Photo: Larissa Underwood
If you've read George Orwell's classic 1984 and its tale of a futuristic world controlled by the neuro/physical/mental omnipotence of “Big Brother,” then you know its chilling language lexicon represented by the phrases “newspeak,” “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime.” So when the peace- and love-espousing Chicago rapper Common issues an album titled Universal Mind Control (G.O.O.D. Music/Geffen Records, 2008), explanations are in order.
“Universal Mind Control is just about creating the music,” Common says. “If you want the people to dance, then you make music so they can dance. If you want them to jump, then the music has to create that feeling. So it's really just about creating what you want in the music.”
Are listeners simply sheep to be led like automatons? Simply crank the bpms and they dance; process a sample and they jump?
“I want the people to let go to the music,” Common (born Lonnie Rashid Lynn Jr.) clarifies. “It's a dark time now. Friends tell me what they're going through. Look at what's happening in the world. People are suffering in many ways. I want to offer fresh air and light during the darkness. The only way to accomplish that with my music is to give them something new and fresh. That's my therapy for this time.”
Produced by Mr. DJ (aka David Sheats of production team Earthtone III [along with Outkast's Big Boi and Andre 3000]) and Pharrell Williams (The Neptunes), Universal Mind Control summarizes Common's career to date, referencing hip-hop, both old-school and futuristic, à la Like Water for Chocolate (MCA, 2000) meets Electric Circus (MCA, 2002).
“The goal was to do something that sounded like nothing we have ever heard before,” Common declares. “It wasn't just about using electronic instruments; The Neptunes have done that before, and I've done that on Electric Circus. It was about creating a sound that felt new. That was natural for Pharrell and Mr. DJ and I. Mr. DJ produced Outkast's ‘Bombs Over Baghdad''; that was the future at that point. The Neptunes' sound is always Star Trek. I said, ‘Let's take this even somewhere else that none of us have been to.'' I wanted my [vocal] sound to be more round and bigger-sounding and crisp. The Sony C800G microphone really channeled the energy I wanted — the bright, crisp, present sound I was looking for.”
Befitting the roving man of mystery that is Common — rapper, PETA/AIDS activist and actor (he plays Barnes in the forthcoming Terminator Salvation) — Universal Mind Control was recorded in multiple studios. Mr. DJ recorded basic tracks at his Camp David Studio and Outkast's Stankonia Recording in Atlanta. Meanwhile, Common recorded vocals at Electric Lady (New York), CRC (Chicago Recording Company), Nelly's Derrty Entertainment (St. Louis), Record Plant (L.A.) and South Beach Studios (Miami).
Typically, Common records 20 takes per track. “What I look for in all those takes is a feeling and a certain truth,” Common states. “When the truth is in a take, the A&R man, the producer and I all know that is the take. And I'm checking my tone and energy, and how I sound rhythmically and that I enunciate the words the way I wanted to.
“I write songs in my head; I don't write them down,” he continues. “I sing and work them out while I am driving my Range Rover. When I rap to the music, I usually get into a certain rhythm and pattern. I always want to accomplish that in the studio. I had to meet the place I found in my truck.”
Common cut UMC's initial vocals at Electric Lady, but he's particularly fond of South Beach's vocal booth, with its large picture window providing a view of the outside world with “the sun coming through,” he says. “It helps me get into the zone of the song.” But Common tries to avoid punching in to achieve the perfect vocal performance — he prefers to get it right in one take.
“I prefer an entire live take because I come from the 2-inch world,” Common says. “Not that we don't punch-in, but there is something about that live take. When you perform it live, all that raw emotion is there. There have been songs where I punched due to the tempo. For this album, we went for faster tempos and I tried writing in different ways.”
While Common isn't generally the person behind the faders, he has learned from the many producers he has worked with over the years and knows how to have it his way. “I definitely let [the engineers] know what I like in my voice,” he insists. “I like the mids and highs pushed; I like that crispness. Without knowing technically how it works, I always look for that sizzle. I keep the mic on the stand with the popper-stopper on front of it. My tone comes mostly from my chest and throat. I would like to do it more from the stomach. That gives you power so you don't abuse your vocal chords. I probably rap more from my stomach for live shows than during recording. I keep the tools shining by drinking tea before the show. I think that is cool for a rapper to say!” [Laughs.]
