“Brothers were a little more open-minded back in the day, you know?” says Sleepy Brown in his deep Georgia baritone, smiling widely as though he's about to impart the secrets of the pyramids. Cooling out in the high-rise New York offices of Virgin Records, Brown is talking about the acid-funk legacy of such mammoth innovators as Funkadelic and Jimi Hendrix — just two of the many artists who have influenced Sleepy's own musical direction as a singer, musician and producer. “Truthfully, I think funk music from that time had something to do with everybody being a little crazy,” he continues, “so it opened their mind up to the point where they were like, ‘Hey, let's try this. Let's put a [Musitronics] Mu-Tron on this or a Moog on that,’ which was great, because it made this incredible sound. I'm just trying to bring that back because I know where they were coming from with it.”
Even though he wasn't yet born when many of the records he loves were being made, Sleepy got an accelerated education thanks to his father Jimmy “Lord” Brown, who was a founding member and lead singer for the legendary Atlanta funk group Brick (creators of the mid-'70s radio hits “Dazz,” “Dusic” and “Ain't Gonna Hurt Nobody”). Brown remembers standing in the wings as a child when Brick performed onstage; he took that experience to heart as his young ears were eventually drawn to the soul crooners — Marvin Gaye in particular, as well as Barry White, Teddy Pendergrass and Curtis Mayfield. By the time he was 17, he was walking around with a backpack that held a Tascam 4-track deck, an Alesis drum machine and a mini Casio keyboard.
“That was when I met Rico and Ray,” Brown reflects, referring to his partners Rico Wade and Ray “Yoda” Murray. Together, the three would form a production crew later to become known as Organized Noize — now virtually a household name among fans of Outkast, Goodie Mob, TLC and dozens more, and recognized for their vibrant and fresh-sounding brand of soul-fueled hip-hop. “We met in East Point at the time, back in, like, '90. They heard some of the stuff that I was doing, and they really respected the fact that I was doing it on this little bitty equipment setup. So we just vibed together, and eventually we were able to come up with enough money to get our first [Akai] MPC60. And we've kept working ever since.”
Organized Noize features prominently in the lushly orchestrated loops and live grooves of Brown's breakout solo effort Mr. Brown (Purple Ribbon/Virgin, 2006). Released with the reverent nod of Purple Ribbon label founder Big Boi — who drops some verbal spits of his own on the Neptunes-produced single “Margarita” — the album is a spicy stew of low-down vintage funk, 808-fattened hip-hop and pure cinematic soul, with Sleepy hovering over the action in full mack swagger. Whether he's ad-libbing Marvin Gaye — style (on the doo-wop-flavored “Get 2 It”), hitting the lower registers of George Clinton's darkest dreams (on the downright trippy “Oh Ho Hum,” with soul diva Joi Gilliam) or steaming up the windows (on the upbeat “I Can't Wait,” with rapid-fire rhymes from the incomparable André 3000), this is one Atlanta-bred son whose mission is to re-create the streets-to-the-sheets mood of a classic blaxploitation score while still forging new paths for today's club-ready R&B.
“That's definitely my style, but I also think it's more about the rhythms with us,” Brown says when asked about how he connects his personal vision with the essence of the Organized sound that permeates Mr. Brown. “We don't just stick to that straight one-two beat — we'll flip a beat and make it a totally different pattern. We've always been unconventional with our sound anyway, and we try to project that through the music.”
LIVE, DOPE AND DIRECT
Part of Brown's unconventional approach involves his longtime love affair with live instrumentation, and his quest — still somewhat of an oddity, especially in southern hop-hop and dance music — to meld that sensibility with the sampling aesthetic in a way that makes the finished whole sound as if it's performed and not just produced. To this end, growing up in a musical household has its advantages.
“Because of my dad, I was always into horns,” Brown says, “but really, that led me to everything else — keyboards, bass, drums and guitar, too. I just love the arrangements of those old songs, and that's a big part of what I wanted to do with this album.”
