Born and raised in the Bronx, New York where the people are fresh, thirty-something producer Ray West has lived most of his life dedicated to the culture of Hip-Hop.
Having spent years honing his musical talents tucked away in the basement digging through old records and crafting his own unique sound, West’s recent collectable vinyl releases on his Red Apples 45 imprint (co-owned by D.I.T.C.’s A.G.) have quickly gained a cult following amongst vinyl lovers and fans of true-school Hip-Hop.
Genuinely bringing something different to the table, the humble music man’s ability to mix traditionally dusty-fingered East Coast-flavoured samples with progressive, organic live instrumentation conjures up images of early-80s graffiti-covered subway trains careering along rail-tracks built on the rings of Saturn.
Although West’s full-length 2010 album “Everything’s Berri” with A.G. initially confused some listeners with it’s spacey keyboards and minimalist feel, it also drew in many fans who eagerly awaited collaborations with Rotten Apple representatives like the late Party Arty and Roc Marciano on releases such as “Pianos In The Projects” and “The Pianos Companion EP”.
The producer’s latest project “LUV NY” is the work of a Hip-Hop super-group that would almost seem too good to be true if it wasn’t for the fact the music is already out there as proof their album has been completed. Consisting of D.I.T.C. legends A.G. and O.C., Ultramagnetic space cowboy Kool Keith, Uptown fly guy Kurious, Dave Dar and Strong Island smooth assassin Roc Marciano, the LUV NY crew’s rap pedigree is unquestionable and when matched with West’s intriguing soundscapes results in music that draws from the past whilst also looking towards the future.
Here, the BX studio maestro speaks on his early days as a fan of Hip-Hop, how he came to be surrounded by a posse of such iconic rap figures and the science behind the LUV NY release.
Beings that you’re from the birthplace of Hip-Hop what are your earliest memories of the music?
“My first true experience of Hip-Hop was the song “Roxanne, Roxanne” by U.T.F.O.. There were a bunch of older kids on the block I grew-up on who were deejays and they had the boombox outside and they were playing “Roxanne, Roxanne”. I was still a little kid, about eight or nine-years-old, but I was just totally mesmerised by that song. I mean, I always loved records even before that. I was like a record collector as a child (laughs). I had like old comic book records and things like that. So I started buying rap records around that time and I also got along with those older kids so I started deejay-ing around when I was about twelve-years-old. I already had a bunch of rap records from collecting beforehand, but those older guys helped me out and gave me a turntable, a mixer and I started really deejay-ing. So to answer your question, it was the deejays in my area and “Roxanne, Roxanne” that really made me fall in love with this music.”
Given that you were so young at the time were you already aware of the historic connection between the Bronx and the music you were discovering or was that something that came later?
“I learned about the history through really listening to brothers on the block. I mean, I really couldn’t get enough of the music and the culture. I was watching “Beat Street”, “Wild Style”, listening to KRS-One and analysing lyrics. Then the older cats would tell me about the records and artists before my era like the Sugarhill releases and Melle Mel and they would always tell me to respect where the music came from. So I really learnt about the history of the culture through listening to the music and from the older cats.”
When did you make the transition from deejay-ing to producing?
“It was awhile after I started deejay-ing. I deejay-ed from the time I was twelve to when I was in my twenties. I mean, we used to make songs in high-school but we didn’t have a sampler or anything, I’d just beat-juggle to keep the breakbeats going like “Impeach The President” and my friends would rhyme. So I was always around emcees but they would rhyme over instrumentals or breakbeats, not beats that I’d made. I was in my early twenties when I first brought a sampler and then I started making beats. But I didn’t really consider making a song or getting into the business. I was deejay-ing all over town in Manhattan and around the Bronx and then I was making beats for myself in the basement. I just loved digging through records and finding samples. I didn’t really try to make a proper song until I’d been making beats for about five or six years.”
Did any of the emcees you were working with in high-school go on to make a larger impact in the rap game?
“Most of them were cats who stayed local and just did the music thing for fun. I remember in high-school I got to meet Lord Tariq before he made any of the big records that he blew-up with. He was a little older than me but he came to a talent show that I was deejay-ing at and he rhymed over my set. I think I was bringing back the beginning drum track of Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill A Man” for him to rhyme to. We exchanged information but I never followed through with him and then he blew-up. Then years later I made about six or seven songs with him and I reminded him of that night but he only vaguely remembered and didn’t really remember me being there (laughs). All the other cats that were rhyming at the time were just cats from the buildings near where I lived. Some of them still rhyme, some of them don’t. Some of them aren’t around anymore. The only one from back then who is definitely still rhyming is Abdul Jabar who was on A.G.’s “Everything’s Berri” project and also on one of my vinyl releases. He’s like one of my boys from way back in our high-school days who always stuck with the music and he’s still a really good friend. He’s a family guy and doesn’t really work too much on music but I always try to include him when I can.”
