Just as there are gateway beat machines and beatmaking tools, there are also gateway diggin' records. Gwen McCrae's "90% of Me is You" served as such a song for me. Before I heard this record, my approach to diggin' for records was casual. I would search for records and recording artists that were popular, or at least the ones that I had faintly heard of. When I picked up Gwen McCrae's album Rocking Chair, the goal in mind was for one song, "90% of Me is You". Little did I know what was on the other side. Still, I must've listened to "90% Of Me Is You" at least 5 times a day, for six months straight.
Everything about this song is dangerous. There's the opening guitar riff. It's warped (a sound that you hear throughout). There's the second guitar that seemingly plays off in its own rhythm, yet it never leaves the pocket of the entire groove even though it skips across the arrangement randomly throughout. There's the bass line, for the most part a simple but steady anchor that goes Up and down, down and up, up and down before it rounds off the end of the second bars with a small break in the pattern then it repeats. For the bridge, the bass joins the rest of the instruments for a change in the pitch. Then there's the strings, a polite soaring pattern that puts you in the mind of a Gamble & Huff produced arrangement, only hear the strings do more simmering rather than soaring.
Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the drums. The hi-hat has a ticking sound that floats over the top of everything and punches in and out with urgent gracefulness all at once. The kick and the snare pattern is a simple K K S K K S pattern (I cover drum patterns in great detail in The BeatTips Manual), but because it' so tight, it's combination with the hi-hat makes for an incredible swing rhythm and shuffle, perfect for Gwen McCrae to ride the groove with her earnest and searingly soulful vocals.
It's worth pointing out that I learned more about how to create drums and drum patterns from this song than I did listening to any hip hop/rap song. From how to create swing naturally through the use of certain drum sounds, to how to shuffle my hi-hats, to how to incorporate the right velocity and sustain for open hi-hats, to how to anchor my kick drums so that their movement sits with the arrangement... No doubt, "90% of Me Is You" was important to my understanding of music and my development as a beatmaker.
The music and video below is presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
Marco polo on the anatomy of a producer, how hip hop and beatmaking helped save his life, how he’s redefining beatmaking’s greatest tradition and making stock sounds sound like record samples, why technology’s a ho, why he finally gave in and began selling sound kits, and much more.
Editor’s note: This is an epic long read! But worth it.
This interview contains a combination of a series of interviews I conducted with Marco Polo (on several dates) over the past four years, the lengthiest and most recent being in mid-December, 2014. Since these interviews were part of a continuing series with Marco Polo, as one whole composite, I wanted to publish it here the way it was meant to be presented, as a whole rather than in parts.
BeatTips: What is your earliest musical memory? I remember we spoke before and you told me that your father, who was really open minded musically, talk about that and how that impacted you.
Marco Polo: One of my earliest memories of music is fucking dancing to the Thriller LP, playing on record, and literally dancing on a glass coffee table, and that shit shattering and me falling through it, while Thriller was playing, and my parents running downstairs wildin’ out, wondering if I was okay.
BeatTips: How old were you?
Marco Polo: Shit, well it came out in what, 1982? It must’ve been a year after that, so like 4. I was born in ’79, so I was like 3 or 4 years old. And I remember that vividly.
BeatTips: Were you a Michael Jackson fan?
Marco Polo: Oh, my God, [Thriller] that’s my favorite album of all time. I was just speaking about how it’s been so long since that album’s come out, and nothing to me has come close to knocking that as my top album of all time. Thriller, absolutely! Just because it has so many personal memories of a kid, and just now, growing up and being into music and understanding what went into that record and how it sounds, it’s still fucking leagues ahead of any fucking pop record, or R&B record, ever, in my opinion. That shit is epic, the way it makes me feel, the way it sounds, you know. And Quincy’s [Quincy Jones] part, and Michael and what they did to make that album, it’s amazing; it’s timeless!
BeatTips: What you were into, was it just soul, was it jazz? What else was in the house?
Marco Polo: My parents always had music for us, but my pops, specifically, as I got older he introduced me to everything that he listened to, which was jazz, like Miles Davis Kind of Blue, to Steely Dan, to Cream Disraeli Gears album, you know. And him telling me, “Okay, son, Eric Clapton was on the guitar, Ginger Baker was on the drums, Jack Bruce was on the fucking guitar. And then, Italian music, because you know, my parents were born in Italy, then they immigrated to Canada. My pops, loved everything, man. He loved Donny Hathaway, Johnny Guitar Watson, “Super Man Lover.” He would just put that on loop at the end of the night and have a glass of wine, and chain smoke cigarettes, and just repeat that song. And my moms love music, too. She was just more into like mainstream stuff, you know, like she would put shit on like The Gypsy Kings and clean the house on Sunday. My moms is more on the commercial, she just likes to dance, have a good time. So she liked music, but my dad was more like… My pops definitely had the real specific, artsy like, you know, diggin’ in the crates… He actually left me some really ill records. Well, he’s still here, I said it like he died. He’s still here. But whatever was left in his record collection, he gave to me. And just by like the 30 or 40 pieces [records], I knew his shit was ill, because it was like Bob James, Jack Handy, he was a saxophone player, John Klemmer, a lot of jazz and funk and soul. That’s where I get my influences from, cuz he was really open minded to everything, you know.
BeatTips: So was his thing more that he just loved music, or was he actually trying to guide you in that direction?
Marco Polo: No, he wasn’t trying to guide me. He just loved music. He used to DJ when he was young. And he just put me on. It wasn’t like he was trying to steer me in the direction of doing music as a career. He just loved music, and I was just there to listen to it, you know.
BeatTips: But When and how did you first discover hip hop?
Marco Polo: I first discovered hip hop… Well, being in Toronto, I think it was just on radio and TV. Whatever was playing. And one of the first… Much Music was a huge channel for me discovering hip hop and listening to stuff like Maestro Fresh Wes, you know, “Let Your Backbone Slide.” He was like the Big Daddy Kane of Canada. He’s a legend. Shouts to him. Seeing his video, and then whatever was playing at that same time. And I remember hearing Main Source, “Looking at the Front Door,” on the radio back then. And then we had this show called “Electric Circus” on Much Music, which was kind of like a dance show, like “Soul Train” but a Canadian version. It was more dance, but they would have hip hop acts come through and perform. And you know, Large Professor had Sir Scratch, and what’s the other DJ’s name [K-Cut]? They were both from Toronto. And he was always up there, and I would see little glimpses of that as a kid and being in school. And I remember having Rap Tracks II . It was like a compilation on CD. It had like De La Soul -“Say No Go,” and Slick Rick - “A Children’s Story;” Neneh Cherry - “Buffalo Stance.” So that was like the beginnings of me just be familiar with it and liking it. But it wasn’t until high school that I started buying music. And I was late compared to a lot of my friends. Like my first four albums that I bought, that I owned, was Only Built for Cuban Linx — Raekwon; Cypress Hill’s Temple of Boom, which is like their third album; GZA - Liquid Swords; and Das EFX - Hold it Down. One more thing, though. My pop’s bought Tribe’s first album, because he loved “Bonita Applebum.” He bought that shit, brought it home and was like, “I love this song!” So that [People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm] was technically the first album that existed in my home that was a hip hop CD. That was ‘cause of him.
BeatTips: How was your family? Where you upper class, middle class?
Marco Polo: We were definitely middle class. I grew up in a neighborhood that was really well off and well to do. All my friends at young ages had crazy cars and shit like that. But I never really grew up in a situation like that… it was cool, you know. We did well, but you know, I wasn’t spoiled or anything like that.
BeatTips: What about school? How were you as a student?
Marco Polo: In elementary I was good… Then high school hit and … [laughs] got a little crazy, I guess you could say. By grade 10, I ended up leaving and going to…drug rehab for like a year. ‘Cause I was messing around with a bunch of shit. So I went away in about the middle of grade 10 for about a year, and came back in grade 12 or grade 11, and got my life together. You know, at an early age I was into some shit! I came back good, everything done.
BeatTips: But what led up to that?
Marco Polo: I mean, just being a kid. You know, just doing dumb shit, you know what I’m sayin’… Peer pressure, you know… Fuckin’ started selling drugs, selling weed. Before you know it, I was fuckin’ actively using, you know, smoking weed, doing a lot of other shit, too, like… the highest levels of drug use, I was partaking in, at a very young age, which is pretty scary actually. I mean, when I first started smoking weed in high school, definitely. And you know, usually it’s kind of baby steps till the harder shit, till you start doing coke and heroin. But I kind of went up the latter really quick. Just partying, doing a lot shit. And to be honest, hip hop wasn’t even a part of my life at that stage, I was just a wild kid… I ran with some kids that weren’t probably the best influence. I started dealing drugs, I started doing drugs… typical fuckin’ suburban drugs, you know like acid and mushrooms. Then fucking ended up doing heroin... You know, this all happened really fast, like within 1 ½ years to the point where I fucking peeked out…B, I was like 15 years old, 14! So it was really young. I didn’t even have a chance to really… like my whole drug span was like 2 years, tops. I peeked out, and I came to a point where I realized that I needed help, and I let my parents know, ‘Yo, I’m fucked up.’ I was failing all of my classes. Girlfriend dumped me…figured out I was doing all the shit I was doing. But it all kind-of connects to where I’m at now, because I ended up going away for a year, and I stopped doing drugs and drinking, period. And haven’t for almost 13 years, now.
BeatTips: Oh, so you came to your parents?
Marco Polo: Yeah!
BeatTips: They didn’t even know what was going on?
Marco Polo: I mean, they knew I was in some shit. They just thought it was typical teenage shit, like smoking weed, “He’s failing classes,” “He’s skipping school…” But they didn’t know the extent. Just ‘cause, you know, as a parent, you probably don’t even wanna think about your child doing that type of drug at an early age. So they were fucking shell-shocked. It was crazy. But I’m blessed to have amazing parents, you know what I’m sayin’. They went out of pocket… They had to re-mortgage the house to send me to this treatment center. It was crazy. I ended up going to a place called Hazleton in Minnesota, which is a world-renown youth facility. They have an adult center… I mean this is the place where they fucking sent… all the Hollywood stars and their kids. Like I was in treatment with some pretty heavy known people. I can’t even mention, for private identity purposes, but music people, actors, star’s children… I was roommates with like actors you see in movies now. It was a crazy experience, and I learned a lot. I went away for about a year… between 3 or 4 centers, because you start at a main one which is more lockdown. You know, clean up, get it out of your system, and then move on to a halfway house in Louisiana. Then I came back and I managed to keep it together… Definitely got involved with AA meetings and all that.
BeatTips: Do you think that you getting it on track is because (1) you were honest about your problem, and (2) you were young?
Marco Polo: I mean, it was a combination of all those things. Definitely being honest about having some sort of an addiction. And straight up, I had fucked up so much at that point, with just how much I put my family through, that when I came out I was like, “I can’t do this… I can’t do drugs, for myself…” First of all, you can’t do drugs for yourself, because ain’t nothing happening until you do it for yourself. You do it for somebody else, it ain’t gonna work. But then also knowing that my parents had went through so much to put me where I’m at, that was definitely motivation to keep it together.
BeatTips: So after you got cleaned up and you got into music, did you find that hip hop was something that kind of sustained you and kept you away from it?
Marco Polo: YEAH! That’s… Honestly, in treatment, in rehab is where I first started listening to hip hop, like ALL THE TIME… A Tribe Called Quest… it was all over the place. At that point, I didn’t realize how much I liked it. Even before I had went into rehab, I remember my pops, he bought the first Tribe album because he liked “Bonita Applebum”… When I went to rehab, I started really listening to music… and hip hop was definitely one of the genres I really started focusing on. And when I came back home from treatment, I finished high school, and I started working at record stores, CD stores… And actually, I lost a couple of jobs because my music collection started getting crazy… I started stealing fucking records and CDs from these stores, just because I wanted more shit… Yo, I fuckin’ ended up going… you know… being on probation as a young offender; going to jail, getting fired from a job for stealing thousands and thousand dollars worth a CDs… it was crazy, yo! And then luckily, I got out of that situation, you know, cuz Canada’s very, very lenient. If your under 18 and you commit crimes it’s very lenient. It’s like you just do community service. It was all part of the process. Then, it got to the point where my music collection was just so ridiculous… Just on CDs and being a fan, you know, I wanted to do something more. Then I was like, “Yo, I gotta do something with this after I finish high school.” I was like, “I gotta go figure it out; I gotta go produce.” I started to hear Gang Starr albums and Pete Rock [& CL Smooth] albums, and I was like, “Yo, this shit is incredible… I wanna do THAT!”
BeatTips: So now, at that time, you’re out of high school, you’re thinking “I gotta do something with music.” Logical choice is to go to audio engineering school. Is that what you did?
Marco Polo: Yeah. It was called the Harris Institute for the Arts in Toronto. You know, it’s like the typical audio engineering school that they have here. They don’t really teach you about production, it’s more like studio…
BeatTips: What were your expectations and what was the reality?
