Dan Cuccia has always been a behind-the-scenes guy — the guy making the bass-heavy background beats that rappers would flow over. He’d watch from the crowd as his charismatic emcee friends (Quiz, Jaeda, Freetime Synthetic) performed his songs. At his CD release show in December, he simply sat at the merch table selling t-shirts and CDs.
And that was absolutely fine with him.
“I’m a very reclusive person,” says Cuccia, who goes by the stage name Ocean. “I keep everything really close, I guess. I always like to be in the crowd during performances and just kind of listening.
“I like the fact that people can like my music without knowing what I am or who I am … They’re not judging it — they’re just hearing it.”
Growing up in Colfax, Wash., Ocean, now 30, monkeyed with his brother’s drum machine and four-track, making beats with his friends and writing raps over them.
“We didn’t show anybody. We didn’t talk about it with anybody. It was just something that we did on the weekends,” he says. “It spawned from boredom, pretty much.”
Boredom eventually turned into a full-blown hobby. He moved to Spokane and attended Spokane Falls Community College’s audio engineering program, where he met another aspiring beatmaker Jaeman. Together, they formed Beathouse, and began producing beats for local emcees.
But it wasn’t until Ocean started working more exclusively with Quiz (Kay Clifton) on their Cheap Meat Suits project that he developed a darker, more foreboding aesthetic. Cheap Meat Suits released a concept album, Dark City, loosely based around the cult film by Alex Proyas.
“I’ve always been drawn to the darkest, saddest songs,” he says. “My favorite lyricist of all time is Roy Orbison. People were making out and slow-dancing to his songs and he’s singing about having his heart ripped out and wanting to just kill himself and seeing the girl he loves walk away with another guy. It’s like the saddest stuff. It’s so beautiful.”
When Cheap Meat Suits cooled off, Ocean realized for the first time that he could make an album on his own. In fact, he would be freer if he did break off — shedding the nagging concern to make rappable beats.
Within a year, he released Call Me Later, an airtight album that flirts heavily with an even darker aesthetic (including the excellent collaboration with Clifton, “A Break Inside”). On one track he takes the vocals to Cutting Crew’s “(I Just) Died Your Arms Tonight” and slows them to a molasses crawl.
Shortly after the album’s release, Ocean discovered “witch house,” an emerging genre in electronic music that combines the mood of the darkest gothic music with hip-hop sensibilities, and then adds a creep-out factor by overlaying slowed-down, almost unrecognizable pop song samples. The genre makes the Cure look like cheerleaders and the most unabashed black metal bands look like Twisted Sister.
“I was like ‘This is what I’ve always been talking about. This is the genre that’s missing,’” he says. “It’s past emo. It’s not sad, it’s truly dark. You’re not sitting in your house bummed out because you’re grounded. It’s like you’re sitting in a shooting gallery trying to figure out where your life went wrong. You’re literally carving someone else’s name into your arm. That’s what witch house, to me, is. That’s why I’ve embraced it.”
He set to work producing his latest album (which releases this Friday, May 20, at Mootsy’s) BL/CK C3ILING, which dabbles in deep, ground-shaking witch house. The album was recently picked up by a nonprofit record label in Scotland, Black Lantern Music, that promotes other like-minded artists.
And now Ocean is starting to think about new things: performing live, for one. He’s never done that before. And he’s diving deeper into the shadows of witch house, constantly posting new songs onto his Sound Cloud page, writing new beats and dreaming up new musical nightmares. He’s opening new dimensions of darkness.
“If I can make my hair stand up. That’s what I’m going for.”