"DOOM & Westside Gunn Sting with Bars on Alchemist Production" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 11 October 2017, read the article on the AFH site

Everything is muted, quiet like a beautiful, twisted lullaby on “2Stings,” the most recent single from the forthcoming WestsideDOOM (DOOM and Gunn) collaboration, produced by another Shady family member, The Alchemist. “2Stings” has a very particular feel to it: at once spacey and under-stated, but also dense with effects.

Sustaining it all is one of the most subdued drum sounds in recent Hip-Hop music and a solitary, discordant note that doesn’t let up until the very end, further enhancing the claustrophobic mood.

DOOM once again takes on the calm uncle role here; his verse made up of “New York-style wow” includes his trademark smart wordplay; at one point, for example, coupling “Pasadena” with “grass is greener (Black Bimmer).”

When Westside Gunn bursts onto the song’s scene, at about one minute in, it’s in his typical popping-arteries style at play. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles producer maintains control and the beat goes on as before. “Life is great,” the Buffalo, New York native spits with enthusiasm. He soon adds: “If they kick down the door / Hit the Fire Escape … Wait.” As a bonus, “2Stings” is available as a free download too.

No release date has so far been given for the release of a WestsideDOOM project. But in September, Westside Gunn announced on social media: “WESTSIDEDOOM is here prod by ALCHEMIST & DARINGER this is one of the illest projects I’ve ever heard when u think ART, this is it the RAWEST, FLYEST, GRIMIEST sh*t you’ve ever heard IN YA LIFE wats dope than FLYGOD & DOOM  spread the gospel the day is soon cometh.” In August, DOOM released “DOOMSAYER” on an Alchemist track. That song was removed from Adult Swim’s jukebox following DOOM’s sudden ceasing of his Missing Notebook Rhyme series.

Compared to the pair’s most recent offering, last month’s excitable “Gorilla Monsoon” produced by Daringer, “2Stings” is a masterclass in the power of musical restraint.

"Alchemist Dug Samples in Paris Record Stores then Made an EP with Local MCs" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 23 September 2017 read the article on the AFH site

Lush, abundant, playful; these three words perfectly describe Paris L.A. Bruxelles the recent project by acclaimed producer (and MC) Alchemist. This project sees him team up with a crew of French-language rappers.

Released via Red Bull Music Academy/Konbini Radio, the project is subtitled: “One Producer, Three Cities, 12 MCs, 1 mixtape, 1 concert,” as it sets up a show on September 27 at Paris’ Trabendo. All samples used for the beats were unearthed in Parisian record stores the past summer, where the Gangrene and Stepbrothers co-founder then recorded the MCs in the Red Bull Paris studios.

Now Eminem’s official DJ, Alc’ has built his reputation as one of Hip-Hop’s best over the past two decades via his collaborations with artists such as the late Prodigy from Mobb Deep, Curren$y, Roc Marciano and Action Bronson.

Unlike the cool minimalism of Alc’s production on classic cuts from Prodigy (see: “Keep It Thoro”), here the producer’s experimental spirit is given free reign. The music remains consistent, while constantly shifting gear.

For those who don’t speak French, there’s still a lot of interest to be found in this record. Perhaps not understanding the words even adds another dimension to the listening experience, in that the often gruff style of the Francophone MCs is taken as just another element in the mix.

Impressive is the way Al’ shifts moods throughout his production, see for example the single “Monnaie,” the title translates as “loose change” with its rehash of 60s Latin-Jazz, in the vein of Cal Tjader, that features Paris MCs Cool Connexion. Another stand-out is the opener, “Montre Suisse” (Swiss Watch) with the vocals of the Belgian duo Caballero and Jean Jass and the scratching of DJ Eskondo.

On social media, a few of the French MCs expressed their gratitude for the chance to work with such a great. The goodwill flows both ways, it seems.

Red Bull Music Academy✔@RBMA

Cet été, The @Alchemist était à Paris pour composer les instrus de la mixtape #PARISLABXL, à découvrir sur http://win.gs/ParisLABruxelles …

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10:41 AM - Sep 22, 2017

In a video released by Red Bull Music Academy, Alchemist shared how he appreciated the French capacity to “live life to the fullest.” A lot of the time, he said crate-digging feels like work, but here in Paris, he said, “they say, f*ck it, let’s have some wine.” Heads who tune in to Action’s F*ck That’s Delicious show regularly get to see Alchemist enjoying food, wine, and a musician’s life of exploration.

