Monthly Archives: July 2009

More Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel – Grandmaster Flash

Turntablist pioneer Grandmaster Flash at France’s “DJ Day 2009” event.

Viral Listening Session (Part Four) – DJ Spinna

Spinna talks about working with Little Brother’s Phonte on his forthcoming album “Sonic Smash”.

Road To Release (Part Six) – Eternia / MoSS

“Makin Grown Men Cry” – Eternia chats with 88-Keys about unreleased tracks and drops an impromptu performance in Queens.

Alchemist Interview (Originally Posted On BlackSheepMag.Com July 8th 2009)

alcjemist

The Alchemist has led something of a charmed Hip-Hop life. Having been a dedicated rap fanatic since the early-80s, the Cali native was officially introduced to the hip-hop world in 1993, releasing his first single ‘Put Your Handz Up’ as one-half of the Whooliganz and a fully-fledged member of the platinum-selling Soul Assassins crew (Cypress Hill, House Of Pain, Funkdoobiest etc). Following the dissolution of the Whooliganz after their label Tommy Boy shelved the group’s debut album, Alchemist turned his attentions to producing under the guidance of Cypress Hill’s DJ Muggs.

After an intensive musical apprenticeship, the aspiring beat-maker soon stepped out on his own, beginning a journey that would see Alchemist adding his sonic grit to certified bangers from the likes of Royce Da 5’9 (‘I’m The King’), Dilated Peoples (‘Worst Comes To Worst’) and Jadakiss (‘We Gonna Make It’).

In more recent years, Alchemist has continued to balance underground respect with mainstream exposure, holding his position as an integral part of the Mobb Deep camp and working with lesser-known acts such as Canada’s Swollen Members and former Gang Starr affiliate Lil’ Dap, whilst also contributing beats to projects from household names like Eminem, Lil’ Wayne and Fabolous.

With the release of ‘Chemical Warfare’, the official follow-up to 2004’s ‘1st Infantry’ album, Alchemist continues to blur the lines between underground and commercial, featuring a cross-section of artists on the project from old-school legend KRS-One to current West Coast sensation Blu and silky-voiced R&B singer Maxwell.

In an industry dominated by politics and bullshit, The Alchemist is definitely all about the music first and foremost.

Although you’ve had some underground projects out in-between, it’s been five years since you released your official debut album ‘1st Infantry’ in 2004. Did you approach recording ‘Chemical Warfare’ any differently to ‘1st Infantry’ or was it the same formula?

Alchemist: “I feel I got my Timberlands wet as far as ‘1st Infantry’ was concerned. It was kinda like when you have your first baby. I don’t have kids but friends have told me that the way you raise your first child is different to how you might raise your second or third child because you’re wiser and have more experience. So with the second album I feel like I’ve been able to take a few more chances and also feel that I’ve progressed with my production and with my rhymes. I mean, I’ve been working on this album for years off and on, so I had a lot of tracks to sift through when it came to choosing material. I had a lot of time to choose what made the album and some of the tracks were made two months ago and some were made two years ago, but I don’t really want people to know which are which because I just want them to listen to the album as a whole experience.”

Given how easy it is in today’s digital-age for people to make music, what do you think the role of the producer is in 2009?

Alchemist: “I think the role of the producer has actually become more relevant today because of all these beats CDs that people are putting together and rappers rhyming on other artist’s tracks. It’s upped the ante because if that’s all you do then you’re gonna get lost in the sauce now because so many others are doing it as well. So it’s starting to get to the point where dope producers are getting together with particular artists to do whole albums, like how Just Blaze got with Saigon, Exile and Blu put a project together, and so did Muggs and Planet Asia. That shit is inspiring motherfuckers because nothing truly great gets made by people just taking a beat off the internet or a beat CD and throwing something together. I mean, you can tell when time has been put into something because you can hear it in the quality of the music. So I think the state of the game right now has made it even more special when a producer gets with an artist for a project because you can feel the chemistry more.”

You came up in a period when a massive part of the production process was the physical act of getting out and going digging for records to sample, which is something that doesn’t seem to be so common today. Do you feel upcoming producers are missing out on part of the process if they don’t get their hands dirty so to speak?

Alchemist: “Yeah, I mean digging is definitely part of the process, but the most important thing is inspiration. I mean, whether you’re going to travel on a train for two hours to go digging though crates of musty records in a store, or whether you’re finding your sample material on the internet, you still have to open your ears to different sounds and become inspired. That’s all a sample does, it inspires you to want to create something out of it. The music has to engage you for you to want to add something to it. I mean, I’ll hear a sample and if it’s the right one then straight away I’ll be thinking about what drum pattern to put with it and what bassline to use. So sometimes when producers are listening to records and thinking that they can’t find any samples, it might not necessarily be because the records are wack, it’s probably because you’re not inspired at that moment to create, so no sound is going to catch your attention, not even the illest loop. So you really have to have your third eye open when you’re making music.”

