Power of Poise - EMusician

Power of Poise

They dip. They swoon. They croon. They dance in time, their steps as classy and flashy as The Spinners in an episode of the 1970s television show The
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They dip. They swoon. They croon. They dance in time, their steps as classy and flashy as The Spinners in an episode of the 1970s television show The Midnight Special. Manning the stage at Joe's Pub in New York City, The Dix are dressed in matching suits and polyester wigs as they film the video to their new release, The Art of Picking Up Women (Smacks, 2004). Front and center in this sextet of dancing soul fools is Prince Paul of De La Soul, Stetsasonic, Gravediggaz and Big Daddy Kane production fame. The Dix, which Paul discovered while vinyl shopping one day, recorded albums from the '50s to the '70s, and Paul has revived the band to remix and rerelease some of its songs.

As the stage buckles, Prince Paul leads his cohorts in arm twirls and double entendres; this aesthetic of looking fine and talking smooth is an obvious outgrowth of another Paul project, the ever-influential and supremely dressed Handsome Boy Modeling School.

With longtime musical and comedy partner Dan Nakamura (of Dan the Automator, Deltron 3030, Dr. Octagon and Gorillaz fame), Prince Paul operates Handsome Boy Modeling School in the tradition of the Hollywood star system. Casting-couch worries aside, Paul and Nakamura recruit the best from various disciplines to make zany music that is as entertaining as it is enlightening. Their 1999 debut, So … How's Your Girl? (Tommy Boy), combined inside jokes and surreal, stoned hip-hop with samples that ran from classical quartets and underground skin flicks to language-instruction tapes. Four years later, Handsome's latest effort is more abstract, svelte and ultimately more handsome.

“It is almost the same as the first one,” explains Paul, aka Chest Rockwell, while The Dix take a break from dancing duties. “Dan and I go anywhere from bluesy, country soul music, which you can hear in some of the melodies, to some Bollywood stuff. When you mesh it together, people don't know what to call it: ‘This drum sounds like jazz, but the way he is playing guitar, it's like from Spain, some conquistador thing.’ If you go to a thrift store and go through every record there, that is our record. The tracks have to be more than good — they have to be handsome.”

But differences abound. In today's download-addled, fear-of-samples market, Handsome eschews the overt sampling of its debut, which included everything from Three Dog Night to thriller soundtracks, for sounds they can more easily control, tweak and ultimately not pay for. But like with the duo's debut — which boasted the talents of Miho Hatori, Sean Lennon, DJ Shadow, Money Mark and others — Handsome now finds its voice in Pharrell Williams, RZA, Cat Power, Mike Patton, Barrington Levy and Dres (Black Sheep), just for starters. What is missing is the diverse sonic sheen that comes from rampant source sampling; what remains is Handsome's surreal hip-hop atmospheres. Perhaps more abstract and sparse, Handsome Boy Modeling School's as-yet-untitled second album, which will drop in August on Atlantic (now that Elektra has folded into Atlantic), is stripped-down and serious, reflected in its contributors' hard raps, woozy deliveries and insular moods.

“One of the major differences is that we have matured but not to the point where the record is so different,” Paul says. “Our production skills are more sophisticated, but it is still in the same vein as the first album, and I think it is just as creative and bizarre. But it is a little slicker.”

“We like to work with a certain type of sound in mind,” says Nakamura, aka Nathaniel Merriweather, on a call from L.A. “We go for a semisophisticated sound, meaning smokier and a little more adult than a pure pop album, a little bit more nuanced and detailed.”

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Handsome's gear has changed dramatically in four years. Whereas Paul and Nakamura used to work with samplers and primitive computers, now, Digidesign Pro Tools sets the standard. But Paul maintains that it ain't just about the gear: “The first album was all MPC and ADAT, just a sign of the times. Now, it is all computer, which affects the way we write and arrange. When you have the feel of an MPC, it is so freehand; it is not as exact. But using the computer, it makes us arrange a lot better, being able to see everything. We got better at drum programming; the programs are more sophisticated. Drum machines are so much more mechanical.”

When asked about specific gear and technique, Prince Paul can't help but laugh. “I try to go by whatever sounds good,” he says. “Dan might be more concerned with 24-bit. Me, I am like, ‘Whatever.’ The average kid is not going to know 24 from 16 — only the tech heads. But a lot of the DJs and beat-collector cats want to know, ‘What did you program on? Is it your left hand or your right hand? Did you quantize?’ It is serious, but it is not that serious; it is more of a vibe than it is about what I did technically. You can get somebody on a cheesy Casio from 1981, and if the feel is there, they will blow you out on your Pro Tools setup. With De La Soul, we pieced it together as we went along. We just started looping with MIDI back then. When you get to it, it's all feel.”

