Jack ‘Tha Audio Unit’ Burton crafts a soundtrack for a changing world
The Columbus beatmaker’s new album, ‘Midwestplayalisticchevymuzik 2,’ is split in two parts, with the first half releasing Friday
In the back half of 2019, producer and beatmaker Jack “Tha Audio Unit” Burton, known simply as AU to most, underwent surgery on his foot that left him unable to walk unassisted for nearly six months. As a result, he entered into 2020 back on his feet and fully motivated to get out into the world and create. And then the pandemic hit.
“When the whole world stopped it was like, OK, time to figure out an audible,” AU said by phone earlier this week.
Rotating between his home and his studio, AU leaned into music making as a way of warding off pandemic stasis, releasing a series of concept-driven albums that served as a form of escape from the unrelentingly depressive news headlines, including an ode to late rapper MF Doom steeped in comic book lore and a professional-wrestling-themed mix composed of beats as over-the-top as the outsized personalities who dominate the sport.
“I could have made a tape called Corona Tape, focusing on the climate of now, but the climate was stuck,” said AU, long a go-to beatmaker for a diverse range of Columbus rappers and singers. “That didn’t intrigue me because it’s hell out here, and we want things to go back to normal.”
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Despite landing amid the coldest stretch of the year, and at a time when COVID numbers are still at record highs, AU’s most recent release, Midwestplayalisticchevymuzik 2, serves as a means of escape. The record, which is being split into two parts — the lusher Side A releases this Friday, Jan. 28, and a bouncier, bawdier Side B follows on Feb. 25 — projects a burden-free existence, building on warm, smooth, soulful beats engineered to be played on car speakers, windows down, at the height of the spring bloom.
AU said he conceived the album — a follow-up to his 2019 LP of the same name — as an instrumental response to the Outkast classic Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, instead centered on the sounds of the Midwest, from the 1970s Dayton soul scene to the Capsoul era in Columbus. “I was playing off that [Outkast] vibe, but making it our own,” AU said.
The producer crafted most of the beats populating the two sides — including the strutting “Sidney Poitier,” which AU said envisions “the soundtrack when [the late actor] walks into a scene” — during a late October stretch when he started to feel overcome by pandemic malaise.
“I can be honest, towards the end of last year, in October and November, I started slowing down, not feeling creative,” AU said. “So, I started sitting back, like, what am I going to do? And I just started creating different styles of beats … then I got into a zone.”
As AU completed tracks, he would audition them in different places, playing the songs first on Bluetooth speakers, then headphones and then, eventually, in his car — a space that has long served as the peak listening experience for the producer, who recalled taking road trips with his grandfather growing up, long drives during which the elder would play cassettes by James Brown, Stevie Wonder and more, helping to shape his musical worldview.
“Before I started [creating beats], my people who used to make music, they’d record the music, then go to the car like, ‘Oh, damn, the drums are too loud,’ and they would go back and forth, and back and forth,” AU said. “So, when I got into music, I would make CDs, which is why I’d always have a stack of 2,000 CDs, because I’d record the song, mix it, burn it to CD and then take it out to the car. … If it don’t sound right, you break the CD and start all over.”
While the technology has changed from those days, AU said he’s still driven by the same urge: an inescapable need to bring to life the sounds that continually crowd his brain. “It hasn’t changed. I’m still the same Jack machine,” he said, and laughed. “And I still make soundtracks for the world.”