This is by far my favorite part of the summer, when the city empties out a bit and the weather feels more like New Orleans than New York. I don’t have to wait too long for a drink at the bar, because the students have gone home and the old folks have gone up to the Hamptons. The fanciest thing I do each summer has traditionally been the Slackers Booze Cruise; it’s hard to believe it but my first time DJing this gig was about nine years ago. Well, time flies, and here we are again with what looks to be a bigger boat. Unfortunately, Agent Jay got into a bike accident about a month ago and won’t be able to play guitar at the gig. The silver lining is that he’ll be joining me on the turntables instead, helping me provide the soundtrack between sets. Join us on the boat and take in the fantastic views of Manhattan! It boards at 6pm sharp and leaves at 7pm, so don’t be late. Get your tickets here.
The Swamp will be closing its doors soon. If you know where it is, you should probably attend one of the last shows happening there. Join me and the Crazy Baldhead crew this Friday for another crazy night at this punk loft!
Friday, May 29 – The Swamp – Secret Location, Brooklyn, NY – $10
Beach season is back, and my buddy Rata asked me to help him kick off the first Caracas Rockaway party of the season. Unfortunately, despite what the flyer says, Ticklah won’t be present because of a conflicting commitment. But Grace of Spades is stepping in to pick up the slack! Hang out on the boardwalk with us until sundown – I dare you to resist the delicious arepas they serve.
Ten years ago on this day, I released The Argyle Album. There were literally hundreds of producers attempting a full-length remix of Jay-Z’s Black Album at the time, mainly because he made such a production of releasing the acapellas. It was an interesting cultural phenomenon that gained a lot of steam once Danger Mouse released his now-infamous Beatles mashup album, The Grey Album. The other two I remember distinctly, and fondly, were Kev Brown’s Brown Album and Kno’s White Album.
I was a bit late to the game; most of these remix albums came out in 2004, and mine dropped in 2005. However, I don’t think there’s a more accurate reflection of the wild and weird influences in my head at that time. I don’t have a lot of photos, or journal entries, or letters from that time in my life. But I have this document that reminds me of all the different ways I was listening to music as a college student.
Digital production has changed so much over the last decade. At the risk of sounding like an old man, I’m gonna say I remember having to push and pull the acapellas around a lot. Time-stretching was pretty new then, and not quite reliable, especially in terms of flow in rap vocals. A lot of times you have to force a phrase to fit on a beat if it’s not really the same “feel” as the original, even if they’re the same exact tempo. Being a DJ certainly helps with this in the studio, but tools like Ableton’s “warp” function make this a much simpler task now, as opposed to the agonizing methods I had to use then. I swear, half of the time I spent working on the album was moving acapellas around.
The reason this release (my first full length production under the name 100dBs) was so pivotal for me is because I effectively learned how to chop samples by making it. Previously, I had been synthesizing almost everything from scratch. I was listening to a lot of classic hip hop at the time: Gang Starr, A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Nas, and all of the other usual suspects. I listen to a lot of different rap, and more generally a ton of different music, but NYC hip hop became the blueprint for what I loved about production at the time. I didn’t really get heavily into rap until college, and I had been listening to reggae and dub since I was a young teen. That backdrop definitely looms large in combination with the hip hop influences on this album, and was carried forward in my tworeleases with Ryan-O’Neil.
Some of these are so simple that they could actually be considered mashups, and others are much more nuanced in their culling of existing material. There was a significant amount of drum and synth programming that went into some of these cuts, and I certainly can’t remember where many of the single-hit drum samples came from. I had access to the electronic music lab at University of Maryland at the time, and sometimes I would work there alone after teaching a class. It wasn’t until after I released The Argyle Album that I started becoming more organized about my workflow and record-keeping in the studio. I hope anyone reading this enjoys my breakdown of how each track got put together:
I think this little intro was actually one of the last things to get finished. I had recently picked up a copy of Seals & Crofts’ Greatest Hits LP, probably at a dollar bin in the College Park CD/Game Exchange. Shout to Jeff and Isaac who used to work there and hook me up with tons of cheap buys. Anyway, I was needle-dropping on the record at home, and I remember having this moment where I realized “Summer Breeze” was actually a really dope tune, but I didn’t wanna take it wholesale. I always loved the horns, so I chopped those up one afternoon.
It was only after I finished the arrangement that I came up with the samples that kick off the album. The vocal snippets are all references to landmarks in my life: “home of the Terrapins” (University of Maryland), Israel (where I was born), and Long Island (where my family moved when I was just one year old). The radio fuzz and static were just samples I took from my own tuner.
