Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Skratch Bastid

Skratch Bastid has been a poorly kept secret in Canada's hip-hop scene. In his native Halifax, he's been astounding audiences since the turn of the decade, eventually rising to capture the DJ Battle crown at the Scribble Jam indie hip-hop festival in Cincinnati in both 2003 and 2004. He's an accomplished beatboxer as well as a limber-fingered turntablist with an astute sense of showmanship, which I first witnessed when he backed up Pip Skid and John Smith opening for Sage Francis in Montreal back in 2004. They stole the show--though, admittedly, the fact that I bailed before Sage's 2AM set time on a weeknight may have coloured my impression.

Bastid, born Paul Murphy, now lives in Montreal and holds down a residency at Blizzart's while slowly working on his debut solo album. But his main accomplishment in the last two years is his work on Situation, the latest album by his fellow Haligonian-Montreal traveller Buck 65. The album began as a sample-based, Paul's Boutique-style lark between the two old friends, neither of them sure it would ever see the light of day. But when Buck's Canadian label--the major label Warner--heard the "finished" product, they were excited enough to put it out: with the caveat that the duo would have to re-record most, if not all, of it due to sample clearance issues.

It was worth the effort, as not only is it one of Buck's finer lyrical hours--an extremely loose concept album about societal changes that all stem back to 1957 (rock'n'roll, Bettie Page, criminalization of comic books, Cuban revolution, etc.)--but it's also the most dazzling production job heard on any of his (dozens of) albums, drawing from every corner of the man's extremely catholic tastes: old school hip-hop, country twang, surf rock guitars, European cabaret, modern pop production and more. And Skratch Bastid, in a trial by fire with his first major production job, is largely responsible.

This interview was conducted for this article on the SOCAN website.

For Buck's take on the album's creation, read Noah Love's fine interview with the man on here.

This is what the Bastid had to say.

Skratch Bastid
January 27, 2008
Locale: cell phone at his Montreal home

Even before I read about the creation of Situation, I was reading about how some smaller hip-hop producers were moving away from samples to avoid the increasingly messy legalities. Obviously this has been happening more and more for years now, but for whatever reason people seem to be talking about it more now.

Situation was my first time dealing with a major label. When I put out my own indie record, we didn’t care about sampling. I pressed 2000 copies and I didn’t plan on making money off it. I was a bit naïve and just put it out there, because some of my favourite hip-hop is sample-based.

After going through Situation and seeing how much extra work it was, I can see why some people—people who make their livelihood off of music—how, after doing all this work, [it's frustrating] having someone at the end of the day saying that they owe them half of it. If you’re working with another artist, you and he might get half of the whole song and then of course you yourself are only going to get half of that. It keeps deteriorating as it goes on. If you make it from scratch, obviously you get a much bigger chunk of the pie.

So for most people it comes down to that level. If you’re Kanye West or Jay-Z, you can just afford to drop a million dollars on a sample. That’s just part of their recording budget, the same way that Nickelback will spend four months in a big studio. Kanye just spends that money on paying for samples.

The more apocalyptic stories I read about the state of the music industry, I wonder if people who aren’t making any money off their records—and I’ve heard Buck talk about how he doesn’t make any money off his records—I wonder how much of a consideration this is when you’re writing and recording an album. If you’re making so little money as it is, why would you give away 50 per cent of the songwriting?

It’s weird. With the whole mash-up phenomenon, you have all these DJs who are blatantly taking two songs and putting them over top of each other and giving it away for free; they make their money from doing shows and maybe selling bootleg CDs. It’s funny how that world exists and thrives right now, while the hip-hop people are saying, ‘Oh shit, I can’t sample anymore.’

How does someone like Girl Talk get away with it?

It’s because people like him don’t technically sell their music. It’s a promotion for him dancing around on stage with a laptop. People obviously want to listen to this stuff, so how can we come to a middle ground where everyone is happy? With sample-based stuff, the ball is so obviously in the sampl-ee’s court. There’s no way around it. From any kind of perspective, it’s never in the producer’s court. If someone comes up to you and says, ‘Hey, I’ve already done this thing. How much do I owe you?’ You’re going to say, ‘Well, what if I say a million dollars?’ Then what can they say?

Agile [of Brassmunk] told me a story about a guy who sampled horns from a George Benson track—not the chords, not a loop, just the horns—and Benson wanted 100 per cent of the publishing. Which begs the question, why wouldn’t someone just sample during the composition process and then replace the sample later?

