“You can ask anybody: Would they rather hear the rawest, dirtiest record that was recorded like shit but that has emotion or a clean record done in a big studio that sounds sterile?” says Evidence, one third of LA hip-hop trio Dilated Peoples. “Everybody is going to pick that first record. It is all about creativity and making the best music you can. But I just really get off on the sonic side of it.”
Evidence, MC Rakaa (Iriscience) and DJ/producer Babu (also of the Beat Junkies) truly care about the sound of their records. Where many hip-hop records swim in an amorphous vat of bass-drenched sludge or use thinly sampled or sequenced sounds in hopes of emulating old-school production, Dilated Peoples use the best of analog and digital, live and sampled processes. Riding high after the success of its previous album, Neighborhood Watch (Capitol, 2004), which included a massive hit in the Kanye West — produced “This Way,” Dilated Peoples is intent on regaining its rightful place in the hip-hop world with its fourth album, 20/20 (Capitol, 2006).
“We are in a unique position,” Babu says, at home in Corona, Calif. “We have done this great balancing act of keeping our independent roots and competing on a major label level. With 20/20, we are really shooting to go back to our core fans. That is why we called the record 20/20; we understand our niche and how we got here. We are doing what we do 110 percent, whether we fall on our faces or have success.”
Self-produced in tag-team rotation with Joey Chavez, Bravo, Alchemist and Troy Staton and mixed by Richard “Segal” Huredia, 20/20 was recorded at Dilated Peoples' Soundproof Studios in central Los Angeles with mixdown at Encore, Larrabee and Ameraycan. What's striking, as the opening bars of “Back Again” lunge from the speakers, is the album's audio clarity and smack-down dynamics. Recorded in analog on a Mackie 24-channel board, dumped to Pro Tools and mixed in analog and digital domains, 20/20 benefits from the added headroom of tape.
“Using analog allows you to turn up the high end without it hurting the natural frequencies of the song,” Evidence explains from Culver City. “If you are going to gang 12 kHz into Pro Tools, that 12k might become really, really sharp if it's not a big broadband EQ. That will really hurt your ears. But if you lay it to tape, it is much more cooperative, and you can turn it up that much higher.”
Babu confirms their choice of recording methods with actual proof: “We have literally played a kick drum from our MPC2000 and laid that kick to tape and to digital and A/B'd them. Something magical happens when you hit the tape. That natural compression makes a big difference. It especially shows on sounds with a big attack or something that needs to cut through. For mixdown, we bring our hard drive and slam everything through the SSL down to tape and back into Pro Tools. The editing power in Pro Tools is incredible, but there aren't enough 1s and 0s to get that round sound.
“For us,” Babu continues, “a common thread is to be balanced between raw street music and very well-recorded, well-mixed and mastered material. A lot of these guys today are using pristine sounds, but we are still coming off dusty records. We have to do more to compete.”
Evidence and Babu spend a lot of time digging for fresh sounds, including vocal samples from gospel singer Charles McCloud (“You Can't Hide, You Can't Run”), '70s Stax R&B quartet the Soul Children (“Kindness for Weakness” featuring Talib Kweli) and folk-rocker Brian Protheroe's “Goodbye Surprise” (“Alarm Clock Music”). The majority of 20/20 is composed of samples with beats from the Akai MPC and other sounds created on a Korg Triton or from live instrumentation. For percussion, Evidence and Babu sampled themselves playing shakers or tambourines then chopped them up in the Ensoniq ASR-10. Babu still thinks of everything as a sample, even if it is coming off a keyboard. “Anything that is funky is game,” he proclaims.
“I like to record my samples into Pro Tools first,” Babu explains. “Then I might add compression and EQ before I bounce it back into the ASR-10 to get chopped up and manipulated. That has made a big difference to my sound quality just as far as making a beat. We try to go as close to red as we can without going over with sounds that have a lot of attack, like kick drums and snares.”
In “The One and Only,” which features Babu's son in his rapping debut, Babu's beats and turntablist wizardry flow through the mix like a demon setting a Ninja course.
“If I find a new drum kit that I want to chop up,” Babu elaborates, “I will start by making a stereo recording of that in Pro Tools to get a nice loud level. Once I have the WAV file, I will use a Renaissance EQ, tighten up the curve, push it up 6 dB and screen back and forth until I hear the frequencies I like, and dip out the ones I dislike. I like to put my kicks through a [Universal Audio] LA-2A and a Urei 1176 for snares. I might put a [Waves] L1 Ultramaximizer on my master output to give it an extra push to the red. From there, I just get a nice level on the ASR and sample each bit.”
Press reports during Neighborhood Watch stated that Babu and Evidence shun quantizing in favor of a hands-on scalpel-it-clean approach. But Babu says Dilated Peoples does whatever is necessary to get the sound in their heads to tape.
