The loop echoes through the house, wafting from the furnished basement studio to the first-floor foyer. It's a dirty beat, foreboding and gritty. Upstairs, platinum records and a personalized, signed photo of 50 Cent hang on white walls. The home and the beat belong to Denaun Porter, who first gained fame as a member of platinum-selling group D12. Both a producer and an MC, he's evolving as an industry force behind the board. Porter, who has long contributed to Dr. Dre's storied vault and Eminem's arsenal, is branching out as executive producer of Pharaohe Monch's new album and taking on the weight of an expanded roll on the upcoming D12 record due for release later this year. Fans know him as Kon Artis — his MC identity — but under Mr. Porter, his production name, he is upping his game.
In the basement of this quiet, unassuming suburban street, 20 miles northwest of Motown, a piece of Detroit hip-hop history takes shape — D12's next record, the first album made without a cornerstone of its group, Deshaun Proof Holden, who was killed during a bar fight in April 2006. Here in Porter's studio, it's the winter season, the beginning of a new year, and the music goes on. But it's been a roller-coaster year for Detroit hip-hop and those who live by its code, starting with the death of one of Porter's early mentors last year, J Dilla.
Over the past several years, Porter has developed into one of hip-hop's well-versed producers, an understudy to Dr. Dre and J Dilla. “From Eminem to Dilla to Dr. Dre, I got the best teachers you can have,” he says.
STEERING THE SHIP
Today, Porter is diligently at work with Guilty Simpson, a Detroit MC signed to Stones Throw Records and a longtime D12 contributor. As Porter levels out the beat, Simpson furiously writes to Porter's loop. “I made a beat two, three weeks ago on an MPC4000 and used a Minimoog. It's an irritating sound with some hard-ass drums, and I heard his voice over it,” Porter explains.
But Simpson's voice requires dynamic guidance to keep up the intrigue throughout a song. “What I have to watch for with him is that he has a monotone voice, like Ice Cube. If you start low [dynamically], you can get higher, instead of starting high,” he says. “You hold back.”
Porter doesn't use layering as a dynamic tool for Simpson, though. “I don't have to have Guilty do five vocals,” he says. “He got a strong-ass voice, so it sits right in the middle. [Instead], I've got to get him to inflate certain words differently. If you've got a straight line, people want to hear the inflection in the song, especially if your mood is changing. So by the time he gets to the punch line, the things leading up to the punch line don't get boring.”
At the helm of his self-described sonic spaceship, Porter sits behind the controls facing Guilty, and two Macintosh screens stare back at him with Pro Tools 7 and Scribble and Plogue Bidule soft synths. “I wanted it to look like you're flying a ship,” he says. “I turn to the left front, and it's the screen and Pro Tools. Then right in front of me is my drum machine and the keyboards to the right. On the left is the sampler and turntable. If you're standing in a certain place, the south is always behind you; it's the ground root. The north is where you're going. That's the energy, that's the focus.”
Satisfied with the beat's basic structure, Porter leaves Simpson to brainstorm and climbs the stairs, filling up the corner of the white L-shaped leather couch. Porter is a big man, but he is soft-spoken and reflective, and he articulates his thoughts with deliberate and studied measure. He fingers a tattoo on his right forearm, a look of bewilderment on his face. He explains how yesterday the tattoo, which has been on his arm for years, flared up. It was the birthday of Bugz, the first member of D12 to lose his life just before the group broke out with Eminem and became superstars in 1999, changing all of their lives.
Porter was already a skilled producer when the group found fame, always tinkering with technology. “I used to break TVs and put them back together.” He began producing almost 10 years ago: “The first piece of gear I worked off was an ASR-10 rackmount. I was working at Mo Master's Studio. He would leave the room and let me figure it out on my own. I learned to do that until I understood the actual sampling and MIDI.”
Influenced by his surroundings, Porter gravitated toward the Hip Hop Shop, a Detroit record store owned by designer Maurice Malone where hip-hop luminaries set the standard — J Dilla, Slum Village and the open-mic host Proof. Here, Porter honed his lyrical skills but also developed his ear for production. “I started with Proof and then Eminem,” he remembers. “He would show me the syllables, and when it came to putting beats together, I showed him shit. I would ride beats differently than he did. I was like, ‘You rap too fast. Slow down.'' When I started producing for him, I said, ‘I'm going to give you some beats that are not regular shit.''”
In the tradition of Detroit producers, lack of gear sharpened his focus. “When I made a beat, I had to make the drums all the way through. I was like a one-man band. I knew sampling was shameless in the Hip Hop Shop. Everybody was chopping. You had to make that chop perfect every bar. But I never use timing to this day. I use a sequencer to keep the loop. And I don't time snares, I don't time hi-hats, I don't quantize.”
A distinct style is crucial to Porter. “You don't want to sound like your teachers; then they're not going to be interested,” he says. “If I hear something that sounds like the same thing I did before, I just scratch that because I think that's unfair to my brain, so I've got to interpret that every time.”
As executive producer on Pharaohe Monch's new album, Desire (SRC, 2007), Porter went the extra mile to be creative while still aiming for Monch's '70s soul-influenced style. “I took mics and put them outside while it was raining,” he says. “We didn't use sound effects; we made them. We had to do it on another day to get the birds. A regular person would be getting these from a CD, but the difference — I'm telling you — it sounds so great. That song didn't even make the album.”
