There are no set rules for how MCs and producers creatively interact. Clara Sobrino and Florent Mazzochetti know this all too well – the Brussels-based duo are far from a conventional proposition. As Clara! y Maoupa, they’ve struck upon a unique style that artfully subverts genre traditions from reggaeton, dancehall and elsewhere to create something genuinely fresh. After first teaming up for the Meneo 12” in 2018 on Disques De La Bretagne, they followed up in late 2019 with a debut album Luna Nueva, which pushed their dembow-rooted sound further out.
Sobrino first came to attention with her series of Reggaetoneras mixtapes, in which she studiously hunted down female-fronted reggaeton tracks to represent the flipside of an often male-dominated genre. Partly a feminist statement, but also a refreshing spin on one of the world’s most popular music genres, these mixtapes attracted critical acclaim and landed Sobrino some DJ gigs.
“I was DJing at a night in Brussels and Florent came just to support,” Sobrino recalls as she and Mazzochetti talk to me from their studio in Brussels. “At the end of the set he was like, ‘I heard a lot of things that I liked. We should make a collaboration.’ I said, ‘but I can't MC, I never did it,’ and he said, ‘but I saw you were singing over the tracks you were playing.’ I do this all the time when I DJ because I love the tracks I'm playing, so we tried and it worked.”
Mazzochetti, best known for his solo productions as Maoupa Mazzochetti, has been releasing industrial-tinted electronics on labels like Mannequin, Knekelhuis and BANK Records NYC since 2015. The move towards reggaeton with Sobrino took him outside his comfort zone, but his wayward spirit as an artist also lent him a certain flexibility to adapt to different musical approaches.
Meneo was a raw endeavour made up of one-take mixes for Sobrino to deliver her Spanish lyrics over, but with Luna Nueva the pair resolved to explore a broader sound palette with increased production values.
“A new moon is the moment of a new beginning and this was the energy of the album,” Sobrino explains. “As always there's a bit of feminism in my lyrics. Like for example asking a guy to dance and talking about how sexy the guy is, and not being like, ‘I'm the one who's dancing, I'm the one who's the sex symbol.’ Trying to also change the roles.”
“For this LP I wanted to explore a better production,” says Mazzochetti. “On the first EP I had the kick, bass and everything in one stereo channel, and then we put the voice on it. It was more jamming, more rough. When you’re working in a collaboration, it’s better with separate channels. There’s a track on the first EP called “Discordia”. Me and Clara had a discord with this track because she was not really into the synthesizer because it was very high and present in the mix, but it was impossible to cut it out.”
The Course of Collaboration
Once the first draft of an instrumental has been built up, Mazzochetti sends it to Sobrino and she visits him in the studio to discuss the next steps to make it into a track. They have a back-and-forth discussion about how to structure the track, what to keep or cut from the musical parts and how to accommodate Sobrino’s vocals. There’s no set formula to the songwriting process.
“It depends on the track,” she says. “Sometimes I just write the lyrics with the track Maoupa has made, and sometimes I come to the studio with some lyrics and we will find a structure together.”
“And sometimes lots of words are disappearing at the end,” says Mazzochetti. “Sometimes you have to write more at the time. We’re trying to be free with the process.”
“It's very punk, our way of working!” Sobrino laughs.
“You always have to really manage lyrics with music,” Mazzochetti adds. “Even if it's someone producing very straight instrumentals with four bars of music and two bars for the fill. I don't know if it's punk – the art is work, it's sometimes very technically complex.”
Across Luna Nueva there are many times Sobrino and Mazzochetti don’t adhere to traditional song structures. “Virgo” in particular switches impulsively between melodic themes, while Sobrino’s flow takes a non-linear route that ignores the verse-chorus format. Her voice often drops out to make room for a synth line in a call-and-response style.
“We had a more intuitive way of working,” says Sobrino, “not thinking if this is a good structure or whatever. When we started recording “Virgo” I tried to sing over the song and it was too complicated, too rich, and my voice was not working. I sent a super popular reggaeton track to Florent and said, ‘you see? Now he's singing there's no synth, and now he's not singing now there's a synth!’”
Flipping the Inspiration
Sobrino’s knowledge of reggaeton helped set Clara! y Maoupa in motion. As well as a handful of live performances they have done since teaming up, their invitations to DJ together have been an important element in developing the sound of the project. You can hear an example of this on their Boiler Room System Mix, which merges their own tracks with those of label mate Low Jack and dancehall and reggaeton tracks that point to their influences. Mazzochetti in particular talks about his growing infatuation with obscure dancehall tracks like Kevin & Lenky’s “Everything”. But what makes Luna Nueva truly stand out is the way familiar genre tropes get subverted. Lurid grime leads take on a melancholic tint and synth pads get swapped out for live choir samples (the choral pad on “Badman” is lifted from fellow reggaeton rule-breaker King Doudou).
