“Real People is my eighth album, and being a career musician I never really wanted to make the same album twice,” says San Francisco Bay Area-based rapper Lyrics Born. The words “career musician” make an important distinction: LB is an artist who’s continually stretching, who’s always more interested in what inspires him now than in what sold units last year.
LB’s latest definitely offers a new way into his writing, as he fronts a band of mainly New Orleans-based musicians. Produced by Ben Ellman and Robert Mercurio of NOLA funk group Galactic (celebrating 20 years as a band this year!), Real People is a wild ride, with vocals in your face and the melting pot of New Orleans music on full display.
“I grew up listening to a lot of hip hop, but when I started to make my own music and produce, I discovered that a lot of my favorite hip hop from the ’80s and ’90s was sampling New Orleans bands,” says LB of his connection to New Orleans music. “Big Daddy Kane, Queen Latifah, Kwamé, De La Soul—they were sampling the Meters and Dr. John. I started to get interested in this incredibly funky pocket of America.
“When I was in college, I started making buying trips to New Orleans. I would visit all the local record stores and find tons of records that I couldn’t find elsewhere. That’s how I discovered what a special music town it is. When I started to tour, I made sure it was a regular stop, and I’d play there every year. It just gets in your blood.”
Around the time LB released his live album Overnite Encore: Lyrics Born Live!, he was invited as one of several rappers to appear on Galactic’s 2007 album From the Corner to the Block.
“We formed a great relationship with LB,” says Galactic brass player/producer Ben Ellman. “He came out on tour with us, all over the world. He knew that I and Robert, Galactic’s bass player, do all the production for the Galactic records, and so when he decided to make an album with New Orleans musicians, he enlisted us to be his producers.”
LB, Ellman, and Mercurio developed the material for Real People together—long distance at first, and then digging into sounds in Galactic’s studio.
“They started sending me backing tracks and demos just to see what I was vibing with,” LB says. “We talked a lot about sound and what style was appropriate for what we were going for, and they would keep honing in on demos going for that sound.
“Then I did two two-week-long sessions in New Orleans over the course of eight months,” he continues. “I rented a cottage in uptown, about three blocks from The Maple Leaf, where Rebirth Brass Band plays every Thursday. Every morning I’d wake up, go have a café au lait and beignets, and I’d write for four or five hours. By two or three in the afternoon, I’d go into the studio with [Ben and Robert], and we would record demos and record the vocals over the music, and just sort of vibe and discuss the music more. Then I would go home and they would finish off the music, and I would finish off my vocals here in the Bay Area, at Robot Envy Studio in Berkeley.”
Ellman handles a lot of horn parts on the album, while Mercurio plays some guitar as well as bass, and Galactic’s Stanton Moore played drums. But the producers and artist also recruited an impressive group of local musicians to help realize LB’s hybrid vision of rap-meets-NOLA-funk. Appearing on Real People are Ivan Neville, Trombone Shorty, Corey Glover from Living Colour, Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin & Wood, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and more.
Ellman says the process of each song began with drums. “We have a small, modest studio using Pro Tools and Lynx converters,” Ellman says. “We have some Neve preamps. We also use a bit of [Native Instruments] Kontact and Maschine, but this record was made very organically.
“We recorded our drummer, Stanton, to a lot of different BPMs, and we’d craft everything pretty much around the drums. On these tracks, all the guitars and bass, and almost all of the drums, are real. When we were making demos for LB, we used some soft-synth stuff, but those things were later replaced with real instruments.”
Ellman and Mercurio have a go-to drum-miking setup, to capture Moore’s kit in the middle of their live room. “The idea is to put up a lot of mics, so we’ll have a lot of options later,” Ellman says. “We don’t always know if we’re going to want a huge John Bonham sound or a tight, ’70s sound.”
They put up a pair of Coles 4038 room mics, a Royer SF-12 stereo overhead, Shure 57s on snare top and bottom, Electro-Voice RE20 on kick front and an Audix D6 on the kick beater, and Beyer M88s on toms. “And we usually put up a trash mic to give us even more options,” Ellman says.
Whether played by Mercurio or a guest musician— such as Jeff Raines, Zach Feinberg, or Daniel Kartel—guitar was played through the producers’ favorite Vibro Champ amp and miked up with a tried-and-true Shure 57 and/or a Sennheiser MD421.
