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 …”

Such splitting allows for a change in delivery (the second verse is more fluid, especially when Nas opens up about his lyricism, in the lines above and when he compares himself to a “smooth criminal”).

This doubling is particularly interesting, and found elsewhere in hip-hop lyricism. Other genres use personae and multiple perspectives, but in hip-hop there’s often a meta aspect linked to the MC drawing attention to the act of writing itself. Nas puts forward a persona commenting on others at the start, to return to this writing of the character at the end: “I lay puzzles as I backtrack to earlier times/Nothing’s equivalent to a New York state of mind.”

References to writing exist in other genres: writing letters to former lovers, or receiving letters, for example, but hip-hop adds another dimension. Writing itself is a core theme, linked to ideas of reputation/status (killing off the competition etc) and survival. I write therefore I am.

None of this is abstract, at least not with my preferred MCs who allow for depth to come through not only on an intellectual level - via references, as Nas does here name-checking “Scarface” the film character, the rapper maybe - and making space for an emotional charge. You sense it here, Nas’s lyricism is not an exercise, a chance to show off, it’s an extension of his self and how he feels. Key to this is the intimate nature of hip-hop; the fact that rap is a spoken art, all the while playing with notions of authenticity and truth.

I understand the emphasis on analysing the line-by-line brilliance that consumes so many fans and critics alike. It makes sense, as a measure of the MC’s skill, as a way of consolidating community bonds. See here the Genius breakdown of “N.Y. State of Mind”, and impressive commentary on the following lines:

Inhale deep like the words of my breath
I never sleep—'cause sleep is the cousin of death

Here’s the take of one commentator:

“A truly classic rap line evoking ghetto drug dealers' “one eye open” sense of paranoia; perhaps inspired by the Talmud (which tells us sleep is 1/60th of death) or the Iliad (where Hypnos and Thanatos – i.e., “sleep” and “death” – are described as brothers)

This line’s 1st degree meaning is evident: sleep is a deathlike, inert state of consciousness

At the 2nd degree, “sleeping” is slang for being inattentive or negligent; a drug dealer who is robbed for lack of vigilance is said to be “caught sleeping”

Nas never “sleeps” – i.e., he’s never “caught sleeping” – because being an easy target could lead him to getting shot to death.

And, to top it all off, what’s New York City’s nickname?”

And another: “Sleep is the cousin of death” is also a Congolese proverb. While yet one more writer notes the parallel with one of the most famous speeches from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

(Nas, in an accompanying video for the Genius transcription says that the lines come from before he was born, from Africa).


II.

The New York nature of the track is not confined to the rhymes; it’s reflected in the title, of course, taken from a Billy Joel song from 1977, here covered by Barbra Streisand:

And music, most famously in the “false start” that opens the track. In this video DJ Premier describes the recording process – “20 people” in the booth alongside Nas, asking him to pass the Henny and weed, and explains how the famous “false” start came about …

This awkward opening reflects Nas’s youth/shyness (DJ Premier refers to the way Nas used to hide his face when recording a verse). It also enacts a key aspect of his craft as MC, the way he draws attention to his rhymes as process, as if he is bringing his verses into being as he raps them. Countless MCs boast about their greatness, Nas does this too here, but what is distinctive is the way he allows for what seems to be a spontaneous element, as if he’s making it up then and there – just like a freestyle. I’ve written about this before. It’s something distinctive about his rhymes, the way they have an energy to them, a liveliness.

And yet, as DJ Premier explains this wasn’t made up, it was the real thing, Nas was freestyling and responding to a  friend. Then recorded the verse in one take. That said, listening to it now it seems to convey a (fake) modesty. He raps: “I don’t know how to start this shit, yo …” to kick into one of the most extraordinary verses ever recorded, after the steadying “now …”

All this reflects something else that’s very New York, the freestyle culture kept alive via radio shows. (It’s more than likely the same culture existed elsewhere at the same time, but is less known to me). See the messy to-and-fro set-up, where the MCs banter along with the host, name-checking people who have supported them past and present, such as this very long intro on a 1993 Nas freestyle on the Stretch & Bobbito show, pre-Illmatic:

Keeping it loose like this does two things: it reinforces the fact that rap/hip-hop is part of an oral tradition, of people shooting the breeze playing with language in an improvised way, while also being a crucial part of the performance, allowing the audience to be wowed by the genius of the rhymes that come after it. It’s as if the MC is so cool, so good that they don’t need the formality of a worked-out introduction, it comes so easily to them – their speaking poetry of this quality and magnitude, it’s as natural for them as breathing.  

It also enacts a consciousness where hip-hop draws on Black American musical/cultural traditions, where improvisation is a key element, if not the most essential element – the sign that a musician is blessed, as heard in jazz and other forms of spoken-word performance from the 60s and 70s.  

The DJ Premier beat also has a disassembling aspect, in contrast to the other more melodic beats on Illmatic (see Pete Rock’s emphasis on certain words in “The World is Yours”, something that is quintessentially Motown, or the formal song-based structure of the Large Professor instrumentals).

“N.Y. State of Mind” starts on a single drum sound, which Nas then repeats in the “yeah,” but what makes this very New York is the high-pitched single note repeated like a bell (cf: Easy Mo Bee). This interest in emphasis individual notes (rather than melodies) is one reason why hip-hop music-making is so radical (though this too could be part of the jazz inheritance).

The piano comes in, again as a single note to supplement; on second hearing, it sounds like two piano lines, or the three-note keyboard line and piano. The skill of Nas’s rhymes is the way he maintains the energy; you could listen to his rhymes on that basis alone, the rhythm of them, slowing becoming more groove-like at two points, as previously mentioned. His control is impressive.

The three-note melody and perhaps more comes from Joe Chambers’s “Mind Rain” from his 1978 Double Exposure album:

(Other samples mentioned on the Genius site are “Live at the Barbeque” Main Source; “Mahogany” Eric B & Rakim; “N.T.” Kool & The Gang and “Flight Time” Donald Byrd).

Interestingly the original Joe Chambers piece has a similar mood the the instrumental, of music being in formation, in development; it has a reflective, unformed quality to it, albeit grounded by the low notes (the beginning of both pieces of music especially remind me of the other).

Here’s the full album, Double Exposure, which was recorded in 1977 in New York; with Chambers on “p, e-p, dr, perc” and Larry Young on “og, syn.” As one of the commenters says, enthusiastically: “One of the very few duo albums in jazz using mainly the piano / organ format!! Probably the only one. Hats off to drummer Joe Chambers who shows his skills on the piano here. Joining with space brother Larry, this tops everything. A deep spiritual gem from the great Muse label!!!”

Have a look at this video where DJ Premier speaks more about the Joe Chambers sample and how he used it:

To close, a live performance of “N.Y. State of Mind” by Nas in formal attire/sunglasses at the Kennedy Center, backed by an orchestra and DJ from 2018 (with Korean subtitles):

 *(From above: T: “Weak answer” .. HHL: “Elaborate then. Not one line in this song is specific to the 1990s/T: “Still a very weak answer. You talk to me about something you engineered out of bizarre ideas, I talk to you about THE MUSIC.

HHL: Lmao I'm basing my argument off of the lyrics, it's not just my opinion. Nas was born in 1973, so he's writing a lot about his early experiences of life in Queensbridge. Crime in New York (a primary focus of the song) didn't start in the 90s, it was something that he grew up with (hence "the dungeons of rap"). Violent crime in NYC began to skyrocket in the 70s during white flight and continued into the 80s during the crack epidemic. He makes references to Scarface (1983), The Message by Grandmaster Flash (1982), Al Capone (early-mid 1900s), etc. Even the sampled beat in the song is a jazz record from 1977.

T replies: “Blah blah blah blah ...... no.”) For those who’d prefer a “90s-era fan mash-up video,” go here.

"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.”  

    

Madeleine Byrne: The promo material says John Yancey is all about Los Angeles, whereas Home was about Detroit. For me when listening to the record what came through were ideas about relationships, love and lust in songs like “Tokyo” and “Rose Gold.” What do you think about that comment?

Illa J: Well, I mean it wasn’t specifically about Los Angeles, but the vibe was, musically it was more Californian but as far as the subject matter the album is more personal relationships over the past ten years, not a specific time; all the experiences I’ve been through. I’m talking about a little bit of everything.

MB: You’ve got a real talent for evoking matters of the human heart, those songs I mentioned before stood out for me (“Rose Gold” and “Tokyo”). Could you choose one and explain what you were aiming for?    

Illa J: “Tokyo,” for example, is a straight-forward R&B song. The music comes first, it’s whatever the vibe is (I write to that), so for “Tokyo” as soon as I heard the beat it was R&B for me; the melody comes first, then I bring the words in, even when I’m rapping, you know rhythmically. I’m a singer, so melody comes first, but in terms of the subject matter, the music tells you. But we set ourselves up for those situations, ‘cause I pick beats that sound (a certain way). The subject matter just comes, the music brings it out.

MB: Let’s talk about “12 AM”  because the song has got a really different mood.

Illa J: Technically that song started the album, it was the first track we did. The one difference is that was the only song that was recorded in Detroit. Every other song was recorded in LA. That was the only one I recorded over the beat somewhere else, not in the studio – every other song was recorded in the studio. You definitely hear a different vibe on it because I was in Detroit the time I recorded that song.

MB: How is that vibe in Detroit different?

Illa J: A range of music inspires you differently … It’s hard to explain, but I write different things when I’m in Detroit versus when I’m in LA. It’s a different feeling I have, more “real life style”, it’s almost like trying to get out if I’m in Detroit, even if I’m good there’s a certain kind of energy that it brings out in me.

MB: What is it about that sound in Detroit, though, obviously your brother (J Dilla) is an important part of it, but how would you describe it for someone who doesn’t know much about Detroit’s music scene?

Illa J: Honestly, if you go back and study Motown, you’ll understand it all. The drums are heavier in the Motown stuff, they have like two drummers drumming at the same time. Don’t get it twisted it’s pop/Soul, pop melodies but if you listen to the full sound of it, it’s pop but still soulful, it has a certain feeling, you know what I mean? It’s nothing technical musically, you could have an electronic beat if you do the right thing to it and it could feel soulful, it’s all about your individuality and what you put into the music.

It’s just that Motown musical feeling, and definitely that 9-5 grind that we grew up around is ingrained in us as well, but I think it’s one of those things you absorb the kind of environment that’s around you. If you listen to Snoop and all of them, one thing I find in Cali – not all of them – but a lot of Cali artists have got a laid-back kind of vibe in their songs. It makes sense. They got palm trees to look at every day, the sound might be similar to Detroit the funk of it, but it sounds more laid-back; ours is more gritty, that’s what it is. We got snow and all that stuff. A lot of these beats are made in winter ‘cause you don’t want to be outside (laughs).

MB: I understand that the production is sample-based, did you use any live instrumentation on any of the tracks?

Illa J: All the production is done by Calvin Valentine, though on the next album I’m going to do the production; it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, even when I was younger, but you know my brother had just passed when I started, and it was so much of a comparison thing. That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t produced my albums, but at the same time I like working with other producers ‘cause on my solo albums I can then focus on my song-writing and my vocals. Calvin Valentine did all the music; he’s a talented producer and solo artist as well. It’s all sample-based, even though some tracks don’t sound like it. Calvin plays around with it, he plays on top of it and builds on it.

MB: Thanks for mentioning Motown before because you can see it’s a big influence. One of your tracks (“Rose Gold”) includes a reference to Smokey Robinson, you had a song called “Sam Cook” – no e at the end -  on your last record, Home. Your dad is extremely important too in terms of this. As far as I understand it, he wrote The Spinners’ song “It’s a Shame” is that correct?

Illa J: Yeah, yeah, he ghost-wrote that song. I mean it’ s the same thing today, you have songwriters who write songs, but they pay them to not give them the credit, they pay them upfront because they don’t want to give them the royalties from it, or whatever. My dad sold that song to The Spinners.

MB: I saw in an interview that you’d sing with him when you were growing up and here’s a quote: “My dad would wake us up at three in the morning and he’d be layering harmonies on his tape recorder.” Could you talk some more about your dad and how he has inspired you in terms of your music?

Illa J: He’s the musical foundations. Don’t get me wrong both my mom and dad are musical, my mom sings too, but my dad is the one; there wouldn’t be a J Dilla if it wasn’t for my dad. He was a songwriter, he played piano – both his parents played piano. His group went on the road with The Harlem Globetrotters way, way back in the day. He was making moves back then. I don’t know how to put it but basically everything me and my brother have done is inspired by my dad, because he never had a chance to have solo success. Motown wanted to sign my dad but he didn’t want to take the deal from Motown. He knew all the people there. They wanted to sign him, but he didn’t want to sign with them for whatever reason.

MB: Can you recall any conversations with your dad when you’d talk about music, something you might remember to today?

Illa J: I mean, we talked about music a lot of times, it’d be hard to break it down to one conversation, but it was just one of those things; my dad had it, James had it, not so much conversations but schooling us to jazz. I started off with jazz because of my dad, I listened to a lot of vocalists growing up, the obvious ones – Stevie Wonder all of that stuff, cause if you’re growing up in Detroit you’re going to hear all of that – as far as our household I heard a lot of a cappella jazz, Manhattan Transfer, Les Double Six of Paris. They were back in the day, even before Manhattan Transfer before anyone even knew who Manhattan Transfer was, they did a whole album with Quincy Jones (Les Double Six – Rencontrent Quincy Jones, Columbia, 1960)

putting words to it in French. One of the dopest a cappella jazz groups ever. My dad put me up on them, you should check them out. I grew up with a lot of a cappella jazz – just jazz period, more than any other music I learnt jazz first.

(Here’s an announcement from the Stones Throw website marking the event of Beverly Dewitt Yancey’s death in 2012. In a later email Illa J passed on this information about his father: “Beverly Dewitt Yancey. Born West Virginia, October 8th, 1932, played music all his life, both his parents played piano for silent movies. He had a band called "The Ivies." They put a record with an A and B side, “C’mon" & "Sunshine." Motown wanted to sign his group the Ivies.”) 

MB: I saw that you had experience singing in church, but it sounds like you had more of a jazz education than church/gospel ….

Illa J: No, no, no all of it at the same time; all of it at the same time, that was the household, we went to church on Sunday, I was in the church choir. It was a full musical background. Jazz was the household, I was in choir as well, I got a lot of training from that. I didn’t realise till later that was a lot of good training: rehearsals, I’d go to my mom and dad’s rehearsals and Sunday choir. Not judging but it wasn’t like Catholic church where it’s just (breaks into falsetto trilling singing) it was the real thing, it was soul like real music. That was good training everything I would end up doing later, not until five or six years ago I really started to master my voice, working with my vocal coach.

I was always a singer first, I feel like people are like oh so you’re a singer now, no I’ve always been a singer. I just could rap, rapping was always something I could do I’m musical, I grew up writing poetry, so writing was never anything, but it was always singing for me.

MB: I don’t want to avoid speaking about your mom, how would you describe her influence on your music?                      

Illa J: Musically my mom was a singer, so she’d tell me different singers to listen to, to practice, but like as I say my dad was the musical foundations. I understand they both did music, again my mom sings too, but my dad was the musical inspiration for everybody. He was the musical master. He even got her more into jazz, ‘cause he was helping her as a singer. He heard her voice and wanted to work with her. My dad was the man, musically; on the music thing, he was the one.

Obviously, they made us, but it is what it is, my dad is the man. People don’t know that, they never mention my dad like that, like you can’t talk about J Dilla without my dad. No, he’s the one (laughs). Of course, I say this to mom, show love to my mom, but really my dad is the one, I’m a spitting image of him. I would not be able to do anything musically without him. I’m most conscious of him because he is more of a song-writer, you know melody side, music period – the jazz chords, the rhythms, I took all of that and the singing stuff ‘cause I was a singer like when my dad was in a group.

They had an a cappella jazz group that’d record at our house. This happened even before I was born, so my brother would play drums for them when they were singing, but I was singing, learning my notes, taking the harmonies.

MB: What ages are you talking about here?

Illa J: All my life, as far as I can remember, before I could talk (laughs) music was around. It was the main driver: it was like brush my teeth, watch TV, music. It was always a big part of our lives.

MB: One of the songs “Sunday” on the new album, the harmonies in that song are fantastic. It’s quite different to the other songs, what’s the story behind it?

Illa J: Well, it’s technically an interlude, but we didn’t want to call it an interlude, no it’s just a shorter track. Each track touches on personal stuff and stuff with my brother, a lot of it is relationships based but also how your life affects your relationships. “Sunday” is everything coming together near the end, I went through all these things, but I’m still here. All those things weren’t in vain, I learned from it, how to get myself back up and keep going. Literally “Sunday” is like church, it ends almost like a gospel song, that song was like all the stuff I’ve been through the album and you get to that song and it’s like Sunday, literally (laughs).

MB: On Twitter you call yourself: “Singer, rapper, songwriter, alien” Frank Nitt, of course had a song on the first Yancey Boys album called “Alien Family” where he’s talking about how Jay Dee really loved aliens and how “the Jackson Five from Mars” could be a description of your family, what is it with these alien references?

Illa J: To me, it makes sense, Frank used to call my brother alien, honestly for me it has nothing to do with that, my dad’s favourite channel with the Sci-Fi channel so we grew up with that, Science fiction movies, scary movies and all that stuff. I’ve always been into extra-terrestrial (stuff) … space, aliens all that type of stuff. In a personal way, I always felt, ah different (laughs) I’ve never fitted in, even around my people, I still have my weirdness, I always felt like I never fitted in fully. I feel like an alien in that way, I actually have a tattoo too on my left arm, it’s an alien (laughs). I just got it this year.

MB: And you also got a tattoo of 1932, the year your dad was born, right?

Illa J: Yeah, but it’s tied to both themes: it’s the year my dad was born and the age my brother died. I was 19, he was 32.

 

MB: The new record is quite international – you’ve got references to Ukraine, Japan, Paris, London and other places – Home your previous album was apparently about finding your own voice, about going home, “a spiritual reference about the journey of finding my own voice” is the way you put it. Now Detroit is still important to you, I’d expect, even though you’re based in LA. Do you go back there often?

Illa J: No (laughs), but it’s still important. I love it, it’s my home. I know that’s where I became who I am today, it started there. It will always be home base no matter what, I just don’t see myself living there at least not right now.

MB: The video for “Home” was filmed I think at your actual childhood home, is that right?

Illa J: Yeah, it’s the very first home, it’s the house I literally grew up in, and the house I’m singing in front of was when I was a baby, I was only a baby there. The first house in the video, the very first house they show I lived there a lot of years, a lot of my growing up – my teenage years – were there.

MB: There’s another song I’d like to speak about from that record, “Seven Mile,” it’s an interesting contrast; “Home” is like a rousing, stirring song, “Seven Mile” is completely different, much harder but funkier too in a way. Could you talk about how the songs work together?

Illa J: For me that album has got a dirty soul type of vibe to it, Home wasn’t just the title it was more of a vibe, by the end of the recording it came through as a common theme, so it didn’t make sense to call it “7 Mile.”

One of my favourite things is titling songs with a word that’s not used in the song. Sometimes a title just describes the vibe of the song. “7 Mile” – the street Seven Mile in Detroit is one of the crazy streets to drive on, the street is really messed up, really bumpy; that was the purpose of the video driving down, it’s more about the vibe and the feeling.

It’s almost like they’re taking the drive, it’s a tough road and they’re going get through. “Home” is more a spiritual realisation, like I went through all that stuff and I’m finally home, it’s about making it home. I made it, back home, it was kind of real, cause even though I was then technically still living in Montreal, I had to come out here, I had some shows in California, so that’s how I was able to record it.

By the time the album came out, I was moving back home, so it was really spiritual; it was for real, home. Now it’s full circle with John Yancey because it’s the first album in a while that has my last name in it, Yancey in the title, since Yancey Boys and it’s ten years later I put out this album, John Yancey.

It’s full circle, it’s almost where I wanted it to go originally, there’s more singing on this album, I’m still rapping, but there’s more singing. The singing is very present. That’s what I want people to see, oh yeah, he’s a singer, for the longest time people were looking at me like a rapper, and I’m like no I’m not a rapper.

MB: You’ve always been a singer, where does this feeling come from of thinking that people see you as a rapper first?

Illa J: With The Yancey Boys album … people still don’t get it, it’s like once you rap, automatically you’re a rapper. The only way to get around that is to not rap, that’s what worked on Home. I rap less, then they have to pay attention to my singing, I don’t know what it is. I listen to music a lot and I’ve been doing it for years, the average listener they’re not listening like that, you have to do so much more for them to get an understanding of it.

Even with this album, it’s like (people still call it) a hip-hop album, but it’s not. It’s a weird type of vibe, it’s a total hip-hop vibe, but if you really listen to it it’s not an underground hip-hop album at all (laughs), but I will still be put in that category. They’ll call it an underground rap album, and I’m like, no it’s not, go back and listen to it. It’s damn near a soul/R&B album with rapping on it, if you really listen to it, it’s not an underground rap album. I want to get out of that category, what is underground rap? What is conscious rap?

I make music, that’s it. I listen to everything. I listen to pop music, R&B, ‘cause there’s good music everywhere. There’s wack music everywhere, there’s wack music in underground rap, people are like I’m from the underground, so they feel like they’re better. No, there is great pop music, people get it twisted like oh he’s making pop music, he’s selling out, it’s like no, I’m making music for everybody. You’re actually limiting yourself if you go in a specific genre. It’s not like yeah, I’m hip-hop, I make music.

MB: One thing that’s interesting about this is that everybody goes on about how the rap in Detroit is hard, with the techno-influence etc but Slum Village which you were a part of, touring and recording with in 2012-2013, was all about melody and changing the lyrical content, your brother J Dilla had heaps of tracks about relationships, about lusting after women, you know …

Illa J: Exactly.

MB: So, what you’re describing is kind of surprising as in Detroit there’s a long tradition of singers teaming up with rappers.

Illa J: Thank you, yes. If anything, that is our history: Detroit musical history is pop music, pop Soul music is what it is, it’s weird it’s got to the point where it’s only this underground rap thing, ‘cause it was different late 90s/early 2000s. Even some mainstream artists wanted to be called underground cause it was a different thing then, now it’s just like a turn-off when it’s underground cause it’s going to be overly conscious.

When there’s a song with rapping it’s like they just wanted to hear themselves rap and I’m like where’s the song? I can’t see it. Every song on my album has a specific topic. Every single song is very specific, “BTW” is about me travelling and doing music and trying to have a relationship, “Enjoy the Ride” is about someone going through some shit but still enjoying the ride, “Tokyo” is what it is … Everything has a specific topic. You won’t be confused, I guarantee it, you won’t be like what’s this song about. I worked very hard on my writing to get away from that, in the rap world it’s easy to stray away from the topic and you end up rapping for two minutes about … what? (laughs)

MB: Bringing it back to Slum Village, there’s a connection with what you’re doing now I think in terms of their music, the focus on melody, talking about relationships. What do you think about that idea?

Illa J: I definitely represent their vibe, it is what it is, T3 is my brother and Young RJ is my brother. I was very influenced by them ‘cause that was my introduction to a lot of that type of music ‘cause you know I was telling you about my dad, I was listening to whatever music my dad was. When we were younger we didn’t have access to explicit content (laughs) you had to get some permission, or sneak out and buy a CD to get some explicit content, I had no idea what else was out there outside what my parents were playing on the radio, so all I heard was Stevie Wonder and all that stuff and jazz and things like that until I was seven, or eight or nine and could sneak out and grab my brother’s cassettes and all of his quote, unquote explicit music, all that rap stuff that was out at that time.

Slum was my introduction to that type of music, they have influenced me their whole style, if you listen to my records you definitely are going to hear the influence of Slum Village – it is what it is, no Slum Village no me (laughs). It’s all the same story, I can’t tell my story without saying something about Slum, even in my career, they play a big part.

I was working with them for three years, I was only on that album in 2013, but I was actually technically working with them for longer. We did two straight mixtapes, Dirty Songs 1 & 2, two full complete projects but they were released as mixtapes and was touring with them the same time. Evolution in 2013 was the only album, even though I was working with them the two previous years. A lot of things I learnt from them was in the studio, that’s where I learnt a lot of things from Slum. I really got way better as a recording artist.

MB: To close let’s bring it back to your album, John Yancey, there are two strong references to your brother on it: the songs “James Said” and “32”.

Illa J: “James Said” basically, cause on the hook I sing, “like one won’t do” ‘cause he had a song, “Won’t do” on The Shining album. It was me writing my verse, building on that – again it represents how it was when I was younger and I was trying to be my bro in a way, you know what I mean? It’s almost me trying to take him on but at the same time I’m talking about me and what I went through, on the hook you can see it’s like the younger me, learning, going through stuff.

“32” is the most direct, in that song I’m actually talking to James, literally talking to James. “James said” is more a reference to my brother, “32” is me talking straight to my brother and when it comes on you can hear his voice, that’s his voicemail. (You can hear it at the end of track, Sunday) That’s his actual outgoing message, then you hear him talking under my singing when the song starts, you hear me singing, “The things we go through are …” (sings) The voice under that talking is him, that’s James talking.

