Streamlining Hip-Hop ProductionTHE ROOTS, NELLY AND AL KAPONE KEEP IT IN THE BOX 3/01/2008 7:00 AM Eastern
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.
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.”
This past December, St. Louis-based rapper Nelly, the consummate hip-hop hit-maker, delayed the release of his highly anticipated new album, Brass Knuckles, for a few more months so he could spend more time in the studio. Nelly's engineer, Carl Nappa, expects they'll stick hard and fast to the new June 24 release date, though with 50 songs to pare down to 14, it's decision time.
Nappa, who engineered most of Nelly's last release, the 2004 double-disc Sweat and Suit, moved to St. Louis to set up and operate Nelly's recording studio, located within his label's headquarters. “This has not been a typical process for a Nelly record,” says Nappa. “In the past, he'd go into the studio, and three to four months later he'd be done. But he seems to be searching for something on this new record, which he started last January  out in Los Angeles with a producer named Nef-u.”
According to Nappa, during the past few months, the album's sound has changed pretty dramatically, at least in terms of writer/producers with tracks in the running. Nelly has a history of relying on his last-minute instincts, according to Nappa. “Production on Nellyville  had wrapped in time for the label's release date, but Nelly wasn't satisfied and went back into the studio, delaying the album's release, to cut the last two songs — ‘Hot In Herre’ and ‘Dilemma’ — which became the album's biggest singles.”
Making Brass Knuckles, Nelly has logged time at The Record Plant in Los Angeles and in Atlanta studios with Jermaine Dupri and Polow da Don, but the majority of the recording and mixing has happened with Nappa at Nelly's studio in St. Louis. It's not the first time Nelly has worked in his own private studio — he did so for 90 percent of Sweat and Suit in a makeshift studio Nappa set up in a Los Angeles rental. “I sold Nelly on the idea of doing the last studio in L.A. with the notion that we would bring all the equipment back here and set it up again in St. Louis,” he says.
The St. Louis studio is the base camp for Nelly and artists on his Universal imprint, Derrty Entertainment, though it's entirely portable. Nappa says, “I worked with acoustic designer Mark Donahue and builder Joe Zimmerman to build a totally modular acoustic design for this studio. All the acoustic treatments are built in modular blocks and screwed onto the wall. We can easily unscrew these panels and make the same dimension room somewhere else.”
Equipped with Pro Tools HD, Digidesign Control|24, Augspurger mains with 18-inch subs and ProAc near-fields, Nappa has recorded a good deal of Nelly's vocals and mixed nearly 20 songs in the St. Louis studio so far. Professional Audio Design's Dave Malekpour equipped and tuned the room. “The monitoring system is from the Hit Factory Studio 2, with Crown and Bryston amplification,” says Nappa. “The only thing Dave and I changed was the crossover; it had been an old BSS crossover that I could hear overloading and we changed it to the new Dolby Lake System, which is incredible.” That said, Nappa adds, “I do 90 percent of my mixing on my Avantone — the new Auratone — and ProAc speakers, but Nelly loves the big monitors.”
Right after the Sweat/Suit albums, Nappa started getting a lot of calls for indie projects and began mixing in-the-box to fit the lower budgets. Now, and for the past two years, Nappa's been mixing this way full time. “With Nelly, this style of mixing is invaluable because he'll often be out of town, and I can easily send him MP3 mixes and keep it open to production for weeks after that,” says Nappa. “We'll go back and forth — he'll change a lyric, add a vocal or request some sonic revision. I'm still tweaking stuff that I mixed months ago.”
Having Nappa at the helm of the St. Louis studio helps Nelly work as fluidly as possible, while maintaining an album producer's control over the entire catalog of material in the hopper. “As a songwriter, Nelly gets into these really prolific modes of writing,” says Nappa, “and with the studio here we can keep the production open on as many songs as we like.”
An expert melody-man, Nelly intuitively sees songs rising up around the beats, an approach that's likely to blame for the number of songs in production. “On this record, Nelly's barely written anything down,” Nappa observes. “He'll get inspired and go into the booth, work on a couple lines at a time and create as he goes. We're just filling in the pieces after that.” Nelly's vocal chain, new on this album, is a Sony C800G microphone into an Avalon AD2022 mic pre, then the AD2044 compressor and AD2055 EQ.
Those songs produced outside the St. Louis studio come into Nappa's hands in varying degrees of “produced.” When Nelly works with big-name producers, the songs come back fully mixed by their own engineers, but in cases of less-equipped writer/producers, production-oriented work falls to Nappa. “When I get the multitrack, I'll match my basic levels and panning to what the producer had on his 2-track, and from there I'll take it into the mix, compressing, EQ'ing and sculpting the low end,” Nappa describes. “Most of these songs revolve around a 4- or 8-bar loop, but since most of the producers don't come out during mixing, I'll be very involved in the arrangement — doing drops to create choruses, bridges, transitions; work that, in another genre, would be handled by the producer.”
As for mixing, Nappa says, “You really can't screw up Nelly. He's got the mic technique down so well that you put up the vocal and it's 90 percent there.” He mixes with a tried-and-true technique and his go-to plug-ins. On Nelly's vocals, typically, he applies light compression with the Waves Renaissance compressor and then — depending on the song — he'll EQ with Focusrite, Renaissance or Massenburg Design Works plugs. “If I need to do aggressive EQ'ing, I'll hit the Focusrite; if it's more of a singing part, I'll use the Renaissance,” Nappa explains. “If I need to do some dissecting, I'll use the Massenburg EQ. The last thing in my chain is the Crane Song Phoenix Dark Essence plug-in.”
Nappa runs his submixes out through an 8-channel API summing mixer into the new Dramastic Audio Obsidian TXIO stereo compressor, through the broad-stroke Manley stereo Pultec EQ, and then limits the mixes and sends them off to mastering. “I spend a lot of time mixing, and we invested a lot of money in monitoring so I would know accurately what was going on,” Nappa concludes. “So I don't leave a lot of room for mastering — 1 or 2 dBs — and I use mastering engineers that I trust.”
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.”
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.”
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.