Jay-Z's longtime engineer credits 9th Wonder as inspiration for his GrammyU speaker series & reflects on his first interaction with West Coast Hip Hop.
Young Guru calls himself an audio practitioner. It’s not some fanciful claim, seeing that he can tell you about the intricacies of a 20-foot long sound wave and physically construct a speaker from scratch. But there’s obviously another side to Gimel Keaton—the man Jay-Z regularly brags to mid-track about nailing his vocals in one-take (hence the nickname “One-Take Hov”). Keaton is candid enough to tell a room full of Grammy U students and journalists that he formerly had no qualms about posting up on a street corner with his boys with a physics book in one hand and a 40-ounce of malt liquor in the other.
That innate ability to meld the fundamentals of Hip Hop, the burgeoning nerd subculture and the sciences mean you may find him—likely the only audience member with a diamond encrusted Roc-a-fella medallion—at a physicist’s lecture. On this particular two-day stretch in April, he ventures from a palatial, $22 million mansion in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, California, to the Red Bull Music Academy to Grammy U. It’s all in the name of both spreading the science of sound and fortifying Hip Hop culture.
“If you ain’t lived through it, and you don’t know it know it, then you can’t really represent it to the right degree,” Guru said, regarding some of Hip Hop’s self-proclaimed ambassadors. “No only are you trying to represent it to somebody else; you’re misrepresenting it.” Luckily, Young Guru doesn’t have that problem. He’s the byproduct of a unique time in Hip Hop’s infancy, and he clearly understands the science behind his craft. During a busy two day run in Southern California, Guru sounded off on his partnership with Denmark-based audio design company AIAIAI, his Era of the Engineer series, and how his ethos about the science of sound within Hip Hop has led to a wealth of opportunities.
HipHopDX: So we’re in this huge mansion because you have partnered with AIAIAI Headphones...
Young Guru: Coming out with a headphone line. I know everybody is like, “Headphones? Okay.” The whole purpose was to do a studio headphone. I felt like that was the lane that was missing. The purpose of the headphones was to give people this recording environment with a pair of headphones because everybody can’t afford to go into the studio. A lot of people make music in their bedrooms now. It’s not the greatest place in the world to record music, but as long as you have a good listening environment, you can tweak stuff, do a lot of your production through these headphones and get a better representation of what the actual sound is.
For me, that was the whole reasoning and purpose. I felt AIAIAI was the right company. We kind of just matched in terms of—if you look at my style, I’m kind of plain with the way I dress. I don’t like a whole lot of flashiness. I like equipment. I like it to be about the product. The company and me kind of fit together.
DX: So for the non-audiophile, what’s the main difference?
Young Guru: I tend to be more of a style-oriented headphone purchaser than I am necessary for quality. I just want my iPod to sound fresh when I’m walking around. But what’s truly the difference between a studio headphone versus some of the more popular headphones...you know?
The other popular headphones—ain’t no diss against them—they’re designed to enhance the sound. So whatever you put in it sounds good. That’s an angle but for me, when you’re mixing records, if it’s so enhanced then you’re not truly hearing what the music is. It’ll enhance it so much that then you go play it in the club, it doesn’t have enough bass because the headphones are giving you the bass and not the mix.
That’s really the difference. Other people’s headphones are designed to enhance the sound. Mine are designed to give a true representation of the sound with my little spices on the frequency curve. The frequency curve is the frequency response of the headphone and what it does to the music. Of course there’s a little bump to give you that little extra thump, but it’s also to give you a pure representation. That’s really the difference. Other people are designed to purely enhance music, and mine are designed so you can sit and get a true representation.
DX: It seems with a laptop, you can do anything. If you have a laptop, you are a writer because you can use the Internet to get a blog. If you have a laptop, you are a producer because it probably came with GarageBand. Is that an odd environment to be a producer or engineer in when everybody is now jumping into the space?
Young Guru: I love it. I’m a computer dude. I also love technology, and I love the creativity it can give you. Number one, the biggest thing is access. There are so many creative people, and you can talk about all those different genres making music whether or not it’s film, back then doing magazines, and you had to amass a whole lot of money to be able to do things like that. You had to amass money to go to the studio. If you wanted to be a film director or film maker, you had to rent all the stuff that you were going to do, because it was going to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to get the proper cameras. What the computer has done is even the playing field in terms of access to the tools that it takes.
Now, you can make a record on your laptop. You can go out and buy yourself a [Canon] 5D or 7D and shoot a major motion picture or shoot a video. You can do desktop publishing where you can make your own magazine. How many magazines have kind of gone down a little bit but they’ve transformed into websites and blogs? Now, you have a bunch of bloggers who’ve come up and can go shoot their own content and have it look great. It’s not like the old VHS, big cameras that you carry on your shoulder. This is a quality of the camera. The biggest thing is the access. For me, it’s incredible to have all of those tools.
What I have in my laptop probably couldn’t fit in this room if I were to take each of those things and make a physical representation of what it took to have that in the studio. Say you have a bunch of plugins in your laptop, in a real studio, you would only have one if you pay the $5,000 for this compressor that really affects one vocal. Now, you pay $3,000 for a plugin, and you can have many of them as the processing power of your computer can hold. It’s an incredible idea to be able to have all that power in a laptop. It gives the complete power to the audience. But, it also allows everybody to make music. It allows everybody to have a blog and allows everybody to think they’re a cameraman.
What you have to stress now is the art form and the art of making music; the art of taking pictures; the art of writing. There’s a big difference between writing a blog and being a writer. It’s a big difference between taking some pictures and posting them on Instagram and being a real photographer and understanding depth of field and all the things that go into photography. There’s a huge difference between sitting at home and messing with GarageBand and being a real musician and learning music and learning chords. Even if you’re not the type of musician that plays music—say if you want to make Hip Hop— sometimes it’s just a collage of music and taking bits of pieces. There’s still a science to that. It’s about getting better at your craft; but now you have all the tools available.
