Hip-hop heads often fall into one of two camps: those who dig the ubiquitous sped-up vocal samples of “chipmunk soul” and those who despise them. Brooklyn producer Ayatollah, the vinyl-mining veteran behind soul-driven hip-hop tracks for Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Rakim, Ghostface Killah and others, cleaves firmly to the latter school of thought.
“I don't like to speed up the samples and make it sound like it's going at 78 rpm,” Ayatollah says. “I try to keep the same feel as the original. A lot of other producers speed up the samples, but I think it sounds horrible. It just feels better to me slow — you don't take away from the essence of the original song.” He diagnoses lack of originality as the cause of the epidemic. “I know why they do it — they're not really as creative as many people think they are. You just put the record on 45 and press sample. It's not really any work, any thought put into it.”
Ayatollah's new instrumental album Now Playing (Nature Sounds, 2006) is the result of time well spent with soul records. In fact, leadoff track “Nag Champa” even slows down the samples, transforming an up-tempo Ann Peebles record by throttling it down a gear. Starting with the basics — the vinyl, the Technics SL-1200 MK2 turntables and the Akai MPC60 — Ayatollah chops up different strands of the song, slacks the pace, intensifies the original bass through filters in Pro Tools and rearranges the track's strings, horns and vocal snippets into a fully reclined, slow soul groove. His calling-card beat, 1999's “Ms. Fat Booty” for Mos Def, similarly freaked Aretha Franklin's “One Step Ahead” vocal with a selective chop-and-scramble approach over clipped Caribbean guitars. “I never just loop something and have it play repetitively,” he says.
Disdain for chipmunk soul notwithstanding, Ayatollah feels a gravitational pull to other forms of sonic speed, largely due to his trusty Roland MC-303 Groovebox. “I use the 303 for hip-hop because I like the synthesizers and the vintage sounds, but it's really used for drum 'n' bass, trance and techno,” says Ayatollah, who credits the portable unit's synth basses, leads, pads and rhythm kits — as well as the nearly 450 dedicated dance sounds — with furnishing just about everything he needs. His tracks currently clock in around 89 to 93 bpm (99 at the fastest), but that could soon change. “Sometimes I think about pushing the envelope with the 303 and doing 150 bpm, like techno, but if I do it, I gotta keep it hip-hop. I'ma do it grungy, gritty, hard drums and very fast, but it gotta be hip-hop.”
He values creativity above all. “I try to step outside the box and make hip-hop tracks that go deep in the rabbit hole where people won't go. When everybody else is taking the blue pill, I take the red pill,” he says, referencing The Matrix.
Ayatollah refuses to limit himself to just sampling soul and funk records, citing an untapped trove of rock, reggae, electronic and even opera records in his 4,000-plus vinyl collection. “Soul is only the tip of the iceberg. Lately, I've been sampling off rock records — Led Zeppelin, Cream, Iron Butterfly. And I'm big on Kraftwerk. I listen to Kraftwerk every day.”
Trance, techno and rock crowds may just have to wait for their Ayatollah beats, though. Operating at full production clip in 2006, he has tracks coming out on upcoming projects by Raekwon (Wu-Tang Clan), Large Professor, Cormega, RA the Rugged Man & Kool G Rap, Sean Price (Boot Camp Clik), Masta Ace and perhaps a joint on the rumored Black Star reunion of Mos Def and Talib Kweli.
And if producers continue to insist on subjecting the airwaves to chipmunk soul, Ayatollah has some advice. “If you're gonna do it, be creative with it. Don't just do what the next producer was doing two years ago — step it up. If he was doing that style two years ago, step it up five years. Don't be stagnant with it — upgrade.”