DJ Mark (45 King)
As well as being famous for the size of his record collection, DJ Mark is currently one of the major forces in hip hop sampling. The 45 King tells Simon Trask about the biters and the bitten.
While house music's samplers have attracted attention and lawsuits to their music, much of the serious sampling has been in the hands of the hip hop DJs.
MARK JAMES, AKA DJ Mark the 45 King, peers across his London hotel room and out of the window.
"Looks like it's going to rain, right?" he says hopefully.
It is already, I reply, with rather less enthusiasm.
"Yo! I love the rain." You love the rain?
"Oh, do I!"
Perhaps it rains a lot in New Jersey, I muse. The 27-year old American DJ and producer is homesick - and he's only been in the UK for a few days. Or perhaps it's The Flavor Unit, the collection of New Jersey rappers he produces which includes Latifah, Lakim Shabazz, Latee, Chill Rob C and Double J, who are responsible for his homeward leanings. Referring to them affectionately as his children, he tells me: "I love 'em all, and I miss 'em now."
In person the 45 King (so called because of his large collection of 7" 45rpm records) is affable and relaxed - and intrigued by my line of questioning. More used to fielding questions about his rappers and his best-known track 'The 900 Number', talking on musical and technical terms appears to be a new experience for him. Fortunately the novelty translates into enthusiasm.
'The 900 Number' was the most popular break-beat of last year, and that, together with albums like his own Master of the Game and Lakim Shabazz's Pure Righteousness, and 12" singles such as Latee's 'This Cut's Got Flavor', Chill Rob G's 'Let the Words Flow' and Latifah's 'Wrath of My Madness' have established DJ Mark as a producer with his finger on the pulse of hip hop. He has also remixed tracks by Eric B and Rakim, Antoinette, Doug E Fresh and Sugar Ray, and now female rapper Latifah's 45 King-produced debut album is one of the most eagerly-anticipated hip hop albums of the year.
DJ Mark's in-depth knowledge and understanding of the breaks and the beats goes back to the days in '78/'79, when he served his apprenticeship as record boy for DJ Breakout of The Funky Four Plus One, one of the classic Old School groups.
"I used to pass him records, get into parties free, get cassettes of the shows - and of course I got to know the name of all his records. I think I got one dollar out of the whole thing, but I was happy. He had a lot of good MCs: Raheim, Sha Rock, KK Rockwell and Keith Keith. I've got to mention them all, 'cos they really got me into it."
In fact, The 45 King began DJing a couple of years earlier, in '76, when at the age of 14 he DJ'd at his ninth-grade graduation party. He got started when his sister bought two turntables and a mixer, and a friend across the street, Jerome Miller, showed him how to mix; it was Miller who subsequently introduced him to DJ Breakout.
In the early days there were no super-slick Technics SL1200 direct drive turntables; DJs had to do the best they could with decks which weren't designed for what they wanted to do with them. DJ Mark started out with what he refers to as "two house turntables, like when the record drops, you put another record on top and it drops", and eventually graduated to using three Sanyo turntables.
"They were real smart: square turntables, 12" each way", he recalls. "I would still have them, but about eight months ago a friend of Eric B's came over to my house and said 'Look at those turntables, they're cheap'. So then I bought the Technics SL1200s, 'cos I couldn't stand that."
Of course, every DJ needs a mixer; DJ Mark rates the compact Clubman One-on-One as the best, and laments the fact that they're not made any more. Nowadays he uses a Yamaha MX100 disco mixer ("It looks like a drum machine but it performs pretty good"), but his real desire is to make and market a 45 King mixer.
"I know what a mixer should be. I've got all my ideas on paper, no bullshit, and I'm looking for a sponsor to make it for me."
The 45 King reveals that the Flashformer, a dedicated 'transformer scratching' box credited to Grandmaster Flash, was in fact mostly his idea.
"Flash told me we could call it 'The 45 Flashformer', but he didn't do it like that, he went out for himself. But that's OK, 'cos what goes around comes around."
DJ Red Alert, long-time hip hop DJ on New York radio station KISS FM, proved to be an important figure in DJ Mark's early career as a maker, as opposed to a player, of records.
"I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for Red Alert. A friend of mine gave him some of my music, and he played it and played it on the radio. He's a good man, he hooked me up.
"Also, I owe a lot to Vaughan Mason, the guy who made Raze's 'Break 4 Love'. He had a studio in his basement, and he did a lot of his private work in there. He was nice enough to show me a lot about MIDI, about how tracks are laid down, about drum machines... This was in '87. I actually moved to where he lived; I was on the top floor, so all I had to do was go downstairs and make up music."
DJ Mark's first record Just Beats, which came on his own 45 King label back in '87, was just that: a collection of beats. Only eight or nine hundred copies were sold, and today it's a collector's item. As he reveals, the reason why record as "just beats" was not so much down go technical limitations as human failings.
