“I definitely knew what I wanted to be saying with this record,” The Angel reveals, ruminating on the lyrical ideas and production style that she brings to the fore on the latest 60 Channels release, Covert Movements (Supa Crucial/New Line, 2004). “It's a journey, and the concept behind it is about traveling through life and what we come up against: the chaos, the beauty, the frustration, the anger, the serenity. I just started writing, and this is what came out. A lot of it is personal, but part of it is my reaction to the devastation of what has happened in the world over the last few years, which makes it a little more global, too.”
It's a rare moment of candor from a producer, DJ and composer who is known for letting her studio chops do most of the talking. Although she has quietly become a force in the urban hip-hop underground, The Angel has eschewed the major-label speculation that seemed destined to shadow her career path when she first signed to L.A.-based Delicious Vinyl in the early 1990s. Remixes for the likes of The Pharcyde, Brand New Heavies, Michael Franti's Spearhead and DJ Food soon followed, as did a number of appearances on some high-profile remix compilations, including 4th & Broadway's The Rebirth of Cool, Vol. 4 (1996) and Om Records' Deep Concentration (1997). Along the way, she founded her own Devilishly Good Productions and began churning out a series of now-sought-after 12-inch white-label singles that probed the leftfield fringes of hip-hop, trip-hop and jungle. When the Bristol-based production crew More Rockers (Rob Smith and Peter D. Rose of Smith & Mighty) approached her for a collaboration, the resulting Jaz Klash album, Thru the Haze (Cup of Tea, 1997), a collection of dark and rootsy drum 'n' bass grooves, firmly established The Angel as a bold presence behind the mixing desk.
“At that time, I wanted to have another artist identity,” she explains. “The Angel material always tended to be a lot more urban, and I got to a point where I really wanted to break out of that and try to do something a little bit more progressive. For whatever reason, 60 Channels popped into my head as a name. It feels wide open enough that it can cover wherever I decide to go, even if I end up making some crazy hardcore rock album one day.”
While fans speculate on that interesting possibility, The Angel continues to refine and redefine her sound, striking a delicate balance between old-school analog signal processing and the latest in computer technology. It's a method that first began to take shape in the beautifully jagged and junglized arrangements of Tuned In, Turned On (World Domination, 1998), her full-length debut under the 60 Channels alias, and on the follow-up EP Give Me Your Love (World Domination, 1999). Filmgoers caught a taste of a more trippy, hip-hop — driven sound in her score work for Playing God, Gridlock'd and the cult hit Boiler Room, leading the latter film's production studio New Line to offer The Angel a distribution deal for her own label. The downtempo No Gravity (Supa Crucial/New Line, 2001) — with guest appearances from Divine Styler, Freestyle Fellowship's Cokni O'Dire and then-unknown female MC and singer Mystic (whose debut Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom [GoodVibe, 2001] featured several Angel-produced tracks) — was her first solo album as The Angel and marked the emergence of her Supa Crucial imprint, which she now maintains as a home base in Los Angeles.
Covert Movements enlists some of the same guest vocalists and musicians from past projects — among them Frente's Angie Hart, Freestylers' MC Navigator (also a regular with Asian Dub Foundation) and Tokyo-based nu-jazz singer and producer Monday Michiru — along with notable newcomers such as Rain Phoenix (on the haunting “Scorched Earth”) and rising ragga sensation DJ Collage (on “Once Inna Life” and the pivotal dub opus “Counter Evolution”). Boosted by healthy doses of two-step, jazz, rock, dancehall and jungle's hyperkinetic rhythmic washes, the album taps into the same progressive vein as past 60 Channels releases but this time with a decidedly more dub-inflected feel that pushes the songs forward on a wave of deep low end, heavily syncopated beats and inventive sampling. After a few listens, it becomes readily apparent that The Angel has delivered a fully realized concept album, thus raising the bar for producers in any genre who also call themselves artists.
BREAKING WITH CUBASE
The last time that Remix checked in with The Angel (“The Wings of Desire,” December 2001), she announced that she was about to “bite the bullet” and upgrade from Steinberg's Cubase to Digidesign's Pro Tools system. “I actually continued to run Cubase with Pro Tools [on a Mac G3],” she recalls somewhat ruefully, “which is really buggy and frustrating a lot of the time, but you come to accept that when you're running a lot of taxing applications on your computer; something's bound to give, and, you know, as the technology is constantly being upgraded, a lot of it is still new in a way, especially compatibilitywise. You just have to take it in stride that sometimes you're going to be tearing your hair out for half the day.”