INSIDE THE CAMP
Majordomo behind Camp David Records and Dungeon Ratz Productions, Mr. DJ cut his teeth as Outkast's live DJ before producing such classic tracks as “Ms. Jackson,” “Bombs Over Baghdad” and “Da Art of Storytellin'.” He produced Universal Mind Control's “Everywhere,” “Changes” and “Make My Day” (featuring Cee-Lo). Speaking from the gated Atlanta mansion that houses his studio and business, Mr. DJ explains his contributions to UMC.
“Most of my tracks were completed before Common began recording so he could drive and listen,” he says. “I would add live instruments to the mix afterward. When I do a track, there will be some live elements before the vocals, but it's just a skeleton to hear the melodies. I do the bulk of the live instruments post-vocal so I can add sounds that accentuate the vocal and the words.”
Mr. DJ samples kicks, hi-hats and snare drums from his 6,000-plus-piece vinyl collection, blended with MPC3000 grooves and Reason or Logic sweeteners.
“I program sampled drums as if they are a live set, then get a real drummer to play the exact thing that I've programmed,” Mr. DJ illustrates. “I mix the two together in Pro Tools for that real live feel. When you do tom overdubs and hi-hat fills, nothing sounds better than a real kit. I put live drums on ‘Make My Day,'' and I actually used a marching bass drum on ‘Changes.'' I put it behind the regular kick, just turned down.”
When sampling from vinyl, it's a combination of old-school sampler and old-school vinyl that best suits him. “I use the MPC3000 because it has a grittier sound than the newer MPCs,” he says. “I usually get my drums from old '70s records; they sound grittier coming from vinyl. Everybody has computers now, so all of the sounds are crispy and bright. But they don't have the texture that sounds from records have.”
Mr. DJ also enhances his sampled beats with software-based samples, a trick he learned from his early Outkast days. “When I finish the beat, I open up Reason or Logic and take a couple hi-hats and some brighter drums and add to what I already have just so it sonically competes with everything on the radio. Back in the day, we would listen to Outkast music on the radio compared to other producers' music, and it wasn't that their music was better, but sonically it sounded better. So I layer my drums to make them sound good.”
GO AHEAD, MAKE MY DAY
“Make My Day” is one of UMC's most eclectic tracks, with an overall sonic sheen that recalls a reverberant bomb shelter. An overarching sound like that of a Roland Space Echo running amok dominates the track.
“That phased sound is a regular flange from Pro Tools,” Mr. DJ says. “I added the flange to hide a sampled drum loop taken from two separate vinyl records. Those weird sounds and bells that follow came from the [Roland] Juno and a Korg Triton. The piano is live. The drums are four different kick drums, three snares and two different claps. Lots of analog sounds from the [Yamaha] Motif keyboard. And drums are from the MPC, sampled and live drums added again.”
Although some producers look for the samples with clean hits, Mr. DJ aims to pick up all the dirt and background noise. “It sounds like there is a lot of reverb because of the kinds of drums I sample,” he explains. “I sample reverb-heavy drums, dirty drums, drums that might have something else playing in the back. I can manipulate so much with the MPC3000.”
CHANGE IS GONNA COME
“That weird tape swirl in the intro?” Mr. DJ asks by way of explaining the psychedelic sheen of “Changes.” “It's software that sounds like tape. When I used to DJ, I would hit the Stop button on the Technics 1200 and make the music go errrghhhh, and it would drop the next beat. And you hear rain and thunder, birds singing in the breakdown. The birds came from a sound effects disc, the thunder too. I was just trying to make the song sound different, so I sampled the sound effects disc, put it into the MPC, then hit the button where I wanted it to go.”
The breakdown on “Changes” segues into bubbling textures, gurgling sounds, an unnamed female vocalist and a humorously childlike vibe. It's like watching a '50s-era Walt Disney cartoon.
“Common and I just sat down and just started hitting pads on the MPC until we found something that caught his ear,” Mr. DJ says. “And I added more sounds after Common laid down his vocal; that is when the live drums came in.”
