Studio Campfire Stories: The Foreign Exchange “Listen To The Rain”

foreign-exchange-love-in-flying-colors-lp-lead

Last year, I wrapped up everything ManMade around February/March 2013. During that same time, The Foreign Exchange was working on the music for Love In Flying Colors and I hadn’t yet gotten an expected call to work on anything for their album yet. Why is this important? Here’s a small bit of +FE trivia that most don’t know… I have the only outside production credits on the last three +FE albums – Leave It All Behind (“If She Breaks Your Heart”), Authenticity (“Fight For Love”), and Love in Flyi…Well… Just keep reading. Sometime in April or May, Phonte gave me a call telling me that he had a song idea for the new +FE album… I remember telling him, “I’ve been waiting on this call – I’m down.” Since I was scheduled to be in Raleigh, NC at the end of May for a video shoot, we figured that would be the best time to sit down, put our ideas together and see what we could come up with.

On May 25, 2013, I made my way down I-95S to shoot the first video from ManMade, which had just been released four days prior. We were to gather the crew in Downtown Raleigh and shoot a playful spin on an old school Sesame Street performance for the song “Count To Five” with director and frequent +FE Music collaborator, Kenneth Price. Come to think of it, this was the first time that Gwen Bunn and I actually met in person… at the damn video shoot for the song we had already worked together on! It’s kinda crazy how routinely that happens now…. Anyway, we shot the video in a few hours and afterward everyone got together to grab some food from a burger spot not too far from our filming location. Some folks went home, the rest of us headed over to Phonte’s spot where the movie ‘Campaign’ was running and jokes were on ten. Once everybody cleared out, Phonte and I hit the studio at about 2:30 in the morning and he told me that he had a melody in his head already with a few words here and there and needed the music to follow. This was no thing… We had utilized the same “sit down at the piano” formula when we worked on the title track from ManMade almost a year prior, “Fight For Love”, and “If I Could Tell You Know” from the SunStorm album. Like “ManMade”, it was the hook that we started with. When I go back and listen to the demo recordings we did of the song on my phone, chronologically we did the hook first (looped it twice), then there’s a recording of the verse, which we also looped twice. I distinctively remember wanting to accentuate that ‘break’ toward the beginning of the verse where he sings, “All alone (*break*) agaaaaaain….” …just to add a bit of personality to the music. The usage of breaks and “white space” is something that you don’t hear too often in many slower tempo songs and the more we worked through the verse, the more distinctive I made the break. The same with the chord climb up during the hook when he sings, “…….down out-siiiiiide…” by playing a different chord for each syllable, adding more of accents in the music. The last thing we worked on was the song’s ending. We wanted to close this one a with descending chord progression, which would set it apart from our previous “written at the piano” joints. The final demo recording starts off with my countdown into Phonte snapping his fingers for tempo while humming the melody of the hook then going right into the ending… And to be honest, I have listened to these demos about 5 times a piece while writing this story. To hear this song again with only piano and a reference melody is really kinda crazy.

By the time I returned home to Maryland the following evening, Phonte had completely finished writing to the song and sent me a text saying, “The title of that jam we did is called, “Listen To The Rain.” Lemme know when you lay THAT…” …No thing at all. The next day, I sat in the studio and recorded a main piano part, layered with a rhodes, and also played the bass live on it …all to a finger snap (that same finger snap can be heard throughout the majority of the first two minutes of the song). I sent the music on through to Phonte along with the, “Check that Gmail” text…… He then hit me the next day with the SAME text. When I checked, he had laid his vocals down and Chris Boerner had recorded a third chord layering by recording his acoustic guitar, which added some nice texture with the subtle fret noises and string plucking. So here we are with the main portion of the song completed just a couple days away from when we started……. But here’s where it gets good. Phonte told me that they had hit up my dude, Detroit’s own Pirahnahead to do string arrangement on it…

*drops phone*

Now, I’ve known Pirahnahead for a good 10-11 years and he was a monster back THEN so I couldn’t have even imagined what some damn strings would sound like over that music. So, when I received the song back a month later……. WITH STRINGS?!?! LOOK man…. I had all TYPES of goosebumps running up my arms. The shit was just beautiful…. I can remember listening to it about 5 or 6 times in a row and THEN listening to the isolated strings track a few times in a row afterward. Maaaaaaan, make you wanna shed that good single “Denzel in ‘Glory‘” thug tear!! Then, I received the final version with Nicolay’s drums on the song that put the song into another gear by taking it from an acoustic singer/songwriter mode to something you could break your neck to… All the way through an extended hook where Phonte calls out “…and my backgrounds sing, and my backgrounds siiiiing…” (that’s Jeanne Jolly assisting him on the background vocals too, by the way) right into that ending that we worked on at the piano. An excellent climax to a dope song.

