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In Search of The New Sound (‘Goose Bump’ Music)

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In Search of The New Sound (‘Goose Bump’ Music)

I can’t put into words how much I am enjoying playing the new album from the roots, ‘How I Got Over’ – with headphones on.

The experience gives me an excuse to write about something I’ve been working on for some time.

Perhaps you can help me with it (especially you producers, engineers, and musicians).

For a few years, but particularly the past year since I started building with an extremely talented R&B producer from New Jersey, I’ve been searching for the new sound – something not just hot and different just to be different, but arrangements that can be matched with the highest level of lyrical content, ridiculous flows, and spark social change and a revolution in thought and behavior.

I’m not talking just hot tracks to spit consciousness over. I’m speaking on beats so sophisticated (or so simple) they talk on their own, and artists that fit them so well, you would think they were separated from the sound at birth.

You know that ‘damn, I gotta go do something to this,’ music.

Or that ‘Alwayz Into Something’ MC Ren ‘I heard a dope beat; somebody told me that Buck did it; but if Dre didn’t do it I can’t f*** wit it,’ music.

So, what qualifies me to find it, you ask?

Nothing, and that’s how it happens. Sometimes the greatest change comes from an ‘outsider.’

First a bit of a disclaimer – although my grandfather played the saxophone, and I’ve been in the music industry for nearly 20 years I have never received any formal musical training.

Yet I have an ear. And I have a great father who taught me how to listen to music.

From the time I was as young as 7, I can remember my father (born in Harlem and raised there and Brooklyn) explaining to me the great Jazz and Soul artists of the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and early 80s; what made their sound different (he always emphasized the subtle importance of strings and bass lines); how to ‘equalize’ music; and the companies that made the best pieces of stereo equipment (I’m talking not just Bose, Sony and Panasonic but also Aiwa and Akai in the 70s and 80s).

The ‘ear’ that my father gave me influenced my earliest beats and the samples I would loop and layer which I would make with only the use of a handful of equipment, including my little Casio SK-5 (only the realest will admit they got down with this little keyboard).

I developed a unique sound, in my neighborhood in New Jersey by mixing jazz, disco, house, gospel and R&B records, and equalizing them in unique ways. It was something like Marshall Jefferson meets Donald Byrd meets Prince Paul meets Jam & Lewis meets Barry White’s Love Unlimited Orchestra. It was a nice little formula I developed, using staple snares, bass drums, hi-hats, strings, bass lines, and sampled voices. I was Trip-Hop before Trip Hop.

Through the help of my Brother I got my beats to Hank Shocklee of The Bomb Squad who sent a message that he liked what he heard, said I had a nice sound but that the only problem was that I didn’t have a rapper! Over 20 years later I still don’t (smile).

Another influence on me was my early career as a party and concert promoter where I was able to observer what sounds and beats moved crowds, but more importantly, the role of timing in dropping a beat or previewing a sound. The best I ever saw was DJ Ron G., who got me so paid one night, that my ever speaking a bad word about him would be blasphemy. He is the man.

Another DJ I always enjoyed building with is a childhood friend, DJ Kam of the Heavy Hitters (http://www.myspace.com/djkam1200 who understands so much about the use of different sounds and timing, it is amazing.

When I got with Wu-Tang Clan I spent most of my time in the office, on the road or, in business meetings. I would make a lot of our arrangements for studio sessions but usually was so exhausted from the day’s work that I fell asleep by the time the Wu producers and artists would get going – which was never before midnight (smile). My goal was not to hang out but to make sure everything was set up and that producers and artists arrived (never on time, but eventually) and had what they needed. Once that was taken care of I would especially build with the engineers – the almost always White dudes who I knew were the unsung keys to finding the right ‘sound.’ But over the years I made several recording sessions, and the moments when I could discuss music and different sounds with RZA, Mathematics, and especially True Master, were a pleasure and always educational. I honestly don’t feel the Hip-Hop culture and industry truly appreciates how far ahead of the curve the Wu producers (including 4th Disciple) were in terms of creativity and ’sound’ discipline. Perhaps at the right time RZA may go deeper into it but the little bit I know of the influence he and they had on the sound industry is enormous.

For example, only a few well-placed individuals in the broadcasting and audio industry (which is not the same as the music industry) know how RZA and the Clan transformed the use of the 360 Systems Instant Replay, among other things. Those of us in Hip-Hop culture truly do not know how important this generation has been in so many sciences and to so many industries.

Bringing the business aspect of the culture and industry back into perspective is part of my motivation for writing this Hip-Hoppreneur ™ column, each week at AllHipHop.com.

From time to time I’ll chop up the subject of ’sound’ with artists – just last year Wyclef and I discussed it and why he decided to go to music school ( http://www.berklee.edu/news/1962/wyclef-jean-records-with-berklee-students).