"The Secrets to J Dilla's Production Style Revealed in a Fantastic New Video" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 6 December 2017 read the article on the AFH site

For anyone wanting to understand why Detroit producer J Dilla is so revered more than one decade after his untimely death, a new video by journalist Estelle Caswell in the Vox “Earworm” series offers the perfect starting-point. This mini-documentary takes a close look at Dilla’s radical re-invention of drums, his passion for “low-end texture” and his highly creative, even eccentric interest in extending sounds. The Slum Village and JayLib member did it with some hardware.

The machine in question is Dilla’s Akai MPC 3000, currently on display in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Not unlike Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, or John Coltrane’s saxophone, Dilla’s MPC 3000 was an “extension of his self,” Caswell argues and a key to understanding his rare gift as an artist.

The first MPC (beginning with the 60 model) was released in 1988. It is, as Caswell notes a “holding station for all kinds of samples” with 16 touch-sensitive pads and able to take the role of the “musical brain of the studio.” But even though the idea of creating music from pre-recorded sounds goes back to the 1930s, Akai’s MPC ushered in a new era because of its portability and price.

“The MPC was a different beast because it really put you in the driver’s seat in terms of the sonic texture that you want it to have,” Brian “Raydar” Ellis, MC/producer and professor at Berklee College of Music explains in the video. Unlike previous drum machines, the MPC is “a fully customizable machine” allowing producers to manipulate sounds to fit their preferences.

By the mid-’90s, the MPC 3000 was an instrument of choice of the era’s top producers, such as Pete Rock, Dr. Dre and Q-Tip. And of course, J Dilla was also on that list.

One of the best parts of the video is The Roots’ Questlove doing a demo at a drum-kit. First, he does a traditional drum-pattern, but then he twists it into something more Dilla-esque, where drums typically sound as if “the kick-drum was played by a drunk three-year-old.” Questlove recalls how when he first heard Dilla drums, he wondered, “Are you allowed to do that?” But then adds, “That to me was the most liberating moment.”

Whereas many of Dilla’s contemporaries quantized their beats to make the drum sounds follow a perfect pattern, Dilla preferred to switch off this feature. In doing so, he created “a discography full of incredibly off-kilter drums.” But this was only part of it. Dilla was also known for his “signature low-end texture” which came from cutting all high-end frequencies of the sample: see here, the drums in The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’” from 1995’s Labcabincalifornia.

Caswell also spends time unpacking Dilla’s interest in extending sounds, see “Don’t Cry” from 2006’s seminal Donuts instrumental LP released on his birthday three days before his death. “Instead of chopping to the melody,” she begins, “He chopped up a handful of kicks and snares from the entire song regardless of the melody on top of it and like little puzzle pieces he re-sequenced these kicks and snares to an entirely new, dream-like song.”

Elsewhere in the video, Caswell sums up the extraordinary talent of the quintessential Detroit beat-maker this way: “[J Dilla] internalized every possible technique in Hip-Hop and expanded upon it.” And he did this “with an intense love and curiosity about sounds and a lot of patience.”

In the end, this video is not just for music-nerds wanting to learn more of the intricacy of what makes Hip-Hop production such a special beast, though they will surely like it too, but for anyone interested in learning what made J Dilla unique.

"Pete Rock & J Dilla Birthed a Beat Generation that Shaped the Future" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 4 January 2018, read the article on the AFH site


Within the space of three months in 2001, two of Hip-Hop’s preeminent producers, J Dilla and Pete Rock were in a kind of competition, and this led to the release of two ground-breaking albums that would shape the sound of the genre for the next decade and beyond.

According to Hip-Hop folklore, when Pete Rock heard Jay Dee’s idiosyncratic and, as it would later prove, highly influential debut, Welcome 2 Detroit on its February 2001 release, he felt compelled to match it and did so with PeteStrumentals a few months later.

“This guy took it at least two or three levels higher than me,” Pete Rock said of the Slum Village co-founder in Brian “B.Kyle” Atkins’ documentary Still Shining, per Complex “It’s like a chain reaction. Basically, it was like Larry Smith to Marley Marl, from Marley Marl to Pete Rock, from Pete Rock to Jay Dee….” He then says that Dilla was the “brand-new king,” with a talent that was  “ridiculous.” The two had worked together on the Villa’s Fantastic, Vol. 2 in 2000.

The two albums came out in the Beat Generation series via London-based label, BBE Records. The label was founded by DJs, Peter Adarkwah and Ben Jolly and took its name from the Universal Robot Band track, “Barely Breaking Even” from 1982. Later Beat Generation contributors in the series included Marley Marl’s Re-Entry, will.i.am.’s Lost ChangeDJ Jazzy Jeff (twice), DJ SpinnaKing BrittMadlib, then Dilla with The Shining in 2006.