At this point, Mr. DJ runs out to his car to retrieve his LaCie hard drive and then unearths the “Changes” Pro Tools session. “I see Motif, Juno, ‘field percussion,'' ‘space sound,'' ‘banjo plug-in,'' ‘lead horn,'' a ‘grunge kick.'' I got three other kicks in ‘Changes,'' all sampled from records. The acoustic guitar at the end was the actual motivation for the song. I just sampled it from a country record, chopped and looped it in Pro Tools. And it's the Juno making those bubbling sounds in the breakdown, and those melting sounds must be the Motif.”
KEEP YOUR HEAD UP
A double Grammy Award winner who has DJ'd extensively and produced sides for Outkast, Goodie Mob, Nappy Roots and Killer Mike, among others, Mr. DJ remains decidedly individualistic. He does it his way, whether or not the masses and the stars send the love. Would he ever change his tune(s) for greater mainstream success?
“I probably could but it wouldn't change my music,” Mr. DJ insists. “My thing is to be original. We need more different music. My not going for the money all the time has contributed to my longevity. I could make beats like everyone else and get the check. But I choose to have fun and whatever comes of it comes of it. Don't limit yourself to what you hear on the radio and how you can make a couple dollars right now. Dare to be different.”
Similarly, Common continues to stretch his stylistic boundaries but with an eye toward pleasing the people. Forever the optimist, he may title an album Universal Mind Control, but Common's true sentiments are those of hope and brighter days.
“Things are getting better,” Common confides. “I feel positive it's going to be incredible with [Barack] Obama as president. A friend of mine knows a 95-year-old white woman who was voting early, and she saw a black lady behind her. She told her, ‘My father was very prejudiced. This is to repair all the wrongs that both of our forefathers have been through.'' Obama understands the perspective of black and white people. It will definitely be brighter with Obama in office. We have more hope in our psyches and in our minds with him as president. He was sent to do this. It's a healing thing.”
Andrew Coleman: Tracking Common
Top engineer Andrew Coleman is well known as the tracking guru behind The Neptunes' million-sellers; most recently, he lent his services to Shakira and Diddy. But The Neptunes' net is a wide one. “If it's on The Neptunes' resume, it's on mine,” Coleman jokes.
“Common is pretty intense in the vocal booth,” Coleman says from Virginia Beach. “He does probably 15 to 20 takes per verse until he feels it is absolutely right on. He'd be happy with a verse in one state; then we'd go to a studio in another state and he would want to redo it. I didn't really hear a difference, but Common is so committed to what he is doing.
“We used the Sony C800G into the Avalon Vt-737sp. No EQ, just a little bit of compression, usually under 3 dB, fast attack, slow release. People complain about the Avalon because it doesn't have a fast enough attack, but I like it for Common's voice for that particular reason. It's fast but not too fast. The Sony is a great mic; I use that or the AKG C12 VR or the Telefunken Ela-M 251E, but they are very expensive to rent. I used the Telefunken on John Legend's Evolver.
“With Common, I would run the Sony into the Avalon into Pro Tools flat, then depending on the material I would EQ it within Pro Tools to make it sit in the track a little better. He's pretty loud in the studio and he has a great mic technique. Common knows when to back off and when to get close to the mic. A lot of singers don't understand mic technique and will just blast into the mic the whole time. Common understands to back off on loud parts and get closer on softer parts; he's acting as his own compressor, basically.”
Mr. DJ's Skill Set
Computer, DAW/software, recording hardware
Apple Logic Pro 8, Power Mac G5
Digidesign Pro Tools HD
SSL XL 9000 K
Roland Juno-106, Fantom-X6
Yamaha Motif 6
Fender Rhodes electric piano, Squier guitar
30-inch marching bass drum
Mixed-brand four-piece drum set
Mics, preamps, compressors
Focusrite ISA 220 Session Pack preamp
Neve 33609 compressor
Sony C800G mic
Tube-Tech MP 1A preamp
Sampler, turntable, DJ mixer
Akai MPC3000, MPC5000 samplers
Numark DXMPro 2-channel Scratch DJ mixer
Technics SL-1200 MK2 turntable
George Augspurger custom monitors