Not only do you have the tools, you have the instruction available. You can go online and Google whatever you want and read about it and study it. Before, you either had to go to the library and pick up a book or try to get an instruction manual, or try to find somebody that did what you do. Now, that person has some type of video on YouTube where you can look at what they’re doing. That person has some type of explanation of why they did what they did. It’s an extremely powerful world, but it balances out. Let’s say a music artist was to get above everyone else so you get enough attention so that you’re getting a deal and you can get signed. Now, you don’t really need a deal. But, there’s thousands of people doing it.
Now, you gotta figure out how to poke out and get your head above the rest of those people who are doing it. There’s pluses and minuses to both. It’s just the way the game has adapted to what’s going on technology-wise. In terms of technology, I love it. What I can do only on a big, beige Mac 9600, I can now do on my iPad or iPhone. It’s crazy the power they have in these tablets and these phones.
Young Guru Explains How To Add Texture When Recording Vocals
DX: How has being an engineer or producer evolved since [A Tribe Called Quest] was shouting out Bob Power back in the day?
Young Guru: For the fact that one, we would always use tape. Two, the engineer and engineering was just black science that you had to be in the studio to kind of know and see all the little tricks. Now, a lot of artists are more familiar with the recording process, but a little bit of information is dangerous. People think just because they know how to record themselves or press the record button that they’re an engineer. It’s sort of like that doctor that’s delivering the baby. The baby is definitely going to come and no matter what, the woman is going to have the baby. But you have the doctor there in case any complications happen, or in case it’s a breech birth, or in case you gotta slice this woman open and pull the baby out.
There’s so many examples of why you need a professional in that situation in case there are any problems. You also want someone who has had the experience of doing this a bunch of times, so they can then start to make suggestions. When an artist gets stuck, I can suggest certain things to them that can get them through the process a lot faster, things that they may not know...things they were concentrated on to make the song great. Sometimes, somebody raps something and I’ll say, “Go in there and whisper the verse, and watch what I do when I mix it together and the way that it sounds.” Or, just being able to be that coach that allows people to get the best take out of whatever it is that you’re doing.
DX: What do you mean get somebody to whisper a verse?
Young Guru: Just different texture. Somebody may go in, and if they’re by themselves listening to music, they’ll go say their verse. I may get them to go in and say, “Okay, well do it an octave lower. Do it in a deep voice,” so that I can blend it underneath and it’ll give you a different texture. Or if I say whisper to a female that’s singing a song, the audience may not hear it. But when we blend those two together, it gives you this texture and it gives you this sound that will be missing...the different effects that I can put on all these things to create something that the people will love or something that’s creative. It’s just having experience and being able to guide people in the actual recording process.
DX: How did you learn that technique?
Young Guru: Actually seeing somebody doing it. Somebody suggested that one day and I was like, “This is cool.” That’s a lot of the experience you used to get from actually being in the studio with other people. The music business is what it is. It came to a point where MP3s came in and people started downloading music. The album sales went down, which in essence, the studios were the first to take a hit where artists would say they would save money by recording themselves at home, because they don’t need the big studio to record. They can do their vocals on an Mbox [studio MIDI] in the house, or maybe they can spend a couple thousand and have a nice-quality preamp and do stuff at home.
What that does is it takes away from the space where now, new students can learn all the tips, tricks, and techniques from older generations, which is the reason why it’s important to [share] the information. Because if you love the thing, if you love your culture and if you love your craft, then you want it to succeed or live beyond you. You don’t want those things to die with you. I don’t want to go to my grave and have a bunch of information that nobody else knows. I want to give it people so that when I’m gone, they can use it and further the culture and further just the art of recording.
DX: You also deejay. That used to be the arch of apprenticeship—carrying records for deejaying. Who’s the first cat you carried records for?
Young Guru: A dude in my neighborhood. When I was young, I used to do parties in the park, like old-school style in the middle of the projects. We had a great city park and recreation program, and my dad’s best friend ran it. I was allowed to go out at a real early age and play in the parks. We had midnight basketball games, and we had people in the swimming pools as well as other stuff at night. The idea for our city—I’m from Wilmington, Delaware—was to have everybody in one area so it was very much easier to police all of the young people if they’re in one area and give them something to do. That was my training ground. There were older guys in my neighborhood that would deejay on the radio in Wilmington at their high schools or deejay just around town.
Specifically, it was two brothers by the name of Jay and Joey Brown. We used to have another deejay named Shot Money and then a friend of mine that was my peer with DJ Ma, a guy by the name of Monte. It used to be funny, but he had green eyes so he used to think he was Cash Money and I thought I was Jazzy Jeff.
Those were the guys I was going behind and carrying the records, learning the electronics, learning how to set up equipment, but more importantly, learning crowd control and learning how to rock a party, and learning like, “Okay, you put that record on and it didn’t work, so get that record off, and put the next record that you’ll know will work.” [I learned] how to think three records ahead of where you are in the party. Mentally, I always try to be three records ahead of myself. I’ll play this, this, and this. This was different then. We didn’t have endless amounts of MP3s in a computer. This was when you had to really select what you were going to play and fit that into five crates of records and take that to the club. That was really the training ground. Carrying the crates was the dedication. That was, “This isn’t just something I’m jumping into.”
Number one, you had to go buy records and get the latest records. Number two, the amount of work it took to do a party. We had to store all this stuff somewhere. You know, seven o’clock, in the afternoon you’re starting to set up what’s 10 o’clock that night. You take all those crates, all the speakers, all the wires, the amps, lights, microphones, and everything out of your house, storage bin or wherever you had it and put it in the van or truck. Or you had multiple cats like your friends helping you put it in four different cars, drive to wherever you’re going, unload that, set it up, hook it all up, and now you got to know how to hook up systems and crossovers and all this other stuff. Then you got to go to the party. Then, you have to break all the stuff down, still worry about getting paid, put that stuff back in the car, drive back to wherever it’s being stored, and put it away. That’s a lot of work in one night. That’s dedication.
That’s what carrying the crates was really about. It’s about dedication to the craft. Now, it’s like any celebrity or anybody that buys Serato gets to deejay. It’s not to diss that. It’s just saying the same amount of work and dedication is not necessary now. People sort of don’t respect the craft as much.
DX: You sound like you described the scene from House Party where Bilal is sitting there waiting for Play to pick him up.
