Studio Campfire Stories: “Let It Go” (feat. Nicholas Ryan Gant)

I can remember being reintroduced to the original song by Pages back in the summer of 2009 when Questlove tweeted it one day saying that he currently had the joint on repeat. From there, hell… I had it on repeat. The joint is yet ANOTHER reason why I could give a damn about a “genre.” Because if you look at a picture of Pages, there’s no way you would think that they created the many soul-infused gems that they did. But I remember tweeting Questlove back and my man DJ Brainchild catching what I wrote and letting me know to check their albums out as well… So I ended up grabbing three of their albums including their self-titled joint that was released in 1978. Fast forward to 2011 to yet another phone conversation between Phonte and I where we were discussing song ideas… “Let It Go” came up. My first response came in the form of words spoken by the legendary Negro Physician, Dr. Dre, “HEY-ELL yeeeah.” 

As a listener, I felt it was gonna be VERY important to try and recapture the warmth of that 70’s recorded instrumentation from the original record. I could tell that the updating was going to begin with the drums… So once again, I started recording and programming the drums first, along with a live hi-hat and a cabasa pattern that mimicked the “Zimba-Ku” drum break. Once I heard the drums fully recorded, I couldn’t WAIT to lay the rest of the song. (I actually video recorded myself laying down the live bass on the record, which I’ll be sure to post later on…) The keys were the hardest to pick up on because I couldn’t hear them too well in certain places, Pages’ mix had those chords tucked real well in some spots. The FUN parts were the synth solos, particularly in the middle of the song where it breaks down… there are a few layering techniques I used to manipulate it sonically to where it is now. It was one of those solos where if I messed up while recording it, I wasn’t mad because it was fun as hell to play anyway!

Of course once the music was finished, we had to figure out who was going to sing in this high ass register provided to us by the Pages brothers… especially those hooks! At first we thought of two vocalists, one to sing the verses and the other to sing the hooks… but one of the vocalists we were going to ask to do it was on extended vocal rest. To make sure he remained healthy and continued to improve, Phonte brought up Nicholas Ryan Gant. Now, I met Nicholas right around the time I moved out to Maryland in 2006 as he was singing background for Muhsinah. The thing is, I didn’t realize how extremely vocally talented he was until maybe last year when he came on stage with us as The Foreign Exchange was performing “Maybe She’ll Dream Of Me” in NYC at BB King’s in October. Man look…. I don’t even think Nicholas understands how talented Nicholas is. He was killin’ on stage… We exchanged numbers very soon after that impromptu performance. lol Needless to say, when Phonte brought him up… I was all for it. He sent Nicholas the music and we waited…. In the meantime, Phonte hit me up with the “check your email” text… UH oh. I checked the joint…. and Tay has laid some background vocals on it, now the song is slowly starting to come to life. The part that was getting me was “Let cha!! …Love GO!!”  ……”Whoa-whooooa …whoaaaaawhooaaoooooo!!” I was like, “YO!! This shit is CRAZY!” With all that going on, I still wasn’t quite prepared for what was sent to me about one week later. When I finally got the demoed full vocal version from Nicholas,  I was sitting in my classroom at the end of the school day and was forced to grab some student headphones to plug into my phone just so I was able listen right then and there. When I heard all of what was going on vocally, my only response was, “The hell is this kat DOING?! …..DAMN!! (followed by an additional array of colorful curse words and phrases)” The harmonies were on point, the dude’s runs were precise and not overdone and the original was still in tact. I called Phonte after about three listens and didn’t say much at all.  Phonte responds to me by saying, “Man, he bodied that shit…” Uhh… Yeah, I agree. I actually sat in the studio and soloed a couple parts of his vocals so I could appreciate all of what he did to the song. There’s actually one vocal part that I didn’t even catch until later… The top of the third verse, listen closely to what happens… “There’s no need to explaaaaa-aaaaaa-aaaaa-aaaaaaain…” Nicholas takes the word “explain” and proceeds to drop the note  three times… I didn’t catch it for a month. It may not be a big deal to him or to other kats who can “saing”… But I tried it (while alone, of course), and I sounded like an idiot…. The brotha is talented and I’m glad he got down and did his thing on the album as there aren’t many who can do what he does. 

Sidenote: This was the first song completed for the album…

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Studio Campfire Stories: “Black Cow” (feat. Phonte & Sy Smith)

Production work on …just visiting three began on December 22nd, 2010 following a phone conversation I had with Phonte discussing songs that I wanted to recreate for the new album. One of the songs that had my full attention at that particular time was Steely Dan’s “Black Cow.” I was already familiar with the song and the legendary Aja album that it comes from, but for some reason around this time, the song was hitting me a bit differently – I was beginning to break it down into individual parts and mapping out the different possibilities for the song in my head, which usually means that I am ready to sit down and start working on it. I took some time out to listen through it a few times to pick up on not only the instrumentation, but the overall “feel” of the record. In the past, I actually stayed away from this song because it’s one of those joints that I enjoy so much that I would want to be able to do it justice if and when I ever decided to tackle it (as was the case with Minnie Riperton’s “Perfect Angel” on …just visiting too). I’m a strong believer in completely trashing a song if I don’t feel like I’ve done it correctly. Luckily, with “Black Cow” I knew it was a keeper after I programmed the drums, then learned and recorded the bassline… Now, the TOUGHEST part about covering this song?!?! Learning. Those. Damn. Chord. Changes. Steely Dan…. WHAT were y’all ON creating this joint?! Whewww!!! Honestly, I took a couple of days to practice the chords on the keys before even sending it to Phonte as a demo run…I finally sent the demo to Phonte as just the drums, live bass, and one keys track… We got back on the phone to discuss additions. My partner in crime, Sy Smith was scheduled to be on the East Coast to knock out a couple of solo shows, so the goal was to have her head on down to NC to record her vocals. The Foreign Exchange touring guitarist, Chris Boerner got the call to play those same chord changes overtop of my demo version… We actually laughed having to learn those changes later on at a soundcheck in Chicago… But he nailed it as usual. Next, we had to cover some of the horn parts. Phonte put in the call to the “go to” trio of woodwind instrumentalists consisting of Stan Graham on trumpet (“Flight of the Blackbyrd” & “If I Could Tell You No”), Andrew Kleindienst on trombone (“All Is Well With Love”) and Matt Douglas on saxophone came through once again… We later gave the trio a group name: Wind Parade.

