Calling out a guest who has arrived at Electric Lady to hear her latest release, New Amerykah, Erykah Badu insists, “No one hears my music until they talk to me first.”
Typically bold, direct and personably magnetic, Erykah Badu is hip-hop goddess, soulful earth mother and mystical avant-garde soothsayer all rolled into one. Badu's status as hip-hop's reigning neo-soul ambassador is based on several multiplatinum-selling albums; her sleek, bass-heavy productions; a recognizable honey-and-salt vocal style often compared to jazz legend Billie Holiday; and, to a lesser degree, her former relationship with Outkast's André 3000 (who fathered her child, Seven).
Camping out in her own personal lair at the Greenwich Village recording complex built by guitarist/composer Jimi Hendrix in 1970, Badu keeps the lights low and her Apple MacBook Pro powered up as she works on all phases of New Amerykah's launch: CD cover art adorns the walls; pages of a proposed magazine, The Freaq, fill several small tables; and mystically inclined drawings of unknown purpose cover a lava lamp. Badu readily reveals her working processes for New Amerykah (Universal/Motown, 2008), as dozens of tracks from producers as disparate as Madlib, 9th Wonder, Shafiq Husayn (Sa-Ra), J Dilla and Karriem Riggins are arrayed on her laptop's screen via her favorite software: Apple GarageBand.
“Everything that the producers e-mailed me I put into GarageBand,” Badu says, spooning green tea ice cream into her mouth. “Then we would try to duplicate it at Electric Lady. I did vocals on my laptop, babies crying and everything. I also EQ'd the tracks using effects like GarageBand's Vocal Reflection.”
SO 10 YEARS AGO
Assisted by mixer/producer Mike “Chav” Chavarria (J Dilla, Eminem, Snoop Dog), Badu recorded vocals and basic tracks at Luminous Sound Recording in Dallas. But the bulk of New Amerykah is based on the producers' raw 2-tracks, which were e-mailed to Badu, dumped into GarageBand, then embellished by her and Chav at Electric Lady (in Pro Tools). Adding live bass, guitar, flutes, percussion and keyboards, plus a wealth of freaky effects and plug-ins, the pair produced a surreal magnum opus of hip-hop. The first single, “Honey,” is a poor indicator of the depths and heights scaled on New Amerykah. The album's fluid bass rhythms (courtesy of Steve “Thundercat” Bruner) recall the low-down subterfuge of D'Angelo's masterpiece, Voodoo; Badu's layered vocal harmonies (recorded to a Studer A820 ½-inch, using RMG tape) are at times frighteningly bizarre; the music is diverse and exploratory; altogether, the overwhelming underground nature of the record recalls a mad mash of Stevie Wonder's Innervisions, Sly and the Family Stone's Fresh and Quasimoto's The Further Adventures of Lord Quas. Badu doesn't mince words regarding New Amerykah's intended message.
“It's a play on my name, and it's very different and new for me,” she explains, settling into a large purple couch. “In 1997, a 25-year-old Erykah Badu came out as an artist, pregnant, a mother-to-be. We used to bring cassettes home as our listening from the studio. No one had a cell phone, only a couple people with these great big contraptions. The Internet was not our form of communication; we still had the library. We were creating from sand and scrap. So quickly it's turned into this technological society. I can send the album to millions of fans from Antarctica to Mexico City with one push of the button. The way our children think and the things they see? It's new, and it's happened so quick. And I am in the middle of that. Me on the platform with a microphone — that is how I envision New Amerykah.”
The album is scheduled to appear in two parts during 2008: part one, New Amerykah, a self-described “political purging,” and part two (to be released as a USB stick within a jewel case), the occultist-sounding Return of the Ankh. Badu reveals her astrological sign (Pisces, Moon in Aquarius) and her fondness for adding the bell-like peals of tuning forks to her records, furthering her cosmic-conscious approach.
