Streamlining Hip-Hop Production

Mar 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Janice Brown



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Memphis rapper Al Kapone has the crunk energy and lyrical flow of his Dirty South rap brethren down pat. He's even adapted it for the big screen, penning the Hustle & Flow highlight track “Whoop That Trick,” as well as the soundtrack's “Get Crunk, Get Buck.” On his ambitious new album project, tentatively titled The Hip-Hop Band Movement, Kapone digs much deeper into his Memphis roots, cutting a new musical path that fuses Memphis past and present.

It all started backstage at a Grammy event in Memphis. Talking about putting together a hip-hop band, Kapone caught the ear of Atlanta-based writer/producer/engineer Billy Hume, who had been working live instrumentation into more and more of his hip-hop productions (David Banner, Shop Boyz, Bonecrusher, Ying-Yang Twins). The two chatted and decided to keep in touch. “A month later, I went to Billy's studio in Atlanta,” Kapone relays. “We totally clicked. We'd never worked together and barely knew each other, but in just two days we came up with two completed songs. I knew this was the vibe for my next project and there was no turning back.”

Al Kapone builds songs on musical jams.

Al Kapone builds songs on musical jams.

What started out as a songwriting effort turned into a full-fledged album, and Hume was given the reigns over the entire project, including songs produced by Memphis-based Hustle & Flow and Black Snake Moan score composer/musician Scott Bomar and producer Kurt “KC” Clayton. “Every song on this album has been an adventure,” says Hume. “It's not like the assembly-line production that goes into rap music. It's more like producing a rock record, and it's taken me drawing from all my experience — with alternative and jam-band rock, acoustic and reggae music — to pull this off.”

Kapone's vision and artistic approach for the album were, as Hume describes, “inspired” and often resulted in magical sessions. “I wanted to make a hip-hop record that reflected the live musical roots here in Memphis — Stax and Sun Records — and the blues from the Delta,” Kapone notes. To represent older-school Memphis, Kapone enlisted legendary session hands such as guitar player Charles “Skipp” Pitts, members of the North Mississippi All-Stars and members of Kapone's live gigging band, Tha Untouchablez, assembled by Clayton.

Hume and Kapone did very little advance planning before going into the studio, a method Kapone recognizes would not have been as successful without a full-on writer/producer/engineer partner like Hume. “Billy is amazing in the studio, and it really helped free my mind,” says Kapone. “I whistle or hum something, and Billy blows that up. We ride the wave to the end, and it always comes out hot.”

Though Hume says the process varied track to track, the songs were often built on musical jams. “We went to Dave Matthews' Haunted Hollow Studio to work with DMB drummer Carter Beauford,” says Hume. “I went there with the agenda to have him do some live drums we could use to liven up some of our MPC beats, but we ended up creating some great stuff on the spot there with Kurt Clayton on keys and Carter on drums. I went back to my studio and started building songs out of my favorite sections.”

Billy Hume mixing in the box for Al Kapone’s The Hip-Hop Band Movement

Billy Hume mixing in the box for Al Kapone’s The Hip-Hop Band Movement

Lyrically, the album's defining track, “The Music,” written by Kapone and Clayton, pays tribute to Memphis as the birthplace of rock 'n' roll. Hume and Kapone brought members of Tha Untouchablez into Young Avenue Sound in Memphis to cut the song's music. “I wanted to capture that live energy, with the band playing the song beginning to end,” says Hume. “By the end of the day, we got that magical take, and I brought it back to my studio and programmed an MPC along with it. Then I cut some more guitars and grabbed some keyboard parts out of Kurt's original version and stretched and pitch-corrected them to the new version's key and tempo. We re-cut vocals and used another rock element — the bullhorn — for some background parts.”

Hume recorded Kapone's lead vocals with a Neumann M149 through an Avalon VT-737SP, a Distressor compressor and into Pro Tools, using Shure SM7 and SM57 for backing vocals and stacks. He is very selective with instruments, amps and microphones; he meticulously changes guitar strings and drumheads, and tunes everything obsessively. “I want to get the best performance and the best sound going in, a process that's balanced out by the endless possibilities and total control we have once we're all in-the-box and mixing.”

Hume notes that, as opposed to rock projects, the mix process with a hip-hop artist tends to be highly interactive and kept open to revision for months, making in-the-box mixing the preferred method. “The main challenge I have in combining hip-hop and rock is where to put the low end,” Hume explains. “In rock music, so much of the low end is carried by the bass guitar, whereas in hip-hop it's carried by the big booming [Roland TR-] 808. And with the rise of the Dirty South sound, that 808 got 10 dBs louder.”

Hume blended the live and sampled drums on every track in a somewhat uniform manner, choosing the MPC kick as the primary kick drum. “I found myself filtering the live kick drum down a good bit into the mix and letting the drum-machine kick carry that aspect of it,” he says. “So mostly what you hear of the live drums is the tom fills, snare drum and hi-hats. In sections where there's a break, where Carter did a lot of amazing fills, I actually automate the live kick drum, bring the low end back for that split-second and then go back to the MPC.”

Hume's recording and mixing techniques have evolved with the surge of live instrument recording he's experienced in the past year. “A lot of the artists I'm working with are more interested now in using real drums, real guitars and basses,” he says. “I have adopted some new techniques for live hip-hop band recordings — I'll mike a kick drum with a speaker, for example, to get that extra fat low-end sound. I can make a kick drum sound almost like an 808 doing that.”

Indeed, Kapone's vision for The Hip-Hop Band Movement is coming to fruition as live band hip-hop feels more and more like a welcomed trend to Hume, who just finished another rock/hip-hop hybrid project with Atlanta band Heavy Mojo, as well as work with live instrumentation for Kaine, from the Ying Yang Twins and crunk master Bonecrusher.

Janice Brown is a freelance writer in New York City.

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