Wednesday, March 02, 2005

making a record HAPPEN

fuck 'music'

The Bomb Squad concept was so much more than ‘making beats.’ Hank Shocklee is unimpressed by producers who simply ‘make beats.’ At the Producers Panel of the NYU seminar celebrating “It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” he challenged them: “Can you make a record HAPPEN?!?”
Whether or not Shocklee can do that in today’s market does not deter me from thinking that every rapper and producer would benefit from his description of ‘pre-production’ for the ‘Nation’ LP. Sadly only a few artists (Outkast, Kanye…) understand the idea behind ‘an album of songs’ or having a consistent producer/artist vision. And before ‘Rappers Against Rockism’ gets up in arms about the ‘singular vision thing’ Shocklee made it very clear why ‘Nation’ is a pinnacle of ‘post-rock production.’
First of all, the idea of the Bomb Squad and Public Enemy is always about EVERYONE involved (Griff had a role, Flav had a role, Eric Sadler etc…). The Producers Panel was an indication of this SHARED effort. Although it was Shocklee that spoke the most he noted that there is a REASON that the owner of Greene Street Studios is on the panel. There’s a REASON that the engineers were there. His detailed history of his experiences at other studios made it clear how important the atmosphere of the studio was to the creation of ‘Nation.’ For example, two recording sessions were almost always happening simultaneously. He said that Sadler, Chuck, his brother Keith or himself or any of the studio personnel could have worked on any part of any song… Although he or Chuck would be the final ‘filter,’ it is impossible to assign specific credit for song elements. He shares the credit and glory with the GROUP.
Part of the legend of ‘Nation’ are the ‘happy accidents’ that produced sonic dissonance, offbeat rhythms and in-the-red track bleed. The panel’s stories confirmed the legends and added a few more.
‘Black Steel’ is a recording not only of Chuck’s voice when he had a cold (which Shocklee felt added the emotion to the rap) but also a behind-the-scenes snippet of Flav telling Hank not to stop the ad-libs on an in-studio phone. The intent of the session was to record Flav answering the phone with “Yo Chuck…” etc. but Flav couldn’t help clowning… Every time the phone rang he would answer “Hello! Greene Street Studios…”
Engineer Chris Shaw recalled the time he was asked to identify a distorted bass sample. He couldn’t... so some of the distortion was taken out and he was asked again… and so on… until he could finally recognize the bass-line from a popular English foursome (two of the members are now dead). As Shaw warned, “You can’t do…”, some of the distortion was reapplied and the bass-line’s identity remains a secret to this day. Shaw also revealed that the beeping rhythm of ‘Security of the First World’ was a sample of his digital watch alarm. When that track was sampled (without permission) by Lenny Kravitz and Madonna, Shocklee contemplated going after some compensation... but decided he better not get near that slippery-slope of sampling rights.
When a sample sounded too ‘clean’ Shocklee would throw the source recording on the floor, stomp on it and re-sample it.
‘Nation’ is a 24-track recording. One of those tracks was always the ‘time code.’ Three or four of the tracks were used for all of the various samples. One or two were used for vocals. One track was used to buffer the ‘time code’ from the bleed of the next track. The remaining sixteen or so tracks were used for drums! Four for kicks, four for snares, four for highs etc.
Some of the samples used were from recordings of Bomb Squad jam sessions that were held at their own studio. These free form improvisations, often with Chuck on turntables and the Shocklees on grooves, would often go for five hours which would yield, maybe, a snippet that could be used to create a track.
As much as Hank Shocklee loved the “wall of mess” sound, the ‘dirt’ and the off kilter rhythms, he understood that a pop record needs clear vocals, drums and low end. He always controlled the chaos, never letting it overtake the groove, rap or song concept.
He described an elaborate set-up designed to transfer a ‘pause tape’ beat (that Chuck had chopped together) to the board. It involved stretching quarter-inch tape around the room and setting up a mic in the middle…well, honestly, I didn’t understand what he was describing but it was clear that there was nothing that would stop him from preserving the raw quality for the final recording. Shocklee says he is not a technical musician and relied on the engineers to achieve PE’s vision but he loved being the arranger, assembling the myriad pieces into a cohesive whole, being loose and disciplined as necessary.
The Bomb Squad took that discipline to every level of creating the album. Shocklee demanded "pre-production" or ‘preparation, strategy and direction’ so that when they hit the studio money was not spent on writing rhymes or conceptualizing. The studio was used for ‘execution.’ They stepped into the studio, not only with beats and raps but an arrangement of samples, song titles (created during the ‘Yo! Bum Rush the Show’ days) and solid song concepts. They even had song lengths written down. These allowed them to record two album sides of exactly the same length that would fill the sides of a cassette. They left almost no gap of silence when the car’s tape deck hit auto-reverse. This created a near-continuous stream of music when pumping it in your Oldsmobile or Bronco. And I got the feeling that song sequence was almost as important as the songs themselves.
All of this was implemented to minimize spending Def Jam’s money. ‘Yo!’ was recorded for $12,000 and ‘Nation’ for $40,000. With a budget of $250,000, this immediately put PE on the very short list of artists making money for the corporate heads… before the albums were even released. PE knew this would facilitate green lights for marketing efforts… and money. Check that out: To the corporate heads, Public Enemy was a SAFE BET!
PE considered the logo, graphics and photography as PART of the album, not an afterthought. Shocklee even name-checked Glen Friedman with as much reverence as he did the studio crew. Back then, “the album cover WAS the video” (at least before they ventured into ‘Night of the Living Bass-Heads’…).
Again, all of this focus on the album might set ‘Nation’ up for ‘Rockist’ superiority issues… but the Bomb Squad understood the dynamic of 12”-singles as well. The mind-blowing ‘Rebel Without a Pause’ was a bonus cut on the ‘You’re Gonna Get Yours’ single from ‘Yo!’ ‘Bring the Noise’ was half of a double-sided single from the ‘Less Than Zero’ soundtrack. And the cut that was bumped from the soundtrack, ‘Don’t Believe the Hype,’ was released as ‘Nation’s official first single. Shocklee clarified that there were THREE singles out promoting the album at the SAME time!
This may seem like overemphasis on ‘packaging’ and none of it would be discussed today if the music wasn’t genius. But the vision of the BIG picture is consistent with PE’s political/musical message as well. Thinking about all aspects of an album would definitely improve new artists chances of breaking from the pack instead of just banking on a hot beat.
Engineer Chris Shaw recalled the time he told the Squad that two clashing samples would NOT work together as musical elements. Hank replied, surely armed with irony and attitude, “Fuck ‘music’!”

(photo via Murderdog)