Studio Campfire Stories: “A Choice Of Weapons” featuring Nicholas Ryan Gant & Carmen Rodgers

nicholas-ryan-gant-sunset

I specifically remember composing the foundation of this one on September 26, 2011… I don’t know WHY I remember that date (those who know me will tell you that I’m kind of a “rain man” when it comes to numbers and dates), but I do specifically remember there being a Redskins vs. Cowboys Monday Night Football game that was being tweeted about all night and I didn’t feel like watching it at the time, so I went into the studio clear of ideas… clean slate. Now, it may have been that DAY or within a week or so prior to that time that I saw Jody Watley on Twitter shouting Phonte and I for the song, “Greater Than The Sun” and to say that I was hyped up would be a bit of an understatement. I was a Shalamar fanatic growing up. Between Go For It, Big Fun, and more specifically Three For Love and Friends?! You couldn’t tell me much as a kid about Shalamar, Leon Sylvers III and that “SOLAR Sound” – I was HOOKED. So to have a former member of a group I grew up listening to publicly announce the fact that she’s riding around in her car with MY song playing was a bit inspirational. It was SO inspirational that I decided to use that energy in the studio this particular day by posing the question to myself, “If you were to compose a record for Jody Watley NOW…. What would it sound like?” Well, It would be uptempo and melodic…. But let me give it a change of pace by using some harder drums and I’ll play a hi-hat through the entire song live. Now let me explain something to y’all… The respect I have for drummers is through the roof. The ability to keep time while using your entire body is a TASK. I can’t remember the song’s tempo (BPM) off hand, but the original track for this joint was around 6 minutes long. I can vividly remember how tired my arms were after recording the hi-hat pattern for this… BUT as I prefer with all of my music, I love the “human” feel. This is what makes live music so appealing. If I’m able to capture a live, human elements in the song, I don’t hesitate to record a pass all the way through the entire duration of it.

Once the foundation of this song was recorded (drums, bass, synth pads and chord progression), it was kinda put to the side. I would ride around in the car with it during the creation of ManMade, which did nothing but help it because after months of listening to it, I would start to hear new parts… Suddenly I heard a Moog synth line (which was played over the hook and vamp), a year or so later I heard harmonizing guitar lines at the beginning of the song that when played together had an Earth, Wind & Fire feel to it. This is why making music is not a race, sometimes you have to sit with the stuff you create and allow it to grow. In the end, nobody gives a shit about how quickly you create music… They care about how the final result sounds and how it makes them feel. If you need to live with it while you create, make it happen. There’s nothing better that some slow-cooked, flavorful music anyway.

CR photo (2)

Fast forward to December 2012… We were starting to wrap up sessions for ManMade and Carmen Rodgers made the trip to Raleigh, NC to knock out the hook for “Show Me The Way”, The Foreign Exchange’s “If I Knew Then” for their Love In Flying Colors album…. and then she then also took care of the hook for this particular track, which at the time I had titled simply “Therapy”. Phonte who is the KAING of calling that good studio audible sent me the song along with a new title, “A Choice Of Weapons”. Interesting. At first, seeing the title damn near caused me to see red on some ole, “Choice of weapons?? WHO WE GOTTA GO TO WAR WITH??!?!?” But I managed to bring it down a few notches in order to take a listen to the song. I can remember hearing those hooks for the first time and thinking, “That sounds PERFECT… and DAMN Carmen sounds great on this!” Everything fit correctly…That crisp, rapid-fire cadence that came with that chord change had me open. Even the fact that it was 20 degrees outside matched the “wintry” feel of the record (pardon my synesthesia, but the colors I “saw” when hearing the music was always shades of blue and light orange). It was just RIGHT to me. But as right as it was, it just didn’t fit into the sequence of what was finished for the album up to that point so it remained on the back burner for a minute…. Then enter Nicholas Ryan Gant. After absolutely blacking out on our “Let It Go” cover for …just visiting three, Phonte reached back out to him to sing lead. And when we got that final vocal reference… Phonte just hit me with the simple, “GMAIL” text. When I get a text from Tay that simply says…. “GMAIL”?!? …That means something SERIOUS is in my inbox. I opened the attachment, hit “play” and proceeded to hear Nicholas Ryan Gant claim “A Choice Of Weapons” as his OWN. The way he came out of that second verse into the hook?!

“Sheeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiiiit” © Clayton Bartholomew Davis…

But what I enjoyed most was… the MESSAGE. I love it when kats feel inspired to write positivity over music that I have done and Nicholas was touching on some of that real. Seems like over the last 15+ years or so R&B has become the breakup, drama, you ain’t shit, I’ma fuck ya friend genre of music all of a sudden. Who wants to hear that when you’re at your job struggling to get through the day BECAUSE of some bullshit. Grown folks need uplifting music, man… we get hit with enough throughout a typical week.

“…daylight’s just ahead of you / Hold on to the joy within… ’cause in the end you can WIN”

That line alone would help me while in the gym steadily thinking of an excuse to cut my time short on the elliptical ……while also critiquing the song, of course. Then to hear Nicholas and Phonte trade off adlibs toward the end during the vamp was DOPE to me. I brought the pre-hook handclaps back on that section for an extra bit of (in my Pootie Tang silent voice) “!!!!!!!!!” on it. The last small piece that was added was Phonte’s background vocals on the second verse, which really added some nice dynamics to it and made it move a little bit better. Once that was in place, we had a successful B-Side……. remember those? I LOVE non-album B-Sides. They’re like wild cards. Some of our favorite songs were B-Sides!!! Prince’s “Erotic City”?? Gang Starr’s “DWYCK”???? Going to the record store to grab a handful of singles or 45’s JUST to get the remix or a B-Side that wasn’t included on an album used to be a mission of mine at one time. Now the mission has become to release them so that you all can relive the same feeling that I used to get in those record stores… Listen and purchase below. Enjoy!