“I always use tuning forks,” Badu says. “According to the message I am trying to get and studying the frequency of sound, each tuning fork has a certain vibrational energy that is conducive to a feeling or a color or a smell. They're related to different chakras in the body, too. Some may make you feel good or sexy or conscious of what you're saying. Depending on the song and the frequency I am trying to get over to the people, I use the tuning forks, and I also played talking drum.”
Talking drums and tuning forks aside, what jumps out on first listen to New Amerykah is Badu's multifaceted vocal approach. The queen of neo-soul is still in full force, cool and clever, but on tracks like Shafiq Husayn's “Twinkle” and “Me,” Madlib's “My People” and “Emotions” and Badu's own “That Hump,” she scales high walls and makes you wonder, “How the heck did they do that?” Often, her layered harmonies sound purposely time-stretched or at least pitch-altered, so wide are the intervals she hits. But put it down to the gear used and her eclectic mic technique, not Electric Lady's Pro Tools|HD3 trickery.
“I prefer a $37 Shure SM57 mic,” Badu reveals. “I have a very nasally voice. That mic has a lot of bottom in it. I put my mouth right up on it like an MC. I sit right in the control room between the two speakers next to the engineer, and I can hear what is going on very well. I used to have candles and incense in the studio, but I don't require that now. I am in the mood all the time in the studio. I might do a vocal take 100 times and not get it, then come back the next day at 3 a.m., and laying down on the floor, my ears will get it. Pitch is good but feeling is better. I never cut and paste or punch in, I like a single vocal take.
“When I do vocals, I am singing with a certain volume in my voice,” she adds. “I am singing the double and triple harmonies at different volumes. You don't have to adjust it; I have already done it. We mix as we go, so by the time we put the vocals to ½-inch tape, I know it. If you touch a damn thing, I will know it.”
Badu prefers to cut her vocals in the control room with the monitor mix blasting over her head as she sings. That obviously presents leakage problems for Chav, but he has developed ways to work around her methods while also getting a usable take. Sometimes Badu would sit in an overstuffed chair about six feet behind the SL 9000 J board, alternately using a Neumann M 269, Shure SM57 or AEA R44 ribbon mic with Sony MDR-V900 headphones into a Furman headphone mixer. But she was just as likely to discard the headphones and sing right into the studio's Adam Professional Audio S3A studio monitors.
“There's not any feedback there when you do that, but there is a fair amount of leakage,” Chav explains. “We worked to make her vocals fit into the track, phase-wise. I asked a lot of people how to do this. They said, ‘Sit her in an equilateral triangle with the speakers, putting one of the speakers out of phase, so the leakage should cancel itself.'' But to do that, the mic has to be stationary, and she likes to hold the mic like an MC. She is at home as a live performer. What did work was to keep the monitors fairly low and turn the microphone out of phase, and we would move her around the room until she found a spot where the leakage was reasonable and where she felt comfortable and could hear herself. But just as often she would just sit in that chair behind the board in the A Room.
“Her voice has so many frequencies,” Chav continues, “from a subharmonic of her tonic to a thin raspiness, and she wants to hear all of that. And she couldn't hear all of that in the headphones. I tried to get her a pair of $3,000 Stax phones, but the label didn't go for that.”
DILLA TO DARK SIDE OF THE MOON
New Amerykah is jammed with old-school samples, including Blaxploitation trailers, Eddie Kendricks' “My People Hold On” (for Badu's “My People”), what sounds like The Meters in J Dilla's “Love,” Nancy Wilson's “I'm In Love” (“Honey”) and James Brown's “Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf” (“Dirty Dirty”). But beyond the samples, what raises the sonic level of the album are the dexterous live performances by trumpeter Roy Hargrove, Jr., bassist Thundercat, drummer/producer Karriem Riggins, keyboardist James Poyser and guitarist Jef Lee Johnson. Badu and Chav's embellishment of the 2-tracks with live performances is particularly evident in Shafiq Husayn's “Me.”