And I’ve been immersed in an excellent book, This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin as I study more of the science of it and why we are naturally affected by sound the way we are.

It is partly from that perspective why I am intrigued by the recent ‘mainstreaming’ of the lucrative sound industry in Hip-Hop, as symbolized by the Beats by Dre headphones by HP (http://beatsbydre.com/).

Another reason is because few have properly understood the impact of the dollar of the producer, DJ, and engineer on corporate America. I may visit this soon, after speaking publicly on it last year. The Beats By Dre headphones have actually positively affected the stock price of HP.

Sadly, I may be the first person to publicly keep track of the relationship between the Hip-Hop culture and industry and capital markets. It’s nothing to brag about.

In 2003 while the New York tabloids and rap magazines were focusing on what else, industry gossip, I pointed out that Star of Star and Buc Wild’s unclear employment status at Hot 97 in New York was actually impacting the stock price of Emmis Communications, which owned the radio station. Davey D. (http://daveyd.com) picked up my piece and ran it, and in a way that I never realized my perspective became important to some very influential people not only in the music business but Wall Street.

A story for another day, maybe (smile).

But aside from the important angle of just how important the lucrative ‘sound production’ segment of creating Hip-Hop music is to multi-national corporations and financial markets, is the emerging debate over whether or not the quality of the sound is impacting the ability to monetize (make money from) music. Here is how the debate was framed in a recent article in the Financial Times, ‘No one will steal it if it sucks/Could a pair of headphones save the industry?’ (http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/5e37eb34-74e0-11df-aed7-00144feabdc0.html) :

Complaining about what young people today are listening to is not exactly original but you don’t expect it from the record executive behind Lady Gaga. Jimmy Iovine, his baseball cap incongruous in the stiff dining room at Manhattan’s St Regis hotel, is getting worked up not about noise or explicit lyrics but about the quality of sound coming through the iPod generation’s headphones.

The wiry 57-year-old producer began his career as a sound engineer, working with John Lennon on Rock ’n’ Roll and Bruce Springsteen on Born to Run, and is now chairman of Interscope-Geffen-A&M Records, home to Lady Gaga, Eminem and the Black Eyed Peas and one of the largest labels in the world’s largest record company.

“The people we work with spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year getting the sound exactly right.” But then, says Iovine, his emotions rising, much of what has been so carefully captured in the studio recording process has to be “dumbed down” or compressed by 20-25 per cent to be copied on to a CD, before being further compressed into an MP3 file format for playing on a computer or mobile phone with a sound processor likely to have cost just 50 cents. Sound quality is lost at every step of the process. “That’s like taking the Beatles master [recording] and playing it through a portable television,” he says with revulsion. Ramping up the similes, he points out that 80 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds listen to music at home through computers whose speakers, typically, “make the helicopters in Apocalypse Now sound like mosquitoes”.

Bad sound, he warns, is destroying the music business.

Jimmy Iovine has a point. While I know his argument is aimed at selling more headphones (in technical business terms we call his persuasive argument the ‘value added proposition’), there is some truth to what he is saying. While some point to the increased use of synthetic sound as the downfall of the industry I believe that the lack of the kind of ‘Sound 101’ that my father gave me as a young boy – which even included showing me how to read the credits on album sleeves, where the the name of the producer, songwriter, engineer and studio location were all given, usually along with the lyrics of each song – has resulted in 1) the devaluation of sound creation and enjoyment 2)the death of the theme album 3) the diminished chemistry between a producer and artist and 4) the disappearance of the valuable role of an arranger in the music production process.

I won’t get into all of these points now except to say that the near extinction of the arranger may be the worst thing to happen to Hip-Hop. The greatest arranger in music over the last 40 years is Quincy Jones. He is not a producer, despite what people say. He is an arranger. He puts concepts, songwriters, producers, musicians and artists in the right relationship to one another and in the right environment.

With the possible exception of Marley Marl (whom we use to refer to as the Quincy Jones of rap music), while few people appreciate him – for this and so many other things – the greatest arranger in Hip-Hop history in my view is Puffy (please allow me to continue to call him this. I struggle with ‘Diddy’).

Puff is not a ‘beatmaker.’ In some respects Dr. Dre, in my view, could qualify as an arranger. But while I think he is technically more skilled than Puffy at a micro level and enjoys that process, Puff is the dean of the often more important tricky process of the personal management of creative personalities. Dre’s not necessarily the kind of ‘people person’ an arranger has to be, but awesome nonetheless at what he does perfectly – production.