"The MCs I had back then didn't take me seriously enough to practice and get the shit right to do in the studio. So I did it without them, and I did good. If I'm going to have to work hard, then they're going to have to work hard."
It's a theme which DJ Mark reiterates several times during the interview: that you must be prepared to work hard if you want to achieve anything for yourself in life.
Dj MARK'S OWN equipment setup began modestly back in '87 with a Casio RZ1 drum machine, which he put to good use on one of his earliest tracks, Latee's 'This Cut's Got Flavor' from late '87.
"I only used the RZ1 for Latee's track", he recalls, "but it put me out there."
Soon tiring of the RZ1's limited sampling capabilities, he went out and bought himself an Akai S900 sampler (hence 'the 900 Number').
"Then I stuck a bad disk in my 900 and fucked it up." he recalls. "That cost me $80 to get fixed, but while that was out getting fixed I went out and bought another S900. So I'm kind of glad it got broke, 'cos if it hadn't got broke I wouldn't have two. Now I've got 16 sample outputs. Most of my work is samples."
The producer reveals that limited sample memory was perhaps not the only reason he discarded the RZ1.
"You get a lot of pressure from studio people, who say 'You've got an RZ1?'. But they can't do what I did with it. Now they're talking about my S900s, they're saying 'You need to get a Publison, a Publison'll have you sounding real good', or 'You need an S1000'. Are you crazy? You know how much an S1000 costs?"
"I know I don't do it the right way, but it works - if it sounds good, keep it. A lot of time my mistakes'll be selling records!"
Synthesisers don't figure too much in DJ Mark's work, but if you hear a bouncy, funky bass sound in his tracks it comes from a Yamaha DX100. To this day the DX100 is his only synth.
"You wanna know why? 'Cos I love the 'Solid Bass' preset. I can tell you now, 'cos I've used it so much that I don't care if somebody else uses it. I don't really need sounds in a keyboard, I just need a trigger mechanism for the samples. I don't use many synth sounds, 'cos to me they sound fake and they sound too clear. 'Solid Bass' is kind of dirty."
The DJ acquired his first sequencer courtesy of some family support.
"My mother got me a Yamaha QX21", he recalls. "That allowed me to make a lot of music at my house to get other work. When I got tired of that I bought an Alesis MMT8, and when I got tired of that I bought a Macintosh Plus with Passport's Master Tracks Pro sequencing software. I'm happy now."
At home in his basement, DJ Mark's equipment setup allows him to work out and sequence his backing tracks, including presetting any part-muting in the sequencer, but not to record finished tracks complete with vocals. For instance, although he has a Tascam 16-channel desk he has no multitrack recorder, though he's planning to get an eight-track for vocal work, together with an $800 mic which has been recommended to him.
"It's hard to have a proper studio in your house, because to do it properly you need a whole lot of outboard equipment that you don't even realise you need. Also, I need a bigger mixer, now, 'cos my two S900s can take up all the inputs. I could use a lot more if I wanted to, though for some beats I only need one sampler, eight outputs."
To record, then, he has to go outside - but costly 24-track studios with all the latest equipment are not necessary.
"I work at an eight-track studio called Airwaves, which is on 42nd Street in New York", he reveals. "Considering that all my stuff is sequenced using MIDI, we only use the eight-track for vocals, and that's enough. I can have a whole backing track done in my house, but it won't kick like it will in a studio, so I'll take it to the studio, EQ it up, record the vocals and I'm out of there.
"When I go to Airwaves, all I have to bring is my MIDI Transport card for the Macintosh, my Master Tracks disk, sequence disk and sample disks; they have the same equipment that I have. I'm working on getting a modem so I can transfer stuff down to them. They have a Macintosh Plus, but we use different software; they have Southworth's MIDIpaint sequencing software and a Jambox. They're telling me 'Mark, your software sucks, get something else', but other people tell me that their software sucks.
"When I'm just making beats up I don't even need the eight-track. See, people don't like that studio; once they hear it's eight-track, they're not interested. Bigger record companies don't want me working at Airwaves; obviously I can't do a 24-track remix there. But they've got a 24-input board, and I don't even use all the inputs."
The major record companies often just go for studios that have the biggest and best equipment, I suggest.
"I can make a record in my house and do it better, and get more sales, than somebody in a 24-track studio. 'Cos I know the kick to use, the snare to use, the hi-hat to use, the loop to use...
"It's not what you've got, it's what you can do with what you've got". Quote me on that. There's a lot of people who say 'I want this. I want that', but they don't know what the fuck to do with this and that, right?"
WHEN WE INEVITABLY turn to discussing the rights and wrongs of sampling, the DJ-cum-producer responds with disarming honesty.
