Marshall Mathers-better known to his legion of fans as Eminem-is the music industry equivalent of basketball player Jason Williams. The Sacramento Kings point guard breaks down racial stereotypes: White players can be technically sound and are always dull, but not Williams, who breaks down defenses with dazzling crossover moves and no-look passes. Mathers uses withering wit, slamming rhythm and tons of ‘tude in a fashion not generally associated with pale faces. Along the way he’s forcing hip hop fans and industry insiders to reconsider some fundamental assumptions. Eminem’s new CD, The Marshall Mathers LP, was due to be released days after we spoke to him and to the production team that has overseen the creation of much of this work and the artist’s debut CD, Slim Shady. Advance projections estimated that as many as 750,000 copies would be sold during the first weekend of its release, so the Bass Brothers were feeling pretty good. (Indeed, the CD has proven to be another enormous hit, exceeding projections.)
Growing up in Detroit, 39-year-old Jeff Bass and Marky, four years his junior, were exposed to a wide variety of musical influences. “We grew up in a mixed racial neighborhood and schools, and the most interesting musicians were black,” says Marky. “At age 8, I was called by Sylvia Moy to audition with Jeffrey for a national Greyhound commercial. Sylvia, who wrote ‘My Cherie Amour’ with Stevie Wonder, thought we were the funkiest white kids in Detroit; she was really a mentor and encouraged us to stick with it. At age l5, my mother let me leave high school to go on the road with my brother’s band, Dreamboy. They had a Top 20 album at the time on Warner Bros./Quest Records. The project lasted for three years with no real returns financially-actually my brother went broke in the process! After that, I thought maybe college was a better route to take, but I kept getting pulled back into the business.
“In 1990, Jeffrey and I landed a deal to produce a hip-hop rap project called Tycie & Woody for Elektra Records, operating for the first time as the ‘Funky Bass Brothers.’ We met George Clinton and started working as a production team for George and for his label, Westbound Records. Unfortunately, most of the acts that we produced for Westbound were never released, and we feel it was some of our best work. Generally speaking, we always worked with black artists, although not intentionally. That changed, of course, when we heard a white rapper freestyle on a local radio show in 1992.”
Marshall Mathers grew up poor, without much guidance and, in large measure, bitter, but he also had an iron will and a caustic, corrugated tongue. By the time he was 15, the Detroit native was rapping in clubs throughout town. one night, Mark Bass tuned in to open mic night on a local radio station. “I used to cut demos and go on the radio to rap,” says Mathers. “Mark heard the shit on the air and called the studio on the spot. We met later that week. The Bass Brothers had a connection with Elektra, but they turned down the project, so I stopped working with them. “I started making a name for myself around Detroit and so I took my income tax check to make a single,” Eminem continues. “Marky and Jeff liked that; they thought it was cool. ‘What about a production deal?’ they asked. I said ‘Yeah.’ I started winning rap battles around Detroit. By this time we’d been apart for about four years. They had to continue with what they were doing and I had to get my shit together; I was only 15 when I met them! By this time my voice had matured, my raps were better. I’m not smart-really, I’m not playin’, I’m not good at math or reading; I don’t have the attention span. I don’t know how I put words together, I guess I’m Rain Man smart-I can do one thing and that’s it.”
Jeff Bass says that he uses Pro Tools to tighten up live performances on instruments, but never a rapper’s phrasing. “We capture them exactly as if it were a live performance. Marshall is amazing. He’s got no idea where ‘one’ is, but he just locks into the kick and pours out the most incredibly rhythmic raps. His time is phenomenal.
“One of the things that gives the Bass Brothers a production style is the fact that we don’t use any samples other than taking our own performances and sampling them-we don’t ever take horn lines off of an old record, for example,” he continues. “I’m a huge fan of the old Motown records and I’ve learned how to capture a lot of what was on those records by using some of the same techniques they used back then, instead of just sampling licks. For example, I keep a set of old bass strings around. When I want that fat, dead sound I’ll put them on my bass. I worked closely with a couple of engineers that actually worked on a lot of those old Motown records and they gave me some great tips. Another tip is to throw away your electronic tuner and tune the guitar by ear. You’ll never match the exact intonation that you get when you do use the tuner, and that’s the point-neither did the people playing on those old records.”
