Success Story: Red Spyda - EMusician

Success Story: Red Spyda

George “Night of the Living Dead” Romero might want to meet Red Spyda — the hip-hop producer/beatmaster who has a knack for resurrecting the careers of deceased rap stars, bringing them back from “gangsta heaven” and into your speakers. Spyda’s 2002 underground phenomenon “The Realest” (a track that paired a previously unreleased NOTORIOUS B.I.G. a capella vocal and a patented Spyda-beat with the voice of then-up-and-comer 50 Cent) rocked the hip-hop world. But it also makes a direct connection to the bizarre 2005 commercial for Motorola’s ROKR iTunes-connected phone in which a bunch of music stars cram into a phone booth as a Biggie look-alike strides towards them and Madonna, face pressed to the glass, cries out, “Biggie, no!”
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Two years later, Spyda did it again with the track “Realest Killers” by marrying an unreleased Tupac Shakur vocal with a newly produced beat, and adding a duet with the artist that everyone was just calling “Fifty” — who was riding large on the multiplatinum success of Get Rich Or Die Trying. Result: another hit, spiking radio waves nationwide.

The tracks generated a lot of heat — when Innerscope Records and the Shakur estate got wind of the Tupac track, Red Spyda had cease-and-desist missives flying at him left and right. But Spyda isn’t the type to get ruffled. He came up through the ranks of the rough-and-tumble Miami rap scene as a bassist and programmer in the mid-1990s, when the Slip ’n’ Slide Records crew were giving the city an expletive-laden voice as hip-hop’s Third Coast. “I got my first [beat] placement with Trick Daddy on www.thugs.com,” he recalls. “They slapped $2,000 cash in my hand for that and that’s when I said ‘I got to do beats.’”

ON 2 NEW YORK

Spyda was working with a basic, but powerful, setup — a Roger Linn-version MPC-60 and Ensoniq ASR-10 (“The best filters in the world — I still use it every day”) — which he packed up and took to New York City in 1999 to hook up with DJ Stretch Armstrong, who began getting his beats circulated throughout the scene. The move to New York was initially lucrative (beats were selling for as much as $10,000 a piece), and he began getting dub work with everyone from Macy Gray to Ruffendz. The relationship with Armstrong eventually faltered, but his foot was in the door in New York’s hard-to-crack rap landscape.

“The hardest thing to get is placements when no one knows you,” says Spyda. “But a beat on a record is a credit and a credit is like a Grammy. Record labels read those credits. You get a credit on a 50 Cent album, your email is going to blow up.”

Spyda soon connected with Whoo Kid, who was commissioning mix and beat tapes. Soon Spyda was honing his Pro Tools chops editing and mixing beats for Whoo’s releases. “We worked out a deal: I’ll engineer and edit for you, and you let me freestyle my beats behind the vocal tracks,” he explains.

BUILDING THE GROOVE

Whoo slipped him the Biggie vocal in ’02, and using the same MPC-60/ASR-10 combination, Spyda created a beat for the track. “It came in on an audio CD,” he says. “I transferred the file to Pro Tools and looped the first eight bars of the verse. I was listening to his flow, the words. I wanted to make it sound like Biggie, to sound current. There was a Biggie track that DJ Premiere had produced — “I Put A Spell On You” — which I looped into Pro Tools, took an ASR-10 French horn sound, and made a staccato pattern that matched the one on that track. Then I recorded that to an MPC-2000, along with Biggie’s eight bars.

“I had to build the groove. I hate drum machine hi-hats. But I had this typewriter sound someone had sampled for me; it had this ‘chk’ sound instead of the usual ‘tk’ you get off a drum machine. It inspired me to make the beat sound like Biggie was typing out a letter to his fans. Like, ‘Hey, I’m back!’”

Spyda took the track to Whoo, who checked it out in his primary monitoring environment — a Lexus LS400. Within hours, Whoo had the track at 50 Cent’s manager’s home. Within minutes of that, 50 was in the studio laying down a rap, and within days “The Realest” was all over New York radio, with DJs scrambling to cover it. It was then that Spyda’s beats became in high demand.

