Madlib Beatmaking Wisdom

HEAT – put it on while you read

I listened to this sweet mix of Madlib beats recently, and was reminded of my firm conviction that he is the greatest beatmaker. Maybe not the greatest living DJ in the sense of all-round hip hop artist, I’d hand that to DJ Premier for his epochal work with Gang Starr (deepest and best hip hop act of all time, for my money) and for making my no. 1 track of all time. Madlib doesn’t aim that high artistically, I think. But his stuff is the funkiest of all.

I had to turn up the mix to neighbour-bothering levels numerous times. It’s that good. So here are some notes I took for myself to try improve my own hip hop beats – a form I’ve been dabbling in for many years. Hope you find something you like.

Madlib excels with pickups. If you don’t know that term, it generically means a melody that enters a few beats before the perceived top of the musical form. However, I use it specifically to describe the funky structure wherein a line – melody, drum fill, vocal sound, whatever – leads the ear through a break to the downbeat. Think reggae drum rolls and jazz horn breaks. This kind of pickup provocatively holds onto or toys with the time/groove in the gap before a beat drop. I noticed that Madlib can use almost any kind of material in this role. Strings/vocal top layer mush, guitar or horn stabs, vocal snippets, anything.

(Something cool I noticed is that this use of chordal stabs/slices in particular as fills or pickups, can be ambiguously interpreted as both harmonic, a meaningful chord change, and as a passing dissonant sound.)

From this follows a more general principle: any sample, any instrument sound can and should be broken or undercut. (See my article on funky structures for more on undercutting.)

This makes me want to revise my comfortable habit of making a 4- or 8-bar loop, quite detailed and full, and then arranging it by basically muting and unmuting, maybe filtering or echoing, parts. Madlib eschews this techno type approach. His tracks are live-feeling and changeable, also quite unlike traditional hip hop like mid-90s DJ Premier or Lord Finesse productions. In those tracks, there’s some muting and breaks and cuts, but everything is based off a main verse groove (and perhaps a chorus change). By contrast, Madlib’s stuff turns and crawls like a beast.

Often this organic development lets an already existing sound flower and manifest its potential, e.g. from happening once every two beats to twice or letting in previously-filtered-out highs. Or switching octaves of a synth bass part here and there – very effective. This is about finding the right degree of saliency (a term I learned from an otherwise fairly boring composing book by Alan Belkin) – not smooth enough to be subconscious or background, but not jarring either. I’d like to learn how to hit that sweet spot.

Madlib’s beats are often pretty sophisticated harmonically – the root movements and chord changes from his source material emerge in the final product. I’m inspired to simply take more care with the chordal content of my samples and productions.

“Taking care” really sums up this music. Madlib never seems content to phone anything in. Every sample is present for a reason, never “just because” – even fundamentals like hats and snares are left out or drastically varied. Also, every sample, without exception, is so, so fat. Like, dripping from the speaker. It’s absolutely incredible.

That’s not achieved by narrowly honing in on perfect synth or EQ or compression settings like a techno producer. The fatness comes in wildly varying flavours e.g. from very subby, electro kicks/bass to earthy, turfy, crackling ones or quite distorted and processed, depending on what each beat needs.

This one’s a bit intangible, but Madlib’s tracks often seem to have a pregnant space. He can make you wait. These grooves are head-nodding yet sound like they haven’t fully kicked in, over long periods. This comes from space and the confidence to use it… and also making every element add to the funk.

Here are some specific things I want to try in my productions…

When using the classic hip hop technique of splitting sampled material into a bass layer and a top layer using filtering, don’t expect the bass layer to sound anything like a solo bassline. It’ll sound like a muffled version of the original sample with all its instruments, and that’s fine, it’s idiomatic. I used to think you had to try literally remove everything but the fundamentals of the bass notes, but this just results in a vague thrumming. That’s not the way!

Madlib has a distinct approach to the other side of the coin, the high frequencies: frequently his strings and vocals and chordal mush gleam hazily over the gritty, present beat. Perhaps some reverb on the top layer, and smart compression somewhere, contribute to this?

Actually, there’s a lot of woozy modulation in Madlib’s music (though it’s not formulaic like in your modern day chill hop/study beats electric piano sound) and I’m gonna grab a tape emulator to try get some wow and flutter and noise into my sounds.

Also there’s liberal use of loud and woofy synth bass, often with tasty (non-diatonic) note choices or chords. I think because I’m still in psychological recovery from quitting bass playing a year ago, I haven’t been focusing on basslines in my productions.

