Behind his bug-eyed wraparound shades, Prince Paul cuts an almost extraterrestrial profile, smiling mischievously as he warms to a question about the conceptual origins of his latest studio project. It's a topic he's been known to tackle in the past with his usual quick wit and humor, but now, just for a moment, he seems lost in thought, waxing reminiscent about the music he grew up with and how it set him on the path to becoming a topflight hip-hop producer — a journey that began in 1985 with Stetsasonic and hit its full stride with De La Soul's 3 Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989).
“It's funny because I was raised on Parliament-Funkadelic,” he says, calling out George Clinton's legendary tribe, who exerted a key influence on De La's debut not just musically — in the form of the hit single “Me Myself and I,” which reworked the Funkadelic staple “Knee Deep” — but also aesthetically. “When we finished 3 Feet High, I was begging for [P-Funk graphic artist] Pedro Bell to do the album artwork. And from what I heard, he wanted to do it, but the label wanted to give the album its own identity. P-Funk was [just one] part of the whole inspiration for making that one album, so I can understand now why 3 Feet High is its own thing.”
Nearly 20 years later, Prince Paul is no longer chasing his heroes; he's collaborating with them. This time around, he decided to approach one of the legendary prime movers behind the classic P-Funk sound that fueled such monster jams as “Flash Light” and “One Nation Under a Groove” — songs that, with their uncannily fluid Minimoog bass lines, have transcended the '70s funk canon to become timeless pop touchstones.
“That's Bernie Worrell,” Paul intones with a reverent nod. “He has all that funk stuff bred into him, but also, when he's playing, he can bust out a classical piece and then go bang into some deep soul, and you literally just get chills up and down your spine. So our whole take was to try and get some stuff from Bernie that people weren't used to. People still see him doing the Moog thing — the iconic style that's similar to what you hear in G-funk and Dr. Dre — but we wanted to push that envelope a little bit, with the idea of stretching his sound. Between that and combining our hip-hop arrangements with his arrangements, that's what made the driving force of this album.”
For his latest project, Paul tapped his frequent co-conspirator Don Newkirk, whose versatility on a wide range of instruments and software programs has propelled the work of the Lord Brothers (their chosen production alias) into some typically offbeat territory. “Paul asked me if I wanted to work with Bernie,” Newkirk recalls, “and I was like, ‘What kind of question is that? You have to ask?’ And when he said he didn't want to just do a funk album, I knew what he meant. As a keyboard player, I used to listen for hours to the movements and changes and solos on those Funkadelic records. That's the stuff we wanted to accentuate.”
Sparked by a group name that will surely leave P-Funk fans and hip-hop heads alike scratching their heads (hint: start with Parliament's 1980 Casablanca album Trombipulation and extrapolate from there), Baby Elephant's Turn My Teeth Up! (Godforsaken Music, 2007) is indeed much more than just a funk joint. Rife with comedic sketches, afro-futuristic themes, thick hip-hop beats and the constantly gear-shifting melodic mastery of Worrell on a plethora of vintage synthesizers, TMTU successfully revives the lost art of the concept album while staying true to the down-and-dirty ethos of its influences. And with an unrivaled guest list that includes David Byrne, Nona Hendryx (the somewhat lesser-known but equally compelling diva behind LaBelle's original “Lady Marmalade”), Digital Underground's Shock G, Jamaican toasting legend King Yellowman, DJ Roc Raida and the funk overlord George Clinton himself — well, the logical choice is to keep your hands and feet in the vehicle at all times and let Paul and Newkirk do the driving. (Remix did attempt to corral Bernie Worrell for this interview, but he was on tour in Europe at the time.)
DOIN' IT FREESTYLE
“For the most part, we started with concepts first,” Newkirk says, describing the tone of the Baby Elephant brain trust's initial sessions at New York's quasi-secretive Edison Studio (see the sidebar, “Under the Radar”). “We would throw our ideas at Bernie, like, ‘Play something that makes you feel like the first time you played piano when you were a kid.’ That's how the intro came about — that was the first thing we recorded, actually. I just put this little beat on, and he started playing the melody on piano, and we were just like, ‘Yup — that's it.’ Bernie's good for that. You can blow him a concept, and he has a way of materializing it into a melodic form.”