The real gear whore in this relationship, Nakamura, also confesses to a love of old-school thrills. Sure, he has the latest tools that helped Gorillaz sell millions of records. But old or new, the point is that Nakamura's knowledge of his gear runs deep. “At the New York studio, I have [rented] Mini- and Memorymoogs and stuff where the oscillation is there — you can hear it,” he says. “The problem with new keyboards of the analog variety is that they are too rich. They sound great in the store, but when you use them on tracks, they are a little stiffer, they don't oscillate, and they fill up too much track space because they have too much bottom and top and mid. They maximize the sound, but it doesn't fit as easily into the track as an old Moog does. If you listen to an old Moog, it might sound thin on its own, but when you play it inside the track, it will be great. If I use a JP-8000 or a Virus, it will overwhelm the track sonically, and it will make everything else hit less solidly because it is so big. But on the other side, [with] the keyboards like the Trident and the Rolands and the Kurzweils, you get a really big palette of sounds. I am a big fan of Pro Tools because it allows me to move things around so I can use more old pieces of gear. My Mellotron might be out of tune, but now I can Auto-Tune it, or I can chop it up more and make it fit. The computer editing allows me to integrate older gear much more easily.”

MAKING IT HANDSOME

Paul and Nakamura work just like you — really. A few drinks, a few smokes, a few laughs, and they are in their element. Respect also plays a big part in this duo's process, as neither gives in to superstar heroics.

“We will sit down and go, ‘What do we do next?’” Paul says with a laugh. “We might consider the tempo and try to recall a melody from another song. But we can't steal, so we will make it kind of like that but with the same feel. Never bite the actual song, but the sound and feel. We are poor keyboard players, so we will noodle for a while, trying to find a sound. Then, we go back and forth and build a basic arrangement. I am not as slick as he is, but I might out-slick him on layering, which I have been doing since De La. Once we get the basic keyboard line down, we will bring in a live guitar or bass player or keyboard player. It is almost like us playing the samples after a while.”

Live musicians include Astacio Arnovick, guitar; Merlo Podlewski, bass; Rob Swift and Kid Koala, turntables; and Dancing Jim, keyboards. Slithering guitars and ominous keyboard sounds — heard to effect in the opening track, “Be My Boy,” featuring Cat Power — fill the new Handsome album.

“That sliding guitar is played live,” Nakamura explains. “That captures the nuance. A lot of times, we will use old vintage amps, and, sometimes, the Line 6 Pod just works. It sounds funky because our tonal palette comes from late-'60s and early-'70s jazz and soul combined with modern elements. The ominous keys on that second section, that is the Roland; we brought it up a fifth on the bass line and did a cello pad, which made it richer and darker. The bass section is similar, a bridge that jumps up three semitones, but it is played with the cello patch along with the bass, and that makes it sound creepy. That toy-piano sound is the honky-tonk piano patch from the Roland. And that sound that's like coins in a glass bowl? That's a ride sound from Virus that is distorted and flipped. Coming from a sample background, we try to figure out all the nuances that made the samples cool and maintain that when we make our own tracks — the details that make the song have a nicer bed.”

Although Nakamura's heart tends toward more traditional sounds, his head is new-school all the way. “The Virus and the Nord provide more of the electronic sounds, and the Roland [XV-5080] provides more of the pianos, flutes and traditional sampled instruments. In addition to that, the Mac has a program called Atmosphere, by Spectrasonics, that includes virtual synths: a Moog Modular V, a Native Instruments FM7 that simulates all the old FM synths by Yamaha and a Native Instruments Pro-52.”

The steamy robo-hop of “It's Like That” pursued yet another approach. Searching for a flashy vibe, the Handsome family meshed funky wah-wahs with Rob Swift scratches and Asian finery with Hawaiian ukuleles. “That is the Virus doing the funky wah-wah,” Nakamura says. “Then, drums are probably a combination of kick and snare samples mixed with the Roland, and then Rob Swift did the cuts for the hooks. We threw up someone playing drums and then programmed drums to match it exactly. Because it is so simple, all the nuances involved, all the spacing, the push and pull in the timing comes out. We wanted to create a minimal type of flavor with very modern electronics. That is not necessarily what people do with rap records, so we thought it would be cool to lean on the electro analog sounds but keep it sparse like a hip-hop record. We had the guys play over a beat; then, we added the synths on top to get that kind of sound. Those pseudo-Asian sounds are definitely the Roland.”

DRUMS THAT WORK

Nakamura is a mad scientist at cutting, concocting and creating drum grooves that, although sourced from machines and records, have a live sound that is as actionable as hot sauce on a taco. “With drums, we tend to only quantize the ones, the downbeats. Most of my favorite records from the old days, if you line them up on a computer and look at them, the snares are pushed back about 10 or 15 milliseconds; the last snare may be a little early; the shuffle in the middle will never fall dead on a number. So we'll try to maintain that kind of feel by not quantizing anything but the ones. That way, there is more breathing involved. Programming drums specifically with a really tight quantize takes away the funk and the soul element.