Puffy is a genius and despite the ‘Making The Band’ made for TV (and a bit exaggerated) drama-personna, he is very skillful at knowing how to motivate and fall back from artists, depending upon their personality. His ability to manage an organic creative process is hard to explain. I experienced this a bit in 1997 when I spoke to him regarding the desire of Method Man and Biggie to do a follow-up to ‘The What,’ to appear on Biggie’s second album. It was something that Biggie and Meth had discussed between themselves and shared with Puffy and Power (one of the influential Wu executives). Puffy was calling to follow up to see how it was moving along from our end. Because Puffy realized it was only a creative concept that two artists were kicking around he knew not to push too hard, and he understood there was eventually going to be a business side to this too, which Power was in position to represent. Puff shrewdly wanted to determine the creativity-to-business ratio (smile).

Puffy, like Quincy Jones, is one of a handful of individuals in all of the industry who understands how to make a concept or theme album, and the discipline involved in it. RZA is one of those as well. Both of them also know how to master the science of song placement (the order in which tracks appear on an album, and one of the reasons I believe Jay-Z’s Blueprint 2 was disappointing and Blueprint 3 came across as strong; even though Blueprint 2 may have had better individual records, pound for pound).

If you ever want to start a good argument – as I sometimes do – raise the question to an inner circle of your most serious Hip-Hop fans of which of the two: Notorious B.I.G.’s ‘Ready To Die’ or Raekwon’s ‘Only Built For Cuban 4 Cuban Linx is the better theme or concept album; and which has better song placement. I’m warning you ahead of time – no matter how many times you try to explain that ‘theme’ and ‘concept’ does not mean ‘hotter,’ people will not listen (LOL)!

Like many of us, last week I thought a lot of Michael Jackson and what made him so great and magnetic. One clear reason was the ‘sound’ that Quincy Jones arranged around him. One of the most overlooked factors in the success of the King of Pop is the role that sound engineer and producer Bruce Swedien and songwriter Rod Temperton played in the creation of that sound.

And then there was Michael’s matchless gifts and skills which allowed him as Minister Louis Farrakhan said, to ‘explode words,’ and as Debbie Allen has described, ‘become one with the beat,’ and actually ‘be the beat.’

One of the lesser known stories that I wish someone would write is the influence that the sound quality that Michael Jackson’s ‘Off The Wall,’ ‘Thriller,’ and ‘Bad’ had on Hip-Hop artists and producers who grew up with the ‘Sound 101’ like I received from my Dad. I distinctly recall brief conversations with RZA and Ghostface over wanting that ‘crystal clear, Michael Jackson s**t!’

Have we all forgotten (or are too young to remember) that the incredible sound quality of Dr. Dre’s ‘Chronic’ was one of the most attractive aspects to that classic album?

It changed the game for that reason alone.

*****

Over the last few weeks I have been involved in a communications cipher with a small circle of DJs, producers, and engineers from all over the world discussing with them my search for the next sound in Hip-Hop. I can hear it in my head, but not yet on a single track. I have something that I want to accomplish as an arranger that will identify a new sound that is not just ‘hot,’ but equal to the lyrical content, ‘story’, and talent of a new kind of artist that I am determined to bring forth.

Again, looking back on history serves us well.

Public Enemy, in a sense, is the greatest group creatively, in terms of sound, in the history of Hip-Hop. Yes, in certain respects I could make arguments that Run D.M.C., Gang Starr, N.W.A. and my beloved Wu-Tang Clan are greater or more influential but please, hold your eggs long enough to allow me to make this point.

In terms of lyrical content, ‘story,’ and talent being married to an innovative and moving sound, Public Enemy is the greatest group in rap history. From what I understand Chuck D. wanted the group to have a sound that was so unique, it would immediately get your attention and differentiate them from any other artist out.

As soon as you heard them you knew Public Enemy was a phenomenon.

Some things don’t require explanation or lengthy arguments. You know ‘it’ when you see it, feel it, and watch it. There is an aura and electricity that you experience with a phenom that actually defies words.

Quincy Jones called it the goose bump effect that he experienced when he ‘heard’ a hit record. If it didn’t give him goose bumps it wasn’t special to him. He once said in terms of the shared quality of good music across different genres, “If there are any common denominators, they are spirit and musicality. I go for the music that gives me goose bumps, music that touches my heart and my soul.”

I hear a lot of good music these days in Hip-Hop and R&B but very little of anything that meets Quincy Jones’ standard of what is ‘special’ or electric.

From another perspective the most recent example I can give was on June 8, 2010 with the debut of pitching phenom 21-year old Stephen Strasburg, which I witnessed from Washington, D.C. where he pitched. I have never seen anyone live up to so much hype regarding them – maybe even more than LeBron’s ESPN debut when in high school (see ESPN’s aptly titled headline, ‘Stephen Strasburg Makes The Impossible Possible’: http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/story?columnist=stark_jayson&id=5266515 ). If anyone tells you they watched that game (especially the last 7 batters he struck out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iG0YTNsQkWE&feature=related) and after the 14th strikeout did not experience the ‘goose bumps’ Quincy Jones describes they are just afraid to admit it.

