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Anatomy of a hip-hop song: Local producers weigh in on what it takes to make a great track

The term "producer" has very different connotations in the worlds of rock and hip-hop. Although they're both instrumental in shaping the sound, they serve very different functions.

Generally speaking, in rock, a producer plays a variety of roles, everything from acting as an artistic filter to being an almost shaman like spiritual consultant, coaxing the best, most authentic performance out of an artist, to even pitching in on the songwriting and instrumentation.

In hip-hop, meanwhile, although a producer can -- and does -- certainly take on those roles, as well, essentially, he's also the architect of the beat, laying the foundation of a song before a single hook is created or a single line is spit.

In advance of tonight's Red Bull Big Tune finals in Chicago, a national competition of the country's best producers, in which Boonie Mayfield and Xperiment Beats are both representing Colorado, Ru Johnson penned a feature in this week's issue breaking down all the elements of great production.

In the process of putting the piece together, Ru spoke with nearly a dozen emerging local producers to get their thoughts on the elements of great production, what it takes to make a dope beat and how they keep from making the same song over and over again. Click through to watch interviews with Boonie and Xperiment and to read the other interviews we did in their entirety.

 

Boonie Mayfield

Anatomy of a hip-hop song: Local producers weigh in on what it takes to make a great track

Boonie Mayfield is a quiet storm of humble brilliance and sincere motivation. A natural born teacher, his YouTube videos display his ability to teach and inspire. His skill is matched by his humility and child-like awe. "I'm an only child," he reveals in a hushed tone. "So music has always been the thing I could relate to the most. I am cautious of too much confidence, because sometimes, I have no clue where the music comes from." We caught up with Boonie as he was preparing to head to Chicago for the Big Tune finals for a heady conversation on beat making with an emphasis on the creative side of production.

Westword: Break down the physical components that a beat can't survive without.

Boonie Mayfield: As far as physical components these days... it can't really survive without an at least decent computer. Sure you can use all hardware to produce, but at the rate of technology's growth... every professional studio is using some type of DAW like ProTools, Logic, Cubase, Ableton or Sonar to get good mixing and mastering down. Aside from that, I'd say a keyboard of some sort and/or drum-pads.

Do you prefer the hands on approach of beat making or the overall director's approach in a full production session?

I haven't had the pleasure of directing a full production session with live musicians yet, but I most definitely plan to, and I'm sure I'll love it. I think that's what the West Coast helped bring into the hip-hop game of the early '90s. There were some cats from the East occasionally bringing in live bass players etc., like Q-Tip did, but the West Coast producers, like Quik, Dre, Warren G., Daz, Battlecat and others, were really known for incorporating other musicians to really spice up their production. And then, of course, can't forget The Roots! I think hip-hop needs a lot more of that.

How do you keep from making the same song over again?

By not setting too many restrictions on myself and not sticking to some "formula." Also by trying different rhythms and vibes. You can make unlimited songs using the same exact chords, and a lot of people won't tell a difference, when the melodies are different, the tempo, rhythms and placement of the chords are different. I just try to incorporate elements from different genres to set tracks apart from each other.

What are the key pieces to the best production team?

Chemistry is the first major key piece, and versatility. It's always great to have a team with people who all specialize in certain elements. There could be someone who specializes in basslines... someone who specializes in drum-programming, someone who specializes in melodies, someone who specializes in harmony etc. The key is just having everybody bring something special to the table, yet they can still hold their own if need be.

When you go in to make a beat, what is the thing you build first?

Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's the drums I build first. Even if I'm sampling, I'm going to know the way I want my drums to sound. So I always start with it first.

What do you think are the commonalities in producers who have worked on -- and will work on -- some of the most inspiring and iconic albums?

One commonality I notice in most producers out there is a humble attitude. Most producers I know might be rappers and/or singers, as well... but they are willing to chill behind the scenes and not need to be in the limelight all the time. They're willing to let their creativity shine through the artists they work with, without trying to get all the recognition and fame.

The other commonality has nothing to do with albums. The other commonality I notice in producers is that most of us are "geeks" or "nerds" in some kind of way. A lot of producers I come across are fanatics of something, whether it 's video games, comic books, independent films, science fiction, rare vinyl collections, automobiles, music equipment/gear, or even just other genres of music. I know a lot of producers who will talk about artists' and albums that the average person never heard of.

Speaking of iconic albums, can you name the top three most eloquently produced albums of any genre?

