“Everybody in the game has been doing our sound,” Layzie Bone, one quarter of the current lineup of '90s rap heroes Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, boasts from his Atlanta home. “Damn near every single artist out there is putting the flip-flop-flow with their stuff. Everybody in R&B is speeding up their flows and doing harmony, from Fantasia to Jermaine Dupri to Mariah Carey. Every rapper on the planet had to flip their tongue cause Bone Thugs-n-Harmony added something to the game that made it more exciting.”
Though they reside in cities scattered across the U.S. — Layzie Bone in Atlanta, Krayzie Bone in L.A., Wish Bone in Cleveland and Flesh-n-Bone at the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga, Calif. — Bone Thugs-n-Harmony think, speak and act as one. And with the arrival of a new album, Strength and Loyalty (Full Surface Records/Interscope, 2007), the multiplatinum rapper/vocalists' return benefits from the presence of possibly the most adventurous beat maker and producer of the era, Swizz Beatz. What is Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's claim to fame beyond selling 40 million albums — including their Easy-E produced masterpiece, E. 1999 Eternal (Ruthless, 1995) — and the Grammy winning single “Tha Crossroads”? Just ask a Bone.
“We offered the game something that changed it,” Layzie proclaims. “Bone contributed the marriage of rap and R&B. We had the harmonies, and we had the raps, and we were talking street with it; that brought the thug into it. Everybody nowadays got a little piece of that, and it is flattering, but we got tired of people doing us and the industry not giving Bone a deal while putting somebody out that tried to do Bone.”
Recorded at studios across the country (Swizz's Monza Studios in New York, Phoenix's Salt Mine, L.A.'s Hit Factory and Atlanta's Southside) with the crème de la crème of producers and guest artists, Strength and Loyalty is Bone Thugs-n-Harmony's mission statement to the hip-hop mainstream. While back in the day, their profanity-laced, rapid-flowing raps and stacked vocal harmonies were the stock and trade of L.A. hip-hop, Bone's new release shows both maturity and muscle, aiming to place them on the radio and in the clubs, the latter not the friendliest venue for the group in the past. And with Swizz at the helm — along with Akon, Big Boi, Mally Mal, Neo da Matrix, Platinum Bros, Pretty Boy & Brad, The Individuals, and Will. I.Am — Strength and Loyalty is a bang-up welcome-home party for a group that always had its share of internal squabbles, shoot-ups and incarcerations, but for whom the music remained supreme.
“How long you going to talk about kicking ass and getting ass and cars?” Wish Bone demands from Cleveland. “Once you accomplish so many things in your career, you can't dwell on the past. If your speech and lyrics don't grow with your life, you are stuck in one place; no one wants to hear the same thing from you.”
SEARCH FOR PERFECTION
Strength and Loyalty's newfound maturity is expressed through spiritual themes, excited raps, updated production and the best vocalizing of Bone's career. The group's harmonies are razor sharp (as are guest vocals from Mariah Carey, Eve, The Game, R. Kelly, Kelly Rowland and Gwen Stefani), and if you didn't know better, you'd swear it's the result of Pro Tools manipulation, but Bone Thugs insist their vocals are au natural. With Swizz in their corner, Strength and Loyalty covers every possible angle: commercial-radio anthems, bumping club tracks and some seriously deranged rhythmic voodoo from the master of the MPC3000.
“We thought working with Swizz would be a really good transition because he is a producer that we are not commonly associated with,” Wish Bone explains. “The type of music that Swizz has made, we knew he could put us in the clubs. Our songs were played in clubs before, but we never set out to make a club track. With Swizz, you can just hear the beats and know this is some club shit.”
Bone Thugs-n-Harmony wanted to reassert their identity at the top of the hip-hop heap, while Swizz Beatz stepped up his game to aid and assist Bone's rapid-fire flow and legendary persona. Swizz's Full Surface Records had already signed the group when Interscope came calling, attracted by Bone's remix of Mariah Carey's “Don't Forget About Us” (Universal, 2005).
“Just having the hard task of taking a classic group like Bone and testing yourself with that was a challenge,” Swizz Beatz says from the upstate New York mansion he recently purchased from Madonna. “Bone got a cult. I got to figure out what the cult wants, and I got to put myself with the people who don't even know Bone. I have to bring those two worlds together, and that took a long time. We cut over 70 songs. Bone speaks with substance, and they work hard as ever. Hell yeah, I had to raise my game two and three times with Bone.”
