Complaint against Lamar gets it wrong. More proof that a compulsory license for sound recordings is needed.
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
A rapper uses a sample from a song of another artist to create a new song — said rapper places new song on their free mixtape, then gets sued for copyright infringement by the copyright owners of the song that the rapper sampled. We’ve been here before. We’ll be here again. The latest incarnation of this routine involves Kendrick Lamar and his song “I Do This,” featured on his 2009 mixtape The Kendrick Lamar EP, and the 1975 Bill Withers song “Do You Want to Stay.” “I Do This” incorporates a sample of the Withers recording, and the owners of the copyright in the music composition of the song have filed suit against Lamar, Top Dawg, WB Music Corp, and others, for copyright infringement.
Note: This latest copyright infringement suit involving sampling, an established recording artist, and a free mixtape serves as a reminder that samples used on non-commercial releases are not automatically insulated from lawsuits. What’s more interesting is what this new complaint says about copyright law and sampling, and what the trend of sample-based songs on mixtapes says about the value of the art of sampling and who it’s benefiting the most.
According to the complaint filed April 14, 2016 in a federal court in Los Angeles by a lawyer on behalf of Mattie Music Group dba Golden Withers Music Group and Hadley Murrell dba Musidex (the “Plaintiffs”), Kendrick Lamar, Top Dawg Music, WB Music Corp, and others (et. al) unlawfully copied, “note for note,”1 the 1975 Bill Withers song “Do You Want to Stay,” which Plaintiffs claim ownership to the copyright in the musical composition, on Lamar’s 2013  song “I Do This” (produced by Sounwave). It’s worth noting that Plaintiffs states that “Defendant Lamar, wrote and composed a musical composition entitled “I Do This” and caused phonorecords embodying a performance of “I Do This” by Defendant Lamar to be recorded and released for sale to the public in or about 2013.”2 This is important to note because the Plaintiffs do not own the copyright in the sound recording of the Bill Withers song “Do You Want to Stay.”
Plaintiffs further allege that Lamar’s composition “I Do This” consists of “nothing more than new, so-called Rap or Hip Hop lyrics, set to the existing music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay,’” and that Defendants did not create any new music for ‘I Do This’ and Defendants did not simply ‘sample’ some of the existing music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay.’ Rather, the music of ‘I Do This’ is a direct and complete copy of the music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay. Defendants used the existing recorded music of ‘Don’t You Want To Stay’ and recorded the new, so-called Rap or Hip Hop lyrics, over the existing music.” Also, Plaintiffs allege that Defendants Lamar, et. al knowingly and willfully infringed the copyright of “Don’t You Want To Stay.”3
Finally, Plaintiffs assert that in May, 2013, Plaintiff Musidex sent “a notice of Copyright infringement letter to Defendant Lamar’s attorney, described the aforesaid copyright infringement and demanded that Defendant Lamar cease and desist from all exploitation of “I Do This” and provide a full accounting as to the exploitation of “I Do This.” In March, 2016, Plaintiffs maintain that Plaintiff Golden sent a similar letter to Lamar, et. al.
Breaking Down the Complaint
I’ve examined a number of copyright infringement claims involving sampling, and, as with all of them, the claims made by Mattie Music Group and Hadley Murrell represent an incomplete understanding or misrepresentation of United States copyright law, as well as a dismissive attitude towards hip hop/rap music and the art of sampling itself.
First, I’ll address the Plaintiffs’ assertion that Lamar, et. al “did not create any new music for ‘I Do This,’” and that Lamar, et. al “did not simply ‘sample’ some of the existing music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay,’” but rather made a "complete copy of the music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay.” Clearly, the Plaintiffs do not understand what copyright infringement is or how it’s determined in a court of law. What's at question is not whether Lamar sampled — i.e. incorporated “a direct and complete copy of the music of ‘Don’t You Want to Stay” — but rather does the sample amount to actionable copying. In other words, at issue is how much of the Withers sample was used and, more importantly, how was it used, i.e. transformed? The answer to that question, which can be determined by a judge prior to a trial jury, is not found by simply assessing if the appropriation is an exact copy of elements of the appropriated work — by default, a digital sample represents an exact or complete copy of whatever it was sampled from. Hence, both the amount used and transformation aspects of the question are determined only by examining both works as a whole. Further worth noting: When it comes to amount used, what must be looked at is how much of the appropriated work was used, not how much of it constitutes the new work — i.e. not how many times it was used or looped in the new work.
In this regard, Lamar’s “I Do This” does contain new music. Sounwave’s production includes deft drum programming, a combination of a trap sound with elements of classic electro hop. In addition to Soundwave’s beat, “I Do This” contains two separate verses by Lamar, one verse by rapper Jay Rock, and a chorus. Further, “I Do This” does not make use of a “complete” copy of Withers’s “Don’t You Want to Stay,” but rather it incorporates a sample — a roughly 8-second snippet — of the recording “Don’t You Want to Stay.” A “complete copy” of Withers’s “Don’t You Want to Stay” would mean that Lamar used “Don’t You Want to Stay” in its entirety without any transformation.
That the Plaintiffs in this case go so far as to ignore the obvious and allege that Lamar, et. al “did not simply ‘sample’” indicates their lack of understanding of what sampling is and how copyright law in the U.S. actually works. Notwithstanding the fact that digital sampling is a musical process and form of borrowing (copying) widely recognized in the courts, the Plaintiffs’ argument that Lamar, et. al’s copying is not sampling because it makes use of a “direct” copy of the sound recording (which Plaintiffs do not own) is preposterous. Moreover, the Plaintiffs in this case seem to believe that copying of any length constitutes copying in total. But that’s not how it works. As I describe in my book The Art of Sampling, not all forms of copying are actionable, i.e. illegal. Which is to say that all copyrighted material is subject to the de minimis and fair use doctrines — both doctrines speak to when and how an instance of copying is legal under the law. Though different in scope, both of these doctrines weigh the amount of copyrighted material used in coming to a determination of permissible copying. In the case of Lamar, et. al’s use of Withers’s “Don’t You Want to Stay,” the amount used is fairly insignificant, as the sample used constitutes only about 8 seconds of Withers’s 4-minute song. Moreover, “I Do This” represents a significant transformation of the Withers sample; and it’s my opinion that this transformation easily meets the fair use threshold. (Fair use, which examines four specific factors, one of which being amount used, is quite complex and often deeply misunderstood. For a solid understanding of fair use, I urge you to read The Art of Sampling.)
Next, I’ll address the Plaintiffs’ two “cease and desist” letters, what they described as “notice of Copyright infringement” letters, in which they demand “a full accounting as to the exploitation of ‘I Do This.’” A cease and desist letter is a common device copyright holders use to persuade parties, whom they believe are infringing their works, to stop. A cease and desist letter is not a notice of copyright infringement. While some appropriations (i.e. copying, borrowing) — be they in literature, music, photography, etc. — may likely be an infringement, the actual determination of copyright infringement must be made in a court of law on a case by case basis. And with regards to the Plaintiffs' demand that Lamar, et. al "provide a full accounting as to the exploitation of “I Do This,” a cease-and-desist letter — no kind of letter, save a court order — can force someone to provide such information. Thus, either the Plaintiffs knew that this was a silly over reach that no half-decent lawyer would ever fall for, or they believed that Lamar, et. al didn't have half-decent counsel.
Finally, I’ll address the Plaintiffs’ "so-called Rap or Hip Hop lyrics” description. Complaints are carefully written by lawyers who utilize words that they hope will persuade judges. And, whether intended or not, complaints often include descriptions that also reveal the biases of the people filing them. In the complaint filed against Lamar, et. al, the Plaintiffs use the “so-called Rap or Hip Hop lyrics” description twice. I believe there are only two reasons the Plaintiffs make this distinction: a) To suggest to the court that “Rap” or “Hip Hop” lyrics are an other type of lyricism, a lyricism unworthy of recognition or the respect given presumably to other forms of songwriting — a lyricism undeserving of being taken seriously as “new music”; or b) They were simply incapable of hiding their bias against “Rap” or “Hip Hop” as a legitimate music form.
Critical Observation (A): You Can Be Sued for Samples on a Free Mixtape
As I’ve pointed out before, because a mixtape is free, it does not mean that the samples on it are automatically non-infringing. So someone who makes and/or distributes a free mixtape that contains samples on it can be sued for copyright infringement. One of the most notable recent examples of this fact is the lawsuit that Lord Finesse filed against Mac Miller. The lawsuit never made it to trial — as Miller and Finesse settled out of court — but what was at dispute was Miller’s use of Lord Finesse’s instrumental track (beat), unchanged and in its entirety, from his song “Hip 2 Da Game” (1995) on Miller’s song “Kool Aid & Frozen Pizza,” off of Miller’s K.I.D.S. mixtape. Miller never said that he made the beat, nor contested that the beat was Finesse’s, but Rostrum, Miller’s label at the time, implied that the use was OK since K.I.D.S. was a free mixtape and, thus, they never profited from Finesse’s music.
Notwithstanding the fact that the free K.I.D.S. mixtape was used to help launch Mac Miller’s career (he was able to earn revenue from shows and other means), just because the unauthorized used of a copyrighted work — any copyrightable subject matter — is made free does not exclude it from copyright infringement.
But all of this said, also bear in mind that this does not necessarily mean that the filer of a copyright infringement suit will prevail in court. Miller could have taken his chances in court using the affirmative defense of fair use. There is a huge misconception in the United States that someone is guilty of something whenever someone else files a lawsuit against them. Wrong. The United States is one of the most litigious nations in the world; here, people file frivolous lawsuits all the time. For example, Jay Z was recently sued by TufAmerica for a sample that he used in his song "We Run This Town." Manhattan Federal district judge Lewis A. Kaplan dismissed the copyright infringement case brought by TufAmerica, citing: the sound “has essentially no quantitative significance” to the original composition and thus cannot be protected by copyright law.4 Many samplers would likely win in court if they choose to contest the lawsuits their hit with, but routinely, they don’t because they lack the financial and legal resources to take a case to trial, a reality that many who file lawsuits count on.
This is significant, because I Lamar actually does have the resources and, more importantly, the grounds to fight this case. If I were advising Lamar, et. al, my first move would be to file for declatory judgment and seek relief on two grounds: 1) That the Plaintiffs in this case do not own the copyright in the sound recording of the Withers song and thus lack standing; and 2) That the use is fair use.
Critical Observation (B): The Art of Sampling Continues to Be a Valuable Art Form
That Kendrick Lamar (like Mac Miller, Drake, and others) used samples on free mixtapes to help kick start their careers raises one big question: Are artists more cavalier earlier in their careers, or are they simply unaware of what copyright law actually proscribes? I believe it’s a combination of both. But what’s equally important is what this trend says about the value of the art of sampling. Very few discussions (and I’m being generous) in this space ever center around or profile how deeply valued the art of sampling is in hip hop/rap music, as the focus is always on the headline-grabbing copyright infringement lawsuit.
But the reality is, plenty of artists have turned to — and will continue to turn to — the art form and style aesthetic of sampling to kick-start their careers. This is mainly because many artists have viewed — and still view — sampling (sample-based beats) as a reliable means to flushing out their creativity. Further, plenty of artists have used sampling to form and maintain a link to (and comment on) history.
Yet, once established, many of these same artists tend to avoid sampling. Is this simply due to evolution as some (often musically pretentious) people like to suggest? I don’t think so. I believe some artists move away from sampling purely on aesthetic grounds, ie. for the purposes of expanded their musical pallets. Others do so to broaden their collaborative opportunities as well as expand the diversity of their audiences. But all recognize the serious drawbacks to sample clearance. But let’s be clear, the dislike for sample clearance does not mean that artists dislike sampling. Stated another way, I believe that if there were a more efficient, cheaper path to sample clearance, more artists would continue to make sampling a hallmark of their creativity.
Critical Observation (C): We Need a Compulsory License for Sound Recordings; and Artists Must Learn About Copyright Law, Especially De Minimis and Fair Use
Consider the compulsory license for nondramatic musical works that already exists in the United States. Under this compulsory license, which addresses the musical composition, i.e. the artist’s music in written form, individuals are permitted to make “covers” (i.e. new versions of a pre-existing sound recordings) of musical works. To take advantage of this compulsory license, all a recording artist need do is simply provide notice to the copyright holder(s) and pay a royalty, which is a fixed mechanical rate — no upfront usage fee is required. If there was a compulsory license for sampling, something in league with the compulsory license for nondramatic musical works, there would be an explosion of new sample-based music. Free from the arcane processes and restrictions of the ad-hoc sample clearance system that we have to day, artists would be able to sample from whatever song they wanted, just as artists can do full covers of whatever song they want to under the existing compulsory license for nondramatic musical works. As such, artists would be liberated to incorporate the art of sampling as they saw fit, without any sample clearance issues.
Furthermore, with a firm understanding of how copyright law works, specifically the de minimis and fair use doctrines, artists would be empowered to sample in ways that do not likely rise to actionable (i.e. illegal) copying. Thus, with a compulsory license for sound recordings in place, and solid grasp of the de minimis and fair use doctrines, I believe both existing and new artists would make sampling a hallmark of their creativity.
The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
Bill Withers - "Don't You Want to Stay"
Kendrick Lamar feat. Jay Rock - "I Do This" (prod. by Sounwave)
1 Mattie Music Group et al v. Lamar et al, U.S. District Court, Central District of California, No. 16-02561.
4 Tufamerica, Inc. v.. WB Music Corp. et al, 1:13-cv-07874 S.D.N.Y. (2014); also see, “Judge Dismisses a Suit Over Jay Z’s ‘Run This Town,’” Joe Coscarelli, (New York Times, December 9, 2014).
Just as there are gateway beat machines and beatmaking tools, there are also gateway diggin' records. Gwen McCrae's "90% of Me is You" served as such a song for me. Before I heard this record, my approach to diggin' for records was casual. I would search for records and recording artists that were popular, or at least the ones that I had faintly heard of. When I picked up Gwen McCrae's album Rocking Chair, the goal in mind was for one song, "90% of Me is You". Little did I know what was on the other side. Still, I must've listened to "90% Of Me Is You" at least 5 times a day, for six months straight.
Everything about this song is dangerous. There's the opening guitar riff. It's warped (a sound that you hear throughout). There's the second guitar that seemingly plays off in its own rhythm, yet it never leaves the pocket of the entire groove even though it skips across the arrangement randomly throughout. There's the bass line, for the most part a simple but steady anchor that goes Up and down, down and up, up and down before it rounds off the end of the second bars with a small break in the pattern then it repeats. For the bridge, the bass joins the rest of the instruments for a change in the pitch. Then there's the strings, a polite soaring pattern that puts you in the mind of a Gamble & Huff produced arrangement, only hear the strings do more simmering rather than soaring.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the drums. The hi-hat has a ticking sound that floats over the top of everything and punches in and out with urgent gracefulness all at once. The kick and the snare pattern is a simple K K S K K S pattern (I cover drum patterns in great detail in The BeatTips Manual), but because it' so tight, it's combination with the hi-hat makes for an incredible swing rhythm and shuffle, perfect for Gwen McCrae to ride the groove with her earnest and searingly soulful vocals.
