As I pulled up to the ramshackle house in the Atlanta suburbs, I was sure that I had the wrong address. This couldn't be where producer, keyboardist, and Grammy-winning songwriter LRoc, who's worked with everyone from Usher to Mariah Carey to Nelly to LL Cool J, had his studio. No way. I was expecting something more modern and well kept up — maybe even a little flashy.
But a quick check of my notes confirmed that this was indeed the location that LRoc's management had meant to send me for the interview. So I walked to the door and rang the bell, still half expecting whoever answered to look at me quizzically when I asked for LRoc.
But when the door opened, it was LRoc who answered. He greeted me amiably, and then motioned for me to follow him through a living room area equipped with a huge flat-screen TV and a Sony PlayStation console. We then went down the stairs to the basement studio that he calls “dakitchen.” It has professional acoustic treatment on the walls, a vocal booth, and a small live room. He explained that he purposely situated his studio in this nondescript house (he lives elsewhere) so that potential burglars would have the same reaction of “There's no way there's anything valuable in there” that I had.
In fact, there was plenty of choice gear — enough to pique the interest of any self-respecting burglar. But my mission was not one of criminal intent; I was there to spend the day watching LRoc work and to gain insight into his production techniques.
LRoc, whose real name is James Elbert Phillips, was born in Liberia. As a child there during the '70s, he studied classical piano. However, his musical imagination was stimulated not by Bach or Mozart but by the sounds of American pop music that he heard on the radio. “I would hear those records, like Parliament Funkadelic and Prince,” he recalled. “I learned a lot from them.”
Although his classical training played a role in his musical development, he wasn't what you would call a model student. “When I left music class, that book went into the piano bench and didn't come out until the next session,” he remembered. “But I did play while listening to records. I practiced by listening to artists like Stevie Wonder, so my ear and my improvisational skills improved more than my reading.”
LRoc taught himself to play the bass guitar by “listening to the radio and listening to records. It's a simple instrument. I picked it up, and I loved it a lot. Classical piano was more my parents' idea.”
LRoc's family immigrated to the United States and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area when he was 16. There, he continued listening to funk bands such as Cameo, the Time, and the Brothers Johnson, but his musical tastes broadened, encompassing artists like Count Basie, Thad Jones, the big-band stuff, Chaka Khan, Chick Corea, and John Patitucci.
Herbie Hancock was also a huge influence. “He was a great musician, but he still could go and do some great-sounding commercial stuff,” said LRoc. “So was Bernie Worrell of Parliament Funkadelic; he was classically trained but played the funk. The kind of musicians I gravitated toward were skilled and able to play the simplified music without compromising their artistic integrity.” That concept was to become key to LRoc's later success.
Soldiering in the Studio
A stint in the army followed, and LRoc, stationed in Germany, found plenty of musical opportunities. He set up a MIDI studio in his barracks, in which he had an old Yamaha sequencer, a Commodore 64 computer running C-Lab software, a Yamaha DX7, a Sequential Prophet 600, and a Yamaha RX15 drum machine. “I was doing a lot of sessions, and everybody started calling me a great producer,” he said. “So all of a sudden, I was a producer, I guess.”
LRoc's passion was clearly more musical than military. So when his enlistment ended in 1989, it was off to Atlanta, a city with a budding music scene that would become one of the hottest in the country a decade or so later. He immersed himself in the city's gigging and recording circuit and steadily built his reputation. In 1994 he joined a band called the Chronicle. It was an all-instrumental improv band that was huge in the area. “We were like the southern [band] Roots. Hip-hop, funk, jazz, DJ — a killer band,” said LRoc. “It was incredible. It was spontaneous. We always made up stuff onstage. We did that for six years and sold out every show. It was crazy.”
As the Atlanta hip-hop scene grew bigger and more influential, LRoc became the regular keyboardist in Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz. The group was one of the main innovators of “crunk,” a subgenre that developed out of the club scenes in Atlanta and Memphis and that has become a major factor on today's national hip-hop scene. Working with Lil Jon, LRoc won a songwriting Grammy in 2005 for his innovative keyboard melodies on Usher's R&B megahit “Yeah.” LRoc's biggest break came when he was signed to a production deal by hip-hop mogul and producer Jermaine Dupri and his company So So Def. That signing opened a lot of production doors for LRoc, who now splits his work time between his own setup and Dupri's slick SouthSide Studios.