An obvious question, but who would you say influenced you as a producer?
“I’d say Premier, D.I.T.C. of course, Diamond D, I always really liked KRS-One’s beats, the Kenny Parker stuff, Q-Tip, Pete Rock. But really I’d say DJ Premier had the biggest influence on me prior to me hearing J Dilla and Madlib. Once I caught onto Slum Village I really loved Dilla’s sound, that minimalistic approach to it.”
When you and A.G. dropped the “Everything’s Berri” album in 2010 it was met with mixed reactions from people who felt it was so different from what they were used to hearing from him – how did you feel about the way the album was received by some longstanding A.G. fans?
“I try to read all the comments and take everything in and see what people are saying. I mean, A.G. has some die-hard fans that only want to hear some traditional A.G. s**t, but what me and A do isn’t in the typical A.G. style. It’s not the straight boom-bap, raw rhyming that people have come to know him for. So I knew there were going to be people that liked it and some people that didn’t. But I also knew that there would be people who’d never listened to A.G. before who might start to listen to him because of that project. So I knew we might lose some people with “Everything’s Berri” but also gain some other people along the way and give A a fresh platform. I mean, we do some street stuff sometimes as well, but it was interesting to see the different reactions people had to that project. People listen to music for different reasons and the vibe is always more laidback with my stuff. Some people like to take music to the gym to help them workout, but “Everything’s Berri” isn’t the album to take if that’s the type of energy you’re looking for (laughs).”
Maybe for after the workout…
“Exactly. Like afterwards when you’re relaxing having a glass of wine or something (laughs)…”
So how did you actually hook up with A.G. to make that project?
“We met through a friend of mine who had contacted A.G. to do a song and he asked me to engineer the session for him. So I actually picked up A that day and drove him to my man’s house to do the song and then I dropped him back, but all through the day we’d really been getting along. I was always a huge D.I.T.C. fan and felt that A.G. was a really strong lyricist in that crew, so I wanted to show him more of my stuff and he really took an interest in what I played him. I had an idea for an EP at that time called “Pianos In The Projects” and I asked him about it and he was really interested in the music. We just really got along on a personal level so it made the creative process easy. We started recording under this “Pianos In The Projects” umbrella but the songs we recorded never actually came out as part of that project. We still actually have those. But recording those tracks was the basis of our initial relationship and we really felt like we’d hit on a style of music that was something that we’d created together that was different to anything else. A.G. having so much confidence in my sound pushed me into being even more obscure, and in turn me having confidence in A.G. and not telling him to rhyme about certain subjects but just letting him do whatever he wanted to do conceptually, it opened him up to be more free and make songs about girls and other things that he might not usually do. Plus, A introduced me to Party Arty early on and he was another guy who believed in me immediately. Party started taking beats home that I’d play him to make his own songs and then I’d see him three or four days later and he’d have two songs done. Arty lived in the projects and his house was so crazy because he had his Pro-Tools set-up, a picture of J Dilla on the wall, a gold Big L plaque and a bed. That was Party Arty’s environment (laughs). I’m kinda going off on a tangent here from your question…
Not at all…
“When I used to listen to Ghetto Dwellas before I even knew any of those guys I always liked Party Arty and D-Flow, but you always got the feel through the music that Party Arty was really A.G.’s man. But when you actually met them, you knew why Party was his man like that. Arty was a real stand-up, honest, positive guy who was a real musician. When you were working with Arty he really knew what to do to make a song better and he was way more talented than the world actually got to see.”
It was definitely a tragic loss because leading up to his passing it really felt like Party Arty was starting to step into the spotlight in his own right musically…
“Yo, it’s so sad bro. You know that Showbiz album “Street Talk”? I feel like Party Arty dominated that album with some great work. That’s such a great album because of 80 and if you look on the credits Show thanks Party Arty in particular, so you could tell he really did a lot in terms of tying that album together and filling the spaces wherever Show needed him.”
Being such a huge D.I.T.C. fan it must have felt like a dream come true to have A.G. and Arty really supporting what you were doing as a producer?
“It really was like living a dream and still to this day I cant believe the situations that I find myself in with this music. If you would’ve told me ten years ago that this is what I would be doing I wouldn’t have even believed it. So I really am thankful to both A and Party for their confidence in me as they gave me the opportunity to really take things to the next level.”
