An “analog girl in a digital world,” Erykah Badu cranks the heat on New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh—a life-affirming flight of raw, funky emotion
Left to right—Badu, Tom Soares, and Mike “Chav” Chavarria.
On a chilly December night in New York City, a gaggle of journalists is being crowded into one of the live rooms at Chung King Studios in Soho. Not your typical album preview, everyone from Britpop soulstress Corinne Bailey Rae to legendary label exec Sylvia Rhone is rumored to be on hand, while in the small reception area on the penthouse floor, cell phones are being collected, bagged, and numbered to avoid “Internet leakage” of the night’s proceedings.
Some are grumbling about the over-the-top security measures, but when Erykah Badu makes her entrance, all is quickly forgiven. Relaxed and regal to the core, she explains to her hushed audience that some unsavory type has already uploaded a bootlegged track from the previous night’s session. That song, “Jump in the Air (Stay There),” with spotlights from Lil Wayne and Bilal, has since been leaked officially, and given Ms. Badu’s unwavering commitment to creative control of her music, she can’t be too happy about it.
Even on this night, she seems almost uneasy about drawing back the curtain on her fifth studio effort— maybe because some of the songs are not yet in the final stages of mixing. But she needn’t have worried. New Amerykah Part Two: Return of the Ankh (Universal/Motown, 2010) delivers on multiple levels, one of the most prominent being a return to form that recalls the honey-soaked revelations of Badu’s groundbreaking “neo-soul” debut Baduizm (Universal/Motown, 1997). Deeper still, Part Two is a meticulously crafted concept album, both in the vintage sense of Music of My Mind–era Stevie Wonder and in the alt-underground hip-hop vein repped by such artists as Madlib, J Dilla, Karriem Riggins, Georgia Anne Muldrow, Shafiq Husayn, and 9th Wonder—all of whom, it so happens, lend their production cuts (posthumously for Dilla) to the finished gem.
“I wanted the themes on this album to have a very warm and sometimes familiar feeling to them,” Badu says. “Sonically, most of the first album jelled together because of the digital sound, but this time I wanted to feel it in more of an analog way. Some of the samples we used might sound very familiar too, but it’s fun for me to revisit things like that and put a melody over it that has never been heard before. That’s really what the art of hip-hop is about, and what makes it exciting. It doesn’t have to be something totally new. It can be something redone or recycled that has a new twist, or a new feel to it.”
Devout fans will also recognize shades of the slightly off-kilter, almost psychedelic jazz overtones and tapesaturated lushness that were the main ingredient in Badu’s sophomore release Mama’s Gun (Universal/Motown, 2000). Some of the key personnel from that outing, who have worked consistently with Badu over the years, reprise their collaborative roles here— including, in particular, Roots drummer Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson and keyboardist/producer James Poyser.
“We definitely share a similarmindedness,” Poyser offers. “Erykah can go from the beatnik thing to the hip-hop hardcore thing to the jazz thing, but in the end what she really loves is music. She has taken in a lot of different styles and influences, and she’s grabbed them and made her own niche. When you’re working with somebody like that, it just makes everything easier.”
Racks of outboard gear at Luminous Sound in Dallas.
Regardless of the hat she’s wearing— producer, composer, musician, performer— Badu is constantly exploring the range of her voice and delights in the experimentation that modern technology affords her. When a song first begins to take shape, she’ll record a demo vocal straight into GarageBand, and then manipulate it until it begins to line up with the sound she has in her head.
“I just keep turning knobs until I hear the right match for the song and how my voice should sound,” she explains. “Each song has its own woman—its own character. I playfully call it ‘she’ when we’re mixing or doing a sub-mix or a rough mix, so I might say, ‘She needs some more of this.’ Chav [Mike Chavarria, engineer/producer] will listen to what I’ve concocted and try his best to make it match.”
