Kickin’ The Bang: Arabian Prince on the TR-808

Mik Lezan—popularly known as Arabian Prince—says he was practically born a gear junkie. As a young man growing up in the storied Los Angeles inner suburb of Compton, Lezan spent his days toying with CB radios and building his own speakers. Eventually settling in with a set of turntables and a Roland TR-808, the DJ quickly joined the ranks of the West Coast hip-hop elite, linking up with fellow electroinnovators such as Egyptian Lover, and later, Dr. Dre (a friendship which lead to the founding of the seminal gangsta rap squad N.W.A.).

Though Lezan is best known for his stint with N.W.A., the young DJ contributed to countless classic records, largely as a producer, but he also dropped quite a few solo releases. Though initially commercially ill-fated, the aforementioned albums have garnered a cult following in recent years, which is why the folks at Stones Throw Records just released an anthology of Lezan’s works between 1984–1989, appropriately titled Innovative Life.

Tell me about the gear you started off on, and how you made it work.

When I first started DJing back in the day, they didn’t have the Technics 1200s. The first two turntables I put together were linear-tracking turntables where the tone arm went sideways on a track. You couldn’t really pick up the arm, it just slid sideways on a track. We would put some plastic underneath the record to try and do some scratching, but it was near impossible.

My first drum machine was a cheap Mattel Synsonic Drum. I used to rock that at the club, though, and people would dance to it. After that, I saved my money and got a Roland TR-808. I begged and pleaded my mom— “Look, I don’t want to spend money on food or anything else, I just want to take this money from my parties and get an 808.” I bought that, and then I went out and got a Roland Juno-60 keyboard. Neither one of those were MIDI. They were CV/Gate, so syncing those up to anything—especially in the studio— was a pain in the butt. You had to go through the CV lock, which was just like a pulse. If you ever hear that click—that Kraftwerk percussion sound, which me and Egyptian Lover used on a lot of our songs—it’s actually not even a sound from the 808. It’s the pulse that locked it to other equipment in the studio.

Jumping into the present, how do you feel that technology has helped or hindered your creative process?

I still own a lot of my old gear. I’m a real gear head. I have a lot of analog keyboards and drum machines in storage, but I don’t use them anymore. I’ve been able to use Propellerhead Reason and Ableton Live to get the sounds I want. I hear a lot of cats say Reason sounds thin, but that’s because all they are doing is taking stock sounds and leaving them there. I still do what I’ve always done—find a drum sound or keyboard sound, and then tweak it to get it somewhere new.

Do you use the 808 at all?

I still use the 808, and I always will. I use hardware vocoders, too, because I haven’t heard any software versions I like. And I’ll use my Neve preamps to get a warm signal into the box, but I do most of my processing internally.

Do you use Live to edit, or do you export your tracks to a different DAW?

I use a lot of different DAWs for different things. I use Sony Sound Forge for editing, Steinberg WaveLab for mastering, and Adobe Audition for a lot of my multitrack recording. I’ll use Pro Tools occasionally, but not as much as other people. I can use Audition for what I need, and it’s faster and not as cumbersome.

You say you’ll always use a real 808. Why?

Because each kick is not the same when you use an original 808, whereas in the digital realm, whatever sample you use, it’s always the same. You can work around it, but it is difficult. In a lot of my mixes where I didn’t use a real 808 what I’ll do is use like eight or 10 different drum kicks in one sequence—some longer, and some shorter—just to give it that natural feel. I’ve studied the 808 for hours on end, and I’ve found that every time a single programmed kick would hit—if a kick was by itself and there wasn’t another kick for another six bars—it would have a longer decay. But if there was another kick two or four bars away, the first would get cut short—it wouldn’t resonate as long. You have to program your patterns differently using software to replicate that effect. Otherwise, you’ll sound like one of those producers who leaves all the 808 kicks wide open. All you hear is “boom, boom, boom.” The kicks drown out the rest of the track, and it just doesn’t sound right.