Down to EARTH

If posing in front of a camera in Times Square with a space helmet doesn't paint the picture for you, be advised that King Britt is infiltrating the future
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If posing in front of a camera in Times Square with a space helmet doesn't paint the picture for you, be advised that King Britt is infiltrating the future of hip-hop — with extraterrestrial help. You've heard him bring jazz and hip-hop together in the early '90s as the DJ for Digable Planets; you've probably heard him pay tribute to funk of the '70s and the dance of '80s with his collective, Sylk 130; and if you've been paying attention to deep house recently, you're familiar with his Scuba project. That's just a taste of the offerings from this prolific Philadelphia-based producer, who also dips into soul, broken beat, afro-tech and other genres. King Britt is a beat juggler in more than one way: He constantly manages a handful of projects and releases them rapid-fire at every turn.

Britt has just recently come back full-circle to hip-hop, thanks to an 1984 cult movie, Brother From Another Planet, about a guy who evades slavery on his own planet only to find new challenges on Earth. Like with his Sylk 130 albums When the Funk Hits the Fan (Ovum, 1998) and Re-Members Only (Six Degrees, 2001), Britt created Adventures in Lo-Fi (BBE/Rapster, 2003) with a concept in mind. With the help of some of the quirkiest and coolest MCs and singers — including Bahamadia, Quasimoto, Cherrywine (aka Digable Planets' Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler) and De La Soul's Pos and Trugoy — the story line about a humanlike alien taking residence on Earth unfolds. Between songs, baritone-voiced narrator Rich Medina, playing the part of The Brother, adds commentary.

INTELLECTUAL CONCEPT

Concept albums are dangerous territory. Without a strong theme that says something intelligent, most concepts fall flat. On the other hand, if the concept screams for too much attention, its horn-blasting fanfare is too much to endure. Fortunately, Adventures in Lo-Fi hits on some big philosophical issues in a subtle way. “It's not like a blatant in-your-face concept record,” Britt says. “But these observations are in there about the different people that [The Brother] meets. If you listen lyrically to the album, it starts out with Bahamadia, when the aliens crash down. And then it's Quasimoto; if you listen to that track, it's like, ‘Whoa, what's up with the voice?’ He is an alien. It's more of a thinking record. You gotta really listen to the lyrics. But that's why I didn't make it so obvious. This is a cool, intelligent hip-hop record that you want to listen to. But if you look at the undertones, there's a concept there.”

After he'd written some instrumentals for the album, Britt approached the verbal collaborators and told them the concept. “Each MC brought to the table a little bit of the story,” he says. “And I put it all together later. I just was like, ‘Dice Raw, you see this guy from another planet, he's walking around, he sees you in a situation, and he encounters you.’ And Dice Raw wrote lyrics to that. Not every song relates directly to what I told them. But if you listen to it as a whole, it's kind of like, ‘Whoa, okay, I get it.’”

VOICE MEETS MUSIC

With all of the vocal collaborators poised and ready to get down their bit of the story, Britt's next step was to fit the right voices with the right musical feel. “Take, for example, Bahamadia,” Britt says. “I always wanted to hear her on a really spaced-out track, really simple beats with really lush sounds. And the tone of her voice is just so in-your-face and powerful, yet her flow is flawless. I just did the track thinking of her voice.” The track in question is “Transcend,” and her “scene” on the album reveals how she meets The Brother while driving — “by chance, by fate,” she raps — right after he lands on Earth. Bahamadia's voice is potent, but her flow feels like a lullaby.

The song's inspiration came when Britt was toying with some new software and a keyboard line. “I was playing around with the new plug-ins in Logic 5.0,” he says. “I just ran this Rhodes sound through Logic and Waves plug-ins, and then I came upon this filter thing, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool!’ So I made my own sample with the keyboard and sampled it into the MPC. I did the rhythm of that keyboard line through the metronome, and then I did the beats around it, but I didn't quantize the beats. I just did that and left the bass line really loose and live.”

Another collaborator on the album, who goes by the tongue-twisting moniker Rilners Jouegck: Dacered Onnle, might as well be from another planet, himself. It took a little brainstorming for Britt to come up with the right idea to go with the 50-cent-word rhymes of “Emotional Quotient Deringer of Chiek Anta Diop.” The instrumentation is simple so as not to interfere with the complex verbal images, but in between, Britt carved out spaces for instrumental flourishes. “I wanted to hear him in a kind of ragtime-slash-jazz-oriented background,” Britt says. “I can't tell you who I sampled, but I cut the piano up, and I ran it through a Waves flanger. But it kind of sounded like it was running through a Leslie. It gave it a kind of watery feel, like all those old ragtime records. They had a kind of watery piano in them. If you listen in headphones, it's a real trip.”

