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
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”.
“Disappear” is actually one of the three songs on Tales From the Land Of Milk and Honey that wasn’t a result of one of the two marathon studio sessions that Nicolay and I scheduled (in February 2014 and April 2015). Like the song “Count To Five” from my ManMade album, the drum pattern came to me while driving in my car …in silence. My phone’s voice memo is always something I use to capture ideas as SOON as they pop into my head because 9 out of 10 times if you don’t record them right then and there… you forget them later – I don’t care how dope of an idea it was. Even if I don’t forget it, I want to go back and listen to the idea exactly how I had it so that if I need to tweak it once I record, then I have the freedom to do so. I always feel like, whatever the idea was must have been dope enough for me to want to record it on my phone, so I want to listen back to it exactly like THAT. So in March 2014, probably feeling inspired from the work that Nic and I had completed just a couple of weeks prior while at a stop light… I opened my voice memo app and “beatboxed” this drum pattern exactly the way I heard it.
Boom KLACK! Boom……… KLACK!Boom, KLACK! Boom………
When I took that pattern in to the studio and started working on it, the demo that I laid for it was much more mid-tempo than anything, but it was workable enough so that I could sit down and figure out chord progressions. The first progression I worked through was one that involved a bassline that was on the busy side, BUT it fell in line with what the drums were doing. The second piece of the music I worked through involved hits on the one… I knew that the song would need dynamics and something that would make it sound interesting when played live and the hits sounded like a perfect solution to me (I actually still have voice memos with the recorded drums AND of me playing those first two parts on the Rhodes). Those hits while another chord progression was happening created a bit of a song climax AND it went right back into the original form pretty easily. To be honest, I think it even took me a week or so to even record the rest of the song officially because I wanted to sit on the demo version and make sure that I didn’t hear anything else on it. I wanted to go in and record all of the ideas I had in one shot (letting stuff sit and “figuring” it out is not a normal practice of mine as it may lead to overthinking in the studio, which is a NO GO). I finally went in to record the music and upon hearing it again, it seemed slow to me… So the first thing I did was bump the tempo up some. A loop of the drums was already recorded so I then patched in the Moog Minitaur and recorded the synth bass part. Once I laid the bass, I added a second part that bounced between two chords at a time… This was to serve as a vamp, or even a “part two” (shouts to The Isley Brothers who were the masters at doing this). Once that was finished, layering began. Synth pads, sprinkles of piano in the verses, and a soft Rhodes pattern was added to aid in the song’s movement. But things got real definitive once I added a lead synth via the Moog Voyager, which appears at the very beginning of the song in the melody line that introduces the entire piece. Having that lead part kinda tied everything together musically… ESPECIALLY on the hits. I definitely remember getting hyped as SHIT when playing the synth lines over the hits. Once the music was finished, I named the instrumental “March Sadness” – a play on the NCAA’s “March Madness” which was in full swing at the time of the recording.
Where normally, I send music to him as soon as I finish it, I sat on this one for a couple of months before letting Phonte hear it. The instrumental was my new favorite, BUT we weren’t in full “record” mode for anything just yet. Because of that, he didn’t hear this one until early May when +FE was in town for our show at The Howard Theater in DC. Before we left my house to go play the NPR Tiny Desk set, he and I got up in the studio to check some new ideas I had been working on. “March Sadness” was the first thing I played to which he responded with…
“Man, go’on and send me that shit…”
I ended up passing him that one and two other instrumentals, if I’m not mistaken. And just for demoing purposes, I even opened the mic up for him to record a very rough scratch vocal on it, where he kinda sang and hummed his way through the melodies and changes just to get an idea of a songwriting cadence for later.