He had all of D.C. jumping.

While I respect the great many hot young producers out there – particularly from Down South – I don’t feel the kind of movement-soundtrack electricity like you have with Public Enemy. And I don’t think that without an arranger in their careers that they’ll be able to make the kind of theme or concept album that the culture and industry badly needs.

The only producer to appear over the last 10 years who I think has the potential to do something like this is Just Blaze. His sound, ability to create an aura and crescendos in terms of tempo and rhythm is amazing – as is the manner in which he layers samples and strings. He is truly special. Unfortunately, in my view, he appeared on the scene in an era where collaborations and albums with multiple artists were the rage and when swagger took precedence over introspection and revolutionary lyrical content and so while he worked with a diverse group of big name and underground artists, to me, he never found that one artist or that group with the talent, ‘story,’ and lyrical content with whom he could establish the kind of chemistry necessary to do what the Bomb Squad did with Public Enemy or even what Dre did with N.W.A.

But if you want to hear tracks in the Just Blaze catalogue that approach what I’m looking for, you can find some of it in the sound, flow, and lyrics of the arrangements in these tracks:

‘Somehow, Someway’ – Jay-Z

‘What We Do’ – Freeway (featuring Jay-Z and Beanie Sigel)

‘Mom Praying’ – Beanie Sigel (featuring Scarface)

‘Never Been In Love’ – Talib Kweli

‘Breathe’ – Fabolous

‘Exhibit C’ – Jay Electronica

For the record, Jay Electronica’s ‘Exhibit C’ qualifies as ‘goose bump’ music (how many other producers would have ruined this song with a catchy chorus?). You can see how I recommend using it to market and promote him – even produce a classic concept album for him at:

Part I:

http://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2010/02/02/22114121.aspx

Part II:

http://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2010/02/09/22119830.aspx

There’s a lot you can do in the way of strategic marketing with an artist who sits in the pocket of the right sound (and becomes one with it).

One can only imagine what Just Blaze could have done with a supergroup like Jay-Z, Scarface, Beanie Sigel and Freeway (and now, throw in Jay Electronica). I believe only a few producers could see their similarities and complimentary differences in voice pitch and inflections, personality, ‘story,’ and lyrical content as an opportunity to not just make an album with ‘hot’ tracks but a classic theme or concept album.

Diddy’s creation of the ‘Dream Team’ supergroup with Nicki Minaj, Busta Rhymes, Rick Ross, Fabolous, and Red Café has potential in my opinion because of the arranger role that Diddy can play (I understand that Puff tried to recruit Jay Electronica to be part of this as well).

Having said that, even though I love the statement their professional unity and positive energy makes I just don’t see this group resisting the lucrative urge to primarily make a ‘sound’ geared toward an album full of hit or hot records.

Nothing wrong with that – I want them to count coins together. But this project can make money and a powerful statement – in business and ’sound.’

They are all great talents and Busta Rhymes is setting the right tone in his emphasis on them all being willing to subordinate themselves for the good of the whole (see what I wrote in ‘The Death Of The Group & The Art of Professional Loyalty’ http://allhiphop.com/stories/editorial/archive/2010/03/16/22147898.aspx), but that is not the same as the organic process the creation of a special ‘sound’ for them would require.

I’ll wait until I see which producers are involved in the project and hear a few tracks before I make a ‘judgment.’

Regardless, the ‘Dream Team’ is on to something.

****

What makes listening to the new Roots album a joy is that each track is an experience musically and lyrically, and as they always do, the group demonstrates that there is so much that can be done with live instrumentation – an area where Hip-Hop artists pay lip service to but where they have not even begun to scratch the surface.

The individual or team who can properly marry samples, synthesizers, and live instrumentation and match it with artists with lyrical substance, flow, and ‘story,’ has a good chance of writing the history of the next stage of Hip-Hop, in advance.

I know I’m not alone. It’s a gang of us dissatisfied creative folk with good ‘ears,’ who know something is missing in the music and genre we love.

If you are looking for that new sound like me, maybe we can find it together.

Join the cipher and let’s build.

The masses are fiending for ‘Goose Bump’ Music.

Let’s give ‘em what they need, not just what they want, at the rate of 1,120 feet per second…

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He’s a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and currently a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. Cedric’s the Founder of the economic information service Africa PreBrief (http://africaprebrief.com/) and author of ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ (http://theEsecret.com/). He can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com

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