Studio Campfire Stories: “Ablyss…” …(just over) Ten-Year Anniversary Of My First Album

When I look back on 2001, the first thing that comes to mind is, “DAMN! That was eleven years ago?!” But when I really dig into it and all that occurred that year, I can summarize it by simply stating that it was a year of transition and adjustment. I had just graduated in December of 2000 with a degree in Studio Art (Graphic Design) from Western Kentucky University and was on the hunt for a job in my field – a job hunt that actually continued THROUGH 2001. So I decided to enroll back in school at WKU to start working on an MBA Degree… BUT since I was a Graphic Design major and had little to no business-related courses at all, I had to spend 2001 taking “pre-requisite” courses to even be put on the correct path for an MBA… How fun. Once again looking back on things, hindsight tells me that a course called “Life after college” should probably be required DURING college, because clearly I had NO clue in regards to what the hell I was doing at the time once I got outta there. Baseball, the sport that paid fully for my college education and the sport that I had been playing since age nine ended for me in the summer of 2000 and I was still adjusting to a life without it. After moving to my first off-campus apartment during that same time, I was able to spread out a bit – there was a huge difference from the good ole 10X10 dorm rooms folks lived in while on-campus. This was important because it meant that I was able to find sufficient room for my keyboard and amp. Back then, I was armed with only a Yamaha EX5 (which I still have in the studio) and used its sequencer to program joints I did at the time. I later installed a version of Cubase onto my Mac and used it to record and edit everything via this Tascam mixer I picked up… It’s crazy typing this out and realizing that these pieces of equipment represent my first bit of a studio and start as a serious musician. The thing is, even then I wasn’t aware how serious it was or may become – SO much has changed since then. If you were to ask me back then what I was doing musically, I would have told you that I was “making beats” rather than “writing compositions.” I was content with just a 2, 4, or 8-bar loop…. Alright, that’s another beat, *press save*… and let’s move on to the next one. By doing this, I was able to fly through music, show it off to friends who would come through the apartment, see their reactions and be motivated to make more of it. Have you ever heard of the kats who brag about making 10-20+ beats in a day? I wanted to be that guy… Make a ton of music that sounded good because I knew I had the work ethic to keep it going (I have since learned that quantity has NOTHING on the quality of your music). In 2001, most of my friends didn’t even know that I played an instrument, much less knew that I understood how to put any type of music together… So hearing tracks from ME? Lorenzo the baseball player? … It was rather odd to some of them. I can remember a group of friends coming through one night, and while they were there I went to load some joints up. At that point, I had about 15-20 beats or so completed and saved to a 3.5″ floppy disk………. and the disk decided it was going to go BAD. I kept attempting to load these joints up but to no avail… and to say the absolute least… I. Was. PISSED. All of that work = Gone forever… There were three things that I learned that night: 1. Back everything up, 2. BACK. EVERY. DAMN. THING. YOU. DO. UP. and 3. It is extremely difficult to capture the original feeling of your music by recreating it on the spot. I ignored the shit ouf of my guests the rest of that night and sat down at the keyboard mad as hell to make the music all over again, from memory. I didn’t want to talk with anyone, I wasn’t in the mood to crack any jokes… I was in “recovery mode”. As crazy as it sounds… THIS episode was actually the beginning of my very first album, Ablyss. I honestly do not remember how many of those 15-20+ tracks I ended up redoing that night from memory, but I do remember that being the incident that jumpstarted my mausicmaking. Pretty hilarious how things work out…