You’ve worked with a diverse selection of rappers over the years – how does the creative process differ in the studio from artist to artist?

Alchemist: “It really depends on the artist and how well I already know them. When you’re friends with someone and you know each other the music you create is always better because that kind of weirdness that sometimes exists when you’re working with someone new gets thrown out the window and no punches are pulled in the studio. Like with Prodigy, it’s got to the point where we know how we both work and nine times out of ten if I have a beat I want to play Prodigy he’ll usually get it. Sometimes I might think something’s dope and he may disagree, but most of the time we’re on the same page so the music just comes naturally. Like when we did the ‘Return Of The Mac’ project, I don’t think we really thought we were recording an album until we were almost done with it. I mean, we discussed it a little but we were really just in the zone and the next thing we knew we had enough material for a full project. Plus, I think the reason that album was so well accepted had a lot to do with timing, which I think is the most important thing in the world. ‘Return Of The Mac’ dropped right after Mobb Deep’s ‘Blood Money’ and that album had raised a lot of eyebrows amongst fans who didn’t totally love the G-Unit / Mobb Deep thing. We kinda felt like we had something to prove and I think the fact that ‘Return Of The Mac’ came out so soon after ‘Blood Money’ made it even more special, like ‘Yo, that’s what people wanted to hear.’”

There’s a whole new generation of artists coming through at the moment – who’s caught your ear from the current crop of upcoming rappers?

Alchemist: “Nippsy Hussle is really, really dope on the West Coast. Fashawn is crazy, Blu, Jay Electronica is incredible. They’re all artists I feel aren’t afraid to do something different. I want to be challenged when I sit down to listen to someone’s record, I don’t want to feel like something’s contrived or made to appeal to a certain market. I don’t appreciate any of that shit, never did when I was a fan as a kid and still don’t today. I feel all of those artists I just mentioned are bringing something new to the table. ”

You mentioned wanting to be challenged by an artist’s music, who were you listening to when you were just a fan back in the day?

Alchemist: “Grand Puba and MC Lyte were my favourite rappers, along with W.C., Guru, PMD, MC Eiht and Too Short. As far as producers, DJ Premier was my favourite because he always seemed to have the best beats on people’s albums and studying him really showed me what being a producer was all about. I mean that whole generation of producers was a big influence on me, Diamond D, Large Professor, Pete Rock, The Beatnuts, Showbiz, T-Ray, E-Swift, Dr. Dre, Battlecat, Ralph M, DJ Lethal and DJ Muggs, who obviously I came up under in the Soul Assassins.”

What was that experience like for you in the early 90s, being a part of a camp as popular as Soul Assassins at such a young age?

Alchemist: “Everything I am today can be traced back to that time because I experienced so much. Touring, performances, groupies, smoking, recording, I was out there watching how it was being done by the top squad in the game at the time and it fucked me up forever. I’m still fucked up to this day because of that (laughs). But seriously, that whole experience really changed the direction of my life because it made me realise that music was something I really want to do.”

You’re one of the few producers who has managed to bridge the gap between the underground and the mainstream throughout their career, working with everyone from Dilated Peoples and KRS-One to Eminem and Snoop. Given that you’ve experienced both sides of the rap world, have you ever been tempted to lean more heavily in one direction?

Alchemist: “It’s been a gift and a curse to some extent. On one hand keeping that one foot in the underground rap world has helped me remain relevant all these years, but then on the other hand, if I’d have put both feet in the mainstream I could’ve made a lot more money and been bigger as a producer. But I really try and maintain in the middle. My career has been more of a steady climb rather than a quick rise, but I think it’s good to rise gradually because that’s where the longevity comes in. I get high off this shit, so I’d rather do it forever the way I am doing it than blow up quick, make some money and then fade away just as quickly. Sitting around counting money wouldn’t be as fun as doing what I’m doing now.”

Are you someone who likes to stay using the same production equipment or are you regularly on the lookout for new technology to incorporate in your music?

Alchemist: “I’ve been experimenting with this new machine for a company and the machine’s called the Millennium Falcon and it’s really crazy!!! I don’t want to give away too much but it’s pretty much the secrets to Alchemist’s beats all in one machine. I really think there’s going to be a time when you just look at your computer, think of a beat or a sound, and it’s there. I hope I’m still alive when that happens, but I think we’re getting close already. I mean, when you think about what a jump Serato was from using vinyl and two turntables, we’re always moving forward with technology. So I do think we’re pretty close to just thinking of music in our heads and it’s there on the computer. Brainwaves are energy, it’s just a case of working out how to harness and convert that energy.”

What future projects can we expect from you?