Well, that’s all I got. I would’ve liked to discuss the idea of “beatmaking” a bit – this cultural manifestation of the 2010s, pretty much, that markets aspects of hip hop culture as a hobby which now seems like it could take over much of music. (Especially in these awful, socially-distanced times.) And of course, there’s plenty of black culture stuff we could dig into, metaphors around music as sonic substance (“fatness”), the aesthetic of “taking care” and its gender coding (maternal energies in highly masculinist music), sexual metaphors around cutting, the groove, also the slave sublime (distorted voices, screams), manifesting/smuggling, and so on. But you can find those in any deeply funky music. I hope today’s narrow focus on techniques was worthwhile.

Thanks for reading.

Here’s another, possibly even better mix.

Beats, Windows 98-Style

It’s been a while since I blogged here. In the meantime I’ve been working a lot on my rock band Mescalito… but some blog ideas have been simmering in the back of my mind.

Today’s post is a quick chat about a creativity-boosting project I thought of. I’ll be making a drumloop a day, every day of December 2016 and uploading them to my Soundcloud.

I was recently producing beats for my trio with Dyl Lynch and Max Zaska. I enjoyed trying to imitate the likes of Madlib, using compressor and EQ plugins etc. to make our live performances as fat as possible. For this month’s project, though, I’ll just focus on drum programming. I’m inspired by another bandmate, Ben Prevo’s, song-a-day project where he used whatever was at hand to make a more-or-less finished product each day.

To avoid the rabbit hole of tweaking FX plugins, and for a healthy dose of nostalgia, I’ll only use software available in the year 2000!

Hammerhead Rhythm Station (Bram Bos, 2000)

Drumsynth 2.0 (Paul Kellett, 2000)

To me, these programs evoke a different world. I imagine bedroom tinkerers sharing coding techniques, knowledge of analog and digital hardware, and a love of dance music. Bram Bos’ program even displays his student email address, from a Dutch university. The last days of a smaller, less consolidated internet.

Hammerhead Intro.png
The intro screen for Hammerhead

If you had a PC back then, your music-making options were limited to MIDI sequencing, basic layering of samples, trackers – or free programs like these.

This screenshot took a bit of effort to find – it’s easy for the history of a scene like PC music software to disappear into the ether … Massiva, another program I was messing around with around the year 2000

The nicest thing about (my fantasy of) the 90s is the DIY mentality. The tools are by amateurs and rely on no-one else’s file formats or software. These guys saw a problem, coded up a solution and gave it to the world. That still happens today but you are far less likely to hear of it in the hyped and moneyed tech/startup landscape of today.

Admittedly, some of those pioneers monetised their work. Drumsynth 2 is now bundled with FL Studio.

I say “pioneers”, but the reason there was a space for pioneering, is that the professional music world had little time for PCs. PC music was a nerdy little field, obsessed with emulating “realer”, cooler sounds – a vibe you can pick up by browsing old magazines.

The presets in Drumsynth 2 do try to emulate iconic drum machines – but the little synth can’t really hack it and the noises are crude. I kind of like that though. To recap, I’m using 20-year-old free software to get a sound roughly (but not convincingly) like 40-year-old drum machines.

Having a small number of samples (20 preset, 6 custom, only 6 channels) in Hammerhead, my drum machine, forces me to listen closely to how sounds work together. No delay or reverb makes me strive for other ways of creating depth: volume differences, layered and interlocking syncopations, and expressive, varied timbres.

I’ll be pushing the software past what it was designed to do. Hammerhead does 4/4 beats in 16th notes only. By using odd numbers of bars, though, this can be got around (e.g. 5 bars of 4/4 can be 4 bars of 5/4). Similarly, the shuffle control can be abused for some beat-bending tricks, if the given 4/4 grid is disregarded.

So in a humble way this project might represent some DIY values from the hacker and demo-scenes of my idealised 90s – which were all about overcoming computational limitations.

By the way, those 4/4 grids are how I first learned rhythm, at the age of 12 or so (first in a MIDI sequencer, then in Hammerhead). Here is my first ever beat, from 2001:

And here is the first drumline of my month of beats, Windows 98-style. (Try this direct link if the soundcloud embedding doesn’t display below.)

Post-Dubstep Aesthetics

I’m taking a stylistic leap today to look at David Kennedy aka Ramadanman aka Pearson Sound, a visionary UK dubstep/house producer who came up around 2010.