Prince Paul (widely credited as being the inventor of the hip hop skit, for better or for worse) was a huge influence on me. I also became fond of the way DJ Premier and Pete Rock used short instrumental beats to break up rap albums a bit. This was basically my attempt to do something along those lines, relying heavily on an existing KMD skit.
Public Service Announcement
This one was pretty straight-ahead. I don’t remember much besides programming the 808-style drums, and that I had to tweak the “feel” of his vocals a ton to get em to sit right on this track by Fischerspooner.
I always loved the lyrics on this track, so I think I took extra time to give it the proper treatment. The main portion is “Yellow Calx” by Aphex Twin. It’s reversed, and I almost like it better that way. I programmed these drums, and there’s a few synth parts in there too – I just tried to complement the vague melody that permeates the Aphex sample. The reggae drums in the background come from an old Upsetters dub, and the piano is just some random part I played and sampled.
I was getting heavy into old Modest Mouse around this time; there are actually two of their tracks in here. A short snippet of Isaac Brock singing “Cowboy Dan’s a major player” is buried at the beginning, and the main loop is from “Heart Cooks Brain.” I don’t think I had to add much of anything drum-wise, but there’s some weird fuzzy synths overdubbed on this.
Yes, this one is basically just “Kid A” with some mediocre cutting and added percussion. If memory serves correctly, I had to re-pitch the vocals to get them vaguely on key.
Super simple to make, but I like this one a lot. “Arch Carrier” is one of my favorite Autechre tracks, and it knocks hard without much help. I added an arpeggiated synth in the same key, but besides some light editing and key shifting, this track is basically a blend.
I had been listening to Choking Victim since high school, and the minimal drums and bass on the intro of this track were too irresistible for me to ignore. I built the track around that basic loop, and spliced in the breakdown for no real reason. Another one that’s effectively a mashup, although I programmed a synth at the end.
Justify My Thug
I don’t wanna brag, but I sampled this particular King Crimson song a full five years before Kanye West did. It’s a ridiculous guitar riff that’s hard to forget once you hear it. I doubled the melody on weird modular software synth I patched up. I absolutely hated the hook on this song, so I had to find ways to complete the verses. This involved doing a cut or fade before the last line in most cases, or completing the line with a sample that rhymed. For example, one was a snippet from “The R.O.C.” (a totally unrelated Jay-Z track). That bit at the end is some random Lee Perry interview.
What More Can I Say
The first time I heard The Cure’s “Lullaby” I immediately thought it would make a great sample for a rap track, with some drums to beef it up. I really like the way this one turned out. There’s some subtle synth work here too, and the cymbals are from “Alberto Balsalm” (another Aphex Twin sample). Fun fact: I later used that whole track for a mashup featuring Snoop Dogg.
Sample nerds: there are levels here, and this is kind of a weirdo mini-skit in front of an actual song. The original Jay-Z track (produced by Kanye West) features a sample of Max Romeo’s Chase The Devil. From some mixtape I can’t recall, I ripped the intro where they’re talking about that sample. Prince Jazzbo’s version of that track, “Croaking Lizard” is one of my favorite deejay tunes, and drops shortly after this; I sampled this later on again. You can hear The Upsetters’ “Jungle Lion” (itself an interpolation of Al Green’s “Love and Happiness”) playing in the background leading up to this moment. Then, finally, the track unfolds around a sample of “Long Sentence” – also by the Upsetters, and sped up just a bit too much. That’s a lot of Lee Perry samples, but what’s even more ridiculous is that the original version of this remix was built atop his “Noah Sugar Pan” dub.
Unbelievably, this one is a Leftover Crack sample (successors to Choking Victim). There’s this beautiful breakdown in “Life Is Pain” that you’d never expect, and I looped it wholesale in combination with some piano parts and simple drum programming. I remember working on this beat in my dorm room one late afternoon. It was hot and my window was open. I paused the beat for a minute to rest my ears, and I heard someone yelling “hey” outside. I looked out and some dude was sitting out there. He asked if that was me working on something; I guess he’d been there for I while and heard it repeatedly. I admitted it was me, and he complimented the production. Super random, and refreshing. I think I finished the beat an hour later, and went to the campus diner shortly thereafter. The shot samples in the hook are from a Notorious B.I.G. skit on Ready To Die, and the introductory vocal snippet is from GZA’s “Liquid Swords.”
