sad Boys, the hip-hop collective he started back in high school with fellow producer Yung Sherman and the rapper Yung Lean. "Maybe so," he replies to my suggestion, alluding to a recent stint in America that nearly ended the group.
Back in late 2014 and early 2015, the collective was riding high off the success of Lean's debut album Unknown Memory—selling out shows, doing meet-and-greets with celebrities like Justin Bieber, and performing at the behest of the haute streetwear boutique V-Files. But behind the scenes, thing were getting ugly, and fast.
Overwhelmed by the constant stimulation of life on the road, Gud had fallen into a cycle of substance abuse. Though he says the shows themselves went fine, "the tour was just a Xanax-filled, coke binge-ass trip." "I didn't recognize myself anymore," he explains. "I had seen me and Yung Lean become these fucking drug addicts." The horrors of this prolonged chemical haze, he says, were most pronounced in Miami. "South Beach was the peak of horrible memories from that tour that still haunt me to this day," he says. "The most disgusting thing I've ever experienced is being in South Beach."
In the spring of 2015, Lean announced he'd decided to set up camp at the Miami condo of his then-US-manager Barron Machat—the driving force behind the influential experimental label Hippos in Tanks—to record his next project, Warlord. "I was like, 'Fuck no,'" says Gud. While Lean recorded a rough cut of Warlord over Sherman's beats, Gud returned to Sweden and broke off almost all contact with the rest of Sad Boys. "I was in a bad place," he says. "I just wanted to reconnect with my family and chill out. I was sober the entire spring, just finding out who I am again." Gud contemplated his future in the group. "I was actually thinking about quitting [Sad Boys]," he says.
All of that changed, though, following a series of events so dramatic they barely seem real. According to a recent FADER story, shortly after recording a rough version of Warlord in the spring of 2015, Lean—who after Gud left him in Miami, had descended even further into drug abuse—suffered a psychotic break, and wound up in a mental hospital. Public records show that 1:29 AM on the night of Lean's intake, his manager Machat died in a car crash while trying to deliver a hard drive to the young rapper at the hospital. Lean's father then retrieved him from Miami and brought him back to Sweden, where he continued his treatment.
After he heard about what happened, Gud elected to repair his relationship with his friends and remain with the group. With touring put on hold, the group needed money, and fast. So while Lean and Sherman began putting in hours at a friend's shampoo factory—"It's a good time, making shampoo," Gud says, nonchalantly—Gud took the raw material of the Warlord recordings and began editing. "[Warlord] was actually set out to be a mixtape," he says, meaning that the tape was meant to be released for free online. But with money tight—and Barron's father and business partner hawking an early version of Warlord online—the mixtape suddenly needed to become a commercially available album.
As Gud explains it, his task was to "take the chaos that was the Miami sessions and make them album-quality by centering the emotion that Sherman and Lean had brought to the table." Gud hacked away at Sherm and Lean's rough draft of Warlord until he'd revealed a jagged chronicle of malaise and instability—a reflection of Sherm and Lean's druggy, lost experiences in Miami, filtered through Gud own experiences of alienation on the road.
"The term 'cultural appropriation'—no one in the Sad Boys thought about that. But then you get to know what you might be doing, and you change."—Gud
That feeling of being an outsider was a familiar one for Gud. "I generally don't like people," he says. "I'm kind of a misanthrope." His parents got divorced when he was ten, and he and his older sister ended up with their dad in a suburb of Stockholm. His grandfather was Nigerian and the rest of his family is white, which he says makes him feel like he's "on this little island" in terms of racial identity. "People look at me like I'm an exotic bird," he says. "They touch my hair and say, 'That's beautiful hair,' but they don't realize what it means for me, structurally, to have my hair grabbed."
As a kid, Gud was an omnivorous music fan. He calls the one-man Norwegian black metal act Burzum "one of my first musical impressions," and by the time he was 12, he was producing psychedelic trance tracks on his computer. He got into hip-hop a couple years later, and as he entered his mid-teens, Gud started listening to bubbling American alt-rappers such as Lil B and Robb Banks. Kids who like obscure music like to make friends with other kids who listen to that same music, and it was this love of internet-friendly, left-of-center hip-hop that initially bonded him to Yung Lean and Yung Sherm, who he met through mutual friends. They recorded the trance-inflected "Oreomilkshake," the first proper Sad Boys song, in October 2012. The boys were 15.
