The story of The Alchemist is as classic as it is unconventional, a tale of grinding and paying dues that takes place between Los Angeles and New York and encompasses longer than a decade in the rap game. A much-respected beat maker for many years now, The Alchemist has contributed grimy soundscapes and thugged-out anthems to dozens of artists. This year, Al (born Alan Maman) is finally stepping out of the studio shadows — producing the likes of Nas, Cypress Hill, Nelly, Big Pun, Mobb Deep and others — through higher-profile collaborations and the release of his long-awaited official debut album, 1st Infantry (Koch, 2004). To really know the man behind the boards, you must go back to the beginning: the early 1990s, when he was a teenager born of privilege, growing up in a town better known for its zip code than for hip-hop.
Beverly Hills, Calif., is about as far as you can get — socially, stylistically and geographically — from the South Bronx, but that didn't stop The Alchemist from embracing the music that was sweeping the nation. He caught the rap bug early and soon formed a group with his friend Scott Caan, the son of actor James Caan. Calling themselves The Whooliganz (and taking on the names Mudfoot and Mad Skillz, respectively), the duo traveled all over L.A., making connections, recording demos and shopping for a record deal. Through hard work and good luck, the pieces soon began to fall together.
“I ended up clicking with a lot of people in the industry,” The Alchemist says. “For example, Evidence from Dilated Peoples, he was down in Venice and was one of my best friends growing up, and he lived next to QDIII [son of Quincy Jones and producer for Tupac, Ice Cube and Too Short, among others]. He introduced me to him; we started working, and we started getting a little buzz in L.A. We were doing stuff in the studio, and the word was traveling around the industry. And in the midst of our shopping around, we bumped heads with Cypress, Muggs and B-Real. They had already heard of us, and we kind of just clicked from there. They were like, ‘Yo, we wanna mess with y'all.’ I was 14 at the time — I was like a baby — it was just exciting, man. They were already big anyways, so we started hanging out, going down to Southgate, where their hood is, basically just soaked it all up. And then after some time, they just put us down with the team. It was real gimmicky at the time, like we kinda had a spot to fill in, this little young group. But it worked out well, 'cause we got thrusted on the tour. Soul Assassins, Cypress, House of Pain — they were responsible for getting us our record deal, too.”
In addition to touring, The Whooliganz secured a deal with Tommy Boy, joining a formidable roster that included De La Soul and Naughty by Nature. The duo released a debut single, the riotously hype “Put Your Handz Up” (the B-side, “Hit the Deck,” featured Everlast), and shot a video, as well. Although The Whooliganz recorded a full-length album, Make Way for the W (Tommy Boy, 1994), the label soon developed cold feet and shelved the LP. Despite the setback, Al never got discouraged. “I was so young and just enjoying life and following my dream that I wasn't really focused on long-term goals,” he says. “It was like I had gotten so far so quick that whatever happens, it don't matter; I'm already down with this team. If the album doesn't come out, hey, we were just kids in the studio, recording with a lot of our heroes. It was a great learning experience.”
RISE OF THE ALCHEMIST
After working on Cypress Hill III: Temples of Boom (Sony, 1995) with DJ Muggs (see the sidebar “Earning His Stripes”), Al relocated to New York and attended college while refining his skills with the beats. Soon after, he began building his own reputation, laying down tracks for a veritable who's who of underground heavy hitters. In the years that followed, Al hooked up with a dream team of hip-hop VIPs from both coasts. He produced bangers for old friends Dilated Peoples and Cypress Hill, as well as indie-rap mainstays Casual and Defari and Snoop's crew Tha Eastsidaz. Back in the Big Apple, The Alchemist hit the studio with rugged rhyme-spitters Fat Joe, Big Pun, Capone-N-Noreaga, Kool G Rap, Nas, Jadakiss, Cormega and even Big Daddy Kane.
But it was The Alchemist's connection with Mobb Deep that really kicked in the door. Linking with Havoc and Prodigy through fellow Queensbridge, N.Y., affiliates Infamous Mobb, they first came together on the Murda Muzik (Loud, 1999) album and have continued their reign of terror ever since. Prodigy's solo album, H.N.I.C. (Loud, 2000), sported one of The Alchemist's biggest hits to date, the aptly titled street classic “Keep It Thoro.”
The union of Al and Mobb Deep has proved beneficial for everyone, especially the fans. Although some heads grew skeptical after the Mobb's R&B-flavored 2001 hit, “Hey Luv (Anything),” the team has since returned to its gangster roots, as evidenced on the new LP Amerikaz Nightmare (Jive, 2004). The Alchemist contributed several key joints, including the sizzling lead single, “Got It Twisted,” which flips a choice sample from, of all people, Thomas Dolby.
