March 21, 2016

Think Outside the Box for Custom Snare Sounds

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

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Short list of items great for customizing snares:

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

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

• A wood block.

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

• A mallet and a hammer.

• A shaker.

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

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

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

• Some studio foam.


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

March 10, 2016

The Art of Beatmaking is Bigger than Any Piece of Gear

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

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

March 09, 2016

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

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

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Stevie Wonder - "We Can Work It Out"


The Beatles - "We Can Work It Out"

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

December 10, 2015

BeatTips Founder, Sa'id, Drops New Single "Make It Mean Something;" Announces Album

Sa'id, Author of the Books The BeatTips Manual and The Art of Sampling, Puts Out New Single and is Set to Release Album that Aims to Be "Meaningful" and "Demonstrates What's in his Books"

By G. Ferguson


BROOKLYN, NY — December 9, 2015 — Sa'id (Amir Said), founder of BeatTips, the popular beatmaking and music education website, the independent publishing house Superchamp Books, and author of the books The BeatTips Manual and The Art of Sampling, today announced his new album The Best of Times. The Best of Times, features beats and rhymes entirely by Sa'id, and in addition to being entertaining and thought provoking, it is meant to serve as an example of the ideas, methods, and practices found in his books.


"This album represents one of the best ways for me to further discuss the kind of information and insight that you'll find in both The BeatTips Manual and The Art of Sampling," says Sa'id. "Everything that I do with BeatTips is about continuing the discussion — finding new ways to help expand the beatmaking community at large. But of course, I'm also an artist: I rhyme and I make beats. So also it means a lot to me that have this opportunity to put out music on my own terms and watch it compete on the open market. Plus, I'm an advocate for beatmakers (producers) putting out their own projects. Whether it be as beatmaker-rappers or as part of duo or group, I believe that the most sustainable path for beatmakers (producers) is the path that includes creating and putting their own projects, rather than chasing or waiting for a beat placement. So I'm following my own advice."


Although The Best of Times has no features in the traditional sense, it does have an important co-star. "What makes this album really special to me is that I've done it with the help of my son, Amir Ali Said. Amir, who is the co-executive producer along with me, has been extremely instrumental — literally speaking — to this album. My son is living in Paris at the moment; I just recently returned to New York City from there. And we wanted a way to stay connected until I made my way back to Paris. So as a challenge, and a way for us to really stay connected, I asked him to dig in the crates — e-dig — and pick music for me to sample. No one knows my ear better than Amir. That's my son; he's on the cover of The BeatTips Manual. He's been hearing me make and talk about music his entire life. So I completely trust his judgment; I knew that he would send me stuff that I could catch wreck on. That's why Amir is the co-star of this album: He sent me handpicked music to flip, and I flipped it."


Coinciding with his album announcement, Sa'id dropped a new song called "Make It Mean Something." "I had to drop a new joint. I couldn't mention my new album and not drop a joint. So Here is 'Make It Mean Something,' the first song from my new album. Please share! And thank you for your continued support."


BeatTips has provided the most trusted information on the craft, culture, and business of beatmaking/hip hop production since 2002. The 1st edition of ‘The BeatTips Manual’ was published by Superchamp Books in 2002, the same year BeatTips.com was founded. Used by beatmakers and in schools around the world, in 2007, ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ now widely held as the standard for hip hop production education, was featured in New York University’s first course on beatmaking and hip hop production. Since then, ‘The BeatTips Manual,’ now in its 6th Edition, has been used in countless schools and institutions of higher learning, including The Berklee College of Music and the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), and it continues to be recognized as the definitive beatmaking/hip hop production book around the globe, confirming its status as one of the most important music studies of our time.


Press Contact: G. Ferguson, beattips2@gmail.com
http://www.BeatTips.com | @BeatTipsManual @AmirSaid

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September 04, 2015

Is EMI's Sample Amnesty a Good Thing for Sample-Based Musicians?

How Alex Black and EMI Just Became Friends of the Sample-Based Musician Community, and How they May Have Saved an Important Piece of the Music Industry’s Sample Clearance System

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


In September, 2015, EMI, the world’s largest music publisher, announced it’s sample amnesty program. Basically what EMI said to sample-based musicians was this: You have six months to come to us from out of the shadows and turn in your sample-based songs that utilize samples of songs from our Production Music Division’s catalog, in return we will give you a license and we won’t penalize you for unauthorized use. But here’s what EMI is certainly not saying: We recognize that some sample-based works may have made fair use (or de minimis) of our catalogs, and thus you do not necessarily need a license.