“Even within a drum kit, I might have the kicks and snares quantized,” he says, “but I will leave the hi-hats loose. I might track the basics of a beat into Pro Tools with all the elements separate and then by hand and using the grid, tighten things up in the edit window. I still prefer to do things by ear and decimal point like I do on my ASR-10; it can be weird to look at a sound versus hearing a sound. You might layer two kicks, but when you separate them in Pro Tools, you will see how one kick might be way behind the other. I fix things after my eyes tell me the truth. But I still trust my ears.”
Trusting their ears is what brought this trio together. In the early '90s, Evidence was living in Venice, where he would wander over to a local 12-inch haven on Melrose then managed by Rakaa. The first track they did together led to a production deal with Immortal Records, who recorded their Imagery, Battle Hymns and Political Poetry (1995), which never saw the light of day. The duo continued to hone their craft and self-produce independent releases, which in 1998 they brought to Fat Beats, a Silverlake store managed by the Oxnard-raised DJ Babu, already spinning with the Beat Junkies. And then there were three.
Though Dilated Peoples is lumped in with the backpacker style of hip-hop, the group signed to Capitol when the only other rap group on the label was the Beastie Boys. The Platform (2000) and Expansion Team (2001) proved that deft lyrics and explosive turntable skills could coexist beyond indie-label terrain. Dilated Peoples' relationship with Capitol was firm, but the third album left them wanting more from the studio sessions.
“Neighborhood Watch was our first time working in Pro Tools,” Evidence recalls. “It was very clear, but so often there is no bottom end. We wanted to get that back, so in mixdown, we dumped the whole session for 20/20 onto tape. Our mixes took longer because we had to take a day of dumping and then realigning the reels to go back into Pro Tools on the same time code. We got the sound we were looking for — it has a big round ass, and I am proud of that.”
Evidence runs MC Rakaa's vocals as well as those of 20/20 guests Talib Kweli, Krondon, Defari and Capleton through either a Manley Voxbox or an Avalon Vt-737sp. “I like the Manley better than the Avalon,” Evidence says. “I can slam the Manley harder without hearing it. There is more room for error; if the needle hits five or six, I don't hear the dip as much as I do with the Avalon. But the Avalon gives you the incentive to make the vocalists do a few pre-takes and set it properly. I've learned that engineers don't like over-compression, so I try never to hit five. Engineers would rather hear the mic break up and compress it later than have it over-compressed and try to undo it.”
Evidence, MC Rakaa and DJ Babu inhabit a rare position in the hip-hop world. Their label wants another radio-ready hit single, but Dilated Peoples maintain an underground focus. 20/20 is about keeping their vision pure, and their music — and consequently their production — on as high a level as possible.
“People don't care whether you recorded at Encore or Ameraycan or outside in the street,” Evidence says. “They don't want to know; they just want to like it. All this sonic stuff is subliminal; it doesn't affect the listener right away. It affects them later when they play it in their car, and it sounds right. But at the first impact, people just want to hear something dope.”
DJ Babu takes a more philosophical approach toward Dilated Peoples' musical identity and the guys' evolution from underground players with a dream to major-label moneymakers.
“When you are young, you see everything in 20/20 vision,” he says. “As we get older, we deal with the pollution of this world and the presidents and A&R people at record labels and selling records and supporting our families. It gets more cloudy and confusing, but I always refer back to that memory I had as a kid and understanding what I wanted to do. I tell everyone: Stick to your goals and the reasons you got into this. God has a funny way of giving you what you ask for.”
TICKLED BY TAPE
SSL 4000N G/G+ consoles
Studer A820 2-track ½-inch machine
SSL 9000 J console
Ampex ATR 2-track ½-inch machine
Studer A820 2-track ½-inch machine
SSL 9000 K console
Ampex ATR 1-inch machine
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac G4
Digidesign Pro Tools|24 Mixplus system, 888|24 I/O
MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV
Tascam CD burner
Mackie 24•8 mixing console
Genelec 1032A biamplified monitors
Samplers, drum machines, turntables, DJ mixers
Akai MPC2000XL sampler
Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler
Pioneer CDJ-1000 CD turntables
Rane TTM 56 mixer
Technics SL-1200 turntables with Shure M447/M44G cartridges/styluses
Korg Triton TR88 keyboard
Waves Ltd. Gold Bundle (L1 Ultramaximizer, Renaissance compressor)
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors
Avalon Design Vt-737sp preamp/compressor/EQ
Manley Labs Voxbox preamp/compressor/EQ
Neumann U 87 mic
Universal Audio LA-2A compressor
Urei 1176 compressor