Sauntering confidently into a crowded Joe Allen restaurant on 46th Street in midtown Manhattan, The Roots' brain trust — Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter and executive producer Richard Nichols — is turning heads as we make our way to a table in the back. Strangely enough, New York has become a second home of late for Philly's favorite hip-hop sons; not only are the offices of Def Jam (their label since the release of 2006's Game Theory) just down the street, but the band has recently shot one of several new music videos in a trendy East Village bar, and they're gearing up for their appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman the following week.
Photo by Pier Nicola D'Amico
For this visit, they're between cities on their latest tour to promote Rising Down (Def Jam, 2008), which is already being touted as uncompromisingly intense, aggressive and bold — not only in its political focus, but from a musical standpoint, as well. “Game Theory was really more personal,” ?uestlove says. “It dealt with a lot of looking-in-the-mirror issues like paranoia, and even interpersonal relationships in the group. But this is more or less dealing with stuff on a first-person basis, and the narratives are more or less in the action. As for the sound, I know that our last few records have been very sonically experimental, but I think it was probably important this time to go back to a basic sound, just to offset the political nature of the record.”
That “basic sound” is a nod to the raucous, ragged and angular arrangements that make an album like Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back so memorable for its thick blend of searing message and sonic mayhem. Rising Down bristles with whip-cracking drums, booming low-end drones and live bass, buzzing synths, stripped-down guitar lines and an overall sense of foreboding that seems to gradually lift as the band works toward the album's go-go coda “Rising Up.” It's all a perfect vehicle for Black Thought, whose throaty, gut-wrenching poetic flow has become such a signature part of the Roots experience.
“I feel like we figured out how to address all these issues and still make it cohesive,” Black Thought says, referring to the topics of world destruction (“Rising Down,” with Mos Def and Styles P), double standards in the prison system (“Criminal,” with Truck North and rap upstart Saigon) and addiction (“I Can't Help It,” with off-and-on Roots alum Malik B) that provide just some of the lyrical grist for the album's 14 tracks. “Sometimes when you get too political from song to song, the composition on a whole loses some of its gel, you know what I mean? So I feel like just in dealing with our recording process, we're getting better at refining what it is that we actually want to say and how we want to say it. It's still the same social commentary about all these different things that are going on in the world, but I guess there's a different urgency to it now, and you can hear that in the music.”
DRUM KIT AND KABOODLE
Like any Roots project going back to the beginning — and this is a band that now has more than 15 years of recording and touring under its belt — ?uestlove's drums and the instrumentation and atmospherics he adds to them are the focal point of the production process. The Roots first took up residence at The Studio, the state-of-the-art complex opened in 1996 by cellist and arranger Larry Gold, while working on Things Fall Apart (MCA, 1999), and since then, ?uestlove has gradually built up his own personal studio there, now known as A House Called ?uest.
Equipped with Digidesign Pro Tools and loads of vintage analog gear (including a few recently acquired Realistic Concertmate synthesizers from the late '70s that figured prominently in crafting many of the bass lines on Rising Down, including the album bookends “Rising Down” and “Rising Up”), the studio is centered around a Yamaha 5-piece drum kit and has become literally a clearinghouse of ideas in the complex production process that signifies any Roots recording.
“The way we pretty much always make records is to start by looping something up,” ?uestlove explains, “and then in the process, I'm supposed to get it next so I can do the music, and then I give it to Tariq. So the initial approval process [to go ahead and flesh out a demo] involves the heads of state and the one president, and the head is always Tariq because if he's not gonna write to it, then it's a lost cause.”
Recording engineer Steve Mandel, who first started working with The Roots while on staff at Electric Lady Studios in New York (around the time that D'Angelo was laying down tracks for Voodoo), collaborates one-on-one with ?uestlove during his phase of composition and production on a song. That phase could involve organizing sessions with different band members (including keyboardists Kamal Gray and James Poyser, as well as guitarist “Captain” Kirk Douglas and new bassist Owen Biddle) or simply recording several passes of drums — either by themselves or over existing instrumental and vocal tracks — using various miking schemes, modes of EQ and compression, or even performance techniques (such as brushes instead of sticks).
“And one thing that most people don't know about ?uestlove,” Mandel stipulates, “is that besides being a drummer and a DJ and everything else that he does, he is quite a really good mixer. I wouldn't say he follows any of the rules really, so I think that causes him to mix in a real extreme or abstract way. After we record, we usually do some kind of rough mix — in fact, we're constantly in mix mode. Once a song is recorded, it starts to get mixed right away, and it keeps going up the food chain, usually up to [mix engineer] Jason [Goldstein] or to [recording engineer] Jon Smeltz to do a final mix.”
