Read about Busdriver in the “Frequencies” section of the January 2007 issue of Remix. Then check out the full Q&A below on producers Nobody and Boom Bip.
Could you pick a track you did for RoadKillOvercoat and explain the process from the song ''s initial inspiration to the mixing stage? Please include key makes and models of gear involved.... Do you work with a combination of samples and live instruments?
Boom Bip: A real skeletal version of “Sun Shower” was sitting around and not really going anywhere. I decided to play it for Reagan [Busdriver] to see what he thought, and he jumped all over it and said, “Yeah, I want that.” So then I was really inspired to take the track in a direction that he had never gone. We were trying something new, and we knew it would stand out on the record. It was the one we were both most nervous about and actually the one that in the end was most challenging. The song is all live instruments. The synths used were a [Clavia] Nord Lead 3, [Korg] MicroKorg, ARP 2600, a cheap-ass Yamaha keyboard, some Native Instruments Battery drums and other drum samples I have collected over the years pounded out with an [Akai] MPC.
Nobody: For “The Troglodyte Wins,” I made this beat out of Yes'' ”Close to the Edge”—the section titled ”I Get Up, I Get Down.” I ''m a fairly recent Yes convert, and when I first heard that part, I could not believe it had not been sampled before. What''s more hip-hop than the phrase “get up and get down”? Plus, the way Jon Anderson is singing it sounds so sweet! I sampled the record at 45 rpm to speed up the bpm. I use an old Roland DJ-70 sampler, a sampler from the early ''90s. The sampler on board does not have quantizing, so I run the sampler MIDI to an old beat-up PowerBook 5300 running a program called MasterTrax 6.0. It ''s like the Mac version of the old PC program Cakewalk. I looped up the vocal singing, “I get up, I get down” and built the beat from this sample. I added drums that I sampled from old records, probably Love''s “Doggone” or something. I usually quantize everything slightly, at around 90 percent with a slight swing on it. But my program seems to work best at around 52.5 percent. I am a fan of the Dilla and Madlib offbeat drum programming, and that seems to be my version of it. I feel that after I quantize the kick and snare that way, it just tugs at the rhythm a little bit. I like the feeling of things slipping away when I hear hip-hop. Programming hi-hats is not my strength, so I usually don''t quantize them, and just record a long stretch live and select 4 or 8 bars that sound perfect for the rhythm. When I made this beat, I had just purchased a MicroKorg keyboard, which I had only used a handful of times. Just for kicks, I used a very farty bass-line sound and played a simple bass line to go with the sample. Afterward, I added eighth-note stabs in key with the sample to complement the quarter notes played in the sample. This beat literally took me fifteen minutes. I was just making it for fun because I loved the Yes sample. I thought I would never be able to clear it; plus, the bass line under it sounded like a Sa-Ra rip-off, so I just left it at that. So that is the creation of the beat. One day while combing through my sessions with Busdriver, I played him the beat, which was just a work in progress, and he flipped. We recorded three verses and a hook a few weeks later.
All of the music was done in Pro Tools 6.12 on a Digi 002, and the vocals were engineered by my friend Jeff Harris, who records on a 001 through some real amazing outboard gear. The vocals we did at his place were put through FMR Audio''s Really Nice Compressor and Really Nice Pre-Amp. At this point, the beat was just the vocal looped over and over along with the bass line, drums and synth. I noticed that when I took the sample out of the beat, it still sounded fresh and created more room for Bus'' vocal. When the hook came in with the Yes sample, it sounded really special, so I knew to have it only come in during the chorus rather than run it the whole time. Another thing I tried out was using the “get up ” part of the sample on every one [beat] during the verse—similar to Cam''ron''s “Oh Boy” that I loved so much. It seemed to work and made the song much for pop in the way it''s laid out. I rearranged the beat around the verses and choruses and gave it to Bus to make sure he was cool with the change. We let the song sit like this for a long time until Bus had the idea of transposing the last verse up a half step, like in old ''60s songs like The Zombie''s “This Will Be Our Year.” Bus is really conscious of when a song gets a bit long but is also aware of drastic changes taking away from the rap, too, so I think this idea was really awesome in complementing his last verse and giving the track a bit more energy. We took the session back to Jeff ''s place and transposed the tracks during the last verse. The song is done! We mixed this version of the song down with Daddy Kev at Alpha Pup''s studio in Los Angeles and actually mastered it with Oasis Mastering in Burbank. We didn''t even think about the sample and clearing it. I still couldn''t believe that the little fun Yes beat I made was now this crazy song, but I loved it. Unfortunately, the label could not clear the sample. You don''t know how sad I was! It was my favorite song on the record! After a few weeks of depression, we got our shit together and re-created the sample. We were really happy that Epitaph/ANTI let us re-create it rather than scrap it altogether, since we really dug the song. I had my buddy Ikey Owens replay the keyboard line and matched the reverb to the original record. We then had our buddy Chesky Ramos of TOCA come in to Daddy Kev''s studio and re-sing the vocal. It took a few tries, but he nailed it, Busdriver coached out a crazy belt-it-out performance out of him that matched the feel of the Jon Anderson version. I hoped that after I resampled and sped up the sample the tone of the vocal would match a bit better. This is where Daddy Kev really helped us out! We noticed in the original that there are slight water droplet sounds in the sample. Kev combed through his sound effect and found the perfect ones. We bounced a 2-track version of our re-created sample, and I took it home to chop away. The problem I faced was speeding up the sample to 45 rpm from the way we recorded it since I didn''t have a [Pioneer] CDJ. I took a chance of sampling it and seeing if I could match it in the sampler. I was pleased to find out that it matched perfectly when I pitched it up five half steps. The vocal also sounded much more like the sample once it was sped up. So, I resampled all the parts I originally used and replaced all of the Yes samples with our new one. It was a long and complicated process but worth it. It''s my favorite hip-hop song I''ve produced. The chorus is like Kool Keith on acid.