In fact, the vocal elements for the leadoff track “Baby Elephants ‘n Thangs,” which features George Clinton, came together almost completely on the fly. “’Round about 2:30 in the morning, here comes George,” Newkirk laughs. “We really had it in our head for him to do that song, and another one [‘Scratchinatanitchouttareach’] that came about because I made sure I brought the tracks with me. And he's so ill, man. These cats are just a different caliber. He heard everything twice all the way through, then we set up a mic in the control room and he said, ‘Gimme a track,’ and one by one, that was it. George always sounds like gibberish to me at first, until you really listen and realize that he's operating three planes higher than everybody else. He's serious, man.”
Whenever possible, Paul and Newkirk sought to eschew formula — particularly in their early jams with Worrell — in order to capture something truly unique. Even so, there was some method to the madness. Each would work on their own laptop beats to bring to the studio — Paul on an Akai MPC2000XL or Ensoniq ASR-10 into Pro Tools, and Newkirk in Reason and Digital Performer. But as Paul insists, whenever live sessions were in progress, the golden rule was always to maintain a light but insistent touch as a producer.
“That's the beauty of a lot of this album,” he says. “We wanted to get the vibe of Bernie going off, but we also wanted to structure it — to hone it into all its key parts without trying to overdo it. I mean, you don't wanna take away from him getting busy, either. It's about taking key parts and going, ‘Yeah — that's dope. Let's do that.’ And Bernie will take it and flip it anyway.”
Again, Newkirk refers to “Scratchinatanitchoutta-reach” for illustration. As one of the more overt nods to the ironic, classical-tinged funk fusion that Worrell perfected with Funkadelic, the song unfolds much in the same way that a sonata does, complete with movements, key changes and variations on a central melodic theme. Of course, with Worrell at the keyboard, there's also the assurance that the music will invariably take a few extra (and unexpected) twists and turns.
“We were just messing around in the studio,” Newkirk recalls. “It was one of them days when we didn't know what we were gonna do. And what Bernie plays on that song — those are all the original tracks. No overdubs or retakes. He went straight through that for three, four minutes, and played the whole piece straight through with the changes and everything. Then he went back, said ‘Gimme another track,’ and did all the lead Clavinet. I was floored.”
Even with all the soft synths and vintage-synth emulations on the market today, it's still tempting to go for the real thing, especially if it's sitting right there in your control room. The studio's imposing ARP 2600 modular unit was the main source for all the percussive and atmospheric sounds in “How Does the Brain Wave?” — a vaguely Kraftwerkian vehicle for David Byrne (who recruited Bernie Worrell for the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense tour back in 1984) and a prime slab of signal processing run amok.
Credited on the track with “blips and bleeps,” Edison Studio mainstay and synth fanatic David Baron came through in the clutch, according to Newkirk. “David pulled out all these wild little quirks,” he says. “All the kicks and snares — everything in that song, for the most part — came out of the ARP.”
Recording and mix engineer Albert DiFiore elaborates further. “Dave had a Kenton MIDI-to-CV [control voltage] box,” he explains, “which is really cool because it lets you play with all the knobs on the ARP while it's being fed all this information [from a controller keyboard]. It's a totally different experience than just coming up with a patch and then playing it. While you're tweaking different filters and oscillators, you can give the sound a real character. So once we got eight tracks of that onto Pro Tools, Paul took it all home and ground it out into a song, and then Bernie played over it with the Minimoog.”
The Minimoog might be Worrell's weapon of choice, but he's always open to experimentation, and with so many unusual instruments populating the studio, it was hard to resist taking one or two of them for a test drive. “Plainfield” — named for the city in New Jersey where Worrell and many of his P-Funk brethren began their careers — surges ahead on the toothy bass line and granulated buzzes generated by a Synton Syrinx, while the string patch comes from a Kawai 100F of Worrell's own that was a gift from Bootsy Collins. Elsewhere on the album, he taps into the ARP Omni and the Vienna Symphonic Library for additional string sounds.