I can't help it... I have to mention four. I would have to say: Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, D'Angelo's Voodoo, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and Andre 3000's The Love Below.

Producing is a lot about musical inspiration but still comes with a high level of education needed. Talk about the technical responsibility in making beats.

Aside from having to at least know a little about connecting cables with equipment, understanding how to route MIDI, programming sequences etc., the other things that are essential to making beats is simply understanding music. You don't have to know how to read or write music at all, but if you don't know how to do little things like count bars or understand measures, you're going to have problems.

Another thing is working with singers and understanding their range and strengths. Knowing how to transpose a composition if need be. There's a lot of responsibility that comes with producing tracks. An artist who has no clue about making tracks or playing instruments might not be able to describe exactly what may be wrong with what the two of you are working on.

They just might know how to sing and write great songs and that's it. They might NOT know that it's the rimshot you laid down that's making the beat sound too bland... or that the tempo is too slow or too fast.... but they CAN sense that there's something missing. You need to know how to figure out what's missing or what can be used to enhance whatever you're working on. It's a ton of responsibility.

 

Davey Boy

Anatomy of a hip-hop song: Local producers weigh in on what it takes to make a great track

Davey Boy is at once abstract and vague but also so carefully explanatory that it's easy to let his answers go over your head, as he uses a simplistic tone in getting his point across. The most interesting thing about him is how quiet he is in his confidence. He spends a lot of time honing his style of music, production and artistry in a way that leaves little else for consumption.

Not that he is a very serious guy in terms of demeanor, but he comes across as someone who is immersed in the art that completes his well-rounded personality. And that art is production. Graffiti Black says that he learns from Davey's style and substance, and when Davey Boy took a shot at the producer questions we had for him, it was clear why. While not the newest kid on the block, he is well on his way to carving out his niche as one of the more progressive minds in the production world.

Westword: Break down the physical components that a beat can't survive without.

Davey Boy: Physically, a beat can survive without any physical components. It's the sincerity that beat can't survive without. A good producer can distinguish when another is being sincere in his/her art versus someone prostituting and exploiting their craft through mass production. Needless to say, we all go through that period.

Do you prefer the hands on approach of beat making or the overall director's approach in a full production session?

I prefer to be hands on because no one can ultimately see your vision better than you can. In comparison to mainstream producers, I'm a novice, so I need that learning experience.

How do you keep from making the same song over again?

Strangely, I couldn't duplicate my own beats even if I tried. With all the different sounds and instruments, there's a constant drive to make something new.

Are there tons of beats just laying around that you don't use?

A ridiculous amount. There are many beats that start out with a great concept that need to be nurtured until it's matured. The beats I'm sitting on are premature in my opinion.

What are the key pieces to the best production team?

The ability to communicate, compromise and to respect each other's creative ideas.

What is the first thing that jumps out at you from a song?

What jumps out is the melody, first. If a listener never knew the name of your song, or who composed or wrote it, they'll always remember the melody. A good drum patter would be second.

When you go in to make a beat, what is the thing you build first?

Eighty percent of the time, I'll start with the drums. It gives a sense of boundaries to place instruments inside of and allows an inference to what the rest of the song will sound like.

What is it like working with an artist during a production session?

When I'm working with my friend, A.Fox, we were lucky enough to have the same musical taste and background. The conflicts of ideas are seldom, but it won't always be as easy with everyone you work with. You have the convenience of dividing the work load, but you're also giving up a piece of creative authority. Humility is key because everyone believes their idea is the best one, and when others dispute and disagree that which you're passionate about, it's natural to take offense.

From Dilla to Premier, Dre, No ID, what do you think are the commonalities in producers who have worked on -- and will work on -- some of the most inspiring and iconic albums?

The commonality between all great producers is that they all have their own outlook about what music means to them. They have a vision and it projects through their artistry.

Speaking of iconic albums, can you name the top three most eloquently produced albums of any genre?

Kanye West's Late Registration, Michael Jackson's Thriller and Commissioned's Matters Of The Heart.

What is your process for technical responsibility?

Right now, I'm learning the mixing process of production. It's literally the bread and butter of your craft. For example, you want to pan out your drums and instruments and give them room to work together and be heard rather than fighting over the noise.