BBE Records boss Adarkwah says that the series made its name in the US, with other key producers, such as Flying Lotus and 9th Wonder citing its importance. Not only did it set up the Jay Dee-Pete Rock dyad, it also ushered in an era where Pete Rock-type beat-tapes have their own currency. Something that is arguably a defining feature of the current Hip-Hop scene.

Adarkwah’s message to the Beat Generation producers was simple: “Do what you feel,” and urged the beat-makers to create music that embodied their musical tastes, in all its eclecticism.

“I’d been on enough shopping trips with Kenny [Dope] and Mr Thing to know that those guys don’t just listen to Hip-Hop. They buy Jazz, Rock, Funk, Reggae – they’re into everything. So, Beat Generation wasn’t just about people who make beats. It was about that Beat spirit of Allen Ginsberg and Jazz poetry. My brief to them was, ‘Do what you feel. Try and express what your influences are on record.’” He says that Dilla and Spinna out of all the contributors “nailed it the best.”

Leading up to his Welcome 2 Detroit solo record debut, Slum Village’s Dilla had been establishing himself as a producer, as one-third of The Ummah and working on Common’s 2000 critically acclaimed Like Water For Chocolateamong other projects.

Welcome 2 Detroit was a radical move on his part and unlike anything else around at the time: an album made up of fragments and unexpected musical and tonal shifts that was also marked by the  personality of its maker and the city he came from. On Welcome 2 Detroit, the young producer is reveling in mixing up musical genres (see: “Rico Suave Bossa Nova”) and thereby helps smash the template of a what a Hip-Hop album might sound like.

In the album liner notes, Dilla says how “B.B.E (Big Booty Express),” which transformed Kraftwerk’s elemental break “Trans-Europe Express” into a kind of space-age stripper anthem, was “his baby,” maybe because of its debt to Detroit Techno origins.

Dilla also sang a cover of Jazz trumpeter Donald Byrd’s “Think Twice” with Neo-Soul star, Dwele on trumpet and keys.

PeteStrumentals, meanwhile, put in place the foundations for all Soul-based Hip-Hop production that came in its wake, see here the pure melody and moody intelligence of “Smooth Sailing” and perhaps most famously “A Little Soul.”

In 2015, Pete Rock dropped PeteStrumentals 2 on Mello Music Group.

"Always a singer first": an interview with Illa J, following the release of John Yancey (Jakarta Records, 2018)

Naming his latest album, John Yancey – the artist’s birth name - might seem an overly sober, straight-forward move for Detroit singer and sometime rapper, Illa J but there are reasons and significance behind his choice.

In 2008, Illa J released Yancey Boys – a strong début showing off his talents as singer/MC against some superb unreleased beats by his late brother, J Dilla. With a tiny guest roster (Frank Nitt, Guilty Simpson …), the album was an intimate tribute to the much-missed producer/MC known as Jay Dee.

Yancey Boys still sounds great today, but it seems to have been a mixed blessing for Illa J who was just 19 when his brother passed. Hence the significance of the John Yancey title; this new album, like others before it is all about Illa J reclaiming his name in his own right, asserting - no matter how gently - the singularity of his voice, while still showing respect to his brother.  

John Yancey more than adequately meets any such challenges. Produced by Calvin Valentine - who also provided the music for the previous album, Home - it showcases Illa J’s sophisticated lyricism and truly sweet voice.

Meshing pop/R&B, with occasional rhymes, Illa J’s songs are carried by a summery, almost doo-wop vibe a lot of the time, while still held in the embrace of the music that raised him. Illa J’s vocals have a distinctive timbre, reminiscent … old school Smokey Robinson as he raps on the lovely hybrid-rap ballad, “Rose Gold.”

Other album highlights, such as “Tokyo” and the dulcet tones of “Sunday” similarly allow his vocals take centre stage. Future plans include moving into production, it’ll be interesting to see how Illa J continues to keep building his name as a vocalist, as that is where his real talent lies.   

Our phone conversation last month stayed focussed on Illa J’s new album, John Yancey.  When it was time to talk about the songs making references to J Dilla, “James Said” and “32,” the pre-paid credit on my phone cut, thus leaving my remaining questions unanswered. This seems appropriate, somehow.  

In the interview below, Illa J speaks about Detroit’s distinctive sound, and why we should thank the Yancey Boys’ musician father, Beverly Dewitt Yancey for providing the “foundations” for everything his gifted sons later produced and how Slum Village remains a key influence, as he says: “No Slum Village, no me.”  

