The Blueprint of Hiphop
From the New York roots of hip hop, KRS One talks about street-level production values and samples as the poor musician's alternative to real musicians. Simon Trask listens to the Music of the Spheres.
One of the most influential figures in rap music is KRS One; his DJ may have been shot dead in New York but his enthusiasm for technology and his vision of music live on.
NEVER SHORT OF a constructive message, KRS One, aka Kris Parker, even turned his own name into one: Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone. Nowadays the 23-year-old rapper and producer is one of the most respected figures in hip hop, and one of the most articulate and radical. As a rapper he deals with topics ranging from the stark realities of life for poor blacks in America's cities, to the massive US drug and associated corruption problems, to black African history, to safe sex. And he should know: he's literally picked himself up off the street, having spent most of his teenage years living off his wits on the streets of New York.
KRS One met his future production partner and DJ Scott La Rock (Scott Sterling) in a men's shelter where Scott was a social worker. The pair formed their own production company, Boogie Down Productions, paying S40 for the privilege. After gaining experience on numerous minor productions, they got a deal for their own album Criminal Minded with B-Boy Records in New York, going on to produce other acts for the label. Criminal Minded is a hard, powerful album, both lyrically and in its sound, and has stood the test of time to become a hip hop classic. Unfortunately the pair never saw any money from it; victims of an unscrupulous record company and a bad deal they were only able to escape from when they signed a deal with Jive Records.
Subsequently, La Rock was shot dead, the victim of typically senseless New York violence. KRS One resolved to continue flying the BDP flag with By All Means Necessary, which has proved even more influential than its predecessor.
Having been involved in the production of his own albums from the outset, KRS One has been building a reputation as a producer, with records like fellow rapper Just lce's second and third albums, 'Self Destruction' 12" (a kind of "rap aid" record directed against black on black violence), production on three tracks from Steady B's most recent album, and now his own, third album Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop. Perhaps his biggest production break to date is Sly and Robbie's new album Silent Assassins, on which the duo wanted him to turn them into rap artists, and guest rap himself. Other productions include Young MC, Queen Latifah and the Shah of Brooklyn. Life is getting busier for the young New Yorker who aims to become a billionaire by the time he's 30. A recent promotional trip to London afforded the opportunity of an interview where he was at ease talking about the technological aspect of his work.
"I HAVE LOADS of equipment but I still don't have my own studio", he begins. "Before a producer I'm a businessman, so I'm like a partner in a 48-track SSL. studio called Powerplay Studios, which is in Queens, New York. We use it so much it's like I'm paying for the studio!"
Today the BDP production team also consists of recording engineers Dwayne Sumal and Rebekah Foster and co-producer and keyboard player Sidney Mills.
"A lot of my studio experience comes from Dwayne and Rebekah. I trained them in the language of hip hop and rap music, they trained me in the laws of engineering and distortion. I'd have Dwayne telling me 'You're distorting, look at your levels' and I'd be saying 'But that's the sound I want'. So he'd say 'Well, you've got to compromise, send it through a compressor'. It's important that they know what I want, because I can't be there all the time; sometimes they have to be left to do things and they have to sound like what I want.
"Sidney has a 16-track studio called Living Room Sound, which is literally in his living room. We work out of there, too. Jive is building a studio in New York, which I'll be ruling with an iron hand."
So where does KRS One keep his gear if he doesn't have a permanent studio to store it in?
"In a very disorganised room at home which I call the junk room", comes the reply. "I have records, clothes that are too short for me, and equipment just all over the place, like E-mu SP1200s, DATs, all kinds of DAT tapes, cassette decks, a little four-track, two Technics SL1200 decks, loads of mixers, EQs, amps, compressors, dbx, all kinds of weird things - but none of it's hooked up. I take every piece when I need it. I've got two SP12s and an SP1200 gathering dust, only because Powerplay has the same machines; basically I use them for touring.
"Recently I bought a Korg M1; Sidney forced me to get it. That instrument is hype. We did my whole album and Sly and Robbie's whole album with the M1 linked up to a DX7 and a Juno 106. All the basslines are played by Sidney on the Juno."
When it comes to looping beats and other pieces of records, there are no half measures.
"For looping we use the Publison Infernal Machine, which allows you to change the timing without changing the pitch, or the pitch without changing the timing. Everything you hear that's looped on my album is looped on the Publison."
For drum samples, KRS One uses what he refers to as the "Criminal Minded samples", samples which he and Scott La Rock created for their first album. According to the producer, these samples are "floating through the industry", finding their way onto many rap albums. Although nowadays it's the E-mu SP1200 which forms the centrepiece of a BDP production, the samples were originally made on its more modest predecessor, the SP12.
