Photo: Timothy Saccenti
Perhaps no other anecdote better sums up rapper, vocalist and producer Tricky than the following exchange that occurred during the recording of Maxinquaye, his 1995 debut album:
“I had a flute player come in around [the recording of] ‘Aftermath,'' and he said to me, ‘There's two blues notes next to each other. It's not musically correct.'' I said, ‘I have no idea what you're talking about.'' ‘Well, if you went to music college, they would tell you that's not right.'' I'm like, ‘That got me my record deal.''”
If this had been the '90s, you'd be forgiven for hearing an arrogant and condescending tone in Tricky's voice. For a man who's been off the map for nearly five years and once titled an album Nearly God, words like “brooding” and “ego,” accurately or not, seemed to freeze-frame the producer into this immutable state.
But today, as we sit in an office in midtown Manhattan, the tone is strictly incredulous — the tone of a man with little technical expertise or music-theory knowledge (more on that later) who has created an immense, diverse and wholly unique body of work from one album to the next.
For someone who hasn't gone more than two years between albums since his debut 13 years ago, the upcoming release of Knowle West Boy (Domino, 2008), his first album since 2003's Vulnerable (Sanctuary), has heightened expectations and brought the musician back into the spotlight. It's a romantic notion to envision the producer as an elusive recluse, manically fine-tuning his product and poring over every note laboriously and religiously these past five years. It's also completely wrong.
“I was in New York just hangin' out and having fun and then went to L.A. to do some work for movies and TV,” Tricky says, explaining his absence. “I stayed in L.A. but wasn't really doing anything except the odd soundtrack [for Girlfriends, The L Word and CSI]. I was wandering around, visiting family, and then, ‘Time to do an album.''”
That album would eventually become Knowle West Boy, a disparate mix of sounds named after the part of Bristol, England where the musician was raised. It's not like past efforts have been any less varied, but Boy represents the first time the artist consciously followed his myriad influences.
“I was in bed listening to Kate Bush one day and, like any of my favorite songs, I'm like, I wish I would have wrote that song,” Tricky says. “And I realized, well, I can. I can be Kate Bush. I can be The Specials. I can be Public Enemy. This album's like my favorite mixtape.”
Having grown up on reggae, punk, hip-hop and whatever else was around, the sonic realization of his musical idols is, understandably, a diverse exercise. So you have “Past Mistake,” a string-laden syrupy tearjerker that could be a Maxinquaye B-side next to “Coalition,” a hard rap/rock track next to “Cross to Bear,” which, with its ethereal vocals and soaring strings, reveals the clear reference to Ms. Bush.
Predominantly a white ghetto, Knowles West is not only the place where four generations of Tricky's family lived, but it's also the main influence on the album's lyrics. Tracks like “School Gates,” about a 15-year-old who gets pregnant, are lifted directly from Tricky's past experiences growing up.
IGNORANCE IS BLISS
For Knowle West Boy, Tricky used Logic to record some demos and basic tracking in his loft before moving to engineer Vincenzo LoRusso's L.A. studio for arrangement and recording. While many of the demos — most of which were recorded early last year — were scrapped for sounding too similar to the emulated artists, the producer kept some structures and melodies intact before rerecording. With the recording finished in Pro Tools, the duo returned to the loft to put the finishing touches on the album. Much like his past work, Tricky had no specific equipment in mind when mapping out the album, relying instead on whatever happened to be around in his loft and LoRusso's studio.
“He doesn't stress over the big-name gear or high-end facilities,” notes LoRusso. “A lot of what we do is done in his living room with a laptop and an MPC. Simple and raw! There was never a specific plan. We just went with what felt right at the moment. It could be described as manic at times.”
By strictly basing his production style on “what feels right,” Tricky admits he rarely spends more than four weeks working on any album and, when pressed for technical details, kindly refers you to LoRusso.
“All I know is that I got a Korg keyboard, an [Akai] S1000 and an MPC3000, which I use very rarely…oh, and Pro Tools, but I don't know how to use it,” Tricky admits with a laugh. “I don't even want to learn. If I knew all this equipment, I'm gonna start worrying about if the track is right. I got weird time signatures, and if I learn all this, I'll start thinking, ‘Wow, that time signature's wrong'' and start second-guessing myself.”
LoRusso backs that up: “He doesn't allow the common rules and language of music to get in the way. He's very instinctual. Things either work or we move on quickly, and it's always exciting to know that there are no limitations. He is one of the only artists I know who isn't afraid to make mistakes and happy to let you hear them.”
Young producers slaving over those minor sonic nuances, take heed. Tricky has long had a steadfast rule on when to finish production. “A song is done when I get bored,” he states bluntly. “I'll work on a track for one day. I ain't goin' back and revisiting that ‘cause I won't be interested. That's it. A lot of my stuff is unfinished work, but I don't mind that. If it ain't done in a day, it shouldn't be on your album.”
RETURN OF THE GOLDEN FINGER
This idea of instinct and intuition over technical expertise extends to every part of the songwriting process. In stark contrast to today's gimmick of which collaboration will yield the best (read: most profitable) results, Tricky's method of using whoever's around hearkens back to classic 1960s albums where managers and A&Rs were mere distractions. Need a guitarist? Hire a local busker you just met in L.A. (“Joseph”). Need a singer? Invite a random girl you just met who says she can't sing to record a track (“Bacative”). Tricky freely admits to knowing little about most of the other personnel on Boy, even naming “Joseph” after the aforementioned busker because he lost all his info and is hoping to track him down.
