Life During Wartime : 4th25 Beats, Rhymes and Baghdad

The war zone vocal booth and other harrowing tales of survival and recording in Baghdad, Iraq

As soldiers in the U.S. Army’s First Cavalry stationed in Baghdad, Iraq, Neal Saunders, Terrance Staves, Ronin Clay, Edward Gregory, Michael Thomas, Marion Sanders, and Michael Davis spent a year from ’04 to ’05 on the job, rolling through the rough-and-tumble streets of Baghdad ferreting out insurgents, surviving ambushes, and avoiding roadside explosives.

And in their downtime, these seven soldiers worked together as a rap group called 4th25 (pronounced Fourth Quarter, as in the crunch time, do-or-die last minutes of a game), holed up in their living space with a compact recording setup, working through their fear, confusion, and frustration, and coming to grips with their reality by making music. The result of this group’s war zone recording sessions is the album Live From Iraq, and it has nothing to do with politics, red or blue opinions, or voting strategies. According to Sergeant Neal Saunders, it’s all about reality and survival.

Where were you stationed?
We were stationed in Baghdad, Iraq, in Camp War Eagle, but the name was later changed to Camp Hope for whatever reason. It’s right outside Sadr City.

How’d you record the album? I mean how’d you rig everything up given the situation?
Well the hard part was trying to find somebody to send us the equipment. It’s funny, every audio company has all this “support soldiers” stuff on their websites, but when I tried to put my orders through, they always all said, “Oh sorry, we don’t ship to APOAEs” — a deployed-overseas kind of address that soldiers use. So it was hard, but I finally got with a guy through a friend of mine, a dude in Philadelphia who was connected with Sam Ash, and he was all over it. I think he was actually more excited about us recording an album out there than we were. He helped me get all the stuff we needed, that we could afford, and on a tight time line. Plus he mailed it all himself at the post office and we paid him back.

So he hooked us up with a Motif Es6, and of course we expanded it with all the memory. He also hooked us up with a Yamaha 01X, which we used for the mixing console and as a DAW with the computer sequencing software that we had. We ordered Digital Performer but at the time, it wouldn’t work with the Yamaha mLAN setup, and we wanted to minimize the number of cables and cords that we had to pick up, so the mLAN really helped a lot. We finally went with Logic and recorded the entire album with it. We picked up a Røde NT2000 mic, a pair of M-Audio BX8as and an [Apple] PowerBook. That’s pretty much all of it.

You mentioned minimizing cables in your recording setup. Was that a necessity because of the lifestyle of deployment, or space? Or budget? Habit?
We wanted to keep all that stuff out of the way, plus it was extra money that would have taken away from a piece of equipment that we needed. I usually bought stuff on the 1st and 15th of the month because that’s when we got paid. So money was tight. As soon as it came in, it was gone.

Was the material on the album created while you guys were on duty?
All of this was inspired by our deployment in Iraq. We had nothing before we got there. We ordered all the recording equipment there, and we wrote, created, recorded, and produced all the music there. The only thing that wasn’t done in Iraq was the mastering of the finished product. We sent it from there back to the U.S. to get mastered.

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What was the recording process like?
It was hard. We usually had to record in between missions, but there was so much inspiration, everything was just pouring out of us — everything we were going through is what we put into that album. It was probably one of the easiest things I’ve ever done, as far as having to write lyrics and make music. It was just flowing out of us and we couldn’t catch it all fast enough. You know, we’d go out and get in an ambush and then come back and we were just feelin’ it. That shit is crazy, man, and we wrote down exactly what we were feeling at the time.

