198 posts categorized "Beatmaking Education"

March 31, 2016

Marco Polo: The Journey of a Beatmaking Pioneer

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.

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


Photo credit: Amir Said © 2016


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.


BeatTips: Q-Tip
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: And so the main places you can get it is where?
Marco Polo: MarcoPoloBeats.com or at the DrumBroker.com, which is a site specifically for sound kits. But if you wanna do me right as a fan, then you buy from me direct at MarcoPoloBeats.com.


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.

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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

March 24, 2016

DJ Clark Kent on Beats, Creativity, and the Big Smoke Screen in Music

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

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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

March 22, 2016

Tapping Into the Mo’ Better Music Well

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)


Gang Starr - "A Jazz Thing"


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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

March 21, 2016

Think Outside the Box for Custom Snare Sounds

Presets Get the Job Done, But Customized Sounds Help You Create Your Own Style and Sound

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


An exclusive excerpt from The BeatTips Manual, 6th Edition by Amir Said (Sa'id)


You know the deal: drum sounds are fundamental. Whether you’ve made your 10th or 1,000th beat this week, you’ve learned the importance of dope drum sounds. And when it comes to drum sounds, you can get away with a limited number of non-descript kicks. But without a distinct group of snare sounds, your beats might suffer. Why? Because since the advent of the MPC 2000, widespread sample packs, and software programs galore, many beatmakers have taken to using the exact same stock snares. And, in the process, they’ve decreased the chance of giving their beats a distinctive sound.


Now, don’t get me wrong. There have been some beatmakers who have been able to get away with rocking one or two snares. But in those cases (most of the time), the snares have been cultivated to an ultimate level of distinction, a level in which they work almost with any non-drum arrangement. Keep in mind, however, in order to arrive at such snare sounds, some level of customization had to have gone on previously. So in this BeatTip, I want to discuss some different methods for customizing snares. Some of which were taught to me and some of which I developed on my own.


The first set of snare sounds that I ever customized were part of a classic rock kit (on floppy disk) that came with the E-Mu SP 1200, the first drum machine/sampler I ever used. Some of the snares on the kit were OK, but they didn’t fit where I was trying to go sonically. So after finally recognizing that none of the snare sounds fit with the feel and style of music that I was going for, I went about customizing them. At the time, I didn’t have an analog mixing console to run my sounds through; therefore, I couldn’t easily boost up the bass (the low end) of the sounds I wanted to modify. I did have a dual cassette recorder and a lot of imagination, though.


So here’s what I did the first time I ever attempted to customize snare sounds. I recorded every snare sound that I had to cassette tape. Next, I dubbed (duplicated) them. After dubbing the sounds, I sampled them into my Akai S950. Once inside of the Akai S950, I was really able to get creative. It wasn’t that I couldn’t have chopped or filtered the sounds inside of my old SP 1200, I could have. It was just that the S950 gave me a different sound, plus I felt more comfortable working with its sampling functions than those on the SP-1200.


Next, I went around my room (at that time) with a Shure SM-58 live microphone sampling all sorts of sounds. I took a hammer and hit the bottom of a metal folding chair. I took a drum stick and rapped back and forth on a Nike sneaker box stuffed with socks (I sampled the sneaker box with and without the lid on; there was indeed a noticeable difference). Switching up between the hammer, the drum stick, and a wooden hanger, I hit the inside of a window pain. Needless to say, I sampled every sound that I could imagine, anything that I thought might be interesting. All of this sampling probably took me no more than 10 minutes, tops. By the way, I would also like to think that this process taught me more about acoustics, but I digress…


So having sampled this wide assortment of sounds, all in the same room, mind you, I went about “matching” the sounds with the cassette versions of E-Mu’s classic rock kit as well as several other snare sounds that I had. Incidentally, this was around the time that I first began to understand the process of layering sounds. Particularly, I was discovering the potential for layering, both as a means for customizing drum sounds as well as other sounds. I was also learning how layering could affect the overall texture and tenor of a beat. Not too long after that, I began applying these techniques to all of the drum sounds that I used. And after while, I stopped buying other peoples’ drum kits altogether and I started sampling drums from records and literally making my own drum sounds.


Special Note: Since I first began customizing my snare sounds, I have never used a pre-set drum sound as-is again. Although pre-set drum sounds undoubtedly serve a purpose (I have heard some pretty nice pre-set drums), I’ve always found that customizing your own sounds goes a long way in helping you carve out your own unique style and sound. Still, if I come across a pre-set drum sound that I like, I’ll use it. Of course, I modify it to make my own.


Short list of items great for customizing snares:

• Live microphone with an extended chord to allow you to move freely
around your space.

• A tambourine. Any percussion instrument you can pick up from a music store will help you customize your snare sounds as well create sound composites that are unique.

• A wood block.

• At least one drum stick. (You can use two in rapid succession on any hard surface. You’ll be surprised at what you can come up with after you filter and adjust the pitch on a sound created by two drum sticks.)

• A mallet and a hammer.

• A shaker.

• A real set of bongos are ideal but not absolutely necessary.

• A cassette tape player! Yes…they’re dirt cheap now, and they allow for connection back to the analog age (if that matters to you). Also, nobody will ever be able to duplicate your sounds if you’ve used some combination involving a cassette tape.

• Some sort of wooden board, maybe a chef ’s cutting board, something that you can strike with anything, like a bottom of a shoe, a mallet, a set of keys, a hockey puck, and, of course, a drum stick.

• Some studio foam.


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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

March 10, 2016

The Art of Beatmaking is Bigger than Any Piece of Gear

Concepts, themes, and theories over gear, equipment, and plug-ins — It’s about the beatmaker and his setup, not the setup and the beatmaker.

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


All musicians have their preference for instruments as well as the brand behind the instrument. But most musicians (or at least the more capable ones) also know that without talent and skills — the kind earned from understanding fundamental music concepts and themes as well as the prioritized concepts, themes, and theories within their chosen genre — it doesn’t matter which instrument you choose, you’re likely to make sub-par music. Beatmakers are no different from other musicians in this regard.


The EMPIs (Electronic Music Production Instruments) that we choose say a lot about our approach to beatmaking, our personal style, knowledge base, musical experience, and overall creative sensibilities. Further, like the style and sound of beats we choose to make, the EMPIs we prefer to use are an affirmation of which beatmaking school of thought we want to be (and see) ourselves aligned with. And as a musician of any form, not just beatmakers, knowing the artistic — creative, aesthetic — school of thought you want to honor and work within is important. Thus, all of the nuance that often surrounds your selection of a specific EMPI is understandable. That said, EMPIs don’t make the beats themselves (although, I won’t deny that some EMPIs now come with easy-button functions; but that’s another topic). Instead, EMPIs serve at the talent, experience, and understanding of the beatmakers who use them.


In recent years, there has been an explosion of EMPI choices, each released into the marketplace with a wave of marketing and promotion. So who could blame today’s new beatmakers for feeling overwhelmed by all of the gear options? (I know I’d feel that way if I just started making beats.) But even before the number of options increased, two big problems existed in the beatmaking community: (1) A lack of commitment to developing skills and understanding; and (2) gear chasing.


For instance, what good is a sampler with virtually unlimited sampling time if you have a shaky understanding of the art of sampling? Or what good is a sampler with multiple chopping functions if you don't quite understand chopping? What good is any sequencer (hardware or software) if you don't really understand beat construction, arrangement, or the vital role that chopping plays in the arrangement of beats? Certainly, just as there is a difference between knowing how to use a drill and being a carpenter, there's a difference between knowing how to use a piece of hardware or a software program and being a skilled beatmaker.


In the past 15 years, I've been to the studios and production hubs of many different beatmakers (producers), both well-known and lesser-known. In each case, I was able to see their production setups and ask detailed questions about them. Here's the most striking take away that I can share: Most well-known beatmakers (producers) tend incorporate new EMPis and the like only when it’s absolutely necessary. As I state in The BeatTips Manual, “The biggest well-known beatmakers do not forfeit or abandon their setups every time a new piece of gear comes out. That’s crazy. They’re cookin’ with the cookware that helped them make their most famous dishes.” That is to say, they almost never veer away from their main production tools. When 9th Wonder goes from Fruity Loops to the MPC to the Maschine, it reflects the necessity for where he’s at as a musician. When DJ Premier moves from the MPC 60 II/S950 setup — his main production tools for more than 25 years — to the MPC Renaissance, it’s a reflection of his growth as a musician and the realities of his expanding musical opportunities.


Many well-known beatmakers (producers) augment their setups with new pieces of gear here and there or update computer hardware/software, but they never fall into the mode of gear chasing. I understand what it means to struggle to find the right setup that works best for you, but chasing new gear as cover for (and distraction to) a lack of musical development is never a good path to follow. There are beatmakers (producers) who swapp setups multiple times over short periods, and there are beatmakers (producers) who acquire every new major production tool that comes to market. One common downside to this is that the focus shifts from musical development and better beats to little more than gear chauvinism.