Studio Campfire Stories: ‘ManMade’ Edition – “For Tina” (feat. Sy Smith)

sy-426

“Ayo, I’ve got one question for you…. WHO IS TINA???” © Every damn body

Well…. I’m gonna get to that in a minute..

FIrst, let me break down how the music came about and then I’ll clarify who Tina is. I clearly remember creating this one on a Wednesday afternoon in March 2012. In typical fashion, I can remember laying the drums out first (on the original drafts, the snare has a light single echo, which I ended up not missing at all upon hearing the final mix), which then influenced a chord progression I worked out on the piano to hit right before the “2” and the “4” within each measure. To thicken the chords up some, I layered them with some Rhodes keys that had a panning phase effect on them that created a “spacey” feel when I arpeggiated the chords. The strings that appear at 1:03 were originally only brought in for the hooks of the track and because of its movements, combined with the bass notes that seemed to almost “grow” on each hit reminded me of a movie score. As a result of the feel and the day of the week that it was made, I originally named the instrumental, “Wednesday Soundtrack”. Once everything was finished, I sent it on through to Phonte… The original instrumental was about four and a half minutes long.

This one wasn’t written to for months and musically it’s the “oldest” track on ManMade (all of the music that made the album was completed between March 2012 and January 2013). When Phonte and I spoke about the idea he had for the lyrics, he just told me, “It’s gonna be almost a part two of “Show Me The Way”… I can’t really explain it…. Just wait ’til we record it, you’ll get it when you hear it.” At that particular point in time, the only thing we had vocally on “Show Me The Way” was Carmen Rodgers’ hook, so imagine my reaction when I got Sy Smith’s vocal reference for “For Tina” and I heard her come in immediately with…

“Show me the waaay back baby, show me the waaay back baby…”

I leaned back in my studio chair as if I had just uncovered one of life’s greatest equations…. “AhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhHHHHHH…. I see now!” It all made sense. The lyrical continuation added cohesiveness, which is always appreciated when producing a full album… On TOP of that, flautist Claudia Hayden (“For Leslie”, “Driving”) was back on board adding light touches of absolutely BEAUTY to the song. When I heard her come in on the intro portion, fluttering those carefully positioned notes, I was like… “Yoooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!” …We even positioned it so that it was a MUSICAL continuation of “Show Me The Way” …It felt perfect.

But still, who is Tina?

I wanted to listen to the joint to hear if I was able to catch anything that would have clued me in without Phonte telling me who Tina was in advance. Going through the music, I didn’t hear anything ………until it hit that second half. Have you ever heard a lyric interpolation that sounds familiar as hell, but you can’t seem to place it? Well when I heard Sy sing…

“Show me the love, don’t playa hate me, show me the love don’t playa hate meeee…. Show me the loooooove / Show me the loooooove….”

…that’s exactly how I felt. “I’ve HEARD that before!! Where to I KNOW that LINE from???” Now, I need y’all to follow me on this one. For my Dwele fans and/or those who are familiar with his FIRST release entitled Rize, there was a song on there called “Timeless”. ON the song “Timeless”, there was a young lady who most of you may be familiar with as Airasoul who sang the hook on Slum Village’s “Climax”. Well, Airasoul better known as Tina Marie Glover is the sister of the late, great Baatin OF Slum Village. On Dwele’s “Timeless” featuring Tina Marie, she closes the song with the line…. and THAT is where I remembered hearing it. So, while “For Tina” was serving as a part two of “Show Me The Way”, it more importantly was a tribute to Tina Marie and how dope her contribution to that song was – or just how dope the song was in general. In Phonte’s words… “Maaaaan, I used to RUN that jam!” To me, not only it is a tribute to Tina herself, but an ode to Detroit and all of its TALENT. Shit, I could write a novel on that subject alone.

Soooooo… I hope that clears everything up… Shouts to Tina Marie, Dwe, and to the city of Detroit.

Purchase ManMade HERE • Or on iTunes

Studio Campfire Stories: ‘ManMade’ Edition – “Show Me The Way” (feat. Anthony David and Carmen Rodgers)

carmen-rodgers_photo

I have to start this story off correctly. A few folks know, most don’t…. But uhhh, Carmen Rodgers threatened me via text message on some Suge Knight shit almost a year to the DAY that I’m writing this. …Well, not quite to that extreme, but I did fear for my life…. Ok, well… I kinda didn’t. ALL I’m saying is, don’t let her innocent looks fool you… She’ll cut’cho ass for an album credit!! The exchange went something like this… AND it was completely outta the blue.

Carmen: “Oohhh. If I’m not on your record… ooooohhhhhh!!!!!! lol”

Me: “I’m getting feature threats?!!?!! LMAO …Don’t worry, We’re working to find something that is right for YOU.”

Carmen: “Hahaha!! Feature Threats!! Thanks for thinking of me… I’d love to be a part of your work…anytime YOU’RE ready.”