His music shares the obsessions of this blog: timbre and syncopated rhythm. But obviously it’s quite removed from Delta blues or bebop where I’ve previously found those qualities. Kennedy doesn’t focus much on the overtones of a human voice or guitar string, but rather on digitally manipulated drum sounds. He’s not turning syncopations into improvisational melodies, but rather layered, interlocking drum parts.

So, today I’ll explore the techniques (sampling and digital effects) and structuring of Kennedy’s 2011 track, Don’t Change For Me. Then I’ll argue that the concepts he uses – emotional distance, physicality, coolness via disguised or seemingly thrown-away emotional peaks – connect deeply to African Diaspora aesthetics found in blues, hip hop and jazz. Kennedy is a white Englishman in his 20s, but has a long-time fascination with New York hip hop as well as black London-based artists like Dizzee Rascal and LTJ Bukem, representatives of a British Afro-Carribean musical lineage rooted in Jamaica.

Kennedy’s sound is built from chopped up from vocal and drum performances. In both cases the sampling process leaves obvious traces. The vocals become lyrically unintelligible. The drum sounds are highly coloured by the loud cymbal and resonating drum kit in the original break, whose tones remain in the chopped kick and snare hits. This is the classic sound of jungle music. The most-used sample in jungle is the ‘Amen’ break, but “Don’t Change…” uses one of the ‘Think’ breaks from Lyn Collins’ “Think“. (Thanks to Chris Guilfoyle aka Exit Introvert for his knowledge!)

Further colouration comes from pitch shifting the samples. At 0:56 all the drum sounds are subjected to a cool upwards pitch bend, and I think all the vocal samples (starting at 1:38) are sped up a bit.

Kennedy’s main sound-sculpting tool is a foundational technique of dance music: resonant filtering. He often uses it to create transitions, for instance at 1:36 where the drums are muffled for the vocal entry, or during the fade-out where different layers each get their own low-pass filter settings (so that, e.g. the snares are much more dampened than the hats at 4:50). A very clear musical use of different filter settings is the intro to Kennedy’s “Quivver“. Or, in his awesome “Blimey“, a high-pass filter with ascending cut-off frequency is used as a structural gesture to clear away the beat at 3:13. I use the word “gesture” because filter manipulations don’t have musical information like a melody or drum groove does – instead their meaning is in where, when and how they are used, just like pointing or waving your hand.

Kennedy has made a signature sound out of combining filtering and delays. The knocking, clacking percussion in “Don’t Change…” from 0:05 is, I suspect, made by filtering delayed echoes of the original high hat pulse; at 0:53 the snare hit is echoed in sixteenths with a descending filter cut-off frequency; at 4:50 a two-note snare drum rhythm echoes every 3 sixteenth notes while its filter resonance is manipulated to provide a timbral lead line for the outro. Both “Blanked“and “Untitled” start off with this signature combination of delay and filtering.

Like those songs, “Don’t Change For Me” uses delays to generate rhythms. At 0:28 a crunchy drum/cymbal sample is echoed in quarter notes, and at 0:46 a slap-back delay creates a flammed effect on the drums (as if each hit is quickly played twice). Together, the pitch shifts, delays and filter manipulations give a rather “live” feeling of a human consciousness influencing the music moment to moment.

The song’s is structured around layered drum loops at 137bpm. Each is quite simple, but they come together in pleasing ways. For example, the kick and cymbals are first apart, then together, then apart, in the first two bars.

2-Bar Drums Groupings

This two-bar length is the basic breath/cycle of the groove, with off-beat energy in the middle always resolving to the fat distorted kick sound on beat 1. The snares in the second bar form groups of 3 that target both the and of 3 (a classic snare placement in drum’n’bass) and the next bar’s distorted-kick downbeat. The overall groove is lurching and staggering, floating in the space between those downbeats – which I guess is how people would dance to it.

Kennedy is actually creating simulated physicalities: his percussion sounds simulate drums of various sizes and constructions; the occasional reverbs (e.g. 0:14 on the cymbals, or 1:10 on the snare) simulate reverberant rooms; the syncopated rhythms and their shuffly, intricate interplay simulate funky human movement. An acoustic virtual reality of morphing spaces and objects, for people to dance through. There is an intentional lack of melodic or lyrical content. The music is purposely incomplete unless the listener engages their body or at least their kinesthetic imagination. (Vijay Iyer is my inspiration for this idea.)

As well as making variations with filters etc., Kennedy avoids predictability with an elegant technique: the different parts have varying, (though all square) loop lengths:
2-bar cymbal and snare patterns, a 4-bar chord progression, an 8-bar vocal melody and kick drum pattern, and a 16-bar sub bass pattern.

