X:144 The Illusionist

With lightning-fast chopping skills, X:144 wins battles as if they''re a cakewalk

In August of 2007, Florida beatmaker/MC X:144 nabbed the top prize in the first Scribble Jam Production Battle. Also a winner at Orlando's Lounge Battles, X:144, aka Maged Khalil Ragab, has built beats for MF Doom and others while holding down production and MCing in his own act with DJ SPS (simply called X:144 and SPS). The duo's M.E. (Nonsense, 2006) dropped late last year, and as DJ SPS is a master turntablist and Zulu Nation Universal Supremacy Champion, X's gloomy beats on the album are matched with razor-edge cuts and turntable tricks.

X:144 was teaching a Logic class at nearby media school Full Sail during M.E.'s development, and the application came in handy when he put together choppy album cut “3 Degrees of Ventilation”; its quick scratches and a jazzy piano loop seem to curl around synth sounds, but the only synth he used was for the track's bass line.

“Everything else was sample-based,” he says of “3 Degrees.” “There's a cello quartet sample in there that I chopped and filtered using Logic's EVOC filter. It took a lot of tweaking, as I usually start from the default setting, but it worked out great. Everyone thought it was a synth, which makes me proud. The drums are actually one break that I presampled on my Ensoniq EPSm rack at different sample rates, recorded into Logic and cataloged for a moment such as that one.”

X's meticulously crafted drum sounds were a big part of his win at Scribble Jam. “Because I'm African, the drums are a huge factor,” he says. “It's embedded in my soul; that is my center foundation and the foundation of hip-hop music.” Two weeks before the competition, the participants were mailed just 10 songs from which they could sample for the Sample Round. The backward-moving riffs in X's 80-second Sample Round entry are the fruit of his own patch in Redmatica's Keymap sampler, while the end's speedy hand drums were swabbed with channel-hopping delayed woodwind swirls.

“I assess the song I'm about to mix and get acquainted with the track's instruments,” he explains. “The sample at the end of the Sample Round beat was processed with Logic's EXS24 sampler filters, automated to open and close over time. I used the SoundToys Echoboy plug-in for delay; I love that module. It's so rich in tone and extremely diverse; if you think of a delay possibility, it can do it. That was also automated and used via a sidechain process. Then I routed my stereo mix through my Drawmer 1968 Mercenary Edition stereo tube/FET compressor and into my Great River MP-2NV [preamp] just to smooth out the frigidity of digital summing.”

Akai MPC2500 in hand, the Scribble Jam's Live Round had X:144 ransacking six records over 60 minutes to produce a beat in front of an audience and attentive judges. All four contending producers were given the same LPs with the stipulation that they weren't to make any sounds other than an 808 kick drum.

“After going through four records and finding drums on the first one, I realized I found what I wanted to work with on the third,” says X of the frantic search. “I'm fairly efficient at chopping manually because of my years on vintage machines, and I utilized the MPC's Chop Shop function for multiple slices. I analyzed the transients in Chop Shop and adjusted the parameters manually to make sure that it was slicing the way I wanted. At that point, I'm 30 minutes into my round, and my opponents are bobbing their heads like it's cake.”

Obviously, the Live Round beat is heavy on the sample-slicing. “I chopped down to a single chord on an eighth- or 16th-note progression,” he says. “I cut down the drums to individual hits, a kick, a snare, a hi-hat, a ghost note and an open hi-hat.” With jangly guitar snippets prefacing sudden trumpet jabs, it's almost as if the celebratory overtones are part of a prediction for the Scribble Jam champ, but X:144 attributes his success to deft sampling and the perfect drum break.

“Drums are the whole hunt when it comes to sampling,” X says of the process. “When you find a break, you've found a goldmine worth of material on that record. It's almost as if the bands that respected their drummers to have a drum solo respect hip-hop enough for us to sample it.”