Sound Tracks: El-P directs an aural narrative

Rapper, producer, and Def Jux label founder, El-P, has a little story he wants to tell you . . . make that a big one—a pretty damn scary one, too.

Rapper, producer, and Def Jux label founder, El-P, has a little story he wants to tell you . . . make that a big one—a pretty damn scary one, too. As a solo artist and frontman for hip-hop group Company Flow, and producer of Cannibal Ox, Cage, Mr. Lif, Aesop Rock, NIN, Beck, The Mars Volta, among many varied others, the man is famous for getting a sound that makes you want to smash things, or at least brood about it while nodding your head to his mesmerizing beats. Excitingly so, El-P’s new, allinstrumental Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 is far grander than a mere mix tape of wicked sounds: In fact, it’s a movie, and each track tells a part of the riveting tale.

Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 (Gold Dust)—the follow-up to his past two mixes of the same name—is another threatening sonic cityscape filled with powerful bass lines, bruising drum thumps and about a million other deranged sounds, given suitably agitated titles such as “Drunk With a Loaded Pistol,” “Jump Fence, Run, Live,” and “Whores: The Movie.”

Recorded, mixed, and edited at El-P’s New York apartment studio—with additional mixing done with engineer Joey Raia at Gotham Studios in Tribeca—the album is so in-yourface you’ve got to wonder what was going on in his head when it all went down.

“I was the kid who was in love with The Warriors movie because of the score, and I was obsessed with Vangelis and Blade Runner,” he says. “You go through any movie soundtrack, and the coolest music is from the chase scene! The chase scene is not a happy scene but it’s a dangerous one, and I love that rush.

“I wanted to make something that was cohesive, that wasn’t just Song 1, Song 2, Song 3, and so on, despite the fact that a lot of the songs initially didn’t have anything to do with each other. The challenge was creating a place for them.”

There are things that are easier to do in a real cut-and-paste sort of way, rather than relying on the performance of a plug-in, he says. “I often like to hardwire those things in. For example, I do a lot of hard chops with my delays and other effects. Much of what one hears as delays on the album are things that I’ve cut and faded manually in order to have more complete control over the sound, and to be more creative with it.”

In order to establish some sort of thread between the songs, El-P did an initial full mix of the songs, and then bounced each paired, mixed tracks of the guitars, sound effects, strings, and keyboards, and then took them back into the mix, in effect, re-producing the record using those mixed stems. Such a process allowed for layering of additional instruments and effects as well as alterations in song structures and overall sound blend.

“I was getting full mixes of songs that were essentially completed, but which also had room for some editing,” he says. After bouncing those mixed stems— which would reduce the number of stems for each song to under eight—he brought them back into the system, then layered additional instrumental parts and effects on top of each pre-mixed track.

Close attention had to be paid to how the individual parts of each track would fit into the overall “scene.”

“If you listen to the record you might see that there are elements that reappear throughout the record,” he says. “That happened in the first couple of songs and it just bled through to song 4 or 5; and then I’d start again, and those things worm their way throughout the whole record.”

This mad new mix was a lengthy, and often tedious, process but, says El-P, well worth the effort. Apart from his treks over to Gotham Studios for additional mixing work, he played, recorded, edited, and effected the entire album in his New York apartment. Basic tracks were recorded directly to a Pro Tools|HD 2 system.

While sampling plays a significant role in El-P’s kaleidoscopic sound mixes, the end product on Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 was derived from a combination of sampling and live playing on mostly analog and digital synths, and a lot of plugins. One goal was to mask the sources of his sounds as much as possible. The majority of the sampling was done on El-P’s enduring “dinosaur,” the Ensoniq EPS-16+.

“It’s the same sampler that I’ve always used, and it’s a beautiful workhorse of a machine with a really amazing sound. When I first started, I made everything on that. Now, it’s more like an ancillary instrument, but it still finds its way into everything.”

The album’s huge variety of analog synth sounds include a Moog Voyager, a Nord Lead 2X, an Oberheim OB-12, and a humble little Yamaha CS-50, which El-P calls “the star of the show.” Plug-ins include a couple of Virus synths, Dave Smith Prophet and Evolver modules, and Spectrasonics’ Trillion Total Bass and Omnisphere.

While most of the sound design on Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixxx3 was achieved with the Sony Pulse vintage analog synth and effects software, he did experiment with other plug-ins for outboard effects; for compression he relied on his trusty old Avalon 737.

The idea was to create a musical time and place that played like that refreshingly old-school notion of an LP record album, to immerse in and follow through from beginning to end.

To create this story of an album, El-P collected old songs that had once been started but had never ended up on his next lyric rap record or on any other project. “[These songs] were all different moods, and I put them together to make some junkyard robot out of them.” What a magical junkyard robot it turned out to be.