Is that the theme of the record?
Well, the overall vibe is that, for the first time ever, you are hearing a candid response about being involved in this conflict from a source that’s in the thick of it, while we were in the thick of it. This whole album is just raw and it’s how we felt at any given moment and in every given moment. The song “Holdin’ My Breath” is about something that every solider goes through: When you call home, you’re not gonna tell your parents or your wife or your kids that you’re afraid you’re going to die, so you have to hold your breath when you talk to them. Then there are songs like “Fuck ‘Em.” I’ve gotten a couple of angry emails about that song, saying things like we’re glamorizing murder. But if you really listen to the album from beginning to end, you’ll realize that there’s more going on. It’s about the transformation of us as soldiers, from safe civilian life to a place where the people were trying to kill us, not because they knew us and didn’t like us, but because we were wearing this uniform. So it’s about what it takes to survive. A lot of people want to discuss this war as a right-or-wrong issue, but it’s not a matter of right or wrong for soldiers — we’re there, we’re doing it, and it’s a matter of life or death. We have to become what it takes to survive, and a lot of people don’t understand that transformation. The song “Testament of a Soldier” is about how regular people will never understand how and why I became what I had to become, so just leave it alone. There’s a lot of anger, a lot of confusion, a lot of frustration on the album — for the first time ever, you get inside a soldier’s mind while he’s being a soldier.

How did you record vocals, and did working in a war zone affect that process?

We built a vocal booth. When we first got to the building we lived in, some soldiers had been living there before us, and we replaced them and moved into their space. There was one room that had been made into two rooms by a divider wall, which was just made out of two-by-fours and eight-by-four-foot sheets of plywood. I figured they were gonna remodel anyway, and I didn’t ask anybody, but out of necessity we tore the wall down. We popped all the nails out, got a saw, and cut it loose and cut it all down. We cut a door out of one of the eight-by-four sheets, we reused all the nails from the wall, and we created an eight-foot-by-four-foot booth.

There are fire extinguishers that go inside every tank, and they come in foam boxes, so we ripped up all the foam, and then we got some sleeping mats from Iraqi civilians who came on base and sold us stuff that we needed to keep the camp up and running. We put five mats in the vocal booth — one on each wall and one on the ceiling — and then lined the walls between the mats with the foam from the tanks’ fire extinguisher boxes. It wasn’t perfect, but you know, it did the job. We could be in there recording verses and we didn’t wake anyone up or bother anyone. And it kept most outside sounds out.

Did your commanding officers know what you guys were up to, or express any kind of opinion on the project?
Oh yeah, they knew what was going on. There was no way we could hide all the equipment that was coming in, and we openly talked about it. We even put out a casting call for the album just to get people involved in it. And a lot of people came through, but I don’t think they really understood the concept. They were all like, “Live from Iraq? I wanna talk about cars and rims, and what they’re doin’ on the regular rap scene. I can’t miss a beat!” And I think the chain of command thought that’s what we were doing, too. I don’t think they understood the seriousness of the album.

Since the album’s come out and you guys have returned from the Middle East, have the military or any of your commanders tried to stop you from selling the album?
No, they haven’t. When we got back, there was a little bit of concern about where some of the images on the CD and some of the video and images on the website all came from. But what they and a lot of people fail to realize is that, if you know what you’re doing on the Internet, you can find anything you want. We were 100 percent into this project and we knew that we didn’t want to use any of the photos or video that we had access to, so we just went on the Internet and it just so happened that a lot of the stuff we found coincided with what we had gone through and what we were rapping about, and some of it actually does pertain to the specific area where we were stationed. We put some of our own photos that weren’t military-involved on the website, like pictures of children and billboards and just regular stuff like that. But all the stuff that we thought would be sketchy, that people might have problems with, we made sure that all of that came from the Internet so we had some type of plausible deniability. There was one officer who saw a picture of ours that he didn’t like so he took it to the battalion commander, and the battalion commander basically said, “What do you want me to do? None of this is classified information.” So that was that. And that was right when we got the first shipment of CDs, back in March, right when we got back from Iraq. By the time the officer saw it, it had already been out there and everyone else had seen it. And aside from that one situation, all we’ve gotten from everyone is praise.

Check out 4th25 online.