How do you collaborate with Busdriver? Is there a lot of back and forth during the process of layering up sounds and rhymes, or do you just supply a handful of tracks for him to choose from and rap over?
Nobody: It ''s a little bit of both. When we first started, I gave him a CD of beats, maybe 13 or so, and he picked two. “Cowboys and Callgirls,” “Secret Skin” and “Pompous Posies” were all beats Bus chose off a CD, but “Posies” I custom made for him because I think 3/4 rap has been done so lame so far, so we had to do it. In the case of “Mr. Mistakes,” he chose a beat of mine that was a remix I did for another artist. I obviously couldn''t use the track as my own, so I created a whole new beat for the song just by matching the bpm and the key of the song. We also did “Less Yes''s” that way. Bus rapped the whole song over an Aesop Rock instrumental, which I replaced with my own beat. I love to work that way! Since the structure of the song is in place, I can really customize the music to Bus'' vocal and make sure that nothing gets in the way of hearing him. “Etheral Driftwood” was one where Bus and I collaborated. He brought in the song as a Pro Tools sessions with music he had programmed on Reason. I added some drums and other fuzzed-out sounds, and that was that.”
Boom Bip: We worked both ways. Some tracks he just brought back completed, and for others, we went back and forth a lot. Mostly, it was the latter. Initially, I just had him come over and listen to a bunch of tracks and pick what he wanted. He then wrote to basic sequences and brought it back to make sense of it all. He then records to a comfortable sequence that we both agree on at another studio. I was not there while he recorded vocals. I got the vox files and mixed, panned and effected his vocals. Once his vocals were in place, I started adding small bits and sounds back in the track that complement the vocals. It was a very hands-on collaboration between us because we lived close to each other, making it easy to work out ideas.
What''s the preferred signal chain for Busdriver''s vocals (mic, preamp, compressor, etc.)?
Nobody: We used a Shure KSM27 on his vocal. It was put through an FMR Audio Really Nice Compressor and Real Nice Mic-Pre and a 24-channel Soundtrac board before we hit Pro Tools. The vocals were engineered and recorded by Jeff Harris in Long Beach.
It''s often said that being a producer requires being a therapist with vocalists. How do you get the best takes from Busdriver in the studio?Boom Bip: I''m just honest with the vocalist I work with. You don''t get anywhere if you just love everything they do and don''t try and inspire or criticize them during the process. Reagan was a pleasure because he can go anywhere with his voice. He is more likely to take on a challenge and a difficult track rather then the easy way out or a standard beat. He is so much more than a good rapper and writer. He is a true artist in every sense of the word. This is obvious on the record.
Nobody: Busdriver and I have known each other for years, but we have never worked together until it came time to make this album. I know that he wanted to step up his music, and I know I had to do something awesome with him because I respect him, and I have not done a hip-hop record with rapping in ages. I knew what Bus'' detractors say about him, i.e. he raps too fast, he''s mad wordy etc. So I made sure that you could hear everything he rapped, and I would make sure that he really hit the pocket of the beat. I would never tell Bus to slow down or write less words; he obviously is doing things his way, and it''s working, but I would make sure that the speed or the delivery never became cluttered or rhythmically weird against the beat. He wrote amazing hooks, so there was no need to help with that. I would just tell him after a take, “Hey, when you do this part, make sure you hit it the way you did because it sounds perfect,” or “Hey, right there it gets a bit cluttered, and he was always open to suggestion.” It was all fun and good times. I would bring my vaporizer to the sessions, he would buy me a bottle of wine, and by the time we were going, I''d be dancing around just getting him hyped and laughing. We had a ton of fun, but we worked our asses off on that record, and I think you can hear that.