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.”