Chops has been making moves in hip-hop for over a decade. His old group, the Mountain Brothers, was signed to Ruffhouse back in the day, though the trio went independent to release its critically acclaimed full-length Self: Volume 1 (Ground Control, 1999). The MBs disbanded after a second album, but Chops has stayed busier than ever, working on myriad projects with a wide assortment of artists.
His solo album, Virtuosity (Vocab, 2004), further proved that Chops was a force on the beats, with a flexible sound that works perfectly with rappers of all stripes. Since then, he has been grinding nonstop, licensing his music for TV, forming strategic alliances with platinum-selling heavy hitters, doing mixtapes and DVDs and perfecting his latest release, the movie soundtrack/solo record Dark (Image, 2006).
“With the Dark soundtrack, I was definitely going for a vibe that fits the music,” he explains from his home studio in Philly. “There's some sampled live instrumentation; I'll play a little guitar or horns. But even if I'm faking it, like with a xylophone sound, I'll know not to do more than four notes at a time because I know the guy is holding, at most, two sticks per hand. It's just certain things from being around instruments that you kind of know.”
A solid understanding of musicianship helps Chops refine a style that is realistic and fluid, yet he still maintains that old-school, chopped vibe when needed. One of the new album's tracks, “Don't Give a F**k,” sounds remarkably like a reinterpretation of Bob James' hip-hop-friendly classic “Nautilus.”
“I was definitely going for a chopped sample kind of thing, but that's me playing the guitar, and that's me singing. ‘Nautilus’ is my shit, though,” Chops says with a laugh. “That's definitely one of the jams for sure.”
Punchy drums is another Chops trademark, something that is especially apparent on the Premo-esque banger “Guess Who's Comin' to Dinner,” with its chunky snares and freaky sound effects. The key to getting that sound is all about compression.
“I'll separately compress drums before I compress the mix,” says Chops, who prefers using a Universal Audio UAD-1 card with the included compression plug-ins. “I'll group drums and compress them across the group. That's one of the good things about plug-ins — you can make presets. If I get something that I like, I'll save it. Then I can call that up for the next song. I find if you do that, you have to tweak less.”
Like most 30-and-older producers, Chops got his start on borrowed, low-budget gear before working his way up the ladder of recording technology. Paying his dues helped him truly understand what makes a track before he switched over to more convenient computer production.
“The first piece that I remember was a Boss DR-110 drum machine. It was one of those that had, like, six buttons. I would sit and try to copy beats off records — Run-DMC, stuff like that. The sounds were real basic, and you couldn't change 'em, but it was good because it allowed me to learn patterns, learn what drum beats consisted of.”
From there, Chops built up his chops by getting schooled in synthesis. “I had taken a couple of classes in music theory and electronic music where we would have a room full of synthesizers and learn about envelopes,” he says. “My first keyboard was a Casio CZ-3000. From there I bought a couple other pieces, [including a] Yamaha DX-series synth. When I really started getting serious, I got an [Ensoniq] EPS sampler. I did the first Mountain Brothers record on the EPS. That taught me about sampling, programming, sequencers and things like that. From there it went to the [Ensoniq] ASR-10, and after that to computer stuff.”
With help from his tech-savvy brother and some online research, Chops assembled his own custom computer, a one-of-a-kind lunchbox PC that does exactly what he wants.
“It's basically a PC,” he says. “The guts are the same. You got your motherboard, your RAM, hard drives, soundcards. And you just put it together, knowing what works with what. It can get pretty complex if you let it.”
Steinberg Nuendo is his main recording program, though he also uses Cubase, as well as HALion for his main sampler. “They do everything I need them to, plus I know them real well,” Chops says. When it comes to plug-ins, he stays fully wired up, with a deep arsenal at his fingertips. Some of his favorites — both free and for a price — include IK Multimedia SampleTank 2, Native Instruments Battery and B4, Kjaerhus Audio Classic Series, LinPlug Alpha, SuperWave P8, Applied Acoustics Lounge Lizard and Tassman, Digital Fish Phones Blockfish and AudioNerdz Delay Lama. “These days, there are good free plug-ins,” Chops says. “Sometimes I'll use a free joint so much that I'll buy a company's other stuff, like say with RGC's [free] Triangle and [$100-plus] Pentagon. I mix it up, so my sound comes more from me than from any particular instrument.”
Of course, there's also the keyboard necessary to set it all off. “Everything I do that's not a live instrument I'm playing on the keyboard. It's an 88-key weighted Fatar. It has the pitch wheels, too, so you can do bends and stuff. It also has the pedal which you can assign to a controller, so you can do volume swells or compression swells.”
As for monitors, his current setup started out as Event 20/20s, though they've since been gutted and rebuilt by a local sound specialist. On the mic tip, he mixes it up depending on the project. “I have a CAD e300 that's the bigger condenser that I like,” he says. “I have a couple of Studio Projects mics that are nice, and I have one [Neumann] U 87 that I use.”
Though his studio stays fully loaded, like most producers, there's always new gear that he's got his eye on. “Quantum Leap has a new plug-in that has a giant sound library in it,” Chops says. He already uses Garritan Orchestral Strings and has a bunch of other CDs and DVDs — worth of sounds.
In addition to the Dark album, Chops is busy with a million other musical endeavors. He produced the posse cut “My Lowrider” off The Game's recent DVD. He's also doing work for Wilmer Valderrama's new MTV show Yo Momma, an Xbox game called Project Gotham, a video remix DVD hosted by Paul Wall and the Endgame mixtape, which he describes as similar to Virtuosity, with “lots of heavyweights.” He's particularly enthusiastic about his ongoing mixtape series, It's Going Down, where he gets to really flaunt his varying styles. On it, he's remixing singles (mostly of the Down South variety) and proving that he can make any kind of beat. He is especially proud of his chameleon style when it comes to geographic regions.
“A lot of people who know me from the group only know me for a certain sound,” Chops says. “Even when the group was around, I would make all different kinds of tracks; it's just that we would use the kind that made sense for us as a unit. I settled in the Philly area, but I grew up in a lot of different places around the country. I think it makes it more fun to be able to pull from different kinds of tricks.”
No matter where he's at or what bag of tricks he's working with, Chops continues to make high-quality music. The album may be Dark, but his future is as bright as a supernova.