There are TWO cassette tapes of beats that exist prior to the Ablyss recording. I still have copies of them both and there are a couple more that I sent off to friends that may be floating around somewhere… But that’s IT. I have another cassette tape with a ton of remakes I did in high school between 1992 and 1996 and there is ONE copy of that. But the work I started doing for Ablyss was a bit different, it even felt different as I was creating it. I was motivated to create something to burn to a CD for the first time and have it serve as an “introduction” to my transition from baseball player to music maker – A difficult task? Absolutely. Impossible? Nah, I didn’t think so. Ok, now… Once I have enough joints to fill up an 80 minute CDr, how in the hell do I transfer this music from my sequencer to a disc?! I didn’t even know how to do that at the time. After asking around at a local music spot, it was suggested that I pick this up… a Tascam US-428 mixer that would control an early version of Cubase (recording software) already installed on my year old Mac desktop computer. When I opened the box to the brand new mixer and connected it to my computer, I just remembered thinking, “…The hell am I supposed to do NOW?” I would mess with the software, get frustrated and go back to it later to try again. This happened a couple of times before I finally got it to work for me. I was able to connect my keyboard directly into the mixer, record into Cubase, convert the music into a .wav file and burn it onto a CD by using iTunes. Talk about being excited to make some music… Of course, the recording and editing process was much different for me then too – Everything was trial and error. I recorded into Cubase as a two-track (a left and right stereo recording), which means that all of the ‘drops’ I inserted into the music were done in one take and manually by muting that particular track on the keyboard’s sequencer as the song played. I know, I know… I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know what I was doing. BUT, I started to see an album begin to come together and that’s what mattered to me the most. At the end of this process, the album contained beats that I assigned numbers to rather than names (“Beat #23” for example), a couple of remakes including Prince’s “My Love Is Forever” from his For You album, and two “bonus tracks” that  I did in Atlanta with a good friend of mine and fellow WKU alum, DJ/Producer Jon Doe from the group Prophetix.

Once the final song was recorded and I had burned the very first CD full of my own material… I took it to my truck (then equipped with 2 12″ subwoofers in the trunk) popped it in the CD player and rode around Bowling Green, KY for more than two hours BLASTING the finished product all the way through TWICE starting at 3am. I have tried before to come up with a few words to fully explain how good it felt to hear my own music in the car that first time, but I simply cannot. Let’s just say I was floating on cloud nine for a couple of hours. After riding around past 5am and burning up some good ole $1.45/gallon gas, I wound up at the Wal-Mart across the street from my apartment… Why? Well, I was so excited about this new creation that I wanted to SHARE it with folks ASAP. So I bought a couple of packs of padded envelopes, went back home to do some quick cover art, printed it on regular paper and then started burning more CDs. I gathered up addresses of the people I was close to and started writing… There ended up being a total of 20 packages sent out the following day. I’m not sure if anyone still HAS an original copy of the album I sent out, but that would be real dope…

Ablyss is the only album that I still have available for purchase now that was created and completed in my college apartment. As an artist, you are always emotionally attached to your works but that first one is special. I mean, I can remember exactly what I was doing and what was going on around me while creating most of the joints on this album. For example, “Beat #20” was done while I was on the phone… and I can still remember who I was talking with. I just feel extremely blessed because the fact that I’m even sharing a story about my first album years later means that I have made it further than even I had initially envisioned. What an excellent feeling. …And I still can’t believe this all officially began 11 years ago.

Purchase Ablyss and all other Zo! releases here

Zo! + Sy Smith: “4 Shows – 4 Cities – 4 Days Tour” (2/9 – 2/12)

Chicago Arrival, 02.09.12 ...Photo by Zo!

Day: ONE – City: CHICAGO

Sy Smith and I had been looking forward to this mini-run for a minute. The plan was simple…Fly into Chicago, rent a car and drive to each city in order to play a show each night. We knew we would be tired and a bit worn down, but that’s all a part of the experience. With all of that in mind, the afternoon of Thursday, February 9th, I flew to Chicago from Baltimore and Sy flew in from LA along with her right-hand man and personal assistant, Chadd Hardy. I ended up getting to my hotel early and checking in, so I had about an hour or so to unwind. Sy and Chadd went directly from the baggage claim at O’Hare Airport to WHPK‘s (88.5 FM radio station near U. of Chicago – Medical District where I met them at about 2:30p for a quick radio interview. After a successful interview and a couple of hours that seemed to fly by, we made our way to The Shrine and met up with the musicians: guitarist, Tim Jones and drummer Quin for soundcheck. I was already SUPER hyped up to get the tour started when I was informed that the show had received over 400 RSVP’s for the night… that news put me over the top. Not bad for our fifth show utilizing this particular format… We finally hit the stage to an energetic and wonderfully receptive crowd of familiar faces and folks who were flat out ready to nod their heads, dance, and party with us. The show was an all-out success and a helluva kick-off for both Sy and I AND our people in Chicago who got to check us out for free…