“We recorded the original track in Dallas with her vocal,” Chav recalls. “Erykah went to L.A. with just the 2-track and had Thundercat play bass over it. So it is his playing over her singing on the 2-track, and when we got back to New York, Roy Hargrove came into the studio, and there wasn't time to organize the Pro Tools session. So he ended up playing trumpet over the 2-track, as well. It was like playing over three generations of 2-track. It built up as it went along.
“I had never worked like that before,” he elaborates. “On this record, I did more over 2-tracks than I have ever done on any record. And that is because it came straight from her laptop, and we couldn't get Pro Tools sessions from producers. We were able to build around them. Erykah made this record to display to the world that there is this whole group of producers out there who are outside of the mainstream making great music. She was trying to highlight what they do. We didn't want to change what the producers originally brought to the table. We didn't change it; we just added to it.”
“I work in layers,” Badu explains. “The first layer is the track. The second layer is the songs. The third would be the musicians who add a certain nuance. And when they play, they play like they are a sample. Or we take a piece of what they played, and we sample and loop it.”
Badu and Chav, along with engineers Chris Bell and Tom Soares, worked hand in glove, creating off a shared vibe built from endless hours spent listening to older Badu records such as Baduizm (Kedar, 1997) and Mama's Gun (Kedar, 2000), as well as 1973-released albums, including Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon and Stevie Wonder's Innervisions. Chav took these influences and Badu's prodding creative flow into the realms of effects and vocal processing throughout New Amerykah. Using a variety of plug-ins (SoundToys' EchoBoy, Digidesign D-Fi's Lo-Fi and Sci-Fi and Pro Tool's Signal Generator) and guitar pedals (Line 6's DL4 Delay Modeler and Moog Music's Moogerfooger), Chav had a ball and earned his keep.
“On ‘Twinkle,''” Chav explains, “I used a Line 6 DL4 pedal. I ran the vocal through the pedal on an aux end from Pro Tools, and on the way back, I ran it through a couple Neve preamps, then back into Pro Tools and recorded it. I manipulated the controls on the pedal as the track played and recorded it, just feeling off the track to make it live. I like to make effects live instead of just sitting on them. I rode the delay on the pedal in real time to get those backwards-sounding effects. Almost like automating, but it was recording, just one chance and that was it. Otherwise, you have to redo it. Erykah wanted that track to get crazy. I was trying to match what she was asking of me. I would try to go overboard on things just to be really creative and then get her feedback. A lot of people would ask to scale it back, but she was with it.”
“Twinkle” is one of the album's true mindblowers, a crisscrossing, effects-heavy track complete with white-noise bursts, helium-endowed gerbil voices, lyrics about “Venus bitches,” madly panned effects and instruments and layers of twinkling keyboards. Even Chav is unsure of some of the sound's origins, in retrospect.
“I am not sure exactly what is producing the bass in that song,” he says with a laugh, “but it is definitely keyboard bass, and it was played live, all the way down. When we got the track, it was just the drums, bass and a little sample. The bass and drums are the heart of it, the way they lock together. We effected the arrangement drastically, added a lot of elements that really build. We played with the sonic textures and the way that it moves. That is the song that I added the most things to, like static; I wanted it to feel futuristic or like an interrupted transmission from space. I used the Signal Generator plug-in in Pro Tools to make a lot of the effects. For the little blips, I used a simple 1 kHz tone and threw it in here and there for a percussive element along with the static. That, and along with the DL4 delay and a Moogerfooger pedal, I took a piece of audio and ran it through those effects and manipulated the frequency as the track played and recorded it. Basically, it's just seeing what you get 'cause those pieces aren't predictable. There was a lot of automation of the SoundToys EchoBoy plug-in, too. We used effects and delays as instruments.”
And what created the darting vocals and gerbil effects? Like an outtake from Frank Zappa's classic Over-Nite Sensation, “Twinkle” is as insane as it is totally creative.
“Those vocals at the end of the song are being contorted through a combination of riding the delay time on the EchoBoy plug-ins and the Line 6 and the Moogerfooger plug-in, and also the D-Fi package,” Chav says. “Those are some basic Digidesign plug-ins that everybody has, but I don't know if anyone uses them.
