Highway Hellraisers - EMusician

Highway Hellraisers

Individually, Kool Keith and KutMasta Kurt are two powerhouses in underground hip-hop. Together, they've made several classic albums, finding the perfect
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Individually, Kool Keith and KutMasta Kurt are two powerhouses in underground hip-hop. Together, they've made several classic albums, finding the perfect balance of chunky, hard-knocking beats and freewheeling, next-level lyricism. Both legends in their own right, Kurt and Keith have been on the grind for many years now. Perhaps some background information is in order.

KutMasta Kurt is one of the most respected producers in the business, lacing tracks for veteran subterranean artists such as Motion Man, Planet Asia, Blackalicious and Rasco. He gave Dilated Peoples its first hit, the 1998 indie-rap anthem “Work the Angles,” and has lent his skills to Platinum-selling acts such as Beastie Boys and Linkin Park. Operating out of Los Angeles, Kurt also runs his own label, Threshold, whose latest releases include joints from up-and-comers Substance Abuse and Dopestyle 1231.

Kool Keith hit the scene in 1986 as a member of the Ultramagnetic MCs, making his debut with the single “Ego Trippin'” on Next Plateau. Strapped with a hyperactive, futuristic flow, he immediately stood out from the typical MCs of the day. Ultramagnetic's first full length, Critical Beatdown (Next Plateau, 1988), dropped two years later and is universally regarded as a landmark, game-changing record. Throughout the '90s, Keith's reputation continued to grow thanks to a string of much-loved concept albums as Dr. Octagon on Dr. Octagonecologyst (DreamWorks, 1996), as Kool Keith on Sex Style (Funky Ass, 1997) and Black Elvis/Lost in Space (Sony/Ruffhouse, 1999), and as Dr. Dooom on First Come, First Served (Funky Ass, 1999). Known for his unpredictable wordplay and unlimited supply of alter egos, Keith has remained relevant for nearly 20 years — something all but unheard of in the ever-changing rap game.

Keith and Kurt first joined forces in the early '90s, when Keith was embarking on a solo career and Kurt was a radio DJ and upstart producer living in Santa Cruz, Calif. After a few casual meetings, Kurt began sending beats out to the Bronx, and soon enough, Keith flew out to California to record some tracks. They eventually relocated to Los Angeles, got an apartment together and began recording in earnest. They shared the resulting demo tapes with their homies (including Dan the Automator, who was inspired to draft Keith for the Dr. Octagon project) and shopped around to labels, which led to a deal with Capitol Records. Unfortunately, Capitol later jettisoned its entire Black Music department, leaving an album's worth of songs without a home. Undaunted, the duo got the master back and put it out themselves. The result was Sex Style, a hilariously over-the-top, pornographic rap spectacular. Coming out on the heels of Dr. Octagonecologyst, the one-two punch made Keith bigger than ever, introducing and endearing him to a new set of fans too young to fully grasp his earlier work.

Next up, First Come, First Served satiated a growing fan base that was hungry for new material. The album begins with Dr. Dooom assassinating Dr. Octagon before running through 20 tracks of typically slamming beats and bugged-out rhymes. Black Elvis/Lost in Space came out the same year, further playing up Keith's eccentric personality and theatrical tendencies. Kurt produced several tracks for that project but put the majority of his effort into the Masters of Illusion, a supergroup that comprised himself; Keith; and Motion Man, a furiously skilled Bay Area MC who had appeared on earlier records.

KutMasta Kurt Presents Masters of Illusion (Threshold) hit stores in late 2000, and although highly regarded among heads that picked it up, the general public was fast asleep, and the album never really took off — likewise with Matthew (Funky Ass), another Keith solo piece released earlier that year. Although rap music was getting more popular than ever with Eminem and Nelly blowing up the charts and the independent scene expanding thanks to the Internet, it seemed as though listeners were becoming less impressed with Keith's “he so crazy” shenanigans. After the underwhelming reaction, the pair parted, Keith wanting to produce more and Kurt moving on to new artists.

IN WITH THE NEW

After a four-year hiatus, Keith and Kurt are back together, sounding rejuvenated and extremely dope on Diesel Truckers (Dmaft, 2004). The time apart has been good for them, and the latest effort is a welcome change from both the formulated thuggery of commercial rap acts and the pseudosophistication that plagues many underground artists. The record is a return to form for the duo: a fresh batch of charismatic hip-hop looking toward the future but built upon foundations laid in hip-hop's golden era. There's something special about Kurt's production that brings out the best in whomever he is working with.

One aspect he is especially known for is his trademark punchy percussion. “I think the most important element to hip-hop production is the drums,” he says. “I mean, early hip-hop like Run-DMC was strictly drums. In a way, modern commercial hip-hop music has gone retro, with the Dirty South 808 beats and synth stuff. That was the sound from '82 to '85 or so. It's funny because people can be tricked into thinking it's the latest, most innovative sound. People in general aren't ready to hear new and innovative styles. Mine are too ill to let out of the bag; no one will understand them, so I keep myself in pocket with what's happening to a degree but then add my own signature to it.”

