On the corner of Central Avenue and Troutman Street in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, a busted-up van with its doors flung wide open is cranking Boogie Down Production's “The Bridge Is Over,” the jagged drum machine beats spilling out like shards into the oppressive summer heat. It's an off-kilter, 20-year throwback to hip-hop's heyday, but meanwhile, just down the street, a tight-knit group of talented players is dialing back the clock even further — to a time when sweet soul music ruled the airwaves.
Walking into Daptone Studios is pretty much like walking into any other row house in this rough-and-tumble neighborhood. But what makes this particular house so unique is the full-blown recording studio on the ground floor, a second studio and rehearsal space (with enormous Stocktronics plate reverb) in the basement and the Daptone Records label offices upstairs. House producer, songwriter, bassist and Daptone co-founder Gabriel “Bosco Mann” Roth has carefully stocked the studio with a treasure trove of vintage tape machines and analog gear, all in a sincere and dedicated effort to capture a sound that he feels has been lost from most recordings today.
“If you listen to Stax or some of the Motown records, or even Beatles records,” he explains, his signature dark shades glinting in the late-afternoon light, “they all have this real sense of space to them. I think one of the biggest things is once you pull the drums and the bass out of the middle of a record, it just suddenly opens up that space. Those are the records that make sense to me.”
Roth puts his production ideas to the test on 100 Days, 100 Nights (Daptone, 2007), the third release from the label's flagship act, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. For those not yet in the know, a quick breakdown: the Daps, part of a loose indie collective of musicians that includes Antibalas, the Budos Band, the Sugarman Three and various other groups on the sweat-inducing Brooklyn soul-funk-afrobeat scene, have quickly become a musical lightning rod. As of late, they've attracted the attention of such luminaries as Kanye West (who has sampled the group's wares), The Roots' Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson (who invited the Daptone Horns to work on a monumental new album with Al Green), Amy Winehouse (as her touring band and on her album Back to Black), Mark Ronson (on his second solo album, Version) and surely more to come.
Meanwhile, lead singer Sharon Jones has taken off in her own right. Not only did Lou Reed recruit her to join him on his recent “Berlin” tour, but Jones is also slated to appear later this year in the Denzel Washington-directed film, The Great Debaters. Charismatic and high-energy to the core, Jones gets to show yet another side of her multifaceted range on 100 Days, reaching down for some of the Southern gospel roots that inspired her as a child.
“Keeping all those spirits alive — that's what a lot of gospel is about,” Jones gushes, citing Sam Cooke and Otis Redding as some of her earliest influences, and sounding musical even when she's just talking on the phone. “You have to listen to these old songs to keep them in your heart. And so I guess by doing that, we've made other people want to bring back that sound and that spirit. Keeping that spirit alive — I think that's what we're doing at Daptone, you know?”
INTO THE SLIPSTREAM
Take a listen to any Daptone production, and the feeling of having discovered a long-lost soul classic in an out-of-the-way used record store might start to creep over you. When Jones and the Daps released a raw and gritty 45 single covering Janet Jackson's “What Have You Done for Me Lately?” for their debut album, Dap Dippin' (Daptone, 2002), newbies were left wondering aloud, “So that's where Janet got that song?” It wasn't long before word got around that this was a living, breathing soul revue, recording and playing right here, right now.
“I first met Gabe when he was running [Daptone's predecessor] Desco Records,” recalls Daptone co-founder Neal Sugarman, who doubles as tenor saxophonist for the Dap-Kings and front man for the Sugarman Three. “We had a mutual love for old soul records, so meeting him was amazing because he had the concept of recording that stuff. I'd been in the studio before, but for him to say, ‘Let's record the Sugarman Three on four tracks’ had me worried. And it turned out four was perfect because it was definitely closer to how those records back in the day were made. That's not necessarily our complete motivation though — we want the music to sound cool first.”
While the first two Dap fests often skirted around early '70s funk in terms of the sound they emulated, 100 Days conjures more of a late-'60s Stax or Muscle Shoals vibe, much of it thanks to Roth's insistence on recording only to tape, as well as his decision to hard-pan the different elements of the rhythm section — drums (Homer Steinweiss) to the left, bass (Roth) to the right, guitars (Tommy “TNT” Brenneck and Binky Griptite) split left and right, horns (Sugarman, Dave Guy on trumpet and Ian Hendrickson-Smith on baritone sax) spread across one mic and panned right, and congas (Fernando “Bugaloo” Velez) to the right.
“I think what gives a mix character is that imbalance,” Roth asserts. “When I was doing these mixes, I did try to bring things to the center, and every time I hit it I went back to hard-panning them. One thing about panning real hard like that — and panning consistently — is that it gives a consistent feel to the record, so that when you listen to it from top to bottom, even if you're not really conscious of it, you know that the drummer is sitting over there and the bass player is over there. So I kept it the same for the whole album.”
With such a unique approach to mixing the instruments, Roth's biggest challenge was getting Jones' lead vocal to sit just right — especially because she and the band were cutting most of the songs live, with complete takes and very few overdubs. “Nobody's Baby,” for example, with its infectious horns, steady backbeat and ringing vibraphone line, leaves only just enough headroom for a completely dry vocal take, which Jones uses to advantage by pinning the needles to the max. She almost makes the mic feed back on the chorus, adding a sharpness of emotion that might not have been there if she'd backed off.
“The tape is definitely getting crushed all over the place on that song,” Roth admits. “I'm a very strong supporter of never looking at a needle, man. I think something is too distorted when it sounds too distorted, so really a lot of things are crushing tape in that — even the drums have a rawness to them, but they're still very open and don't sound distorted or crunchy. They're raw because they're played raw and they're hitting the tape raw. That's what we were going for, and that's why I felt the dry vocal made more sense. I was trying to get Sharon's vocals to sit in a way that makes you really feel like she owns the track.”
