?uestlove and Crew Bring Retro Styles and Modern Beats to a Soul-Renewed Al Green
The voice sent shivers down your spine, and, if you were in the right
mood, it also stirred feelings of romance, sensuality, and sexual
longing. Throughout the ’70s, Al Green was one of soul music’s most
successful artists, and his smash hits—“Tired of Being Alone,” “Let’s
Stay Together,” “I’m Still in Love with You,” “Here I Am,” “Call Me,”
and others—were crafted by producer Willie Mitchell with open
arrangements that showcased the singer’s voice by staying out of its
way, while simultaneously presenting slinky grooves, dancing guitar
lines, lush background vocals, tasty horn punctuations, and
super-smooth string and organ pads.
But after an infamous tragedy in 1974, where a girlfriend doused Green with boiling grits while he was preparing for a bath and then killed herself with his gun, the singer began embracing his faith and ebbing away from secular music. By the ’80s, Green was more or less a gospel artist, although he continued to dabble from time to time with soul music.
Now, 38 years since Green’s soul masterpieces began thrilling audiences, Blue Note Records has released what is arguably Green’s finest record in decades, Lay It Down. It’s an album that hits the spot in your soul that only Green can reach. Before the singer belts out the first note on the title track, the listener’s ears are shuttled back to the sound of his classic, Mitchell-produced records of the ’70s. The late, great Chalmers “Spanky” Alford kicks off the tune with the same “church” guitar that Mabon “Teenie” Hodges brought to Green’s classics, and when the pillowy kick drum and sparse strings enter, you can practically smell the polyester. Green and Anthony Hamilton sing a few hook-y choruses, and by the time Green starts to solo, it is clear that the master is back—and with him the music that helped inspired a whole generation, providing fodder for countless samplers.
But Lay It Down is no mere exercise in retro. Instead, it was meant to represent contemporary musicians, engineers, and producers paying tribute to the music that was such a major influence on today’s hip-hop, R&B, and neo-soul genres. And that’s why, when the time came to assemble Lay It Down, Blue Note flew in one of hip-hop’s most highly-regarded musicians/producers—the Roots’ Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson. The drummer/producer believed that, with Lay It Down, he and his crew could introduce Al Green to a new audience à la Rick Rubin with Johnny Cash, or Jack White with Loretta Lynn. So with co-producer Richard Nichols, guitarist Alford, keyboardist/co-producer James Poysner, and engineers Russell Elevado, Jon Smeltz, and Jimmy Douglass in hand, ?uestlove set out to revitalize the Memphis master.
“They assumed I would give him the neo-soul makeover,” ?uestlove says. “But if Blue Note thought they were going to get Al Green does John Legend, they were wrong.”
When the initial tracks for Lay It Down were recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York, the original idea was to work with a purely analog signal chain, so ?uestlove and Green’s engineering team started by recording directly to two-inch tape, using the studio’s Pro Tools rig only as a backup. “If you have to switch a tape reel mid-session, you lose whatever precious moment was happening during that switch,” Smeltz explains. “For that reason, even if you aren’t looking to record to Pro Tools at all, it’s always smart to keep the DAW running as a virtual second tape machine.”
This preemptive approach proved prescient, as, indeed, one of the band’s first takes would otherwise have been lost in a reel change. It was after this narrowly-averted disaster that the team abandoned their tape machine in favor of recording the rest of the album’s jams entirely in Pro Tools. Despite the vintage grit that tape could have added to the overall sound—especially on ?uestlove’s drum tracks—Smeltz was happy with the switch. “The sound quality of Pro Tools has gotten to the point where I feel I’m able to get the event I recorded back from the equipment,” he says. “If I front end my rig with the same analog gear I have always used, Pro Tools doesn’t seem to hinder my ability to capture that special sound people attribute to the analog world.”
Though the crew settled on using modern technology to track Lay It Down early on in the game, ?uestlove and Green decided to eschew the opportunity to multitrack their way through the album. “Initially, we were going to go in and just jam some stuff out, and then re-do the vocals,” says Nichols. “But Al actually sang the stuff in the room with [?uestlove] and the guys. Everyone was playing together, and I think that had a lot to do with the way the album sounds.”
