Sarah, The Illstrumentalist

Sarah, The Illstrumentalist: “You don’t need a million followers but the belief that your ideas are good enough to share”

How the Los Angeles-based producer combined music, tech tutorials and streetwear into a big brand – with more to come.

In the late 2010s, West Coast beatmaker and YouTuber Sarah Debnam – aka Sarah, The Illustrumentalist – was studying in New York. The city is home to many cultural locations that bring together fashion and music, including Pharrell’s Billionaire Boys Club clothing store. “I couldn’t afford to buy stuff – I’d just go to visit,” says the producer whose lo-fi beats have as of today notched up over 89 million streams on Spotify. “Downstairs was Ice Cream clothes and upstairs it was like a spaceship,” she says.

Fashion and music certainly intertwine in the North Carolina-born, LA-based 32-year old composer, videographer and hip-hop producer’s work. Yes, she makes popular sun-soaked lo-fi hip-hop beats – one track, Cetus, has over two million Spotify plays – but she’s also a successful businesswoman as the popular face of tech tutorials on her Sarah2ill YouTube channel and as the creative director of her lifestyle brand No Quantize.

No Quantize offers soundpacks, courses and clothing. “I never found t-shirts with a cassette, or a vinyl or a beat machine on it,” she says. “I could never find a graphic of an SP-404. I realised there was an opportunity to create clothes for myself that maybe someone else would like too – the beatmaker version.”

Over 450 up-and-coming beatmakers have made their way through the 60-plus videos that comprise No Quantize’s $100 Complete Guide To Maschine, which she launched in March 2020 as a deep dive on the Native Instruments device. Creating the course has changed her life, she says. “I’ve heard so many amazing things from people.… Even to this day people tell me they’re coming back, even though they haven’t used it for a while, wanting to get refreshed.” The Complete Guide community includes a blind beatmaker, who has made her think about expanding future videos. “It makes me think for next time, to have captions and to speak about things every time I do something, so people can visualise it without having to see it.”

Sarah, The Illstrumentalist
Image: Jonathan Weiner for MusicTech

Like everyone else in music, she has had to find her way around kit that’s either new to her or new to the world. As a popular content creator and influencer, Sarah has the benefit of hour-long sessions with the product developers, but the grind continues. For her, this includes obvious things like (sometimes) reading the manual and watching talks, but also cueing up old videos of previous models or programmes, then applying the knowledge to whatever she’s using. “When I started making music with the Maschine, I was watching FL Studio videos,” she says. “I’d never used Fruity Loops in my life but I was taking that information and applying it to Maschine. It worked. It’s the same concept, just a different layout.”

“I don’t want to look at a VST version of a Juno all the time. I appreciate tangible things”

She’s recently been working with Roland around the release of its SP-404 MKII, unboxing it on her channel and working her way through the product’s array of beat-making possibilities. She’s also been collaborating with software and hardware companies including Artiphon, giving away its new handheld Orba – it’s a synth, looper and MIDI controller – to her subscribers, and tying the giveaways to her long-running Beat Of The Week challenge.

“Before the pandemic, a lot of producers were filming themselves making beats and now they don’t seem so excited,” she notes. “I can see the momentum hasn’t been as it used to be. I’m trying to get people more excited about making music.”

The Illustrumentalist’s earliest music-making began at home, as a little kid on tip toes reaching up to her grandma’s upright piano. “I still feel like that person,” she says. “I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t allow that to stop me. I never had real piano lessons or guitar lessons, but that doesn’t stop me from knowing what sounds good. I’m still that person who wants to mess around with sounds, record it and let it go.”

Sarah’s YouTube channel itself began life in 2016 while she was working at the Apple Store in Durham, North Carolina, after realising that her break-time beat-making excursions were attracting the interest of her co-workers: “I’d give people my card – watch me rather than interrupting me when I’m making music.”