That’s exactly what we did with Situation. Buck doesn’t have a huge budget for his records. When it came down to it, we had to pay a clearing house a thousand dollars a track for them to get us the rights, then we had to pay the artists whatever they wanted. The three samples we took for the album were $3000 apiece, so that’s about ten grand right there. Then we had to give up 50 per cent of the publishing on each of the songs, which leaves Buck and I 25 per cent apiece. So if it was just something like a horn stab that I took, I’d say, well, let’s just go into the studio with a horn player to do it. If it’s just a note, it’s not imposing on the songwriting.

Also, stylistically, people have been borrowing styles for years—whatever, the Beatles from Chuck Berry and everything else. So I would give Buck’s players the sampled track, and sometimes I’d play them just a crappy synth line and say, ‘This is the melody I want to try over this.’ And we’d play it along with the sampled beat, and then go back and erase the beat. It took a little extra work, but I’m really happy that was the process because it will help me in the future.

With someone like you, who really only has a couple of things under his belt—as opposed to Buck, where this is album number 20 or whatever—what did you learn from all this?

I was surprised at how easy it was to actually get in the studio with technology these days to get things to sound dirty. Because that’s the appeal of using samples, is that classic sound. But with proper mics in a low-budget studio, I was surprised at the quality of stuff we could produce with session players, plug-in effects and hardware. We’d record the live players, dirty them up and sample them. If they played a passage they liked, I’d sample that. It took a lot of sifting through, but in any sample-based production you’re dealing with what you’re given. Then when you have the liberty, you can get a guitar player to play notes instead of chords and arrange the notes however you want. Or you can leave the bass line out at certain times. It was worth the extra effort.

Hip-hop is long out of its infancy at this point, and I’m just surprised that I’m only reading more about this approach now.

For the first 10 years of hip-hop, people were oblivious to sample issues. The first sample-based music started appearing in 84 or 85, and then Biz Markie and De La Soul started getting hit with those suits in 89, 90. It’s just weird. Hip-hop is a music that came from people rapping over other people’s music. That’s what it is by definition. For the music to come from that, it’s taken a long time to adjust away from that and into starting from scratch.

I’m curious what you and Buck thought would happen when you started the project. Did you think it was going to feasible?

Yeah! Our plan was just to make a collaborative record. I’m not nervous about creating sample-based beats until it comes time to put it in a movie or something—then I might go back to the studio to change it up a bit. As a DJ, I’ll always be inspired by records and grooves and other artists. As I created this album, I learned more about music and about playing. When Buck and I started, we didn’t care. We wanted to make a sample-based record, and maybe tour and release it on a small level. It just picked up steam, so we went back to the drawing board.

It really is perhaps my favourite of Buck’s records, both musically and lyrically. But if you’d done this and both of you just thought it was merely okay, or if the label was lukewarm about it, would you have bothered doing so much work on it? Obviously you both thought it was worth it to work on it for two years.

The response we got from people was really excited. People loved hearing Buck go for it in that way again, and doing it over beat-driven music. We made it because he and I are old friends. It started as a side project. I made it because some of my favourite Buck records are all sample-based; I grew up on Vertex. There was always this art to finding the good parts of records and just leaving them at that. I wanted to recreate some of that. It was a long journey. In retrospect, what I do now with beats is I start thinking about what I can add to them and how can I change it. Whereas, when this record started I had no intention of doing that. There were some pretty naïve moments where we thought, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll be fine.’

Timeline-wise, I’m curious. Warner heard it and liked it but said, ‘This is not feasible.’ When was that?

Probably five months after the first demos. Its original release date was supposed to be April 31 [2006]—that was the long shot. We went back into the studio in November 06, and it was a big process getting the project to something we were happy with. Then we went in again in January, and that was all the live tracking, and then it was done by July. Then we had to wait for artwork and the label’s release schedule; it came out in October. The actual recording process took a year and a half; and that’s not every day in the studio.

If you were to do it again, would it take as long?

No, definitely not. There was a learning curve and I’m not afraid to admit that. It was a great opportunity and I worked really hard, but there was stuff I realized I wouldn’t have to do if I were doing it again—like envisioning the final product with additional stuff. Because in my mind, most of those original tracks were done, and it’s hard as an artist to go back to something that’s done and change it. A lot of people get hung up on that with sample-based music: they love that sound, the crackle, the warm 70s studio sound. It’s hard for them to get away with that and get something new, because you’ll always be comparing it to the original and it won’t be as good.

What role do samples play on the Pip Skid and John Smith album you three did together in 05?

That’s entirely sample-based. My goal with that record was to make a classic DJ/MC combo record. Tons of scratches and samples. That was me learning how to make songs. (laughs)

What are you working on now under your own name?

Right now I’m compiling some beats and thinking about a solo project with other MCs. Typically with a record like Buck’s it takes about a year for things to sink in. And because I’m not the headline artist on it, it’s going to be a bit word-of-mouth-y for me, like me actually going out and telling people that I’m on it and did the beats on the record.