It's worth pointing out that I learned more about how to create drums and drum patterns from this song than I did listening to any hip hop/rap song. From how to create swing naturally through the use of certain drum sounds, to how to shuffle my hi-hats, to how to incorporate the right velocity and sustain for open hi-hats, to how to anchor my kick drums so that their movement sits with the arrangement... No doubt, "90% of Me Is You" was important to my understanding of music and my development as a beatmaker.
The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
DJ Supa Dave's soulful beat merges with Kool G Rap's poignant rhymes, exhibiting top quality rap music.
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
Kool G Rap sits atop the food chain of the complex, street poetics, and reality rap rhyme styles. In fact, more than 20 years ago, it was Kool G Rap—along with Rakim—who laid down arguably the most influential rhyme scheme foundation that only a handful of rappers (notably Nas, Ghostface, AZ, Black Thought, and OC) have been able to decipher and admirably incorporate into their own flows today.
Here, on "Sad" (produced by DJ Supa Dave), Kool G rap revisits his roots, both artfully and emotionally. Although the rhymes echo the constructions of a style gone past, on we hear a more subdued and reflective G Rap. He seems to no longer be able to numb the pain of growing up in the brutal New York City streets, which, in addition to housing the familiar traps of drugs and violence, also carries the threat of disloyal women. G Rap's decidedly deadpan and subdued delivery on "Sad" is fortunate for fans of lyricism and content, as great lyricists are most often at their best on two occasions: when they're numbed by their surroundings, or when they can't help but feel it.
Salute to G Rap for the maturity of his rhymes on "Sad," but I would be remiss if I failed to mention that DJ Supa Dave's beat is perhaps the catalyst that fed the flow. Supa Dave's beat churns over like a Detroit assembly line banging out work in a Memphis studio. The drums are iron-like, clickin' and clangin' to the primary sample, while yet still giving the vocal clip room to breathe and ease through the entire measure. Master beatwork.
The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
Understanding the music industry's loan-and-own contract model and why it should be prompting further independence, especially when music makers are more self-contained than ever before.
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
A film studio buys a script from a screenwriter. The screenwriter is paid a fee and the studio owns the script, and as such, the copyright to the script. Imagine if the film studio said to the screenwriter, "We're going to loan you money to write a script. When you're finished, we'll own the script and you'll owe us the money that we loaned you."
A publisher buys a manuscript from an author. The author is paid a fee for the right to publish the manuscript, but the author retains his or her copyright to the manuscript. Imagine if the publisher said, "We're going to loan you money to write a book. When you're finished, we'll own the book, we can publish it when and however we like, and you'll owe us the money that we loaned you."
In the music industry, labels front artists a recording budget — a loan — to record an album. Artists record their albums, then turn them in to the labels, who then own the exclusive copyright to the master recordings as well as the exclusive right to publish the album. For their services, artists receive a small royalty rate that's paid against the money that the labels fronted (loaned) them. Seem fair?
Music, easily one of the most important components of popular culture, is a booming business for radio, television, online publications, and more. On the surface, you'd think that recording artists, the music makers and actual bedrock of music itself, are well, if not reasonably, paid. Think again. Sure, some of the A-List recording artists score fat royalty checks, in addition to huge concert/show paydays. Still, even most A-listers' contracts are tied to the music industry's model of loan-and-own. Some A-Listers work deals that grant them ownership of their masters, but this is rare and usually only after some considerable time in the business. The truth is, the overwhelming majority of recording artists are locked into the loan-and-own model, which means that most never see a royalty check throughout their entire recording career.
The reason why most recording artists never see a royalty check is because when it comes to recording contracts in the music business it is, and has always been, a legalized form of loan-sharking. The comparison of a bank loan is the most popular analogy of for how recording contracts work in the music business. The idea is that a record label loans money to a recording artist for the purpose of creating new art. When this new art is marketed and sold, there is a split in profits between the label and the artists. The split is typically 88-93% for the label, and 7-12% percent for the artist. In other words, artists routinely sign contracts that give them a base rate of 7 to 12 cents on the dollar. Throw in a 5 cent royalty for each song that an artist writes on the album, and an artist can earn up to 40 or 60 cents per album sold. But none of these royalties are paid until the artist is recouped — i.e. until the loan is paid back.
It's important to remember that the masters of this newly created art belongs 100% to the label — unless some proportional agreement is made to stipulate otherwise, which of course is extremely rare. Though artists are entitled (supposedly) to a cut of the returns, there is no split in ownership between the labels and the artist. Further, the label retains the right to withhold royalty payments or apply would-be royalty payments to the debt (all monies the label spent on the artist) of the artist. Once an artist has recouped, satisfied their debt, presumably they begin to receive royalties. Note: When an artist has repaid their entire budget, they are said to be fully recouped. But typically, artists never fully recoup. And thus, it's very common that artists wind up owing their label indefinitely.
This is why the bank loan analogy, that many people like to use, is grossly inadequate. Even a traditional bank loan for consumers with the lowest credit scores is more favoring than the loan terms that recording artists are forced to agree to in a standard recording contract. For example, when a person with absolutely flawless or appalling credit receives a car loan, they gain 100% total use of a new/used car. For all intents and purposes, the car belongs to them. At anytime within the agreement, this person can refinance or actually sell the car. Moreover, at the end of the agreement, usually no longer than five years, the car belongs to them free and clear. In the music business, recording artists almost never own their work, even after the initial agreement that they entered is long over. Furthermore, the only actual usage right that artists retain of the music they create is the right to perform the album at concerts and such — i.e. touring. They can not however resell it, without the permission of the label that they're signed to.
Because of the labels legal-loan sharking and other practices, I caution people to remember that independence is not merely avoiding relationships with the labels, but rather learning how to preserve the best terms for you as an artist. The biggest advantage to working with a label is being able to access their marketing, promotion, and distribution power. But this access should not come at the cost of a draconian business contract. Hence, I always advise artists (producers are also artists) to form their own entities so that they are better prepared to negotiate with labels. For instance, I release all of my music through my company. If and when I were to ever enter an agreement with a major label or distributor, the agreement would only be for distribution. Which means that regardless of whatever money the label or distributor fronts me, I own the copyright to my masters.
Today, many artists are self-contained and are recording complete albums long before labels get involved. So you would think that artists are increasingly signing straightforward distribution deals. But that's largely not the case. Even most self-contained artists are still signing loan-and-own deals and giving up ownership to their masters. But know this: If you have a finished album, you don't have to give up your ownership to your masters. If a major label or a distributor is interested in your project, you can and should avoid the legal-loan sharking system.
The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
Check out DJ Jazzy Jeff (pre-Will Smith Hollywood fame) as he talks about the highs and lows of winning a Grammy.
Marco polo on the anatomy of a producer, how hip hop and beatmaking helped save his life, how he’s redefining beatmaking’s greatest tradition and making stock sounds sound like record samples, why technology’s a ho, why he finally gave in and began selling sound kits, and much more.
Editor’s note: This is an epic long read! But worth it.
This interview contains a combination of a series of interviews I conducted with Marco Polo (on several dates) over the past four years, the lengthiest and most recent being in mid-December, 2014. Since these interviews were part of a continuing series with Marco Polo, as one whole composite, I wanted to publish it here the way it was meant to be presented, as a whole rather than in parts.
BeatTips: What is your earliest musical memory? I remember we spoke before and you told me that your father, who was really open minded musically, talk about that and how that impacted you.
Marco Polo: One of my earliest memories of music is fucking dancing to the Thriller LP, playing on record, and literally dancing on a glass coffee table, and that shit shattering and me falling through it, while Thriller was playing, and my parents running downstairs wildin’ out, wondering if I was okay.
BeatTips: How old were you?
Marco Polo: Shit, well it came out in what, 1982? It must’ve been a year after that, so like 4. I was born in ’79, so I was like 3 or 4 years old. And I remember that vividly.
BeatTips: Were you a Michael Jackson fan?
Marco Polo: Oh, my God, [Thriller] that’s my favorite album of all time. I was just speaking about how it’s been so long since that album’s come out, and nothing to me has come close to knocking that as my top album of all time. Thriller, absolutely! Just because it has so many personal memories of a kid, and just now, growing up and being into music and understanding what went into that record and how it sounds, it’s still fucking leagues ahead of any fucking pop record, or R&B record, ever, in my opinion. That shit is epic, the way it makes me feel, the way it sounds, you know. And Quincy’s [Quincy Jones] part, and Michael and what they did to make that album, it’s amazing; it’s timeless!
BeatTips: What you were into, was it just soul, was it jazz? What else was in the house?
Marco Polo: My parents always had music for us, but my pops, specifically, as I got older he introduced me to everything that he listened to, which was jazz, like Miles Davis Kind of Blue, to Steely Dan, to Cream Disraeli Gears album, you know. And him telling me, “Okay, son, Eric Clapton was on the guitar, Ginger Baker was on the drums, Jack Bruce was on the fucking guitar. And then, Italian music, because you know, my parents were born in Italy, then they immigrated to Canada. My pops, loved everything, man. He loved Donny Hathaway, Johnny Guitar Watson, “Super Man Lover.” He would just put that on loop at the end of the night and have a glass of wine, and chain smoke cigarettes, and just repeat that song. And my moms love music, too. She was just more into like mainstream stuff, you know, like she would put shit on like The Gypsy Kings and clean the house on Sunday. My moms is more on the commercial, she just likes to dance, have a good time. So she liked music, but my dad was more like… My pops definitely had the real specific, artsy like, you know, diggin’ in the crates… He actually left me some really ill records. Well, he’s still here, I said it like he died. He’s still here. But whatever was left in his record collection, he gave to me. And just by like the 30 or 40 pieces [records], I knew his shit was ill, because it was like Bob James, Jack Handy, he was a saxophone player, John Klemmer, a lot of jazz and funk and soul. That’s where I get my influences from, cuz he was really open minded to everything, you know.
BeatTips: So was his thing more that he just loved music, or was he actually trying to guide you in that direction?
Marco Polo: No, he wasn’t trying to guide me. He just loved music. He used to DJ when he was young. And he just put me on. It wasn’t like he was trying to steer me in the direction of doing music as a career. He just loved music, and I was just there to listen to it, you know.
BeatTips: But When and how did you first discover hip hop?
Marco Polo: I first discovered hip hop… Well, being in Toronto, I think it was just on radio and TV. Whatever was playing. And one of the first… Much Music was a huge channel for me discovering hip hop and listening to stuff like Maestro Fresh Wes, you know, “Let Your Backbone Slide.” He was like the Big Daddy Kane of Canada. He’s a legend. Shouts to him. Seeing his video, and then whatever was playing at that same time. And I remember hearing Main Source, “Looking at the Front Door,” on the radio back then. And then we had this show called “Electric Circus” on Much Music, which was kind of like a dance show, like “Soul Train” but a Canadian version. It was more dance, but they would have hip hop acts come through and perform. And you know, Large Professor had Sir Scratch, and what’s the other DJ’s name [K-Cut]? They were both from Toronto. And he was always up there, and I would see little glimpses of that as a kid and being in school. And I remember having Rap Tracks II . It was like a compilation on CD. It had like De La Soul -“Say No Go,” and Slick Rick - “A Children’s Story;” Neneh Cherry - “Buffalo Stance.” So that was like the beginnings of me just be familiar with it and liking it. But it wasn’t until high school that I started buying music. And I was late compared to a lot of my friends. Like my first four albums that I bought, that I owned, was Only Built for Cuban Linx — Raekwon; Cypress Hill’s Temple of Boom, which is like their third album; GZA - Liquid Swords; and Das EFX - Hold it Down. One more thing, though. My pop’s bought Tribe’s first album, because he loved “Bonita Applebum.” He bought that shit, brought it home and was like, “I love this song!” So that [People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm] was technically the first album that existed in my home that was a hip hop CD. That was ‘cause of him.
BeatTips: How was your family? Where you upper class, middle class?
Marco Polo: We were definitely middle class. I grew up in a neighborhood that was really well off and well to do. All my friends at young ages had crazy cars and shit like that. But I never really grew up in a situation like that… it was cool, you know. We did well, but you know, I wasn’t spoiled or anything like that.
BeatTips: What about school? How were you as a student?
Marco Polo: In elementary I was good… Then high school hit and … [laughs] got a little crazy, I guess you could say. By grade 10, I ended up leaving and going to…drug rehab for like a year. ‘Cause I was messing around with a bunch of shit. So I went away in about the middle of grade 10 for about a year, and came back in grade 12 or grade 11, and got my life together. You know, at an early age I was into some shit! I came back good, everything done.
BeatTips: But what led up to that?
Marco Polo: I mean, just being a kid. You know, just doing dumb shit, you know what I’m sayin’… Peer pressure, you know… Fuckin’ started selling drugs, selling weed. Before you know it, I was fuckin’ actively using, you know, smoking weed, doing a lot of other shit, too, like… the highest levels of drug use, I was partaking in, at a very young age, which is pretty scary actually. I mean, when I first started smoking weed in high school, definitely. And you know, usually it’s kind of baby steps till the harder shit, till you start doing coke and heroin. But I kind of went up the latter really quick. Just partying, doing a lot shit. And to be honest, hip hop wasn’t even a part of my life at that stage, I was just a wild kid… I ran with some kids that weren’t probably the best influence. I started dealing drugs, I started doing drugs… typical fuckin’ suburban drugs, you know like acid and mushrooms. Then fucking ended up doing heroin... You know, this all happened really fast, like within 1 ½ years to the point where I fucking peeked out…B, I was like 15 years old, 14! So it was really young. I didn’t even have a chance to really… like my whole drug span was like 2 years, tops. I peeked out, and I came to a point where I realized that I needed help, and I let my parents know, ‘Yo, I’m fucked up.’ I was failing all of my classes. Girlfriend dumped me…figured out I was doing all the shit I was doing. But it all kind-of connects to where I’m at now, because I ended up going away for a year, and I stopped doing drugs and drinking, period. And haven’t for almost 13 years, now.
BeatTips: Oh, so you came to your parents?
Marco Polo: Yeah!
BeatTips: They didn’t even know what was going on?
Marco Polo: I mean, they knew I was in some shit. They just thought it was typical teenage shit, like smoking weed, “He’s failing classes,” “He’s skipping school…” But they didn’t know the extent. Just ‘cause, you know, as a parent, you probably don’t even wanna think about your child doing that type of drug at an early age. So they were fucking shell-shocked. It was crazy. But I’m blessed to have amazing parents, you know what I’m sayin’. They went out of pocket… They had to re-mortgage the house to send me to this treatment center. It was crazy. I ended up going to a place called Hazleton in Minnesota, which is a world-renown youth facility. They have an adult center… I mean this is the place where they fucking sent… all the Hollywood stars and their kids. Like I was in treatment with some pretty heavy known people. I can’t even mention, for private identity purposes, but music people, actors, star’s children… I was roommates with like actors you see in movies now. It was a crazy experience, and I learned a lot. I went away for about a year… between 3 or 4 centers, because you start at a main one which is more lockdown. You know, clean up, get it out of your system, and then move on to a halfway house in Louisiana. Then I came back and I managed to keep it together… Definitely got involved with AA meetings and all that.