“In ‘Twinkle,''” he continues, I had an idea of what I was trying to accomplish. I took an aux end of the track and fed that to the aux input and had the Lo- or Sci-Fi plug-in on that one, and pretty much had the send-level static but bussed that aux track to another track and recorded it. Basically, whatever changes I made to the plug-in I was recording — pretty much the same way that I do with the outboard pedals but using a plug-in, doing things like manipulating the effects frequency and modulation parameters. Then it is just about blending those sounds 'cause there are lots of layers in that song.”
Chav's ability to get down and dirty with effects came from Badu's need to destroy expectations of what she should be recording in 2008. She seems ready, willing and able to risk it all, evidenced by an ongoing battle with her label (at the time of this writing) over whether Universal/Motown would release her second set of songs in '08. She won.
“Erykah is an artist, but she is also a producer,” Chav states. “People don't look at her like that, but most of the time in modern-day hip-hop, the songs usually aren't created with the producer around. But in order to take these songs to the next level, to take them from beats into records, it takes more production. And Erykah is very direct and very knowledgeable.”
Ten years after her emergence as a leader of neo-soul school, Erykah Badu is pushing hip-hop boundaries rare for someone of her multiplatinum stature. After a certain monetary line is crossed, most hip-hop and R&B artists are determined to hang on to their ego and their sales figures. Badu is seemingly more concerned with satisfying herself and exposing underground producers than scoring Baduizm II.
“In 1997, they accused me of being the queen of neo-soul,” she whispers. “But the only thing neo-soul about me is the guy who made up the name. I do admit that I poked a hole in the dam and a lot of floodwaters rushed through. So I am conscious of that and conscious that I can do that again. Apparently, the sheep are at the gate; they will listen to whatever I have to say because now we have morphed into one thing: me and the people. If I can introduce them to a different frequency of music and a different frequency of producer, then that can help to get us out of listening to the same old thing.
With her expansive hair now quaffed into a deliciously sub-Saharan Afro, is Erykah Badu still “the analog girl in the digital world,” as she once described herself?
“I am in this thing,” she offers, her green tea ice cream now melting onto the couch. “I am looking around, but I am still me. I'll bring what I can to the digital world. I am a Pisces with Mercury in Aquarius, baby. Mercury is the planet of communication. And Aquarius is a futuristic thinker.”
CITIZENS OF NEW AMERYKAH
Computers, DAW/recording software, converters, mixer, tape machine
Apogee Rosetta 800 AD/DA converter
Apple G5 and MacBook Pro computers, GarageBand software
Chandler Limited Mini Rack Mixer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 system
Lavry 2-Channel AD Converter (Blue Series)
Prism Sound Dream AD-2 AD Converter
Studer A820 2-track ½-inch tape deck
Solid State Logic SL 9000 J console
Adam Professional Audio S3A studio monitors
Augspurger custom monitors
Direct Sound EX-29 Extreme Isolation Headphones
Furman HRM-16 Headphone Remote Mixer
Sony MDR-V900 headphones
Yamaha NS10 near-field speakers
AEA R44 ribbon
AKG C 451
Neumann M 269
Telefunken Ela M 251
Mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Amek System 9098 Dual Mic Amp preamp/EQ
Line 6 DL4 Delay Modeler Pedal
Moog Music Moogerfooger MF104Z Analog Delay Pedal
Neve 1073 preamp
Summit Audio TLA 100A Tube Leveling Amplifier
TC Electronic M5000 Stereo FX Processor
Tube-Tech CL2A Dual Channel Optical Compressor
Universal Audio LA-2A compressor
Synth, plug-ins, instruments
Audio Ease Altiverb Convolution Reverb plug-in
Digidesign D-Fi's Lo-fi and Sci-Fi plug-ins
Eventide Anthology Plug-In Bundle
Pro Tools Signal Generator plug-in
SoundToys EchoBoy plug-in
Yamaha Motif 6 keyboard