VINTAGE OR VST?
“If it was all up to us and we had the budget,” Paul says when asked about how closely Turn My Teeth Up! approximates a tape-saturated sound, “we would have tracked everything to 2-inch and half-inch. It's something that captures the music better, especially for the vibe that we wanted on this particular record, as opposed to going totally digital. But I think only the real heads would have noticed.”
In the absence of tape, sometimes all it takes is the selective tweaking of some well-chosen software or old-school hardware to do the trick. Shock G's thick, swirling vocal on “Plainfield” goes through a revolving suite of SoundToys effects, including EchoBoy and FilterFreak. On the title track, Newkirk's live drum performance gets picked up by a single Neumann U 47 microphone from about 20 feet away and then passes through a phalanx of classic EMI EQ, filter and compression modules that seem literally to squeeze the drum kit into a bygone era.
Of course, a little homegrown ingenuity always helps the cause. Paul's own drumming prowess can be heard on the haunting funk ballad “Skippin Stonze” (with Bay Area ingénue Gabby La La on vocals), but the kit he's playing is an electronic one cobbled together by Newkirk using the guts of an old Roland drum box and an array of cake pans, trackpads and transistors mounted to a tubular keyboard stand. “That setup is pretty brilliant,” Paul raves, “only because it's like, ‘Is this gonna work?’ And then I hit the pads, and all of a sudden it's going bling! ksssh! tsssst! I was like, ‘Wow, that's amazing! These are cake pans?!’”
Newkirk's abilities with voice manipulation also came into play on the David Byrne track “How Does the Brain Wave?” — a song that was meant to conjure less of an old-school funk mood and more of a computer-driven, futuristic feel. Naturally, the Roland SVC-350 Vocoder was the inevitable choice.
“I just used David's vocal to feed it,” Newkirk explains. “I played the line an octave higher and an octave lower, and we blended them in. I'm sure you could do it with [Prosoniq's] Orange Vocoder or something like it, but it just doesn't sound the same. We didn't want to overpower the song; we wanted something that felt computerized without being blatantly ridiculous.” To compound the effect, Newkirk took the text of the track's spoken invocation by Derrick Davis (son of the late, great P-Funk vocalist Ray “Stingray” Davis), recorded a computer reading it back and then mixed the new voice underneath.
“A lot of that stuff wasn't really intended to be together,” Paul clarifies, “but sometimes you just throw all the tracks up and go, ‘Wow, that works. Maybe we should let it ride.’ Somehow it just connects in all the right ways.”
BRIDGING THE GAP
When he considers where hip-hop has been and where it's headed, Prince Paul is one of the few who's in any position to offer a real assessment of the changes the music has undergone, as well as their implications. He is, after all, a veteran of the scene and has remained consistently vital as a creative force throughout his career. Where some would say the music has been co-opted into oblivion by rampant commercialism, style biters, poseurs and a general lack of innovation, Paul sees only possibility.
“We're in a generation — me and Newkirk — that's directly in the middle,” he says. “You've got the newer kids who are just far gone on what they're doing, and then the older musicians. We feel both sides, which I think helps us make a record like this. We come from that era of the '70s when radio and everything was different, but yet we're young enough to understand and watch [MTV's] Real World or [BET's] 106 & Park. And for me, I think just for the betterment of music in general, a lot of these younger musicians should really work with older cats like Bernie Worrell. It would just make the music so much better — if anybody cares to make it better.”
Newkirk agrees and also stresses the importance of remembering that the gear is just a means to an end. “It's really about instrumentation and music theory,” he insists. “It's not always about the gear. It would disrespect what I learned from Bernie to talk only about that because I was definitely looking over his shoulder as a nice little student, and he was willing to teach both of us whatever we asked. No ego got in the way, and that's really cool.”