In other words, EMI’s amnesty offering, as forward thinking and innovative as it is, is a means to increase revenue form their Production Music Division catalog. First, the program allows EMI to expand their catalog with sample-based songs without having to grapple with adding sample-based songs that would otherwise be unobtainable due to either EMI’s unawareness of their existence or EMI’s unwillingness to mount a wave of copyright infringement lawsuits against musicians that they suspect have used samples from their Production Music Division’s Catalog. Second, and more importantly, EMI’s sample amnesty serves as a way to draw attention to their Production Music Division catalog and to invite sample-based musicians to sample songs from said catalog, which includes songs that they own both the master recording and composition copyrights to; a key point, since owning both rights allows EMI to easily and quickly clear samples.


In the press release that EMI’s sample amnesty program was announced, Alex Black, EMI Production Music Global Director and the main man driving the amnesty, said, “Our vision for this amnesty is to highlight the wealth of possibilities open to producers working with samples.” I take him at his word. Still, in addition to highlighting the possibilities of sampling their Production Music Division catalog, EMI is also interested in corralling perhaps a large swath of uncleared sample-based songs — songs which may have never needed to be cleared in the first place — and then monetize those “new” songs.


But, as I point in my book The Art of Sampling, all samples do not need a license (i.e. need not be cleared), because sampling itself (or all samples) does (do) not constitute copyright infringement. U.S. Copyright law explicitly protects de minimis (small amount) and fair-use usages of all copyrightable material. Thus, can encouraging someone to turn in a song that uses a single drum hit/sound, a small snippet of a sampled drum break, or an “electronic segment looped” — all staples of the art of beatmaking — be seen as EMI’s way of subverting U.S. copyright law? Most music industry lawyers promote the lie that “the law” says even a sample of a stand alone drum sound requires a license, even though some of them silently acknowledge that such usages are either de minimis or fair use. But, more importantly for their purposes, music industry lawyers also know that most people, especially sample-based musicians, are unaware of the de minimis and fair use doctrines.


There is a big difference between “the law” and how the law works. Copyright infringement must be proven in a court of law. Thus, pre-emption, not just a pre-emptive suit (for example, what Pharrell and Robin Thicke did in the “Blurred Lines” case), is often used to circumvent the law. So what do you do if you’re EMI and you want to add many sample-based songs (including those that may have made de minimis or fair use of EMI songs) to your catalog? Offer amnesty. Smart move.


By getting people to come forward and admit use, EMI gets access to the new sample-based songs, and there’s no worry of an artist claiming fair use later on. In essence, once licensed, the maker of the sample-based song has conceded that the song needed to be cleared, and has thus forfeited his right to argue that the song made fair use of a song owned by EMI. This concerns me deeply, as I wonder if de minimis and fair use — mainstays of U.S. copyright law — will continue to be overshadowed by yet another mechanism that further pushes all sampling towards the clearance trail, effectively obscuring the fact that the de mininis and fair use components of copyright law are critical safe harbors for sample-based musicians.


I applaud Alex Black and EMI for engaging with the sampling community in this way. It’s refreshing to see their support for sample-based music, particularly their description of the art of sampling in a creative context — it’s certainly a far cry from recent descriptions of sampling as “piracy”. Further, the fact that EMI will offer a licensing deal at current market rates, and that they will not, however, seek back royalties for any earnings made from songs that feature samples of their catalog is great. But if we put aside the actual implications of the amnesty itself and focus on the “license” component of EMI’s innovative initiative, there remains some serious questions that every sample-based musician considering EMI’s proposal should want to have answered.


First, how will this amnesty actually work on the publishing splits? In exchange for coming forward, will sample-based musicians simply receive a license and no penalty? Or will they also receive a split of the publishing? Better yet, will they have to forfeit 100% of the publishing to EMI? Furthermore, what will EMI’s boilerplate amnesty agreement look like? What sort of stipulations will it contain? Also, if you do come forward with a sample-based song that incorporates a sample of a song from EMI’s Production Music Division catalog, will you be required to submit the song first, offering up details on which songs from EMI’s catalog that you actually sampled? If you change your mind, EMI has the song and, because of you, they know the sample(s) used. Thus, if you disagree to the license and amnesty, does that mean you’ve now voluntarily put yourself in the position to be sued by EMI for copyright infringement?


