Based in New York's dense Hell's Kitchen neighborhood, Madhattan Studios is home to Ming + FS (aka Aaron Albano and Fred Sargolini). Aside from remixing for the likes of Biggy Smalls, Coolio, and Li'l Kim, the two also release albums for other artists on their own Madhattan label.
On Hell's Kitchen, their debut release for Om records, Ming + FS hot-rod their own hip-hop with Rhodes piano, drum 'n' bass trappings, and vocal performances from a variety of New York-based MCs. The album was recorded at Madhattan, an apartment that the two musicians share.
Each room is used in a particular way. According to Ming, "Most of what we do is sample, sequence stuff, or play live to taped stuff. We have DAT machines, samplers, two DA-88s, and a bunch of keyboards." All of their beats come from the samplers and the sequenced synths, and the DA-88s are used mainly for vocals and live instrumentation. A second mixing board resides in another room and is used mostly for live tracking. "That would be my bedroom." laughs FS. "I can record drums or sample breaks from records there; I just move the DA-88s in to track drums. Sometimes I'll go directly from the board to a DAT. For a lot of stuff, like bass lines and drum loops, I don't bother going to an 8-track because I can go straight to DAT, put it in the sampler, and tweak it from there.
When miking drums, FS often uses just one mic, positioned on the floor. "We almost never use a sampled break by itself. We just add some room sound to the mix of the kicks and snares and hi-hats that we've already sampled from records."
Ming adds that, overall, the process sounds better "because you maintain the feel by playing along live. But we layer all the drum sounds. Sometimes we'll want to change the sound of the beat throughout the song, and we can do that by changing the layering of the sound. We'll also try compressing and overdriving the channel again to bring out the harmonics, make the sound even thicker, or make it sound like a keyboard or a bass tone."
When recording the MCs who appeared on Hell's Kitchen, FS doubled each vocal track. But the intricacies of a doubled rap performance didn't pose a problem. "For singers, there's pitch and rhythm. For rap, it's just rhythm, so it's actually easier," he says. Ming interjects, "You'd be surprised to see a guy smoke a bag of the craziest dope you've ever seen and then hit the same off-time rhythm perfectly, twice in a row."
"Also, there's a different mentality," says FS. "It's not like doing pop music or rock. When you double a rap, you're going for more of a gang feeling; it's a reinforcement. So sometimes it's good to have some messiness-a little bit, anyway; it helps cover up their bad breath control from smoking all that weed."
To give MCs a starting point, Ming + FS prepared a rough version of the songs. "It would basically be a loop of something for four minutes, with a couple of drum dropouts just so you don't get bored out of your skull," says FS. "They write their lyrics, and then we formulate the arrangement together."
This give and take makes for more interesting music, but it also requires a greater amount of time and energy. "I don't think people comprehend the kind of effort it takes to really switch it up," Ming comments. "We're looking at compositions, not necessarily at individual samples. After all, we still have to listen to it in the end, we still have to be able to have conversations like this about it. If there isn't much to talk about, then there's a problem."
For further information, contact Om Records: tel. (415) 575-1800; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Web www.madhattanstudios.com.