You’ve produced some great albums with artists like Blu and Fashawn and you’ve also released your own instrumental project with Radio. Are you finally getting the respect of being a go-to producer?
Yeah. I feel like it’s starting to happen for me and I feel the level of respect that I’m getting is where it should be, definitely, and I’m just moving forward and working with other artists. It’s definitely opened up the door for me for working with other artists as well. Yeah, I feel like it did open up the door for me whether it’s me producing an album for Blu or Fashawn or doing an instrumental album or the live aspect and bringing the MPC to the forefront as an instrument, yeah, I feel it.
Did your instrumental album Radio allow people to really hear what you could do without the distraction of an MC?
Well, that was the idea. I felt like it was time for me to do an instrumental project and to let people know that I could do it on my own too and the challenge was to try to find a voice without having vocals on the record and a lot of times when you’re listening to the MC or the vocalist, they kind of do the thinking for you and with this record, I just wanted to sonically paint a picture about what the song was about and let the instrumental ride and give you time to think, just to push your thoughts in one direction and I feel like instrumentals can give the listener time to hear his own thoughts rather than being led through vocals.
Is the instrumental album something that all producers should do at least once in their career?
It just depends on what you’re trying to do. I think it’s definitely time to evolve with this music and to take it to that level and I definitely encourage all the great producers who haven’t had an instrumental album to do that, and maybe not just a beat record where cats can freestyle and smoke to it. Something more, something that can stand on its own.
That’s easier said than done. How can a producer do that and do it well?
Really, for me it was just about being honest with myself and listening to it and seeing if it captures me and keeps me interested all the way through. I’ll feel if I have to rework it or add things to keep the listener interested and I think I was able to do that and also tell a story about what I believe in and even things that I don’t believe in but exist, whether it be love or the evils of politics, through the vocal samples that I chopped up from various radio shows.
Did you make any of these beats hoping MCs would rock over them or were these made with the intention that no one would ever flow over these?
They weren’t made for MCs at all. They were made to listen to them by themselves but some of them will work for that. “Megamix” is definitely more of an MC-catered beat. But I’m doing a remix project, I have over 30 remixes, and some of them are remixes of having vocalists over the same beats that were produced for the Radio. But I also have producers remixing them and I’ve been making instrumentals as well.
You made Radio from all radio samples. How did you make that happen?
Everything was from the radio, from the drums to the hi-hats to the 808s. I was able to grab them off the bass records on mainstream radio. Every single thing. Even the siren noises, I have some sirens on there and J Dilla-esque sirens…Yeah, everything’s from radio.
What inspired you to take that route?
Radio is one of the main sources that really got me into hip-hop besides roller-skating rinks. KDAY really broke a lot of records for me, from like Eazy E to Ice T or even Freestyle Fellowship and Brand Nubian. When I was younger, all of my friends were just radio-recording fiends when it came to a certain type, like underground hip-hop radio and there was just a mystique to recording those things because you could only get it there, in your city, and it wasn’t like how it is now where everything is just really accessible and you can find all the new shit. I don’t know. It was just a part of my childhood. And I had made a beat off the radio before, a long time ago, and I was just thinking how I could make an instrumental project without making it like everything else out there. It was a challenge for me and it was just cool to sit in my room and really take in the radio.
Even now, if you just sit with it, there’s a lot of good shows out there. It’s definitely not the same, but there’s some good shit out there. Definitely not as much as there used to be, but there’s definitely a lot of conscious people spitting messages on the radio to combat Clear Channel.
What do you do differently when you’re making a beat for yourself versus for a specific project with an MC like Blu or Fashawn?
It definitely frees me up to experiment with rhythms and sound. I feel like there was more of a freedom to it. It’s just allowed me to get creative and take it wherever I wanted to take it. I feel like I should be doing the same thing, even with an MC, but sometimes you need to create that space and sound so they’re able to cut through and get their message across. I feel like sometimes I have to hold back a little bit when I’m making tracks for MCs or vocalists.