So there’s no imminent solo record.

Pip Skid, John Smith and I have talked about doing a similar record again, with two producers from Halifax who gave us beats. But I don’t think that’s going to be my follow-up to the Buck record. Right now I’m trying to get into the FACTOR [grant] system, now that I have a major label record to my credentials. That might bring a budget that will allow me to create an interesting collaboration album. Because after the Buck record, I want to come back with something really strong. It would be great to do a Pete Rock album or something, with 10 different MCs. But that’s not cheap or easy.

But what worthwhile effort is?

Exactly! My DJ career is still the breadwinner for me. There’s been a real move in DJ club environments to this super upbeat, dance-y stuff, and it’s moving further away from hip-hop. I think I want to bring it back this way a bit, but still keep it exciting, like Big Daddy Kane or Eric B and Rakim stuff. I’m going to go more in that direction. I want to take some of the corn out of it and put the soul back in. Right now there’s a lot of 80s songs with a backbeat underneath it.

I’m dreading the day when it becomes 90s songs with a backbeat under it. That's a dark decade.

Oh man, it’s already happening.

What, the Pearl Jam samples? Some Alice in Chains shit?

I heard Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” last night. These things happen. It drives me mad. Most of the big, commercial hip-hop these days is really slow, gangsta stuff—which I like and listen to, but it’s hard to play out for girls to dance to. I want to make some old stuff. I do have a lot of beats we didn’t use on the Buck record, because that was harder and darker. I got beats of all different types!


P.S. Crate diggers take some small solace in today's tragic Toronto news: Cosmos Records survived the great Queen St. fire of today, but barely--apparently the stock is intact, though word is that whether they'll actually be able to get it out of the soon-to-be-collapsed building is another issue altogether. Meanwhile, Suspect Video, Duke Cycle, Preloved, etc.--R.I.P.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Agile of Brassmunk

Attention: absolutely zero Vampire Weekend content in this blog post.

Further to the Amon Tobin discussions earlier on this site, I penned another piece for the SOCAN magazine about the state of sampling in hip-hop songwriting today. It was inspired in part by Del Cowie's piece on Agile of Brassmunk and Big Black Lincoln that ran in Exclaim last summer. That article included a paragraph where Agile was explaining his shift from sample-based composition to playing most of the instruments on the new Brassmunk album, Fewturistic--without a doubt one of the most notable Canadian hip-hop albums of 2007.

The tone of the article is definitely directed at a non-hip-hop audience who might be confused how that genre works--especially when it comes to songwriting royalties--and so the line of questioning plays devil's advocate a bit.

I also interviewed Skratch Bastid for this article regarding his work on Buck 65's Situation album; that conversation is forthcoming.

Thanks to Mr. Cowie, ever the gentleman, for the hook-up.

DJ Agile, Brassmunk
January 23, 2008
Locale: phone conversation from his home studio

What advantages are there to avoiding samples altogether?

As an artist, you never know where a song is going to end up. And you don’t know if the person you’re sampling is cool with you getting a fair share of the publishing, depending on what kind of portion of the work you used. Sometimes it’s not so cool. I know an artist who sampled George Benson, but it wasn’t popular Benson stuff, it was obscure. He took some horn stabs and changed the composition of them; it wasn’t like he took a loop. And Benson wanted all the publishing. Obviously, he’s the songwriter and he can demand whatever he wants. A person like him probably doesn’t need the money; he doesn’t need to ask for 50 per cent of the publishing just for a couple of horn stabs. It’s not like the horn stabs were used like they were in the original; it’s not the same chord progression. If he asked for up to half the publishing, okay—but all of it?

So not sampling alleviates headaches. There’s a lot less paperwork, and it’s easier to maximize the earning potential of a song. Say Apple wants to use your song in an iPod commercial, and whoever you sampled from doesn’t like Steve Jobs and says no, you lose that opportunity.

I’m curious about how it works on hip-hop records where, say, one track has three samples on it, and each of those samples comes from a song credited to every guy in the band. So you end up with 15 people credited with composing the sampled tracks, plus however many people were involved in the production and lyrics of the new track, and then you have 20 people splitting all the royalties for one song.

Not really. It’s the sample and you. Say you and I did a track and we sampled some Earth Wind and Fire—sometimes they have a lot of songwriters on their stuff. They decide to go 50/50 with us. So that means you and I would split our 50, which is 25 each, and they get the other 50. That’s usually how it works.

How has this changed for you? I know that Fewturistic used far less samples than earlier Brassmunk stuff.

