Arriving on the world stage, the Dream Warriors' unique musical style is giving Canadian hip hop American-style exposure. Simon Trask talks musical sentences.
Dream Warriors King Lou and Capital Q dream of technology; co-producer Maximum 60 gives the technical lowdown on the Warrior sound.
"WHEN 'WASH YOUR FACE IN MY SINK' came out in the UK, people went 'Woah! What is America coming out with next?'", recalls King Lou, one half of the Dream Warriors. "When we explained to them that we lived in Canada it was like 'Oh, North America', and we were like 'No! Canada'. Then it was 'We didn't know Canada had a rap scene. Did you grow up in America?'."
If there was any confusion to begin with, there surely can't be any now. The UK chart success of 'Wash Your Face in my Sink' and its follow-up, 'My Definition of a Boombastic Jazz Style', has placed the Dream Warriors firmly in the media gaze. Following on from these singles, the group's UK record company, Island, have released their debut album, provocatively titled And Now The Legacy Begins. It's a mature, confident and strikingly original debut, endlessly inventive and wonderfully diverse, rich in lyrical and musical ideas.
So it is that King Lou and his partner Capital Q are in London for a string of interviews, and I'm sitting across a table from them at Island's offices. Capital Q, the Quiet Storm, lives up to his name by spending most of the interview leafing through the copy of MT which I've brought along, happy to leave the talking to King Lou.
Canada is a country of astonishing facts. Covering seven percent of the world's surface, it's the second largest nation in the world. Vancouver on the West Coast is closer to Mexico City in Central America than it is to Halifax on the East Coast. The country's prairies alone cover more than the combined areas of India, Pakistan and Nepal, while the 12 percent of its land suitable for farming is equivalent to the combined areas of France, Italy, West Germany and England. Yet for all its vastness, Canada has only around 25 million inhabitants, most of whom live within 200 miles of the American border. Through satellite broadcasting, dish receivers and cable systems, Canadians - or at least English Canadians - have for years been prime targets of US cultural imperialism. It's been estimated that nowadays English Canadians watch US programs for 75% of their TV viewing time, while 97% of the dramas they watch come from the States.
"A lot of people in Canada just change TV channel when it's a Canadian show and not the glamorous American-type show", affirms King Lou. "It's been the same thing for us. We were neglected by radio stations because we were Canadian and we were doing hip hop in a large rock-orientated place. Also, it was always American hip hop first, and if you weren't coming from America then hip hop wasn't a true state to you. Same thing as TV, just a different form of it."
No wonder one of the tracks on the album is called 'Tunes From the Missing Channel'.
The Dream Warriors signed to Island last year, and their sudden rise to fame has all the hallmarks of an overnight success story. But behind it lies many years of hard work and a production company called Beat Factory, which has been working tirelessly for the past eight years to build up Canadian dance music. Situated in the Pickering suburb of Canada's rock capital, Toronto, it hasn't been an easy task.
In addition to the Dream Warriors, artists signed to Beat Factory include Michie Mee and LA Luv, Krush and Skad, Carla Marshall, Gillian Mendez and Sike. All the artists record in Beat Factory's small basement studio. Until about six months ago, the vocals were recorded on an Akai MG14 12-track tape machine, but the Akai has been replaced by a Roland S770 sampler with full memory upgrade. Now the vocals are sampled in sections into the S770, assigned to MIDI notes and triggered from a sequencer along with the other musical parts. It's tapeless recording but not as we know it.
Technological metaphors find their way naturally into the Dream Warrior's lyrics. As King Lou reveals, he and Capital Q have a sensible attitude towards the technological trappings of the modern recording studio.
"We deal with a lot of modern technology so we're very aware of it", he says. "It just kind of adds up. We won't be a slave to technology, we know how to use it but we won't let it use us. Once you know those simple factors there's nothing at all wrong."
The Dream Warriors' approach to working in the studio, as told by King Lou, runs as follows:
"The thing with us is that our order is our disorder. A lot of people go in the studio and order for them is to have an order, but order for us is to not have an order. Anything can work, so have an open mind. It's like, go into the studio and construct something that's your feeling for the day. A lot of people come in and they want to bring a rougher vibe or a more mellow vibe or a more dancey vibe, but when we come in, anything goes. On our album, 'Ludi' is different from 'Wash Your Face in my Sink', which is different from 'Do Not Feed the Alligators' which is different from 'Tune from the Missing Channel'. Every track has a different vibe to it."
And as King Lou makes clear, the Dream Warriors' "anything goes" credo extends to the sounds they're prepared to use in a track.
