Instrumentals

Writing here, elsewhere (in the ethos, maintain & build)

Constant Elevation/ Maintain And Build 12'' Prod. Maniac Mob 1996

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the amount of website entries has reduced here. I haven’t moved to a Nepalese cave, or shack near a Lombok beach (or hiding out on a fire-escape in some major urban centre in the United States) where the Internet is tricky, even if the connection in Paris remains highly irregular. (Tech support faults my computer).

The past 18 months have been a mix for me following the death of my sister in late July 2017. Passing within a fog, at times – not depression’s stark certainty, but harder to define emotions such as confusion, doubt and loneliness. Splintered, exaggerated feelings and reactions, marked by pain. Where the suffering is cumulative, thick with the past, held within disorienting realisations: I am older today than my sister when she died, though her birth preceded my own by two years.   

Writers writing about themselves writing after loss are not my interest. Though I appreciate memoirs of writers experiencing extreme circumstances: imprisonment, political exile and the like. Sentimentality is always the main risk with this kind of writing, alongside falseness, egotism. Seeking out the “silver lining” when the cloud is more pertinent. Looking for meaning and transcendence when there is none. Ignoring the fact that it is never only this.

Suffering is malleable, shifting to fit within the lives we lead. Children need to be fed, jobs attended, bills paid. Ambivalence about this continuation of life when confronted by pain does interest me; as another example of the in-between emotion that shapes much of our lives - some refer to it as aversion. But the truth is as I was coming to terms with this loss, other aspects of my life were moving forward. I was working more as a journalist than before, for Passion of the Weiss and The Wire mainly, but other places too.  

This “outside” writing as a music journalist is the principal reason for the decrease for posts on my site. Since December 2018 too I’ve also been working on a project that I hope to finish this June. I won’t detail it here. One of the most useful pieces of online psych knowledge I’ve picked up is the danger of sharing projects (and success) prematurely – the chorus, or absence, of hosannas lessening the intensity required to complete something; the fact that there needs to be something to push against for us to complete the work. I’ll keep it quiet for now (“pray for me,” though that I get it done).

Some of this journalism I’ve published during this time can be read here at my Muck Rack page, but it’s not all here. The site provides a great service, compiling portfolios of journalists. Over time, I’ll put up some of this writing and will also keep you in the loop re a future by-line, which marks a new/old direction and for that reason means a lot for me.

Feel free to check out Passion of the Weiss - please consider donating to the Patreon so the site can only get stronger - and read/subscribe to The Wire, a print magazine dedicated to the underground and those making music because it means something to them, others is something precious in this era of the disposable, trivial-hysteric and slapdash.

Thanks to the great editors at Passion of the Weiss and The Wire, for the commissions and responsiveness to my ideas/work; to my family and all those in the Paris circle too.   

Coda:

Nas, “N.Y. State of Mind,” (Illmatic, Columbia Records, 1994) prod. DJ Premier, interviews plus live performance

“[Intro]
Yeah, yeah
Ayo, Black, it’s time, word (Word, it’s time, man)
It’s time, man (Aight, man, begin)
Yeah, straight out the fuckin’ dungeons of rap 
Where fake ni**as don’t make it back
I don’t know how to start this shit, 
yo... now”

Not entirely sure about the above video, with it’s very literal editing (“Be havin’ dreams that I'ma gangster …” and there’s a close-up of a familiar screen face, ditto for other references, say “The city never sleeps, full of villains and creeps …”) splicing shots from Taxi Driver, Shaft with Nas’s rhymes about “stories when my peoples come back, black.”

Below the YouTube video two listeners battle it out (I’ll include the exchange at the end of this piece). One states baldly: “Show the 90s this stuff is not describing hip hop subculture and 90s suburbs” another replies: “Nas makes many references to pre-90s culture (including movies). It's supposed to be relatively timeless.”*

What’s interesting about “N.Y. State of Mind” is that it is both: archetypal and personal, in terms of its construction and themes. The first verse is Nas taking on the persona of a jaded, older man, as he put it in 2007:  

[“N.Y. State of Mind”] is one of my favourites, because that one painted a picture of the City like nobody else. I’m about eighteen when I’m saying that rhyme. I worked on that first album all my life, up until I was twenty, when it came out. I was a very young cat talking about it like a Vietnam veteran, talking like I’ve been through it all. That’s just how I felt around that time.

Interview with Rolling Stone (2007)

The opening lines has this “older man” looking back, comparing the current scene with the past: “It’s like the game ain’t the same/Got younger ni**as pullin’ the trigger, bringin’ fame to their name …” The second verse is more introspective, with Nas describing his artistry and compulsion to write: “I got so many rhymes, I don’t think I’m too sane/Life is parallel to Hell, but I must maintain …”

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"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.

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.

“Hop Special (Whiter Shade of Pale),” Roland Alphonso prod. Derrick Morgan, 7” (Pyramid, 1968) w/Alton Ellis, Pat Kelly & Lynn Taitt & The Jets plus more

“Roland’s flavor was one of the first tastes of the nation’s emerging musical identity. His saxophone sounds shaped Jamaican music at its “Boogie Shuffle” inception and into Ska, Rock Steady and Reggae.”

Brian Keyo, “Rolando Alphonso, 1931-1998 - A Remembrance of The Chief Musician, SoulVendors.com, 2003(?)

Embedded in this version of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” by the artist dubbed “The Chief Musician” of Jamaica, Roland Alphonso is the alchemy that so often defines essential recordings in any genre: the fusion of the individual artist’s spirit, with history, the expression of a clear voice that is enhanced by echoes of the past.

