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Apocalypse 2005 - EMusician

Apocalypse 2005

It was in the middle of the summer swelter of 1987 when the words Yes! The rhythm, the rebel first came blaring out of the backseats of rides all over
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It was in the middle of the summer swelter of 1987 when the words “Yes! The rhythm, the rebel …” first came blaring out of the backseats of rides all over New York City, and, suddenly, the shit was on. The following year, Public Enemy's second and most pivotal album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam, 1988), was unleashed as Chuck D, Flavor Flav, Professor Griff, Terminator X and the Bomb Squad (the production team of Hank and Keith Shocklee; Eric “Vietnam” Sadler; and Carl Ryder, aka Chuck D) led the charge into an unprecedented paradigm shift in which rap politics, relentlessly driving beats and sample-crazy sonic arrangements were the weapons of choice. Hip-hop music from the ground up — its mission, its message and its mode of studio production — would never again be the same.

Nearly 20 years later, the group's alliances, personnel and technologies may have evolved considerably, but the nucleus of Public Enemy and its ethos remain firmly intact. It begins with Chuck D, who, as the ageless voice of PE and now head of his own independent Slam Jamz label, finds himself at the forefront of a rare three-pronged audio alignment of the planets. Beginning with New Whirl Odor (Slam Jamz, 2005) and proceeding through Rebirth of a Nation (Guerrilla Funk, 2005) and How You Sell Soul to a Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul (label TBD, slated for 2006), the unfazable Mistachuck — along with loyal lieutenants Flav and Griff — is back on the attack.

Of course, he never really left the scene, but Chuck still maintains a healthy outlook about the notoriety factor in today's age of multimedia ubiquity. “It's gonna be three interesting records we'll have out there,” he says from his home studio in Atlanta. “But when people ask me, ‘What are your expectations?’ — well, I have none. [Laughs.] Our goals in Public Enemy, recordingwise, are pretty much on the George Clinton, Grateful Dead, Miles Davis tip: We're more concerned now with the placement of songs, as opposed to putting something on a shelf and thinking that people gotta go pick it up like detergent. I've long ago abandoned that philosophy. I'd rather keep it under the radar as much as possible.”

With a team of producers that reads like a who's-who of hip-hop and party music's past, present and future, a low profile might turn out to be a little too much to ask. DJ Johnny Juice, whose youthful stroke on the decks for the Nation of Millions track “Night of the Living Baseheads” catapulted him into PE lore, is the tech-savvy guiding hand behind New Whirl Odor. The album also features production stints from Moby (on 2004's Olympic anthem “MKLVFKWR,” better known as “Make Love Fuck War”), Professor Griff, Bomb Squad apprentice Abnes “Abnormal” Dubose and Slam Jamz signings DJ Lord and C-Doc the WarHammer. Meanwhile, out on the West Coast, Bay Area stealth panther Paris — creator of classics such as The Devil Made Me Do It (Tommy Boy, 1991) and the lost jewel Sleeping With the Enemy (Scarface, 1993) — weighs in on Rebirth of a Nation, producing and arranging the entirety of the project, including Chuck's lyrics, with the gritty funk style that has become his signature. (As for How You Sell Soul, at this writing, the album is in the preproduction phase, with longtime PE collaborator Gary G-Wiz at the controls.)

“It's like a trilogy but a trilogy that wasn't planned,” Chuck says. “One luxury that I think we have by not going through any standard record company principle is the fact that we can be crazy like that.”

MASS CONSTRUCTION

From a production standpoint, according to DJ Johnny Juice, New Whirl Odor lives up to this same free-form approach. “With Chuck and Griff and I, we're so diverse with our musical interests that the way we work lends itself to that kind of experimentation,” he explains. “It's a real creative way to kind of one-up each other. And you never know what's gonna happen in this camp, especially with the technology.”

Unlike just about every major-label pop, rock or hip-hop group that burns thousands of dollars on expensive studios with a gang of producers on the clock, PE has found an efficient way to build tracks by using a virtual, interactive studio — namely, the Internet. “It's what I've asked for all along out of my production staff ever since the Bomb Squad,” says Chuck, who, lest anyone forget, was one of the first big-name artists to embrace the power of the Internet with the online release of PE's There's a Poison Goin' On … (Atomic Pop, 1999). “The question was, how do you keep a Bomb Squad type of method in place when people are in different areas? We just had to hope for the technology to step up. Before that, it was nearly impossible because you had to depend on FedEx or UPS or DHL as opposed to using the Web and being able to send parts instantly.”

Chuck sometimes starts work on a new track by recording a vocal pass to a beat using Digidesign's Mbox audio interface and Pro Tools LE (mounted on a Mac G4 PowerBook). After that, the track can be sent via e-mail to anyone in the PE production crew. Juice takes the throbalicious title cut, “New Whirl Odor,” as a test case to explain how the process begins.