In addition to Ellman’s horn playing on the sessions, an equal measure of brass playing and arranging was farmed out to musician Adam Theis. “My parts were recorded in the Galactic studio, and Trombone Shorty we did here, too,” Ellman says. “We use just a Coles in the room, through a Neve 1073 mic pre. We did [Trombone Shorty’s] first two albums here, too, so he’s really familiar with our studio.”
Ellman and Mercurio learned most of their recording techniques from one of their, and LB’s, go-to engineers, Count (DJ Shadow, Tycho, Trombone Shorty, Galactic), who mixed several of the tracks on Real People in his personal studio in Oakland, Calif.
“Mike Cresswell and I shared mixing duties on this,” Count says. “We each mixed several tracks. I’ve been working on a documentary for a couple of years, about the impact that the Internet revolution has had on the creative world. So I wasn’t as involved in this album in the earlier stages as I have been in a lot of other Galactic-related stuff.”
Both Count and Cresswell (Ledisi, ALO, Third Eye Blind) mix mainly in the box. Cresswell’s Fell Street Studio (San Francisco) is fitted with Pro Tools HD 8, a few key outboard pieces, numerous plugins, and Dynaudio monitors. “I’ve done several records with Tom [short for Tsutomu Shimura, Lyrics Born’s given name],” Cresswell says. “He’s always very particular and will always keep pushing me. On this project, he was pushing more for an old-school feel, which came in a lot through the live instrument tracking, but we ended up pushing harder with a quite a bit of added saturation and distortion in the mix.
“Everything I mixed got a lot of SoundToys’ Devil-Loc, in addition to their FilterFreak and Tremolator—the saturation parts of those plug-ins. I also have various spring reverbs and tube preamps that I use—old, rare stuff like a Berlant, part of an old 2-track. I used a combination of all those things on everything, because he just kept pushing for more distortion, more saturation on everything.”
Count also has his favorite plug-ins—in fact, he has pared down his processing arsenal to products he values, not only for their sonics, but also for reliability. “Plug-in companies tend to come and go, or they might have cycles when they are lacking in innovation. I decided awhile ago that it makes the most sense to me, even if I like a certain company’s plug-ins, that it screws me up more than it’s worth if the company is lagging behind updating their software,” Count says.
“I find that when you have more limitations it makes you more creative. Endless possibilities can just be overwhelming, and at the end of the day, you’re not necessarily hearing any progress. So, tools-wise, I’m almost exclusively using PSP and SoundToys, plus a few Waves plug-ins that are crucial to me.
“PSP is maybe the most underrated company in the world—there’s a different thing going on about the saturation in their plug-ins that’s very pleasing to me,” Count continues. “It doesn’t get fuzzy or crackly; it just gets more badass.”
Getting specific, Count says PSP’s Vintage Warmer and Mix Saturator are all over Real People. “They appear on things that you might not even think sound saturated,” he says. “They just have a wonderful tone to them. Particularly, the Vintage Warmer has something that just doesn’t exist in hardware or software that I’ve found. Most pieces of gear are emulating something else, but this is its own thing. It’s so natural—the organic-sounding way it deals with everything you put through it. The attack is never destroyed. It doesn’t sound artificial. It gets used in a variety of ways on everything I work on.
Like Cresswell, Count also makes extensive use of Devil-Loc. “One of the amazing benefits of doing something with modern gear is that a lot of compressors finally have a mix wet and dry knob that you can use to adjust the percentage of the dry signal coming through. It allows me to dial in something very specific. I can get an overall vocal sound, and if I want a tiny bit more edge to the distortion, I can put Devil-Loc up at 1; just 10 percent of the Devil-Loc sound gives it that little bit of edge. Especially if a track is super-dense, which makes it difficult to get things to cut through. That plug-in really helps with that.”
Both of the mix engineers also appreciate the Dangerous D-Box, for sonics as well as for summing. “Everything I do is mixed in Pro Tools, but it’s all summed out through the D-Box and put back through the Burl [Audio] B2 Bomber,” Cresswell says. “Driven hard, the Burl adds another level of saturation—a 2-track tape kind of warmth.”