After Kurt concocts some basic beats, bass lines and loops, he gets Keith in to start listening and writing rhymes. As is the case with most producers, Kurt coaches Keith to get the most out of his performances. “You don't want to push people too hard and piss them off,” Kurt says. “Some other MCs I work with are very sensitive to criticism in the vocal booth; I just feel it's my job, though. If I don't hear the right tone or cadence, I gotta step in and correct that.”

Kurt's “vocal booth” is actually his bathroom, which measures “about four by 12 and eight feet high,” he says. Towels and blankets dampen the sound, but Kurt still gets a bit of reverb from the room. “If I leave the toilet seat up, it adds a little extra ring to it, too.” Kurt says. “EQ-wise, I record flat, and when I mix, I tend to use a low-cut filter anywhere from 60 Hz up to 250 Hz, depending on the texture I'm looking for. Sometimes I get a vocal that is a little too sibilant, so I cut in the 3 to 9k range to try and help that out. I must say, though, that since I upgraded my mic to the [Neumann] U 87ai, I rarely need to do that now. Also, as for compression, I like a 3:1 ratio with fast attack and medium release times.”

After recording vocals, Kurt enters editing mode: “I spent countless — I mean countless — hours cutting, trimming and moving vocal tracks around to get them to line up and sound tight. You'd be surprised how much better I made the vocals sound with this technique.” He is also careful to make sure that the transitions between verses and choruses work. Keith has dragged his heels about the idea of a chorus hook on occasion, so Kurt's producer role often comes into play here, as well. “I've often argued with Keith on this point,” he says. “If he had it his way, I don't think he would usually even do one on most songs. This album, I sat down with him and helped to write most of them.” Whereas on past albums, Kurt used two layers of Keith's vocals on choruses, this time, he pushed that number up to three, and as much as six, to make the choruses extra-big. Once the vocals were done, Kurt added some scratching (he has been a DJ since 1983), and then it was on to mixing.

MC AT THE MIXER

Although Keith is known primarily as an MC, he is quick to point out that he, too, has been producing tracks for many years, though often uncredited. “I was doing the old Ultramagnetic stuff; I used to play the bass lines on a lot of the records, but I never put my name on it. Even when I worked with Automator, like on “Blue Flowers,” I played the bass lines, so I was always into production — I think people were thinking I was just a lyricist, which I wasn't. People are so programmed that the MC can't make his own beats.”

Keith's production style relies more on live keyboard work and shies away from sampling. The synth-heavy approach that he's been rocking for years is now seeing more mainstream popularity, thanks in part to the Southern Rap explosion. “I use all of the same stuff that these guys use, but these guys are so trendy,” Keith says. “They just jump on the bandwagon. They might say, ‘Oh, Lil Jon is using the Korg Triton.’ So 20 people all follow Lil Jon. While I'll still use the same equipment as him, I'm into other patches and stuff.”

Although sampling and loops are starting to come back into vogue (see Kanye West and 9th Wonder), Keith has already been there and done that. “A lot of producers are scared to do anything different,” he says. “A lot of the keep-it-real guys feel like, if you don't sample a jazz record, you're not in the jazz club; you're not in the backpack organization. I don't care about all that shit. I'm like, ‘If it sounds different and good, why not?’”

SIMPLY OLD-SCHOOL

Samples versus synths aside, one constant always remains in the duo's recording process — a crucial element that is the backbone of hip-hop — the ones and twos. “It all starts there!” Kurt explains emphatically. “Fuck all the fancy equipment. If I could only afford a 4-track and a Fisher-Price mic, as long as I had my turntables, I could make shit happen.”

Even though Kurt can afford more than toy-store gear, his studio is still economical. His drums come from two traditional workhorses: the Akai MPC60 and the E-mu SP-1200. As for keyboards, he still relies on the trusty Ensoniq ASR-10. “I don't use computers or software much; it's mostly modular methods,” he admits.

Although they always push the envelope sonically, the Diesel Truckers still show love for the old school. On the retro-themed jam “Takin' It Back,” Keith reflects on his youth at Bronx P.S. 53, taking the listener on a time travel back to the days of park jams, Cazel glasses and Stetson hats. All the while, Kurt tears up the tables, rocking a vintage Black Moon clip over soft horns and knocking beats.

Kurt and Keith both grew up immersed in hip-hop, but they realize that the music and the culture have changed dramatically since then. “Hip-hop is pop music now,” Kurt says. “It's been that way for a long time. There just needs to be more of an even playing field. To me, Jay-Z is dope, and I think MF Doom is dope, too. Now, does MF Doom sell as much as he should? No. Does Jay-Z sell too much? I don't know if I can judge that. Really, at the end of the day, it's who has the most money behind them. That's really what sells: what gets promoted.”

