On Friday June 29, 2012 legendary Engineer/Producer/DJ Young Guru hosted Sounds & Vision: The Art of Sampling at the 92YTribeca cultural arts space. For the first of three installments, Guru welcomed Sean C & LV from Grind Music and Diddy’s own Hitmen production squad to discuss Jay-Z’s American Gangster album, for which they produced six of the fifteen tracks.
In front of an audience filled with loyalists, aspiring producers and general music fans, Guru set the tone for the night by explaining that he created the Sound & Vision series ‘with the music lover in mind’.
Technical at times, universally comical during others, Guru proclaimed early on they “had all the time in the world.” They didn’t. The night would end with the three men being played off stage with “wrap it up music,” but the preceding two hours held a wealth of edutainment.
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Usually the interview subject, Guru moderated, asking the duo to revisit their involvement in what would become Jay-Z’s first concept album and 10th (consecutive) number one effort (tying Elvis Presley’s record for the second most number one albums behind The Beatles).
“Puff walked in one night and said ‘Jay’s thinking of doing an album and I’m gonna executive produce it,” Guru recalled. “Give me everything you have.”
But despite being apart of the driving force behind the “Bad Boy sound,” LV recalls being skeptical that it was ever going to happen. “So I told Puff if he was serious, then call Jay and he said just said ok and walked away.” All doubt was erased when the doors to Daddy’s House opened and in walked a disheveled Hov, ten minutes later.
“I just remember Hov coming back like ‘they got some shit over there’,” Guru added, and thus began what all three described as a grueling twenty-one days in which Jay recorded numerous tracks, including efforts from Just Blaze, Pharrell and No I.D. According to Sean C, the albums inspiration – the Ridley Scott film by the same name – played scene by scene during Jay’s recording sessions. “Guru would make sure we had the correct scenes when were working on tracks.” This process highlighted the first of many comparisons between the legwork (both symbolically and literally) absent from a lot of today’s production.
There was no emailing of tracks and verses. There was Guru. ‘”I would go back and forth between Daddy’s House and Roc The Mic [studios] helping to insure that nothing leaked but also that everyone remained on the same page. We would send over the rough, Jay would record his verse and then it would come back for us to finish it,” Sean explained. And by ‘finish it’, he meant recreate pre-recorded samples with lavish live instrumentation, bringing to life the lush sounds of the 70’s and 80’s and capturing the spirit Jay intended. This highlighted the second comparison: the job of the producer isn’t finished until the track is.
“Now-a-days, you send off a track and artists don’t realize that’s just a reference,” Sean explains. “They lay their verses down and think it’s ready to go out, and sometimes you don’t hear it again until it’s ready to be mixed, but really you had a lot more you wanted to do with it.”
Guru – the former student of Chucky Thompson and Derrick ‘DDot’ Angeletti – says while the age of “at home computer producers” has provided tipping points to many, it’s deprived more with a lack of proper training historically learned during apprenticeship under a more seasoned producer. “They lose the foundation of how to work from the bottom up. It’s the same as learning to add with a calculator from the very beginning.”
The solution, he says, is to make it your mission to familiarize yourself with a vast array of music, spanning all genres and time periods.
“When you listen to all forms of music your mind expands as a musician,” says Guru. “You’re exposed to different rhythms, different time signatures and different textures. It’s the same way a writer should read different authors so that his or her style can improve.”
When it comes to sampling, inarguably the zeitgeist of Hip Hop culture, the consensus is mixed. While all three men agreed that the best sample-friendly producers began as DJ’s, LV believes that once a sample is classically used it should become untouchable. (See the recent Pete Rock/Lupe Fiasco drama over “T.R.O.Y.” for evidence.)
Guru – whose producing credits include Jay-Z and Little Brother – says nothing is off limits, as long as it’s fresh.
“Samples can be used as many times as you want as long as you use it different than what the previous producer did,” he said. Exact copying of samples is undeniably wack but if flipped then it’s the very essence of Hip Hop. “Dilla was the best at that.”
American Gangster (both the film and the album) – debuted to critical acclaim in the first week of November 2007. Guru and Sean C & LV shared similar feelings: from the time an album is finished, you don’t play it again until it’s released. “So you can experience it with the people.”
Before venturing out to have drinks and mingle with the attendees, Grind Music did a live demonstration of sample usage by recreating the AG classics ‘Roc Boys (The Winner Is)’ and ‘Sweet’.
If Sean C could’ve done another album to accompany a film he eagerly picked Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction but took a second to really think of an artist robust and well-versed enough to echo the complex story through song. “Maybe Kanye.”
The second installment in Guru’s Sound & Vision series returns late July and will dissect the world of music videos and how they’ve helped to define a culture. Stay tuned for his guests of choice.
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