MB: It’s very powerful, I thought it was his voice.  

Illa J: The point of that song is that I’m 32 years-old and he died when he was 32 years-old and that’s trippy as hell, I’m 32 now, that’s crazy and talk about the whole 1932 thing as well in the verse. The point of that song is that I’ve never had a conversation with my brother as a grown man …

(and with that the line cuts).      

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.

None of his music is chilled-out, relaxing lo-fi in the slightest thankfully, it’s music with its own energy and personality. Within its parameters it is bold and intense. And yet on first impression, Godfather Don’s music is so unassuming, especially when you remember that it came out of that era of uber-producers, staking out territory and reinventing the form. It is anti-epic, anti-saga. Some of these beats might have been included in my writing on hip-hop quiet if I had been listening to them at that time.

Narrowing this selection down to six was difficult; six is my self-imposed limit now and into the future (I’m not a great believer in all-encompassing, everything-ever-recorded-by-one-particular-artist lists that proliferate in music journalism, I find them tiring). Be aware, though that there are many other Godfather Don instrumentals I wanted to add to this group, I hope that if you like these beats you will be inspired to go looking for more online.

Other decisions were made too, whether or not to include his humour (see the apparently linked beats following a theme, “My Driver’s Downstairs,” “Call Me A Cab”) or the beats that were retro-80s (“Just Mix it Yourself” or “Video Taping,” say) or to focus in on the work he did with Kool Keith

but decided against all of these ideas. Best to keep it direct and focussed, simple even, like the music itself.

“Born Rodney Chapman, Godfather Don is a Producer and emcee from Bushwick, Flatbush, New York.

Godfather Don first appeared in 1991 with Hazardous, released on the Select Records. The album established the Godfather as an MC influenced by the blatant, hard-hitting style of Chuck D. A few years later, the Don appeared on and produced the Ultramagnetic MC’s' The Four Horsemen, which led to a collaboration with that group’s standout, Kool Keith. He has also provided remix work for likes of Nas and House Of Pain as one half of The Groove Merchantz, whom he shared production/remixing duties with Vince “The Mighty V.I.C.” Padilla. Aside from his Hip Hop based repertoire, Godfather Don is also a professional saxophone player, and regularly plays improvised Jazz music with his band The Open Mind.”

From Genius listing on Godfather Don 

Not sure about the reference to Chuck D, which is repeated on Godfather Don’s Wikipedia page; for me the approach of the two MCs, style and content, are oceans apart. Okay some Godfather Don tracks - see this 1992 “Pull da Trigga & Step” - is Chuck D-esque, maybe, but the parallel seems like a bit of a stretch, to me.

 “The Don appeared on and produced the Ultramagnetic MC'sThe Four Horsemen, which led to a collaboration with that group's standout, Kool Keith. The Cenobites EP was issued on Fondle 'Em Records, which was started by New York b-boy, DJ, and man about town Bobbito Garcia. The material on the EP had originally been recorded as gags or promos for Garcia's underground hip-hop radio show on New York's WKCR. The Cenobites EP was then reissued by Fondle 'Em as a full-length LP. Throughout the 1990s, Godfather Don continued to work as a producer, working on tracks from Kool Keith, Hostyle, and Ayatollah, among others. In 1999, he released his second album, Diabolique, on which his flow was very similar to the bludgeoning raps of his 1991 debut. The album included cameo appearances from Kool Keith and Sir Menelik, and appeared on the Hydra Entertainment imprint, for which Godfather Don continued to record, releasing several 12" singles and Instrumental hip hop albums.

In the 2000s, Don was known for his work with Screwball, a Queensbridge hip hop group, producing much of their 3 albums.

In 2007, Don resurfaced with 'The Slave Of New York E.P.': an EP of previously-unreleased archive material in association with hip-hop website Diggers With Gratitude who tracked him down and worked on putting this project out. 150 copies of this six track vinyl E.P. were released, with the first 45 copies having signed sleeves. The material used was recorded before and during his time with Hydra, with the title track coming directly from a cassette that Don had given to Bobbito to play on WKCR. Due to the resurge in interest, Don was then asked to release a CD compilation of material by another label, titled The Nineties Sessions, out now.

On May 21, 2011 Don dropped another EP of previously unreleased material titled "The Reformation Circa. 1999" a collaborative effort between Mic-el The Don, (who featured on tracks from the "Diabolique" album) and Godfather Don. The EP was recorded sometime in the late 1990s, it is one of Godfather Don's last full bodies of work in the hip-hop genre before he moved on to a career in Jazz music.”

Wikis, Godfather Don

1. “Styles By the Gram” 12”(Properties of Steel, Hydra Beats, 1996) plus “Slave to New York” (The Slave of New York, Diggers with Gratitude re-issue 2007)

To start with what may be my favourite Godfather Don beat, though as you’ll see I had trouble narrowing it down to six here – it kept getting extended so the self-imposed limit means nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing at all, or very little let’s say. Here’s the track with the rhymes.

It could be said that this beat sounds like many other instrumentals from that era and location. There’s nothing so radical or surprising about it, but the sound of the recording is superb and I love the way the music comes back with a minuscule inversion after the moment of the silence; there’s something very smooth about the way Godfather Don manipulates these (familiar) details.

Added to this the layered horns and sound effects, billowing and echoing all around it. WhoSampled states that the three-track Godfather Don release samples the Pete Rock/CL Smooth instrumental “It’s on You” (The Main Ingredient, Electra, 1994).

The site also claims that the Pete Rock track sample comes in at “0:00 (and throughout)” on the Godfather Don Properties of Steel release, not sure how that works. It’s true that from my online search it seems Godfather Don had some favourite samples that he returned to, but it’s unlikely he repeated just one sample throughout the entire release. Here it is with other tracks on this 2010 reissue, dubbed with a very cute retro promo styling, the “definitive Godfather Don singles collection” on its cover sticker. It has one of his better-known tracks “World Premiere” on it.

Here’s the full The Slave of New York ep.

2. “Burn” (Diabolique &/or 12”, Hydra Entertainment, 1998 - release info unclear if either includes instrumental version)

“1997. Produced by Godfather Don” – info below the video, that’s it.

What’s interesting about this instrumental is the contrast already mentioned above between the two kinds of sounds; the nervy, speedy insistent drums/percussion that skip along and sheer weight and heaviness of the other sounds. I really like the way Godfather Don allows for this contrast in his music between the lightness of drums (in itself kind of surprising, remember how many/most instrumentals from this time made the drums super-imposing and dominant, indeed it’s seem to be a characteristic of the era’s signature sound, at least on the East Coast) and then the other darker elements.

Apparently this instrumental includes a sample from Notorious B.I.G’s “Who Shot Ya?” - this is something else I noticed about Godfather Don the repeated sampling of his peers, or almost peers amid the more predictable 70s picks:

If true, and it may not be, it adds another - funny - dimension to Godfather Don’s title. Remember Biggie’s lines: “I burn baby burn like Disco Inferno/Burn slow like blunts with yayo/Peel more skins than Idaho potato …”

3. “Stuck Off – The Realness” (Hydra Entertainment. 1995)

Another perfect piece of music for me, I would have definitely been a good fit for my essay on hip-hop quiet if I had heard it back then. The beat samples Mobb Deep/Havoc’s “Shook Ones II” instrumental (1995):

and … Big Daddy Kane’s “Just Rhymin’ with Biz,” feat. Biz Markie (1988) - apparently - this song came up a few times in the WhoSampled information on the Godfather Don beats included there:

You can’t get more divergent sources of inspiration than the two above (if it is accurate) - splicing the two up, putting them alongside each other reflects a sense of humour not always it seems associated with Godfather Don’s musical output.

Compare the Godfather Don/Havoc beats to get a sense of the personal style of both producers. The Havoc beat is built from a small number of sonic elements, as is the Godfather Don, but has a dramatic sense of building towards something, developing and transforming as if it were a fragment from a movie soundtrack; some moment of drama, close to the cliff’s descent where the sea is swirling ominously below. The sounds are sharp, expertly judged in terms of the choice and the execution.

In contrast, the Godfather Don is shockingly simple, apparently undeveloped. The sounds are muffled, but carry within this a warmth and resonance – as if this is the principal goal of the music. A lot of music writers use the term “minimalist” when referring to hip-hop, without exploring what it might mean outside of being simple, or unadorned. Minimalism is about turning attention to the sounds, a small number of sounds; turning the focus inward (for some composers it might have been to encourage a depth in the listening, a form of contemplation as the elements become the most important aspect of the music, rather than the execution overall).

For me, all of the above makes sense when listening to American composers, especially, associated with minimalism (Riley, Adams, Reich) even if they did not embrace the term for their music, but the pieces that I return to are intense; they carry within them a force often lacking in the so-called-lo-fi hip-hop beats I think are frequently mislabelled in this way. For this appellation to make any sense the sounds themselves need to be “simple” – as in the Godfather Don beat - you can’t have a flashy jazz horn sample lodged alongside a loud basic boom bap beat and then call the music minimalist just because the producer chose to leave it like that for the duration of three minutes or less. It needs to be understated in all senses and yet touch you in a profound way.

Here’s a useful very short introduction to minimalism in music with an excerpt from an interview with Reich and mention of his piece, “It’s Gonna Rain” from 1965/1968. Check out too this interesting Reddit music theory thread debating whether or not US minimalist composers influenced hip-hop as a genre.   

4. “Yeah”/” Where'z the Skillz” (The Ill Funk Freaker EP, One Leg Up Records reissue, 2009 - not clear again if includes instrumental versions)

No information that I could find online about the samples, listen to those beautiful drum sounds that sound close to a bassline and so kept back. All the elements coming forward, but receding constantly and the “jingle bells hi hats! So 90s!” in the words of one listener. The drums in this are really something special; I listen to a lot of New York instrumentals from the 90s, with vocals and without and it’s rare to find beats this creative in terms of the core elements that sound so strong too, after all this time. Here is it with the rhymes over it, the recording is a bit unbalanced with the beat as the key element, the vocal line hard to make out, but this makes it kind of interesting too.

5. “Fame” (Da Bomb single, Hydra Entertainment, 1998)

This is a pure beauty. It’s surprising that there isn’t more of a Bowie/hip-hop overlap, especially considering how deeply immersed Bowie was in Black American source music (his album Young Americans that featured this song, his least favourite on the album was a love letter to these musical roots). As always, it’s the odd details in the beat that make this so special, that shift in the drums sound just over 35 seconds in, for instance and the way one sample from the original track is repeated at the start then disappears entirely to be replaced with another swathe from the song. Godfather Don shifts the hook to make it a critique of his peers, sounding lifted from 80s rap. It was released on the “Da Bomb” record.  Here’s the Bowie original instrumental from the Young Americans album, 1975.

And from the same year, Bowie looking high and malnourished, impressing the Soul Train dancers with his stylish moves (in all his emphatic lip-synch glory, caressing the mic):

Below the YT video there’s this comment on his performance: "I'm very drunk in this" David Bowie told Russell Harty in 1975 referring to his Soul Train TV appearance. "I was very nervous so I had a couple of drinks, which I never do and I really shouldn't have. It's lovely. It's very funny."


6. “Creepin’” (Hydra Beats Vol. 3, Hydra Entertainment, 1997)

(That noise just before 1’30” makes it for me).

Coda:

*Six Beats.

Not a best-of list, not a list with any kind of broader import, six beats, six tracks, six songs by an artist that click with me. Zero significance outside that metric.

"I'm my own competition," an interview with Black Milk, following the release of FEVER

First published at Passion of the Weiss, April 5 2018

Rather than stay wedded to the early-career production style that made his name furnishing beats for Slum Village and other Detroit artists (Royce da 5’9, Danny Brown, Elzhi) and provided the soundtracks for his solo albums from the mid-2000s on, Black Milk has always preferred the more adventurous route.

His 2014 EP, Glitches in the Break, for instance, sounded like little else he’d done to up until that point: deconstructed, driven by bass-lines and disembodied vocal samples, with each track offering sharp contrast to the next. Accordingly, the impressionistic portrait of hometown Detroit, that same year’s If There’s a Hell Below…, similarly marked a new direction.

In the four years since, Black Milk has been pretty quiet, aside from his near-constant touring with his live band, Nat Turner and the group’s 2015 release, The Rebellion Sessions. After an extended period living in Texas, Black Milk is now based in Los Angeles, where he recorded his most recent LP, FEVER, along with additional sessions featuring local musicians back in Detroit.

Many of Black Milk’s core lyrical interests return on FEVER, with the MC expressing concern about the way social media dehumanizes and distorts relationships (“Laugh Now, Cry Later”), schools churning out ill-educated fools (“True Lies”), racism and police violence (“Drown”); but FEVER never dips into the raw, more experimental style of past releases, preferring instead to play with a late ’70s jazz-funk sound, which imbues the album with an air of chic refinement and definite cool.

MB: I remember the last time we spoke, you said that you were interested in developing engineering skills. How do you assess your development here, not just as a producer, but as an engineer?

Black Milk: I feel I’ve grown as both a producer and an engineer. I’m always in search of new things, different things, that I can add to what I do to make it sound better. As a producer, that’s pretty much my day to day, trying to figure out things, or working out ways to create an even better sound to what I’ve done in the past. Not necessarily better, but to expand it, you know, and see if I can push it to its limits even more; that’s the way it is.

MB: You’ve mixed your previous recordings, right?

Black Milk: Yeah, I’ve mixed all my albums. I’ve always mixed my music, produced my music, and created it. This is not a new task that I’ve taken on. I think with the last two or three projects the difference is I’ve become more focused on engineering, more than anything. Of course, I’ve always mixed my stuff, but I wasn’t as focused on the engineering side as trying to produce a great track or produce a great beat. Producing is second nature to me at this point, but I feel like I need to have more strength in mixing as an engineer.

MB: Now, the title FEVER. I’ve read that you chose the title because of the current climate in the US, but it’s also the name of one of the most famous songs from the twentieth century, written by Little Willie John in 1956 and covered by so many artists, from Peggy Lee to The Cramps. You haven’t mentioned this, I’m wondering why.

Black Milk: [Sings] “You give me fever…,” that song?

MB: Yeah, surely making a link here is intentional?

Black Milk: No, that wasn’t intentional, I didn’t even have that song in mind when I chose the title. The way I come up with any of my album titles is I try to find a lot of different phrases that sound good to me that also look good on paper, “fever” was one of words out of a long list that I had. I like the way the word looks; I like the way the letters are, and I wanted to do a one-word title, I didn’t want to do a long album title. Of course, I knew about the song “Fever” and an earlier album with the same name, but it had nothing to do with why I titled my album FEVER.

MB: FEVER isn’t a standard hip-hop album. When creating the music, were you thinking about how it fits in a genre? To me it sounds a lot like late ‘70s/early ‘80s jazz-funk, Quincy Jones, The Blackbyrds, etc.

Black Milk: Well, I look at myself as an artist that is seen as someone who is original, you know, making music and art from the heart and from a real place, a true place. That comes with rewards and sometimes, consequences, I don’t know if “consequences” is the right word, but it’s like you’re going to find yourself in situations that lead to certain kinds of struggles or hurdles in terms of pushing through and getting exposed to a more mainstream audience.The flipside of this is that when you create something that’s unique, different, and in a lane of its own, it gets respect, not only from your fellow musicians, but from a certain kind of fan who appreciates individuality. That’s more important to me when it’s all said and done. When I look back at my legacy I want to feel like I stayed true to what I wanted to do and was able to still make a career and a living off the work and it coming from a real place. A lot of artists you’ve just mentioned I think that’s what they were doing, so I’m in good company.

MB: I hear what you’re saying, in some ways it’s true, but in other ways it’s not because there seems to be a real resurgence in this sound, say the various recent Robert Glasper projects. Do you think that there is a kind of revival of this sound happening now?

Black Milk: Yeah, there’s definitely a revival of not only the sound but it’s a revival of artists doing what they want to do and challenging their audience, challenging their fans. I think this is because we live in the Internet age. Now more so than ever you can be an individual because if you’re good at what you do and know how to market and promote yourself online you can create an audience in a bubble, in a world that has nothing to do with anything else outside of that bubble and people will find you. They will come inside that bubble, that world and support that. It wasn’t like that 20 years ago.We live in a time now when everyone can be who they want to be and if they do it well they can create a world for themselves and people who enjoy what they do. That’s where I am now, I’m more focused on creating my own world and whoever enjoys what I do in my world, they can be a part of it. I don’t ever have to worry about competing against anyone else: I’m my own competition.

MB: Something interesting about your career is that you have a very strong international presence, and this might bring a different audience. A recent show you did in Paris was at a jazz venue, this is also why I asked about jazz-funk because it seems there’s a space for people who are not only ‘real hip-hop heads’ to connect with your work because it’s different. Is this something you’re thinking about as well?

Black Milk: Yeah, that’s something I’ve observed with this new album. I feel like I’ve seen more musicians follow me and comment on what I’m doing. I’ve seen more people in general who are not necessarily in the hip-hop space support the music and follow me on social media and comment on the music. That’s where I want to be.I want my music and myself as an artist to cross over into that world of live music and musicians. The hip-hop world is cool and it’s great, I’ve developed a good reputation in the hip-hop space, but I feel like my music—especially at this point—there are more layers to it than a hip-hop beat and some hip-hop verses. I’m trying to up the musicality on what I do. That shows with my new album as different kinds of people, different kinds of audiences gravitate towards it. Hopefully when I do the tour for this album I’ll see an even more diverse audience in front of me when I’m up on stage.

MB: Another link with that era is the sample on “Will Remain” from Rare Silk, their song “Storm” from 1985. This seems to be the only obvious sample on the record, is that correct?

Black Milk: That was just one of those records. I’m still looking for samples, that’s still part of the process, I still love chopping up samples so sometimes when I come across a record to sample, I feel like it’s just so good that I would be do a disservice to the track if I tried to chop it up, or disguise it or do too much to it, I prefer to just leave it alone. That was one of those tracks where I loved the vocal sample so much I didn’t want to do anything but add drums, and a little bit of music around it. I didn’t want to manipulate it that much to lose the feeling that made me gravitate towards it. That’s why I left it kind of obvious.

MB: That’s one of the outstanding tracks on the record for me, I like the way you make things out of sync, or a bit off-kilter and there’s a very interesting drum/bass interaction going on as well.

Black Milk: I found Rare Silk’s “Storm” on YouTube. I’d never heard of it and I was like, I’m kind of surprised that I hadn’t heard it ‘cause as a producer I’ve heard of most things, so when I found it I put it to the side ’cause I knew that I was going to use it eventually for the album. I went to Detroit and had the musicians put the guitar part down, the keys on top of it and felt like I needed to make a record that would represent the feel of the beat and the feel of the track. I tried to write a hook, but felt that the vocal sample was so good, I just left it alone, just let the sample breathe by itself.


MB: The classic hip-hop elements on the record are subtle, which is refreshing, even on the single “True Lies.” The hook is kind of different. Is this something you’re trying to do as well, to write songs that are different from the classic hip-hop formula?

Black Milk: Yeah, it’s conscious as I try to create some flows and cadences and structures that aren’t the norm, so with “True Lies”—that’s my personal favorite on the album—that’s one of the reasons why because the hook is broken up. I leave space between the track and my verse, just to let the track breathe. I think I’m going to do more of that in the future with songs I create where I use my voice like another instrument on the album. I know people often say this, but I didn’t want to over rap, or do too much vocally where it took away from the track. I just wanted to my voice to weave in and out of the beat.

MB: That comes through when you hear “True Lies.” It’s a change in delivery, especially the pausing, it seems like it comes from live performance where you’re keeping some space for the audience response. You’re performing with a live band all the time. Is this something you now factor in when writing songs?

Black Milk: Yeah, I was kind of thinking that is something to keep in mind. I’ve done so many shows over the years and now have a good idea of what moves people, what rhythms and vibes move a room. I definitely keep that in mind. When I’m on stage I do songs that are a little bit more laidback, not overly hyped. I think that’s when I captivate the room the most. That was one reason why I made some of the new music a bit more spaced out and smooth, relaxed, not overly aggressive and in your face ’cause I knew for the most part that’s what works well live.

MB: There are other great musicians as well, but let’s start with the drummers [Chris Dave and Daru Jones] and bass [Malik Hunter] as they are the key parts on the songs.

Black Milk: In terms of working with Malik, I’ve been working with him a long time, he’s part of Nat Turner, my live show. On this album he played bass and my guitarist also played bass on certain tracks, Sasha Kashperko, he’s my guitarist and played some bass on some songs.Daru Jones played on about four tracks, including the song with Dwele, “2 Would Try.” The beat was pretty much already made but I got Daru to play on top of the drums I put down. On the song you can hear the muting in and out of his drums and my drums, my drums are regularly programmed MPC drums. I also had Chris Dave, another well-known, iconic drummer play percussion on “Laugh Now, Cry Later” and “Drown.”

MB: The instrumental “DiVE” is an extraordinary piece of music. When I was listening to it I felt like the drums had a West African percussion feel to it, the drums are just great.

Black Milk: Thank you. I think that was the last track I put on the album. I already had the beat. I don’t know, the samples led me to make that kind of drum beat when I put it together and got my guitarist Sasha Kashperko played the guitar part over it.
MB: How do you make the decision as to whether a track is going to be sample-based or live?

Black Milk: I don’t know, almost every track has a live element. I just always feel that way. The live texture of a horn, or drum or bass, you can’t really duplicate the feel in software, just as a drum machine can’t duplicate the feel of someone playing, you get close but it’s never exact. I always love the energy of someone playing live on a track because most of the music I love from back in the day is live, so I like to try and incorporate that in some way into almost every track I do if I can.Even a track like “But I Can Be” is a track that started off as a melody from a Parliament/Funkadelic record that I had everyone playing on. I then took what they played and I used it like I would use a sample from a record, chopped it up, reprogrammed it, turned it into a different key, and turned it into something totally different from what they played. That happens a lot too where musicians might play something; I don’t use what they play in that moment but take it and manipulate it, turn it into something totally different. It just depends on the track, it depends on the mood of the song.

MB: Earlier, you mentioned the song “Drown.” I think it’s an interesting song because it’s impressive musically, but it has a political dimension as well; you’re talking about police violence and racism. Can talk about this track because I don’t think it’s gotten much attention?

Black Milk: I feel the same way. It’s probably another one of my favorites. I felt like I needed to address what is still going on with police and the black community, the relationship between the two and other things that have happened over the last couple of years.I felt like I needed to do it from a perspective that hasn’t really been spoken about, to talk about the idea that anyone who is part of a police force and sees the injustice that is happening and they’re not doing anything to make it better, or getting people who shouldn’t be in a police problem out of there, I feel like they are part of the problem as well. If they see something and don’t do anything about it. I felt like this was something I wanted to mention. In terms of production I had a track that I’d sampled and beat that I felt was perfect backdrop for that song.

MB: It’s not didactic, you’ve kept it subtle. In interviews, you’ve talked about your need to be “simple” and “bold” on FEVER, but the stronger songs are the ones where the message is more nuanced. “Drown” is a good example of that.

Black Milk: Yeah, I definitely didn’t want the album to come off preachy. I wanted to speak about a number of topics, but consciously wanted to do them in a way where I didn’t come off holier than thou or up on my high horse, pretentious or coming off like I’m better than everyone or judgmental.I think judgmental is the perfect word because a lot of times you have rappers who talk online all day giving their opinions on what’s right and what’s wrong and it comes off annoying. It gets to a point where you just want to say, ‘Shut the fuck up,’ and then you listen to the music and you feel they’re trying to tell you what to do, you know? Everyone has a certain way that they live and a certain way they look at life, so I just wanted to say it in a way that feels like I’m not attacking anyone.

MB: The final words of the album are powerful: “Everyone is a potential victim.” One thing I noticed about the record is that the songs finish quite abruptly, and then this also has a very abrupt feeling; it leaves you feeling a bit destabilized. What’s going on there?

Black Milk: With that phrase, “Everyone is a potential victim,” it’s basically just saying that after everything I’ve said on the album, all the things I’ve talked about, I kind of felt like no matter who you are, what level in life you have, if you’re not part of the powers that be that control the world or the situation we live in, everyone is a potential victim. That’s what that little phrase meant at the end: No one is better than anyone at the end of the day, we’re all human, everyone is a potential victim to the powers that be.

MB: That’s pretty intense, isn’t it?

Black Milk: [Laughs] Yeah and that was the last, literally the last piece that I put on the album. I found that little piece of dialogue the night before I turned in the album. I just felt that would be a pretty perfect way to end the album.

“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.

There are many performances of this piece, as you would expect for such a famous work; many if not most have a deep, unified approach that can border on the schmaltz, unfortunately, To get a sense of an alternative approach that is less lyrical but still retains some delicacy, not weighed down by this “united front” see this rendition by The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra.

Other reggae artists covered the song, soon after its release: principally Alton Ellis, prod. Coxsone Dodd, on his 1967 album Alton Ellis LP : Sings Rock & Soul:

This cover is another marvel (for me); the combination of the manic/maniacal keys and one of the best basslines, a mix of tentative and insistent - going no particular place - the jagged beat and then the really special delivery of Alton Ellis, all those added syllables and stretching of words, it’s so heartfelt. Beautiful.