Chavarria takes the lead vocal from “Don’t Be Long,” co-produced by Detroit-bred beatsmith Ta’Raach, as an example; the song immediately conjures up Stevie Wonder’s classic “Girl Blue,” where his voice is squeezed through an undulating, kaleidoscopic tape flange. “For her demo of that song, Erykah used one of GarageBand’s phasers,” Chav explains. “It tends to have a harsh quality to it, so I used several instances of a Waves MetaFlanger to get the sound she wanted. The vocal is feeding itself—really the flanger is feeding another flanger, and then it’s sent to another flanger as if it were a reverb. The way it’s set up on the console ends up being pretty complex, but it was the only thing that was able to make it move like that and have the right blend of effects.”
Understandably, Badu is a perfectionist when it comes to her vocal performance and how it fits the final version of a song, so there’s no telling when she’ll scrap a take, even during mixing. “That’s what’s very unique about working with Erykah,” says Tom Soares, whose tenure with Badu as recording and mixing engineer goes back to Mama’s Gun. “I’m in mix mode all the time—if I’m not in Pro Tools, I’m in the computer on the SSL console. She likes to hear the progression of how the song is coming together, so at any given point in the process I have to recall the record that she’s gotten used to hearing. Sometimes I’ll be ready to print, and all of a sudden she’ll ask for a couple of new vocal tracks, and it’ll be a brilliant performance. She has really good ears and she knows what she wants.”
Finding the right microphone to get the job done has been a Grail-like quest over the years, but Badu feels she has finally found the right one, thanks to Soares, in the Shure KSM9. “Tom was telling us that James Taylor uses that mic to record with, so I tried it out,” she says. “Now I religiously use it all the time, no matter how much they try to force these other mics on me. I even carry it with me in my purse. [Laughs]. Tom knows how much midrange I have in my voice, and how I hate to hear it coming back at me because it sounds too nasally, so this is the one I use now, for my live shows and in the studio.”
It’s already pretty well known among producers, engineers, and gear geeks that Badu rarely, if ever, records in a vocal booth, preferring instead to sing in the control room with a live monitor mix. “As long as she’s facing the speakers straight on, I can turn them up significantly and not have a problem with leakage [into the mic],” Soares explains. “But Erykah is not easy to record because her voice is so dynamic. She has a heavy range from 2.2 to 2.6K, so when she goes up there and really belts it out, you need a signal path that can take it. Lately I’ve been using the Little Labs Lmnopre— it’s clear and big sounding, with tons of headroom. I run that into an Amek 9098 mic pre, but I just use the EQ end of it. I filter a little bit on the bottom and a little up around the hi ess area, around 12 or 13K. Then from that, we go into a Summit TLA-100 compressor, with 2dB of leveling at the most. I’m not a big fan of compression on vocals, but the tubes help, especially when you’re using Pro Tools.”
For that matter, so does recording to tape. Soares acknowledges the speed and efficiency in editing that Pro Tools offers, but he remains skeptical of the digital platform’s ability as a tape machine, especially when it comes to recording vocals. “All the music is coming out of Pro Tools,” he admits, “but most of Erykah’s vocals are coming off of 2-inch tape.” It’s a nod to how records used to be made, and really to how Badu continues to work; her vocals for New Amerykah Part One were tracked to tape, and she’ll likely stick with it in the future. “I’ve even tried to fly a vocal take back into Pro Tools, but it just sounds different,” Soares continues. “Even with a great converter, the difference is huge, so for us the best way to get around it is to lock up the 2-inch with Pro Tools.”
ANATOMY OF A SONG
From the start, Return of the Ankh swells with the velvety atmospherics that define the best tape-based analog recordings from the ’70s: thick low end, warm limpid mids, and punchy highs, with close attention paid to the stereo spread and panning techniques. It’s really the only way to transmit the hypnotic mood of the album, which shifts gears effortlessly from dreamlike (in the opening echo-drenched sequence of “20 Feet Tall,” co-produced with 9th Wonder) to get-down funky (“Don’t Be Long”) to groove-introspective (in the closing epic “Out My Mind Just in Time,” with James Poyser and Georgia Anne Muldrow).
