PROPHET OF RAGE

There's this big misconception that I started out as a spoken-word artist and then decided to rap, Sage Francis says with a rueful chuckle, his mood darkening
Author:
Publish date:
Social count:
0

MORE STUFF

Engineer Chris Warren made his own plug-in he calls "Disarray Delay" using Cycling '74 MAX/MSP that he used on Sage Francis's vocals. Get it here by downloading the disarraydelay.dll file. A couple of instructions for using it from Chris himself follow. He has more plug-ins available for download at his Website, alloyelectric.com.

1. The (free) Pluggo Runtime MUST be downloaded and installed before Disarray Delay will work (just like your browser needs the Java Runtime in order to run Java scripts). It's available directly from Cycling 74 at http://www.cycling74.com/download/pluggoruntime361.zip.

2. Most of what you need to know to work the plugin is embedded as mouseover hints. The rest can be read by selecting "Disarray Delay Info" from the View menu at the top of the plugin.

“There's this big misconception that I started out as a spoken-word artist and then decided to rap,” Sage Francis says with a rueful chuckle, his mood darkening as he recalls past interviews gone awry. “That grinds my gears pretty fuckin' heavy. I didn't just get into this shit last year — I mean, Wu-Tang didn't start my rap career, you know what I'm saying? I always like to reflect back and show people that there's been a progression, and some of the tracks on this album are part of that.”

Human the Death Dance (Epitaph, 2007) marks a definitive leap forward for Sage (né Paul Francis), whose rep as a redemptive force in alternative hip-hop was officially etched in wax with his humor-laced yet broodingly introspective Personal Journals (Anticon., 2002). And while that album might have been a wake-up call to the asleep-at-the-wheel sloth of the hip-hop “industry,” Sage had already laid the groundwork years before with his own unofficial Sick of Waiting series — begun in 1999 on a shoestring budget that has since sparked the growth of his unyieldingly indie Strange Famous record label.

FINDING YOUR VOICE

Like Sage's more recent solo releases — A Healthy Distrust (Epitaph, 2005) in particular — Human the Death Dance is, from a musical perspective, cobbled together from a wide-ranging mosaic of beats and soundscapes created by some familiar faces (Alias, Ant from Atmosphere, Buck 65, Odd Nosdam, Reanimator, Sixtoo and Tom Inhaler) and relative newcomers (most notably, Grammy-winning film composer Mark Isham). But what really unifies the whole is Sage's daunting display of verbal pyrotechnics, along with a mix aesthetic — brought to the fore by studio engineer Chris Warren — that has one ear orbiting firmly within the gravitational pull of lo-fi ingenuity and the other careening off into deep stereophonic space. Overall, the album flows with a more smoothed-out sound than the distortion-fueled heat of A Healthy Distrust — but it's a move that seems to make Sage's toothy rhymes stand out in even starker relief.

“That might have been part of it,” Sage qualifies, “but for every album I do, I need to mix it all in the same place because it has to have a unifying sound, and there has to be some cohesion involved. With the aesthetic that Chris brings to his mixing style and his EQing and everything else, that's where it all comes together. This record doesn't just sound like a mixtape. It has an album feel to it, which is what I've been chasing from the beginning.”

Back in early 2006, Sage began work on what he calls the “mothership” of Human the Death Dance when he conceived and recorded “Hell of a Year” — a brutally personal tale of a busted relationship. Like most songs that find their way onto a Sage Francis album, the beat originally materialized via the sprawling network of fans, fellow travelers and like-minded beatmakers that Sage has carefully cultivated over the years.

“I have an open invitation to producers to send me music,” he explains, “so I keep a huge catalog of CDs in reserve. A producer named Kurtis SP [based in the UK] sent this beat to me a long time ago, and I really liked it, but I didn't have a place for it right away. When I started writing for this album, and I had the lyrics to ‘Hell of a Year'' worked out completely, nothing I heard was fitting the mood that I was going for. I finally dug out his beat, and it most closely captured what I was after. The [Fender] Rhodes is what really sold me on it.”

The loping, hypnotic funk beat is the perfect backdrop for Sage's remarkably subdued delivery — and it's one instance among many where his deft microphone technique serves him well. By subtly and precisely doubling up his vocals during key moments of the song, he captures a fleetingly slight delay effect that, according to engineer Warren, isn't easily duplicated with outboard gear or effects plug-ins.

“Sage has an unusual voice,” he explains. “It's not a bark that cuts through — he doesn't have that big voice that sits in the 1.2 [kHz] range. But the thing that he's learned how to do very well is layer, and since day one, he's always wanted to put as many things dead center as possible. We do some panning here and there — definitely more for effect on this album than on previous ones — but for the most part it's a straight vocal stack dead center, so you don't even notice just how layered it is. And he can get separate passes so close that they don't have that robotic sound of a delay. They just sound big.”