Fast forward to February 2015, Nicolay and I received an email from Phonte with the subject title, “Disappear” and the message read…
“2015 here we come”
Now at the time, Phonte and I were working on something else COMPLETELY separated from anything +FE, so we had no idea that this email contained the first song for an upcoming +FE album that would be finished and released just six months later. NONE. But when I opened it and recognized the instrumental, I got hyped immediately… Then hearing Phonte’s verse and remembering that it loosely matched the cadence of the scratch vocal that he had recorded back in May 2014 was real dope. But the icing on the cake here was that damn Carlitta Durand. I swear man, her vocals win every single TIME. When she came in on those pre-hook hits?!?!?! I damn near lost it… That part had so much “punch” behind it now to really take it over the top……. Then when her verse began, that same voice took on more of a “delicate” role, it was crazy to hear that contrast from the same vocalist within the same piece. But MY part?! …MY part is the “…catch 22 I keep falling for your touch” line. Good GRACIOUS I got goosebumps off of that shit the first time I heard it (and still do now even after having heard it 3,892 times). She NAILED that line.
Once the vocals were finished, Phonte was telling me that he wanted Nic to work with the second part of the song – the “part two” I described earlier. So I sent Nic the song’s original Pro Tools session and after hearing what he ended up doing with the drums and additional synths… I was sitting there like, “YooooooooOOOOOOO!!!!!!” He took the drums and flipped them so that the momentum of the song continued on a huge high, but the swing was different – AND it had his signature on it. I honestly wish I was in the studio with him to have actually seen how he did what he did with those drums. He also added more layers of synth in the form of arpeggiated parts and some additional pads. And I haven’t even told Nic this yet (I’m sure he’ll find out once he reads this story), but MY favorite piece of the second half is what he did between 3:49 and 3:59…. That eight bar ride out?!?! Fucking CRAAAAZY. There’s really something to be said not only about our complementary styles but the sheer confidence we have in each other to just pass an instrumental between the three of us and still end up with a uniformly, solid piece of music that contains distinct signatures from Nic, Phonte and myself. I actually think the same can be said for the entire +FE album, but “Disappear” in particular was one where within that 4:26 worth of song, you can literally “hear” the baton being passed. I think that’s REAL dope and hopefully it makes for a more intriguing experience for our listeners.
Have you ever been in a “groove”, let’s say …in the gym before? Where you aren’t missing days, the workouts are feeling good to you and there’s progress in the fact that you’re starting to see some results? That basically describes where Nicolay and I were for this song. We had gotten into a great routine in the studio, so much so that I feel like we were ZONING when this one was made. The “introduction” process felt looong gone with the creation of both “Milk and Honey” and “Work It To the Top” back-to-back in our very first session only a couple days prior. Then by day two, we really started to figure out how one another worked in and around the studio. I mean, just how freely our ideas bounced back and forth was incredible – not necessarily the amount of ideas, but the fact that the ones we had WORKED almost every single time. Damn near everything we tried sounded dope to us, which is a helluva motivator in my book. If I remember correctly, that second day we ended up knocking out three instrumentals, none of which happened to make the album… BUT we were excited to have five brand new, fully-composed songs at the end of just two marathon studio sessions. Ironically enough, before these sessions I NEVER drank coffee…
Oh my, how times have changed.
We started working on “Truce” during studio day number three… Funny thing is, we were so in a rhythm at the time that this was made that I honestly can’t even remember what element came first. I WANT to say that Nic put the drums together for it to set everything off. Now, I’ve always felt that if used correctly, the Maestro Rhythm King MRK-2 drum machine sounds can provide a simplistic yet potent backbone to your music… Hell, just ask Sly Stone (“If You Want Me To Stay”, “Family Affair”, “In Time” etc.) or Larry Graham and Graham Central Station (“The Jam”). As Nic got into “mad scientist” mode preparing and programming those drums, I sat down on the Rhodes and worked through a three-bar chord progression that seemed to complement what he was doing and that piece ended up becoming the intro and the hook. Since we always like to keep it interesting with changes and transitions, I came up with a verse part and then an ending, which I separated… First recording the Rhodes keys for the chords and then picking up the bass guitar to record that part. I then added the synth line that you hear in the beginning as well as the hooks (once again, the Moog Little Phatty came through in the CLUTCH). The closing progression was important, why? Because we wanted to make the end of this song as BIG as possible. It made sense, the music felt somber… but pretty. Taking it out on a higher level of energy than the majority of the song was definitely the move. So we continued to layer and add everything from pads, atmosphere, swell strings and even some arpeggiated noise for the hooks and ending. At ONE point, there was even a “phaser” sound that came from one of the keyboards (starts at 3:07) that lasts throughout the duration of the song. In the original instrumental, that ending is a solid minute, plus….. and the phaser rides aaaaall the way through. It was a really dope addition and 100% accidental. ….at least I THINK it was.
