I’m so very proud to be able to present this to y’all. After talking about and posting some of the teasers over the last month or so, here is the official trailer for my upcoming SkyBreak Documentary.
Film by Digital Café
I’m so very proud to be able to present this to y’all. After talking about and posting some of the teasers over the last month or so, here is the official trailer for my upcoming SkyBreak Documentary.
Film by Digital Café
Zo! – “Lifelines” featuring Dornik
(L. Ferguson, P. Coleman, D. Leigh)
All instruments: Zo!
Chapter 3hree, Verse 5ive Music (BMI)/Daddy’s New Bowtie (ASCAP)/Universal/PMR Publishing (PRS)
The first single taken from the third +FE Music release from producer, multi-instrumentalist, and musical director of The Foreign Exchange, Zo!.
Album in stores May 20.
The third +FE Music release from producer, multi-instrumentalist, and musical director of The Foreign Exchange, Zo!.
The 10 song collection features guest appearances from Eric Roberson, Phonte, Muhsinah, innovative UK soul wonder Dornik, and longtime Dungeon Family affiliate and funk/rock veteran Joi.
01. Lake Erie feat. Sy Smith
02. Starlight feat. Phonte
03. Packing For Chicago feat. Muhsinah
04. I Don’t Mind feat. Shana Tucker
05. Wishing You Well feat. Carmen Rodgers
06. A Season feat. Eric Roberson
07. Just Whatcha Like feat. Joi
08. Lifelines feat. Dornik
09. For Pops
10. Steal My Joy feat. Tamisha Waden
Zo! – ‘SkyBreak’
May 20, 2016
Photography by Keith Estep for Keith Estep Photography
Design by Chris Charles for Creative Silence
When I posted the story for “Until the Dawn (Milk and Honey, Pt. 2)”, a few people happened to notice that I was writing out of order of the album’s tracklisting – that was very intentional. While “Until…” closed the album, “Face In the Reflection” is going to serve as the grand finalé for these stories… Why? Well, not necessarily because of its self-examining subject matter and the mood it creates, but because honestly… this track almost wasn’t even created in the first place.
Day three in the studio (April 2, 2015) Nicolay and I were still on a high from creating the music that ended up becoming that Tales From the Land Of Milk and Honey album closer. Once again, we were feeling excellent about our newest batch of instrumentals and even started to talk about the fact that we should make these marathon sessions an annual, semi-annual, or just more of a regular thing to see what else the two of us can come up with together …or even if the purpose is to stay razor sharp in the studio. At this point, we had pretty much called it a day and went into complete shutdown and disconnect mode. We wanted to wrap the shit up so that we could go and do what had become somewhat of a cornerstone of these studio sessions …EAT. And eat WELL.
Now, I can’t remember if Nic was putting a quick mix on the “Until The Dawn…” instrumental so he could bounce it down and send the files over to Phonte or what was happening exactly …but since I had a little bit of idle time on my hands and just so happened to be sitting at the (Yamaha) Motif keyboard I started playing around on it a little bit. Allow me explain something, most artists or musicians will tell you that some of their best music has come from simply “playing around” on an instrument. Songs that come to mind from my own catalog that are direct results of this include: “Greater Than The Sun” and “Body Rock”. A couple of things I was playing around with started sounding pretty good to me until the next thing I knew, I had a decent sounding descending chord progression on my hands. It was another one of those situations where Nic and I kinda looked at each other on the same page like, “We may have to stop everything we’re doing right now and record that.” Nic opened up a new Pro Tools session and started to construct some drums around the same tempo as I was playing on the piano. The drum pattern he programmed was simple, yet it still managed to encompass his “sound.” He laid the pattern out first so that I had a foundation to play over once it came time to record my parts. First, I recorded the piano track which was actually kind of “captured” by Nic – what I mean by this is, listen to the very beginning of the song and the way that it comes in. My piano part doesn’t fall completely on tempo until my second chord. I THINK this is because I was playing around with the progression and then realized that we were actually recording. Either way, I LOVE the fact that it was kept exactly the way it was… Even as a perfectionist in the studio, I live for “human” elements in music. Those are moments that add authentic touches to what is being created and could never be duplicated by a computer or plug-in. Even most of what was played after the drums fade at the end was improvised. Second, I picked up the bass guitar and Nic recorded my bass parts, which I kept very minimal. A song like this does not scream for a “bass guitar show,” so I felt that simplicity was key there. Lastly, I found a synth patch on the Moog Voyager that I was messing around with and Nic hit the record button on that as well… And I WANT to say (Nicolay, fact-check me on this) that all three parts were each done in one take. …Or maybe just the piano and bass parts. Anyway, we also layered a synth pad in there for some additional warmth on the track and some strings to make that ending bigger.