Pat Kelly released his version in 1979, production by Ossie Hibbert:

While researching this work I came across two really excellent extended pieces on Roland Alphonso; these two essays stood out, even if there wasn’t much available online on an artist whose career spanned five decades and included working with the key figures and being a founding member of the Skatalites.

The first by Brian Keyo (see his site, Tallawah.com here which includes a great introduction to the era, “From The Aces To The Zodiacs, A Primer in Jamaican Rock Steady”) covers Alphonso’s career in enormous detail, with anecdotes that are both informative and frequently touching. After reading his essay, “Rolando Alphonso, 1931-1998, A Remembrance of the Chief Musician” I felt like I had not only increased my knowledge of the artist, alongside his contemporaries but also had a sense of the man’s character and personality.

The second comes from reggaevibes.com and linked to the 2016 reissue of ABC Rocksteady on Dub Store Records. You can read it in full here, but following this is an extract that puts Alphonso’s career in context:

“Mrs. Sonia Pottinger is one of Jamaica’s reggae pioneers. She was the first female Jamaican record producer, running her Gay Feet and High Note labels out of her Tip-Top Record shop in Orange Street, Kingston. After some minor hits during the ska period she broke through in the rocksteady era with gigantic hits from The Melodians, The Gaylads, Ken Boothe, Stranger & Patsy and Delano Stewart. In the seventies she delivered excellent productions by Culture, Marcia Griffiths, Justin Hinds, Bob Andy and Big Youth. In 1985 she left the business. Sonia Pottinger died at her home in Kingston on 3 November 2010.

In 1968 she released an instrumental album by Roland Alphonso, “ABC Rocksteady”. The original liner notes reveal the motivation behind the making of this album: “It came about as a result of four months of intensive and extensive study by the producer – the need for proper orchestration was the first consideration – the lack of that “something” in most rocksteady arrangements, made it necessary to select a group of musicians who apart from their individual ability, could together provide unequalled harmony.” The album was known as “Roland Alphonso With The Originals Orchestra – ABC Rocksteady” and appeared on the Gay Feet label in Jamaica, in the UK it was issued by High Note Records with a different sleeve. The Original Orchestra were Aubrey Adams on organ and Lynn Tait on guitar. Bass player Boris Gardiner arranged and conducted the project at West Indies Studios with Lynford Anderson aka Andy Capp as engineer.

Roland Alphonso aka “The Chief Musician” (12 January 1931 – 20 November 1998) was a Jamaican tenor saxophonist, and one of the founding members of the Skatalites. Born in Havana, Cuba, Alphonso came to Jamaica at the age of two with his Jamaican mother, and started to learn saxophone at the Stony Hill Industrial School. In 1948 he left school to join Eric Deans’ orchestra. In 1956 he first recorded for Clement “Coxsone” Dodd, although these early recordings were lost before they were mastered. He became a regular member of the in-house band of session musicians for producers Clement Dodd and Duke Reid. He also acted as arranger at many of Dodd’s recording sessions.

By 1960, he was recording for many producers on the island and he took part in the creation of The Studio One Orchestra, the first session band at Dodd’s newly opened recording studio. This band soon adopted the name of The Skatalites. When the Skatalites disbanded by August 1965, Alphonso formed the Soul Brothers (with Johnny “Dizzy” Moore, and Jackie Mittoo) to become The Soul Vendors in 1967. During the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, he kept on playing on numerous records coming out of Jamaican studios, especially for Bunny Lee. He was awarded Officer of the Order of Distinction by the Jamaican government in 1977, and started to tour more often in the US. He took part in the reformation of the Skatalites in 1983, with whom he toured and recorded constantly until he suffered a burst blood vessel in his head during a show at the Key Club in Hollywood. He died on 20 November 1998 at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.”

Below is an interview with Roger Steffens, where Roland Alphonso speaks in depth about his career on “The Reggae Beat”show. It also includes a live performance from 1985. Steffens starts by asking one of the “most controversial questions” in reggae history (relating to Coxsone Dodd and the Skatalites) to get a crazy-sounding laugh from Alphonso in reply as he shares his knowledge.

“Hop Special” (Whiter Shade of Pale)” was released as a single; the other side was “On The Move” - the accompanying musicians were Lynn Taitt & The Jets. To close then here’s one of their greatest - and funniest - tracks, “Soul Food” from 1968:

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.

Not so long ago I listened to an interview with Robert Wyatt where he said that his career has been devoted to recreating a certain sound, over and over again in all its permutations, that expressed something of his character and was personal to him. One sound over and over again, returning to the source. This is something I also believe in terms of how I hear and write about music. As even though I became an adult in a diametrically opposed environment to that of Prodigy and Havoc (on the other side of the earth, in another time-zone), returning to listen to Mobb Deep some years back convinced me of the rightness of this path as a listener and writer (as this early excitable almost-giddy-fan-missive shows). None of this has changed.

Mobb Deep’s music also has another deep personal significance, as someone who went to the 2015 show at The Bataclan, only weeks before the massacre took place; a shared trauma that remains deeply felt here in Paris, even if it is rarely mentioned.

(See this essay on Prodigy that I wrote following his death last year that explores this more ….)

Often it’s said that Havoc gets overlooked in all those best-of-producers-lists. This is true. It’s not my place to make an assessment of his career, since the 90s or in terms of its influence on others. Such assessments tend to miss the point anyway. No-one would compare novelists like this: no-one would bother saying that J.D. Salinger, a writer whose one masterpiece influenced all U.S. writers in his wake is less important/worthy than Saul Bellow. To do so would be a disservice to both, denying the achievement of one, when diminishing the other.

There are few albums from the same era that master the symmetry or strange mood of his music (let alone the adventurous use of samples). Yes, there are other New York 90s-era producers who are more inventive, risk-taking or elegant, who might be more skilled in terms of their creations, who have had more varied careers, but few create music that sticks with you in the same way. There’s something deeply affecting about the simplicity and control of Havoc’s production. Then, judging it from a European perspective, this work can be heard at the very foundations of French rap and there is a direct line between it and the sound of London rap, and grime.

I.

“Apostle’s Warning”

Two things impress me each time I hear this instrumental; first the extraordinary depth and beauty/weirdness of the first 20 seconds or so that originally reminded me of a kind of cowboy “Raw Hide” cry, à la Wu-Tang Clan, but in fact is a super-clipped sample of Michael Jackson’s version of “People Make the World Go ‘Round” from his 1972 album, Ben.

For this alone the track would be impressive, just on the basis of the way the sample is used. The second thing is harder to express in words, but relates to the way expectations are up-ended in terms of how the sounds are placed; where are the drums here, in relation to the bass-line; which is more dominant, and what, in fact, is that bass sound? It’s so rare and strange and intense.

[Verse 2: Prodigy]
Yo, my empire strikes with the strength of poisonous snakes
My entire unit loaded up with snake ni**as that hire stakes
We pull off a high stakes, great escapes, expand, shift team downstate
Dreams of growing old with my son to live great
Little man I'm plannin' to enhance your mindstate
The rebirth, a ni**a who lived an ill life
The one before me was of an even more trife
My understandin', I'll raise you with precise plannin'
And put you on to the whole game of this planet
But I gotta survive in order to follow through
Plans to live lotto, me and my little kicko
Any man tryin' to stop us, he get wet tho
He couldn't withstand the snake bite, there is no antidote
Don't you put your hands too close and try to approach
I won't snap at you I'm goin' for throats
And when you feel my bite, ya sing high notes
I peeped you from deep and then you got cut close
My formulae: I live life do or die
Stare into the eyes of a deep wiseguy
Prodigy, turnin' ni**as to protegés
My protegé, I advise ya ass to make way
Make way...for fully-auto gun spray
You're small prey, I'll easily bait and trap game
This man is half mad scientist-half sane
Create a rhyme labyrinth like poisonous cannabis
Here, take a toke of this deadly rare vocalist
Overpower y'all, tiny noise like locusts
Like sunlight thru a magnifying glass I'll focus and burn
A hole straight thru ya brain and leave ya open (Oh shit!)
And let the venom soak in
You start sweatin' and goin' thru convulsions from dope shit I writ
Leavin' ni**as stuck, I let stick
Trapped up in a web of a ni**a that's sick
I'll wrap you up in cocoon, get caught up in the midst
A dangerous, it's risky business fuckin' with this
Contender number one I put you on top of the list
You're the best challenger so far, I'll give you this
But peep this (What?) fatal shots that solar plex
Man Down...now who dares to go next?
Like General Monk Monk orders to chop necks
I send a message to my whole clique to bomb shit
Atomic, no time for calm shit
We hyperactive when it’s time to Vietnam it
Ya whole alliance gets singlehandedly bombed-ed
Take heed to the Apostle's Warning
Word up!

*My plan is to write more on Mobb Deep instrumentals, this is just the start of it: and to write on the ones that get less attention, this is why I started with “Apostle’s Warning” here, so this is just an intro again for a project that’ll be returned to at some point.

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.



In 2010, Madlib set himself a challenge that ended up becoming the Medicine Show series. Thirteen albums, originally planned to come out each month via his archetypal reggae moniker Madlib Invazion over a period of just over a year. Odd months were to showcase original production, the evens mixes of other artists.

Chalice All-Stars (AKA Son of Super Ape) came out in April. Its promo material had a dope-smoking theme, while the title references Lee “Scratch” Perry. The tracklist didn’t name artists, but had names like “What Are The Medical Benefits of Smoking Marijuana?” Some were more loopy, for example: “Are a Lot of Pesticides on Pot?” The accompanying text read: “All Jamaican sounds. You’re tuning to your boss D.J. Madlib. Musical disc from the flick of his wrist to make you jump and twist. Madlib control the fullest. Roots. Rock. Reggae. Good stuff, as I would say.”

This reference to Madlib as DJ is key, not only because the first few seconds of Chalice All-Stars includes the word “DJ” as part of the intro, but also because of the way it encourages us to look again at the work’s conception and form.

Before listening to Chalice All-Stars, I had been spending a lot of time with Madlib’s stranger stuff, the hard to categorize projects like The Brain Wreck Show, Rock Konducta, and the adventurous—if more conventionally melodic—Black Soul mixtape and Beat Konducta Vol. 1-2: Movie Scenes. Something about this “undefined” music clicked with me, especially since it upended any notion of Madlib’s production as straight-edge hip-hop style. I felt energized by the wild freedom the music contained.

My first take on the Chalice All-Stars mix was that it seemed a bit bland in comparison. There is not much variety in the mix. Songs come in, with the vocals providing the unifying element. Many of the singers (to my ears) sounded alike: lively in the style of Dillinger. Most, if not all of the artists were less known, with some exceptions: the aforementioned Dillinger, Jah Lion, Ranking Dread, and U-Roy. This was not a mix for a Saturday night to keep the crowd dancing, or a greatest hits. In fact, it was not very danceable at all (the songs changed too quickly). Not much was added in terms of effects, the mood was unchanging. Then I realized something…What Madlib was doing on the Chalice All-Stars mix was being a DJ, in a very pure sense; not a producer. The two roles are crucially different. Whereas a hip-hop producer’s talent can be gauged via their creation of music from divergent musical sources and making it appear seamless, a DJ’s role is to locate pieces of music that resemble each other in their original form, then place them side by side with the minimum of distraction, ergo Chalice All-Stars.

Rather than being a weakness, this now impressed me as a strength; imagine listening to music and hearing points of connection and commonality, despite their more obvious differences. Later, returning to some of Madlib’s other projects, particularly The Brain Wreck Show, I noticed the same thing. Disparate sounds and samples resembled each other in their original form.

The 2002 Blunted in Bomb Shelter release followed Trojan Records, giving Madlib the opportunity to delve into its artist roster then create a mix from its contents. According to the blurb from Rappcats:

“In 2002 some good folks who have the Trojan & Greensleeves catalog asked Madlib to make a mixtape of these classic reggae records. They sent him a huge box with every record they had. For about two months Madlib played these records, smoked trees, made hip-hop beats, and recorded with YNQ in his studio The Bomb Shelter. One night they called and said hey where’s the music, it’s overdue. Next morning this mixtape emerged from the cave.”

This mix was what I had expected Chalice All-Stars to sound like. (Here’s an artists’ tracklist). It’s radically shape-shifting and colored by the core dub aesthetic of stripping everything back to the essential elements of drum, bass, and effects. Drawing repeatedly on King Tubby, it included many of dub’s greatest artists and sounded like a classic recording from the late 1970s/early 1980s. Edges were kept messy. There was no through-line, the hand of the producer could be felt in the use of effects and external vocal samples. It was the very definition of flux and experimentation. It maintained the transcendental aspect of the dub version, while allowing for the human element to come through.

All this made it much easier for me to like it, as it corresponded with my preferences, but at the same time it bugged me a little. Until hearing it, I was so sure of my theory about Madlib as DJ and what this meant in terms of his work, and now that argument was in pieces. No complaint, as this refusal to be contained is, in the end, the only thing you can rely on when it comes to Madlib’s music. It is the only constant, his work’s core truth.

II.

(Version)

Dub traces can be heard in hip-hop, in the use of sound effects and elemental emphasis on the drums and bass. The exposure of sonic elements—the way drums are often heard in isolation or stop completely—similarly has a dub feel, but this might also reflect a debt to other black musical traditions, such as jazz or even disco.

The strongest connection between the genres are hip-hop instrumentals and the role of producers. Commonly-held perceptions of reggae, possibly shaped by the mass popularity of Bob Marley and the Wailers’ non-political songs, rely on an image of the music as cheerful and bouncy, driven by a skanking rhythm: reggae as happy, feel-good party music. Some of it is, but of equal importance (and for me, greater importance) is the abstract side of dub found in the “versions.” Dub versions are the B-sides of a single where producers offer a pared-back take on the track with vocals. These tracks were often used as a surface for the DJ/MC to “toast,” or rap over. Such music is defined by the producer’s manipulation and placement of sounds, especially the way they position the vocals, treating them with effects such as reverb and delay to create an echo.

Here, the true art lies in the way the clinical production contrasts with other elements, say vocals that express warmth and vulnerability (or instruments, such as the melodica, an instrument that adds a difficult describe emotional charge: part longing, whimsy, and desire). Silence, too, is central as the elements appear and disappear. Hip-hop instrumentals frequently operate in a similar space, balancing hot and cold; the heat of a sentimental soul sample against the chill of programmed drums.

Yet despite these similarities, the influence of dub/reggae on hip-hop has never equalled that of funk, soul, or jazz. Throughout the 1990s/2000s, hip-hop artists referred to Rastafari in their lyrics, but deep engagement with dub/reggae in a profound musical sense is next to non-existent. (Of course, there are some famous nods to reggae to counter this: see Smif-n-Wessun’s “Sound Bwoy Bureill” from 1995, the Ras Michael image borrowed by InI for their Center of Attention album sleeve).


Madlib’s “Return of the Loop Digga” from the 2000 album, The Unseen includes a skit with the producer checking out the stock of a record store. Opening it up, Madlib asks,“Would you happen to have any uhhh … Stanley Cowell? Like 1970s stuff?”

“Never heard of him.” the record store guy replies..“Has he made any hits?”

“He ain’t got none of that.”

It’s yes to Grant Green, 1958 Blue Note Records, but no to Chick Corea Atlantic 1968.

Madlib asks,“Y’all got any reggae up in this piece or something?” The manager replies, “We have no reggae in here.”

Madlib asks, “Nothing?”

“No, nothing.”

“Shit, I’m out.”

Definition/Development/Other: writing on, listening to hip-hop instrumentals

Of interest is that moment where the person seeking out new music stops, that moment when a song quells the impatience, or desire to discover one more track, one more hit. The music that interrupts the “digging,” if you prefer, across genres, eras, associated with labels, musicians, whatever the self-imposed limits might be. The music that stops the person zoning out and gives them pause, as it’s here in that moment that we can see the grain of personality.

As someone afflicted by music-compulsion-fixation, or to put it more positively, someone who listens to an enormous amount of music daily because of my restless essence and “for work,” a typical day – no correct that, a typical morning/early afternoon - might move from gospel to dub, House, disco, 80s Australian indie (if feeling homesick/sentimental) to end on classical music or jazz albums (to instil order, help me focus when I sit down to write, or provide the soundtrack for cooking dinner, folding clothes, throwing out papers, whatever the activity might be).

Always in the midst of this there will be a mix of some hip-hop instrumentals.

Some of them will be YouTube recommendations, but mostly they’ll be my choices, music to echo energy, or connect with something that interests me and I want to understand better. Often my search will be for something “simple” - music clear in its intention that doesn’t require too much thought – but equally it could be music that derives from obligation, the perceived need to listen to this artist, that release because it’s new or said to be important.

Hip-hop instrumentals then. It surprises me that their appeal has been so constant, since picking up the genre again; why aren’t I more taken by MC-led tracks, especially since I’m so “wordy” walking around the streets, doing my stuff, with all those sentences taking shape in my head? Of course I have written on a fair number of MCs, still. A large part of it is curiosity about sample-based production and admiration for its essential conceit. There is still something magical about this process of reconstruction for me, where music is created from the scraps from another’s imagination/creativity. Political too, when it’s remembered who is making this music – for the most part – and the circumstances in which it’s done.

Each story of a twelve year-old boy (and it is still a boy, unfortunately) starting out – despite all and everything - and then their total dedication to learning their craft impresses me. Geto Boys’ DJ Ready Red who recently passed away, for example, shares memories of his grandmother coming in to find his teenage self asleep with “headphones wrapped all around (him)” because he’d be “sleeping with the drum machine, or be asleep at the turntables” in Lance Scott Walker’s Houston Rap Tapes, published this year.

Stay here for a minute, though, with this process of finding samples, of making something from unconnected sonic elements, from divergent time periods and recording methods. The challenge is combining not only the sounds of the music, but the sound of the studio it was recorded in. This process mimics memory and human experience, where the present is built on half-remembered instances and memory traces of our parents and other members of our family, or community.

Much of my current listening is underpinned by a small fight against an inclination to return to music I know, to get that reassurance, or discover a “rare/unreleased” version of a song etc. This reflex is inevitable when your playlist of favourites stretches back seven-plus decades, no exaggeration, and such perspective gives you the ability to see how great so much of it still is. Hip-hop, outside the better-known acts still offers up a lot of unexplored territory, which appeals for obvious reasons.

O my America! my new-found-land, 
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d, 
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie, 
How blest am I in this discovering thee! 
To enter in these bonds, is to be free; 
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be. 
— John Donne, "Elegy XIX: To His Mistris Going To Bed" (1633/1654)

Instrumentals even more so. It also feels natural, this music. When I was younger and had a reasonable stereo set up and space (space, space) I was a collector of sorts (though nothing like the men who display their tens of thousands of records, something I find a little strange/obscene at times). I was someone who sought order in her knowledge and was serious in the quest. Then I sold my records one of the times I left Melbourne (I’ll never forget the record store guy checking not once, but twice if I was sure about whether or not I wanted to do this). Listening to instrumentals, trying to decipher them, uncovering the origins of the music, counting it down, skipping ahead to get a sense of the music’s internal logic is an extension of this earlier (earnest) self. Much the same could be done with an MC’s rhymes it’s true, but my desire is less, so I spend time with the music.

Because I like intellectual grids – infected after all these years living in France perhaps - when thinking about music and art, even if full of holes, here are three qualities that encourage me to listen to an instrumental the way through, or return to them: definition, development and the most appealing, of course, the catch-all “other,” which relates to the qualities of sounds and the sound in general. (This “other” is my get out of jail free card, as it will remain porous and open to multiple possibilities, it’s okay this is my story after all).

 

Definition reflects the way various elements are kept distinct in the music. I’m aware that this bias reflects my musical “education”, as the French would put it, in Australia where my teen years were immersed in nasty guitar-based music: 70s punk in all its facets, but mainly the music of my peers, my long-hair/shaven-scalp mostly male contemporaries, the antipodean/U.S. descendants of Detroit’s pre-punk exponents, The Stooges and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band and their Australian counterparts, Radio Birdman or The Saints. Such music is all about definition as impact, with the guitar/drums nexus seeking to impress and destroy, stun and overwhelm.

Subtlety, to a degree, might be found in the guitarist’s solo, or when the drummer unfurls tricky moves briefly, but this was not the principal aim. Loud, intense, sharply defined, with a melody (in parts) was preferred. Guitar and other solos were mocked, if they burst forth they needed to be clipped (releasing Angus/Ron’s spirit for it to be just as quickly rebottled). Then, my attention shifted to dub, which is sustained by definition and the search for pure sound, the best recording, just as you’d expect from a genre built by DJs, producers and engineers. Jazz is more nuanced in terms of these comments, some of it is angular and defined, but a lot of it the very opposite, focussed on creating atmospheres and seamless transitions between instrumental parts; on transmitting the spiritual nature of music in performance.

The relevance of this is that my preference is for hip-hop beats where there is space/distance between the elements, and it’s not too mushy-mellifluous. Not too much though, if a beat is only edges and exaggerated drums, it quickly palls, which leads to the other criteria: the need for development, alongside this mysterious other, the marker of the music’s voice. Note that I’m making a distinction between sounds of instruments and samples of vocalists that are allowed to run long here, I like it when the individual sounds of instruments are distinct. One of my real aversions – this certainly reflects punk origins – are instrumentals with highlighted R&B vocal cuts, all those smooth-lady type samples. If there’s that crinkly static effect, tinkly piano, a ‘60s soul voice and prominent drums, cliché-city, off it goes.

Development in hip-hop is more complex, contested. The usual purpose of an instrumental is to provide the background, the foundations for the rapper’s voice; this, you’d think then would go against the idea of the provider offering anything too complex, in that it carries the risk of obscuring the rhymes, making it messy. But from the earliest days, with all those “basic” hip-hop beats the best producers always allowed for development, or moments of brief, subtle change in the music. This then became more dramatic, with the beat switches where the instrumental would be cut in half, or into parts as the music went in a completely different direction.

Non-development, the repetition of a sample on loop whether part of a beat or the entire thing is also interesting: especially in the way it corresponds with theoretical ideas about the African origins of Black American music (something I’m still learning about, but the argument seems to be that this music follows circular, rather than linear notions of “development” and that this comes from musical traditions from West Africa). Recently I’ve also noticed producers making beats where there is no obvious development, or song structure as might have been the case in the 90s Golden Era, where the beat battles against the voice, as a wall of noise. I like this too, even if it runs counter to my argument.

Development refers to an internal logic, the way the beat is constructed. Often it's to the point that you can count it by 30 second intervals, as if it were a classic pop or Soul/R&B song. At those moments something shifts in the music, a sonic element is added, there is some kind of internal echo. Development might also mean that the music has a thematic aspect, maybe via the return to a skit at the start via a sample. Whatever it is, the music is not the same thing on repeat unless this is an intentional part of its design, as mentioned above: the music moves, transforms, keeps its energy.

As for the final “other” - as mentioned this is the most elastic of the three, on purpose. It could cover the sound quality in general, does the recording sound rich/full or tinny/hollow? Equally it might relate to the sounds themselves. Without any scientific evidence to support this in any way shape or form, I have a theory that we have our own internally coded preferences for certain sounds, as if enmeshed in our DNA. Sure, this reflects our formative listening – as I explored above – and especially that period when we’re aged 10-12 or so when it gets instilled in our system for the rest of our lives. This means that when we hear this music, or music that resembles it in some way it’s easier for us to both get it and like it.

But I think it goes deeper than this in some ways: there are certain sound qualities that we connect with, as if it makes manifest something of who we are as people. This is one of the reasons why I find all those discussions about the “best” MC/producer etc in hip-hop culture so banal; I might like this piece of music, but who says that this extremely personal preference has any relevance to another person’s listening tastes? By all means talk about relative quality, just don't make claims that it is the greatest of all time because you like it.

Speaking personally then, the instrumentals that make me stop are the ones that have a mysterious or risk-taking quality to them – not necessarily the “quiet” I’ve written about before in terms of 90s NY beats – but something exciting about the choice of the samples (odd, unexpected, beautiful), or the way they are put together. I know that sounds woolly, but it’s intended to be. You can’t break down the effect of music as if it were a mathematical problem to be solved, even though I remember seeing a writer once attempt to do just that.

Recently I was speaking with a (Gestalt-grounded) analyst who was saying how there is a new strain of sociology or anthropology which had as its starting point: the psychological space of the researcher, asking questions about how that person was feeling at that very moment they conducted that research into the experience of others. As any honest writer knows this is applicable to how we work as well; music criticism is no different.

There is some music that I’ve listened to over and over and over again during periods of my life that I later returned to and wondered how and why it spoke to me so much before. Nothing about the music had changed, including its quality: rather something inside me had, most probably a need had been met in a way I was not able to articulate. None of this means that the music has lost its value, in some respects this music remains even more precious because it is associated with that time of need.