Inside the Beats
When I arrived at LRoc's studio, he was producing beats, the rhythm-track loops that are the foundation of hip-hop music. He explained that the songwriting process of today's hip-hop and R&B is different from that of other forms of popular music. A song often starts with a beat that's composed by the producer, and then the singer or rapper writes his or her raps and hooks around that.
“I have different artists I'm working on stuff for now. I tend to work on six or seven things at once. I'll work a little on one beat — get it to the point where it feels comfortable,” he explained. “I might have 20 different sequences in one file. And then, when the writers get here, I start to track stuff. I just come up with a lot of ideas. Sometimes I change the tempo based on how the hook flows; I don't like to put it in stone yet. I like to have the option to mess with the tempo — to change certain things. Once we've got a hook, then I track into [Digidesign] Pro Tools.”
Although LRoc often starts the beats on his own, he likes to have the artists' input as the process develops. He said about several of his current rap clients, “Usually when they hear something that they like, they start rapping. And if I see that the response is great, we'll run with it and then track it,” he said. “If they don't like anything, I have to start something fresh while they're here. We usually do both.”
MPC Front and Center
Although he records to a Pro Tools HD system, the most important piece of gear in LRoc's studio is his vintage Akai MPC3000 groove sampler. “This is the brainchild here,” he said, pointing to the tabletop device. “Most of my drums come from here” (see Fig. 1).
FIG. 1: LRoc tapping rhythms into his Akai MPC3000 groove sampler. Behind it are his Korg Triton and his Fender and Sadowsky basses.
He explained that he slaves it to Pro Tools but uses its sequencer for programming his basic rhythm parts (see Web Clip 1). The MPC, which has had many incarnations over the years, is huge among hip-hop producers. “I've got a signature sound that a few of us, including Lil Jon, have been using for years. It hasn't failed us very often; we've had a lot of hits. For different timbres, I use the MPC and the [Roland SP-] 808.”
LRoc likes the sounds in the SP-808, although he wishes it had multiple outputs rather than just a stereo pair. (He plans to buy an SP-909, which does have individual outs.) He uses the SP-808 mostly for percussion parts, but the MPC is definitely his go-to device. He likes the way its converters add subtle dirt to a sound. “I sample a lot of my drum sounds into the MPC,” he said. “It's not clean, but it's punchy.”
LRoc has been dabbling with a few virtual instruments, such as Native Instruments Battery, which he uses for certain drum sounds. He has the entire Native Instruments suite of soft synths. “I've got those in there,” he said, pointing to his Apple Power Mac G5 running Pro Tools, “and on my laptop.”
Because he began producing when outboard gear reigned supreme, LRoc has been cautious in adopting virtual instruments. But he's now making a big push toward the virtual world. He told me about going to a music store after not having gone to one for a while. “I was like, ‘Hey, where are all the keyboards?''” he said laughing. “I realized then that it's a new day. But I love it. I was hesitant at first, but then I started hearing some of the other producers at So So Def, and they had everything on virtual instruments. And I said, ‘Hey, did your drums come from that?'' They said, ‘Yes,'' and I said, ‘Okay.''”
An Apple MacBook Pro laptop provides LRoc with a portable setup for working on beats when he's not at his own studio. Unlike his G5 desktop at dakitchen, on which Pro Tools is the main sequencer, his laptop features Apple Logic Pro, which he's just getting the hang of.
He has more jobs than he has time for, so his laptop helps him maximize productivity. He uses it to work on tracks at home and if he has extra time when he's at SouthSide, where he goes almost daily. “Working with Jermaine, I have to be there a lot. So that doesn't give me much time. That's what prompted me to get Logic [for the laptop]. There's a lot of downtime there. If I go there at 3 or 4 p.m., I might leave at 5 or 6 a.m. While Jermaine plays some video games or shoots ball, I go in and create some loops.”
LRoc told me that he plans to spend some time in the near future becoming more proficient in Logic and with his virtual instruments. “My focus is on getting everything integrated and working better,” he said.
