“I'm definitely interested in Bruce Lee's whole philosophy in creating jeet kun do,” Chops reveals, waxing eloquent on the nuances of the martial art invented by the legendary dragon of Hong Kong. “His idea was to take different pieces of different styles, and he would study the essence of whatever the techniques were that applied to him. I wanted my record to be an example of that.”
Virtuosity (Vocab/GoodVibe, 2003), the solo debut of the Philadelphia-based producer and multi-instrumentalist, assembles a wildly diverse group of rhyme specialists — including Talib Kweli, Rass Kass, Mystic, Bahamadia, Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon and Kanye West — as well as turntablist DJ Babu and a slew of rising new talent. More than just a producer's showcase, though, this is hip-hop that embraces the bygone notion of the concept album, harking back to the days when the funky narrative was the lifeblood of, say, a blaxploitation film soundtrack or a vintage soul record. Coming up in Philly provides part of the picture, according to Chops.
“This is a musical town,” he says. “And a lot of artists you might know today have parents or uncles and aunts who were artists already, so there are generations of music here. As for the sound, if you go back to some of the older music from the '70s, like Gamble & Huff, for instance, they were able to make tunes that were catchy and even pop-sounding, but at the same time, there was a sophistication to what they were doing. I think there's a lot of that still in the city.”
In focusing his many sources of musical knowledge into a seamless whole, Chops extols the virtues of the numerous VST plug-ins and beat-editing programs that he uses in tandem with Steinberg Cubase, which he has installed on a homemade, portable “lunchbox” PC that he built from scratch. “With a little work, you can make virtual instruments sound pretty convincing,” he says. “I try to take that to drums, as well [using Native Instruments Battery]. You might have 200 beats, right, but if you cut them all up and use a kick from one, a snare from the other, it won't sound just like a reprogrammed James Brown kind of thing. I want it to sound like it would be physically possible to actually play on a drum kit.”
Loping beats, lush string and horn arrangements, and crafty keyboard hooks come together with a gritty ghetto realness on Virtuosity, reflecting Chops' ability to branch out beyond his work with the Mountain Brothers (the trio he founded with Peril-L and Styles, who appear on “Thoroughbred”), whose underground releases have garnered praise for their unabashedly organic sound.
The intro, “Git Dat Mutha,” opens with a string patch — by way of Steinberg's HALion sampler, through which Chops accesses various sound libraries such as Garritan Orchestral Strings — and morphs into a symphonic hip-hop theme reminiscent of a hard-nosed action flick. In fact, the cinematic mood pops up throughout, from the Japanese koto (via IK Multimedia SampleTank) behind Raekwon's “What's Fuckin' Wit Us” to the soulful Shaft-like backdrop of Bahamadia's “B-Girl Session.” Even the album's short instrumental interludes — composed and played entirely by Chops — evoke a visual medium, particularly the plaintive “Fallen Hero” and “Juiciness,” both of which feature a smoky electric Rhodes (courtesy of Applied Acoustics' versatile Lounge Lizard plug-in) that's probably genuine enough to please Herbie Hancock himself.
“Some of my favorite artists also did soundtracks,” Chops notes. “I guess this goes back to the '70s thing — people like Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes or Quincy Jones. To me, Curtis is a good model to go after. He had a group; he was his own artist after some time; he had his own label — he really spread himself out, and that's definitely my goal.”