Deca Digs Jim Lawless
Deca’s Source Material is an airier record, with bouncy drums à la J Dilla, crisp percussive sounds, and light but catchy melodies. Think of it as a refreshing spring mix to Damu’s aural chili. This is essentially a beat tape, a collection of hip-hop instrumentals unsullied by rap vocals, a genre evolved from the demo cassettes producers passed along to MCs looking to buy beats to rap over.
“I started making beats when I was 18,” says Deca. “I was living with a few friends that were all musicians, and my homie Yonnas showed me how to use an MPC 2000. A few of the earliest beats I made are on the first solo album I released called Top of the Line Bottomfeeder. Then just kind of out of necessity over the years I started producing all of my own albums. To this day the MPC is still the main foundation of all of my production.”
For Source Material, Deca samples from KPM’s digitized catalog and the library records in his personal collection. “I really didn’t have a plan of attack other than to try and use some of the lesser-known records that, to my knowledge, hadn’t been used by other producers in the past. I ended up listening to pretty much the entire catalog and just sampled and tried things out as I went, and used elements from KPM, Conroy, and Theme.”
“I gravitate mostly towards things with a dreamlike quality or spacey, stripped-down melodies with room to build and layer other samples on. Jim Lawless is probably the closest out of all the composers in the archive to the types of music I’m drawn to and look for when I dig.”
Deca samples Lawless on the opening track, “Sleepwalker”, a spectral downtempo beat with warm vinyl crackle beneath a sprinkling of flute and vibraphone. “Summer Song” pitches down Tony Kinsey’s “San Francisco” (KPM, 1973), deepening the bass and slowing the pace to a leisurely summer cruise with the top down. “Slow Healing” would make a great match for Common’s conscious flow. The track slides an electric piano loop over bass pulse stipples that sound warm and rounded off at the edges, a nice contrast to the rigid snare hits.
Dilla’s influence is most apparent on “Wellspring”, which spritzes reverb on Sam Sklair’s “Themes and Variations: Tempo Changes” (Conroy, 1970). The beat has more spring than a Monte Carlo with enough hydraulic suspension to graze bumper to asphalt.
The drums are hot. Rhythm is the foundation of hip-hop instrumental, and any tape lacking a dynamic percussive backbone is getting buried under the seemingly endless digital stack of high-quality beat tapes. Deca’s drums have a propulsive quality reminiscent of lowrider hydraulics. Bumps this crisp and lively are fashioned from subtle variations of pattern and volume. Even if the resultant listening experience is as smooth as a Sunday cruise, the effort that goes into making it can resemble a messy engine repair.
But the true indicator of a beat tape’s shelf life is the melodies. The best beat tapes (Madlib’s Beat Konducta series, Knxwledge’s Hud Dreems, J Dilla’s Donuts) target the melodic sweet tooth with loops so hooky they keep listeners’ fingers stuck to the replay button. If listening to an album is like reading a novel, then listening to a beat tape is like flicking through a magazine; the re-digestable snippet is emphasized over forward momentum.
On Source Material’s most dynamic tracks, Deca augments his melodies with subtle and quiet auditory flourishes. Though the electric piano melody running through “Slow Healing” never varies, the song builds thanks to some subtle electronic whooshes and whirs, as well as tasteful notes of synthesizer splashed throughout the track.
“Summer Song” is grounded by oohs and ahhs and some sunny guitar coming through the left channel, but the track stays fresh thanks to high-pitched whistle samples, synthesized gurgles and snaps, and subtle keyboard notes playing quietly in the right channel. Beats without vocals can run the risk of growing stagnant, but Deca avoids this by keeping his beats just busy enough.
The piano on “Right of Passage”, which is lifted from Keith Mansfield’s “Serenity“, is lush to the point of saturation. The melody is enhanced by the ghost of a far-off voice echoing in the backdrop. What sounds like some additional synth blends seamlessly into the loop at different volumes, and tonal variation that is likely achieved through some highly technical knob tweaking. The result is an artful example of the possibilities of sampling.
In the introduction to his 2018 book Unusual Sounds: The Hidden History of Library Music, David Hollander acknowledges that many library records will never be digitally preserved, fated instead to molder on neglected reel-to-reel tapes.
“In my travels to the various library music archives in Europe,” Hollander writes, “one surprising thing became clear: The majority of the best vintage library tracks have not been digitized, and most likely never will be. Much of the best material was never chosen for use in a soundtrack, so it was shelved. In the eyes of the massive corporations who hold the rights for these records, if the music hasn’t yet been synchronized, it never will be. There is a thriving niche reissue market, but the returns are too small to motivate large companies to spend the time and money needed to create a digital archive of the material.”
Hollander notes the KPM Music library as one major exception. As of 2018, EMI, the music publishing company that owns KPM, had digitized the entirety of the KPM library – which is comprised of the 1000 Series and the KPM Brownsleeves Series – as well as the Themes International label. Since then, EMI has digitized the entirety of German labels Selected Sound and Coloursound, as well as the British label Francis, Day & Hunter Ltd.
“There’s only a small pocket of stuff that is still outstanding on the digitization to-do list,” says Peter Clarke at EMI Production Music.
“At first, some of it was digitized, but it was mainly the big soundtrack stuff that had been used in the past and was on some compilation albums. But we actually went back and digitized everything from the start.
“There was a bit of a need to do it because of the expiring date on some of these old master tapes. They deteriorate after awhile. We took the master tapes out of storage and sent them off to a mastering engineer and they all got digitized directly from the tapes rather than from the vinyl. We don’t really know what else is still in storage. We have to get the boxes shipped over and have a look through it and see what we’ve still got.”