According to LRoc, his inspiration for creating beats is often triggered by just messing around with his gear or by hearing a particular sound on a synthesizer or sampler. “A lot of times a sound will inspire what I do, too,” he said. As an example, he triggered a cool-sounding vocal patch from his Roland V-Synth XT module (see Fig. 2) that sounded like a choir singing in Latin. “I just bought this,” he said about the V-Synth XT. “It has a lot of great synth sounds in it. I use that sound in order to get a basic ghetto beat.”
FIG. 2: Although he has soft instruments in his setup, LRoc still relies a lot on outboard gear such as the Roland V-Synth XT.
He sequenced a melody that featured the V-Synth, and then wove in a slow drum part on the MPC. The Latin vocal sample inspired the creation of this groove.
LRoc explained that many southern hip-hop and R&B songs are set at relatively slow tempos. “A lot of the crunk music was at 82 to 85 bpm,” he said. “The common thread in all those songs is the hi-hats — the high t-t-t sound. You slow it down to get those 16th-note hi-hats, and then everything is built around that.”
Southern hip-hop, he said, is often defined by its drums. “The 808, the boom. The hi-hats, the handclaps. You don't hear too many snares; you hear more claps.”
LRoc said that songs with a “South-style” groove typically have a sonic palette similar to “bass music,” which originated in Miami. The 2 and the 4 are emphasized less than in some other types of hip-hop, and that has a different effect on somebody listening or dancing to it. “In the up-north stuff, you have snares poppin' in your face,” he said. “It makes you nod your head like that, on 2 and 4. Whereas when you've got a hi-hat riding like this [South style], and you've got a 2 and a 4 meshed in and not standing out, it makes you move differently. It's all manipulation; it's how you manipulate people to move [he laughed]. It's just those little factors. When I'm making a track, I'm thinking about all of those things. So it becomes second nature.
“If I'm doing a South beat, we have a kind of formula: a lot of hi-hats and handclaps. I'll start with a handclap, just getting the 2 and the 4 — the pulse,” he explained (see Web Clip 2). Although he follows convention to a certain extent, he likes to add his own touches to his beats. “Sometimes I'll put in the hi-hat to start the beat, but then I'll take the hi-hats out and start putting other kinds of percussion in there.”
LRoc is clearly confident enough in his abilities that he'll push the envelope a little without worrying that the result will turn off his clients. When I first arrived, he played me a beat that featured a New Orleans-style horn section combined with hip-hop rhythms that he'd put together for a client who was originally from Louisiana.
Although he likes to be creative, he does have some sonic staples that he knows will work. “I have certain sounds that I like to use on a lot of my stuff. It makes it easy. A lot of times clients want a song like a song that's already out. So I use certain sounds that are really distinctive from that song.”
Bass in Your Face
Later on LRoc was working on another beat, and I noticed that it had no bass part in it. I asked him if he was just waiting to add the bass. “A lot of times in the South stuff, this will be the bass,” he said, referring to the 808-type kick (aka the “boom”) coming from his MPC.
LRoc said that he often transposes that kick sound to match the song's chord changes. He usually tunes it to the root of the particular chord, but sometimes he tunes it to the fifth. “The drums are harmonic too,” he said. “Subliminally harmonic. It's amazing how tuning a drum will make a song feel better. It just changes it.” He also likes to subtly tune the snare. “If you pitch it up, it makes it a little bit tighter, and it just feels better.”
On the songs that have a synth bass, LRoc often uses the Spectrasonics plug-in Trilogy. “It's just a beast,” he observed. But as a longtime bass player, LRoc hopes to inject more real electric-bass parts into his music. “That's for my next phase. I use certain instruments, and I go in phases.”
From his years as a performing keyboard player, LRoc has become very proficient on the Minimoog and uses it a lot in his productions. “I can pretty much look at the knobs and tell what the sound is,” he said. “I've programmed on the spot so many times for so many years onstage, doing the same songs with no presets.” He said he often turns it on and starts playing a bunch of effects “wild,” that is, not along with any song (but with a click). He'll have Pro Tools on, and he records the results. “I record myself tweaking and looking for stuff,” he said (see Web Clip 3). “And in that process, I go back and hear a lot of stuff that I can use.” Later, he'll take out pieces here and there and throw them into a song.