Clara! y Maoupa’s Boiler Room System Mix
“On “Virgo” there is a dubstep bass I sampled,” Mazzochetti explains before vocalising a classic LFO wobble-bass sound. It’s a sample that appears infrequently in the busy mix of monophonic bass and zippy drum hits, and the processing makes it sound more like percussion than synth, but the iconic sound is unmistakable. “I put a pitch shifter on it and some chorus from Live. Consciously or not I reference styles and sounds I like, but I don't want to use them as someone else uses them.”
Taking the Custom Route
Customized drum sounds are a vital part of achieving an individual sound for Mazzochetti. He always starts the production process with external hardware – his MPC, a range of drum machines like the Roland TR-606, TR-707 and CR-8000, as well as synthesizers like the Roland SH-101 and the Yamaha PSS-680, mixed through an old Soundcraft 200B, which was favored by dancehall producers in Jamaica. After using the extreme EQ range available on the vintage mixer and a range of outboard effects, the tracks get recorded into separate channels in Live, where refinements in the production process can begin. As well as editing down the live take, he starts layering up the drum sounds.
“I never use just one snare, or one kick,” Mazzochetti explains. “I like to make different layers. The snare on “Gavilán” is an 808 snare and a little one sampled from a trap track, with massive compression on it from a DBX compressor. The snare on “Virgo” and “Secreto Ritual” is made from hitting a tambourine without the cymbals attached, just the skin. I record it with two microphones and put a bend on the skin.”
Tricks to Make Space
While he focuses on the initial outboard process to achieve the sound he wants for each part of the track, Mazzochetti also has a few simple effects tricks he uses within Live. He uses the Vocoder device to color rhythmic and percussive elements, and enjoys the straight-forward results of using Auto Pan and sidechain compression to bring movement into his sounds. When he wants to create space in the mix, he sometimes turns to the Simple Delay.
“The Simple Delay is very cool to do a stereo left-right pan with a delay without any feedback,” he explains, setting the delay time to different values on each of the stereo channels. “Then you leave space in the center of your mix for many other frequencies, and as an artistic choice it’s really beautiful.”
When it comes to processing Sobrino’s vocals, he records her through his DBX compressor, a dynamic EQ and the Soundcraft mixer. Once it’s in Live, he adds additional EQ to shave off unwanted frequencies and give her voice its own space in the mix, applies a simple chorus on any overdubs and additional voice layers, and a subtle touch of reverb on the lead voice. Otherwise, the idiosyncrasies of the Clara! y Maoupa sound (and Mazzochetti’s other productions) are mainly created through outboard alchemy.
Sobrino’s delivery as an MC is not typical of reggaeton, or any other genre for that matter. As someone who was not planning a career on the mic, it gives her a distinctive sound that she plays with confidently across Luna Nueva – at times cool-headed and detached, elsewhere seductive or more playful and theatrical.
“The style I use depends on the track and what in the track inspires me I think,” Sobrino explains. “For example I like very theatrical Latin American singers – they put a lot of hurt into their performance, so I wanted to try it on “Gavilán”. I listen to a lot of Latin American music at home, and I was inspired by the Chilean folk singer Violeta Parra and her super sad love song “El Gavilán”. My “Gavilán” is not really about love – it’s more a seduction of a guy that is with another girl.”
As well as being inspired by Latin American music, Sobrino also draws on folk music closer to her roots in North-West Spain. In amongst the heavier electronic tracks on Luna Nueva sits “Sum Sum” – a striking version of a Galician folk song embellished with subtle modern production touches.
“For a long time I wanted to do something with Galician music because I love it and there are very old roots in this music,” explains Sobrino. “At one moment I thought we could use some samples from Galician tracks but it didn't work sampling. Florent really liked this track “Sum Sum” so he just tried to put some extra sounds with the singers’ voices.”
“I tried to keep the voice and the spirit of the track,” Mazzochetti explains. “The singing is just perfect, so I just tried to add some additional things – a string with organ for more drama and harmonics, some sub kicks and a tabla.”
While Sobrino is keen to explore traditional Galician music more in the future, she’s not sure if it will be within the realm of her beat-oriented work with Mazzochetti. “When I began to DJ reggaeton a friend told me, ‘you should do some Galician reggaeton,’” she recalls, “like they were telling a completely absurd joke!”
Referential, not Revival
Luna Nueva is rich with influences and references from across Sobrino and Mazzochetti’s music tastes, but the key to their creative success lies in not trying to simply recreate the sounds they love.
“Personally I'm not into 100% style revival,” says Mazzochetti. “I like hybrid music and when you can feel the personality of someone in the music. It's a strength to not have too many rules in music.”
“I don't analyze much music because I don't want to be too intellectual with it,” Sobrino explains. “In my studies and work I came from a very intellectual background and when I came to music I didn't want to be thinking all the time. I just wanted to do something in a more material way.”
In the end, that more instinctive approach is vital to the Clara! y Maoupa sound – it enables them to create something genuinely fresh.
“I think the strength of Clara in this duo is that she’s not saying very technical things like, ‘maybe the frequency of the SH-101 is too blah blah blah.’ Just, ‘maybe cut this and move that there,’ and it works,” says Mazzochetti. “She's quite free about her opinions of the music we are making. There is a kind of distance from the instruments, which is great.”
Text and interview: Oli Warwick