Though jamming on tunes is a tried-and-true method of creating band material, it was a new process for a solo artist like Green, who was used to composing with Willie Mitchell, and then laying his vocals down only after the rest of the tracks had been put to tape. “We brought the Roots approach to Al, which is about doing a bunch of stuff live, and then grabbing source material,” explains Nichols. “It was a bit foreign to Al. He asked, ‘What am I supposed to do?’ I said, ‘Just sing whatever comes to your mind, and we will follow you. You can hum a note or clap your hands.’ It was confusing to him for a while—meaning only ten or 15 minutes!”
Once he got comfortable Green amazed his comrades with his improvisational abilities. “On the song ‘Lay It Down,’ we kept 60 percent of it freestyle,” relates ?uestlove. “We asked, ‘Do you want a second to write to this?’ But Al said, ‘Nah, I’ve been writing all along.’ I said, ‘Where’s the paper?’ He said, ‘It’s in my head. Just play the song—I got the feelin’.’ We started playing, and I couldn’t even drum to it. You’ll notice I didn’t even start drumming until the last chorus. I couldn’t play because I was jawdroppin’ that he was making up lyrics off the top of his head. I’m not used to people catching on that quick.”
Smeltz agrees that the sessions were almost supernatural in their flow. “When a band gets together, writes songs on the spot, and, after four days of rhythm tracks, you have almost 13 songs—well, that’s an incredible accomplishment,” he adds.
According to Nichols, recording live also reduced the icon worship factor. “You could think, ‘Hey, I’m in a room with Al Green!’ But you could only do that for a fraction of a second, because you had to be on top of what he was doing. The process also gave him a lot of freedom. At one point, he said, ‘Do you mean if I sing this way, you guys are going to play that way? If I slow down, you are going to slow down?’”
Of course, playing together in the same room with minimal isolation led to an enormous amount of signal bleed. “There is a lot of bleed on there,” Nichols says. “But I think what gave those old classics their signature sound was a lot of ‘unwanted’ noise introduced into the recording. But it’s not just using old noisy gear that gets that sound. We were using tons of vintage equipment—Neve desks and all—but you could use all the same gear and it would sound really clean if all of the instruments were recorded separately. So we decided to set up all the guys in close proximity to one another in order to capture that old-school vibe. If you soloed the organ track, you would hear Al’s vocal and ?uestlove’s drums and all kinds of things in there. Sometimes, you’d even hear something happening underneath a track that you couldn’t recognize. Bleeding sounds can glue things together that way. These days, everything is separated, and it can sound really cheesy.”
Jimmy Douglass—whose credits go back to early Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding recordings—came in at the mixing stage, and he was thrilled when he heard sounds that took him back to the days he worked under legendary producer Tom Dowd. “Pretty much every instrument leaked into Green’s mic,” Douglass says. “That gave me the inspiration to mix like an old fool—it got me all excited and crazy!”
For all the effort put in to recreating the glorious sound of Green’s Memphis-era recordings, ?uestlove, Nichols, and the engineering team were equally concerned with making Lay It Down palatable to a younger crowd. “To a generation weaned on hip-hop and massive pop production, drums are more of a foreground instrument than they were in the past,” Nichols states. “So people grab drum breaks from old records, put a bunch of compression on them, and when all the instruments fall out, the drums sound huge. No one would have processed drums like that on the original recordings because it wasn’t in vogue. But now, for bands like the Roots, that’s the standard approach. We had to partially adopt that approach to update the album’s sound, and have the drums sound like hip-hop drums.”
“It’s all about the drums and bass,” adds Smeltz. “I made them sound really modern, and then I pulled them back into a classic Al Green mode. For a project that integrates sounds from a different era, it’s all about striking a balance. You get that modern drum sound, and then you pull the hi-hat fader back a little bit, or roll off the top end of the snare so it sounds a little more round.”