It's telling that the only time Tricky doesn't sound completely confident about a topic is when he's forced to describe his songs. It's as if once they're recorded, he sees no reason to dwell on them anymore. Asked how he achieved the rough, aggressive sound on first single “Council Estate,” he'll talk about his punk upbringing as inspiration for the loud, stomping drums and high-energy guitar, but quickly, and perhaps unconsciously, he'll switch topics.
“Tricky likes raw-sounding synth sounds,” LoRusso says. “These, layered with heavy guitars and dirty drums, help drive [‘Council Estate'']. “The first thing he wanted to do was enhance the drums by adding heavier samples to beef things up. I introduced Tricky to Drumagog on this record. We had some interesting results taking live drum performances and replacing the sounds with electronic samples. Great feel, but with the raw sounds he loves. His vocals are very open and in your face, and many of them are recorded with no isolation. If there is noise in the room or anywhere close by, he doesn't mind. I think he actually prefers it. When you compress all that noise, it becomes very aggressive and textured.”
To Tricky fans wondering how a certain sound was achieved, the instrumentation might change with each song, but the number of fingers used invariably does not.
“One finger,” Tricky says, lifting his right index finger to bolster the point. “Keyboard. MPC. Everything. One finger. I'll sample a bass, have it played live, resample again, play it, pitch it down, speed it up, all with one finger, really. It's very simple. I'm like a kid. I let the Japanese press come into the studio one day. I got a drum sound, like a kick. Got a bass sound. And afterwards, the song appeared and one of the Japanese guys goes, ‘Ahhh, golden finger!''”
WHAT CAN BROWN DO FOR YOU?
For as little regard given to certain aspects of production, the producer devotes every day to Brownpunk, the record label he founded two years ago with “In the City” music festival director Emily Taylor and Blackwell. Having met at a music conference in Brighton, England, Taylor and Tricky discussed the idea of starting a label together for up-and-coming talent. After getting Blackwell on board, the label currently has 10 artists on its roster and plans on releasing its first album by Danish singer Kira Skov next year. Most artists who start their own labels have past industry horror stories to guide them on how not to run a label. For Tricky, it was the exact opposite.
“The 'ole vibe was, Island [Records] let me do what I wanted musically when I started,” he recalls. “That was their ethos. It's just music and letting the artists make their own mistakes. Let the artists make Brownpunk. It's really that simple. People ask me, ‘So what's your ethos for Brownpunk?'' That's a mad question. Good music. That should be the ethos for every label.”
Like his own work, the musician has surrounded himself with a broad group of genres and characters, including garage-blues rockers The Dirty, reggae-pop group Laid Blak and the funk/hop-hop hybrid of 1st Blood. With any of these artists, Tricky takes a formal hands-off approach to their music, choosing not to produce or guest vocal on any tracks (barring the odd remix here and there.) Perhaps stranger than that, the new label honcho admits to not liking everything he signed, focusing more on general tastes than his own.
“Who am I to say? I might not like it, but there might be a million other people out there who do like it,” Tricky says. “I might not like the music, but if they got a vibe and there's passion there, that's the artists that will succeed.”
MELLOW MY MAN
After 90 minutes of hanging with Tricky, one thing is clear: The man has mellowed out. Maybe it's the fact that he turned 40 earlier this year. Maybe it was the years out of the spotlight, hanging with Jamaican relatives in the Bronx who didn't give a sh*t who he was. Hell, maybe all the musical segmentation today has rendered the idea of the “superstar” quaint and obsolete. But the man who once wrote, “They used to call me Tricky Kid/I live the life they wish they did,” now says he's more interested in connecting with fans than anything else.
“To be honest, this album is the first album I've done for people who listen to my music,” he says. “I been getting some of the most beautiful stuff saying, ‘We miss you. When are you coming back?'' Because of the Internet, 14-year-olds who shouldn't know who I am are fans. It's such a wonderful thing for all these people to wait and stay with you, and this album's for them. It's the first album I've ever done for anybody.
“I was in Philadelphia, and a nurse came to the show and said, ‘We play your music to the kids in the burn unit.'' That's what I'm into now. It's easy to stay grounded because it's not the superstar [treatment] I'm getting. It's the people who say that I helped them get through a certain period of life. That's what I'm here for.”
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
Antelope Audio Isochrone OCX master clock
Apple G4 laptop, PowerMac G4 Dual 1.25 2 GB RAM
Apple Logic Pro 8
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 Accel with 192 I/O, Pro Tools LE 7.3 with Digi 002
ViewSonic 21-inch widescreen monitors
SSL AWS 900 with Total Recall
Fairchild 660, 670
Mics, preamps, EQ, compressors, effects
AKG C 451 B with swivel and CK 1 capsule, D 12E mics
DBX 160VU, 160X compressors
Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor
Focusrite Liquid Mix compressor/EQ
Neumann KM 184, TLM 103 mics
Røde NTK mic
Royer R-121 ribbon mic
Sennheiser MD 421 mic
Shure SM57 mic
TC Electronic Reverb System 6000 with Remote
Universal Audio LA-2A Leveling Amplifier
Urei 1176 compressor/limiter
Akai MPC4000 sampling workstation
Korg Triton Extreme keyboard
Dynaudio BM15A monitors
JBL LSR 4326 5.1 monitor system