When smooth talk, style and royal funk bloodline converge in the veins of one man, all that separates him from street legend is a theme song — just check Superfly or Shaft. Luckily, Atlanta producer Jazze Pha is at the center of this planetary alignment, flipping hooks and hit singles like a bona-fide hustler, so it's only a matter of time.
In fact, his dad, James Alexander, bassist for funk-soul outfit The Bar-Kays, wrote and recorded the bass lines for Shaft and sequel Son of Shaft, so Jazze Pha is like the grandson of Shaft — or half-brother, depending on how you read family trees. Born Phalon Alexander, Jazze Pha had a childhood most hip-hop and R&B producers would kill for. If he got good grades, he was allowed to tour with The Bar-Kays in the summer, and Parliament and Funkadelic were like his kindly, tripped-out uncles.
Signed briefly to Elektra in the early '90s as an R&B artist, Jazze Pha cut his production teeth mid-decade for MC Breed and others. Bubbling on the come-up, he made a name for himself in 2001 on tracks like Ludacris and Nate Dogg's ego-tripping “Area Codes” and Nappy Roots' organ-driven “Awnaw,” for which he also sang the down-home hayseed soul hook. Most recently, he has flooded radio with the ubiquitous self-shout-out “Jazze Phizzle product-shizzle” on hits for Crunk & B princess Ciara (“1, 2 Step”) and Notorious B.I.G. (posthumous Duets single “Nasty Girl” with Diddy, Nelly and Jagged Edge).
But now for his fame-making theme song — or rather, theme album — he and Goodie Mob MC/singer Cee-Lo Green have joined forces on the decidedly female-friendly Happy Hour (Capitol, 2006). After collaborating on Trick Daddy's 2002 “In Da Wind” and a pair of tracks on Cee-Lo's 2004 sophomore solo album, Jazze Pha and Cee-Lo hooked up in the studio, shared vocal and production duties and knocked out track after track of lover-man soul steeped in ladies'-night energy, cocktails and snappy outfits.
Suffice it to say that Jazze Pha recognizes fly style, especially when it's his own. “When I'm dressed, I'm coordinated,” he says. “The clothes match the music. Even back in the day, I was the best-dressed in junior high and high school. And Cee-Lo's style is dope, which is why we call Happy Hour ‘60 minutes of well-dressed drama.'' Me and Cee-Lo are two cats that rap, produce, sing… we supersharp, and we soulful as hell, so we went ahead with that in mind and made a young soul album. We incorporate the old-school era with everything we do and make it with a new vibe.”
CAPTURE THE MOMENT
Vibes can evaporate quickly, so if a beat takes more than 10 minutes, Jazze generally trashes it and moves on. “If I work on something for too long, chances are I don't even like it no more. The average track, the basic to where you know that this track is a jam — to where cats want to buy it — takes about eight minutes,” Jazze says. Eight might just be the new magic number, as Jazze averages eight beats a day in the studio. “I work quick because it's a feel, not a math problem.”
On Ciara's R&B-futuristic, Missy Elliott — assisted 2005 single “1, 2 Step,” Jazze fed off the energy of a packed room of people bobbing their heads and knocked out the core of the track in four minutes. “The best ones come real quick, in like four to eight minutes,” Jazze says.
“If you feel the energy of ‘1, 2 Step,'' you can hear him feeding off everybody's energy,” says sound engineer Nico Solis of Patchwerk Studios in Atlanta, where Jazze does the lion's share of his local work.
“1, 2 Step” began on one of Jazze's five Akai MPC3000s, with distortion-buzzing bass from the Korg Triton, Thomas Dolby — era synth stabs from the E-mu Proteus 2000 and rapid-fire pulses engineered to get bodies moving. Jazze Pha calls the laser pulses “just some old-school zaps” he lifted from old b-boy break records he knew would set it off.
“The zaps are his signature, his hi-hat when he's doing futuristic beats,” Solis says.
“I was thinking, ‘How can I take [Afrika Bambaataa's] ‘Planet Rock'' but make it more melodic, almost like roller-skating music,''” Jazze says. “The zaps made me think of back-in-the-day breakdancing or flashdancing or whatever. It really fit Ciara's image. I felt like she just needed something that moved people.” And with Ciara signed to Jazze Pha's Sho'Nuff Records label, making people move — preferably toward the nearest CD checkout counter — is the mission.
To keep the flow going when he's in the zone, Jazze Pha makes sure his sounds are EQ'd and locked down before he even begins. “Before I even sample my kicks or snares, I EQ them first. I try them with a particular bass, and if it doesn't feel right, I re-EQ it and resample it. When I pull up my sounds on the SSL, they pretty much sound just like they do when you hear them on the record.”
