Shoulder to shoulder, the trio of Sa-Ra Creative Partners overpowers the stage, communicating mystique through the lenses of expensive sunglasses. During a Thursday night tour stop in Detroit, Sa-Ra fans clamor, mesmerized and bouncing to the intoxicating beats of “Glorious.”
In shape and stature, members vary: One is husky, one is slight, and one is sturdy. But they have the certain likeness that people have when they spend a lot of time together — in expressions, mannerisms and disposition. More than a group or a production team, Taz Arnold, Shafiq Husayn and Om'Mas Keith make one solid unit. And that's the way the Sa-Ra Creative Partners want it as they put the icing on their debut album, Black Fuzz (G.O.O.D./Sony, 2006).
This fluidity carries over into their productions — simultaneously brash, sensual, seamless and lush. Since forming five years ago, they've released tracks for ABB Records and quietly contributed to a host of hip-hop artist repertoires before signing with Kanye West's G.O.O.D. label.
To make Sa-Ra work, the threesome pulls from its collective passion for musicology, cosmic fascination and individual track records in the industry. Arnold, a former consultant to Dr. Dre, was signed to Aftermath Records in his pre-Sa-Ra life. Husayn's résumé includes the New Jack City soundtrack credits and productions for Ice-T and Prince projects. Keith was a staff producer for Jam Master Jay, studied jazz under Max Roach and Yusef Lateef and has produced for Foxy Brown and Mobb Deep.
Serious about unification, they transformed their relationship as colleagues to partners with a unique arrangement: They moved in together. “If it was going to work, we were going to have to live in it, too,” Keith explains regarding Sa-Ra's studio home in Silverlake, Calif. “The motivation is that you wake up in your underwear, and the first thing you see are the two screens. There's nothing that you can do but work in the house.”
The home is where the heart of Sa-Ra is as Keith describes the meticulous attention to detail for what he calls the “Black Playboy Mansion.” “The first thing you see is the grand room, with a fireplace. You see the baby grand piano with drums, a bunch of percussions and all our keyboards, like the Fender Rhodes, the Wurlitzer and the Moogs. Also along the wall is our great record collection. And then you walk through and see the living room where we have our control room setup. We have a Pro Tools|24 Mix3 system with all the plug-ins. That's where it all synergizes.”
Weekly, the trio consults a dry-erase board in the kitchen (which also is a preproduction studio complete with turntables) referring to session notes to develop an attack plan for a hefty assignment list. “There's not one approach that stands out,” Arnold says.
Sometimes ideas will come from the abstract. Husayn is the member that will go to the outer edges, while the others are attuned to sonic purity. “I'm a little more raw,” Husayn says. “I'll do anything, like sounds with cars passing by. Everything is a soundscape. So much sound is just a waveform and a vibration.”
To achieve these results, sampling is part of the band's core, and they define themselves as choppers, breaking beats apart in halves and quarters, changing intervals and adding lowpass filters to create texture. Vocals are strictly an in-house process. “The majority of vocals are recorded right there at the control room in front of the keyboard in between the two monitors with the microphone in between us,” Keith says.
As artists, they approach recording with a producer mindset. “The way I approach music is percussive,” Arnold explains. “It's not about the sound; it's about how sound is played. I look at sound and voice as a percussive instrument. I create from an MPC3000; the MPC is a Dictaphone for your thoughts.”
Wrapping up their set at Detroit's Good Life Lounge, Arnold, Keith and Husayn spit “Hollywood” — an early Sa-Ra song about a girl lost in her environment — cued by a gritty synth that highlights the band's entirely and intentionally unique style. “It's raw cocaine, street, people shooting on the block, that magic,” Arnold suggests. “The minute I'm Hollywood, that's the minute the music fucked up.”