Photo: Score Press

Buscrates Brings Real Heart and Soul to Vintage Synth-Funk

In crafting his own brand of hip-hop-inspired instrumental funk, Buscrates proves on his latest album he’s a student of the great producers who’ve come before.

Control Center
Bastard Jazz
23 June 2023

The first thing you hear is the snap of the snare. It’s more of a crack, really, like a wooden board broken underfoot. The sound is dry and bright with a trebly glimmer. Full-bodied, not brittle. Drum fanatics futz for days behind mixing boards trying to sculpt a snare this tight. A lazy producer might log into Splice, download a generic one-shot, run it through a compressor, and call it a day. Buscrates is not that producer.

Orlando Marshall, the Pittsburg-based musician known as Buscrates, has been honing his sound for over 20 years. As a member of East Liberty Quarters, Marshall brought his passion for vintage synthesizers to the Pennsylvania trio’s 1980s-inspired electronic funk flavors. As a solo artist, he combines the raw boom-bap beats of early 1990s hip-hop with the decadent sheen of early 1980s synth-funk.

Control Center, his latest full-length release as Buscrates, organically fuses the two genres without leaning on tired tropes. The record showcases an artist who has matured into his sound, one who has found a way to build from familiar foundations to make music he finds fresh and meaningful.

“My sound is a culmination of music I grew up hearing, but with a modern twist,” Buscrates says. “It doesn’t seek to be an exact copy of any specific era. Boiling my sound down to two specific genres that influence my musical direction gives the listener a general sense of what to expect, but it does not paint the entire picture.”

A common critical faux-pas is to describe a piece of music by reducing it to a combination of styles that have existed in some supposedly purer form. I did this in two paragraphs above. The press release write-ups for Control Center do the same, as have reviews from publications like TrebleScratched Vinyl, and Bandcamp Daily. It’s a way to orient potential listeners as to what they might expect to hear. It’s a way to summarize an abundance of auditory information. It’s a way to locate a new release in a cultural and historical context. It’s a way to get people to say, “Sounds cool. Maybe I’ll give it a listen.”

Buscrates’ sound, which takes major stylistic cues from two genres of Black American music past their mainstream moment, is an easy target for this type of critical fodder. Of course, summarizing an artist’s work this way has its limitations, glossing over nuances that make the listening experience worthwhile.

Marshall has some illuminating thoughts on the subject that have been informed by his experiences. The two of us chatted over Zoom and email, touching on his influences, people’s misconceptions about “throwback” music, and how this affects a listener’s perception of the work.

“For years, especially when I first started out in my early days, I got an MPC, and I emulated all of my heroes,” Marshall says. “You’re learning. You’re doing all this stuff. Then that evolved into what you see today.

“When I would make sample-based records, I found a lot of times that I would gravitate towards electric pianos and synthesizer sounds. So it just dawned on me one day. I was like, ‘You have a great ear. Why not try this yourself? You don’t need the records. You can just do it yourself.’ And that’s what I did.”

Marshall is surrounded by vintage keyboards, electric pianos, and synthesizers. He points out the “trifecta of seventies sounds” lined up in front of him: the Rhodes Mark I electric piano, the Hohner Clavinet D6, and the ARP Solina String Ensemble. “Anybody from Kashif to Stevie Wonder to Bernie Worrell, those are the kinds of sounds that really perk my ears up when I hear synths.”

Control Center is caked in keys, and it’s understandable why some listeners might discern Marshall’s heroes amongst the breadth of his vintage synth sounds and skill behind the piano. He channels the squiggliest of Worrell’s synth flourishes on “The Control Center”, whereas “Prisms” and “On My Way” might harken hip-hop heads back to Manzel’s moonlit melodies. Certain listeners might perceive a dash of Stevie’s punchy clavinet on “Internal Dialogue”.

“A while ago, I was listening to a song by Parliament called ‘Let’s Play House’. I think it’s the one Shock G sampled for ‘The Humpty Dance’. I was just like, ‘This bass sounds ridiculous!’ So I went and tried to make something similar to that sound. That’s the bass sound I used on the title track. It was my little nod to Bernie Worrell. That Parliament-Funkadelic stuff is in my veins.”

Inspiration often exists in ways that are oblique or invisible to listeners. At the same time, picking out influences in a musician’s sound lends these influences an outsized role in the final product. Sometimes these connections are fabrications in the mind of the listener. Marshall might balk at some of the influences I listed above, whereas Worrell’s influence on “The Control Center” is hard for me to parse out, like trying to identify the tree whose seed sprouted miles downwind.

Marshall’s recording process is rooted in hip-hop production. Like many beatmakers, he builds a track from the percussion on up, adding melodies later. The beats-per-minute tend to hang around the ’90s, and there’s a bounce to his rhythms that is redolent of early 1990s boom-bap. In conversation, Marshall namedrops Pete Rock, DJ Spinna, Lord Finesse, Diamond D, and Large Professor – all seasoned producers who’ve banged out beats since at least the mid-1990s – as influences on his production style.