Virtually all the vocals are recorded at Warren's studio near Sage's home base in Providence, R.I. [see the “Right Coast” and “Left Coast” sidebars, which profile Alloy Electric Studios in Newport, R.I., as well as the recording setup in Oakland, Calif., outfitted by Brendon “Alias” Whitney, who contributed beats and music to three tracks on Human the Death Dance]. While Sage insists he has no preference for microphones — he's more intrigued by the Drawmer 1968 tube compressor he experiments with on his own Pro Tools/Digi 002 rig — one in particular has risen to the top.

“There's one at the studio that we've been using,” Sage says, referring to the CAD Equitek E200 that Warren has modified with various Neumann diaphragms over the years, “but I even like to grab junky little mics like an old Shure SM57 and just get a good EQ on it. I want a more raw sound — I don't want a pristine sound. I don't even like low end on my voice; I'd rather remove a lot of that and just have it be mids and highs. For hip-hop, it just helps the words pop out more, and I think it's more true to my actual voice. I think it's okay to show a little bit of a flaw in the voice.”

Click here for more of this article...


LATERAL MOVEMENT

Although he usually records Sage bone dry, Warren will sometimes turn to a small spread of effects to add some vocal character. One of these is a plug-in he wrote himself — designed using Cycling 74's Max/MSP programming software and based on the Roland Space Echo — which he likes to call the “Disarray Delay.” It pops up throughout the album, but in particular on the psychedelic-sounding “Black Out on White Night,” where the effect acts in tandem with a Waves TrueVerb plug-in to set the music awash in liquid undertows.

“People love the old Roland Space Echo because it's so dirty and nasty,” Warren says, “and the regeneration is terrible. All these digital delays have perfect regeneration, which is nice if you're doing something ambient or pristine, but I like the dirt. So basically in the feedback loop — in addition to a little bit of an overdrive circuit — there's a bit-crusher, some pretty radical EQs and a resampler, along with a slight pitch-change control so you can make things get gradually a little sharper or flatter.”

In addition to stretching out lyrically and vocally, Sage set out to push the sound and the music on Human the Death Dance in radical new directions. His unlikely pairing with trumpeter and composer Mark Isham — sparked by film director Gavin O'Connor, whose upcoming Pride and Glory (starring Edward Norton) will feature a Sage/Isham-produced score — yields some quirky orchestral concoctions that would feel out of place on any other hip-hop record. Whether it's over the creepy strings that back “Good Fashion” or the softly keyed piano chords of “Waterline,” Sage folds himself easily into the cinematic mold.

“It started at Mark's studio in California,” Sage says. “It's almost like a ranch out of The Stepford Wives, which is very fuckin' strange to me [laughs], but the studio is in a renovated barn that's filled from top to bottom with instruments and keyboards — it's crazy. He would just play me scraps of music that he had hanging around, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I could write to that.'' I went home with the music, and the next time I was out there, I stopped by again to record. Eventually, he came up with some new instrumentation and e-mailed the tracks to me; once I heard that, I just rerecorded my vocals so they would fit a little better.”

Sage taps another fresh seam with Alias — a longtime associate whose Collected Remixes (Anticon., 2007) serves equally heavy notice as to the breadth of his beatmaking chops. “Keep Moving,” one of three of his signature tracks on the album, finds him reworking a beat that he gave to Sage back in 2001.

“I actually had to dig through my floppies to find it,” jokes Alias, a veteran of the Akai MPC3000 — and now a 2000XL — but also a gifted pilot on Pro Tools, which he uses for recording and signal processing. “I tracked it out the way I had sequenced it before, but it really sounded like some of my older productions. I messed with the samples by speeding them up, and then I added some synth parts and some drums from a Korg Electribe MX [EMX-1] to update it a little more. It was interesting because it was this beat that I'd made six years ago, literally brought back from the dead.”

The result is an ethereal study in ambient funk, with synthesized and sampled elements that float in a warm stereo spread as the beat builds gradually from a spare kick-clap-hi-hat rhythm to a big-bottomed drum kit at full throttle. Sage calls it his “story song” and laughingly threatens to perform it on the road in a Slick Rick accent. “I've been practicing that, and it sounds real funny,” he says. “And it's probably the most beautiful-sounding song I've ever done. It soothes me, and most of my music doesn't do that when I listen to it.”

ALL THE WAY LIVE

Warren points to another key plug-in that, in the mixing phase, helped propel “Keep Moving” and other tracks like Reanimator's “Hoofprints in the Sand” even further into a dreamlike sonic dimension of the headphone experience.

“It's pretty archaic,” he says, “but I have to give a shout out to the Hyperprism-DX More Stereo plug-in. If you take an aux send and put a reverb on it and then drop in a center-channel remover like More Stereo — maybe with a little bit of a high cut at the end — what you get is all the stereo-ness of the reverb without muddying up the middle because it's basically subtracting whatever it finds in common between the left and right signals. You have to be careful because it doesn't sound natural at all, but it's a great way to give some space to small elements of the beat, like a violin part or a guitar part.”