Dirt Off Your Shoulder
Another reversal, and another Radiohead sample… this is “Like Spinning Plates” – but it’s definitely reversed. The first time I heard their recording, I got curious about what it was before they reversed it, and I saved an edit of it. I used to listen to it more than the album track. This is one of my favorite remixes on the album, and it’s essentially me trying to sound like Timbaland. There’s a lot of drum and synth programming on this, and I remember finishing it in McKeldin Library on my laptop, just as its battery was dying.
My 1st Song
This was one was so tough to get right! It’s in 6/8 time signature, and I remember feeling at the time that a lot of other producers phoned this one in. I won’t name anyone, but there was one popular remix album where this track was literally just random noises. Dude didn’t even try to make a beat for it. It eventually became clear to me that somehow, beatmakers weren’t caught on to the fact that this wasn’t in 4/4; there were lots of producers who just didn’t know anything about basic music theory. I also heard a lot of remixes that were attempted in 4/4 time, all of which were even worse than the brazen non-attempts. I tried to really nail the flow and feel of this one with dirtied-up samples of 60s legends The Zombies.
There’s one track I didn’t touch at all: “Moment of Clarity.” I just didn’t like it. I thought the hook was wack, and it just never sat right with me. Other than that, I really tried to give each track its own personality. Many of them started with different beats entirely that I ended up trashing. Overall, The Argyle Album was an eye-opening experience that sharpened my studio techniques, and laid the foundation for everything I worked on after it.
Tonight, I have an invitation from Grace of Spades to be her guest on Watch This Sound – her new BBOX Radio show, airing every Tuesday from 8:00 to 10:00 PM, Eastern Standard Time. I’ve known Grace for a good while, and it’s excellent to see her launch her first radio show. We’ve shared countless gigs, and toured together from here in NYC to New Orleans in 2010. I know she’s probably already prepared her crates, but I’m still putting my records together. You can tune in at bboxradio.com. Don’t miss it! I asked her a few questions in advance, and you can read her answers below.
100dBs: Tell us a bit about BBOX Radio, and how you got involved.
Grace of Spades: I first heard of it through my buddy Tony Conquerrah, who runs the show Shanty Town on BBOX. We linked up through the infamous reggae-selector grapevine, but also realized some other small world connections – as it tends to go in NYC! Eventually I ended up doing a guest spot on his show with my homegirl Maddie Ruthless to big up a party we were doing over the summer. Tony mentioned that BBOX was looking to bring on more shows, encouraged me to go for it, and boom! Well… he passed along some nice words about me too, I’m sure that helped. Another fellow DJ of mine (Kurtis Powers) runs a Mod/Garage/Northern Soul show on BBOX, so I was welcomed into the family very graciously. It’s a great group of supportive people and I’m really happy to be a part of it!
100dBs: This is your first radio show… what are some of the challenges for you, coming from more of a bar and party gig background?
Grace: Well, first off: I suck on a microphone. Words instantly fly out of my head, and there is something oddly awkward about speaking to a small room with no one in it – moreso than a giant room that’s packed full… which I also suck at. Anyway, I’m slowly getting the hang of that each week and shaking it off as I go. I didn’t go into this to be a “radio personality” – I just wanna play my records!
My other struggle has been the selecting itself. I’m so used to feeling out the vibes of a dance and selecting as I go along, but for these I need to plan a bit better. I like having guests, of course, so my first hour goes by way faster than I expect it to and then I pass it off. That, and I’m not juggling the tunes as much, so I tend to let them play out longer than I would at a party and it takes up bigger chunks of time.
It’s also become a different mentality in the selecting process… in the sense that I’ll end up picking things based off a themed-vibe, rather than just whatever comes to mind in the span of a 4-hour gig. Most of the times I spin out, it takes me about an hour to actually get in the groove. You know: you set up, maybe get a drink, settle in, and start playing warm ups before you’re really feeling the flow of things. For this, I need to know the flow ahead of time and jump right in. It’s been a cool, sometimes frustrating, learning curve.
But I stay positive. You know what’s really cool? Not harassing your friends to come spend money on overpriced drinks while you play records on a shitty sound system in the same bar every week. Okay, that sounds a bit harsh; I’ve had some great residencies at bars over the years and they definitely helped shape me as a DJ – I respect that. But relying on a small bar cut to cover your cab home can become a tiresome hustle, especially if the gigs start to feel like a chore and you feel the pressure to invasively promote. Sure, I promote this show, but it’s fun because you’re not getting a sad mass text from me on a Wednesday, begging you to drag your ass out in the middle of a snowstorm (or hurricane, or holiday, whatever). I’m here playing records in a room, and you can tune in now, later, or never – whatever! That’s the best part, hands down. Of course I love spinning out at parties more than ever, but the ability to share tunes with friends and strangers all over the world on a weekly basis is truly something special. More love.
