02 Apr

Resurget Cineribus: An interview with Sterling Toles

Not all stories start at the beginning. Linear timelines offer the satisfaction of things like cause and effect, conflict and triumph, dates and events all neatly organized and easy to access. So often, though, details scatter. Point A isn’t followed directly by point B and you have to go around the block to get next door.

Case in point; It’s a freezing February evening in 2018 and I’m sitting in the apartment of someone I’ve never met because of a conversation they had with their dad about 15 years earlier.

A few weeks before, a friend from back in the day happened into the record store where I was picking up a shift with an album they’d just released. Titled Resurget Cineribus, (a Latin phrase meaning “It Will Rise From The Ashes” which appears as a small detail on the flag of the city of Detroit) this epic tome of austere electronics and abstract, searching hip hop had been trading hands in the form of home burned CD-Rs and closely guarded file shares for the last decade, hovering in a strange ether of semi-legendary status among heads in the know. This was the first proper release of an album that was already long a classic in some circles, one built on layers of almost imperceptible details, connecting an intensely personal history to the 1967 Detroit riots, and the outstretching history of the city at large. It begins with 45 seconds of snoring.

Detroit musician, producer, teacher and activist Sterling Toles began work on Resurget Cineribus in 2002, finishing it over the next three years and watching it’s legacy quietly unfold ever since. For me, what felt at first listen like a muted collection of fractured beats and subtle instrumentals grew more captivating with every detail I observed. Listening closely revealed a winding co-narration between sound clips from newscasts covering the riots and a slowly paced monologue from a man speaking cryptically at first but then revealing information in pieces about his own journey through fire. A quick scan of the press release for the album explained that the man was Toles’ father Dennis, recorded for what was supposed to be random voice samples at his son’s home studio. Instead, he chose that moment to come clean about the deeper reaches of his inner world, exposing the nerves of a serious personal struggle while Sterling captured it on tape.

Born from the chance exposition of that internal world, Resurget Cineribus slowly designs its own landscape of troubled, dream-like sounds and shattered themes that fall apart only to reassemble later in new forms. Using space and silence as intensely as it does rhythm, repetition and outside sound sources, the album spins its own protracted language over the course of its 19 untitled tracks an hour long running time. It was immediately fascinating and felt important even before I understood why. I reached out to Toles to set up this interview, hoping to get a better understanding of this brilliantly painful and possibly unprecedentedly vulnerable work.

“Can I be thorough?” is one of the first things Sterling says to me, walking me carefully through his story and how he came to music.

Toles was born, raised and spent most of his life in Detroit with the exception of a year of high school in Houston and a semester at art school in New York. An early childhood fixation with sound grew quickly into an obsession with hip hop, and he spent his teens and early 20’s as a rapper. Around 1995, he began to feel restless with what he saw as increasingly stitled parameters of hip hop and found his voice when he shifted roles from rapping to producing. He cites a near-religious experience listening to Bjork’s Post for the first time as the moment his thoughts about music shifted, opening the floodgates for Massive Attack, Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and John Cage to come in as inspiration to push boundaries.

“To me, that was the answer,” he says “These guys were really exploring the limits of what could be done with machines. All of that was evolving my sensibilities at once. That was the moment in which I realized that I don’t belong to anything, and that’s what I wanted. Before that point my shit was just like--- hip hop! Every tape, everything I owned was hip hop. I was a rapper still and had producers around me giving me a ton of music, but they weren’t listening to all that stuff. They were continuing to do things from the same mold. I couldn’t even get inspired enough to write. I realized I needed to start producing.”

Never truly comfortable in the recording studio (“It felt like having sex in Kinkos!! Like ‘this environment is not conducive to the intimacy required to perform this act!!’,” he tells me before erupting into laughter) he amassed a small collection of rudimentary digital recording gear, much of which he still uses to this day. By the early 2000’s he was working on new music in his home studio constantly, as well as opening the space up for friends or younger kids who could avoid trouble in the streets by spending their time creating in the refuge of the studio. He refers to it as “a place where people could feel whole”.

One night at the studio, almost at random, several worlds converged. Though the story of Resurget Cineribus doesn’t quite begin here, I decided to start the interview around the moment that tape started rolling.

Fred Thomas: This is such a personal work, especially because of your father's role in it. How did your dad end up with him coming over to record and spilling out all of the things he said on tape? Did you two have that kind of connection already or was it out of nowhere? It seems like the entire album grew from that point.