 

Dealz Makes Beats

Anatomy of a hip-hop song: Local producers weigh in on what it takes to make a great track

Dealz Makes Beats (aka Hadley Evans) is not your average new school era producer. While he does incorporate the necessary technological pieces in order to keep relevant and fresh, he is, at heart, a minimalist at the foundation. For Dealz, there is nothing like digging ("tirelessly" he says, with much enthusiasm) for the rarest song to be used as a sample or even to spark that creative fire that births a tight beat in the first place. Not only does Dealz make beats, as his name suggests, he can most certainly hold his own around a freestyle cipher.

When we met up at Joe Thunder's house recently, one of the first things Thunder stated was that Dealz should be a rapper. There was uproarious agreement from those in the room who knew this to be true, particularly from his good friend, MC Mr. Morning After, who pointed out how much Dealz favored Jay-Z with his NY Yankee cap and leather jacket on.

Dealz took it all in stride, but before the night was over, he definitely made believers out of the few of us who had not heard him freestyle. He's a funny guy but takes his beat making and producing responsibilities very seriously -- well, as serious as possible, for a guy whose smile precedes his actual presence.

Dealz takes the standard questions on beat making and producing and provides his natural spin and tone that to give a new take on the old school approaches to making music.

Westword: What are the physical components that a beat can't survive without.

Dealz: Especially in hip-hop, a beat absolutely need drums. Clean, dirty, raw. kicks, snares, hi-hats. From lunch room tables to MPCs, drums are what drive the rhythm and emotion of the beat.

Do you prefer the more hands on approach or the director's point of production?

I enjoy both approaches. I like to physically find the sample, drums, extra sounds. With those sounds, I can create the setting for an artist. I also like being there as the artist forges ahead with their plot. The setting with the plot is like the bones with the muscles. I feel there's a duty as a producer to be there throughout all the processes from pre-production to post production.

How do you keep from making the same song over again?

TIRELESSLY DIGGING FOR ANY RECORD THAT SPINS ON A TURNTABLE! That and connecting with other musicians form other genres. Learning what tools they use and what they listen to is a great way for me to keep my sound fresh. I also listen to everything that passes my ears.

What is the first thing that jumps out at you from a song?

The first thing I notice is the initial feeling of the song. I try not to break down every technical aspect of the song. I just want to see if I'm getting the feeling the artist wanted me to catch. After that, then I'll find what makes me get to that feeling. Maybe the kick is nasty or the hi-hats are sharp. It really varies from song to song.

When you go in to make a beat, what is the thing you build first?

That varies from beat to beat and day to day. On an odd day, I'll wake up and throw on a record and let that wax spin until I hear something that makes me want to. Then I'll see if i can somehow give it my own take. On a good day, I'll chop up the record and then build the drums around that. On an even day, I'll chop some drum breaks and play with those on the MP until I either stumble upon a dope pattern or make some pretty ill drum layers. From that I'll play a record over the drums, or I'll play along with the record and chop it up from there. Whatever feels right at the time.

What is it like working with an artist during a production session? How do you balance your vision with that of the artist and still maintain the integrity of the record?

I have to build a level or trust and respect with an artist before we can even begin the session. My job is to draw the picture on the paper. It's the artist's job to color it in anyway they feel can help get their vision across to the viewer. Now if we use the picture as a reference for music, I have to make a beat that the artist can create his or her own world in. They trusted me to provide the music; I respect them enough to place the words where they feel right. With trust and respect, the integrity of the record is maintained and in some instances it gains more integrity.

What do you think are the commonalities in producers who have worked on (and will work on) some of the most inspiring and iconic albums?

I think one commonality between Dilla, Premo, Marley Marl, Hank Shocklee and every classic producer we can name, is they created sounds with no concept boundaries. Too many hip-hop "Know-It-Alls" try to place rules or laws over something as rebellious as hip-hop. These producers broke down those rules and laws, but respected what came before them. In turn they gave us what hip-hop, and music, as a whole, will revere as CLASSICS after them. All because they figured out new ways of making something out of a sampler or keyboard. In a way they went back to the future on everyone.

What are your top three most eloquently produced albums?

Amhad Jamal's Tranquility, Kanye West's College Dropout and Nas's Illmatic.

Do you think there is a technical responsibility to be had in production?

