Wrapping up a mixtape session at a Los Angeles studio, Nu-Mark has no problem explaining the gang of outside producers — Scott Storch, Salaam Remi, Exile and Bean One — who oversaw Jurassic 5's first album in four years, Feedback (Interscope, 2006). Forever branded an L.A. underground collective with old-school vocal harmonies, devilishly obscure samples and very little commercial radio presence, Jurassic 5 brings out the big guns for Feedback. Hiring cash-flush hip-hop producers while sampling such icons as Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, Art of Noise and Marvin Gaye, Jurassic 5 may alienate the obsessive fan base that turned previous albums like Quality Control (Interscope, 2000) and Power in Numbers (Interscope, 2002) into backpacker touchstones.
“I would be lying if I said J5 is not trying to be on the radio,” Nu-Mark reveals. “A lot of people think that being on the radio is selling your soul. I don't know what era they are from, but I have always heard my favorite songs on the radio, from Public Enemy to De La Soul. The ultimate goal for any musician is to be heard, otherwise they would just stay in their bedroom and not let anyone hear their music. A hit is the missing link for J5.”
A NEW STEW
Although longtime J5 resident Cut Chemist stepped away from the group (bringing the Jurassic members down to the actual number five), the collaborators increased for Feedback. Panning for gold, J5 hired Dave Matthews as guest vocalist for the first single, “Work It Out,” and Mos Def for “Where We At,” both produced by Nu-Mark. Big-name guest vocalists are nothing new for J5; Nelly Furtado made a cameo on Power in Numbers' “Thin Line.” More surprising was J5's collective decision — a roundtable resolution by Zaakir (aka Soup), Akil, Chali 2na, Marc 7 and Nu-Mark — that it was time to get more cooks into the kitchen.
“There are a lot of hands in the pot if you are allowing the hands to dictate what you are cooking,” Chali 2na says while steering his Ford Expedition toward Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in Pasadena. “If you know what you are cooking and you are just getting ingredients from other people, that is cool. We explained to each producer what we wanted, and we didn't settle until we got it. With Salaam Remi, for instance, after we played him what we had, we got on a mental mission to make beats that would take us to another level. Same process for Scott Storch; we did five tracks in six days. The track of his that we picked, ‘Brown Girl,’ was the one that didn't sound like us. We were reaching.”
“I did a majority of the beats,” Nu-Mark says assuredly, “but a big part of the dynamic range on Feedback is the other producers. Our first three releases, including Jurassic 5 LP [Pan, 1998], were pretty much us standing up on our own two feet. But we can't wear size medium forever. We have been a group for so long; now let's show how we can collaborate with other producers.”
For all the focus on outside producers, Feedback's most interesting tracks were done in-house. From the forward-thinking “Future Sound” and the supersludgy “Work It Out” to the twisted blues of “Red Hot” and stunning Brazilian closer “Canto de Ossanha,” Nu-Mark's versatility and resourcefulness are in high definition. Blame it on his newfound digital love.
Besides the search for a radio hit, Feedback's biggest difference is the use of Pro Tools. Feedback is the first J5 album to be produced almost entirely in the digital realm. “Power in Numbers was done on an MPC2000, and the vocals were tracked on a Roland VS-2480,” Nu-Mark recalls, “and we mixed on 2-inch tape. For Feedback, we recorded everything to Pro Tools except for some tracks not done at my studio.”
Using Pro Tools|HD at his own Log Cabin studio in North Hollywood, Nu-Mark was able to listen to his sample work on the monitors he felt most at home with. That in turn helped him fine-tune the process more fastidiously.
“Feedback is mostly me just listening to beats and mixing through my monitors and understanding exactly what the tracks sound like,” Nu-Mark says. “Usually, when you go to other studios, it is tough to get a take on what it really sounds like 'cause you are not used to their speakers. Working in Pro Tools|HD and with more module sounds was also a big change. I recorded my samples and acted like I wasn't going to be able to mix, recording sounds into my MPC or into Pro Tools as cleanly as I could. The better quality of sample I have going in, the easier it will be to mix. In the past, I was trying to create quickly to keep the creative flow going, but for Feedback, I took more time to get the sounds into the MPC clean and made sure that I covered the entire dynamic spectrum in every sound.”
Though Feedback boasts a diverse cast of beats, samples and producers, Nu-Mark's rig is surprisingly minimal. Relying on Waves L1 plug-ins for drums and Synthogy Ivory for acoustic piano sounds along with his MPC and Reason, Nu-Mark morphed the past with the present.
“I always feel that I am assembling and disassembling my beats when I make them on the MPC,” he explains. “When I make a beat on the MPC, I am mixing it as I go 'cause I know how I want it all to sit. But when I drop it into Pro Tools, it gets disassembled because the mix is different. I like to create in the computer because the sounds are fatter, you are not losing any generation, and my puzzle is still assembled. So I prefer the sampler in Reason. There are drawbacks: Some things take two steps as opposed to one step in an MPC, so I still use both, but I would just use Pro Tools if I could. What I like about digital is what you hear is what you get.”
