The Evolution of Urban Production

A LOT of people think of an “urban” music producer as someone who just makes “backing beats” in an almost assembly-line fashion, and sells them like commodities.
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Clockwise from top left: Ken Lewis, Dirty Swift, Tony Maserati, J.R. Rotem, and Ryan West

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A Return to Emphasis on Melody, Songwriting, and Song Structure

BY JASON SCOTT ALEXANDER

A LOT of people think of an “urban” music producer as someone who just makes “backing beats” in an almost assembly-line fashion, and sells them like commodities. That mindset grew from a wave of ridiculously lucrative deals at the turn of the millennium, when labels literally threw money at top beat makers like Timbaland, Scott Storch, and Swizz Beatz, essentially securing pre-concocted flavor-ofthe- month hit sounds for their artists. While this is still happening to a large degree, the tide seems to be changing.

Even if just slightly so, we’re now seeing a return to the emphasis on melody, songwriting, and song structure that harkens back to the early days of soul, R&B, and jazz recordings. Some observers say that the passing of Michael Jackson influenced many labels and acts to become reenamored with a “contemporary roots” style of pop-R&B sound, where real instruments, live playing, strong hooks, and deeply collaborative artist-producer relationships each played pivotal roles in generating a classic sound.

Though certainly familiar with the assembly line, Dirty Swift (aka Kevin Risto)— one half of writing and production duo The MIDI Mafia, along with Bruce Waynne—says he’s taken a decidedly old-school approach from day one, working more along the “concept” process pioneered by the likes of LA Reid, Teddy Riley, Babyface, or Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

“We’ve always approached producing in the traditional sense. Someone who makes beats is a track guy. Someone who can visualize a complete song and has the resources and know-how to bring the song to completion is a producer,” says Swift. “Our favorite projects are the ones where we can be involved from song concept straight through to the delivery of the masters. There’s nothing worse than handing off a song too early in the process and hearing the final outcome ruined by a bad mix, or some other addition or omission that isn’t consistent with the original concept we came up with.”

Dirty Swift

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Rather than follow trends, the duo takes pride in creating “pretty timeless productions,” including records like the three-time-Platinum “21 Questions” (Aftermath, 2003) by 50 Cent, and the Grammy-nominated Number One hit “When I See U” (J, 2007) by Fantasia Barrino, one of only 14 songs in history to spend an entire year on the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip- Hop Songs chart.

In many ways, Swift feels the Top 40 is a reflection of what’s really going on in the vast music world that isn’t Top 40. “There are amazing things being created by all kinds of genres that eventually make their way into mainstream,” he says. “Whether or not those integrations are successful or have longevity really depends on the songs themselves. If someone writes a forgettable song on the most amazing arrangement, it will not have longevity. But an amazing song paired with some creative production will always produce something that should stand the test of time.”

That is, in fact, much of MIDI Mafia’s secret: to style-hop within a single production.

“On ‘Quickly’ (Evolver, GOOD Music, 2008) for John Legend, for example, we took some big hip-hop drums and had some real pop arrangements on top with a brilliant R&B song,” Swift explains. “These days we’ve been traveling a lot and have been exposed to some of the more dance and world elements, so those things are finding their ways into our productions.”

And although that’s been a trend recently, being a DJ since he was a kid, Swift has always listened to all kinds of music and feels that, “these days anything goes, which is a lot of fun as a musician!”

“Part of our longevity has come from the fact that we have never locked into one ‘sound’ and have always collaborated with amazing musicians and songwriters that continue to add to our repertoire of production,” he says. “I think we started being known as hip-hop guys, but I like the fact that we’ve been able to cross so many boundaries. I think we’re some of the only producers that can claim a Westside Connection album and a Justin Bieber album on their discography.”

PLAYING OFF STRENGTHS Hollywoodbased super-producer J.R. Rotem also knows a thing or two about diversity. Berklee-educated in piano performance, his background includes classical and jazz piano, as well as film scoring. On the contemporary front, he found artists like The Beatles, Sting, and ABBA to be very inspiring early on, but also heard Run DMC’s “Raising Hell” album at a very young age and became absolutely mesmerized by hip-hop. That forever changed his course.

Known today almost exclusively for his impressive body of work in the rap and urbanpop music field, Rotem credits his hidden strengths for allowing him to find the kind of uniqueness required to stand out in a crowded producer marketplace.

J.R. Rotem

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“I would say that my musical background, as far as classical and jazz, is certainly what defines my productions. It’s like I can’t escape it, it’s just part of who I am. It gives me individuality. It definitely influences my sound . . . it is my sound,” says Rotem, emphasizing that too many young producers are getting into the game by copying someone else’s sound.

And while he started out simply as a beatmaker—his very first placement was with Destiny’s Child on a song called “Fancy” from the Survivor album—like Swift, Rotem has long since subscribed to an all-encompassing production style.

“To me, being a producer is a very hands-on approach from start to finish. There’s getting the right songwriters, getting the right concept on the beat, making sure the hook is catchy, that it’s as marketable and commercial and as potent as possible, and then it’s getting the right artist to record the song, if it’s not written specifically for someone. Then there’s producing and arranging the vocals and making sure that the artist is singing at the best of their abilities. Then there’s the finishing of the production, kind of tailoring the track which was almost a blueprint of the song around now the finished song, which involves adding production, taking things out, changing instrumentation, adding things like strings, and stuff like that. It’s all been very unheard of in producing hip-hop and urban music, until recently,” says Rotem.