100dBs: Tastes are always changing. For example, personally, there was a period when I wasn’t extremely interested in 80s reggae, and all of a sudden, something snapped and I really got into it. In particular, the past few years, I’ve been loving a lot of live dancehall records and clash tapes. What’s something that you’re digging in particular lately? Give us a few tunes to peep.
Grace: Same here – I used to think I disliked so many styles that I’ve grown to love. If you’re open minded, your tastes can evolve and take you crazy places. Right now? I find myself digging deeper into the early 80s stuff too. I don’t know if something “snapped,” maybe more of a slow descent into riddim madness, if you will. The Roots Radics are definitely responsible for my favorite sound of that time, so I’ve spent more time going back for all those gems I missed. Particularly after the tragic passing of Lincoln “Style” Scott – may he rest in power – I’m trying to explore more album cuts and tunes beyond the hits.
In no particular order or fashion, these are a few tunes that have been stuck in my head lately:
Johnny Osbourne – “Smiling Faces”
Madoo – “King in the Ring”
… and in the spirit of mixed taste… this murderous Ken Parker version of “How Strong.”
Check out a live version I was lucky enough to cry along to in Brooklyn not too long ago:
100dBs: What do you think about the way that “digging” has changed? I look for obscure tunes on underground networks like Soulseek pretty often, but let’s talk about things like Discogs/eBay vs. local buying for physical products.
Grace: It depends where you are and what you’re looking for, but BUY LOCAL is always #1 – if you can, of course. I’m lucky enough to live minutes from Deadly Dragon, where (if I have time) I can run a list of tunes off my head to Jeremy and spend some time digging around. Like most things, I don’t get to go as often as I would like, but that’s where I go in NYC. Plus you can always pre-dig on their website and give a heads up. Isn’t everyone selling shit online these days anyway? I guess that’s really how it’s changed. You don’t always have the luxury of walking into a dusty shop and spending hours hunched over boxes (that you absolutely have to flip through the entirety of). I get to do more of that when I’m travelling, because that’s my idea of sight-seeing. If I’m after something that is particularly hard to find, Discogs can sometimes become my best friend/worst enemy. I used to troll eBay religiously, but for whatever reason, I’ve done a whole lot less of that and just keep a few alerts set up for tunes I probably won’t ever be able to afford anyway.
I gotta say though, sorry haters, the reissue game is on fire these days. Give thanks to the repress!
100dBs: So far, what’s been the best gig you’ve ever done?
Grace: That’s a tough one, so I’ll go with the easy answer – New Year’s Reggae Prom! Definitely one of my favorite parties in general, and I always have a blast doing it. Save the date! New Year’s Eve! Tea Factory Sounds!!!
Also, I must mention the Tighten-Up Crew outta London – I had a total blast spinning at the Silver Bullet with them this Summer. Big up Tim Dance Crasher & Mistah Brown – such nice vibes til the sunrise!
I’ve got a gig coming up soon with one of my favorite line-ups ever. I’ll be sharing the decks with Ticklah, Small Change, Operator EMZ and Natasha Diggs at the Gemini & Scorpio loft, and The Frightnrs will be playing a set of their inimitable NYC reggae styles at Jackpot!
Summer is finally upon us! This Sunday, I’ll be eating delicious arepas, dipping my toes in the water, and playing tunes from 4:00 onward at Caracas Rockaway with Ticklah and Hahn Solo. Special thanks to Rata for setting up this gig.
This Sunday afternoon, join me with Hahn Solo and President Carter for a ton of reggae, rocksteady and dub at a place called Friends and Lovers in Crown Heights. The last time all three of us joined forces on the decks was back when Motor City Bar was still open in the lower east side, almost a year ago!
Next month, I’m heading out to Hawaii for a much needed break from this polar vortex that’s been covering NYC with snow and ice. Hahn Solo and I will be joining forces once again to spin records in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!
The time is upon us once again! This year, I’ll be joined on the decks by Grace of Spades, and the openers are Uzimon and The Shivering Brigade. As always, I’m sure The Slackers have a few tricks up their sleeve for this one.