“I have the luxury of working in an awesome store,” Tadd Mullinix, aka Dabrye, says reverently of Encore Records, a local mecca for the more wax-savvy residents of Ann Arbor, Mich., and a vital wellspring for Dabrye's musical education. “The place has definitely influenced my ideas because I get exposed to so much.”
After just about ten years of churning out far-flung electronic beatscapes under a raft of aliases (among them James T. Cotton and SK-1 — the latter a nod to the old Casio SK-1 keyboard sampler), Dabrye feels he has finally hit his stride with Two/Three (Ghostly, 2006). Not just another take on the ever-burgeoning click-crackle-and-pop style, Dabrye's latest studio sojourn makes a legit attempt to cast hip-hop in a whole new light — an icy blue glow that shimmers with orchestral melodies, granulized loops, densely layered effects and some unpredictably liquid-funky grooves.
He's not your typical hip-hop producer who digs through the crates for old funk and soul records. “I never really wanted to get into that culture because so many people do it well already,” Dabrye says. “What I try to offer is just my knowledge of dance music — early industrial, electro, acid, techno, jungle and stuff like that. I've tended to sample more of those kinds of things for my synth and drum sounds from the beginning.”
Throw in the rhyme schemes of such illustrious MCs as MF Doom, Cannibal Ox's Vast Aire, Lootpack's Wildchild, former Antipop Consortium MC, Beans and Detroit's dearly departed son Jay Dee (aka J Dilla), and the focus turns even sharper. “I really wanted to break into more of a hip-hop scene because I wasn't feeling like my idea was getting across,” Dabrye explains. “Early on, when I first signed with Ghostly, interviewers would ask me if I considered myself as someone who was bridging hip-hop with electronica, and I was just like, ‘No, that is not what I'm trying to do.’ The idea, really, was to eventually start working with MCs. So first off, through DJ House Shoes in Detroit, we heard that Jay Dee had bought a copy of One/Three [Ghostly, 2001]. We hooked up with him at his studio and went through a beat CD I had, and Jay heard one he liked and wanted to move on it [which later became Two/Three's closing track, ‘Game Over’]. He was just real cool and supportive, and from there, it was like, okay, let's do this as a vocal album.”
Once the die was cast, the rest was a matter of contact and coordination — resulting in what Dabrye fans will undoubtedly consider a conceptual departure from the predominantly instrumental One/Three (and of course, the aptly titled Instrmntl, released last year on Prefuse 73's Eastern Developments label). But change, in this case, is an advantage — especially when there's already what proves to be a pre-existing chemistry in place.
“I kind of took the lead from the producers a lot of these artists had already worked with, just so I had a notion as to what their musical syntax was,” Dabrye explains, citing Wildchild's work with Madlib and Jay Dee as an example. “And what was cool was that without even meeting those people — just by sending CDs back and forth — I found that we were still able to connect on the musical level alone. It was really important to me that the MCs had some kind of chemistry with the rhythm and that it wasn't just a job to them. That pretty much guaranteed that it would come off right.”
SAMPLE BY EXAMPLE
Fueled by a reverence for hip-hop's originators, Dabrye relied almost entirely on samples to create his drum kits and synth melodies — no small feat in these times of high-price clearance fees, which have forced many producers into composing totally original, loopless songs from scratch (imagine that!). What truly separates the music on Two/Three — just like the more adventurous joints that have recently emerged from the experimental underground — is Dabrye's attention to processing his samples with an aggressive, almost improvisational feel. Once separated and rendered unrecognizable from vinyl sources, the music here begins to sound as if it were played and not just pieced together.
“That's part of it,” Dabrye agrees, acknowledging his early classical training on cello and trombone, “but I'm also trying to go in a different direction without being maximal or masturbatory with the tricks. Cats in that IDM, electronica, hip-hop bridge camp are all about the tricks, like this superclean sound or the superdigital, clicky-poppy thing, and that's not where I wanted to go at all. I just like really crude music that isn't overproduced or clinical sounding. If there's some hiss or tape distortion, leave it in, you know?”
Dabrye's many unusual sound sources range from obscure albums in the relative vein of Throbbing Gristle, Material, Severed Heads and Heaven 17, and even early avant-garde synth recordings that recall Morton Subotnick or Terry Riley (Dabrye is careful never to name anyone specifically). Consequently, it stands to reason that the Dabrye sound should convey a sometimes creepily detached, dystopian feel, however human the composer behind it. The synth and rhythm elements that make up Doom's ominously bumping “Air” — aided by a bit of granular surgery performed on the original sample — fit this mold, communicating a grim message from the other side that lingers long after the track fades.