This song got real when Phonte wrote to it and sent it back with them recorded vocals on it… My initial reaction was, “COME on, bruh…” Up to that point, after touring with her for over a year I was really only familiar with Tamisha Waden’s LIVE vocals. Hearing her own this recorded verse for the first time, I DAMN near called her out of concern like…
“Ayo, Tamisha, you alright?! I don’t know what the hell happened, but It’ll be okay… Trust me on this.”
Her vocals sounded very genuine. To me, It sounded like she was singing through TEARS. I loved it, the texture was perfect. I’m sure she has received more than a couple texts from reaching out to her about hanging in there or some shit since this record has been released. Phonte was writing about something damn near everyone who has had any type of relationship can relate to… Finally getting on the same page, pushing the pride to the side, possibly humbling yourself, throwing up the white flag and calling a …Truce. Whether it’s to “start over” on the right foot in a relationship, to keep the peace in a co-parenting situation, or perhaps to even keep from catching a case in the workplace… we have all been in these places at one time or another. Overall, it sounded like our creative zone carried over to what Phonte and Tamisha were doing in Raleigh because between the subject matter, Tamisha murdering her solo parts and those ending harmonies they sang together??!!?
“Sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeiiiiiiiiiit” © Clayton LeMarcus Davis.
Another win for +FEMusic.
Let me just start this story off with this fact… “Milk and Honey” was the very first song that Nicolay and I created when we got together in February 2014 at his studio in Wilmington, NC. The FIRST jam. When I say that any and all doubts he and I may have had about working with another producer were thrown outta the window after this one. Trust me… To me, hearing how this song came together was clear and uncut proof that this collaborative production was supposed to happen.
Scheduled studio time was to begin on February 10, 2014, cold as shit outside, but the precipitation held off fairly well for my drive down from Silver Spring, MD to Wilmington, NC. I had never driven that six-hour stretch before as the only cities I had driven to in NC previously were Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte, which is also a six-hour drive, but to the west of I-95 – Taking the drive east off of I-95 South was new… I loaded my car up with a few weapons: The Nord Lead 2, Moog Little Phatty, and my 5-string bass guitar. Although it was only the three studio items, I remember it feeling like I was loading up to play a damn show somewhere. Regardless, once I arrived the set-up process was a quick one. I took a quick look at everything Nic had in the studio and I can remember pretty much getting right to work. The Fender Rhodes piano was powered up and ready to go, so I started messing around on it and came up with a chord progression… JUST from that progression, Nicolay started constructing these Brazilian jazz-influenced drums around what I was playing that had me buggin’ OUT. Once again y’all… This was the FIRST thing we started working on and I was already thinking, “This is about to be something SPECIAL.” This was also the first time I had gotten to see Nic program his drums, which was something short of phenomenal in and of itself, all the way down to the breaks and drum fills. DOPE. From there I can remember coming up with a change and then the melody line that lead back into the main groove and then recording the different parts (seeing Nic program the drums around that line was NUTS). Over the drums, we recorded my chords first via the Rhodes and went all the way through the song, no looping, no flying parts… Played it straight through. Same with the synth bass, which I played on that trusty Moog Little Phatty… straight through. That part was FUUUUUUN to play. An extremely loose and free bassline that I wanted to kind of directly complement the movement of Nic’s drums while also serving as the glue between them and the Rhodes parts that at the time seemed to be floating freely. When the string and flute parts were laid, we had a solid enough foundation to send off to Phonte….
Months later… I remember hearing “Milk And Honey” the first time with Phonte and Shana Tucker’s vocals on it… I damn near lost my mind. This song probably should have been named, “+FE Music Is On The Same Page And Shit” because when I heard what they did, I literally said aloud, “That’s EXACTLY what this song needed!!” From the chants, to the murderous harmonies on the words at the very end of some of the phrases… They knew what to do with this song. And when Shana came in on her solo part, it felt like Natalie Cole coming in on my favorite song of her’s, “La Costa”. I’m actually getting goose bumps while typing this now. SO very refreshing to hear. Then Nic sent me another updated version where he added acoustic guitar over the key change, the sound effect (heard at 1:29), and that quick four-note synth line over the final hook…. NOW the song was REALLY speaking, good gracious.
