Ian Desdune was music’s dream: UK roots, West Coast street deep, New York flavour and style, Jamaican/Sierra Leone medley. Ian was a 24/7 Jim Carey – he did not stop. His language, rhythm, empathy and all-out flavour just went on and on.
I knew Ian through his mom since he was the bump before the car-seat was bought. There was always a lightning bolt of joy in his blood. His dad was a producer, his mum’s passion was always beats, music and art. Family friends were comics, djs, poets, activists and rappers. Social activity included big all-black barbecues in the park. His dad was Afro Caribbean New Yorker born and raised in Nottingham before returning to New York, his mom straight up West Coast LA ride-or-die, family originating in Cincinatti.
No dinner date was ever as much fun as the ones we all shared from age two to eighteen – although thankfully the menu moved on from bland crackers and rice milk to sushi or Mexican. Ian was the most charming, energized and enthusiastic conversationalist. There is very little interesting about a British high school teacher to a sophisticated Los Angeleno kid but Ian could make you feel like you were the most fascinating, important person on the planet. He was Tiggerish with his energy, his side-splitting grin, his ‘Right?’ affirmations and empathy. Somehow, he always found the common ground, the main beat while still keeping his own stance. I’ve never heard Regina talk to him as if he was lower than her or incapable of understanding an adult conversation. As a result, he was adept at holding sway in hefty cultural discussions and we all loved him: for his relish of the culture, company, food, life, music, art. The only thing he hated was categories.
As with most kids, life was not easy growing up. But he did it. When I moved back to LA in 2013, Hollywood was the new home. He didn't like college, dropped out and focused on his own curriculum, became an autodidact, like many of his black peers. He concentrated on developing his skills as a 360 DIY artist: watching, observing, conversating with djs, musicians, comedians, actors, directors, photographers, visual artists, making his own connections with rappers and beat-makers his own age.
During Christmas dinner 2017, we started talking about beats and what was wrong with them in commercial music at that time. The grown-ups soon moved on to talking about someone or something else but I was still going on about hip hop sonics. Ian was the only one interested and I had to write an essay for Brick magazine for a February deadline. He was talking about his crew of pals who were trying to make something real and different. I asked if I could interview him and his compadres as the other artists I was interviewing were rather long in the tooth. He was so excited and invited me through two days later when I met Danny, Dominic and CoJo in his dark back bedroom/studio. They started talking about how they had all decided to drop out of college last year and school themselves in the culture, values and subjects that were important to them. I said ‘Like the Class of 2016?’ Ian jumped up. ‘That’s it! We’re Class 216 – and you’re the fourth member! Always!’ I remember that because it says so much about him: he never saw boundaries, just possibilities. He was such an inclusive and positive person.
CLASSROOM 216 was made up of four twenty barelysomethings from Los Angeles who were determined to craft inimitable sound. Consisting of Ian Desdune II aka Buttercreem, Cody Johnson aka CoJo, Danny Bakewell and Dominic Bedford (Cody's cousin), they were forged from families seasoned in the creative arts and the Civil Rights movement. They also shared a college dropout experience and the impact that had on family relations: disappointment, being kicked out., the loss of security.
'We're called Classroom because we're learning how to do it right. Hip hop is our education; we didn't turn our back on college, we just chose one with a different structure and philosophy.'
And maybe that education started long before 2016. James Bedford, Dominic's grandfather, was the producer behind 'CarWash', 'Flashlight' much of Roy Ayers' work, a Grammy Award in 1994 for production and the building bricks for the samples used in Junior M.A.F.I.A..'s 'Get Money'.
Dominic: 'I learned a lot from him, about how hard it was to get recognition and credit for the process and pioneering architecture of song writing based on a groove.'
