DJ branches out into music world with new EP

by Molly Szymanski
Students walking in and out of the South Campus Dining Hall on Friday nights hear experimental music pouring out to the courtyard, but it’s not coming from the speakers at the dining hall or a busker outside.

The hip-hop beats are coming from the WMUC Radio live music room— and from artist hiddenjekyll, better known on campus as sophomore biology major and music and culture minor Aidan Appelson.

They have been making music since high school, but are diving deeper into production as a college student, and even released an EP this past August called “precipice.”

Appelson defines their genre as experimental hip-hop and plunderphonics, a musical niche consisting of samples from widely-known tracks. “precipice” wears many hats— traversing both high-energy and vibey musical terrains in its 10-minute runtime.

Appelson was not always the defined artist they are today, though. They come from a musical family. Their brothers are both musicians— one a professional jazz musician and the other an advanced drummer. Appelson, however, has no musical training.

“I don’t know a lot of music theory,” they said. “Playing instruments was never something that appealed to me.”

How, then, could they become a musician and go on to produce their own EP?

It all began with Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 album DAMN. Appelson was a freshman in high school when it came out. It’s regarded in the music world as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of the last five years for its creative use of sampling as well as its intersection of rap flow and storytelling in its verses. When they heard it, they knew they had to learn how to do it.

“The production of [DAMN.] was a huge inspiration for me,” they said. “What sparked everything was learning what sampling was in hip-hop. Once I started learning about that, I’ve been obsessed ever since.”

Sampling is a musical practice used by artists to incorporate already-existing music into their own. Artists who sample may take a riff or vocal line from a song, or something as small as just a few notes, and make it their own using music editing software or remaking it with instruments.

After watching nearly 200 hours of YouTube tutorials, Appelson made their first beat. They’d spend nights after school tinkering with the computer, altering single-syllable noises recorded with a cheap microphone to create massive progressions.

“I remember when Aidan put out his first song on SoundCloud. He sampled a piece by jazz musician Henry Mancini and it came out sounding like a really cool piece of plunderphonics,” said New York University sophomore Sal Acciarino, one of Appelson’s best friends and earliest supporters. “I remember being so excited about it that I posted it to Reddit, feeling as if I had to let anyone and everyone know how cool the song was.”

As Appelson became more comfortable with making music, they learned how to use the digital audio workshop Ableton, which is used by both amateur mixers and professionals like Kenny Beats, who produces music for artists like Flo Milli, Bastille, and Vince Staples. They spent hours over quarantine learning this software, trying to master the art of sampling as best as they can.

Enter “precipice,” a culmination of years of learning, trial and error, and music making. Released Aug. 29 to YouTube, the 10-minute-long video not only showcases Appelson’s homegrown beats, but also represents how far they’ve come.

“I remember when I was in my freshman year of college, I was really unhappy and felt very lost. I definitely didn’t feel like I liked the direction I was going in life. One of the things that has always been super important to me has been music,” they said.

Without any classical training or professional experience, though, Appelson felt like they couldn’t call themselves a real musician. They knew they needed to do something.

“It was this huge goal over the summer, when things had finally started getting better in my life,” they said. “I wanted to release an EP before I turned 20.”

And they did. With 13 days to spare.

Their EP under the moniker hiddenjekyll is not Appelson’s only hand in the music world. They also have a radio show called CHOPS, which airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMUC FM, that does a weekly deep dive into an artist who is sampled or uses samples. Recent episodes have covered artists like Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and JPEGMAFIA, many of these artists influencing Appelson’s own music.

“Having DJs that are also musicians in their own right is very important to our station,” WMUC General Manager Madeline Redding said. “I really value that we can have their perspective from the music scene plopped directly into the DJ chair.”

“precipice” is not the end of hiddenjekyll’s discography. Appelson continues their work into this semester, rehearsing in the WMUC live music room at least once a week. In addition to in-person collaboration that lends itself to post-pandemic creation, Appelson draws on their professional musical inspirations, experimental rap artist MIKE and group Death Grips.

“The stuff he puts together and his creativity are really fun to watch,” sophomore journalism major Matthew Weinsheimer, CHOPS co-host and self-proclaimed hiddenjekyll hype man, said. “You can hear his influences from hip-hop and more experimental-style music, but also he’s definitely doing his own thing.”

More projects are coming, Appelson said. They hope to create as much music as they can until the end of the year, and then refine the tracks into a project to be released in the summer. When that drops, Acciarino will have a front-row seat.

“When I inevitably start to see people rocking hiddenjekyll merch, I will be the first one asking them to name their first EP,” he said.

Listen to hiddenjekyll on SoundCloud or YouTube.