Smooth as Sylk - EMusician

Smooth as Sylk

I'm coming from the DJ point of view, so the drums have to be rocking. Like many globe-trotting DJs, King Britt appreciates fine clothes, good eats, and
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“I'm coming from the DJ point of view, so the drums haveto be rocking.”

Like many globe-trotting DJs, King Britt appreciates fineclothes, good eats, and a bangin' party. But get him back to hishome studio in his native Philadelphia, and the man formerly knownas Sylkworm — DJ for ’80s jazz-hop act Digable Planets— eschews such pleasures for the mechanical joys of theMPC-2000 and Roland VS-1680. It stands to reason that with aprolific output including remixes and tracks under the monikersScuba, Oba Funke, and Sylk 130, Britt is obviously not slackingoff. He's remixed Macy Gray, Tori Amos, Brandy, and Zap Mama andcharted dance hits like “Strong Song” (as King &Wink), “Supernatural” (as Firefly), and “TribalConfusion” (as E-Culture) with his Ovum Records partner,mega-DJ Josh Wink.

But the project closest to Britt's heart is Sylk 130, thefunk-soul collective he launched in 1998 with the release ofWhen the Funk Hits the Fan (Ovum), a loving andsurprisingly authentic musical tribute to the late-’70s soulplatters that Britt heard while he was growing up in Philly. Thenew Sylk 130 release Re-Members Only (Six Degrees) is asimilarly conceptual homage, this time paying respect to the’80s generation. In fact, the album features cameoperformances from several ’80s singers, including Yaz'sAlison Moyet, ABC's Martin Fry, and Alma “Last Night a DJSaved My Life” Horton, as well as guest vocals by disco divaKathy Sledge, Pos and Trugoy of De La Soul, and Ursula Rucker.

“The first Sylk 130 album is basically about myfoundation,” says Britt, “what my parents force-fed me,and what constitutes my roots. Re-Members Only is aboutthe period in the ’80s when I really discovered my own tastein music — everything from the Smiths to New Order to ThisMortal Coil.” Britt says he'll set the next installment ofhis trilogy in the future, with a cyber-rock-soul vibe he likens to“Stereolab meets Blade Runner.”

Meanwhile, Britt-ophiles can chew on Re-Members Only, asoul-food feast of booming Linn and Oberheim DMX — approveddrum samples, retro synthesizer flavors, gorgeous chamber-stringarrangements, and some incendiary vocal performances, such asMoyet's soaring star turn on the single “Happiness.”Other highlights include “For Love,” with one of thelast sax performances of the late Philly great Grover WashingtonJr., and the smooth piano work of R&B producer James Poyser(Eric Benet, Erykah Badu) on “Incident on a Couch, PartII.” Unlike many DJs-turned-producers, Britt is not contentto let half-committed singers simply riff over static two-chordbreakbeats. As a result, Britt and his fabulous friends have giventhe electronic soul genre what it most desperately needed: greatsongs, baby, great songs.

A lot of artists are doing ’80s revival records now,so your timing for Re-Members Only is right on the money.

When I started working on the album, I was worried. I did it twoyears ago and I was trying to stay ahead of the curve. I knew the’80s thing was coming, and boom — now I'm right in theheart of it. Everyone's embracing it.

It seems like you used a lot of early digital drum machinesounds. Are those actual Linn drums or samples on thealbum?

I'm heavily into sampled sounds. When you sample drum soundsfrom records, you get so much more than just the sound of a drum.You get that particular room sound and how they EQ'd and processedit. So 90 percent of those sounds on the record were drum hitstaken from records. There's only one full drum loop on there, and Ican't talk about that! The drum sounds on the track for “Oneand Only” with Martin Fry is a Linn drum I sampled; themachine belongs to Grover Washington Jr.'s son. But I EQ'd the Linndrum sounds as I sampled them so they'd sound a little heavier.Drums are my thing; I'm coming from the DJ point of view, so thedrums have to be rocking.

On “Happiness,” my boy Ted Thomas played live drumsinto my Roland VS-1680. I EQ'd his breakbeats, processed them, andthen sampled and cut them up with the Akai MPC-2000 XL. Iprogrammed new beats using his drum sounds. I went for that huge’80s gated reverb sound — I basically wanted the drumsto sound like Scritti Politti on that song. I had a lot of help onthe album, too. John Smeltz, who does engineering for the Roots andCommon, and Phil “The Butcher” Niccolo, the originalhip-hop drum guy, helped a lot with the drum sounds. Before thedrums go to tape, we run them through a Neve console with abeautiful sound. John also uses the new Euphonix board.

Take me through your production and writingprocess.

I start by getting together the drum sounds I want to use, andI'll program a nice groove on the MPC-2000 XL — usually atwo-bar, sometimes a four-bar figure. Then I'll pull out somekeyboard sounds. I have a Mini Moog, Memory Moog, Roland MKS-50,and all the controllers, like the Roland PG-300 programmer. Forthis album, I really wanted ’80s sounds, and of course a lotof those synthesizers are from the ’80s. I would just tweaksome of the presets I normally never use, but the sounds were sotrue to the era.

With the keyboards I come up with the chord progression to goover the drums — maybe a four-bar loop for the verses. WhenI'm putting this stuff down I'm hearing the vocals in my head. Iactually imagine Björk or Chaka Khan singing melodies. ThenI'll do the bass lines. I grew up with that Stevie Wonder basssound in my household, so my songs have got to have funky basslines. Then I decide what the hook is going to be, and I'll copyover the drum part to a chorus section and change the chordsunderneath. If I want to write a bridge, I'll program one moresequence, but there are usually only two or three sequences persong based around drum patterns.