Scary, right?…angry ass Carmen. Gonna threaten me, laugh about it, and then be all sweet just ONE text later? As I said, I feared for my life, man…….. kinda. As a result of this exchange, we got her in the studio ASAP. Hahahaha (Now I’ll probably start receiving ‘threatening’ texts from others in order to be on a next project… Lawd.) Carmen got in the studio with Phonte in North Carolina in December and recorded the hook for “Show Me The Way”… This was definitely one of those joints that when I heard just her part, I said to myself… “Oh, we’ve got one on our hands.” Everything about it just WORKED. From the catchiness of “Tell me what am I to dooooo, when it feels like I am looooosing yoooooooou…”, to when she brought the harmonies in on, “show me the way back baaaaaby…” I still let out an enthusiastic “Whoooooo!!!!!!!” about every third time I hear those harmonies too, just for the record. Good shit Suge Rodgers!!

520x420_anthonydavid

Now, after hearing the way that Anthony David got up on the …just visiting three album and absolutely BODIED the “Playing Your Game, Baby” joint by channeling Barry White in every way possible, it was pretty much automatic… I HAD to have him feature on the new album whenever it was time to get in the studio with it. When creating the instrumental for the song, I was definitely pulling influences from some of that early/mid 70’s “Motown Sound” (see also: “Greatest Weapon Of All-Time”). When studying that sound as a whole and the producers who were putting that music together, to me it was usually comprised of many simplistic layers of instrumentation that usually formed one beautiful piece of music. It was fun, driving, upbeat, and easy for masses of people to digest once written to. That was my main inspiration behind incorporating the heavy snare drum and the wah-wah guitar lick throughout the majority of the song. I updated it some by utilizing my trusty Moog Minitaur synth bassline on it rather than recording a bass guitar line – I figured that the synth would add a nice contrast to it stylistically.

Phonte got a hold of the instrumental and let it sit for a minute until Carmen arrived in NC to record. He then wrote the hook for her and got with my homeboy from the D, Scorpion of Windimoto (some of y’all may remember him for his jive talking abilities at the beginning and ending of “This Could Be The Night”) to complete the writing for the rest of the song. He then recorded a reference to send over to Anthony David to check out. The way that A.D. completely made this joint his own was DOPE to hear. I can remember sitting at my desktop with the volume almost all the way up (I was still critiquing so TOO loud meant I may miss something) and hearing Ant go in from the first note!! As soon as you hear him sing, “Myyyy, myyyyyyy, mah, myyyyyyyyy, myyyyyyyyyyyy” you know EXACTLY who it is. Even if you don’t, he was sure to place his stamp throughout the duration of the song. For example, the staccato feel of the vocals at the top of the second verse, “..That. Won. Ders. If. I’ll. Everrrrrrr” or the accents placed on “OUrrrrLOveWOntEVer be saaaaaaaaa…” during the second pre-hook. It always feels good as a producer when the vocalist not only brings their A-game to your material, but also allows their total character to shine on the song. To me, it’s a sign that they enjoy and more importantly trust your music enough to be themselves on it. The way that Anthony and Carmen bounced off of each other and truly complemented one another just added another beautiful layering to the music that cannot be written or manipulated in a Pro Tools session. Now let’s see if I can get the two of them on stage to perform it live while on tour… Atlanta perhaps? *rubs chin*

Purchase ManMade HERE • Or on iTunes

Studio Campfire Stories: ‘ManMade’ Edition – “We Are On The Move” (feat. Eric Roberson, Gwen Bunn & Sy Smith)

Eric-Roberson-575-2011

Those who know me and my preferred musical tastes are fully aware of how much love the music catalog of the great Leon Sylvers III. As a kid, there were two albums that I would run REPEATEDLY… Shalamar’s “Three For Love” and “Friends” where Mr. Sylvers was the producer on both. Matter of fact, I used to love anything on that Solar Records label ….Why? Because not only was there some great music being released through them, but I used to get a kick out of how dope the vinyl label looked as it was spinning around on the turntable. That alone would fascinate me for at least a song or two… Once I got older, picked up the bass guitar and revisited some of these songs that I grew up with I noticed that the basslines within Leon Sylvers’ production work were pretty challenging. The bass is so noticeable that instead of playing a supportive role, it’s damn near carrying the entire tune. When I found out that he was also the one playing these lines?!… I got SUPER inspired. So much so that his work was added to my “go to” list in regards to shedding on the bass (Jamerson’s work, some disco jams, and various mid and up-tempo 70’s/80’s songs are my other “go tos”). So one day I was messing around on the bass and kinda thought to myself, “I don’t even have an uptempo ‘jheri curl jam’ in my catalog… It would at least be FUN to try and construct one.”

“We Are On The Move” began on the bass… It was actually the only song on ManMade that I wrote on the bass guitar. I wanted the bassline to move, be playful….but remain funky – I wanted it to “carry” the record. A good number of uptempo records from the late 70’s/early 80’s have very memorable basslines and I wanted this one to be no different… PLUS, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to show off my bass playing a little bit. A lot of folks aren’t aware that I play anything outside of the keys. ……Soooooo with that being said, I wanted to make sure to add in a guitar part in there as well. What it ended up becoming was 30 seconds of me playing two instruments that most of my listeners don’t even know I play… bass and guitar. Once the keys roll up into the first chord, that’s a clear indication of jheri curl juice beginning to be flung freely from that “yellow bottle” saturated moistness of a hairdo a/k/a …the official start of the party.

