You recently produced Joell Ortiz’s “Battle Cry” that was on his Pre-Agent EP and will be on his Free Agent album. What was it like working with Joell?
It’s funny because a lot of people ask me what it’s like working with artists but the majority of what I do isn’t done in the same studio as somebody. It’s rare that I actually get into the studio these days just because of scheduling and all of that. But as far as getting the opportunity to work with him, it was crazy. It was something that came out of the blue. The “Battle Cry” beat was on a free instrumental EP I put out and I never saw it coming but a few weeks after it was out Joell’s manager hit me up and told me he wanted to use it and then when Joell leaked the Pre-Agent joint, Just Blaze heard it and thought the beat was dope but didn’t like the mixdown. He asked Joell to send him the joint and he would mix it down and add his little touch to it and that’s what made the album.
How did Just Blaze make the mix better?
I think he made it sound way better. I could hear exactly what he did mixing wise. I know what he was doing to it. He just made it sound much bigger and much more epic. My beat, as it was, was dope. But he made it build more and made it sound more epic. It just seemed a lot larger than my original version.
Do you think that’s something you can translate into your other beats?
Oh yeah, definitely. Just seeing what his ears did with my beat made me see it from a different angle and I can bring it to my production. He’s always been an inspiration and I learn from other producers. Him mixing my beat gave me a lot more inspiration and it gave me a lot more ideas for how he does his thing.
I would imagine it’s hard to get a lot of feedback when everything is done via email and there’s not much face-to-face contact.
I mean, it does but nowadays, from my own experience, it’s not common for a lot of people to really be at the studio like that anymore. A lot of people still go to the studio and they record like that, but a lot of people are on different schedules and if they want to work with each other, it’s just a lot easier to mail things back and forth and regardless of how you feel as an artist, if you want to get things done, you have to do it like that. Communication can be tough because people communicate differently and you can’t always read how they’re feeling but at the end of the day, it saves you a lot of time and it allows you to do more projects. I can be working with more people emailing them back and forth where if we’re in the studio, I have to set aside a certain number of hours to work on one song. It goes both ways.
Do you think you get better quality songs when you’re in the studio, like you do with your group The Brown Bag All-Stars?
I think if you go to the studio and you have chemistry with each other, you’re definitely going to get a better vibe. But the funny thing with the Brown Bag All-Stars is I don’t think we’ve ever recorded a song with everyone in the studio at the same time. I don’t think we’ve ever actually recorded a single song in the studio together. And that’s what’s so crazy about it. That’s how we function as a group. The chemistry in our music makes you think we’re all recording it together but we come together with what we’ve done and it always works for some reason. We’re all on a similar vibe and we can feel it out very well and we don’t have to be there in person to get that vibe.
How did the Brown Bag All-Stars first come together?
We were all in different groups at one time and we were all kind of unhappy in our separate groups. We felt like we were pulling more weight than the rest of the group or we were heading in different directions. We weren’t in the right place at the right time and we all met through the Fat Beats New York store. I started interning there and I moved up to managing and buying. J57 and Soul Khan was there. We all met through the store and the timing was right. We were friends before we were a group. We would lock up the store on a Friday night and drink and play beats and shit. At some point we all realized we were artists and should record a song together. It came out good and we kept doing it and it grew into the group that we are now. It kind of grew into a group and we got more serious about the music aspect and that’s how we came to what we are now.
What were you feeling when Fat Beats closed its door and more and more people were coming out to the store?
It’s not like I didn’t know it was coming. I was in the store all the time. In the past few years, just doing all the buying, there’s a huge drop in the amount of records I would have to buy. A new release a few years ago, I would buy way more than I would buy this year. It went down and it was horrible. I was actually mad bitter about it for awhile. The last few weeks were crazy and all these people came out and all these artists came out but all I could say was “Where the fuck were you?” It’s the same fucking thing over and over again. Anything post-mortem is held to such a higher regard and it comes to such a legendary status because they can mourn it and they can just jump on the bandwagon. It’s the same thing with all things post-mortem. You can look at Dilla for the same thing. He wasn’t half as appreciated as he is now than when he was alive. It’s the same thing with ‘Pac and Biggie and talk about what an inspiration they were and all that. There’s a lot of genuine people and I can see that. I knew the genuine people and I knew them by their faces and they knew me and that was it. I understand that. It was a bittersweet thing. It was its time and it marks the beginning of the new era and I understand that and things had to change, but it could have been prevented.