Marco Polo: I really wanted to learn how to make beats, straight up! That’s what I wanted to get out of the school. What I realized is that, those schools, while they teach you things that might help you make beats, they don’t really… maybe now that might have MPC classes or something like that to go make hip hop beats… There’s not like a class in most of these places. I’m not blaming thing, because I was just amped to go learn about musical things, engineering and studio things. And for someone who doesn’t know anything, it’s definitely good. You’ll learn about signal processing, and plugging in mic cables, and recording, and Pro Tools, and that shit is definitely helpful. But, you know, if you just wanna make beats, you know, really look into the schools and the classes before you sign up for that shit.
BeatTips: So what did you take from that school?
Marco Polo: That’s the biggest thing that I took. Just the knowledge of basic studio equipment, signal flow, like real basic shit, but it’s really important… But to be honest, the moment I started interning at The Cutting Room, which is a studio in New York at started working at when I moved from Toronto. I learned more at that place in two months than I did there in a year in a half.
BeatTips: Before you get to the Cutting Room, at this time, did you really know what a beatmaker/producer was?
Marco Polo: I mean, I was learning… All I knew was music was the only thing that I loved, you know what I’m sayin’. A lot of people figure it out in high school, like, “I wanna do this; I wanna go to university become an accountant;” “I’m gonna be a doctor.” I’m sitting here like, “I don’t wanna do any of that shit! I wanna do something with music… I like MUSIC!” And then the first four full albums that I bought were: GZA - Liquid Swords; DAS EFX - Hold It Down; Cypress Hill - Temples of Boom; and Raewkon - Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. And then at that point, I went crazy and went back into the stash, and the history, and got everything…From like every BDP album, to every EPMD album. The whole Wu Tang catalogue. Stetsasonic… I wanted to learn about everything to do with hip hop, where it started, you know what I’m sayin’. I was going to the library. Got a new book each time.
BeatTips: What was it that triggered that desire for you to really know hip hop music like that, to read books, etc.?
Marco Polo: I was so into the whole style… of sampling… It was my curiosity. I’ll be the first to admit, I didn’t grow up in the 80s listening to hip hop, like the founders and where it came from. So I wanted to learn about it. I feel like, in order to succeed in something, and produce rap, you have to find out where it came from!... And It was the beats! It was fucking hearing Wu-Tang and Primo beats and Pete Rock and going, “Holy Shit!” Like, “What is this shit?” That’s what got me. The production…I wanted the education. Literally, if there was a University of Hip Hop, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to learn where it came from. Like, obviously, I was gonna get the gear and I was gonna go to school for music, but anything that you wanna master, you gotta study the greats. And that was my approach. When I heard it, I wanted to know everything! I wanted to buy everything, I wanted to listen to everything. Understand it! Then I got to that point where it was literally frustrating just listening. That’s when I was like, “Yo, I wanna make this shit!”
BeatTips: So early on, did you know a lot about hip hop history?
Marco Polo: No. I slowly learned. My beat Yoda, as I call him, my boy, Shylow, was the one who started putting me on to a lot of stuff, and teaching me how to use the MPC, and just putting me on to music. But once the internet kicked in…
BeatTips: But before that. I’m talking about the roots, the history of hip hop. Did you have an understanding? Everyone says, “Hip hop came from the South Bronx…” Did you have an understanding?
Marco Polo: Not for a minute. I eventually learned that. I had to go and learn that shit… I had to go backwards. Wherever my starting point was, I had to go back and figure out where it came from and learn about shit. I’m still learning. There’s so much history in the beginnings of hip hop that I’m not familiar with, and cats who were really integral, and I’m still learning about that.
BeatTips: What was the difference when you lacked the information, knowledge, and education vs. when you started to understand?
Marco Polo: Definitely raised my appreciation for where it came from and where it was at and the evolution of it.
BeatTips: Did it flow through to the music?
Marco Polo: I think so, yeah. Of course. The more I learned, the more I studied, the better I became at my craft, you know. And that whole process is never gonna stop. The moment you think you have it figured out, you’re done.
BeatTips: When you went through this intensive study, what where the things that you discovered that had the biggest influence on you?
Marco Polo: I grew up on the East Coast… I was discovering all these groups and their styles, where they were coming from… Discovering how each producer did things in a certain way.
Let me give you a couple of names that will cover what you were studying, and you give me something that you pulled from them, and that maybe perhaps you innovated upon:
Pete Rock? What was the thing [about] Pete Rock that most influenced you, the thing that you take now with you when you make music?
Marco Polo: His beats were a lot more complex at the time compared to a lot of other producers. The shit that he was doing, like blending different loops, and his use of horns. He was definitely one of the people who had a signature style when it came to using a lot of horns. His drums knocked, his bass knocked. The difference between him and Preem [DJ Premier], I think technical wise, complexity wise, Pete was doing a lot more than other producers, you know what I’m sayin’. He had a lot of things happening on the hook parts of his beats that was different from the verse part, in terms of song structure that I learned. I was like, “Word, when the hook comes, it’s gotta be big and epic. And then when the verse hits, it’s gotta be dumbed down to the bass and the drums so you feel the emcee.” Sound structure, that’s what I learned from Pete. Same with Large Professor, both of them. And just using so many different sounds, and like little vocal chops. Just flavor and detail. Pete Rock to me was someone with mad layers to his music. His sound was horns and crazy things happening. He had a style; you knew when a Pete Rock beat came on. That’s what I was learning after a while… It’s like, figuring out people’s styles, people’s sounds, and how it came to be. Because I was going back to listen to like two or three albums, or from the first and third, like wow, you can see how people evolved. It helped me evolve as an engineer and a producer myself.
BeatTips: What about RZA?
Marco Polo: Aw, MAN! When I heard Cuban Linx and 36 Chambers — Liquid Swords, man, that album is so crazy. It was like a movie to me — those albums, to me. Because you put them on, and they just put you in a zone. And the way he was doing things was so different. He was looping shit off-time, and drums was so grimy; and the mixes was terrible, but in a good way. Man, it just gave you a feelin’… He knew what he was doing. Sometimes looping things the way you do on purpose, you just gotta go off vibe. You can’t always be so technical with music.
BeatTips: What about J Dilla?
Marco Polo: Uh, Jaydee, as I knew him first and then manifested into the J Dilla moniker, was definitely another influence on me. He’s a great to me, but he’s not in my top 5, like Pete, Preem, and Large. I’m being straight up, you know what I’m sayin’. I love Dilla, and there was a lot of records in his early career that were huge for me just learning about hip hop, like The Pharcyde’s “Runnin’,” specifically that song, that was one of my favorite hip hop songs when I was coming up. But Slum Village Fantastic Vol. 2, that was the record that I became a huge Dilla fan. And that record influenced producers everywhere — and I feel like in some ways negatively because some people literally wanted to be that man and emulate him on all levels.
BeatTips: What about Kev Brown?
Marco Polo: Kev Brown. He’s one of the modern beat geniuses. If I had to guess, I would say he was very influenced by Pete [Rock] just like me. But he did his own thing with it. He took bass lines to a whole fucking NEW level! His drumwork is outstanding. He found pieces of gear that worked for him that helped him establish a certain sound. It was like an extension of the SP 1200, but with modern machines. He’s like a dude, where — he inspired me. As a peer, and as a friend. And his production — he’s another dude where I scratch my head as to why more people do not know about him, and why he isn’t — you know, just like myself at times. Like, we both have that in common where we continuously fall under the radar with people. Which is cool. But yeah, Kev is a dude I feel like more people should know about. You know, and what he does, and how evolved. He’s incredible.
Marco Polo: Q-Tip’s another legend, too. Often overlooked because people see him as just a rapper. Just based on his production on all the Tribe [A Tribe Called Quest] albums, that cements him in top 10 instantly! Midnight Marauders is one of my favorite albums of all time. I love the first two [Tribe albums] as well, but Midnight was the one where I was like, “He’s a production genius.” Talk about influencing people, you know. And even to this day, that whole production style, there sound was very influential with a lot of people.
BeatTips: DJ Premier?
Marco Polo: Primo with the chops. At first, in the Group Home, Jeru, Gang Starr days, he was looping. But then he evolved. He’s one that influenced me to start chopping up records. Primo would take like 3 seconds of a record, not even a full loop, maybe just a melody or a couple of hits, and rearrange it and chop it and make this INSANE rhythm, you know what I’m sayin’, this loop. And then he’d put his signature drums on it, and that shit would put you in a zone. He has me listening to records differently. Instead of just looking for the obvious thing to do, the thing to do is to really, really dissect a song when you’re trying to make a beat. Really listen to detail. Listen to that one or two notes that might be dope sounding, and fuck with them. Preemo. I think the thing about Preem that I finally realized after many years, what I respect about him is, his ability to be simple. And this is not to undermine what he is doing as something that’s like easy — Because NOBODY else can do it. And nobody else has done it to this day! His ability to hear something on a record, a sample on a record that NO ONE else would ever fuck with. Chop it up in a way, bring it out with EQ and mixing, and then his signature drums, that, still to this day, hits harder than anything I’ve ever heard. And to hypnotize you, with two, literally 2- and 4-bar loops. At the peak of his production career, there wasn’t a lot going on. But what was there was so fucking hypnotizing and perfect that you didn’t fucking care. You don’t have to get technical if it’s rights. If it sounds right, if it feels right. You could listen to his shit for 20 minutes fucking straight, a beat. “Kick in the Door” (B.I.G.); “Nas Is Like” (Nas) — you don’t give a fuck that there’s no damn hook change. The shit is GREAT! And that’s my whole thing. It’s like, I think a lot of times people get bogged down with technical shit. But with Preem, it was just an instant feeling. Instantly. The first kick comes on and hits you, and you’re like, “Good God! This is hip hop! This is what it’s supposed to be.” And no one has been able to. Many people have tried, including myself to study and learn; and I’m probably guilty early in my career of making some very Premier-influenced beats. But he’s the master of that shit, man. No one can do that.
BeatTips: But the thing is, that you actually touch on. I’ve seen you do your music. People don’t realize that making something sound simple is not as easy as you think—
Marco Polo: NO! It’s more complex than adding all of this other shit. Getting something and bringing it to life. Yo, go look up all the shit that Premo used and try to do the shit that he did. You will fail. You’ll fucking fail. You will fail, man.
BeatTips: Large Professor?
Marco Polo: I remember hearing “Looking At The Front Door” on the radio. Large was producing for everybody back then. Actually, he was one of the producers I didn’t get into at first, just because I wasn’t aware. I learned later. And one thing that stuck out with him was his drums. His drums was always crazy. They hit hard, his programming was crazy. That’s one influence I get from Large Professor is his drums.
BeatTips: As you studied more of Large Professor's work, what stood out?
Marco Polo: What I thought was amazing about Large Pro, even now, like every year I find a new appreciation for all these people — RZA, DJ Premier, Large Professor, Pete Rock —because I’m learning more, like from a technical…When you first get introduced to beats, the technical stuff, you’re not aware of it, you just hear shit. And now that I do it and I make it, I can appreciate them on a higher level. With Large, listening back to Large now, especially on the first Main Source album, his ability to take so many different records that have nothing to do with each other key wise, and make them shits work. Kind of like how what Pete was doing. They were all about layering a lot of different records, you know what I’m sayin’. Like horns from this jazz record, drums from this record, bass loop from this. There’s people today that can’t figure that shit out.
BeatTips: One more name I haven’t mentioned. Tell me Someone you kept as a close study—
Marco Polo: Jake One! Jake One, absolutely. Jake One is one of my favorite producers, also a friend of mine. And before I even made beats, I was a fan of him, like in the Conception Records stage, label, which is — I think was from Seattle and that’s where Jake is from. My boy Arcee from Toronto was doing work with them, and Jake was doing a lot of indie hip hop. He was working with cats like Rascoe, and Gift of Gab, and Charlie Tuna, and he had an impeccable ear for samples. And like, I find shit that he used back like 10 years ago now, and I’m like pissed, like , Yo, he was so ahead of mad people when it came to digging and sampling different shit. And then to watch his evolution to now, fucking doing joints for Drake?! And Dr. Dre, and Rick Ross. And T.I. It’s incredible. But some of my favorite Jake records, and I tell him when I see him, is the back-in-the-day joints where he just found wild loops and samples that no one ever heard and chopped them up and did his thing. But he’s definitely someone who continuously inspires me. And his drums and bass is superior to a lot of producers.
BeatTips: What was the first production setup that you had? Did you learn what to get from that school?
Marco Polo: Nah, just from friends. When I got my student loan for the school, I used that student loan to buy my first MPC; which is the same one you see right here! I was told, “Yo, you should get an MPC, it’s easy to learn.” I had a friend who knew how to use it… I got the MPC because, on some real shit, my friends had MPCs and I know that they could teach me it. And I wanted to learn as quickly as possible. Also, because I knew it was a classic sampler to use, but I’m pretty sure Shylow probably had an XL [MPC 2000XL] and was like, “Yo, if you get one, I’ll teach you.”