Day: TWO – City: DETROIT

The following morning, we hopped on I94 East all the way to our next scheduled show in Detroit… The four-hour drive came with a reward at the end in the form of my mother’s cooking. She laid out some baked chicken, mashed potatoes, beans, rolls, salad, and some damn sweet potato pie (Sy asked me the night before if Moms would have any for us, so she baked one… Maaaaaan, I LOVE her). For those who have been on tour, y’all FULLY understand what it means to have a nice home-cooked meal during one of your stops after eating at venues, fast food spots, the hotel, etc. The three of us sat at the dinner table looking happier than broke ass college students going home to sit down for a fulfilling Thanksgiving dinner. Between the food and the travel, you know we were hit with a HEAVY dose of “‘Itis”. Since he drove from Chicago to Detroit, Chadd laid it down for a long nap so he could be ready to help drive again when we decided to leave for Nashville early in the morning the next day. After relaxing for about an hour or so, Sy and I drove down to Privé Deux for soundcheck, where things were running behind schedule. We quickly set everything up and ran a rehearsal with drummer, Brandon Williams, guitarist Kenny Rocket, and saxophonist LaDarrel “Saxappeal” Johnson who just happened to hit me up on the drive TO Detroit to see if he could sit in… What an understatement. These three kats went IN on our music. I had a conversation with Brandon a couple of nights before the show and his energy on the phone even gave me an additional lift for the show – as if I wasn’t already on cloud nine about playing a show back home as it was. We wrapped soundcheck up and proceeded to open the door to see that about two inches of snow had fallen on the ground………. Oh word?! REALLY?!… This had to happen TODAY?! We drove back home cussing the snowfall OUT damn near the entire way. We arrived at my parents’ house and 2-wheel drive + a thin layer of ice underneath the snow covering prevented us from getting UP the driveway. Sy and I trooped up to the house in the grass (where there’s traction) and got ready for our show. We didn’t know that when we got back out to the car, there would be about 2-3 additional inches of snow piled on top of it accompanied by strong winds to help “guide” us on our way back to the venue. When we pulled up to Privé Deux and walked in, to my surprise there was a NICE crowd inside. The reason I say this is because I had numerous people tell me that they weren’t going to the show because of “Dilla Day” that was taking place the same night at The Fillmore… Perfect timing, right? Despite the weather conditions and a huge event planned for our legendary, Jay Dee, folks still came out to see us and that meant a lot. We walked to the green room and damn if there wasn’s a chicken shawarma wrap with my name on it from one of my favorite spots downtown… Bucharest Grill. Just as soon as I tore into that, we got up  and slid through the crowd, got to the stage and pretty much just walked on. The crew was already set up and ready to go. So, as Sy and I got ourselves together, the host was up on stage talking and I noticed that she was only mentioning Sy…. Hmmm, that’s weird. The introduction was fairly long and detailed, then I realized and thought to myself… “She’s not gonna introduce me in front of my hometown crowd……. Oh. Ok, bet.” She told me later that she thought we were two separate acts – I told her that it wasn’t a problem… Sy introduced me properly and we got the show started. I can’t lie, when the show began, I was a bit tense (always the case when I go home to play). I saw a ton of familiar faces, picked my family out of the crowd and finally started to loosen up after the first couple of songs. One of the craziest parts of the performance was going into “Greater Than the Sun,” I could see the majority of the crowd rockin’ with me as I was playing the piano intro to the song… Then as the music dropped, they were goin’ OFF. I saw my family in the back smiling, clapping and nodding hard as hell to the music, it was almost like I could literally see the pride in their faces. I never want to get caught up in “admiring” my work at all, but that was a great personal moment for me. It’s not often that you get to see family’s reaction to OTHER people’s reaction to your art. That’s big time… Then, after we literally shut the spot DOWN with “Flight Of the Blackbyrd”, I was able to walk around and greet everyone. I had kats in the crowd from high school that I hadn’t seen in over 15 years who learned about the show via Facebook, folks I used to work with, old family friends that came out to support – It was an amazing feeling to see that type of support at home. And if we didn’t have a long ass drive to Nashville coming up a couple hours AFTER our performance, I would have stayed around and had a drink with some of those good, supportive folks. But after trekking back through the snow covered roads back to my parents’ house, we had to pack our things up and hit the road south to Nashville…

