Streamlining Hip-Hop Production
Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Janice Brown
THE ROOTS, NELLY AND AL KAPONE KEEP IT IN THE BOX
Hip-hop production is usually a collaborative affair, where numerous contributors work together in various studios across the country. This can also extend into the mixing process, if the artist is so inclined. While developing a song — and subsequent set of rough mixes — the artist and producer(s) will often move into a more “mixing in the box” situation, where they have access and input into more stages of a song's multiple mixes, which the engineer can then print and send off in a day.
The three albums described here took more than a year to make and represent different sides of the genre. In each case, though, the artists have all staked as much of a claim in their records' productions as is technically possible.
THE ROOTS' RISING DOWN
Headquartered within producer/arranger Larry Gold's Philadelphia facility, The Studio, The Roots began working on their new album, Rising Down, almost immediately after wrapping their Game Theory album in 2006. Founded by drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and MC Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter, The Roots are a quintessential organic collective, growing in their most productive periods with musicians and writer/producers who strengthen the core; in a live situation, they tighten up as a full-on hip-hop band. In the studio, songs emerge from a combination of band compositions, submitted beats and band jam sessions, with lyricist Black Thought and ?uestlove as the galvanizing producer/performers, and longtime manager/producer Richard Nichols supervising as executive producer.
On the origin of Rising Down's songs, Nichols says, “In the process of making this album, we sifted through and/or produced at least 2,000 tracks. When we feel something, we'll pull it out and Ahmir will go into the studio with various bandmembers, re-cut drum parts with engineer Steve Mandel and start developing some different arrangements around it.”
Outside of the bandmembers, the core unit of Rising Down includes vocal producer/in-house A&R Karl Jenkins, and writer/producers Khari and Radji Mateen, Tahir Jamal, Pedro Martinez, Ritz, Ridwan and Shane Clarke. From the point of track selection, a steep production process begins, which marries an old-school approach with new-school execution. As Nichols describes, “The Roots are a magnet for creative people,” and the Philly-based collective that's grown up around the band gives weight to their vision and helps carry it out. Thanks to unlimited studio access, studio smarts and no-limits digital technology, The Roots — on their tenth major-label album — are recording more prolifically than ever.
?uestlove's production savvy and sonic flair thrive, unfettered, within the in-the-box production style used on the past couple albums. At The Studio, ?uestlove, Black Thought, Roots engineer Jon Smeltz and camp develop tracks into Roots-sized songs, laying down multiple drum patterns, experimenting with effects, cutting stacks of vocals and backgrounds, and bringing in Roots musicians like producer/keyboardists James Poyser and Kamal Gray to explore various arrangements. In a pre-mixing stage, which Nichols prefers to call “level-one mixing,” ?uestlove, Smeltz and Nichols assemble a number of rough mixes per track. “At this point, we're taking the song to the next level ourselves, conceptualizing through the use of plug-ins,” Nichols describes. “We want everything in-the-box so that we never lose anything. We'll have a million versions of songs; every time we make a change, it's a new version.”
For mixing, they bring in fresh ears. New York City-based Jason Goldstein, who mixed a large portion of Game Theory, perfectly fits in with The Roots' production approach. “When we get to the mixing stage, Jason starts his versions and we're able to produce the finished song by a kind of Frankenstein patchwork method,” Nichols describes. “Working this way requires more attention, keeping accurate notes and having the due diligence to sit there and listen to version after version, night after night. But it gives you the latitude that you could have only dreamt of some years ago.”
A Grammy-winning mixer, Goldstein's pop and R&B chops (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Mary J. Blige) also appeal to The Roots, says Nichols, who acts as the outspoken musical advocate for the band throughout the mixing process. “Our music tends to be artsier and grimier, veering into experimental post-hip-hop, and Jason tends to mix more contemporary hip-hop and R&B, so he brings a certain refinement we need to get to an aesthetic that isn't so niche in terms of the sound, but at the same time is not made for radio.”
With the recording and production process so extensive prior to mixing, Goldstein has a lot of ground to cover in the initial mixing sessions, reviewing and organizing all the ideas that were meticulously crafted in the rough mixes. Until this point, every idea, every musical effort and every sonic experiment has a shot. In mixing The Roots, the pruning, enhancing and interpreting process will be just as exhaustive and, again, highly collaborative.
“They have this aesthetic they're going for, and it's pretty elusive,” says Goldstein from the mix position at Battery Studios in New York City. “They want it to sound lo-fi, but not like a demo. They want it to have a raw, aggressive energy, but also sound smooth and clean.” Approaching the mix from a few different angles helps Goldstein narrow down all of the possibilities. “Now that I'm all in-the-box, I can go in one direction for a couple hours, print that and switch gears, and then go in another direction for a couple hours,” he says. “I'll send several versions to Rich and we'll marry together different bits of my mixes. The Roots try so many different ideas, so it makes sense that I should try a bunch of different ideas in mixing them.”
Song-to-song, Goldstein spends the most time honing the low end as ?uestlove's impeccable drumming is the central feature of The Roots' sound. “When Ahmir does the rough mixes, he builds in a lot of the lo-fi aesthetic that he wants,” says Goldstein. “He'll do some radical EQ'ing and throw Amp Farm on certain drum tracks to give them that distorted, lo-fi sound, and so most of the time I just build on top of what's there. A lot of the effects you hear on the record are effects they applied that I've either augmented or replicated in a different way to bring even more definition to it.”
Establishing the best drum sound for each song means sifting through the multiple drum patterns and drum sounds — live and programmed — and pulling together the choice cuts from several rough mixes. “Ahmir likes his drums to sound sort of trashy and aggressive, so I mix it fairly dry; there's no big room sound, which is what makes it sound in-your-face,” says Goldstein. “The room mics are all mono and they're coming right at you, up the middle, so that the central point is Ahmir and the drums. By mixing the drums, bass and vocal really dry and putting them right up the middle, I have all this space on the sides to use for cool wrap-around sounds: synth pads, vocal stacks turned into swirling pads and other such elements.”
Goldstein added presence to Black Thought's vocals using the Sonnox EQ's GML setting, as well as Sound Toys Phase Mistress to turn background vocals into padding synth sounds. He applies the Crane Song Phoenix plug-in to all submixes, which, he says, “radically changes the character of the sound and glues stuff together in a way I haven't heard anything else do.” Goldstein also uses the Sonnox Inflator on the stereo bus to add dynamics and increase apparent loudness.
The always eclectic Roots criss-cross through various musical territories on Rising Down, from the fuzz-pop single “Birthday Girl,” featuring Fall Out Boy, to the hard-hitting street romp “Get Busy,” to the moody, synth-heavy “Singing Man.” So, mixing the album sometimes means smoothing out any distracting contrasts. “The songs, no matter how smooth or pop-y, need to knock, need that hip-hop weight,” says Goldstein. “There's a sensibility about the low end — they're not going for the contemporary hip-hop overdone low end, which hits you in the chest, but something more full that envelops the records like a feeling.”
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