I was up there this summer and copped a couple albums, but it was amazing to watch people coming up to the store, ask questions and pick up show flyers but not buy anything.
That’s the problem! Towards the end, people came more to hang out than to actually support anything. They came to tell you what’s dope and what’s not dope and blah, blah, blah and there’s a show tonight, but they just came to hang out. They didn’t come to support anything. They just wanted to hang out and that’s part of the problem. The problem with the music scene nowadays is that you don’t need to buy anything. You literally never need to buy another piece of music if you don’t want to. There’s no need to ever buy music again. You’ll only buy music again if you want to support something because you like the album, label or artist. That’s the only way things are going to survive. People think they can just download albums instead of buying it but every person who does that is essentially fucking over the artist and the store. It’s very difficulty to make people understand that. It is what it is. Can you tell that I’m still a little bitter? (laughs)
Can you understand though, when money is tight, how fans wouldn’t to buy an album for $15 at Fat Beats when it’s $9.99 online?
That’s just the mom and pop shop, that’s how they work. Best Buy can get cheaper rates because they buy in larger quantities, obviously, and beyond that, a lot of the bigger chain stores that sell more than music and DVDs will sell it for less than what they pay for because they can make it up in other parts of the store. We had to make our money in sales because that’s all we could do. There’s no way we could compete with the bigger chain stores because we had overhead that we had to make in order to stay around. We weren’t making a lot of money. We just wanted to keep the lights on. The prices couldn’t have come down any lower. The CDs that were higher, we would pay $12 or $13 for a CD from the distributor or the label. So if we’re selling it for $15, we’re only making $2 a CD. And that’s the problem. We didn’t have the opportunity or the leverage to really sell anything cheaper than we got it. We had to mark our prices up.
Do you think labels were accommodating to Fat Beats’ needs?
It really depends. Some of the labels were really accommodating, like they would do things with consignment and they were happy we were helping them with promotion and then some labels were the opposite, where they said we owed them this much up front. It really depends on the label and the position that they’re in. The whole scene, the whole retail and label scene, is very interdependent and it depends on how you act towards people. If you’re not doing too well you’re going to be the nice guy, hoping you get favors in return. It’s all politics. Once you get on top, the labels feel like they can kind of bully people and do what they do. That’s how the game’s been and that’s how it’s always been.
You guys shot the video for “Undeniable” in the store. What was that like?
It was crazy. We actually shot that video in two days. It wasn’t two full days. I think we closed up on a Friday night around 9pm and then we shot ‘til four or five in the morning. I think I was there ‘til 10 or 11 the next morning. I left right before Jay came in to open the store the next day. But it was nuts. For those who haven’t been up in the store, they couldn’t see what we did, but for those who know about the store, they could see that we completely destroyed the store. It was a fucking mess but it came out really dope and I’m just glad that we had the opportunity to use that space that brought us all together and has been so important for my personal music career. I was just so happy that it was a big part of our first video and that we were able to use that space. And honestly, I don’t think any videos have used Fat Beats’ space like that. Nobody has the ability to because we had the keys to go in at night and do what we were doing. It was amazing. I’m really glad we had the opportunity to do that.
What are your favorite memories from working at Fat Beats?
I don’t really have any memories that stick out for me. Just being in that environment is what I remember the most, just the feeling of being there and being able to talk to somebody and say something and they instantly understand what you’re saying. You can’t walk on the street and talk about how dope the Black Milk album is and how you like how the samples are chopped up, but to be in an environment where you can talk about that, like geeky, hip-hop head shit, to live in that environment and live in that environment 40 to 50 hours a week, that was huge to me and it was a big part of cultivating who I became as a person and an artist. And that’s where I met Premier and Large Pro. I met most of the people I work with musically through Fat Beats.
You’ve been able to work with a lot of people like Tiye Phoenix and J-Live. What are your favorite tracks that you’ve produced?