According to Smeltz, one song might go through literally dozens of versions, passing back and forth between Nichols (working with Smeltz) and ?uestlove until everyone reaches a consensus. “With all the different revisions,” Smeltz observes, “there's no way we could have done this album without doing it in the box. I end up keeping track of these things starting with version 1.0, and by the time we're near the end of the record, we might be on version 30.1 or something, and I have to tell you, it's awesome to be able to give Richard ‘Rising Up'' [the album's upbeat closer] version 10.0, but maybe he likes version 8.3 better, and bam — there we are. We couldn't have done that a few years ago.”
RAW AND READY
True to the old-school hip-hop flavor that the Roots have set out to capture on Rising Down, a gritty-sounding rhythm section is the key — not always a done deal when recording digitally. ?uestlove takes the incendiary Black Thought rap “75 Bars (Black's Reconstruction)” as an example of how a seemingly stripped-down, rusty-nails arrangement can actually be a bit more complex in its initial construction.
“For one thing, with the microphones, I've completely eliminated the [Shure] 57 and the 58 from my arsenal,” he admits. “They're really good for live stuff because they can take wear and tear on the road, but I'm pretty much rolling with four different Royer ribbon mics. And what I learned about those was that the softer you play, the louder you sound, because I use a lot of compression. I use more compression than is probably allowed by the law. That's why the drums sound old.”
In fact, the drum intro on “75 Bars” sounds not only old, but at first blush, it sounds downright glassy and brittle — that is, until your ears adjust to how the drums sit in the mix with Black Thought's distorted, echo-laced vocal and the fat tuba (that's right, tuba) lines of Damon Bryson, aka Tuba Gooding, Jr. The drums actually consist of two performances layered on top of each other (one with brushes, the other with sticks), and the kick is augmented with an 808-sounding low end that ?uestlove flew in from his Akai MPC2000XL.
“I put the 808 on there just as an afterthought,” he reveals, “just to make it sound good for everybody else and knowing that I'd change it in the mix, but actually it wound up staying. I don't think Jason Goldstein even touched it. I think my rough mix reference of ‘75 Bars'' still got chosen over my final mix version because it just sounded rougher.”
For his extreme compression scheme, ?uestlove uses the Neve compression plug-in by URS. “When I'm tracking with compression,” he says, “the way that I hear it in my headphones will affect the performance. I probably got obsessed with using it for the same reason that Erykah Badu did, which she pretty much got from J Dilla, who got that idea from Madlib. I mean, I don't know why they use so much compression [laughs], because back in the day I couldn't stand it. I'll say I had a ball with it on “Double Trouble” from Things Fall Apart, or “Boom” on The Tipping Point, but I was never one to reach for the compression first. And then just hearing the last batch of J Dilla beats before he passed away, I guess I've just been following suit. I used to think that it would silence the drums, and normally light compression is supposed to do that, but when you overdo it, suddenly it gets louder and louder.”
VOICES OF EVOLUTION
Fittingly, “75 Bars” follows “@ 15,” which is a brief snippet of a freestyle rap recorded by Black Thought when he was 15. It's jarring to consider just how much Trotter's voice has developed as an instrument over the years, let alone how his rhymes have become more and more mature, insightful and incisive.
“When I was a kid, I was very much a product of what I was listening to,” Black Thought says, “which was a lot of Kool G Rap and Big Daddy Kane and Chuck D, and a little KRS-One and Rakim. I was big on the Juice Crew sound, and I was big on iambic pentameter and Shakespearean intonation in your rhyme style, so that's how I would rap. And I feel like over the years I've just found my sound, and I've become more effective at using my voice. Just learning how to use the diaphragm and different breathing techniques, I feel like I've hit my stride in my old age. [ Laughs.]”
That stride leaves giant footprints on “I Will Not Apologize” (with Philly stalwarts P.O.R.N. and Dice Raw) — a loping, dancehall-meets-Afrobeat tribute to Nigerian funk legend Fela Kuti that was built up at first almost entirely around a Fela sample, each element of which had to be meticulously replaced while still emulating the old-school Afrobeat sound.
“That's one of the rare moments where being anal-retentive can drive you batty,” ?uestlove quips. “In this case, the Fela thing was looped up, passed over me and just given straight to Tariq. So everyone had been living with the song for eight months, and they're used to all the hiss from the mixtape that it was sampled from, which puts me in a bad spot because I don't have the 2-inch gear to re-create that. So I had to take my drums inside my record room — not my drum room, but an open room in the studio — to get a natural reverb sound because Pro Tools didn't cut it. Thank God for that John Bonham clip on YouTube where his drum tech [Jeff Ocheltree] talks about where he placed the microphones; I left all the doors open and strategically placed mics behind each other for natural reverb sounds, and that's the softest I've ever played — just to re-create the sampled performance.”