Chords 1
The chord progression (approximate voicings) of “Don’t Change For Me”. The quarter note melody is barely audible but I’m pretty sure it’s in there.

Vocal melody.png
The chopped-vocals melody of “Don’t Change For Me”.

The kicks and sub bass patterns are created by slight variations between two halves – most obviously, the dotted-quarter-note sub bass in bar 15 which provides a satisfying release to the whole form.

16-bar drums
The 16-bar drum and sub bass form.

This 16-bar unit is used for almost all the sections: drums intro (0:42), chords (1:10), vocals (1:38), vocals w/ richer chords (2:06), bridge (2:36), vocals w/ “goblet drum-ish” percussion (3:04), etc. The only exceptions are some added bars at 2:34 and 4:00.

So we’ve looked at structure and techniques. Now for some aesthetics.

First thing to note is the coexistence of polished, abstract aspects with much rawer, more intense ones. This contrast is laid out in the intro, where clinical cymbal sounds undergo digital processing until suddenly distorted bass and slippery jungle snares kick in. Or at 2:36, soulful, bluesy vocal fragments are suddenly contrasted with an abstract rhythmic arpeggio pattern. Or, sonically, compare the wildness of the sub bass’ thudding triplets or groaning long notes to the airy, clean synth and reverb effects.

Questlove characterised black cool as “intensity held in check by reserves of self-possession”. We’ve noted rawness contained within polished structures in “Don’t Change…”. Kennedy ensures that when that intensity is glimpsed, it appears almost unintentional. One example is the sub bass pattern’s seeming arbitrariness. It’s almost like someone messing around, matching some kick drum hits and not others. (See the transcription above.) “Engagement masquerading as… disengagement”, in Questlove’s phrase. Then it strikes suddenly in bar 15 (remember this is meant to be heard on an enormous sound system). This pretend casualness giving way to maximum intensity is apparent in basketball ankle-breakers, for instance. David Kennedy uses it for the peak moment of “Don’t Change For Me” at 2:30-2:36.

All the hottest elements of tune are juxtaposed here: the dotted-quarters sub-bass variation, the sweet blues-scale trill that ends every 8 bars of vocals, and a once-off extra melody. This added melody slips in under the radar at 2:27 because Kennedy has already been adding octave-doubled notes to the chord sequence since 2:06 (they sound kind of like synth strings). He has got us used to the sound of adding voices, so we barely notice when the new, pretty tones appear at 2:27.

Chords Rich
Chord progression with extra line. Note the presence of seconds e.g. G-A in the first bar – the new line forms rather jazzy chord extensions. Again, approximate voicings.

But the really nice bit is at 2:34. Kennedy breaks his 16-bar drum/harmony pattern for an unexpected 1-bar break, which very simply continues the groups of six in the snares for three beats, then ends with a distorted bass thud on beat 4.

The break (last bar).

Meanwhile the beautiful bluesy trill continues to ring out over the lush final chord. But our attention is centred on the filtered, chewy, jingling, jungle-ish timbres of the drumline. To me, the message is “This music is basically about funky drums”. This is said via the (jazz-derived) gesture of the drum break. Then, without ceremony, we’re in a kind of “B section” stripped down to a tricky, syncopated minor arpeggiation, as the trill fades.

So, a lot of beautiful things happen in this short time – a once off melody, an awesome once-off break, a breaking of the rhythmic form, the prolongation of the song’s nicest sounds – but Kennedy defuses the drama by using only predictable elements and not breaking the flow (or introducing new information) in any of the lines. He’s pretending not to be doing much of anything. I think that’s precisely the camouflaging of one’s engagement that Questlove identified.

The vocals also have this camouflaged quality. Just as Kennedy’s drum timbres hark back nostalgically to jungle and rave, so the vocals are heavy with both soulful inflections and processing that recall emotive UK garage and house vocals. (The pitched-up sound contributes to this.) Kennedy mitigates this sentimentality by cutting the vocals up and using the bits as rhythmic stabs, so that the lyrics are unintelligible and the overwrought inflections appear in robotic stutters. Once again, raw emotion is contained by mechanical structures.

What’s the end result of all this? For me, it’s a deeply original style exhibiting technical mastery – but more importantly, this music both grooves (get on your feet and listen again if you don’t believe me) and has the emotional sophistication of nostalgic sounds affectionately subjected to ironic distancing, minimising and masking.

That’s all I’ve got today! Hope you liked this swerve into contemporary club grooves. Would really appreciate feedback on this one as I’m definitely not an expert in electronic music. Sorry for the late post and see you next Friday.