The DJ and beat maestro behind Los Angeles — based hip-hop group Time Machine, Mekalek has been constructing thoroughly funkafied backdrops, consistently wowing hard-to-please heads with his sample-fueled audio concoctions. Now, after providing the group with several choice singles and one excellent full-length album, Slow Your Roll (GITD, 2004), the mighty Mek steps out from the shadows with his first solo project, Live and Learn (GITD, 2006).
Hailing from Rhode Island, he got his first taste of the industry like many have before him: running a radio show. Taking to the airwaves at the university's WRIU, Mekalek found himself broadcasting from the same wavelength he'd been listening to for years.
“Pretty much all my knowledge outside of the tapes that I could get in the store was from that station,” he recalls fondly. “It's crazy because Masta Ace had a show on there, Sage Francis, all the local legends were on there at one point or another.”
Time Machine first came together in 1999, while Mekalek was working on longtime friend Jaysonic's first solo release. The genesis was a track entitled “Block Troopin,'” which also featured Jay's friend Comel. The album was a limited edition, self-released project, but the chemistry between the three was undeniable. Two years later, the track would be released on Time Machine's three-song 12-inch entitled “Reststop Sweetheart” (Emerge, 2001). Mek's golden-era inspired production and the MCs' whimsical storytelling made it a hit on college radio. Since then, the trio has also toured the globe (most recently on a coast-to-coast jaunt with People Under the Stairs), worked with pioneering artists Masta Ace and Edo G and founded its own label, Glow-in-the-Dark.
Mekalek's style behind the boards oozes the same type of classic boom-bap perfected by hip-hop heroes like Diamond D and Pete Rock. On Live and Learn, he employs an array of lush samples and snappy breaks, rejecting the minimalist synth steez currently dominating most rap music. Unlike some retro-happy artists, he's not merely aping a classic sound but truly creating a vibe. Almost all of the album's 20 tracks flaunt melodies that are guaranteed to stick in your head, but it's Mek's mastery of drum programming that truly stands out, keeping your neck in perpetual motion.
In the studio, the heart of his operation is that old standby, the Ensoniq ASR-10, which he's been using since day one. But even such a time-tested machine has certain sonic limitations, which Mekalek has conquered through trial and error. His secret is all in the layering. “If you're using an [Akai] MPC or an [E-mu] SP-1200, sometimes the drums will just knock, especially an SP. I guess it's the filters,” he says. “But the ASR is sometimes kinda flat; there's no EQ on it, so you have to find something that's gonna fit underneath the kick drum or snare that's gonna make it hit. Layering is the biggest asset when you're making beats on the ASR. Once you sample something into the ASR, it takes a little of the punch out, so I have these 808 and 909 sounds on the computer, and I put 'em in the background and space 'em out on there.”
Mekalek started out recording to a Korg D8 digital 8-track, but he switched to Digidesign Pro Tools when doing Time Machine's first album. Despite the aesthetic adjustments and learning curve in the transitioning from hardware to software, the benefits quickly won him over. “I was used to pressing buttons and sliding the faders,” he says. “[But] I gotta say, the amount of time saved with [computer] recording, it's incredible.”
Though Mekalek hasn't had any formal musical training, his ears stay on point like Dr. Spock, making Live and Learn one of the most impressive hip-hop records of 2006. Composed of top-shelf collaborations with Bronx icon Percee P, Babbletron MC Cool Calm Pete, Rhode Island homies Fedd Hill and his own Time Machine family, it is a welcome release in a marketplace flooded with both disposable ringtone club jams and indier-than-thou complainers. There are also several choice vocal-free selections (check “Beat Break #2”), which prompts the inevitable question: Any plans for an instrumental album?
“I need more gear to do something like that,” Mekalek admits. “A lot of times I have ideas in my head, and I can't necessarily make that a reality with samples; you can't always find exactly what you're looking for. Hopefully, I'll be able to make some money off this album, and I'll be able to buy some shit.”