Gear talk is legitimate. In our field, discussing the production tools that we currently employ, that we used in the past, and that we’re considering using in the future is common in our community. But as an art form, craft, and trade, beatmaking has parallels to photography, inasmuch as both require knowledge of the art form and the tools associated with the craft, and many of the members of both communities maintain strong allegiances with brands. Moreover, just as there is rapid, ongoing development in production tools, there has been and continues to be a number of developments in photography, most notably in the digital spectrum. Also, the professional camera market is loaded with different cameras to choose from. Yet, no serious photographer dumps their camera every time a new model appears. It’s not practical, and it does not help a photographer better understand photography.


Likewise, gear chasing and gear talk alone does not necessarily help you better understand the art of beatmaking. Shop talk about setups, functions, and expanded capabilities is fine and often useful. But shop talk that is void of thoughtful discussions about the art of beatmaking itself — including concepts, themes, theories, technique, methodology, artistic goals, or creative integrity — is a detriment to your development as a beatmaker. Always remember the proper order: It’s about you and your setup, not your setup and you.


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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

March 09, 2016

Stevie Wonder and The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out"; The Link Between Cover Versions and Sampling

Stevie Wonder gives popular Beatles tune more soul and adds new punch and feel. Although a cover is not sampling per se, it's exactly what transformation is all about.

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


The art of sampling is not a (complete) reinterpretation of someone's work in the same way that a traditional cover version is. In sampling, snippets and phrases are literally extracted, recontextualized, and refashioned into a new musical piece. Still, there is a link — subtle as it may be — between sampling and the ways in which one musician is inspired to reinterpret the work of another. This point is illuminated when you consider that the art of sampling is rooted in the long-held tradition of versioning (in The BeatTips Manual I cover this connection extensively).


As a beatmaker, particularly one with a strong affinity for the art of sampling, I appreciate when great musicians do their own versions — covers — of equally impressive musicians. I'm interested in how one musician converts the work of another into their own style, feel, and scope without losing the core themes and structures of the original. And I'm impressed when one's version (interpretation) remains respectful to the original and adds new nuance and dimension to it as well. This is the case with Stevie Wonder's remake of The Beatles' hit "We Can Work It Out."


As far as creative license goes, Stevie Wonder takes grand liberty with his version of one of The Beatles' most popular hits. There are numerous instances where rock groups have dipped into the blues/soul well, pulling out tunes and reworking them with "rock pop magic." But with his version of "We Can Work It Out," Stevie Wonder is doing the reverse. He's taking a rock number—in this case, a 1960s folk pop tune—and dipping it back into the blues/soul well. And what emerges in Stevie's version is a song that respects the original, while going beyond, adding an entirely new scope, essence, and vibe.


While Stevie Wonder shadows the basic structural framework of the Beatles' original, there are a number of new dimensions that he adds for his version. Stevie's remake starts with a 3-bar organ intro (a signal that Stevie's signature will be all over this version), then the drums crash in. And while the original actually has a nice rhythmic pattern, albeit tucked low in the mix, Wonder's version amps up the drum scheme, making the drums, as well as the entire piece, sound more meatier than the original. The kick and snare drums punch and pounce, springing off of each other, while the hi-hat and tambourine shuffle throughout.


For the rest of the arrangement, Stevie Wonder makes two other standout changes. First, he strips the strings that stream through original. This tightens up the groove of "We Can Work It Out," effectively making Stevie's cover edgier while rendering the original almost tranquil by comparison. Second, Wonder incorporates a milky bass line that "walks" in deference to the priorities of soul more than it does to rock. This, along with the drums as described earlier, also adds to the urgency and aggressiveness of Stevie Wonder's version, which makes the original, folksy as it is, sound much more passive aggressive. Here, I'd be remiss if I didn't also highlight Stevie's harmonica solo at the midway point of his version.


Finally, Stevie Wonder's treatment of the vocal arrangement is as impressive as everything else in his cover of "We Can Work It Out." Six bars into Stevie's cover, and we hear a voice belch out "Hey!" This "Hey!," an added background vocal element that's non-existent in the original, alternates in pitch, giving Stevie's cover a unique swing nuance not found in the original. And with the rising gospel background vocals turn up in the latter half of Stevie's cover, the tune slides briefly into the Black church music tradition.


Then, of course, there's Stevie's lead vocals. A comparison of Paul McCartney's or John Lennon's vocals to Stevie Wonder's is perhaps unfair or misleading at best, inasmuch that Stevie Wonder and the two Beatles front men are approaching the song from two different traditions with two entirely different vocal priorities and styles of vocal inflection. Still, it's worth mentioning that Stevie's soulful reworking of the original — no doubt powerful in its own glory — makes "We Can Make It Out" sound more searing and converts it into a freedom song/black power amalgamation.


Stevie Wonder's version of "We Can Work It Out" is nothing short of a magnificent transformation. Also, to some extent, you could say Stevie Wonder "flipped" the Beatles original. Does this all mean that Stevie Wonder's version of "We Can Work It" is better than the original? I'm still thinking that through. Both the original by The Beatles and Stevie Wonder's version are great music works; each shine in their own regard, and each travel along the paths of their creative priorities and influences. Thus, a more interesting question at this point would be what is it that enables any musician to pull off a quality version of a another musician's work? I believe it comes down to this: music performance skills, a broad based knowledge of music history, various musical processes, and music forms, and a fundamental respect and reverence for the musician(s) whose music your inclined to rework. Stevie Wonder covers all of these variables and that's why his version works so well.


The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.

Stevie Wonder - "We Can Work It Out"


The Beatles - "We Can Work It Out"

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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

January 15, 2015

United Beatmakers Guild (UBG): The BeatTips Proposal for a Beatmakers Union

Amid the beat market exchange, a growing number of talented beatmakers, and desperation beat prices, a beatmakers union holds the answer to a more powerful beatmaking community

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


In the preface of The BeatTips Manual, I point out that the fundamental purpose of the book (as well the BeatTips network of sites) is to preserve the beatmaking tradition. Moreover, I want to draw more attention to the fact that beatmaking, as a music compositional method, has increasingly become significant around the globe. Thus, in every way possible, I want The BeatTips Manual and BeatTips.com to take the rich heritage and traditions of beatmaking from out of the throws of obscurity, and to bring them front and center into the world of acclaimed musical processes.


In addition to this fundamental purpose, one of my main auxiliary goals for BeatTips is to have it serve as the catalyst for a beatmakers union. For more than twelve years, I’ve worked to help unify and expand the community of beatmakers. And while most beatmakers are steadfastly committed to their art and craft, many do not recognize that beatmaking (hip hop production) is also a powerful trade. Hence, I’ve been committed to raising attention to the artisanship of beatmaking, and I believe the advent of a beatmakers union is not only helpful in this regard, it’s necessary as the craft moves forward.


The Advent of a Beatmakers Union: The BeatTips UBG Proposal

In order to ensure the rights for a rapidly growing number of professional beatmakers, I strongly believe that beatmakers must unionize. The BeatTips proposal for a beatmakers union includes four main points or recommendations:

• I recommend that the name of the union be United Beatmakers Guild (UBG). In my view, beatmaker has always carried a much more significant tone. Beatmakers are the artisans of one of the world’s newest and fastest growing music traditions. As such, beatmaker is a term that’s distinguished from “producer,” which can and often does signifies something altogether different. Further, beatmaker represents a specific form and category of music producer; thus, I find it more befitting (and powerful) that a union bear the name beatmaker. Still, I recognize the ubiquitous nature of the term "producer," therefore, United Producers Guild (UPG) works as well.


• I recommend that UBG focus on three fundamental areas: (1) guaranteed labor contracts with the RIAA, comparable to those held with the American Federation of Musicians (incidentally, beatmakers should also be members of the AFM — beatmakers are indeed musicians, and the AFM should recognize this fact and expand their membership to include beatmakers); (2) a fair compensation system, which includes prompt delivery of payment, fair minimum beat prices, a tiered pricing scheme, and a formal system for assigning proper credits; and (3) standards and best practices — upholding beatmaking/production standards, quality control, and preserving the integrity of the beatmaking craft.


• I recommend that UBG be modeled, in as many ways as possible, on the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).