Me on Keys at Jazz & Jokes in Nashville ...Photo by Shamicka Bush

Day: THREE – City: NASHVILLE

We hit the road for Nashville at about 5am and I said that I would drive the first leg (or as far as I could go because I hadn’t slept yet) simply because I have driving experience in heavy snow. Our brotha Chadd who is from LA hadn’t witnessed snowfall until his arrival to Detroit. So, I ended up driving us out of Michigan an hour south to Toledo until I just couldn’t take it anymore, we had to switch drivers. Chadd took the wheel and I passed out for about 2-3 hours in the passenger seat. When I woke up we were just passing through Cincinnati and finally, there was no snow on the ground. We stopped at a gas station and I took over again at the wheel and got us to Tennessee where we pulled up to Sy’s mother’s house. So basically we went from MY parents’ house to Sy’s… LAWD. And dammit, as soon as we got there, Momma Sy was laying out lunch/dinner on the table for us. And what was for dessert?! You guessed it… Another sweet poe-tay-toe pie!!! I couldn’t resist, I had a nice piece and it was damn delicious. After running through my plate of food, I suddenly found myself in the same place as the previous day – tired from traveling AND eating. So, I took a nap for about an hour, woke up to take a shower real quick so we could head 45 mins east to soundcheck. We arrived at Jazz & Jokes in downtown Nashville and met up with our drummer for the night, Ronnie Yates who was not only a dope musician, but a helluva good dude in general. I swear, if people could understand the value of being easy to work with…… Anyway, we knocked soundcheck out fairly quickly and got ready to walk upstairs to the dressing room and I happened to check my phone to see about five text messages asking me if I had heard anything about Whitney Houston passing…. Wait, WHAT?!!!? I immediately informed Sy when I found out because I knew that she had worked and performed with her previously and understandably, she needed some time to herself after hearing the news. At that point, I just wanted to start the show because most of the time, the best way for musicians to get through a tough time is to do what we do best – play music. The way the venue had it set up was we were to play two 30-45 minute sets with comedian Rion Evans opening for us with a 30 minute set. Sounds pretty simple, yet I wasn’t sure what to expect at ALL. With the news of Whitney’s passing plus the sheer uncertainty of the gig itself, we just tried to keep things light in the green room before the show. Both of us understood the circumstances surrounding the shows and as professionals we knew it was our job to transform ALL energy into positive for these performances. With that being said, the first set was EXCELLENT. Rion Evans had that  sold out crowd cracking up and for them to have been sitting down at tables, their energy level for us was extremely high, I was loving it. They gave us a NICE standing ovation after our performance, which was touching that night, to say the least… This led to them calling for an encore to which we obliged. And I’ll tell you this, for that encore I saw Sy Smith give one of the most heartfelt tributes that I think I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life… For someone to have learned about Whitney’s passing only a couple hours before opening up and telling these great stories about performing with this legend and ICON to describing what she was like as a person and then singing like her (mannerisms and all), it was RIGHT on time. It just goes to show how much of a professional Sy is. The performance damn near made me want to sit in the crowd and see it in full for myself. It was a great way to end that first set and that crowd truly deserved to be a part of that once in a lifetime performance. After completing the second set, we hit the road back to Momma Sy’s house where we toasted up a couple of drinks and passed out for the night in order to recharge for a closing performance in St. Louis the next day.

The St. Louis Arch - View from my hotel's lobby...02.12.12 Photo by Zo!

Day: FOUR – City: ST. LOUIS

The four-hour drive to St. Louis wasn’t that bad at all. We arrived to the city at about 3:15p or so and had all of about an hour and a half to get ready for soundcheck at a place that quickly became one of my favorite spots to perform, Lola. Once we got there and met up with our band of STL musicians, guitarist Scott McGreer and drummer Grover Stewart, the rest at this point was smooth sailing. We ran the set from top to bottom with them and discussed all of the changes and got ready to head back to the hotel and get ready for the show. We arrived back to Lola to a nice crowd of folks, some of who I even remembered by face from our November show with The Foreign Exchange at 2720 Cherokee. This show went without a hitch… I was loving the Bossa Nova feel Grover put on “All Is Well With Love” that allowed me to solo on the joint for a good 5+ minutes… It felt THAT good on stage. The audience was with us the entire time and requested an encore… We rocked “Crazy You” and Sy went in one more time during her tribute to Whitney Houston, I swear it was like she was channeling her in a few places. The show ended with me coming from behind the keyboard and hugging an emotional Sy to make sure she was good and holding it together after truly leaving everything she had on the stage. We stepped down to a group of people who were extremely appreciative of our performance and appearance in their city. I love St. Louis’ enthusiasm! Both times I have been there to perform, one of the best parts to me has been speaking with the people after the show – definitely a music city and I can’t wait to go back a THIRD time to play.

