Jeff Bhasker’s Amazing Year

Mar 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Bud Scoppa


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Bhasker got his big break in 2007, when Kanye West, impressed by the youngster’s ability to write, arrange, program, engineer and play any instrument by ear, hired him as music director for 2008’s Glow in the Dark tour, followed by a key role in the writing and recording of 808s and Heartbreak. “In a lot of ways,” says Bhasker, “Kanye ended up being my Miles Davis: he’s always innovating, he’s intelligent and he’s proud of being black but he also explores European music, fashion and life in an intellectual and soulful way.”

To say that Bhasker learned his lessons well would be an understatement, to say the least. These days, no producer is more in demand than the 28-year-old hit-maker. So it was that he found himself in a Paris studio last August with the Rolling Stones and longtime producer Don Was, co-producing “Doom and Gloom,” the band’s first new recording in seven years. The track both honors and subtly transforms the legendary band’s iconic sound, starting with Charlie Watts’ massive, walloping drums. Turns out Bhasker’s posse provided a bit of enhancement to the recording.

“The idea was to combine the room culture with what I do,” Bhasker explains. “The band cut the song live in the studio, and we got the files and we tempo-mapped Charlie’s performance. Then Emile Haynie, who did Lana Del Rey and the fun. album with us, did a drumbeat with his samples, which are like chopped-up bits from old records. Emile’s beat exactly follows Charlie—just kinda beefed up. On the original recording, the snare’s kinda ring-y, and the sound of the room accentuates that. So having our snare sample in there masks that ringiness and makes it more solid. With the kick, also, you don’t so much hear the drumhead; it makes the speaker go BONK. In hip-hop, people use speakers in a whole other capacity, so that’s part of it, too, compared to a normal rock recording.

“With drum programming, it’s just not fair,” he continues, riffing now. “You can put five different samples together and get the punch exactly right. I stopped using drummers because I have so much more control and it sounds so much more interesting. A little drumhead just ain’t gettin’ it nowadays—it’s 2013. Production is a snapshot in time. When you hear an older Stones record, you picture the ’60s. You see it in black-and-white, almost. Those beautiful recordings like ‘Gimme Shelter,’ the mood that it creates—it evokes that time. So the challenge was to make it still sound like the Stones but give it a contemporary spin. And there’s a couple editing breaks—a little one percent of Skrillex in that editing breakdown. We got into that, man. Mick was like, ‘Give it that swampy feel.’ So we added a Moog bass, which is a big staple of my productions, and we replayed the bassline a little heavier, me and Darrell Jones. And some owls on the bridge from Emile’s collection of animal sounds. I heard it on the radio, and it came out sounding killer.”

Like “Doom and Gloom,” the fun. project was a collision of cultures, the premise being to pair Nate Reuss’ heady pop songs with Bhasker’s visceral hip-hop beats. “When we met,” says the producer, “Nate told me that he’d varied the tempos in a lot of his songs, and he said, ‘I want to stop doing that. I want to put our music against a solid beat.’ So I was trying to stick to that and I made the beat, and we recorded him singing the verse with the same tempo as the chorus, over that beat. And as we listened to it, he said, ‘Oh, it doesn’t quite sound right. The verse needs to be faster.’ I got a little frustrated. I said, ‘But you said you wanted to do it against the beat.’ And then I realized—because I had been the music director for Lady Gaga and Kanye West—we used to do that for the shows. We’d do a Pro Tools session for the backing track for the show, with sound effects and stuff, and we’d change the tempo for each song. We had a big session for the whole show, a two-hour session with, like, 5,000 tracks stemmed out in quad sound. So I said to Nate, ‘You know what? You’re right.’ Elastic Audio had just come out on Pro Tools, and we used his same verse but sped it up. And if you listen closely, it has this supernatural quality to it, because it was recorded slower and then speeded up."

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