Swizz produced a handful of tracks that ended up on Strength and Loyalty, including “Give Me Love,” “Let's Ride,” “What's Up” and “When the Thugs Come Out.” The sessions began at his Monza Studios in Manhattan, with Swizz typically pounding out as many as 20 beats a night. Dissatisfied with the early results and rebelling against label pressure, Swizz initially scrapped almost all the early tracks.
“I did a whole session of beats and erased everything,” he says. “We didn't use half them songs. People were rushing the project, but it wasn't right; that ain't it. We kept working ‘til that was it.”
New York-based engineer Angel Aponte — who has worked with Scott Storch, LL Cool J and Rockwilder — is Swizz Beatz' right-hand man, helping turn beats and sounds into million-selling tracks. Assisting Swizz at Sony Studios' fully decked-out E Studio in Manhattan, Angel manned an SSL 9072 J board and Augsperger monitors. Though Swizz typically hands Aponte almost completed MPC-created stereo tracks, Aponte also edits tracks and works some plug-in magic.
“I only used slight compression on Bone's vocals,” Aponte explains. “We kept it all pretty clean before going into Pro Tools|HD 7, but I did use the [Waves] Renaissance compressor, EQ and Reverberator.”
Besides producing Bone's tracks, Swizz also added vocals, often resinging lines from older Bone material. For “Bump in the Trunk” (produced by The Individuals), Swizz resang a lyric from one of Bone's biggest hits, 1994's “Thuggish Ruggish Bone.”
“I was trying to recapture that moment and bring it to 2007,” Swizz says. “And it came out hot, and people are accepting it.”
“Swizz likes what he calls ‘the telephone effect’ for his vocals,” Angel says. “So I will drop out the low end and add a little reverb and delay; he loves that on his ad-libs. Swizz knows what he is talking about [with production] — he would never say, ‘Make it sound crazy' and then leave the room.”
On the Bone tracks, as always, Swizz's beats are stomping and slightly insane. Practically avant-garde in scope, his beat for “Give Me Love” starts with a menacing snare-drum roll in the intro, its caterwauling rhythm mirrored in repetitive bass-drum accents. Thick and resonant, the snare drum sounds like the whirring blades of a helicopter. Meanwhile, “What's Up” follows a thick Caribbean vibe underpinned with a bouncy two-over-three rhythm. And the '80s party mood of “Come With Me” features a sultry Brazilian female vocal sample and double-timed bongo-saxophone-guitar section sampled from a Tyrone Davis CD. But Swizz makes so many beats in a night that he can't remember specifics, such as the origin of the subtle Latin rhythms in “Come With Me.”
“The drums have to hold their weight, then you can get creative with other sounds like keyboards,” Swizz explains. “I still play all my drums manually on the MPC. Sometimes I will play a track live from the MPC all the way through just so it got that feeling like how a band would feel. On some of the tracks my arm will be hurting, and if I mess up I have to go back to the beginning ‘cause I got to get it all the way through for it to feel right. I won't stop and punch it in.”
Aponte has seen Swizz's beat-making process up close, and he remains impressed, if still largely unaware of the inscrutable Beatz method.
“Swizz makes beats in 10 minutes, so in a night you will get 20 beats out of him,” he says. “And he works from 7 p.m. to 7 in the morning. He will start with a sample from a CD or directly from the iPod and cut it up in the MPC. And the MPC3000 gives the samples a warm, thick sound; there is no other way he can get that sound but from the 3000. He does it all so quick. Often, when I think he is still chopping, he is already starting to add his drums. He has been doing this for so long, he touches up the tracks before he prints them. When he records the kick, he knows not to make it too low; he understands its range. As he records it, he does all the rough mixing internally [in the MPC].”
The MPC may be the trusted friend of many a hip-hop producer, but for Swizz, it's often his companion for most of each day. “I just walk around with a batch of drums on me,” he says, seemingly surprised at his own skill. “I used to walk around with a hundred songs on me. Now I got thousands of beats in my archive.”
Although not advisable for his hearing, Swizz cranks the decibels in the recording phase so he can really live and breathe the music as he's morphing it. “When I do the build-ups, I try to make them intense, and I also listen to the music at an incredibly high volume when we record,” he admits. “It feels like I am in a movie.” He prefers to avoid overprocessing his beats, but he usually layers his snares to thicken up the sound. “I will leave the drums raw so you feel the dryness and grittiness of the drums,” Swizz says. “[However], my snares come from layering different samples together. Also, if I stack the snares and tune down one to say, -36, when you press them all at the same time, it stretches and fattens up the sound.”
But much of what Swizz does remains a mystery, even to Aponte. As Swizz has been creating productions within the MPC3000 for more than eight years, and at a clip that would leave lesser producers breathless, his tracks are incredibly personalized and unique.