Cody, from Inglewood, MySpaced South Central rapper Murs seven years ago when he was just thirteen. 'I had an idea for his merchandise after designing a brand called Hypeland. He hit me up on Facebook and actually came over to meet me at my house. My mom was like: 'What's this 32 year old man doing coming to my house for my son?' '
But Murs said there was something deep in Cody's message which had an impact on him. 'He became like a big brother to me. He'd invite me to paid dues festivals. I started working at the Fairfax District Hall of Fame, Fresh Jive, all over. I'd always been around fashion since I was 15. That was during the jerking era and I got to be involved with and witness the emerging careers, personalities of Anwar Carrots, K C Veggies, the Odd Future crew, Pac Div, Overdoz. Dom and I grew up around these cats making it. They are like four years older so it's the older homie type relationship. I cancelled Hypeland after sophomore year and started throwing events, making t-shirts, anything to make money. These events would generally be around Merc Park (on Crenshaw and Kings, Dom Kennedy's 'hood), pushing our new brand URLA. I formed this with my cousin Dominic. It stands for Underrated Los Angeles and covers jerseys, joggers, Fat Albert character-style, fashion for 12-60 year olds. I also continued to do the merch for Murs.'
'When I first went to college in the Bay area, I was doing PR and marketing for Karl Kani so would be getting a train back to LA for meetings every weekend. Finally, I realized I was done with school. I told my dad which did not go down too well. I went on tour with Murs, handling the merch booth.'
Meanwhile, Buttercreem was DJing and picking up on sounds. 'My dad does music and my mum's main passion is music and she's such a creative person. Although my focus was sports, when I got into 8th grade I started getting into the LA Beat Team: Jonwayne, Flying Lotus, Samiyam, Gas Lamp Killer and so forth as well as starting to really feel old school hip hop. The album that blew me open was Jonwayne's 'Bowser'. The thump of it is just crazy. I grew up around that: StonesThrow, Brainfever.
'I was fascinated by a familiar sound that could somehow be made different. All my fave DJs could remix a song from the Top 20 but you would never hear it like that again. They totally twisted it up. I was going to the Eagle Rock festival when these DJs were becoming popular. Their sound is so them. They had found a way to create their own unique sound. You could hear their influences but it's a new narrative, it is theirs completely. It's like they're saying: ‘You think you know this but I'm going to open you up.'
Dominic says the music is all about 'vibrations and feelings.'
Cody: 'Music has been suffocated too long but I don't feel that with Buttercreem so from now on he's my one and only producer. I want that story vibe. Although I'm not a grown man yet, I don't have a full story, I do have moments and that's what this first tape will be about. Then the next will be about the journey I go on this year and how I try to be a role model. A true MC always tells a story.'
Buttercreem: 'I'm thinking what arsenal am I going to create so my story can be found well, how do I package his story, how he's actually feeling. So much of music is just energy. I am striving for that muddy sound but still on that percussion that's hitting, trying to find the right repetition. I like muddy melodies not the best speakers. 2016 was all about the technicality of clean drums. But that's not what I want. I want that muddy and bright sound. I do a lot of EQing. I like highs in my drum, for it to be a bit messy.’
The group are 360 LA with friends and influences from Pasadena to South Central to the Valley to Hollywood to beyond and their musical tastes are as eclectic too: punk, indie, funk, hip hop, pop, rock.
When it came to choosing an engineer, they wanted a teachable soul.
Buttercreem: 'Technology is not at fault; it's the formulas people use which prevent people from being creative. There should be guidelines, yes, but at the end of the day, it should be: 'This just feels good.'
'Our music is based on relationships and our connection. We want to mirror our structure off Atlanta's Organized Noise, an outfit that just go to work every day in the studio, making it a normal everyday thing, to test each other. We're going to say something and family comes first. We can't afford for each other to have too much pride. Not everyone is going to like my idea. We need to be able to take criticism because that's what it's going to take to make that unique sound.'
Danny Bakewell came on board to engineer: 'I want to perfect the craft, learn it, respecting and learning the history. Engineering for me puts it altogether. I feel respecting it is the missing key. A lot of artists disrespect the process. I think it was lost 1998/99. I feel young people need to know their roots and respect that before they start trying to invent.'
‘He hit the criteria for 'humility and tonality' says Dom.
And the actual sounds so far? Bass heavy with the sub vroom and a drop like metal on glass. It's like a wave of bass and rhythm physically hits you, the sound going through your membranes, muscle and mind, ending with a didgeridoo. Cody's electric personality lights it up, jumping and off bounce, bounce, building a cadence and echo like a street cathedral, beats that swerve and swing.