Ryan West

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At the end of the day, he stills considers himself a pianist and a composer at heart. And while there are a lot of producers who actually delegate that out—they have somebody else play the keys or give them the beats and then they finish the record—it’s all fun for Rotem, starting a song and seeing it through to the end and doing everything that production involves.

“I think of the producers that I look up to—I’m talking about people like Quincy Jones, George Martin, David Foster . . . and of course Ron Fair, who I’ve worked with very closely lately—that’s the type of producer that I see myself in the vein of,” he says.

TOO MANY TOYS As every electronic musician is painfully aware, along with this kind of independent freedom comes the potentially dangerous tipping point of overproduction.

“When a producer has 10 or 15 virtual synths, a few keyboards, and a drum machine in a portable 64-track setup, there are no longer the elements of urgency or expediency that are present when you’re in an expensive studio with talented musicians and you’ve got to get it right the first time,” says New York City-based engineer Ryan West, who’s worked with Dr. Dre, Jay Z, Kanye West, Ghostface Killah, and The Game, as well as being production assistant to Just Blaze for years.

“What ends up happening in some cases is that, as the mixer, I need to take on some elements of what should be the producer’s job. I need to sort out what works and doesn’t. Sometimes it’s as simple as muting a part or two; sometimes I have to talk with the producer about reworking the arrangement,” he says. “Sometimes parts need to be replayed. Especially with younger producers, it can fall to the mixer, or others, to make those decisions for the good of the song. With the high track counts we’re seeing now as opposed to 10 years ago, part of the focus is to keep mixes sounding clean and clear so that each part is distinct and blends correctly. I also have to develop a cohesive quality in the mix, even with tons and tons of instruments flying around. That can be really challenging.”

Across the river in New Jersey, Ken Lewis cites a lost art of the tracking engineer, and in particular, the art of vocal recording. “Ten years ago, you had 48 tracks. Everything had to end up on those tracks, so you would comp and blend backing vocals before a mix,” he says. “Nowadays, you might have 100-plus backing vocals, literally. When I mixed “Damaged” for Danity Kane, it was 179 tracks! There were two songs I mixed for Day 26 that topped 200 tracks. Usually the first 12 hours of any of those mixes was spent comping, blending, and organizing background vocals, which 10 years ago, would have been done before the mix.”

And, love or hate the effect, Antares’ Auto-Tune is more prevalent on the Top 40 than ever before—despite the often negative connotations that music critics and entertainment media give it.

Ken Lewis

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“Gimmicks have been built into popular music, popular art, architecture, and all forms of creative expression since the beginning of time,” explains veteran mixer Tony Maserati. “Michael and Quincy may not have used Auto-Tune or quantization, but you can bet they used whatever the cutting-edge technology of the day was. It could have been a particular technique of varying the bias on their tape machine for one set of backgrounds and setting it differently for another group. Or the introduction of the newest synthesizer. Perhaps it was the idea of doubling the sax with a synth for the first time. Were there some at the time who considered it ‘gimmicky’? I’m sure of it. I look forward to the new ideas my clients show up with. If it sucks, trust me, I’ll be the first to tell ’em so. But if it helps place a song emotionally in the right place, at the right cultural moment; no amount of nostalgia for the past is going to convince me to remove it.”

The Secret of the Boom

Tech Tips for Treating Low End

One of the hardest aspects of mixing hip-hop and electro-heavy R&B is treating the many low-end elements that often coexist. Our experts agree that it starts by defining physical space in your head where different frequencies can “live”.

“I try to stack frequencies into slots, so to speak,” says Ken Lewis. “Boosting 80Hz in the kick and boosting around 50Hz and 150Hz in the bass while taking out a sliver at 80Hz, so the two fit together like a puzzle. It’s usually not big changes, but it helps carve out space. Sometimes you can clean up messy low end with mutes, cutting the 808 when there’s a sub bass line going on, and vice versa. Everything starts with solid production, though. I’ve had big producers ask me why the kick drum isn’t hitting hard yet in the mix, and I’ll solo the kick drum they gave me and its zero attack and all low sustain.”

Tony Maserati

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Maserati uses a combination of EQ and compression to place a song squarely in the genre. “I’ll squash the upper mids and lightly compress the lower frequencies. I also like to find the lower mids that create a ‘cloud’ around the vocal range— usually between 180–330Hz—and I’ll cut sharply in those ranges, depending on the instrumentation. I spend a lot of time working and re-working those areas until the vocal fits.”

Sometimes throughout a song, elements may drop out. “This potentially opens up more space that can either be filled or left open for dramatic effect,” says Ryan West. “Every song is going to be a different beast, and you have to evaluate what the dominant and supporting elements are. Sometimes in hip-hop, it’s the kick, and the other tracks need to work around that. In that case, I might filter out some of the lowest frequencies of the kick so that it’s not tubby and can sit comfortably on top of the 808 and/or bass and keep the flow of the beat moving. With a lower-frequency kick drum, I may try to filter a bit or the lowest frequencies on the bass so it can live above the kick drum—maybe everything under 35 or 40Hz with a steep curve. I may also sidechain-compress so that the attack of the kick drum compresses the bass in a way that lets the kick poke through a bit more. I try not to do too much “scooping” of broad bandwidths because I find that it can easily start to make the tracks sound less natural.”