LORDS OF THE DISS

When it comes to the ever-growing crop of new artists, Kurt and Keith are hard to impress. There's a certain disposability element with so much of it — especially with what gets played on the radio and TV. And then there's the whole fake thug style, which tends to dominate the airwaves. Keith is especially unenthusiastic when it comes to studio gangsters.

“A lot of these guys who rap, they're killers on the mic, and they're tough,” Keith says. “But these guys do not even come outside; they live in a witness protection plan; they live way out in different suburban areas with trees and secluded big houses. They film one little DVD walkin' around McDonald's and a few streets, and the viewer gets so hyped that he thinks this guy is actually living his life out in the streets, grinding every day. Little does he know that these guys are living out in Glen Oaks. But they're Glockin' it up on the radio: ‘I'll murder your mom, your dad; I'm coming to kill your dog and your cat.’ It's like when you see Spider-Man, you really think you're gonna pull a web out your hand and spin around New York City. To me, rap is just as sci-fi as Spider-Man. These guys are rapping like they're massively destroying everyone, but at the end of the day, they won't come outside to throw a pebble. At least wrestlers come out to wrestle. These guys just talk, go to the studio with 18 bodyguards, go home, turn on the TV and call delivery. Domino's is their favorite. I've seen some of the top rappers, and they are so timid, it's a shame. They're like rabbits. Ever go up to a rabbit to pet him? He's all shaking. So at the end of the day, they're all full of shit. They wouldn't hurt a cockroach in the corner. They're basically hamsters. They might as well get Habitrails and spin on their wheels.”

Indeed, despite the unoriginality of many popular rappers, it seems as though people are starting to look for something different and unique. Outkast's Album of the Year Grammy Award may be a step in the right direction, though Keith is convinced that the ATL duo's more flamboyant half is somewhat co-opting his unorthodox fashion style. Atop the spazzy keyboards and skittering beat of “Mental Side Effects,” he calls out Andre 3000 on the matter.

“Andre Benjamin, he's a big fan of mine,” Keith says. “I'm so honored that he is. Like, I came out with these glasses and a Kangol; then, I look at TV, and I see him with the same hat that I wore in Vibe magazine. It seemed like his stylist was a spy right across the street from my house — not when he got too weird, but a lot of little things like the glasses and the blond wig, like my Elvis wig. But one day, me and him might meet up together; maybe I might need him to sing a chorus. One day, I might help him out on a record, or I might have a funkier track for him to rap on.”

Whether that collaboration ever goes down, one thing is certain: Keith and Kurt are hip-hop pioneers, responsible for not only influencing the next generation but also keeping their music uncompromisingly fresh in the face of biters, skeptics and a notoriously chaotic industry. Persistence is the name of the game, and both of them have kept grinding throughout the years to get where they are today. To all of the young cats looking to become the next big producer, Kurt's advice is simple.

“Just because you have a computer or a keyboard doesn't qualify you as a producer,” he says. “You need to learn about the history of the music and learn about how to work with people. Producing is not just making beats: Producing is actually creating a sound and directing the artist, making a finished project — having a vision and putting it together. I believe that if you keep doing what you do, and you do it well, you will eventually attain success.”

Diesel Truckers is in stores now. Keep an eye out for Kurt's new compilation, Redneck Olympics, as well as Keith's Clayborne Family album with KHM.

TOOLS FOR TRUCKERS

Akai MPC60 drum machine/sampler
Alesis Masterlink ML-9600 master disk recorder
E-mu SP-1200 drum machine/sampler
Ensoniq ASR-10 keyboard/sampler
Genelec 6.5-inch monitors
Mackie D8B digital 8-bus mixer
Mackie SDR24/96 hard-disk recorder
Manley Vox Box vocal processor
Neumann U 87ai microphone
Radio Shack 2-inch speakers
Roland RE-301 Space Echo tape delay
Smart Research C2 compressor (SSL series)
Technics SL-1200 turntables

KURT'S DIESEL-FUELED MIX

Before handing off the album to be mastered by David Cheppa at Better Quality Sound in North Hills, Calif., Kurt mixed Diesel Truckers and performed various listening tests. Obviously, mastering engineers are not miracle workers, so as Kurt knows, he needs to get the mix sounding good before it leaves his studio.

“I always start with the drums, EQ 'em up nice and maybe add a little effect to make 'em big,” he says. “Then, I bring in the bass line, add some limiting and bring up the music tracks with panning effects. Lastly, I do the vocals. Then, I insert the Alan Smart compressor on the whole mix and then run it down to cassette for test listens. From there, I would listen on a shitty boom box, my home stereo, my laptop and my car. Then, I would write down little notes to myself in each system on how it could sound better, go back and make the adjustments. After I mixed all of the songs, I would listen to it through again and make notes, because as a whole piece assembled in the right order, you start to notice more things. After those last revisions, I mixed it all down to the Masterlink going in analog at 24/96.”