The following day, I got to spend some time at St. Louis’ Westview Middle School helping to conduct a music workshop with a group of about 40-50 8th graders with fellow musician Lamar Harris and emcee Thelonius Kryptonite. Now this was a DOPE experience. First of all, it was great to see so many kids not only interested in music, but interested in expanding their knowledge in regards to different ways of making a living in music (outside of rapping, singing, and producing). Secondly, these kids were talented. A 61-key Roland Fantom keyboard was provided on stage for ME to play, but I decided to change it up a little bit and ask if one of the kids wanted to play something. Sure enough, one young lady came up and laid down a nice rendition of John Legend’s “Ordinary People”. Another young lady came up and tore the place up by singing while her vocal teacher accompanied her on the keyboard. Then I called another three students on stage to rhyme and they all did a great job. The greatest part about them performing for their classmates was the THUNDEROUS applause and support everyone gave one another… Students encouraging each other that enthusiastically? This was huge in my opinion. Of course, they asked if I would play them something and I sat down and played “If I Ain’t Got You” by Alicia Keys while the crowd of kids sang it… All through the song I was just hoping that I still remembered HOW to play it!! Lastly, it felt great and almost foreign to walk into a school and have them appreciate you for your artistry and what you bring to the table. Talk about feeling thankful… Wow. After the workshop, I was able to speak individually with some of the kids who had specific questions or who just wanted to say, “hello”. I was then given a tour of the two-level school by two young brothers Cameron and…. Cameron. The two of them walked me through the school and weren’t shy at all about giving me a thorough rundown on ALL of the school’s happenings. Hopefully, I’m able to speak at more schools much more often when I am out on the road being as though I am very passionate about getting good music to our younger folks. They deserve to be exposed to it JUST like we were growing up…

Me with Cameron and Cameron after my tour of Westview Middle School in St. Louis... 02.13.12

Thank you to everyone in Chicago, Detroit, Nashville and St. Louis who came out to sing, dance, and simply support Sy Smith and I during our run. We appreciate you and hope to see you all again real soon…

TheCouchSessions.com’s Coverage of the Axel F. One Year Anniversary Party

Source: TheCouchSessions.com • Author: Marcus K. Dowling

For many urban blacks, the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States signified the epitome of crossover achievement. The infusion of culturally inclusive African-American style into mainstream popular culture feels like the harbinger of a brand new time. You remember this era’s precedent, a moment best defined by German producer Harold Faltermeyer’s handling of a minor key synth progression making Eddie Murphy into an iconic film legend. Add in some body rolling and questionable fashion choices from 30 years ago? The spotlights of the past meet the floodlights of the present here. Axel F is not just a showcase of music, but possibly one of America’s most ultimate showcases of the universal crossover potential of African-American excellence.

Ex-Washington Post journalist and now full-time deejay Rhome “DJ Stylus” Anderson refers to the party as “a mix of ‘lazer boogie,’ ‘Jheri curl funk’ and ‘champagne soul.’” It’s a celebration of the storm of post-disco crossover R & B, Detroit techno and the Minneapolis sound’s early 80s takeover. Kevin Saunderson, Juan Atkins and Derrick May’s down tempo electro funk was a staple of so many pop radio crossover hits of the era. Furthermore, you can’t tell the story of the 80s without Teena Marie, Prince, Morris Day, Jimmy Jam or Terry Lewis. Stylus continues, “I was hanging out one day with (fellow Axel F resident deejays) Jahsonic and Adrian Loving, and we realized that there were so many classic R & B jams that nobody really played out anymore. We wanted to change that, and for the past year I think we have.”

Read the complete article here