The seemingly tape-saturated analog spread is testament not only to ?uestlove's ever-discerning ear as a musician and an engineer, but also to the prep and finishing work that Smeltz and Nichols undertake in their wing of The Studio. “Once we took that sample and twisted it into the song structure we wanted, we had it right there as a sonic guide,” Smeltz says. “So for example, if we wanted to get a kick drum to sound a certain way, it's great to have the sample side-by-side as a guidepost to build on. For all the vocals, I can tell you they were done with [Neumann] U 87s, and everything was run through a Focusrite ISA 110 and either an LA-2A or a Distressor EL8. That's usually my vocal recording chain.”
Looking back on the recording of Rising Down (while at the same time looking ahead to the next Roots project, which will begin preproduction any day now), ?uestlove feels like he's finally graduated to the big time as a producer. Of course, he would never pat himself on the back, but when you've worked with everyone from Bob Power to Russell Elevado, and produced everyone from Common to, most recently, Al Green, maybe some recognition is in order.
“Once I knew what I was working with, that's when I felt like I developed my sound,” ?uest says, citing Bob Power as a critical influence in encouraging him to experiment with all the gear at his disposal. “I feel like I went to high school with Bob, and then Russell Elevado was sort of like college for me. And right now I feel like I'm getting my master's degree — especially now, because I used to be so anti-Pro Tools. Sometimes you just have to accept the fact that technology is always changing, and that's a good thing.”
A HOUSE CALLED ?UEST
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5/dual 2.3 GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD3 with 192 I/O interfaces
Mackie 24•8/2 mixer for monitoring
SSL J series console
Bomb Factory Moogerfooger bundle
Digidesign Pultec bundle and Impact compressor
Focusrite Forte Suite
Massenburg DesignWorks Hi-Res Parametric EQ
SoundToys UltraFX bundle
URS Classic Console EQ Bundle
Waves Renaissance Maxx bundle
Mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
AKG D 112
Drawmer 1960 tube compressor
Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor
Ensoniq DP4 Audio Effects Processor
Eventide H3000 Ultra- Harmonizer
Focusrite ISA 110 mic preamps
Lexicon Prime Time Digital Delay
Moog Moogerfooger MF Series pedals (all seven)
Neumann U 47 and U 87 mics
Royer R-122V ribbon mic
Sennheiser MD 421 mic
Shure SM57, SM81, Beta 52 and Beta 58 mics
Universal Audio LA-3A
Universal Audio/Teletronix LA-2A Leveling Amplifier
Urei 1176 compressor/limiter
Synths, instruments, sampler
Akai MPC2000XL sampler
Fender Rhodes keyboard
Korg Triton Pro keyboard
(3) Realistic Concertmate MG-1 synthesizers
Fender Jazz Bass with Eden WT800 bass head
Marshall JCM 2000 guitar amps with 4-by-12 Marshall cabs
Yamaha five-piece drum kit with brass piccolo snare, wooden snare and Zildjian cymbals
Tannoy System 1200s powered by Bryston 4B amplifier
STONE SATURATED FUNK
As a veteran of recording to tape and working in an all-analog environment, recording engineer Jon Smeltz knows more than anyone what kinds of adjustments need to be made when attempting to recapture that sound in the digital realm. And when you're working with The Roots, not only are such adjustments expected — they're demanded.
“As soon as the [Pro Tools] HD systems came in, I found that the [Digi] 192 converters were much better,” Smeltz recalls, “even though I still find myself pulling a little 1K8 to 3K1 [1.8 kHz to 3.1 kHz] out just a little bit, because it lets the bottom around 400 [Hz] and a little bit of the air at the top wrap around the midrange more. More than any tape-saturation plug-in, I try to get the harmonic structure to wrap around itself. I'm no scientist, but I'm betting that the 1K to 3K range getting punched down happens due to tape compression, and that's where that ‘tape-saturated'' sound comes from.”
Smeltz is also a fan of Digidesign plug-ins. “I use those a lot,” he says. “I find the Digi compressor leaves the least amount of artifacts. I'll do a lot of inside bus compression, as well. For example, if you decide to group all your drums to an auxiliary stereo pair, sometimes I'll do that to EQ the drum kit, but I'll also set up another auxiliary pair and use something like the Impact plug-in to smash the hell out of it and bring it up underneath the track — much like I would on the console.”