For an artist as open as Sage is to the possibilities of creative exchange, it only makes sense that he would recruit some accomplished musicians to join the fray. (Old-school fans will remember the live hip-hop band Art Official Intelligence, which he helped found and front beginning in 1998.) “Got Up This Morning” swings on a weirdly countrified stomp arranged by Buck 65 — with a raw, raspy harmonica laid down by Nathan Harrop — but the magnum opus is probably the album's closing track “Going Back to Rehab,” which went through a number of different versions before Sage could let it go.

“It's 36 tracks, and it's all live instruments,” he says. “It's definitely one of my proudest moments in music-making. Tom Inhaler had released an instrumental album a while back, and again, I'm going through all my CDs, and that guitar track comes on. I hit Tom up right away — ‘I wanna try this over your instrumental here'' — and he was into it. We had never really done a song together like that, and pretty soon we had violin, live drums, scratches, a vocal intro and outro and all these different elements. I think it might have been a headache for Chris, but by the end, we were able to make everything fit into the puzzle.”

Meanwhile, as Sage girds himself for a two-month American tour that will take him through more than 30 cities (with a live band featuring Alias on synths and MPC, Tom Inhaler on guitar and Cerberus Shoal's Dilly Dilly — aka Erin Olivia Davidson — on saw, banjo and other offbeat instruments), he waxes philosophical about the real motivating force behind Human the Death Dance.

RIGHT COAST

“It's strange,” he muses, “but as a human — as a thinking being — and by being consumed by death at all times and being completely aware that our time is limited here, and with the way we choose to live our lives, that's the dance we do. Our lives are the dance — that's how I think of it. It's pretty basic, but it's also pretty sick.” And with that, Sage cracks up laughing.

Go toremixmag.comand download Chris Warren's Disarray Delay plug-in for free.

Ensconced in a “cavernous old hulk of a mansion” in Newport, R.I., Chris Warren's Alloy Electric Studio takes rewiring and custom modification to an extreme. Warren runs Sony Vegas 7.0 on a PC made of salvaged parts (including a 2 GHz AMD Athlon processor) and identifies himself as a “compulsive modder.” In fact, his reliance on Cycling 74's Max/MSP for writing his own plug-ins is just the tip of the soldering gun, so to speak.

LEFT COAST

“Now bear in mind,” Warren warns, “with Sage's records, I normally get the beats either fully mixed or individually tracked out — one way or another, I'm just mixing them or taking them as a two-track master and laying the vocals on top. But that said, there are two pieces of gear that define the sound the most. One is a dbx 376 tube channel strip that I put some lower output tubes in to make it a little smoother; that's the main preamp that I run for probably 90 percent of the vocals. And then I have a good-old Pro Co Turbo Rat — the little distortion box. That's where we get all of the distortion that we actually track with.”

Warren mixes entirely in the computer and listens back through a 12-channel Behringer board that drives a pair of Yamaha HS80M monitors. “Even though there's a lo-fi angle to the sound,” he says, “it's not really lo-fi. We try to make it sound rough, but we still put a certain degree of care into making it sound like it has the right level of distortion and the right lo-fi-ness.”

Bay Area-based hip-hop producer Alias got his start back in 1995 on an Akai MPC3000, and since then, he's followed a steady creative arc that has made him a mainstay on the Anticon label. His studio space in Oakland still pivots on an MPC2000XL, but he also calls on Digidesign Pro Tools for recording and effects processing.

Computer, DAW, recording hardware

“I'm into getting a certain amount of grit,” Alias says, “so I do most of my work on the MPC, but it's not because I'm trying to keep a certain level of ‘realness''. I used to believe in this unspoken hip-hop rule that you could only make beats with record samples [laughs] — now I'm definitely more into drum machines and synthesizers. The only thing I really use Pro Tools for is compression or EQ or reverb or delay; I haven't gotten into the fine-editing stuff that you can do with it yet. I've always made beats on an MPC, and it's pretty much stayed that way.”

Alias usually enhances the signal path of a sample — which runs from a Numark turntable and mixer to the MPC — with a Boss Dr. Sample SP-303 in the middle. “That definitely figured in ‘Clickety Clack'' on Sage's album,” he explains. “I added some guitar parts to the original beat, and then I ran those through the tape echo effect on the Dr. Sample to dub them out and get them a little more sinister-sounding.”

Synths

Apple Dual-Core 2 GHz Power Mac G5

Digidesign Digi 002, Pro Tools|HD

Korg MS2000, Prophecy

Novation K-Station

Turntable, DJ mixer, drum machines

Roland JP-8000, JX-305

Yamaha CS60

Akai MPC2000XL sampling workstation

Boss Dr. Sample SP-303 sampler

Monitors

Korg Electribe MX EMX-1 drum machine

Numark DM1002 MKII DJ mixer, TT200 turntable

Event TR8s