Sterling Toles: I had just finished a tape in late ‘99. The music was probably closer to hip hop bpm-wise, but still pushing it. I’m nocturnal, so I was up one night and went upstairs to watch some television. I cut it on, it was on MSNBC and at the time they had a show called “Time and Again” or something like that. They would show all of the NBC reports from a particular event and that night just happened to be Detroit, 1967. I ran and got a VHS tape and hit record, thinking about the idea of setting that to the new music I'd been working on. A few years pass and in 2002, my father comes over to the studio. He would come over and, you know, we’d just catch up. We would do that often. This day I was thinking it would be cool to have him like, talk over this Marvin Gaye record and maybe I could use it for an interlude or something like that.

FT: An unambitious idea at that moment.

ST: Right! So we’re in the basement, and I put on a Marvin Gaye record and hit record. He started talking for a few seconds then he goes, “No, stop it.” So I went to stop the recorder and he goes, “No, don’t stop the recorder. Stop the music.” So I stopped the music and he was like, “Can I sit down? Can you bring the mic to me?” This had never happened before. It was surreal because in that moment it felt like, “What is he doing?”

FT: You hadn't seen this side of your father before?

ST: No. No, never. That was my first time really recording him. It was as if he was setting something up, but I don't even think he was consciously setting something up. It just kinda happened. So he's like, “Let me sit down.” Okay. “Bring the mic to me.” Okay… And then he just sat there and didn’t say anything!!! [laughs] And that's what you hear on the album. I say “What's happening?” And he goes, “Well things have been happening, things I don’t normally talk about, but now it's time to talk about them.” And that’s how it started. The spiel at the beginning of the album is how he started talking… “I've been finding money in pockets I haven't looked in for a couple of weeks and I'm on a different page and I'm carrying a shotgun.” I'm hearing all of this for the first time.

FT: It’s blowing your mind.

ST: Yeah, I'm even more just kinda like what the fuck is going on, right? Because now that I think about it, there were actually times before where I might've gotten him to say something on a mic, but he would try to act cool and kinda perform. This wasn't that. It was just like this confessional. So all of this stuff started coming out, which I'm hearing for the first time. The reality of the situation was that he owed money to somebody that sold dope. The guy offered my dad to sell dope for him. But he thought he would use that money he made selling to get clean, because he was trying to get clean of a heroin addiction.

FT: Did you know this about your dad at the time?

ST: Oh yeah, I knew it. I mean, he's struggled with addiction most of my life. But was still, miraculously a great father for the entire time and I learned so much from him. Part of why I learned so much was because he never hid anything from me. He didn't create any illusions for me and used the woes of his own experiences to illustrate to me what I should and shouldn't do. He was always completely transparent and honest.

So yeah, he’s using dope money to fund getting clean and at the same time, now having a little bit more money than he's had in a while. That day he talked for maybe about 45, 50 minutes. I might have maybe asked him another question, but he talked the entire time. And that was it. I recorded it, put it onto a CD and it was like, well I got two projects here. I got a project about my father and a project about ‘67. After a while, though something stood out with both, this idea of fire. In my dad talking, he said his house was firebombed. Someone had thrown a Molotov cocktail into his house. Then there’s a moment in the recordings of the rebellion where you hear glass breaking from a Molotov cocktail being thrown. It's funny because I’ve talked to people in other places and they don't know what the fuck a Molotov cocktail is!! [laughs] In a way it’s kind of a symbol of Detroit for better or worse. I saw the connection of fire and the more I looked at it, the more I started to see all these linearities. My dad was using the means in which he knew how to get money because he sold dope when I was a kid. He's using the means of what he knew to repair the situation that came as a result of what he knew and what he was doing.

FT: That starts to touch on one of the first things I felt from listening to this record. There’s a sense of circular pain and violence. Pain that gets spread out over geographic regions as well as handed down through families. When I realized this music was inspired in part by those recordings of your dad, it struck me as one of the clearest expressions of intergenerational trauma that I’d ever seen. Do you relate to that at all?

ST: Absolutely. That was completely part of the statement. There's a track that comes in right after him saying “Pain could be a good thing.” Then you hear the newscaster say “The pain!” and it goes into the song where it sounds like tribal singing. That whole track was about the heirloom of pain. The function of it is connecting to the African American experience. You hear the singing, this tribal singing and I don't know what they're saying, right? I never had an opportunity to learn that language.

But comparing the experience of African Americans to all people is that oftentimes we carry a pain that is a language that has been given to us but hasn't been taught to us.

So we don't understand the language of the pain that we hold, but we can feel it. We have to carry it.

So often parents, grandparents, ancestors out of protecting those that come after them can not give their children the ability to understand the nature of the pain that they're giving to them or transferring to them unknowingly. We hold this pain but don't know where to begin to look to make sense of it. I can hear the words of the pain, well, who's going to help me understand what it's trying to express to me?