And just like that, we had another one… The end result was a pretty sounding track that was also very haunting at the same time. We didn’t go crazy over it like we did the others because we were already unplugged. I think our heads were more into what restaurant we were about to eat in ….or at least, that’s where MY greedy ass head was. The instrumental was then quickly bounced down and the file was sent to Phonte and our final joint was out of our hands. The night got even more interesting when in the middle of us toasting some drinks up to all of this new and completed music, we got to witness a couple get arrested a few tables over from us in the restaurant we decided to go to. Wilmington, NC was great to us in the entertainment department that day.
When I drove back to Maryland the next morning, what would become the “Face In The Reflection” instrumental was the only one that Nic didn’t email me, so as a couple of weeks had gone by I had completely forgotten how the song even sounded. That is, until I got a text from Phonte one morning that said……
I’ve said this before in stories and at shows… Whenever I get that “GMAIL” text…. That means there’s some fucking FIRE in my inbox.
When I first pressed ‘play’ on it, I was hyped up just to hear the song again. I reacquainted myself with the music during the first few bars of the intro, but I FULLY understood it when Phonte came in and basically verbalized its tone. That simplistic, pretty, yet almost uneasy music came to life. Hell, when the hook came in?!
“Do you ever wonder why
You can never unify
The person that you are with ever person that you think you should be?
When you look into the mirror try
To keep it strong and not to cry
When you don’t feel the connection to the face in the reflection you see”
Tales From the Land Of Milk and Honey had just gotten REAL. Even if you’re perfectly happy with your life, that hook will have you looking to find some shit to reevaluate. If this one catches you on the wrong day, it’s a wrap.
Hearing “Face In The Reflection” for the first time made the album feel complete to me. It served as the “ballad”, but it also touched upon a subject matter that is very relatable – this shit can hit home HARD for some of our listeners. The final touches were added by Nic who layered some organ in the hooks (which actually added to the “haunting” aspect of the song) and made the drums thicker by adding some crashes, accents and just beefing them up sonically, overall. And Tamisha Waden and Carmen Rodgers teaming up on them background vocals will have you calling around to talk your problems out with a professional while a single tear rolls down your cheek. The raw emotion captured and depicted in this song is undeniably the star of the show. When I talked to Phonte about it after hearing it, we couldn’t wait to hear the public response once the album was released. This is definitely one of those joints where you may have to hit that “pause” button on your player before advancing to the next selection in order to gather yourself a bit. Listen man, “Until The Dawn…” HAD to close this album… We didn’t want to leave folks staring into mirrors at themselves looking all sad and shit after all of this fun, uptempo music!!
“Until The Dawn…” not only closed the album, but it was the song that (we THOUGHT) was going to close out our second marathon studio session down in Wilmington, NC. By day three of the session, we definitely felt as though we were on a pretty good winning streak, especially since Nicolay and I had cranked out the music for what would end up becoming “Asking For A Friend” on day one, and “As Fast As You Can” the following day. By April 2, 2015 (day three), we were looking to keep those tempos up and continue to have some more fun during the creation process. We had been snapping pics of the studio session and posting them up via social media to let folks know that we were putting together something amazing…. we just didn’t know what the hell FOR specifically (possibly the +FE “crew” album that I’ve mentioned before) either way, we knew we were sitting on a strong set of new music.