BeatTips: What year was this that you got that MPC?
Marco Polo: 2000. At that time, that was the startings of Cool Edit and all those other programs, but I wasn’t fuckin’ with that; I wanted to hit pads, you know what I’m sayin’.
BeatTips: So after that, how long did you work with the MPC before you were like, “Yo, I gotta move to New York?”
Marco Polo: Well, for the first couple of years, I was making beats everyday. They were probably the worst sounding things ever. But you know, I just kept practicing. It’s DJ’ing and battle DJ’ing, you gotta practice everyday. So that’s what I would do. I would sit down everyday and try to make beats. I would listen to my favorite producers and be like, “What did they do there?” And I would straight-up try and copy people’s styles, just as a learning technique… Like, how does Primo do his drums, you know… How does RZA chop shit up. And that just evolved. Then it got to the point where I graduated from school, and they promise you, you know, “Yo, we’re going to get you an internship,” or “We’re going to put you in the industry.” They didn’t do any of that shit! And I was like, “Let me just take this in my own hands.” I had a friend out in Queens, and I was like, “Yo, I gotta make this move.” It was scary as shit, but I was like, “I gotta leave Toronto and move to New York, if I wanna do this for real.” And that’s what I did.
BeatTips: Is this something that you consulted with your parents about?
Marco Polo: I let them know. At first, I could sense that they were a little hesitant in supporting me on it, but they did.
BeatTips: How old were you then?
Marco Polo: I was like 21, 22… I had my boy Lou, out in Queens, who’s actually part of a group (my roommate here is in), called Red Clay. And he was like, “Yo, you can come stay in the basement until you get your shit together.” And that actually led to a bunch of shit. Through Lou I met Ayatollah. And when I got my internship at The Cutting Room that was when Rawkus was doing a lot of recording there. So I met Ayatollah…And before I even got an internship at The Cutting Room, I came to New York to try to scout out studios that I wanted to intern at. And I came and hit like 15 studios in one day with résumés, with this and that, real gun-ho. And then at the end of that day, Ayatollah hit me up and was like, “Yo, just come through, I’m doing a session at this other studio called The Cutting Room.” It wasn’t even on my list. And he was doing — it was around the time he was doing remixes. Remember when The Executioners put their album out, and they had a joint with Inspectah Deck, Pharaoh? And Ayatollah was doing the remix, so I went through. Dropped my résumé off. And bam, like a couple of weeks later they hit me back and was like, “Yo, you want the internship!” And so it just happened…
BeatTips: What was your initial reaction to New York, you know after you made that move and breathed in the oxygen?
Marco Polo: Yeah, man… I loved it. I was so excited, you know what I’m sayin’. It was really overwhelming. Just being in New York. Just the vibe you get, the feelin’! Knowing that this is where hip hop started, it’s a feelin’ that had me motivated.
BeatTips: Did you look at it like you had a real fresh start?
Marco Polo: DEFINITELY… I just… you know, the key I feel like to my story is that I didn’t over-think shit! If I let my feelings — and like what should happen like, “You’re from Toronto, Canada, how are you going to go to New York and become a producer?” If I listened to that voice, I wouldn’t be where I am. I was just like, “Fuck it! I have nothing to lose!” I got this connect, nothing’s promised. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But Fuck it. That’s pretty much how it went down. There was no thinking. If I would have thought every step out like, “How are you going to afford to live in New York? How are you going to get a job, you have no visa?” I just blocked all of that out.
BeatTips: Talk to me about your time working at The Cutting Room recording studio. How long was it before you were allowed to actually assist and start doing sessions?
Marco Polo: I mean, I was in sessions right away. Whether I was actually doing musical things — but I was around it soon as I started working there, you know they let you sit in the rooms. And right away, BAM! I was in sessions with all those classic Rawkus dudes like, Mos Def, Talib Kwali. And this is right around the time Kanye started coming through… I got to see Ayatollah do a lot of sessions. This was right around the time when Kwali was doing the Kwality album, and Sound Bombin III, and “The Life.” And that was the crazy part because I was a fan of all that shit. It was exactly what I wanted to be around. I was bumpin’ heads with artists…I was making beats and making beat CDs. And the shit wasn’t the greatest, but I was still passing CDs out, just to get the name out. And that was the benefit of working there. In Toronto, you’re not going to run into all of these dudes, and give ‘em CDs. But in New York, you’re surrounded by it constantly.
BeatTips: So when you started doing your own sessions, what was the roughest lesson you had to learn?
Marco Polo: To be honest, it never really got to the point where I was mixing records at The Cutting Room. The furthest I got with the engineering there was tracking vocals… And definitely when it comes to engineering it’s a very customer service based industry where the client is always right, no matter what. Like you could have all the knowledge in the world about how shit should sound, if they want their vocals blaring loud, you make their vocals blaring loud….
I came up under some really good mix engineers, one of them who’s my mix engineer today, Joe Nardone. I was heavily involved in the assisting of the Grind Date album of De La Soul, and for Kweli’s [Talib Kweli] second album, or was it his first solo album on Rawkus? What was it called, Kwality? And I used to — I have tracked vocals for a few people. Inspectah Deck on his second album. Carl Thomas, some random shit. But I definitely was a sponge. When I became a manager there, or engineering, or assisting engineering, I was just watching. I was keeping my mouth shut and just , you know, morphing into a sponge and sucking in all the energy that I could. And seeing a lot of people on their come up. Kanye, before he had his first album on Rocafella, was coming through. And I remember Mos Def and Talib talking to each other in sessions like, “Yo, THAT’S the next dude!” I remember Mos Def coming in saying, “This dude Kanye is about to take everything over! Like, he’s about to shut shit down!” And me going like, “Who is this Kanye dude?” I remember Kanye coming in to play beats for De La, during the Grind Date album. I don’t think they used anything, but he came in and played beats for them.
BeatTips: You heard some of those Kanye beats, too?
Marco Polo: I heard some of them, definitely. And they even picked some. But nothing ever happen because I think he’s not on that record.
BeatTips: You could see it, too, that Kanye was gonna—
Marco Polo: No, I couldn’t. Straight up! ‘Because I heard the beats and I really liked them. But the way they were talking about him, I didn’t see it. But that’s no disrespect. I was just, I had my opinions, and I thought the beats were dope. But the way they were talking about him, like second coming of Jesus, take over the game?! Straight up, I wouldn’t of called it. And I wouldn’t of agreed with them, and it’s amazing to see what he did. NOW, I get it. And his evolution, you know, he’s a great producer. But at the time, I didn’t see it like they saw it. So I failed with the future visions on Kanye.
BeatTips: Recently, there’s been a number of high-profile projects that feature some variation of live instrumentation as the beat. There’s Ghostface Killah’s work with Adrian Younge. Then his most recent [project], 36 Seasons. Then RZA’s work on the latest Wu-Tang [Clan album] A Better Tomorrow. That’s again, live instrumentation. And there’s Preem and Royce — PRhyme. That’s Premier [sampling] Adrian Younge’s catalog. How do you see what you do In regards to this? What is different from that sound, which these are obviously live bands, this is live instrumentation as the beat, and what you’ve now progressed to?
Marco Polo: There’s so many ways I can answer this question, and I’m glad you asked it. I have an issue with a lot of this stuff to be honest. First of all, I did something with Adrian on my last album, on Newport Authority II. He asked me to do a remix off The Delfonics album he did. And I flipped the beat, and then Tragedy rapped on it and Lil’ Fame (I’m-a give you that later). So shouts to Adrian, he’s incredible at what he does. My whole thing — I incorporate that type of sampling. I use Komplete to compose my own music, and to me, it’s all a learning process because I do know this: You can over analyze the approach of like, “Yo, let me get a band and we’ll make it sound like records,” and I’ve heard people do that and fail miserably. And on paper, it’s like, “Yo, it’s all live instruments. And live drums…” You think like, “Yo, this is dope.” Or it should be dope. But a lot of times, to me, it’s not! It’s not! There’s something missing. Something’s missing! I don’t care technically what you did. Yes, you have a Fender through the amp that they used in the ‘60s and through this board, and like — but that doesn’t mean shit if it doesn’t sound right and give you that feelin’, you-know-what-I’m-sayin’. I don’t get excited when someone’s like, “Yo, I’m going into the studio with a live band…” I’ve heard people say that, then I heard [the music] and it failed my expectations. After all of these years of breaking things down, to me, I just keep it really simple: Is it dope, or is it not dope? That’s how it should be. But I think people get like, caught up in the whole pitch of, “Yo, but he used this band…” A lot of times, these newer bands that recreate that sound are extremely dope. But what I think needs to happen is producers need to take that shit — like they did records — put it in the damn sampler and add their drums to where it knocks. Because a lot of these live drummers are playing funky breaks all day, and it sounds incredible how it’s recorded, but the knock is not there. And as far as I know, when I came up with hip hop, shit knocked. Drums were the driving force.
BeatTips: Well what you just described is what Preem did with PRhyme—
Marco Polo: Exactly! And that’s the approach I would take, you-know-what-I’m-sayin’. Unless you have like a certain themed album. Because Adrian’s shit is fucking crazy. Like he makes shit sound — I’m a huge fan. He’s definitely influenced by soul and a lot of spaghetti Western shit; a lot of shit sounds evil. That’s right up my lane, and it’s perfect for sampling. But I don’t know if it’s perfect for everybody to just rap on the shit that he does. I think it’s a different thing. I think as its own thing, listening to it, it’s my favorite. I fucking just listen to that shit and I’m like, “Yo!...” And I vibe out to it. And then for making beats, it’s great, too.
BeatTips: There’s another thing, I’m sure you’re aware of. Speak on this. That when people mention the band, there’s always this tinge that it’s somehow better, that a live band is somehow better, that it’s evolving—
Marco Polo: Yeah, I know. It’s HORSESHIT! It’s horseshit to me. I think it’s bullshit! Listen, when people evolve, and all this — even me, sometimes people say it for me, and I’m cool with it, but like, as much more as I know I’m doing, and me playing you beats and being like, “Yo, I did this here, and I did this, here.” That’s cool, and technically it’s impressive to people. But some people say to me, “Yo, your first album, you was just sampling, that’s my favorite shit.” And I have to scratch my head because technically, I’m so passed that shit. Like, are you hearing the shit I’m doing now? And the bottom line is: While maybe I’m better, it doesn’t matter to people, they just want to get that feelin’. And a lot of the time, with cats like Jake, the RZA, whoever, the shit they’re doing now technically is superior to what they were doing back then. But is it better? is the argument. Does it make you feel the same way? Still some of my favorite records from Jake are like the old shit. RZA sampling, and what he did on shit like Liquid Swords is the peak for me. And I’m not saying what he’s doing now is not dope. But straight up, I like that shit more. When he was just fucking sampling shit and chopping shit up.
BeatTips: So, explain what you do. [Some] people are confused about live instrumentation as the beat and exactly what you do. So talk about that, the differences.
Marco Polo: The shit that I do these days is I sample myself essentially. I accumulate a lot of music — live instrumentation like you say. I’ll buy sound libraries…like a soulful guitar pack with people playing riffs in different chords. Here’s people playing keys and chords. Here’s some horns. I take that shit like I do with vinyl, I put it into Komplete or Kontakt or my MPC, and I FUCK IT UP with compression, and take these luscious, highly recorded, 42-bit shit — I don’t care about all that. I want it to sound dusty. So I put in here [MPC, Komplete, or Kontakt] and I mess with it, then I add my own shit on top of it. As long as you got a .wav file, you’re good. You can put it into many programs. Absolutely. You’re limitless with things. I was making music with some musicians and something wasn’t happening. It wasn’t working. And I was like, “Yo, we’re making these ill things in the studio,” then I’m like, “Yo, this is going to be a crazy beat.” Then I sit down to make it and it was WACK! [laughs]
BeatTips: Sample packs have been around for years, but why is it that what you’re doing? I remember you playing some things for me several years ago and asking me, “Yo, tell me the truth, does it sound like a sample?” And I told you, “No. But you’re getting there.” What you’re doing now vs. then, it’s night and day. So what is it that you think is responsible for you being able to now match it to where it’s being mistaken for a sample?
Marco Polo: Practice! [laughs] Putting in work, man. Learning from my mistakes. Learning and getting better, and like analyzing the fuck out of everything. Yo, making beats, this is an education that never ends. There’s no graduation from learning production. It’s a fucking endless university that has no ending EVER. And that’s’ the problem with me, too. I would probably get more beats done if I was less critical [of myself] and over thinking and constantly over analyzing my own shit.
BeatTips: You’re surrounded by records, you’ve been digging; that’s never gonna leave you.
Marco Polo: Never!
BeatTips: So you don’t think that has shaped your ear?
Marco Polo: Yes! ABSOLUTELY! YES! You have to have an ear. Absolutely it comes from the influence of the music I get off my vinyl, ‘cause I know how shit’s supposed to sound.