“At this point, I feel like I gotta be able to make hit records with [Mobb Deep] and not just ones for the album,” The Alchemist says. “As a producer, you want everybody to hear your shit. So we were sitting back; the album's almost done; and we're at my crib just working on some songs. And Pee's [Prodigy of Mobb Deep] nickname is Science 'cause he reads a lot; he's real smart. So he was at the crib, and I was going, ‘Science! You remember that song? You know that '80s joint “She Blinded Me With Science”?’ So I had my man download it, and he's like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah!’ And then that part came in [sings the break], and I was like, ‘This is my favorite part.’ I was thinking of how Havoc used ‘White Lines’ for [Mobb Deep's] ‘Quiet Storm’ [from Murda Musik], making some '80s shit real sinister-sounding. So I hooked up the beat real fast, a skeleton of it, and they came in, and it was instant. They started writing to it, and it just developed into something crazy. So, subconsciously, we was definitely trying to make something big, but I knew to keep that Mobb edge to it, make it gutter and bang a little harder. Shout out to Thomas Dolby 'cause I couldn't have done it if it wasn't for him. We used to bounce to that back in the day. Even though we were hip-hop addicts, that was a cool song.”
When asked about his specific techniques in the studio, The Alchemist remains tight-lipped. Extensive prodding also proves fruitless. “You know, it varies; it definitely varies,” he says. “Plus, I worked a long time to get this formula, and I ain't trying to give it away; you know what I mean? Whether you're an up-and-coming producer or the cats that are already in the game, y'all know what time it is. I don't wanna know how you sharpen your swords. But I will say that it varies. Like, I don't just cue the drums and then go to the beat or adjust the loop and the drums. The music just makes the decision. Basically, I go through records. Unless I have a particular idea, most of the time, I'm just kind of venturing out and seeing what's interesting.”
As for his preferred equipment? “This crazy shit, it's called the brain!” he says with a laugh. “It's all in the head. I don't put too much money on the machine, man. Most people know I work off the Ensoniq ASR-10. But I don't like to put too much stress on it for the tech heads; I just never was that type of person. Anybody who's that way, much respect to them. If that's what they love — investing in new equipment and mastering every piece of machinery — that's dope. Me, personally, I don't trip on that. It's all about what's inside the person: If you ain't thinking in that demented or different way, then I don't think that any machine will help you. So I try not to put so much stress on the machinery; it's more like a state of mind. I use the ASR-10, and I use Pro Tools; that's pretty much what I do most of my work on.”
When the time comes to lay down vocal tracks, his approach is similarly varied as it is with making beats. “Most of the time, we'll work together with it unless somebody is a perfectionist and they know how they want their shit to sound; [then] I let them do their thing, and if there's some pointers I can give them when they're done or how to switch something up, I'll let them know,” The Alchemist says. “It's like females: You have a different way to approach every different girl. Same thing with artists: Everybody is individuals, and you gotta kinda feel it out once you start working and making decisions on the fly.”
But as quickly as ideas are fleshed out, The Alchemist takes the vocals very seriously. “Vocals are the most important part of any production, not the drums or bass or sample,” he says. “Many artists are ego-driven, and it is often hard to criticize their performance without them taking it personal. So a good producer has to also be a good psychologist and must know how to carefully stroke one's ego in order for them to accept criticism. You can't just tell somebody their shit is weak and to do it again; you have to first find something to compliment them about, then ease into the criticism. It's definitely a technique.”
HERE COMES AL
Although his music has been featured on dozens of albums — including small-run compilation projects (The Cutting Room Floor  and Insomnia ) and instrumental collections (Gangster Theme Music  and The Ultimate Music Machine ), all through his own label, ALC Records — the fans and the artist himself have been patiently waiting for a “real” solo record. With 1st Infantry, that day is finally here. Nineteen tracks deep, the project sees Al teaming up with heavily buzzed up-and-comers Game and Stat Quo, Platinum players Lloyd Banks and Styles P, longtime homies the Mobb and Dilated, and Dirty South delinquents Devin the Dude and T.I. Working with such a diverse assortment of artists, The Alchemist switches up his sonic approach throughout, with unquestionably dope beats being the one constant.
“You know, I'm an artist,” he says. “I cover all spectrums of the page. I work on the artwork; I rhyme, make the beats, scratch on some songs. Even though I cut through the industry as a producer, I have many variations on how I like to create, extend my mediums. I definitely feel like I'm growing, and it's time for me to reach out and become a little bigger than just me behind the scenes or just being a small credit. We all gotta get our shine. I got a personality of my own; I wanna let people know all the sides of me. So by being able to do my own albums and put out my own projects, I'm slowly letting people know who I am and … stand behind the music instead of just being this ominous title.”
Although The Alchemist's reputation is rooted in the grimy, street-style production that he's laid for the Queensbridge contingent, the new album includes some lighter moments, even flirting with R&B on several tracks. He doesn't let his thug-rap pedigree dictate what kind of beats he can or can't make, taking a fresh approach to every joint that he produces.