As I was creating this record, it began to make so much sense. I'm thinking about the people around me, thinking about the people I grew up with and the more I looked into the energy of what ‘67 felt like, the more I felt like that was the energy of the people that were around me! It didn't go anywhere! It's still happening inside of people! Not just for people in the city [of Detroit], but for people outside of the city that have a certain stigma about the city or didn't grow up in the city. They're holding that. There's a lot of sleeping tension in this region because people are just able to detach and go to their respective corners and not have to confront anything that they're not comfortable with because the region is so segregated. But it allows for this constant level of sleeping tension.

FT: There’s so much use of space and protracted ambient tension on the record. There’s also an air of frustration and panic, in particular the samples that drill in certain themes or beat the listener over the head with a single word. Were you trying to embody frustration? A frustration specific to the black experience or the way trauma carries through black families and communities?

ST: The truth is everybody’s experiencing it.

If someone cannot express love, they can only express their suffering.

We've been conditioned to look at things through a lens, a very Western lens of associating wellbeing with having resources. All of us in this culture are conditioned to believe that resources equal wellbeing. Access equals wellbeing.

FT: Capitalism.

ST: Exactly. But the truth of the matter is those resources become the prosthetic limbs that become our crutches when our spirits are lopped off as a result of capitalism. So people that are seemingly in positions of privilege are suffering also. Everyone is suffering! That's why I feel like it was so beautiful that people coming from situations that are the opposite of mine could relate to this story also. Because it's a human story. Because we live in a culture that is rooted in capitalism, capitalism thrives off of needing people to feel a sense of disconnection and detachment, and purchase that back through goods.

So we live in a culture that's constantly pushing us into a need to disconnect and detach, which creates a suffering that makes us consumers.

FT: And it's cyclical hence the frustration. Are these all things that were consciously or subconsciously going through your mind in the creation of the record?

ST: Yeah. Both! [laughs] Through that lens, everybody is an addict! Everybody! And life becomes that cyclical action of trying to achieve the high again.

FT: Like the metaphor of your father’s struggle of selling the thing to get better from the thing that made him sick that he’s selling to get better... Suffering in order to get better.

ST: Think about it this way-- in a lot of ways it’s a thin line between addiction and identity. That’s the premise for the whole record. It gets into how we’ve all been exploited by capitalism and consumerism in the pursuit of wanting to truly experience peace but being conditioned to seek comfort.

The album title is the motto of the City of Detroit, meaning “it will rise from the ashes”. I had another working title for a while, but when I researched that it made so much more sense. It was all rising from the ashes of my father’s personal life. Also, part of the idea is at the point in which a person falls asleep, life can easily then become a microcosm of the environment in which they fell asleep.

FT: This is not a record that reveals itself upon the first listening!

ST: [laughs] And that's what I wanted!! I wanted it to be a thing where as deep as you would look, you would find new things.

FT: I felt that immediately. As soon as I read the liner notes and realized it was your father speaking, the magnitude of this statement started to dawn on me. I was thinking “Oh my god, this is so naked and so vulnerable, so open…but it’s also a sick record.” [laughter]

Another thing that was striking to me is the record was made between 2002 and 2005. I heard it existed as a CDR that passed between friends and the music really has a residue of the CDR era, especially how it felt in Detroit at that time. Artists were working independently then just as passionately as they are now but every step of the process was more archaic, not as easy.

ST: In 2005 I finished [the album] and did like a test run of it. On the 1880 [digital recording workstation] I had all the different song files and then I created a file to put all those files together.

FT: Like early “mastering”?

ST: Right! So then I duplicated it with CD burner connected to the recorder, and the CD burner has a remote where you can set the track markers. I had to do that manually because I'm recording this master track file live to CDR and I have to hit it every time the song changes, every time I make a copy!! So I would do a test run of it and somebody would come over and listen and be like “Can I get a copy of it? I like it.” Somebody would call up, “Hey, can I share with somebody else?” And then everybody is sharing it and passing it around and dubbing it for other people. And then next thing I know people are mailing copies around the world and it had taken on a life of its own. It was funny, too because I think people that know me knew how inactive I was going to be in the process of sharing my music that they took it upon themselves to start sharing it to people and be like, “You need to listen to this.”

FT: This was around the same time artists like Prefuse ‘73, Dabrye, J Dilla were all working in similar musical territory. Some of them even lived in the same area, making you true contemporaries. Was it a conscious choice to keep your music out of the public sphere?

