PIPE DREAMER

THANKS TO ARTISTS SUCH AS THIEVERY CORPORATION AND DJ SHADOW, as well as labels like James Lavelle's Mo' Wax, the commercial door was opened in the late
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THANKS TO ARTISTS SUCH AS THIEVERY CORPORATION AND DJ SHADOW, as well as labels like James Lavelle's Mo' Wax, the commercial door was opened in the late '90s for a new electronic-music genre most often referred to as either chillout or downtempo. While the above artists were certainly imaginative in their own right, they often cite Nightmares on Wax as vitally instrumental to their artistic vision. In fact, Lavelle considers the act's “Nights Interlude” as the central inspiration for him to launch Mo' Wax. Despite the ominous moniker, Nightmares on Wax is actually the product of one man — the incredibly chill DJ Ease (aka George Evelyn).

Originally conceived as a bedroom mixtape team, Nightmares on Wax was known for creating sample mega mixes by splicing together bars from multiple tracks to create new seamless productions. “When we first started looping, I used to use the Akai S950 sampler and the Casio SK-1 keyboard, which had, like, 1.6 seconds' worth of sampling time on it,” Ease says. “You had to spin the record around as fast as possible just to catch a bar and then play it at a lower end of the scale on the keyboard!” In 1988, Ease borrowed 400 pounds from his brother, rented a car and spent two weeks driving around England selling a 3-track EP he produced with then-partner Boy Wonder, aka Kevin Harper. In those two weeks, Ease sold a whopping 2,000 copies of his white label release and caught the attention of Steve Beckett, who was about to launch a new label called Warp Records. Beckett loved the EP's lead track, “Dextrous,” and wanted Ease to remix the track for release on the new label. The track was released on Warp and eventually became huge all over Europe.

THE FIRST (AND NOT FINAL) WORD

Released in 1991 on Warp, the first official Nightmares on Wax album was called A Word of Science…The 1st & Final Chapter. This eclectic album traveled down many different roads — downtempo, hip-hop, house, techno and funk — and didn't fit into any one category. As the title suggests, the album was meant to be an experiment that was going to be the first of its kind and the last of its kind. “It was basically everything that inspired us, and it went over people's heads because it was nothing like the 12-inches we put out,” Ease says. “We were like, 19 years old, and that first album had to be an experiment as far as we were concerned.”

During the A Word of Science…The 1st & Final Chapter recording sessions, Ease began laying down his ideas for his second release, Smokers Delight (Warp, 1995). “One night, I came up with the idea that I was going to make a record called Smokers Delight, and it's just gonna be smart, chilled-out stuff,” Ease says. “Nobody had done this shit at the time, but there were loads of things that inspired me, like DJ Mark the 45 King, because he was a hip-hop producer, but he was dropping this mellow shit, as well. He was showing off his beats and was also one of the first to be doing this.”

Smokers Delight is considered by many to be one of the most important electronic-music releases of all time. Directly influenced by the mixtapes Ease and his friends created years earlier, Smokers Delight was a vehicle for Ease to share his past experiences with the entire world. “All the tracks on the album were personal to me and my friends, and the titles are all relevant to certain things that happened,” Ease says. With dance music and clubbing once again thriving in Europe, Smokers Delight became the perfect album for people to relax to after a night out partying. The communal vibe of the clubbing community and word of mouth led to the album's success, and it was seemingly a requisite piece of material for clubbers looking for a late-night chill. Whether it was used for coming off of a high or for a bunch of friends sitting around for a puff, Smokers Delight was a rare common bond for everyone in the club world and beyond. “When I toured, people used to tell me these stories, like they were backpacking over South America to Smokers Delight,” Ease says. “It was a soundtrack to them traveling the world, and that shit's just amazing to me. You can never plan this.”

Despite helping to launch what would become the chillout and downtempo genres, Nightmares on Wax never received quite the commercial attention it deserved. While some of the biggest names in the genre have released lackluster records over the years, Nightmares on Wax remains a lesson in consistency and quality. Subsequent Warp releases Carboot Soul (1999) and Mind Elevation (2002) retained that classic sound without skipping a beat. Now, after a four-year hiatus, Nightmares on Wax is back with In a Space Outta Sound (Warp, 2006). The CD is classic Nightmares on Wax but ventures deeper into the music that inspired Ease as a young producer.