The Bass Brothers approach is to cut parts all the way through a tune onto multitrack rather than simply play a verse and chorus and cut and paste. “That’s where Pro Tools helps a lot,” says Jeff Bass. “We’ll throw all the parts into Pro Tools-we generally go about 16 tracks deep-and then start tightening the time to get it locked right where we want it. Playing live and then using the computer this way keeps the live feel and I think it gets the listener to subliminally wonder, was that a sample or not?”
Marshall Mathers believes this live feel helped him get to the top of the pile.”I knew how I wanted the first records to sound, they knew how to get ’em to sound that way,” he says. “They came up with fatter, thicker-sounding beats than anything I’d had before. How? Well, for one thing Jeff’s a genius with the guitar, bass and keyboards. once he did a few strums of the bass, added some other live parts, it made the songs sound like real records, more produced.”
Between the two of them, the Bass Brothers have a total of one month’s formal training in the recording business. “I went to a recording workshop in ohio; that was it,” says Jeff. “The key with us is we’re not very technical people. We end up feeling and being able to achieve a sound the way we want to hear it, breaking rules along the way-‘You can’t put too much 40k on this or that.’ We don’t listen to any of that stuff because we don’t know the rules! When we feel it’s right, that’s it: our sound!
“The only thing that I could tell you about my knowledge of recording is that we use a process that myself and my brother describe as ‘8 Mile Style,'” adds Mark. “our first commercial studio was located on 8 Mile Road, which is the border that literally segregates all of Detroit from the suburbs. We really had no formal training whatsoever, basically picking up our recording style totally by feel. of course, we do rely on gear and have developed more conventional techniques, though we believe that ultimately ‘it’s not in the gear, it’s in the ear.'”
Both brothers lived in the Los Angeles area for several years, but Jeff has now moved back to Michigan. How has this affected their work process? “The move came about recently,” says Jeff. “When I was living in California we were together and it was a lot easier for us to work. Now that I’m here in Michigan I’ll lay down tracks, put them into Pro Tools and FedEx him files. I also send him MIDI files and a CD burned off of the Pro Tools material. We try to have some of the same equipment, but if I’ve cut something on a synth that he doesn’t own, I’ll send him a CD or DAT of the actual part and sound. By the way, I have to say that I love the way Digidesign has implemented MIDI into Pro Tools. It makes life a lot easier. I don’t get that deep into MIDI, though-if it works, it works!”
“We used the Kurzweil K2000 and Pro Tools mostly on the Slim Shady album. Since then I’ve gotten a Nord II and I think it’s a great keyboard; the feel is great, almost like an old Mini Moog. Having all the oscillators and filters on top is great for achieving funky sounds immediately-I like to grab knobs and see what happens. My two main keyboards are the Nord and a Korg Trinity. I also rely heavily on old Roland MC-50 sequencers. It’s so fast and easy to use. I bought one and then a few more. I don’t use any software synths. Mostly I like to use real pianos and Rhodes that we mike.”
Their production routine consists of Jeff creating the tracks and Marky handling most of the engineering. The brothers have a production studio at L.A.’s The Mix Room that’s centered around a Mackie 32×8 console and a Pro Tools system. “The Mackie is a great board,” says Jeff. “Very user friendly. The dual fader function is something we take advantage of a lot-each channel can be split to double your available inputs. We have one 32×8 board and a pair of 24x8s. Let me do the math…48 plus 32 times 2 gives us a possible 160 inputs!
“We really like the sound of this board as well. It’s very clean and transparent. In rap music that can actually be a disadvantage, though, because hip hop often sounds better with some dirty edge to it. The SSL 6000 is better for hip hop than the 9000, because it’s more bottom heavy. If we’re staying with the Mackie to track and mix this kind of work, we’ll get the extra bottom by busing in outboard gear. We like to mix tracks on three different boards and compare them. Which one feels better? We generally find that the big boards sound better on vocal tracks because of the extensive onboard EQ, but as far as music, believe it or not, the Mackie gives us the fullness and roundness of the instruments that we played. Marky has a really good way of achieving the bottom end on that Mackie. A lot of artists comment on it.”