Douglass had a similar method for attaining balance in the mix. “Imagine that we are standing in the middle of the road, and we can go to the left—which is the way of that thick, round, analog sound—or we can go to the right, and make it sound nice and crisp in the modern way,” he says, describing his philosophy for mixing ?uestlove’s drums. “I mixed more to the left to ensure the drums had more of that old school character.”
?uestlove was committed to making the old soul/new hip-hop connection a part of his drum performance, but to make that happen required a bit of subterfuge. “There are two ways to see Al Green from a hip-hop perspective,” he explains. “There’s the pure Al Green sound that you get from listening to his records, and then there is hip-hop’s interpretation of it. So I asked myself, ‘If I was the RZA, what part of the tune would I want to take for my fellow Wu-Tang members like Method Man or Ghostface Killah?’
“There were some songs where I wanted to play as if I was in Al Green’s band led by Willie Mitchell,” ?uestlove says. “And then, there were some songs I wanted to play like I was the RZA sampling Al Green. The intro to ‘What More Do You Want From Me’ clearly illustrates that frame of mind. I was playing that Al Green record groove, and then laying more drums on top of it, because RZA would take an Al Green loop and do the same thing. But you don’t know how hard I fought for that intro. I didn’t want Al to sing on top of it, and I didn’t want to reveal to Al what my agenda was—to have that moment for rappers to grab onto. I mean, a name like Ghostface Killah could possibly scare Al to death. He might say, ‘Wait a minute, you want to use my music for a man named Ghostface Killah?’”
As a large portion of the magic of Green’s classic recordings can be credited to the drumming of Al Jackson Jr. and Howard Grimes, ?uestlove was also tasked with nailing the slinky feel and fat sound of his predecessors for Lay It Down. “The funk sound I am known for is that ‘crack’ snare,” says ?uestlove. “But I knew I might have to have a deeper sound to best match the feel we wanted for this record. So I did two takes of ‘You‘ve Got The Love I Need.’ One was reminiscent of ‘Mighty Love’ by the Spinners. It was very hard on the two and the four, as if I were playing it live. Then, I did one with an understated, sort of Charlie Watts-ish, nonchalant feel to it. That’s the one I ended up using. I noticed that the lighter I hit the drums, the better they sounded on playback. I had thought you had to have John Bonham’s heavy hand to make yourself heard, but that kind of approach doesn’t sound as good when you end up heavily compressing the drum tracks.
“Now, I think I’m going to play light as hell on Roots albums, and on any other records I do,” ?uestlove says. “Playing that way establishes a pulse that’s understated, but it’s in your face at the same time.”
Applying copious amounts of compression to ?uestlove’s drum tracks on Lay It Down is a technique lifted from the hip-hop production playbook. It was a calculated move on behalf of the production team with the goal of adding some modern urban attitude to the mix. “The samples you hear on hip-hop albums are basically just an old drum sound that has been squashed,” explains Douglass. “The artist has taken the sound off a record that had been mastered already, and then that sound is stuck into a sampler which squashes it again, and it ends up totally grainy.”
“In the mixing stage, I like to over-compress,” adds ?uestlove, who wanted to mimic the sounds of sampled drums. “I go through four or five different stages of compression. I high the signal lightly with a Neve 33609 when we record to tape, and then I compress the signal again—but a little harder. Then I apply bus compression, and, finally, I compress it once more in the mastering stage.”
The drummer says his heavy-handed and liberal use of compression gives his snare the large, spreading bottom that is redolent of Al Jackson’s sound on Green’s earlier records. Though ?uestlove’s snare exhibits some distortion, Nichols laughs at the thought that this is indicative of poor engineering. “I’m sure it is distorted,” he says. “I once told an engineer that I wanted something to sound like an old record, and he asked, ‘You want it to sound like a bad recording?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ Having certain aspects of a recording sound imperfect is part of achieving the feel of those old recordings.”
According to Smeltz, ?uestlove’s distorted drum tracks aren’t simply the result of squashing and limiting.