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New Order, “The Perfect Kiss” 12” (Factory Records, 1985) plus live recordings

One of the miracles of modern popular music, okay I’m sure there’ll be some ready to debate and argue for the less-known New Order tracks here – note: I have heard them too – but this song, this song. Equally impressive for the mordant ambiguity of the lyrics:

I stood there beside myself
Thinking hard about the weather
Then came by a friend of mine
Suggested we go out together
Then I knew it from the start
This friend of mine would fall apart
Pretending not to see his gun
I said let’s go out and have some fun

as the music itself. This is music to collapse-dance to, to keep your limbs fluid because the music is so total, so totalising. Disco pure in its essence in its spirit: music that helps you ride out whatever you’re feeling, while retaining its own distance, pop music as ambivalence. Note too the animal SFX, to quote Wiks:

“The song's complex arrangement includes a number of instruments and methods not normally used by New Order. For example, a bridge features frogs croaking melodically. The band reportedly included them because Morris loved the effect and was looking for any excuse to use it. At the end of the track, the faint bleating of a (synthesized) sheep can be heard. Sheep samples would reappear in later New Order singles "Fine Time" and "Ruined in a Day".

Frogs, sheep bleating, keeping it Biblical …

As everyone notes, so there’s no need for me to be any different the outro on this track, from about 7’40” with its increase in sonic depth, is something to recognise, to appreciate: it carries within it the essence of energy in music, as the expression of freedom, of being free. But there is so much I love about this song, it’s hard to know where to start, all of those other sounds kept distinct – the pings, the frogs absolutely. There’s something about this music that brings out the kid in me.

Some of the motivation for my writing on hip-hop, and other forms of Black American music is a desire to not go backwards (for a long time this was writing for me, with no real “audience,” prompted by my curiosity and internal cues). Writing these pieces also allowed me to keep getting educated: start with the artist, trace it back, work out ways to put the music in context. (No, there is no kink in any of this as I was once asked by a person who grew up closer to the source. Don’t forget I live in Paris, not a suburban cul-de-sac or rural idyll. There’s nothing natural).

Spending time with music you don’t know that well, music that didn’t provide the foundations for earlier periods in your life also protects you from falling into comparisons past/present, as inevitably the new falls short when compared to what has been tested. Moreover, it stops you from doing what I did when listening to this song once again, after a long break, of posing unanswerable and not very useful questions, such as where is its contemporary equivalent? These is a dead-end, I know. I have no issue with the languid, drawn-out drums, that slowed-down sibilant shimmy that is so dominant now - the genuflection in front of vibey Roy Ayers and some of the softer music of Donald Byrd - this kind of beat has its own feeling, but which music today provides an energy fix similar to “The Perfect Kiss”?

Which songs meet our need to be pulled into the velocity? So much of what you hear these days is deep on mood and introspection (or over-synthetic pop that has always been there, always will be) where is the music that helps us lose ourselves?

New Order’s music is defined by its play with discomfort, what might seem blase. One listener below one of “The Perfect Kiss” videos, Noname, critiqued it on this basis, writing “Always had mixed feelings about this band. Magnificent, expansive, bombastic keyboards!...let down by those miserable weak vocals. Like an orchestra interrupted by a sad trombone.” (Another replied: “miserable? Bernard had a very good voice.” The most recent comment responding to the debate noted: “(Sumner) isn't a great singer but his voice fits in perfectly with New Order's slightly cheesy sound. If you had Frank sinatra singing here it would make things much worse.”)

But that verse where Sumner sings:

When you are alone at night
You search yourself for all the things
That you believe are right
If you give it all away
You throw away your only chance to be here today
Then a fight breaks out on your street
You lose another broken heart in a land of meat
My friend, he took his final breath
Now I know the perfect kiss is the kiss of death

it sounds urgent, it sounds heartfelt and a little desperate. “When you are alone at night/ You search yourself for all the things/That you believe are right …”

To quote Wiks once more: “In an interview with GQ Magazine Bernard Sumner said "I haven't a clue what (the song) is about." He agreed with the interviewer that his best-known lyric is in the song: "Pretending not to see his gun/I said, 'Let's go out and have some fun'". The lyrics, he added, came about after the band was visiting a man's house in the United States who showed his guns under his bed before they went out for an enjoyable night. It had been quickly written, recorded and mixed without sleep before the band went on tour in Australia.”

And:

“Despite being a fan favourite, the song was not performed live between 1993 and 2006 due to the complexity of converting the programs from the E-mu Emulator to the new Roland synthesizer. However, it returned to the live set at a performance in Athens on 3 June 2006.”

