Producers

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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"Lloyd Banks Assists on Conway Campaign to Prove that He's the Grimiest, Ever" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 29 September 2017, read the article on the AFH site

That highly distinctive deep-atmosphere, kept so twitchy and tense, that defines the Griselda Records sound is on full display in “Bullet Club” – the first single taken from Conway The Machine’s upcoming G.O.A.T.  The track sees him paired up with G-Unit MC Lloyd Banks and fellow Griselda affiliate Benny.

Produced by Griselda beat-maker Daringer, the track perfectly captures the menace we now associate with the Buffalo, New York crew.  “Ni**as know something, don’t play stupid…” the sample at the start begins, setting the scene for Conway’s more measured than usual verse, against the trademark hysterical laughter and simulated gunfire.

Conway addresses the listener, or to be more accurate, the competition directly, telling us he’s “dropped the hardest tapes since ’94.” And that even though his face might be “twisted,” no other rapper can “spit it the way [he] spit it.” At one point, Conway challenges us to come up with a name equal to his, even stopping for “a minute” – literally. This adds a humorous touch to his earlier riff on people getting stabbed in the face and all the other elements that typically make up his dark musical head-space.

Lloyd Banks, who with 50 Cent dominated the East Coast Gangsta Rap game through the 2000s is fully at ease here with this next generation kindred spirits, setting it up perfectly for Griselda stable-mate Benny to close, as he makes a strong showing.

According to Mass Appealwho premiered the songG.O.A.T. will feature involvement from Alchemist, 9th Wonder, Styles P, ScHoolboy Q, Anderson .Paak, Royce 5’9”, and Westside Gunn.

"DOOM & Westside Gunn are the Bad Guys on New Collabo" (AFH archive)

First published at Ambrosia for Heads, 27 September 2017, read the article on the AFH site

Few would expect that DOOM would be taking on the straight role as he does in this vaudevillian Rap High-Art wonder, “Gorilla Monsoon,” produced by Daringer and more than ably set up by the unhinged prevarications of Westside Gunn.

Ayo/Ayo” Westside Gunn repeats in his squeakiest voice ever, alluding to himself as if he were Dorothy, far, far, far away from Kansas. “Ayo, I was in my cell, I clicked my heels three times / P Just 2’s, my khaki suit mastermind / Water whip, tossed the coke in the alkaline … Immaculate rhyme (Immaculate rhyme) / It’s so obvious / Watchin’ the world from up top / Snakeskin binoculars.” It’s hard not to be impressed by an MC that rhymes “obvious” with “binoculars.”

Stoned immaculate, the Buffalo, New York little brother sounds quite strange here. His helium-maniacal delivery is buttressed by the pure creativity of the Daringer beat, drenched in a tacky ‘50s B-grade movie vibe, but it sounds like he’s spinning about lyrically – letting off sparks.

It’s funny too, as Westside Gunn enunciates his rhymes with such an earnest style that sounds pre-adolescent: this is not an insult. He spits with great enthusiasm: “My bedroom had a bedroom, my wrist be dancin’ / My bedroom had a bedroom, my wrist be dancin’ / The flyest that’s livin’, we live and die by the kitchen / Choppin’ on dishes, rack the puff in…

In comparison, DOOM’s verse comes across as relatively sedate and even seems to make some sense. Unlike Westside Gunn’s verse with all its trademark Griselda interruptions – all the “skrrrrrtttt” and “Pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow” and “Drrrrr” and “Du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du…” – DOOM’s only has a subdued “yup” and “psst.”

DOOM seems to be taking on the older statesman role here, surveying the contemporary scene. His closing words are typically elegant, albeit with opaque references: “What’s revealed is of a certain feel – growth / Yellow moist mushy, banana peeled coke / At worst, could not be confused with real soap / Nope, you see disaster is intended / In the face of truth, don’t ever be offended….Overstand the past to get a grasp of the present (psst) / I make it faster than you spends it / End it.

What is particularly nice on “Gorilla Monsoon” is the way the musical mania is sustained by Daringer, in a way that supports the MCs’ imaginative flow. It never lets up, even while the drums are relatively relaxed and laidback.  Occasionally, there is a drum-roll, just for show almost, but it’s the wall of wavy sound that creates the highly cogent and distinctive mood that is almost beyond words.

"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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