“When you're trying to build a career and then you have a massive surge of success, it takes a bit of time to get back into your space again,” he says. “For me, I needed to go really deep. The reason the album is called In a Space Outta Sound is because I have to get into my space to come out with a sound. For this album, I realized that the deeper I went, the more it was me. I know there's a lot of soul in what I do, but there is also a lot of roots. So I wanted to get deeper into the roots and the things I loved as a kid when I first started getting into music like reggae and soul. I also wanted to make sure there was a journey involved. A journey achieves something; when you get to the end of the album, you want to go on that same trip again.”

MIX, COMPRESS, DISTRESS

To make that journey worth traveling again and again, Ease places importance on the mixing process. “For me now, what's more apparent is not the production but the mixing,” he says. Despite a production setup built around Apple Logic 7, an Akai MPC2000 and S3000, E-mu Mo'Phatt sound module, Roland SN-550 Digital Noise Eliminator and Genelec 8050 speakers, Ease looks at his outboard mixing gear as the most important equipment in his studio. With the exception of two tracks — “Damn,” which has a gospel choir, and “I Am You,” which has live drums and orchestration — Ease mixed the entire record himself. His outboard gear is centered on a 12-year-old Allen & Heath GS3000 mixing desk (Ease says he is amazed he was able to finish this album because some of the channels are going out), the Avalon VT-737sp preamp/compressor/EQ and Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor. “I bought two of them — one for the kick and one for the snare,” Ease says. “What I loved about them is that, all of a sudden, I had a new library of kicks and snares, because what you can do to them and the ranges you can go through on just one sound is amazing.” He also uses the Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso Jr., which adds tape compression and is great for using on beds. “I spent quite a bit of money on kicks and snares and bass lines, but I think it's totally worth it, and this is one of the best bits of gear I've bought.”

A crucial element to the Nightmares on Wax sound lies in Ease's love of analog gear and the fact that he isn't a trained musician. This allows for a sound that doesn't follow any rules and retains a vintage quality. “I know all these guys sacking all the analog gear and going 100 percent digital, and I'm not down with that,” he says. “There are certain mistakes that would never happen if you did everything digital, and some of the best ideas in music come out of mistakes. Sometimes the music needs to be fucked up and destroyed.”

PROVOCATIVE SAMPLING

One of the most crucial stages in the development process is the approach to creating each track. Ease tries not to be too premeditated and prefers to go into the studio with a blank slate and see what happens rather than try to create a certain type of track. “For me, it's like looking through a treasure chest and trying to pull out a tune,” he says. “When you are making music and not asking questions, then it is free and honest. Whenever you go off the vibe at the moment, you know it's going to be true.” In many instances, Ease starts the track off with one idea that might stem from an odd sample. Then he might build a melody, beats and a track around the sample until he has a workable track. Often, Ease only uses the sample for inspiration purposes and often drops the sample once a track has been built around it. “Every moment of each track has a bit of inspiration, and it's just whether you can pull it out,” he says. “Sampling is not just about grabbing straight loops; it's about how inspiring the sample is — what does it make you want to do? What does it make you want to play? What does it make you hear?”

On In a Space Outta Sound, “Damn” presented an interesting sampling challenge for Ease. To start the track, he pulled a piece of old vinyl and looped a prominent sample that De La Soul had used on “Ego Trippin' (Pt. 2)” off the album Buhloone Mindstate (Tommy Boy, 1993). Ironically, the week after “Damn” was finished, The Roots album The Tipping Point (Geffen, 2004) came out with a track that used the same exact sample. Despite initial conflict issues, Ease felt that he had reworked the sample enough to create a new element to the track. “There's like, two hits in the original loop, but I got rid of the hits so you just have the risers in the loop,” he says. “Then I reversed the harpsichord in the background, so you have the movement of the sample but a different riff. It's recognizable but twisted!”