A veteran of the old-school Atari-hosted version of Cubase and later a combined setup of Cubase VST (running on the G3 and used only for sequencing) and the Akai DR16 hard-disk recorder, The Angel was at first reluctant to fully trust Pro Tools because of her preference for running everything — synths, sequences and samples — live to afford as much flexibility as possible when it came time to do a final mix. “I was really into the idea of trying to keep everything in MIDI rather than recording it down,” she says. “I even found myself using Pro Tools' MIDI, which I know most people would be like, ‘Oh, God, how could you even do that? It's dreadful!’ [Laughs.] But as I was working this way, I decided to start laying as much stuff into Pro Tools as I could, and in the end, it led me to something more creative because I would record a sound in and then I would start ‘distressing’ it — just start messing with it further and creating other things from that.”
Now that The Angel has Pro Tools running on a Mac G4, the new system (which she has recently augmented with the MOTU MachFive software sampler plug-in) has streamlined her access to a limitless wellspring of sounds and samples almost instantly. All of her samples are generated in the studio, from her own synth patches (played through one or a combination of different modules, including a Roland JV-880, a Korg Trinity Plus and a Clavia Nord Lead 2) to the acoustic and electric bass lines of Robert Russell, the horn arrangements of Katisse Buckingham and the guitar riffs of Louis Russell (all of whom have worked with The Angel since she first relocated to L.A. in 1993). “Guitars, bass, I mean, everything that we've recorded is subject to being sampled, resampled and re-effected,” she says. “So I do tend to get into this loop of constant experimentation where, for example, I might actually record something into Pro Tools, then resample it back out [to my Akai S6000] so that I can trigger it differently.
“A really modern production — and it has been this way for a long time — is sample-based,” she continues, “even if people are doing what I'm doing, which is to get away from sampling other people's work and to create your own library of samples as such. It's something you've created, and even though you want to treat it in the same way — as though you've stolen it from a groovy old funk record or whatever — you still know that it's clear, it's yours, and then it's also unique to you.”
TUNE IN, TURN ON, DUB OUT
In moving from self-sampling and sound manipulation to actual mixing, The Angel sometimes takes a page from the Jamaican originators of what is known as “version” — namely, the art of strategically dropping out selected rhythm parts and radically treating others in order to create almost dreamlike spaces in the mix. Jamaican producers such as Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby and Scientist, who were among the first to remix previously recorded or released tracks through multiple layered effects, revolutionized the way reggae beats could be heard and experienced. Covert Movements embraces elements of the modern dub style probably more than any of The Angel's previous records, not just in terms of the production but also from a rhythmic, instrumental and even sociopolitical standpoint.
“Counter Evolution,” a song whose title implies the double entendre of evolution and revolution in the same breath, could be identified as the centerpiece of this vibe. Beneath the lilting vocals of Karen Grant (backing vocalist for reggae stars such as Andrew Tosh and original Wailers guitarist Junior Marvin), the underlying tracks extol the familiar dynamics of either a dub classic or a Massive Attack remix, complete with echo-draped rim shots, expansive bass, exquisite verbal “toasting” (the distinctive Jamaican style of rhyming, in this instance courtesy of DJ Collage) and a distant-sounding horn section saturated with triplet-feel delay.
“In a way, you have to untrain yourself when you're recording something like live horns,” The Angel notes, “because it's not necessarily right, for this track anyway, to be going for a pristine kind of sound. Often, I'll start by shelving off a load of bottom end. Even though there's not a huge amount of bottom in the horns, you can still take a lot out and then start pushing up a lot of the ‘transistory’ frequencies in the middle range and play around with the top. Sometimes, more top helps make it more crunchy; sometimes, less top makes it seem like it's sitting in the right place. I don't mean to be evasive when I say it's whatever sounds right, because it really is.”
Interestingly, the primary ingredient in “Counter Evolution” is perhaps its most subtle: the nyahbinghi-style rhythm — which can be heard in traditional Jamaican songs such as The Wailers' “Rastaman Chant” from the album Burnin' (Island, 1973) — that lopes under the main beat. “I owe that to DJ Drez,” The Angel says, citing another of her frequent collaborators. “He knows his reggae, and he's a very spiritual guy. He'd recorded a loop of himself playing djembe [West African hand] drums and then burned it to CD. It's really organic, and it just feels right against the backdrop of what the song is about.” Strangely enough, it would have been unusual even for Jamaican producers to mix rhythms like those into dub sessions back in the day, as it was rare that most modern reggae drummers even played such rhythms overtly.