The original instrumental for this joint was titled “Eighty Three” as in the year 1983 for obvious reasons. The music for the joint literally took me back to that particular era. I can remember playing this one for everybody in The Foreign Exchange live collective at my house the night before we hit the Capital Jazz Fest stage last year and from their reactions to the just the music, I could tell that I had something pretty special on my hands. Once the crew and I returned hom from that early/mid June 2012 +FE run, Phonte and I got to work. Phonte was sent the instrumental and immediately sent me a vocal referenced version back. We had ideas…. We had HUGE ideas. And they seemed to come through for this one piece by piece….

First of all, I think I let out a clear, “OH SHIT!!” when I heard Gwen Bunn hit that “Get ready!!” on the hook because I didn’t tell Phonte exactly where I pulled inspiration from to create the music, yet he wrote an almost Shalamar-inspired hook for it providing me with further evidence as to why we work so well in that studio. We had a couple of challenges in getting a lead vocalist, that is until we turned to the brotha Eric Roberson. Now as busy as Erro remains with EVERYTHING, he always seems to have time for our music and it’s a blessing to have a kat that talented in your corner – especially since I was a fan of his before we started working together. Now he has appeared on my last THREE albums (ManMade, …just visiting three & SunStorm). Phonte hit Erro up with the reference and he turned it around in less than a week… I mean, the dude is a PROFESSIONAL and I love working with him for that very reason. He simply gets the music, walks in a studio, murders it, sends it back to you, and keeps it moving like nothing ever happened…. But right before the final lead vocal was done on it, Phonte said, “Ive got an idea for the ending… just give me a minute.” …..Ok, bet. Now, I admit I can be a bit impatient sometimes. So I created an ending of my own…. One that has a few percussion instruments on it and once the song is completely over, it breaks off into a SECOND part… and that was cool. But one morning at about 6am, I got one of those, “G MUTHAFUCKIN MAIL” texts from Phonte and I already KNEW what the deal was. I opened the email and there was a new version of the song. I played it through and didn’t notice anything different…..UNTIL

*chiiiiiimes* into……. *conga playing*

“Wait…… Hol’lup. Who?……. What the f…… YOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!”

Phonte had gotten Brevan Hampden to add some live percussion playing at the end of the song and it took on a whole new LIFE. I think I played that shit about 25 times in a row that morning. From there, I added a synth line and rhodes key chops at the very end of it so that the joint would in the words of Phonte, “go out in a blaze of glory”. We wanted the listener to be PARTYING by the end of the song. And then to hear Sy Smith, Erro and Phonte go back and forth as if all three of them are on stage together clowning out…. maaaaan, that was a treat for me. And when Erro says, “Come on, come ON, Come OWN, COME OWWWN!!!!” …That’s when the stage is set for a full out “dance as if you could give a damn about ANYthing else in your life right now.” Brotha was tryna bring some MJ to the table on this joint… We hear you brotha Erro, we hear you.

Purchase ManMade HERE • Or on iTunes

Studio Campfire Stories: ‘ManMade’ Edition – “ManMade” (feat. Phonte)

Zo_Phonte 04.17.11

A.M. hours in the studio with Phonte in NC – 04.17.11

“Ayo man, I think I’ve got an idea for the title track… I’ll record it on my phone and send it to you” © Phonte

The title track began with a simple idea for what was to become the hook sent to me in voice memo form from Phonte in late June 2012. The .mp4 file was simply him singing, “ManMaaaaaaade…. MaaanMaaaaade…. MaaaanMaaaaaaaade” repeated twice. We had already started discussing plans to get up as soon as possible to sit down at the keyboard and compose the full song. From the 16 second voice memo, I was able to come up with a chord progression that worked with the vocals so that once we DID sit down to work, we would have a foundation to work from.

Two months later on August 29, 2012 while at Phonte’s spot in NC… Myself at the keyboard and he at his desk at 2am, we started constructing the title track for ManMade. We had done this same thing once before in my studio three years prior. ……The end result was, “If I Could Tell You No” from the SunStorm album (I still have that original demo). For “ManMade”, we started working from the hook because that was the part that was already worked out vocally and musically. From there we worked out the verse parts and a pre-hook, which found me experimenting with different chord changes + voicings and Phonte humming and mumbling through the melodies – keeping what worked and scrapping what didn’t. Once we finally had everything together, we ran through it a few times all the way through just to practice and then see how it sounded together as a piece.. Finally, our phones came out and ‘record’ was hit on the voice memo buttons in order to capture a very rough reference. Three minutes and 46 seconds later… “ManMade” was officially documented and I had what I needed in order to make the music once I hit the studio …and I couldn’t WAIT because I knew we were sitting on something DOPE.