I use e Yamaha 03D mixing desk at home, and I record all thedrums in automix. That way I don't need to do drops within asequence. I'll do it live as if I were DJing. I keep the sequencerunning, and then I automix everything. After that, I dump it allto the Roland VS-1680 with MIDI Time Code, so if I need to addsomething, I can do that on a virtual track — it's all intime. The whole song is sequenced at that point, and the drums anddrops are where I want them.

Once the song is completely written, I dump it from the 1680 totape in the studio. Then the singers come in and do their thing,and after that I'll bring in instrumentalists. For instance, on“Incident on a Couch, Part II,” James Poyser came inand played acoustic piano over the whole electronic sequence. Ialso brought in a harp player, and she played harp just for thefills — that whole track is a tribute to Trevor Horn and Artof Noise. After we do vocals and instruments, I go back and doanother automated mix using the SSL, with an ear to the vocaltracks. I might want to drop some drums here or there or make somefinal tweaks. Then we throw it to tape, and that's it.

I did a lot of writing with two of my good friends. Tim Motzeris a fantastic guitar player, and he and I wrote “ForLove” together. Philip Charles — that's my boy. He's asound designer and one of the best bass players in Philly. We wrote“Romeo's Fate” and “Beauty of Machines”together.

What is your basic setup?

At home, my setup is the Akai MPC-2000 XL; Roland JV-1080,JD-990, and JD-800 synths; Memory Moog; Mini Moog; Roland VS-1680digital workstation; Korg Vocoder; Korg MS-20 analog modularpatch-bay synth; and Moogerfooger pedals — the low-frequencypedal and the Ring Mod pedal; I use them as inserts on the Yamaha03D. If I need extra effects, I use the 1680, which has two effectscards. In the studio, sometimes we'll use Pro Tools tomake certain kinds of edits. I listen to everything throughMackie-powered studio monitors.

On hip-hop or house tracks I do everything at home. For houseand dance stuff I like lo-fi, but it still has to sound clean. Butfor big productions, like Sylk 130 or this young lady I'm producing— Michelle Shapiro, on Warner Bros. — I'll preproduceat home and then go into a tape studio to cut it. I'm going tostart using Logic Audio. My roommate just gotPropellerhead's Reason. When I saw it, I was going,“Oh my God! What the fuck?” All you need isReason, a laptop, digital I/O, and a MIDI keyboard. It'scrazy!

How did you create the stunning string arrangements on“Happiness” and “Rising”?

I'm a huge strings fan — both the kind of sounds thatRotary Connection used in the ’60s and the sort that 4Herodoes now — so they had to be done the right way. They had tohave depth. On “Happiness” and “Rising” wewrote the string arrangements after the rest of the music andvocals were done. I worked in The Studio, owned by Larry Gold, whois a Philly legend. He used to do strings for Philly International,and he's done everything from Jennifer Lopez's “If You WantMy Love” to Brandy to R. Kelly. He also used to play cello ina band called Woody's Truckstop with Todd Rundgren in the’60s, so he goes way back. Because he's a string player, hebuilt his studio with strings in mind. It sounds great.

On those two songs, Larry did the arrangement on a Synclavier.We retweaked them a little; then he brought in the string quartet,and we doubled that. The doubling makes it sound rich, and so doesthe way we dropped it in the track. You want to go easy on thereverb — not too much, just a nice small-room sound. I'mcoming from the DJ point of view. I wanted the strings to berhythmic, so I used the Roland JV-1080 orchestra card and came upwith ideas for those stabs in the verses. I played a basic line forthe chorus on the keyboard. Gloria Schenk, who is with thePhiladelphia Orchestra, expanded on my ideas, making the chorusparts much fuller. She loves to do other projects besidesclassical. She had a string quartet in the house, and we went intothe studio and knocked it out.

A lot of DJ-oriented vocal music is really just a groovewith singing over it, whereas these are really songs — versesand choruses, great hooks, cool changes.

Well, there was no joking with the vocalists, even on the firstrecord. Everyone was professional. Take the Kathy Sledge track. Iwrote the words, everything, so I knew exactly how she should singit. Generally I'll hum or sing it to the singer, so they at leastcan get the cadences down. But that's Kathy Sledge — she'sgoing to kill it! I give them a guideline, and then they go withit. I don't even need to tell Alma [Horton] anything; she's fromthe church — I hum it once and she just brings it. For theAlison Moyet song, I sent her the instrumental tracks pretty muchdone. She wrote the words to it, so she had in her mind how she wasgoing to sing it.

You give the singers a lot of nice chord changes to singover.

Sometimes we run into problems. Kathy had a somewhat hard timewith the changes I wrote for “Rising.” I grew up withJames Poyser, even bought my first keyboard from him, so I alwaysask him for advice. And I said, “How do you think thesechords sound?” He's like, “Man, for someone who nevertook lessons, these are like jazz progressions.” But Ihonestly have no clue what I'm playing. I just do what feels andsounds right to the beat. I asked James if I should take lessons,and he said, “Just keep doing what you're doing.”

I read your “Best of 2000” picks on your Website (www.kingbritt.net).You have very diverse tastes, don't you?

You have to, man. Every genre of music is saying something, andall music is relative — especially now, because oftechnology. You listen to country music now, and they're usinghip-hop beats. Like Shelby Lynne: that really isn't a countryrecord — it's more like ’60s soul. There are noboundaries anymore, at least to my ears. Radio needs to embracethat way of thinking. In the ’80s, radio was very diverse— you'd hear all kinds of music on one station. When thathappens again, the world will be a better place.

It's hard enough for James Rotondi to make a living inthe boxing world, so every now and then he's got to do somethingthat might not agree with his principles. Basically, he has toforget he's got any.