Producing literally runs in the family for Sunny Levine. His grandfather is none other than Quincy Jones; his dad is Stewart Levine, known for his work with the Crusaders, Minnie Riperton, and Simply Red; and his uncle is QD3, who forged hip-hop paths with LL Cool J, Ice Cube, and Tupac Shakur.
Levine has made his own way as a producer, working with the likes of Mickey Avalon, Happy Mondays, Pete Yorn, and Hugh Masekela; he has also worked on film scores with Ry Cooder. Levine's work has earned him a burgeoning reputation for his unconventional style.
Love Rhino (Quango, 2008) represents his debut as a solo artist. When he began recording what was to become the tracks for the CD, he was creating music simply as a release from his busy schedule of producing film and album sessions in his home studio. “Musical therapy” is how he describes the sessions that began the project. But they developed into more, and his project was picked up by the indie label Quango. Love Rhino offers an intimate chronicle of love gone wrong, featuring quirky and insightful lyrics set to laid-back So-Cal beats (see Web Clip 1).
Levine calls his distinctive production method “organized freestyling.” He often starts with a random gathering of material, such as audio snippets plucked from his vast vinyl collection and sampled into his Akai MPC 3000, or live-guitar riffs or drum patterns recorded into an Apple Power Mac G4 with a Digidesign Pro Tools MixPlus system. He then slices, filters, processes, and rearranges these elements into musical collages. The results are eventually punctuated with horn flourishes, bass fills, or whatever enhances the melody.
“I use a lot of samples, especially from bad '70s new-age records, but manipulated so they're unrecognizable,” he explains. “Even before a sound gets to my Akai MPC to sample, it'll go from the Technics turntable into a Mackie 1604vlz board and a rack of effects.”
“Glass Jaw” (see Web Clip 2) epitomizes Levine's nontraditional song-evolution process. “We used a sample from an old spaghetti western soundtrack while working on the score to a bad Hallmark movie,” he recalls. “Amir Yaghmi, who collaborated on these songs, played this cool guitar thing, and that night I put it all together — chopping it up and moving it around. I later freestyled the lyrics, punching in one line at a time until I had a whole verse.”
Orange Stella is the name of Levine's studio, a skylit loft near Venice Beach. “My glamour items are Tannoy SRM-10Bs [monitors], which are wonderful to work on,” says Levine. “A Neve 8-channel sidecar makes it all sound great — everything goes through the mic pres and sometimes back out. I'm also into cheap stuff; I like old tape recorders and toy synths. I use an Akai stereo cassette [recorder] to saturate sounds, and the built-in limiters make for strange dynamics and distortions. My brother circuit bends these crappy little keyboards and adds controls so I can change the speed and add distortion. A broken Nord Lead is also a big part of my sound, especially on hip-hop records. It makes these weird sounds — I wouldn't dream of fixing it.”
Prior to mastering, Levine had the enviable opportunity to remix the project. “When Quango decided to release it,” he says, “I didn't want to put out that sad record and spend a year promoting it. My compromise was to give it a lighter, poppier feel. It was actually fun — I could go back and fix things, and the feelings didn't mess with me.”
Home base: Venice, California
DAW software used: Digidesign Pro Tools
Sampler: Akai MPC 3000