Although his primary instrument these days is a Roland Fantom synth — along with a Fender Rhodes, Wurlitzer electric piano and Hohner D6 clavinet — Sleepy made it a priority to surround himself with as many live musicians as possible for the making of Mr. Brown. Pharrell Williams crafts an infectiously catchy set of chords on his Korg 01/W synth for the main hook in “Margarita,” which sets the tone for the mid-tempo floor-shaker “One of Dem Nights” — a stellar rhythm vehicle for the team of Printz Board (bass and Rhodes) and Keith Harris (drums) from Black Eyed Peas' touring band. “Till (Your Legs Start Shaking)” throbs Philly-style with a 15-piece string orchestra, while the prelude to “Me, My Baby & My Cadillac” features longtime Organized collaborator Marvin “Chanz” Parkman tickling an upright piano. But the heavyweight highlights are the saxophone solo in “Dress Up,” played by Sleepy's famous father, and the psychedelic guitars in “Oh Ho Hum,” laid down by none other than Chic legend Nile Rodgers.
“Of course I had to put pops on the album,” Brown says proudly. “Hopefully he'll be going on the road with me because we'll probably do some old Brick songs. He's still raw, man — no one can touch him. And Nile gave us some ‘Maggot Brain’ sounds there that almost knocked us over. The track just reminded me so much of early Parliament or early Funkadelic, like ‘Mommy, What's a Funkadelic?’ — that kind of spaced-out sound.”
Mix engineer Mark “Exit” Goodchild [see the sidebar, “Mack in the Box”] concurs on both points; he recorded Jimmy Brown's horn solo at ZAC Recording's Stonehenge studio in Atlanta and manipulated and mixed Rodgers' guitar sounds at Dallas Austin's DARP Studios. “We added a few things to ‘Dress Up’ in the mixing stage,” he explains. “The street scenes with people talking and cars going by — that's all from [Ascent Media's] Hollywood Edge [sound library]. But with Sleepy's father, it was just amazing. He came in and listened to the song a few times, and then he just played a solo all the way through on a [Neumann] U 47. We didn't really do anything to it; it's pretty much exactly the way he played it.”
For “Oh Ho Hum,” the approach was more involved, particularly with the use of plug-in effects on the guitar. “That was a bit of a challenge, actually,” Exit says. “I had to split the signal out onto two channels in Pro Tools, and then I used different guitar amp plug-ins on both — mostly Amp Farm and the [SansAmp] PSA-1. And it definitely has different stages of delay and phasing to it. I actually ran one channel through a [Waves] MetaFlanger to really exaggerate it. And on the other, I just compressed the hell out of it to get that heavy crunch and then EQ'd it before running it through more effects.”
SAMPLIFYING THE PROCESS
When live players couldn't be recruited to translate the gritty, tape-saturated atmospherics that Brown favors so much, he naturally called upon his crate-digging and sampling skills to fill in the gaps. As much as '70s soul music may inform his style, he's still a product of the hip-hop generation, building drum kits and smoothly truncated melodic loops with all the attention to detail that heads have come to expect from an Organized Noize production.
“It's just whatever sound we hear at the time,” Brown says. “We might hear a record that has one kick by itself, real quick, and we'll snatch that. I like real tight, compressed snares and thumping kicks, with a hi-hat that could be loud or soft — it depends on the song. But like I said, that live sound is incredible. There are so many things you can do with a live sound — more than just trying to program so much. Just to give you an example, we might take a little bit of the hi-hat, maybe throw a little reverb on it and then 16-level it [an MPC function that assigns one sound to all 16 pads, with each capable of being manipulated and then mixed in any combination]. We'll just try out all the different filters until we get that live feel going.”
Most of the pre-production, sample tracking and drum programming on Mr. Brown took place at Ray Murray's Dungeon East studio, where a vintage Roland TR-808, E-mu SP-1200 and Akai MPC4000 were the weapons of choice. Particularly when it comes to chopping and looping their string samples, Brown and Murray are masters at creating the illusion that the strings are actually breathing in time to the music, as cuts such as the album opener “I'm Soul” — a steamy, Isaac Hayes — influenced future classic — and the funky, pimped-out “Me, My Baby & My Cadillac” demonstrate so forcefully.
“I think that's just part of Ray and Sleepy's production style,” Exit offers. “The way they chop up samples, and the way they hit them on the pads — they're not on full level on the MPC, which means they're not playing the sample at the same loudness every time. They'll also chop up a long sample and spread the pieces across the pads, and then they'll hit each pad on rhythm while the original sample plays back as a guide [creating a flutter effect much like a turntablist's transformer move]. They're awesome for doing things like that, where it sounds crazy when you listen to it at first, but as you let it breathe, it really starts to gel and make sense.”