“I always start with the drums,” Marshall says. “That’s the foundation of pretty much everything I do. I’ll put them in the [Akai] MPC3000 and chop them up, then I track them out on Ableton. Then I usually first come up with a bassline, which is done on this Minimoog right here. Then I’ll figure out some chords. Once I got that basic structure, I add all the other odds and ends. Maybe I want a clav part, or I might want a Prophet 6 part. It all depends on how it makes me feel, what direction it takes.”

The tracks on Control Center would blend seamlessly into a DJ set of 1990s hip-hop tracks and their backpacker progeny. Aside from album closer “On My Way”, which features soulful vocals from Soraya Watti, these tracks are entirely instrumental. Not “instrumental” in the style of 1990s hip-hop instrumentals, which were often sparse, bass-heavy backdrops for rap verses. These instrumentals are fully-formed songs with sumptuous synthesizer melodies filling the sonic gaps where rap lyrics would slot into conventionally structured hip-hop joints.

This balancing act – the rugged rhythms of sample-based hip-hop drums with the liquid splendor of synth tones – is what makes the tracks on Control Center so juicy. To pull it off, Marshall blends analog instruments with digital recording technology. “If I record a passage on my Rhodes electric piano and apply to it some new plugins in Ableton Live, it’s a contemporary combination of sounds that didn’t exist during that instrument’s heyday of the 1970s,” Marshall says.

Photo: Courtesy of the artist via Bandcamp

“In terms of analog instruments in some way defining me as a throwback artist, I think it’s a short-sighted assessment. There are so many ways to make original music on older pieces of gear. It also doesn’t consider how technology has evolved to allow me to create sounds that you previously needed a full band to achieve. There is a lot of knowledge and skill that’s required for me to do so. I need to stay up-to-date on new software platforms and innovate how to integrate analog and digital equipment.

“It’s not about the gear so much, it’s all about how you use it in your works. There’s nothing new under the sun. Acoustic pianos have been around for centuries, yet no one calls them ‘dated.’ People still go crazy over Les Paul guitars, and trap music is largely based on sounds that come from a 43-year-old drum machine.”

Marshall believes that critical tags like “throwback”, or the perception of his sound as a revival of past styles, is at least partially the result of a media ecology that sells music based on familiarity. It’s also the result of a culture that, at least on a mainstream level, views music genres as trends that go out of fashion rather than loose systems of sound patterns that develop organically.

“In general, I think indie artists are critiqued this way much more than commercially successful artists. I don’t recall hearing these conversations or dismissals of being stuck in the past when Bruno Mars released songs like ‘Uptown Funk’ and ’24K Magic’ that achieved multi-platinum status. When you’re an independent artist, you don’t have the scale of marketing campaigns and branding that leads audiences to have quick confidence that you must be a fresh, innovative voice because a large label has co-signed on your talent. As an indie artist, that’s just an aspect of the industry I have to accept. Part of it is a trade-off. Being an indie artist allows me to experiment freely and explore my music with no constraints. I value putting out music that is authentic to me.

“There seems to be a perception that the era of Black music and funk had an end date, that it’s a bygone era rather than a continued craft. The music of James Brown lives eternally in sample form in a sizeable amount of late 1980s and early 1990s hip-hop records. Sly Stone’s influence is apparent in the music of D’Angelo. Funk is alive and well and is everywhere. Aside from less than a handful of artists, it’s just not currently at the forefront of mainstream America. As with most other genres, funk is highly appreciated across the world, especially in places like France and Japan. They don’t subscribe to the idea of music being a disposable commodity. Evidence that funk is alive and well today is demonstrated by the popularity of artists like DāM-FunK and my own personal experience of being able to grow a loyal, international fanbase organically.”

Influence is inevitable. For some artists, influence guides them to create something new from older forms that haven’t been fully exhausted, as if they ever could be. We don’t make art to channel the emotions, struggles, compulsions, and interests of those who have influenced us. We make art that represents something of ourselves or explores something we find worthwhile outside of ourselves. The process often involves building up from existing foundations, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go to new places. Of course, we want music to go to new places, but we often discuss it by pointing to places it’s already been.

This is the culture into which Marshall releases his records. However, it’s evident this has nothing to do with the way he makes records. The songs on Control Center are sophisticated and dynamic enough to do what all good music, regardless of genre, equipment, or time period, does: create a deep emotional response in the listener’s mind. It’s this quality – so difficult to describe to a friend or write about in your music blog – that Marshall aims for.

“Music made with genuine passion and connection to one’s heart and soul is what I value most,” he says. “I’m not chasing a marketing moment with my music. To me, good music is good music with no expiration date.”