The reason why I’m mentioning this is to again make a claim for partial, humble criticism especially relating to music, in this case hip-hop. This writing is also an extended intro for pieces I’m going to write on the work on producers/instrumentals on an intermittent basis on this site and I hope elsewhere depending on interest; the last thing I’d like is for it to be seen as a list of my all-time best (that’d make me retch). That I listen to one artist more than another says nothing about achievement, more a desire to keep some structure in a mind that goes in all directions. And as I’ve said countless times, I’m a recent arrival to this musical/cultural space, it’s not my country. I’m a student here, as the notes jotted in small note-books/diaries with names of artists/tracks written on multi-coloured Post-its all around my living-room attest. 

"I'm always trying to keep pushing myself:" an interview with Roc Marciano

First published in Passion of the Weiss

Roc Marciano saves his sharpest darts for wax. In conversation, the Hempstead Long Island MC wastes few words, offering up extremely focused replies to all questions. He's not unfriendly or hostile, as much as he's ultra-pithy, always getting the heart of what he is trying to express without any excess.   

None of this comes as a surprise when you think about the music that Roc Marci has released, starting with his 2010 Marcberg that ushered in his MO of putting out largely self-produced projects defined by his singular vision.

In this universe, not much happens lyrically – Marciano’s trademark style depends on the layering of images, super dense wordplay. The rhymes are obscene, poetic and violent, yet frequently marked by a kind of nostalgia, while enacting codes of the street.

Tracks like “Bedspring King” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge 2: The Bitter Dose marks out new territory, thick as it is with the narrator’s lust and maybe more subtle emotion, operating in a way that resembles “Pray 4 Me” (on the first RR). 

It’s rare for musicians to be 100% comfortable speaking about their work in an abstract way; they’re musicians for a reason, not theorists or writers. Their music speaks for them. In this sense Roc Marciano’s reticence is also to be expected, and yet despite his persona and the hyper-controlled nature of his rap style (barely shifting from his trademark monotone), there is an exuberance about his music as well.

Take, for example, “Herringbone” from the first Rosebudd’s Revenge, with its dramatic build and unexpected beat-switch that completely transforms the track’s mood. This experimentation and interest in breaking with convention is a key aspect to Marciano’s art and one of the reasons why he is a key influence for so many younger MCs/producers.

Interview (part 1) with Out Da Box TV, 2012

You often don't have drums or have minimal drums in your tracks. Why is this? 

Roc Marciano: For me as an MC I enjoy the space. Sometimes the drums, you know, the program I feel like it takes over the groove and doesn’t allow me the same space. A track with no drums gives me the space to do more.

I want to talk to you about "Tent City," could you talk about it in more detail? It's an extremely intense track. 

Roc Marciano: “Tent City” yeah, I just knew when I found it, immediately I knew I wanted to do something with it, I thought the sample was real ill with the horn in the background, and I was reading Miles Davis when I was making the album so a lot of the horns are sticking out, they’re like the most important sounds. It’s like a mixture of soul and jazz, I really enjoyed making that track.

It’s a totally different sound for a hip-hop song, were you conscious of the fact you were doing something so new?

Roc Marciano: Nah, not really, I mean usually I’m just doing what I want to do I don’t really care if it’s new or not, I’m always trying to keep pushing myself and trying to find more inspiration, doing the same thing is boring, so it’s interesting to find stuff like that.

You seem to be quite intuitive the way you work, you often use the word “organic” when describing your work process and said once you “don’t like to force music.” What did you mean by that?

Roc Marciano: I don’t like to make music “just because,” you know, ‘cause I get bored. I have to feel it, I’m always looking for stuff, you know, that makes me want to be creative, it’s not just me it’s also the music, we’re doing it together, so that when I get music that touches me it makes the process a lot smoother.

It’s still primarily sample-based, isn’t it, you’re not using live instrumentation?

Roc Marciano: No, I’m not but I’d like to start. I’m going to use live instrumentation in the future.

I saw in an interview that you said you’d love to work with musicians. You mentioned Funkadelic, Ohio Players and Isaac Hayes as inspirations. All these great artists from the '70s. Talk to me a little bit more about that. 

Roc Marciano: Well, you know, I really admire those musicians, those artists made some music that’ve done a lot to inspire me, so I feel like to pick it up where they left off that’d be a great thing. That’s some of the greatest music ever made in my opinion, I would love to be able to follow in their foot-steps.

Something else I really like about your work is that you place the samples in a really creative way, the vocals are really low in the mix a lot of the time and there’s a very, very strong contrast between the vocals and the music. You’re also often leaving the samples quite raw, they’re not mixed to merge with each other. How conscious is all of this when you’re making your music?

Roc Marciano: I’m conscious … I’m just enjoying what I’m doing, when you hear it that way it’s mainly me creating music, you know and still having fun, I try to make sure that I’m still having fun. Me doing it the way I want to do it allows me to keep having fun.

When you’re listening to Funkadelic, and artists like this, are you thinking about how they positioned the sounds in their music?

Roc Marciano: Yeah, yeah that’s pretty much what I am doing. I don’t want to mess up anything, my goal is to work with the sounds from the samples. I feel that what they were doing was already live and dangerous enough, all I’ve got to do is get in the middle.

Can you speak to me about the song “C.V.S” on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge?

Roc Marciano: My guy Don Cee made that beat, I feel like that’s a continuation of what I was already doing, it’s a progression, when I heard it I was like that’s definitely going to fit in with what I’m doing. I think that track is real ill.

Let’s talk about the producers who have worked on the album with you. The guys from Arch Druids have come back to work on this. You’re quite a loyal collaborator, you have guys you work with repeatedly, they have been working with you a long, long time. What is it about those producers that you admire so much?

Roc Marciano; I mean we all see eye to eye with what we’re trying to do musically and we’ve been working together for so long, over the years, they’re like brothers you know, it’s like you continue to make music with your family, you know, you’re in your comfort zone you get better results that way.

You’ve also got Action Bronson, Knowledge the Pirate on the album. Do they feel close to you like family as well?

Roc Marciano; Yeah, definitely but not only that it’s cause it’s fun, everyone is where they’re at because that’s where they belong, like I was saying earlier it’s organic.

Your music often has dramatic shifts in your music, often about half way through a track it completely changes direction. What are you aiming for here?

Roc Marciano: To keep it fun, I don’t want to bore the listener, it’s already hard to keep it entertaining when it’s just one man and one voice, so to keep it entertaining you have to have all those elements in it to surprise you, so it’s not just my voice over and over and I’m not just rapping and rapping through the whole project.

Could you speak about Alchemist? You’ve done lots of work together and I read how he’s been important as a supporter keeping you going when you at one point were thinking about stopping music. How has he influenced you and your work?

Roc Marciano: I always just thought that Al was dope, you know what I’m saying. He’s a good friend, not to mention, but you know he’s just super ill. I knew of him before we started working on Reloaded, I was always just a fan, you know, I admire his work ethic, he’s a beast.

Some time back you chose five beats/hip-hop tracks that were your favorites, all were from the late 80s/early 90s (Ultramagnetic MC’s “Ego Trippin’”, EPMD’s “It’s My Thing”, Main Source’s “Just Hangin’ Out”, Pete Rock/CL Smooth’s “They Reminisce Over You T.R.O.Y” and Notorious B.I.G’s “Who Shot Ya?”). How would you compare your style with that of the Golden Era MCs from New York?

Roc Marciano: Probably in terms of the lyricism, you know the way I focus on the lyricism, with my lyrics I’m pushing the culture forward lyrically you know on from what the guys in the ‘90s were doing, in the Golden Era that was considered to be a big part of making music.

You’ve said that you think it’s important to update your style from what the MCs were doing back then, what do you mean by this?

Roc Marciano: Pushing it forward, making it better and better and to improve, so that’s pretty much what I mean by updating it, by updating it you are constantly improving it. It’s like an operating system on a computer, even though you buy a new computer it’s constantly updating the operating system so the computer runs better. I feel like that’s what I do with the music myself, you know, the style and production and choice of samples, just keep improving.

What’s interesting about your lyricism is that you have lots of images, you layer them and focus on setting the scene, not really story-telling so much. You’ve talked about how you’d love to work with DOOM and mentioned Kool Keith as an influence. Have those two MCs inspired your lyricism?

Roc Marciano: I would definitely say Kool Keith, I’m a fan of DOOM, I caught on to DOOM late, I was already doing what I was doing. As far as Kool Keith, he’s definitely somebody who inspired my style. DOOM I was like as soon as I heard his music, yeah, this dude is ill.

Kool Keith has a similar style to you in some ways, in terms of layering lots of words that rhyme together that are kind of absurd or surreal. What do you think?

Roc Marciano: Yeah, yeah, I always thought that Kool Keith was pushing the feeling of being in an uncomfortable state and I liked that.

What do you mean by an “uncomfortable state”?

Roc Marciano: Not doing the same thing over and over, if you keep doing the same thing, if you keep picking the same beat over and over that dates, a lot of people are like that beat’s hard - that’s hard, that’s hard, well that (attitude) dates. I would like people to hear songs and be like that’s kind of strange, what’s that? That’s what I mean by being uncomfortable.

Which song from Rosebudd’s Revenge 2 would you say conveys that feeling?

Roc Marciano: Most of the album from “Tent City” to “Kill You” to “C.V.S” so many, it’s not like every day hip-hop you know what I’m saying? A lot of it is strange, risky, edgy.

Thinking about New York now, the city is extremely important for you in terms of your work and what you do, you grew up in Hempstead, Long Island you have said you can hear it in my music, it’s in my blood, growing up there it was a place with a lot struggle and a lot of love. Can you talk about where you grew up and how it connects with your work?

Roc Marciano: Well, I grew up in Hempstead, Long Island. It’s a hard question to answer ‘cause I feel like wherever you come from it’s going to be a huge influence, it’s like your culture. It’s pretty much all I know so that’s why it feeds into my music. It’s like anybody else’s hometown would influence their art.

You’ve said that this place had a rich culture, what do you mean by this?

Roc Marciano: Everything, from the people from Long Island hip-hop culture, from Eric B and Rakim, Public Enemy, De La Soul, you know what I’m saying, and just the people it was like a melting-pot of people from all these different places, especially in my area, it was definitely interesting, very rich.

You’ve said that you’d love to work with Ghostface Killah. What is it about his work that impresses you so much?

Roc Marciano: It’s super ill, man, you know, super ill – from the stories, some of my favorite bodies of work come from that brother, Supreme Clientele, Iron Man, you know, he’s a monster of an artist.

When you were asked who you would like to do a full album with, you said Cormega …

Roc Marciano: Yeah, definitely I’ve always been a big fan, we have worked together, and we’ve got more work that’s yet to come out, definitely somebody I’ve always admired as a lyricist, it seems pretty natural to me.

One thing that’s really great on the latest Rosebudd’s Revenge is the way the songs are placed side by side, how they work together. When you are creating a record what’s running through your mind in terms of what you want to achieve?

Roc Marciano: Just to make a great body of music that’s always the plan, it never changes, no theme or concept would ever change the aim to make an album that sounds good from beginning to the end.

You often say how important it is for you to develop as an artist and to progress, how do you think that this record is a development in terms of the first Rosebudd’s Revenge?

Roc Marciano: As I say I think everything’s improved from the beats to the rhymes, everything is improving.

In a melancholy mood: On hip-hop quiet and instrumental music

In 1933, Junichiro Tanizaki published "In Praise of Shadows," an essay that recognized “beauty (lay) not in the thing itself, but in the patterns of the shadows, the light and the darkness that one thing against another creates.”  The Japanese novelist celebrated what he called an “Oriental” (see Japanese) love for art, architecture that bore the “marks of grime, soot and weather … that call to mind the past that made them.”

Central to Tanizaki’s argument was that Westerners through their art and approach to life sought to “expose every bit of grime an eradicate it,” while Japanese people believed that beauty in art came from its “relation to life,” while embodying the fact that “our ancestors forced to live in dark rooms” discovered that beauty came from the “glow of the grime.”
  
Darkness as a word and concept is often associated with hip-hop, usually in terms of the musical genre’s lyrical content. My interest here is to develop the idea of darkness, or shadows in the Tanizaki sense, in terms of music, using three instrumentals from the 90s by Onyx, Miilkbone and The Speedknots as examples of an aesthetic that I’ll call hip-hop quiet.      

Tanizaki’s essay made a big impression on me when I read it many years ago and then stayed in my mind as I started listening to hip-hop again, seeking out artists that I had frequently never heard of, largely by chance online. Most of my attention was given to generally little-known, obscure instrumentals by East Coast artists from the 90s.  Something about this music touched me, especially its emphasis on mood and the way it upset expectations. In a culture that so often celebrates display and boasting, this music was introspective, private and (often) had a sweetness to it.

“Japanese music is above all a music of reticence, of atmosphere,” Tanizaki wrote. “When recorded, or amplified by a loudspeaker, the greater part of its charm is lost. In conversation, too, we prefer the soft voice, the understatement. Most important of all are the pauses.”

Certainly, this introspective quality is not confined to these instrumentals, running alongside them are examples from better-known producers [from Pete Rock, Nujabes, J Dilla, for example] who created music of delicacy, refinement and grace in the same period or later. Yet, the fact that these instrumentals exist in a kind of parallel universe, are not widely known or appreciated is central to their appeal in this context. 

The music of the celebrated producers, moreover, is marked by the character of their makers; it has a confidence and logic, or design behind it, so that you can recognize the artist’s voice immediately when you hear the music. In contrast, the output of these frequently forgotten producers is lo-fi, naïve, basic in its technique while operating in a hard to define space within the culture and as music. 

Madlib, possibly, is a producer with feet in both camps; interested in keeping his beats “unfinished,” conscious of the power of keeping elements unfiltered and material, and yet there is a self-awareness (and often humor) in his music that makes it different in tone. 

When speaking of this ‘quiet,’ I’d prefer to keep it open to interpretation, other than to note that this music for me is defined by emptiness and mystery. Emptiness in the Buddhist sense of no form, no clear organizing pattern that corresponds with our expectations about musical development, enacted via the use of stasis and repetition.    

One of the most interesting aspects of hip-hop production is the way individual sounds are often more important than melody or development. This reflects a debt to jazz, where the interplay between the individual and the group is made manifest in a focus on sounds in isolation, distorting them, twisting and shaping them to return to the key refrain. Jazz solos are one instance when this happens.        

To understand the mechanics of hip-hop then you need to strip away the elements, to break it down, as we will see here in these instrumentals they’ve already done much of the stripping away for you. The music also represents non-movement, a refusal to connect in a way that might offer comfort to the listener. In effort to explore this further, let’s consider three instrumentals to see how their bare aesthetic creates a unique sound, as examples of hip-hop quiet.

I. Onyx, “Last Dayz,”  (produced by Fredro Starr; Def Jam Records, 1995)

Take Onyx’s, “Last Dayz” from 1995, for example. The repeated vocal sample transforms into a sound in an unknown language, similar to how in UK electronic act Burial’s 2007 song “Near Dark’’, a warping of sampled words takes place, weaving in and out of almost naked drums. This brings us back to the quality of emptiness. Perhaps you could make connections with minimalism, but to me that word lacks the emotion this instrumental conveys. 

Particularly striking is the contrast between the qualities of the sounds—the harsh vocal sample compared to the reassuring swirl and comfort of the bass-line, the stop-start effect between them that operates like a conversation. Then, around two minutes in, the sample shifts to a single-note, as if it were an exposed heartbeat.  

How are we meant to understand the way the beat stops and then restarts, broken and then returning to the center? The beat is following its own poetic logic, exposing an emptiness at its core. To appreciate how this instrumental operates in its own space, listen to the track with vocals: 

Underneath the bombast of the lyrics, all the while you can hear the instrumental providing its own essential mystery, or emptiness.

II. Miilkbone, “Keep it Real” (produced by Mufi: Capitol Records, 1995)

At its heart sample-based music has the potential to upset traditional notions of success. A commercial failure can become prized, simply for it’s rarity; an obscure sample can reawaken an interest in—and even reinvent the artistry of— musical trash from the past. The music is shown respect by the very fact that it has been returned to, reborn. 

Little-known samples operate as a code between producers and fans, separating those who recognize their esoteric sources from those who don’t. Fans striving to pick out even the most niche samples their favorite producers deploy turn sample-hunting into a serious pastime. The fact that samples can't be named (even though they are easily found on-line via the many websites devoted to sample-hunting) due to copyright infringement fears adds another dimension to the mix. For all these different reasons these sounds exist in this kind of non-space. 

All of this explains how Miilkbone—the white rapper from New Jersey, with a knack for spoof-like album titles (his LP Da' Miilkrate from 1995 was followed up by U Got Miilk? six years later)—can produce something of ongoing cultural worth.

Challenging Complex magazine's designation of it as one of hip-hop's best “one hit wonders”, Miilkbone's “Keep It Real” has continued to shape hip-hop musical culture well into the twenty-first century. Produced by Mufi, the track’s distinctive mood has kept it alive.

Central to the singular nature of this instrumental is Mufi's skilful and imaginative use of a sample from “Melancholy Mood,” the 1983 recording by the Marian McPartland Trio. Have a look at the fan comments below the video, it's very sweet to see the two worlds colliding here.

As with the Onyx instrumental, the elemental simplicity of “Keep It Real” is what makes it so powerful. The music is carried by a lack of adornment; the sounds in their pure form can breathe. Much of the self-conscious fanciness that dominates in so much contemporary “soul-based” production—where producers rustle up multiple interlocking elements to show off their finesse (often drowning out the sample's essential lyricism or the MC's delivery in the process)—is side-stepped.

This quiet is also found in the sharp contrast of the beat’s sounds. There’s the insistent and jagged horn sample, the piano on a constant repeat. They create a false naïveté to the music, which is affecting. Simplicity and reticence are often the markers of great beauty. Again, the strange kind of non-momentum is present—that stop-start—so the song often seems to be on the cusp of development. 

This music contains its own entire universe. When you hear the instrumental with Miilkbone over the top, the music retains its own internal space as if completely uninterested in interacting with, or buffering, the MC.

In terms of the instrumental's ongoing significance and recognition, Big L and Jay-Z reinvented it on the Stretch and Bobbito show the same year it was released. It has been used in a BET awards ceremony and by various MCs.

Most importantly though, almost two decades later Freddie Gibbs repurposed the beat in his 2010 track 'The Ghetto' (produced by Melvin L. Dinkins) on his album, Str8 Killa No Filla with no apparent changes. Gibbs' repeatedly chants the song's title—“The Ghetto,” over and over— echoing the original jagged sample embedded in the instrumental. Gibb’s subject matter, the sample, and overall sound of Mufi’s beat becoming one.  

By using this sample Gibbs and his producer are asking us to listen to the two tracks together; his and the earlier Miilkbone cut, to encourage a kind of echo, or commentary. 

III. The Speedknots, “The Zone” (produced by Stress/War: Bloody Hook Records, 1998) 
 
As with the other instrumentals featured here, 'The Zone' has a powerful feeling - carried by the sound of seagulls, or other birds and is extremely gentle. 

This music is the epitome of hip-hop quiet: self-contained, reticent and mysterious, with little or no development. It starts suddenly three seconds in, with all the effects brought in at the same time, then follows an almost mathematical precision of 30 second intervals. At 1 minute 30 there is an incredibly brief stop when you'd expect it to build and it doesn't, and then at 2 minutes there is a perfect pop-break, quick like a hiccup or intake of breath (at 2 minutes 20 it deepens but doesn't move and then there is the 'pop' again three minutes in).     

In Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop Joseph Schloss explores the idea of “ambiguity” in hip-hop production. Schloss relates ambiguity to the “idea of code, that certain forms of communication must be shielded.” He writes: “Ambiguity is a factor in this process because the best codes are those that do not even appear to be transmitting information at all; they have a secondary meaning that serves to draw attention away from the code’s central message.”

Earlier, Schloss explains that the very nature of creating sample-based music out of music that already exists encourages a kind of doubling, where the listener appreciates the sounds in their original form and then how they are recreated. He writes that the, “aesthetic goal of the hip-hop producer is not to resolve these ambiguities [the fact that the music is live and also not live], but –quite the contrary—to preserve, master, and celebrate them.”

Ambiguity here refers to an unclear meaning or to multiple meanings in an intellectual sense. And yet none of the above instrumentals are ambiguous in the sense that they have more than one meaning. They do not make you think, they make you feel. Central to this is the stop-start of the beat alongside a strong emotion of longing; none of this makes this music soft or sentimental, quite the reverse. 

Not so long ago, I read a commentator argue that he felt that the intellectual component of Black American culture is often downplayed and dismissed. This surprised me as someone who returned to hip-hop after listening to jazz for many years. As any jazz fan knows, the intersection between the mystical/the intellectual/the political is central to the genre, from the 60s onwards, with no issue or complication. 

Thinking about these instrumentals in terms of their quiet, their emptiness and darkness, is one way of recognizing their achievement, while making connections with other cultural moments, whether it is an essay on Japanese aesthetics or Spiritual Jazz, or whatever it might be. And yet, there is something unique about these instrumentals, indelibly located in a time and place, which makes them timeless.   

Creativity First: an essay on producer/composer Paul White

There’s something appropriate about the fact that producer/composer Paul White was born and still lives in London’s South (Lewisham); a part of the city brimming with immigrant voices, open-air markets selling fish, batteries and kitchen utensils, rich with Blakean echoes.

The great Romantic poet and mystic, William Blake (1757-1827) lived in Deptford, not so far from Lewisham. As a child, Blake would regularly go for six-mile walks in this untamed, bucolic part of the capital. At the age of four, it is said that Blake saw God’s head appear in a window and then as an eight-year-old on one of his walks in south London saw the prophet Ezekiel under a “tree filled with angels.” 

(Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist writes: “Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.”)

During one of our two phone conversations in August/September, Paul White often speaking in a very quiet voice, his sentences full of pauses, interspersed with bursts of enthusiasm, I asked if there was any significance in the fact that many of the samples used for his production work with Detroit MC Danny Brown came from English artists. “Do you feel that you’re drawn to a particular sound that comes from the UK,” I asked.

Paul White: “I don’t think so, not necessarily, it’s a feel. I’m drawn to something that is totally different: someone being themselves and experimenting, that’s what I can really relate to. Something so wild and so free, that’s how I try and create.” Then referring to his “Ain’t it funny” beat from Brown’s 2016 Atrocity Exhibition (Warp), he added: “It was just wild, so free and expressive. That was one of my most favourite beats. I was so chuffed that Danny picked it.”

For many, Paul White’s work is inextricably linked with “Danny” (Brown). Especially since White’s often startling production work on Atrocity Exhibition where he produced 10 of the 15 tracks radically re-imagined what a Hip-Hop record might sound like.

Throughout our conversations I sensed that White was keen to draw my attention to the vast eclecticism of his music, spanning as it does the high-energy machinations with Brown, but also the super-smooth soul of Golden Rules, the 80s pop inflection of his collaboration with Open Mike Eagle - Hella Personal Film Festival (Mello Music Group, 2014) and his current live-performance based solo works.

Being free to take risks is central to not only White’s practice, but also self-image as an artist, which coincides with a dislike of rigid categories. “I hate labels,” White told me. “Life can’t be explained in words, I know we have to use words to describe things, but I think this is why I talked about energy in the past.” He continued: “I like to live my life according to that idea, rather than thinking that everything is split into genres or putting things in boxes, as otherwise this inhibits you, stops you from going to other places.”

What follows is an analysis of White’s musical aesthetic (layering, a love for untamed, natural sound and interest in musical tension) and also a lesson Madlib "taught" him. 

White shares his recollections of working with Yasiin Bey, Freddie Gibbs, Golden Rules partner, Eric Biddines and Danny Brown. (Open Mike Eagle and Guilty Simpson are also important, but escape inclusion because of limited space). When speaking with me, White was particularly enthusiastic about the project he was then in the final stages of mixing, although he was unable to share any of the tracks. Expected to come out early next year, he says that it is his most personal release yet.

Earlier, I suggested a link with Blake. With Paul White being from my point of view an extremely English artist; but this “Englishness” must be one that allows for the High Romantic/psychedelic swoon of getting lost in the moment, see his love of Ambient music, alongside the deep influence of African artists, from the east, west and south.

 

I.

“My first exploration of electronic music on my own was totally Ambient. I’m a mood-based person and fascinated by people, why we feel the way we feel. Music stirs such deep feelings in us, so this is my place: feelings, emotions, psychology and deep atmospheres and worlds you can create that can totally change your mind-space.”

— Paul White, interview with the author

In February this year, on the 25th anniversary of Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works 85-92  an article published in FACT asked White to describe the importance of the album on his development as an artist. White explained how as a 16/17 year-old into Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, Smashing Pumpkins, Wu-Tang, his first reaction was, “Wow, what is this?!”