“We will often sample a hi-hat but also the noise of the hi-hat closing so you fill in the holes, and it sounds more live,” Nakamura continues. “A lot of people get the drum sample really tight, just the snare or the kick. That removes a lot of the liveness. If you take a kick sound off a record, there may not be a guitar part there, but there is probably a guitar amp in the room, and that adds to the bed of the sound. If you get just the snare or the kick, you lose all the other nuances that made it sound cool in the first place. We stack that with sounds from the Roland drum library; that makes it sound fuller. We will take snares from a record, but we have gone past sampling at this point — it's too expensive. We grab a sound here and there, but it is combined with the electronic machines.

“The Roland kit is real drums, just samples [of them]. They are sterile, but they are good if you mix them with real drums; they give you a good top and bottom end. I also use a Vermona DRM1 MKII analog drum module. It is an analog drum machine with great sounds you can tune. Half of the songs use that as the kick. It provides the oscillation because it is analog, and it is like how the 808 works: The oscillation within the sound is what makes it interesting.”

NO PLASTIC-SURGERY BEATS

When listening to Handsome Boy Modeling School, the word that most comes to mind is warmth. The songs are filled with steamy guitars, trembling keyboards and a certain air of mystery, the kind of dark allure that comes from old tube radios; tiki bars; '40s console stereos with single speakers; and, most important, a lush sense of sonic romance. Nakamura and Paul are modern practitioners; they understand the art of digital. But they seem to enjoy the sound of analog just as much.

“With technology, now you can do almost anything,” Paul says. “It is not just the drums sounding live, it is how they are recorded and texturized. You can get something that sounds like it is played live, but certain things now are so clear just by the technology; it takes away from the natural sound of the drums. Certain records that I listen to today, the drums sound so glassy, so sterile; it takes away from the warmth of a nice drummer, just the mood. That is what we focus on, too, not just the way it swings, but how the texture of the beat has to fit the track. Everything has to sound warm. We try to avoid that whole sterile approach.”

But is it hip-hop? The record boasts the usual rapping, as well as more unusual vocal fare, but with a market saturated by the styles and sounds that this pair helped to popularize, where does their project ultimately fit? “To be honest with you, I don't know,” Paul acknowledges. “What is hip-hop nowadays? It is more pop music than anything else. Everybody is going for a pop sound, and the underground is just repeating itself. It is not even underground; underground is experimentation, but now everyone is trying to sound like DJ Premier. A lot of them are good, but they all just sound alike. That stuff on MTV and VH1, I call that hip-pop. What we do, who knows where it will fit. It is just good music.”

HANDSOME BOYS' GLUE FACTORY WEST & EAST

San Francisco

Computer, DAW, recording hardware:

Alesis Masterlink ML-9600 2-track master recorder
Apogee AD-8000 24-bit A/D converter
Apple Mac G4
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system

Console:

Otari Series 54

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixer:

Pioneer CDJ-1000 digital turntables (2)
Sequential Circuits Studio 440 sampler/drum machine
Technics SL-1200MKII turntables (2)
Vestax PMC-05Pro DJ mixer

Synths, modules, plug-ins, instruments:

ARP Solina String Ensemble
Fender electric violin, P-Bass, Stratocaster guitar
Hohner Clavinet
Farfisa Compact Combo
Korg MS-20 synth
Kurzweil K2000 synth
Liberace Learn 'N Play keyboard
M-Audio Oxygen8 MIDI controller keyboard
Mellotron sample replay machine
Moog Music Memorymoog, Voyager synths
Roland JP-8000, Juno-106, XV-5080 synth and synth modules
Serge Modular synth
Wurlitzer electric piano

Mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects, mics:

Focusrite Red 3 Dual Compressor/Limiter
H&H Tape Delay
Line 6 PodXT effects unit
Maestro Echoplex tape delay
Manley Stereo Variable-Mu Limiter Compressor
Neumann U47 mic
Neve 1074 mic preamps (2)
Roland RE-150, RE-210 Space Echo effects units
Summit TLA-100A Tube Leveling Amplifier
UREI 1176LN Blackface compressor

Monitors:

Genelec 1030As

New York

Computer, DAW, recording hardware:

Apple Mac G4/1GHz Titanium PowerBook
Digidesign Digi 002, Mbox digital audio interfaces

Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixer:

Akai MPC3000 sampler workstation
Technics SL-1200MKII turntables (2)
Vermona DRM1 MKII analog drum module
Vestax PMC-05Pro DJ mixer

Synths, modules, plug-ins:

Access Virus B synth
Clavia Nord Lead Micro Modular synth
M-Audio Radium 61-key USB MIDI keyboard controller
Roland XV-5080 128-voice synth module
Spectrasonics Atmosphere Dream Synth Module

Mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects, mics:

Apogee Mini-Me stereo USB mic/instrument preamp
Line 6 Pod effects unit
Maestro Echoplex tape delay
Microtech-Gefell UM92 mic
Pendulum Audio Quartet preamp/compressor/EQ

Monitors:

Genelec 1030As