“There are a few ways I can upload audio,” Juice says. “If it's an OMF — we like to call that Other Motherfuckers' Files [laughs], but it really stands for Open Media Framework, which was invented by Avid — then I can open the whole session in [Cakewalk] Sonar 4. For ‘New Whirl Odor,’ I think Chuck MP3'd me his vocals with a beat, but I ended up doing a whole new arrangement in Sonar. Once I got it close to the way I wanted, I exported all the sounds to my [Akai] MPC2000 and refreaked it.” What emerges is a subtly funked-up track that simmers with the pop of old vinyl, the haunting swirl of sustained synth chords, the thick flow of live bass and drums and the boom of Chuck's stirring baritone (spiced, of course, by Flav's verbal antics).

MP3, WAV and AIFF data all changed hands in this manner for nearly every song on New Whirl Odor, making the album a truly unique electronic collaboration. “C-Doc is one guy who really perfected that,” Chuck says, citing the up-and-coming producer and his group The Impossebulls — billed as “the world's first virtual rap squad” because the members never actually met in a studio but instead made their debut CD, Slave Education (Slam Jamz, 2005), almost entirely by e-mail. “And then you've got Griff and Juice, who've been working together — highly unheralded, I should add, in their contributions to the Bomb Squad — in a virtual, futuristic, Motown-esque situation, almost like an assembly line. A track might go from Griff to Juice, who would put some touches on it, then back to Griff, who would mix it, and then back up to C-Doc, who would sequence it within the album, then back to Juice for a final look-through and then down to our mastering engineer Earl Holder — I mean, this one really took the cake.”

ECHOES OF THE BOMB SQUAD

In counterpoint to the group effort of New Whirl Odor, Rebirth of a Nation takes a slightly different tack, springing largely from the creative endeavors of Paris, who sought to create an album that emulates, in some places, the older PE sound. Of course, Rebirth wouldn't be a Paris project without also tapping into a smooth West Coast flavor, accented by warm synths and Impala-rocking beats, that gets an added lift from the political urgency of the album's subject matter.

“You can take ‘Rise’ as an attempt to really capture a classic PE vibe,” Paris says, calling out one of the central tracks on the album. “I used ‘Don't Believe the Hype’ as a template for that, with the Maceo squeals and stuff and with the entire motion and interplay of the instruments.”

Joined by conscious rap stylists such as Dead Prez and Immortal Technique, Paris takes up the lyrical challenge, as well. “The agreement Chuck and I had was that I would go ahead and record everything and then he would learn it. And by putting myself in that position, I have to be sure that I'm true to what he represents. There's an urgency that was really evident in a lot of PE's earlier material that I had to have on this album, so I've gotta be true to Chuck's style, his inflections and the phrases that he uses if it's gonna come across credibly. If you listen to Revolverlution or some of the things that he has done lately, that style is something that he's moved away from, but it's the style that I remember having the greatest impact on me.”

That feeling of urgency translates into the heavy guitars and turntable scratches (all sampled from his own onboard library and chopped extensively in Apple Logic Pro 7) that flit through the album mix — another hallmark of Paris' live-sounding production style. “The quality of the end result is just better when you have first-generation signals,” Paris says. “Of course, back in the day, we used to sample vinyl, which degraded and gave you a certain texture when you used it, but you were limited within that framework. But now that hip-hop is so corporatized and commoditized, it's difficult to have a sample-laden record anyway. I mean, PE's A Nation of Millions couldn't be made nowadays. So I would say it's definitely better to go for the high ground and avoid sampling if you can.”

LIVE, LOOPED AND DANGEROUS

Naturally, to get around the nightmare of sample clearances, many hip-hop producers have taken to bringing in live musicians for extended studio jams, which can provide a nearly endless stream of riffs, rhythms and atmospherics to be sampled, chopped, spliced and otherwise digitally morphed.

“Sometimes, I'll even try to make it sound more like a record and less like a band,” Juice says, picking up the thread. “I'll record the band into Sonar, mix it down the way I like it and then export it to a 4-track cassette deck, like a Tascam Portasudio, to make it sound grimy. Then, I'll play that back into the analog inputs in my machine, and boom — I've got myself a loop with tape hiss and everything. And if it gets to the point where I want it to be real grimy, I'll take a mic and put it up to the speaker and play it back.”

On New Whirl Odor's “What a Fool Believes,” Professor Griff — who has recently made the transition from Steinberg Nuendo to Sonar 4 — relies partly on his own musicianship as a drummer (and as leader of his own live band, the 7th Octave) to document and then subtly manipulate the hard-rock guitar sounds and thumposauric drums that have become a staple of his PE sound.

“First, I'll ask my guitar player to play whatever comes to mind over a beat, and then I'll just cut that up and put a riff together,” Griff says. “On that particular track, we ran the guitar through a [Behringer] V-Amp to give it that live Hendrix, '60s British Invasion kind of sound. I ran that pretty much straight into Sonar. Then, I sampled live drums and compressed them a little bit so they sounded like a vinyl sample. There's also a bass solo that sounds like a wah-wah guitar that Chuck rocked over — you can bend and stretch that or turn it backward or whatever in that program, too. So I was trying to make a song that didn't necessarily sound like a live song by a live band. I still think I'm behind the eight ball when it comes to Sonar [laughs], but I'm getting there.”