• I recommend that the majority — if not all — UBG executive leadership posts be held by actual beatmakers (producers). I further recommend that UBG not be lead by beat brokers or owners of similar cottage industry outlets. It is crucial that any beatmakers union not be co-opted by beat placement organizations, beat-broker types or outer-fringe producer managers. This group's argument will be that they have the connections and infrastructure already in place. But if their connections where so strong and infrastructure so undeniably solid, they'd have far more beatmakers (producers) using their services now; they'd also have a lot more influence in the music industry. In truth, they're middle men with minimal power in a world where essentially anyone can contact anyone. Also, this group has been vocal about encouraging non-sample-based beats over sample-based beats. Union leadership should represent beatmakers of both major production styles — sample-based and non-sample-based — and they should not favor one beatmaking style and sound over another regardless of the complexities that may arise from one production style.


• I recommend that membership be restricted to beatmakers/music producers of both major production styles — sample-based and non-sample based. Under no circumstances can anyone who is not, nor has never made beats (produced) be a member of UBG. Persons who are not beatmakers (producers) or have never made beats, for example so-called producer managers, beat brokers, etc. should only be affiliated as independent contractors (if need be), or they could perhaps serve as advisors for limited times (if need be). In some rare cases, proven producer managers could hold pivotal staff administration positions or executive positions if need be.


Understanding What UBG Would Look Like

To have a better understanding of what I envision for UBG, I thought that it would be helpful to share Uh-Oh Beats’ question to me on this matter, along with my detailed response. Here is Uh-Oh’s comments and questions to me in full:

I agree with the union idea. How does one go about entering the union though? Like when I think of a "union," I think of all them old white dudes my dad knows who get together and throw parties and do city work and etc., etc. And to get in the union you have to know someone in the union. Would it be similar to that? And what would be the driving points to get beatmakers to want to join? Because honestly, I would want to join if I was guaranteed $3000 a beat. But honestly, how many beats would I be selling? I’d be happy to get $1000 for a beat, hell to be honest, if someone gave me $500 I’d be amazed and jump all over it. So what’s to say struggling beatmakers with no connections other then the internet, what would be stopping them from going around the union? I think that's the main point of interest we have to look at and address to really make this happen. Because just the other day I sold five beats for $1000, which is the most money I've ever made off my music at one time. (The previous was five beats for $250.

I just find it so hard to sell beats as is, when I'm letting them go for $150 for exclusive and $50 to lease. (Frown upon me all you want lol. I love making beats and it’s that much better getting paid to do something I love. Gotta go cheap if you want to sell ANYTHING with the market so flooded). I can’t imagine honestly asking someone to pay $3000 for one unless their seriously established and working on a serious project.

But the union would also have to have a cap for the amount of members wouldn't it? and serious artists would go to the union for beats. but if there's so many members how would one go about even looking for beats within it?


Before getting into my full response to the concerns and questions raised by Uh-Oh, I have to provide some important context about beat prices themselves. First, the $3,000 price point that Uh-Oh kept referring to in his question comes from an earlier discussion on TBC where I discussed the reality and evolution of beat prices. For years, the legend has been that beatmakers in the 1990s were getting extremely high prices for beats; rumors of $25,000, $50,000, and even $100,000 beat prices were the norm and the sort of thing many budding beatmakers dreamed of obtaining one day. Legend aside, you can be sure that $100,000 for beats weren’t the norm for most beatmakers (producers) in the ‘90s or the early 2000s. As I discuss in more detail in The BeatTips Manual, some undoubtedly did receive upwards of $25,000 — but that was typically for multiple beats.


But the fact is — which labels and recording artists eventually came to realize — $25,000 has always been too much to pay for a beat in the first place. As I write in The BeatTips Manual, “Beatmaking is a new musical phenomenon, as such, the price parameters and ceiling was being set — in real time — in the 1990s. And what was the price parameters and ceiling for beats based on? Well, in many ways, the model for previous music producers. But after while, it became clear that not all beatmakers were actually in the studio with rappers "producing," helping out song ideas, vocal coaching, mixing, etc. As such, beat prices necessarily had to go down. Think about it: If a beat goes to a rapper, without the beatmaker's presence, well, then what you have is a situation were the "building materials" (the beat) are being bought wholesale. That is to say, the beat, without the beatmaker's input, should be less expensive. Add to that mix the fact that the number of able beatmakers grew exponentially over the pass 10 years, and what you get is a dramatic drop in beat prices. In other words, the beat market prices corrected themselves; it was inevitable.”


Second, some have blamed lower beat prices on poor record sales and illegal downloads, but poor music sales and illegal downloads are NOT the major culprit here; they’re not the reason that beat prices have gone down. Poor record sales and illegal downloads merely helped people to see the obvious: beats (not production services) were long overpriced and automatically presumed to be production services in a more traditional sense. Beat prices of $25,000 and above were unreasonable in the first place; it just took a little time for the market to correct itself.


Beat prices actually began to go down more quickly than people realize. By 1994, prices were steadily going down for most acclaimed beatmakers; only a specific few were able to command exorbitant beat prices and fees. Sure, the likes of Dr. Dre, Darkchild, Timbaland, and The Neptunes saw their prices go up; but they didn’t just supply beats, they supplied production services and a highly marketable brand name. But I’m sure they came down off of their prices as they saw their workloads being decreased. Why? It's simple: price point too high, and with no guaranteed hit, there were very few takers willing to absorb the risk or blow to their decreased recording budgets. Many recording artists wised up and started looking elsewhere for new talent, quality production (sometimes even knock-off sounds), and lower prices.


Thus, the true market price range for quality beats has, in reality, always been roughly $3,000-$7,000 per beat (lower obviously for less established names). A product always goes for what the market is willing to bear. While the market was unsure, beat prices were high; once there was more clarity in the market — about the product, about what one was actually getting for their money, about the growing number of qualified beatmakers — the market corrected itself. And consider this fact: In most cases, between 1989-1999, the bigger beat price tags for most acclaimed beatmakers typically covered multiple flat-rate beat deals, usually 3-8 beats (plus in-studio work) or the entire album depending on the beatmaker and the specific rapper or other artist involved. (In my interviews with Marley Marl, DJ Premier, and DJ Toomp, each made this clear about the nature and negotiations of beat prices.)


Here, I’ll provide my full response to the concerns and questions raised by Uh-Oh:

(1) “When I think of a 'union,' I think of all them old white dudes my dad knows who get together and throw parties and do city work and etc.”

There are a number of different unions, but essentially all "worker unions" share two primary goals for its members: fair wages and better labor conditions. The labor union that you're probably most familiar with is in the vein of an auto/trucking union, or city workers union, something along those lines. A musicians union — which is what a beatmakers union would be — is a creative arts-based union. Just like any other union, there are rotating wage concerns and labor situations. A beatmakers union would seek to secure better wages for ALL members as well as better labor conditions. A beatmakers union would guarantee a minimum sell price, the selling floor.


Also, a union would guarantee a top tier payment scale, both based on beatmaker status (name recognition and number of commercial releases) and the magnitude of the project; for instance, big-time major or indie commercial releases, free mixtapes, etc. In terms of UBG, there would be a standard fee, which is union scale. Then there would be a graduated scale fee, or better said, a “veteran's minimum.” The veteran's minimum would be calculated on a beatmakers overall presence/time/significance in the field. Point is, it wouldn't matter simply “how long” some one’s been around. There are many beatmakers who have been around for 15 years, that doesn’t mean that they've had much of an impact on the hip hop/rap and/or beatmaking traditions.


Membership in a creative arts-based union is different than, let's say, the UAW (United Auto Workers). Union membership is NOT fundamentally based on "who you know." Instead, membership is based on your actual professional work. For instance, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is a union for professional actors. SAG has feature film, indie film, television commercial contracts, etc. What gets you into SAG is your first SAG sanctioned gig. So let’s say you go to an open audition for an upcoming feature film. Whether you’ve acted before or not, if you get the role, you automatically have to becaome a member of SAG; if you do not join SAG before principle shooting begins, then the producers (the studio) are restricted from using you in the role if it’s a SAG sanctioned feature. Once you’re a member of SAG, you get a notice about the initial SAG entry fee and subsequent dues, which is based on a small percentage of your annual earnings.


Now, the very important thing to understand here about SAG is that they’ve already worked out the “starting point” for all of its members. That is to say, because of SAG, there is a minimum day rate (paid rate per each day) that ALL actors must get, based on the type and size — big budget feature, small budget feature, indie, etc. — of the film. This also includes labor conditions that must be met, for example: personal trailers for principle actors, guaranteed work breaks, guaranteed overtime pay, guaranteed lunch breaks and food, transportation, etc. Before there was an actors union, NONE OF THIS was guaranteed! Movie studios could, and routinely did, pay an actor whatever they wanted. In fact, before SAG, motion picture studios would sign actors to long-term, draconian contracts, loaning the actors out to other studios as they chose.


Further, because SAG has jurisdiction over so many areas, film/television production companies face hefty fines when they use a non-union member for a SAG-sanctioned project. Thus, film/television companies do not mess around with this, they ONLY use SAG members for SAG-sanctioned projects.