“I couldn’t get over the first two tracks [‘Xtal’ and ‘Tha’]. I listened to those two tracks relentlessly. I had a tape and back then you’d make a whole side of a tape with just a song, record it over and over. I think I did that with the first two tracks from this album. It’s not that the rest of the album wasn’t good, but these two tracks were so good I had to keep going back to them. This is also the time when I started experimenting with going out, discovering acid, and this album was the most perfect soundtrack for it. You couldn’t get any better comedown music.”
Before that I’d just been writing songs on guitar and piano. A lot of the music I wrote then was Ambient based, it was all atmospheres. I wasn’t writing Hip-Hop yet. I started writing trance and happy hardcore with another guy I’d met at the BRIT School but stuff I did on my own was all trying to be like Aphex Twin, like that first album: tons of pads and lush drawn out notes, MIDI beats going off in the background. I loved drum and bass and I could hear that in his music. And there were also breakbeats, which I understood from Hip-Hop. I bought my first synth and sampler at the time too.

Listening to Paul White’s work, I noticed how he often used “layering” in his music, across different genres. How a single note would appear at a certain point and just rest there, to create depth and intensify the mood. Within Hip-Hop production – and Soul and Jazz … - individual sounds have an essentially dynamic quality: repeating, interacting, changing form.

In White’s music you find a single note – or series of sounds that have a unified effect - just resting there. This seemed to go against expectations, this stillness in the music separate from everything else and intrigued me.

In the interview with FACT White explained how Aphex Twin introduced him to the importance of atmosphere, of creating “worlds for people to go into.” Not only that there was something about the music that sounded “British in a sense. I couldn’t pinpoint how but it felt like it was from your home … It felt like home, really warm.”  

 

MB: “Thinking about this idea of layering in music then, where a sound is brought in and kept there for an extended period. I see it visually, almost as if the sound were like a stream of light. If you think of the song “Get your head around this” (feat. Trim, Watch the Ants EP, One-Handed Music, 2013)

the song construction is quite formal, conventional and then on the hook you have a sound, or to be more accurate a layer of sound/s that adds enormous depth.

Paul White: In terms of layering, I love harmonies; I love atmospheres.  I think you’re right it comes from Ambient music where you can develop different themes. Layering can intensify emotions and feelings and make things richer; then you can add themes and subtract themes. You can add more atmosphere, subtract atmosphere. A lot of things work on a subconscious level when you are creating music, I think. You go into this weird zone you’re not even quite conscious of, then suddenly you come back and think, Wow, where did I just go? Maybe layering is part of that journey.

I’m fascinated by sound. The layering part of it just comes from that, the different feelings and textures you can create from that. In my studio, I’ve got quite a few different toys that can produce different sounds and that’s important to me, to have different colours, different palettes.

MB: When looking closely at song construction, I often notice that at say 30 second or one-minute intervals a Hip-Hop producer brings in a new sound, or sample, it’s similar to a classic Jazz composition or a Pop song. I was thinking the layering effect may have a similar significance for you, it adds intensity, but also is part of how you build your songs.  

Paul White: Sure, sure, yeah. I like song-based music, even though I’ve written beats over the years, the layering thing reflects where I come from which is writing songs with a guitar. I love song structures, and this is one thing I’ve been getting into more recently, trying to write songs again. It’s all about taking yourself on a journey and hopefully taking listeners on a journey. Some of my favourite music is Prog-Rock and Jazz and Jazz-Fusion, long pieces running anything from three minutes to 20 minutes. What I like about Prog is that you get all these different aspects of music in one song.

This is what has drawn me to sampling and this comes from Krautrock as well, all the different sections you get in a song. Probably my favourite band ever is Weather Report, again they go everywhere they take you in so many different directions, largely because you’ve got all these different instrumentalists - a whole band. Maybe subconsciously I’m trying to be as many different people as I can even though it’s just me. I can be the drummer, play the guitar and match the feeling, even though I don’t have a band.

MB: It’s interesting this focus on different elements, when you have one instrument, or element that’s exposed. Sampling or sample-based music is all about this, isn’t it?

Paul White: It’s funny you say that, I’m just mixing my album, my solo album. A lot of problems I’ve had in the past is mixing engineers wanting everything to sound quite smooth, but I love sound jumping out and leaping out. It’s taken a couple of weeks working with this mixing engineer for him to really get that that’s what works best for my music. I love things poking out, I love something kind of odd to just jump out at you and grab your attention. It all probably relates to life, without sounding too corny, some things jolt you, life is never just smooth.

Hopefully my music can then reflect a more genuine experience. The music I love reflects genuine life experience, you can hear something of the musicians’ life and their journey and their souls in the tracks. I’m a big fan of things jumping out, I don’t like things to be too smooth. That’s where you find the excitement.

I’m quite an extreme person. I did quite a lot of extreme sports as a kid. Even though I’m quite calm on the surface, I’m quite a high-energy person; so, I think comes from deep down, this aspect of my personality probably.

MB: I’d like to focus in on some things you’ve said there, as much of it really connects with me. For example, I really love the materiality of Hip-Hop. The producers I respect understand that sound doesn’t have to be made even. There’s something political, I think and interesting about this as well. Let’s focus in on this idea that you mentioned of sound jumping out at you, can you think of one of your Hip-Hop tracks that reflects this? This idea of not taming the sound.

Paul White: I mean, I just got to shout out Madlib for that. Madlib is a massive influence on my beats and his music to me was never smooth; things would jump out, there’d be this angular style. Nothing was smooth, he’d have these wild sounds that would leap out, so his music would sound totally alive. He didn’t try to do smooth mixes either. He showed a lot of producers that you didn’t have to have a glossy, shiny studio like Dr Dre. You can write these really raw, gritty songs that you not spend too much time on it.

It’s creativity first, that’s what I love about someone like Madlib. You can just throw ideas down. It’s not about making it sound smooth, or perfect – and my music sounded better for it, sounded better off raw. Madlib made me feel okay about doing that. I think he has influenced a lot of people in this regard, letting people feel that it’s okay to go wild. He taught me that for sure.”

 

To understand White’s capacity for reinvention, listen to this original and remix of the Golden Rules’ tune “Never Die” – the first version of the track appeared on their debut release Golden Ticket (Lex Records, 2015)

And then the remix, which features Freddie Gibbs, alongside Eric Biddines and Yasiin Bey (this remix is off-the-wall monstrous-sublime).

MB: “The original and remix of “Never Die,” I’ve spent a lot of time listening to them and thinking about how different they are to each other, can you speak on this?  

Paul White: (pauses) The initial one was quite quick there is no real meaningful story behind that … It’s got this great guy on it Jamie Woon – an amazing British composer and singer, we got him to sing the chorus on that. I felt to me a straight-up, smooth old school Hip-Hop beat.

At that time, I was trying to experiment with live performance and experimentation, so the remix was a challenge for me. I took the sample and played around with the vocal. Music is often about challenges for me. I said to myself to play the music around the vocal so took a lot of instruments and played some keys over the top and remember feeling quite pleased, thinking this is going to work, this experimenting with something that’s half Hip-Hop, half live. “Never die” is quite rare, as it’s in-between: the old me and the new me. It reflects a certain time.

I remember trying to make sure I got it right. Once you’ve got the basic groove and the harmonies right, I just experiment with it. There’s never any end goal ever (laughs). Music is a sacred place where I don’t feel pressures, I can be totally in the moment.

MB: The first one as you say is a kind of classic Soul-based Hip-Hop track and the remix is this epic piece of music. I haven’t heard many Hip-Hop tracks like this, with the orchestration and all the elements, it’s amazingly different.

Paul White: I need to listen to it again, I’ll get it on Soundcloud, I haven’t listened to it for a while. It’s all about being epic, the original one was never one of my favourites as it’s a bit too straight-forward, I never really like things that are too straightforward; I’m glad I did it, but preferred the remix. Just found it now … (he starts to play the song).

I’m going to listen to it, oh yeah, the crazy drums – the Djembe.

MB: Towards the end, it becomes quite strange.

Paul White: Oh yeah, and I sang on it as well. I forgot about that.

MB: It’s really got that layering of sound thing happening. I don’t think it’s ironic, but it’s really over the top.

Paul White: Yeah, it’s true it’s out there. Yeah, the Djembe was a big part of it that’s the Djembe I got in Gambia. That’s an important part of it and the slightly jazzy piano. It’s a mix of everything; my love of Jazz, my love of Hip-Hop rhythm, my love of African rhythm and then at the end. It’s insane, which I quite like.

MB: It’s appealing because you’ve got these huge stars on it and the music is just going nuts.

Paul White: Sure.

MB: You talk about the playful aspect, but it’s kind of funny in a way. It has a quality of freedom about it. In the original it’s very respectful of the MCs, they’re very central and then the remix it’s something else.

Paul White: Listening to it now, I see what you mean. Music must be free, that’s probably the most important word. Music needs to be free, untamed. I find it very hard to stick to briefs, if I must do something, it won’t work (laughs).

MB: Thinking about the MCs now, Eric (Biddines from Golden Rules) is interesting. I like the sound of his voice. He’s got a very different sound.

Paul White: Yeah, yeah.

MB: Could you just talk about your experience working with him and then Yasiin Bey and Freddie Gibbs, who was added to the remix?

Paul White: Eric is half of Golden Rules, obviously. He’s one of the best guys ever, I really like him, just as a person. He’s like me, I think. He’s playful, he ticks all the boxes for me. He’s an amazing lyricist, his lyric-writing is just great. His delivery is fun and free. He can rap, he can sing. We’re like kindred spirits, I think. He’s one of the guys I’ve met over the years that it feels incredible natural working with.

Yasiin Bey, we recorded him in a studio in London. He was great, he was really professional, just got in the booth, I think we did about three takes. He did a great job, came in and he left.

We sent over the song to see if he liked it and he did. It was one of those landmark experiences to see him nodding his head and loving the beat. What was really nice was his question, who is the other guy rapping? This was really big of him, as I could tell Eric you know Mos Def was asking who you were. That contact with Yasiin came through management, as did Freddie Gibbs.

(Freddie Gibbs) was supposed to be on the album, but he delivered the verse a bit late. We decided it’d be better on a remix anyway because the rest of the album isn’t like him, so thought it’d be perfect to have his verse on the remix. It’s the only song I’ve done with three MCs on it, it was nice to have the three different sections to play with, musically. It’s probably why the song is a bit manic, a bit crazy as it’s three different people, with three different backdrops and then you squeeze me in in the chorus and then at the end. So, it’s like you’ve got four personalities in that one song (laughs).”

 

III.

MB: Can you talk about the tech you use to create these distinctive atmospheres you’re speaking about?

Paul White: It can be anything, you can use anything. You can use what you’ve got in a free, open, crazy way. I’ve got enough things to make it playful. I’ve got enough tools to enable me to try anything I want, effects or plug-ins on Pro Tools. It’s about not being tame with it, about really pushing things in unconventional ways. There’s a good and a bad side to the way I write. It’s so spontaneous. I don’t learn things, maybe I do subconsciously, but I don’t deliberately learn things at work to then repeat them ever. I never, ever have.

Every time you start you’re coming from a start of play.  As long as you approach it in that fun, experimental way, it really doesn’t matter what you use.

MB: Do you use a lot of compression?

Paul White: I used to a lot. I think a lot of people do. If you compress things a lot it makes it sound better and crushes all the sounds together, so you don’t have to spend so much time mixing and balancing the sounds, cause when you compress everything really hard it balances everything by itself. It can be really creative, but I’m trying to use it less and less and less now.

Bruce Swedien who mixed all the biggest Michael Jackson records (to read more on his career, working with Quincy Jones and mixing Jackson’s Thriller have a look at this article). He mixed everybody. He always talks about how he hates compression. The person who made arguably the best-sounding record of all time says he hates compression because it levels everything out. There is a real danger of losing natural life. My goal is to never, ever use compression – that is my goal, but as long as it’s used in a creative way, you can create sonic textures from compression …

MB: Does it dull the quality of the sounds?

Paul White: For instance, if you’ve got a whole drum-kit what sounds great about it is the life and the loud peak of the kick-drum, but a lot of the effect might be really subtle, because the drum sounds are so short. Often people would be surprised by how many records you listen to and the kick-drum is so loud that they’re not noticing, but it creates a hell of a lot of energy because the sounds are so short. If you compress that you’re going to kill that attack and energy, you’re going to make it quieter.

You’ve got to be really careful about getting rid of signs of life in your music by using compression. But again, I’m a massive fan of no rules, you can do anything with anything.

MB: How about quantizing?

Paul White: No, I never quantize, never. I hate quantizing. In all of my beats, I don’t use metronomes. I don’t use grids. I don’t use quantizers: nothing. I hate grids, I hate any kind of time reference telling me to keep to a time, I don’t do that. I’ve only started doing this a tiny, tiny bit recently when recording live drums, simply because it can be convenient when recording into a computer, but no for the beats and everything else, no.

I usually go through extremely long processes because I never use a metronome. You’ve got a button you can tap, depending on how fast you’re doing it that will say roughly the BPM and then you’ve got a four-bar loop, most people set up a metronome (he sings the rhythm) to know where the one is every time, I never know that, so I’d hit record and play the live drums and pray that when it looped back round it’d stay in time perfectly. I must admit it often takes me loads of goes to get that initial groove right, but I always found it so much funkier and life-like this way.

Music has to be a total representation of life, otherwise I don’t see the point, so using grids and metronomes, I don’t believe in any of that.

MB: I remember that some people judged RZA for not quantizing his beats, I’m not sure if that was something distinctive about him back in the ‘90s. Is this considered to be a maverick thing to do these days?

Paul White: I think the beat thing got really funny for a while. Again, I don’t want to come across like a dickhead, because I could offend people with what I’m going to say but it became so cool to have these loose beats, to have these unquantized beats so what people would do, and again there’s nothing wrong with it, but they would record a beat and quantize it and then they’d manually on the screen shift things in and out to make it sound out of time. It’s kind of cool, but I never understood why you’d spend all that time shifting things about, but that’s just me. Each to their own.

Some people produced great results like that, I know Dilla did that. It can be amazing. For me, I want to get a creative idea out and then move on very, very quickly. It’s a funny one when people spend a lot of time trying to make it sound out of time, what’s the point? Just play it out of time.

MB: I remember seeing a comment below your video about the quality of the post-production. It’s interesting because you constantly refer to your preference for performance, for live music – being spontaneous – but at the same time there is this great care when it comes to the final stages. Have you anything to share in terms of your approach to the post-production process?

Paul White: (pauses) It has to be the right journey. I like to keep it interesting. The journey has to be right. A lot of the post-production is making sure that every sound that pops out has meaning and is there for the right reasons. This new album, I’m really trying to make sure that the mix is right in that regard. I write the initial idea quite quickly and then spend time making sure that every sound represents a feeling and journey perfectly.”   

 

*** 

MB: "What about the tension in all this, though? There are all these moods and atmosphere in your work and then you’ve got the drum sound often hidden away almost. In Hip-Hop, traditionally it’s been all about the drum sounds; the drums are so central. What do you think about this bringing a kind of tension to your work?

Paul White: I think tension in music is a really important part of it. Music theory talks about this a lot, tension and release. Different intervals in music, say if you’re playing the piano – moving from C to E, you’re moving up a third, and different intervals between notes create a certain tension. Music is all about reflecting human emotion, tension is an important part of this, just like the release is as well. I think I’ve often focussed more on the tension than the release (laughs).

That’s probably why me and Danny Brown get on so well. We don’t resolve. Like a lot of Classical Music, there’ll be a journey you start somewhere and come back. I don’t think you can always come back, so I just go off. It’s all about excitement and stimulation.

Everybody wants to be non-offensive, that’s one of my most hated terms for music, “non-offensive.” I can’t stand that.

MB: It’s something I’ve noticed across your different records and projects, this interesting placement of the different sounds, say for the drum sound it’s never or rarely a dominant boom bap sound ever, maybe I’m wrong here.

Paul White: No, you’re right.

MB: Often the high treble sounds are privileged. This creates a strange psychological space, it’s very interesting to me.

Paul White: It’s really something I don’t think about; it’s a very natural thing. Often when I listen to my mixes, yeah, I will have things balanced in maybe different ways that’s not the conventional mix of sound. It’s not intentional, it’s just the way my ears work. Maybe I’ve got really strange ears (laughs) the way I hear sound.

Part of the magic is recording sound, the song-writing process, playing instruments, exploring melody and different sonic effects and then you’ve got the beautiful world of arranging it all, that’s one of my favourite parts if not my favourite. I think this way of listening definitely comes from my Ambient days, listening to Aphex and Brian Eno and Boards of Canada.

Atmosphere is the most important thing, I mean I love beats and I love drums, but I want to take you on a dream journey more than you grit your face up and go, Ah this is a tough beat. It’s much more important for me to take people on a journey. It’s lovely constructing worlds inside a computer and as I say, it’s all very natural. I’ll just zone out into another world, put things together and not think about it too much.

 

MB: You know I was reading the fan comments below the video for ‘When it rain’ by Danny Brown and the listeners were picking up the link with Ambient music, they were talking about him signing to Warp and these sorts of things. Can you make that link between the two now with the track, it has some interesting samples in it too.

Paul White: I think that’s the biggest connection. The sample I used was from a woman called Delia Derbyshire, who was a really incredible, incredible electronic experimentalist, music pioneer who worked at the BBC Radiophonic workshop. I can guarantee that Aphex Twin would have been interested in those guys.

I see these artists as having the same lineage, in that they are all really, really interested in experimenting with, pushing electronic sound. Delia Derbyshire was manipulating reel-to-reel tape, slowing things down, doing every kind of sound manipulation you can imagine and that was exactly what Aphex Twin was doing, doing all this incredible sound manipulation. I’m nowhere near as in-depth, they are on a genius level of sound manipulation. I wouldn’t have the patience, but I definitely see the lineage between those two.

There’s also a raw energy about it and that’s where I fit in. I mean, I love that raw energy as well, I get attracted to that sonic atmosphere and landscape, but that was probably a beat I wrote in about fifteen minutes, I immediately got attracted to it, whacked it into a drum machine. I wrote it very, very quickly, about four years ago and then Danny picked it. I’ve sent Danny hundreds and hundreds of beats, now it might run into the thousands, some of those beats I might have given him years ago and then during the album process he’ll go back and start listening to them. That was one of my favourites, I was really pleased that he picked that one.

MB: It’s a stunning song. One of the fans referred to it as ‘aggressive belly-dancing music’ I thought that was cute.

Paul White: (laughs) It’s always fascinating to see how people take to your work. I think that is one of the most beautiful things. I’d never want to say to anybody: no, no, the music was about this and this was the background and it’s about this thing, as if putting it into a box. I think that is what is so beautiful about music and art, people interpret it how they want and take it into their lives. I think that is almost the most magic part about music. I don’t think anybody is ever wrong, I’d never argue with an interpretation.

MB: Madlib used the same sample on "Real" from Piñata (Madlib Invazion, 2014) did you know about this, did it have any impact on your work?

Paul White: No, as I said I made that beat years before the Madlib record even came out, maybe he made it on the same day (adds emphasis) and I never even knew (laughs). I made that beat maybe five or six years ago, probably around 2003. I was a bit disappointed but not surprised when I heard Freddie Gibbs doing it with Madlib, because it’s an amazing sample. If anyone is going to muck around with it, it would be Madlib (laughs). It’s cool we’re on the same path. We like the same stuff.”

 

IV.

African New Wave

In 2014, Paul White released Shaker Notes an idiosyncratic album infused with musical influences from the African continent, but making it all seem natural within the electro context. To read more about this, check out White’s selection of five African albums that influenced this project, published in Stamp the Wax

MB: How does your unusual placement of drums connect with your interest in the music of different African artists, is there any link there?

Paul White: My dad has always played a lot of African music, we played it a lot around the house. And one of the first festivals I went to as a kid was WOMAD. One of my fondest memories as a kid was going to this festival with him and seeing all of these incredible musicians from all over the world, but the music that struck me the most were these master African drummers that would come over. There’d be a stage of about 20 of these artists and it’d just blow my mind - the energy of it all.

I used to love Baaba Maal, Ali Farka Touré … I’ve actually got African heritage as well, my great-grandad was from Sierra Leone, so my granddad was Black, his family came from Sierra Leone. I don’t know if that’s part of it, somehow to be drawn to this music.

MB: In some ways, I’d say this is a key element in terms of your work, across the records – this influence. I feel a bit uncomfortable saying ‘African’ - is it primarily West African, say Malian or music from elsewhere, from Nigeria? Is there a particular kind of African music that you’re drawn to?

Paul White: Well, I love Malian music, but no I just connect with music I like, it doesn’t matter where it’s from.  But I’ve still got loads of family from Sierra Leone, so I guess most of the music I’ve listened to is from West Africa.

I actually got lucky and went to Gambia a couple of years ago, my ex-girlfriend was there for a little while and I had a really magic opportunity of studying for a week with a master Djembe player who made his own drums. I had an amazing time with him. I’ve always loved rhythm, my Dad is a drummer – not professionally, but as a hobby, he used to play in a couple of bands when I was a kid. There was always rhythm being tapped around the house. I find rhythm very natural, when I get on a drum-kit, I find it the most natural thing.

Maybe it is for all of us, I mean as children everybody taps and hits things; there’s rhythm everywhere, but there is a deep spiritual aspect to it. A lot of African music is about dance, this is something I really noticed in Gambia as well. It was all and one the same thing. In every drum group there is a dance group. One of the first things this guy taught me was the signal of how to start and to stop, to indicate to the dancers what was going to happen.

It’s not coming from any kind of ‘making money’ place it’s coming from a beautiful spiritual place.

MB: Talk to me a bit more about this experience in Gambia, is there any concrete connection you can make with the music you made after this visit?

Paul White: Well, I brought back a big Djembe (laughs), number one. The guy made me my own massive, amazing Djembe, so that’s in my studio and have been used on many recordings since. It was the experience and the spirit that I brought back mainly. It’s this pure, joyous spiritual connection with music and the Earth and the spirit, really; it was a good reminder to get out of this Western world that is just so money-driven.

It just felt magic for me personally to be in Africa, I’ve been to Morocco previously, but this is a very different Africa. It was very special for me to be so close to Sierra Leone, I really wanted to go. It felt quite natural for me being there, the spirit and the energy of the people felt so lovely. Just playing with that guy was pretty special because he immediately saw my passion for music pretty quickly and we went through most of the stuff he wanted to teach me very, very fast and he actually started to teach me some of the local music from the tribe where he came from, his individual tribal rhythm he played that was personal to them. And that just felt incredibly special. The whole trip was incredibly, incredibly inspiring. We drummed until the sun went down and there’d be nine, or ten children dancing around.

All these kids playing around and jumping around, it was a magic experience. I’ll never forget it. It reminds you of what music is about. I’ll always think back to that time I had there."

 

(Coda:

Paul White: “It was when I was about 19 or 20 when I started to really buy records that was when I moved on from my song-writing-Ambient-Trance phase, doing things all at the same time and started to really dedicate myself to making beats and sampling. I sold all my synths and bought an MPC and spent hundreds and hundreds of pounds on records and really, really started digging which I think is an amazing musical education.

That’s the great thing about Hip-Hop, people can get critical about sampling but if you’re going out digging for records, I can’t think of a better musical education cause you’re buying every kind of genre. As soon as you start digging you get inspired by music from all over the world.

I was just looking for samples, I wasn’t even looking for great songs. Most of the music was rubbish, but there often was a great sample, or a great sound. I really value that education, which is buying every genre and just feeling it. I’d mix a Turkish sample with a Bollywood sample with a funk sample with a Prog-Rock sample, all in one song. 

You’ll hear that a lot in my album, The Strange Dreams of Paul White from 2009, I used to delight in chopping up music from all over the world and putting it together so there were all these currents and emotions across all these different genres and you can feel it. This is something that Hip-Hop taught me, that is what Hip-Hop is for me; it’s all genres, it’s Country music and Folk music, it’s Jazz and Funk and Rock music, Latin music – everything.

MB: When you’re listening to these records are you listening for specific sounds, or are you listening for qualities, what is the process like when choosing which element to sample?

Paul White: It’s probably about the emotion in the playing. It’ll either be the emotion in the playing, or something about the sonic quality itself, it could be anything from sampling a kick-drum to the whole guitar part. You're listening to an old 70s record with all these effects you just don’t hear nowadays from an analogue mixing desk, for example. It’s often a mix of the two.

I try not to look for loops, often what I do is write the drums first, I’d never just sit down from scratch and just listen to a record and try and find the best part, even though I have done this. I usually sit down first and pull the record out and chop up different drum hits and make a drum pattern first and then listen to records with my drums playing in the background. I’d never ever listen to a record and go, oh I’m going to take this and then build on that. I like to have an element of me first and then start building on top of it.

Music is magical in that sense, you can hear it when someone plays a guitar part with so much passion, or listening to a synth part it makes me think what was that person going through that day, did they just get married, did they just get a divorce? Was their child born the night before? You can feel that in the music, that’s what attracts me, I think.

MB: I liked it when you said that ‘it’s the emotion in the playing’ that brings us back to your passion for live performance, doesn’t it?

Paul White: Yeah, sure.

MB: It’s something very personal.

Paul White: Yeah, totally, yeah).   

Ambrosia for Heads interview: BROOKZILL! (Prince Paul, Ladybug Mecca, Don Newkirk, Rodrigo Brandão)

BROOKZILL!: a hybrid musical project, part Brazilian street samba/part Brooklyn, NYC “old school” - defined by travel and transcendence, mapping out connections to discover that the heartbeat of both musical traditions starts in the same place.