HI-FI ADVENTURES

Contrary to the album's title, Adventures in Lo-Fi, there aren't any out-of-tune indie guitars, 4-track preamp distortion or sloppy production. Britt likes to mess around with crunchy lo-fi beats (more on that to come), but that's about the extent of it. For vocals, Britt heads to “the big studio,” Larry Gold's The Studio in Philadelphia, and records with gear that few could pay for without a financing plan. “It's superimportant that I get the vocals as clean as possible,” Britt says. “I have a Neumann, but I'm not the best at recording vocals yet. My engineer, Jeff Chestek [Common, The Roots, J.Lo], and I do most of that stuff together. He uses a Neumann U 87, but he runs it through either a Focusrite or Avalon tube compressor/preamp. I bring the 2-track [instrumental mix] in; we dump it into Pro Tools, cut the vocal, and then I take it home.”

Britt is also far from lo-fi when it comes to working on instrumental productions and arrangements. He sent Cherrywine a track — which became “The Sound” — that reminded him of Digable Planets. Cherrywine recorded some vocals and returned the tracks to Britt. “I got it, and I was like, ‘This beat's not going with what he's saying.’” Britt solved the beat-clashing problem by changing the setting for the story (witnessed by The Brother) with a different beat treatment. “What he's talking about is meeting this girl,” Britt says. “So I thought it would be cool to have them walk through a club that had three rooms in it. In the first room, you hear the more kind of jiggy beat, a more Neptunes-influenced beat. And then he goes into the next room, and it's real spacey and trippy. And then the last room is where there's this harp sample that I cut up on the MPC, and the way I played it on the keys [changing the order of the sample's parts], it sounds like it's backward. Each room had a different sequence, and I went from sequence to sequence on the MPC. But I kept everything the same bpm, which was 100.”

MIXING THEORIES

King Britt has experience mixing in 5.1 surround sound, as with his remix of “Depth” (featuring Rob Life) from the 2001 5.1 surround sound hip-hop album Awaken (Electromatrix/Immergent). Although he didn't actually mix Adventures in 5.1, Britt did apply some of what he learned about surround sound to stereo mixing. “I've always been a big fan of panning and making headphone music,” he says. “When I was growing up, there was a show in Philadelphia called ‘For Headphones Only’ on WMMR, which is our rock station. They would play Pink Floyd and other albums that sound amazing in headphones. So I've always been a headphone person, because it really takes you to another place because it encompasses your whole body. When you put headphones on, you can kind of cancel out what's around you. If you're on the subway or whatever and you got the headphones on, you can get lost in it. So when 5.1 came out, I thought, ‘Whoa, this is going to be unbelievable!’ I've always been visual, but 5.1 has definitely changed the way I think about things. I didn't mix this album in 5.1, unfortunately, but even when mixing in 2-track, it definitely has a subconscious effect on how I mix. I experimented with each song. The ‘Emotional Quotient’ track has tons of panning, tons of plug-ins, tons of things on the vocals. I tried to make his vocals really from outer space. And when I do a more pop or R&B record, I can use a lot of those ideas that I used on an experimental record and kind of sneak them in.”

Britt's general philosophy about mixing is to avoid collisions between different parts. “You have to be careful, because you might pan a hi-hat to the left, but it might get in the same frequency range as a sawtooth keyboard.” Britt mixes as he goes in Logic, and while doing so, he occasionally tries a couple of tricks to fatten up the sound of a part. “Sometimes, I take a loop or a beat, and I'll take all the bottom end out, and I'll copy that and then do one with all the top end taken out and layer them together,” he says. “It's just really fat. Or I'll bus the whole beat to one channel, and then I'll separate all the pieces individually. That's how I do my drums just to make them really fat: I'll bus the whole beat together as one, and underneath it are the separated kick, snare, hat, et cetera.”

BEAT BREAKDOWN

For many producers, a song begins from the foundation up, with the beat working as the cement upon which everything stands. For Britt, however, it's melody that often launches a song. “I started a lot of the hip-hop tracks on the album with some sort of loop or sound and then built the beat around that,” he says. “With the Quasimoto track [‘Spaces’], I sampled that bass note, that really wwwow-wow sound, and there's also a little underlying drum loop in the sample. I started from that, and I built a beat around it. When I sample, I take piano sounds and bass sounds mostly, and I run them through filters. But there really aren't any in-your-face loops or samples.”

When Britt gets to the point where he's ready to construct beats, he likes to dirty them up: “Sometimes, I'll break the beats down to 8-bit and put them underneath the really clean drums just to give them dimension. It makes snares real crispy because when you run it through the BitCrusher [in Logic], it makes it really gritty, and it cuts through in the mix better. I do it a lot more with my house stuff, especially Scuba. On this album, I only did that with ‘Spaces’ and ‘Che Sara Sara,’ the French track.”