Sarah, The Illstrumentalist
Image: Jonathan Weiner for MusicTech

Scandinavian royalty-free soundtrack company Epidemic Sound got in touch when she released her first beat tape, leading to a long-standing relationship – and to Sarah discovering that a co-worker at Apple had her own popular review channel, TechMeOut. “She taught me video stuff, how to communicate with brands, how to negotiate my value,” Sarah says. “She taught me so much about being a content creator.”

More recently she’s been making music for Epidemic Sound’s sample library, creating her trademark lo-fi hip-hop instrumentals. She came across Dilla through Kaytranada, and whilst her sounds clearly owe a lot to the lineage of West Coast beatmakers, she’s ensuring that the sound continues to evolve. For a recent track, she put samples in the SP-404 and added “some vinyl simulation and some compresion” onto all of the samples. She then made variations of the sample: one with a low-pass filter so it sounds like it’s underwater, another by adding a phaser or “some weird noise”.

“I’m trying to get people more excited about making music”

“It has different dynamics so the sample changes through the song,” Sarah says. “You can have a four-bar loop, but if you know how to add a different effect it can make it seem more dynamic, more exciting rather than just looping over and over. It’s changing, so it makes me want to nod my head even more.”

Then she’ll load it back to Maschine via USB-C, compose the song adding drums and bassline, mix the sounds, and then add vocal effects or spaceship sounds. “Sometimes I’ll take things out because less is more. Organise it to be a full complete song and then I’m done.”

Sarah, The Illstrumentalist
Image: Jonathan Weiner for MusicTech

However, as all producers know, spending too long staring at a monitor can be a problem. She gets away from the screen by going out field recording to capture sounds for her EPs and sample packs. “I’ll record the birds or the ocean sounds. Whatever sounds good, I record it even if I don’t have my field mic with me,” she says. “My phone does a really good job.”

“I love music but I’ve always done art. I don’t want to just do one thing”

Catching the audio she wants isn’t always easy, though: “I’ll go outside to get the birds, and I’ll get someone walking, or an airplane. I went to a waterfall and then I’m hearing – beep beep beep – a garbage truck.”

Besides going out into nature, the Illustrumentalist has another way to peel herself away from screens: rug-making. “I’m a tangible person. The reason I like [vinyl] records over a phone is that I like to read the stuff,” she says. A wall in her apartment proves the point: it’s like a record shop, covered with albums that include 1970s flautist Bobbie Humphry, Solange and Stevie Wonder. “I don’t want to look at a VST version of a Juno all the time. I appreciate tangible things. Same things with the rugs. I have something real and tangible in my studio. I like feeling things and touching them rather than being on your phone.”

Sarah, The Illstrumentalist
Image: Jonathan Weiner for MusicTech

Rug-making is a new hobby for her, and it also helps with the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety that she talks about in her videos. “It helps me stay present,” she says. “I love music but I’ve always done art. I don’t want to just do one thing. I’m kind of like a Renaissance woman. I know it also inspires other people that they can do other things. People are like, ‘Stop showing me this or I’m gonna end up buying a rug-making kit’.”

As well as using her newly unboxed tufting gun to work on textiles, Sarah’s also applying the emerging therapeutic technique of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation And Reprocessing) to support both her mental health and her beats. EMDR uses eye movement to treat the symptoms of PTSD, which include nightmares and experiencing past trauma as if it’s happening in the present. For the last year, her PTSD has been intense and the EMDR has been helping.

“The biggest thing for me is knowing that your stuff is important and not to worry about being perfect or trendy”

“I have nightmares, having a hard time being present. In order for me to make music and be creative I have to be present, stay focused,” she says. “It helps me forget what happened last week or what my family is going through. I’m in a space of self-care, doing whatever it takes to make me happy. I protect my energy so I can protect my craft. It has helped me so much as a musician.”

Everyone, she adds, should be getting help because of the pandemic. “Everyone has gone through something traumatic in the last two years. I’m not saying everyone should go to therapy, but you have to know what your needs are because your needs have changed.”