Recorded over a 10 year period in Atlanta, Brazil, New York, Throwback to the Future is imprinted with the personality of its makers: Ladybug Mecca, Digable Planets MC with her effortless cool; the high-energy enthusiasm and eclecticism of “producer extraordinaire” Prince Paul; producer and musician Don Newkirk, with his strong Funk sensibility; and the gravel-voiced Brazilian MC, Rodrigo Brandão.

Listening to BROOKZILL! reminds me of a French verb that has no direct translation in English: dépayser which means “to feel disoriented” (or “have a change of scenery“). Lost in the English translation, though, is an idea embedded in the French that refers to taking your country out of you. As the spirited BROOKZILL! collaboration makes clear, there is definite joy and freedom to be found when there are no distinct borders or markers setting out the path. Most of Throwback To The Future is in Brazilian Portuguese (the first language of Brandão, and also Ladybug Mecca, who was raised by Brazilian musician parents in the U.S) with no translations provided. Sounds come and go, drawing on various traditions, creating surprising intersections, familiar and strange at the same time. Certain tracks are playful, with wry references to Hip-Hop; others are dark, sombre and mysterious.

None of this is meant to suggest Throwback To The Future is a tacky, exploitative version of musico-tourism; quite the reverse. In many respects the BROOKZILL! record is defined by its seamless fit, while also offering up a home-coming for Ladybug Mecca, who pays homage to her Brazilian heritage in a way that seems deeply personal.

During a recent interview with Ambrosia For Heads, Ladybug Mecca explained that the BROOKZILL! project was ‘about unity – bringing two worlds together that can transcend anything.’ She continued: “Lyrically we touch on subjects such as personal growth, love and transcendence, celebration of loved ones who have passed (but) unity summarizes it best.”

BROOKZILL!’s Throwback To The Future, with its unexpected guest-artist list (which includes Count Bass D, Del The Funky Homosapien, DJs Kid Koala & Mr. Len, Gil Scott-Heron’s long-time collaborator, Brian Jackson, and a number of Brazilian musicians, including some who had previously performed with Pharaoh Sanders) links the U.S. Hip-Hop underground with Brazilian music, while upsetting fixed notions of what a Hip-Hop-inspired project can or should be.

Stream Throwback To The Future by BROOKZILL!.

Ambrosia For Heads: Paul, you’ve said that this project is all about capturing “the essence” of the two musical genres – Hip-Hop and different forms of Brazilian music – can you develop this more?

Prince Paul: You know, a lot of times, especially nowadays people focus more on what a musician looks like, they go, “Yeah, I got this fabulous record out – with a video!” Everything is visual, everything is marketing and promotion. What we’re doing more or less is stripping this record back to the essence: the drum and the beat, which is both in Brazilian music and in Hip-Hop music and back to melodies and vibes and feelings.

The music is definitely the driving force: the melody, the lyrics, the feeling of the drums … It’s soulful, catchy, the music captures your spirit and soul in the moment and that’s where we have taken this.

All the tracks (on Throwback To The Future) have a melody, a vibe and a feel to them. I tried to make one of those records where you can close your eyes and go on a journey and see where it takes you, as opposed to: “Oh man, I’m gonna skip that track, oh man, this one’s horrible.” [Laughs] I tried to make everything feel and vibe a certain way and that to me the essence of both genres.

Ambrosia For Heads: How would you compare the Hip-Hop beat and the beat in different forms of Brazilian music?

Prince Paul: Rodrigo?

Rodrigo Brandão : Okay, I would say the 4/4 rhythm of Hip-Hop is like the bread of a sandwich. You can put anything inside that beat and it’ll fit, you know. If you do it the right way, it’ll fit. It’s the same with Brazilian music because if you do it properly you’ll see the African heritage, so the poly-rhythms of African music then translated to the Brazilian continent, which is a country but the size of a continent … The Hip-Hop beat is universal and I see that as the bread of a sandwich, and what we’re putting into the sandwich is what’s making it unique and very different.

Ambrosia For Heads: P-Funk is a key influence for BROOKZILL!, Newkirk, could you talk about this more?  

Don Newkirk: I think that music from that era set the tone for hip-hop in general – that was the soundtrack, you could say, that the early Hip-Hop artists pulled from when they, or when we, started making Hip-Hop: it was that music from the ’70s; the Funk scene, James Brown, Parliament, Funkadelic.

Ambrosia For Heads: Could you break it down more, with reference to “Mad Dog in Yoruba” as there seems to be a strong connection there.

Don Newkirk: Definitely, especially with “Mad Dog [In Yoruba]” – the song is a great example of that influence: the horn arrangements, the groove itself, the drums. It all connects. The break element, that song is like a musical break, you know a B-Boy break almost.

When we started doing the horns, Paul was like, “Yeah that’s the vibe right there.” I think that certain things are ingrained so much in your subconscious it just comes out of you. “Mad Dog” is a good example of the B-Boy element, the Funk element from the ’70s. We didn’t set out to do it like that, it wasn’t like: “Let’s make this.’ After we made it we realized how much it borrowed from that vibration of the ’70s.

Ambrosia For Heads: It also has an Afro-beat vibe, linking with what Rodrigo was saying before.

Don Newkirk: Yeah, definitely. One thing I learned after Paul and I had the opportunity of working with the great Bernie Worrell – R.I.P. Bernie –  music in general is relative. It doesn’t matter if it’s classical or funk. There’s always a relation in there, what you’re seeing in the Afrobeat and the Brazilian vibration, the Afro-Cuban beat like Rodrigo says everything starts with the drums, starts with the rhythm: it all goes back to African rhythms basically.

Prince Paul Drops a Mixtape Highlighting Digable Planets’ Ladybug Mecca (Audio)

Ambrosia For Heads: The interplay between the MCs on this track is striking, can you talk more about this, Rodrigo, Mecca.

Rodrigo Brandão: Ladies first.

Ladybug Mecca: My verse is more rooted in the Hip-Hop genre, there’s not one particular subject matter, it’s touching on anything that came to mind. Rodrigo and I vibed so well, we were like brother and sister from the moment we met. It was just easy for us to conceptualize records and to throw it back and forth in the true Hip-Hop form. It just came very naturally for us.

Ambrosia For Heads: For those who might not know the language, what are you rhyming about?

Rodrigo Brandão: What I can say, basically, what I can say about this whole project is – we didn’t look to achieve a certain sound, or certain style, we just let it flow. After we looked at the baby to put on a name on it. Have you heard of Eshu?

Ambrosia For Heads: [Pauses] No, I don’t think so.

Rodrigo Brandão: He is probably the most powerful of all gods (in Yoruba culture), he has the power to do whatever he wants and change whatever he wants real quick, so this song in a very abstract and non-intentional way describes the power and the size of actions of Eshu. The track is about him and his power.

Ambrosia For Heads: Gil Scott-Heron’s main collaborator through the 70s, Brian Jackson features on “Nascido No Ceu” how did he get involved?

Rodrigo Brandão : Brian Jackson is one of those icons, you listen to your whole life. When you actually have a chance to interact with him, he’s just a dude, he’s your brother, like the coolest man ever. People like him should be the power in the world. If you have the chance to kick with them, to vibe with them, you just take it. Brian Jackson is one of those unsung heroes. His music with Gil Scott-Heron is so timeless.

He’s pretty much the fifth member of the group, the first show that we did at SOBs in New York, it was just the four of us, and Brian Jackson on stage.

Ambrosia For Heads: Was there any conscious design behind the way the musical elements were used in that song?  

Prince Paul: Rodrigo touched on it and Newkirk, not just this track but the overall feeling of the album, we just played music for the sake of making it, which is pretty foreign nowadays. People go into the studio with a goal in mind, we were like let’s just make music so we gave Brian Jackson no direction. It was, take the music, whatever you feel is right.

A lot of the elements and the music is what the musician feels, just about the only direction I would give anyone is,”That! Repeat that verse! Do that stab over in this area.” [Most of the time] it was whatever they felt that was how we went with it. That translates to the whole album, it’s your soul speaking to the instrument. And that’s what I really think is the beauty of it. It’s like when we do interviews, people ask us to describe whatever, it’s really hard, because it just is. [Laughs]

Prince Paul Pushed More Boundaries With His Prince Among Thieves Film (Video)

Ambrosia For Heads: Can you talk about the recording process now, as the project took 10 years. And can you provide an overview of the record, do all the tracks use live performance, are some sample-based only, or a mix of both?

Prince Paul: I would say it's inspired by being sample-based. The melodies you hear, me and Rodrigo would sit down and go, “We like that. That’s the kind of vibe we want for this song. Let’s move it into that mode.”

Going back to the title, Throwback To The Future I have to reference doing things now and the way things used to be done. The easiest way to [complete the album] would have been like “I’m going to send you some beats and we can swap back and forth over the Internet, whatever.”

But we made a conscious decision to be in the same place at the same time so the distance is what made the process so long. Rodrigo comes to New York to my studio, we get the skeleton of it together, man, we go to Brazil with Newkirk to get the musicians, we go back to Atlanta. We go to Brooklyn to mix it, you know. [Laughs] Wanting to keep the tradition of us being together, it took a minute; when you’ve got families and life kicks in, you look up and it’s 10 years later.

Ambrosia For Heads: Newkirk has said it was very “old school” in that 95 % of the recording sessions had all four members in the same room, why is this important for a record like this?

Don Newkirk: I think it’s important for all records. The nature of music is communal; people are meant to be in the same room together. People used to hang out around a camp fire, or smoke a peace-pipe or sit on the plains of Africa with some drums and just go at it, have fun. Music is a communal effort, man.

As time went on [musicians] got more and more segregated, not just vibrational but that too. The creation of music became segregated and it’s an oxymoron when you think about it, because music is supposed to be something that brings people together. People come together and feel good, or feel whatever it makes you feel, it takes you on a journey …

That’s how we used to do it when we were younger. That’s why the further back you go in music the more feeling you start to pick up, it doesn’t even matter the genre. I don’t care if it’s Hip-Hop or R&B, there was more feeling because there was people in the room sitting there vibing and then there is an almost an angelic force when people are in unison, in a vibration it’s like a lot of angels and ancestors come in and inspire you.

That just doesn’t happen when you’re by yourself. It’s hard for me to work like that. I can’t just send people tracks, or people send me tracks and then write a song, you miss the full intention of it. You miss the complement of someone else’s words, or notes, or melodies.

Ambrosia For Heads: Mecca, could you describe the role Brazilian music played in shaping your delivery –  remembering that you were raised by two Brazilian musician parents?

Ladybug Mecca: Portuguese was my first language and when I entered an American school, I started to learn English, but it’s interesting that I would still speak a combination of English and Portuguese as a young person and even in my teenage years. I think the use of both those languages naturally would affect my art and the way my thought process works, how to express an observation or feeling.

I don’t know how to put it into words … my use of space and pauses in my delivery is one way of saying how [this background] affects me.

Ambrosia For Heads: There’s a kind of private quality, a holding back and control in your work that reminds me of Brazilian singers.

Ladybug Mecca: [Pauses] That’s the first time I’ve heard that kind of comment. It’s very possible as for most of my life, the first music I ever heard was traditional old school Brazilian music, my father had a radio that was tuned in to Brazilian music. It was a constant for us. There definitely has to be a direct relationship.

Digable Planets Reflect On Their Travels Through Time & Space And They’re Still Light Years Ahead

Ambrosia For Heads: Could you choose a Brazilian singer who has a strong connection with what you do?

Ladybug Mecca: I would say Clara Nunes. I vibe with her a lot, everything about her story resonates with me.

Prince Paul On Which Grammy Album He Got No Credit For, Magic Of Gravediggaz (Audio)

Ambrosia For Heads: To close, “Todos os Terreiros” is surely the key track in terms of the record’s Hip-Hop/Brazilian hybrid sound…

Prince Paul: If anything shows the way Rodrigo and I worked it’d be that song. He’d come in and say, “This is what I’m thinking, these are the sounds I want to use.” I’d sit there and think, “Mmm, how am I going to work this in with head-nodding?”

One good thing about Hip-Hop and you can see this historically, you can put any genre in that 4/4 beat and it bangs, but this one I was actually scratching my head going, “Let’s see if this will work.” [Laughs] I said, “Yo, I’m going to do the opposite of what this rhythm calls for, because it’s melodic and soft which is nice, so let’s throw in some boom bap in there.” That’s the result of the two worlds coming together.

That track is all over the place, meshing spacey synth sounds and traditional Brazilian sounds and throwing in some occasional boom bap drums – with which, for me, you can never lose. It could be a wedding march and if you throw in some boom bap on it, it works.

Ambrosia For Heads: What are your future plans, I see you’re planning some tours.

Prince Paul: Our plan is to travel the world. And if we were able to travel outside the atmosphere and into the universe [laughing] we’d go there too.

Paris-based Australian journalist, Madeleine Byrne writes on music and politics. To read more of her work, included extended interviews/essays, and other Hip-Hop related writing, visit her website

Marco Polo Interview

When asked to identify the key element of his aesthetic, Toronto-born New York-based hip-hop producer Marco Polo answered simply: ‘the drums.

Drums are always the centre of my beats; they’re always hard-hitting, aggressive: you feel them, cause that’s how I was brought up as a fan of producers like DJ Premier, Large Professor. It’s all about the kicks and the snares, you know. And then of course the musical elements too: it’s a vibe. To answer your question, I think what defines my beats, what people probably know, it’s my drums.’

Having worked with many of the greats since coming to New York in 2003 (Pharoahe Monch, Rakim, Masta Ace, Large Professor, Torae among others) and also new generation voices, Marco Polo has marked out a defined niche within the hip-hop genre; that builds on the past, while creating a sound that is distinctively his own.

What immediately strikes you about Marco Polo’s music is its impact; there is something complete - or totalising - about it. Whereas many hip-hop producers allow space between the elements, letting in an airiness or lightness of tone (or irony) Marco Polo’s music is about how the elements come together in a united front. There is an intensity to this music that rarely lets up.

***

In a 2015 article a Guardian journalist made the rather outlandish claim that Marco Polo was keeping the New York hip-hop sound alive - or to be more accurate, he claimed that Marco Polo 'defined' the sound of New York hip-hop. While this journalist's statement is something I'm sure Marco Polo would never agree with, it's interesting to compare his production with one of his key influences, DJ Premier (who many believe is the sound of New York hip-hop). 

For Marco Polo, DJ Premier is a key influence and inspiration: 'the king of drums ... (who) set the bar for drum programming’. But there are definite differences between the two producers. Most of the time, DJ Premier’s music is driven by a hard beat, but his arrangements appear to be sparse (appear to be are the key words here). The music is so pure so that the elements can be heard in isolation and the structure is exposed via a highlighting of each part: the drums/the MC/samples/the DJ scratching over it. When listening to this music you can recognise and appreciate the work’s inherent logic: its elegant classicism.

In contrast, Marco Polo’s production style often feels like a ‘wall of sound’ with elements working together, moving in different patterns and directions, backed up by the emphatic beat. This approach reminds me of a 70s rock aesthetic (though Marco Polo stressed that ‘at the end of the day I’ve got to bring it back to hip-hop, it can’t be too rock n’ roll’) or perhaps some of the wilder funk exponents from that era.

Marco Polo is best known perhaps for an early track featuring Masta Ace, 'Nostalgia' released on his first Port Authority record in 2007 (Soulspazm/Rawkus Records) -

a gentle paean to greats from the past, with a soft pitter-patter of a beat that stops and starts up again, following the rhyme of the MC. The fact that Marco Polo is forever associated with this track is a little surprising as since then he has marked out much darker territory, not only in his two producer-led efforts but also his work for MCs. Indeed, his oft-repeated statements regarding his ambitions, or what the sound of true hip-hop is for him, usually include the words dark, soulful and grimy.

In 2007, Marco Polo's Port Authority album offered an exhaustive roll-call of well-known names (the aforementioned Masta Ace; O.C.; Large Professor; Oddisee; Kool G Rap; Supastition; Sadat X ...) 

The overall impression gleaned from the record was its statement of supreme confidence from the then 28 year-old (Marco Polo was born in Canada in 1979) who had only turned up in the City a few years previous and a showing of his virtuosic skill. Six years later, in 2013 Marco Polo returned to this terrain with a follow-up record called Port Authority 2that included a similarly daunting number of MCs - 40 from across the United States. An obvious question to ask was why he kept returning to this imagined location, Port Authority, what kept bringing him back there.

Marco Polo: The Port Authority bus terminal is a hub in New York City, pretty much in Times Square if you were to take a Greyhound bus anywhere from Canada or outside New York it’d end up at the Port Authority. And when I first moved to New York I took the bus from Toronto and that’s where I ended up so that was my first impression of the city when I walked out onto the bus station. Now it’s much better, but before it used to be super grimy around there, with a lot of homeless people and hustlers; it was a pretty ‘lively’ couple of blocks surrounding that station, so it was a fitting introduction to New York.

It’s cleaned up around it (now), but any place where you have tourists and foreigners showing up, you’re going to have the scum of the earth waiting for you to do bad things, like hustle you for a couple of bucks, or sell you weed. I’m sure it’s the same in any city, when you go to the bus terminal you got to keep an eye out for shady characters, you know (laughs).

Port Authority 2 similarly featured an impressive group of MCs - Talib Kweli; Masta Ace; Rah Digga among many others and included a reunion of Pharaohe Monch's earlier group, Organized Konfusion and a track dedicated to a late member of Gang Starr, 'G.U.R.U' that featured Kweli and Dj Premier, while featuring a raft of DJs scratching over the beats (DJ Revolution, Shylow, DJ Linx, DJ Romes and DJ Premier himself). 

I asked him about 'mood' when putting these two albums together and how important it was to think about the records in their entirety.

Marco Polo: Very important, I grew up with albums that had a theme to them, with leads and segues. You want to make something that flows. The great albums of my time all had that, like De La Soul and Prince Paul. Prince Paul is credited as the one who invented the interlude. It was cool, something different it’s not just music with spaces between, it puts you in a zone. It’s like listening to a story. Even Pete Rock on his Soul Survivor record he had all these amazing beats that would fade in, like ten seconds and fade out between songs. They were like crazy beats and you’d be like, ‘Man I want to hear someone rapping on that, I want to hear it longer.’ And it’d be gone.

It’s really important. Listen to Doctor Dre, his work literally sounds like movies; he’s got the intros and voice-overs. I was really lucky to have Michael Rapaport who is a great actor and a huge hip-hop fan to narrate them. It was amazing, it makes it cool, when you listen to something top to bottom, it puts you in the zone.

MB: Listening to that record I noticed there was a lot of scratching on it, it was a really important element of that record. Would you say it was a key, unifying driver in Port Authority 2?

Marco Polo: Absolutely, it’s part of hip-hop; one of the key elements of hip-hop. I’m a fan of scratching, or scratch hooks on songs. I’m a big fan and I’m blessed because I’ve got some of the world’s best DJs at my disposal: Revolution and Shylow. Shylow does pretty much 90 per cent of my cut hooks and he’s a master of it. It’s really important to incorporate this in the music. Sometimes you get the rapper to come up with a vocal hook and sometimes you get the DJ to do scratches; let’s do cuts. The song’s called this, okay find rappers who say that. It’s a whole mission to dig for acappellas. Yeah, you got to show love to the DJ.

Once again, DJ Premier and Marley Marl cause they were cats cutting up lines and stuff on records back in the day. Something about that that I’m just drawn to.

MB: I think it adds a real beautiful texture to the record because of the way it adds to the track construction; I mean the scratching comes in at different moments for emphasis. When do you use scratching in a song?

Marco Polo: (pauses)

MB: Is it like a sample that you place in a song to provide emphasis, or drama?

Marco Polo: Yeah, you can use it however you want to use it. Most of the time, we’re using scratches to make the chorus of a song, the hook. But sometimes, there are really no rules: it could be a bridge, or part of a verse when the rapper wants you to scratch to connect to a line he’s saying. We just try to be creative with it, cause literally at this point everybody has done everything.

You record it over the beat just like a sample, that’s essentially what it is – a sample of a rapper’s voice or something whatever he decides to scratch.  

Since then Marco Polo has produced for a number of important acts - including Pharaohe Monch, providing the music for three of his tracks on the 2014 release PTSD. What follows is a record of our phone discussion that covers Marco Polo's ongoing respect for Masta Ace; his collaboration with A-F-R-O (his next release) a focus on how he makes his beats; his current love for 70s prog-rock and how proud he is of his production work on Monch's classic album, PTSD.  

 

This week Marco Polo is leaving for a six-country European tour with his long-standing friend and collaborator Masta Ace who is promoting his sixth solo album The Falling Season, supported by MC Stricklin (one of the members of the group, eMC with Masta Ace himself).

Back in 2003 when Marco Polo was working as an engineering intern at The Cutting Room recording studio in Manhattan – doing what he has described as ‘grunt work-fetching coffee, cleaning up, answering phones- (before landing) a gig as an Assistant Engineer/Manager’ - a chance meeting with Masta Ace jumpstarted Marco Polo’s career as a producer.

Marco Polo: He came through for a session with The Beatnuts and I gave him a beats CD and he picked two beats, one that became a song called ‘Do it Man’ - a song on his album called A Long Hot Summer (2004). At the time he wasn’t able to compensate me so what we worked out was that we would do a trade, in trade he recorded the song for me that people know as ‘Nostalgia’ - which 100% the song people know me for in the underground, close to five million views and on my first producer album Port Authority (Soulspazm/Rawkus Records).

Since then we’ve definitely worked on some stuff, a few songs here and there he was on my Port Authority 2 – I worked on the eMC album, but more importantly he asked me to come on the road with him when he travelled and DJ for him. And after this tour we’re going to work on an album together – a Masta Ace/Marco Polo album, which I’m very excited about.

MB: My friends who are into hip-hop have a huge amount of affection and respect for Masta Ace’s work over the years, how would you describe the value and importance of what he does?

Marco Polo: With Masta Ace, one of the things that make people all over the world – not just the US market – gravitate towards him is his ability to lay down a lot of emotion and amazing story telling in a simple way when he rhymes. He’s not beating you in the head with complex rhyme patterns, you know like in an Eminem style, but at the same time he’s Eminem’s biggest influence. Masta Ace has this way of talking to you in a personal way that is very simple, so people are able to feel it, you know.

And also in terms of his beats selection: Masta Ace has got a very good, picky ear when it comes to beats. He’s just amazing at making albums and connecting it all. This is what has kept him relevant after all these years, as opposed to a lot of guys from his era who have disappeared or not been able to be that consistent: Masta Ace is that dude. Twenty years – thirty years – and he’s still making music that people want to listen to and that’s very difficult to achieve.

KIC Beats was unable to do the tour; it is to promote Masta Ace’s album, The Falling Season (and will also feature) Stricklin, another dope MC. We’ve done this show many times all over the world, so it’s going to be like a reunion for us, rocking together again.

Following the European tour, Marco Polo will release an album he produced for the teen wonder A-F-R-O …. ‘Yeah, me and A-F-R-O have an ep, it’s about seven songs, maybe eight songs, it’s called A-F-R-O Polo - it’s done, we’re just mixing and mastering it now. I hope in the next few months it would be put out for people to hear.’

 

MB: Can you talk a little about the project; what was it that interested you in working with A-F-R-O?

Marco Polo: I didn’t even know that A-F-R-O existed, the only reason I knew of him was RA the Rugged Man, I work with him and he brought A-F-R-O to my studio and told me about him and said, ‘Yo he’s dope. You’ve got to check him out.’ RA the Rugged Man discovered A-F-R-O through a contest he had for MCs and A-F-R-O won, RA the Rugged Man flew A-F-R-O to New York and basically brought him round to a bunch of producers that he wanted A-F-R-O to work with and I was one of them.

Luckily he ended up in my studio and we just had good chemistry and we recorded more than just a couple of songs. We had a great time. I love his energy. He’s an incredible rapper. But what I love about him is he’s so young and he’s so culturally respectful to the roots of hip-hop. It’s different for a kid at 19 to be on that vibe these days because things evolve. He speaks to a lot of people who remember the golden era. We had a great time and yeah, the ep came out really nice. I’m excited for people to hear it.

MB: Is there anything particularly different in terms of what you’ve done with this ep?

Marco Polo : Production-wise I don’t think it’s anything super different; it’s definitely a little bit more raw. You know there’s a lot of break-beats, a couple of songs we made in the studio, I made the beat and he’d just rhyme. I would pick drums that he liked and then I’d make a beat. There were some beats I had already made; it was just kind of like having fun until it all made sense. It’s not like I’m experimenting, you can still expect the typical hard-hitting Marco Polo production, with A-F-R-O on it.

 

Let’s focus now on what Marco Polo is talking about when he speaks of his ‘hard-hitting'production style. On YouTube there are a number of videos where Marco Polo talks through his production techniques. In one he breaks down his work on Pharoahe Monch’s track. ‘The Jungle’ from the 2014 album, PTSD.