When I took this one to the studio, I remember completing the entire composition in less than an hour… In a 3/4 time signature, I programmed the drums first and utilized a double hi-hat technique that I’ve heard used on songs like Boz Scaggs’ “Lowdown”. First, I recorded myself playing an open hi-hat pattern and panned it to one side, then recorded myself playing a closed hi-hat pattern and panned to the other. This was how I heard the pattern even while in NC after recording the voice memo reference with Phonte. I can even remember explaining the pattern to him when he asked, “What you hearing for the drums?” Next came the keys, live bass and other layers to complete the production work. Musically, “ManMade” is probably the least complex song on the album and I’m glad I left it that way because once I sent it through to Phonte and he recorded his vocals on it… I was like, “YOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!” Very powerful lyrics. I had never heard him write like that before… This was the joint that showed me that Phonte was continuing to grow as a songwriter and vocalist. When you’ve worked with a kat for several years and you’re still able to see creative growth?! …That’s a helluva thing, man.

“If God is love and I’m truly forgiven, how do I know?
If I was really made in His image then, where does it show?
‘Cause you are everything that’s good and perfect and I fall short
‘Cause all we do is merely….
ManMade”

Come on, now… These are things we have all wondered or have asked at one time or another. So I felt this, not only as a collaborator and a fellow artist, but as a human being – and I’m not even big on picking up on lyrics like that at all. Relatable topics over music that you can nod your head or just zone out to. This joint was a special one because it became such a personal piece thus becoming exactly what I wanted to bring forth to the listener as a title track, which is always important when producing your album. The reason why there won’t be another “Zo! & Tigallo Love…” cover album? …Because we have a lot more of this kind of original material to bring to the table…

Purchase ManMade HERE • Or on iTunes

Studio Campfire Stories: ‘ManMade’ Edition – “Tell Me Something New” (feat. Jeanne Jolly)

010613JeanneJolly3

In December 2012, I was sitting fairly comfortably with the album….. But the perfectionist in me still felt a bit uneasy. To me, the album as whole was cool… but I needed at LEAST two more joints to make it RIGHT. Not too long after making this declaration to Phonte in a phone conversation one day, I had a drum pattern enter my head seemingly out of nowhere… and the time signature was in 7/4. Hmm, interesting… But I was proud to realize that the patterns and compositions that were starting to pop up in my head weren’t always tied to a 4/4 count (see: “Count To Five“). Creative expansion and growth in that studio is one of the greatest feelings in the world. Another great feeling is recording a drum pattern and having it sound EXACTLY the way it did when you ran it a million times over in your head – accents, fills and ALL. I can remember playing just the recorded drums over and over for about a half hour before I even put my hands on the keyboard to figure in a chord progression. The open hi-hat that I played in the pattern gave it a “smoky” feel to me and the colors I saw for the music were various shades of blue… So, I had the setting and atmosphere already, all that was left was to sit down at the keyboard and play with a progression that matched not only what I was feeling, but also visualizing. I can remember messing around on the keys for about five or ten minutes and coming up with this progression where the bassline seemed to ‘walk up’ the board to accompany the chords being played (this part ended up becoming the intro and hook). Once I demoed it and got an idea of what direction it was going in, that’s when I began re-recording all of the parts separately. The keys were recorded first followed by the bassline. I EQ’d the bass guitar and adjusted the tone on the preamp so that if you listen closely on a few parts in the song, you can actually hear my fingertips on the bass strings… That’s EXACTLY how I wanted it to come through. Maintain the beauty of the music itself, but still keep some of it raw as hell. Hearing fingertips plucking bass strings is always reminiscent of funk players like Bootsy and Larry Graham playing… To hear that on a ‘pretty’ record was just the contrast and texture that I wanted for the song.

Once I added the changes, completed the instrumental, and titled it “Seven Eight Enough”… I hit Phonte with a typical, “Check that gmail” …or a more exaggerated “G muhfuckin MAIL” text, because I KNEW we had something crazy on our hands. He called me back within about 20 minutes and when I picked up, he quoted the great Negro Poet and Philosopher…………………….. Gucci Mane

Phonte: “mmYAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!” 

Me: “IssssssGuuuuuuuucci!!!!!!”

*Heavy Laughter*

Me: “Looks like I just need ONE more joint now!”

And guess who happened to be in the studio with Phonte when I sent the instrumental over to him? …None other than the one and only, Jeanne “If you don’t want the executive producer….. ALL IN THE VIDEOS… DANCIN’… COME TO DEATH ROW” Jolly!!! The two of them were already recording for something unrelated to the album. Before this joint was sent, we were talking about putting Jeanne on the instrumental for what ended up becoming “New In Town (Happy)” (the instrumental was actually titled “Lifaudit”) BUT!!!!….. Since Jeanne was already there, a song was written for her to the brand new music. I mean, why not? …The excitement was completely there and dammit, so was the vocalist. And to be honest, this was one of the greatest examples of “right place in the right time” I have ever witnessed because Jeanne got in that studio and CLOWNED on this track. Phonte sent that joint back to me a couple days later with her vocals and what bugged me out the most was how the tone of her voice MATCHED those same colors I saw a couple days earlier when I ran the drums over and over again. It was like I made the song specifically for her without knowing it in advance. To this day we refer to this joint as her “one hitta quitta” track… She simply came in, took no prisoners for about three and a half minutes …then rolled the hell out. The dope part about it was that she really loved the results. The next time I saw her was at soundcheck for our New Year’s show in Durham with The Foreign Exchange and she was raving about the song, “I looooove the new song! Phonte really wrote some beautiful stuff for it!!” Truth. I am happy with the fact that the song allowed her to show off that vocal ability…

“…This…. is…. my… heeeeeaaaaaarrrr-eraaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrt!!!” *fades out*

I’ve heard this song literally over 300 times and that part STILL gives me goosebumps… Very well done, Jeanne.