On his contributions, “Anger,” “Cops Comin',” “Revenge” and “Gun Draw,” he was conscious, even in the early stages, of how all the parts were gelling together. “I might have [Monch] say this line over so that it will fit in the pocket because by the time those frequencies appear and I get to mixing, I hear it a certain way. I can tell if I'm going to be able to get it clear by listening to the frequency. Dre taught me to mix along the way. If you mix it along the way, you don't have that problem. It's already done.”
While the absence of Proof is marked for D12, Porter is determined not to use this loss in an opportunistic way, and the sensitivity of the material is being approached gingerly by D12's members — Kuniva, Swifty McVay, Bizarre, Eminem and DJ Salam Wreck. “We ain't got to that point yet,” he says. Emotional release has come out in sporadic studio sessions, but nothing intended for public consumption. “We recorded some records you'll never hear because there was a lot of anger going on in the studio.”
Things are steadily moving forward, with five completed tracks slated for release when Eminem signs off on the project, but Porter is guiding the album's direction. “I applied the Juan Atkins techno thing,” Porter says. “We did a joint called ‘Zoned Out'' that is Detroit all the way.” He describes the song as a “jit” song, a style of music designed for a popular club dance in Detroit. “When I made it, I wanted to do something that Proof would have wanted. We was always talking about doing a jit song.” D12 still uses its signature sardonic humor, exemplified on the tawdry “Bugzshit” and a Swizz Beatz-produced “I Got Me an Ugly Bitch.” “That's classic D12,” he says. “Battlecat gave me a record that's got Nate Dogg sounding like a totally new man,” he says about “Out the Box.” “We've always been outside of the box, and then people put us on an island of our own.”
Despite the pressure to make a record without Proof, Porter is primed. “I'm standing up to every ounce of pressure. Sonically, it's going to be one of the best D12 records. It's been Eminem-driven for so long, and I wanted to step away from that. It's a shame that my label didn't use me the way I should have been used. In light of my friend passing, I'm not here to try and impress them. I'm not here to sit quiet and let days go by. That's the Eminem Show; that's not the Denaun show. He worked hard to get that, but it's time for me to step outside of that. That they trust me is a great thing. I'll be glad when it's over with. After I'm done, there won't be no more. We friends, but it's political; it ain't no fun. I don't think it's bad to say — it's just honest. Even before what happened to Proof, it wasn't fun.”
A mixtape is in the works, but Porter is primarily focused on refining his studio skills. “If I got a hook, I'll make the hook, sing the hook, write a beat around the hook, present the song to the artist,” he says. “I'll make the drums and chop the drums. I make drums for every beat, whether I use it or not. I make drums because that's exercise.” Porter's filled up three hard drives with various combinations of drums. He studies '70s soul music — Marvin Gaye last month, now back to Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway and James Brown — for inspiration on background tones.
Sometimes he captures his own sound in tracks that get snatched up by others. “That Busta Rhymes song, that's my record: “They Out to Get Me.” I had made that record the first time I had seen a million dollars personally, seeing it on paper, in my hand,” he reminisces. “All of that [song] was live. My engineer plays guitar, and I did an 8-bar loop on the bass. I started with the melody of the guitar and went to the drums, and then I used a [Yamaha] Motif. Once we leveled things out, I started in the booth.”
Being tied to Dr. Dre's camp means working on projects that may never be released, though he will be spending a good chunk of the spring adding finesse to the long-awaited Detox album. “Being in the studio with Dre, he was teaching me without saying: ‘Don't talk about an idea; just do it.''”
Mr. Porter is focused on doing it, with renewed vigor for recording music. “I gotta stand on my own, too. I got a newfound energy.” With that, it's time to go back into the basement to finish the track.
Computer, DAW, recording hardware, interfaces
Apogee Rosetta A/D converter
Apple Power Mac G5-dual 2 GHz computer
Digidesign Pro Tools|HD system
Chandler Limited Mini Mixer Rack 16-channel mixer
Digidesign Control|24 console
Speck Electronics XTRAMIX 8-bus mixer
Sampler/drum machine, turntable
Akai MPC4000 sampling workstation
Numark TTX1 turntable
Synths, modules, software and plug-ins, instruments
Alesis Andromeda A6 synth
Clavia Nord Lead 3 synth
IK Multimedia SampleTank 2 XL, Sonik Synth 2 plug-ins
Korg MS2000 synth
LP Aspire conga
Moog Music Minimoog Voyager synth
Muse Research Receptor Plug-In Rack Synth
Native Instruments Absynth 3 and B4 II soft synths, Battery 3 drum sampler
Plogue Bidule 0.93 cross-platform modular software
Roland Fantom-S, SH-201 synths
Scribble Synth soft synth
Spectrasonics Atmopshere Dream Synth Module
Studio Electronics SE-1 rack synth
Tama drum set
Mic, mic preamps, EQs, compressors
API 7600 Channel Strip
dbx 902 De-esser Module
Empirical Labs Distressor EL8X compressor
Equi=Tech 2Q power conditioner
Neve 1084 EQ/preamp
Sony C800G mic
Telefunken V76 preamp
Custom-built 12-inch main monitor system with 18-inch subwoofer speakers
Mackie HRS 12-inch subwoofer