BeatTips: Because the way you’re presenting it is like, “Yo, I put some compression…” But all of these things are subconscious metrics in your head. When you’re turning the knob—
Marco Polo: I’m trying to make shit sound like if I went to a record store, and it sounds dirty, and I put amps on shit. And the reason I’m doing that is because I know that’s what they did back then. But I don’t have those same tools, so I gotta attack it from different ways. And whatever I can achieve that sound with, I’m going to use it.
BeatTips: The buzzword that I was getting at is “reference.” Sonically, you have a reference—
Marco Polo: Yes, Always—
BeatTips: That’s in your head. That I think without — whether you’re dealing with vinyl or you’re online, if you don’t have that sonic reference, you’re not going to be able to make that sound.
Marco Polo: Yes! It all starts from me buying music and records, that’s the foundation of all this shit. And that’s why I’m able to achieve beats that don’t have samples in them because I’ve studied what they do sound like, and I’m still learning about it. So if I didn’t start by diggin’, you know, you can’t just — you gotta understand. Even with me selling my drums now, and I tell people, I’m like, “Yo, buy my drums. They’ll help you with your beats and you’ll have shit that you don’t have to over analyze, you just knock out a beat.” But like, you gotta dig! Never stop doing that and learning and getting your own shit that you have to make your shit different from everyone else.
BeatTips: And with this new component, this rather large component, to your style right now, creatively, what options does it give you that you previously didn’t have? What options does this new method give you creatively that you previously didn’t have?
Marco Polo: It’s unlimited the options I have now. Now, I’m able to time stretch on new levels. I’m able to pitch down [in new ways]. I take a bunch of shit and individually tweak it. I have effects — I never got the effects board in my MPC, mostly because I heard it was wack. And the effects, to be able to pre-process and put reverbs on drums; dumb shit that people probably have and are like, “Why didn’t you have that all this time?” “’Cause I didn’t!”
BeatTips: What about the main bane of existence to all sample-based beatmakers: replays? When there’s a sample that’s there, and there’s some other shit that you wanna do with it, but for whatever reason you can’t—
Marco Polo: Now, I can take melodies and extend them. And you know when you hear a record and you’re like, “Aw, man, the first bar of that is crazy.” Then it gets super wack on bar 2. Now I can be like, let me replay it and play what I want to be there. Or have someone do it. And then records really become inspiration because a lot of times I try to replay something that I hear on record, but I’m not a classically trained musician, so it’ll just end up becoming my own thing anyways. An original idea inspired by something that just goes in a whole other direction.
BeatTips: Do you feel that this method is a bastardized version of what sample-based beatmakers have traditionally understood sampling to be?
Marco Polo: Yes. A bastardized version? I don’t know. I don’t fully understand the question.
BeatTips: I’ll rephrase it. There are purists in everything. And so, there’s some people that will say, “It’s sampling, but it’s not real sampling.” Because you’re not using—
Marco Polo: Records—
BeatTips: Exactly. So speak on that.
Marco Polo: Yeah, I don’t know, everyone has their own—
BeatTips: But what’s YOUR take on it? You have to speak for how you see it… Let me give you example. Before Preem did what he did with PRhyme — which, by the way, he resisted doing it at first. Before he did it, there was this sort of slant, people in the shadows like, “I don’t really want to fuck with that.” But now, there’s a before and after. Now that HE did it, that DJ Premier did it, it opens it up. So what I’m saying to you, for the purists that would say, “Yeah, Marco’s shit is alright, it’s dope or whatever, but it’s not that real shit.” What’s your response to that?
Marco Polo: Anyone that says my shit ain’t real or tries to de-credit it, that’s bullshit. What I do IS sampling, whether it’s a record or not. And anyone who says it’s not is bullshit. It all goes back to me not trying to over analyze shit, but shit is either dope, or it’s not dope, you know. If you don’t like my shit, you don’t like my shit. But to say that what I’m doing is not creative or sampling? I thinks it’s different with certain heads because like, typically, and this goes for me, too, sampling — the beauty about sampling is that people love to hear something they know that was reinterpreted in another way. So when you’re sampling yourself and all this other shit, it’s different because people hear it and be like, “It’s dope…” But I think one of the craziest things about hip hop that’ll never stop is that you hear shit you know, “Holy fuck! De La Soul sampled Hall & Oats - ‘Say No Go.’” Right. Like, “Holy fuck! I know that record. They took this.” And that element is gone if I’m doing original music that is — I’m sampling myself, but I’m sampling something you’ve never heard. That’s the difference and I think that’s part of the excitement for people in rap, is that they hear records that they have in their crates that they play and it’s flipped…It’s still the same process, it’s just not coming from vinyl all the time, it’s coming from me.
BeatTips: Now, that’s the creative option. The other thing, with regards to now, opportunity. What does this do for you?
Marco Polo: To make money!
BeatTips: All right, express that. Break that down.
Marco Polo: The great thing about it is it definitely opens doors to have my music to be submitted for licensing. And a lot of opportunities are instantly gone, because not saying that I did or I didn’t, but if you have a lot of music where you haven’t cleared the samples you’re using, you can’t use that shit past putting it out. You can’t pitch it to movies and video games and T.V. shows. I was able to make money with this new approach. So I’m very for it. When you make music as a career, you have to think about shit like that. It’s been very helpful. But it’s not the main thing that drives me. It’s just a great option to have, knowing that I have the freedom to do that now.
BeatTips: As one of the pioneers of this new compositional approach, where do you see it going?
Marco Polo: It’s going in crazy places. Now you have producers who quit making beats and are now making music and pitching it to samplers. Like people getting up with bands, like the ones we were talking about, making music, selling them as sample packs to producers, like, “Yo, $30, you get 15 joints that sound like they came off a record. Sample away! We guarantee you we’ll give you the master clearance. Just give us some of the publishing if you use it.” It’s like a whole new scene now, it’s fucking insane.
BeatTips: But you don’t have to do that with Komplete.
Marco Polo: No, no, no. But I’m just saying, there’s all these types of new approaches that’s crazy. Especially when producers that are making and composing their music, because they know exactly what producers want to hear when they’re looking for samples. So you have all these new avenues of music, where the live instrumentation and doing shit like that is positive. It all comes down to money, bro. The fucking people are just scared to sample and shit. And it fucking hurts the music, straight up, because to this day, like, if I pick my top 10 records, none of them shits is sample free. [laughs] Top 50! NONE of them shits are sample free. I know Dre definitely played some shit over, but even still, it was like playing over a sample. Name five amazing, classic [hip hop/rap] records, that don’t have samples in them. Could you? I don’t know. Maybe if I thought for a couple of hours. But I don’t think so. And as much as shit progresses, it just goes back to the beginning. Is it fucking dope, or is it not dope?
BeatTips: So what’s your take on E-diggin’? Diggin’ online and downloading music?
Marco Polo: I don’t judge. I do the shit, too. But I do it sometimes because I can’t get out and go to the record stores. But I’m not one of those cats that judges people. A lot of these newer producers don’t know better, because they’re not coming up with people showing them that you gotta go do that. So you can’t even judge the new generation, that’s what diggin’ to them is. “Yo, I go on YouTube and I take samples,” you know. They don’t have the big brother, the homey who’s like, “Nah, you gotta go here and start and look for these breaks.” So you can’t get judgey. I use to be one of those purists cats and get angry, and I totally — in my 30s — hate that old me. [laughs] Because everyone’s just different. Everyone has their own path, you know. I used to have a rule that once I used some drums, I would never use them again on a beat, but I changed.
BeatTips: When you do make a beat, do you start with the drums or non-drums?
Marco Polo: It usually goes either way to be honest. But I would say more often than not, I start with drums. Which could backfire on you as a producer because you get stuck with drums. I usually start with drums, because I like to nod my head. But it can be very counter productive, so I don’t recommend that approach always. And sometimes I start with the sample. So the answer to that question is, it completely changes all the time. I usually get more inspired by hearing new drum sounds than I do new samples, so I’ll start with like, if I have a new break or something, or a new drum kit I put together.
BeatTips: Do you ever make your beats with headphones on?
Marco Polo: Never. I fucking hate it. I love listening to shit loud. I feel like headphones cheat you and don’t give you the real. I’d rather listen, make beats through my fucking laptop speakers, because that’s like what most of the world listens to beats on anyway. Which is crazy, but it’s the truth.
BeatTips: Rhythm is a mainstay in beatmaking of course. But how has melody figured into what you do?
Marco Polo: I’m really trying to focus, I feel like I don’t have — that’s my lacking thing in my production career, is the lack of melody. Unless, you know, my first album I had a lot of loops with melodies. But that’s the hard thing that I tried to really work on in my original compositions is melody. Every beat’s gotta have that one thing you’re drawn to. And most of the time, it’s the fucking melody, it’s the thing that you can hum or something. And I feel like I sometimes back myself into corners with technically dope beats, but lacking that one thing that makes you go, Okay, that’s that shit! So now, I’m very picky about what I sample, or if I’m making something that it has a melody, a driving melody.
BeatTips: Speak on what repetition means to beatmaking. How do you approach that challenge?
Marco Polo: Repetition is very important. It’s very important. I think that’s actually like the most important thing. A lot of people — when you have all these changes, like hip hop is not pop music. It don’t always need a bridge or chorus. People want take it there to have, and make it progress, but the verdict is out if that’s positive or negative. Because like I said, your favorite records, I guarantee you if you go back, are like 2- and 4-bar loops, you know. Look at all the early RZA shit. Premo shit. It was real repetitive shit. And it’s some of the best music ever. So I think it’s very important to have that, the headnod going on something that you can gravitate to right away, and then you build on top of that. But until you have that, that should be the focus of every producer to find that one quality that is driving the beat.
BeatTips: What are the type of beats do you think stand the test of time?
Marco Polo: Fuck, I don’t want to sound like a Stan, but Premo shit; a lot of shit where people are looping. A lot of people were looping something that plays continuously over and over again, you know. You have to have an ear for good sounds. That’s the problem. And you have to know what to do with them. A lot of people don’t. We could probably find a sample that five producers used, you know, and they all came out, and then be like, “Who made it the illest?” This person used it exactly the same, but why doesn’t it sound like this version? You know. People use shit that Pete and Preem used, but why doesn’t it sound like their version? There’s so many fucking levels in this shit, it’s crazy.
BeatTips: What’s your work routine like? Is it everyday? Are you up in the morning?
Marco Polo: I try.
BeatTips: Do you prefer making beats at night?
Marco Polo: No, no, no. I’m not a night guy. Maybe one day when I’m in another living situation with a studio and I don’t have sound constraints. But I usually get up everyday around 9 O’clock, pretty early. I get coffee. And then I come in here and I listen to music. But these days—
BeatTips: So wait, wait. I’m going to pull you back. Give me your typical day. How do you approach it? Monday through Friday? Monday through Thursday?
Marco Polo: Well, it changed. Because when I was younger, I would just get up everyday and fucking making beats as soon as I woke up. But now, honestly, I’m not feeling the shit like I used to feel the shit. The inspiration is not coming to me as much as it did. One thing I have learned is that I do not sit in here if I’m not inspired. If I’m gonna force it, I’m gonna make a beat that sounds like I’m forcing it. So the main thing is, I gotta get in here and want to work. That starts everything. And if I wake up — unfortunately, that’s the reality of how it is now, where sometimes as soon as I wake up and I’m like, “I don’t feel like doing shit.” Because I don’t hear a lot of shit that fucking inspires me these days. And I have to dig for it. And I’m one of those dudes that I don’t want to sit in here and make the same beat that I made for the last 15 years. I’m getting really bored of that shit, just as a creative person. I want to progress. Unfortunately, those moments come far and few between these days, where I get in here and be like, “Yo!” I’ve had to change my approach and do different things to get inspired.
BeatTips: What were the changes?
Marco Polo: Well, actually, this dude, here, Droog [Your Old Droog previously entered the room] one of the things that I like about working with him is that when he comes in here, sometimes we sit down and make beats together. Like him being an MC sitting here we’ll kind of like compose ideas together. And it’s helpful to have a rapper being right here being like, “Yo!” Sometimes when you’re making a beat, you don’t know when to stop, you over produce the fuck out of shit. And I do that constantly. Having someone here as a point of reference to be like, “Yo, that shit is good. That’s the verse.” Like, “Chill!” It’s a blessing and I can actually get more done. That’s a new approach for me. I never actually sat with someone and made beats with someone like that. Ever. I’m very like, I’m doing the shit myself. I’m not a collaborative-producing type of person. That situation, you know, a lot of good records came out of that, those sessions. So now I’m more open to that. So that’s definitely helpful. I also like producing when I have a reason to produce. “Yo, MP, I need a remix.” Fucking love that shit, because I have something to build with. I have an original, I have vocals. Before I just made beats, because I just fucking love making beats. And I can still do that, but less. These days, I have to come in here because I have a job. Like, “Yo, I need this.” I have a vibe, I know what I gotta do. It’s like a purpose. I need that purpose. And, unfortunately, it’s sad. But, it used to be that I didn’t need that. I just came in here and made music. These days, I need…If I have a purpose, it’s better.