On the psychedelic album closer, “Superman's Black in the Building,” C-Doc also gets into the act with a special guest appearance by Stax recording legend Gene Barge, who, C-Doc says, “blessed us with five minutes of saxophone genius” after Chuck was able to line him up for a session in Chicago. “I had wanted to incorporate live musicians to add some depth to the second part of the track,” C-Doc recalls. “So Juice put together some musicians from the band My World to play on it. I brought a loop of the second section of the song in and had John “Bonz” Montalbano [bass] and Chris Munger [drums] improvise over it.”

Whether the vibe is live on the mic or revived on vinyl, for Public Enemy, the dense layers of organized noise, funktasmic beats, righteous indignation and endlessly provocative meaning still retain their luster. The spotlight may have moved a few feet since 1988, but there are plenty out there who feel PE never left the building. “Public Enemy is its own thing and its own entity, and sometimes it can be a crutch,” Chuck admits, “but that will be what will be. I'm not putting any pressures on it whatsoever. My main focus, if anything, is if we can get Slam Jamz to stand on its own two feet. That will be something that we could seriously say, ‘Wow, we're slowly building.’” And that's what PE was always about.

100% REAL EAST COAST JUICE

“I was initially a Cubase-on-a-Mac user,” DJ Johnny Juice (pictured below, right) recalls. “But I always preferred PCs because I use them all the time in daily life. It wasn't until a friend of mine hipped me to [Cakewalk] Pro Audio 9 that I was ready to make the switch.”

Juice had already tried numerous software-based sequencers and production suites and found that Pro Audio 9 wasn't quite up to speed. “When I heard about [Cakewalk] Sonar, I picked up the first version, and it was way better, but it still lacked some of the stuff that I was used to seeing,” he says. “After it went to version 3, that was it — everything was perfect. Sonar has kept the simplicity of the original Pro Audio 9 program, but it has all the features that a lot of the other big-name sequencers have, and it's easier to operate. That's important, because working with Chuck, who is constantly on the road and doing his thing, you never know when he's gonna pop in and say, ‘I'm ready.’ [Laughs.] So you gotta be ready.”

Computers, DAWs, recording hardware, interfaces:

Cakewalk Sonar 4 Producer Edition DAW
Mackie CR-1604 mixer
M-Audio FireWire 410 interface, Session X controller
Sonica X2/3GHz computer
Tascam FW-1884 control surface/audio interface, US-122 USB audio/MIDI interface (for mobile use on HP laptop)

Software, plug-ins:

Cakewalk Kinetic, MediaWorks, Project5 Version 2
IK Multimedia AmpliTube, SampleTank, T-RackS
Native Instruments Absynth 2
Propellerhead Reason 3.0
PSP VintageWarmer
Sony Sound Forge 6
Waves Master, Platinum bundles

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers:

Akai MPC2000 sampling workstation
Korg DDD-1 drum machine
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntable
Rane TTM 64 mixer
Roland TR-808, TR-909 drum machines
Technics SL-1200MKII turntables (4)
Vestax PMC-05ProII mixer

Synths, modules, instruments:

Fender Rhodes electric piano
Korg Triton synth
Kurzweil K2000 synth
LP Classic conga set, Generation II bongos, minitimbales
M-Audio Oxygen8 MIDI controller
Roland TB-303 Bass Line synth
Sonor drum kit
Yamaha Motif synth

Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects:

AKG C 1000, C 3000 mics
ART DPSII tube preamps (2)
Audio-Technica AT4033 mic
Audix D4, D6 mics
M-Audio Octane, Tampa preamps
Oktava MK-219 mic
Røde NT1 mic
Sennheiser MD 421 mic
Shure SM57 mic

Monitors:

Event 20/20s

WEST COAST
GUERRILLA FUNK STYLE

“I started out on the Discovery version of Logic,” says Paris, who first met Chuck D and Public Enemy back in 1990 and collaborated on a remix of the lead single from PE's Revolverlution (Slam Jamz/In the Paint, 2002). “I do preproduction at home and then take everything to a studio in San Francisco called DataStream, where they have Logic Pro 7.”

Paris uses Logic for every phase of production, including mixing and mastering. “I pretty much mix as I record, because the system has total recall,” he says. “When I'm ready to master, I use the internal bounce feature and save the 2-track mixes in their own folder. Then, I open a new mastering audio environment and lay out the tracks in sequence, the way they appear on the final album. I might add compression and EQ and adjust the levels, and then I do another bounce of the entire sequence. After that, I cut the songs into regions and import them into Toast for the final burn.”

Paris' studio:

AMS Neve 1073 mic preamp
Apple Mac G4/dual 1.25GHz computer, Logic Pro 7 DAW
E-mu Vintage Keys rack module
Mackie Control Universal software control surface
Neumann U 87 mic
Roland Juno-106 synth
Studio Electronics SE-1 rack module
Yamaha NS10 monitors