Young Guru: That’s really what it was, but it was on a major scale. Imagine a 15-year-old kid doing that. I had to find somebody that had their license already or had to figure out, “Okay, I’m doing a gymnasium.” I only had two sets of speakers. I had to either borrow speakers from somebody else, rent them, or eventually we just said we’ll get tired of doing this and [do something else]. That’s really what it was. It was that dedication. But it wasn’t this thing where I’m sleeping until 12 o’clock and I wake up and go the club at 1AM and I play 'til 3 am, and that’s it. And, it was a four-hour party. It wasn’t a celebrity deejay thing where you spin for two hours.
Just being in the environment I was in, you had to be up on all types of music because in Wilmington, Delaware, we were going to play Hip Hop, R&B, and play a little bit of Go-Go because there may have been some [Washington] DC people at Delaware State or University of Delaware. You were going to play some House Music because there were some [New Jersey] people in there. You had to be up on all these different forms of music, which meant spending money. There was no downloading. Somehow, you had to get money to buy records, which was another part of the dedication. You would work a job to get money to be able to do this job.
Young Guru Recalls First Interaction With West Coast Hip Hop
DX: One of my favorite Ab-Soul lines is, “We in a space where matter don’t matter.” It seems to signify the cycle of just being a part of life, from space to atoms. Everything in Hip Hop seems real 1990s to me right now. Cats are rapping good again. Verses are taking a broader importance. Even things as sad as rappers getting shot at again are dominating news cycles. It feels very 1990s to me. How do you feel where Hip Hop is right now? Am I off with that?
Young Guru: Nah, you’re not off. Everything goes through cycles. When you get to a point where people are pissed off at what they hear, they start to change it. They start to gravitate towards what isn’t out there because that becomes fresh again. I have to remind people at my age that I’m 39. I can remind people at my age that a 13-year-old was born in the year 2000. It’s 2013 right now. Put yourself in that frame of reference of understanding that this person probably doesn’t even have a memory of music until they’re four or five-years-old. Their introduction to music is 2005. I was born in 1974. I remember 1979, 1980.
I definitely remember 1983...1983 is imprinted in my brain with Bob Marley passing and Run-DMC coming. All this stuff happened in 1983, and I was nine-years-old, but I just remember it all. Everything goes in cycles. What you see now is that resurgence of people saying, “We’re concentrating on lyrics again.” If everyone is doing this style of beat and that’s the only beat that I’m hearing, then I’m moving away from that and do this style of beat. My only thing is that I don’t want cats to aesthetically repeat the ‘90s. I love the ethos of it. I love the feel and idea of it, but I don’t want people to relive the ‘90s in terms of, “I want to make a Pete Rock beat or DJ Premier beat.” Let Pete Rock and Premier make those beats. You make what’s fresh for the 18-year-old in 2013, but have in mind what the core of what Hip Hop is.
That’s really to me what progression and growth is, i.e., Kendrick Lamar or Ab-Soul. You take the spirit of what we’re doing in the 90s and apply it to what’s going on now. That’s the winning formula for being fresh and new in today's society. Hip-hop is always going to go in cycles and move away from whatever the last thing it was people were doing that got really popular. Now, it’s Pop music. It’s like, once you play out a fad, something else gotta come in and take over. We need that. We need people to concentrate on rhymes again and having content in the music. It is that powerful art form because it’s direct conversation whereas other art forms are left up to interpretation. I could look at a piece of art, like a painting on a wall, and we can have a three-hour conversation as to what that really means. We’re interpreting what the artist meant. Hip Hop is very direct. I’m telling you exactly what I mean, and I’m telling you why. My tone is telling you everything.
We’ve seen N.W.A come in and explain what gang life was. We’ve seen Public Enemy take that same expression but come from a Black Panther standpoint. We’ve seen Souls of Mischief come in and explain what West Coast life was outside of gang life and having to navigate that, and we’ve seen De La Soul come in from the East Coast give us what suburban black life is about. That’s the real thing. As long as our expression is true and we stay true to who you are, then there will be content. In order for our genre to sustain itself and be respected, we gotta have serious content. I don’t mean serious like we can’t have fun. I mean it needs to have a point.
DX: You said something interesting when you said you really remember what 1983 looks like. I’m an East Coast cat and I moved out here seven weeks ago. I realized first when I got here is that I have real holes in my West Coast Hip Hop history timeline. I can talk down South Hip Hop or East Coast Hip Hop like the back of my hand. But with West Coast there's an unexpected learning curve. For example, I didn’t realize Too $hort’s first release came out in 1983.
Young Guru: Absolutely.
DX: What’s your first interaction with West Coast Hip Hop?
Young Guru: I would say hearing tapes that a lot of Zulus used to do in New York, because it was specifically two Zulus that moved out from New York to the West Coast. We used Zulu beats, which was a radio show that used to play a lot of West Coast Hip Hop. To me, Arabian Prince and stuff like that are the forefathers to what everybody else was doing. That was probably my earliest introduction to it. A lot of my friends on the East Coast weren’t bumping it because they didn’t get it. But, because the sound was electro at the time. It fit to what Afrika Bambaataa was doing at the time, so all those records fit together.
Then, I started getting into Too $hort. He was probably the most prominent emcee from the West that people from my neighborhood listen to, because it was nasty and it was like you weren’t supposed to be listening to that as a kid. Of course you’re going to gravitate towards that. It wasn’t really until N.W.A hit that I started to see all my friends on the East Coast bumping the same West Coast stuff, and then we started getting into West Coast music. The misconception is East Coast cats are not messing with West Coast cats. We did. It was that our radio didn’t mess with the West Coast. I never heard of West Coast music on the radio. I could understand why West Coast people come to the East and be like, “Yo, we play y’all music on the radio. Why aren’t you playing our music out here?” It was good music. Again, I had no idea what gang life was like. We went through a different form of it on the East Coast and it was really a ‘70s thing.
By the time we get to Bambaataa, that was Bambaataa’s whole purpose of creating Zulu Nation. Bambaataa was about space. All the gang life was ‘70s-like. I was too young during that time to even think about or even comprehend what was going on. By the time we got to Bambaataa, the gangs had died down, and it was over. It was crews after that; it wasn’t really gangs. People weren’t walking around with jackets on that had the same name and claiming turf and all that. That’s why The Warriors was a great timepiece for what was going on in the ‘70s. We moved past that. I had no idea of West Coast life. This was how it was introduced to me that, yo, these are gangs and this has been going on for years and this dude is not really in it to be in it, his father was and you start to learn things.
