Three Wize Men
Three Wize Men
Getting philosophical about the new British hip hop. Tim "homeboy" Ponting raps with Wize man DJ Jemski about sampling, sequencing and bringing the drum kit into hip hop.
At the cutting edge of the new British hip hop movement are Three Wize Men, the venerable Roland TR909 and an Akai S900.
DEEP IN DARKEST Peckham, at the very heart of the Gloucester Road Estate, someone's very angry indeed.
"My baby got infected in her carry-cot, there's silver foil all over the block, and that means skag, a new disease, goes hand in hand in places like these..."
A new force in British rap has arrived, sharp and uncompromising. And a new generation of rappers attends it - a breed far removed from the meathead unable to see beyond his own ego.
DJ Jemski Jah is a Wize Man in many ways. As both rapper and producer of the group, he represents the thinking front of British hip hop. Enveloped in a large green armchair in the corner of a room full of empty boxes, his slight figure belies the power behind the microphone, the mind behind the mixing desk. He tells me about his past.
"Though I'm not really a DJ, I was really into hip hop at the time when nobody else was playing it", begins the story. "So I used to do warehouse jams just to earn some cash. And that's how it all came about really. I used to hire AJ (from the Wize men), as security. When I moved to Peckham, I discovered he lived just down the road. I knew Fil (Chill, programmer) from school. He's been a drummer ever since then. About three or four years ago, he bought an RX11 and that was it, he took to it like a fish to water - he discovered programming and how much more you could do with it.
"We always had a dream of being able to sample things before samplers were invented, and then suddenly there they were, what we had dreamed about. It was just a case of getting, to grips with them."
The first Three Wize Men LP, GB Boyz, is a testament to the new attitudes in British hip hop, both musically and lyrically. The originality of grooves such as 'Kuttin Wikki' and 'What It Iz' is supported by an evident familiarity with the technology available. Mmmm... I wonder which Atari package it was sequenced on... or was it a Series III?
"Actually the whole thing was sequenced on a Roland 909 drum machine. Not many people know, but it's got a rather nifty little onboard sequencer. It's accurate to sixteenth notes only, which is weird 'cos you can't really get a human feel. We just used one of those and an Akai S900. It was the most simple sampling and sequencing system in the world - but it proved really effective."
The TR909 and its predecessor, the TR808, have been compared with classic cars. Like the Minimoog, they have a character and appeal that has far outlasted many of their analogue brethren. An industry standard in hip hop, it's almost as if a record without the long decay of the 808's analogue bass drum is a forgery.
"It's one of those things", comments Jemski, "If you're going to make a hip hop record, you've got to have an 808 bass drum, 'cos that's what the kids love. Was 'Mr Roland' aware when he invented it, I wonder? The thing is, it's simply the heaviest bass drum. It's even heavier than some of the Dynacord ones we've been using recently."
As a drummer, Fil Chill has a strong interest in electronic percussion for the express purpose of translating the essential Wize sound into live performance. The Dynacord ADD-one system has proved a useful tool.
"We're still using the 909 live", explains Jemski, "but Fil's playing a Dynacord kit over the top - not drum sounds so much as various odd samples, bits of scratch, whole drum loops and things like that. It's quite interesting. We played our first live gig the other week in Holland as an experiment. We've always used backing tracks before because we've never had any equipment. It went really well - and we got a real buzz off it because, for the first time, it was live and we could stop and start and change and chop. It's exciting.
"Fil programs up, say, a bass drum and hi-hat pattern on the 909 and then plays the percussion parts, scratches or vocal samples over the top. Or he does the inverse; he plays the bass drum, snare and the hi-hat and programs a percussion part on the 909. People can't really tell out front what he's actually playing - but they know it's live."
A HIP HOP act on stage without a backing tape in sight? Pull the other one. Jemski will probably be telling me a live LP is next on the cards if I'm not careful. "Actually, the plan is to take all our new gear out live, with a combination of the Dynacord and the Akai/Linn MPC60, and record it all live onto DAT. We want to see if we can actually make our album while we're on the road - do ten gigs or something, get really into it then..."
He pauses as if struck by a sudden thought. "Well, actually record every gig, and then try and edit an album out of all the best parts. It's actually a practical concept because all the new songs are quite live orientated. And we've got such a good sound - even though at that last gig it wasn't one hundred percent - that we thought 'why not?'.
"You get a different sound at every gig. We've got a guy called Tim Mason who's a brilliant engineer and we'd bring him along with us. He knows all the songs and the setup. It's a fascinating concept: to make a really good-quality album which has cost absolutely nothing in studio time, just because of the quality of the sequencers and the sampling equipment we're using. And those new ElectroVoice mics, the ND757's, are excellent for rap. They're very sensitive, but they compress when you get louder, which is quite handy. They'll handle anything from a whisper to really giving it some bollocks. Everything sounds crisp. I don't know about singing so much but it certainly seems to be the ultimate rap mic.
"At the moment we've just got a publishing deal, and we're looking to purchase some new gear within the next couple of months which should be interesting. Fil's looking at the Roger Linn/Akai MPC60, 'cos he wants a device which he can sequence with. He loves the old Linn 9000, but it's just not good enough these days. I think the MPC60's the sort of sequencer for him.
"I want to buy a keyboard sampler, but I'm not quite sure what at the moment. I quite like the look of the Ensoniq EPS, cos it's got a nifty little sequencer in it. But really I want something with two or three minutes of sampling. I don't know what the Emulator III's are like or the Emax HD, but I'm always wary of E-mu things 'cos they always fuck up. SP12's, they always fuck up.
"Fil and I made demos three years ago with heavy beats programmed on a DMX - I took it to major record labels and they just laughed at me."
