Backxwash: Inside the Dark World of the Extreme-Rap Visionary | Revolver

Backxwash: Inside the Dark World of the Extreme-Rap Visionary

From Black Sabbath and Code Orange to Zulu healers and Catholic death rituals
backxwash_featured_credit.jpg, Chachi Revah
Backxwash’s Ashanti Mutinta
photograph by Chachi Revah

"I'm trying to do this thing called 'extreme rap.' In my mind, it's like industrial music [taken] to the next level."

Ashanti Mutinta — otherwise known as Zambian-Canadian rapper-producer Backxwash — is discussing the sonic pummelling she brings to her latest album, I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses, and in this regard she definitely delivers. It's a record that violently grafts, for instance, Mutinta's aggressively shouted flow onto skull-crushing swathes of guitar and terror-stricken electronic beatwork. Though chiefly constructed by Backxwash, Dresses also taps the talents of other bold heavy-music experimenters like Code Orange's Jami Morgan and Shade Balderose, and experimental hip-hop unit clipping. All told, Dresses is a frightening step forward from one of the most exciting noisescapers in the game.

It was last year's metal-rooted God Has Nothing to Do With This Leave Him Out of It, however, that introduced many to Backxwash's brand of sonic deviance. The darkened horror-trap excursion garnered attention for bristling Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin samples set against caustic booms and Mutinta's raspy, ultra-personal musings on religion, gender, sexuality, depression and more. While undisclosed sample clearance issues have kept the release off most major streaming services, the record still gained a massive following; notably, it also won Canada's prestigious Polaris Music Prize for album of the year. All of this attention, meanwhile, surprised the hell out of Backxwash.

"I was actually kind of scared that nobody would want to listen to it because of how much darker it sounded than the previous ones," the rapper says of God, perhaps alluding to how some of her earliest tracks — noticeably joints she didn't produce — would sample pop hits like Britney Spears' "Toxic." She says of those early experiments: "I liked the lyrics, but the beats didn't match the intensity."

Mutinta's flow has likewise ramped up its raw, ravaged intensity since she began releasing music in 2018, though she'd technically been rapping long before becoming Backxwash. Growing up in Lusaka, Zambia, she gravitated towards the sounds of hip-hop and R&B, as well as the circuits-fried swerve of Nine Inch Nails. She'd practice rapping to instrumental tracks found at the end of CD singles, though none of these were ever recorded. Mutinta dove into the world of beatmaking after her brother loaded a pirated copy of FL Studio onto an aging laptop. Despite that progress, she all but gave up music by her late teens following a move to the West Coast of Canada to study computer science.

Fortunately, things changed a few years later when she relocated to Montreal, Quebec. (She currently lives about 120 miles west in Ottawa, Ontario, while still remaining active in Montreal.) It was here that Mutinta fell for the city's experimental noise scene, got back into writing raps, and also came into her own as a trans woman. After writing new material to reflect on her experiences, she began showing up to open-mic-style events to work out rhymes. The more she became comfortable with her voice, the more she was able to reach deep into her feelings to weigh in on identity, family trauma and her religious upbringing. By the time she arrived at God, the lines between Mutinta and the Backxwash persona had become blurred.

"These are essentially thoughts that I've had in the back of my mind, but I had never said them out loud [before]," she says, adding how vocalizing those feelings for the first time on God was "kind of alarming" to both her and her loved ones. "Reaching a point where you're comfortable in saying all that took a lot of work. I remember the person who I was seeing at the time, it was kind of uncomfortable for them to hear. I understood — these were not just thoughts you could walk into. It was a very vulnerable part of [my] psyche."

Interestingly, the first voice we hear on God's opening title track is not hers, but Ozzy Osbourne's: specifically, the chilling "Oh god, please help me" ad-lib from the heavy-metal birthing dirge "Black Sabbath." While pulling from one of heavy music's most iconic songs, Backxwash manages to bring new gravitas to Ozzy's existential dread by looping his pained cries beneath her own musings on remorse and forgiveness: "I'm not for amends/I'm cautious from awful events."

backxwash_credit_.jpg, Chachi Revah
photograph by Chachi Revah

While God drew inspiration from the sounds of classic metal, I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses takes a more esoteric approach. There's a doomy, strings-driven passage lifted from Montreal post-rock legends Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and noise-fractured arrangements inspired in part by celebrated rap-punk unit Death Grips. While Backxwash likes being in control of her production, when Morgan and Balderose reached out to her last year to ask if she'd be willing to rap above one of their beats, she happily agreed. The resultant "Nine Hells," which the Code Orange members produced under the name Nowhere2Run, features what could be a dank, decrepit lost groove from NIN's The Downward Spiral sessions.

Naturally, Dresses' themes are likewise unequivocally heavy. Mutinta reveals that the album, overall, circles around themes of mental health, and how the past year — between the pandemic and the boosted public profile — has been weighing on her. Up front, she sets the tone on "Wail of the Banshee" via a fraught opening line of "my mind is a torture chamber," before going on to detail therapy sessions, pop-ping pills and "puking blood." "Blood in the Water," featuring a panic-inducing beat built by clipping., is a bruising encapsulation of a parasitic, power-imbalanced relationship.

"This person is like, 'I'm your lord and savior, and you should bow to me to show you how useless you are,'" Mutinta explains of the track. "It's kind of like, 'I only need you because I have control over you. I could save you or kill you' — that kind of duality."

There is plenty of religious imagery wrapped around both God and Dresses, but while Mutinta grew up Christian, she's no longer practicing. On the song "666 in Luxaxa," she highlights Christianity's dark side while honoring the ancestors of her Tumbuka tribe. The track begins with the melodious chants of a South African Zulu healer and finds Backxwash challenging the colonization of her home country. She explains: "It paints the story of how colonizers came to Zambia and told the people that what they believed in was wrong, and that they should believe in their religion [Christianity] instead."

Christianity looms large in other parts of I Lie Here Buried With My Rings and My Dresses, including its title, which references how, "in some Catholic cultures, they dress up the dead with all of this gold," according to Mutinta. "Just the visual itself is so grim because there's no way you're going to be able to [enjoy] those accessories when you're dead," she adds. "When you die, you die."

The title is also a nod to Netflix ghost story/romance series The Haunting of Bly Manor, which she watched during lockdown. "[There was] a line that said something like 'just bury me with my rings and my dresses,' and I was like, 'Yo, that's hard! I like that,' she notes, before describing how the line resonates with the overall theme of the new album. "I wanted to explore just how my mental health has been affected over the past while — it deals with suicide, as well, [and] themes of death, so it's kind of like, 'How would one want to be buried?'"

On the concluding "Burn to Ashes," a distressed Backxwash shouts out, "I never talk about how I am feeling," though that isn't entirely the case anymore. Like others before her, Mutinta has found some catharsis in exploring the darker aspects of life through music. And while she's working through serious themes in her music, Mutinta's overjoyed to discuss Dresses, occasionally laughing through anecdotes about its making.

Asked of the overall drive of her music, Backxwash explains succinctly that it's all about "honesty and free expression, for the most part. I want to express my ideas in the most unapologetic way possible."