“On Two/Three, there are some parts of the drum kit that I made myself,” Dabrye says, “like a snare or hi-hat here and there. You can make a percussion sound on a modular synth to get that ‘white noise’ snare thing happening, for example. But I also wanted to do something a little unconventional in terms of composition and arranging with this particular song.”
For the tinny synth patch that seems to oscillate in spastic, syncopated waves in the background, Dabrye delved into the granular intricacies of the AST shareware tracker and Adobe Audition software that form the recording and sample-processing core of his compact studio (see the sidebar, “Out to Lunch”). “First, I compressed the original sample a lot,” he says, “which made everything in the background come up a little bit more so I could fuck with those sounds more easily. Then what I did is kind of like a time stretch, but I have total control over the offset, or how the time stretch works. So instead of just having an overall extending effect, where you hear the digital artifacts of time stretching — that weird brrrrrrr sound — I can control those points of repeat so they're more rhythmic. That's what the sample-offset function in AST allows me to do.”
THE BEAT EXACERBATED
Sliced, diced, chopped and reordered rhythmic pieces have become a known quantity in Dabrye's signature sound; a quick refresher course that includes tracks such as “Lulla” from Winking Makes a Face (as Tadd Mullinix, Ghostly, 2002) will show why the likes of beat-smashing authority Aphex Twin has taken notice. For some of the more extreme shifts in swing and shuffle, Dabrye returns to AST's sample-offset capability.
“In most trackers like AST, you're arranging beats in steps on a quantized grid,” he says. “Sometimes I'll record a little bit of silence before each individual kick, snare and hi-hat sound, which gives you this effect where it's like you're shifting the whole kit down a half step. With most people, the beat is your frame of reference there; they think that's kind of the time scale that the sample has to conform to. For me, though, I'm just shifting the whole kit over, and it gives the illusion that everything — all the synth sounds — are late or early, when actually they might be quantized just fine, and it's the kit that has this ‘lateness’ to it. It gives you this weird shifty feeling in the rhythm.”
The track “Special,” featuring Guilty Simpson and Paradime, is a glaring instance of this jittery, reverse-engineered beat style — Guilty even raps, “the game is shifty,” toward the tail end of the song. But freaky syncopation also guides the throbbing low-end funk and processed Yamaha DX7 vibraphone patches of Vast Aire's “That's What's Up” — a Fruity Loops concoction that takes another radical turn on the AST platform. Dabrye recounts the evolution of the underlying beat.
“I was living in Berlin for a while,” he recalls, “and Thomas Fehlmann wanted me to co-produce a few interludes on his album for Plug Research — you'll hear that same beat, just real stripped-down, on that album [Lowflow, 2004]. I generated a kick drum, hi-hat and clap sound in Fruity Loops, and then I just sampled myself from that and rearranged it in the AST program to give it some swagger. Afterward, I asked Thomas if I could use any of the stuff I did because I could hear an MC over some of it, so I sent what I had done already to Vast.”
As Dabrye had hoped, Vast adjusted his flow to the souped-up rhythms. “If I can remember correctly, there's a lot of weird rhythmic stuff going on in that track,” he continues. “I probably tweaked that AST sample-offset function again, and for each hit, I just input a different value so it would offset it at different increments. Sometimes the kick drum is in a 3/4 time signature, and what's cool is that Vast actually rhymes in a 3/4 time signature over part of that. So there's this unspoken dialog between me and the MC on that one.”
When a cut called for a looseness and a swing that couldn't be channeled by machine, Dabrye experimented with different percussion parts live. “Tell Dem” is a jazzy instrumental with a kick pattern that seems to jump ahead of the main pulse with every hit, but the key to the action is in the snare drum. “Those chords were actually one of the few times I got anything from a jazz record,” he says, “but I tried not to make your typical breaks-type beat out of it. I wanted to have more of a dancehall rhythm going on. The beat is basically just the sample's kick and snare, but I'm playing tambourine when the snare hits. Sometimes I hit it a little earlier, so it gets that kind of suction effect happening.”
DOING IT DUB STYLE
Echoplex-style delays, wide-angle flangers and dreamlike phasers all contribute to the overall “deep space” atmospheric experience of Two/Three — a sensibility partly rooted in Dabrye's fascination with the digi-dub experiments of King Jammy and other Jamaican producers who made the move to polysynths and drum machines in the early '80s, as well as the subsonic murkiness of classic My Bloody Valentine. “The Stand,” the album's opener, makes the case immediately, with its swirling, regenerating organ patch creating a dark, glass-blown texture that curves and stretches under the swelling echo of Wajeed's lead vocal.