Starting with a ‘bunch of sounds’ (acoustic guitar, choir, clavinet and bass …) Marco Polo says how each - when played in isolation - is ‘so cheesy’ (perhaps the worst of them sounding as if it came from a pretty awful guitar-solo, he likens it to ‘some Bon Jovi-ass sounding guitar’) but when layered ends up creating a very distinctive mood: simple and threatening. Marco Polo adds how quantising the beat can be ‘your enemy’ in that it can make the music sound ‘stiff’ and that he always tries to make the bass notes come in late to provide a funky, natural feel. Then he refers to what he calls ‘the stabs’ - the repetition of certain notes in a track, which are, in fact, the defining element of his aesthetic.

In the video, he also adds how he loves the ‘movement of breaks’ - I found this comment interesting, so I asked him to explain this more.

Marco Polo: Basically, you know (pauses) one of the biggest challenges … Okay so let’s simplify this for readers who aren’t producers. A break-beat is essentially a part of a song a drummer played, a human being playing an instrument, so it’s going to have human elements to it in the timing so it’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be like a computer with a metronome, it’s going to have a feel to it because it’s a human playing it, so it’s going to be a bit more funky, it’s going to be late, or early or off. All of this things essentially give it a natural, human groove because it’s a human playing it.

So when producers think about break beats you’re essentially breaking up a human made rhythm for two or four bars so it gives you a really natural feel, as opposed to when you chop up sounds and program them on a computer because then you’re in the hands of a piece of machine to make your rhythm and depending on how good you are as a programmer it can be really stiff and not sound natural. What separates the good producers from the great is the ability to take these machines and computers and make these beats that feel human, right.

That’s the challenge, so if you eliminate the part when you program the drums yourself and you just loop the break-beat, you’re ahead the game rhythm wise by having something that just feels more natural. 

In the end, it’s important to use breaks because it makes my beats, or anyone’s beats sound more natural and less stiff and robotic. But when you use them you’re repeating a human rhythm in one, two, three, four bar loops you know capturing the human inconsistency of a human playing drums, as opposed to chopping up individual kicks and snares and relying on technology to make it sound natural. There’s lots of producers who can take individually edited kicks and snares and make it sound natural when they’re using MPCs or machines and some are not so good, so the way around it is looping a breakbeat that is part of a record where it’s just the drums playing.

MB: This idea of the movement is it to make it sound more fluid?

Marco Polo: Yeah, it’s basically to make it sound more funky, more natural.

MB: I think you’ve talked about the importance of creating a live band sound, now this is something I’ve come across repeatedly where producers talk about this being one of their key goals – almost to reproduce how it sounds to, you know, hear a jazz band or a funk group from the 70s, say – why is that so important? It seems a bit contradictory. 

Marco Polo: For me, it’s not really about trying to create the sound of a band, it’s to put a bunch of sounds together that make sense, you know; that feels natural, that feels like it was meant to be. It’s like adding different moods and textures. It’s challenging cause if you’re a sample-based producer like me where you’re taking all these different sources from vinyl, or it could be MP3s, or whatever. You’re taking parts of music that were recorded in different studios, different time eras, with different equipment, so how do you make all this make sense so it doesn’t sound like a fucking mess. That’s the art of sample-based production it’s finding a way to take all these different textures and sounds to make them gel together, to make a new composition and a new idea. For me that’s one of the most challenging and yet rewarding and fun things about making beats. I think a lot of people like that about me they see me taking so many different sources from songs in different keys, different tunings and you have to make it all work. I love it, that’s like my favourite part.

MB: I noticed that in one of your videos, from ‘Making the Beat’ video series (on his production work for Torae’s ‘Double Barrel’ in 2009) you said choosing six samples from six completely different records is the challenge, the essence of what you do, is that right, is that what you’re saying now?

Marco Polo: Yeah, something like that. I don’t always do that. Sometimes if I’m making a beat and I’m like it would be cool to have a horn sound, I’ll go through my jazz records and find something and see if it will work. It’s tricky, cause you’re finding songs that are completely not the same tempo, or different keys, so yeah essentially putting in that extra work to find those types of sounds it’s like the icing on the cake for a beat to be complete for me, the little details.

MB: Your talking about these sounds, there’s obviously differences in sound quality in terms of the recordings as well, are you using lots of technology to try and equalise them. What kinds of post-production work do you do to make them at the same level?

Marco Polo: You know I have a couple of programs that I use on my laptop where I will do some processing, whether it’s making them louder, or eq-ing them or adding some reverb, so I will do some of that. I’m a big fan of delays and time stretching specifically is probably the most important one cause if you’ve got a horn sample that’s a 120 BPM and my beat is 90 then you know I have programs or I use the MPC to time stretch the horn to match the tempos. There’s definitely a lot of things I do to make things work; just I don’t think about things, it’s first nature to do it. Absolutely, when you’re working with different sources I have to put in work to make it make sense.

MB: It’s this constant challenge and balance, isn’t it, between using technology and using material that’s already been ‘found’ then trying to make it sound natural, it’s interesting.

Marco Polo: Yeah, talking like that it sounds like a lot of work, I guess it is. For me it’s just like what I do. It’s first nature, you know.

MB: Returning to your beats now, I think you were saying how you like to layer a beat, so you’ve got the kick and the snare, and then you’ve got a hi-hat from another record, a splash of percussion from another record, is that a fair representation of how you construct a beat, layering it from different sources?

Marco Polo: Yeah, it’s always going to be like that. I mean there’s no set way I have to make a beat. I usually start with drum sounds, but lately I’ve been challenging myself to start with the sample first just cause I like to throw curve-balls into my routine so I’m not always doing the same thing. Yeah, essentially it’s very rare to get the drum sample and the musical sample from the same record, it’s definitely possible if you have a sample with parts that will open up, but it’s rare.

So for the most part I’m taking kicks and snares and all these pieces are coming from different records, so that’s essentially what’s happening.

MB Is that something a bit distinctive in terms of what you’re doing?

Marco Polo: No, everybody does that. I might do a little bit more, or be drawn to certain sounds a bit more. You know all producers, what they do over a certain time is that they start accumulating a library of sounds they like to use again and again in their beats you know. Certain producers will have drums that they’ll use a lot so that when you hear a beat, you’ll go, that’s a 9th Wonder beat, that’s a DJ Premier beat. You’ll kind of know, it’s similar, you know cause you’ve heard it before that’s you essentially making your own signature sound. Over the years I definitely have signature drums and other sounds that I use. I try not to use them all the time, but I go to them because a) I know they work and it’s part of who I am as a sound.

MB: One thing you’ve been talking about recently is creating your own samples - using live musicians, recording them and sampling them – is this something you’re going to be doing more and more of, can you talk more about this?

Marco Polo: Yeah, sure. I have somebody I’m working with, a musician who is amazing. He plays guitar and all types of stuff and once in a while we’ll get together and we’ll just compose music – not beats, music, essentially things I would sample. It’s a real learning process. I’ve done a bunch of stuff with him. I have music that we’ve made. I’ve recorded some guitarists from Italy, guys who play jazz guitar and they’ll come to the studio and play tons of guitar – at no tempo - and I’ll record it and I’ll stash all these sounds. If I have a day where I have to make a beat where I can’t be using any copyrighted materials, it has to be original then I have all these sources to use that won’t be a problem, so I’m definitely doing that.

But it’s not my main focus. At the end of the day I’m not stressed about samples, I just try to make something that I love and worry about everything else later. But I am incorporating live musicianship and making more beats myself where I’m composing everything myself using programs and playing chords, trying to make stuff sound like samples. It changes. One day I’ll be in that mood, the next I’ll be like I want to hear something off vinyl. It all depends on how I feel when I wake up.

MB: Is all this also being motivated by sound quality, are you able to control the sound quality better if you record it yourself?

Marco Polo: I can definitely control it, but the thing is … The problem with technology is as much as they try to make things sound vintage, it’s never really going to be perfect. The reason why things sound so good on vinyl from the 60s and 70s is cause they’re using classic recording studios, with old gear that just had a warm vibe to it. It’s almost impossible to duplicate it. They’re trying to make stuff to emulate these old consoles, plug-ins and compressors. They come close, but it’s really difficult to make stuff that sounds like from that era. People can do it very well, but the average person cannot. So for me I definitely do my research to work out what people do to make instruments sound dirty, vintage and warm and have all those things you’d get off a record. I’m getting pretty good it at but it’s definitely every day I’m learning new tricks.

 

Many, if not most of the most important hip-hop producers have a certain thing for music from the 70s. One critic has claimed that it could be that many of those producing music in the 90s and since, for example, were young children growing up listening to their parents playing music from that era, so such music has a sentimental alongside musical import for them. While producers themselves often cite the sound quality from 70s era recordings as a reason for the fascination; noting how the recordings have a warmth lacking in more recent releases. 

During the interview there was a funny moment where I confidently asked Marco Polo about the link between his instrumental version of 'Astonishing' (here's the record version) released on his Port Authority 2 in 2013 and featured Large Professor, Inspectah Dec, OC and Tragedy Khadafi - and Ghostface Killah's 'Nutmeg' (relased on his 2000 album, Supreme Clientele) following a fan comment, linking the two. It turned out there was no, zero, conscious connection, even though Marco Polo kindly said that perhaps it sounds like the kind of beat Ghostface might have graced, might have favoured if it had been at his disposal, or offered to him. 

Apart from the linked high-pitched 'pow' sound on both, there is a connection and this is to a 70s cinematic/Blaxploitation soundtrack feel found on both records; often I think that Marco Polo's beats could have been on some kind of histrionic Italian horror flick from the 1970s, where the lead actors freeze in horror, repeatedly (or walk around sets in long flowing white dresses, not saying very much). It's a mood thing, a taste preference that distinguishes his work. Other than that there are certain techniques that link his production ethos with the era and this includes what he refers to as 'the stabs'. 

MB: From first listen, and especially when listening to the instrumental versions, take for example ‘Astonishing’ - what really struck was what I felt to be an influence of 1970s rock and electronic music from that era. While when you were talking about ‘The Jungle’ you talked about the importance of ‘stabs’ - repeated notes – and for me this connects your music with 70s rock, The Who (for example the track ‘Who are you’) …

Marco Polo: Yeah, definitely.

MB: If I were to say what makes your work distinctive, I’d say it’s this influence. What do you think about that comment?

Marco Polo: (pauses) It’s 100 per cent right. I have so many beats (laughs) I tell my boy Shylow, I need to retire the stabs. I’m just drawn to it, the repetitive notes, the same note over and over. It just has this vibe to it, I’m just drawn to it. I love it. It’s aggressive; it’s grimy. It’s hip-hop, you know.

One of the biggest, most commercial successes for hip-hop is something like Dr Dre's ‘Still Dre’ that incorporates the piano stabs. It’s like a rhythm – a hard, simple rhythm. It’s very easy for me to make beats like this and when I hear the samples, I’m very drawn to them. It’s a very accurate statement. I’m actually making efforts to move away from that because I’ve done it so much, yeah. But in a heartbeat I can go back and make a beat with stab sounds, I love it (laughs).

I mean ‘the stab’ - I don’t even know if it’s a real term; I just call it the stab cause that is what it means to me – but you can find it in all genres. You can find it in RnB music, in rock, in soul. But I am influenced by early music, I grew up in a household where my dad was playing 70s rock all the time. I’m influenced by everything really. I just love music, so.

MB: You’ve talked about Cream being played in your house when you were growing up …

Marco Polo: Absolutely - Disraeli Gears

MB: Cream and Miles Davis; it’s a funny combination …

Marco Polo: That’s my Dad, and it’s a blessing he was so open-minded. Even him playing those different things when I was growing up, I didn’t understand it then but it was so cool. (His Dad is also credited with introducing him to the first hip-hop record that really clicked with him: A Tribe Called Quest's 'Bonita Applebum').

The moment you say you just listen to one thing, you losing out; especially as producers, you’re playing yourself. If you just listen to soul, you’re playing yourself. The other genres of music will open you up to new sounds and it will make your production way more versatile, different and you can go to different zones and feelings.

Lately I’ve been going through a progressive rock phase where I’m finding progressive rock records. This shit is crazy, I love it and it’s also going to change your sound by going in different genres.

Some people like to stay in their zone, but for me I like to change it up. I don’t want people to get bored of my beats and go, oh it’s another Marco Polo beat. I want it to be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ Cause that’s how it used to be with cats like DJ Premier, he’d use all kinds of different samples, but the way he chopped them was unique and you’d be like, ‘What the hell is that?’ It’d make you scratch your head, ‘Where did he find that? What is that?’ I want people to do the same with my beats, I want them to have no idea what’s happening, or where I got them.

MB: Are you talking about English prog rock, or?

Marco Polo: It’s not specific to a country, I’ll look up that genre and do research. It could be bands from the UK, it could be bands from Italy, from Finland, from Sweden, from Germany, from the United States. Whatever falls in that genre, and if I’m uneducated or unaware, I’ll educate myself.

God bless the Internet, cause it’s really helpful these days cause you can just go and learn. You can find a kid in Spain who loves prog rock and will list all these albums he loves. It’s like going to the library. I look these groups up, I find the music and I learn about it. And man, a lot of it’s bad. But once in a while you’ll find that gem and it’s worth it.

MB: What interests you about the music though?

Marco Polo: The weird chord progressions; the sounds, the recording, the drums the vocals. The thing about progressive rock or that symphonic stuff is it could be so many things, it could be synthesisers from the 70s to a crazy flute player on acid, just going crazy over drums and a bass-line. And it’s still got a bit of funk to it, you know. I don’t like things that sound too rock n roll for hip-hop. I’m never going to be down with that. It’s still got to have a funk and soul and interesting musicality to it. 

Widely acclaimed by the music media and fans alike, Pharoahe Monch’s PTSD is a genre-defining release, while so distinctive it could not be mistaken for the work of any other artist. Marco Polo produced three tracks on the album: ‘The Jungle’; Rapid Eye Movement’; and ‘Time2’. I asked Marco Polo to talk about these tracks and also explain how it was working with Pharaohe Monch.

Marco Polo: First of all I’m glad you brought it up because I love all three of those songs I did on that album. I’m proud of all three. Having a song that has Pharaohe and Black Thought over my beat, that was a dream come true. Two of the best emcees in the history of hip-hop trading verses, I’m just so proud of those three songs. All three of them.

Pharoahe is not what you’d call ‘a normal (guy)’ - he’s not average. He’s above average; I always joke he’s like an alien, he’s not from this planet that is how good he is at MC-ing and his thought process is not from this universe, it’s on another level and I’ve been blessed to experience it in the studio, seeing him rhyme, the stuff he writes and how he puts it together. You know it’s just a saying, he’s not from this planet, he’s that far advanced and amazing and skilled as an MC.

He is different. Like I remember when I was recording the verses to Time2 and he was doing this stuttery thing and I stopped him, I was like, ‘Yo, it’s too weird.’ I almost tried to get in the way of his genius. It was such a learning lesson cause he was like, ‘Nah, let it be what it is.’ I didn’t understand it. It was like my brain wasn’t ready for what he was doing. Now when I listen back to it, I’m like Oh my God, I tried to stop this incredible verse where he’s basically rapping like someone is having a hard time talking, or stuttering. It’s the second part of the verse on Time2. It’s crazy. He’s incredible (laughs).

And I love all three of those beats they’re so different from each other.

MB: ‘Rapid Eye Movement’ is so beautiful, it’s a phenomenal track. It does sound like a band to me, the way you’ve got this rolling drum, I think it is, which has this really 70s feel. The actual beat itself is really complex.

Marco Polo: Once again, it’s kind of like the stabs: the real repetitive sound (sings it). I’m a big fan of repetition like a lot of the best hip-hop production is something repeating over and over again. I don’t think hip-hop beats should have too much going on in them for the most part. It gets distracting. You want to create something that hypnotises you and you get in the zone and once you’ve hit that you add the finishing element.

Most of that beat is repetitive piano stabs and the drums and there’s a change that repeats and then goes back to the part with the repetitive piano. That whole record sounds dusty, it’s an interesting beat for me because there is no real melody; it’s a bunch of cool sounds and really hard drums. 

In a melancholy mood: writing on hip-hop quiet (instrumentals from the 90s)

Onyx  'Last Dayz', Miilkbone 'Keep it Real' (prod. by Mufi), The Speedknots 'The Zone' (prod. by Stress & War)

'When I asked Samson S. if he would sample a song because of what it represented to him, he was unequivocal in his response:

'Not based on that fact alone. I don't care how much that record meant to me, if it's not poppin' .... I go on straight sound, man. You know, 'Do I like it?, Does it sound good to me?' that type of deal. I don't really get all up into this mystical shit'. 

Samson S. cited in Making Beats: the art of sample-based hip-hop, by Joseph G. Schloss (Wesleyan University Press, 2004), interview 1999, p.147

***

To understand the mechanics of hip-hop you need to strip away the elements, break it down and then hold back some more. For many years I listened to King Tubby ... 

and Augustus Pablo,  marvelling at the way the sonic elements were used; how at certain points they would recede and then come forward, but that there was a totalising vision or aesthetic where you could hear the imprint of the producer.

(Once I was told that in early dub recordings you could hear not just the sound of the producer, but also the sound of the particular studio where it was recorded in Jamaica). 

Inevitably then, I came  back to listening to hip-hop with the same sensibility.

But what interests me most in hip-hop is a kind of emptiness. Rather than focussing on the elements, I appreciate the way this music represents a no-movement - a stasis. I developed this idea in my essay on Black Milk

What impresses me is the way the producers take pleasure in the simplicity of the repetition; keeping it unadorned. Take, for instance, this instrumental by Onyx,  'Last Dayz' from 1995 ... 

Everything about this is extraordinary for me; from the repeated vocal sample that becomes nothing more than a sound in some unknown language. Something you can see continue in the much later work of Burial, for instance 'Archangel'from 2007. 

Returning then to this quality of emptiness, what I would like to call hip-hop quiet. Perhaps you could call it a form of minimalism, but for me this word is inadequate because it lacks the feeling that comes through.

Start with that female vocal sample and the beat - I think I recognise the word (melody) but I'm not sure and the static sound that has come to represent 'warmth' or history, but has now become so over-used it verges on being a cliché. 

Particularly striking to me is the contrast between the qualities of the sounds: the harsh vocal sample compared to the reassuring mystical swirl and the comfort of the bass-line, alongside the stop-start effect that operates almost like a conversation. And then at one point, around 2 minutes in the sample shifts to a single-note, as if it were an exposed heartbeat.  

How are we meant to understand the way the beat stops? And then restarts; broken and then returning to the centre; how are we meant to relate to something that remains  separate to what we expect?  Here the music is following its own poetic logic, making manifest a kind of emptiness at the core.

To appreciate how this instrumental operates in its own beautiful space, listen to the track with vocals: 

With all its fabulous bombast, offering a kind of apocalyptic vision (albeit strangely censored on the YouTube video version). And underneath it all the while you can hear the instrumental providing its own essential mystery.

II.

Miilkbone, 'Keep it Real' (produced by Mufi: Capitol Records, 1995)

Challenging Complex magazine's designation of it as one of hip-hop's best 'one hit wonders', Miilkbone's 'Keep it real' has continued to shape hip-hop musical culture well into the 2000s ... and this is where it gets interesting.

At its heart sample-based music has the potential to upset traditional notions of success, whereby a so-called musical failure - in a commercial sense - can become prized, as within this milieu something forgotten is more appealing just because it's unknown. 

Little-known samples operate as a kind of code between producers and fans; those who can hear it, those who recognise it. And the music is also shown respect by the very fact that it has been returned to, reborn.

The fact that samples can't be named (even though they are easily found on-line via the many websites devoted to this) because of copyright infringement fears adds another dimension to the mix. For all these different reasons these sounds exist in this kind of non-space.   

It is for this reason Miilkbone - the white rapper from New Jersey, with a knack for spoof-like album titles (his lp Da' Miilkrate from 1995 was followed up by U Got Miilk? six years later) - can produce something of ongoing cultural worth.

Produced by Mufi (on my initial search I couldn't find anything online about him, other than very basic credits, 'an old school producer from Capitol Records ...' on my second, more recent look I found more info on him: he was quite well-known at the time, working with big-name artists) this instrumental is another example of hip-hop 'quiet' for me. Indeed, its distinctive mood is what has kept it alive.

(Central to this is Mufi's highly skilful and imaginative use of a sample from 'Melancholy Mood' the 1983 recording by the Marian McPartland Trio, of course: have a look at the fan comments below the video, it's very sweet to see the two worlds colliding here).   

As with the earlier Onyx instrumental, what I like about this is its elemental simplicity: the way the music is carried, or not, by a lack of adornment. The sounds in their pure form are allowed to breathe.

Also avoided is much of the self-conscious fanciness that dominates so much 'soul-based' production in hip-hop these days, where producers rustle up multiple interlocking elements in an effort to show off their finesse (often drowning out the sample's essential lyricism, or the emcee's delivery in the process).

This quiet is also to be found in the sharp contrast of the sounds: the insistent and jagged horn sample, is it? and the piano on a constant repeat. There is a certain false naïveté about this music, which I appreciate, in that simplicity and reticence are often the markers of great beauty. 

Again, I notice the strange kind of non-momentum - that stop-start - and the way it often seems on the cusp of development, with the quietest sample, in the background, acting like a bridge that goes nowhere.    

This music contains its own entire universe. When you hear the instrumental with Miilkbone over the top, the music retains its own space as if completely uninterested in interacting with, or buffering, the emcee.  

In terms of the instrumental's ongoing significance and recognition, Big L and Jay-Z reinvented it the same year on the Stretch and Bobbito show; it has been used on a BET awards ceremony and by various emcees.

Most important though, almost two decades later, Freddie Gibbs re-applied the music in his 2010 track 'The Ghetto' (produced by Melvin L. Dinkins) on his album, Str8 Killa No Filla with no apparent changes. Gibbs' repetition of song's title, 'The Ghetto' echoes the original jagged sample - the location/subject and the sample/sound becoming one.  

Without getting too abstract or meta, I wonder if by using this sample Gibbs - and his producer - is asking us to listen to the two tracks together; his and the earlier Miilkbone, to encourage a kind of echo, or commentary. 

This is fascinating for me the way hip-hop constantly re-applies this notion of layering and echo, obviously via the sampling - hidden, or in this way explicit - or the track construction itself and then through direct acts of homage such as this. 

III. 

The Speedknots, 'The Zone' (produced by Stress/War: Bloody Hook Records, 1998)  

One US friend (Mike Jordan) told me: 'Speedknot is street slang for when someone hits you real hard that swelling/ bump that pops up on your head ..' and then told me that there'd been another rap group from Chicago with a similar name.  

Another friend (Sim Telfer), from Australia, tracked down the release on Discogs and said 'there may be more info via the record label 'Bloody Hook Records' and the Producer 'Stress'...' On Discogs it said that 10 had the 12-inch release from 1998, while another 105 people wanted it; the last copy sold was in November, 2014 and the bids ranged from: ' €175.54 to  €263.31 the median being  €219.42'. 

Other than that nothing* can be found about this amazing piece of music, or the producers. They have been lost into the ether, or at least lost in the recesses of the Internet. 

(*Nothing, well this isn't entirely true: it might or might not be that Stress is a well-known Swedish producer who started creating music at the age of 14 and was later signed by Jay Z's Roc-Nation. I could spend some time searching down information, but prefer not to - I don't feel like being a teacher.

Instead I much prefer the idea that the forgotten producer is someone with a certain stutter - and rapid eye movement, even when awake - hiding out in his mom's basement somewhere in New York City: something like this perhaps. Someone posted 'The Zone' on YouTube two weeks ago, I checked out the boombap-linked Facebook page thinking it might give up some clues: no, nothing).

As with the other instrumentals featured here, 'The Zone' has a powerful feeling - carried by the sound of seagulls, or other birds and is extremely gentle. 

This music is the epitome of hip-hop quiet: self-contained, reticent and mysterious. It could provide the soundtrack for a few scenes from a Hitchcock film, spliced and transferred to the new era, where people record videos of buildings above their heads on their phones - in that half-light before everything turns dark (to then rapidly delete them afterwards). 'The Zone' is music of buildings and cars and city streets re-imagined by someone holding onto memories of a sea that he has never seen, perhaps other than on TV.  

There is no development in any sense in this music: it starts suddenly, three seconds in with all the effects brought in at the same time and then follows an almost mathematical precision, following 30 second intervals (almost). At 1 minute 30 there is an incredibly brief stop when you'd expect it to build and it doesn't, of course, and then at 2 minutes there is a stunning perfect pop-break, quick like a hiccup or intake of breath (at 2 minutes 20 it deepens, but doesn't move and then there is the 'pop' again three minutes in).     

Joseph Schloss in Making Beats: the art of sample-based hip-hop explores 'ambiguity' in hip-hop production, linking it with 'signifyin(g) following the argument developed by Gates in 1998. Ambiguity, Schloss relates to the 'idea of code, that certain forms of communication must be shielded'. 

“Ambiguity is a factor in this process because the best codes are those that do not even appear to be transmitting information at all; they have a secondary meaning that serves to draw attention away from the code’s central message.”