Jones herself would certainly agree. “When I heard the music on that,” she recalls, “I was like, ‘Aww — that sounds like something Tina [Turner] would do,’ and I came up with that [sings] ‘Whoo-wee!’ She was the queen of rock, and I imagine coming up there was nobody else out there who did stuff like her.” With backing vocals on the song by the Dansettes, the nod to Ike and Tina Turner's Ikettes seems a foregone conclusion.
By far Roth's biggest vocal challenge, though, was the album's gospel-inflected closer, “Answer Me.” The song was tracked almost in an impromptu manner, with Jones at the piano and singing with the band behind her. Although she wasn't as close to the mic as Roth would have preferred, the take was so inspiring that he knew it was a keeper.
“You can see it in the video [that accompanies 100 Days],” he says. “Sharon was just amazing on that, but the biggest problem I had was the thickness of the snare drum in her vocal mic — low mids from 200 to 400 [Hz]. When I pulled them out, the drums sounded awesome, but her vocals were just too skinny. And, of course, every time I thickened up her vocals, the band sounded sloppy. So at the end of it, I compromised more toward making her vocals sound right, because really it's her song and she's singing it, and that's the most important thing. The band is kind of secondary, at least on that tune.”
LIVE AND DANGEROUS
From the opening horn strains that kick off the mournful title track, it's clear that 100 Days is a different breed from its predecessors. There's a rawness to Jones' voice, which seems more present and forceful than ever before, and it's clear that the Dap-Kings are going for more subtlety and complexity when it comes to their songwriting, their arrangements and their sound. After playing several hundred live shows around the world, they've acquired a tightness that simply can't be faked with any bag of studio tricks.
“Gabe and I both agreed that we needed to keep the arrangements far more open in the studio than you would on a live show,” Sugarman explains, citing the fact that several of the songs on the album had been performed live on the European festival circuit before they were ever recorded. “Sometimes when you're playing live, with the need to keep the energy at such a high level, it's tough to let that go when you're in the studio with Sharon. After being on the road for six months and then going in to cut this record, the first time through we had to take a step back. It's a really different mindset.”
That said, Roth is thoroughly amped about the final results and feels that this is the Dap-Kings' best effort yet. “I mean, this record is mostly live takes,” he says. “The band was grooving much harder, and everybody was really locked in. I can really feel it from a producer's standpoint. Listening to the band play, you can feel that they've been on the road just gelling for a few years now. I think Neal said it; we might be a pretty humble bunch, but at the same time we know that collectively when we're playing together, we have something that a lot of bands don't have.”
DAP-DIPPIN' IT, BUSHWICK STYLE
It wasn't easy converting Daptone's Troutman Street house into a tape-ready recording studio, complete with a soundproofed vocal booth. First, Gabe Roth had to completely rewire the building for the expected increase in power usage — a job that he and Sharon Jones actually undertook themselves. (No injuries were reported.) Next, a wall had to be taken out and the second floor jacked up (using a car jack, no less) to expand the studio's “live room” and create some space for the Hammond B3 organ. Finally, Roth and company used old tires stuffed with cast-off clothing to build a “floating” isolation booth that's completely separated from the rest of the house — thus allowing Jones to wail away to her heart's content at any hour of the night.
“After I moved into the space a few years ago,” Roth recalls, “Kenny Dope [Gonzales] chipped in and bought me this 1-inch 16-track TEAC tape machine as prepayment for something he wanted me to do for him. That's the first 16-track I ever got. I did a bunch of records on that — The Antibalas' Who Is This America? album, the Naturally record with Sharon and the Budos Band records. And then just recently, I finally got that Ampex 8-track. So I've been through a lot of tape machines.”
Console, recording hardware
3M M23 ¼-inch tape machine
Ampex 440 8-track 1-inch tape machine
Otari MX-5050 8-track ½-inch and stereo ¼-inch tape machines
TEAC 85-16 16-track 1-inch tape machine (main recording)
Trident Series 65 24-input console
Select instruments and amplifiers
Ampeg Gemini G-12 guitar amp: “About 10
years ago, I was walking down the street
on my way to the studio,” Roth says, “and
as I passed a building that was being
demolished, I felt a bang against my leg.
They were gutting the building and one guy
was throwing all the garbage out the door
over the sidewalk to another guy on the
street who was tossing it into a dumpster. That
Gemini is what hit me in the leg on its way to
the dumpster. How's that for fate? Didn't even
need to repair it.”
Carvin bass circa 1970 (Gabe “Bosco Mann”
Roth) recorded direct
Epiphone Elitist Byrdland guitar (Binky Griptite)
Gibson ES-137 Custom with P94 pickups, Les Paul
guitars (Binky Griptite)
Hammond B3 organ with Leslie rotating speaker
Hohner D6 clavinet
Vintage Harmony and Silvertone guitars (Tommy
Vintage upright piano (make unknown)
Radio Shack condenser and dynamic microphones (for guitar amps)
RCA DX77 ribbon mic (used to track drums by placing on the floor to the side of the kick drum)
Røde NT1-A large-diaphragm condenser mic (for Jones' lead vocal)
Shure 513 ribbon mic (for tracking horns), SM55 Series mics (vintage)
Preamps, EQs, compressor, outboard effects
Aphex Aural Exciter 103A (Type C)
Filtek MK-3A EQs
Maestro Echoplex tape delay
Orban spring reverbs (2)
Purple Audio BIZ mic preamps
Stocktronics plate reverb
Tube-Tech LCA2B Stereo Compressor-Limiter, PE1C Program Equalizer
Rear and front speakers from 1999 Toyota Camry (stock)