BeatTips: So you take far more days off now?
Marco Polo: Well, I don’t take days off. I’m still in here working. But it’s not the same where it was just relentless. I go to Nottz’s Instagram where he makes like 13 beats a day, for the fuck of it. And I look at him and I’m jealous. Yo, that is amazing that you can just have that much creativity flow through you. It doesn’t work like that for me. I wish it did. But it doesn’t…I’m sure not everyone he’s going to say is the best beat he ever made. But he’s not human, first of all. I’m a huge fan of Nottz. A lot of that shit is incredible. But obviously, if you’re doing that many — a lot of people get hype on Twitter, “Yo, I made 10 beats today.” And I’m like, “I’m sure 9 of them are terrible.”
BeatTips: Right. So what are your safeguards for quality? What do you do?
Marco Polo: I’m not concerned with quantity. I just want to make something, my whole thing is, I come in here and it happens organically and naturally and it’s not forced. The best beats I ever made in my career happened in 15 minutes. Because everything happens the way it’s supposed to when I sit down at the machine. I load drums, within five minutes I found music that meshes with the drums naturally. I really feel like there’s a fucking — like someone’s really giving me energy. Like, today, it was meant to all mesh.
BeatTips: But there hasn’t been a beat that you began one day and worked on another day?
Marco Polo: Absolutely. Those beats come out good, too. I made a lot of great beats that took me a week to finish. But if I put the ratio of those beats against the 20-minute ones, they’re gonna beat ‘em. Because if I did a ratio of which ones were the hotter shit…I really feel like that energy is just meant to be. The shit was meant to happen. It all comes together. And I’ll sit in here on days where I have drums for like ours and I can’t find shit that works with it. And I’m like, “This shit’s not happening,” you know.
BeatTips: Do you work with a permanent manager, or do you reach out to artists yourself?
Marco Polo: I’ve had one manager in my entire career, my boy Theo. We’re still cool. But I’ve never had a manager, I’ve always managed myself. Not that I’m against a manager. I haven’t had anyone since Theo that stepped to me and was like, “I see your vision, I wanna fuck with you.” So my whole thing with managers, that’s the way it’s suppose to work. Like, you don’t go find a manager. You don’t look for a manager. A manager’s gotta come to you. Pitch an idea to you. And see your vision.
BeatTips: Describe to me how you think technology has helped and hurt the art of beatmaking.
Marco Polo: Aw, man, we don’t have enough fucking weeks, days in the year to answer that question. Technology is constantly changing. It’s changing so fast I can’t — I am nowhere caught up to it, and I probably never will be. There are advantages and positives for my production that I’m able to learn and do more things and have more versatility, more control with what I do. But there are some days I think it’s all horseshit and it’s counterproductive. And some of my best beats are just made with this MPC. I put a record on and find some shit, and I throw some drums on it. And it’s just as good as this new progressive shit where I can not sample. So I don’t think either is better. I think it’s just, once again, it’s finding a way to not let it — I think a lot of people get overwhelmed in all this new shit and it bogs them down, and it is actually counterproductive in their sound.
BeatTips: Right. Time wise, you’ve figured out to do the Komplete stuff fast, too, right?
Marco Polo: I am. I’m learning. I have not perfected it by any means. Because replaying samples, I’ll say, or making my own compositions, is that it takes fucking twice, three times as long. Because when you’re sampling off a record, let’s say you sample a loop. In that loop, the bass line is in there, the keys are in there, the horns are in there, it’s fucking 18 sounds compressed, it’s a full sound. When you’re playing from scratch, you have to recreate an entire band. You’re playing layers, layers, layers. And you gotta make that shit sound full. Yeah, so, technology’s a ho. It’s great, but at the same time, if I lost it tomorrow, I would be cool. And I would still make music that would be dope.
BeatTips: How have the expectations that you had for yourself, both creatively and financially 10 or so years ago, how have they aligned with your achievements today?
Marco Polo: In the last year, it got real for me. For Marco Polo related business, shit got really real last year. And in 2013, I thought I had my best creative year ever. I put out three albums: Newport Authority 2, Seize the Day with Stax, and PA2, which is the follow-up to Port Authority, which is the album that people know me best for. And for me, it was actually the year where I was the least visible in my entire career. That shit slapped me in the fact, hard. I felt I had my most successful year, creative output. Three albums where I thought: These are the best beats I’ve ever made in my career. I’m at the top of my game. I progressed. And I felt like that was the year that no one gave a flying fuck about what I was doing. Straight up. And that’s not to belittle anyone that supported my projects, I love them. But in comparison to the looks I was getting back when I was putting out my earlier records, it was nowhere near the visibility.
BeatTips: So what did that fee like?
Marco Polo: It felt like shit. When you’re working your ass off and you think you’re at the top of your game, and no one’s paying attention or watching. That shit sucked. It was like a Mack truck smacking into my forehead. It was the worst. And it fucked me up. People around me know that it fucked me up. Because I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong. I don’t think it was something necessarily that I was doing wrong, it was just times were changing, and music’s changing, and hip hop’s changing. And it was just trying to come up with a new plan so that I could progress my shit to the same level. Because I feel like I’ve been in the same zone for a minute. I haven’t stepped up my brand name to new audiences and working with bigger people, and there’s many reasons for that. It’s just, I became aware of it. Before, I didn’t care about that shit. I just came in here and made music. But I’m a 34 year-old-man. I’m turning 35, and I picked music as a career. So it’s irresponsible for me to get into the studio and not think about all these things when you run your own business. And this year was the first year that I really sat down and had to be like, “Ok, what’s going to happen next? What are you going to do? Shit is changing. People ain’t buying records. The sound that you’re doing is not the most popular sound.” I’ve never sent beats to major label artist. Like once in a while, but it was never my focus to get big placements and chase Jay Z and Drake and the like. And now, you know, it’s a matter of like looking at those things. I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen next, but I want to be in the game for 20 years. And people like Premo, they have a brand and they’re legends. And he can do what he’s doing for the rest of his life, because he’s DJ Premier. He earned that spot. He doesn’t have to change. But for some of us new cats that maintain that sound, it’s a little more difficult, you know what I’m saying. It’s almost like a novelty, the type of shit that we do. If major label cats want the Golden Era sound, they’re gonna hit Preem, they’re not going to hit me, you know what I’m saying. It doesn’t mean I’m wack. They’re going to go the fathers of that sound. Another thing that pissed me off is a lot of people think that all I do is that sound. That’s completely untrue. Like, I’m capable of making all types of shit. But I feel like I haven’t had the opportunity to work with artists that put me on a level for people to see that shit.
BeatTips: I had a conversation recently with a friend, not saying any names, we were talking about DJ Khalil. I said, “You should really check out ‘West Coast Love.’” If you want to hear something that’s in that zone, but it’s going to surprise you, check out “West Coast Love.” And I’m not going to tell you who produced it, just check out “West Coast Love,” MC Eiht. Then come back to me and we’ll talk. He called me back and said, “Yo, son, you didn’t tell me Marco Polo produced this joint.”…Because you can make the music, just because you have an ear for music, doesn’t mean you know how to work the next stage. And that’s the thing that’s a detriment to a lot of people.
Marco Polo: That’s the industry. And it’s so obvious with so many talents. Shit, these days, the talent is actually the last thing on the list that gets you the looks. It has nothing to do with that. There’s so many people that I look at and I’m like, “Yo, you should be like a God. You should be sitting on a throne made of gold for your talents, and like nobody knows who the fuck you are.”
What’s it like to tour as a producer?
Marco Polo: What’s it like to tour as a producer? It’s weird. Because a lot of people think that I DJ, and I don’t DJ. I use my MPC with Serato. So it’s interesting. But most of my live performing is me with rappers. Me traveling with Master Ace, and I run his show with my MPC just like a DJ does, but I do it with pads. It’s amazing. I think that for me as a producer, I’ve done more touring than most producers would do who just make beats, you know. Because I’ve transitioned my ability to use the MPC and run a live show.
BeatTips: But when you travel, how are you’re treated as a person who’s a professional hip hop music maker?
Marco Polo: I get love in all of those places. I think people are less…I think people always give a positive response. People love being in the same room with people that made music that they love. When I go out with Ace, it’s really special because people know that we’ve made records together, records that have resonated with them. So it’s amazing to be able to tour.
BeatTips: Contrast that with how you’re received in America. Is there a difference?
Marco Polo: Oh, they love me in Europe and Australia, and they like me in the United States. That’s the difference [laughs]. And I’m sure there’s pockets of people in the U.S., but there’s no fucking doubt, there’s no doubt about the fact that these overseas markets embrace me way stronger than my home fucking country — countries, I say because Canada and U.S. are both my home countries.
BeatTips: For your catalog, here’s the songs that I would tell someone why they should pitch your tent behind you as one of the next pioneers. There’s four songs of yours, and I want you to match me on. “Astonishing,” “Field Nigga,” “Fame for President,” and the aforementioned “West Coast Love.” Now I want you to chime in. “Astonishing,” how did that song come about?
Marco Polo: “Astonishing” started with the beat being made, and me and Shylow figuring out what to do with it. Which is what happens all the time. And it started with Large Professor. He set it off. I sent it to him. I don’t think, at first, he was super hype about it as I was. But, that’s my dude. He liked the beat. I just know when he’s like wowing over something or he’s into it. But because we have that relationship, he wrote the bars. When he did it, I was like, “He set it off!” Then it was all a matter of making sure whoever connected from him was all in the same pocket. Then I reached out to Deck [Inspectah Deck], he did his verse, killed it. Then it was O.C., killed it. Now, the problem came on verse number four.
BeatTips: What was the problem?
Marco Polo: The problem is that there were six MCs that did a fourth verse that you will never hear. Until I came to Tragedy, who did what I wanted to happen. And I can not speak on the names because out of respect. No, no, there were four MCs that did verses on that fourth part that I was not — not that they weren’t dope, it just wasn’t what I was looking for. I needed that homerun. That wild-out, end-the-song crazy. I knew Revolution [DJ Revolution] would do the scratches, but he was the last one to do his part, but that fourth verse had to be right. And it was fucking the worst, because I had four MCs that I really love. From legends in the game, I’m talking, to maybe legends one day, underground cats with a buzz, and it just wasn’t what I was looking for.
Marco Polo "Astonishing" feat Large Professor, Inspectah Deck, O C & Tragedy Khadafi
BeatTips: Tragedy lost his mind on that track.
Marco Polo: Yeah, when Tragedy did it, I was like, “OH! Thank you, sir, that’s what I needed [laughs].” It just needed that, it had to have that OG energy on it. You needed energy. That’s the problem with a lot of the verses that I got, people weren’t rapping with energy. They were like talking that new shit. Which is cool for beats that call for that. But that’s a loud beat, you gotta fuckin’…
BeatTips: Right. And “West Coast Love,” featuring MC Eiht and King Tee
Marco Polo: That, I gotta thank DJ Premier for that. Because DJ Premier sent my beats to MC Eiht. He recorded – I have like three other songs with Eiht that he’s gonna use on the new Compton Most Wanted album. So I had the leverage already, because he used a bunch of my beats, so it was nothin’. So I hit him, I hit Eiht up and I was like, “Yo, can you do something for me?” And he did the two verses on that beat, no hook or nothing. Just laid two verses, they were dope. But I’m like, “OK, this is not a song yet. Just two verses on a beat. Who could we get?” I hit up my boy Stylistic Jones from Malcolm & Martin, who’s on my album, and he knew King Tee. I sent Tee the record, and literally in a day, he laid down the hook and the third verse. And it just — that’s the kind of shit I’m talking about. It was no — it just happened naturally. I sent him the beat, he sent it back. It was perfection. There was no like — he knew what he had to do. And that’s the positive to working with dudes from that era, that they’re veterans in terms of songwriting. There not just, “I’m gonna spit the hottest bars…” With Tee, he knew Eiht was on it, he knew it was a West Coast record, he knew what needed to happen. He did it. And I was grateful, and that’s one of my favorite records on that album.
Marco Polo feat. MC Eiht and King Tee - "West Coast Love"
BeatTips: Talk about what it’s like making a producer album.
Marco Polo: It’s the worst thing ever in life. I fucking hate it and it’s like — at the same time, I fucking love it. It took five years to make that record. It kind of fucked me because at that point, it’s like, do people even care after the first one came out? So it was fun to make it, but it drained all my energy, and there were days I wanted to throw the towel in on it.
BeatTips: What’s the hard part about it?
Marco Polo: It’s just, connecting so many people to make it make sense. You know, you’re trying to pitch your vision to 60 MCs, and you’re trying to get them all on the same page for your vision. And everybody’s got their own lives, and you’re not cutting checks and you’re doing shit on the love. People don’t give a fuck about that.