— Joseph Schloss, Making Beats (2004, p.160)

Earlier Schloss writes that the very nature of creating sample-based music, out of music that already exists encourages a kind of doubling, where the listener appreciates both the sounds in their original forms and then how they have been recreated. He writes that the 'aesthetic goal of the hip-hop producer is not to resolve these ambiguities (the fact that the music is live and not live, ed's note), but - quite the contrary - to preserve, master, and celebrate them'.

Ambiguity in this schema refers to an unclear meaning, or multiple meanings in an intellectual sense. And yet for me none of the above instrumentals are ambiguous in the sense that they have more than one meaning. They do not make me think, they make me feel something. For me this music embodies mystery; reticence and uncertainty.

Central to all of this is the stop-start of the beat, alongside a strong emotion of longing.  None of these elements makes this music, sweet, soft or sentimental .. quite the reverse.              

(Just before I was ready to leave this writing on 'The Zone'I found one of the track's producers - War (Bixby) who it seems was also a member of The Speedknots, as always by chance, when I saw he self-identified on some YouTube comments).    

Black Milk Interview

“Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:

Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

— Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, first published 1952)

 

Nothing is predictable about Black Milk’s music or modus operandi – and this includes his rationale for choosing ‘If there’s a hell below…’ as the album title for his most recent record. ‘When I was going through a lot of names that title just popped into my mind,’ Black Milk tells me over the phone from Detroit just days before starting his US tour. He then adds: ‘I wasn’t even listening to any Curtis Mayfield records at the time.’ 

‘You know when I’m thinking of song titles, my process is writing down a lot of different words, I’m real big on how stuff looks visually, that’s almost as important as how words actually sound, when I’m writing down titles – song titles, or album titles – anything that I have to give a name to, it’s almost as important to me how it looks on a piece of paper versus what it sounds like.’ 

Despite the obvious nod to Mayfield, the music of the 70s soul legend is largely absent on Black Milk’s album: ‘I redid the interlude on the album that comes over (at the end of) ‘What it’s Worth’ where you can hear me saying, ‘Niggers! Whities! Jews! Crackers …’ – I put an effect on my voice and tried sound as close to the actual record, but that’s the only part of the album where I reference Curtis Mayfield; other than that there are no actual Mayfield samples on the record.’

In interviews, Black Milk seems ambivalent about people taking this reference to hell too literally, as say a direct reference to his native Detroit. ‘The album is not really about hell, or being in hell,’ he says. ‘It’s about growing up in an environment that some people might think is a living hell, but finding happiness within that hell. That is what the title represented and when you listen to the music you can hear a lot of different scenarios that paint pictures of where I’m from.’

Black Milk’s most recent record offers an elegant refusal. There is no fixed point to relate to, no straight-forward autobiography, or authentic voice. The record is quicksilver slippery while remaining intensely personal: it is distant – a highly produced and artificial object, but still has an elemental force.  What immediately strikes me in the record is the use of repetition and concurrent lack of resolution and release; the lack of foregrounding of Black Milk’s vocal-line and the desire to evoke an imagined, or perhaps felt, Detroit.

Throughout our conversation, Black Milk repeats how this record is not as bleak as his previous album, No poison, No paradise (Fat Beats/Computer Ugly, 2013). It evokes a broken environment – where ‘grandma live longer than grandson’ - but it is also a place of tenderness and love. Black Milk explains, ‘Even though with the visual aesthetic and some of the sound aesthetic, the tone is dark, I wanted to have a certain energy in the music so that even if it had a dark overtone, it had some feel-good, or some vibrant colours in it, whether it is the music, the rap, or the actual beat.’

And yet the record’s achievement lies in its mood, the way the tracks segue together - and this mood is one of grey clouds and Detroit’s ‘beautiful ugliness’. It exists within the same universe as Massive Attack’s less radio-friendly offerings (Mezzanine) or Tricky’s more uncompromising solo albums (Pre-Millennial Tension or Nearly God) when asked about these UK artists, Black Milk mentioned that other than knowing they had a track called ‘Black Milk,’ he was ‘not too hip to their music and hadn’t had a chance to dig into their catalogue’ – but filtered through his key musical points of reference: hip-hop, techno and 70s soul music. 

There’s a moment in Kendrick Lamar's track 'i' from his record To Pimp a Butterfly and video that embodies the dystopian Black Milk mind-space/aesthetic: Lamar passes a number of different traumatic incidents – a Black man being handcuffed by the police; a man with a gun to his head, ready to commit suicide; a man yelling at his wife, while the children run away - passing them as if a wanderer in a modern-day Canterbury Tales, around three minutes in, everything shifts. Leaning out of a car window and then jumping to a shot of Lamar dancing in his fluorescent white T-shirt; it becomes disjointed and broken-up. 

Hard to follow, hard to understand – the words have become a spitfire delivery - Lamar spits, literally with a kind of desperation: 

“I went to war last night/
With an automatic weapon, don’t nobody call a medic/
I’mma do it till I get it right/
I went to war last night
(Night, night, night, night)/
I’ve been dealing with depression ever since an adolescent.”

The energy is basic here, formed by Lamar’s intense delivery and music that has suddenly become jittery; scattered.

Starting out fighting with some absent opponent (or is he trying to escape someone/something in the car) rolling and writhing, reaching out of the car window, a (Black) body in pain; hysterical and (apparently) out of control as he shouts out to the night.

This is light years away from Lamar’s previous celebration of California as a paradise where men from all over come for the ‘women, weed and weather’.

Towards the end, Lamar still leaning out the moving car window, looks up into the sky; his body is almost immobile –suspended, he is still: 

“Duckin’ every other blessin, I can never see the message/
I can never take the lead, I can never bob and weave/
For my nigga that be letting ‘em annihilate me/
And the sound is moving in a meteor speed

From a 100 to a billion lay my body in the street/
Keep my money in the ceiling let my mama know I’m free … ”
 

  II.

My passion is really in production, making beats and the backdrop and the music for the album, so I spend a lot of time crafting the beat and looking for the right samples that flow together with other samples and making a cohesive project. It all starts with my going to a record shop and digging and finding vinyl, different records and trying to find different samples and themes that I can bring back to the lab and to make something out of it. Once I get the production down the lyrics follow. I kind of always let the beat guide and direct the lyrics and where I want to go with the song. It’s rare that I write a rhyme before I get the track. I let the music speak first.

Black Milk

 

Black Milk first made his name producing the seminal hip-hop group from Detroit, Slum Village after the late J Dilla left to focus on his solo work. (During the interview, he became animated recalling how Slum Village’s album, ‘Fantastic, vol.2’ from 2000 is ‘still’ his ‘favourite hip-hop record of all time’).  

“MUHAMMAD: ‘I mean, considering the position – because Dilla’s the foundation of Slum Village – so you’re coming in and taking up, filling up a void, you know, obviously. There has to be a level of musicianship that comes to match it.

BLACK MILK: ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I didn’t know, at the time – that was a lot of pressure for me. And because Dilla was already 10 years ahead of everybody musically, especially when it comes to beats. So it was like, ‘Alright.’ And then also I was kind of, you know, Dilla was my inspiration, so you heard a lot of his influence in my beats at the time (…) 

(J Dilla) came up to the studio a few times and I met him and we kicked it a little bit and he just basically – he heard some of my stuff and he was like, ‘Yo.’ Gave me that nod like, ‘Yeah, you on that path. You doing your thing.’ You know what I’m saying, like, ‘Keep doing your thing and you have something there.’ So after that, I heard him spit over one of my tracks. They did a song called ‘Reunion’ and that was the first time I ever heard Dilla rhyme over one of my beats. And man, that joint, that was like, you know, I was in heaven. Like, I was good after that. I didn’t have to do anything else, you know, at that time, cause Dilla was everything to me.’”

— Black Milk, interview with Ali Shaheed Muhammad/Frannie Kelley, ‘Black Milk: ‘It’s not really a cakewalk’ ‘Microphone Check’ NPR, January 08,2015

   

‘All Mighty’

Q: ‘Do you remember the first beat you created?’

Black Milk: ‘First beat …I kinda do but I kinda don’t. Even though I’m from the late 90s, early 2000s era, I still experienced the whole pause tape thing. That’s how it started off: taking two cassette tapes and trying to start one, taking one piece of a sample from one tape and loop it onto another one. I did a little bit of that. It’s definitely dedication. That’s all for the love (laughs). It went from having that to having a little karaoke machine, fucking Casio keyboard and recording that bullshit-ass cassette tapes to buying an actual W-30 Roland sampler and going to the MPC 2000 XL.
— Black Milk, interview with Bryan Hahn ‘Black Milk talks secrets to sampling, Detroit’s legacy and working with Jack White’ January 14th, 2015, www.massappeal.com

Busting up pre-existing conventions found in any form of popular music, whether it be rock or jazz let alone hip-hop ‘All Mighty’ starts with an excessive, ridiculously excessive beat that on first impression sounds like a drum-solo – smashing and crashing and bashing (more Animal from the Muppets than Max Roach) before Black Milk comes in, as he told former A Tribe Called Quest MC, Ali Shaheed Muhammed and NPR Music Editor, Frannie Kelley in January, ‘to vent’.

No concession is made for the rap when it comes in; no lowering of the beat to make space, so that together it sounds messy, but intense, with all the elements kept at the same level.

Black Milk’s tracks often have clearly defined sections and ‘All Mighty’ is an extreme example of this; first starting with the beat-induced excess and then a sharp change at about 1’15” where the music transforms into a gentle electronic reverie, with female backing vocals.

Throughout the rap is highly mannered, stopping on key words – to provide emphasis in a strange, unnatural way, stopping either before or after the word. He even includes a kind of Steve Miller reference, with the ‘ticking, ticking, ticking’ part. And then at the end is an instrumental interlude; an elegant stylistic diversion …

‘On the last couple of albums, my production has gone to a place where I create a song that isn’t just the traditional verse hook, verse hook. I like to break the songs up, break the monotony and do something more spontaneous and throw you off a little bit when you listen to it and put stuff in that you might not expect,’ he told me.

‘Now I try to mix up the format so that it doesn’t get too boring, just to give the listener something spontaneous that jumps at them and is not what they expect and that’s what I tried to do with ‘All Mighty’.

This track describes how Black Milk felt starting out: 'Trying to capture the feeling you felt/When it was just you feeling yourself/No interviews or album reviews good or bad/Just lyrics and beat that played in the back.'

Looking back on his career seems to be on Black Milk’s mind at the moment, as he often returns to this in interviews.

As he told me: 'I’ve been producing for a little while, for over ten years so now I  know at this point what people respond to and how they respond to certain themes, certain sounds and certain frequencies and feel at this point that anything you hear from me is purposefully done.

'I’m very conscious of what is going on, how things sound and the nuances of the albums I produce versus when I first started out as a new producer, in my early years when you just do stuff and everything is really raw.’

‘At this point if you hear something that’s super distorted or super jarring or super offbeat, it’s conscious,’ he continued. ‘Whether it’s super-complicated, or it’s just a four bar loop that’s really hypnotic (in that case) you might not want to change the beat at all.’

Black Milk has recently announced that he would like to focus more on production, not that he is stopping being an MC but that he wants to deepen his knowledge as an engineer. ‘No, I’m not quitting,’ he said in the NPR interview when asked if ‘All Mighty’ was a goodbye of sorts. The venting related to those days when you feel ‘Man, cats ain’t paying attention.’ Or they don’t understand,’ he explained. 

 

'What it’s worth’ 

Q: ‘What I find particularly refreshing and really different is the way you use repetition in your tracks, so that when you’re talking about breaking it up, there’s also a feeling of things not moving, for example if you listen to ‘What it’s worth’ this creates a difficult, uncomfortable feeling; is this something you think about consciously, do you think about the impact it will have as a feeling?’

Black Milk: ‘Definitely, that’s a perfect word – a feeling. Sometimes a track doesn’t have to be super-complicated, or technical, with me when I make music it’s all about a feeling. Sometimes you create a track, it can be a four-bar loop, but that loop is magic; it feels amazing so you don’t have to go out of your way to over-produce. Sometimes it happens, it depends on the sample, it depends on the song. I call it like little pieces of magic you find on a record you chop the loop up, it depends.

A track like ‘What it’s worth’ or ‘Leave the bones behind’ where I just looped the record up (it is) because I loved the moment (…) I know how it makes me feel, but sometimes with other people whether they like it or not, it’s interesting to see how people take music in, how it makes them feel – what it does to their brain, it’s always cool.’ 

In the video for ‘What it’s worth’ you see Black Milk side-on sitting on a chair, gesticulating in time with the rap – this is a bit strange, as we are unable to clearly see his face in the half-darkness and he seems constrained by the position.

A cliché certainly found in many hip-hop videos is of the MC, surrounded by other young men, usually in gritty urban contexts, making gestures with great force in time. In these clips, there is action and movement; it’s dynamic and an expression of group identity. In Black Milk’s video, he is limited in terms of his movement - he is largely still and he is alone.

(On the YouTube comments there’s a small rebellion among fans, split between those who like the video and others thinking it looks too low-budget, done on the cheap and that Black Milk should have shot the clip outside). 

In my memory, I’d created an aesthetic link between the Black Milk video and a clip that perhaps doesn’t in fact exist from Tricky, for a track from the Nearly God album; leaving that to one side, the song links strongly with the distorted love song, ‘Tattoo’ from the UK artist, almost whispering low and guttural: ‘Colour me, colour me/When you’re sitting all alone/In the middle of the floor/There’s something uncontrollable/You sit there watching the door.’

Both songs express something deeply personal, a kind of inverted masculine energy where violence is turned inward, but the threat remains ambiguous.

It makes me think of the final moments of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man where the narrator decides to lock himself up in a cellar, a place he describes as ‘the hole’ - to escape, to fully embrace his invisibility to others – but remains tormented by the chaotic, repetitive workings of his mind.

'I would stay here until I was chased out,’ the narrator decides. ‘Here, at least, I could try to think things out in peace, or if not in peace, in quiet. I would take up residence underground. The end was in the beginning.   

In the Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley NPR interview in January, Black Milk was asked about the broader socio-political context in the US and how it relates to his record..

Or to be more precise, the context that is now symbolised by the video of a (white) police officer taking aim as a middle-aged African-American man ran away in South Carolina, before shooting him in the back eight times; or the killing of 12 year-old Tamir Rice in a city park in Cleveland, Ohio by a (white) police officer, with no warning – the context that is now commonly referred to as ‘Ferguson’.

“MUHAMMAD: ‘And in line of what’s happening in Ferguson or other parts of America and even the world, it’s a powerful record, man.

BLACK MILK: ‘And you know what? The album was done before the whole Ferguson thing happened. And when it did happen, I had a few thoughts like, ‘Man, this album is kind of representing all the craziness that’s going on right now. It’s kind of touching on that.’ But I didn’t want to use that as like a-

MUHAMMAD: ‘Platform?’

BLACK MILK: ‘Yeah, I don’t want to use it as a platform, but I did have those thoughts, like, man I’m kind of touching on some of those things that’s actually happening right now.”

When I mentioned to Black Milk that listening to ‘What it’s worth’ was far from easy listening, and that the repeated sample with its oppressive sibilant sound was pretty unpleasant and felt aggressive, he laughed. But this discomfort is what makes this track so effective; you feel in a musical sense, how it might feel to be trapped – finding yourself in a place, or psychological space, where you can’t escape (call it ‘hell’ if you like). 

(Here the title might have some significance too, being so similar to Buffalo Springfield’s track from 1967 entitled ‘For what it’s Worth’ – so memorably sampled by Public Enemy on ‘He Got Game’ in 1998 – that describes apparently meaningless political protests in the streets and also ‘Paranoia strikes deep/Into your life it will creep/It starts when you’re always afraid/Step out of line, the men come and take you away’).

Repetition is a key element of hip-hop production, if not the key element. (Indeed, there’s a whole conversation outside the scope of this article about the role of repetition in hip-hop, perhaps starting with James Snead’s influential essay, ‘Repetition as a Figure in Black Culture’ from 1981 …)

But usually the repetition is implicit, hidden almost and the producer’s skill lies in the fact that the arrangement of a looped sample appears seamless. The pleasure the listener gets from listening to a hip-hop record, built up from samples, lies in forgetting that it is a created artefact.

Here, the sibilant noise is so jarring that it becomes the dominant element – more important than the MC, more important than the intermittent melody in the background. That shrill noise, repeated endlessly, disrupts any pleasure of getting lost in the track, or even of identifying with the rap as something ‘natural’ and authentic.  

Repetition here acts as a barrier, as a distancing effect. As a listener you are reminded of the elements in isolation – to the materiality of the music and the fact that it is constructed. For me the music is the perfect example of alienation, refusing any release or resolution as it is static – going nowhere – and therefore perfectly embodies what Black Milk is trying to express. The lyrics of ‘What it’s worth’ focus on Black Milk’s feeling of obligation to others: 

“Yo, this life is bigger than me, feel weighed down by a hundred boulders/
Got family in my hands, crown on my head, city on top of my shoulders. ”

At one point the bass-line that had until that moment provided some kind of melody, or comfort disappears. And it is at this moment that Black Milk raps:

“Two shots to the head, two shots till we dead/
Just what this kind of life might bring/
That’s what this kind night might mean/
You clock or be glocked in, OGs here, no stopping
As long as breath’s in my lungs waving white flags ain’t never the option.”

Considering the context described before, the reference to his mom ‘looking at the time, hoping that her oldest son make it back inside’ is particularly affecting. 

Towards the end, Black Milk raps these lines: 

“And I did that, lived by a code, live for tomorrow/
Walk down the streets where empty hollows stray, sidewalks where broken bottles lay/
I did that, went from boom-bap in the day, go rap round the neck/
Double track and the deck, lay it back on cassette …”

I asked Black Milk to describe how his production approach differed from MCs working on similar themes in the 1990s (Mobb Deep, perhaps, or Nas); hip-hop musicians trying to use the rough material of their lives and transform it into art. 

‘It’s interesting to look back to where hip-hop production started and look at what it has evolved to now, 2015. I’ve been making beats since the late 90s, 98/99, so naturally coming up in that time my beats sounded like that time: boom-bap, drum-break and sample.

'Since then hip-hop has evolved a lot. Now you hear a lot more electronic sounds involved in production, you start hearing tempo slowdown, the 70 BPM, you start hearing more live instrumentation incorporated into the production versus the 90s, where it was just kick-snare and a sample.

‘Hip-hop production has evolved and I’ve been watching it also because my approach has evolved, my ideas have evolved and now I feel in 2015 and beyond there’s really no rules anymore, not just for hip-hop, but for music in general, especially if you’re an independent artist.

'There’s no set formula. There are still certain techniques, certain sounds and certain rhythms that affect the human body that you cannot deny, like four to the floor rhythm, or certain bass kicks. There are certain elements that still affect the human brain and when it hears it – that’s where I’m at as a producer: it’s the science of how people react to certain sounds and certain vibrations.’

Another key source for Black Milk’s experimental leanings and eclecticism as a producer is the city where he’s from; as NPR’s Frannie Kelley noticed it’s something that unites Black Milk with other hip-hop artists in the city, such as Quelle Chris and Denmark Vessey – that is they’re not ‘shying away from the electronic, techno, traditional elements of Detroit.’ 

“Black Milk: ‘Yeah, you know growing up in Detroit that’s just part of what you do, cause that’s all you hear. That’s all we heard in the ‘90s, you know, what I’m saying and that’s interesting too. I’ve had a few conversations about – it was a show we had – I actually have a song on the new album called ‘Detroit’s New Dance Show’. Like looking back at it now as an adult, man, that’s kind of crazy that it was a show that had kids from the ghetto meeting up at this club, you know and dancing to all this crazy Euro electronic music, Kraftwerk, and all that stuff. At the time we didn’t know what it was, but looking back at it, man, it was kind of wild. ”
 
'Grey for Summer'

Q: ‘Could you sum up Detroit in three words …’

Black Milk: ‘Sum up the city in three words, that’s kind of crazy – let me think, ah ‘the beautiful ugly’ that’s what it is. That’s what Detroit is ‘the beautiful ugly’ it’s so much beauty within the greyness, there’s so much beauty within the dark side of Detroit, it’s so much beauty in the griminess and the grit. With all of the things that people might perceive Detroit to be quote unquote ‘a bad place’ there’s so much beauty that it made out of the struggle, it’s the landscape and the environment, the weather – all of those things play a part and make Detroit a beautiful, ugly city.

Q: ‘Grey for Summer, I’m wondering if that track sums up your feelings for Detroit …’

Black Milk: ‘It definitely does. Yeah, that song represents once again, like I said, finding the happiness, the good times, those bright moments within that quote unquote hell of an environment that’s what that song represents, not just my lyrics but also all the way to the beat, the way the beat sounds like it’s raining, the sound of the melody of the piano sounds kind of gloomy but it also sounds pretty and kind of beautiful. When I made that beat, when I heard that sample the first thing that came to mind, it sounds like Detroit … beautiful ugly, happy sad.

Q: ‘You refer to Al Green being in the background in that track, yeah?

Black Milk: Yeah, I do yeah’ (laughs)

 

By chance when first thinking about this writing about Black Milk, I came across parts of a documentary about Marvin Gaye on YouTube when he was living in a small-town in Belgium called Ostende in 1981.

In it, the supremely debonair soul singer is seen going for walks in the empty streets, boxing a punching-bag in a gym, recording an amazing version of ‘I want you’ with his band, while lounging about in a tracksuit and chatting with ruddy-faced locals drinking beer in the local bar.

One of them asks Gaye, ‘Where you from? Paraguay?’

‘I’m from America,’ Gaye replies (‘Paraguay,’ he says, shaking his head).

Earlier in the documentary, Marvin Gaye’s voice-over says, ‘I’m an orphan at the moment and Ostende is my orphanage. There are places where I’d probably rather be. But I probably need to be here.’

I went to Black Milk’s show with his group, The Nat Turner Live Band, in a satellite town outside Lyon on the 28th April; when travelling out of the city on the local bus, past villages (Town Hall, Baker, Café/Restaurant) and then housing projects, surrounded by empty fields, I have to admit I was not filled with feelings of great enthusiasm.

Unlike the super-controlled – or to use his word ‘micro-managed’ - sound on his record, Black Milk on stage with his live band is energetic, highly dynamic; encouraging the audience with calls out to get into the Detroit ‘up-tempo’ stuff and also channelling Marvin Gaye, citing a line or two from his ‘Inner City Blues (Makes me Want to Holler) from 1971.     

Q: Let’s talk about precursors, is Marvin Gaye an important artist for you in terms of your work?

Black Milk: ‘I mean, almost any soul artist from the 70s you name is probably an influence on my work. I feel like I listen to more oldies than to newer music, or current music or hip-hop even: so people from Marvin to Parliament, Funkadelic, Sly and the Family Stone, and Prince later all of those guys are some of my bigger influences. I’m rooted in hip-hop, I try to be as great as I can in the style of music I do like those guys were incredible in what they did in their style of music.

Q: ‘When you think about Marvin Gaye is there any particular album you return to?

Black Milk: ‘Let me think, one of my favourite Marvin Gaye albums is not one of his albums that is really popular, it’s In our Lifetime (1981) it’s one of my favourite Marvin albums, it was one of his later albums; Marvin, for me, is the best singer of all time, hands-down. When he came along and the creativity he brought to singing and artistry and layering vocals, it makes everything expand how it’s done and still today, so Marvin is definitely one of my favourites.

‘Almost you could name any producer or band from that era, you know, most likely I’m going to be a fan of their work in some way or another – the musicians, their style of playing in the 60s and 70s influenced me not just for my studio recordings, but more for our live show, when we have a band. Me and my band, we listen to a lot of older music, we kind of learn from what those bands in the 60s and 70s did from their style of playing to their approach. We study those bands from back in the day, if a person comes out sees my live show they will notice that and experience it, it’s not just a hip-hop show. The level of musicianship is rooted to something deeper than hip-hop production scratching the surface of a band playing, it goes deeper than that.’

At the end of the interview, I pressed Black Milk to think of another hip-hop album that sounded similar to or in a like vein to ‘If there’s a hell below…’ He hesitated before suggesting Common’s ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ with a laugh - an album that came out in 1999 (even though the two albums sound nothing alike really). ‘That album was a real big influence on me also, other than that that’s the only album I can think of, especially in this day and age there are not too many rap artists that are making music that has a lot of different twists and turns.’ 

Black Milk: ‘When I go into these albums, I just do what I feel, it’s never really something that is super-strategic, or super-calculated, I just go  in into the album and let the music speak for itself and let the music guide me.

‘When I first started making music and producing a lot of my earlier stuff had a heavy Dilla, Slum Village influence on it but the more I grew, the older I got the more I learned I actually grew into my own sound and I feel like my last two albums really represent my own sound and what I do as an artist more than ever.

'I feel like my last two records sound like me, like I’ve finally found my voice. It feels good as an artist and a creator to have reached that moment, all that chipping away, you get to that one point in your brain, when you feel like, okay, this is what my music sounds like: this is me right here.’