Like the local crews Push Beats and Cutz on Cuts setting the stage for this Parisian producer’s debut Chicago performance, Onra (a.k.a. Arnaud Bernard) can trace his musical journey back to one man: J.Dilla. The hip-hop savant revolutionized how beatsmiths across the globe looked at the genre, essentially deciding that the music maker is as important—if not more so—than the MC.
Bernard’s output isn’t entirely instrumental, but vocalists are not the main attraction. Rather, it’s his ability to combine boom-bap rhythms with an arsenal of samples. Sure, that’s the key to any hip-hop producer’s appeal, but Bernard has proven exceptionally skilled at carving out a sound undeniably his own. Take 2010’s Long Distance. On it, he crafts bubbly ’80s boogie beats fit for the Drive soundtrack, if the movie had instead starred Samuel L. Jackson as the stoic stunt driver.
Then there’s Bernard’s Chinoiseries. Inspired by his French-Vietnamese heritage and extensive record-digging trips throughout China, Thailand and Vietnam, each of the two volumes pairs exotic, obscure and often vintage Asian pop music with swirling synths, snare snaps and bass kicks. It’s the hip-hop soundtrack Bruce Lee never had, and it’d make the RZA proud.
This production dexterity boils down to mastery of the MPC, hip-hop’s quintessential production tool and the musical paintbrush Bernard has been wielding for more than a decade. His ability to pound out beats has caught the attention of renowned DJ and label owner A-Trak, who’s releasing Onra’s next EP later this month. It also makes him somewhat of a one-man band—one well worth catching live.