BeatTips: Do you think that you getting it on track is because (1) you were honest about your problem, and (2) you were young?
Marco Polo: I mean, it was a combination of all those things. Definitely being honest about having some sort of an addiction. And straight up, I had fucked up so much at that point, with just how much I put my family through, that when I came out I was like, “I can’t do this… I can’t do drugs, for myself…” First of all, you can’t do drugs for yourself, because ain’t nothing happening until you do it for yourself. You do it for somebody else, it ain’t gonna work. But then also knowing that my parents had went through so much to put me where I’m at, that was definitely motivation to keep it together.
BeatTips: So after you got cleaned up and you got into music, did you find that hip hop was something that kind of sustained you and kept you away from it?
Marco Polo: YEAH! That’s… Honestly, in treatment, in rehab is where I first started listening to hip hop, like ALL THE TIME… A Tribe Called Quest… it was all over the place. At that point, I didn’t realize how much I liked it. Even before I had went into rehab, I remember my pops, he bought the first Tribe album because he liked “Bonita Applebum”… When I went to rehab, I started really listening to music… and hip hop was definitely one of the genres I really started focusing on. And when I came back home from treatment, I finished high school, and I started working at record stores, CD stores… And actually, I lost a couple of jobs because my music collection started getting crazy… I started stealing fucking records and CDs from these stores, just because I wanted more shit… Yo, I fuckin’ ended up going… you know… being on probation as a young offender; going to jail, getting fired from a job for stealing thousands and thousand dollars worth a CDs… it was crazy, yo! And then luckily, I got out of that situation, you know, cuz Canada’s very, very lenient. If your under 18 and you commit crimes it’s very lenient. It’s like you just do community service. It was all part of the process. Then, it got to the point where my music collection was just so ridiculous… Just on CDs and being a fan, you know, I wanted to do something more. Then I was like, “Yo, I gotta do something with this after I finish high school.” I was like, “I gotta go figure it out; I gotta go produce.” I started to hear Gang Starr albums and Pete Rock [& CL Smooth] albums, and I was like, “Yo, this shit is incredible… I wanna do THAT!”
BeatTips: So now, at that time, you’re out of high school, you’re thinking “I gotta do something with music.” Logical choice is to go to audio engineering school. Is that what you did?
Marco Polo: Yeah. It was called the Harris Institute for the Arts in Toronto. You know, it’s like the typical audio engineering school that they have here. They don’t really teach you about production, it’s more like studio…
BeatTips: What were your expectations and what was the reality?
Marco Polo: I really wanted to learn how to make beats, straight up! That’s what I wanted to get out of the school. What I realized is that, those schools, while they teach you things that might help you make beats, they don’t really… maybe now that might have MPC classes or something like that to go make hip hop beats… There’s not like a class in most of these places. I’m not blaming thing, because I was just amped to go learn about musical things, engineering and studio things. And for someone who doesn’t know anything, it’s definitely good. You’ll learn about signal processing, and plugging in mic cables, and recording, and Pro Tools, and that shit is definitely helpful. But, you know, if you just wanna make beats, you know, really look into the schools and the classes before you sign up for that shit.
BeatTips: So what did you take from that school?
Marco Polo: That’s the biggest thing that I took. Just the knowledge of basic studio equipment, signal flow, like real basic shit, but it’s really important… But to be honest, the moment I started interning at The Cutting Room, which is a studio in New York at started working at when I moved from Toronto. I learned more at that place in two months than I did there in a year in a half.
BeatTips: Before you get to the Cutting Room, at this time, did you really know what a beatmaker/producer was?
Marco Polo: I mean, I was learning… All I knew was music was the only thing that I loved, you know what I’m sayin’. A lot of people figure it out in high school, like, “I wanna do this; I wanna go to university become an accountant;” “I’m gonna be a doctor.” I’m sitting here like, “I don’t wanna do any of that shit! I wanna do something with music… I like MUSIC!” And then the first four full albums that I bought were: GZA - Liquid Swords; DAS EFX - Hold It Down; Cypress Hill - Temples of Boom; and Raewkon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. And then at that point, I went crazy and went back into the stash, and the history, and got everything…From like every BDP album, to every EPMD album. The whole Wu Tang catalogue. Stetsasonic… I wanted to learn about everything to do with hip hop, where it started, you know what I’m sayin’. I was going to the library. Got a new book each time.
BeatTips: What was it that triggered that desire for you to really know hip hop music like that, to read books, etc.?
Marco Polo: I was so into the whole style… of sampling… It was my curiosity. I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t grow up in the 80s listening to hip hop, like the founders and where it came from. So I wanted to learn about it. I feel like, in order to succeed in something, and produce rap, you have to find out where it came from!... And It was the beats! It was fucking hearing Wu-Tang and Primo beats and Pete Rock and going, “Holy Shit!” Like, “What is this shit?” That’s what got me. The production…I wanted the education. Literally, if there was a University of Hip Hop, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn where it came from. Like, obviously, I was gonna get the gear and I was gonna go to school for music, but anything that you wanna master, you gotta study the greats. And that was my approach. When I heard it, I wanted to know everything! I wanted to buy everything, I wanted to listen to everything. Understand it! Then I got to that point where it was literally frustrating just listening. That’s when I was like, “Yo, I wanna make this shit!”
BeatTips: So early on, did you know a lot about hip hop history?
Marco Polo: No. I slowly learned. My beat Yoda, as I call him, my boy, Shylow, was the one who started putting me on to a lot of stuff, and teaching me how to use the MPC, and just putting me on to music. But once the internet kicked in…
BeatTips: But before that. I’m talking about the roots, the history of hip hop. Did you have an understanding? Everyone says, “Hip hop came from the South Bronx…” Did you have an understanding?
Marco Polo: Not for a minute. I eventually learned that. I had to go and learn that shit… I had to go backwards. Wherever my starting point was, I had to go back and figure out where it came from and learn about shit. I’m still learning. There’s so much history in the beginnings of hip hop that I’m not familiar with, and cats who were really integral, and I’m still learning about that.
BeatTips: What was the difference when you lacked the information, knowledge, and education vs. when you started to understand?
Marco Polo: Definitely raised my appreciation for where it came from and where it was at and the evolution of it.
BeatTips: Did it flow through to the music?
Marco Polo: I think so, yeah. Of course. The more I learned, the more I studied, the better I became at my craft, you know. And that whole process is never gonna stop. The moment you think you have it figured out, you’re done.
BeatTips: When you went through this intensive study, what where the things that you discovered that had the biggest influence on you?
Marco Polo: I grew up on the East Coast… I was discovering all these groups and their styles, where they were coming from… Discovering how each producer did things in a certain way.
Let me give you a couple of names that will cover what you were studying, and you give me something that you pulled from them, and that maybe perhaps you innovated upon:
Pete Rock? What was the thing [about] Pete Rock that most influenced you, the thing that you take now with you when you make music?
Marco Polo: His beats were a lot more complex at the time compared to a lot of other producers. The shit that he was doing, like blending different loops, and his use of horns. He was definitely one of the people who had a signature style when it came to using a lot of horns. His drums knocked, his bass knocked. The difference between him and Preem [DJ Premier], I think technical wise, complexity wise, Pete was doing a lot more than other producers, you know what I’m sayin’. He had a lot of things happening on the hook parts of his beats that was different from the verse part, in terms of song structure that I learned. I was like, “Word, when the hook comes, it’s gotta be big and epic. And then when the verse hits, it’s gotta be dumbed down to the bass and the drums so you feel the emcee.” Sound structure, that’s what I learned from Pete. Same with Large Professor, both of them. And just using so many different sounds, and like little vocal chops. Just flavor and detail. Pete Rock to me was someone with mad layers to his music. His sound was horns and crazy things happening. He had a style; you knew when a Pete Rock beat came on. That’s what I was learning after a while… It’s like, figuring out people’s styles, people’s sounds, and how it came to be. Because I was going back to listen to like two or three albums, or from the first and third, like wow, you can see how people evolved. It helped me evolve as an engineer and a producer myself.
BeatTips: What about RZA?
Marco Polo: Aw, MAN! When I heard Cuban Linx and 36 Chambers — Liquid Swords, man, that album is so crazy. It was like a movie to me — those albums, to me. Because you put them on, and they just put you in a zone. And the way he was doing things was so different. He was looping shit off-time, and drums was so grimy; and the mixes was terrible, but in a good way. Man, it just gave you a feelin’… He knew what he was doing. Sometimes looping things the way you do on purpose, you just gotta go off vibe. You can’t always be so technical with music.
BeatTips: What about J Dilla?
Marco Polo: Uh, Jaydee, as I knew him first and then manifested into the J Dilla moniker, was definitely another influence on me. He’s a great to me, but he’s not in my top 5, like Pete, Preem, and Large. I’m being straight up, you know what I’m sayin’. I love Dilla, and there was a lot of records in his early career that were huge for me just learning about hip hop, like The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’,” specifically that song, that was one of my favorite hip hop songs when I was coming up. But Slum Village Fantastic Vol. 2, that was the record that I became a huge Dilla fan. And that record influenced producers everywhere — and I feel like in some ways negatively because some people literally wanted to be that man and emulate him on all levels.
BeatTips: What about Kev Brown?
Marco Polo: Kev Brown. He’s one of the modern beat geniuses. If I had to guess, I would say he was very influenced by Pete [Rock] just like me. But he did his own thing with it. He took bass lines to a whole fucking NEW level! His drumwork is outstanding. He found pieces of gear that worked for him that helped him establish a certain sound. It was like an extension of the SP 1200, but with modern machines. He’s like a dude, where — he inspired me. As a peer, and as a friend. And his production — he’s another dude where I scratch my head as to why more people do not know about him, and why he isn’t — you know, just like myself at times. Like, we both have that in common where we continuously fall under the radar with people. Which is cool. But yeah, Kev is a dude I feel like more people should know about. You know, and what he does, and how evolved. He’s incredible.
Marco Polo: Q-Tip’s another legend, too. Often overlooked because people see him as just a rapper. Just based on his production on all the Tribe [A Tribe Called Quest] albums, that cements him in top 10 instantly! Midnight Marauders is one of my favorite albums of all time. I love the first two [Tribe albums] as well, but Midnight was the one where I was like, “He’s a production genius.” Talk about influencing people, you know. And even to this day, that whole production style, there sound was very influential with a lot of people.
BeatTips: DJ Premier?
Marco Polo: Primo with the chops. At first, in the Group Home, Jeru, Gang Starr days, he was looping. But then he evolved. He’s one that influenced me to start chopping up records. Primo would take like 3 seconds of a record, not even a full loop, maybe just a melody or a couple of hits, and rearrange it and chop it and make this INSANE rhythm, you know what I’m sayin’, this loop. And then he’d put his signature drums on it, and that shit would put you in a zone. He has me listening to records differently. Instead of just looking for the obvious thing to do, the thing to do is to really, really dissect a song when you’re trying to make a beat. Really listen to detail. Listen to that one or two notes that might be dope sounding, and fuck with them. Preemo. I think the thing about Preem that I finally realized after many years, what I respect about him is, his ability to be simple. And this is not to undermine what he is doing as something that’s like easy — Because NOBODY else can do it. And nobody else has done it to this day! His ability to hear something on a record, a sample on a record that NO ONE else would ever fuck with. Chop it up in a way, bring it out with EQ and mixing, and then his signature drums, that, still to this day, hits harder than anything I’ve ever heard. And to hypnotize you, with two, literally 2- and 4-bar loops. At the peak of his production career, there wasn’t a lot going on. But what was there was so fucking hypnotizing and perfect that you didn’t fucking care. You don’t have to get technical if it’s rights. If it sounds right, if it feels right. You could listen to his shit for 20 minutes fucking straight, a beat. “Kick in the Door” (B.I.G.); “Nas Is Like” (Nas) — you don’t give a fuck that there’s no damn hook change. The shit is GREAT! And that’s my whole thing. It’s like, I think a lot of times people get bogged down with technical shit. But with Preem, it was just an instant feeling. Instantly. The first kick comes on and hits you, and you’re like, “Good God! This is hip hop! This is what it’s supposed to be.” And no one has been able to. Many people have tried, including myself to study and learn; and I’m probably guilty early in my career of making some very Premier-influenced beats. But he’s the master of that shit, man. No one can do that.
BeatTips: But the thing is, that you actually touch on. I’ve seen you do your music. People don’t realize that making something sound simple is not as easy as you think—
Marco Polo: NO! It’s more complex than adding all of this other shit. Getting something and bringing it to life. Yo, go look up all the shit that Premo used and try to do the shit that he did. You will fail. You’ll fucking fail. You will fail, man.
BeatTips: Large Professor?
Marco Polo: I remember hearing “Looking At The Front Door” on the radio. Large was producing for everybody back then. Actually, he was one of the producers I didn’t get into at first, just because I wasn’t aware. I learned later. And one thing that stuck out with him was his drums. His drums was always crazy. They hit hard, his programming was crazy. That’s one influence I get from Large Professor is his drums.
BeatTips: As you studied more of Large Professor's work, what stood out?
Marco Polo: What I thought was amazing about Large Pro, even now, like every year I find a new appreciation for all these people — RZA, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock —because I’m learning more, like from a technical…When you first get introduced to beats, the technical stuff, you’re not aware of it, you just hear shit. And now that I do it and I make it, I can appreciate them on a higher level. With Large, listening back to Large now, especially on the first Main Source album, his ability to take so many different records that have nothing to do with each other key wise, and make them shits work. Kind of like how what Pete was doing. They were all about layering a lot of different records, you know what I’m sayin’. Like horns from this jazz record, drums from this record, bass loop from this. There’s people today that can’t figure that shit out.
BeatTips: One more name I haven’t mentioned. Tell me Someone you kept as a close study—
Marco Polo: Jake One! Jake One, absolutely. Jake One is one of my favorite producers, also a friend of mine. And before I even made beats, I was a fan of him, like in the Conception Records stage, label, which is — I think was from Seattle and that’s where Jake is from. My boy Arcee from Toronto was doing work with them, and Jake was doing a lot of indie hip hop. He was working with cats like Rascoe, and Gift of Gab, and Charlie Tuna, and he had an impeccable ear for samples. And like, I find shit that he used back like 10 years ago now, and I’m like pissed, like , Yo, he was so ahead of mad people when it came to digging and sampling different shit. And then to watch his evolution to now, fucking doing joints for Drake?! And Dr. Dre, and Rick Ross. And T.I. It’s incredible. But some of my favorite Jake records, and I tell him when I see him, is the back-in-the-day joints where he just found wild loops and samples that no one ever heard and chopped them up and did his thing. But he’s definitely someone who continuously inspires me. And his drums and bass is superior to a lot of producers.
BeatTips: What was the first production setup that you had? Did you learn what to get from that school?