The music for “Until The Dawn” began with an agreed upon tempo and some drums Nic programmed that the two of us decided to just jam on for a little while. I think at that point, we really wanted to take our time with this one to ensure that it didn’t have the same feel as everything else we had already made that week or during the previous session. We even posted a 15-second video I took of us doing just that… I was on the Rhodes and Nic on the Moog Voyager messing around with some ideas. Check the full version…
When it comes to recalling these stories, “my right hand man” a/k/a my voice memo is GOLDEN. Because of it, I’m able to remember that before this particular video was shot, what we had for the main groove was a simple two-chord piano progression. I have audio of me sitting on the Moog Little Phatty playing around with a bassline while the track was running in the background. Once again, I recorded it so that I wouldn’t forget what the hell I was playing at the time. You’d be surprised at how often you forget how you’ve played something, especially after that “record” button has been hit. So to avoid having to go through the whole, “Ayo!! What did I play on that part again?!” I’ll hit the record button on my phone and capture it just to be safe …voice memo is undefeated. From those original two chords that we had, Nic got on the Yamaha Motif and expanded the main groove progression from two to four chords. Once he did that, the song felt like it was getting somewhere now that it had some legitimate movement in it. I hopped on the Rhodes and wanted to see what it would sound like if I decorated the music with some arpeggiated chords on top (that’s exactly what you see me doing in the video above while holding the camera). From there, I got back on the Little Phatty board to record the bassline I had figured out earlier. The problem was, the original bassline I had was for a two-chord progression and not the four chords that we were now working with. Therefore, I needed to come up with something different… Once I locked in on a new bassline, I recorded it and played it all the way through accompanied by the already recorded piano parts …that is until the very end when the pianos stopped. At that part, I went straight to C and on instinct started playing and riffing in C minor – just like that, we had a second part to our song. We were jokingly referring to that change as the “Marvin” change because it reminded us of how Marvin Gaye songs (“What’s Going On”, for example) would go from an uplifting tone to all of a sudden stopping on a dime and nosediving directly into a darker almost thought provoking and emotionally thick minor progression. THAT was the part we couldn’t wait to hear vocals on because we knew it was gonna be crazy…. And when we got that email back from Phonte that read:
We KNEW what the deal was. I loved what happened on this track vocally because it allowed Tamisha Waden to GO IN. On “Truce” she was somewhat subdued, which of course worked for the track. She got to do some hollering on “Work It To The Top” but still in more of a background vocal capacity. This was the song where she was literally vocally unleashed. We had all heard her on stage, we all know her capabilities and that her roots are in that chuuuuuch – this was the song that took her over the top. Tamisha was able to step out there, flex her muscles vocally and let loose. I can remember hearing the song for the first time and literally yelling out loud, “Yeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaah!!!!!!!!!!” Once finished, it served as a PERFECT “part two” to “Milk and Honey” – still very uptempo, lively and lacking verses in order to keep the energy going as more of a vamp. Hearing all of the new percussion and accents Nic added to the song also added plenty of movement and bounce to it. We were getting closer to completing this project and I was feeling more proud and anxious by the DAY.
April 1, 2015… Was day TWO of our second studio marathon in Wilmington, NC. Having knocked out what would become the instrumental for The Foreign Exchange’s lead single, “Asking For A Friend” the night before and a second instrumental earlier that day, to say that Nicolay and I were in a groove in the studio would be a complete understatement. Out of the ten Tales From the Land Of Milk and Honey joints, this may very well me my favorite story to tell. I almost feel like I need to introduce this one as if I’m narrating a damn ESPN 30 For 30 trailer…
“What if I told you…”
…that the music for “As Fast As You Can” happened… well…. kinda by accident?