Dub influences may surface throughout Covert Movements, but plenty of contemporary elements still seep into the overall sound. “Still Burnin'” opens with an angular, metallic synth tone and Eastern-sounding vibrato strings swirling around a gritty acoustic bass line (recorded live by clamping a transducer pickup onto the bridge of Robert Russell's upright bass and then running the signal through a Barcus Berry 3000A buffer preamp). When the track kicks into a hard drum 'n' bass beat, The Angel floats in over the top with her own heavily processed vocal. “I always have a lot of effects going on,” she says. “With that one, I'm probably using Pro Tools plug-ins, or I've got the SansAmp as a plug-in, as well. I tend to use that a lot, even on vocals. It's noisy as hell, and it's the most obnoxious thing and probably a big no-no in the classical world, but anything goes in my world, you know?”
The dark and aggressive “Beyond the Chemical Domain,” with an ominous vocal by Navigator, harnesses a digitally distorted soundscape and cranked-up guitars with a near-relentless two-step beat that dubs out during several key instrumental breaks. “Even though Navigator and I have done a lot of ragga-influenced tracks together, on this album, I really wanted to do something different with him because he's a really good vocalist all around, but nobody ever asks him to sing,” The Angel explains. “I mean, he's a terrific drum 'n' bass ragga MC, but he also has this other larger talent as a crooner. So I thought, ‘Why don't we just kind of try something with a real English slant, you know, something evocative and kind of sexy, actually, and see where that takes us?’”
WHERE WE ARE NOW
Even now, in 2004, music production is still primarily considered a man's world. But given her prodigious talents (and tireless work ethic) as a producer, songwriter, composer and label head, how might The Angel perceive the distances that women still have to travel in a clique-oriented business that is predominantly controlled by their alpha-male counterparts?
“I think women are still very marginalized, especially as producers in our industry,” she says. “It's not that there are so few of them; it's mainly that there are so few that are being recognized.” As an example, she points to a short article about the apparent rarity of female record producers that ran in Vibe magazine in May 2001, around the time The Angel was promoting her solo debut, No Gravity. “I thought the person who interviewed me for that asked some really interesting questions, and I'm sure he did his best, but the piece was edited down to something so frivolous, it was like, here's a terrific opportunity, and you're saying that you think this is something worth writing about, and then you're marginalizing it even further by not giving it any substance at all.”
Perhaps if there are — from a creative, conceptual and spiritual perspective — more Covert Movements in the future, the barriers may eventually break down. Regardless of what tomorrow brings, The Angel's mission with Supa Crucial will continue. “I've always been very autonomous and deliberately so,” she says. “In whatever I've done, I've definitely had to carve that space out for myself because I just work better in my own environment. I just flourish better in an environment where I feel confident in what I'm doing and in the people I work with. That's always been good enough for me.”
ON THE ANGEL'S FLIGHT DECK
“It would have been fantastic if in 1993, I had the technology that I have available to me now,” The Angel admits. “I mean, it would have just changed everything about the way I worked and would have made everything so much easier. But I'll tell you one thing: It definitely taught me how to be resourceful with everything I had. Even when I had the most basic setup in the world, I was still able to get a lot out of it.”
Aardvark Aardsync master clock generator
Access Virus B synth
Akai DR16 hard-disk recorder
Akai S6000 sampler
AKG C 1000 S mic
Alesis Masterlink ML-9600 hard-disk recorder/CD-R
Aphex Tubessence 107 mic preamp
Apple Mac G4/1.25GHz computer
Apple Cinema Display
Apple Studio Display
Avalon VT-737sp mic preamp
Barcus Berry 3000A Piezo Buffer Preamp w/EQ
Beyerdynamic DT770 headphones
Blue Blueberry mic
Clavia Nord Lead 2 synth
Denon 2000F MKIII dual CD player
Digidesign ADAT Bridge interfaces (2)
Digidesign HD Core card
Digidesign Expansion Chassis
Digidesign Mix Farm cards (2)
Digidesign Pro Tools 5.1.3 software
Event 2020 monitors
Korg Trinity Plus synth
Lexicon PCM 70 effects processor
MOTU 2408mk3 interface
MOTU MachFive software sampler
MOTU MIDI Express XT interface
Neumann TLM 103 mic
Panasonic SV3700 DAT machine
Pioneer DJM-500 DJ mixer
Roland JV-880 synth
Seagate Cheetah SCSI drives (2)
Sony MDR-7506 headphones (2)
Symetrix 606 delay
Tascam DA-88 hard-disk recorder
TC Electronic Finalizer Plus mastering processor
TC Electronic FireworX effects processor
Tech 21 SansAmp effects processor
Technics SL-1200 turntables (2)
Western Digital FireWire drives (numerous)
Yamaha O2R digital mixer w/Cascade cards (2)