Marco Polo: Nah, just from friends. When I got my student loan for the school, I used that student loan to buy my first MPC; which is the same one you see right here! I was told, “Yo, you should get an MPC, it’s easy to learn.” I had a friend who knew how to use it… I got the MPC because, on some real shit, my friends had MPCs and I know that they could teach me it. And I wanted to learn as quickly as possible. Also, because I knew it was a classic sampler to use, but I’m pretty sure Shylow probably had an XL [MPC 2000XL] and was like, “Yo, if you get one, I’ll teach you.”
BeatTips: What year was this that you got that MPC?
Marco Polo: 2000. At that time, that was the startings of Cool Edit and all those other programs, but I wasn’t fuckin’ with that; I wanted to hit pads, you know what I’m sayin’.
BeatTips: So after that, how long did you work with the MPC before you were like, “Yo, I gotta move to New York?”
Marco Polo: Well, for the first couple of years, I was making beats everyday. They were probably the worst sounding things ever. But you know, I just kept practicing. It’s DJ’ing and battle DJ’ing, you gotta practice everyday. So that’s what I would do. I would sit down everyday and try to make beats. I would listen to my favorite producers and be like, “What did they do there?” And I would straight-up try and copy people’s styles, just as a learning technique… Like, how does Primo do his drums, you know… How does RZA chop shit up. And that just evolved. Then it got to the point where I graduated from school, and they promise you, you know, “Yo, we’re going to get you an internship,” or “We’re going to put you in the industry.” They didn’t do any of that shit! And I was like, “Let me just take this in my own hands.” I had a friend out in Queens, and I was like, “Yo, I gotta make this move.” It was scary as shit, but I was like, “I gotta leave Toronto and move to New York, if I wanna do this for real.” And that’s what I did.
BeatTips: Is this something that you consulted with your parents about?
Marco Polo: I let them know. At first, I could sense that they were a little hesitant in supporting me on it, but they did.
BeatTips: How old were you then?
Marco Polo: I was like 21, 22… I had my boy Lou, out in Queens, who’s actually part of a group (my roommate here is in), called Red Clay. And he was like, “Yo, you can come stay in the basement until you get your shit together.” And that actually led to a bunch of shit. Through Lou I met Ayatollah. And when I got my internship at The Cutting Room that was when Rawkus was doing a lot of recording there. So I met Ayatollah…And before I even got an internship at The Cutting Room, I came to New York to try to scout out studios that I wanted to intern at. And I came and hit like 15 studios in one day with résumés, with this and that, real gun-ho. And then at the end of that day, Ayatollah hit me up and was like, “Yo, just come through, I’m doing a session at this other studio called The Cutting Room.” It wasn’t even on my list. And he was doing — it was around the time he was doing remixes. Remember when The Executioners put their album out, and they had a joint with Inspectah Deck, Pharaoh? And Ayatollah was doing the remix, so I went through. Dropped my résumé off. And bam, like a couple of weeks later they hit me back and was like, “Yo, you want the internship!” And so it just happened…
BeatTips: What was your initial reaction to New York, you know after you made that move and breathed in the oxygen?
Marco Polo: Yeah, man… I loved it. I was so excited, you know what I’m sayin’. It was really overwhelming. Just being in New York. Just the vibe you get, the feelin’! Knowing that this is where hip hop started, it’s a feelin’ that had me motivated.
BeatTips: Did you look at it like you had a real fresh start?
Marco Polo: DEFINITELY… I just… you know, the key I feel like to my story is that I didn’t over-think shit! If I let my feelings — and like what should happen like, “You’re from Toronto, Canada, how are you going to go to New York and become a producer?” If I listened to that voice, I wouldn’t be where I am. I was just like, “Fuck it! I have nothing to lose!” I got this connect, nothing’s promised. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But Fuck it. That’s pretty much how it went down. There was no thinking. If I would have thought every step out like, “How are you going to afford to live in New York? How are you going to get a job, you have no visa?” I just blocked all of that out.
BeatTips: Talk to me about your time working at The Cutting Room recording studio. How long was it before you were allowed to actually assist and start doing sessions?
Marco Polo: I mean, I was in sessions right away. Whether I was actually doing musical things — but I was around it soon as I started working there, you know they let you sit in the rooms. And right away, BAM! I was in sessions with all those classic Rawkus dudes like, Mos Def, Talib Kwali. And this is right around the time Kanye started coming through… I got to see Ayatollah do a lot of sessions. This was right around the time when Kwali was doing the Kwality album, and Sound Bombin III, and “The Life.” And that was the crazy part because I was a fan of all that shit. It was exactly what I wanted to be around. I was bumpin’ heads with artists…I was making beats and making beat CDs. And the shit wasn’t the greatest, but I was still passing CDs out, just to get the name out. And that was the benefit of working there. In Toronto, you’re not going to run into all of these dudes, and give ‘em CDs. But in New York, you’re surrounded by it constantly.
BeatTips: So when you started doing your own sessions, what was the roughest lesson you had to learn?
Marco Polo: To be honest, it never really got to the point where I was mixing records at The Cutting Room. The furthest I got with the engineering there was tracking vocals… And definitely when it comes to engineering it’s a very customer service based industry where the client is always right, no matter what. Like you could have all the knowledge in the world about how shit should sound, if they want their vocals blaring loud, you make their vocals blaring loud….
I came up under some really good mix engineers, one of them who’s my mix engineer today, Joe Nardone. I was heavily involved in the assisting of the Grind Date album of De La Soul, and for Kweli’s [Talib Kweli] second album, or was it his first solo album on Rawkus? What was it called, Kwality? And I used to — I have tracked vocals for a few people. Inspectah Deck on his second album. Carl Thomas, some random shit. But I definitely was a sponge. When I became a manager there, or engineering, or assisting engineering, I was just watching. I was keeping my mouth shut and just , you know, morphing into a sponge and sucking in all the energy that I could. And seeing a lot of people on their come up. Kanye, before he had his first album on Rocafella, was coming through. And I remember Mos Def and Talib talking to each other in sessions like, “Yo, THAT’S the next dude!” I remember Mos Def coming in saying, “This dude Kanye is about to take everything over! Like, he’s about to shut shit down!” And me going like, “Who is this Kanye dude?” I remember Kanye coming in to play beats for De La, during the Grind Date album. I don’t think they used anything, but he came in and played beats for them.
BeatTips: You heard some of those Kanye beats, too?
Marco Polo: I heard some of them, definitely. And they even picked some. But nothing ever happen because I think he’s not on that record.
BeatTips: You could see it, too, that Kanye was gonna—
Marco Polo: No, I couldn’t. Straight up! ‘Because I heard the beats and I really liked them. But the way they were talking about him, I didn’t see it. But that’s no disrespect. I was just, I had my opinions, and I thought the beats were dope. But the way they were talking about him, like second coming of Jesus, take over the game?! Straight up, I wouldn’t of called it. And I wouldn’t of agreed with them, and it’s amazing to see what he did. NOW, I get it. And his evolution, you know, he’s a great producer. But at the time, I didn’t see it like they saw it. So I failed with the future visions on Kanye.
BeatTips: Recently, there’s been a number of high-profile projects that feature some variation of live instrumentation as the beat. There’s Ghostface Killah’s work with Adrian Younge. Then his most recent [project], 36 Seasons. Then RZA’s work on the latest Wu-Tang [Clan album] A Better Tomorrow. That’s again, live instrumentation. And there’s Preem and Royce — PRhyme. That’s Premier [sampling] Adrian Younge’s catalog. How do you see what you do In regards to this? What is different from that sound, which these are obviously live bands, this is live instrumentation as the beat, and what you’ve now progressed to?
Marco Polo: There’s so many ways I can answer this question, and I’m glad you asked it. I have an issue with a lot of this stuff to be honest. First of all, I did something with Adrian on my last album, on Newport Authority II. He asked me to do a remix off The Delfonics album he did. And I flipped the beat, and then Tragedy rapped on it and Lil’ Fame (I’m-a give you that later). So shouts to Adrian, he’s incredible at what he does. My whole thing — I incorporate that type of sampling. I use Komplete to compose my own music, and to me, it’s all a learning process because I do know this: You can over analyze the approach of like, “Yo, let me get a band and we’ll make it sound like records,” and I’ve heard people do that and fail miserably. And on paper, it’s like, “Yo, it’s all live instruments. And live drums…” You think like, “Yo, this is dope.” Or it should be dope. But a lot of times, to me, it’s not! It’s not! There’s something missing. Something’s missing! I don’t care technically what you did. Yes, you have a Fender through the amp that they used in the ‘60s and through this board, and like — but that doesn’t mean shit if it doesn’t sound right and give you that feelin’, you-know-what-I’m-sayin’. I don’t get excited when someone’s like, “Yo, I’m going into the studio with a live band…” I’ve heard people say that, then I heard [the music] and it failed my expectations. After all of these years of breaking things down, to me, I just keep it really simple: Is it dope, or is it not dope? That’s how it should be. But I think people get like, caught up in the whole pitch of, “Yo, but he used this band…” A lot of times, these newer bands that recreate that sound are extremely dope. But what I think needs to happen is producers need to take that shit — like they did records — put it in the damn sampler and add their drums to where it knocks. Because a lot of these live drummers are playing funky breaks all day, and it sounds incredible how it’s recorded, but the knock is not there. And as far as I know, when I came up with hip hop, shit knocked. Drums were the driving force.
BeatTips: Well what you just described is what Preem did with PRhyme—
Marco Polo: Exactly! And that’s the approach I would take, you-know-what-I’m-sayin’. Unless you have like a certain themed album. Because Adrian’s shit is fucking crazy. Like he makes shit sound — I’m a huge fan. He’s definitely influenced by soul and a lot of spaghetti Western shit; a lot of shit sounds evil. That’s right up my lane, and it’s perfect for sampling. But I don’t know if it’s perfect for everybody to just rap on the shit that he does. I think it’s a different thing. I think as its own thing, listening to it, it’s my favorite. I fucking just listen to that shit and I’m like, “Yo!...” And I vibe out to it. And then for making beats, it’s great, too.
BeatTips: There’s another thing, I’m sure you’re aware of. Speak on this. That when people mention the band, there’s always this tinge that it’s somehow better, that a live band is somehow better, that it’s evolving—
Marco Polo: Yeah, I know. It’s HORSESHIT! It’s horseshit to me. I think it’s bullshit! Listen, when people evolve, and all this — even me, sometimes people say it for me, and I’m cool with it, but like, as much more as I know I’m doing, and me playing you beats and being like, “Yo, I did this here, and I did this, here.” That’s cool, and technically it’s impressive to people. But some people say to me, “Yo, your first album, you was just sampling, that’s my favorite shit.” And I have to scratch my head because technically, I’m so passed that shit. Like, are you hearing the shit I’m doing now? And the bottom line is: While maybe I’m better, it doesn’t matter to people, they just want to get that feelin’. And a lot of the time, with cats like Jake, the RZA, whoever, the shit they’re doing now technically is superior to what they were doing back then. But is it better? is the argument. Does it make you feel the same way? Still some of my favorite records from Jake are like the old shit. RZA sampling, and what he did on shit like Liquid Swords is the peak for me. And I’m not saying what he’s doing now is not dope. But straight up, I like that shit more. When he was just fucking sampling shit and chopping shit up.
BeatTips: So, explain what you do. [Some] people are confused about live instrumentation as the beat and exactly what you do. So talk about that, the differences.
Marco Polo: The shit that I do these days is I sample myself essentially. I accumulate a lot of music — live instrumentation like you say. I’ll buy sound libraries…like a soulful guitar pack with people playing riffs in different chords. Here’s people playing keys and chords. Here’s some horns. I take that shit like I do with vinyl, I put it into Komplete or Kontakt or my MPC, and I FUCK IT UP with compression, and take these luscious, highly recorded, 42-bit shit — I don’t care about all that. I want it to sound dusty. So I put in here [MPC, Komplete, or Kontakt] and I mess with it, then I add my own shit on top of it. As long as you got a .wav file, you’re good. You can put it into many programs. Absolutely. You’re limitless with things. I was making music with some musicians and something wasn’t happening. It wasn’t working. And I was like, “Yo, we’re making these ill things in the studio,” then I’m like, “Yo, this is going to be a crazy beat.” Then I sit down to make it and it was WACK! [laughs]
BeatTips: Sample packs have been around for years, but why is it that what you’re doing? I remember you playing some things for me several years ago and asking me, “Yo, tell me the truth, does it sound like a sample?” And I told you, “No. But you’re getting there.” What you’re doing now vs. then, it’s night and day. So what is it that you think is responsible for you being able to now match it to where it’s being mistaken for a sample?
Marco Polo: Practice! [laughs] Putting in work, man. Learning from my mistakes. Learning and getting better, and like analyzing the fuck out of everything. Yo, making beats, this is an education that never ends. There’s no graduation from learning production. It’s a fucking endless university that has no ending EVER. And that’s’ the problem with me, too. I would probably get more beats done if I was less critical [of myself] and over thinking and constantly over analyzing my own shit.
BeatTips: You’re surrounded by records, you’ve been digging; that’s never gonna leave you.
Marco Polo: Never!
BeatTips: So you don’t think that has shaped your ear?
Marco Polo: Yes! ABSOLUTELY! YES! You have to have an ear. Absolutely it comes from the influence of the music I get off my vinyl, ‘cause I know how shit’s supposed to sound.
BeatTips: Because the way you’re presenting it is like, “Yo, I put some compression…” But all of these things are subconscious metrics in your head. When you’re turning the knob—
Marco Polo: I’m trying to make shit sound like if I went to a record store, and it sounds dirty, and I put amps on shit. And the reason I’m doing that is because I know that’s what they did back then. But I don’t have those same tools, so I gotta attack it from different ways. And whatever I can achieve that sound with, I’m going to use it.
BeatTips: The buzzword that I was getting at is “reference.” Sonically, you have a reference—
Marco Polo: Yes, Always—
BeatTips: That’s in your head. That I think without — whether you’re dealing with vinyl or you’re online, if you don’t have that sonic reference, you’re not going to be able to make that sound.
Marco Polo: Yes! It all starts from me buying music and records, that’s the foundation of all this shit. And that’s why I’m able to achieve beats that don’t have samples in them because I’ve studied what they do sound like, and I’m still learning about it. So if I didn’t start by diggin’, you know, you can’t just — you gotta understand. Even with me selling my drums now, and I tell people, I’m like, “Yo, buy my drums. They’ll help you with your beats and you’ll have shit that you don’t have to over analyze, you just knock out a beat.” But like, you gotta dig! Never stop doing that and learning and getting your own shit that you have to make your shit different from everyone else.
BeatTips: And with this new component, this rather large component, to your style right now, creatively, what options does it give you that you previously didn’t have? What options does this new method give you creatively that you previously didn’t have?
Marco Polo: It’s unlimited the options I have now. Now, I’m able to time stretch on new levels. I’m able to pitch down [in new ways]. I take a bunch of shit and individually tweak it. I have effects — I never got the effects board in my MPC, mostly because I heard it was wack. And the effects, to be able to pre-process and put reverbs on drums; dumb shit that people probably have and are like, “Why didn’t you have that all this time?” “’Cause I didn’t!”