Nic opened a new Pro Tools session, as usual… We agreed upon a tempo and then he started searching through some drum kits until he landed on something that had some sounds that caught our ears. He laid a four-to-the-floor kick as the foundation and started to build around that. I was sitting at the Rhodes, kinda nodding and kinda texting or tweeting… Probably about 50/50. Nic was on the drum machine going IN, layering each element piece-by-piece until the drums were pretty much complete. THEN… Ok, so you know when you’re in the studio how you just tap on a couple of notes back and forth to test if a keyboard’s sound is coming through the mixing board? Well, Nic did just that… He reached over to the Moog Voyager keyboard and just hit a couple notes to get a quick sound check – it was successful, the board was coming through the speakers. Meanwhile, I put my phone down and quickly figured out that the two notes he hit during the quick sound test were C# and D. I figured, hey… Let me see what happens if I mess around with those two notes and build some chords around them. The very first things that came to me were: Dmaj7 and C#min7, but hit in a rhythm that went with Nic’s drum pattern. I kept playing the chords until we realized… Ayooooooo, we’ve got something here!!!
Now when I started playing the rhythm initially, my bass note and chord matched… Meaning that my left and right hands were playing the chords stabs together …at the same time. When Nic laid the bassline out in the song, the D and first C# notes were the same rhythm as what I played, but the remaining C#’s all hit on the “and” through the remaining measure and a half. I thought that slight change gave the drums a little more “bounce”. Come to think of it, I have audio of Nic playing the synth chords over the drums and bassline while I sat on the Moog Little Phatty trying out different synth line variations. I have listened to it a good 20+ times since the release of the album because it’s dope to be able to hear our initial reactions to what was being created. Hell, if you can’t get excited off of the music you’re making, you certainly can’t expect anyone else to. And we were hyped up… At one point in the recording, I played a line (that we ultimately ended up recording on the song) and said, “Yeah, that’s the one I like!” …Then I started sing/humming the beginning of the line as I played it and Nic sang the second part in approval. The very next line variation I played, you can hear Nic in the background react, “OH!!!!!” And the clip concludes with him saying, “That is it! …..I think we may have to record that…” It’s REALLY dope to listen to now in hindsight… Our initial reactions to that music captured in audio form, all because I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget the line I was practicing. It may have taken us a grand total of about 30-40 minutes to finish the entire instrumental and once it was done, I think we ran the joint for ANOTHER 30-40 minutes. We knew we had a helluva song on our hands with this one, it just felt way too good for it not to become a standout. We sent the finished product over to Phonte who was also in the studio with Carmen Rodgers just a couple of hours northwest of us in Raleigh, NC. His response to the music contained in that email?
Just three days later on the morning of April 4th, Nic and I received an email back from Phonte with a completed song attached…
Subject: As Fast As You Can
Look man… When I opened that attachment and heard Carmen singing over that music, it sounded like we made it specifically for her. Her tone + the instrumental?!?! She fit PERFECTLY. I remember Phonte telling me about the writing style that he and Carmen collaborated on for it where they utilized the same melody and cadence for the verses as he did in the hook… Well, the shit worked. I honestly had to STOP myself from listening to this song too much once I got the recorded vocals back. Out of everything we made, it was the one that I kept going back to. I never claim favorites when it comes to music I’m involved in, but I RAN this shit, bruh… A ton. It was always crazy to me how this song went from being sort of an “accident” to me burning a hole in it later by playing it so much. Further confirmation that this music was supposed to happen.
You now how you can get on a music “kick” and listen to a certain artist’s catalog, or maybe even specific eras of music for extended periods of time? Well, I’m like that with producers. I may go on a Timbaland streak for a minute, then switch over and listen to the Mizell Brothers for a week or so, cut over to Quincy, to Leon Sylvers III, etc… One particular week back in the summer of 2014, I was listening to a lot of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis-produced stuff. There was one night I ran S.O.S. Band’s “Sands Of Time” (one of my favorite songs of all-time, by the way) about 25 times in a row, that joint was obviously hitting me differently that night for whatever reason. Anyway, at some point, I moved on to their work on 1991’s Mo’ Money Soundtrack – in particular that damn “Money Can’t Buy You Love” by Ralph Tresvant (which MURDERS “Sensitivity” and anything else he has put out solo ….in my humble opinion, of course). I was 13 when I first got my hands on this song and I loved it then, so the appreciation my ears have NOW for what they were doing musically is kinda through the roof. I sat myself down at the keyboard to figure the song out as it was playing and one thing I noticed in particular was the first chord of Ralph’s verses was a major chord with a flattened fifth… Now, had this been a jazz or blues tune, I would have understood that chord choice… But VERY rarely do you hear a jazz-influenced chord starting the progression for an R&B/Soul joint, particularly one that received radio play. The thing is, it sounds DOPE where it is… Especially with the background vocals following the chords faintly. With that influence, I decided to write my own progression and see if I could start it off with kind of an “unexpected” chord of my own… So, I chose an F#13 and built on. From there, the third and final joint from what would become Tales From the Land Of Milk and Honey that wasn’t created as a result from the two studio sessions that Nicolay and I went in on was born.