Then, there's “A Foreigner No Longer,” which has a chugging rhythm that showcases Britt's love for broken-beat style. “I've been into the whole broken-beat scene in England for a while: Dego from 4hero, all the stuff on Bittersweet [Records] and things coming out of Italy,” he says. “I wanted to do a broken-beat track but not completely leftfield. I wanted to keep it hip-hop but keep the rhythms a little left just to give it that flavor. But what makes that song so chuggy is the bass sample, bwow bwow, bwow bwow. It's a kick and a bass together, sampled from a record. I took that bass-and-kick sample and just played it on different keys on the MPC, and in between it, I cut up this live bass sound. So you'll hear: Bwow ba bwow bwow. Bwow ba bwow da dun. With the MPC, you have all these little pieces to a puzzle on different pads, and you just play around rhythmically with all the pads. Nine times out of 10, you're going to come up with some shit.”

But for those who believe it's easier said than done, Britt breaks it down further. For example, it's easy to start constructing your own drum loop that somehow manages to turn into a huge pile of fumbling, clashing noise. You add a kick, then some snares, a hi-hat, a tom and a handclap, and before you know it, you've got a beat train wreck. Fortunately, Britt has a couple of words of advice. First things first, the gear: “I use the MPC a lot because I'm so rhythmic, naturally, that with the pads, I can really feel it,” he says. “But with the keys, I have a real problem doing it, like on the Oxygen8 or with a keyboard. And I've been an MPC user since the beginning, so I'm so used to it.” But if you don't already have an MPC and can't see yourself affording one for a while — MPCs run between $1,000 and $3,000 depending on the model — you can drop just a few hundred instead on the Akai MPD16 MIDI pad control surface, which will allow you to use the same-style pads with your beat-making software.

But more important than what you use to make the beats is how you go about making them. “The best thing to do is to keep it really simple at first,” Britt says. “What I would suggest for any person who is starting to make beats and having problems is to take some of their favorite records and try to emulate them, try to program your beats just like them. It's kind of like going to class. Take a Billy Squier beat or a Zeppelin beat and just loop it and program your beats right over it, right with their drums, sound by sound. Then, you take their loop out, and your beat will be there. And after a while, rhythmically, it'll become natural to you.” Hopefully, Britt's right.

King Britt's FIVESIXMEDIA Studio

HARDWARE

Apple Macintosh G4/dual-1GHz tower (customized)
Apple Macintosh G4/400MHz laptop (customized)
Big Briar Moogerfooger Lowpass Filter box
Big Briar Moogerfooger Ring Modulator box
dbx 386 Tube Preamp
Imation SmartDisk VST 30GB hard disk
Mackie HR-824 studio monitors (2)
Mackie subwoofer
MOTU 828 FireWire interface
Philips Dual CDR-765 CD burner
Pioneer DJM-500 mixer
Pioneer CDJ-700 CD players (2)
Technics SL-1200MK2 direct-drive turntables (4)
Vestax PMC-03a mixer
Yamaha 03D mixer
Yamaha MJC-8 MIDI patch bay

SOFTWARE

BitHeadz Voodoo MIDI Drum Machine
Emagic Logic 5.5 Platinum
Native Instruments Pro-52
Propellerhead Reason 2.0
Propellerhead ReCycle
Waldorf Attack
Waves Platinum-series plug-ins

MODULES

E-mu Planet Earth
Novation Supernova
Roland JD-990
Roland JV-1080 (fully loaded)
Roland MKS-50 w/PG-300 controller

KEYBOARDS

Korg MonoPoly
Korg MS20 w/sequencer
Midiman Oxygen8
Moog Memorymoog
Moog Minimoog
Moog Sonic 6
Roland JD-800
Roland JX-3P w/PG-200 controller

CENTRAL CONTROL UNIT

Akai MPC2000XL MIDI Production Center
Neumann TLM 193
WhisperRoom portable control room (www.whisperroom.com)

TOTALLY REASONABLE

King Britt created one Adventures in Lo-Fi track, “Apollo Creed” featuring Will Brodie, using only Propellerhead Reason. Britt explains how he did it: “In the beginning, I was going to work on a Scuba track, and then I thought, ‘I've never done a slow Scuba track. I've always done them uptempo, so let me start with a downtempo Scuba-type track [and record it for Adventures].’ With Scuba, I always did the saw-wave, lush keyboards. I had this keyboard sound on the NN19 [digital sampler], and I ran it through a flanger and filtered it and manipulated it so that it wasn't a factory sound. Then, I did the keyboards and the beat underneath. I used ReDrum [drum machine], and I did that beat real simple. But I messed with the drums a little bit, made them edgy with the EQ by taking the highs all the way up on drums in the mix. And then I did the bass line using a bass sound called Real Bass in Subtractor [polyphonic synthesizer]. Then, I was like, ‘The track's banging, but it needs something else.’ So I did a change-up a fifth on the keyboard and added this really spacey sound from the NN19 and delayed it out. Then, I took the whole track and saved each sequence as a WAV file with 8-bar loops of each part. Finally, I brought it all into Logic, cut the vocals and mixed it.”