BeatTips: What about the main bane of existence to all sample-based beatmakers: replays? When there’s a sample that’s there, and there’s some other shit that you wanna do with it, but for whatever reason you can’t—
Marco Polo: Now, I can take melodies and extend them. And you know when you hear a record and you’re like, “Aw, man, the first bar of that is crazy.” Then it gets super wack on bar 2. Now I can be like, let me replay it and play what I want to be there. Or have someone do it. And then records really become inspiration because a lot of times I try to replay something that I hear on record, but I’m not a classically trained musician, so it’ll just end up becoming my own thing anyways. An original idea inspired by something that just goes in a whole other direction.
BeatTips: Do you feel that this method is a bastardized version of what sample-based beatmakers have traditionally understood sampling to be?
Marco Polo: Yes. A bastardized version? I don’t know. I don’t fully understand the question.
BeatTips: I’ll rephrase it. There are purists in everything. And so, there’s some people that will say, “It’s sampling, but it’s not real sampling.” Because you’re not using—
Marco Polo: Records—
BeatTips: Exactly. So speak on that.
Marco Polo: Yeah, I don’t know, everyone has their own—
BeatTips: But what’s YOUR take on it? You have to speak for how you see it… Let me give you example. Before Preem did what he did with PRhyme — which, by the way, he resisted doing it at first. Before he did it, there was this sort of slant, people in the shadows like, “I don’t really want to fuck with that.” But now, there’s a before and after. Now that HE did it, that DJ Premier did it, it opens it up. So what I’m saying to you, for the purists that would say, “Yeah, Marco’s shit is alright, it’s dope or whatever, but it’s not that real shit.” What’s your response to that?
Marco Polo: Anyone that says my shit ain’t real or tries to de-credit it, that’s bullshit. What I do IS sampling, whether it’s a record or not. And anyone who says it’s not is bullshit. It all goes back to me not trying to over analyze shit, but shit is either dope, or it’s not dope, you know. If you don’t like my shit, you don’t like my shit. But to say that what I’m doing is not creative or sampling? I thinks it’s different with certain heads because like, typically, and this goes for me, too, sampling — the beauty about sampling is that people love to hear something they know that was reinterpreted in another way. So when you’re sampling yourself and all this other shit, it’s different because people hear it and be like, “It’s dope…” But I think one of the craziest things about hip hop that’ll never stop is that you hear shit you know, “Holy fuck! De La Soul sampled Hall & Oats - ‘Say No Go.’” Right. Like, “Holy fuck! I know that record. They took this.” And that element is gone if I’m doing original music that is — I’m sampling myself, but I’m sampling something you’ve never heard. That’s the difference and I think that’s part of the excitement for people in rap, is that they hear records that they have in their crates that they play and it’s flipped…It’s still the same process, it’s just not coming from vinyl all the time, it’s coming from me.
BeatTips: Now, that’s the creative option. The other thing, with regards to now, opportunity. What does this do for you?
Marco Polo: To make money!
BeatTips: All right, express that. Break that down.
Marco Polo: The great thing about it is it definitely opens doors to have my music to be submitted for licensing. And a lot of opportunities are instantly gone, because not saying that I did or I didn’t, but if you have a lot of music where you haven’t cleared the samples you’re using, you can’t use that shit past putting it out. You can’t pitch it to movies and video games and T.V. shows. I was able to make money with this new approach. So I’m very for it. When you make music as a career, you have to think about shit like that. It’s been very helpful. But it’s not the main thing that drives me. It’s just a great option to have, knowing that I have the freedom to do that now.
BeatTips: As one of the pioneers of this new compositional approach, where do you see it going?
Marco Polo: It’s going in crazy places. Now you have producers who quit making beats and are now making music and pitching it to samplers. Like people getting up with bands, like the ones we were talking about, making music, selling them as sample packs to producers, like, “Yo, $30, you get 15 joints that sound like they came off a record. Sample away! We guarantee you we’ll give you the master clearance. Just give us some of the publishing if you use it.” It’s like a whole new scene now, it’s fucking insane.
BeatTips: But you don’t have to do that with Komplete.
Marco Polo: No, no, no. But I’m just saying, there’s all these types of new approaches that’s crazy. Especially when producers that are making and composing their music, because they know exactly what producers want to hear when they’re looking for samples. So you have all these new avenues of music, where the live instrumentation and doing shit like that is positive. It all comes down to money, bro. The fucking people are just scared to sample and shit. And it fucking hurts the music, straight up, because to this day, like, if I pick my top 10 records, none of them shits is sample free. [laughs] Top 50! NONE of them shits are sample free. I know Dre definitely played some shit over, but even still, it was like playing over a sample. Name five amazing, classic [hip hop/rap] records, that don’t have samples in them. Could you? I don’t know. Maybe if I thought for a couple of hours. But I don’t think so. And as much as shit progresses, it just goes back to the beginning. Is it fucking dope, or is it not dope?
BeatTips: So what’s your take on E-diggin’? Diggin’ online and downloading music?
Marco Polo: I don’t judge. I do the shit, too. But I do it sometimes because I can’t get out and go to the record stores. But I’m not one of those cats that judges people. A lot of these newer producers don’t know better, because they’re not coming up with people showing them that you gotta go do that. So you can’t even judge the new generation, that’s what diggin’ to them is. “Yo, I go on YouTube and I take samples,” you know. They don’t have the big brother, the homey who’s like, “Nah, you gotta go here and start and look for these breaks.” So you can’t get judgey. I use to be one of those purists cats and get angry, and I totally — in my 30s — hate that old me. [laughs] Because everyone’s just different. Everyone has their own path, you know. I used to have a rule that once I used some drums, I would never use them again on a beat, but I changed.
BeatTips: When you do make a beat, do you start with the drums or non-drums?
Marco Polo: It usually goes either way to be honest. But I would say more often than not, I start with drums. Which could backfire on you as a producer because you get stuck with drums. I usually start with drums, because I like to nod my head. But it can be very counter productive, so I don’t recommend that approach always. And sometimes I start with the sample. So the answer to that question is, it completely changes all the time. I usually get more inspired by hearing new drum sounds than I do new samples, so I’ll start with like, if I have a new break or something, or a new drum kit I put together.
BeatTips: Do you ever make your beats with headphones on?
Marco Polo: Never. I fucking hate it. I love listening to shit loud. I feel like headphones cheat you and don’t give you the real. I’d rather listen, make beats through my fucking laptop speakers, because that’s like what most of the world listens to beats on anyway. Which is crazy, but it’s the truth.
BeatTips: Rhythm is a mainstay in beatmaking of course. But how has melody figured into what you do?
Marco Polo: I’m really trying to focus, I feel like I don’t have — that’s my lacking thing in my production career, is the lack of melody. Unless, you know, my first album I had a lot of loops with melodies. But that’s the hard thing that I tried to really work on in my original compositions is melody. Every beat’s gotta have that one thing you’re drawn to. And most of the time, it’s the fucking melody, it’s the thing that you can hum or something. And I feel like I sometimes back myself into corners with technically dope beats, but lacking that one thing that makes you go, Okay, that’s that shit! So now, I’m very picky about what I sample, or if I’m making something that it has a melody, a driving melody.
BeatTips: Speak on what repetition means to beatmaking. How do you approach that challenge?
Marco Polo: Repetition is very important. It’s very important. I think that’s actually like the most important thing. A lot of people — when you have all these changes, like hip hop is not pop music. It don’t always need a bridge or chorus. People want take it there to have, and make it progress, but the verdict is out if that’s positive or negative. Because like I said, your favorite records, I guarantee you if you go back, are like 2- and 4-bar loops, you know. Look at all the early RZA shit. Premo shit. It was real repetitive shit. And it’s some of the best music ever. So I think it’s very important to have that, the headnod going on something that you can gravitate to right away, and then you build on top of that. But until you have that, that should be the focus of every producer to find that one quality that is driving the beat.
BeatTips: What are the type of beats do you think stand the test of time?
Marco Polo: Fuck, I don’t want to sound like a Stan, but Premo shit; a lot of shit where people are looping. A lot of people were looping something that plays continuously over and over again, you know. You have to have an ear for good sounds. That’s the problem. And you have to know what to do with them. A lot of people don’t. We could probably find a sample that five producers used, you know, and they all came out, and then be like, “Who made it the illest?” This person used it exactly the same, but why doesn’t it sound like this version? You know. People use shit that Pete and Preem used, but why doesn’t it sound like their version? There’s so many fucking levels in this shit, it’s crazy.
BeatTips: What’s your work routine like? Is it everyday? Are you up in the morning?
Marco Polo: I try.
BeatTips: Do you prefer making beats at night?
Marco Polo: No, no, no. I’m not a night guy. Maybe one day when I’m in another living situation with a studio and I don’t have sound constraints. But I usually get up everyday around 9 O’clock, pretty early. I get coffee. And then I come in here and I listen to music. But these days—
BeatTips: So wait, wait. I’m going to pull you back. Give me your typical day. How do you approach it? Monday through Friday? Monday through Thursday?
Marco Polo: Well, it changed. Because when I was younger, I would just get up everyday and fucking making beats as soon as I woke up. But now, honestly, I’m not feeling the shit like I used to feel the shit. The inspiration is not coming to me as much as it did. One thing I have learned is that I do not sit in here if I’m not inspired. If I’m gonna force it, I’m gonna make a beat that sounds like I’m forcing it. So the main thing is, I gotta get in here and want to work. That starts everything. And if I wake up — unfortunately, that’s the reality of how it is now, where sometimes as soon as I wake up and I’m like, “I don’t feel like doing shit.” Because I don’t hear a lot of shit that fucking inspires me these days. And I have to dig for it. And I’m one of those dudes that I don’t want to sit in here and make the same beat that I made for the last 15 years. I’m getting really bored of that shit, just as a creative person. I want to progress. Unfortunately, those moments come far and few between these days, where I get in here and be like, “Yo!” I’ve had to change my approach and do different things to get inspired.
BeatTips: What were the changes?
Marco Polo: Well, actually, this dude, here, Droog [Your Old Droog previously entered the room] one of the things that I like about working with him is that when he comes in here, sometimes we sit down and make beats together. Like him being an MC sitting here we’ll kind of like compose ideas together. And it’s helpful to have a rapper being right here being like, “Yo!” Sometimes when you’re making a beat, you don’t know when to stop, you over produce the fuck out of shit. And I do that constantly. Having someone here as a point of reference to be like, “Yo, that shit is good. That’s the verse.” Like, “Chill!” It’s a blessing and I can actually get more done. That’s a new approach for me. I never actually sat with someone and made beats with someone like that. Ever. I’m very like, I’m doing the shit myself. I’m not a collaborative-producing type of person. That situation, you know, a lot of good records came out of that, those sessions. So now I’m more open to that. So that’s definitely helpful. I also like producing when I have a reason to produce. “Yo, MP, I need a remix.” Fucking love that shit, because I have something to build with. I have an original, I have vocals. Before I just made beats, because I just fucking love making beats. And I can still do that, but less. These days, I have to come in here because I have a job. Like, “Yo, I need this.” I have a vibe, I know what I gotta do. It’s like a purpose. I need that purpose. And, unfortunately, it’s sad. But, it used to be that I didn’t need that. I just came in here and made music. These days, I need…If I have a purpose, it’s better.
BeatTips: So you take far more days off now?
Marco Polo: Well, I don’t take days off. I’m still in here working. But it’s not the same where it was just relentless. I go to Nottz’s Instagram where he makes like 13 beats a day, for the fuck of it. And I look at him and I’m jealous. Yo, that is amazing that you can just have that much creativity flow through you. It doesn’t work like that for me. I wish it did. But it doesn’t…I’m sure not everyone he’s going to say is the best beat he ever made. But he’s not human, first of all. I’m a huge fan of Nottz. A lot of that shit is incredible. But obviously, if you’re doing that many — a lot of people get hype on Twitter, “Yo, I made 10 beats today.” And I’m like, “I’m sure 9 of them are terrible.”
BeatTips: Right. So what are your safeguards for quality? What do you do?
Marco Polo: I’m not concerned with quantity. I just want to make something, my whole thing is, I come in here and it happens organically and naturally and it’s not forced. The best beats I ever made in my career happened in 15 minutes. Because everything happens the way it’s supposed to when I sit down at the machine. I load drums, within five minutes I found music that meshes with the drums naturally. I really feel like there’s a fucking — like someone’s really giving me energy. Like, today, it was meant to all mesh.
BeatTips: But there hasn’t been a beat that you began one day and worked on another day?
Marco Polo: Absolutely. Those beats come out good, too. I made a lot of great beats that took me a week to finish. But if I put the ratio of those beats against the 20-minute ones, they’re gonna beat ‘em. Because if I did a ratio of which ones were the hotter shit…I really feel like that energy is just meant to be. The shit was meant to happen. It all comes together. And I’ll sit in here on days where I have drums for like ours and I can’t find shit that works with it. And I’m like, “This shit’s not happening,” you know.
BeatTips: Do you work with a permanent manager, or do you reach out to artists yourself?
Marco Polo: I’ve had one manager in my entire career, my boy Theo. We’re still cool. But I’ve never had a manager, I’ve always managed myself. Not that I’m against a manager. I haven’t had anyone since Theo that stepped to me and was like, “I see your vision, I wanna fuck with you.” So my whole thing with managers, that’s the way it’s suppose to work. Like, you don’t go find a manager. You don’t look for a manager. A manager’s gotta come to you. Pitch an idea to you. And see your vision.
BeatTips: Describe to me how you think technology has helped and hurt the art of beatmaking.
Marco Polo: Aw, man, we don’t have enough fucking weeks, days in the year to answer that question. Technology is constantly changing. It’s changing so fast I can’t — I am nowhere caught up to it, and I probably never will be. There are advantages and positives for my production that I’m able to learn and do more things and have more versatility, more control with what I do. But there are some days I think it’s all horseshit and it’s counterproductive. And some of my best beats are just made with this MPC. I put a record on and find some shit, and I throw some drums on it. And it’s just as good as this new progressive shit where I can not sample. So I don’t think either is better. I think it’s just, once again, it’s finding a way to not let it — I think a lot of people get overwhelmed in all this new shit and it bogs them down, and it is actually counterproductive in their sound.
BeatTips: Right. Time wise, you’ve figured out to do the Komplete stuff fast, too, right?
Marco Polo: I am. I’m learning. I have not perfected it by any means. Because replaying samples, I’ll say, or making my own compositions, is that it takes fucking twice, three times as long. Because when you’re sampling off a record, let’s say you sample a loop. In that loop, the bass line is in there, the keys are in there, the horns are in there, it’s fucking 18 sounds compressed, it’s a full sound. When you’re playing from scratch, you have to recreate an entire band. You’re playing layers, layers, layers. And you gotta make that shit sound full. Yeah, so, technology’s a ho. It’s great, but at the same time, if I lost it tomorrow, I would be cool. And I would still make music that would be dope.
BeatTips: How have the expectations that you had for yourself, both creatively and financially 10 or so years ago, how have they aligned with your achievements today?