Alchemist: “Gangrene is the next thing after ‘Chemical Warfare’, which is a collaborative effort between me and Oh No, Madlib’s brother. The album’s done already and it’s real dope. Of course me and Evidence are working on our project together, Stepbrothers, which is taking a bit more time. I’m more intrigued now with doing whole projects with an artist rather than just one or two beats on an album. I mean, that’s cool but it doesn’t really allow me to push the parameters of what I can do as a producer. I just really want to keep making good quality music and show people that hardcore Hip-Hop is still something that people appreciate and will support.”

Ryan Proctor

Trick Or Treat – The Geto Boys

1991 footage of Scarface, Bushwick Bill and Willie D performing their classic “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” on Yo! MTV Raps.

El Michels Affair Interview (Originally Posted On BlackSheepMag.Com July 1st 2009)

el michels album cover

Although they might not claim the title of ‘hip-hop band’ in the same way as the likes of Stetsasonic and The Roots before them, the connection the multi-talented El Michels Affair has with the rap world cannot be denied. First making a name for themselves in the early Noughties with their unique brand of funky, old-school instrumentation, the collective’s credibility really started to rise in 2005 after they were approached by Scion to perform with the king of rap slanguage, Raekwon of Staten Island’s mighty Wu-Tang Clan.
 
Following the success of the perhaps unlikely pairing’s shows, El Michels Affair released a number of cult 7” singles featuring their own interpretations of some of the Wu’s most well-known classics. Turning the raw production of The RZA in on itself, the group fleshed out the melodic sounds contained within many of the original samples used to create the Clan’s gloriously gritty Chamber music, almost acting as the sonic bridge between the soul music of yesteryear and the hip-hop of today.
 
So successful were the group’s lovingly crafted re-workings of some of rap’s most recognizable cuts, El Michels Affair were inspired to embark on a completely Wu-related project, the recently-released instrumental album “Enter The 37th Chamber”.
 
Here, group organist Leon Michels talks about working with the Wu and why live bands are still the future of music in a digital world.
 
 
 Obvious first question, how did the group come together?
 
The group first released a 12 on Soul Fire Records in 2002. El Michels Affair was a group of musicians from The Dap-Kings, Antibalas, and the Mighty Imperials that played occasionally for Soul Fire Records. In 2005 I purchased a Tascam 388 and me and Nick Movshon from the Mighty Imperials and Antibalas started recording tracks which eventually turned in the Sounding Out The City record. After Wu-Tang hired us to back them up, El Michels Affair formed itself into a functioning band.
 
The group’s sound has been described as “cinematic soul” – what does that description mean to you?
 
“Ive always been into soundtrack records and the way music is used in movies, so when we create instrumentals we always try to apply some sort of cinematic narrative to the music, whether its in the strings or the mix or whatever. Cinematic soul is exactly what it sounds like—soul music with moody, cinematic overtones.
 
El Michels Affair has had a strong connection with the Wu-Tang Clan over the past few years, performing with Raekwon and also releasing instrumental single versions of some Wu classics. What were your initial thoughts when you were approached to work with Raekwon? Did you feel it would be a natural fit or where there reservations?
 
When we were first approached to back up Raekwon, we didnt really think much of it. We thought it would just be a one off performance that would help the Sounding Out The City record sell better. But when we actually started dissecting RZAs beats and playing them live, it sounded cool and completely different to the originals. Jeff Silverman, the co-founder of Truth & Soul, thought it would be a good idea to record the instrumentals and release them on 45s. Initially, it was scary because that music is untouchable. Its like trying to cover Marvin Gayes Whats Going On’, it will never be as good as the original. So our approach was to enhance the soul side of RZAs beats. We just tried to turn those grimy hip-hop songs back into soul songs without losing to much of the Wus spirit. 
 
Have you had any feedback from Clan members regarding you reworking some of their most memorable moments, particularly from RZA himself?
 
The Wu-tang guys always loved the stuff live but Ive never heard them say anything about the record. I played RZA Glaciers of Ice and he seemed to like it.
 
Would you consider recording a whole rap-based album as El Michels Affair and if so which MCs would you want to work with and why?

Probably not. Live hip-hop is not my favourite thing. I think it works great live but sampled and programmed hip-hop is more interesting to me. Even when we recorded Enter The 37th Chamber, our intention wasnt to make a live hip-hop record””

In today’s digital music age, is it a challenge being out there as a live band, or do you feel people are still looking for that organic sound that only live music can offer?

 I think live band shows kill shows with DJs. When you just have an MC and a DJ on stage, theres not much to watch. Youre really just getting a chance to hear the record, really, really loud. More and more hip-hop acts are taking live shows on the road because they realize they can create more of a spectacle, which is why people pay $40 to see a live show – its entertainment. 

Ryan Proctor

Deep Rooted – Roots Manuva

Roots Manuva at Glastonbury 2009 performing the classic “Witness (One Hope)”.