Unprecedented in the long, illustrious history of binge drinking, the rowdiest drunks at the bar have flipped the script and announced “last call” themselves. After 13 years of ruthless punch lines and funk-heavy party beats, West Coast rap crew Tha Alkaholiks — E-Swift, Tash and J-Ro — are calling it quits, but not before fans enjoy one last round with the group's fifth and final album, Firewater (Waxploitation/Koch, 2006).
Averse to all things watered-down, producer E-Swift takes it back to the basics this time and handles nearly all production in-house. Aside from a track by Danger Mouse and one co-production credit to Evidence of Dilated Peoples, the beats are pure, unadulterated E-Swift, just as when the group first dropped in 1993.
Needless to say, E-Swift knows his way around a drum program. “One mistake I hear new, young producers make is overcompressing the drums,” he says. “Drums are meant to be loud, and the velocity is what gives each snare, kick or percussion its own personality. And programming-wise, drums need a certain swing to them, which often gets overlooked, just choosing a default of straight 16 or 32 quantization. It's got to be close to the click, but not really on it.”
E-Swift recommends doing beats by hand or using programmable swings. “If I do use a [16th-beat quantization], I have it on a swing percentage of, say, 62, so it's not too stiff.” He learned to trust his ears during his early beginnings as a DJ and encourages keeping up one's DJ and drum chops.
As a 13-year-old, E-Swift had “one raggedy turntable and a cassette 4-track,” he says, but he now lists his Akai MPC2000XL, Technics 1200 turntables, Ensoniq ASR-10, Yamaha Motif6 and Mackie D8B digital 8-bus mixer as his core gear. (He's in the process of upgrading to the Mackie Digital X Bus studio.) He recently transferred the majority of his 30,000-strong vinyl collection to digital format, which was arduous, but “worth every single second,” he says.
At his downtown L.A. studio, E-Swift opts for the MPC, ASR-10 and Technics 1200s, but when he's on the road, his mobile setup of Akai MPD16 pads and Mac PowerBook running Ableton Live 5 makes him the illest producer on the plane, train or tour bus.
“Live 5 is probably my favorite software program for making beats, especially because I tour so much, and it's everything I need in one program,” he says. “I like [Propellerhead] Reason, as well, but prefer Live because it's a sample/loop-oriented program, which is what I specialize in: chopping up beats to oblivion. It's fun to improvise with it and do shit on-the-fly.”
E-Swift selects sounds from his own collection of WAV samples and runs them through filters, delays and other hardware effects, as well as all of the Waves and Sony Oxford plug-ins. “I don't overdo the plug-in thing, though,” Swift says. “I'm a true believer that the characteristics of your music should be captured through proven analog gear such as Neve EQs before it even sees the digital domain.”
When it comes to overdubs, E-Swift believes in mixing it live. “After the basic foundations are laid, the overdub is like the ear candy. You go in there and just do what feels good. I don't even record until it sounds good to my ear, and then I'm like, ‘Lets record.’ I do it all freestyle. It's like DJing and scratching to a record — if you mix it live, it's just better.”
For example, once he'd nearly completed Firewater's lead single, “The Flute Song (LaLaLa),” he broke out the hand drums and vibed. Subtle and low in the mix, the hand drums add depth and texture to the track's chopped-up breakbeat. “That's just me adding extra energy to the drums on live percussion at, like, 4 a.m., after a bottle of Patron Silver,” he says.
Firewater and the farewell Alkaholiks tour kick off a busy 2006 for the veteran producer. Upcoming projects include an early stages collaborative album with Madlib and a solo E-Swift album projected for summer 2006. “I'm going for cats like Slick Rick and Redman all the way to Chino from the Deftones and Ad Rock from the Beastie Boys,” he says.
In the meantime, a new E-Swift track featuring Snoop Dogg and Barrington Levy for Soopafly's spring 2006 album should reassure anyone fearing Alkaholiks withdrawal.