Marco Polo: In the last year, it got real for me. For Marco Polo related business, shit got really real last year. And in 2013, I thought I had my best creative year ever. I put out three albums: Newport Authority 2, Seize the Day with Stax, and PA2, which is the follow-up to Port Authority, which is the album that people know me best for. And for me, it was actually the year where I was the least visible in my entire career. That shit slapped me in the fact, hard. I felt I had my most successful year, creative output. Three albums where I thought: These are the best beats I’ve ever made in my career. I’m at the top of my game. I progressed. And I felt like that was the year that no one gave a flying fuck about what I was doing. Straight up. And that’s not to belittle anyone that supported my projects, I love them. But in comparison to the looks I was getting back when I was putting out my earlier records, it was nowhere near the visibility.
BeatTips: So what did that fee like?
Marco Polo: It felt like shit. When you’re working your ass off and you think you’re at the top of your game, and no one’s paying attention or watching. That shit sucked. It was like a Mack truck smacking into my forehead. It was the worst. And it fucked me up. People around me know that it fucked me up. Because I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. I don’t think it was something necessarily that I was doing wrong, it was just times were changing, and music’s changing, and hip hop’s changing. And it was just trying to come up with a new plan so that I could progress my shit to the same level. Because I feel like I’ve been in the same zone for a minute. I haven’t stepped up my brand name to new audiences and working with bigger people, and there’s many reasons for that. It’s just, I became aware of it. Before, I didn’t care about that shit. I just came in here and made music. But I’m a 34 year-old-man. I’m turning 35, and I picked music as a career. So it’s irresponsible for me to get into the studio and not think about all these things when you run your own business. And this year was the first year that I really sat down and had to be like, “Ok, what’s going to happen next? What are you going to do? Shit is changing. People ain’t buying records. The sound that you’re doing is not the most popular sound.” I’ve never sent beats to major label artist. Like once in a while, but it was never my focus to get big placements and chase Jay Z and Drake and the like. And now, you know, it’s a matter of like looking at those things. I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen next, but I want to be in the game for 20 years. And people like Premo, they have a brand and they’re legends. And he can do what he’s doing for the rest of his life, because he’s DJ Premier. He earned that spot. He doesn’t have to change. But for some of us new cats that maintain that sound, it’s a little more difficult, you know what I’m saying. It’s almost like a novelty, the type of shit that we do. If major label cats want the Golden Era sound, they’re gonna hit Preem, they’re not going to hit me, you know what I’m saying. It doesn’t mean I’m wack. They’re going to go the fathers of that sound. Another thing that pissed me off is a lot of people think that all I do is that sound. That’s completely untrue. Like, I’m capable of making all types of shit. But I feel like I haven’t had the opportunity to work with artists that put me on a level for people to see that shit.
BeatTips: I had a conversation recently with a friend, not saying any names, we were talking about DJ Khalil. I said, “You should really check out ‘West Coast Love.’” If you want to hear something that’s in that zone, but it’s going to surprise you, check out “West Coast Love.” And I’m not going to tell you who produced it, just check out “West Coast Love,” MC Eiht. Then come back to me and we’ll talk. He called me back and said, “Yo, son, you didn’t tell me Marco Polo produced this joint.”…Because you can make the music, just because you have an ear for music, doesn’t mean you know how to work the next stage. And that’s the thing that’s a detriment to a lot of people.
Marco Polo: That’s the industry. And it’s so obvious with so many talents. Shit, these days, the talent is actually the last thing on the list that gets you the looks. It has nothing to do with that. There’s so many people that I look at and I’m like, “Yo, you should be like a God. You should be sitting on a throne made of gold for your talents, and like nobody knows who the fuck you are.”
What’s it like to tour as a producer?
Marco Polo: What’s it like to tour as a producer? It’s weird. Because a lot of people think that I DJ, and I don’t DJ. I use my MPC with Serato. So it’s interesting. But most of my live performing is me with rappers. Me traveling with Master Ace, and I run his show with my MPC just like a DJ does, but I do it with pads. It’s amazing. I think that for me as a producer, I’ve done more touring than most producers would do who just make beats, you know. Because I’ve transitioned my ability to use the MPC and run a live show.
BeatTips: But when you travel, how are you’re treated as a person who’s a professional hip hop music maker?
Marco Polo: I get love in all of those places. I think people are less…I think people always give a positive response. People love being in the same room with people that made music that they love. When I go out with Ace, it’s really special because people know that we’ve made records together, records that have resonated with them. So it’s amazing to be able to tour.
BeatTips: Contrast that with how you’re received in America. Is there a difference?
Marco Polo: Oh, they love me in Europe and Australia, and they like me in the United States. That’s the difference [laughs]. And I’m sure there’s pockets of people in the U.S., but there’s no fucking doubt, there’s no doubt about the fact that these overseas markets embrace me way stronger than my home fucking country — countries, I say because Canada and U.S. are both my home countries.
BeatTips: For your catalog, here’s the songs that I would tell someone why they should pitch your tent behind you as one of the next pioneers. There’s four songs of yours, and I want you to match me on. “Astonishing,” “Field Nigga,” “Fame for President,” and the aforementioned “West Coast Love.” Now I want you to chime in. “Astonishing,” how did that song come about?
Marco Polo: “Astonishing” started with the beat being made, and me and Shylow figuring out what to do with it. Which is what happens all the time. And it started with Large Professor. He set it off. I sent it to him. I don’t think, at first, he was super hype about it as I was. But, that’s my dude. He liked the beat. I just know when he’s like wowing over something or he’s into it. But because we have that relationship, he wrote the bars. When he did it, I was like, “He set it off!” Then it was all a matter of making sure whoever connected from him was all in the same pocket. Then I reached out to Deck [Inspectah Deck], he did his verse, killed it. Then it was O.C., killed it. Now, the problem came on verse number four.
BeatTips: What was the problem?
Marco Polo: The problem is that there were six MCs that did a fourth verse that you will never hear. Until I came to Tragedy, who did what I wanted to happen. And I can not speak on the names because out of respect. No, no, there were four MCs that did verses on that fourth part that I was not — not that they weren’t dope, it just wasn’t what I was looking for. I needed that homerun. That wild-out, end-the-song crazy. I knew Revolution [DJ Revolution] would do the scratches, but he was the last one to do his part, but that fourth verse had to be right. And it was fucking the worst, because I had four MCs that I really love. From legends in the game, I’m talking, to maybe legends one day, underground cats with a buzz, and it just wasn’t what I was looking for.
Marco Polo "Astonishing" feat Large Professor, Inspectah Deck, O C & Tragedy Khadafi
BeatTips: Tragedy lost his mind on that track.
Marco Polo: Yeah, when Tragedy did it, I was like, “OH! Thank you, sir, that’s what I needed [laughs].” It just needed that, it had to have that OG energy on it. You needed energy. That’s the problem with a lot of the verses that I got, people weren’t rapping with energy. They were like talking that new shit. Which is cool for beats that call for that. But that’s a loud beat, you gotta fuckin’…
BeatTips: Right. And “West Coast Love,” featuring MC Eiht and King Tee
Marco Polo: That, I gotta thank DJ Premier for that. Because DJ Premier sent my beats to MC Eiht. He recorded – I have like three other songs with Eiht that he’s gonna use on the new Compton Most Wanted album. So I had the leverage already, because he used a bunch of my beats, so it was nothin’. So I hit him, I hit Eiht up and I was like, “Yo, can you do something for me?” And he did the two verses on that beat, no hook or nothing. Just laid two verses, they were dope. But I’m like, “OK, this is not a song yet. Just two verses on a beat. Who could we get?” I hit up my boy Stylistic Jones from Malcolm & Martin, who’s on my album, and he knew King Tee. I sent Tee the record, and literally in a day, he laid down the hook and the third verse. And it just — that’s the kind of shit I’m talking about. It was no — it just happened naturally. I sent him the beat, he sent it back. It was perfection. There was no like — he knew what he had to do. And that’s the positive to working with dudes from that era, that they’re veterans in terms of songwriting. There not just, “I’m gonna spit the hottest bars…” With Tee, he knew Eiht was on it, he knew it was a West Coast record, he knew what needed to happen. He did it. And I was grateful, and that’s one of my favorite records on that album.
Marco Polo feat. MC Eiht and King Tee - "West Coast Love"
BeatTips: Talk about what it’s like making a producer album.
Marco Polo: It’s the worst thing ever in life. I fucking hate it and it’s like — at the same time, I fucking love it. It took five years to make that record. It kind of fucked me because at that point, it’s like, do people even care after the first one came out? So it was fun to make it, but it drained all my energy, and there were days I wanted to throw the towel in on it.
BeatTips: What’s the hard part about it?
Marco Polo: It’s just, connecting so many people to make it make sense. You know, you’re trying to pitch your vision to 60 MCs, and you’re trying to get them all on the same page for your vision. And everybody’s got their own lives, and you’re not cutting checks and you’re doing shit on the love. People don’t give a fuck about that.
BeatTips: What’s the love? Speak about that.
Marco Polo: The love is doing something for me for free, or doing beat trades, you know what I’m sayin’. Like, cats got kids and shit, so I respect that. It’s hard for me to be like, “Yo, did you do your verse?” when I know you’re out there chasing money. I’m not going to be in your face, “Yo, do it, do it, do it!” You gotta wait on their schedules out of respect. You have to barter, and you just gotta be respectful. That’s why shit takes so long, ‘cause I can’t be barking at people, “Yo, why are you taking so long?” I’m not cutting a check. And I know after years in the game that that’s what comes first for people. People might not want to hear that, the purist, but you know, a lot of your favorite artists, they gotta make money. It’s money driven. That’s the reality of shit, so I gotta work on their schedule if I’m not a major label with a budget.
BeatTips: So now there’s a growing drum kit market—
Marco Polo: Yes! I new fucking world.
BeatTips: A lot of people are doing that. What made you jump in?
Marco Polo: Speaking with Jake One and Illmind made me do it. Running into them and talking to them about their successes with putting out sound kits. For a long time, I fought it. My purist side of me fought putting out the drum kit. Until one day, it cliqued to me that it was stupid. I didn’t need to fight it. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your sounds. Let me tell you why. Because coming up as a producer, a lot of the producers, we went to the record store and bought Ultimate Beats and Breaks [record series of break-beats]. We bought drum sound libraries. We bought all this shit. And guess what that was? It was other fucking producers finding records and compiling drum breaks for producers to have on one LP. It was somebody digging for you. And we bought that shit. And some of your favorite producers that you hold in your top five used Ultimate Beats and Breaks and looped that shit, because they didn’t have the original records. So what makes it different from me presenting my sounds for people to do it? It’s the same shit. It’s obvious convenience, but to have that purist approach, “Go find your own drums.” Well, if you’re really going to look at it like that, then a lot of us, you know, you’re doing the same shit you do now. So if anyone looks at someone for being wack or belittle them for like buying a drum kit...Like, you went and bought those drum comps, so what’s the difference?
BeatTips: What’s the name of your kit?
Marco Polo: The name of my kit is called “Pad Thai.” Playing on obviously the MPC pads. And it’s my first drum kit. And what makes mine different is, I put 21 of my productions that I feel like are more known to people that know my sound. It’s a mix of like stuff from my older albums and new stuff. And, it’s my sounds; it’s my drum sounds.
BeatTips: Does it include actual songs or does it just include the sounds?
Marco Polo: No, no songs. It has 21 songs that you’ll know, and when you go into those folders, it’s all the drums and bass sounds for the beat, unprocessed.
BeatTips: Oh, it’s the bass sounds, too?
Marco Polo: Yeah, I put the bass tones. Also, what I did is I printed the bass line of the song so producers could hear a soloed bass line. Because a lot of people, I feel like, part of this process with up-and-coming dudes is, they want to be educated. They want to learn. And I thought that would be a weird but cool, interesting thing for cats to see my bass lines isolated. You know, tone wise, so they can kind of see what I did, and just get a feel for how my shit sounds, moves. And that’s some of the things I didn’t notice in a lot of other producer kits, it was just straight drums. And I wanted to give people bass lines…It’s all .wav files, compatible with all samplers or programs; whatever you use, it’ll work. And it’s all .wav sounds, and then bass line stems. Which is a .wav, too, but it’s an 8-bar stem. Whatever beat’s in there, you have a printed bass line stem. And then the individual bass sound you can use and span across your keyboard or pads, just like I did it. Whatever the root note is of the bass line, it’s in the kit. Plus, all the percussion sounds, you know, kicks, snares, hats, shakers. Anything I use drum percussion or bass wise, is in the kit.
BeatTips: And how do you think your “Pad Thai” kit stands out? What has always been the genesis for drum sounds for you?
Marco Polo: I think it stands out because I’m a producer who’s known for his drum sounds. I think people know me and look to me for hard hitting drums. And there’s a lot of producers out there selling drum kits that aren’t even known for their drums. Fuck placements. There’s producers out there with way bigger placements than me, you know what I’m saying. And they have a bigger audience and people will fuck with them because they make great music. But if you’re looking for drums, which is the whole purpose for buying a drum kit, you know, the thing about fucking with my drum kit is that you’re getting drums that I put in time, to, you know… And it’s not even really a sales pitch. You can listen to anyone of the 21 songs that I have listed. Go listen to what they sound like, and they sound exactly the same…I think one of the things is about my drum sounds, what I put in “Pad Thai,” is that there’s a variety of drum sounds. It’s not all the same fucking trendy sounds you hear in modern production. There might be a couple of those that could work, but it’s different sounds, you have a variety of punchy kicks, you have low kicks. You got ugly drums. You got drums that could work on polished production like…It’s 100+ sounds, even more than that. And it’s like, they’re different vibes. It’s not just one thing. I have all types of shit that you can use in all types of production. Not even just hip hop. You can do whatever you need to with this shit. You can make your turn-up records with my drums. And they hit, man. They hit! The way they’re supposed to hit, because I’ve studied drums. I feel like that’s my specialty as a producer. I have people asking me all the time, “Yo, how the fuck you make your drums sound like that?” And this will give you some insight into how. And it will inspire you to look for similar sounds and improve your skills when it comes to it. My ear over the years. You’re getting 13 fucking years of my digging and my sound for drum sounds for fucking $29. It’s a fucking steal! [laughs].
BeatTips: Do you want to hear from the people who actually use your sounds?
Marco Polo: Absolutely. I want to. I want people to post the beats. To talk about it. And I want them to give me feedback, because I want to do more of these. And I want to be helpful to people. My whole thing is to give you my sounds, but to also inspire music, and also inspire digging, man. Like, go dig. You know, go find shit and have fun with it.
BeatTips: Where can people go listen at?
Marco Polo: Well, you can go to my Soundcloud page, MarcoPoloBeats.com has the whole soundtrack, the track listing of all the records. You can just go on YouTube and type in every name. It’s got “Nostalgia,” Masta Ace, off of Port Authority. It’s got “Marquee” by O.C. It’s got Rah Digga – “Earrings Off.” It’s got the theme song that I did for the Brooklyn Nets that plays on the YES Network. It’s all there listed, so there’s no surprises, you know exactly what you’re buying.
BeatTips: What’s interesting is that you said even now you’re still studying?