“That Dangerous box is the only important piece of outboard gear I’m using,” Count adds. “It lets me push further with my EQing; I can go extreme and it never sounds like things are internally digitally processed. It’s a huge help in my mixing. I didn’t actually want to need anything outside of the computer, but this piece of gear has been a huge help.”
After Count and Cresswell’s mixes received initial approval from the producers and LB, they asked Count to go back into the album and adjust all of the mixes to make the album as a whole more cohesive. “Each track got a little microsurgery,” Count says. “That were a lot of minuscule adjustments just to make sure everything was in the same zone.”
Count also mastered the album, and he swears by his Genelec 1030 monitors for tracking those minuscule changes. “These Genelecs are great, especially on music like this where the low end is so important,” he says. “Now a lot of the artists I work with have them. DJ Shadow has them. Tom has the exact same Genelecs. So, when they come over, it’s not different from what they were listening to at their own place a couple of hours earlier.”
It took a lot of super-skilled hands, on the Gulf Coast and the Pacific Coast, to make Real People into one revved up, genre-bending, soulful stew.
“One thing that was surprising for me about this album was how great it was working with outside producers,” LB says. “Rap vocalists in the digital age are used to producing themselves, but this work let me get outside myself and reach beyond my limitations and my own habits. And Ben and Robert have great ears for arrangements. Sometimes I would send them a verse that was 16 or 20 bars, and they would cut me down to 8 or 12. They were nice about it, but the songs needed to be to the point. We didn’t need to go on any five-minute musical excursions. But at the same time it was never about getting the perfect take. In New Orleans, production is so not about that. It’s about getting the spirit and the soul of the project to sound authentic and robust.”
Barbara Schultz is the managing editor of Electronic Musician and Keyboard, and a contributing editor to Mix magazine.
Virtually Rapping with Preservation Hall Jazz Band
The explosive title track from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s most recent album That’s It! appears second to last on Real People, with a Lyrics Born rap over the top and loads of clever liberties taken with the sound. It’s the only song on LB’s album that isn’t an all-new recording. Instead, the New Orleans trad torch carriers—who have never shied away from crossing over into different genres—gave LB and his producers the stems from their song, and permission to make something new.
“When we got their stems, we realized what was really cool was, they had recorded their percussion separately,” Ellman says. “Having that isolated from the horns gave us a lot of leeway. We ended up doing a lot of pitching down their percussion, in [Native Instruments] Maschine, in increments. I worked on the cowbell a lot, especially; there’s one cowbell that pitches down on 32nd notes throughout. I also did drum programming in Maschine for that track. And I use Ableton as well, so I put all the stems in Ableton to get bpm locked in, and then I’d throw it back into Pro Tools to do my editing and drum programming.
“I really love the vocal LB did on this track, too,” Ellman continues. “He learned the whole trumpet solo—which is like a bebop solo—and wrote lyrics to it. He nailed it. The chorus is super-hot.”
“We took what was already a hot jazz track and turned it into a crazy gypsy, disco, madness track,” says Count, who mixed the song. “We basically took Preservation Hall’s tracks and deconstructed them as samples. I actually think it’s my favorite track on the album, not just because I like it, but also it’s so unique.
“It was also the most difficult to mix because it’s meant to be manic and spastic—it’s like Balkan wedding music, so it’s all very rhythmic—but you have a lot of things competing,” Count continues. “I had to take some things out in the low end; you have these low tuba and sousaphone, and low rumbling kick drums, and a lot of toms in that are also low and rumbly. I had to create enough space to give the track more dynamics. I switched back and forth between the live drums and the electronic drums [that were added]. There are parts where I rolled off the low end of the original drums to make space for the electronic drums.
Even with all that struggle for sonic space, LB’s voice erupts on this track. “The vocals have an overall saturation with [PSP] Vintage Warmer and the Mix Saturator,” Count says. “There are also layers of different EQs and compressors, all at different settings. And all the crazy stutter effects on the song were done with [iZotope] Stutter Edit. You start dialing in this wacky effect, and you’re only going to use a few little snippets of it. Then there was a lot of manual cutting and pasting to get the exact rhythm that we wanted, to get those little stutter vocals that come in here and there.
“It’s all definitely meant to be teetering on too much. The song is supposed to be at that point where, if there were any more, it would be too much and you couldn’t even listen to it!”