WELCOME TO THA SPYDADOME

One of Spyda’s moves was to build his own studio, the Spydadome, in a room that’s part of an artist/engineer collective in SoHo. The gear is representative of the musician in his “inner engineer”: a Line 6 Bass POD, various versions of MPC samplers, classic Yamaha NS-10A speakers, and an SSL AWS-900 console. “I have a way of working,” he says. “I’ll lay out beats on the MPC, play a live bass to that and use the POD to get a ‘Bootsy Collins’ or other cool bass sound, and run it into Pro Tools HD. Most of the work really goes into editing the loops; that’s what I build tracks from. That combination of being a musician and being an engineer is what sets my beats apart.”

GETTING SOUNDS

Once the basic beat track is built, Spyda resorts to the huge range of samples he collects on an ongoing basis. (“One of my things is that once a month or so I stop producing and just spend a few days, or even a whole week, just sampling and editing.”) In addition to the usual break CDs and samples traded amongst friends, he keeps an MPC-4000 constantly connected to the output of his TiVo. “The secret is, television commercials have the best sounds, especially car commercials,” he says conspiratorially. “TV is moving to high-def, so the quality of the sound, and the samples, keeps getting better and better.”

Working these samples is the thick of what Spyda does. He prefers to lift percussion samples from vinyl versions of beat recordings, such as the Vinylistics series. “For the kick, you have to find one in the open,” he says. “If the hat is on there with it, it adds high frequencies you don’t want. I take the kick and put it in the MPC and use the filter on the filter page to muddy it up, and pitch it down to add more bottom. Then I run it through a JBL or Manley compressor with the threshold set up about halfway. The more you process a sound, the more of the original sound you lose, so I use the compressor to tighten what’s in there.”

Spyda collects many of his snare samples from rock records. “Most of the big-sounding snares you hear on hip-hop records are from rock records,” he says. “They’re hard-sounding. But rock music loves to put the guitars up front, and hip-hop has the drums up front, so the rock snare samples usually need more bass and low-mid EQ to thicken them up.” And noise — Spyda will not trim the noise in a snare sample. “That’s part of the ‘dirt’ you need to give it presence and help it sit in the track.”

THA PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE

Spyda and Whoo Kid remain partners; the pair also were responsible for the release of “Realest Killas.” By the time it came out, the number of Tupac bootlegs rivaled that of the Beatles. They include Death Row Presents 2Pac Nu-Mixx Klazzics and one iteration of the Rap Phenomenon CD series. “The pressure was on for that one because the Biggie mix had been so huge,” Spyda recalls. Pressure from Shakur’s estate began even before the record was done. “I’m like, this is a mix tape, not something that’s going to be sold in stores,” he says, defending the concept as one that acts purely as an homage within the industry. It could be argued that Spyda benefited from the acclaim and notoriety the mixes had brought him, but self-promotion is a survival tactic he says Shakur would understand well. “I feel a kind of bond with him,” he says.

In fact, Spyda originally flew to Miami to bring his Tupac track to 50 Cent. There, the playback at Circle House Studios revealed a dark beat, knocked out at 6 a.m. the previous day. “I popped the CD in and Fifty drops his food and runs into the booth, ready to rap on the spot,” he remembers. “Tupac can still inspire.”

Red Spyda’s dance card is full these days — tracks are ongoing for Kelly Rowland of Destiny’s Child, Lil’ Kim, and others. He’s taking a break from deceased artists for now, but is unapologetic about the phenomenon he helped kick off. “They were well known and loved for a good reason,” he says. “If you can find a way to keep that going, all the better. People get attached to artists they love and they want to remember them only as they heard them. But they can still evolve . . . with our help.”

Dan Daley is an author and journalist who covers entertainment technology for publications including EQ, Wired, Fast Company, and the London Daily Telegraph. He lives in New York, Miami, and Nashville.