Next week, Dave Hillyard and The Rocksteady Seven will be coming to Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn. They’re going to be playing strictly songs by Roland Alphonso, a founding member of The Skatalites. I’ll be DJing between sets while the band recharges. Hope to see you there – doors open at 8pm!
Please join us tonight at Leftfield for another Soon Come sound system session! The Deadly Dragon family will be spinning records all night, and we’ll be taking over for an hour at midnight to produce foundation riddims live for you.
It’s been a long time since I publicized anything that I’ve been working on in the studio. If I’m honest, there was a period of time where I really just wasn’t working on much, and many periods of time where I just wan’t happy with what I was creating. Sometime within the last year or so, that all changed.
I’ve always been fascinated with the process of making and listening to music. My mom always had an impressive sound system, and I used to sneak into her music room when I got home from school to play with the equipment. I was always careful to return everything to its proper place; apparently, this paid off – when I told her all about this almost two decades later, she admitted she never had a clue about it. She had a turntable, a dual cassette deck, a CD player, and interesting EQs and spectrum analyzers, along with a ton of homemade cassettes from her friends in Eastern Europe. Playing around with all of this gear got me thinking about how music was actually made, so I started asking her annoying questions like:
What’s that sound? [I was referring to a synthesizer featured on some Jean-Michel Jarre track she loved]
How does sampling work? [I was trying to understand how Vanilla Ice was related to Queen and David Bowie]
What does stereo mean? [I was floored by the movement in the intro to Michael Jackson’s “Speed Demon” while wearing headphones]
Some, she knew the answers to. Others were met with her best guess. But she did a great job of explaining what she knew about creating music, as a huge music fan and consumer. I was extremely intrigued. I began experimenting with production when I was about thirteen years old. This happened to come at a time when I was beginning to discover the roots of punk, reggae, hip hop, and electronic music… nearly simultaneously.
At the time, we were living in New Jersey, which had a healthy punk scene. The mid-90s were a great time for this. Asbury Park, though still super seedy, was a hotbed of activity for local bands – many of whom played at the Stone Pony. The Slackers were from nearby New York City and played in NJ quite often, many times at smaller venues. As an adolescent, I was always into punk bands that leaned more toward ska, but the first time I saw those guys I was floored. Nobody in the area was playing like they were – I didn’t even know the name for it at the time. It turned out that most of the slower stuff they were playing was called rocksteady, and they played some slower roots reggae as well. I realized pretty quickly that this was the music I actually loved, and started digging into their influences. This process of excavating Jamaican music still hasn’t stopped for me, and probably never will (it’s a deep well). [Side note: if you had told me then that years later I’d be joining them on tour as their DJ, I would’ve laughed in your face.]
Concurrent with this, I was becoming really interested in synthesizers, because of their ability to generate non-acoustic (unrealistic) sounds from scratch. That fascinated me deeply, and I started learning trigonometry soon afterward because of its applications involving sine waves. Unfortunately, hardware synthesizers were quite expensive at the time, and there was no way I could convince my parents to help me buy one. However, it was right around this time that consumer-grade computers were just beginning to become viable tools for making music. Early experiments with software like Hammerhead (a drum machine), TS-404 (an analog emulation synth), and FruityLoops (a primitive step sequencer) taught me a lot about signal generation and processing. That’s how I cut my teeth in production, using cheap / free / pirated software to learn the process without breaking the bank. Years later, I would work for FruityLoops (later renamed FL Studio), producing demo tunes and tutorials for the software package. I also did beta testing work and patch design for VAZ Modular, which allowed me to learn about modular synthesis, even though I didn’t own much hardware.
Back to reggae: I first heard Lee “Scratch” Perry around age 14. I can’t remember who pointed me in his direction, but I know that the first track I ever heard from him was a dub called “Noah Sugar Pan.” It’s actually a version of the Congos’ “Ark of the Covenant,” but I had literally no clue at the time that there even was such a thing as an original undubbed tune. I had brought home this CD from Jack’s Music in Red Bank. At the risk of sounding like an old man, it was both stressful and exciting to buy music at that time. There was no way to audition what you were buying, so popping it in the player at home was a nerve-wracking and thrilling experience. When the drum intro fired and the bass dropped, I thought I had lost my mind. I could hardly believe this was music produced in the 70s. The internet wasn’t quite what it is now, so it was difficult to find information on artists and releases. Digging through the mysterious shroud of history, I was able to find some hints about his process and style. One of the sources I remember was Mick Sleeper’s Upsetter website, which had some weird interviews and other tidbits about Scratch. After I learned that he did all of those classic recordings at the Black Ark on a four track recorder, I decided I could probably find an affordable one for myself.
I settled into the work of building an amateurish studio in the basement. The centerpiece for this was a simple Tascam four track cassette recorder, which I’d received as a birthday present. I must have read that manual front to back about ten times before attempting a single recording (these days, I don’t think I even look at manuals). Everything I learned during these experiments has stuck with me to this day, even if these techniques are no longer strictly necessary: ping-ponging previously recorded tracks to make room for more, struggling to get the best sound on the way in with microphone positioning instead of fixing it in post, riding faders live, making heavy use of send-return loops, etc…
Eventually, I started using the computer in conjunction with analog recording. And a few years later, after saving up all of my money, I bought my first analog synthesizer – a very strange one made by a tiny independent Swiss company. I didn’t have a laptop, so I used to do local shows by hauling around my heavy CRT monitor and computer tower along with a few pieces of analog gear, and a MIDI interface. I don’t really think many people were too interested in the music itself; it was mostly experimental electronic music influenced by artists like Aphex Twin and Autechre. But people were clearly intrigued by the setup itself and the process of creating these sounds. So here’s the genesis of my whole approach: equal parts engineer and musician. I really wanted to make music, but I was also deeply interested in how to generate sounds as well. I proposed a new curriculum at the University of Maryland, and began teaching a course in production and synthesis in the then-new electronic music laboratory.