BeatTips: What’s the love? Speak about that.
Marco Polo: The love is doing something for me for free, or doing beat trades, you know what I’m sayin’. Like, cats got kids and shit, so I respect that. It’s hard for me to be like, “Yo, did you do your verse?” when I know you’re out there chasing money. I’m not going to be in your face, “Yo, do it, do it, do it!” You gotta wait on their schedules out of respect. You have to barter, and you just gotta be respectful. That’s why shit takes so long, ‘cause I can’t be barking at people, “Yo, why are you taking so long?” I’m not cutting a check. And I know after years in the game that that’s what comes first for people. People might not want to hear that, the purist, but you know, a lot of your favorite artists, they gotta make money. It’s money driven. That’s the reality of shit, so I gotta work on their schedule if I’m not a major label with a budget.
BeatTips: So now there’s a growing drum kit market—
Marco Polo: Yes! I new fucking world.
BeatTips: A lot of people are doing that. What made you jump in?
Marco Polo: Speaking with Jake One and Illmind made me do it. Running into them and talking to them about their successes with putting out sound kits. For a long time, I fought it. My purist side of me fought putting out the drum kit. Until one day, it cliqued to me that it was stupid. I didn’t need to fight it. There’s nothing wrong with sharing your sounds. Let me tell you why. Because coming up as a producer, a lot of the producers, we went to the record store and bought Ultimate Beats and Breaks [record series of break-beats]. We bought drum sound libraries. We bought all this shit. And guess what that was? It was other fucking producers finding records and compiling drum breaks for producers to have on one LP. It was somebody digging for you. And we bought that shit. And some of your favorite producers that you hold in your top five used Ultimate Beats and Breaks and looped that shit, because they didn’t have the original records. So what makes it different from me presenting my sounds for people to do it? It’s the same shit. It’s obvious convenience, but to have that purist approach, “Go find your own drums.” Well, if you’re really going to look at it like that, then a lot of us, you know, you’re doing the same shit you do now. So if anyone looks at someone for being wack or belittle them for like buying a drum kit...Like, you went and bought those drum comps, so what’s the difference?
BeatTips: What’s the name of your kit?
Marco Polo: The name of my kit is called “Pad Thai.” Playing on obviously the MPC pads. And it’s my first drum kit. And what makes mine different is, I put 21 of my productions that I feel like are more known to people that know my sound. It’s a mix of like stuff from my older albums and new stuff. And, it’s my sounds; it’s my drum sounds.
BeatTips: Does it include actual songs or does it just include the sounds?
Marco Polo: No, no songs. It has 21 songs that you’ll know, and when you go into those folders, it’s all the drums and bass sounds for the beat, unprocessed.
BeatTips: Oh, it’s the bass sounds, too?
Marco Polo: Yeah, I put the bass tones. Also, what I did is I printed the bass line of the song so producers could hear a soloed bass line. Because a lot of people, I feel like, part of this process with up-and-coming dudes is, they want to be educated. They want to learn. And I thought that would be a weird but cool, interesting thing for cats to see my bass lines isolated. You know, tone wise, so they can kind of see what I did, and just get a feel for how my shit sounds, moves. And that’s some of the things I didn’t notice in a lot of other producer kits, it was just straight drums. And I wanted to give people bass lines…It’s all .wav files, compatible with all samplers or programs; whatever you use, it’ll work. And it’s all .wav sounds, and then bass line stems. Which is a .wav, too, but it’s an 8-bar stem. Whatever beat’s in there, you have a printed bass line stem. And then the individual bass sound you can use and span across your keyboard or pads, just like I did it. Whatever the root note is of the bass line, it’s in the kit. Plus, all the percussion sounds, you know, kicks, snares, hats, shakers. Anything I use drum percussion or bass wise, is in the kit.
BeatTips: And how do you think your “Pad Thai” kit stands out? What has always been the genesis for drum sounds for you?
Marco Polo: I think it stands out because I’m a producer who’s known for his drum sounds. I think people know me and look to me for hard hitting drums. And there’s a lot of producers out there selling drum kits that aren’t even known for their drums. Fuck placements. There’s producers out there with way bigger placements than me, you know what I’m saying. And they have a bigger audience and people will fuck with them because they make great music. But if you’re looking for drums, which is the whole purpose for buying a drum kit, you know, the thing about fucking with my drum kit is that you’re getting drums that I put in time, to, you know… And it’s not even really a sales pitch. You can listen to anyone of the 21 songs that I have listed. Go listen to what they sound like, and they sound exactly the same…I think one of the things is about my drum sounds, what I put in “Pad Thai,” is that there’s a variety of drum sounds. It’s not all the same fucking trendy sounds you hear in modern production. There might be a couple of those that could work, but it’s different sounds, you have a variety of punchy kicks, you have low kicks. You got ugly drums. You got drums that could work on polished production like…It’s 100+ sounds, even more than that. And it’s like, they’re different vibes. It’s not just one thing. I have all types of shit that you can use in all types of production. Not even just hip hop. You can do whatever you need to with this shit. You can make your turn-up records with my drums. And they hit, man. They hit! The way they’re supposed to hit, because I’ve studied drums. I feel like that’s my specialty as a producer. I have people asking me all the time, “Yo, how the fuck you make your drums sound like that?” And this will give you some insight into how. And it will inspire you to look for similar sounds and improve your skills when it comes to it. My ear over the years. You’re getting 13 fucking years of my digging and my sound for drum sounds for fucking $29. It’s a fucking steal! [laughs].
BeatTips: Do you want to hear from the people who actually use your sounds?
Marco Polo: Absolutely. I want to. I want people to post the beats. To talk about it. And I want them to give me feedback, because I want to do more of these. And I want to be helpful to people. My whole thing is to give you my sounds, but to also inspire music, and also inspire digging, man. Like, go dig. You know, go find shit and have fun with it.
BeatTips: Where can people go listen at?
Marco Polo: Well, you can go to my Soundcloud page, MarcoPoloBeats.com has the whole soundtrack, the track listing of all the records. You can just go on YouTube and type in every name. It’s got “Nostalgia,” Masta Ace, off of Port Authority. It’s got “Marquee” by O.C. It’s got Rah Digga – “Earrings Off.” It’s got the theme song that I did for the Brooklyn Nets that plays on the YES Network. It’s all there listed, so there’s no surprises, you know exactly what you’re buying.
BeatTips: What’s interesting is that you said even now you’re still studying?
Marco Polo: You have to. You have to! Especially when you get into digging, because then you start coming across records that they used and then you hear the original, and you’re like, “How the fuck did they do that?” Even as many years as I’ve been in the game making beats, It’s still amazing. And I want to do that with my shit to people, where they’re like, “Yo, I heard a little clip of something he used, but I don’t understand how you did that and did this.” I like that, I take pride in that. And a lot of those producers to this day, I hear stuff and I’m like, “Oh, shit, that’s one bass note that Pete used, and he has all this other shit…” It’s a fucking magical discovery, I fucking love that shit. It inspires me. But it’s rare these days, with a lot of the new guys, to get that feeling. People are sampling less, and they’re just not technically on that level. I think people started to realize that for the masses and to blow up, people don’t give a fuck about all that shit. You know, when they’re trying to make a hit record, they just want something really simple.
BeatTips: Yeah, in some regards. But the independent circuit is actually burgeoning; there’s a lot of good music that exists.
Marco Polo: Absolutely. Absolutely!
BeatTips: We both come from a time where everything was funneled through the radio, the mainstream system. So we’re now in the age where you can access different channels to find that music. So there isn’t a monolithic radio like there once was. However, certain people are moving and still operating like there is.
Marco Polo: Yeah, you have shit like Shazam now. And then WhoSampled, who I consider to be the devil, and I’ll say that on record. I’ve reached out to them many times to tell them to take my shit off. And let me speak on that real quick, because it’s very important that I make that clear, because people saw me take my music off that [site] and were very upset with me, and I got a lot of backlash through my social media. The reason why I took it off, and this goes for a lot of artists, a lot of motherfuckers don’t clear their records. We are not clearing records! So if we are not clearing samples and records, we don’t want our shit up there. And that’s why it’s an issue. If I clear samples, WhoSampled can put up all those samples all day, I’m proud. They got paid for. But when you put up music that we use and we may not have handle it right, and I’m not saying that I did or did not do that, but in general, WhoSampled should be putting up samples that they know 100% the artist has cleared, or else you’re snitching! Essentially, what you’re doing is snitching. And people don’t understand that. They just think that we’re trying to, that I’m trying to hide my music. I don’t care! I’ll tell you all the samples, if we’re cool, or if I cleared them. But... I’ve been on that site, and it’s been handy to me, straight up. But all I’m saying [is] on a legal standpoint, the reason why we get upset, a lot of producers, is that a lot of people don’t clear samples, and when you put shit up there, it gives someone an opportunity to sue us.
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)
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.
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 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.
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
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”
Bronze Nazareth feat. RZA - “Fresh From The Morgue”
“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"
There are no sleeper cuts on here; all of them will catch your attention on the first listen.
Gripes and Weak Moments
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.
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.
Understanding. It’s one of the primary keys to crafting quality beats. Understanding is something South Bronx-bred beatmaker Minnesota has plenty of. He understands why beatmaking (hip hop production) has moved into the forefront. He understands that one of the beatmaker’s most fundamental roles is to provide the right frequency for a rapper to rap to. And, most importantly, he understands the essence of a dope beat and what it takes to become a skilled beatmaker.
Minnesota (or “Minnie” as he’s called by those who know him best) is the rare no-nonsense but jovial type. Bronx born and bread, he witnessed hip hop as a young child in the late 70s, which gives him a perspective not matched by many today. Because he studied the hip hop from its inception in the Bronx to its meteoric rise worldwide, he has an acute understanding of how hip hop culture and rap music mixed from the 70s on into the 200s. A beatmaker (producer) who enjoys discussing the intricacies of the art of beatmaking, Minnesota’s knowledge of the craft runs deep, and he’s also one of the biggest advocates for beatmaking education that I know. While working on an earlier edition of The BeatTips Manual, Minnesota and I got together to do a series of formal interviews. Below, I’ve put together the highlights of those discussions.
BeatTips: When did you realize that you had skills to make it?
Minnesota: Well, production wise, I was always indirectly into music. It was somethin’ that I always loved. So from the second that I picked it up… I bought my first beat machine in 1994. By 1995, I was selling tracks. I was taught by Scratch, the producer of KNS (he did “Déjà Vu” for Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz). I was coming out of the street, getting into music. I got the ASR; well, no, the first thing I got was the EPS 16 by Ensoniq.
BeatTips: 1994? Good Year! So what skill do you think you’ve developed the most since then?
Minnesota: The tide of music is generic right now. So I really had to learn how to dumb-it down. Doin’ music that’s acceptable to masses of people. The music that I usually be doin’ is some Advant Garde shit, music that’s ahead… A lot of times when I do a beat, I don’t like to do it with my ears, I like to do it with my spine. I like the no-brainer—the first 5 seconds of the beat is hittin’ you.
BeatTips: A lot of producers that came out of that mid-‘90s period resisted change.
Minnesota: Not me, ‘cuz see, there’s always my artistic mind and then there’s my hustlin’ mind. There’s always the mind that wants to get a lot of paper [money]. And then there’s always the mind of creating something because it’s some real ill shit. So there’s two minds. I could do something for someone like Mariah Carey, and then I could do something for someone underground… But just being a producer, sometimes you’ll be hard-headed, just wanting to go in one direction. When that happens, you become your own worst enemy.
BeatTips: What’s currently in your setup?
BeatTips: You don’t mess with the MPC?
Minnesota: Nawgh, none of that shit… It’s always the n*gga, it’s never the machine! I will say I lack certain keyboard sounds, the Ensoniq [ASR-10] doesn’t come with all that. There was a time when I was getting ready to get rid of it and I had gone with Tariq to Virginia. And we were in the studio with Pharrell [and Chad, the Neptunes] and I was getting ready to get rid of my machine…And I had gotten to see Timbaland’s setup and Pharrell’s setup, and at the base of their shit was the ASR-10. It’s a machine that might not be modern, but you can really get it off. I’m not close minded. There’s other different shit that I’m going to fuck with. At the time, I just didn’t come across any other machine that I wanted to use… I was never really big on the 1200 [E-Mu SP 1200]. And MPC’s just remind me of updated 1200s. I was really more for the keyboard, ‘cuz I could play by ear… The sounds in the ASR come in layers. I can strip layers, I can take two different sounds and glue ‘em on, you know what I’m sayin’. Tone it, glue it on, pitch it, then I’ll have a different sound.
BeatTips: I remember once when you and I were in the studio and you were telling me about this clap that you had made; you had layered some percussion over it. Is that a stable of your sound? Do you do a lot of layering?