(2) “What would be the driving points to get beatmakers to join?”

That's easy: better wages, appropriate labor conditions, and the promise of more work.


(3) As for “getting around the union?”

As with SAG, if a beatmakers union secured the right agreements with major labels (RIAA) and indie labels, jurisdiction would make it impossible for non-union members to get work on those projects sanctioned by the union. Point is: there's a bigger picture here. Of course, there will be selfish people who think that they can (and will) go it alone. But the reality is this: the number of professionally qualified new beatmakers is steadily growing. A beatmakers union is the best way to harness that power and create an environment for more beatmakers to consistently get paid for their work. If done right, every talented beatmaker would join the union, as opportunities outside of UBG would be minimal.


Incidentally, I believe now is the right time to move forward with a beatmakers union, because ALL labels are weakened, particularly in terms of leverage; they know anyone can make and distribute their own music. If a beatmakers union can demonstrate how it can help turn around the larger sales picture, labels will likely make a number of important concessions to a beatmakers union. Bottom line: The labels want (need) to make money. If an exclusive deal with a powerful beatmakers union helps them achieve that goal, they’ll be more than willing to work with UBG.


Keep in mind, in recent years, one of the major problems in hip hop/rap music has been quality control particularly in the area of beats. If a beatmakers union was powerful enough to show labels (big and small) that it was in their strategic advantage to do a deal with UBG, they would. Should the labels ignore such a powerful union, the alternative would mean that they’d have to compete with a united force of individuals who have much more influence over the internet and the streets than they do.


(4) “But the union would also have to have a cap for the amount of members wouldn't it?”

No! There’s no cap on the amount of new projects someone can think of, create, and distribute for commercial purposes. So why would there be a cap on the number of members in a beatmakers union? Again, entry into UBG would be based on a beatmakers contribution to a commercially released project or professional mixtape. This project could be a beatmaker's own commercially released project, even a free mixtape if was distributed to a large enough audience (not a mixtape that was just handed to a handful of friends); such a mixtape would have to have had garnered some widespread level of critical acclaim. But in the union I envision, all of the parameters of entry could not be determined by just one person. The metrics would be simple and automatic, with a streamlined process for registering with UBG.


(5) “If there’s so many members how would one go about even looking for beats within it?”

Each member would be registered with UBG, and labels and individuals could submit beat requests to what I would call the UBG’s “Beat Request Registry.” Each "BR" request would have a number and link to the actual request. ONLY members in good standing (meaning dues paid, no worker complaints, etc.) would have access to the BR filings.


It is my firm belief that a strong and united beatmakers union is the only way to assure decent beat prices and pay parity in the new beat market exchange, a phenomenon I detail in The BeatTips Manual. I’ve been calling for the creation of a union for beatmakers for over ten years now. In that time, the bottom-lines of some of the most well-known beatmakers (producers) have been pinched, and there’s been a tremendous rise in the number of talented beatmakers turning pro with different levels of production placements. Thus, right now is the time for serious strides towards a beatmakers union to be made. UBG can become a reality.

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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

December 13, 2014

Is Creating A Signature Sound Important?

An exclusive excerpt from The BeatTips Manual sheds light on how to make your own sound, and why it’s one of the main way’s to distinguish yourself

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


(Photo credit: Amir Said)


Regardless of what approach you ultimately take to make your beats, I can not stress enough the importance of establishing your own sound and style identity. The main reason that so many beatmakers eventually stop and give it all up is because they never develop their own sound and style identity and, subsequently, never establish their own brand of music. Though there are a number of factors that contribute to this, I believe that this phenomenon is mainly attributed to three factors: (1) the lack of thorough practice; (2) the lack of a concrete understanding and appreciation and/or respect for music history in general; and (3) the fact that many beatmakers never really learn how to translate their internal creativity through their production setups. And these days, with so many beatmakers transitioning to a ubiquitous “pop sound,” there’s one overlooked option that can offer just as much success and/or critical acclaim: A signature sound.


Despite what some in the beatmaking community purport, a signature sound is not necessarily a limited sound; on the contrary, it’s the independent and unique sonic force that is consciously created by an individual beatmaker or beatmaking team. Also, more often than not, the signature sounds of beatmakers reflect their commitment to the principle of originality and uniqueness. And whether a signature sound is simple or complex doesn’t really matter. A signature sound is a good thing because it allows a beatmaker to distinguish his (or her) music from others within the beatmaking community.


Signature sounds are also a proven phenomenon within the beatmaking and hip hop/rap traditions. From the earliest b-boy inspired DJs of the ‘70s to the sample wizards of the early/mid-‘90s, and on to the synth/synthetic-sounds-based beat crafters of the late-‘90s/early 2000s, signature sounds have been more prevalent than some beatmakers may like to acknowledge. Unfortunately, however, along with the increasing boom of interest in beatmaking, there also came a new level of seemingly acceptable biting — intentional, shameful duplication. In the past five years or so, biting (sucker style) and blatant style rip-offs have become so widespread that it’s proving to be more difficult to tell one beatmaker apart from another. And with the apparent tightening up of placement opportunities within the recording industry, many beatmakers, who once would have never considered openly biting another beatmaker’s style and sound, have gone over to the darkside. In this light, a signature sound is not only a way for beatmakers to distinguish their beats, it’s also an effective means for protecting against wide-scale biting. Hence, if you’re interested in creating your own signature sound, in the following section, I identify the six areas of beatmaking that are ideal for doing just that.


The Six Areas of Beatmaking That are Ideal for Creating a Signature Sound: Sound Frequencies, Drum Sounds, Drum Programming, Composing, Arranging, and Mixing

Note: Generating your own unique approach in the six areas that I outline below will inevitably lead to your own signature sound. But keep in mind, the process of creating a signature sound involves the deliberate repetition of many of the unique approaches and methods that you employ. That being said, here are some guidelines you might want to follow.


Sound Frequencies

Sound frequencies refers to the sound frequencies (color, tone, and character) of the type of sounds — samples, synthetic-sounds, synths, and sound effects — that a beatmaker chooses. This can be further broken down, for example, what kind of samples? Chops, long breaks (2-bar, 4-bar, 8-bar)? What kind of keyboard sounds? Strings, horns, bass sounds? What kind of synth sounds and patches? Mid, high, low frequencies? Each one of these sub-factors can offer a different path to a great signature sound.


More than any other elements of your beats, the sound frequencies that you choose play the biggest role in determining the overall mood and feel of your music. As such, it’s imperative that you identify and develop a range of sound frequencies that you truly favor; that is, a range of sound frequencies that best allows you to make the musical expressions that you seek. After you identify the range of sound frequencies that you like to work with, be true to them. That is to say, try to be consistent to the sound themes, strategies, and ideas that you value, and try to avoid falling headfirst into trends and/or directions that don’t fit your style and sound objectives and goals.


Drumwork: Drum Sounds and Drum Programming

Crafting custom drum sounds are a surefire way for beatmakers to create a signature sound. Remember, it has often been said that a beatmaker is only as good (or as bad) as his arsenal of drum sounds. Therefore, in order for you to create a signature sound, you must know your drum sounds. Thus, it’s important to learn what each one of your drum sounds can do individually and in tandem. So, develop drum combinations and patterns that fit your overall approach to beatmaking. Also, identify what sounds and frequencies interest you. Finally, try limiting the number and types of kicks that you utilize; re-using the same three to five kicks can go a long way in establishing a signature sound.


The drum framework is perhaps the most important hallmark of a beat. Therefore, if you want to create a signature sound, your drum programming has to be distinct on some level. Drum programming at its best gets the job done. But drum programming at its worst distracts and over compensates. Thus, designing drum programs that defer to efficiency, rather than some obscene level of showmanship, is often not only the best way to go for creating a signature sound, it’s also an excellent concept to observe with your beatmaking in general.


Composing and Arranging

Whatever arrangement scheme you use, always strive to create arrangements that are “steady,” not too busy. Again, hip hop/rap music is mostly predicated upon a strong rhythm, not melody. Therefore, as I note throughout this study, when arranging your elements, make sure that each component makes the overall rhythm tighter, and sonically stronger. Also, when considering changes, think in terms of function before you think of form; that is, consider the function of the change — if it’s needed and why. After you decide that a change is needed, be careful to create changes that compliment the main rhythm of the beat.


Mixing: Customize a Sonic Wall in the Mix

Mixing refers to the approach that beatmakers/producers may take to mixing their beats. This describes the sound dynamics that are achieved before, during, and after the beat is made. It involves things like manipulating the dynamics of each sound, through both non-effects processor techniques like tucking and panning, and effects processor techniques like EQ, compression, reverb, and limiting. Mixing offers a great way for you to create your own unique sonic impression. There are many “standard” mixing principles that can be observed. But the manipulation of these standards can often be the best way to establish your own signature mixing approach. The idea here is to establish and regularly work from your own mix settings. This will go a long way in helping you define your overall sound. For good examples of how the mix can be just as much a part of a beamaker’s style and sound, study RZA, A Tribe Called Quest, Large Professor, Bink, Nottz, and Madlib.