When the Sad Boys first started blowing up stateside in mid-2013, nobody quite knew what to make of them. In the video for the Gud-produced "Ginseng Strip 2002," Lean wore a bucket hat as he sat on a stoop, doing Lil B's cooking dance as he rapped halfheartedly about blowjobs and slicing people with razors as if he were trying out to be in Odd Future. They quickly racked up an audience—many of them white teens from the suburbs—which led to a barrage of questions and criticisms from both inside hip-hop and out. Were the Sad Boys being ironic? Appropriative? Unknowingly abusing their privilege as (mostly) white, foreign curios to crowd black artists out of hip-hop's left field?
Gud's beats played a big role in Lean's hard-to-pin-down appeal, his lush, melodic instrumentals serving up a beguiling counterpoint to the rapper's limited range. Early Lean tracks like the Gud-produced "Gatorade" felt like a lost, time-degraded slow jam from Brandy's Full Moon, and the producer's infectious instrumental for "Kyoto"—replete with a pentatonic "flute" melody—was pretty much the closest thing the song had to a hook. Gud's solo work—including remixes of Jacques Greene's "No Excuse" and Tinashe's "2 On," was well as 2014 EP called Beautiful, Wonderful—indicated a fascination with such disparate styles as UK Funky, industrial, chopped & screwed hip-hop, the LA Beat scene, and Kanye-style bombast. Gud says his wide musical palette was cemented as a kid, when he was getting into music through the internet. "I tended to switch genres every two weeks," he says.
"People look at me like I'm an exotic bird. They touch my hair and say, 'That's beautiful hair,' but they don't realize what it means for me, structurally, to have my hair grabbed."—Gud
The question of cultural appropriation is a touchy one for Gud, made even touchier by his mixed-race heritage—"My problem is I can't decide" on a racial identity, he tells me. Gud says that when he, Lean, and Sherman started out, they weren't necessarily thinking about the greater implications of the Sad Boys project—partly because they were mostly just figuring out what they were doing as they went along. "We [still] have no fucking idea," he jokes. "It's hard because Sad Boys is one thing in our heads, and it switches every week." He continues: "The term 'cultural appropriation'—no one [in the group] thought about that" in regards to what they were doing. "But then you get to know what you might be doing," Gud says, "and you change."
As he's gotten older and more aware of the complex role that race plays in his own life, Gud has says he's learned to welcome these sorts of conversations. "It needs discussion," he says of the ways in which Yung Lean and Sad Boys navigate American hip-hop. When it comes to his own work, he says there's a number of questions that he's been trying to sort out for himself: "What is showing respect? How can you respect culture and participate in it while coming from the outside?"
Gud's new, more nuanced perspective on life has brought with it a change in the way he thinks about making music. When recording the new EP, he says he moved away from his usual method of meticulously designing sounds on his computer, instead sampling music he creates himself, using real instruments. "My music is becoming less about what I like, and more about what I am," he explains. When I ask him to elaborate on the specific form the record will take, Gud stays focused on the feelings it's channeling. "The EP is more about how I feel in my body, the emotions I carry around all the time," he says. "I'm an angry person; I'm the angriest person I know. That's going to come through way more on this project."
"Body Horror"—the first track he's released from the EP—is a case in point, juxtaposing sludgy synth lines with precise, organic snare hits as a warped, inhuman voice intones, "I don't wanna deal with this right now." Vocals are provided courtesy of Erik Rapp, a former Junior Eurovision contestant turned soulful Swedish alt-popper, as well as Yemi, a melodic rapper from Stockholm whose 2016 album, Neostockholm, features three shimmering, clubby beats by Gud himself. On "Body Horror," Rapp and Yemi's vocals decay to the point that they become indistinguishable. "The track is very much about having a distorted perspective in body and mind," Gud says, cryptically.
The actual contents of the new EP remain shrouded in mystery, but an off-hand comment Gud makes about an old David Foster Wallace interview seems to hint at what he's going for. "Wallace said when he was in school, writing for him was very much about proving his genius and being clever. I think a lot of music is like that too—incorporating as many influences as you can, telling the world, 'I know things.' But I don't give a fuck about that anymore." The new EP, he says, is the first batch of music he's made where the songs feel less like conduits through which he can show off his wide-ranging influences, and more like outward projections of who he is. "I'm stepping out of my own box, as well as stepping out of the physical box that is my computer. It's all about making the music more physical and less internet."