One of the best documentaries that anybody can watch is Bastards of the Party. Bone [Sloan] put that out, and it gives you the history of where these things come from that didn’t just pop up for no reason. If you got a group of people called the Spook Hunters, then you’re going to have a group of people getting together to defend themselves. Then if you have everything sectioned off as to where these people can only live here, then of course they’re going to try and support themselves.
A lot of East Coast people think people just join gangs to be in a gang. That wasn’t the situation. I think that film is titled perfectly. A bastard is someone with no father. Where are the fathers and what party are they talking about? Alright we’re talking about the Black Panther party, then why don’t these kids have fathers? Because they were killed off by the government or they killed each other. All these things crept in where the men are gone so now, they’re bastards. These are dudes that don’t have no influence and don’t have nobody telling them what to do with the gun properly.
The Black Panthers were telling you what to do with the gun properly. They were standing in front of police properly to where the police couldn’t tell them, “You gotta put your gun away. No I have a right to stay here with this gun.” When you take away the guidance but still keep the gun and attitude, you see the resolve. I thought the title of that was incredible, but it gives you that whole history of how we fold from the Black Panther party to that gang life. We didn’t have that experience. We didn’t know what that was. All that was explained to us by N.W.A, because yes, the adults were listening to the strength of the language, but to us the language don’t mean anything. We’re getting the stories as to why it’s going on and what the code is and why somebody is claiming blue or red or what the neighborhoods was. All that is getting through the music. I would’ve never thought about it if it wasn’t for that. That was really what it was.
Then, the West Coast scene started to develop [wordplay]. I love wordplay. That’s the biggest thing I love about Hip Hop besides just the musical aspect of it. When somebody like E-40 comes out, it’s like, yo, he’s talking a whole different language. What does he mean? That was incredible to me—deciphering what he’s saying the same way I had to decipher De La Soul for some people because they didn’t get it. If De La Soul was putting out “Millie Pulled a Pistol Out on Santa,” and dude is like, “What?” No, this is the deepest. I don’t know how to explain this to you, but this song is talking about incest. They’re talking about this girl getting raped by her father. These are teenagers dealing with this type of issue. You know how deep that is to be a teenager and having to deal with that? Because they personally went through it. Now, through the music, I’m getting that explanation of what West Coast life is the same way.
When I listen to E-40, and before “fo’ shizzle” and that became common slang, it was a way of communicating where everybody understood what he was talking about. For me, there’s so many variations in what the West Coast was giving. Then, Souls Of Mischief was a big influence. Them dudes—I felt like they were the core of Hip Hop. They weren’t gang-oriented. I was always into West Coast music, I’m just into Hip Hop in general and all the forms that come into it. I’m glad to see the resurgence in the West. It takes one dude to say, “Cool.”
Now we’re back and people can make this type of music or that type of music the same way New York feels like it’s coming back. When you got A$AP [Rocky] out there, or Joey BadA$$ out there. I think Smoke DZA is going to carry the torch for New York Hip Hop. You got a bunch of guys like, “Alright. This is where we’re at,” saying New York is moving in this direction. It feels like a resurgence coming in the city.
DX: You’ve been called “The Sound Of The City.”
Young Guru: I don’t know who created that. I appreciate whoever said that, but I didn’t say that or make it up. I just try to make great music and create my own sound. I personally never called myself “The Sound of New York City.”
DX: You did this in Atlanta, too. I asked if there’s a correlation between Jay-Z being one of the greatest rappers alive and someone who works with him has the opportunity to be the greatest engineer alive. You’re mad humble.
Young Guru: I don’t think you should tote yourself like that. That’s not my thing. When you say the greatest, where do you place [Ken] Duro [Ifill]? where do you place Brian Stanley? There’s so many good people that came before me and my peers. I add my own thing to the sauce. KRS-One said, “They want dances / They want lighting / They way effects to make them sound exciting / But it’s frightening because without that / The whole crew is wick-wick-wick wack / So BDP come with the cheapest and performs miracles like Jesus.”
You can keep all the accolades. Just do it. Do what you do, and then put your music out there. If they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t. If somebody wants to say that, I say thank you, but I ain’t never going to walk around like, “I’m the greatest.” No. That’s crazy to me. I would never do that. Plus, I got a lot of stuff I want to do and make up. I sit and think about new and creative things to do with music. I know so many dope engineers. I may not separate it into Hip Hop engineers. When I say engineer, I’m like can you build equipment? I can build equipment. Where do you place Joe Tarsia? He did the Philadelphia International Records. I can go down the list of incredible engineers. Bob Clearmountain is somebody I consider an O.G. Where do you place him? It’s just so many people.
The minute you get too big on yourself is when, to me, you start to lose. You can’t get too big on yourself, look at what you did and think you don’t need to progress. It’s just like beat digging. It’s the genre or the thing where you can never hit the end. There is no end. You can never have every record that has ever been in the world. Records are still being made. Even vinyl, if you were to stop and try to buy every vinyl made, it’s an impossible task. You can always go to stores and listen to a new record. You can always get better. That’s the mentality behind it. I can’t tote myself. That’s not where I come from. My father used to say, “Grown men don’t beg for attention.” You don’t do that.
Young Guru Credits 9th Wonder For Inspiring GrammyU Speaker Series
DX: It feels from the outside, you’re in a new position as an entrepreneur.
Young Guru: Definitely. My brother 9th Wonder, man. I got some good friends. I used to tell 9th that he’s a big inspiration to me, because of the fact that 9th started after me but is so serious about what he does and is so driven that he makes a whole conglomerate or makes a whole label. I go into North Carolina and one year, it’s just 9th and the next, he got an army at Zulu Nation. I’m like, “You’re going to revitalize Zulu Nation in North Carolina.” 9th’s mentality of to just go do it. Then he’s teaching, doing this and that. All the beats I got with Little Brother, and everybody that’s down with 9th is because 9th pulls them from me, and it’s like, “Give me that.” He’s always like, “Put out your music. Do this. Do that.” He just goes.