"What I like about drum machines is that they all sound different, they all have their own character. Like the Korg DDD1, it has its own particular sound, the same way that an 808 or a 909 has. There's no way, even if you sample it, that you can duplicate it, because it's also the way it sequences, all the intonation. If you feel a track needs that DDD1 mechanical sound, it's better to hire one rather than use samples. On one of our tracks we thought 'yeah, the DDD1 would be ideal for this' so the hire guy got one down and that was it."
Besides a fresh look at the available technology and recording techniques, the Three Wize Men also seem to be rethinking what might be termed "the hip hop approach to song structure".
"Listen to Mantronik; sometimes he has really strange single-bar and two-bar intervals."
At all stages during the construction of a Wize track, an eye is kept firmly on the overall verse-bridge-chorus patterns.
"I write a vocal rap which is then structured. I rehearse it with AJ, and then we go to Fil and do something live so he gets a feeling for the rhythm. Then he programs up a simple beat, and we formulate the song into a structure with breaks and bridges and so on. That's what we're trying to get into - rap as a sort of song form. Then Fil works on the sequencing and the bassline, before we come back to the drums right at the end and put in all the fills and the detail."
For certain cuts the rap is everything; everything is developed from the rap. For others...
"Fil will write a monstrous beat and I'll think 'yeah, I want to write a rap for that'. Or we'll choose a classic beat from the past like 'Funky Drummer' by James Brown or any one of those break beats and we'll just program that up and slot it into the structure. That's quite interesting as well; we sample break beats and drop them in on top of other beats, getting some polyrhythms happening quite randomly. You can take any record and slow it down; sometimes it sounds completely different. We tend not to steal samples so you'd notice. For example, if you take a bass drum, how can you tell where it's from unless you're the drummer who initially recorded it? You'll never be able to. You hear bass drums on CDs which you like and then you just sample them. It's as simple as that."
ONE SURE WAY of discovering what so called "sample thieves" plan to be filching in the near future is to ask them what music they're currently listening to. But Jemski's quick off the mark - he's already sampled it.
"We stole a break off that new Bambaataa stuff, 'Shout It Out' the other day, catching four bars of it, looping it and building up a track on top. We didn't use it in the end, but that's sometimes what we do; you find an interesting beat, loop it and then drop another beat over the top.
"I really like the new James Brown stuff that Full Force have produced. They're my favourite producers at the moment - I think what they're doing is brilliant. I think the UTFO album that they did is the highest-tech recording I've ever heard as far as sequencing, sampling and scratching is concerned. It's remarkable; they've sampled scratching in tune, and then pieced it all together into very complicated little sequences and breaks - just the tiniest little samples, four hundredths of a beat or something. It's well worth checking out."
There are many who hope that the Three Wize Men will prove to be the beginning of a reversal of the US domination of hip hop, and that its homegrown counterpart will become better regarded than the imported variety. It's high time. At long last British record companies are realising the potential of British rap artists: Derek B, Faze One, Overlord X, the Demon Boyz...
"British hip hop is different in a way because it's so much more original. But it's been so hard to get record companies interested in the past. Fil and I made demos three years ago with heavy beats programmed on a DMX, the drum machine of the moment. We got a guy from Mastermind Roadshow to come down and do some scratching for us. I took it to major record labels and they just laughed at me. And it was good stuff, similar to a lot of things that have happened since. But because it's so hard to get people interested, it's only really been this year that everything's taken off.
"The product which is appearing now is of a better quality because people in Britain have listened to the Cookie Crew and the She Rockers and people like that. They're all getting together right across the spectrum and doing everything themselves, whereas in the States people are produced more. I think they just take rappers off the street, write them a track and say 'bust a rap'. Here, the artists tend to want to be more involved in the complete process.
"I think with the new technology, that's what's going to happen. Rappers are just going to buy a small PC, an Atari or something, and a sampler, and get their stuff together at home - just wheel it in the studio and record it. I think that's the future. Because rap's the only form of music which is embracing the new technology, which never tries to mimic an acoustic instrument with its sampling; it's moving forward in that respect. That's why I like rap - because in a way it's denying all the acoustic sounds, guitars and things. We're saying 'why use an acoustic sound - let's use something heavier'."
Jemski seems to relish the prospect of using all the latest technology in a home environment: "professional home studio recording" if you like. In an ideal world all the gear would be available on the NHS, but in reality, it all costs rather a lot of dosh.
"We didn't even have a sampler until a couple of weeks ago; we felt really held back because of the lack of equipment. But that's what we plan to do, sample all sorts of beats, do lots of sequencing with those samples and actually try to create whole songs within that framework. With something like the Ensoniq EPS, it might be possible to create hip hop songs completely within one machine and master straight onto DAT, provided you have access to some fairly good monitors. It's got a good sequencer, and if you've got a hard disk you're going to have a lot of sampling time available. I'm sure it's possible; and I'm sure that's what's going to happen as well. Mantronik used one of those Akai 12-tracks when he made his first LP and nobody knew. He still uses a 909 now.
"There are machines coming out now which are going to change the whole music industry. It's so awesome, you know? What else do you need? Maybe a keyboard, and that's it. As soon as the technology's sorted out a bit more... I'd be a bit dubious about buying something now, spending six or seven grand on some sampling and sequencing system, because I'm sure something heavy's going to arrive at any moment. Two years ago there wasn't the S900; now everything's 16-bit and S900s are looking out of date already. Ten years ago there weren't even any sequencers...
"That's what I think is so brilliant, that's what's so exciting about music today. After we've done this live LP, I'd like to record the next album in my bedroom."
Interview by Tim Ponting
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