Here’s the B/side “Kiss of Death” described by Wik as:

"a typical New Order dub version: it is a mostly instrumental remix of the A-side with added effects; it notably features the opening of the album version. "Perfect Pit" is a short recording of synthesized bass and drum parts that sounds like Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris practicing.”

And the audio recorded live from the video shoot with director Jonathan Demme losing it with happiness/excitement at the end:

The very famous video you can watch here, see those final moments when each band member looks so composed and disengaged, having enacted their musical transaction in a way comparable to someone scanning goods at a supermarket. Apparently Demme was disappointed to discover that the drums were programmed as he wanted to film the band hitting that perfect beat.

Coda:

Six Beats: Godfather Don

Described by Immobilarity1 as “an evil, dark version of Large Professor, production-wise,” Godfather Don fits into one stream in the 90s NY underground associated with Kool Keith (The Cenobites, Ultramagnetic MCs), but is also known for his solo releases as producer and MC.

Despite some Godfather Don tracks tolling thousands of clicks online - “Status” has notched up 1.2 million views - the music I’m seeking out rolls in the tens, or hundreds, if lucky (okay this is a slight exaggeration, let’s say low thousands on average). Much if not most of his music seems to be overlooked. So this is written in part as a desire to balance things out, amid all of the hip-hop hagiography that exists of the usual suspects. Now and always, I’m interested in the artists who get lost in the mix.

Unlike Large Professor though, Godfather Don’s music is not trying to recreate a song in a conventional sense, with the exception perhaps with the first beat included here (and a few other examples of the same). There is nothing remotely symphonic, or lush and orchestral or even “jazzy” (as the genre is commonly misunderstood when applied to 90s-era beats). Nor is there anything slick, or too refined about Godfather Don’s instrumentals. This is music made of clay then perfected into object of beauty.

None of this is to suggest that the music if simple is basic or unskilled. In fact, this music is art because it doesn’t try to be something different to what it is - a hip-hop beat recorded and conceived in a certain environment, within a certain mindset. It sounds genuine, as if you sense the character of its maker (but this might be projection on my part). Added to this, as I will mention below the sound quality is beautiful in itself.

Most of Godfather Don’s music is instrumental hip-hop as deep soundscape, highly introspective dominated by two sonic impulses; speedy and manic, as heard in the delicate, skittery drums and then the broader ponderous weight of other samples, sounds that might be a vibraphone, or an organ (it’s hard to make them out). Added to this the mastery of key hip-hop elements, his drums are especially inventive – very rarely are they pushed to the forefront as you’d expect, usually they’re kind of evasive, hiding out in the recesses - and the quality of the recording of his music, and you have a fine producer; someone to return to, to rediscover.

Versions: Randy Weston "Ganawa (Blue Moses)" - 1972, 1991, 2006, 2013, plus interviews & live performances

“Mozart belongs to me, Dizzy Gillespie belongs to me. There’s no separation because each are geniuses and through music they described where they live. I love Russian music, with Stravinsky you hear the spirit of the people, so if we look at music as one, which I do, we have a lot to learn.”

Randy Weston, Interview - 50th Montreux Jazz Festival 2016



“In 1969, two years after relocating from Brooklyn to Tangier, Morocco, Randy Weston, then 43, attended a Lila—a Gnawa spiritual ceremony of music and dance—that transformed his consciousness and changed his life. In a remarkable chapter of his autobiography, African Rhythms (co-authored with Willard Jenkins), Weston recounted that although Gnawan elders, concerned for a non-initiate’s well-being, were reluctant to allow him to attend the all-night affair, he persisted, telling them that “perhaps the spirits [were] directing me to do this.” As has often happened during the iconic pianist-composer’s long career, he charmed them into seeing things his way.

Gnawa cosmology applies a different color—and a different rhythm and song—to each deity, and at a certain point during the proceedings, the musicians played dark blue for “the sky spirit with all that the sky represents—greatness, beauty, ambiguity, etc.” Weston’s “mind had been blown.”  Invited back the following night “to experience the color black,” he declined. Later, Gnawas with knowledge of these things told Weston that he had found his color.

“I’m not an ethnomusicologist or a spiritualist, but when you’re with these people long enough you don’t laugh at this stuff,” Weston wrote. How else to explain why Weston entered a two-week trance? “I was physically moving and otherwise going through my normal life, but I was in another dimension because this music was so powerful,” he explained. “Imagine hearing the black church, jazz, and the blues all at the same time.”

Ted Panken, “For Randy Weston’s 89th Birthday, A Recent DownBeat article (2015)


“Ganawa (Blue Moses)” Blue Moses, CTI, 1972