Hustlers hustle, but speedy production doesn't have to mean sloppy or rushed results. Take Happy Hour intro track “Invitation.” As with “1, 2 Step,” the main beat and melody coalesced in no time, but it sounds anything but hectic. Opening with crisp handclaps and soft-edged synth sustains, the R&B track kicks game over a mellow and slinky rhythm, perfect for pre-date primping.
Title track and first single “Happy Hour” takes it to the club. In the full-sounding chorus, Jazze Pha doubles his vocals, stacking each note twice, harmonizing as he big-ups apple martinis, cosmopolitans and piña coladas — just a regular ladies' man at a club on ladies' night.
Joined on Happy Hour by Mannie Fresh, Ciara, Nate Dogg and Aaron Hall, recording rode the party vibe from the jump. “We'd go to the club, and coming back it would be a convoy like Smokey and the Bandit,” Jazze recalls.
“Everyday was like the album says — it was happy hour,” mix engineer Leslie Brathwaite says. “Jazze's always bubbly, and Cee-Lo's the same way. They'd do records, go to the club, come back with a bunch of young ladies, cut the lights out and finish up the record. It was always fun and a party.”
CHECK THE METHOD
For the uncluttered, clean vibe that gives sounds such ample breathing room on Happy Hour, Jazze Pha took his inspiration from the records he grew up on, records by family friend Bobby Womack and influences such as Curtis Mayfield, Willie Hutch, The Stylistics and Al Green.
“I start off with a lot of sounds at first, and then I take things out. And I just leave them out,” Jazze says. “I always refer to the times of old, and back in the day, they didn't have 100 tracks to work with. Back then, you had to get it all down in eight tracks — 16 tracks at the most — and those were the records that sounded great. When you get in the club, when a track breathes, it just hits harder. It hits hard, real hard.”
Whether a Jazze Pha track aspires to pack the dancefloor or slip into something more comfortable, it all starts with the Akai MPC3000. “The day it came out, I was outside the store just waiting. I had the MPC60 mkII, and when it came to the 3000, it was on and popping.” Ever color-coordinated, one even matches his navy blue Range Rover.
From the MPC, Jazze Pha transfers everything to Digidesign Pro Tools, where he may add live guitars, live horns or any of a number of his pre-EQ'd sounds. He doesn't loop samples, but found sounds — like the zaps — definitely find their way into his creations. For live guitar or keys, he invites Atlanta session musicians such as Charles Pettaway (guitar) and Ced “Keyz” Williams (keyboards) into the studio, presses record and preserves every note for posterity, to be EQ'd and used later.
“I sample live musicians, and I also let live musicians play down to give it that live feel,” Jazze says. For the classic blaxploitation wah guitar sounds on Happy Hour's “Man of the Hour,” Pettaway played directly into Pro Tools, as congas and funk-underworld bass percolate in the background.
One MPC secret Jazze Pha learned early on was to break the rules. “An engineer from Bad Boy taught me how to put sounds in the MPC and make them peak without being too hot or distorted but still put everything into the drum machine as hot as possible. After that, I'd watch other people sample, and they was like, ‘This is as hot as you can sample,'' and I was like, ‘Nah, you can sample it hotter than that!'' I had to learn that it wasn't about what the machine is saying; it's about what you're hearing. 'Cause the machine might say that it's too hot, but when you play that sound back, it's like, ‘Yeah! I like that sound.''”
Another MPC trick surfaced when Diddy approached Jazze Pha for a beat for the December 2005 Notorious B.I.G. Duets: The Final Chapter (Bad Boy, 2005) album, using Biggie's vocals from 1997's “Nasty Boy.” Energized with a dynamic, throbbing bass line and infectious hook from Jagged Edge, the resulting first single (rechristened “Nasty Girl”) invigorates the track with new blood by injecting a DJ crossfader effect in the breakdown.
After listening to the a cappella and divining the beginnings of a beat, Jazze Pha fished out a track he produced for Angie Stone in 2004, “I Wanna Thank Ya;” put the instrumental on different pads of the MPC; and took advantage of the machine's touch-sensitive properties. “I turned the note off on the MPC3000. You turn the note off, and for as long as you hold the note, that's how long it will play. As soon as you let go, it cuts off,” Jazze says. “The beat was so sweet, so smooth, I wanted to give it more of a force, and that fast in-and-out gave it, like, a real magic. That's something I learned from Mannie Fresh. He always wants to break shit down. He lives for the breakdown.”
THE STARS ALIGN
In addition to Happy Hour, Jazze Pha is at work on Ciara's sophomore album, as well as tracks for India.Arie, Mya, Lil Scrappy, T.I. and G-Unit. Jazze Pha often inspires surprising vocal performances from his collaborators.