I don't believe there's any technical responsibility. But I do think there is a responsibility to never lose the meaning of making music. In my opinion the only education a producer would need is to know the history of hip-hop production. Go back, listen, become a fan again. As far as responsibilities, as long as the producer feels right about the music, the beat, the lyrics -- if needed -- the song itself; they've shown all the responsibility that a good producer needs

 

Es-Nine

Anatomy of a hip-hop song: Local producers weigh in on what it takes to make a great track

Es-Nine (aka Carlos Ayala) is the production mastermind behind Prime Element (the trio formerly known as 3 the Hardway). He is a technical guy, in that he can break down the specifics of producing in a way that makes it sounds more like a prolonged game of Jenga, rather than a complex system of bells, whistles and other tricks designed to create audio euphoria.

An engineer at the core, Es-Nine is a hip-hop purist, preferring the boom-bap and the kick of hard drums to the more shallow approach of modern production. For Es-Nine, the hip-hop connection to the track is all about the sample, and that art is perfected only by being an avid crate digger.

Like many producers we've spoken with, Esnine moves off of inspiration. He does not over think the process of making the perfect beat. Rather he uses a tried and true formula of drums, bass line (he refers to the perfect bass line as "warm") and a hip-hop centered sample.

We chopped it up with Es-Nine to get more insight on his middle of the line approach in being the creator and the director, as well as learning about the anatomy of the most poignant hip-hop beat.

Westword: What are the physical components that a beat just can't survive without?

Es-Nine: From a hip-hop stand point, I would have to say some banging ass drums -- from a record of course; a real fresh sample, either from a record, or played, but you gotta sample it and give it that hip-hop feel; and a nice warm bass line, filtered or played, and I suggest both.

Do you prefer the hands on approach of beat making or the overall director's approach in a full production session?

Yeah, I gotta say I do both the hands on approach and director's approach. I just believe it will give the song more weight and cohesiveness if you have your hand in on everything from diggin' for the samples, giving the session musician's direction on what you what played over your samples, to what the MC's content is and how it's said over the track.

How do you keep from making the same song over again?

I try not to over think it or force a song, and I always create music with a feeling, emotion, or mood in mind. I'm also always open to suggestions or new sounds and types of records.

What is the first thing that jumps out at you from a song?

It depends. If I'm listening to some hip-hop, it's the drums! They gotta bang and have the right swing. If I'm diggin' for samples, it's the keys and strings.

When you go in to make a beat, what is the thing you build first?

I don't have a set way of creating a beat, but I do usually start with the sample 'cause that's always a great guide for the feel of a track and how to go about catering it to an MC or concept.

What is it like working with an artist during a production session? How do you balance your vision -- especially if you created the beat -- with that of the artist and still maintain the integrity of the record?

I have had it go both ways "great and completely wack." From my standpoint and the kind of tracks I produce, it's great to work with an artist who has no ego and has a good feel for the producer's style that he is working with and why he's working with him. Unless it's my project, I am here to produce for you, and it's my job to create something that fits your vision or concept and have my style/touch on it Because that's why you came to me.

From Fela Kuti to Dilla to Premier, Dre, No ID, and others, the producer gammut -- especially in hip-hop -- is wide and strong. What do you think are the commonalities in producers who have worked on -- and will work on -- some of the most inspiring and iconic albums?

They all sampled records and continue to sample records or create their own samples that sound like a record. I can't say it enough: Hip-hop came from the breaks, and it will always have to go to the breaks.

Can you name the top three most eloquently produced albums of any genre?

Wow, that's hard to answer 'cause i have too many to mention, but I'll give it a shot. For me it would have to be: Bob James' One, David Axelrod's Songs Of Experience and Michael Jackson's Thriller.

What are your thoughts on technical responsibility with production?

From a hip-hop standpoint, learn your record history and what key records were sampled, to craft classic hip-hop and also what gear was used to create them. Then really educate yourself on the engineering side of things. Go and take some classes or work with an engineer who has a good ear and feel for hip-hop.

 

GirlGrabbers

GirlGrabbers are Brikabrak, Qknox and Gypdahip
GirlGrabbers are Brikabrak, Qknox and Gypdahip

Ah, GirlGrabbers, the trio of Qknox, Gypdahip, and Brikabrak --- the beatmaking, deejaying, record sampling, genre bending crew of musicologists, each bringing to the table a different style, humor, experience and education. There seems to be, amongst the guys, a solid respect for their perspective areas of expertise and a knack for rare music that makes the structure of the group cohesive.

These guys are the truest representation of music foundation: They work, not only from soul samples, but are heavily influenced by jazz and other genres that built hip-hop. Throughout a recent meeting with the production team, there was a Goonie reference that called for pulling up a clip from the movie that supports Qknox's hands off method of sampling, several song changes and explanations of favorite records and the typical respect for hip-hop awe.