"I think it's wrong, but I have to keep on doing it to get a name to compete with these other kids that are doing it. Like, if I stop sampling, I don't think people are going to say 'Well, Mark's stopped sampling so I'm going to stop sampling'. No, they're gonna still be looping them old-school beats. So I'm gonna keep on sampling.
"If you use too much of a record, that's real fucked up, and if the record just came out and I'm already sampling it, that's fucked up. too. And if the record's old and it was a real big hit, that's kind of fucked up, too. All of it's fucked up, but you've got to do it to stay in there.
"There should be some type of law where everybody's happy, where you can use the record and get the permission. I've seen people use a whole lot of somebody's record and nothing's happened to them, mainly because it was too much money for people to get the lawyers in. If the record didn't go gold, why sue 'em? It don't make no sense; you lose money. OK you get your percentage, but the lawyer costs more than that.
"I try to get the old, old records, where the guy's died, doesn't care, or doesn't have enough money to sue. I hate to say it, but... They're probably not getting royalties off the record any more, anyway. They might be shocked to hear it again, but they're also proud to hear it again.
"Hip hop did bring James Brown back again, OK? When Full Force was doing that record with James Brown saying 'Don't bite my stuff', they was using samples, like a horn hit from Funk Incorporated. So they was biting, too. Now they're using the 'Funky Drummer' snare in their records. I'm not putting them down, I use 'Funky Drummer' too, but a lot of people use the big snare hit; I use the small one that nobody else thought of getting in between to pull out. So I got a James Brown sound, but it don't sound like 'Funky Drummer'."
So much for sampling from older records. More recently, Ice T used samples from DJ Mark's Just Beats album on his Power LP. The DJ is convinced nobody else realises where the lifts have come from but is flattered all the same. He aims to sample a large enough piece of someone else's work to flatter them, but not enough to upset them. Is he happy for other people to treat him the same way?
"You gonna quote me? I wouldn't sample off any other person doing the same thing that I'm doing. I wouldn't take their shit, so I don't expect for them to take my shit. It's kind of like a rapper saying somebody else's rhymes; nobody wants to be known as a biter. If you use shit from somebody else who's trying to do the same thing as you are, people don't look up to that.
"It's a matter of respect. People look up to me because I'm looping up records that don't get used much - if at all. It's like, I have to buy the breakbeats albums so as to know what not to use. I might use a kick or a snare, or something that I don't think anybody else will think of using, but I don't want to use nothin' that everybody else can use. I want to find something that hasn't been used before."
Secrecy about breaks has been part of hip hop culture since the days when DJs would soak the labels off their records so nobody could see what they were playing at parties. Nowadays, with the audience for hip hop being somewhat larger than a block party, soaked-off labels are not enough.
DJ Mark agrees that sooner or later the identity of a sample will be discovered, no matter how obscure it is. Nonetheless, he's taken aback when I tell him that the source of the baritone sax riff on 'The 900 Number' has been revealed in print (in the NME) as Marva Witney's 'Unwind Yourself' (a 60s soul record).
"I guess I'm gonna leave the country now!", he jokes after regaining his composure. "That's OK; you know why? 'Cos they know that one, but they won't know the next shit I come up with, know what I'm saying?"
"I can make a record in my house and do it better than somebody in a 24-track studio 'cos I know it' the kick to use, the snare to use, the hihat to use..."
Then there's the all-important question of what to sample.
"Every now and then I find a record in one of my crates and I keep on checking it, like it wouldn't work last year but this year it'll work. I have about 400 45s; they don't all have breaks on them, but what is a break? I could have a 45 and just take a horn blast off it, put it under something else. Maybe a record just has a nice bassline on it; I can recreate that bassline.
"There's always something I can find in my crates, so I don't have to go out searching for records. I might sample a part of a record for one rapper's record, another part for another rapper's record. I've done that a lot of times. Put it all together and maybe I've used the whole record."
DJ MARK HAS plenty to say about his own musical approach to using samples.
"If I loop a sampled drum beat, I put a kick, a snare, a hi-hat and a tambourine over that beat, but only high enough that you can hear them but you can't really hear them. The kick and snare are a bit lower than the loop, and that's how I get my sound. A lot of other people bring the kick and snare high, then they take out the loop and play the kick and snare by themselves. Sometimes I'll take out the loop, like if the MC requests me to, but most of the time I keep it in 'cos to me a kick, snare, hihat and tambourine by themselves is naked, no matter how def the beat is.
"Another thing, I'm not into something sounding monotonous. Like, I would never have used that Lyn Collins 'yeah, ah' sample from 'Think'. I might've used it if it hadn't had the vocal. But 'This Cut's Got Flavor' uses 'Think'. It's slow, but it uses samples of the kick, the small snare and the large snare.