“Window Seat,” the album’s first single, is a prime vehicle for Badu to channel all her creative strengths, as well as her penchant for analog warmth. The song has its origins in an informal session at her Dallas home with Poyser. “Erykah has this old lime-green, ridiculously out-of-tune piano,” he quips. “She refuses to get it tuned because it has character—it’s a sight to see and hear. We were just sitting there playing some things, and she started singing and that’s how the idea came about.”
Badu had a vocal melody, but no words. Like most of the songs she writes, she follows the path perfected by Marvin Gaye, allowing the lyrics to emerge from the rhythm of the melody. “I write on beat, very much like an MC,” she says. “I’ll keep listening back to it, and once the rhythm starts to sound like syllables of words, I just say whatever word fits. Sometimes that becomes what the song will be, then I fine-tune it so it makes sense, or sometimes I just leave it as is.”
Using her own home 4-track, she laid down a drum pattern from her Korg Triton, and the demo began to take shape. From there, recording engineer Chris Bell, who first joined the Badu camp with Mama’s Gun, went in to prep Luminous Sound in Dallas— Badu’s de facto home away from home when she’s working on an album—to track a session with Poyser on Fender Rhodes and ?uestlove on drums.
“When they came in to work, I was instantly ready to pull up a 2-inch machine,” Bell says, recalling how Mama’s Gun was recorded entirely to tape. “I had a vintage drum kit delivered because I thought Ahmir would want that old-school sound. He’s very particular about what mics he wants on the kit—no [Shure] SM57s allowed—so I used Royer R-121 and R-122 ribbons on him, along with some Coles 4038s. It’s a real smooth sound. We basically came in and knocked it out in an afternoon, but Ahmir wanted to add some percussion parts, and pretty soon working with the 2-inch was getting cumbersome, so we dumped it into the computer.”
What emerged was a fat, loping groove with a minimalist arrangement of claps and conga hits, all puncuated with ?uestlove’s signature snap on the snare drum. “Initially, I played the bass parts on the Rhodes,” Poyser says, “and I overdubbed a bass sound out of Logic. I had it controlled by a Motif [Yamaha MIDI controller keyboard], and I’m sure it was a sound from [Spectrasonics] Trilogy. The bass sound from that just married well with the track. Usually I scroll through and try playing a few things, and whatever marries well with the track is what I use.”
Badu lived with that version of the “Window Seat” demo for months afterward, working diligently until she had two verses and a bridge recorded. “One of the things I’m accused of is demo love,” she jokes. “I want it to sound just like that, forever. We hadn’t put a real bass on it— James was playing that on keyboards, and it was just perfect. There was nothing more to be done to it . . . until Thundercat came in.”
As bassist with Sa-Ra Creative Partners and Bilal, Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is a known entity on the hip-hop underground. “He put a funky-ass bass line on it—very simple, just three or four notes—and that was all it needed,” Badu recalls. “I guess you could say that songs are crafted the way Subway sandwiches are made. You start with the bread, then a little bit of lettuce, then we point to the pickles and so on, and the bass line was the oil and vinegar. That’s how it happens.”
In the mix, Soares called on some key pieces of outboard gear to thicken the bass sound even further. “I’ve got a Moog 3-Band Parametric Equalizer that works really well on bass,” he says, “and I’ll also use the Drawmer 1969 [Mercenary Edition] tube compressor, usually across the mix bus. There’s a little switch in the stereo link section, and when you move it to the ‘BIG’ position, all the bass comes through so it only compresses the midrange and treble.” The effect makes Poyser’s Rhodes sound almost bass-like, and Bruner’s bass sound almost synth-like.