There was also talk of Timbaland and how he changed the game with his drums and out of this world creativity, and a collective gasp from the room as they discussed how truly talented DJ Premier is. The most telling point of honesty, however, came at the mention of the late, great J. Dilla. Gypdahip said, "Dilla made it cool to come out of the basement, you know? He made it cool to be artistic and make beats. He definitely made it cool to do this and to be good at it.

Westword: Let's talk about signature sound. I want you guys to break it down because you have such different ideas of inspiration.

Gypdahip: When Timbaland came with that new drum sound, we all knew it was him. He completely changed the game. The same thing with Premier. You know when you're hearing a Premier beat because it has those sounds that won't let go. The same thing with Flying Lotus.

Brikabrak: It's good to have someone who wants to do their own thing because it makes it different. It switches up the process in a way that allows for new shit to come through and be heard, not just the same old shitty beats everyone else is making.

Qknox: There's a process you go through where you write down Coltrane's solo, when you transcribe Coltrane's notes and you learn that. I will copy drum patterns and try and create it. I'll chop up my sample that exact same way. My whole life, I've been waiting to make "Take Notice." My whole life! There's something about learning from your favorites and making it your own.

G: Right. There's a way you know exactly what's going to go into making something your signature sound. Hitting right in the four, for example, like Premier does. The way that he does voices. Preemo taught me how to copy the bass drum with a chop. It's that rhythm that you know it's him.

How do you relate delivery and cadence to the overall greatness of a song?

Q: I don't care what you say: It's the sound of your voice. I'm not a content kind of guy. I like to do it like I'm doing the FOE album: Get it after it's already done and do my own thing by providing a remix. I would have to trust that rapper in order to give them that creative freedom of giving them an untouched beat.

G: I like for someone to come in and lay the verse down over the beat while it's kind of dry, and then kind of throw feelings in, when you can throw an explosion in there. You can just add more to the beat when the verse is there.

Q: I hate working with singers, and I hate working with rappers; they feign ignorance, and they act really diva-ish, and they act like they don't know anything about what you're doing, and so they can't tell you what they want. It manifests itself in all sorts of ways. When you're not prepared to say what you want, or you say things that aren't true. There are a lot of rappers that try to entice cats. And a lot of rappers don't have money to really do what they want in the first place.

What are the main components of a beat? Go.

B: I need a really hard snare.

G: It depends on what kind of music you're doing. In hip-hop, you gotta have that snare and that kick. You can't use some built in Triton drum or those wack ass Casio beats. You gotta have boom-bap in that shit. That's all you need, and maybe a cowbell! [laughs]

Q: A lot of those early records in hip-hop are Triton drums. You can't have any rules because it becomes an outline for things. You have to be able to have the freedom. It's like John Cage and 4:32 -- it's about the idea more than the content. There's a part in never seeing the Blair Witch.

There are some great beat pickers in the industry: Erykah Badu, Common, Hi-Tek. Not all beats are for rappers. Sometimes I'll think about a rapper over it, and I'll make it for a rapper. A lot of the time it will go out on a beat CD, and House, for example, will make a freestyle over it and that's how it comes together.

B: it's hard to go back and listen to a beat or a song you worked on and not imagine a rapper over it. Once he raps over it, it becomes a really ill thing. Ghostface is one of the best beat pickers ever.

When was the turning point in beat infinity, when everything changed?

G: Pete Rock - Soul Brother Number 1. All his shit has been banging. He dropped that first beat CD on BBE, and that was one of the first CDs I bought that was just instrumentals, and I was kinda pissed 'cause I thought there would be rappers on it, but the beats on there were so fucking tight.

The way he did his drums and freak his samples! That's really what got me into wanting to sample. I was using Reason and using patches and doing little things, but that CD helped me figure out what I had to make a sample. I had to figure out how to work that shit to use it how I wanted to use it and that shit changed the game for me.

B: Experimental producers are the turning point. There's EL-P, and since day one, you could always tell they were on some weird experimental shit. He's somebody that worked with a lot of people, and when he went solo, you could really tell he went out on his own.

He hides samples. It's something that sounds like nothing else you've sampled. I love Wu-tang and Dilla just because they try to show their samples in a completely new way. Digging is probably the biggest part of hip-hop.