After earning my degree in electrical engineering, I returned to NJ briefly and quickly moved to Brooklyn. In the years that followed, my love for hip hop grew exponentially. I was particularly amazed by the talent behind the boards; producers like Pete Rock, Dilla (Jay Dee), DJ Premier, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Madlib resonated deeply with me. Their ability to recontextualize otherwise corny or forgotten songs and repurpose ordinary snippets inspired me to try my hand at sample-based production. This led to the release of a few remixes, mixtapes, and a fewalbums with Ryan-O’Neil. I was DJing bars and small clubs in the city a few times a week. While it was exhausting, I learned so much about how to set a party off and keep it going. I mostly played hip hop, R&B, and soul… but whenever I felt a signal from the crowd, I would pepper my set with reggae classics (and if I felt really lucky, 90s dancehall). Looking back, I was slow to realize it… but I was chasing the ghost of a hip hop scene that was dying. What I found alive and well instead, almost by accident, was an incredibly varied group of musicians playing Jamaican music in different combinations.
Following this period, I really doubled down on collecting reggae records. I used to shop at Jammyland on day trips before I ever lived within the city limits, and that was a great resource. Deadly Dragon Sound then took the torch from them as the only reggae shop in lower Manhattan. Scratch Famous (its owner) was so instrumental in nurturing my instincts to collect tunes by riddim; every time I thought I maybe had the full breadth of productions and vocal takes on a particular riddim, he proved me wrong by putting another 45 in my stack. It was addicting to discover so many different permutations of the same building blocks, and a good portion of my reggae collection today is still organized by riddim (as opposed to sorting by artist, producer, or label). Spinning records alongside veteran selectors like Carter Van Pelt, Agent Jay Nugent, and Chanter (who runs the sound system for Coney Island Reggae every summer) was crucially informative as well. Furthermore, the rise of Discogs made discovering vintage vinyl much easier, compared to using strictly eBay in the 90s.
After a while, it became apparent to me that what I really wanted to do was make music again. Playing records is fun, but often a big part of the game is keeping abreast of trends and pleasing management by focusing on hits – even when you’ve negotiated some niche in advance. Over time, I soured on this framework. Plus, I was so much more interested in the genealogy of music than the contemporary chart toppers. [Educated folks who want to sound smart and desperately need their degrees to be respected call this ethnomusicology.]
So how was I going to find the stimulation I needed?
Fast forward to this moment. Many years (and many sounds) later, I’m embarking on a new project that I feel really encapsulates all of my influences and experiences so far. It’s called Soon Come – a bit of a joke, since I’m a known procrastinator. With my partner Monika, who also has a deep appreciation for reggae music, I’ve been trying to do my part to map out the DNA of tunes we love in a novel context. The aim is to produce new versions of common foundation riddims from Jamaica’s nearly-infinite vault of musical culture, and perform them live using analog synthesizers. We want to create a solid platform for vocalists and instrumentalist to interact with, even if they’ve never heard our versions before. Using riddims whose reputations precede them as a model, we can achieve this in fine style. Anyone who’s heard “Real Rock” or “Full Up” before can recognize when it’s reprised, no matter how many years have passed since the glory days of Studio One in Kingston. Our recent trip to visit this Mecca of reggae music has made us more excited than ever to share these sounds with you.
We’re proud to be unveiling these new works in Prospect Lefferts Gardens / Flatbush, as a stronghold of reggae music in Brooklyn. Many of the excellent productions influencing us originated in this neighborhood, so we have big shoes to fill. One of my favorite examples of this style is a tune by Sammy Levi, “Come Off The Road” – take a listen:
Please join us this Saturday at Record City for our debut. We’ll have a talented pack of vocalists with us: Screechy Dan, Willow Wilson, Jonny Go Figure, and Peter Ranks are all set to grab the mic and chat.
This Sunday marks the second of four Coney Island Reggae sessions on the boardwalk. I’ll be kicking things off at 3pm sharp this time, with a heap of familiar faces to follow. Stick around after my opening set to hear great sets by Mumma Lioness, DJ Wicz, Rob Kenner, Scratch Famous, Max Glazer, Chanter (who strings up the sound system every year), and the great Jah Wise.
June is already around the corner, and for me that usually means plenty of visits to the beach. Selector extraordinaire Rata kindly invited me and Grace of Spades to binge on arepas and beers with him, while we play vintage vinyl all afternoon. Please join us a few Sundays from now at Rockaway Beach!
Tonight, join us for the annual Slackers Holiday Show! This year features the Pietasters (who I hear will be combining with the headliners in a special way), The Snails, and Sammy Kay! I’ll be on the turntables between sets all night.
This week, I’m packing a one-two punch of gigs for Thursday and Friday. First up, I’ll be joining Deadly Dragon Sound at Downtown Top Ranking in the basement of the Delancey. Expect heavy roots, some digital 80s stuff, and a few surprises in the deepest part of the night.
Friday, I’ll be playing a bunch of soul, funk, reggae, and other oddities at Queen Majesty‘s launch party for her brand new hot sauce flavor: Red Habanero and Black Coffee! I’m very excited, as a longtime fan of her original Scotch Bonnet & Ginger flavor. Come to the Heatonist shop in the early evening for spicy treats and cocktails, and stay for the music. We’ll be partying til 9pm.
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, and hinted at his retirement from the rap game. 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.