"We sampled everything from James Brown to opera, after first EQing them differently so that to some extent they were original. I have no boundaries when it comes to sampling. None."
The normal setup in the studio is one SL1200, a PMX4000 mixer, and the Publison triggered by the SP1200 from a click.
"We sampled everything from James Brown to opera, after first EQing - I have no boundaries when it comes to sampling. None."
"We get the loop going and then we send everything to tape at one time. After that we'll overdub any live keyboard parts, and then add the vocals. We usually record the vocals on two tracks, one straightahead and one backup. We use EQs, a harmoniser, sometimes a Lexicon, and Panavision for panning sounds back and forth. Also we have seven Neve EQs and we patch those in for bass and snare. We also have Tubetech EQs, Tubetech amps and Tubetech compressors. My voice goes through the Tubetech compressor, and the bass drum goes through the Tubetech amp and EQ so that we get this enormous b-o-o-m."
If there's one thing missing from this setup, it's computer-based sequencing.
"It's in the studio but we hardly ever use it. Everything's either a loop or a sample or live."
IN FACT, THERE appears to be a gradual move towards live playing in hip hop. Stetsasonic claim to being the first hip hop band, complete with live drums and keyboards, while DJ Mark uses live sax and flute players.
"I don't know if it's the move for the industry, but it's the dream of every rap artist to do live music, because we sample breaks from the livest stuff, like 'Funky Drummer'. The person who sits and samples all his life comes to a point where he says 'Why can't I just do that?'. The light comes on. Why sample when you can just get the guy to play with the beat you want? I guess I reached the end of my rope in sampling and decided to get some live stuff going.
"The original idea for sampling and looping was because the original rap artist was too poor to afford a band, and lacked musical knowledge on how to compose music. It was cheaper to buy the record and cut up the section that you liked. But now it's evolved into a whole way of making music. Look at the De La Soul album; you wonder if there's really a limit to how far you can go with publishing rights."
When Stetsasonic used the Lonnie Liston Smith 'Expansions' bassline on 'All That Jazz', they paid a fixed fee. But when they did their cover of the Floaters classic 'Float On' and added their own lyrics, they couldn't get any publishing rights on the lyrics.
"It's the concept, number one", says KRS by way of explanation. "Number two, the people with money control; the richer you are the more power you have. There's a lot of politics involved."
Ghetto Music sees KRS One taking hip hop increasingly in a live direction, with Sly and Robbie handling the drums and bass on 'Bo! Bo! Bo!' and 'World Peace'. The latter track, which closes the album, is an all-live excursion consisting of rhythm section, keyboards and horns (handled by the A-Team), and rap and harmony vocals. KRS One explains the surprising genesis of the track.
"I was talking to this guy about recitativo in opera, and how rap is similar to that. I tried in my twisted mind to get that in there somewhere, but it turned into something else. Just keep in mind there were an awful lot of Heinekens in that track."
So what did the rapper and producer learn from working on Sly and Robbie's album?
"One thing I learnt is that you don't compromise on perfection. If someone wants their idea on tape, you perfect their idea. Your idea goes to your album, and leave it at that. This time around Sly and Robbie are r'n'b rap artists; a little taste of reggae but not as much as you would think they should have on their album."
Producing the Sly and Robbie album also taught KRS One the importance of EQing live drums and of music theory.
"Even when you rap, your voice is in some sort of key, and what Robbie's playing has to be in key with that, and Sidney's got to lay the keys to what everyone else is doing ... That was a total mindblower for me. I had to sit there and learn this boring theory, man; oh boy! It wasn't forced upon me, it was just for the perfection of the job. I had to learn what key a rap was in. I think it'll help me for the future, but I don't know. It just reminds me of one of those things you learn in school that you rarely use."
"I don't know if it's the move for the industry, but it's the dream of every rap artist to do live music, because we sample breaks from the livest stuff."
What's the secret of a good hip-hop production - apart from the Heinekens?
"Loads and loads of bottom; you need that boom-shattering low. Forget engineering law, forget the laws of distortion. A lot of bottom, crack snare, strong, powerful vocals. Nowadays a good hip hop record has to be well rounded in terms of speeds, and it has to have strong lyrical content. A good hip hop record has a lot to do with the fad of where the music's going. There should be a lot of songs on the album, and each one should be a hit. Also, calculation is very important: when you drop your stuff, how you're going to support it, who's coming out around you? You've got to know who's coming out when you're coming out, 'cos you've got to know where to go.