"You know, watch out, don't even sneeze 'cos that might go in the song", he warns. "On 'Do Not Feed the Aligators' there's the sound of birds chirping. Whatever sound we like, we'll use it. It could be the sound of the wind blowing the drapes open. What we're really doing when we're putting together a track is organising noise, organising sounds. That's what people do with a band - like you'll have a guitar strum here, a hi-hat there... It's like, if you put this noise here and that noise there, it sounds like music but it's not, it's just noise organised in a particular way. So if we've used different noises it'll sound like a different organisation. To us, our organisation is just grabbing sounds that we like and putting them into our own sentence. We do it through samples because we don't know how to play instruments, but then if we had a band I don't think it would come out the same.
A lot of musicians'll go 'I wouldn't have played that there because it's not musically inclined to be the right place'. To them, everything has a certain place and a certain time, but we're kind of saying it doesn't have to. So they'll say 'Well, how's it supposed to musically sound right?', and that's the thing, that's what makes us different from a band. Musically it's not sounding right, yet it works."
Only two or three songs on the Dream Warriors album were recorded with the S770, the rest of the album being recorded on the Akai 12-track before the sampler came along. Did King Lou and Capital Q find the transition from tape to samples difficult?
"What we're really doing when we're putting together a track is organising noise, organising sounds - that's what people do with a band..."
"Whether we record onto tape or into a sampler isn't a real change to us", King Lou replies. "For a lot of people it's 'Wow, you can sample in the vocals', but we've actually spoken the vocals with the same feeling and they're being said in the exact same way as when we recorded onto tape. The sampler can still only record as much feeling as you're feeding into it. If you're speaking off of a piece of paper then it's going to sound as if you're speaking off of a piece of paper. If you speak your lyrics like they're coming from the heart then it's going to sound like they're coming from the heart.
"I think the sampler's an improvement if it can improve time and improve quality, but that's just a convenience for the engineer. We can sample the vocals in sections, which gives us the facility to say 'I like the beginning part but I don't like the end part, so let's do the end part over again'. You can do the same thing on tape with punching in, but it's just more convenient with sampling."
THE MAN BEHIND THE MIXING DESK AT Beat Factory's in-house studio is 27-year-old Richard Rodwell - aka Maximum 60 (so called because, in King Lou's words, he "controls the speed in the studio"). As well as engineering, mixing and co-producing for Beat Factory's artists, Rodwell is part owner of the company along with Ivan Berry and Rupert Gayle. He's also been playing keyboards for the past 12-13 years, and used to be in a couple of rock groups.
"Believe it or not, my early musical influence was the Stranglers", says Rodwell, speaking on the phone from Toronto. "I used to love those guys. The keyboard player in the Stranglers was really amazing. Also I used to love Devo, the Doors, that kind of thing."
The origins of Beat Factory lie in a group called Traffic Jam which consisted of Rodwell, Rupert Gayle and Len Grant and was managed by Ivan Berry.
"Len and I were always into the hi-tech stuff', recalls Rodwell, "and we used to have about ten keyboards, all these analogue synths. We had an SH101, a Juno 106, a Yamaha CS01, an ARP Odyssey.
"My very first drum machine was a Roland Drumatix. But none of this stuff was MIDIable, so eventually we got rid of it all."
With money made from playing, the group invested in a small four-track studio setup based around a Yamaha MT1X, and it was as a result of interest in some tracks which they put together with local rapper LA Luv that they decided to fold the group, start up Beat Factory and concentrate on developing Toronto's rap talent. Eight years later and the Beat Factory roster of artists is poised to break out of the confines of the Canadian market in the wake of the Dream Warriors' international success.
The Beat Factory studio has progressed considerably from the early four-track days, but as Rodwell explains it's still a relatively modest affair - and that's the way everyone likes it.
"The studio's in a space maybe 15' by 10', and we have a very small vocal booth. But the space has never really been a problem for us, because the concept of everybody here is that the smaller and the more basic it is, that comes out in the sound. You could have a really big 48-track, huge digital studio, but...
"It's like the more equipment you have the less 'street' the music sounds. Beat Factory has a certain kind of sound. I don't know what it is but there's a certain element that's worked for us. We must be doing something right, so we just keep on doing what works.
"To tell you the truth, the only things I use for sounds in Beat Factory are the 770, an S330 and a D110. That's it - it's amazing, isn't it? We use the 330 for beats and loops and basslines, and sometimes the D110 gets used for basslines as well. The 770 is usually just for vocals, but if the 330 gets filled up then we'll drop maybe another guitar loop into the 770. It has to be something that it's not critical for the rapper to listen to when he's recording his rap, because the 770 can't sample and play at the same time."
Rodwell elaborates on the typical Beat Factory recording process: "Usually we'll loop up the loops first and then punch in a drum rhythm afterwards", he explains. "That's how it works with the Dream Warriors, but we have another group called Split Personality who usually like to make up the beat first.
"After we've got the loops and beats going, we'll play the song back and the rapper will rap over it. With the 770 we'll use the 'Previous' function for sampling, which is great because I can keep the beat rolling in the 330 and then once the rapper does a good take they'll say 'OK, keep that one' and then I just press the Sample button and the S770 keeps the sample. It's like sampling backwards from when you press the button."