THIS RIGHT HERE IS REAL

From the beginning of his career, Ease has always made music that centers on real-life experiences. This lives through the music, because each Nightmares on Wax track has warmth often missing from other electronic-music acts. As he will attest, each track also has a very interesting production story that involves real people and relationships and not just knob-twiddling. One such story surrounds the track “Flip Ya Lid,” a collaboration with Roots Manuva protégé Ricky Rankin. Rankin worked on one track with Ease, but they finished so quickly that they had the rest of the day to chill and build up some more inspiration. “After we recorded the track, we spent the rest of the day talking about politics, kids and stuff,” Ease says. “I took him up to the local hood to get some weed, and there were riot police everywhere and he was a little freaked out. We got back to my house at 2 a.m., and we were completely blazed on this weed, and I was like, ‘Let's make another track, man.’ I looped this old reggae track, and we started to vibe off of it.

“If you listen to the track, it incorporates everything we talked about during that day, which is amazing because he freestyled the entire thing. When Ricky finally heard it, he was freaked out and said it was the best thing he's ever done. We just got into such a space and such a vibe. Every time I listen to it, this brings that night back. And like I said, honest music is not premeditated and it's all off of vibe. You just can't get that any other way.”

When it comes to collaborations, another interesting story surrounds “Deepdown.” Ease was working on a vibrant and happy salsa theme for the track, and when he came to the lyrics, he couldn't get the phrase, “All I want to do is be with you” out of his head. “I thought this phrase appealed to anyone, whether you are with your child, a loved one or a friend — it didn't matter,” Ease says. With such universal appeal, he decided that anyone who passed by his house would be invited in to sing the melody to the actual keyboard line. During the next few days, he dragged complete strangers into his studio, whether or not they had any talent. However, the hardest part of the track came when Ease tried to employ the singing talents of his 4-year-old daughter, Marley. “She was impatient and kept poking her fingers through my pop shields,” he says. “It was hard to record her and sit in the booth at the same time, so I told her that my microphone was the same one that Beyoncé uses to make her sound so pretty [Laughs.] My daughter loves Beyoncé, so that did the trick!”

SUREFIRE SOUND SYSTEM

From the beginning, it was always the intention that Nightmares on Wax would perform live onstage. Unlike many other artists in the electronic-music genre, the band puts on a full live show that has toured with as many as 22 pieces (complete with string section) down to seven pieces. In the first quarter of 2006, Nightmares on Wax will tour the UK with the Iration Steppas crew (who has one of the best UK sound systems) and artists such as Mozez and Rankin for eight roots-style parties in a classic dancehall fashion. There are no plans for a North American tour at the time of this writing, but as Ease likes to say, “Never say never!”

Nightmares on Wax is a model act to follow for young producers. There is little doubt that Ease produces music for the right reasons: his passion and love. Each track is an exploration, and there are never any rules or planned framework going into the productions. His ability to add a touch of personal life to the often cold and distant electronic-music genre is something that has only been achieved by a select few other artists, such as Kid Loco's A Grand Love Story (Yellow/East West, 1997) or Air's Premiers Symptomes (Astralwerks, 1999). In a Space Outta Sound (and the Nightmares on Wax back catalog) also serves as a reminder of how great analog gear can be to an overall sound. It's easy to get lost in the fast-moving digital world, but music with true emotion and heart should also come — at least in part — the old-fashioned way.

A STUDIO FOR IN A SPACE

Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5 computer
Tascam MX-2424 multitrack recorder

Console/mixers, interfaces
Allen & Heath GS3000 console
Emagic Unitor 8 MIDI interface
MOTU 896HD interface

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixer
Akai MPC60, MPC2000XL, S950, S3000 samplers
Casio RZ-1 Rhythm Composer
Roland TR-808 drum machine
Tascam X-9 DJ mixer
Technics SL-1210 turntable

Synths, modules, software and plug-ins, instruments
Apple Logic 7 Pro software
E-mu Mo'Phatt sound module
Yamaha DX7, DX27 synths

Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Avalon VT-737sp preamp/compressor/EQ
Drawmer DL241 compressor
Empirical Labs EL7 Fatso Jr., EL8 Distressor
Focusrite Green 5 Channel Strip
Neumann M 147 mic
Roland SN-550 Digital Noise Eliminator
Tube Works RT-922 Real Tube II preamp
Yamaha Q2031a EQ

Monitors
Genelec 8050s
JBL Control 1 Xtremes