[19 July 2007]
“I realized—even as a five-year old—that the information about how a record got made was just as important as…the product itself.”
—Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, foreword to Check the Technique
One of the most unexpected pleasures of art museum teaching is the reconnection I make with appreciating music. Working with different ages, abilities, and interests, I recognize my varied facilitation approaches in the multiple entry points I use to engage sound. At a beginner’s level, identifying objects, color, and scale in a Cezanne painting is no different than distinguishing instrumentation, dynamics, and tempo in a Paul C production.
Looking—as listening has been for me all those years—can be used as a tool for critical thinking. However, as much as questioning techniques can help activate critical minds, a necessary element repeatedly becomes apparent: contextual information. While close observation can change a conversation from “This sucks” to “Why did he make his people look angular, like buildings?”, simple facts are needed to extend and enrich the conversation. To have meaningful discourse about the artistic process, one has to be both critical and informed.
This past June, an enthusiastic journalist and a t’d-off emcee reminded me of how relevant these elements are to hip-hop. The publication of Brian Coleman’s Check the Technique: Liner Notes for Hip-Hop Junkies, the follow-up to his 2005 “hip-hop liner notes” Rakim Told Me, occurred almost simultaneously with rapper Saigon’s blog flare-up about his long-delayed solo debut The Greatest Story Never Told (which has coincidentally been due since 2005 on Atlantic Records). Process, or how a record is made, is at the heart of both headlines.
Check the Technique, which features interviews with emcees, producers, record label execs, and other insiders, offers unprecedented first-person accounts of how classic albums from the mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s were made. Saigon, who has been heralded as a next-big-thing artist since signing to hit producer Just Blaze’s (Jay-Z, Kanye West, the Game) Fort Knox Entertainment in 2004, inadvertently sparked a two-week Internet fire when he posted a rant about his long-delayed solo album—which in turn provoked several detailed exchanges with Just Blaze that revealed details and accounts of the album’s two-year-plus journey. Both stories are exceptional as rare, and sorely needed, opportunities to flesh out the (sometimes storied) process behind making hip-hop.
Coleman’s work is the more traditional of the two. Although the journalist / writer speaks humbly about his original work Rakim, stating his goal was “to let people eavesdrop on some amazing conversations I’ve had with hip-hop legends over the years”, he recognizes with Check the Technique that his book would be exceptional as a “fact-driven and…entertaining hip-hop reference book—a literary category that still needs a great deal more expansion.” Some of the stories, such as the role of Marley Marl in making Eric B. & Rakim’s Paid in Full and the different incarnations of Digable Planets, have been in long-time yet informal circulation, be it through in-person or Internet circles. However, by interviewing artists, crosschecking their statements, and publishing their stories, Coleman takes a step toward cementing this information. Similar to Jeff Chang’s strides with Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, Coleman makes an important contribution to the history, research, and criticism of hip-hop by engaging the first-hand voice.
Considering the broad range of Check the Technique‘s interview subjects—2 Live Crew’s ghetto fabulous As Nasty As They Wanna Be and the Beastie Boys’ boho hit Check Your Head are covered in the first two chapters—one can easily imagine the spectrum of circumstances involved. Although Coleman makes a noted effort not to make connections between the artists and albums (each chapter treats one artist/album independently of the others) or draw conclusions or interpretations, given the common period and relative fame of most of these artists a number of themes become apparent. Each artist speaks on the importance of listening as a source of inspiration.
Be it through radio, school/neighborhood friends, or family music tastes / collections, many of the artists recall a visceral response to hearing hip-hop, and subsequently wanting to participate. Being the first generation to actually grow up on manufactured and distributed hip-hop, most received their music training through listening to and performing hip-hop, as opposed to traditional avenues (guess which Yay Area pimp did high school marching band?). And, more important, the vast majority focused their attention on recording, as opposed to performance. Although there were few hip-hop “stars” at the time, every artist recognized the profitability and/or the posterity of recording. As much as Grand Puba and Pete Rock may enjoy reminiscing about block parties, the cover to Paid in Full was prescient.
Notably, most of the subjects were not impoverished, and were thus able to achieve this goal because they had ready access to resources, such as turntables, mixers, and recording equipment. Subsequently, the blueprints for classic records by Eric B. & Rakim, EPMD, and Black Moon were crafted on home stereo tape-decks and/or 2-track recorders. Sure, two brothers recording in a bedroom may not be as underdog an image as kids plugging record players into light poles in the park, but hip-hop’s founding principle remained the same: making due with the available resources. Even by yesterday’s technological standards, many of these methods were crude and amateur, and yet these young men (overwhelmingly; MC Lyte is the only female voice interviewed) arose as ingenious artists by creatively engaging their environment.