One of the first things Rodwell did when he got the S770 was to upgrade the memory to the full 16 megabytes. To maximise the sampling time, he uses the 770's 24kHz sample rate for all the vocal sampling.
"The 770's incredibly clean", he comments. "Forty eight would be great, but of course it's half the sample time. With a fully-expanded memory, 24K gives you about six minutes."
So does this mean that a rap might be sampled straight through?
"Sometimes the rapper will rap right through a song, if they're really confident and they want to do it all in one take", Rodwell replies. "But usually I find it's better to sample in sections, like verse one, verse two, chorus, because then you keep the energy happening - and if the rapper makes a mistake then the whole sample isn't screwed up."
Surprisingly, considering Rodwell's background as a keyboard player, the only keyboard in use at Beat Factory is not an 88-note controller but an instrument of distinctly more modest proportions: a Yamaha KX5 MIDI remote.
"I have an old JX3P that I used to use for playing basslines and stuff, Rodwell says, "but lately the MIDI's been really screwing up on it, so now I just use it as a source of analogue sounds for the samplers.
"I want to maybe get a D70 - that's a nice machine - but I'm an analogue person myself, because I grew up on analogue synths and I like the warmth and the rawness of analogue sounds. Also, I find most digital synths just too bloody hard to program. If you want to change something, oh my God... But the D70 incorporates the analogue kind of programming with digital sounds. Actually, I've always been a Roland fanatic."
Nowadays, sequencing in the Beat Factory studio is taken care of by Opcode's Vision software running on a Mac Plus, which has been in place for around 18 months. Previously, Rodwell used Steinberg's Card 32 sequencing software running on a Commodore 64, recording the original version of 'Wash Your Face in my Sink' with it. As the studio now uses Vision, has Rodwell thought about upgrading to Studio Vision for its combination of sequencing and hard-disk audio recording?
"Studio Vision looks interesting", he replies, "but the only problem with it is that it doesn't have separate outs yet, it only has the two master outs. That's why I like the 770, because it's got six separate outputs."
With the 770 firmly in place, it would seem that the Akai 12-track is now redundant in the Beat Factory scheme of things.
"The Akai's history now", confirms Rodwell. "And check this out - before I dumped it I had to sample every recorded vocal of every artist into the 770 and save them all onto optical disk. That's a great unit, you can't do without it. I remember when we first got the 770 we were saving things to floppy. Never again, never ever again. It's so slow and it takes so many disks. You have to buy the optical disk unit, there's no way around it. We don't use the onboard hard disk for storage at all because you get a lot of good factory sounds on it. The percussion stuff is amazing - the Latin stuff is great."
Nowadays the mixer of choice at Beat Factory is a Tascam MM1, with its MIDI-controlled channel muting run from Vision. Sporting just treble and bass controls on each channel, the MM1 doesn't have the most sophisticated EQ in the world, but this isn't something which bothers Rodwell.
"We just try to make the sound as raw as possible", he says.
"Whatever needs treble, we'll put up a little treble, whatever needs bass, we'll put up a little bass. I've also got a separate 15-band EQ, but I only use it if the song really requires a lot of bass or a lot of detailed EQing. We don't get into a lot of processing. We have a Yamaha SPX90 and a Yamaha R1000 reverb unit and that's it. The R1000's kind of an old unit. I just use it to put a bit of reverb wash on the vocals. The only thing I really use the SPX90 for is echo. We don't use compressors for the voice, anything like that."
With everything, including the vocals and the automated mixing, sequenced from Vision, Rodwell is able to do without SMPTE code - a fact which makes him very happy.
"We used to have a lot of problems with SMPTE", he recalls, "but now that we're using the 770 for vocals SMPTE doesn't exist any more with me. I'm telling you, it was a real pain in the ass. We used to have a lot of trouble with the signal leaking into the audio track. If you listen carefully to 'Wash Your Face in my Sink' you can hear the SMPTE tone right through it!
"I'll let you in on a secret. When we first got the Akai we were just scraping by so we needed to save on tapes, 'cos those tapes are expensive. We only used the Akai for vocals, because everything else was running live from the sequencer, so because we never needed 12 tracks of vocals for a song, what I would do was I would have, say, tracks one, two and three for Dream Warriors, tracks four, five and six for Michie, and so on. I would use the same SMPTE start times and everybody's vocals would be starting at roughly the same time. For the particular song we were working on I would just leave those tracks up and put all the other tracks on Line so I could put the instruments through those channels. But there was one time, it's actually near the beginning of the Dream Warrior's 'U Never Know a Good Thing Until U Lose It', where you hear a female reggae voice. That is actually Carla Marshall. We'd been mixing her song the day before and I'd forgotten to switch her vocal track over to Line before we did the Dream Warriors mix. We all listened to it and said 'That sounds pretty good', so we just decided to leave it in!"
Interview by Simon Trask
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