You mentioned earlier that you’re aware your sound is something different, so how would you actually describe your production style?
“I believe I’m capable of what I’m capable of. I’m not about duplicating someone else. My style is sample-driven music so the inspiration for it comes from digging through a lot of old records, but it does also have a lot of live components to it as well. I use a lot of Moog synths, hand instruments, conga drums, things like that. So I feel like my style is very free and as long as I believe it sounds good and it hits my soul in the right place I’m able to feel confident and work with that. So it’s really about freedom but it’s also sample-driven at the same time.”
Pianos seem to be an ongoing theme in your music – is there a particular reason for that?
“I love how pianos sound. My mother has been a piano player since she was little, she’s played in Carnegie Hall and she still does play. So a lot of the time when I’d be in the basement working on music I could hear the piano upstairs. I actually recorded my mother into Pro-Tools (laughs). But she’s not an ear musician, she has to read music, so she plays a lot of classical material rather than being someone who would sit there and vibe out and play some s**t. So I think growing up my whole life hearing the piano being played, I guess now I just gravitate towards that sound in my music. Plus, I think that rhymes over pianos from a rapper with a good voice just sound right. I mean, it can sound hard, it can sound emotional. I make beats using other instruments as well but I always feel like I move forward more with the piano stuff.”
The new “LUV NY” project features a number of New York legends coming together as a group – how did you manage to bring together A.G., O.C., Kurious, Kool Keith and Roc Marciano for this album?
“Right after introducing me to Party Arty, A.G. also introduced me to O.C. kinda early. Me and O formed our own relationship. We actually have our own project that we’re still working on, which O took a break from to do the Apollo Brown album. So O became family very early on. Then we did a show with Kurious and Dave Dar at the Bronx Musuem and A and Jorge knew each other, but we didn’t know Dave and I didn’t know Jorge. But we really got along and I loved what they were doing as the Bamboo Bros, so then we started working together on songs just having fun with it.”
What about Kool Keith?
“A.G. knows that Kool Keith is my favourite rapper of all-time. I’ve been a fan for years and have been to so many of his shows, he’s just the most hilarious, real dude ever. A.G. ran into Keith on Fordham Road in the Bronx and told him how much of a fan I was and that he should come by the studio and check out what we were doing and listen to some of my beats. Keith actually lives fairly close to me, so he came through to do a song with A and then me and Keith started working together and recorded maybe like thirty songs.
And finally, how does Roc Marciano fit into the puzzle?
Now, the thing with Roc Marciano, I had credits on his “Marcberg” album. Also, years ago I reached out with Roc to do a song with A as I felt the two of them would be great doing a song together. I was willing to pay him and approached him on a business level, but Roc was like ‘Nah, for A.G. I’ve got no problem doing that for free.’ So they did a song together. Me and Roc then started working together and while I was recording and mixing “Marcberg” we would do songs together inbetween. So now all these brothers were coming in and out of my studio at different times or sometimes people would arrive early and would be in there together with each other. It’s not like I reached out to a bunch of people just to do a project, the artists on the “LUV NY” album are the people who are around me on a regular basis who I’m making music with out of love not because of business. Me and A years ago came up with the name LUV NY and said that if we ever put together a big group or something that’s what we should call it. So I brought that back to the table and told A that with all the brothers we had working together, with all the songs we’d recorded, we could just do a couple more songs to solidify it and we could make it the “LUV NY” project. Everyone involved in the album has mutual respect for each other, everyone worked on it together and I feel like it’s special for that reason. There are no emailed vocals involved, it wasn’t about money, it really was a crazy blessing to be able to work with these brothers on a project like this.”
So does the name of the group purely reflect the sound of the album or is there a deeper meaning to the LUV NY concept?
“It stands for the blessing of being from this place. It’s not about having any malice towards anywhere else, or being critical about the music that’s coming from anywhere else, it’s just about showing what we do here in New York. It’s not necessarily about constantly waving the New York banner in the rhymes, it’s just everybody doing what they wanted to do and by doing that they’re showing you the different flavours of NYC, with Kurious being from Uptown, A.G. from the South Bronx, Roc from Long Island, O.C. being from Brooklyn, Dave Dar is from Washington Heights and Keith being from the Bronx as well. It’s just about some brothers coming together and making the music that comes naturally as artists who were born and raised in New York. It’s a happy album and is really just a celebration.”
How do you feel the city has changed when you think back to the NY of your childhood compared to today?