“It’s Line 6’s Amp Farm,” the engineer confesses. “I use Amp Farm on his hi-hat all the time. It’s one of his signature sounds. You can hear some of the grind from the hi-hat—which is recorded using a Shure SM81—bleeding into the snare. Sometimes, I’ll even split his bottom snare mic into two channels, and use Amp Farm on one of the channels, assigning it to a separate fader, and layering it under the dry track.”
For ?uestlove’s kick drum sound, Smeltz uses a Neumann U47 FET as the outside mic, and an AKG D112e as the inside mic. The Neumann is routed to a Moogerfooger Low-Pass Filter pedal, which Smeltz uses to tune the kick to the bass a little better, and also extend the drum’s resonance. (“That’s the glue that binds the kick drum and bass sounds together,” he says.) The D112e is employed mostly to capture the attack of the kick.
As much as Smeltz is a fan of using analog outboard gear and quirky pedals to dial in ?uestlove’s oftentimes bizarre drum sounds, he admits that he sometimes prefers using plug-ins when mixing. “I have all the actual Moogerfooger pedals,” Smeltz says, “but I tend to mix with [Bomb Factory’s] Moogerfooger plug-ins because the recall feature makes my life so much easier. Of course, plug-ins are really cool, but don’t expect a Universal Audio 1176 plug-in to sound like a real 1176. But I don’t really care what a plug-in is trying to emulate if I can get a good sound out of it.”
When it came to establishing a balance between old and new sounds for Lay It Down, having both Smeltz and Douglass working on the project was exactly what ?uestlove and Green needed. Smeltz’s experience runs the gamut from the smooth soul stylings of Teddy Pendergrass to the remixing experiments of King Britt, and Douglass’ ears have been employed by everyone from Donny Hathaway to Timbaland and Justin Timberlake. While the duo worked independently, they both agreed that handling the mix out-of-the-box, and with as much analog processing as possible, was the only way to go.
“It just felt right,” says Smeltz, “I mixed at Legacy on the studio’s SSL J9000. They have 24 Neve 1081 EQs right behind the desk, and they also have an old plate reverb that’s dirty and noisy. I loved the way it sounded.”
“I tried to avoid using plug-ins,” adds Douglass, “because I wanted to keep the mixes from sounding brittle and harsh. All of my EQ, compression, and effects were from outboard gear.”
A dry perspective is another signature of the Al Green sound present on Lay It Down. Recording the instruments in a dead room was key, and to retain the natural sound, Smeltz and Douglass went light on applying reverb or any other effects that would dramatically alter the sense of organic ambience. “I use slight delays a lot—they give you the illusion of reverb, but they don’t give you the noise and clutter of reverb,” explains Douglass. “There is reverb on the record—I have a Sony DRE777 that I’ve used to sample every room in Manhattan—but you can’t really hear it. My whole thing is that once you can tell there is reverb on the track, you’ve used too much. Reverb is supposed to enhance the sense of space, not take over the sound.”
While everyone agreed the amount of bleed and noise on the tracks were a plus, they also wanted to ensure the final mix was clear enough to be marketable in this day and age. “Part of the looseness and openness of the drums came from tracking them mostly with room mics,” says Douglass. “It wasn’t as tightly miked as a lot of drums on modern records. For example, there was one song where the toms weren’t very present, and I had to get them up there to sound like that old Philadelphia kind of pop. ?uestlove didn’t hit them that hard, and if you tried to bring them up, you would be bringing up a combination of mush and sidewash. Those tracks required gating to take out some of the noise, compression to bring up the volume, and EQ to ensure the tones didn’t step on everything.”
The fact that ?uestlove and Green’s team all had one foot in the vintage soul camp definitely helped the album deliver sounds that hearken back to the golden age of soul. But for all involved, Lay It Down was more than an attempt to recreate the sounds of the ’70s—it was a unique opportunity to reconcile the recording methods of the present and the past. The team succeeded at integrating tried-and-true engineering practices and stellar performances with modern recording technology, and the end result is an album full of original Memphis sounds lightly buffed for the iPod age. “It sounds like an old record with the veil lifted off,” says Douglass.