Partners In Rhyme
Felton Pilate's success spans "traditional" funk to the rap revolution - just now he's writing, producing and playing keys for Hammer. Nick Batzdorf raps tech with the Hammer man.
After 12 years playing soul and funk, Felton Pilate is keeping the company of rap superstar Hammer - and playing keyboards in his band, writing his songs, producing his records...
Hammer's first two albums (three if you count the original release of Let's Get It Started as Feel My Power), Let's Get It Started and Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em have sold somewhere between 13 and 15 million copies apiece. If the major record companies needed convincing of the commercial viability of rap, Hammer - who's signed to Capitol - and his EMI counterpart Vanilla Ice are it.
Hammer's indisputable level of popularity is confusing, however, since he's regarded by hardcore rap fans as having sold rap out, and he's resented by the "traditional" pop fraternity simply for being an exponent of rap. Yet the second single from Hammer's current LP, Too Legit To Quit, is also the theme from Barry Sonnenfeld's film The Addams Family and is sure to become just another of Hammer's string of hit singles.
Perhaps part of the explanation for the musical appeal of MC Hammer lies with 38-year-old Felton C Pilate II - Hammer's co-writer, co-producer, keyboard player and regular member of his touring entourage. Unlike Hammer, though, this is not Pilate's first taste of success, as he previously spent 12 years as lead singer, guitarist, keyboard player and songwriter for American soul/funk outfit Con Funk Shun (who also performed as the backing band for various Stax artists). With them he chalked up 11 albums' worth (five of them gold) of playing, production and engineering experience. In '84 he left the group, opened a recording studio and became involved in arranging and producing for some of Fantasy/Volt Records' roster of artists. Then he met Hammer.
Catching Pilate during Hammer's recent US tour, and just days from the finish of Too Legit to Quit, there are questions to be answered. Questions about Hammer's production techniques, for example. Questions about Hammer's approach to sampling other artists. The single 'U Can't Touch This' topped the UK charts in 1990, flaunting its dependence on a sample loop from Rick James' '82 cut 'Super Freak'.
"That gets into a whole philosophy of the rap culture", responds Pilate. "Honestly, had you told me, five, seven years ago that my biggest work was going to be involved with rap music, I'd have told you to get out of here. I wouldn't even have considered that music - you know? So my whole involvement with MC Hammer has been kind of a melding of ideas.
"He brings to the table with him his lack of knowledge - I'm not saying that in a negative sense, but he doesn't have a concept of what 'traditional' music is supposed to sound like. He's got no formal musical training, so when he gets his hands on a synthesiser - an RX7 drum machine, which not only has drum sounds, but electric bass sounds and a couple of pitched instruments that you can assign to the keyboard without having the narrow format of what 'proper' music is supposed to sound like - he tunes these keys to what works for him, and he plays it!
"Now I've got this microtonal thing happening on the bass which, of course, I can't duplicate on a traditional instrument, but it creates the tension in a hip hop record that we're looking for. So, it's kind of like I'm schizophrenic - there's Felton Pilate the producer, versus Felton Pilate the musician. The musician says that things have to be assigned to certain keys, that if our song is in B minor, and you're going to bring in a scratch, that scratch needs to be in B minor also. Right?
"Not the case. Rap and hip hop, being an inner-city kind of music, is based on the idea that traditional music theory doesn't apply. Or 'I made this record, not because I'm a musician, but because I like part of this record mixed with part of this record, and it suits my needs; here it is'. And as an art form, part of it developed from DJs doing their thing over someone else's record live at parties. You know that the DJ is playing someone else's record - that's what he does, he's not a musician. But he now has his own creativity to add to it: 'I've got a 32-bar section in this record where there's no vocals going on. Hey, here's my part'.
"That has developed over years, and that's the art form where we have little snatches of this record and little snatches of that record. And there's now compilation, or a jumbled mass of beats and rhythms beating against each other. We tie in all this by adding our own drum beat underneath to lock in the various parts and it becomes the new art form. It's a whole new creative thing.
"But in some cases, it's not as easy as it sounds. 'U Can't Touch This' was easy - that was a case of taking a four-bar sample from this song, locking it in with our own drum beat underneath, doubling up the bassline on the synthesiser, adding another synthesiser lick and Hammer doing his vocals on top. That was it. It wasn't the most creative thing that we could have done, but certainly the most commercial. It wasn't a case of 'Let's steal this piece over here'. You notice that Rick James' name appears on the album? It's a case of we like it, we've used it, what do you all think? We knew we were going to have to work out a money deal so they worked out whatever it was that they needed to work out.
"When we're doing it like that, I guess it's just keeping in the tradition of rap and how the whole thing got started.
"Had you told me, five, seven years ago that my biggest work was going to be with rap music. I'd have told you to get out of here."