Brown also avails himself fully of the SP-1200's legendary sonic rawness. “To me, the SP-1200 is original hip-hop,” he says reverently. “We call it the ‘trance’ drum machine because it takes a beat and somehow puts something on it that makes it sound crazy. It's just dirtier and punchier than the MP. And we'll still program a whole beat on that, even though it might be easier to do the whole thing in Pro Tools now.”
THEY SAY I'M DIFFERENT
There was a time when radio was much less compartmentalized than it is today; you could actually hear the latest jam from the Ohio Players or the Isley Brothers right up next to “Takin' Care of Business” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive, and no one would bat an eyelash. For Sleepy Brown, the times have definitely changed, but the current state of affairs in mainstream radio — whether it's R&B, hip-hop or straight-up club music — doesn't have much of an effect on how he approaches his music creatively.
“It's true there's a format to music right now,” he concedes, “but you know, that's just the way it is. There's still plenty to love that's out there, and that's why I'm trying to bring something that could play on the radio, and it would still be different. Not so much just sounding like this record or that record, but more like the record that comes on, and it just hits you immediately. You know how Lauryn Hill had that effect — when she dropped Miseducation, that album was different than anything else on the radio at that time. It was just like, whoa.”
Certainly, when you roll with a huge crew of iconoclasts that includes such twisted geniuses as Outkast, Goodie Mob or Joi (and with connections to plenty more, including The Neptunes, Raphael Saadiq and Black Eyed Peas), some of that energy is bound to fuel your direction. Mr. Brown is the result of all that and more — a live-sounding funk-and-soul throwback that somehow propels hip-hop and R&B even further into a hypermodern future.
“I wanted this album to be like how it was,” Sleepy says, “but to take that into what's happening today. Music used to be about what's hot, and it was all about new sounds. It was live sound — that's what it was. A lot of people might not realize that's what was going on. But they will. And you know, there's nothing wrong with music right now the way it is because music always changes — it always comes full circle, and I want to be part of that.”
In the studio with Sleepy
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5 with Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 Accel system
Studer ½-inch tape machine (mono speaker used for playback during mixdown)
Digidesign DigiRack and Bomb Factory bundles
Line 6 Amp Farm
Tech 21 SansAmp PSA-1
Waves Renaissance bundle
Fender Rhodes electric piano
Hammond B3 organ
Hohner D6 clavinet
Roland Fantom-X8 synth
Wurlitzer electric piano
SSL 4080 G+ console (for stereo playback only)
Samplers, drum machine
Akai MPC4000 sampler
E-mu SP-1200 sampler
Roland TR-808 drum machine
Mics, preamp, EQ, compressor, effect
Neumann U 47 and U 87 mics
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer
John Hardy M-1 mic preamp
Tube-Tech LCA-2B stereo compressor/limiter, PE-1C EQ
George Augspurger 16-inch mains powered by Bryston amps
Mack in the Box
There's nothing quite like the subtle harmonic distortion and analog dynamics of 2-inch tape — which makes it all the more admirable that Sleepy Brown's entire album almost flawlessly emulates the tape-generated graininess of '70s funk, even though it was actually mixed within a [Digidesign] Pro Tools environment. As mix engineer Mark “Exit” Goodchild explains, the biggest obstacle to preserving the music's original dirt pivots on what not to do when mixing inside the computer.
“When I'm mixing Sleepy's tracks,” he says, “I almost have to force myself to take a step back and say, ‘These need to not sound too polished.’ They need to sound like the era that he's trying to represent. Even though it's out now and modern — the productions are gonna be that — the sound still has to put you in the scene that he wants. That means EQing to make sure that the vocal mixes are consistent from song to song. And when I EQ, I normally take things out. I might add the upper frequencies, like 8,000 [Hz] and up, just to bring back some presence, but otherwise, I want to make sure I'm keeping the original vibe.”
It often helps to have a listening reference; in Goodchild's case, a key source was Marvin Gaye's afterhours classic, I Want You (Motown, 1976). “Not just for the sound,” he says, “but for how it was made technically, too. Those old records are minimalist in the same way Sleepy's production style is. I would say we never really went over 24 to 30 tracks per song — maybe 10 music tracks and between seven to 15 vocal tracks, usually. It's very stripped down, so you have to make sure every single sound has a personality.”