But it’s funny because I’ve been working with a lot of cats since and I was playing this one cat beats and he said he wanted something like what was on Radio, that was bugged out. He liked all the change-ups that was going on with Radio for the MC project that we’re working on. This album might have helped me progress what I do for vocalists.
How instrumental was your album with Blu, Beneath the Heavens, to who you are as a producer?
Man, it’s strange. When we were making it, we had, like, I don’t know, 30 or 40 songs to choose from and there were times we thought we had a classic on our hands and there were times when we were sick of the record and we weren’t sure what people would think of it. All we wanted to do was create something that was going to be respected and was going to add to the art form rather than just fit in somewhere. Our goal is to do something different and at the same time with respect to the tradition of the music. It’s a wonderful thing to me that it got accepted the way that it did.
What was your favorite memory recording that album?
Making songs with Blu and then being done with a session and the sun’s up and just strategizing where we’re going to take it when we get into the studio again or what the album is gonna be before we knew what it was going to be. Really just conceptualizing with Blu after recording a gang of songs. But really, I remember this one time there was this crazy, huge storm in Long Beach and we were recording in downtown and this big metal chair fell from one of the buildings and it smashed a satellite and it was a crazy, loud thing that sounded like a bomb went off in the middle of our recording. That was a crazy thing.
What’s it been like working with Fashawn?
It’s been great. I love working with younger cats and just being able to feed off of their youthful energy and being able to contribute to it and help them bring out their story. It’s great. All I really wanted to do was help bring up the West Coast in a classic way.
Are you more comfortable working with West Coast artists?
It’s definitely easier and that was definitely the goal of mine. As of now I’m spreading my wings a little. I’m working with artists out in Chicago and I’ve been in the studio with Pharoahe Monch as well and it was all definitely comfortable. The comfort is just the same with everyone, as long as they’re good people and hard workers.
Where do you want to go as a producer?
I want to do another Radio project in another country and use their radio waves. I’m still trying to figure out where I’m going to go. Maybe India. I wanna do that. I want to progress my beats as well as progress the MCs’ vocals to something different than I’ve done before. I really want to try to redefine what “cool” is because there’s a lot of things out there that people are calling cool but it’s really just fucking up kids’ heads and turning the world into a bunch of egotistical fashion-money-sex-hungry people. It’s cool, but there needs to be a balance and I think that’s what my mission is – to give out a balance.
If I’m working on an album where I’m doing all of the production, rarely does it happen but if any messages come up that I don’t agree with, I’ll let it be known and I think that’s an important thing to have, just to create a balance and lean it more towards positivity and things that I think are cool, not like fucking ego and all that shit. You know what I’m talking about.
And I also play the drums and that’s knowledge of notes to be able to play live and I’m currently figuring out a bigger situation where I can have my drums and keyboards set up and be able to do more live things and maybe even step outside of the MPC and work with other mediums as well. I’m not gonna give up the MP. I have been figuring out how to do live production with the MPC, so I want to further that as well.
Is the MPC dying out?
It definitely is. There’s a lot of computer programs out there where cats can set up their drums and even type in different time signatures with a mouse and it makes their beats sound all crazy and shit but it’s not like a hands-on thing. It’s more like a visual knowledge of where to move the mouse-type thing. It’s easier than the MPC so I think that’s why cats are moving to that more and it’s actually easier to really tweak out your sound and make it sound crazy. I’m definitely interested in it and would like to learn more about it so I don’t fall behind in my production but it’s just hard because you can’t teach an old dog new tricks and I actually like the hands-on-ness of an MPC because you’re actually pushing down on buttons. But you can do that as well with computers and have pads if it’s utilized in that fashion.
Do you think beats not made with an MPC lack a certain hip-hop authenticity?