Excerpted fromThe BeatTips Manual: Beatmaking, the Hip Hop/Rap Music Tradition, and the Common Composer by Amir Said (Sa’id). Copyright © 2014 Amir Said. With permission of the publisher, Superchamp Books. All rights reserved.

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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

November 25, 2014

The Mainstream Isn’t the Boogeyman: Why the Mainstream Imbalance Argument Falls Flat

Party Music, Early 90s Music, Trap Music, and Awareness — More Than Anything Else, Personal Taste, Knowledge of the Art Form, and Individual Choice Determines the Style and Sound of Music that One Makes, Not the Mainstream

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


from left: DJ Tony Tone, LA Sunshine, and Charlie Chase — The gym of Taft High School in the South Bronx, ca. 1982 (Photo credit: Joe Conzo)


Departures from traditions usually lead to new traditions, which are themselves reimagined (repurposed and reworked) themes, tropes, and devices of the traditions from which they departed or forged themselves from. For some, this break from tradition is quite difficult to accept. For others, the changing or expanding of tradition is rather liberating.


In this light, some commentators prefer to summarize hip hop/rap’s current manifestation as the result of hip hop/rap having evolved and grown up. But hip hop/rap didn't "grow up," as some snobbishly argue. Hip hop/rap wasn't some immature kid wild in its youth and in need of growing up. Hip hop/rap has always thrived on a rough rawness as well as a level of polish; of course, the rawness being the more powerful of these two components. Not to be outdone by the evolutionists, there are other commentators who wax poetically about how far hip hop/rap music has fallen in recent years. But even here I take issue. While the overall quality of hip hop/rap has seen a decline in some areas, I believe that as hip hop/rap grew in popularity from its humble beginnings, it simply expanded, allowing for more regional and international voices to enter into (i.e. add to) the tradition. Ironically, or perhaps not, it is this expansion that has now largely led to the frustration of many who feel that the so-called real hip hop/rap has been overtaken by the artificial, supposedly less authentic hip hop/rap of the mainstream.


Nowhere does this frustration about the present-day state of hip hop/rap bubble up to the surface more than on Twitter, the ubiquitous social media website that countless people use for rather forgettable soap-box moments that are often dogmatic, authoritative, riddled with inaccuracies, and personal opinions or theories presented as fact. If you look at Twitter on any given day or night, you will notice that it can quickly descend into a forum for people (of different ages, races, ethnicities, gender, and levels of hip hop/rap knowledge) to rant about what's wrong with post-'90s hip hop/rap music. Often within these rants, you’ll find the “mainstream imbalance” argument put forth. This argument maintains that the biggest reason that hip hop/rap music is suffering right now is because of a lack of balance in the mainstream. Or, for some commentators, another way of (condescendingly) saying it is that there’s too much trap music in the mainstream and not enough “other” or alternative choices. I don’t subscribe to this argument because I believe that today’s mainstream actually has far much less influence than it did in the '90s.


The Narrowing of the Mainstream: More Choice Means Less Dependence

In the past 15 years or so, there’s been an explosion of choice in the marketplace. When it comes to music today, there’s more choice than ever! Individuals have much more freedom to directly choose the music that they want to hear, or for that matter ignore. This means that individuals have infinite control over what they hear and how and when they hear it. Also, there’s been a noticeable decline in the power of the radio. While not entirely dead, substantially fewer people tune into the radio for their music consumption and recommendations. Right now, there’s a wide variety of outlets for listeners to consume, discover, and learn about both new and old music. For many people, the web has displaced the role that radio and television has traditionally played. Currently, there’s much less of a dependence on the radio and television — the primary vehicles of the mainstream — for guidance because people can get their cues and recommendations elsewhere, like from various new music targeted websites, music service providers, and, of course, their growing peer networks via social media. Whether an individual takes advantage of this unprecedented level of choice is not the fault of the mainstream.


Certainly, with the abundance of choice came the narrowing of the mainstream. And this makes perfect sense. As overall product choice increases, mainstream product offerings — i.e. those products overtly intended for mass appeal — naturally contract. This is because those with the strongest marketing power, the biggest promotional sway in the marketplace, and the greatest control over manufacturing and the channels of distribution want to ensure the success of the products in their orbit. Thus, they hope to achieve this by limiting what actually gets pushed in the marketplace. Think in terms of physical shelf space in a store. There’s only so much space for products to be placed on the shelves at Walmart, Target, or Best Buy; so those products with mass appeal, i.e. those with the most widespread recognition and the greater chance of selling, get the shelf space. Or think about when the radio only plays a certain number of (the same) songs everyday. That practice isn’t based on a vendetta against a balanced mainstream, it’s a business model designed to control the market space and ensure “hits.” If radio stations and their programmers (or music television shows and their producers) believed that balance in their programming would ensure hits and greater profitability, they’d do it. But that’s not the philosophy that many radio stations believe in. They understand the widespread contraction in the mainstream; more importantly, they understand the nature of today’s fractionalized media. In other words, precisely because there’s so much choice and actual variety, they’ve decided to narrow the music that they put into their rotation.


Still, it must not be forgotten that products gain “mass appeal” for different reasons. Let’s also remember that mass appeal simply means something that appeals to the masses, i.e. a great mass of people. Smartphones have mass appeal; mid-sized SUVs have mass appeal; running sneakers have mass appeal. All three are mainstream products (albeit without the emotional weight of music) and each may have their opponents, but none of them are inherently bad. But in the hip hop/rap music scene of today, just the mere idea of mass appeal is often taken by many to mean something that is inherently bad. Of course, the cover for some commentators who have this opinion is that they’re merely referencing the imbalance in the mainstream.


Thus, this is a dangerous side effect of the mainstream imbalance argument: an implication that anything that’s truly good in hip hop/rap music can’t or shouldn’t really have mass appeal or mainstream recognition even though it deserves it. In fact, there are many people who fundamentally believe that real hip hop/rap music isn’t really meant for the masses; the idea of who true hip hop/rap music is meant for has long had traction. Bizarre, I know. This is obviously counter to what you think many opponents of the mainstream would want. After all, isn’t part of their argument that the mainstream suffers from imbalance, that it needs more variety, presumably more of the kind of hip hop/rap music that’s inline with their taste? Yet, as soon as someone break throughs to the mainstream from the underground, there’s often a backlash from previous supporters who are upset that their favorites are now mainstream, or rather less exclusive.


But I see no irony here because there’s also a sense of elitist pride and authoritativeness that can be deducted from all of this. Just as there are some people who want to be known for and take pride in how much they love hip hop, or being among the first to hear or recognize a new hip hop/rap artist, etc., there are a number of hip hop/rap music writers who want their taste in hip hop/rap music and their “first-to-be-up-on-it” credentials to be recognized. This is akin to the “Anti-tastemaker/But I want to be known as a tastemaker” duality, where one loudly exclaims rejection of tastemakers and tastemaking, but all the while they write, not to just inform but to presumably develop a following — a following that just might make them one of the tastemakers. Perhaps this pursuit of covert (overt) tastemaker status is all about helping to bring more balance to the mainstream, no?


The Mainstream is Not Responsible for the Music that Individuals Choose to Create

Still, I get the point: I acknowledge that there’s an imbalance in the mainstream. But I’m less interested in the obvious. I’m more interested in exploring the overlooked root causes for this imbalance, not lamenting about the imbalance itself. For me, the cause for this imbalance begins with the style and sound of hip hop/rap individuals choose to make. I don’t see the mainstream as some evil boogeyman who’s responsible for getting people to make lousy hip hop/rap music; nor do I see the mainstream as inherently incapable of inspiring anyone to offer up anything good.


Music makers, like all artists, make choices based on their personal taste and knowledge of their art form, as well as their individual purpose for creating art. When you get right down to it, all artists create because they are driven to do so. The extent to which this drive comes from creative compulsion, recognition and fame, or financial profit has as much to do with why and what artists create as anything else. While there are some music makers who will preach that they are “not in it for the money,” there are others who are unabashedly focused on making a profit from their creative labor. Does the former stand on higher creative or moral ground than the latter? All things considered, the mainstream, just like the underground, is a construct, a path that music makers reconcile with their music tastes, knowledge, level of creativity, and purpose.