According to LRoc, his analog experience, both with synths and with recording gear, has been very helpful in his production work. It gives him a perspective that younger producers, who work only “in the box,” don't have. “It really helps, you know — coming from being in the world of splicing tapes, rewinding, and fast-forwarding,” he said. “Can you imagine what a kid would think of that today? ‘Rewind? I got to wait for that?'' But like I said, just having that experience of both worlds is definitely a plus when it comes to sonics and just about everything.”
On to SouthSide
Later that afternoon, LRoc's engineer, Vincent Alexander, arrived. Alexander helps LRoc with engineering and keeps the studio gear set up and running efficiently. After they worked on beats a while more, LRoc said that there was a mix session scheduled that day over at the SouthSide studio for Bow Wow's new CD. LRoc had helped work on the album, and he wanted to attend. “Sometimes they need me to add something,” he said, “but I doubt it on this album.”
FIG. 3: When he''s not at dakitchen, LRoc produces, composes, and plays keyboards at -Jermaine Dupri''s well-appointed SouthSide Studios.
The mix for the CD was down to the wire. “The album has to be turned in tomorrow,” he explained, “because Bow Wow has a single out with Chris Brown that's called ‘Shorty Like Mine.'' Jermaine released it a couple of months ago, and it's blown up. When that song was released, we hadn't started the album. So we had to rush and finish it.”
After a detour to LRoc's favorite Mexican restaurant for a quick bite, LRoc, Alexander, and I headed down the highway to Dupri's SouthSide studio complex. I asked LRoc if he ever mixes any of his own music, and he said no. “I know how I like it to sound. But as far as how those guys get the frequencies and the placements … it's tough understanding all that stuff, like how they use all the outboard, the formulas for delays, the right kind of delay and effects. That's my green area. I have to admit that everything I create is done with a team. I just master what I do and slowly learn the other stuff.” But he does want to develop his mixing skills. “Eventually, I'd like to become really good at it,” he told me.
Fun and Games
When we arrived, we found out that the mix session wasn't happening. There was a big huddle going on in the main control room concerning the Bow Wow album. The label wanted to release only a “clean” version that contained no swearing so that the CD wouldn't get an “Explicit” sticker. Bow Wow was apparently not happy with how the editing necessary to make it “clean” affected the final product. There was much discussion about what to do, especially considering that the album was due to the label the next day.
Not being involved with that aspect of the Bow Wow project, LRoc took this opportunity to show me around SouthSide. The main studio is a super-high-end Pro Tools-based room, with a large Digidesign Icon console in the control room (see Fig. 3). LRoc showed me several side rooms that are production and composing facilities featuring gear setups fairly similar to those at dakitchen, including MPCs and KV Audio EX 10 systems with subs. The EX 10s sit on speaker stands and are basically like P.A. speakers. With the subwoofer, they're capable of cranking out the bass and simulating club conditions. Apparently, KVs are ubiquitous on the Atlanta hip-hop production scene. LRoc had the same KV speaker system in his studio, and he said that Lil Jon has it as well.
The composing rooms have Dynaudio BM15A active monitors, just like the ones LRoc has at dakitchen. “Jermaine and I write on the Dynaudios and some Samsons, and once we get something we like and he wants to listen, we go to KVs,” said LRoc. He said he sometimes does the same thing at his studio. “Especially when I'm doing a rough mix, then I use the KVs for reference. I go back and forth.”
As impressive as all SouthSide's gear was, the studio's most astonishing feature was its indoor full-court basketball court. When people working at the studio have downtime, they can relax and play hoops. People less inclined to the hardwood can amuse themselves at a full-size billiard table or with video games. Clearly, Dupri has spared no expense to make SouthSide a comfortable working environment.
LRoc showed me one of the live rooms, and it featured an isolated room off to its side with a grand piano. He sat down at it and started playing fluently. “I've been practicing lately. I made a conscious effort to get my chops back up, because I've gotten lazy just with simple stuff. But I want to start doing more stuff and getting back to some playing.”