Let’s go right back to that February 2014 studio session with Nic and I…
So, after about the 20th playback on the “Milk And Honey” instrumental, we were deciding if we should add more to it or leave it for later and simply move on to something new. I happened to notice that there was a kick on all four beats (in each measure) and just to experiment with it, I asked Nic to let the kick keep going as a “four to the floor” pattern. And on the Moog, I messed around with a minor bassline groove that sounded VERY early 80’s. I’m pretty sure this was verbalized…
“Yooooo!! It would be CRAZY for this joint to go from a ‘Brazilian jazz’ feel to ’80’s funk.'”
Once that was established, I remember messing around with the bassline some more while Nic went IN once again on the drum pattern. To hear him construct these 80’s sounding drums was a damn work of art. He switched the kick to sound more like something from a drum machine and combined a live drum kit with some Roland TR-808 sounds, it was NUTS. When he added that damn double 808 clap at the end of the phrases?!?!?!??? Sheeeeeeeiiiit. We were THERE. I recorded the bassline and Rhodes parts along with the couple of blips and beeps on the synth… and Nic finished it off with more synth work to fill the song out even more. We had successfully gone from one genre of music to another in the matter of seconds and loved every minute of it. A studio party was already happening with just the instrumental, so imagine what happened upon hearing Phonte channel Steve Arrington on the damn joint. I heard that shit and hit him up like, “YOOOO… We perform this joint live ….IT’S OVER!! We ALL gotta have mics!!” Tamisha Waden came in on the hook with the big, hollerin’ ass vocals, which were VERY “80’s uptempo” and it worked so well with what was happening. To top everything off…. a jive ass “HUH!!!” right in the middle of the hook. I think it was literally at that moment that I felt like we were making the music we grew up on – FUN music. This is stuff that we’ll enjoy performing just as much as we enjoyed making it. Everyone asks when there will be another Zo! & Tigallo Love The 80’s album…. Well here you go: Zo!, Nic & Tigallo Love the Originals.
Only two months after Nicolay issued his collaborative City Lights, Vol. 3: Soweto, the producer and instrumentalist, along with singing, songwriting, and arranging partner Phonte, returned with the most varied Foreign Exchange album. It’s also the one that most emphasizes the duo’s extended family of collaborators. The cover of this, their fifth proper full-length, displays Carmen Rodgers and Tamisha Waden — two of their co-lead and background vocalists — as well as Lorenzo “Zo!” Ferguson. The FEnucleus and Zo! go way back and take it to another level here, with Zo! — similar to Nicolay, a studio wiz who typically works in isolation — a co-songwriter and co-producer of every song. Perhaps proximity and a history as performing partners partly explain why so much of this sounds like a party, as free and easy as the group’s shows. FE previously went house with “So What If It Is,” a deep and cleansing track, but when they return to the form here, it’s with the humorous and rhythmically tougher early-’90s throwback “Asking for a Friend,” where Phonte affects a distinguished Englishman accent akin to that of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s Geoffrey Butler. On first listen, the song sounds merely like an amusing novelty until the stellar Waden-led chorus enters and takes it somewhere else. (No R&B group before them has maintained such a strong balance between female and male voices.) A different stunt is pulled with “Work It to the Top,” bumping boogie that touches on 1979-1981 Slave — just a little bit — down to Phonte‘s spirited Steve Arrington mannerisms. Beyond those two songs and the pair of delighted Brazilian fusion-styled title tracks that begin and end the album, what remains largely refines the sweet and blissful grooves of Love in Flying Colors. That’s not a bad thing, not when the writing is as sharp, with rich harmonies laced through rhythms that bound and wind with unforced finesse and warmth. Even with a disarming ballad on each side, Tales from the Land of Milk and Honey is one of the funnest R&B albums in some time.