For this reason, I believe people should be held accountable, not a category. The mainstream isn’t a person, it’s not an entity, it’s not a publication — it’s not something you can complain to. In entertainment, “mainstream” is a generic descriptor typically used to distinguish something that’s high concept, common among the masses, built primarily for profit, and/or popularly well-known. In truth, however, mainstream need not be any of things because there are no hard rules about what gets to crossover into the mainstream; however, notoriety, i.e. mass awareness, seems to be the one constant underlying factor. Once the masses become aware of a product and they engage with it, the product becomes mainstream. In other words, awareness has great power. Focus more on awareness or how to create better awareness about alternative music, and focus less on highlighting the imbalance in the mainstream. Isn’t that the most effective way of actually adding more balance to the mainstream?


But for the loudest mainstream-imbalance proponents, it’s always the mainstream that’s mostly to blame for what’s wrong with, or missing in, hip hop/rap music today. What also can’t be ignored is that some proponents often imply that reaching for a spot in the mainstream is bad, but holding a spot in the underground is good and noble. I don’t see anything wrong with an artist seeking mass appeal or underground critical acclaim, both pursuits are valid. Whether or not any of those who propagate the mainstream imbalance argument would describe themselves as purists, experts, or life-time hip hop/rap fans is of no concern to me. But what does concern me is the tendency for many of them to twist, misrepresent, romanticize, ignore, understate, and overstate key components of hip hop history (all the while predictably blaming the “mainstream” itself as the culprit for it’s own imbalance). And three such components that routinely get butchered in these rants are party music, early '90s music, and trap music.



Cold Crush Brothers Performing at Harlem World, ca. 1983 (Photo credit: Joe Conzo)


Regarding Tradition, Personal Taste, and Individual Choice

Party music in hip hop is tradition, so it’s not a phenomenon that should be discussed or dismissed lightly. However, some commentators prefer to romanticize the early roots of hip hop and present it as a consciously political movement right from the very start. While the socio-economic reality of the backdrop of hip hop is rife with complexities, including issues of poverty, crime, violence, street gang culture, and urban renewal, the notion that the earliest pioneers and practitioners of hip hop were “political” — in every aspect of the well-understood sense of the word — is way off mark. From the onset of hip hop in the early 1970s (late 1960s if you count the significant role graffiti writers played), prior to studio recorded hip hop/rap music, party music was the driving force (in The BeatTips Manual, I cover the roles that party music played, as well as the early history of hip hop culture in great depth and detail). Whether someone rapped a nursery style rhyme of braggadocia or a cursory tale about life in the streets, most rappers of hip hop’s first golden era ( ca. 1973-1979) deliberately made music to be enjoyed at parties, i.e. park jams, rec centers, clubs, lounges. Even when lyricism expanded, both in terms of content and mechanics, party music — and its significance — did not wane.


Yet some commentators would have you believe that real hip hop/rap, early hip hop/rap music, was all but devoid of anyone with questionable integrity; devoid of anyone who dumbed down their music; devoid of silly rhymes or schemes to get attention; devoid of any obvious celebration of money and material things; that the purpose of all of the earliest hip hop architects was only pure love, nothing else. While there was certainly far less money in hip hop/rap before it hit the studio, there was still plenty of compensation in the form of prestige, fame, and women — and many early hip hop practitioners saw party music as means to obtaining all three! Today, many music makers still see party music — which is basically what most trap music tends to be — as viable means to prestige, fame, women, and money.


On one hand, you can blame some commentators’ romanticism on their skewed view of hip hop history, which sometimes seems to be based on incomplete research, conjecture, the inaccurate research of others, or dogmatic theories. I understand, but what’s great about researching early hip hop history is reading the interviews with some of the earliest practitioners, particularly their early interviews where they say — in their own words — what hip hop was about to them. The earliest published “hip hop” interviews — with the first musical architects of hip hop culture — emerge around 1983. Perhaps there are more interviews and coverage in existence, but hip hop seems to have gained no mainstream journalistic interest prior to 1983, save for coverage of 1979’s “Rapper’s Delight.” Further, the first hip hop interviews published in book form arrive in 1984. None of the interviewees (including Kool Herc, Grand Master Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Caz, and others), in either Rap Attack (Toop, 1984) or Hip Hop (Hager, 1984), make hip hop out to be a thing only done out of love. In fact, party music and money figure prominently in these interviews and first publications. Indeed, by the mid-1970s, hip hop DJs desired and expected to get paid; rappers followed after them. And by the late 1970s and early 1980s, disputes over money had lead to a number of rap groups breaking up. That’s not all for the love! But this also doesn’t mean that they didn’t love hip hop. Of course they loved hip hop, they just clearly wanted compensation and recognition; thus, they did those things that they thought would give them that.



On the other hand, you can blame some commentators’ romanticism about hip hop on the gift and curse of hip hop’s second golden era (ca. 1988-1995), which many wrongly consider to be hip hop’s only golden era — see the problem? The gift and curse of the late 1980s and early 1990s was that the hip hop/rap music tradition expanded to include an “art music” sub-tradition, a music meant for deeper observation, not just partying or dancing. Not coincidentally, this art music expansion coincided with the emergence of a number of key beatmaking pioneers. This was the gift. The curse was that the music of this period was deemed to be the only form of real hip hop/rap music. Prior to 1988, 15 years of hip hop/rap music and hip hop culture had already existed. Yet today, when something is said to be “that real hip hop shit,” the underlining meaning is that it's something that only echoes the early '90s or late 80s. Does this mean that hip hop/rap music from 1973 to 1979 was not real? This is an important question, as there were a number of sub-traditions in hip hop that one could draw parallels with today’s scene — none more noticeable than party music and the motives behind it.


To be certain, hip hop/rap is a music tradition that contains a number of different sub-traditions. Depending on who you ask, it is the disdain for some post-90s traditions — namely trap music and some of the lyrical dimensions that typically accompany it — that irritate many people. Incidentally, I wonder if any of the mainstream imbalance proponents ever go to clubs, where today’s mainstream often shares some of its glory with hip hop/rap classics from the past and new tunes on the come up. If they do boycott clubs, such an anti-club or club-music stance is ironic: Clubs have always been an important staple of hip hop culture. Nonetheless, before I go further, it's worth pointing out that not all '90s inspired hip hop/rap is good or useful; conversely, not all trap music is terrible or useless. If you disagree with this simple premise, i.e. if you believe that ALL '90s inspired hip hop/rap is good and ALL trap music is bad, then it's likely your view of hip hop/rap music is much more narrow than you think. Remember: Hip hop’s second Golden Era begins roughly 10 years after it’s first one ended in 1979. So which era’s really real?



DJ Toomp at his production studio in Atlanta (Photo credit: Amir Said)


Usually in music, what's beautiful to most is what's familiar to them, the thing that they already know, the thing they recognize; and it usually follows that what's ugly and distasteful to them is what can't fit into their expectation of what something should sound like. In the latter scenario, one can dismiss an entire aesthetic simply because it doesn't subscribe to what one already likes. And that's fine. What can be problematic, however, is when one demonizes the entire aesthetic itself. This is often the case with trap music. That they are merely railing against so-called mainstream hip hop/rap music or the “lack of balance" in mainstream hip hop/rap music is the common pretext for some peoples' opposition to trap music. But when you consider the decreased importance of radio and the reality that there is now a limitless number of ways to choose, consume, and find new music, the mainstream imbalance argument seems antiquated.


The issue isn't with the trap music sub-tradition itself; although, unfortunately, there are some who routinely argue that trap music isn't "real" hip hop. The issue relies with personal responsibility. Trap music doesn't make beatmakers (producers) or rappers hold back creativity. DJ Toomp has a catalog of great stuff. Likewise, trap music doesn't force lyricists to dumb down their lyrics or their message. Big K.R.I.T. and T.I., artists from two different spectrums in terms of sales and notoriety, have proven capable of highly creative lyricism that is at times profound and at times fun and light. And while I find most (not all) trap music to either be run-of-the-mill, mindless, or uninspiring, I don’t think trap music itself is the culprit.



T.I.


Proponents of the mainstream imbalance argument also want to ascribe a (big) share of the blame to the general hip hop/rap music press, in some cases specific bloggers. Now, while I do believe that hip hop/rap music criticism has declined in a number of areas (for instance, plenty of music reviews from a number of hip hop writers are more fanboy love letters than critical observation and insight), and that there are a number of dogmatic, know-it-all, and self-righteous music bloggers in hip hop/rap, I can't bring myself to blame them for the mainstream’s imbalance. That's because the decision to create music is a personal one. Just the same, what style and sound of hip hop/rap music one chooses to make is also a personal decision. As creative decisions in hip hop/rap music go, what someone chooses to do or not is always based upon four factors: (1) Personal taste, which is based on one’s creative influences and knowledge of the art form; (2) Current trends; (3) Past traditions and trends; and (4) purpose — either creative compulsion, recognition and fame, or financial gain.