One of the best parts about working on a song with a vocalist or a collective of vocalists is… well, actually HEARING the vocals over your music! In this case I was extra hyped up because after working on the demo version for “Black Cow”, I immediately jumped over to start working on the music for “Marzipan.” So to have received the vocals to that FIRST joint was an accomplishment – It always kinda serves as the album’s “ice breaker” to where, this is the project’s first major progression….NOW we’re off and running. And what a helluva progression it was. To hear Phonte “Donald” Fagen holding down the lead vocals almost brought back the same feeling I had hearing his vocals for our cover of Toto’s “Africa” four years prior. Right as I was thinking and saying to myself while listening to the first couple of bars, “You’ve GOT to be kidding me…. THIS is CRA….. *out of nowhere the harmony part with Sy comes in “Yooooooooou were high!!”* ……………………*BLANK STARE* “…OH ok, these kats are TRULY whylin’ out right now!!” From there, I re-laid my key parts which included the rhodes solo, added a live hi-hat to complete the drum pattern, and some additional strings at the end to add some dynamics. I know that I’ve heard that Steely Dan isn’t too keen on people sampling them, but I would LOVE for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to hear our version just to get their thoughts… That would be an honor.

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Zo! – …just visiting three (2011) | FREE DOWNLOAD + Full Credits

…just visiting three

**Click the song titles to read the stories behind the making of each**
01. Black Cow featuring Phonte Sy Smith
Lead Vocal by Phonte
Background Vocals by Sy Smith & Phonte
All Instruments by Zo!
Guitar by Chris Boerner
Trumpet by Stan Graham
Trombone by Andrew Kleindienst
Saxophone by Matt Douglas

02. Let It Go featuring Nicholas Ryan Gant
Lead Vocal by Nicholas Ryan Gant
Background Vocals by Nicholas Ryan Gant & Phonte
All Instruments by Zo!

03. Driving featuring Sy Smith
Lead Vocal by Sy Smith
Background Vocals by Sy Smith & Phonte
All Instruments by Zo!
Flute by Claudia Hayden

04.Marzipan featuring Eric Roberson & Phonte
Lead Vocal by Eric Roberson
Background Vocals by Phonte
All Instruments by Zo!
Guitar by Chris Boerner
Trumpet by Stan Graham

05. Everything She Wants featuring Phonte
All Vocals by Phonte
All Instruments by Zo!

06. Same Ole Love featuring Jeanne Jolly
Lead Vocal by Jeanne Jolly
Background Vocals by Jeanne Jolly and Phonte
All Instruments by Zo!
Acoustic Guitar by Chris Boerner
Pedal Steel by Allyn Love

07. Playing Your Game, Baby featuring Anthony David
Lead Vocal by Anthony David
All Instruments by Zo!
Trumpet by Stan Graham
Trombone by Andrew Kleindienst
Saxophone by Matt Douglas

Produced by Zo! and Phonte for Chapter 3hree, Verse 5ive Music, LLC/The Foreign Exchange Music, LLC
Recorded and Mixed by Zo! at East Wing Studios, Silver Spring, MD and by Phonte at The Peanut Gallery, Raleigh, NC

Additional Recording and Mixing by Chris Boerner at The Burlap Palace, Raleigh, NC
Mastering by Soiree Records
Cover Photography by Keith Estep of Keith Estep Photography

…just visiting three: THE ORIGINALS

01. Black Cow
Written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen
Originally Performed by Steely Dan
From the Album “Aja” (ABC, 1977) 

02. Let It Go
Written by John Lang, Richard Page, and Steve George
Originally Performed by Pages
From the Album “Pages” (Epic, 1978)

03. Driving
Written by Ben Watt
Originally Performed by Everything But The Girl
From the Album “The Language Of Life” (Atlantic, 1990)

04. Marzipan
Written and Originally Performed by Eric Tagg
From the Album “Dreamwalkin'” (EMI, 1982)

05. Everything She Wants
Written by George Michael
Originally Performed by Wham!
From the Album “Make It Big” (CBS, 1985)

06. Same Ole Love
Written by Marilyn McLeod and Darryl K. Roberts
Originally Performed by Anita Baker
From the Album “Rapture” (Elektra, 1986)

07. Playing Your Game, Baby
Written and Originally Performed by Barry White
From the Album “Barry White Sings For Someone You Love” (20th Century, 1977)

© 2011 Chapter 3hree, Verse 5ive Music, LLC/The Foreign Exchange Music, LLC