Although every track on Feedback features its own uniquely freakish beat and maddeningly scrambled samples (like the ghostly twist on Curtis Mayfield's “Mr. Welfare Man” in “Gotta Understand” or the Dap Kings' “Nervous Like Me” in “Red Hot”), two tracks standout for sheer programming skill.
“‘Future Sound’ is a play on showing people how creative sampling can really be,” Nu-Mark says. “The Three Dog Night sample [from 1969 hit ‘One’] in ‘Future Sound’ is way more familiar than anything we have sampled before. There is nothing isolated on ‘One,’ so I had to cut and paste in Pro Tools between the vocals, guitar and piano. The piano part is me stutter-stepping a note and a half of a line. It has a beat and then an off-beat. I just kept tapping on my MPC, repeating that note over and over again to create its own line. The guitar part was done in the same vein but with less repetition. The guitar and piano are together in the recording, so I am just grabbing what they have. It sounds like there is more happening than there actually is.”
A distorted bass drum, creepy piano, an Eddie Harris sample and a clock radio figures into “Where We At,” which has the lopsided, drugged feel of a lost Saturday afternoon. It sounds surprisingly simple.
“The bass drum came from a rare break off a 45,” Nu-Mark says. “A lot of the 45s that were coming out in the early '70s were distorted, but the distortion doesn't bother you. They are just pushing the levels too hard, going for that natural tape compression that everyone talks about now. The track began with a kick and snare from two different records. The hi-hat is from yet another record. I just glommed them together in Pro Tools and added ghost notes, small snare drum notes underneath to give it this shuffling feel. I found another snare from the main snare record; it had a lighter hit, and I just grabbed the ghost notes from that and placed them at the very end of the phrase right before the downbeat. I also copied a kick drum over to another pad on the MPC and removed the bottom end and sat it in the track at low volume. I wanted to give the original bass drum hit some heaviness.
“The keys are from a track called ‘Flowers’ from an Eddie Harris record, That Is Why You're Overweight [Atlantic, 1975],” Nu-Mark continues. “I just let the record play with my beat, and I sampled and chopped it so it sounded like it was meant to be with my drums. There is a boatload of echoes and vocal doodads that I got from other 45s that push the song along. That radio noise is me with a clock radio; I put it up to the Neumann and scanned the stations as rhythmically as I could. Then I recorded the guys singing ‘where we at,’ bounced that down to a CD and scratched it into the song. Mos Def came in and mimicked a part from this movie Brown Sugar 'cause we couldn't get the sample cleared. Mos did it just like Taye Diggs!”
Radio ready or not, Jurassic 5 may never shake its underground past, which is good news for fans of the group's conscious, rolling vocal couplets and increasingly inventive sound-sculpting techniques. Feedback is five L.A. guys crafting a true future sound, one where borders are erased and diversity is the goal.
“Some of my favorite records have a consistent sound,” Nu-Mark says, on his way back to his home in North Hollywood, “but the thing about not having a consistent sound from track to track is that you can grow with the times. That is why LL Cool J and Snoop Dogg are still around. They have moved with the times. Feedback is J5's attempt to move with the times by showing a bunch of different sounds. Like I said, you can't wear size medium forever.”
LOG CABIN LOWDOWN
Computers, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5 with Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system
Mackie 1604-VLZ Pro (for EQing samples)
Synths, modules, software, plug-ins
E-mu Mo'Phatt module (for “bass subsine waves,” Nu-Mark says)
Korg Triton synth workstation
Propellerhead Reason soft synth
Sonic Reality Sonik Synth 2 soft synth
Synthogy Ivory virtual piano soft synth
Waves Ltd. Gold Bundle (L1 for drums) plug-ins
Sampler/drum machine, turntables, DJ mixers
Akai MPC2000 sampling workstation
Pioneer DJM-909 mixer
Rane TTM 56 Performance Mixer
Technics SL-1200MK2 turntables
Vestax PMC-007 mixer
Mic, mic preamp, EQs, compressor
Avalon Design Vt-737sp preamp/compressor/EQ
Millennia NSEQ-2 Stereo Parametric Equalizer
Neumann M 149 tube mic
Event Audio Studio Precision 6s (for vocal mixing)
Tracking one of hip-hop's most interesting vocal crews is no easy task, but Nu-Mark takes it one step at a time. And if the MCs get unruly, Nu-Mark gets tough.
“We do up to four tracks to get the vocal core sounding as full as possible,” Nu-Mark explains, “panning hard left and right, and one in the middle, experimenting to get the field wide. The guys have good mic technique, so it makes my job easier. They all use a Neumann 149 through the Avalon. I keep the EQ minimal because that mic tends to enhance the high end. I get a little compression, roll off a little low end, but not too much. They track live and they also overdub, piling one vocal on top of another to get it full as possible. But we don't do any punch-ins on the vocal hooks.
“When it comes to mixing, I try to just make sure the vocals are balanced, that every guy is sitting in the pocket. Once I get one guy in, I just match vocal to vocal, not vocal to beat. As far as timing, Akil is definitely behind the beat, Chali is exactly on the beat and Zaakir is a mixture of the two — he has that swing/swagger thing going. Marc 7 is ahead of the beat. Timing matters sometimes when mixing; I have to stay on them so they match up. I try not to align vocals on the grid, but if I have to, I will.”