It’s the evolution of me as a producer. When I started, I was very old school and came from that Pete Rock/Dilla/Premier type of mindstate. I’m a DJ, so I always looked at hip-hop coming from DJs as it did in the beginning. DJs use records and samples, and that’s what my mentality was. I didn’t use a lot of keyboard stuff. My, how that has changed! It’s just age and experience. Now I’m open to new technology, new soundscapes, plug-ins. That whole world opened a third eye for me. It’s amazing and it’s helped me grow as an individual. I can’t remember how I used to make music before plug-ins. I listen to some old production and think, wow, I did a lot with nothing!

That’s impressive that you did, though.

It’s crazy when I think about what we used to do with an SI-50, a Kurzweil K-2000 and some samples. I don’t use either of those things anymore. I use my MPC 3000, ProTools on my Mac, and a tonne of plug-ins on my PC.

But is that better that what you were doing before, or is it the same thing but different? There’s a chance for people who don’t understand hip-hop to say, ‘Of course, he got better, he learned instruments.’ At the same time there’s a magic to what you can make with so little.

I definitely think I’ve got better, but I don’t think it’s the tools. They’re bigger and shinier than they’ve ever been, but getting a bigger and shinier car doesn’t make you a better driver. The same rules apply in music. Cooler tools will not make you a better songwriter or producer. For me, having those tools sparks excitement, but they’re not making me better. They’re giving me opportunities to do things I couldn’t do before.

Does this mean at some point in your career you’re going to do a back-to-basics record?

I’m working on something like that right now with a young guy from Toronto called Daytona. It’s an internet-only thing, and I’m using samples that we could never get cleared. I don’t have a Jay-Z budget. I don’t have a million dollars to buy a big sample.

Is that not unheard of?

Yeah, I do believe he paid a million dollars for “Hard Knock Life” from Annie. But, you know, he sold eight million records so it was a good investment. (laughs)

It’s been a long time since I’ve been using loops and adding drums. I was doing that in the mid-90s. Those days are over for me. Most of the samples I use now, I’m chopping them up. If I do sample something now, I’m mauling it until it’s unrecognizable. So if I do start a composition with a sample, I’ll hire a session player to replace certain elements. I can’t play guitar, so I have several guitar players on speed dial and they come in and re-play the sample, so I can take it out totally. That’s how Dre does his production; he’ll start with samples and then replays everything, and with his budgets he can get all the strings and everything.

So for you sampling is part of the compositional process rather than the end result.


What’s going on with your solo record?

It’s good. It’s more of a marriage now between commerce and music.

How so?

I have a bunch of songs done, and I have to get some featured artists on them. Then it’s a question of how to put it out. I’d like to put out an album, but the market is moving away from albums, more of a singles market again. That leaves me in a different headspace. I have 10-15 songs done, and a bunch of other sketches I’m touching up. I’m really focusing on how to put out my record. I’m looking at the better releases last year that actually scanned units; I mean, they had absurd marketing budgets, but at the same time they put out singles before the record came out.

Are you talking digitally? Physically?

A bit of both. Some freebies. Myspace-rs, Facebook-ers. You have to micromarket on the net now. Look at 50 [Cent]’s last album. He had four or five singles come out before the album. And Kanye did the same thing, and leaked a bunch of stuff that didn’t end up on the record. That seems to be the format now. Also, Radiohead did their pay-what-you-can thing, and they’re making money doing it. They’re a bigger band, obviously, but the business model has totally changed. Now that I have my project 60 per cent done, I have to think about that next step. I can’t just blindly make music.

When do you think you’ll start rolling it out?

By late spring the first piece of the puzzle will be out there.

Do you have any beats going out to other people right now?

I have a new person working my material, which I haven’t had for a while. But I’ve been focusing on my projects. The whole beat game has totally changed, and I don’t like where it’s going. It’s the music biz, so it’s always been shady, but it’s shadier than it’s ever been.

People undercutting, or what?

A lack of respect for artists’ work, period. Don’t get me wrong: I download like everyone else, but I also buy music. Why not download a song before you buy it?

Especially if you can’t hear it on the radio.

Exactly. So sure, go ahead. But there’s a whole generation growing up who are not supporting artists at all. Nothing is for free. The quality of the music that’s coming out is going to drop, because most artists can’t make a living at it and they’re going to do something else. The next Stevie Wonder is going to be a computer programmer, because he can’t make a living playing music. As a culture, we all suffer, because we’re going to lose that cultural contribution from that individual. Downloading for free may cost you nothing, but we all lose.

How’s your major label deal these days?

I don’t have one anymore. The Brassmunk deal with Virgin is done, and the distro deal with Universal for Big Black Lincoln is done as well. So for the first time in a long time, I’m a free agent.

Is that liberating or terrifying?

It’s great!