BABY ELEPHANT'S STOMPING GROUNDS
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Power Mac G5 (with 8 GB RAM)
Digidesign 192 interfaces (3), Pro Tools|HD3 system
Helios 24-input custom console
Software and plug-ins
Eventide Anthology bundle
GRM Tools ST (Spectral Transform) bundle
McDSP FilterBank and CompressorBank
MOTU Digital Performer, Mach 5 soft sampler
Propellerhead Reason 3.0
Sound Toys TDM Effects bundle
Waves Diamond bundle
Turntable, drum machine/samplers
Akai MPC2000XL sampling workstation
Ensoniq ASR-10 sampling keyboard
Technics SL-1200 turntable
ARP 2500, 2600 modular synths
Hammond B3 organ w/Leslie 122 rotating speaker
Hohner D6 Clavinet
Korg MS-20, PS-3100, SB-100 Synthe-Bass synths
1960s Ludwig drum kit
Moog Minimoog, Voyager synths
Steinway baby grande piano
Synton Syrinx synth
AKG D20, D30, D112
Neumann U 47, SM 69
Preamps, compressors, EQs, outboard effects
Chandler Limited TG1 compressor
EMI TG-12412 EQ, TG-12413 limiter, TG-12414 filter (“Those three pieces are amazing — and rare,” says engineer Albert DiFiore. “They came off the original Abbey Road mastering desk. The EQ is hard to describe in words — you can get some really weird, filtery effects with it.”)
Fairchild 660 compressor (“The one here is the actual unit that Bomb Factory used to model its 660 plug-in,” DiFiore says.)
Helios custom EQs (“They're the silver modules from the original Olympic desk that recorded Led Zeppelin, the Stones, Pink Floyd — just about anyone you can think of,” DiFiore says.)
Millennia Media STT-1 Origin preamp
Motown custom EQ (“This is a pretty standard EQ that was made by the engineers at Motown's old Detroit studio,” DiFiore says. “You can't really dig into something and carve it out — it's really more of a sweetener.”)
NTP 179-120 compressor/limiter
Pultec EQ-P1A and EQ-H2
Universal Audio LA-2A, LA-3A compressor/limiters
WSW/Siemens EQs (“We used these a lot to dirty up the live drums or some of the live bass, usually in conjunction with an LA-2A,” DiFiore says. “They really capture the harmonic distortion that you get with a tape machine, which is what Paul was looking for.”)
ATC SCM 200s
B&W 805s (near field)
UNDER THE RADAR
Manhattan's once-stately Edison Hotel seems like the most offbeat locale you could imagine for a recording studio. Tucked into the midtown theater district just off Times Square, the building itself is a throwback to the city's art-deco obsession of the 1930s — the last of a dying breed. The hotel's mezzanine space once functioned as a broadcast and rehearsal studio for such jazz legends as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane and Miles Davis (Thelonious Monk's own Celeste piano still sits in the cavernous live room). Now co-owned by Lenny Kravitz (who tracked most of his 2004 album, Baptism, here), the studio has become a creative hideaway that combines the best of the analog and digital worlds.
At the center of the spartan control room is a vintage Helios console that was originally customized for the rock band Heart back in the '70s. With 26 mic pres and 24 returns on the tape side, the board is also wired to Digidesign Pro Tools so that 24 digital outs can be spread across the faders. “The desk itself came out of Olympic Studio in London,” explains engineer Albert DiFiore, “back when they had a staff of electronics guys designing and building their own gear. It's just an awesome little console — very small compared to what you usually see at a studio this size.”
Stocked with all manner of modern and vintage outboard units, the Edison Studio offers an adaptability — as well as the ever-present option of getting a rich, fat-bottomed analog sound — that eludes most high-end facilities. In the end, though, the space's most distinctive asset is one that can't be bought, no matter how big the budget.
“It's all about the vibe,” DiFiore says. “If you take one look around in here, the surrounding atmosphere will tell you what the 1960s must have been like. And there are no windows to the outside — you don't know if it's raining, snowing, night or day — so it's almost like you're stuck in a time warp. Sometimes that's exactly what you need for a project like this.”