The Problem with Creative Safety in Numbers

The beatmaking (hip hop production) community was not always as vast and accessible as it is now. Between 1979 (the year of the first studio recorded hip hop songs) and 1984, there were only a handful of music producers who specialized in hip hop production. And from 1985 to 1989, the list didn't swell. it wasn't until the early '90s that we saw a minor explosion in the number of dedicated beatmakers. It was also in the early '90s that we get our first glimpse of an actual beatmaking community. But this community was much less accessible than the present beatmaking community, mostly because the cost of production tools, lack of instructional and teaching materials, and, of course, the lack of a robust internet. Thus, the beatmaking community found it relatively easy to establish (non-written) metrics of quality and creative standards. In other words, the small number of beatmakers in the early '90s made it easier for the beatmaking community to police itself.


Fast forward two decades later, and the number of beatmakers — not to mention other music producers who dabble in hip hop — has swelled dramatically. While some may prematurely conclude that this is a bad thing, I think it’s good. There’s strength in numbers. But there are two main problems that have emerged with the rapid inclusion of scores of new beatmakers. First, a fundamental lack of knowledge of the art form, particularly its history. Most new beatmakers often overlook the musical and historical knowledge in pursuit of the instructional knowledge. This is one reason why YouTube beatmaking videos routinely make up the main educational regiment of vast numbers of new (and not-so new) beatmakers. And while a small number of these videos may be helpful (the majority hold little educational value) in teaching someone how to do some technical steps in a given music process, seemingly none of these videos offer extensive background understanding, historical context, or other critical education nuances. This creates an environment in which the ultimate goal is the pursuit of technical process, rather than the pursuit of beatmaking know-how and understanding. And this know-how and understanding only comes after you’re familiar with all of the spheres of beatmaking — the technical, the logical, and the creative spheres. That requires a lot more than just instruction on how to use a given piece of gear or how to perform a specific process. (For a more in-depth discussion of the three spheres of beatmaking, read The BeatTips Manual)


The second problem that a rapid swelling of the number of beatmakers has caused is creative cover or safety. With so many new beatmakers, it’s hard for there to be any real self-policing. Instead of creative standards and quality metrics being a key goal of many new beatmakers, we now have a little league baseball atmosphere, where everyone gets to play and no one’s beats are ever bad, it’s just someone else’s opinion, or someone’s just hating. In this atmosphere, as long as you’re doing the same bare minimum technical things, you’re creatively safe. This is certainly the case with regards to trap music because trap music has a low barrier of entry, especially knowledge-wise. Some of the most popular trap music is very sparse, nothing more than an 808 kick drum-led arrangement and a couple of sounds. I’ve often described this tier of trap music as almost anti-music because there’s not much really going on in the beat. But never mind that there’s different degrees of quality and complexity when it comes to trap music beats (and rhymes), the only thing that matters to lots of new beatmakers who pursue this style and sound is that they can make trap music. And again, because the threshold for what constitutes trap music is so low, these beatmakers can take comfort in the creative cover (safety) that exists by the sheer number of beatmakers doing the exact same thing.


Conversely, the sample-based East Coast/New York rap sound, whether you like it or not, has a higher barrier of entry knowledge-wise. The art of sampling isn’t something easily picked up; you don’t get a sampler and some records one day, then make something dope or even decent the next. On the other hand, to make entry-level trap music one can simply tinker around with some 808 sounds and come up with something passable. Note: This is entry level trap music; but entry level trap music still has its support! Entry level sampling requires a bit more knowledge and experience, particularly in the areas of chopping, arrangement, and drum programming. Also, there’s not the same level of creative cover (safety) in sampling because there are still clear metrics about what is decent in sampling.


There Are Some Music Makers Who Simply Want Mass Appeal, and There Are Some Who Don’t

Finally, there’s the nationwide populous appeal of trap music. It’s not difficult to hear what the current national sound is; both new and veteran beatmakers (and rappers) can see what the mainstream is primarily made of. As mentioned before, one’s purpose in making music is an important individual choice. Lots of music makers want mass appeal and everything that comes along with it. And for many, the quickest or most accessible path is to simply duplicate what the mainstream is already showcasing. Still, there are plenty of others who don’t want mass appeal, but instead, they want critical acclaim within a given niche or style and sound of hip hop/rap music.


Some simply want mass appeal and they’re only interested in what they believe to be the best way to get there. And while simply making a replica of what’s already out (tried formula though it may be) isn’t the guarantee that some believe it is, the mainstream — in the abstract — isn’t why someone makes one form of music over another. Again: Why someone chooses to make a given type of music boils down to: (1) Their personal taste, which is based on one’s creative influences and knowledge of the art form; (2) Current trends; (3) Past traditions and trends; and (4) Purpose — either creative compulsion, recognition and fame, or financial gain. But one can gain recognition, fame, and financial gain side-stepping the mainstream altogether. Unfortunately, many are simply unaware of that. Thus, I find that the biggest cause for today’s imbalanced mainstream isn’t the mainstream itself, but a widespread lack of either the will or desire among many individuals to do something outside of the mainstream’s safety zone. I think much of the blame for this can be placed on a huge lack of awareness — notably a lack of awareness of hip hop/rap history, a lack of awareness of alternatives modes to success, and a lack of awareness of just how varied hip hop/rap music can be.


To change (or expand) mainstream hip hop/rap, you have to change the conversation. Pull back the curtains on the mainstream imbalance argument, and what you’ll find, at its core, is a conversation about contemporary music and the direction its gone in for the past two decades. The mainstream is an easy target; it’s the most visible apparatus in popular culture. But mainstream, abstractly speaking, isn’t the problem — it’s not the sickness, it’s the symptom. There will always be a mainstream. And what’s represented as a given mainstream will reflect the creative decisions of the groups of music makers, as well as the influence of the tastemakers, of the time. You want to change what’s represented as mainstream hip hop/rap music, i.e. add more balance to it? Well, aside from deepening media coverage of powerful alternatives, you have to change the music makers. Help make new music makers become more aware of the many different styles and sounds of hip hop/rap music, and help them become aware of hip hop’s long held emphasis on originality and innovation. Doing so will inevitably lead to a more balanced mainstream.


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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

November 18, 2014

Extended Shelf-Life: Bronze Nazareth's 'School for the Blindman' — One of the Best Rap Albums in Decades

Soulfully Hard and Authentic, Loaded with Dope Beats and Edgy Rhymes, School for the Blindman Confirms that Bronze Nazareth and The Wisemen are in League of their Own

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


BeatTips Rating: 5/5

"Roll dice in old piss" —Bronze Nazareth

We often like and celebrate an album because of its power to take us somewhere. The vivid images that it calls up; the memories that it inspires; the emotions that it makes us feel — these are the things that, when present and prominent on an album, take us somewhere.


Hit play on Bronze Nazareth’s enigmatic album School for the Blindman (iHipHop Distribution), and you’re instantly transported to a music world that’s oblivious —thankfully so — to the oversaturated, gutless or otherwise cookie-cutter abstracts that make up most of what we know as mainstream rap music today. But School for the Blindman doesn’t just stand out as an obvious counterpunch to the jingle-filled, 808-dominated rap, it distinguishes itself from all other recent underground offerings as well. In fact, I find School for the Blindman to be one of the best hip hop/rap albums in decades.


Prior to School for the Blindman, the only other hip hop/rap albums that I found that I could listen to straight through with repeat extended plays were lllmatic (Nas) and Supreme Clientele (Ghostface Killah). And like those two classic albums, School for the Blindman also stands out because of it’s stellar, ear-catching production (soul samples & ill drums galore) and concrete rhymes. No beat on School for the Blindman is a mail-in job or simple drum program re-run. Instead, every beat contorts with its own structure and direction.


Truly a “beatmaker’s” beatmaker, Bronze’s production (he produced all but three tracks on the album) illustrates organic drums, well-conceived chops and arrangements, uniquely filtered phrases, and a powerful injection of feeling. As per Bronze’s style and sound, the art of sampling shapes the entire framework of School for the Blindman. And as with his previous efforts, all of the frequencies sampled and flipped make up amazingly hypnotic sonic textures that hold you at attention and demand frequent replays. (Bronze employs a smooth but defiant sampling style that priorities feel over needless complexity; thus the main reason that his beats draw you in.)



As far as the rhymes go, here, too Bronze shines. On “Fresh from the Morgue,” which features one of the dopest sounding hooks ever and a verse from The RZA, Bronze drops this quotable, “I’m so ill bring in the nurses to see him/my bitch purse is bulimic.” This kind of smart, layered slant rhyme is a staple throughout School for the Blindman. But then there’s the deeply personal “The Letter,” where Bronze’s knack for double (even triple) entendre reaches new stylistic and emotional levels: “I was the worst friend, couldn’t see poison through veins/losing you in vain from making tracks/I shoulda stopped the train.” The verse on “The Letter” and other songs on School for the Blindman cement Bronze’s place among the best producer/rappers of all time.