When it comes down to it and when you listen to it, if it sounds good, that’s really all that matters. I’ve heard beats made on other things and they sound great and I think that’s all that really matters. If your listeners think it sounds good, I don’t think there’s any authenticity lost. But there’s something to be said for the old, traditional gear that’s been used in hip-hop for awhile. I’m not mad at it.
Does anything get lost when you have programs that chop your samples for you?
Maybe. I really have to try my hands at it to know for sure.
How long did it take you to feel like you really got a grasp on the MPC?
I think it just depends on the individual. There’s cats that have been trying to mess with it for years and they still don’t have one solid beat. They might just not be as serous about it as I am but then there’s some cats who take to it naturally. It’s about if you’re into it and take the time to learn it and follow through.
Are you still improving as a producer?
You know what? I have to. I have to. I can tell when I’m getting bored with something and when I lose inspiration and I definitely have to just make some beats that reinvent what I normally do but I won’t say that I’ll give up older styles. I’ll still use those if I just feel like making something real quick but in order to keep myself interested and excited about this music, I definitely have to keep growing, otherwise it’s just going to be wack, really. I feel like I am. I feel like I could grow faster. I’d like to, but I’m definitely always pushing myself to grow. Actually I was going to go to Guitar Center today to get some new gear. I wanted to get some new synths to reinspire me.
Will you stick with your MPC 2000?
I’m definitely going to keep using the MPC 2000 XL. Eventually I would like to try some other things and just see the other options.
Do you have plans to record another album with Blu?
Yeah. We actually have a lot of songs right now and we’re just working, but we are making some stuff.
How would you say your new music with Blu compares to Below the Heavens?
There’s three or four songs that just let you know exactly where Blu is now. It’s definitely the same honesty as it was before but his mind is more complex right now. It’s the way he expresses it to the listener. I feel like this is some of the best shit he ever made. I think the fans will like it. I think the fans who loved Below the Heavens will like this as well. It’s kind of like an updated version of Below the Heavens.
You got your start with Aloe Blacc and your group Emanon. You guys had a good thing going.
Yeah. Me and Aloe actually have a whole album recorded right now. We’re just recording it and picking songs. We’re going to release an album in 2010.
Why was there such a layover with Emanon and your last album The Waiting Room?
We were just working on music for so long and then Aloe just really had to get what was in him out on his own. He was doing his singing thing and he also is a producer as well. I don’t want to say I was holding him back but I think he just needed to explore music on his own. He always did, but I think he really just needed to be alone with it for awhile and really just experiment and explore his creativity.
One of my favorite songs you guys did was “What You Live For.” What was it like recording that?
We had a whole bunch of songs and we were putting together this EP. It was basically before this album, we had made nothing but four track shit and this was us in the studio showing a more crispy and fine-tuned side of Emanon. I don’t know what else I could say about that.
What’s your favorite Emanon music today?
I like the tape Imaginary Friends. We did that in 1996. That was, I think, some of our best work. Maybe even the stuff before The Waiting Room album. It was just raw and it was just us learning about hip-hop. It was all four track and I was using a push button sampler and then just saving the track and leaving one track open for the scratches and one track open for the vocals. It was really exciting back then because we were figuring it out and selling tapes. That was the era when you got a tape and it sounded all grimy and people would dub it for other cats and by that time it would hiss and sound all grimy but you still loved it and the fact that there were only 500 of it added some mystique to it. All it was was people dubbing it for other people and that’s how it spread. Man, tapes…Tapes are definitely romanticized in my head as far as how I got music. Back then people were more greedy with their music. You didn’t want everybody to have it. You were like, ‘Nah, you don’t know about this shit. This is that raw shit.’ (laughs) You had to really earn it to get someone else’s tape. I don’t know how to explain it. You could have these dubs of different tapes but if you had the original, it was even better.
Those days are definitely gone.