"Now the other thing to do is not to use the samples at all, or not to use any recognisable samples. We may sample a two-bar drum bridge from somebody's record and just the fact that it's already been processed - it's already three or four generations old from the original recording to the mixed-down tape, to the mastering process - means that it has a sound, and a presence in it that is not possible to get from playing, listening to that bit and duplicating it on a drum machine, or even getting your own drummer to copy it. That same thing is not there. So that kind of helps the sound. There's a certain tension, a certain cacophony that works very well for rap and pop music.
"Alternatively, take Hammer's example of doing 'Have You Seen Her' which is not hip hop at all. We're not dealing with hip hop music, we're now dealing with a song where the lead vocal happens to be spoken as opposed to sung. It's kind of different, very soft, but also very appealing to people, say, my age. People who could not, or would not appreciate rap in another form could now listen to the record, and even though they say 'I hate that music', they now listen to it and say 'Hey, this is all right!' and 'I remember that song - used to sing that when I was in high school'. So, there are different approaches to rap music. Not all of it is hip hop."
What, then, of production values? How much do the techniques of Hammer and the 1990s compare with those of Con Funk Shun and the 70s?
"It kind of varies from song to song", comments Pilate. "In some instances, the same procedure I would have used in doing demos with Con Funk Shun wound up being the same procedures I used for the current Hammer album. We worked out our basic ideas for the song on an eight-track first, and worked out the format before going into the studio.
"However, on the Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em album, and Let's Get It Started, that whole demo procedure was bypassed. Many times the first thing that came to our minds was the final product. That was a little new for me, but exciting at the same time: 'Look, we're just going to go for the master right now and no, we haven't heard these lyrics with the music, but let's go for it and then we'll go for whatever edits or changes on the spot'. If we didn't like that verse, we sat down and wrote a new one.
"It's nice to have the technology to be able to work out almost the entire idea in my hotel room or at my house before ever getting to the studio. It's nice to be able to hear how the parts are going to work - including the background vocal parts. I can now sample and rearrange the whole tune."
Sampling obviously plays a major part in Pilate's working methods - but not always in the way you might expect. Sampling backing vocals off demo recordings for use on record and in live performance, for example, is commonplace.
"Again, it's done on a song-to-song basis", he says. "On one of the demos that we did on the road for this album, the background vocals sounded just fine, so I sampled them off the eight-track.
"For a live performance - as an addition to the background vocals on stage - I go back and sample each word and assign it to a different key, so that when we're playing it against the live band, we're not obligated to stick with the same tempo as the record.
"Hammer brings to the table with him his lack of knowledge - he doesn't have a concept of what 'traditional' music is supposed to sound like."
"On this album I've sampled a lot of the background vocals. After they've been committed to tape - mainly because I foresee redoing remixes of most of the album. On a couple of Hammer's tunes, I also have stereo samples of the horn tracks, where, if there's a repeating phrase, I just took a sample of the best phrase and repeated it a couple of times. And there are a couple of tunes now where everything, all of the sounds that occur on the album, I could now just hook up my rack and you would hear everything that's been recorded on tape - with the exception of Hammer's lead vocal.
"Hammer's voice really stands out on tape, and it almost doesn't matter what microphone we use. As a matter of fact, half the vocals on the Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em album are done with a Shure SM57 and SM58 microphone, and it sounds wonderful.
"We've tried different microphones and almost anything you put out there works. And we have recorded in so many various environments - everything from the Record Plant in Sausalito to a clothes closet at my house. I've done his vocals on a bus at four o'clock in the morning with all the lights turned out, in the middle of somebody's trailer park somewhere!
"We just cut down the popping and put a little bit of compression on - and he likes a little bit of 2.2K EQ added to his voice, just to bring it out - but other than that, he has a really easy voice to work with."
Back to sampling. More than allowing control over the vocal and horn parts, Pilate's sampling gives him the ability to completely remix tracks.
"If I want to work out a whole new arrangement of the song, I don't have to do it at the studio", he explains. "It's not like I have to worry about the album budget, but it's just an old thing for me - maybe just an ego thing - where, if I can bring it in for under $75,000, I'm happy. I never could see the logic of 'Hey man, I spent $200,000 on this album', and being proud of it. That's a waste of money."
Remixes can be worth big money, however. In the UK a whole industry of remixing has grown up around the club scene and the record companies' thirst for prolonged chart success. But Pilate doesn't see his and Hammer's use of remixes as a moneyspinner, more as a means of providing a variety of forms for a track.
"There may be two or three different remixes of the same song on the same 12-inch 45", he explains, "just to add flavour to the same record. There will be a version that would be real hot in the clubs, that has less vocal, more beat, more measures...
"But I've heard Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis do a remix of 'Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend', on Herb Alpert's album where they only kept the lead vocal, the background vocal, and used a different arrangement of the music. They may have kept the same drum beat, but went back and added a different bassline, a different chord progression - like maybe in the relative minor of the original key - and it adds a whole new flavour."