Q: Madlib and Dilla made it cool and not nerdy to know these songs and music. They sampled everything in movies. To just blatantly take the commercial on TV or something and put it into a record.

Chronic 2001 changed the game. I still can't listen to that album and not be scrunched face the whole time. I've been waiting for Detox forever. I know that when it comes out, it's gonna change the game just like Chronic 2001.

What is your process for sampling and actually creating? Do you have rules?

Q: There's this part in the Goonies when the kids finally find the treasure, and they take what they want, except for Willie's things. I don't sample certain records or certain records because that's my "save that shit for Willie" moment.

Rasaan Roland Kirk is that moment for me. He's a multi-instrumentalist, and he's blind and part of it is because I don't know what I would do to it, and the other part is that this motherfucker works so hard that I can't work that hard. There's nothing for me to do there. I don't want it to seem like I'm improving on songs when I sample them 'cause a lot of songs don't need improving. Music is all about respect.

 

Graffiti Black

Pretty much everything produced by Graffiti Black is tinged with his penchant for the funny. Each beat and component of a Graffiti made track is comprised of his love for soulful beats and uncanny adlibs -- not too different from a conversation with him, really.

Westword: What is your Graffiti signature sound?

Graffiti Black: Loud, drums, bass, just unique ear-catching shit that you wouldn't usually hear in a beat. I don't know where it comes from. I don't sound like anyone else when I produce and make beats, though. I have my own way of manipulating sound that comes directly from me.

Do you remember in the late '90's, when not matter who it was, the Neptunes were producing everything and you could always tell it was them? You say you don't sound like other producers, so in what ways do you sound like yourself?

Probably the samples. I've sampled a lot and it's not your typical samples. Most cats will sample the shit off a Motown sample. I like to dig in the crates, but I'd rather watch a cartoon or something like that -- Thundercats or something and sample that, something people recognize. I don't sit and think about the shit. Whenever I hear the shit I just go do it.

You're naturally a really funny guy.

That's what they tell me.

In what ways do you incorporate your personality into your music?

Because it's random, I don't want any beat to sound the same. I don't take it too serious. Some producers are so damn serious, and you can hear it in the music. I don't focus on it too hard. I'll just play around with the drums and different patterns, add hella claps and no drums or all drums and no claps to see how it sounds, and it's just freedom.

Where did you learn the process of producing?

I don't know. I just got a drum machine and started doing it. Watching YouTube videos and things like that -- Kanye, Alchemist, all that, and how they do it. Boonie Mayfield. Boone Doc -- that's how I learned how to chop, by watching his YouTube videos.

It's dope that you're learning from your peers. Are you giving any lessons these days?

I take a lot of lessons, actually one of my homeboys, Dave Boy, who won that battle [CO Unity Series] and he beat me in the battle, he teaches me a lot. I'm still learning. I'm not where I want to be as a producer just yet, so I'm listening to a lot of advice. Plus, I don't want to give all of my secrets out to these youngins coming up in the game [laughs]

Do you find that you do more blueprinting and creating the work? Or are you more of a director?

When I think of beat making, I think of people who feel like making beats or they make a gang of beats and shop them around. A producer has a certain artist in mind and a certain sound they want the artist to mesh with. When I make a beat that I want Midas on, I know how to make a Midas track. I'll get with Midas, and he'll know what I'm going to give him. That's producing, beat making is when you have a track and you offer it up for use.

So you've learned what the elements are to a Midas track?

Yes, but not just Midas. You can tell with every artist, depending on what type they are. You know your artist, you can go with their certain sound but you have to incorporate your own shit. I know how to step into the lab and make a track that sounds just like Mr. Midas. But overall, I can do that for any artist that I work with, as well as create something from scratch that gives them a whole new air to the music.

How do you use your equipment to continually raise the bar.

I got a lot of shit that I don't even touch. When you watch a video with Kanye or someone, they have a huge studio. You don't really need all of that. All I need is my turntable for the sample, my MPD for the drums and any programming system. For me, it's the simpler the better. You can beatbox a beat, really.

Who are some of the producers that you really admire?

I'd say Alchemist; I like that grimy, dirty sound. Kanye West, Dr. Dre, with his hard pianos, 9th Wonder, Dilla, of course.

In those that you mentioned, do you find that there that commonality of dopeness?

Definitely. Those are all legendary producers, and they have their own sound and method. A lot of these new producers like Drumma Boy and all of them, they're tight but they sound the same. Cool & Dre and The Runners all make sounds and music that sound the same, so I wouldn't really call them dope. You have to make something new.