The original instrumental version that I created was titled, “Bookit” (I always name my instrumentals based on whatever the hell is happening in my life. At the time, I was booking a good number of plane tickets for shows. Obvious title, but it’s much better than numbering my music as “Instrumental #1”, etc). Once I had a basic chord progression, then came the drums, which wound up becoming a mix of programmed drums and parts that I had played live all the way through, including the snare and a cabasa. Initially, I recorded a demo version with full out and finished drums + me playing the entire chord progression and changes out on the piano (this is similar to what I’ve done in the past for songs like, “Africa”). Since I was on the road a great deal last summer with The Foreign Exchange, the “Bookit” instrumental sat for a couple of months. I can remember coming back home from +FE’s European Tour in October 2014 and going back through some of the music to see how everything sounded and I came back across “Bookit”. At first, I was mad at myself for not writing all those damn chords and changes out as soon as I recorded them (I am terrible with that, I always have to re-learn my own music when it’s time to play it live), but I quickly got over it because I loved the piece so much. I ended up taking some time to write all of the chords out and practice the song on the keys… then the bass guitar. Since the demoed piano was already recorded, I laid down my bass guitar parts first. Once that was done, I then muted the demo piano and recorded some Rhodes, then layered it with another pass of just piano. At that point even with all of the chord changes, it was a pretty simple sounding recording, but the idea was now firmly in place. Thinking back, I honestly cannot remember where we were when I let Phonte hear this joint for the first time, but I do remember him hitting me up on more than a couple of occasions with, “Man, let me know when you finish up that “Bookit” joint.” I would have wanted to send him more of a complete song, instead on February 4, 2015 I sent him a super rough draft in an email that said:
“Bass, drums, keys… Rough joint”
Fast forward to April 3rd, The DAY I got back home from the second studio marathon in Wilmington, NC with Nic, I got an email from Phonte that said, “BANG.” My response after hearing it:
Saturday, February 21, 2015 was a day tailor made for storytelling. I had an afternoon photo shoot scheduled in North Carolina with my man Chris Charles of Creative Silence (who did the photography and design for ManMade and also later for Tales From the Land Of Milk and Honey). I packed my car full of clothes and started to make my way down one of my least favorite freeways… That damn I-95. For those who travel through Maryland and Virginia via 95, y’all understand the 24/7 traffic delays in and around Fredericksburg, VA. Well, in this instance add in a snow storm on top of all that confusion… HEAVY flakes started coming down once I hit this area, which was wack as shit because I thought I had left my house early enough to miss the storm. Thankfully, I only had to deal with heavy snowfall for about a half hour to 45 minutes. The remainder of the drive was pretty much smooth sailing. Once I made it to NC, I checked in to my hotel and sped over to Chris’ studio to knock the photo shoot out… As soon as we wrapped that up, I grabbed some food with one of my best friends and former college roommates then he and I made our way to Phonte’s studio because he was telling me that he had an idea for a song that he wanted to try and get out. We ended up getting to his spot at around midnight and the three of us caught up for a minute until my boy had to bounce. At that point with the day already being as long as it was, I wasted no time sitting down on the keyboard so that we could get some work done. Now, Phonte and I have a bit of a history with writing songs at the keyboard/piano… The first time it ever happened, “If I Could Tell You No” from my SunStorm album was the result. Second time, the song ended up becoming The Foreign Exchange’s “Fight For Love”. The third time, we came up with what would become the title track for my latest album, ManMade. And the FOURTH time birthed +FE’s “Listen To The Rain”. So we definitely knew there was a winning songwriting formula there with the track record being what it is. From there, we began working on the second of the three songs from Tales… that did not originate from the two studio marathon blocks that Nicolay and I recorded the bulk of the music in. The entire session started with me saying:
“Ayo, let me hear the idea…”
Phonte started singing the melody he told me he had in his head for the last few days, at least… He even had most of the words figured out as well. I remember thinking when I heard it initially, “This sounds really happy” and musically I wanted to cater to that without it sounding too light and therefore not taken seriously. With the references made in his lyrics, “When is a chord, more than a chord?” and “…sevenths and ninths” I knew from the jump that it would be important for the instrumentation to have just as much of a voice in this one, possibly even something more stripped down musically. As Phonte sang the lyrics, I began to follow him on the keys up until we hit the end of the main phrase… “sevenths and niiiiiiiiiiiiinths….. niiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinths….” and we both knew that we needed a change there. With the the song feeling so bright and upbeat at that time, I went right to a minor chord first to darken it some and give the music a little more contrast. I remember us experimenting with a few different ideas on that change… I think what ended up sealing the deal on the one we decided on was the progression I put together to get us back to the original phrase (the spot where he says, “…remedyyyyy…. remedyyyyyy…. remedyyyyy-eeeeee”). I still have about four slightly different versions of this song recorded on my voice memo app with just my keys and his vocals. This song literally evolved as we played it all the way through. EACH TIME we heard something different. For example, after the first or second time demoing, Phonte wanted to try a shortened measure (at 0:21, the measure is in 5 rather than 6), which worked perfectly. And why not mess with the song count within a track with so many music references? It was only right… After we finished up, we were READY to get that music recorded. If we were in my studio in Maryland, we MAY have started and finished the song that night. I remember him saying, “Yo, let me know when you record THAT shit.” I took the ideas, recorded demos and rolled on back to my hotel room because it was damn near 6a and I was EXHAUSTED. But uhhh… When I got back to the room, there was a fire alarm going off. Listen man…. have y’all been in a hotel room when the fire alarm is going off?! That sound is deafening. …which of course, in an emergency… it should be. But when there ain’t shit happening and it’s just going off to be going off?!!? You want to choke the shit outta somebody. But I was tired, man. I walked back into my room, covered my head with pillows and PASSED OUT.
After waking up at around 10a, I hit the road right back up to MD… The very next day, I sat down in my studio to record the piano, Rhodes and bass guitar parts for this new one and sent it over to Phonte at about 5:30p. Some seven hours later, Nic and I received an email from him with the subject line, “Sevenths and Ninths” that read:
“AND ANOTHER ONE”
Shit was fire… Simple… Stripped down… and to the point. I know I didn’t want to add anything to it on my end. We felt that this was gonna play the role of the album’s “pivot”, something that could end “side A” of the record, which is exactly what it ended up doing once placed in the sequence.
Let’s fast forward to July.. The Foreign Exchange had a show at The Promontory in Chicago. On the way to the venue, Phonte popped the new album in so that the entire crew who was packed into a 12-passenger van could hear the FINAL cut of everything. Through the duration of it, I was analyzing it to see if I heard any new shit added to the versions of the songs I had already. “Sevenths and Ninths” came on…. I noticed that the bass guitar was dropped from the first eight bars of the verse leaving keys only, dope…. But when that bass was finally introduced, for the first time, I heard the Moog lead that Nic recorded. I’m pretty sure I hit a, “Whooooooooooo!!!!!!” loud as shit in approval. I wasn’t expecting it at all… Then it came in numerous other times throughout the song adding another layer of texture to it. I also heard some synth pads he layered in during the song’s final phrase which thickened it up some and made it feel very final – needless to say I was verrry pleased with it. Outside of it being just a really dope song, its place in the tracklisting was just as important as the quality itself. Sequentially, I think this one is probably the most important song of Tales… because it serves as a perfect set-up for the album’s wild card… The lead single, “Asking For A Friend”.