Marco Polo: You have to. You have to! Especially when you get into digging, because then you start coming across records that they used and then you hear the original, and you’re like, “How the fuck did they do that?” Even as many years as I’ve been in the game making beats, It’s still amazing. And I want to do that with my shit to people, where they’re like, “Yo, I heard a little clip of something he used, but I don’t understand how you did that and did this.” I like that, I take pride in that. And a lot of those producers to this day, I hear stuff and I’m like, “Oh, shit, that’s one bass note that Pete used, and he has all this other shit…” It’s a fucking magical discovery, I fucking love that shit. It inspires me. But it’s rare these days, with a lot of the new guys, to get that feeling. People are sampling less, and they’re just not technically on that level. I think people started to realize that for the masses and to blow up, people don’t give a fuck about all that shit. You know, when they’re trying to make a hit record, they just want something really simple.
BeatTips: Yeah, in some regards. But the independent circuit is actually burgeoning; there’s a lot of good music that exists.
Marco Polo: Absolutely. Absolutely!
BeatTips: We both come from a time where everything was funneled through the radio, the mainstream system. So we’re now in the age where you can access different channels to find that music. So there isn’t a monolithic radio like there once was. However, certain people are moving and still operating like there is.
Marco Polo: Yeah, you have shit like Shazam now. And then WhoSampled, who I consider to be the devil, and I’ll say that on record. I’ve reached out to them many times to tell them to take my shit off. And let me speak on that real quick, because it’s very important that I make that clear, because people saw me take my music off that [site] and were very upset with me, and I got a lot of backlash through my social media. The reason why I took it off, and this goes for a lot of artists, a lot of motherfuckers don’t clear their records. We are not clearing records! So if we are not clearing samples and records, we don’t want our shit up there. And that’s why it’s an issue. If I clear samples, WhoSampled can put up all those samples all day, I’m proud. They got paid for. But when you put up music that we use and we may not have handle it right, and I’m not saying that I did or did not do that, but in general, WhoSampled should be putting up samples that they know 100% the artist has cleared, or else you’re snitching! Essentially, what you’re doing is snitching. And people don’t understand that. They just think that we’re trying to, that I’m trying to hide my music. I don’t care! I’ll tell you all the samples, if we’re cool, or if I cleared them. But... I’ve been on that site, and it’s been handy to me, straight up. But all I’m saying [is] on a legal standpoint, the reason why we get upset, a lot of producers, is that a lot of people don’t clear samples, and when you put shit up there, it gives someone an opportunity to sue us.
The value of making self-contained beats and rhymes, and how (why) I turned down a major label record deal.
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
There's a familiar feeling that all unknown artists have. It's a feeling of hope — that one day, people will know and appreciate your music. For most, that hope will dissolve. Some artists are dope, but fail to ever seriously or consistently put in the work, time, and effort it takes to breakthrough. Some artists are just not that good, but they refuse to take stock of their talent (or lack there of) and remain steadfast in their delusion that they'll make it one day, and if they don't, it's because tastemakers (and everyone else) are haters. Then there are those artists who are quite talented and committed to the process, yet because of mitigating circumstances — music industry bullshit, jail time, lack of funds, no team support, wrong location, wrong time, frustration, etc. — they never get the chance they deserve or the level of recognition equal to their capabilities. Then there's my story.
My pursuit was perhaps best characterized by my commitment to music and my leeriness of the music industry, more specifically, the types individuals that dominate it and the level of shenanigans that are customary within it. Unlike most people who get close enough to sniff a major label record deal, I was never enamored by the whole major label system. I read about the music industry as well as books about business. Incidentally, reading a book or communicating with people who have accurate knowledge to share can save you time, headaches, and emotional distress.
At 19, I read Donald Passman's All You Need to Know About the Music Business, a tomb of music business discovery that broke down a lot of the complexity of how the music industry's business model works. A couple years later, I read Everything You Better Know About the Music Industry by Kashif, a much more direct, you-better-watch-out style book about the music industry that provided further details and much needed nuance. Thus, I was informed about many different aspects of the music industry. I learned more deeply about intellectual property, standard recording contracts, manufacturing, distribution, marketing, promotion, and various key components of art and commerce. But even before I learned of some of the music industry's most oppressive and reprehensible practices, I viewed the major labels as a poorly ran entertainment cartel, one predicated upon cheap (indentured) labor, and mostly void of any consistent sense of creative integrity. So for me, the goal was never to get with the major label system, I wanted to keep away from it.
In 1995, I'd been making beats, on kind of a committed basis, for just about two years. But I was rhymin' before I started making beats. But after the frustration of having to wait for other people to make beats for me to write and rhyme to, I started making beats for myself. Although I was serious almost right from the start, I probably didn't develop a decent level of skill until 1999. Thing about that time frame is that I had a reverence for the art of beatmaking that was instilled in me by the beatmakers (producers) who I looked up to and taught me. Therefore, I was constantly reminded by how much time and effort it would take to build a decent level of beatmaking skills.
By the end of 2000, it all began to come together for me. My beatmaking skills had finally caught up with my rhymin' skills, and within months, I would make "Milk," the song that would give me my first true level of recognition. In 2001, a then very close friend of mine, Tamika "Tammy" Butler, was working at Daddy's House Recording Studio (Bad Boy's recording home). Tammy regularly came in direct contact with various beatmakers (producers), rappers, and other music professionals, so naturally, I put together a CD for her to pass on to those individuals who she and I thought might receive my music well. The CD was hastily put together, nothing fancy at all, and aside from "Milk," it only included two other songs.
Because I scrutinized who Tammy gave the CD to, she would call me from the studio, tell me that "so-and-so" was there, then ask if it was OK to let them hear my CD. Often, I'd say no. Not because I thought my music wasn't good enough. On the contrary, I knew my music was good enough. But I had strong concerns about who exactly heard it. As it was bound to perhaps happen, Tammy, overrode my "No," and let a couple of people hear my CD that I asked her not to.
First, DJ Tony Touch. So I'm at home, working on some beats, and Tammy calls. She tells me that not only did she let DJ Tony Touch hear my CD (against my wishes), but that he asked to have it and she let him "hold" it. Before I could erupt with anger, she goes on to tell me that Tony Touch told her to tell me that my song, "Milk is a MONSTER!" and that he would be placing it on his upcoming mixtape. This was pivotal news for several reasons: (1) This was the first time that a known and respected hip hop/rap music insider had validated my music; (2) That he was willing to place my song on his mixtape (free of charge), meant that he really did believe it was a monster; and (3) DJ Tony Touch's reaction was the exact sort of reaction that I anticipated (hoped for) from a respected hip hop/rap insider. Taking a cue from DJ Tony Touch's co-sign, I didn't bother to wait for any more validation; instead, I went to work and made ten new songs. Together with "Milk," these songs would become my first album, Soul Review.
Several months after Soul Review had been out, catching some street buzz in New York (mostly in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx), I get a call from Marcus Logan, then VP of Marketing at Arista/Star Trak Entertainment. After a series of phone conferences, Logan informs me that he's worked up three deals for me: (1) An album deal with Arista; (2) A single deal with Motown; and (3) A development deal with Artist Direct that would land significant upfront money. Rather than pursue any of those opportunities presented to me, I told Logan that I was no longer interested in obtaining a major label deal. Thus, I had opted for a path of my own, an independent path. (My ultimate goal was to make music on my own terms, write books, and start a publishing company to give other writers opportunities.) After one last phone conference, in which Logan tried to tell me that I was making a big mistake, and in which I thanked him for all that he done and tried to do for me, I walked away from those opportunities. After that, Marcus Logan and I never spoke again. And I went on to sell out every copy of my album, without any marketing team, promotion, or major label backing.
Two years later, at my request and encouragement, Tammy met with Logan in his office. She presented him with a copy of the Third Edition of my book The BeatTips Manual. Because he had once sincerely believed in me and my music, I had wanted to repay him by including him with my plans for BeatTips. However, whether he had been put off by me turning down the offers that he had worked to get for me, or he had simply found no merit in what I was doing, he showed little interest in being involved, and further advised that, "Without any big names attached to the book, it wouldn't sell."
There's one more thing about this time. Tammy again gave a copy of Soul Review to someone against my wishes. Perhaps because I'd gotten mad at her for letting some people hear the early version of the album, or maybe because she simply forgot, whatever the case, it wasn't until three years later (around 2004) that she told me that Just Blaze had told her to tell me to "Give him a call!" A missed opportunity? Perhaps. (To this day, Tammy still feels bad about not immediately relaying Just's message to me.) But funny how things turn out, Just and I would meet some years later and eventually have two pivotal business meetings. He's one of only a handful of people in the music business that I respect and trust.
Today, The BeatTips Manual is available in it's Sixth Edition, and it has been bought, read, and used by people and featured at schools all over the world. It includes exclusive interviews with DJ Premier, DJ Toomp, and 9th Wonder, just to name a few; it offers rare, in-depth knowledge on every aspect from history to instruction and process to business; and it has become the cornerstone of beatmaking education for countless beatmakers (producers).
When I turned down opportunities that were presented to me 16 years ago, it was an informed decision with the thought of future growth in mind. What I've always aimed to do with The BeatTips Manual and The Art of Sampling is to help people do the same: Make informed decisions and grow.
Today kicks off a week-long sales drive of The BeatTips Manual and The Art of Sampling. For more than 10 years, The BeatTips Manual has been a beacon of music, business, and cultural knowledge, and it has helped countless people in their pursuit of more skillful beatmaking and a career in music. This has earned The BeatTips Manual a reputation for being the most trusted name in beatmaking. And none of this could not have been achieved without you, the BeatTips community.
As an independent publisher, I’m entirely self-funded and I rely solely on the good name that BeatTips has earned in the market place (as well as pivotal relationships that I've developed) for all promotion. ‘The BeatTips Manual’ sells well consistently each year, and I have always sought to re-invest the bulk of sales revenue back into BeatTips. Specifically, I have looked for ways to help members of the BeatTips Community advance their music careers. In the past, this has meant direct gear and recording grants. Now, I’ve created the BeatTips Music Series, a series of music projects that will be produced exclusively by members of the BeatTips Community. Over the next 12 months, I will assemble at least two BeatTips Music Series projects; and I will leverage the BeatTips brand, my good-faith name, and key relationships that I've developed with music insiders and popular online music publications to promote these projects. To be eligible for inclusion in any upcoming BeatTips Music Series project, you must have purchased either The BeatTips Manual or The Art of Sampling prior to your beat submission.
At this moment, I'm also in negotiations over my new book deal. In my current deal, their are clauses that grant me marketing resources and bonuses if I hit specific sales bench marks directly from BeatTips.com. As it stands now, I need to sell 500 more copies of The BeatTips Manual or The Art of Sampling (any format) this week to reach my goal. Therefore, I'm asking for your help. If you're a regular BeatTips reader and you have not yet bought The BeatTips Manual or The Art of Sampling please do so now. If you've bought The BeatTips Manual before, please consider buying The Art of Sampling; and if you've bought The Art of Sampling before, please consider buying The BeatTips Manual. If you've bought both books before, please consider one or both again as a gift for someone else.
To achieve my goal of establishing the BeatTips Music Series as a viable pathway to a career in music for beatmakers/producers everywhere, and to expand my book deal to allow me to better facilitate this goal, please help me out with your support today.
Legendary Brooklyn DJ/Producer DJ Clark Kent talks everything from the creative processes involved in beatmaking to the modern realities of the music industry.
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
In doing research for what would become the Fourth Edition of The BeatTips Manual, I sat down with DJ Clark Kent (excerpts from this interview were previously published in said edition.) One of the music industry’s most recognized and respected insiders, Clark, always measured and forthright, wears many hats — He’s a DJ, a label executive, a manager, a talent scout, a consultant, a marketing expert, and, of course, a producer. He knows what it takes to make hit records, both in terms of the mechanics and the concept, and his knowledge of the music industry (and familiarity with the types of people within it) continues to remain priceless.
Notable production credits include: “Brooklyn’s Finest” – Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G.”; “Stay A While” – Rakim; “Loverboy” – Mariah Carey; “Closer” – Capone –N- Noreaga; “Coming of Age” – Jay-Z feat. Memphis Bleek.
BeatTips: What’s the difference between a producer, as you saw it when you first came into the game, as opposed to what people now consider a producer to be?
DJ Clark Kent: Actually, I don’t think people should get the line blurred. A producer is someone who can bring to fruition what he has on his mind. So there isn’t a line between the word “producer” and producers that we know of now and the producers from back in the day. There’s only a difference between beatmakers and producers. Beatmakers just make beats! They don’t make sure the song gets done! They don’t make sure that the song is right. They just pass their beats on to whoever is a song writer or whoever is a rapper, whoever let’s them do what they do. A producer makes sure it’s done. So a producer doesn’t actually have to touch a machine to make sure that it’s done. If he can tell the guy who knows how to work the machine what he wants to hear, he’s producing. That’s what a producer is and that’s what a lot of people’s misconceptions are. There are some people who can physically make the music themselves, and there are beatmakers who are producers. That’s why you have so many people having meetings, placing beats for people. They are not actually shopping songs or creating artists and going looking for situations. They’re just trying to get their beats off…Let me give it to you from my standpoint. I can make the music. I can make sure that the rapper says the right rhyme. I can make sure that the singer sings the right song. And I can make sure that the record gets mixed properly. I can make sure it gets done.
BeatTips: What equipment were you using, when you first came into the game.
DJ Clark Kent: Linn Drum, SP 12, then the SP 1200, Akai S950…I don’t profess to send everybody to the S950, but I’ve been using it for years…If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And it’s extra easy and it sounds good.
BeatTips: You ever felt the need to get into software sequencers and such?
DJ Clark Kent: You mean computer stuff? Nah. I don’t do that. And I’m not saying that at some point in my career I might not start, but I mean…look at the legends. What do they use? They use physical equipment that you can touch. I’m-a physical equipment guy! Now I use a 4000 [MPC]. I only use it for sampling, and that’s because it samples in stereo, the same way a 950 can in mono. That’s the only reason I use the 4000. I still use the SP 1200. The SP 1200 is the brain in my house.
BeatTips: How do you start off? Do you try to get up a loop, drums, what?
DJ Clark Kent: Well, I’m pretty sample-driven. But there’s times…I don’t have a formula. I just go in there and whatever I hear that I feel that day, if it happens, it happens. Like I can sit in front of 100 loops that I know I have to use, then go to 101 and be like, "I’m not using those, I’m using this." It’s just what I feel. I don’t sit down and go, "O.K., I’m gonna do this kind of beat today." The way that I start to make tracks is that I just sit in my studio and listen to music. Listen to what’s the new records that’s out. Listen to music that I love. There’s records that I listen to every time I make a track, just to get me motivated.
BeatTips: What do you think of the notion that you don’t need to listen to music outside the genre of hip hop?
DJ Clark Kent: That’s retarded! That’s stupid! That’s stupid to think that because every piece of hip hop music comes from a piece of somebody else’s culture or music. Our music came from funk, disco and reggae and rock 'n’ roll. We used those records to make our basis to what we were rappin’ to. We didn’t have rap records to rap to. We didn’t have drum machines. We were cuttin’ up Aeorosmith, we were cuttin’ up Apache, you know what I’m sayin’. We were cuttin’ up records that we wouldn’t play in the house. It would be ignorant for anybody in hip hop to say that it doesn’t make since to listen to music outside of their culture. What we’re sampling is never hip hop. We’re always sampling everything else to make hip hop!