Purchase ManMade HERE • Or on iTunes

Studio Campfire Stories: ‘ManMade’ Edition – “Making Time” (feat. Phonte and Choklate)

Phonte+phfe

“Making Time” was the LAST piece of music I completed for the ManMade album. It came at perfect time too… I was at a place where I was really happy with the output and the songs that were completed for the album already, but I felt that it needed just ONE more undeniable joint for me to be 100% pleased with it. So in mid-January, I went into the studio while feeling an absolute MESS. I can remember walking in there with the chills… and I didn’t have much of an appetite. I was sipping on a grapefruit and ginger concoction that I had just juiced and the heavy ginger root content was burning the shit out of my mouth and throat ….so I figured it was working. Despite my feverish symptoms, I wanted to go to work with a totally new approach, just in case this was, in fact, the last song for the album. The first thing I did was grab some records and sampled all new drums. New drums in the arsenal usually means, new feel… or even a refreshed feel as a producer. All types of newness can come out when you feel refreshed in the studio. What ended up being created that day was an instrumental that I played over and OVER, AND OVER…. I had done so much playing with different time signatures on the album that I needed a straight-up “head nod” joint …and this was the one. It was appropriately titled, “Fever”. Once again, I sent it on over to Phonte…..

Choklate

Phonte and I already had a scheduled recording session in North Carolina with Choklate the week after the “Fever” instrumental was completed (“Out In The World” was recorded during that particular session). So when we talked about what the personnel of the song would look like – a male vocalist singing lead with a female vocalist on the hook, I pretty much knew going into it who would probably find themselves singing that hook. Sure enough, the last night Choklate and I were recording at Phonte’s studio, I decided to try and rest up for the drive back to Maryland so I forced myself to crash on the couch for a few hours…. When I woke up, I heard them working on the “Fever” joint….. So, I sat up on the couch in slooooow motion like, “Oh shit!! Wait a minute!! The joint has lyrics on it now!!!” I got myself together enough to stagger into the studio to listen to what had been recorded. Phonte laid down his partial lead vocal (which at the time was meant to be a reference for another artist) and Choklate came with her “A” game on that hook. I loved what I was hearing and actually got a nice boost of energy to take with me for the 4am drive home I had ahead of me…

Now, if you listen closely to the song you may be able to hear a soft lead synth tucked behind Chok’s vocals… I placed that in the instrumental as my interpretation or an idea of what the hook melody could potentially sound like. Since kats are damn near on the same musical page most of the time anyway, when Phonte wrote the hook he utilized that same synth melody to put words to it….

“Slow it up just keep it niiiice and steady, yeeeah!”

After working with Phonte for damn near eight years now, I didn’t even have to verbalize the fact that I heard the hook in that particular melody… The music spoke and that’s what it became. When things like that happen in the studio, it is ALWAYS DOPE. Once Phonte re-recorded and completed his lead vocal on the song combined with Chok’s already infectious hook??!! We KNEW we had a jam on our hands…. It’s always crazy how the LAST song of the album usually becomes somewhat of a crowd favorite. I clearly got the “one more undeniable joint” I was aiming for… and then some with this one.

Purchase ManMade HERE • Or on iTunes

STUDIO CAMPFIRE STORIES: ‘ManMade’ Edition – “New In Town (Happy)” (feat. 1-O.A.K. and Carlitta Durand)

1-O.A.K.

The roots for one kinda goes all the way back to a previous working session Phonte and I had in June of 2010 for The Foreign Exchange’s Authenticity album. When the two of us sat down in my studio to produce the original draft for what was to become +FE’s “Fight For Love”. We first worked out the chord changes and I laid out some “dummy” drums… Or drums to hold the groove together at the time simply for writing/recording or demoing purposes to be thrown away later on. Well…. Fast forward more than two years later  to October of 2012. I called Phonte and told him… “Man, I’ve had these drums in my head for a few days now and I THINK they’re the same pattern as what I laid down for the DEMO version of “Fight For Love”.” This is why I always say that a higher power is with you while creating music simply because it was really unbelievable how that SAME particular pattern was just archived in my brain like that. Things like that don’t happen just because …there’s purpose and meaning behind it. Since the drums were something I did originally and were simply thrown away and never used for anything released…. Of course I had the green light to utilize my own drum pattern. ……..and I did.

Once I recorded the major portion of the drum pattern and got the correct feel of the drums that I was looking for, I then played the hi-hat live over top of it, which really seemed to add some character to the joint. The sixteenth notes every second bar pushed the pattern along a little bit while adding a bit of movement – I wanted that because of the way I already envisioned the album being played live. Now with the drums moving the way that they were, I wanted the chords to take time going through the progression…… BUT when the bassline was added, it moved right along with the drums thus connecting the two effectively.