ST: I just never put much energy in having it heard. It wasn’t my concern. I was fans of all those guys. That’s the funny thing to this day. Now it’s starting to change where certain guys on the scene who have seen me for 20+ years are just now putting it together like “Shit YOU’RE Sterling?! You’ve been here the entire time!” Early on everyone was really supportive but they didn’t know what to do with my music. The hip hop guys would be like that shit’s really dope, it’s like some techno stuff! And the techno guys would be like that’s dope it’s like some hip hop! [laughs]

FT: What happened in the decade plus between sharing CDRs here and there and the album finally being released on a wider scale?

ST: What happened was crazy man, because on the low it spawned a lot of stuff in grassroots ways. Someone was using it as a teaching tool in New York to show kids alternative ways of making radio pieces. It inspired a documentary about Detroit that explored the idea of seeing the layout of streets as different pathways in the mind. It was all 100% word of mouth and it travelled a lot further than I ever imagined. I realized people were really connecting to it. I was dumbfounded at how much people did connect to it, which made me feel beautiful because I wasn't necessarily trying to make something to be out there for consideration.

It was more so like whatever I have to do to tell the story, that's what has to happen.

FT: But 13 years go by before the record gets really, visibly released. Was it a think where you felt like it was just time?

ST: It existed in that word of mouth place for some years, and eventually I just got off into working on other stuff. Around 2011, 2012 Kyle Hall he has a record label and he comes over one day and he's like, “Would you ever be interested in releasing Resurget? It took me a long time to ask you this. But I finally felt like I'm in a position now to where I could release it in a way to give it the proper respect it deserves.” Some time went by, maybe 2014, 2015, you know, Kyle’s career is going and the record is more or less on hold. By this time Mike [Medow] and Ben [Christensen] started a label [Sector 7-G Recordings and every so often they’ll ask me about putting out the record and it’s like--- No, Kyle’s got it. Eventually I called Kyle and was like “If we’re going to do this record, like we need to do it by 2017 because it's going to be the fifteenth year anniversary. Like it just makes sense, you know?” He had a lot going on and we just all amicably agreed to let Mike and them get the ball rolling.

FT: At this point it had been such a long time from the minute that your dad came over to the point where you had the records in your hands. Did you feel any conflict over the all those years passing, or if the record had lost some urgency from when it was made to when more people got to hear it?

ST: No, no, no I feel beautiful about it. I really liked the serendipity of all. Everything was just crazy from the beginning, because this record was kind of about my father becoming a living personification of Detroit, ‘67 happening inside of him.

I felt like what happened in this city could be more palpable to sensibilities if they saw Detroit as a human being.

So that's the parallel-- in a sense it's like Detroit is a recovering addict the same way he is a recovering addict. He returned to the means that he knew to repair his addiction. Detroit is a recovering addict that attempted to return to what put it in a specific position in the first place, which was its reliance on the auto industry, it being the first city to a get high off the age of industrialism and it being the first city to hit rock bottom as a result of its addiction.

FT: There’s a supernatural and timeless quality to this work, especially in the way it’s story keeps growing. When there were finally records out did it feel totally complete to you? Was this the final, long-toiled realization of a something that felt like a masterpiece?

ST: I really felt beautiful about finishing it. I felt light finishing it and I loved it. But “masterpiece”? I didn't really think that cause I don't really listen to music in terms of good or bad or if it's substantial. I can listen to stuff and then put on my social lens and critique something, sure. But my personal relationship to stuff is not as good or as bad but more from a place of curiosity. I had a friend over to the other day and we were listening to like tribal music. And I was like, “Man, imagine if somebody walked up to a tribe and was like ‘I give it three point five.’” [laughs] What kind of shit is that? Or like walking up to a tree and being like, “Ah, you're like a six out of ten.”

And that's my whole thing--- this is a real experience, this ain't good or bad. If I tell you my life, I tell you what's happened to me. I tell you what I’ve been through, I tell you what my father has been through. And you're like, “Oh, that's good. I like it.” This isn't about liking or disliking, I told you my truth. So I was excited about the idea of sharing that truth with people.

By Fred Thomas, distributed under a Creative Commons CC-BY license.

The Secret Lives of Playlists

Not all Spotify playlists are created equally. To begin understanding this, look at them closely. Literally.

Sofar Sounds - The Uber of House Shows?

Some musicians in the Bay Area are criticizing a popular house-show startup over paltry compensation, while others challenge its very existence.

It’s All In Your Head: Shutting Up The Voices That Tell You “No”

There’s something so terrifying about putting yourself in a position where you could possibly be rejected, harshly criticized or worst of all…ignored.

View all articles