“Jazze knows how to bring the best out of an artist,” sound engineer Solis says. “He's got this funny thing where he'll go, ‘Sing that note, and say it with a smile and watch how easy it comes out.'' They'll do it and it'll come out real crazy.”
Vocals are the keystone of the operation, so when Solis discovered the Synchro Arts VocALign Audio Suite plug-in, it was a good day in Atlanta. VocALign facilitates easy alignment and rhythm matching of supplementary vocals to reference tracks, while retaining the different pitch and character of each.
“It just kills me when I hear other people's songs, because I know if they had just used VocALign, it would have came out so much better,” Solis says. “Doubles don't align too perfectly. VocALign puts them in the same place, but the tone is still there, the difference is still there.”
Solis uses the plug-in for lead vocals, ad-libs or even just to make one word punch through. “If I feel like it could be a little tighter, we take the lead vocal and Jazze's double, I assign the right rhythm and VocALign takes care of it.”
Solis usually assigns each vocal to its own aux track with specific EQ settings, but occasionally the pace of the session requires him to move fast. “Sometimes I have all the vocals just running through one aux track for the whole session just ‘cause they was just on a vibe and moving crazy quick, and you got to catch that, ‘cause if you blow the vibe, it ain't good,” Solis says.
Solis compresses vocals at a 3:1 ratio with the Waves Renaissance Compressor, but in general, he and mix engineer Brathwaite resist gratuitous effects and compress only when necessary. Brathwaite, who has mixed hit records for TLC, Outkast, Madonna, Brandy, Ludacris and others, says compression whitewashes the character of records.
“Compression just tends to shrink everything,” Brathwaite says. “So many engineers over-compress vocals — like, because it's there, they have to do it. Sounds don't always need to be compressed. Records that are timeless are timeless because they have so much character to them and so much of a dynamic to them. And you get character and dynamic by not compressing sounds.”
“Compression makes things flat,” Solis seconds. “Everybody tries to hide behind effects. For the most part, it's just levels. If you put that kick and the bass real high and you base everything else around it, you don't need the compression. I don't use compression on instruments unless it's like a live bass or strings — something that really needs it.”
When Brathwaite approaches the mix, he focuses on making the low end sing out while maintaining the clarity on top. He builds everything around the vocals and keeps outboard gear and plug-ins to a minimum, using on average only four effects per mix, mainly reverb on the vocals, a whisper delay on some vocals to take up space and slight compression and de-essing of vocals to make “the high-end glassy without being annoying,” Brathwaite says. “I always go for nice and round on the bottom, but very clear on the top.”
Brathwaite shares the speed gene with Jazze Pha. He says his most successful records were the quickest mixes. For example, TLC's “No Scrubs” took under two hours. Rap songs generally take him two to three hours, while R&B songs consume five to six hours. “People over-mix, just spend way too much time mixing records and start to ruin them,” Brathwaite says. “There's a certain breaking point in mixing, in creating beats, in producing and writing songs to where if you pass that point, anything you do after that point is going to be more destructive than it is constructive.”
Birds of a feather flock together. As for Jazze Pha, eight beats a day, eight minutes a beat, and it's a wrap: 64 minutes of fast-clip creativity at top-dollar rates. Not bad work if you can get it.
“I'm like the army, man,” Jazze says. “I get more done in a day than most people do in a month.”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac G4 computer
Digidesign 192 I/O (2), Pro Tools|HD3, SYNC I/O
Digidesign Pro Tools 6.7 software
80-channel SSL J9096 (Brathwaite: “It embodies the feel of the G, G+, E-type EQs and sounds, but you still get the crossover into the newer sound of the board.”)
Akai MPC3000 (5) (Jazze Pha: “I got the 4000, I got the 2000, but I love the 3000. It's my best friend.”)
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins, instruments
E-mu Systems Proteus 2000 sound module
Focusrite Forte Suite plug-in bundle
Korg Triton synth: “The Triton bass is like an R&B dark bass. It's got a round sound to it. I don't really like a boisterous bass sound unless I'm using a real bass. To me, it just feels real good for it to be round,” Jazze Pha says.
Roland Fantom synth: “I like all the expansion cards.
I been using that since it came out,” Jazze says.
Sound Electronics SE-1 sound module: “That #4 bass on the SE-1 is the shit,” Jazze says.
Synchro Arts TDM VocALign plug-in
Waves Renaissance Maxx plug-in bundle
Mics, mic preamps, EQs
Amek 9098 preamp/EQ (2)
API 512c mic/line preamp (2)
Focusrite Red preamp/EQ
Neumann M 149 (2), U 87 (3) mics
Quested 412HM mains, QSB118 subwoofers (4)
Yamaha NS-10M (3 pair)