Me taking a note from my friends and people saying, “Yo, stop being silent. You got a lot you can tell people,” or “Start making moves where you’re putting yourself in a position to better things that are outside of the music.” That was a conscious decision because I said to myself, “Okay, I know what it takes to be in front of that camera. Do I really want to do that?” At a certain point, I was like, nah. I like that people didn’t know what I look like and people knew my name but didn’t know me. But to a certain degree, I’ll take the negatives that come with that. The people stopping you in the street and all that for the benefits of it. For me to help people and put them in a position to help the culture in a certain degree and represent the culture properly. To be able to argue with somebody that’s arguing against Hip Hop and to shut them down because I can argue with you, and you’re using the same word you’re going to respect. To use history and facts to represent our culture. I think that’s a big reason for it. The industry went down, too. I’m a very straight-up dude.
Financially, if you’re not doing the Jadakiss line where it’s 10 different hustles for every different season, you’re going to get lost. You can’t say, “I’m not an engineer no more.” You can’t say you’re just a rapper or just a deejay or producer. You got to do a bunch of different things in order to survive in this industry. For me that’s the biggest thing, which is representing us properly, and moving our culture to a certain point where I can say, “If the goal isn’t Grammys anymore—I got my Grammys—then the goal now is to achieve instead of obtaining.” As long as I got a mixing board, a beat machine and a computer, I’m good. I need to achieve things because these things stay here when you die. Your achievements will live forever. That’s how your name carries on, and that’s how you live forever to a certain degree. That’s really what it is. I was like, “If y’all want to see me put it on, then I’ll put it on.” I’m not doing it halfway. I’m going all the way. That’s really what you see.
DX: Is 9th the catalyst for the speaker series you’re on now?
Young Guru: In a certain way. He’s just my brother. Just a good friend. He’s one of those people that I can say is really my friend. I have a lot of associates. You only got a couple friends in the industry. Just Blaze is one of them, 9th being one of them. That’s no disrespect, but your friend calls you and asks how your day went. Your friend calls you and says, “Yo, did you solve that problem with the kid?” Those are your friends. People that care. I can never make another record or 9th can never make another record, but that’s my dude. It’s just an inspiration. I’ve told 9th certain times.
I’ll be like, “Yo, I’m jealous of you to a certain degree,” but it’s a positive jealous. Not like, “Yo, I don’t like this dude.” It’s an inspirational jealous. Like, “Yo, you being lazy. Stop being lazy.” 9th is out here doing this, this, and this. Don’t be lazy. Go do it instead of saying, “I don’t really like that beat. I don’t know if that beat is good enough.” 9th is like, “Rap on this, and we’ll put it out tonight.” That’s what the catalyst is. Seeing all the different things of us being misrepresented. People speaking from a position of authority about the culture, but they’re not of the culture. It’s like, you’re going to teach a class in a university and speak as if you’re a professional or an authority in this, and you’re not really.
It’s the, “He who feels it knows it, Lord.”—the Bob Marley line. You could read about it, but if you ain’t live through it or don’t know it know it, you can’t really represent it to the right degree. Not only are you trying to represent it to somebody else, you’re misrepresenting it. You’re not speaking about it properly. Let’s get the people out there that can really speak about it and really teach on that level. That’s a lot about the catalyst. Yeah, those are my brothers. [9th] is a huge inspiration in my life on a personal level.
DX: What kind of questions do you get as you implant yourself on this endeavour?
Young Guru: It’s a lot of different questions. A lot of engineers that come ask a lot of technical questions. “What compression ratio should I use,” “How do I deal with this problem.” People that aren’t necessarily technical people all try to get a greater understanding of what an engineer does. I tell them, you may not fix your car, but the more you know about cars, the better conversation you’re going to have with your mechanic. You can not get took by your mechanic. Or you can understand why the mechanic may need time to do this, this or this. When your mechanic comes to you and says, “Look, I can patch this real quick for $50, but it will be broke again in six months. I can get you through. But if I take $500 and fix it, then you’re going to be good for two years.” It’s that type of thing so you can make a more informed decision.
Then, I try to give cats the other side that’s not technical, that’s not in their books, that’s not how to run a session. Things that aren’t in books. That’s a whole science. It’s like a psychology behind running a session and dealing with artists that people don’t understand because you have to be in that situation and deal with it. You have to know the psychology of dealing with bands and dealing with four different personalities and really how to mesh that to make a great song, or how to deal with one personality that’s super strong. It’s the non-book knowledge that you can give, but then people ask me very specific historical questions. “What did you do on this? How was this session? How did you make Blueprint in a weekend?” All those types of things where there are magazines like Wax Poetics, and things like that, that give you the background story as to what was going on.
The background story is important because you need to know what was the general feel of the atmosphere as to why somebody made a song. You can listen to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and understand, Marvin Gaye had a brother, and his brother went to the war. Then he comes home from the war and like many other veterans, he can’t get a job. He can’t get health care and the government is treating him a certain way. America is going through racial problems. There’s a backstory as to why he wrote this certain song. Then there’s a backstory as to how he got Motown, which is this super-prissy label that didn’t put out those types of records. Those were considered race records. There’s a background story as to how he argued with Barry Gordy to put that record out. Then there’s a background story as to once that record comes out and is successful, how other people on Motown are now like, “I want to make those types of records.” Then you got Stevie Wonder doing that. The background of the record is almost as important. Why would The Beatles make those records? Why would John Lennon write those records? Giving people the background to certain things is super important.
Even with a national scandal consuming the I.R.S. over the last week, the government agency still continued its pursuit of missing taxes from high-profile citizens. The latest celebrity to have to face the tax man is the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige.
According to TMZ, Blige is being accused of not paying all of her federal taxes in 2009, 2010, and 2011. The I.R.S. says that the “I’m Goin’ Down” singer owes a total of $3,426,255.43.
Blige’s financial troubles also include over $900,000 in back taxes owed to the state of New Jersey, and in February the Grammy winner was sued for allegedly defaulting on a $500,000 loan from Bank of America.