Minnesota: Yeah, I do a lot of layering. Layering and pitching, you know what I’m sayin’. That’s the good thing about the ASR. I mean, I’m not going to say that you can’t do it on other machines, but there’s a certain warm sound that the ASR already comes with. Its got like a raggedy warm sound already. So even if I’m doing a keyboard beat, it sounds a little different then a nigga on an MPC.
Ghostface Killah - "Beat the Clock" (Prod. by Minnesota)
BeatTips: When you sample your drums, how do you do it? Do you sample them dry or do you do all your effects after?
Minnesota: Nawgh, I do everything dry. I don’t know if that’s a downside or not; I just grew up lovin’ warm music. I do all my shit dry. Unless I’m in the studio and I want to go a certain way.
BeatTips: What do you owe your sound to?
Minnesota: I like to do music that hits you right away, music that you feel. That could be a downside, though. ‘Cuz the music that’s out right now is microwave shit. You understand. It comes and it goes! But me, I just like that real, real good shit. I try to give it raw. Even with my keyboard joints… I don’t like to be boxed in as a producer. I can do anything. I can do Reggaeton, I can do R&B. But my forte is spittin’ out the joints that I like, and I’m known for that.
BeatTips: You did the theme song for Def Poetry Jam. Them violins was crazy. Now, for that beat, for something like that, you would think that you had to have a musical background where you were taught how to arrange music traditionally.
Minnesota: Well, what happened with that was there was a sample that couldn’t be cleared. So we had violin players come in and I had to hum it to the best of my ability. I like the beat. But we got close, but far, from the original tune… Even still, it fit so good with what was going on with Def Poetry. But the original sample, they was talking house and swimming pool money to clear it! People like how the final beat came out. But honestly, in my heart I didn’t like it, but that was a paper [money] situation.
BeatTips: Right now, reflectin’ back on your career, what producer or producers had the most influence on you early on? Who took you in early on?
Minnesota: SHOWBIZ!!! From Diggin’ In The Crates. That nigga opened my ears! Back when niggas was just sampling. Showbiz was the one that told me that I was listening to the records all wrong. Like, I would sample 1,2,3,4. He taught me 3 ½, 4 ½, 2 ½; like to catch it so awkward where nobody would be able to figure out what you did. He was the first person that showed me how to chop. And I just took it to Mars. He was on the SP 1200… I can always say that I owe all of that to Showbiz from Diggin’ In The Crates.
BeatTips: So how were you choppin’ before Show put you on?
Minnesota: Musically, it was like, when I got on the machine… you know how some producers are crazy over the megabytes and the gigahertz. I don’t know about none of that shit. I’m not technical AT ALL! My setup is hilarious to producers, when they come to my house, ‘cuz my shit is hooked up to a CD player! Niggas be buggin’ like, “Yo, where’s the studio?” I’m like, ‘Fuck a studio.’ I’m always more for the feeling of the music, or more for the frequency. Niggas be having the biggest studios and THEY BE TRASH!!! It’s never the machine, it’s the nigga. Like, if you put Pharrell on anything, he’s gonna come up with something wicked.
BeatTips: Considering what you just said, for somebody’s that’s never been into producing, how would you recommend they spend $3,000?
Minnesota: Man, let’s not lie: If I wasn’t a ASR nigga, I would’ve been one of the MPC niggas…an MPC something! ‘Cuz that is a hot machine. I’ve pressed on the buttons and I like the way it does drums. You can do like the stutter kicks…You can’t do that on the ASR…
BeatTips: You got joints with the stutter kick. So how do you do that on the ASR?
Minnesota: I gotta slow the shit down. If I got a beat going at 93 beats per minute, I gotta slow the beat down to like 51 and then play in the kicks, and then turn the BPM back up. That’s the downside to the machine. And the ASR doesn’t timestretch. That’s the only other thing that I hate. Other than that, man… But what I would recommend to someone is some kind of MPC. I hate the Triton. I never liked the sounds in it.
BeatTips: Are you into downloading sounds?
Minnesota: Nawgh, but there was this one kid that came by who did that. He used Fruity Loops. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give his beats a 6. And he was like, “I dig. I don’t dig like you do. I dig on the computer.” He said he could find records. That’s cool, but there’s just certain things that you’re only going to find on vinyl. Like artifacts. Extinct shit, where you could sample it, put it out, keep your mouth shut, and you don’t have to clear nothing. The thing that I would like to say to all producers is Shsh!… Stop talkin’! ‘Cuz this is our own “intellectual property”. People shouldn’t know about our oil. This is our oil! They know too much about our oil mine. Let’s shut up and we can get away with a lot of shit! If they want to find the sample, let them go look…FOREVER! We tell on ourselves too much… We tell on ourselves too much, musically! Producers: Shut Up. We got the power. You know, these idiots get on the music sometimes and fuck it up. But the producers have always been the ones who have had a burning passion to keep a certain frequency alive. So we control the music, you know what I’m sayin’. A producer shouldn’t be going home like, “I’m a do a street beat.” These people are defining us so much that they’re even fuckin’ with the producers’ mind now. And psychologically, it’s just got a lot to do with controlling our music and everything.
BeatTips: So what do you tell somebody who’s got the skills, but they can’t seem to break in… What’s their next move, how should they approach it?
Minnesota: You know, breaking in is based on politics a lot of time. There’s such a pretentious ethic that goes with the music game. You know, when you’re dope, you’re dope. But it’s like…one name gets you to another! Like when you find that one person. I don’t give a fuck if he’s in the mail room at Sony. He knows somebody, he’s gonna play your music for somebody…Point is, you gotta get with people that truly have a burning desire for your sound, your music. You gotta go with the one-name-gets-you-to-another approach. And that doesn’t mean that you have to be a disloyal person. You kind of gotta go from branch to branch, to kind of move forward… And another thing for producers is get any exposure that you can! Get in front of a camera, ‘cuz we all have a laid back way where we don’t wanna be seen, or we don’t wanna be heard. Now, it’s a different era. It’s about being visible. ‘Cuz you can be trash, but visible and everybody’s gon’ come and get your shit. There is a different game being played. You just gotta have your artistic mind and your business mind, your hustler mind, like in reference to hustling your music. Like if the South is poppin’, you go to the South. Stop runnin’ down to these motherfuckers, tryin’ to shop beats to these idiots. We in New York, but New York is not poppin’ right now, ‘cuz there is such a hateful, pretentious ethic that these black people use on each other. If you go in the South, yeah, you might not get $20,000 a beat, but you might get $6,500 cash, and they buy four of ‘em from you at once!
BeatTips: How would you say that you broke in? A lot people credit 50 Cent for using the Mix Tape movement as a way to break in. But I remember the Money Boss Players’ mix tape movement years before…
Minnesota: Times change, and you can’t be no asshole. 50 provided a climate of somethin’ that really happened with music. There was some real criminal shit going on in Queens; and he’s talented, you can’t take that away from the nigga…We [Money Boss Players] always down-played the street game. We was a small circle, and we was always real rap niggas…The Money Boss Players was me, Lord Tariq, C-Dub, Big Eye, Eddie Cheeba, and Trè Bag… You know what though…See, people look at rap…Like, I love 50 Cent and the G Unit movement. I love Murder, Inc. I love the Dipset…I’m not a hater… I love the Ruff Riders…What happens with our music is…I don’t know if I’m going off but this is something that I really gotta get out…What happens with our music is they can’t push drugs on the black community anymore, like they used to.
When crack came out, it was on every corner. Every 100 feet…Crack was an epidemic. It really hit us. It tore the black community a new asshole. So now, the new drug is thug! The kids don’t wanna’ be the junkie no more. Everybody wants to either be the shooter or the dealer. Now there is a machismo…And it’s creeping into the music…Let me put it to you like this. I like where the South is coming from with theirs. Because hard core is having its time to burn itself out. The South is bringing a playful thing into it… In ’91, ’92, the ganstas in the street was waiting for A Tribe Called Quest and Leaders of the New School to drop… See, music is spiritual government. It’s like a silent government over masses of people. Music can make you go kill someone! I pay attention to frequencies. I’m a producer. I see how certain frequencies hit people and their faces cringe up. You can’t stop music from goin’ in. So the government had to control our community through the music, ‘cuz they can’t push drugs on us! Producers…we provide a frequency to a poet. We’re frequency providers, you know what I mean…
BeatTips: Word… Yo, to you, what’s the difference between a beatmaker and a producer?
Minnesota: Well, everybody’s different…And that always transcends in your music… I don’t know how to explain it but check it out…You listen to Premier, you can hear Brooklyn in his music. You can hear he comes off the cloth of ‘80s in his music. In his frequencies that he picks to put out and sell, you can tell he’s somewhat of an elder, that he’s been around some shit. You can hear that he was some type of street dude in his music. Or you can take the Neptunes, the Virginia sound. You could hear that the Virginians really loved hip hop music. But they have a southern tinge on them…But you can also hear that they loved New York hip hop. We are ALL musicians!!! Even if we’re sampling, we’re just musicians…I don’t like the producer or the beat man shit! What I’m saying is this: I know how to make songs. I’m dope at it. I’m in a song zone, now. I hate just doing beats, now. Almost every joint I do, I hear the song to it…I’m just now getting into the song part of it, ‘cuz I was always trying to sell beats for money… I loved Ghostface on “Beat The Clock”. Big Pun grew up over here with me. And I underestimated him, but he made me see his vision. That’s what I loved about Chris [Big Pun].
BeatTips: Some people have told me that they don’t really get into listening to music. Do you listen to music on a regular basis.
Minnesota: I used too. You gotta understand. The crack babies are doing our music right now! I know I’m ol’ school in a lot of ways. [These new cats] cater to a mind state, a massive mind state. The music game is fucked up because the producers are not A&Rs. You put producers and DJs behind desks, you’ll get doper music; you’ll get a lot more good frequencies. But you know what though, there are a lot of good things resurfacing. Like Little Brother. That sound is a certain sound.
BeatTips: About a year ago, we was buildin’, and you mentioned somethin’ real about what Kanye West brought. Speak on some of that…
Minnesota: Well, if I can say one thing that I always say about him. He evened the playing field! He killt' the machismo… He brought back the ‘nigga, be comfortable with yourself’. I like that shit. He just evened the playing field to where you didn’t have to be just that nigga over there. And you couldn’t discriminate against him because he’s the producer. There’s a different stigma. The public will allow you freedom if you’re the beat man. But if you’re a rapper, it’s like, “nigga you gotta be this way”… Kanye’s music feels good, let’s not even sit there and lie… The first thing you gotta understand… I just want to get to somethin’ about the South. If you’re doing hip hop music, you’re doing Bronx music! That shit, we did that shit. When I was running around playing tag in the Bronx, I was listening to southern music, if that’s what it is, man Batta [Afrika Bambatta] and ‘em with the “Planet Rock”, and they rocked the planet with it. And then it went to Miami, and then it stretched out from there. Miami bass was South Bronx music! If you’re doing rap music, whatever the fuck you do, you’re doing Bronx music! The culture was birthed here. And New York stretched it out, and it went wherever it needed to go. Every sound that was ever featured, they did it hear a long time ago.
BeatTips: How does the business work? How do points work? And Explain how you will have to chase people down for your money.
Minnesota: If you can, I think that everybody should start out with two lawyers. I mean, everybody gets jerked, it’s fucked up… To a beat, there’s always 200%. There’s 100% writer’s and there’s 100% of the frequency [music]… Yeah, it’s fucked up. I have had situations. It’s ugly when it comes to paper…There’s just so much shit…And one more thing. Yo, tell a friend to tell a friend: DO NOT FEEL BAD ABOUT CALLING A MOTHERFUCKER 90 TIMES for your paper, in one day. Because they have a reverse psychology, where they make you feel bad about calling for your money, like you’re a bum. NO!!! You worked for it. Get your lawyer. These people behind the desk might make $60,000.00 a year, and now this record company owes you $50,000.00 off of one hit. GET YOUR MONEY. These jerks… These cock heads…These A&Rs. I don’t know where they get them from…
BeatTips: I hear this a lot: “If you ain’t got it, you ain’t got it.” How do you look at that?
Minnesota: That’s ignorant to say. No one has pristine eyes. Everybody’s got a different story. Your background, where you come from…Your life is gonna’ go the way it’s gonna go…Like me, I know music. There’s no arbitrary time frame, but you gotta be where it’s goin’ on. You can be a half-decent producer, but be around people who are consistently gettin’ some money. You have to be around it… be in contact with the right people!
BeatTips: I write that the equation looks like this: the person + the device = success. What order would you rank the machine…What order do you rank a person’s background… What order do you rank where a person lives…What order would you rank a person’s music introduction?
Minnesota: Motivation, Personality and Talent. Talent don’t mean nothing! I got a ton of it. I should be making somewhere in the lower millions. But my personality. My brutally honest shit is a thorn in the industry. Motivation, I’m 60/40…60% motivation, 40% beware of people!