This performance, or interpretation remains open, expressing vulnerability where contrasts can co-exist. There is something both melancholy and stirring about this music, from the very opening moments, in its purposefully naive interpretation of the extremely famous song. My use of the word “naive” is not a criticism, but quite the reverse, as I have never liked the Procol Harum original – here is a video of a 1968 live performance - that was a massive hit (winning a Grammy, reaching first place on the UK charts, selling more than 10 million copies worldwide), but I love the Roland Alphonso version and some other reggae takes, also included here.

Some have said that the Procol Harum song is the most popular/best/greatest British song of all time, sharing the honour with Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody: two songs notable for their inclusion of the word “fandango” in their lyrics. The original may, or may not borrow from the second movement of Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D Major, one of the group’s song-writers, Allan Moore has said that there is “a certain family resemblance” that “creates the sense of [Bach’s] music but no direct quotation. (The music also borrows ideas from "When a Man Loves a Woman" by Percy Sledge, apparently).

Here is a truly beautiful performance of the Bach piece by the Mito Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Seiji Ozawa from 1990. I realise that the video might be a bit distracting, to get a sense of the wonder of the performance it might be best to listen to the music without it. Notice how the musicians allow the music to stay still at certain moments, allowing the music to rest before returning to the fold.

In praise of: Havoc/Mobb Deep (“Apostle’s Warning,” Hell on Earth, Loud Records, 1996), notes towards an essay, part 1*

Exiting the office to rue de la Chapelle, near Marx-Dormoy on the city’s northern edge, I notice the drop in the weather. Even if the change won’t last and the unseasonable sunshine will soon return, I’m happy to see the “grey” that Henry Miller once wrote is full of meaning for a French person, or Parisian.

Mobb Deep instrumentals capture the constricted atmosphere of Paris for me, even if the music is indelibly tied to its city of origins, New York. This is music for Paris when it’s cold, not raining so much as cold; the chill that comes in through badly sealed windows of (my) our apartment/s, entering our bones as we wait outside. It’s music of faces in my neighbourhood, in and around Château-Rouge and Barbès, immigrant locations where the hotels advertise the fact that they have rooms with hot running water, shared showers in the hall.

I’m writing this fully aware that no other group better conveys the essence of the city New York in the 90s than Mobb Deep. If you wanted to re-visit that era in a social or psychological sense, this music takes you there. Mobb Deep’s music lets you feel what it was like in the city and boroughs, to imagine what it was like walking around the streets, steam spiralling up from the lower depths of the subway.

And as with any great art, this music while individual is part of a continuum. Listening to the “Apostle’s Warning” instrumental, I hear Lou Reed’s skittish ad libs during 70s live performances, spiking a vein, pulling a tourniquet sharp by his teeth, and the dense wash of Suicide: it’s punk-ish, unreconstructed, keeping things hidden, below the water-mark. The precise becomes universal. Music which represents New York comes to evoke Paris in the imagination of an Australian and so it goes.

This is the music of big cities, weighed down by history, where our shadows and ghosts co-exist.

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Related article: “Prodigy, Mobb Deep (1974-2017)/”Up North Trip” (The Infamous, Loud Records, 1995) published 21st June, 2017

Madlib: an essay on his dub mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter, Chalice All-Stars, dub and hip-hop

(First published at Passion of the Weiss, 26th June, 2018)


When asked what he had learnt from J Dilla in a 2013 interview with France Inter, Madlib replied, “Stay loose. Keep it raw.” Then he said something indecipherable about drums. At a later Red Bull Music Academy event, Madlib described the value of keeping “some human mistakes in (his music),” before adding, “If it’s too perfect, I don’t want anything to do with it. If it’s too clean (…) or too polished, I don’t like it. That’s just me.”

Throughout Madlib’s three-decade career as composer, crate digger, DJ, producer, and MC, there’s always been a tense duality between messy and clean. The way the “Shame” beat on Piñata—his collaborative LP with Freddie Gibbs— is a pristine, perfectly balanced soul-based instrumental (albeit with an unexpected water effect), while “Real” is splintered with dissonant sounds is a perfect example.

Madlib projects also oscillate between polarities: his jazz-inflected work is orderly, respectful to their sources, while the Beat Konducta releases celebrate the unhinged, enacting an unruly musical eclecticism. It’s not surprising then that his dub/reggae mixes, Blunted in the Bomb Shelter (2002) and Chalice All-Stars (2010), operate within a similar space. The second of the pair, Chalice All-Stars, is now being reissued by Rappcats on vinyl.

Musicians draw on their training during live performance while aiming to be fully in the moment. Producers likewise follow their intellect, not just their instincts when creating music (even if they prefer to emphasize the “feeling” when talking about their craft). Any intellectual aspect might be shaped by preferences and be unique to them, but beat-making requires a cool head to focus on the music’s minutiae. The more analytical side of production stems from hip-hop’s foundations in DJ culture; in particular, understanding how songs work together, which is necessary to create a coherent mix.

It’s not unusual for hip-hop producers to emphasize their DJ skills, possibly to align themselves with the genre’s reggae roots and DJs who birthed the art-form in 1970s New York. Madlib sees himself as a “DJ first, producer second, and MC last.” This seems weird at first, considering his status and reputation as a producer. Yet the issue here lies in the narrow idea of what it means to be a DJ. As these dub/reggae mixes show, DJ-ing is not just about bringing the party to the people, it’s also about how music is heard.

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