"See, I think I was one of the first people to sample the small snare that you can barely hear, as well as the big one. I use it quite a lot. 'Gettin' Fair' off Lakim's album has got two snare samples in it. Sometimes I'll also use two kick drum samples, a heavy one to bring out a kick rhythm and a lighter one to work with the Snare."
DJ Mark-produced records invariably have an indefinable quality which turns a rhythm into a living groove, so it's not surprising that he has strong ideas about what does and what doesn't go into the making of a good rhythm.
"I don't usually quantise when I make a record. Sometimes you can quantise, sometimes you can't. You ever heard somebody make a beat and it seems like they've forced two records together? It's because some records just can't go together, and there's nothing you can do about it, 'cos there's two live drummers and they're not playing in the same rhythm.
"Some people'll force things together, they don't care. It sells, sometimes, but I won't buy it. Me, I don't force things, I usually move onto the next song if I'm stumped, or I just leave it like it is."
DJ Mark generally plays his sampled kicks, hi-hats and snares live off the keyboard.
"Let's say the loop I'm playing to is two bars long. I'll listen to the loop, and then play the hihat to the sampled beat; if it slows up, I'll slow up. Now, you can quantise what you play and it'll be perfect, but it won't go with the beat. Sometimes I'll take the computer and I'll move match with the beats in the loop exactly."
The producer goes on to reveal his own working method once the rhythm track is down: "Usually I get the horn to go with the drum track, and then the bassline to be on key with the horn. After that, the record's finished, if you ask me. A beat, a horn, a bassline and a good rapper, that's all you need."
The feel and the sound that he gets into his records are of particular concern to DJ Mark and this brings us back to the musical value of sampling old records.
"Sometimes the musician in the studio just doesn't have his drum set tuned up like James Brown's drummer had his - maybe he doesn't have the same pillow in the kick. Nowadays, sounds are much cleaner, but I don't want that, I want the old sound. To get that, you either have to get somebody that's been doing it, and don't EQ it up... See, that's why I don't put too many effects on my records, and that's why they sound old. I can put a kick, a snare and a hi-hat to an old drum beat, and unless you make records you won't know that I put them there. I have to use mostly dirty sounds, with maybe a clear hi-hat to clean it up a little. Nowadays, if you use a drum-machine snare and a snare sampled from a record, you get very clean and very dirty and they don't match up. If you sample off a record, it's not going to come out as clear as if you sample off a 16-bit drum machine."
This doesn't only apply to drum beats, of course. The sax and guitar samples DJ Mark uses often have a similar gritty quality.
"I take out some of the highs to make them dirty", he reveals. "You know how to make the horns sound dirty? Have them play fast and then slow them down."
Which brings us nicely to the fact that records usually have to be sped up or slowed down to bring the samples into time.
"Sometimes they sound better slow", comments DJ Mark. "Usually I like to slow records down, 'cos the sounds get deeper; 'The 900 Number' was slowed down. If you speed records up, the highs come up."
Chill Rob C's 12" 'Let The Words Flow/The Court is Now in Session' features live sax and flute played by Jack Bashkow. What was the reasoning behind using a live musician?
"He could play what I wanted in key", comes the explanation. "The saxophone part I find on an old record won't always pitch up with the other parts I'm using, so I can get Jack to play it in key. I'll tell him to play something, or get him to come up with something himself. That kid's bad! He's gonna be my personal sax player, but he doesn't know it yet!"
The producer has a refreshingly open-minded approach to his work. When I ask him about EQ'ing out unwanted sounds from sampled sax or guitar parts, he replies: "Well, if it sounds good, I keep it on. Sometimes you can combine different samples which are offkey, and it may be wrong but it'll work and it'll sell. I don't know why.
"I go in the studio looking for something, I've got my ideas. If it doesn't come out like I expected but it sounds good, I'll keep it. I'm not a person who'll say 'No, I want it the way I wanted it'. I know I don't do it the right way, but it works. If it sounds good, keep it. A lot of time my mistakes'll be selling records!"
Who's to say there's a right way?
"Oh, God bless you! God bless you!" Mark replies, reaching forward to shake my hand. "That's what I always say: who's to say there's a right way? It's different strokes for different folks."
People who go their own way rather than follow the crowd will always stand out - but it seems that DJ Mark is not trying to stand out from the rest.
'I just do what I like to do, and if it's like somebody else's music then it's like somebody else's music, if it's not then it's not.
"You know, people tell me 'Mark, you don't put enough stuff in your records, you need this and you need that'. But it's selling, so why change just because they want me to change? I'm over here for 'The 900 Number', which is simple, right?
"I am going to take advice, though, 'cos you've got to change with the flow, but you've got to do it gradually and in your own way." Believe me, Mark James has his own way.