“He beefs up all his tracks before they come to me,” Aponte says. “I throw a slight EQ or compression on it to give it a little bit of a mastering effect. Say a snare is too ringy, I will take down the high end, but most of the time everything I get from Swizz is exactly how the artist hears it. When he does a track, I will loop everything while he is still listening, and I will have everything ready. He will do a two-track and then add a chorus to it himself. By the time he is done printing, he is already in the booth, so I have to loop the track in Pro Tools to a song structure that he wants. Swizz will say, ‘Make it two 12s and an eight, or two 16s and a 12,’ meaning verses and choruses.
“He likes the room to have a certain vibe,” Aponte continues. “You have to stay in that vibe, and you cannot fall asleep. He will go from sundown to sunup with the same energy, no drinking coffee, no Red Bull or nothing. He has an extreme energy that I have never seen from anyone in my life. He will go all night with the same exact energy from start to finish.”
Previous Monza productions found Swizz recording to a Studer A820 MKII 24-track 2-inch and mixing to a Studer A820 2-track ½-inch mastering deck, but those days are over. Though he loves old-school sounds (and the improved digital gear that comes with them), time waits for no producer, not even Swizz Beatz.
“The sound is way better going to that Studer I used to have,” Swizz confirms, “but the technology is not keeping up with tape, and it is such a long process to move from A to Z. We have been losing sonically for a while, anyway. Listen to DMX ‘Get at Me Dog,’ then a song I did like T.I's ‘Bring ‘Em Out.’ Sonically, ‘Bring ‘Em Out’ got more sounds than ‘Get at Me Dog.’ But ‘Get at Me Dog’ just fucking makes you feel like hip-hop is something that is very dangerous. That is when music used to feel dangerous. Now it don't feel dangerous; it feels like a wrestling match.”
SOMETHIN' TO PROVE
Swizz Beatz's next project is as UN Music Ambassador for an upcoming peace-themed record, a kind of “We Are the World” offering that will feature Bono, Marc Anthony and J-Lo, among others. The single is called “We'll All Be One One Day,” though there is no release date. Beyond that, Swizz has almost completed his sophomore album, One Man Band Man, set for release in 2007 (Full Surface/Universal). First single: “It's Me, Bitches.”
“This will let everyone know that I am having fun with what I am doing,” Swizz says. “I am putting myself into the shoes of the artists I work with. There are certain things that I want the artists to do, but they might not want to do it because it is not their style. [With my solo album], I can do it and make it my style.”
One Man Band Man's production team includes Neo da Matrix, The Individuals, Rockwilder, Just Blaze and “something from Dr. Dre, but I got to work the politics out on that one,” Swizz says with a laugh.
And there is no rest for Bone. They hope Strength and Loyalty reminds fans of their legacy while creating a new cult of Bone devotees, but they refuse to sit on their laurels. With the ever-argumentative Bizzy Bone seemingly gone for good (he quit just as they signed with Full Surface), Krayzie, Layzie, Wish and Flesh (who will be released from Pleasant Valley sometime in 2008) know their group vibe is secure. Krayzie and Wish can pursue their ThugLine Records label, while Layzie runs his Mo Thugs Records venture and concentrates on an upcoming solo project. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony can consider their history, and their future.
“We did make history,” Layzie reflects. “But Bone came in the game so strong that everybody else wanted to take the credit. And that is what we won't allow. That is why we came back hungrier than ever, rawer than ever and ready to split niggas' wigs. Now it is time to show the younger generation who really put their stamp on the game. It was time to get back and let our fans know that we understand that the group was more important than the solo careers. We had something to prove.”
SWIZZ'S MONZA MADNESS
Computer, DAWs, recording hardware, interface, mixer
Amek/Neve 9098 console
Apple Mac G5/dual 2.7 GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD 2 recording system, 192 I/O interface
Emagic Logic Audio Platinum 6.3.3 (now Apple Logic)
Korg Trinity, Triton Extreme workstation synths
Roland Fantom X8 synth
Waves Native Platinum Bundle plug-ins
Sampler/drum machine, turntables/MP3 player
Akai MPC3000 Limited Edition sampling workstation
Pioneer CDJ-1000 MKII DJ CD player, CMX-3000 dual CD player
Mic, preamp/compressor/EQ, effects
Avalon Vt-737sp mic preamp/compressor/EQ
Eventide DSP4000 Ultra-Harmonizer effects processor
Lexicon 480L digital reverb
Neumann U 87 mic
Tube-Tech EQ 1A EQ
Dynaudio AIR Base series active subwoofer