And then another thing, since it was hard to get your music out there, the people that were actually pressing it up and selling it, if you were going through that much trouble back then, especially with recording being a lot harder, it’s not like everybody had a computer and Pro Tools back then, most people had a four track and if you figured out how to actually record yourself and make beats and then put it on tape and make a cover and sell it, most likely it’s worth listening to because the artist went through so much trouble.
Nowadays it’s so accessible and any jackass can make it. You can walk down Venice Beach and there’s 16 motherfuckers trying to sell you shit and you don’t even give a shit. But back then, if someone was trying to sell you some hip-hop out in front of the club, you may be more willing to give it a chance and I liked standing outside of clubs and telling people to buy the shit and then if people didn’t buy it, making them feel like it was their loss and then the next time I saw them and they did buy it, to get those props was a great feeling.
Did you have more fun back then than you do today?
Not that I am jaded, but I was definitely less jaded because it was fresh and it was definitely more exciting. But being fine-tuned and knowing how to work with artists as I do now and having that chemistry and excitement for making dope songs, it’s a different level and there’s a different dynamic to it. I can’t say one is better. You always look back and say the past is better but it was different. It was more exciting. There was less people doing it. I kind of felt a little more proud about my shit back then where now this is what I do. Does that make any sense?
Yeah. So how do you stay fresh today without getting too jaded?
I think really now, I have to consciously look for inspiration. I have to do things to make myself feel inspired to keep doing the things that I do. I would say that I definitely work harder now than I did before. I try to knock out more music than I used to when I was younger but, you know, what is it like? It’s not like riding a bike. (laughs) What is something that you have to keep practicing or you’ll forget it? I don’t know, man. Right now I find I have to consciously make myself feel inspired to keep doing what I’m doing and just be thankful for what I’m doing. Be thankful, be happy and use that inspiration to keep on doing what you love and make sure that message that you’re putting out there is not going to damage the natural way of humans. I don’t know.
Are you more proud of your underground cuts or working with legends like Snoop Dogg?
I’m more proud of Below the Heavens and the Fashawn shit and the Radio shit and the new Emanon shit than the other stuff but when I listen to the other stuff and it still holds, it’s dope to revisit it. It’s crazy to think that we were on that stuff when we were 18 or 20, still kicking something conscious with some grimy beats. It’s interesting to me. I’m proud of it all. There are some songs that I’m not proud of, but that’s just gonna happen when you experiment.
You mentioned earlier that you want artists to promote messages you agree with. Did Prodigy’s verse on “Pearly Gates” make you uncomfortable?
Not really. When I first heard it, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to hell!’ I was just joking but I just realized it was Prodigy’s frustration for the hand that he got dealt and that was his way of communicating it. I don’t feel…That’s him. That’s the message that he wanted to communicate. I don’t think that I censor any of my artists but I’ll ask them if they’d rather say something else and if they’re not feeling it they’re not feeling it. But I wouldn’t have censored that. It’s just how it’s done. Plus he’s Prodigy, so whatever. It’s all good.
You’ve gotten major placements and been an underground staple. What do you prefer today?
There was a time when I was chasing major placements but it wasn’t me. That’s not what I wanted to do. This is what I wanted to do. I want to follow in the steps of the Marley Marl’s and the Primo’s and break artists. Breaking unknown artists is what I love to do. I’m doing a record with Pharoahe but I’m not going to stop trying to find new artists, really just to keep the music fresh. It’s a youthful music so I like to find young cats who are talented so we can both accomplish what we want to accomplish.
How is your work with Pharoahe Monch sounding?
From what I can tell this is one of his most lyrical albums and he’s really going for it. I think it’s going to be one of his best records to date.
Do you have any solo projects with you on the mic planned?
I actually have over 30 songs of myself rapping and I took it back to the four track days. I only got Pro Tools a few years ago, to be honest. I used to just use it in studios. But if I’m rapping, there’s just a lot that I had to get out of me, lyrically, so I just started working on the four track and in 2010, I’ll probably do one free album and then do the album. I think it’s going to be called Four Track Mind.