One way to see this is: EMI has all of the leverage, all of the upside. Another way to see it is: By gaining a license, a sample-based musician now has chance to earn additional revenue by shopping the now-licensed works to artists and outlets that they previously didn’t have access to. Seems to me no matter where you come down on the copyright divide, that’s a good thing for sample-based musicians.


Any way you look at EMI’s amnesty offer, one thing is clear: This innovative program is a strong indication of where the music industry is headed with regards to sampling. The major labels and music publishers have left (and continue to leave) a lot of money on the table by treating sampling as some sort of bandit activity that requires a license in all cases; I think EMI’s move is a recognition of this fact. Moreover, I believe that Alex Black is sincere when he says that EMI’s program “aims to encourage new creative use of the expansive archives of the multiple participating EMI libraries.” But I also believe that Black is aware of the burgeoning realities of sampling and copyright law.

As more people take part in sampling in general (what Lawrence Lessig calls an ever growing “Remix Culture”), they will inevitably learn more about copyright law and aim for making works that are likely de mininis or fair use in nature. Thus, armed with a better understanding of copyright law, as well as the knowledge of recent court cases in which fair use prevailed, these sample-based musicians will be less inclined to seek licenses for their works and less intimidated by threats of lawsuits for copyright infringement. So I believe EMI’s amnesty offer — which I appreciate and support — is also the music industry’s sober acknowledgement of reality. About time.


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The Art of Sampling by Amir Said.
"The definitive guide to the art of sampling and copyright law."

January 15, 2015

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

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

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


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


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


The Advent of a Beatmakers Union: The BeatTips UBG Proposal

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

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


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


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


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


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


Understanding What UBG Would Look Like

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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

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


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

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

January 09, 2015

Capturing Analog Sound and Essence in a Digital Era

Choosing the right DAW or tracking scheme for your beats

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


Mackie VLZ 1604 Analog Mixer(Photo credit: Amir Said)


Recently, a BeatTips reader asked me for advice on choosing a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). It wasn't the first time...and I'm sure it won't be the last. So during our discussion, there was one key issue that had to be reconciled. Thing is, although he did indeed initially want my help in choosing a DAW, his real concern was about tracking (recording) from his Akai MPC into his computer. Specifically, he wanted to know what sort of compact mixing console he could use in conjunction with a DAW. Since I receive this sort of question all the time, I thought it would be helpful to expand my reply here in this article.


For starters, I informed him that I use Pro Tools. Although Pro Tools is indisputably the "industry standard," it is not, by any means, the only suitable software-based digital recording solution. There are many recording artists (beatmakers included) who prefer to use other alternatives like Logic, or Ableton Live. In my experience (and the experiences of many recording artists that I know), the decision to use Pro Tools, Logic, or Ableton Live really comes down to one thing: the way in which one intends to use the DAW.


Pro Tools, made by Digidesign, is excellent for mixing and editing your beats after you've made them; but some have found Pro Tools to be less agile if you intend to actually "make" your beats using it. However, it's worth pointing out that there are some well-known beatmakers like Statik Selektah who now do make some, if not all, of their beats in Pro Tools. Logic, made by Mac maker Apple, is also ideal for mixing and editing your beats. In some circles, Logic even ranks above Pro Tools, particularly because of its perceived ease of use and flexibility. Also, Logic is "more agreeable" if you intend to do more than mix and edit finished beats, that is to say, if you want to "make" beats using it. Finally, Ableton Live, made by Ableton (Germany), like Pro Tools and Logic, can be used for mixing and editing your beats. However, because it's actually a DAW and sequencer, it's also perhaps the most agreeable and flexible when it comes to actually making beats using the application.


Here, I should note that Pro Tools' dominance in the DAW field is due as much to Digidesign's early lock on the industry as it is to its design and capability. Thus, many Pro Tools users, who are now entrenched with not just the product but the brand as well, typically find it hard to migrate to a new DAW. And, again, Pro Tools is the industry standard, there's no denying that. However, you should be aware that any commercial recording studio worth a dime can easily work from your Logic and/or Ableton Live data files.