Later, sitting and talking in one of SouthSide's production rooms, I asked LRoc about how his Liberian background had influenced him musically. “I listened to African music in general,” he told me. “I listened to stuff that you could hear on the radio all the time. I was playing a lot of those songs by ear. And in bands. They've got different kinds of rhythms [than American music]. I understand other kinds of percussive rhythms and feels; I learned a lot from that, and I still apply it.”
I asked LRoc what he hopes to accomplish in the near future. He said that he'd like to be able to produce more beats without a specific artist in mind, and then sell them. “I'm working on my skills of just doing tracks and getting them placed. If I can do that, then my income will increase,” he said. “When I'm selling tracks that I made on my laptop, I'll be the happiest. I'll just get my little M-Audio bag and go on the plane, compose on the way to where I'm going, and when I get there, it'll be done.”
In addition to increasing his proficiency in Logic and with his virtual instruments, LRoc said that the biggest challenge presented by producing beats strictly from his laptop is to successfully duplicate the sounds he gets in the studio. “I can create a song on it, but my signature — my drum sound — isn't the way I want it yet. I'm still working on that, and that's key.” He knows that having killer sounds is crucial to staying successful in the hip-hop production game. “Sonically, it's got to beat so hard,” he said, “because the competition will.”
a View From Dakitchen
If you're sitting in the mix position of the control room at dakitchen, LRoc's studio, his Minimoog (which has obviously seen heavy use) is on your extreme left (see Fig. A). In front of it is a rack containing a number of outboard synth modules, including a Roland V-Synth XT and Fantom XR, an E-mu Mo Phat and Proteus 2000, and an Oberheim Matrix 2000.
FIG. A: LRoc tweaks his Minimoog at dakitchen.
A Roland SP-808 Groove Sampler is on a rolling stand to the left. A desk in front features an old Korg Triton, some patch bays, a PreSonus Central Station monitor controller, an Apple monitor for LRoc's G5 (which runs his Digidesign Pro Tools HD setup), and his most important piece of gear — an Akai MPC3000.
Dynaudio BM15A active monitors are on either side of the Apple monitor, and KV Audio EX 10 monitors on speaker stands are farther out to the side. A KV Audio EX 2.2 subwoofer is on the floor. On the right is a rack with his Pro Tools hardware and mic pres.
When he records vocalists, LRoc uses a Soundelux U-195 mic. “It's not too rich, but it fits everything I'm doing,” he said. “If I need something that's high end, then I rent. I haven't decided yet what other mics I'm going to get, but the Soundelux has been working fine — it's an old faithful.”
Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.
LROC: A SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY
Producer, Songwriter, Instrumentalist
Mariah Carey, “Say Somethin'” (So So Def remix featuring Dem Franchize Boyz) (Island Def Jam, 2006)
Chingy, “Pullin' Me Back,” Hoodstar (Capitol, 2006)
Dem Franchize Boyz, “My Music,” On Top of Our Game (Virgin, 2006)
Janet Jackson, “So Excited,” “This Body,” 20 Y.O. (Virgin, 2006)
LL Cool J (featuring Jennifer Lopez), “Control Myself,” Todd Smith (Island Def Jam, 2006)
Bow Wow, “Big Dreams,” “Caviar,” “Do What It Do” (no sample), “Do You,” “Is That You,” “Mo Money,” “Fresh AZIMIZ,” Wanted (Sony BMG, 2005)
Jermaine Dupri, “Gotta Getcha,” Jermaine Dupri Presents: Young, Fly, and Flashy, vol. 1 (Virgin, 2005)
Nelly, “Grillz,” Sweatsuit (Universal Records, 2005)
Bonecrusher, “Back It Up,” “For the Streets,” “Lock and Load,” “Peaches and Cream,” AttenChun! (Arista, 2003)
Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, “Get Your Weight Up,” Part II (TVT Records, 2003)
Ice Cube, “Go to Church,” Laugh Now, Cry Later (Lench Mob Records, Inc., 2006)
Mario (and Mario featuring Juneville), “Boom,” Turning Point (J Records, 2004)
Usher, “Yeah,” Confessions, Special Edition (LaFace Records, 2004)
Lil Jon and the East Side Boyz, “Diamonds,” “I Don't Give a F***,” “Knockin' Heads Off,” “Nothin' On,” “Ooh Na Na Naa Naa,” Kings of Crunk (TVT Records, 2002)