There’s some that aren’t out yet and I don’t want to mention them in case they don’t come out. But I think my best work to date has been a couple of the songs with the Brown Bag All-Stars and I did an instrumental album called Brownies years ago and I thin that was some of my best production as well. It was a different style and it was much more Dilla-influenced. But I think those are my favorite tracks that I’ve done to date. I obviously like the Joell Ortiz “Battle Cry” joint but it doesn’t give me the same feeling that some of my other production does.
What’s your process like when you sit down to work on beats?
That’s the thing. A lot of people have specific patterns and some people will say they start with the drums first or they do this or that. I never start with the drums first. I find a song and I skim through records. If the vibe’s right, I’ll listen to the song and then I’ll find parts of the song that I like. Most producers, I feel, they find parts in their head and they’ll think about how they’re going to flip it. I can’t do that. If I do, the song will sound like shit. I find parts of the song that move me in some way and I take those parts. I chop it up and then I basically find random patterns. I don’t have any method to it. I just literally mess with it until it turns into something that I like and then I add the drums and the bass to it. I would say that 90% of my beats are made by accident. It’s literally me finding something that I like in the song and then I mess with it until it turns into something. I can’t really control it. It just happens.
How do you know when a beat is done versus it still being a work in progress?
It kind of hits me. I zone out when I make beats. I completely just zone out and not think about it. I’m just kind of moving and working on stuff and when I get to the point where I can step back and say that it sounds good, that’s how I know when I’m done. I’ll make a couple of little tweaks and stuff and that’s really it. It’s a really weird process. I really just zone the fuck out and then wake up when there’s something sitting there.
What equipment do you use?
I use all software. I use my turntable to sample vinyl and I’ve sampled CDs and DVDs and whatever I can get my hands on. But everything’s all software. I have an outdated version of Sony Acid Pro and I use Reason only for basslines and synths and then when I want to mix it down I use Pro Tools.
Do you think there’s a sound difference between the MPC sound and the digital sound?
No. I think it’s how you use it. There are producers that, and I have pretty decent ears, there are producers that I swore used MPCs and outboard gears and when I talked to them they use Pro Tools. It’s all about how you use things. The quality with how you use things is getting close enough to where if you use things properly, you can’t tell the difference. It’s all about how you use it, which is why I’m using a 2005 outdated version of Acid.
What do you want to take on next as a producer?
I’m still just really trying to solidify my name as a producer. I just want people to know some of the songs that I’ve done. My name doesn’t even need to be attached to it. I just want them to be moved in some way and say that beat’s dope and be inspired in some way because that’s what makes me inspired and that’s what makes me do music. I just want to continue that on and help someone else do what I’ve done. Obviously being able to live comfortably off of music is the ultimate goal, but if I can make music and live and move some people, then that’s really it.
What’s the next move for the Brown Bag All-Stars?
We have an overdue project called Brown Bag Season Volume One that was supposed to be out earlier this year. It’s coming out early next year and it’s going to be a double CD. We did Brown Bag Season, an online campaign, where we released a couple songs or videos every week. We have a Marco Polo and M-Phazes remix on this project and basically put together a compilation album. We have a whole second disc that’s remixed by DJ Brace. He’s out of Canada and he’s a really dope DJ. We’ll hopefully have that done early next year and then after that, it’s the debut Brown Bag All-Stars album. It’s a dope line-up and the production is locked in and we have some real legendary, dope features and the album is sounding really dope so far. That should be out later next year and of course we have all of our solo projects as well. I got mine, J’s got his and Soul Khan’s got his and Koncept’s doing his thing. We all kind of branch off and do our solo thing and then come back as a group and bring everyone together with the group unity and shit. It’s been working really dope so far.
And an upcoming project I’m working on is The Spread EP. It’s an instrumental EP. It’s going to be six instrumental tracks that I’m putting up for free download. The idea behind the EP is that people tend to just record and rap over the beats and send me the songs. I’m not mad at that because if I put out an instrumental project and y’all record to it, it’s cool. Just send me what to do and give me credit. But this is basically an EP that is made for any artist to download, record what they want to it and when you record your joints, send it to my email and I’m going to pick my six favorites and then release it as a project with the vocals that all the people have recorded to. That’s the next project that’s coming out in the next couple of weeks.