Credit: David Stephenson
In this age of superstar beatmakers, where the men behind the beats receive nearly as much shine as the MCs who rap over them, it's becoming harder to stand out in the realm of production. Combine that with the fact that “Southern hip-hop” has almost become a vulgar phrase in the lexicon of national and international music critics, and it makes the accomplishments of Ryan Wisler (better known as Kno of the hip-hop group CunninLynguists) much more impressive.
Since the 2001 release of CunninLynguists' debut album, Will Rap for Food (Urban Aces), Kno has helped the group form a solid and steadily growing fan base and has done outside production work (with his cohort, Deacon the Villain, under the production moniker A Piece of Strange) for artists such as Lil Scrappy, D12's Bizarre, KRS-One and Warner Brothers' rock artists Melee, to name a few.
Kno moved from Atlanta to Lexington, Ky., in 2004 and officially solidified CunninLynguists as a Kentucky-based group. The move not only brought the group together physically but also proved to be a strong point concerning producers in the hip-hop game — anyone can put together a beat for someone to spit to, but when that producer is actually able to sit and work directly with the artists, the result is much more solid.
When he sat down with Deacon and Natti in early 2005 to begin work on A Piece of Strange (LAU, 2006), the group's third LP, their music reached a much higher level of art and maturity. “Before then, it was just patchwork,” Kno says of his production on the group's first two albums, for which everything was prepared in advance from long distance and then knocked out in scattered two-week recording sessions. “I didn't see how they lived, what they were into day-to-day, and now I can accommodate the sound more for them as people.”
Mostly known for his sample-based production work, the Georgia-bred Kno prefers the grit of records to the gloss of current Southern rap's signature synths. “Usually if I've heard of the artists prior to walking into the store, I won't touch it,” he says. “I like to try and keep it fresh. When I'm familiar with an artist, chances are the rest of the world's producers are, too.” It's this dedication that finds him in Pops Resale, a vintage vinyl and clothing store in Lexington, at least one to two times per week. “I was working here about eight or 10 hours per week up until earlier this year, but I got too busy with music, so I had to quit. I started because it just didn't make sense to be here so often and not be involved in some other way. I'd always spend more than my week's pay on records, but Pop is a good guy, and I liked being here. It's like family, except there's no mom, and everyone likes vinyl records and beer cheese.”
Fresh off his group's multiple trips to Europe and across the U.S. in the past 18 months in support of A Piece of Strange, Kno gears up for their fourth LP, Dirty Acres (APOS Music, released at the end of 2007), by doing…what else? Heading to the record store to get started on his first batch of beats for 2008. Remix follows him as he gets elbow-deep in some dirty-South crates.
Alias (Wild Daisy)
I got tossed this one when I walked through the door by my man the Record Vulture. That's my ace; he knows the type of weirdness I'm into. The record is filled with a lot of acoustic guitar work, some nice gloomy chord changes in between some random bluegrass-meets — British folk. This is what Donovan would have sounded like if he was less poppy and drank copious amounts of moonshine and dipped Skoal.
Cameron's in Love (Salsoul)
I already flipped this for a track we did with Devin the Dude, but I need a backup copy for shows and general use because my other copy is beat. This is as solid a disco record you can buy. Take that how you want, but even when the most talented R&B vocalists skinny-dipped into that tempting ocean of nothingness that was disco music, the albums were always sure to have at least one high-quality slow jam. This is no exception. Shout-out to the crispy, white horse jockey pants he's wearing on the cover. Disco madness.
Your Baby Is a Lady (Atlantic)
Weird title. Maybe the alternate was, Your Lady Is a…Man!, but that was a tad risqué for the time period. A little too much honky-tonk for me, but there is some interesting piano work here. Some of this teeters on soul, but it's probably dependent on the writers. Production quality is great, and as a bonus, she's kind of hot in a, “Dude, why is your mom always out front washing the car in those tiny shorts?” kind of way. Title track is kind of provocative. “Now your baby is a lady, can I lay my body down for you?” I'll skip the R. Kelly jokes.
I'll let you in on a secret of digging in the “Bluegrass State.” If you pick up a record that has a small ink stamp that says “Charles Simpson” on it, chances are it's quality. Local lore has it that Charles Simpson, or Charlie as we call him, was the state's biggest purveyor of psych-rock records and an all-around vinyl junkie. He passed away in a house so chock-full of records they had to hire people to remove them all. Yes, my friends, he was living the dream. God rest his soul, Charlie S. has provided me with many a gem. As for this particular little number, it's from some Jimi Hendrix underlings and produced by Jimi himself. There are some interesting textures to it, but I might buy this just to listen to.
Let's see. Band name has an interesting ending, everyone on the cover is dressed like Renaissance Faire concession-stand workers and the back cover features some sort of goat-fish. I'm secure in my sanity and masculinity and there is a stamp on the front cover that says “Charles Simpson,” so I'm going to give this record a chance: real strong piano and guitar chord changes, nice female vocals reminiscent of a Stevie Nicks or Donna Godchaux. Interesting. Ooh, track four is a winner. That will make for a nasty little chop. Creepy vocals.
A Croak & A Grunt in the Night (Capricorn)
Man, I hope nobody sees me holding this. The guy couldn't get anymore nude on the cover. I think you can see his spleen. This guy graduated from the Freddie Mercury school of singing with a degree in muted flamboyancy. Not too over-the-top, and there is some interesting stuff going on with the organs and overcompressed drums. Rabbitt needs to put some clothes on, though.
MICHAEL W. SMITH PROJECT
Michael W. Smith (Reunion)
Looking at the cover, I never knew they made a sequel to Tron starring Grizzly Adams. His head is floating in a box that looks like it should have Light Cycles running around in it. I picked it up for that reason alone. This is Christian rock, but it's got some real interesting synth chords. Whoa, he's getting all Rick Astley on us with the vocals. I feel bad sampling from a faith-based record. Will I be smote by Jesus' sample-clearance lawyer?
Pops Resale; 1423 Leestown Rd., Ste. B; Lexington, KY 40511; (859) 254-7677;www.popsresale.com