Prior to that lawsuit, she and her husband were accused of defaulting on a $2.2. million Signature Bank loan in November of 2012.
Blige’s federal tax issues became public two weeks after Lauryn Hill, her duet partner on “I Used To Love Him,” was sentenced to three months in prison for unpaid taxes.
Busta Rhymes is enormous in person, a Michelin Man made of muscles and neck. A tub of whey protein takes up a good deal of space in the studio where he's set up, as does his diamond-encrusted globe of a pinkie ring, which looks like it could break a windshield. He's here, at Premier Studios in Midtown, to talk about his new single "Twerk It" – produced by Pharrell, rapped in patois, and expected to tear clubs up this summer. But we mostly don't do that. Instead, we talk about how a man of his size fits into YMCMB, and whether or not pineapple pizza fits in his stomach.
It's become popular in hip-hop to say "no new friends" – Drake, DJ Khaled, now others. Is that why the same six rappers are on every single song? [Laughs] I don't know! There's one of two reasons to me why the same people appear on every song: one reason is either they're just the hottest dudes, and the other reason is . . . [Long pause] It's interesting to me that Eminem isn't on a lot of people's shit. It's interesting to me that Nas isn't on a lot of people's shit. It's interesting to me that Jay-Z isn't on a lot of people's shit. A lot of the very dangerously lyrical motherfuckers. I think there's a fear factor that plays a role, because sometimes you really don't know if you're going to be happy with what you asked for – especially if you might get your ass whooped on your own fucking record!
At what point do you think the features became more important than the songs themselves? A long time ago, especially for the artists that can't carry a record on their own. And since the era of developing artists has died with record companies over 10 years ago, a lot of dudes had to come out here and figure out how to get hot on their own. A lot of the times, the novelty of a name that's popping in the market is the easiest way. So the feature became more important than the record a long time ago. It's unfortunate, but I think there's a change happening: A lot of the new dudes aren't doing it. They started to realize chasing down a hot motherfucker was a shit-ton of work, cause when a hot motherfucker think he's hot, they become divas real quick. And it's the bag full of shit that you've got to get through to get to the hot motherfucker. And the so-called motherfucker might not even be worth it, especially when you end up with some lackadaisical shit because they think they so hot, they ain't putting the effort in no more and it was a waste of time. You're better off putting your own blood, sweat and tears into your own shit and living or dying on your own inequity. You lose no sleep when you can't blame nobody else for why your shit didn't do well. It's kind of why I put out my first single without a feature.
Your new single "Twerk It" is going to lead to a lot of mistakes in the club. Are you prepared to take on that responsibility? [Laughs] Yeah, absolutely. On a different mistake, though, the Jamaican dialect – that's probably gonna be one of the main reasons that the most and the biggest mistakes happen, because people are gonna misinterpret a lot of the shit I be saying. But I think that's what makes it more interesting. The "Look at Me Now" feature I did, I would've thought that shit would've made the most mistakes in the world, but when people really give a fuck about some shit, they figure it out. And that was a testament to how we can't take the IQ level of our consumers for granted, as stupid as we sometimes believe them to be. From kids to chicks to elderly people, they learned to spit that verse, which is one of the most complicated verses in the history of hip-hop. That shit didn't create as many mistakes as I thought it would have, and it definitely had its share of mistakes, but this is a lot easier to figure out. It's a lot slower. Even though it's a broken English patois, it's still gonna be aight.
On that note, when you sing "Come here, gal," my brother heard that line as "Cormega." [Laughs] Yo, you guys are crazy.
[Busta takes a phone call from Pharrell, who is calling about the "Twerk It" video. They're looking over photos of wardrobe options – "Napoleonic contraptions" – one of which Busta laughs off as a "church hat."]
You joined Lil Wayne's YMCMB family in 2011. What has YMCMB done for you, and what could they do better? Number one, I'm inspired by the Weezy and the Drake talent. Part of the reason I've been able to do this for so long is because of the excitement you continue to feel since day one, other motherfuckers being dope. Like, you feel you could be just as dope or better. You aspire to do that; you use these guys as inspiration. And it's all respect! Respectable competition. I'm a fan first. When I see Drake, when I see Wayne work, Shanell – she hasn't put out an album yet, but I've watched her work – I'm a super-fan of that. Mystikal, I'm happy they signed him! [Pause] I even think Nicki’s incredibly brilliant. Beyond that, I love what they represent as a movement, and I love the camaraderie that we've had. Me and Bird and Wayne, Slim, have always rocked with each other for the past 12 to 15 years! I just think the respect organically built throughout the years has been consistent. That alone has done a lot for me, at this stage of my career. I've done stuff with people I didn't really have that great relationship with, and gotten amazing results. Now, to rock with motherfuckers that you really cool with? Can you imagine the results that be coming from some shit like that?
There are currently 30 members of Young Money. You've worked with a bunch: Lil Wayne, DJ Khaled, Lil Twist, Bow Wow, Jay Sean, Ace Hood, Tyga, PJ Morton, Gudda Gudda . . . Shanell, you could add her to the list. Fred Durst, you could add him to the list, we've got some shit together. Mystikal, we did about three records together. The whole fucking client roster! [Laughs] Tyga, too.
And yet, we've never heard you do anything with Drake – why is that? Um . . . and you haven't heard anything with me and Nicki. "Roman's Revenge (Remix)," that was something I did on my own. It wasn't like an official remix, so technically, we haven't gone in to do a record neither. So, Drake and Nicki, we haven't gone in, no.
Is that something that's potentially in the works, or . . . ? Yeah, of course. It usually happens when the times are right or when the idea is right.
Have they approached you before and it just didn't work out? No. We've talked before. I've had several conversations about doing records with Drake, we've actually been in the studio trying to fuck around. Same with Nicki. It just . . . when we start an idea, sometimes you get distracted. The stars just hasn't aligned yet for that to actually happen. I think also, schedule. They've been shaking consistently for the last two, three years, putting out an album a year. They've been touring, ripping and running. And then when they're down, she's busy taping this American Idol shit and all of that; Drake is working on a new album. It's just hectic, hectic schedules. You can definitely look forward to something eventually coming together, us collaborating. I have something that's actually halfway done with Drake on a J. Dilla beat. It's incredible.