“It's possible to emulate an Echoplex in Audition,” Dabrye explains. “What an Echoplex does, since it's using tape, is the high end and the low end of the sound you put in it generally degrade over time as the delay continues. Adobe Audition has an echo plug-in that comes with a graphic EQ, which you can set so that every time the source signal repeats, it will multiply the EQ. You can also do a pitch sweep later on in the process — after the fidelity has started degrading — so it sounds as though you've just changed the delay rate on the Echoplex.”
Given the in-depth emulation, Dabrye nevertheless admits it's often more than likely that he'll rely on a vintage Boss DM-3 analog delay pedal, just for simplicity's sake. “It's a guitar pedal, and it's got worse fidelity than an Echoplex for sure,” he jokes, “but I still think it comes close to sounding authentic.”
Elsewhere — particularly on “Get It Together,” featuring Invincible and Finale — the signal processing goes haywire. “I took a simple loop from this weird-ass homemade record by a band from Ann Arbor. I couldn't see myself using the sample cleanly, and I didn't want to fuck them like that anyway, so I pitched it down maybe 100 percent and started to go to work on it. I think I put a bunch of delay on it before I added a phaser, and then I reversed the sample and added more delay and reverb — it just went on like that. I wanted to get it so fucked up that it would be unrecognizable.”
For all the samples and beats that were chopped, processed and pruned for the making of Two/Three, Dabrye is quick to stress the fact that his arrangements will always maintain a trace of elegant simplicity. Like many of his Ann Arbor and Detroit brethren, who continue to innovate on a level that will likely determine the future of at least one segment of the electronic interzone, Dabrye understands where the music is headed but never allows a lust for notoriety or gimmickry to get in the way of true creative muscle.
“I think it's all about being willing to experiment,” he says. “I mean, I could argue that 1981 is my favorite musical year because people were experimenting with sequencers more back then. There's just more rawness there. I'm a big fan of DAF and Liaisons Dangereuses and stuff like that — some people call it pre-industrial new wave. I still spin that shit because it's great music. For my own taste, I don't like ornamental music at all; I just try to strip it down and keep everything real basic. I don't try to drop in any bells and whistles to fill in the gaps. All of the MCs came through enough on this record anyway that it wouldn't even warrant something like that, you know? I just hope I'm getting that across to people who are listening.”
OUT TO LUNCH
The portable centerpiece of Dabrye's bedroom studio is a Sterling lunchbox PC — a rugged, compact unit that often elicits quizzical looks from trainspotters and peers alike. “It's definitely designed for industrial use,” Dabrye explains, “so when I take it on the road, a lot of people ask me what it is because it's kind of funny-looking. It's literally just a gray box with a flat screen on one side and a keyboard that folds down from it.”
Stable and reliable, the lunchbox was crucial to Dabrye's setup because he needed a relatively stripped-down machine that could be configured to run an old Creative Labs Sound Blaster AWE64 card — notable for its E-mu synthesizer section and for its unpredictably noisy output (a desirable quality for the gritty analog sound of Dabrye). For software, Dabrye uses Adobe Audition (formerly known as Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro) and a shareware tracker called AST.
“I've been using that same AST/Adobe combo since I started,” Dabrye says. “I never bothered to move on because there's still stuff that I haven't tried yet. AST is an E-mu — endorsed shareware program. That's what I track everything with. I've heard that the interface is similar to an MPC, but really it has more in common with a scrolling player piano, except that instead of hole punches, it's obviously got a little more information on those lines of code. It runs in DOS, so it's pretty basic-looking and old-school.”
With such a stripped-down system, Dabrye approaches sampling and sample editing with the basic necessities — all he really needs to get the raw source, which then tends to go through multiple iterations of processing. “I use both programs to capture samples,” he says, “but I usually edit samples in Audition and arrange them in AST.”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Sterling Lunchbox 800MHz PC with Creative Labs Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold and Audigy 2 soundcards
Adobe Audition 1.0 software
AST shareware tracker software
Mackie CR-1604 16-channel mixer (for non-Dabrye projects; all Dabrye tracks are mixed in Audition)
Moog Realistic Concertmate MG-1
Roland MC-202, SH-101, TB-303 Bass Line
Yamaha DX7, DX100
Drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers
Boss DR-660 drum machine
Casio RZ-1 drum machine
Pioneer DJM-600 mixer
Roland TR-909 drum machine
Technics SL-1200 MK5 turntables (2), SL-DZ1200 CD turntable
Mics, EQs, compressors, effects
Boss DM-3 analog delay pedal
Lexicon MPX100 dual-channel effects processor
Shure PG58 mic
Various plug-ins proprietary to Adobe Audition (multiband compressor, EQ, phaser, lowpass filter, etc.)
Event Electronics Studio Precision 8s