Sarah, The Illstrumentalist
Image: Jonathan Weiner for MusicTech

Sarah knows what her brand needs, and not just because of her successful channel: she studied Business at St John’s University, taking a minor in Philosophy of Law. “It’s music business so I have to be a master at music but also be a master at the business stuff. There are producers who are making music, but they’re not sharing it in a way that benefits their family or their legacy. It’s very important to get an education to learn about business in general and not be afraid of those things.”

Her September 2021-released Happy To See You, a follow-up to the dreamy Carolina Sound and Celebrate You EPs, was released with Epidemic Sound. It’s as sun-soaked and warm as the title suggests, and it also reflects the way Sarah plucks track names from the things she experiences around her.

“The biggest thing for me is knowing that your stuff is important and not to worry about being perfect or trendy”

“The past couple of days I’ve been seeing orange butterflies everywhere. It’s like a sign, so I’ll put ‘orange butterflies’ in my songs [list]. Later on, if I hear something that sounds like butterflies or gives you a feeling of when you see a beautiful day, I’ll call it that.”

Coming soon is Chasing The Now, which she describes as more of a “fast-paced dance project”. “A lot of the song titles are to do with being present,” she says. “A lot of my titles relate to what I’m going through right now. Chasing the moment, not being in the past. I’m chasing today, right now.”

As a content creator, Sarah needs to stay on top of what’s happening right now. Her six years in front of the camera have given her a strong idea of the skills and attitudes that make a successful YouTube channel. “The biggest thing for me is being consistent, and really knowing that all your stuff is important and not to worry about being perfect or being trendy.”

Sarah, The Illstrumentalist
Image: Jonathan Weiner for MusicTech

It means self-belief is high on her list – “you don’t need a million followers but the belief that your ideas are good enough to share” – and trends aren’t.

“I’m not a big fan of trends,” she says. “I just want to share myself and be myself, being authentic but being very consistent and disciplined.”

This means starting her day well: meditation, affirmations, exercising and journaling. Having a plan for your goals is essential, she says, as is being grateful. “If you only have 20 subscribers, be grateful. If I had 20 people in this room right now, watching me, that’s a lot. Gratitude is a huge skill.”

She also recommends community-building through the medium of talking to people: “There are people who are surprised when I respond to them. You took the time to write to me – I’m gonna write back.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t allow that to stop me”

While Sarah remains accessible to her community, she has big ambitions for her operations across the channel and No Quantize. “Hopefully it becomes one of the biggest hip-hop brands in the world, where I’m able to sell it and move forward into the next chapter of my life. Jay-Z doesn’t wear Rocawear any more. He sold it and it did well afterwards.”

Perhaps, then, there’ll be a No Quantize store, growing the business and encouraging other young producers to dream big. “It would be nice to have a store-slash-lounge, a boutique where there’s instruments you can play, and merch, where people could come through for free workshops, like the Apple Store,” she muses. “You know you can record a whole album [there] if you want, and no-one’s gonna be like ‘get off the computer’. The store wants you to use their devices because it helps you want to buy it. We’d have customers come in every day to watch YouTube videos because they would prefer coming to the Apple Store versus going to the library.”

Sarah, The Illstrumentalist
Image: Jonathan Weiner for MusicTech

Long-term, she wants to create “a producer’s dreamland” – a gated location where artists can come and make music. “That would be my ideal. A safe place for producers and music creators to come, make their own soundpacks and do whatever they want to, like a home environment.”

It sounds like a utopian reworking of Pharell’s Billionaire Boys Club store, minus the ice-cream references of the producer’s skate-centric sub-brand. “I would love to have a juice bar in North Carolina in my old neighbourhood, giving people access to healthy food in a place where it isn’t provided,” the Illstrumentalist says. “That’s something I’d enjoy doing in the future. Even if I was to sell my company, I wouldn’t stop. You can have a lot of businesses.”

Happy To See You is out now.