However, the progression from Check the Technique‘s stories to Saigon’s is remarkable. The 29-year-old rapper’s road to hip-hop sounds familiar: recording as a means for both artistic expression and financial opportunity; and the creative use of available resources / associates with resources. In some regards, his story is an unprecedented ideal where his artistic vision has been acknowledged by a major label (arguably harder for an independent artist to do now, considering there are fewer and larger labels to court) and incubated under the guidance of a young, but successful veteran for an extended period. Yet, on 1 June Saigon posted a MySpace blog that took digs at his label. In it, he vented his frustration over the two-year-plus ordeal, calling Atlantic “a home of ringtone making artists” and suggested he would release the album independently, “regardless.” Although he removed the post after receiving an e-mail response from Just Blaze (the contents of which have only been referenced in passing by both parties, though never published), he made clear in a subsequent HipHopDX interview his frustration was with the label, citing “the powers that be” as holding up the album.
Indeed, as flailing and familiar as Saigon’s vitriol appeared, his outburst publicly revealed the influence of outside circumstances on his ironically titled Greatest Story Never Told. Just Blaze’s post-in-reply on his blog in fact clarified both the larger societal circumstances affecting the distribution of the record, as well as micro-level insights into the particular artist dynamic of their relationship and about the business protocol of making music. If you think this column is long, make yourself comfy before taking a bite outta JB’s nearly 3000 words—or, allow me to summarize.
According to Just Blaze, most of Saigon’s never-ending story is the result of insufficient time management and perfectionist recording practice. Its most recent hold-up is a sample clearance question for the lead single “Don’t Cha Baby”, which owes thanks to contemporary hip-hop’s higher stakes environment, where increased visibility and marketability has affected the way hip-hop is made, and poor timing with the Don Imus scandal. The single had gone through a number of incarnations, and only recently (“a few months ago”, according to Blaze) came together in its current form.
The song is exceptional because enough faith was put into its eventual production that sample clearance (a time- and cost-consuming procedure, especially when a larger name musician/band is involved, such as the one in question) began over two years ago when the beat was first drafted. Although the company secured publishing rights, it failed to secure master use rights (the sampled band has an unusual circumstance where it co-owns the master rights with its record company); the band asked for lyrics to the song “coincidentally” after Imus returned fire at the hip-hop world, leading Just Blaze to conclude that these “good ol’ boys” did not agree with the perceived sentiments or values of Saigon’s music, i.e. hip-hop.
While the revelation of contested sample clearance and attacks on hip-hop’s morals are practically given in every era of hip-hop, Just Blaze and Saigon’s exchange was extraordinary as both independently used their own platforms to speak as artists on their own situation. Again, such initiative and agency may not be a surprise when any rapper can take to the Internets (Chamillionaire is the old standby, but Bun B is my most quotable: “This HIV/AIDS shit is killin’ people at alarming rates, especially minorites [sic] and people ages 15-30…protect yo shit!”), but for two artists to be so communicative with their self-reflection is a true rarity. Just Blaze, in particular, had already made broad advances in documenting his recording process/escapades through his marketing tool/YouTube toy Just Blaze TV.
But their joint self-admission of mistakes—from how the conversation was initiated (“This woulda been much easier over the phone”, Saigon wrote in his second post) to Just Blaze noting how he “violated his own rules” by supporting the advance sample clearance (most producers do not start sample clearance unless they are relatively certain the final product will be used, understandably because of the time and cost of the process)—document their thought processes and offer potential windows into their future courses. Are there changes around the corner for both in the future? Hard to say, but if JB’s recent posts are any indication it is certainly plausible.
In Check the Technique‘s foreword, the Roots’ co-founder Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson writes, “Back in the day, hip-hop barely got a recording budget, let alone decent packaging.” While ?uest’s complaint is specifically about the lack of liner notes or consistent documentation of early hip-hop recordings, his observation also speaks to the relative naiveté of the past. Such callousness can (and has) become a costly enterprise, so both artists and companies have taken measures to control their output.
Predictably, this open mingling of business and artist practices has led to confusion and dispute, as Just Blaze (inadvertently?) suggested when he used that EPMD cover with his post. However, this sense of ownership and investment will be crucial in documenting both hip-hop’s past and guiding its future course. So, as ?uest says, “Hurry up with the next installment.”