BeatTips: One thing I notice is that producers who sample are generally better arrangers than producers who don’t sample. Why do you think that is?
DJ Clark Kent: Because it’s harder to take a sample and do something with it than…I think maybe it’s that you’re so limited that your creativity takes you to do something else, or do as much as possible with the limitations that you have. You understand what I mean. Back in the day, when I had the 1200, you had 10 seconds! You could never put 10 seconds on one pad. Each pad had the ability to take 2.5 seconds. And if you took 2.5 seconds on one pad at one time, the next pad wouldn’t let you take a whole 2.5 seconds. It would give you like a second or 1.2 seconds. So you had to become creative. Being an arranger…you had no choice!
BeatTips: Now, equipment can do more. But music is so mimicked today. Do you think that this ability to do so much more with equipment is creating a lack of creativity?
DJ Clark Kent: When you give somebody 30 to 40 minutes of sampling time, stereo, what do they have to be creative with, if they got all that time? Like I can take [just] two bars of a song and create 8 different musical loops with it. I can create you 8 sections to make off of a 2 bar loop. And the best part about this interview is that my engineer is right here. He’s seen me do it, hundreds of times. Look at “Brooklyn’s Finest” [Biggie and Jay-Z], it’s a five bar loop. First of all, everybody was lost on how I made that beat. But if you listen to the beat, I did things inside of the beat, inside of the five bars. It wasn’t a loop!!! It was pieces that I had to put together so it would go without the singing.
BeatTips: I believe that song ushered in the whole style of being able to layer drums over loud samples. Because, remember, people used to be heavy on filtering and bringing the mids and the highs down.
DJ Clark Kent: I’ve been telling people. I’ve been using vocals in samples, at least 5, to 6, to 7, to 8 years before anybody started using vocals in samples. Like I did it forever ago. So when I look at the things that I’m hearing now, you hear vocals go through samples, I’m just like, "That’s hot, now?" I did that like 10 years ago. That’s not new to have a vocal going through. I’m like, "O.K., so now it’s cool." When I was doing it, people thought it was crazy.
BeatTips: What was your first hit record?
DJ Clark Kent: “Spread My Wings” by Troop, a platinum record. If you do that out the gate, your work’s damn near cut out for you, ‘cuz it comes to you. You just have to keep repeating the task.
BeatTips: Now, people really promote their company…
DJ Clark Kent: Yeah, people promote their company because we went from Generation X to Generation Now. Generation X said, "This is the generation of the unknown, so let’s try and figure out the unknown." Generation Now says, "I want the unknown figured out, soon as you give it to me, and if it’s not, I’m not fuckin’ with it." That’s why you have to be associated with this, connected with that. This person’s gotta be on your album…Back in the day, nothing mattered about features. Nobody had to drive your album to be sold. You didn’t need to be part of a click, you needed to have a hot record, that was it! Now, because people are so Generation Now conscious, it’s like if they don’t make it in their first week, they’re deemed a failure, ‘cuz record companies give up on artists.
BeatTips: Do you recommend that new producers formulate a company?
DJ Clark Kent: I think that a new producer, first off, he should be a producer and not a beatmaker. He should be able to clarify what he is. Like if you’re a beatmaker, go find someone to teach you how to be a producer. Study your craft to the point where you become a producer, so when you stumble upon an artist you’re not just making beats. Your making him some songs. So once you sell that artist, you get recognized for being the crafter of an artist. 95% of these artists that you see needs someone to craft them. If you’re just a guy that gives them a beat, they’re not being crafted, they’re actually crafting themselves. But if you can craft them, then you become much more important, much more instrumental in these artists careers.
BeatTips: What were the practical things you did in studying your craft?
DJ Clark Kent: I’ve been a DJ since I was 9. So I genuinely really care about music. Since I was 9, I was playing music. Before that, my mother was singing with the New York Philharmonic. She taught piano. I was exposed to any kind of music. When I was 8, I went to a Parliament Funkadelic concert. When I was 13, I was in places that no one should be in. When I was 16, I was in the Garage [late 1980s NYC night club]. My uncle was friends with Kool Herc… My biggest advantage when it comes to making records is that I am a DJ!!! Nothing comes before the fact that I’m a DJ. I don’t know how to produce for any reason but I’m a DJ. I don’t know how to pick a record for any reason but I’m a DJ. I don’t know how to find talent for any reason but I’m a DJ. Me being a DJ spawned me knowing when a rapper was good…spawned me knowing when a beat was good…spawned me knowing how to work a machine…I had every drum machine. I had and have every drum machine. Anything…when drum boxes came…press that button and the shit was playing, I had it.
BeatTips: Do you sample your drums from vinyl?
DJ Clark Kent: You know what I do? If you notice, on every single record I’ve done, the drums are different. My thing is I always want my drums to sound like somebody actually played them. I sample raw. Also, the idea is I listen to the drum pattern that’s in the loop. If you match the drum pattern that’s in the loop, it will never sound bumpy. It will sound like the drums belong in the loop. Most people try to add an extra kick here and there…You’re creating something that’s not there, so when you put that extra drum in, that drummer sounds so much more different than the drum that’s under the regular looped drum, you’re gonna be like, "Why does that shit sound so…?" I want my shit to sound smooth. I don’t want it to feel like a beat, I want it to feel like music. So if you slip it in where the beat already is, you won’t have it fucked up. Unless you just get a sample with no drums, then you can play whatever. If a sample has drums in it, first of all, truncate your snares and kicks so that they land perfectly. That’s another thing that [a lot of] people don’t do with a SP 1200.
BeatTips: Do you use timestretch?
DJ Clark Kent: I’ve taken a loop that’s going 60 beats per minute, and not change the speed of the loop, [while at the same time] make the loop play 90 beats per minute, without [using] Timestretch. I did it on “Player’s Anthem." If you take it in pieces, real small pieces; every bar is eight pieces. One bar is eight pieces! If you take each bar of eight pieces and push ‘em closer together, they’re still gonna play the same note. It’s just gonna be closer together.
BeatTips: Do you think that it’s a good idea for someone who’s just getting into production to try and learn both production and engineering?
DJ Clark Kent: If they can. One thing I think, though, you know what’s really hard to do, is to learn how to produce. That’s the hard part. Learning how to engineer, that’s numbers…Learning to produce is some shit that you gotta pull out of your heart. See that’s what the problem is with today’s inventions, like Fruity Loops and…it’s in front of you…doesn’t teach you how to be a producer. Learning to be a producer is something that’s already with you. You gotta be musical.
BeatTips: Why do you think many new successful producers do not like to share or help…
DJ Clark Kent: Let me tell you what that’s about. That’s just them probably feeling like they were never shared with anything in the whole world. The big fucking smoke screen about the music business is kids believe there’s money in it; not knowing that out of every 100 people who get into the music business, only 4 of them become successful. That’s a 96% failure rate in the music business! There’s only 4% of everything in the music business that’s actually making a dollar over what it cost to make the record. ONE DOLLAR! But these kids see this shit on T.V., and they sensationalize it. Motherfuckers looking like they’re millionaires, they don’t do shit for real. T.V., video stations keep promoting it. They keep promoting a sense of false hope.
BeatTips: Is the radio a reflection of name brand producers?
DJ Clark Kent: It’s a reflection of…I look at the radio as a…That’s probably the reason that I’m not on radio anymore. ‘Cuz radio is such a controlled medium that you just can’t get on and be free with music. I was the first DJ to be asked to be on Power 105 [popular radio station in NYC], and they said, "Here’s the play list." And I was like, "O.K., how do I get my other records that I want to play?" They were like, "Oh, no. You don’t. This is the play list."
BeatTips: Do you think that radio is more influenced by producers or artists?
DJ Clark Kent: It’s more influenced by commercials! Who’s gonna pay the bills. That’s the bottom line. Who’s paying the bills and who’s not. Because if you take the money away, they’ll play anything. That’s why when you listen to college radio, they play whatever.
BeatTips: So what about producers who are shaping their music just for radio?
DJ Clark Kent: This “me, me” Generation “now,” says: You have to make it accessible, immediately. ‘Cuz if it’s not, they not fuckin’ with it. They are not trying to get cultivated to nothing. So when a producer’s trying to make something that’s easily accessible, he’s trying to make money. You can’t knock that. But at the same time, if you’re an influential producer, you might want to elevate.
BeatTips: If somebody’s going to study DJ Clark Kent, where should that they start?
DJ Clark Kent: The Ohio Players! There’s records that I did. But yo, if it wasn’t for records before me…Marvin Gaye, Parliament, etc., I wouldn’t be nothing!
The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
Jay-Z feat Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls) - "Brooklyns Finest" prod. by DJ Clark Kent
Striking a balance between referencing music from the past and the here and now.
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
In the movie Mo' Better Blues, Spike Lee’s exploration of a gifted trumpeter dealing with the internal battle of playing music that’s true to his heart vs. what’s commercially viable in contemporary jazz, there's a scene where Bleek, the beleaguered trumpeter/bandleader played by Denzel Washington, leads the quintet in a fun and entertaining hip hop-inspired composition. The purpose of the piece and performance, as we learn in the film, is to give the people "what they want.” Of course, the clear implication of this sentiment is that the people assembled at this popular jazz club (who are all affluent and mostly white), do not want the classic style of jazz that Bleek prefers to play. This is one of the major underlying themes of Mo’ Better Blues: Since jazz has lost much of its broad-based common appeal in the contemporary music landscape, how do you remain commercially relevant while still remaining true to the classic jazz style and sound?
For Bleek, who’s torn between the choice of two women as much as he is between the choice of selling out and not playing the kind of jazz that's in his heart, it's important to maintain a connection to the essence of an era long gone, the Jazz Age, ca. 1930s-1960s. At various moments throughout Mo’ Better Blues, we see Bleek’s attempts to maintain this connection. In one scene, he laments about how jazz used to be (sound familiar). In another scene, we see how he guarded he his with his collection of rare jazz records — all vinyl. And, in perhaps one of the most telling scenes, we see Bleek's commitment to practice — a practice regiment meant to echo the legendary practice regiment of the great saxophonist John Coltrane.
Although Bleek is firmly committed to keeping an emotional, mental, and stylistic connection to the essence of the Jazz Age, he is at all times acutely aware of the commercial realities of contemporary jazz. Bleek is paid well and treated like royalty. The club he and his band headlines is pricey; and there's a huge line for all of their shows. Yet, Bleek is deeply troubled. In one scene, he complains to bandmate, friend, and nemesis, Shadow (Wesley Snipes), about the lack of black people who attend his own performances. More disheartening to Bleek is his realization that the people who attend their shows have no idea what “real” jazz sounds like or even care.
The feeling is crystalized when Bleek leads the band in the tune "Mo' Better Blues," a song (written by him) that serves as an ode to the style and sound of jazz that he knows he will never be able to let go despite the commercial realities of contemporary jazz. After finishing the song, Bleek walks off the stage, refusing to perform again that nigh. It is at this precise moment that Bleek realizes he no longer has to struggle to maintain a connection to the musical past. He knows that it's in him, and he's content with the fact that, for a moment at least, the club-goers were able to take in a piece of music that was well within the jazz tradition he loves and so admires.
For me, Bleek’s plight in Mo' Better Blues is analogous to the battle that many contemporary beatmakers face. Like Bleek, there are some beatmakers who look to uphold the essence of the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions. Still, there are many who do not. If you look at the foundational influences that beatmakers referenced throughout the first 30 years of hip hop/rap music, clear patterns emerge. In the 1970s, DJs (beatmakers) referenced early funk musicians. In the 1980s, beatmakers continued to reference early funk musicians while expanding their references to include late funk, rock, and electro pop. In the 1990s, beatmakers further expanded their musical references to include jazz and a return to soul. Thus, between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, beatmakers, by and large, referenced the vast music well of the past. Here, it's important to point out that this does not mean that during this same period, beatmakers did not reference each other; of course they did. It’s impossible for beatmakers — like any other artists — to not be influenced (in some way or another) by the work of their contemporaries. But it's worth noting that for more than 25 years, most beatmakers referenced a healthy balance of the past and their present. It’s also worth noting that many beatmakers looked to the past, not only for inspiration and understanding, but for cues on how to create new styles and sounds of the future.
In recent years, referencing the music well of the past has increasingly become an unfamiliar practice for many beatmakers who have instead chosen to flock — in clone-like droves — towards referencing only the music of their contemporaries. Such a trend, which, for all intents and purposes, flies directly in the face of one of hip hop/rap's most fundamental traditions: Referencing and studying what came before in order to be the sound- and style-leaders of the future.
Again, referencing the music (sounds and styles) of one's contemporaries is certainly not a bad thing for beatmakers. I strongly support and encourage the practice. But I believe it’s unwise to only reference your contemporaries or to be deferential only to current trends. I see this as a dereliction of artistic and creative duty. Without some conscious link to the essence of the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions, a beatmaker is more likely to ignore what came before. And by ignoring what came before — whether due to contemporary commercial realities or some other pressing concern — in favor of what "is now," a beatmaker disconnects him or herself from the musical well of hip hop/rap and other musics of the past.
Thus for me, Mo' Better Blues serves as a cautionary tale for beatmakers. If we don’t want to go the way of the jazz legends; if we don’t want hip hop/rap music to lose its cultural and commercial relevance; if we don’t want hip hop/rap music to become something witnessed and experienced only by one affluent ethnicity, inside of plush, pricey clubs and the like; then, I believe we must balance our musical referencing of the here and now with the healthy inclusion of the vast musical well of the past. To strike such a balance means to enrich your overall musical understanding. It also helps assure the survival of the hip hop/rap music tradition.
The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
"Mo' Better Blues" (By Terrance Blanchard, performed by Brandford Marsellis Quartet)
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Top 5 Myths About Sampling and Copyright Law
"Sampling is piracy."
Piracy describes the wholesale, verbatim copying and distribution of copyrighted works. That is not sampling; that's something entirely different. Read more
"You can legally sample and use any recording up to 1, 2, 3, or 4 seconds."
Under existing copyright law, there is no clear, predetermined length (amount in seconds) that
is “legally” permissible to sample. Read more
"If you use samples on a free mixtape, it’s perfectly O.K."
A free mixtape does NOT permit you to use samples from copyrighted recordings without the permission of the copyright holders. Read more
"Sampling is easy; there’s nothing to it. Anyone can do it well."
Sampling is an art form that requires technical skill, imagination, and artistic understanding. Read more
"Sampling involves the use of pre-recorded songs only."
While the art of sampling is most commonly understood to include the use of pre-recorded songs (traditionally from vinyl records), source material for sampling includes any recorded sound or sound that can be recorded. Read more
BeatTips Essential Listening
BeatTips.com is a website dedicated to music education, research, and scholarship. All the music (or music videos) provided on this site is (are) for the purposes of teaching, scholarship, research, and criticism only! NOTE: Under U.S. Code, Section 107 “Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use” of the Copyright Act of1976: “Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching… scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright."(U.S. Code)