“I think it’s definitely got a lot safer (laughs). In the 70s and 80s it was definitely a wild place with things like the crack era and what happened around that in New York during that time. Then in the 90s the city started to get cleaned up a little bit and then by the time we got to the 2000s it was definitely a much safer place to live and visit. There were a lot of neighbourhoods that before you wouldn’t really want to go to or would even be able to go to, whereas now you can go there, sit down and have a cheese platter and some wine or something (laughs). So the city has definitely changed on that level and it’s definitely not as segregated as it used to be. But in terms of the energy, it’s still very much that same fast-paced New York and I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.”
Do you see a parallel between how New York has changed socially and the changes in some of the music from the city given that many people feel the Rotten Apple has had something of a sonic identity crisis in recent years?
“It’s weird because I just feel like Hip-Hop became such a big business that the organic element of the music became lost as people started to try and emulate successful formulas or sounds from other areas. I mean, there are definitely still good artists out there that are unknown in New York but the business isn’t built for that. If you’re going to pay attention to New York radio then you’re going to feel insecure about the music you’re making because if you’re doing something that reflects where you’re from as a New York artist it’s not going to sound like what they’re playing on the radio. It’s all good for people to monopolise the business like that, but the culture will still be here when they’re done making their money out of Hip-Hop. But I really try to avoid all of that stuff. I don’t listen to the radio at all, I don’t pay attention to pop artists and what they had for lunch, I don’t do that. But at the same time, I don’t want people thinking that all I’m listening to is “Return Of The Boom-Bap” from KRS-One because I listen to a lot of new artists and am constantly buying music from those artists because there is a lot of quality out there that you’re not hearing about on the radio etc. But I really try to avoid getting caught up in all of that stuff and I don’t move in those circles because if you stay away from that type of energy that you can’t become infected by it to the point where it starts to influence what you do.”
Do you find it frustrating when people think that just because you’re being critical of new music that must mean you only listen to old Hip-Hop instead of understanding that you’re actually also listening to new artists who just aren’t being promoted by that mainstream machine?
“I hate it when people think that. It’s almost like mass brain-washing the way these major outlets present artists and make people feel as if they have to like them or follow them. But someone, somewhere who doesn’t even care about the music is getting paid off of that and that’s what it comes down to. But like I said, we will still be here after they’ve made their money. Hip-Hop will still be here, the culture will still be here, and we’ll still be here doing what we do. I mean, if you look at a younger artist like a Blu who’s been making some great music, it gives you confidence that the music isn’t going anywhere and that there are still artists coming up who have that creative spark. But it’s frustrating that so many people out there don’t understand that just because you don’t like what’s being played on the radio that doesn’t mean you’re not listening to new music. I mean, I don’t really talk Hip-Hop with a lot of people outside of my circle and there’s probably people at my day job who don’t even know what I do because it’s frustrating to have the same conversation over and over.”
Considering your previous projects have been released via Fat Beats or on your own Red Apples 45 imprint why did you decide to go with France’s Ascetic label for the “LUV NY” album?
“They reached out to me back in January and told me they’d been following what I’d been doing and would really like to put a project out. I mean, I’ve been with Fat Beats for awhile now but I know that I’m not a really big seller compared to some of the other artists they deal with, so I was looking for a smaller situation where the label could really concentrate on the record. So it was actually good timing as the “LUV NY” project was done and I’d actually been talking to some other labels here but everything kind of felt the same, so I decided to take a chance with Ascetic in France. I looked into the label and the projects they’d put out from people like Count Bass D and Pace Won and really liked what they’d done. It’s been great being involved with Ascetic and they’ve really been on top of their game and done a lot for this project in a short space of time.”
So given the numerous artist connections you have there must be some other projects currently being put together in the Red Apples lab?
“Right now I have a seven-inch EP with A.G. and Party Arty called “Dancin’ In The Rain” which is under the “Pianos In The Projects” style. I have the album coming with O.C. called “Ray’s Cafe” plus an album that I did with A.G. and John Robinson which was great to work on as J.R. brought in some horn-players and singers, so it’s my mellow production with some really great live instruments. Then we also have a D-Flow solo album on the way. We’ve done about six songs already and we also have a few choice guestspots on there from people like A.G. and Milano so that’s something to watch out for. I’m really looking to build Red Apples into being a harmonious little label that me and A can use to help quality artists survive in an honest way in a dishonest business. It’s definitely a challenge (laughs).”
“LUV NY” is out now on Ascetic Music.
LUV NY ft. A.G. & Roc Marciano – “Egyptology” (Ascetic Music / 2012)