Break down the physical components that a beat can't survive without.

In my opinion, a beat is nothing without bass or a kick drum. It also must have a catchy melody or well chopped sample that will make the track memorable, but you have to drop that boom on a beat if you really want it to be felt. The bass/kick drum is the heart of the beat

Do you prefer the hands on approach of beat making or the overall director's approach in a full production session?

I like to build a beat based on what I'm feeling at the moment. When that beat is created, I then try to find the right ill MC to rock upon it. I usually have in mind a certain way I want the song to sound and feel. It should vibe out when I'm making it, so I like to kinda push that on the artist. But at the same time, I like for them to do what they do first, and if I can work with it, then we just roll on from there.

Are there tons of beats just laying around that you don't use?

I wouldn't say tons, but yes, I have a nice healthy stash. Sometimes I may be in my zone just banging out beat after beat with no intentional of selling them or anything, just vibing out. Banging on a drum pad, creating all of that beautiful ruckus is quite therapeutic.

What are the key pieces to the best production team?

Creativity, understanding, creativity, good chemistry and creativity.

When you go in to make a beat, what is the thing you build first?

I'm a heavy sampler, so I like to build around a selected sample. It usually goes from there to the claps/snares. Then come the drums. After that comes the Dopeness.

What do you think producers who have worked on iconic albums like, Dilla Preemo, and Dre have in common that makes them great?

All of those producers named, and every other legendary producer are who they are because they were not afraid to make the type of music that THEY wanted to hear. Too many producers get caught up trying to make beats that they think everyone would like instead of just doing what the feel. Gotta step outside of the beat box and just be yourself.

So what are your three picks for the most eloquently produced album of any genre?

Jay-Z's American Gangster, Michael Jackson's Thriller, U2's Viva La Vida.

 

Kid Hum

Anatomy of a hip-hop song: Local producers weigh in on what it takes to make a great track

Kid Hum (aka Dylan Avery) is a complex character. He is incredibly thoughtful and instinctive in his answers, as if he has already asked himself any question you can pose for him. His answers are terse, but not to be missed are the gems that are more telling of his production style than any long winded pontification anyone else could give. Rather than pinpointing a favorite style of music, he uses Saturday nights on KUVO as a better example. It would be easy to pass off Hum's ability to be inspired by simple terms, but really, the guy is so damn studied in what he likes, there is no reason to consider anything else.

For Kid Hum, his vision is the creation of the beat. Mapping out the sound board in a way that determines the way the rest of the song will go. He creates instrumentation that is ready to send to whichever artist can complete the task -- an interesting paradox, considering that the consensus amongst counterparts who feel the beat makers are the beginning of the song's vision. For Kid Hum, the beat's vision ends with him.

Westword: Break down the physical components that a beat can't survive without.

Kid Hum: Well, Audio Two rapped over just drums, and Jay Electronica rapped over movie soundtrack music with no drums at all. So, I think the answer would be, a beat can't survive without a starting point, an end point and a motive that usually involves a rapper or an anti-rapper.

Do you prefer the hands on approach of beat making or the overall director's approach in a full production session?

I would think the director would be hands on? I like not to tell other people what to do and just contribute where possible.

How do you keep from making the same song over again?

Sample different records. Rap about iPads.

Do you have tons of beats just laying around that you don't use?

Not me. There is always somebody knocking at my door. Always after my cereal.

What are the key pieces to the best production team?

Symbiosis, synergy and friendship bread.

What is it like working with an artist during a production session? How do you balance your vision (especially if you created the beat) with that of the artist and still maintain the integrity of the record?

I like working with artists who are equally as visionary as I am, and my vision ends with the beat. Like when I work with Whygee, he is really the producer, because he assembles everything from the hook to the DJ to the guest MCs. By the time it gets back to me, it's way better.

From Fela Kuti to Dilla to Premier, Dre, No ID, and others, the producer gammut -- especially in hip-hop -- is wide and strong. What do you think are the commonalities in producers who have worked on -- and will work on -- some of the most inspiring and iconic albums?

Fela, Dilla, Premo, Dre, and No ID were all huge fans of James Brown. James Brown comes from the South, as well as a rich R&B tradition in the US. The South and R&B. Check out R&B Jukebox, Saturday nights on KUVO, its dope. That's my favorite genre of music.