Carlitta Durand

Interestingly enough, Phonte and I originally heard Jeanne Jolly on this joint ……..that is until I did the music for “Tell Me Something New”…. But I’ll get to that story a little later on. Phonte wrote they lyrics and recorded a reference, which sounded dope… THEN he hit up the studio version of Ms. Johnnie On-The-Spot, the one and only Carlitta Durand who always comes through in that clutch. She went into the studio and smashed her part. Hearing her “response” in the form of a pre-hook and her hook over the music really brought it to life… This was a helluva pleasant surprise to me, because I didn’t even know Carlitta was gonna be on it – Phonte just sent the joint on through to me with the credits. Talk about a vocal “cherry on top”.

Now we had a joint featuring Phonte and Carlitta almost reminiscent of our “Say How You Feel” days from 3-4 years ago, which was cool…. But we wanted a different look for this one – enter mah man from the Bay, 1-O.A.K. I have known this brotha for a few years now. Back in 2009 when I was on the road with PPP (Platinum Pied Pipers), he and one of my favorite producers out of the Bay Area, Trackademicks opened up for us in San Francisco and Los Angeles. As a matter of fact, we recently ran into each other again after the last San Francisco +FE show in October at Mezzanine. At that time, I had no idea that he would 1) Be contributing to my album, which was already in the works at the time, and 2) Have such a key contribution to the album. Hearing his newly laid vocals on the track was the PERFECT compliment to Carlitta’s already recorded parts. It was precisely the type of energy we were wanting to bring forth in this song as 1-O.A.K. brought almost a “youthful” sound to the music that fit the subject matter and duet perfectly…

“’cause I’m giving yooooou!! …Nothing but the very best part of meeee… Feels like I am finally freee-eee!!”

…Throughout the recording process of this one, I always thought that part was dope because he sang that shit like he MEANT it… Then to hear Carlitta follow those verses up with her unassuming yet very commanding tone where words and phrases leave her vocal chords with the same ease and effort as that of a regular conversation. The pairing made for excellent chemistry, in my humble opinion because their communication back and forth in the song sounded authentic and realistic. PLUS… I would LOVE to witness to the two of them performing this song live… Together.

Purchase ManMade HERE • Or on iTunes

Studio Campfire Stories: ‘ManMade’ Edition – “Count To Five” (feat. Gwen Bunn)

Gwen Bunn

The story of “Count To Five” begins in my car while sitting at a red light. The music was turned off, as it often is as I drive… As odd as that may sound for a musician, the quiet in the car allows my mind plenty of room to race. Therefore, when I hear something that sounds good in my head I can immediately pick up my phone and record those thoughts into its voice memo. Well, that’s exactly what happened in this case. For some reason I kept hearing a drum pattern in a 5/4 time signature – meaning simply five counts per measure (see The Foreign Exchange’s “All Roads” for example). This was kinda crazy because at that time I had never composed a joint in five before so I was already excited about what the song had the potential to become. So I ended up putting my phone up to my mouth and literally beatboxed the drum pattern I kept hearing in my head so that I wouldn’t forget it and could work with it later. A day or so afterward, I created the drums to sound completely IDENTICAL to the voice memo I recorded in the car (I still have the voice memo in the archives too – I may post it one day). Musically, I had no idea where I wanted to go with it……. So I proceeded to play around on the keys for a bit. No more than five minutes later, I started playing what ended up becoming the intro piece of the song. It was different, but I loved how it sounded. It reminded me almost of some 80’s New Wave stuff. Once that part fell into place, the piece that wound up becoming the verses and the hooks came instantly. Going from that intro to what became the hook sounded craaaaaaazy – the contrast was huge, but it made SO much sense to me. When I laid everything out and began recording, the sound took an even more interesting turn once the different elements were added. Layering the wah-wah guitars at the beginning over top of the keys, over top of the brand new Moog Minitaur synth bass module I picked up a couple of months prior to recording this music in 5/4 gave me a sound that I had never created before. This was a song that even while laying it down felt like creative growth right there in the studio… Now THAT is a helluva thing.

Once all of the music was recorded… I hit up Phonte, then sent him the joint. Maaaaan, he turned that shit around in less than a day with all of the lyrics written and a recorded reference. I can remember him telling me in a brief conversation soon after, “Man, I’ve got something for this one already.” He sent that final back to me and we got on the phone buggin’ OUT – The joint was a WINNER. He already had someone in mind to record the final vocals for us and proceeded to reveal who it was via this track from Darryl Reeves’ ridiculously dope album Mercury (which I attempted to buy in May while I was in Atlanta but Moods Music was sold out of it!!!) with a sweet-voiced singer named Gwen Bunn on it. The song was called “Every Time I See You.” I was like… “Yoooooooo, get her on it!” He ended up sending her the reference track, instrumental and the written lyrics and she said that she would have something within a couple of days. …Sure enough, she returned with a raw recorded version that may have even been done via laptop. It definitely wasn’t gonna be the final version, but we knew that she was what the song needed – she sounded dope over the music. About a week or so later, she was in NC recording the final vocals with Phonte. Then to find out that Gwen is only 21/22 years old?! Sheeeeit man, she’s only beginning!!! At the time that this story was written, I still have yet to actually meet her in person to thank her for acting a fool on this joint, but we follow each other on Twitter and tweet sometimes… In 2013, that qualifies as the same thing, right? ….Maybe not? *shrug*  ……Haha.

Purchase ManMade HEREOr on iTunes