And that's for your project? Yeah. So hopefully we get to finish this the right way so we can share it.
I saw you perform years ago at Knitting Factory, and it was incredible. And I saw you last year at Angie's BBQ, where you weren't supposed to perform but you just tore the place down. You're a competitive guy. Is there anyone on your level, in terms of a live performance? I don't know. I'm a fan of several performances, though, but I don't really . . . there's so many levels to this thing, that sometimes I don't think the levels are supposed to be reached by others. I don't think anyone can do Kanye the way Kanye does. His level is his level. My level is mine, I just think that's how it works. I don't want to sound like I'm being a dick, but at the end of the day, I don't really think there'll ever be a time – as long as I'm doing this – that someone can come behind me on a stage. I'm just not gonna allow it, and that's the way I was raised. PE gave birth to me, and what gave birth to us was James Brown! And that's the mentality I go into this shit with. It's gonna always be like that. I don't think there's anybody that can fuck with my level. God bless everybody that has their level and their space. Just do your job and uphold your shit with the right integrity, and we'll continue to be fans of what you do, too. Just know you ain't fucking with the kid over here. [Laughs]
My favorite story about a show of yours is at the Gathering of the Juggalos when it was reported that you wouldn't get off the bus for 90 minutes because your pizza order was wrong. Is that true? No, that ain't true. I wish that was true! I wish I could be that kind of a dick. I've been hearing stories about celebs that do shit like that, and I be like, Damn you could really do shit like that? You could really be that much of a dickhead? I've never been able to wrap my head around being that much of an asshole. Those become the stories that are interesting to tell, though. So, from that perspective, that's why I want to consider being a dick, just so someone can have those stories to tell. But, nah, I definitely don't want to be treated that way in any circumstance. That ain't my thing. If I'm gonna be late for something, the reason would have to be extremely exceptional.
Like not ordering a pineapple pizza? Pretty much. No, not pineapple. Anchovy pineapple. Can't fucking forget the anchovies. We will have violence out here. [Laughs]
I once was at the Record Plant with NORE. Ashanti was there, Lil Mama, you, a few others. I ended up having a conversation with Spliff Star. For 30 minutes, he talked to me and my brother about global warming. In your many years working with Spliff, what's something he's lectured you on? This is crazy! Spliff always lectures us on street shit. Music saved Spliff from the street. Spliff is one of those guys who lived a hard life. When he's in something, he's in it all the fucking way. There's no governor with Spliff: When he's going, he's going. Going! Several fucking people have to help pull him out of whatever he's going into. It took a couple of real hard situations to help him realize that it's time to transition, homie. But those old war stories, he has the most interesting stories and experiences that you can't tell Spliff that you know more about that thing that he does, crazy shit that you'd say are lies. So, the lecture comes in to the trillionth power when it comes to hustling, or gun shit, or street shit. When you're dialoguing, you've just gotta stay away from street shit. [Laughs] Or else you're gonna get lectured until your face falls off your fucking body.
Do you or have you ever had problems fitting through doorways? Yo! No. [Laughs] Even when I was 294 pounds last March, at my biggest, I didn't have problems fitting through a doorway.
Late Beastie Boy Adam 'Mca' Yauch is set to be honoured with a special tribute at the 2013 Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival in his native New York.
The rapper lost his battle with cancer on 4 May, 2012, aged 47, and organisers of the annual music event reveal they wanted to put together a show to salute his memory last summer - but couldn't pull it off in time.
Wes Jackson, executive director of the Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival, says, "We reached out to (bandmate) Ad Rock right after MCA passed last year and asked if there was anything we could do to help celebrate the life of his brother.
"It was so soon that we were hesitant to even reach out. We wanted to give them space and time. We did speak to Cey Adams (longtime Beastie Boys collaborator) and tried to put something together but the timing wasn't right. We couldn't go another year without taking time out to honour what MCA did for our culture and our music."
Jackson has yet to reveals specific details of the tribute, but plans to hold a moment of silence in Yauch's memory.
The ninth annual festival will feature headline sets from Redman, EPMD and Pusha T and will take place from 10 to 13 July.
News of the tribute emerges two weeks after a park in Yauch's old Brooklyn Heights neighbourhood was renamed in the star's honor.
Big Daddy Kane, 9th Wonder, Needlz, Benzino, Statik Selektah and Adrian Younge weigh in on the role of technology in Hip Hop.
Hip Hop was essentially birthed with a heavy assist from technology, yet both artists and fans have been incredibly resistant to change at times.
The fact that the Sugarhill Gang was technically the first group to release a Hip Hop record speaks to this aversion. There were many other skilled emcees—most notably Grandmaster Caz, the original author of Wonder Mike’s “Rapper’s Delight” verses. But many of those emcees frowned at the thought of putting their rhymes on wax.
Through the years, we’ve seen vinyl give way to cassette tapes and the emergence of the compact disc. We’re 12-years deep into the Digital Era that was spawned by emerging mp3 and peer-to-peer technologies. And as we slowly segue into what appears to be an era of cloud-based, streaming music, both the R.I.A.A. and Billboard are reluctantly joining the party by recognizing YouTube views and digital streams as legitimate ways to legally interact with music. Additionally, social media such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter have become the new demo tape—even though most of the people that interact via the aforementioned social networks have no idea what an actual “tape” was.
But aside from just how we consume music and interact with each other, Hip Hop provides an interesting window into what technology is trending. On 2001’s “I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me),” Jay-Z flaunted his social cache by unofficially endorsing the Motorola two-way pager. A Tribe Called Quest (“Skypager”) along with Missy Elliot and 702 (“Beep Me 911”) respectively dedicated whole songs to beepers. These days, unless you’re a doctor or someone waiting for a table at a busy restaurant, both of the above technologies are about as cutting-edge as two cans and some twine. For what it’s worth, even Rick Ross boasts of “sellin’ dope, straight off the iPhone,” on “9 Piece.” There’s no app for buying birds of the non-angry variety, but if you live in one of the nearly 18 states with legalized marijuana on the books, there are plenty of apps to show you where the nearest dispensary is located.
