chicken is the downtown producer making sounds as eclectic as nyc itself

Blending 80s no-wave and dance-punk with hip-hop beats, Chicken's 'Downtown' is an era-spanning ode to New York's underground culture.

by Nick Fulton
21 November 2018, 2:25pm

Ever since the late 70s, when artists took up residence in rundown buildings and shuttered storefronts in Soho and the East Village, downtown has represented New York’s wild side. For many it holds a certain nostalgia, and while most of the headlines today are about the art scene’s demise, that is essentially a lie. In pockets of the Lower East Side, Chinatown, and the Bowery you can still find some of the most interesting art on offer anywhere in the world.

Burke Battelle, who creates music under the name Chicken, lives uptown, but he still parties below 14th. Recently he has been hosting a DJ night named Club Eat at a dive bar on Ludlow Street, just a few steps from the Delancey Street subway station. “I wanted to do a party in Manhattan that was not a genre party,” he says, emphasizing Club Eat’s eclectic ethos. He pauses for a second, then adds, “It’s just a vibe.” He adopts that same approach when creating music, whether it’s making beats for hip-hop artists to rap over, or writing entire compositions of his own.

Still a relative newcomer, Battelle’s most recognizable work to date is his production on Bali Baby’s debut album Baylor Swift and two singles for Queens rapper Dai Burger. His own compositions have garnered less attention, but that could be about to change as he spends more time producing and promoting his own work. Today Battalle is releasing a video for the song “Downtown,” which he originally uploaded to his SoundCloud at the beginning of the year. The song is soaked in the sounds of another era, blending 80s no wave, 90s rave, dance-punk, and hip-hop beats. Aficionados of New York underground culture will notice influences as vast as Liquid Liquid, ESG, Black Dice, and The Rapture, and will appreciate the elasticity that threads them all together.

Beginning with the sound of someone choking — while open to interpretation, it could reference anything from poor air quality to people hacking phlegm onto the sidewalk — the song descends into a mash of screeching synths, heavy hip-hop beats, and a medley of delicious vocal hooks. “Black is the color that we wear when we go walking late at night,” begin the lyrics. “Good is the music that we hear ringing clear like a bell inside our minds.” It sounds like a euphoric rave song, yet behind the optimism is something more sinister, the suggestion that downtown as we know it will soon be swamped by rising sea water. After calling for people to hang up their phones and head downtown, Chicken warns, “If you’ve got to go, there’s something you should know, things have changed since you haven’t been around.”

Battelle says climate change is something he thinks about a lot in relation to Lower Manhattan. “[It] will be the first part of Manhattan underwater,” he notes. But despite the assuming lyrics (“Staring at the ocean it’s as big as the fear we feel inside / This used to be downtown”) he is coy when asked if the song is about the biggest environmental crisis facing mankind. “I don’t want to say it’s about climate change, or something like that, because I don’t have a statement about it,” he says.

The explanation makes more sense when Battelle talks about his creative process. “I usually start from an aesthetic point of view and there’s certain sounds that I know I want to use. Kind of background information,” he says. “Then in terms of vocals, I just record myself talking. I don’t really focus that much on the lyrics. A lot of the time, it makes sense afterwards. It becomes about something, but I didn’t necessarily set it to write about it.”

To create the video for “Downtown,” Battelle enlisted the help of some creative friends. Heji Shin, who shot the image on the cover of Swedish pop singer Robyn’s latest record Honey, as well as Eckhaus Latta’s NSFW spring/summer 17 campaign, co-directed the video. Acclaimed filmmaker Maggie Lee, whose work has been shown at New York’s Whitney Museum of Art, worked behind the camera along with Willard Klein. The video is a collage of downtown street scenes and studio shots of Battelle and friends messing around on various instruments and dancing. It has a campy, DIY quality that comes from both the styling and the people in front of the camera, many of whom were strangers that Battelle says “we just approached on the street.”

A multi-hyphenate of sorts, Battelle also has ties to the fashion industry. He designs and helps run the fashion label Sophia Paris, alongside Jake Levy, Ruby McCollister, and others. In September the label released its third collection and had a runway show at MX Gallery in New York’s Chinatown, with Chicken providing the official soundtrack and deejaying at the after-party. Battelle has also worked as a stylist. “Heji is the one who got me into styling,” he says, adding, “a lot of my friends are in fashion in New York. I know more fashion and art people than I do music people.”

Whether it’s working as a producer, a DJ, or a designer, Battelle usually finds himself behind the scenes. But his most notable work with Bali Baby and Dai Burger certainly got him some name recognition in the hip-hop world, and it’s a world he’d like to see more of. “I think hip-hop artists tend to be the most experimental, and the most open to different sounds,” he says. “I have worked with some pop people and they are more used to what they’re used to, and it ends there.”

Following the “Downtown” video, his next release will be a collaboration with Isabella Lovestory, who he describes as “a pop singer with reggaeton vibes.” Isabella’s work also contains elements of hip-hop, darkwave, and experimental R&B, and she sings in both English and Spanish. In the new year he plans to release more of his own music under the Chicken persona, but in the meantime you will find him deejaying downtown.

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