“What's good music is good music,” he stresses. “I don't even put nothing in no category anymore, because everybody dips into every category, so, like, it's over now. Some people, they'll judge my beats on certain ones they heard and think I have this particular sound or that, but that just leaves it open for me to shock 'em. Chinky's shit is crazy; she's like the Mary of the future. She's from Queensbridge, and she's just naturally talented. It's exciting for me to work with her because we don't have any rules or regulations on how to make R&B. We just thug it, and we make hot shit because it's cutting-edge and it's not what you would expect from an R&B artist. It's fun to be able to journey outside of what people expect. Every beat is a different mood; I do beats like times of day. Like, okay, this beat sounds like 12 o'clock noon; this is like six in the morning — the sun's just coming up; this beat sounds like midnight. You know what I mean? The sun goes up and down, and we all go through different emotions, so that's what I'm trying to reflect.”
FLOODING THE STREETS
Maintaining his prolific work ethic, The Alchemist has many other projects out now and on deck. In addition to 1st Infantry, he's also producing the second Prodigy solo album and upcoming records from Queensbridge compadres Big Noyd, Infamous Mobb and Chinky. On the mixtape tip, he's featured prominently on Littles' The New General and Street Chemistry: The Best of Alchemist and Mobb Deep with DJ Big Mike. The Alchemist is also already working on the follow-up to 1st Infantry as well as tracks for Planet Asia, Evidence, Styles P and Nelly. But he is especially proud of his work with that notorious duo Mobb Deep.
“We make it a thing to keep the streets fully flooded with product so people know that we got this,” The Alchemist says. “Not being too cocky, but between me and Mobb Deep, the way we work together … our movement is respected. Shout out to everybody who does their thing, but we put so much out there that it's hard for them to compete. I'm not trying to say that everything is better than everybody else's, but I don't feel like people can fuck with us. I respect everybody's music, but when we get down and do our thing, man, we hit 'em with so much shit, and it's all quality. I like to stay humble, but the music speaks for itself.”
Earning His STRIPES
Although The Alchemist's first group, The Whooliganz, disbanded in the mid-'90s, Al stayed close with the Soul Assassins team — especially its producer, DJ Muggs, who became his mentor and frequent collaborator. “I worked a lot with Muggs under the radar,” The Alchemist says. “I was still coming up. I had just learned how to make beats, and I was just eager. So Muggs kinda took me in. We would collaborate on beats a lot; I was living at his crib damn near every day. I would just crash on the couch; we'd wake up and make joints. It was for the [Cypress Hill III: Temples of Boom] album. I was blessed to be in the circle and just be able to learn.
“Our working relationship was great because there was always a respect for each other's talents and skills,” Al continues. “At that time in my career, I was still a nobody trying to come up, and Muggs was one of the biggest names in music, so, naturally, he ran the show, and I found ways to add on and fit in. I was nice with the [Ensoniq] ASR-10 keyboard, which was good for manipulating samples because of the extended sample time and the feel of the keys, and Muggs was the man with the [E-mu] SP-1200, which was the shit for drums because of the gritty sound because of the sample rate. We knew each other's strengths: I'd usually work the music, and he'd work the drums. But at the end of the day, it was Muggs' call on what we'd keep or erase, and I always respected that.
“It was a great learning experience because he had the know-how to produce songs and albums in their entirety — all the meticulous details involved with making a hit record from start to finish — whereas at that time, I was still just a beat maker wrapped up in sample-chopping techniques and drum sounds, kinda like a driver who looks only 10 feet ahead when driving, when Muggs was looking miles ahead. However, his style of producing was very renegade and unorthodox, and I was all into precision and discovering new techniques, also working with technology to take shit to the next level, so we taught each other things. The most important thing I learned from Muggs was to never be lazy, to take a song or album to the next level and carefully scan the entire body of work slowly with a magnifying glass to make sure every second of the song was right.
“He was — he still is — like a big brother to me,” The Alchemist concludes. “He was keeping me paid. I'd have $1,000 cash in my pocket — it was great; we were eating at Benihana everyday. Then, the album came out, and everything said, ‘Produced by Muggs.’ I didn't really have any credit anywhere. But at that time, I really didn't trip. I was very confident with it because I knew that I was making my mark, and I was earning my stripes. There was a handful of my friends who I grew up with being like, ‘Yo, man, what's up? Why is your name not on here?’ So I had to correct them so they could understand that was part of the game. It helped me realize that I needed to become Alchemist. And I owe Muggs for that; it was like a life-lesson thing. I'm still down with Soul Assassins.”
The Alchemist's Key Apparatus
Apple Mac G4 computer
Avalon Vt-737sp preamp/compressor
Digidesign Digi 002 interface/control surface; Pro Tools software
Ensoniq ASR-10 keyboard/sampler
Moog Music Voyager synth
Neumann U 87 mic