Although this is a Bronze solo joint, as with vintage Wu-Tang — the Wiseman’s direct influence — The Wisemen show up in force. Salute, Phillie, Kevlaar 7, and June Megaladon are present, each adding their distinct voice and flow to the tracks that they appear on. Each member of the Wisemen carries an aggressive but subdued demeanor. To be certain, they represent a street, workman-like ethos. I’m sure that the labor realities (or lack their of) in Detroit has something to do with this. Indeed, The Wisemen offer up an everyday-man familiarity. Plus, for those who have actually spent time in the streets because of the hard draw of life, and not because of a prospective rap career, The Wisemen are especially refreshing. They paint the scenes of daily life in the hood — the highs, lows, and ironies — with confident strokes of well-stated details.


In addition to Wisemen features, School for the Blindman also gets a literal Wu-Tang assist, as Inspectah Deck, Masta Killa, and The RZA all appear. RZA shows up on four joints (3 of them bonus cuts) and is in top form. Other features include Rain The Quiet Storm, L.A.D. aka La The Darkman, and Killah Priest.


Another paramount feature of School for the Blindman is the level of authenticity that it exudes. The feel of the whole album is as hard as it is emotional, as street gutter as it is fine art. Each song brims with confidence and emerges as an exact, creative and sure-guided piece of art. This is because Bronze is deeply conscious musically and politically (peep the Martin and Malcolm messages), and as such, he’s concerned with recapturing feeling, a specific feeling, one from a soulful and more noble time in Black American history.


With this focus as a guide, there are no bells and whistles on School for the Blindman, only rough-stock beats and rhyme darts! Which means that the level of confidence — even, decadence — on School for the Blindman is the kind of natural confidence that only comes from a certainty in one’s self and chosen journey. And that’s just it: Right now, Bronze and the Wisemen collective are in a rap league all of their own. They draw energy from the essence of their squad; they don’t come off as an overworked caricature of guys from the street. Instead, they showcase an honest handle on their station in life and demonstrate that they’re an authentic and earnest crew, not a fastened together boy band masquerading as a rap clique.


When I reviewed The Wisemen’s Children of a Lesser God more than a year ago, I asked, rhetorically, if The Wisemen match or surpass the Wu-Tang Clan? My answer was no, of course. But I submitted then that The Wisemen’s aim and effort to stay true to their pedigree and influences is what allowed (allows) them to create something authentically theirs — something that would stand for others to attempt to emulate, match, or surpass. This, I continued, was the continuum promise of a dope pedigree. But after listening to School for the Blindman, I no longer think that the question of whether The Wisemen match or surpass the Wu-Tang Clan is applicable. Direct Wu-Tang influences aside, Bronze and The Wiseman have successfully navigated a course that now has them in a league all of their own. In today’s rap scene, there are few collectives (if any) that are comparable in style, sound, weight, and consistency to The Wisemen.


BeatTips Rating Breakdown

Favorite Joints

“The Letter”
One of the most moving songs that I’ve heard, any genre! This hard-hitting “letter” to a dead friend, taken to soon by the jaws of drug addiction, is absolutely chilling…and beautiful. Bronze is himself on every track for sure, but on “The Letter,” he travels deeper into his heart and taps into a pain that’s made up of a triple cocktail of loss, confusion, and guilt. The beat (which, by the way gives a clinic on how to pitch up a sample and loop it) holds this sort of smooth rumble to it. So effective is the filtering, the chops, and mix on this joint, it sounds as if the vocal “oooing” — that rides through the better part of the track — is separate and on top of everything. And the drums, which feature a highly tucked, almost muffled kick and a punching snare that features a chorus on every 4th hit, are simply masterful. With three primary sampling elements (as far as I can tell, there could be more) that dissolve into each other, this drum-work scheme sounds even more impressive.

Bronze Nazareth - "The Letter"

Bronze Nazareth - "King of Queens"


“Fresh From The Morgue” ft. The RZA (This joint is multidimensional dope! Soon as the hook drops, you’re rocking along to the song.)
“King of Queens” (Prod. Ernesto LTD)
“4th Down” ft. Salute, Kevlaar 7, Phillie (Pay attention to the sample flip on this joint!)
“Gomorrah” ft. Killah Priest (Prod. by Kevlaar 7)
“Worship” ft. Salute, Phillie, Kevlaar 7 of Wisemen
“The Records We Used to Play”
“Jesus Feet”

Bronze Nazareth feat. Killah Priest - "Gomorrah" (Prod. by Kevlar 7)

Bronze Nazareth feat. RZA - “Fresh From The Morgue”


Sureshot Singles

“4th Down” ft. Salute, Kevlaar 7, Phillie
“Carpet Burns” (bonus song)
“Gomorrah” ft. Killah Priest (Prod. by Kevlaar 7)
Worship Ft. Salute, Phillie, Kevlaar 7 of Wisemen
“King of Queens” (Prod. Ernesto LTD)

Bronze Nazarath feat. Salute, Phillie, and Kevlar 7 of Wisemen - "Worship"

Sleeper Cuts

There are no sleeper cuts on here; all of them will catch your attention on the first listen.


Gripes and Weak Moments

NONE


Final Analysis

What ultimately makes School for the Blindman sore is its very nature — a subdued, soulful — beat send-up with authentic rap voices. You get the feeling that Bronze knew what he wanted this album to be — a “school” where the echoes and retransformations of soul music helps to guide the thoughts and imagery of each listener. Thus, School for the Blindman delivers an effect that is more like a savvy, entertaining documentary, than a CGI-laden action feature film. So much authentic nuance abounds on this album that you almost miss the polish and forget that Shool for the Blindman is, afterall, a feature and not a documentary film, if we stick with the film metaphore.


I’ve always been of the opinion that an album should be examined (critiqued/reviewed) on what it aims to do, what it purports to be. By this metric alone, School for the Blindman gets a BeatTips Rating™ of 5. The album is a classic. Still, what makes it superb is not that it excels in what Bronze set out for it to be, but that it goes beyond. School for the Blindman demonstrates a timeless combination of theme and execution through a collection of beats and rhymes that live up to each other. And when the beat and rhyme fit as if they were born together, there’s no tougher combination. This occurs again and again on School for the Blindman.

Afterword

I’m almost puzzled as to why Bronze Nazareth and the whole Wisemen collective do not receive decent, ongoing coverage by rap music publications and even those music blogs that seem to pride themselves on pushing good music to the front, trends be damned. But the Wisemen represent a continuum essence, something held over from the concept of hip hop/rap music as a quality experience that pulls you in with dope beats and rhymes and authentic nuance. The Wisemen do not fit within or defer to a caricature of “pop cool” that prioritizes smedium t-shirts, skinny jeans, fake fun or emo synth-lines. They are not an outfit of over-hyped misfit angst pushing out contrived adolescence over sub-par beats. The Wisemen are blue collar stars, indicative of Detroit, the city they rep. Moreover, they are students and masters of a specific rap aesthetic, an art style and sound that holds meaning to them (and countless others around the world). Subsequently, they’re little concerned with trend-chasing critics who seem more interested in being the tastemakers of only one, often diluted branch of hip hop/rap music.


So the only reason that I’m even slightly puzzled by the lack of coverage that The Wisemen receive is because of what they represent and offer. Listen, hip hop/rap music is an indefinite music form. This means that there is no time — era, nuance, style, theme — in its vast tradition that can’t be summoned up, celebrated, and mastered. But as long as music publications fail to realize this important fact, unfortunately, The Wisemen (and any groups of similar stock and trade) may get overlooked.


Here, I’m reminded of something I learned as a kid, and something I tell my son: To be true to yourself is a blessing and a burden. Fortunately, Bronze Nazareth and The Wisemen have accepted the burden along with the blessing.


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The BeatTips Manual by Amir Said (Sa'id).
"The most trusted name in beatmaking."

Dedicated to exploring the art of beatmaking in all of its glory.

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  • Top 5 Myths About Sampling and Copyright Law


    "Sampling is piracy."
    WRONG! Piracy describes the wholesale, verbatim copying and distribution of copyrighted works. That is not sampling; that's something entirely different.
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    "You can legally sample and use any recording up to 1, 2, 3, or 4 seconds."
    WRONG! Under existing copyright law, there is no clear, predetermined length (amount in seconds) that is “legally” permissible to sample.
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    "If you use samples on a free mixtape, it’s perfectly O.K."
    WRONG! A free mixtape does NOT permit you to use samples from copyrighted recordings without the permission of the copyright holders.
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    "Sampling is easy; there’s nothing to it. Anyone can do it well."
    WRONG! Sampling is an art form that requires technical skill, imagination, and artistic understanding.
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    "Sampling involves the use of pre-recorded songs only."
    WRONG! 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.
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