"The basis of our production company is to create styles. I don't like to stay on the old styles, 'cos although they're hits, you can't dwell on them. I could have done another By All Means Necessary really easily, and I could have done that style on other productions, too, but you've got to find a new style."
KRS ONE MAKES sparing but effective use of samples on his records, displaying a keen understanding of what works and where it works best. How does he go about choosing his records?
"I spend about $800 a month on records. I pick a section of records in the store and buy hundreds of dollars worth of that section only; it could be African music, soundtracks, anything. Your will has to be in order here, because you'll see another record you'd really like, but you have to say 'No, I didn't come here for that'. If you buy up a lot of one thing, then you hit something hype, something fresh is in there, because you bought so much that you can't lose.
"The Steady B 'Serious' remix I did was made to sound like old Mississippi jazz, but actually it was Nino Puente; we sampled from one of his Latin albums and used the Publison to speed it up. You've just got to use pieces... Thinking of the turntable as an instrument and not as an appliance will bring you new ideas. 'Breath Control' off my album uses a track called 'Look What They've Done To My Car, Ma'; that's big band music. We didn't use the Publison for that, but just used the turntable and pitched it to the track. I cut it in every so often, and actually it went out of time a couple of times and I had to kind of slur it back in again, but we just left it like that because it fitted the odd style of the track.
"On the Steady B album, there's a track called 'Give It Up Or Turn It Loose', and that cut is James Brown. When I was here in London last year I went to this record store in Camden Lock and bought a whole section of James Brown. There was a whole bunch of other good stuff there, but I just stuck with the James Brown because they had rare 45s that you'd never ever see in America. So I got loads of 45s for £60 and I'm still using these same records today. On Ms Melodie's debut album we've got 'Licking Stick' and some other stuff he did, but the kids don't know it. We waited until he played out; the kids sampled and sampled and sampled James Brown, but they only sampled one era, like the '60s and early '70s. But James Brown had '50s stuff, the JBs had their own stuff..."
And what does KRS One look for when he's spinning his records?
"I look for loops first, and then samples. Everything you can't use as a loop becomes a sample. Samples are always in records; any record can be sampled, it's according to your imagination. I just put my records aside in my junk room until it's time to use them. I have a wide selection of weird music, some really crazy stuff, and a lot of it's unheard in hip hop. I've got some good metal; I'm just waiting to hit the industry with this. They're going to say it's not metal, it sounds like Chuck Berry."
So how catholic is the KRS One record collection?
"I've got a $700 collection just of opera, and the rest of classical music is a whole other section. I've got so much African music, everything; it even goes into reggae sometimes. It bugs me out to listen to how African music goes right into calypso, right into reggae - but it's not reggae, it's something else. Also I've got that Paul Simon record Graceland.
"The object is not to limit yourself, but to understand that music is one thing. I have a large section of African music, a large section of German metal, a large section of Russian metal, which is very melodic stuff and very hard to get hold of in the States. Then of course I've got a large selection of funk and r'n'b; I save that stuff for my outside productions, 'cos everyone else is always a year behind me.
"This year the rest of the producers are chasing Teddy Riley and that swingbeat concept, but he's chasing 'Funky Drummer'! That's the sound. It's good for me, because I'm not chased. Certain producers like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis get followed to the tee; I'd be very frustrated if that happened to me, because I like origination. If people are on your back with your style, you should give up the style and come up with something better. I can always outrun the followers, but I don't want to have to run. Now I have to come out with something new and different in rap style just to keep the suckers behind me. It has a lot to do with bees and honey: the style we put out is the honey."
Not everybody has the young producer's somewhat Cageian outlook on the relationship between sound and music, an outlook which he developed during his stay at the men's shelter. As he recalls.
"I met this old guy, a really intelligent man who had been a foot doctor before he lost his job for malpractice. I just let this guy rattle on, and we started getting into astrology. He was saying 'You want to be a musician? One thing you've got to know is that your ears are only hearing one type of music'. He went on to say that the worlds that revolve in the universe are giving off sound, which is music - the music of the spheres - and if you listen of spirit and not of material then you'll hear those sounds.
"That's stuck with me, and I'm on this neverending quest to listen and to hear; if only I could figure out what that sound is. But it was the concept that broke me out of being limited to rap, being limited to sampling breakbeats. Now I listen just to sound, sound, sound. Anything is music to me, and according to your imagination you can fit it in somewhere. Any sound can be turned into rhythm, can be turned into music."
KRS One's way of hearing sound and music has already given him some unconventional ideas for the samples on his next album. However, he's not about to reveal them in print, so you'll have to keep guessing - or maybe just start listening out for sounds of your own.