"If it still sounds clear enough to me through two or three closed doors, the mix is fine - I used to call that the party effect."
Unlike many of his rap contemporaries Pilate's longstanding involvement with music will have brought him into contact with a considerable amount of hi-tech equipment. Ordinarily you'd simply chalk it up to experience, but with the present fascination for older synths and drum machines, it's a considerable asset to Pilate.
"I use an interesting combination of the old and the new. I still have my DX7 that I bought in Japan. I still have my Roland JX3P that has nice, real thick bass sounds, which is basically what I use it for. And the big Roland JX10 - again, it's a nice, big, fat sound. I'm using those combined with all the new stuff that I've gotten. Some of the old DX7 electric piano patches, when MIDI'd with my new JD800 - the new Roland - make really nice bell-ish tones."
While the hip hop movement has tended to scorn the politeness of digital synths, the ability of samplers to recall sounds from the past have ensured their popularity. In particular, Akai's samplers have become almost synonymous with hip hop. So what's Pilate using - an S1000, S950..?
"As a matter of fact, the only sampler we used on the Please Hammer Don't Hurt 'Em album was a Roland W30", comes the surprising reply. "Not that there weren't other things out there - that's what I had and that's what I felt comfortable with. I had just bought one for myself, right before joining Hammer on the tour, and I was really excited about it. Fourteen seconds of mono sampling time at 30K - it was like 'Hey, I like this!', and I discovered how to do pseudo-stereo samples on it, although it samples in mono. So I was using it to fly in background parts.
"The new Roland sampler has even allowed me to go back and experiment with my Yamaha RX5 drum machine. I can take drum sounds off of there and combine them with the standard Roland library, or some other stuff that I've sampled off record. This will allow me to layer up to four different snare drums together, alter the pitch of each individual sample, and give me a whole new snare sound. So I've been off into sample heaven here because I've got 16Meg of memory to work with."
But the sound of a specific musical style relies on more than just the equipment made to produce it - ask any guitarist. One of the most prominent features of rap is its bass - it has to be heavy enough to move the walls in a club and yet still be able to come across on radio. One trick used by dance producers in general is to test out a mix on a car stereo. Pilate prefers to check out his mixes in as many different situations as possible - and as many cars as possible.
"Many times we'll take a mix - a DAT or a cassette - and listen to it in four or five different cars that happen to be sitting out in the parking lot. We've taken tapes to live concerts, to the PA system, to see what it sounds like on that.
"One interesting thing that I've done to check out the mix: Nady used to make their wireless guitar systems, their 410 model, basically a low-power FM transmitter and receiver. So, I would figure out what frequency the transmitter was transmitting at, and I would put it into the output of my mixer, pan everything to mono, and go tune in to the mix out on my car radio to hear what it sounds like semi-compressed.
"One time I had a pair of small speakers made by a company called Dimension, and I remember watching Hammer listening back to the mix by picking up each of the speakers and putting them over his ears, as if they were headphones! We tried it at a couple of different volumes: real soft, and what would have been painfully loud for me. That low-end stuff is normally associated with a lot of low end on the bass and TR808 kick drum and we figured that if it sounded really good on the small speakers, it would work on the big systems. You didn't have to feel it down there, but if you are at least aware that it was there, we figured it would work. And of course, it's very common for us to stick on someone else's record in the studio, do a quick A/B check."
Bass - the byword of the dance movement, and with it goes one of the secrets of a well-crafted production. Is Pilate prepared to share the secrets of Hammer's bass with us? He is: "Well, the sound comes from one, maybe two things. An 808 kick drum is basically a low-tuned, almost sine wave. It's a big, round, very low note with a very sharp attack on it. When I've sampled it and looked at and expanded the wave, it's almost a perfect sine wave. When you tune it real low you get that 'hmmmm'. Once you've added an envelope to that sound - which could be duplicated from an analogue synthesiser, you get the sound that is normally associated with these types of records. Sometimes we add analogue synthesisers, and you get the beating between the two because that kick drum is normally at a certain pitch.
"Other than that the secret is just making sure that you've got lots - if that's the style that you're looking for - lots and lots of low end on your kick drums. But then you're going to have to make adjustments for that in your volume level to make sure that you're not overloading. And if you want it totally dominating your mix... I mean, that's what you do. I want to make sure that there's enough low in there so that when you do put it in one of these boom-boom car systems, that's the effect that you get.
"In the studio I don't turn it up that loud. I feel that if I can sense the low end there at a low volume, that's fine for me. What I do many times, just to make sure that I hear everything clearly, is crank the speakers up and go step into the next room, figuring that if it still sounds clear enough to me through two or three closed doors, the mix is fine. I used to call that the party effect - you know, you walk up to someone's house, and the place is rocking. And if you can identify what the song is from outside the house, that's a nice clean mix."