What are your top three most eloquently produced albums of any genre?

Charles Mingus's Mingus Ah Um, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue and Quasimoto's The Unseen.

Producing is a lot about musical inspiration but still comes with a high level of education needed. Talk about the technical responsibility in making beats.

Technical responsibility is very important. It's like running scales and arpeggios as a pianist every day. Whenever you push the boundaries of your art, you are thinking at the margin, while subconsciously performing tasks that you have committed completely to muscle memory. With making beats, you want to be able to maneuver around your equipment effortlessly in order to test your creative impulses as quickly as possible.

 

Lenny Lenn

Anatomy of a hip-hop song: Local producers weigh in on what it takes to make a great track

Lenny Lenn is a pretty straightforward guy. He doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to giving his opinion, and he tends to streamline his thoughts and work, leaving little room for a drawn out process.

He's the director. Preferring to lead his charge through the whole process of creating a song, even through the post production, and he has no qualms about his control and demand. "I like to control the project, that way it goes through the chops and loops that I want it to. I prefer to make complete songs so that I can work off of that notion that I saw it all the way through to the end."

As influences, he cites Teddy Riley, DJ Premier, Timbaland, Kanye West, Dr. Dre and others who have taken an aggressive tone in carving out their niche amongst those who create the blueprint of music. He gave us insight on both the technique and inspiration behind creating the perfect production session.

Westword: What does it mean to be a producer?

Lenny Lenn: To me, a producer is somebody that sees the song all the way through, not just make the beat for it, working with the artist to bring the best out of them. If you're a producer, you want that single, you want that song, not just a beat or whatever.

When you think of dynamic producers, who comes to mind immediately?

Quincy Jones Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, DJ Quik, Kanye West, Organized Noize, Teddy Riley, Puffy.

What do they all have in common?

They try to create that hit. Quincy Jones did Thriller, and there will never be another Thriller. He created a full body of work. I'm not taking anything away from Michael Jackson, but there would be no Thriller without what he did. People think because they make a beat that people bob their heads to, that they're a producer. Producers help create cadences and melodies and things like that.

And you're saying that it's different than beatmaking?

A lot of people just make beats and stockpile beats, and they'll get with an artist and go through a couple different beats, and chances are the beat maker isn't even in the studio at the time that the artist is recording. A beat maker and a producer are two totally different things. Just because you make beats doesn't mean you produce the song. The producer could have hired you to come in and make the beat, and then they take it over from there.

Do producers have a more technical ear than beat makers?

Having a technical ear and training in music theory and knowing how to read and play music definitely helps you understand melodies and tone, keys -- just because you can sing or have a good singing voice doesn't mean you'll sound good on this track. You have to know what pitch is, melody, chord progression, all of that. I don't think it's necessary but it damn sure helps. I wish I knew how to read music because I don't. I know producers that know how to read and play music. It definitely gives them an advantage.

When you produce for an artist, do you always look for the style they work best with?

If I'm going to work with an artist I don't necessarily go in and we start recording. I may sit with them and talk with them, play video games, find out what type of person they are. For me, it's a vibe. If I don't like you, or I don't like your music, I can't work with you. I don't care how talented you are. When I hear something, I may think it may be dope for Ike or Haven, so I'm always looking for what fits a particular song. Not all beats are for all artists. As a producer, you have to know who you're working with talent-wise in terms of artist and musicians.

When you think about the anatomy of production as you've defined it, it is more about directing.

I think so. Yes. Whatever you produce, you want it to be that hit, that new hot single. That's what you aspire to be, that hit track, not just the bonus track. That's what a producer does. They take all the resources, put them together and give you that perfect result.

Who is Lenny Lenn as the producer?

Lenny Lenn is the director. I don't play music, but I know musicians. I can get an artist and bring out the challenge in them. I make them step outside of their comfort zone and give the people something they're not expecting.

What are you like in the studio?

Ah! [laughs] Very controlling. But at the same time, I allow that artist to be that artist, but we gotta get work done. It's not all about going to smoke or drink and call bitches. We have to get the work done. I don't wanna micromanage them, but we have to have some structure in order to pull it together. I pay a lot of attention to different stuff. It's not so much what you say but how you say it. I go a lot off of body language.

When you go in to make a beat, what is the thing you build first?

Tempo. Then I just go with how we feel.

Can you name the top three most eloquently produced albums of any genre?

Thriller, Dark Side of the Moon, The Chronic.


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