And What About the Compact Mixing Console

There are some who prefer to track their music into a mixing console, then from there into their computer. Many beatmakers—myself included—use this approach for various reasons: amplification, custom sound stylization, management of multiple pieces of analog gear, that sort of thing. So when deciding on which compact mixing console to go with, it's important to first ask yourself whether an analog sound matters to you or not. Of course, there is considerable debate surrounding this. On one hand, there's the argument that the analog component creates no noticeable difference in sound and audio quality. Still, others like Dr. Dre, DJ Toomp, and/or DJ Premier will tell you that there is indeed a noticeable difference...a difference that they, in fact, prefer.


Thus, if you're persuaded by the argument that the analog component does make a difference, then I recommend going with a Mackie compact analog mixing console. Mackie's VLZ series mixers come in the 4-, 8-, 12-, 14-, and 16-line input variety. However, you can also go with another solution: a FireWire analog mixer that gives you the mixing, recording, and monitoring capabilities of an analog console while offering the flexibility and convenience of digital. Among the compact FireWire (digital) analog mixing consoles, the standouts are: the Mackie Onyx series (8-, 12-, and 16- line inputs), and the Yamaha n8 or n12 FireWire Digital Mixing Studio (8- and 12- line inputs).


Finally, there's one more solution that works if you can't afford a hardware interface for your DAW, but you still want to track through a compact analog mixing console. You can record your beats from your compact mixing console straight to a CD recorder—that's right, straight to CD! Listen, until I had a DAW, that's exactly what I did. Going straight to CD directly from analog mixer will help you develop a stronger feel for sound and other audio nuances. Moreover, it will also help you build mixing skills as well—mixing skills, I should add, that the average beatmaker today does not have. Having your beats on CD is no disadvantage, anyway. Once you’ve recorded your beats to CD, you can always convert them to MP3 files if you need to email or upload your music. And if it becomes necessary to track your beats into an DAW (like in the case of selling a beat), you can bring your gear to a local recording studio and re-track your beats into whatever DAW they have.


Bottom line

I understand working on a next-to-nothing (or truly nothing) budget. But when it comes to building the setup that's right for you, it should never be about trying to acquire a "quick fix." I spent years building out my setup. I know how hard it can be to want to do something musically but you can't because you lack the right gear or the funding to get it. I've felt the anxiety (and pain in the gut) from wanting to move forward, even though I didn't have the tools that I knew I needed. That's why I empathize with other beatmakers who grapple with this everyday. But what I learned (over time) is that it's always more important to invest in your future overall music goals (in this case, to develop a strong skill for and understanding of beatmaking) than it is to take quick-fix short cuts. The gear will always be available. But the time it takes to really develop your craft waits for no one. And, having squandered away your time fixated on a piece of gear rather than developing your skills, you may find that you have a dope setup, complete with all of the latest bells and whistles, but only to find that you have poor beatmaking skills.

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

December 13, 2014

Is Creating A Signature Sound Important?

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

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


(Photo credit: Amir Said)


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


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


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


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

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


Sound Frequencies

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


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


Drumwork: Drum Sounds and Drum Programming

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


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


Composing and Arranging

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


Mixing: Customize a Sonic Wall in the Mix

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

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

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

November 25, 2014

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

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

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


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


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


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


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


The Narrowing of the Mainstream: More Choice Means Less Dependence

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


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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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



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


Regarding Tradition, Personal Taste, and Individual Choice

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


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


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



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


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



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


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


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



T.I.


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


The Problem with Creative Safety in Numbers

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

November 18, 2014

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

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

By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)


BeatTips Rating: 5/5

"Roll dice in old piss" —Bronze Nazareth

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


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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


BeatTips Rating Breakdown

Favorite Joints

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

Bronze Nazareth - "The Letter"

Bronze Nazareth - "King of Queens"


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

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

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


Sureshot Singles

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

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

Sleeper Cuts

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


Gripes and Weak Moments

NONE


Final Analysis

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


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

Afterword

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


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


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


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

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

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  • Top 5 Myths About Sampling and Copyright Law


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