In light of all this change, we reached out to some of Hip Hop’s contributors to see what they thought were the most important technological innovations to impact the music and culture.
Reel-To-Real: The Advent Of Digital Recording & Sequencing
For many, one man served as the unofficial spokesman for the Belgian company, Image-Line’s signature product, Fruity Loops.
“When 9th Wonder came out, he was one of the first people that we actually respected that used Fruity Loops and programs,” offered Statik Selektah. In the analog days, Statik said he cut his teeth manually looping cassette tapes—or “pause tapes” as they were affectionately called before “pause” became a way to identify a homoerotic double entendre. “Before that you had to use an MPC or some kind of sampler. No one had used computer programs yet. 9th Wonder is the first one to come out and actually do it dope. Before that, people were doing it, but we all looked at it as corny. He was the first one to prove everybody wrong.”
In addition to providing the soundscape for Little Brother, 9th rose to prominence crafting bass-heavy works for Jay-Z, Murs, Destiny’s Child, Buckshot and unofficial remixes for the likes of Nas. Most fans would agree there was a science to making digital works sound analog.
“Even still, a lot of us in the game use a lot digital equipment,” 9th Wonder explained. “But at least some of us try to make it sound like it’s analog. What you can do is make things sound real, real dirty if you know the sound that you’re looking for and if you’re familiar with an analog sound. If you’re not familiar with an analog sound, then you don’t know what to go look for if you have digital equipment. I think going from analog to digital really changed a lot of things across the board. Not for just Hip Hop but for music period.”
Audiophiles cringe at the sound of a compressed mp3 file, but the counter argument is size and accessibility. While crates of vinyl and even compact discs are prone to physical damage and can literally fill up whole retail spaces, a 160-gigabyte iPod is roughly the size of the average person’s wallet.
“Either the MP3 or iTunes changed everything,” 9th added. “Past how music is made, what does the music end up being, and where does the music end up being? It ends up being an MP3 in your iTunes. That changed a lot of things. It helps us manage music way better than we ever had. Walking around with big CD cases full of CDs and big CD racks in your house. iTunes knocked all of that out. It eliminated all of that. That was huge. That changed everything.”
All In: How Technology Changed The Entry Point For Emcees
With the science of sound no longer a “black art” practiced in basements, bedrooms and studios of those who could scrounge up the thousands necessary for an Akai MPC sequencer, keyboard or the vaunted E-Mu SP1200, what would prevent the home enthusiast from joining the fray?
“Digital synthesizing and recording has changed everything,” explained Adrian Younge. “It allowed people that would not have otherwise been producers to come and produce and make good music.”
Of course, the downside to all of this technology would arguably be the oversaturation of the market. The same peer-to-peer technology that allows music to be illegally downloaded can be used to swipe a copy of Fruity Loops, Ableton Live, Apple’s Garageband and any other digital sequencing program. And the prevailing logic is that just because technology makes it possible for someone to put out product, they may not always have the talent to match those aspirations.
“The only drawback to computers is that it makes people’s lives easy, and they don’t have to study shit,” Adrian Younge pointed out. Technology allowed him to collaborate with Ghostface Killah on Twelve Reasons To Die without having physically met Ghost; the two corresponded via e-mail and RZA-facilitated recording sessions. Of course, prior to his unofficial Wu-Tang co-sign, Younge was an active musician with the original score and soundtrack to 2009’s Black Dynamite among his credits. “It allows the standard of music to become diminished because people start accepting whatever after a while,” he noted. “That’s the only problem I see with [technology].”
While the benefits of any emerging technology always have to be weighed against the negatives, Younge’s observation points to another question. Is technology inherently bad for the culture of Hip Hop?
“I really think a lot of the new technology has hurt Hip Hop,” Big Daddy Kane observed. “Because it’s a situation where your project will come out that Tuesday for [legal digital] downloads and somebody will have it up on their site for free, and it’s available—not just in [one] state, but it’s available worldwide, for free—and you’re losin’ a whole lot of sales. Technology really hurt Hip Hop, even radio. The way the same 10 goddamn songs play, all day. And there’s no diversity. Newer technology hurt Hip Hop more than helped it, in my opinion.”
Much like Kane, rapper, producer (and now reality TV star) Benzino also points to how technology has eliminated part of the apprenticeship factor from Hip Hop. Benzino also points to a lost labor cost factored into the learning process.
“Maybe technology helped the deejays as far as Serato,” Benzino pointed out. “You don’t have to carry around big crates of records. But carrying those crates showed the hard work, effort, love and tenacity you had. I think that’s what’s missing these days.”
Would we have a Kanye West today if he didn’t pay his dues as a “ghost producer” for Deric D-Dot Angelettie? How many deejays careers were jump-started by carrying crates under the tutelage of a fellow turntablist? These are questions with no quantifiable answers. The mere fact that these questions are being asked via an online publication instead of a print magazine speaks to how technology has changed the way we interact with Hip Hop music and culture. Inevitably, the ability for readers to interact via comments and social media (or start their own websites and/or blogs) possibly means the main takeaway is the elimination of having one all-consuming medium disseminate information to the masses. While technology unfortunately allows any no-talent enthusiast to flex like a pro, it also renders many overrated, self-indulgent, so-called “gate keepers” obsolete. Maybe there’s a proverbial silver lining in the iCloud.
“There are people who may not have had a chance,” Needlz said. “On the good side of things, I would say for me, there’s a lot of hybrid, new machines. It gives you a tangible feel of making music but has all the advantages of software and the power that a computer brings. I would say a hybrid instrument, there’s a new MPC that has a hybrid software thing.”
If we’re being candid, none of these opinions are going to stop technological advancements from impacting Hip Hop. The recent decisions to factor YouTube views and digital streams into an artist’s respective RIAA and Billboard chart numbers may arguably be the biggest technological advancements to hit Hip Hop since ringtones. And as the careers of both Soulja Boy and Lil B (among others) prove, sometimes the medium is indeed the message. Maybe it’s way too late to ask if technology is hurting or helping Hip Hop, as things will keep advancing at a faster pace. Perhaps, in light of these non-stop innovations, we should be asking ourselves how to actively participate and remain true to the essence of the culture.