Aaron Lepley is a staff engineer at The Mix Room. “We hit it off right away,” says Jeff. “His first real gig as a head engineer was Slim Shady. We were working 22 hours a day and he was able to hang with us. Mark’s and my work habits are just go go go, 20 hours a day ’til it’s done, and Aaron was on top of everything. once I tracked my guitar for example, that was it. The next time I plugged it in Aaron went right to the sound I like. He was great.”
Lepley returns the round of compliments. “Mark and Jeff have been great to me-like a small family. Em is cool to work with, too. He knows what he wants, and there’s not a lot of sitting around. I also engineered some tracks on the new album.”
Do the Bass Brothers ever experience tense moments due to their color and the area of the industry they work in? “Hip hop is a culture,” says Marky. “It should have nothing to do with race, color, breed, whatever, but of course it does. As white producers working with black artists, it was always hard to be taken seriously by our peers and by the record companies. Eminem changed that to a great extent; however, we will always have to overcome the fact that we are seen as an anomaly.”
“A lot of times we’ll actually be told that it’s impossible for two white guys to write and produce hip hop music,” says Jeff. “We have a multi-Platinum-selling artist in the field, though, and that’s the proof that we can. The media plays a part in all this, too. They make the assumption that there’s a black-white issue and play it up. “I grew up listening and playing R&B. Just because I was white and Jewish had nothing to do with it,” he continues. “To be honest, I think Eminem has broken a lot of that prejudicial barrier; he’s well-respected in the black community. He has massive skills in rhyming and is a metaphoric genius. All races are picking up on that fact. We live in a society that’s racist, but Em’s a true pioneer in breaking down the stereotype and we feel we’re part of that as well. We share production responsibilities with Dr. Dre, and we all get along.”
Yeah, but do the two brothers always get along? Who ends up threatening to tell Mom when things get ugly? “Working closely with your own brother has it its moments,” says big brother Jeff. “Most of the time we pretty much agree on everything we do. It’s an uncanny kind of connection. We’ll be playing parts to a song and neither one of us will have to speak-we’ll instinctively know what we want to do. I’m still the big brother, though! Marky and I bring different things to the party. He has the mixing ear; I’m more of the musician, the one writing the chord progressions and handling the basics of the song.
“Take the Slim Shady album. I’d come up with a musical track, Marky would redo percussion. That’s how it works 90 percent of the time. Eminem was involved to a certain extent. At that time he really couldn’t hold a tune! He’d hum something, then I’d try to pick his brain to figure out where he was trying to go. That’s how a few of the bass lines evolved.”
“A lot of times, there’s huge disagreement, but the disagreement usually ends with something better off musically for it” adds Marky. “Fighting, compromising, and then back to work. Sometimes our communication in the studio is so bizarre that we don’t even have to look at each other and we know exactly what we’re both thinking at the same time. The greatest thing of all is that we were both able to become successful at the same time, enjoying the unique history together as brothers.”
Speaking of family, Jeff has a 10-year-old son. I ask him if he lets his son listen to rap without imposing any barriers on the material he’s exposed to? “Listening to hip hop? I don’t mind it at all,” Jeff replies. “I make a living off of rap so it would be hypocritical if I didn’t let him listen to it. I have taught him not to repeat words he hears on these CDs at other places! We have conversations about lyrics and he understands what expression is. I expose him to all styles of music-jazz and pop, as well as the kind of stuff that I work on. He knows that Eminem is pure entertainment.”
Has success mellowed Marshall Mathers-or changed the kind of record he makes? Jeff Bass says that Em’s sense of outrage has not diminished, even though his debts have. “Success seems to bring out more anger and pain in Eminem. It’s almost like it’s settling in his brain that he experienced this tremendous pain early in his life.”
“This new album is better, but could anything be as fun as making my first album?” asks Mathers. “We were pounding out the hours, drinkin’ and smokin’, makin’ an album. I knew what I was doin’ more on this album, was more experienced at it; so were Jeff and Marky. Every album is a learning experience.”