'I just want whatever is going to get the deepest groove. The most memorable house track has that one percussion to hit the off note and that's what brings the groove in. The glass noise is a distorted cowbell to raise the resonance and the didgeridoo is inspired by Jamiroquai's 'Digital Vibrations', a sound muddy as hell. I get the beats real low. Nowadays most producers use a lot of filters so the artist can stand out but I keep it front and wild so CoJo can bang out. I just use an Abelton DAW and Abelton Push if I have one or put it through the keyboard, vinyl and turntable and a Sonic SQ2 synthesizer.
'I let CoJo sit with the beat for a while. The song should be a testament to the sound sticking to us and how we adapt together, educating and connecting ourselves to the sound. I mean, this is what people are going to know us by so we need to release this flow. Do it right because it is so easy to put out now. The time usually spent on production we now spend on production.’
As CoJo says on the magnetic tune Super CoJo: 'Real OGz go backwards/retracing (my) steps'.
The strongest indicator yet that this new hip hop was about to push open a wild frontier, a spanking filthy dimension of sound.
The edit wasn’t yet complete but the vibe was real. Ian aka Buttercreem kept grafting away. His comic timing was spot on. Cornbread the dog was worn out so a new pup was required to keep up. Ian and Dom created soundscapes for my movie scripts and murals. He was unimpressed by fame and the artists Class 216 supported were all independent, DIY rappers most notably Murs. CoJo and Dom were doing their own clothing line already in 2017. Ian did his first residency at Understory in LA on the 29th March 2017. It was a big deal securing a residency. He loved djing.
Meanwhile, mom was keen Ian keep his British roots and access, nervous about what the new administration had in mind for young black males and asked me to look after him if he ever went over. Ian was desperate to visit the UK. ‘I want to stay for like a year, just slum it, get to know all the music that’s on the street. Go to all the clubs, London, Bristol, Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester…’But he said he had to get his money together first and DJ gigs were few and far between. His love of the audio visual was massive; when he attended the Brick launch party held at a warehouse in DTLA, he was taking notes of all the aesthetics as well as the sound system and use of visuals. For him, it was always about the entire show. He was the kid going round asking the technical guys questions instead of partying...
Finally, in 2019 he texted he was coming to the UK. I was in the middle of doing my exclusive backyard ‘book’ tour – largely barbershops and hip hop food joints in Manchester. Ian was so determined to come to the show! He convinced his pops to join him and I asked him to dj. He came prepared, put on a bomb show. He bonded with the Manchester grime MCs, djs and roadmen immediately. And Manchester does not ‘bond’ with outsiders readily. But it was me who couldn’t keep up with the party and had to French exit like the old lady I am. My show was focusing on the real story of artists of colour and how our mental and emotional health is not prioritized, how our pain and tragedy is seen as entertainment not a shout worthy of help. Ian loved it. I couldn’t understand why he thought it was so important. I mean, it was my story but it was all set in the 1990’s.
He and pops stayed up all night, going to the studio and homes of the rappers and djs. When I met him in the morning, he was hype still. ‘I’ve got to come back! We’re going to do this show. Let’s talk when I’m back in LA.’
We did talk. But then the ‘Rona arrived and, with it, isolation. Isolation on isolation. The insta stories were still fierce, still funny. And the music was developing on a whole other level, a mix of Scandi synth, sweet melodies and heavy muddy beats with poetic fierce lyrics.
We were all so genuinely excited for his new album, 'Clementine' fat, bright, juicy, sweet - just like the beats, the lyrics, admiring the photography, the concept the sounds. But the insta stories began to run like a perforation line, impersonal, occasionally dark, jerky, wired. Still, it’s stressful launching an album, right?
I last spoke to him three weeks before his birth/death day. He told me he knew this year would be an amazing year for me, asked how I was. But didn’t wait for the replies or to answer my questions. Not like him. I was concerned about the cigarette photo.
When something like this happens, it is easy to feel like you never knew the person, to feel cheated, angry. But in fact, we did know him. He was a brilliant, beautiful, kind, caring and funny soul who carefully kept his darkness in the backroom so he could focus on spreading light and joy. He had the misfortune of hitting his mid-twenties when COVID and lockdown arrived, to live through two years of isolation and restrictions at a seismic time of neural development.
Please do not judge him. Or anyone else who struggles silently.
Because that’s all this kid was about.
RIP IAN DESDUNE 1.19.1996-1.19.2022
photos by Jamina Angeline Witke @yamisees