A Top Beatmakers List with a Deeper Meaning and Purpose
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
NOTE: If you've already read the disclaimer about the nature of the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time, you can jump down to the rankings and click on the corresponding name for a helpful breakdown of each beatmaker.
Whenever lists of this sort appear, they’re generally presented with little or no serious discussion about the list beforehand. Perhaps that’s fine for pure entertainment purposes. But for readers to get the best learning experience from a review list of this kind, I believe there are a number of things that readers should know up front. Thus, I’d like to offer an important disclaimer about the nature of the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time list and the criteria used to determine which beatmakers were added to it.
The Nature of this List
The BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time list is one of the first sub-projects of the BeatTips Art of Beatmaking Education Project (ABEP) that I recently started. The fundamental purpose of the BeatTips ABEP is to help preserve, promote, and expand the beatmaking tradition of hip hop/rap music through a series of specialized projects. In this way, the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time list is meant to serve as a discussion, MusicStudy, and general research portal.
Next, the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All-Time purposely omits the word “producer”, and here’s why. In the hip hop/rap music and beatmaking traditions, the term “producer” is often synonymously used to describe a beatmaker. But as I point out in my book The BeatTips Manual, this is not always appropriate particularly because the definition of “producer” can be murky: “Hip hop production is the creation of hip hop music. And although this description broadly covers every dimension of hip hop/rap music, the term hip hop production is used most commonly to refer to the making of the hip hop/rap instrumental — the beat. So technically speaking, a beatmaker, one who makes beats, is a hip hop producer; ergo, a beatmaker is a producer.” But “producer” is a loose term that can be used to describe anyone within the process of the final sound of a recording. Simply put, a beatmaker is someone who actually makes beats. A beatmaker can indeed be a producer; in fact, most double as both. (Further, being a beatmaker is not in anyway less noble than being a producer!) However, and this is a critical point, a producer need not be a beatmaker. Hip hop/rap music is littered with people who have “producer” credits, even though they never actually made (or assisted in the making of) any beats. Thus, The BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time List only includes beatmakers. Of course, each beatmaker on this list has also rightfully earned the title of producer.
There are four other important things to know about the nature of The BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time list. First, the purpose of this list is to educate. Hopefully, new beatmakers will be introduced more appropriately to some prominent beatmakers that they’ve only heard about in passing. And beatmaking veterans will be reminded of just how far the beatmaking tradition has come. In either case, I’d like this list to prompt some serious exploration and reflection from readers. Preserving and expanding hip hop/rap’s beatmaking tradition requires historical examination, present-day review, future speculation, and, at times, constructive (helpful) debate.
Second, this isn't a list to appease anyone that I know personally. I can count a number of beatmakers as friends; and I’ve interviewed many well-known and lesser-known (but quite acclaimed) beatmakers. That aside, I’ve made no effort to show favoritism in the making of this list. My objectivity — and naturally subjectivity — in the making of this list was based on the catalog of work of each beatmaker that I seriously considered.
Third, this is not a list intended to be safe, so as to not offend anyone. Top lists of any kind tend to offend one group or another, so I'm all right with that. And certainly, a top 100 list would have given me enough coverage to include everybody’s favorite. Even a top 50 would have allowed more room for adding all of what many would consider to be the obvious names. Still, a top 30 list presents a challenge, especially when you consider beatmaking’s classic past and its mixed present. I’m not interested in gathering up an easy list of names. Instead, I want readers to seriously think, perhaps even broaden their own thoughts about how, why, and where they rank their favorite beatmakers.
Fourth, The BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All Time is not a "hottest in the game right now" list. I deeply respect longevity, particularly because it requires talent, drive, integrity, and hustle. I'm less interested on shining a light on just this moment in time. In fact, I believe all-time lists offer a better learning (and discovery) experience for readers. This is especially important for new beatmakers who are often less familiar with the names and critical works of earlier times.
When making the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All-Time list there were many different things that I considered, far too many to mention here. But there are eight main criteria that I used in making this list:
(1) Body of work. Without the work speaking for itself, there could be no serious consideration of any beatmaker who made this list. And while I did not deem it necessary that each beatmaker on the list had a massive catalog, the sheer number of beats (recognized and respected songs) of certain beatmakers could not be ignored. Therefore, a larger body of acclaimed work was appropriately given more preference. Also, special attention was paid to how many songs a beatmaker had within the cannon of hip hop/rap music, as well as whether or not a beatmaker contributed to the career of another pivotal hip hop/rap artist’s career. I should further add that the body of work that I've considered here is hip hop/rap only! Whether a beatmaker could or did produce music outside of the hip hop/rap genre had no bearing on where I ranked them with respect to hip hop/rap music. If I were ranking all-time horror film directors, it would be silly to include the comedic works of those directors as consideration in where they should be ranked. Likewise, neo-soul, drum-n-bass, dub step, etc. has no influence on a hip hop/rap ranking.
(2) Critical acclaim for a clearly distinguishable and/or signature sound. Preference was given (as I believe it should have been), to those beatmakers who either established their own well-recognized signature sound or contributed considerably to one or more of the eight distinct periods of beatmaking (In The BeatTips Manual, I examine and detail all eight periods).
(3) Minimum of at least three critically acclaimed (not just top sellers) songs, albums, collaborative works, etc. within the last 30 years. Part of being a standout in any art medium is recognition within the field. Sometimes this means big hits, other times it means well-respected songs that most skilled beatmakers know of or appreciate for what they are. And note: this particular criteria reflects the reality that some of the best in any given field are overlooked for various reasons. However, this does not diminish their work. Moreover, history is loaded with artists who didn’t get their proper appreciation until late in or well after their careers.
(4) The number of lyrically acclaimed rappers — in their prime — who rapped over their beats, and/or the subsequent “classic” songs created over the last 30 years. This is of particular importance for two reasons. First, it serves as proof as a particular beatmaker’s automatic place in the canon of hip hop/rap music. Second, it demonstrates the popularity and respect of a beatmaker among the best rhymers of their and other times.
(5) Real, not misperceived, impact and influence on other top beatmakers
of all time. Everybody has to be influenced by someone. But who influenced most of the beatmakers on the BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All-Time list? Not surprisingly, many influenced each other.
(6) Real, not misperceived, overall impact (or likely impact) on the beatmaking tradition. In other words, what was their recognizable impact on the beatmaking tradition itself? For instance, what developments, styles, techniques, ideas, etc. did they contribute to the beatmaking tradition?
(7) Longevity. How long was a beatmaker able to maintain his career. For various reasons, some beatmaker’s careers were cut short, while others have continued to blossom since they first began. Thus, longevity wasn’t measured in a sheer number of years, but in terms of body of work within the frame of time a beatmaker made his name. Think of it this way: Jimi Hendrix’s entire body of work is just four years…
(8) Projected influence and impact on future beatmakers. Of course, this is speculation at best. No one can predict the future. Still, we can recognize the lasting contributions made to the beatmaking tradition by certain beatmakers.
One final note about this list: It’s not static. That is to say, the beatmaking tradition is constantly expanding, therefore, this list will necessarily need to be adjusted to account for new production output by beatmakers, as well as new research by myself. Thus, each new year, in September, a new BeatTips Top 30 Beatmakers of All-Time list will be generated.
(Homage to DJ Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa — the grandfathers of modern beatmaking.)
Stevie Wonder Gives Popular Beatles Tune Some More Soul; Adds New Punch and Feel
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
Although the art of sampling is usually not a complete reinterpretation of someone's work in the same way that a traditional version is (i.e. in sampling, snippets and phrases are literally extracted, recontextualized, and refashioned into a new musical piece), I still see a link between sampling and the ways in which one musician is inspired to reinterpret the work of another. For me, this point is illuminated even more 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).
Indeed, 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. Mostly, I'm engaged by one musician's ability to convert the work of another into their own style, feel, and scope, without losing the core themes and structures of the original. More specifically, 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 an 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), the Stevie 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 tamb shuffle throughout.
For the rest of the arrangement, Stevie Wonder makes two other standout changes. First, he strips out 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 in comparison.
Second, Stevie 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'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 of his version.
Finally, Stevie Wonder's treatment of the vocal arrangement is as impressive (if not more) 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 an unfair or misleading one 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 it sound more searing; indeed, converting it into a freedom song/black power amalgamation.
In short, Stevie Wonder's version of "We Can Work It Out" is nothing short of a magnificent transformation. And to a certain degree, you could say that Stevie Wonder "flipped" the Beatles original. Does that mean that Stevie Wonder's version of "We Can Work It" is better than the original? I'm not sure if that's a question worth entertaining. Both The Beatles original 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.
So a far better question at this point might be what do you think enables any musician to pull off a quality version of a fellow musician's work? Well, I'd say that along with music performance skills as well as a broad based knowledge of music history, various musical processes, and music forms, a fundamental respect and reverence for the musician(s) whose music you rework is key. I think Stevie Wonder covers all of these variables. And that's exactly why his version works so well.
The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
Prolonging Sounds May Be the Answer to the Question
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
When it comes to modifying individual sounds, there's one common question: Should you loop individual sounds? Here's my take: I rarely loop any individual sounds, hits or stabs, other than maybe a snare that I want to give a roll-effect to. Instead, what I do is, I aim to "prolong" sounds by duplicating (copying) them, and then either splicing them together or layering them (programming them) to play either as: (a) slightly overlapping sounds; or (b) as blended (layered) sounds with different beginning/start and end chop points, and with each sound having a different velocity and/or volume level.
When I make beats, there's two fundamental concepts of arrangement that I may use. For some beats, I try to approach arrangement and structure as closely as possible to how a typical 1970s era groove (soulful rhythm section) would have been arranged. In keeping with that, the only way a sound can be extended and/or looped in a traditional live band setting is through the actual playing and prolonging of the notes (sounds) of particular interest. The other concept of arrangement that I use is more along the lines of a mid-1990s era, up-front drum programming. So for me, when it comes down to it, the looping of individual sounds in beatmaking is actually more about the prolonging of individual sounds, not the looping of them. And, therefore, when I want to prolong or sustain a sound, I opt to use more natural techniques to achieve that effect.
Let me be clear, there isn't anything particularly wrong with looping individual sounds. But I often find that the looping of individual sounds can often sound more artificial. This can make the overall beat sound unbalanced or overly modified, usually devoid of feeling and a nice swing. Also, for me, I've always felt that the looping of an individual sound limits its spacing and "fit" within a beat. That is, once a sound is looped to itself, it's "sound potential" (what the sound could be) is capped and locked into a burdensome loop. In other words, the loop of the individual sound can cause the sound to stand out throughout the beat in a way that does not necessarily compliment the beat.
For example, let’s say you have a saxophone phrase and you want the last quarter of it to repeat. There’s two ways to do this. One way to do it is, you loop the part of the saxophone that you want to repeat. This gives you the sample with its tail end looped to itself. Consider for a moment how that would sound….
Another way to repeat the last quarter of the sax phrase is to duplicate the original sax, then use the two samples — the original and the duplicate — together. What you do is chop the last quarter from the original sax, then chop the duplicate down to ¾ of its duration, essentially leaving only the last quarter of the original saxophone phrase. At this point, you can play the repeat of the last quarter of the sample—wherever you like in the arrangement, not just at the end of the saxophone phrase, because you’re not locked into the looped version of the sample. Note: By using this method and technique, you play (arrange) each sampled phrase in a way that feels more real and less synthetic, artificial, or contrived.
Still, all of this having been said, there are some occasions where looping an individual sound is helpful. For instance, let’s look at that same hypothetical saxophone phrase. What if you didn’t want to use the entire phrase itself; what if you just wanted to use it to make sax sound-stabs? In that case, chopping the sample down to small stabs and looping them can be helpful, depending, of course, on how you intend to use the stabs. For example, you could loop a sax-stab so that it rumbles, then you could combine that rumbling sax-stab with another sound stab. The possibilities for sound-stabs, from everything to texture to variance to vibe to feel, is endless.
When deciding upon whether or not to loop an individual sound, always consider the overall feel of the beat that you’re working on. In most cases, duplicate an individual sound first, then combine it with it’s original. This will often put you closer to the sound that you’re going for. But if that doesn’t work, sure, you can also loop the part of the sound that you want to repeat (or give off a chorus effect, etc.)
Also, remember that merely looping the end of a phrase does not necessarily give the feel of the phrase repeating naturally. Think of a guitarist repeating the same riff over and over. Now think of that guitarist prolonging one part of the riff before he returns back to the riff’s beginning. Imagine how this human loop sounds; imagine the feel, nothing artificial! Incidentally, this is a great guide to use when thinking about chopping down lengthy phrases or multi-bar measures.
Finally, as beatmakers, we work in a world of electronic music production, wherein we can program EMPIs (Electronic Music Production Instruments) to do things that a human can’t. In some ways, this is an advantage, in some ways, it’s a disadvantage. Either way, we shouldn't deliberately sacrifice a human feel and sensibility just because production technology presents us with endless possibilities.
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Top 5 Myths About Sampling and Copyright Law
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