New Production: Soon Come

What follows is a lengthy description of what led me to embark on this new project. Click here if you’d like to skip directly to the event details.

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 few albums 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.

Soon Come - Analog Riddim Sound System at Record City

Saturday, November 12 – Record City – 65 Fenimore Street, Brooklyn, NY – No Cover

More reggae! More summer.

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 LionessDJ WiczRob Kenner, Scratch FamousMax GlazerChanter (who strings up the sound system every year), and the great Jah Wise.

Coney Island Reggae on the Boardwalk 2016

Sunday, July 10 – Coney Island – Boardwalk at West 21st Street, Brooklyn, NY – No Cover

The following Saturday, I’ll be joining the Swing-a-Ling posse & friends to play records in a yard, with Jamaican oldies 45s and some home cooking. This is what July in Brooklyn is all about!


Saturday, July 16 – Wood Shop – 4005 Avenue H, Brooklyn, NY – No Cover

Deep Brooklyn: Sunset Park

At the far end of Sunset Park, almost to Bay Ridge, you’ll find Arish’s Barber Shop just past 5th Avenue on 61st Street. He’s from the Dominican Republic, and came to New York City in 1990. Mention any neighborhood in southern Brooklyn to him and he’ll tell you a story about it.

Arish Barber Shop

Arish’s place is a little gem in this neighborhood, where many barber shops are noisy, dirty, and unwelcoming to newcomers. The inside of his shop is filled with dark wood detailing and artifacts of Afro-Caribbean origin he’s picked up along his travels. He only works with one other barber and knows his clients well… and they come from all over Brooklyn to get their hair cut here. Sometimes I see entire families waiting on the bench, waiting for a turn to sit in the chair.

Arish in his barber shop

The cool thing about Arish is that he can make you feel comfortable by talking about pretty much anything. If you crack a joke in Spanish, he’ll respond in kind. If you bring up local news, you’re sure to get his opinion. Bring up reggae music and he’ll recommend some tunes… all while craftily handling the straight razor. Just don’t talk too much while he’s got it on your neck.

Arish Barber Shop

I love this spot because it’s affordable, unpretentious, and really chill. I usually call ahead, but if you drop by and don’t mind waiting a bit he will always find time for you. I lived in Sunset Park for years, and though I no longer reside there I make trips back every few weeks to see Arish. It’s always worth it.

Sunset Park

The neighborhood is a mix of Central Americans, Mexicans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and an increasingly visible minority of young professionals looking for affordable housing. Many people consider it a far-flung neighborhood, but to be honest, the presence of the N and D express trains at 36th Street makes it about a 25 minute trip from lower Manhattan. Rents have been rising steadily. The neighborhood feels different than it did even seven years ago; things are changing fast. 5th Avenue is the main drag, filled with restaurants, shoe stores, 99 cent stores, and amazing cake shops.

Cake Shop

If you go to 51st Street and 5th Ave, you can eat the best tacos on the east coast at Ricos Tacos. Choose from carnitas, bistec, pollo, lengua, al pastor and more meats than I can remember at the moment.

Ricos Tacos

They serve the corn tortilla tacos with radish, cilantro and lime. The best part is that they’re open 24 hours a day – perfect after a long night. Grab a Sidral Mundet (Mexican apple soda) or horchata and sit outside. I have yet to find a better taco spot on this side of the country.

Ricos Tacos

You can’t miss this spot. Just look for the pig mural.

Ricos Tacos

Sunset Park is also home to Johnny’s Pizza, a holdover from a time when the neighborhood was more Italian. Many of these folks have moved on to Bay Ridge, just south of this corner at 58th Street and 5th Ave. Johnny’s has the best grandma slice in New York for my money. A few years ago Papa John’s opened a store next door, but Johnny’s is still going strong.

Johnny's Pizza

Dominican restaurants pepper the blocks throughout the hood. Most of them have counter seating and hot trays of specialties like carne guisado, platanos and oxtail.

Dominican Food

Another distinguishing characteristic of Sunset is the density of churches. I’m pretty sure it has more churches than any neighborhood in New York. The most famous one is the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help at 59th Street and 5th Ave. This huge building is an architectural landmark, and was built around beginning of the 20th century on what was then known as Irish Hill. Like the Italians, most of the Irish residents of this neighborhood have long since left, though you can still see some hanging out at the Irish Haven on 58th Street and 4th Ave.

Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help

These days, it’s not uncommon to see Puerto Rican flags alongside American flags draping out of apartment windows or on flagpoles outside restaurants. To me, it’s a perfect symbol of what Sunset Park really is: a neighborhood full of immigrants who are working hard to make it in America.

Puerto Rican flag

Deep Brooklyn: Bensonhurst

This is the first post I’m making in a category called Deep Brooklyn – a highlight of places in my favorite borough that most people don’t encounter. If it’s easy to get there from Manhattan, chances are it will never be on this list.

I don’t find myself in Bensonhurst often, though it’s not too far away from me. On this particular day, I was not in the best of moods because I had somehow managed to get an eye infection over Christmas weekend while everyone else was getting gifts. The only doctor that could see me the following Monday happened to be on 86th Street near Bay Parkway, so I hopped the N train for my appointment.

When you pass 59th Street on the N, the train suddenly surfaces and southern Brooklyn opens up before you. It’s a different world when you’re used to riding underground. I got off at New Utrecht and switched to the D until Bay Parkway. The doctor was thorough, diagnosed my problem right away and instructed me to boil an egg and put it on my eye to increase blood flow to the area. Great, I guess I’ll eat some eggs later. After picking up some prescription eye drops, I realized I wasn’t too far from a great place to grab some more appetizing food: L & B Spumoni Gardens, at the border of Gravesend. So I walked east on 86th underneath the tracks.

Bensonhurst is a mix of mostly old-school Italians, former Soviet immigrants and newer Asian immigrants. I saw a lot of places on my walk that I wanted to stop into but I was on a mission. Next time I’m around I’ll check some of these other places out.

Most people don’t think about getting Italian ice on December 26th, but Spumoni Gardens is busy til closing time without fail. I’m not known for my proclivity for cold weather, but I grabbed a Sicilian slice (the best in Brooklyn by far) and a cup of spumoni and sat outside to eat.

For those of you who don’t know what spumoni is, the best way to describe it is a pistachio flavored cream ice. It’s the perfect dessert to follow up a piping hot square slice of pizza on a cold day. My hands were freezing cold but I didn’t give a shit. I walked to the train station finishing my cup, feeling fortunate that a mishap led me back to this neighborhood.