When mixing vocals, Soares looks to a pair of Urei LA-22 compressors so he can fine-tune specific frequencies. “When Erykah tells me that she’s really enjoying ‘Window Seat,’ that means I’ve done my job,” Soares says. “Whatever she’s hearing in her head, I’m getting it to come out of the speakers. Sometimes she gives me a piece of music with crazy low end, and I have to find a way to make it fit in the speaker but still sound and feel the way she wants it. She wants someone to feel an emotion about the song. It could be a love song to one person, and something totally different to another person, but it makes them feel something, so that it’s special only to them.”
SAMPLE ME THIS
Like the first installment of New Amerykah, Return of the Ankh swells with the contributions of some key figures in experimental hip-hop. Drummer and producer Karriem Riggins is one of them, having worked closely with J Dilla on what would turn out to be his last solo project (2006’s The Shining); his musical connection with Badu goes back to 1998, when she joined Dilla at his studio in Detroit for sessions that led to the Grammynominated “Didn’t Cha Know?” from Mama’s Gun.
“Erykah had a batch of songs that were inspiring to her, and she burned a CD for me and James [Poyser] to listen to,” Riggins begins, referring to the events that led to the making of “Get Money”—a smoldering soul groove based on the Sylvia Striplin classic “Can’t Turn Me Away,” and one of several standouts on Return of the Ankh. “She didn’t actually say she wanted to remake these songs—it was more to spark some creativity. So when we finally booked the studio time [at Chick Corea’s Mad Hatter Studios in L.A.], we started to recreate that break.”
Riggins soon came across another inspirational break during a session at Sa-Ra’s studio. “I brought my [Akai] MPC3000 in, and I think I had about 50 records with me, and I stumbled on this Eddie Kendricks loop [‘Intimate Friends’]. I knew that a lot of people had used it, so I thought about how I could do something different. I just stretched it out into a long form on the 3000, and then added some clavinet and Rhodes when we dropped everything to Pro Tools. Erykah was incredible. She let the beat roll for at least half an hour and basically recorded a freestyle reference; then she pulled ideas from that.”
The song became “Fall in Love,” which pays tribute to the stutter-step rhythmic explorations of Dilla but also serves as a test case to the challenges Soares had to meet in the mixing phase. He points to the song “Umm Hmm,” a sample-stacked workout co-produced by Madlib, as another example. “We got Madlib’s music in the form of a stereo MP3,” he explains, “and I’ve developed a method of working with that format so it fits with the overall sound Erykah wants.
“Basically I duplicate the track about six or seven times, and then I go in with some heavy-duty EQ plug-ins and literally destroy the two-track and then rebuild it. I use the Massenburg EQ plug-in a lot for this. It allows you to separate the bandwidths, so it plays only the bandwidth that you’re highlighting. I’ll usually start with the kick drum; if it’s slightly out of phase, I’ll fix that and then pan it up in the middle. Then I’ll just keep isolating different parts of the two-track, each time panning it out a little bit more, until I’ve recreated a stereo image from a whole bunch of small snippets. How it works depends on the density of the two-track. You’re gonna get phasing, so you have to keep adjusting until it makes sense, but at this point it’s almost like I can go in there and [pull out individual] instruments.”
With yet another album already nearly in the can—Lowdown Loretta Brown, named after one of her many aliases and described as a character “from the ’50s who acts like she’s from the ’40s . . . the 2040s.” — Erykah Badu continues to push soul and hip-hop music into entirely uncharted waters.
“Georgia [Anne Muldrow] and I have very similar world views, and we’re very serious about the vitality of our families,” she says. “Making that song with her—and in fact making this album—has been a liberating time for me because we’re defining ourselves through our relationships as women. It woke me up to really acknowledging my part in my own heartache, and what I’m doing wrong. I wasn’t in any particular situation at the time, but the music has so many elements of liberation in it, and that’s all I could think of to talk about. It’s a diary entry of what’s inside of my mind, and a way for the whole deal to come out.”