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

Me and Sy just before hitting the stage for the first show at Blues Alley in DC. (June 2012)

Me and Sy just before hitting the stage for the first show at Blues Alley in DC. (June 2012)

I’ll just say this, first and foremost so that I can go ahead and make it very clear… Sy Smith is one of my favorite people to work with. PERIOD. And I don’t have to run down her mile-long resumé for you to understand why she is head and shoulders above everyone else. Beyond sitting kats down with her vocal ability, the woman is about her business. Both of us are very experimental and free when it comes to recording material as well as the live presentation of it. I think it’s just a matter of not wanting to miss out on coming up with dope musical arrangements by becoming too “scripted” because that’s not what great artists allow themselves to do. And she is just that… A great artist and an even greater person for those who know her up close.

Anyway, let me wrap that on up before y’all start droppin’ streams of thug tears and shit…

Instead, allow me to drop this fun fact of the day… Take a guess at who completed the very first song for each of these four releases: …just visiting too, SunStorm, …just visiting three, and NOW ManMade. If you guessed “Sy Smith”, you sir or ma’am are smarter than the average person who posts and misspells shit regularly via Twitter! (Weeell, technically she AND Phonte were on the first joint completed for JV3 (“Black Cow”), but it still counts).

I can remember very clearly how I came up with the music for this one. I was messing around with different drum sets or “patches” and came up on a set that reminded me of some Ghettotech or Electronic sounding music from back home. Being as though I had never really gone that route musically before, it then became a “self-dare” to create a Ghettotech/Electronic-inspired drum pattern JUST to see if I could come up with anything that would make it work. So instead of using thick, gritty basslines to define the song’s concept, I decided to dress it up with a piano line, a pad that continues throughout the piece and a sparse, yet kinetic bassline that moves in and out of the drum pattern itself – Pretty electronic music. Once I finished, I sent it to Phonte and when the “Who’s gonna be on this one” conversation took place, we said almost simultaneously, “Sy…” It was very much a no-brainer. The bright and quirky feel of the song fit her perfectly.

I’m sure I have said this before, but Sy is one of those artists who I can send some music to with NO instructions outside of, “check it out” and she’ll send something back to me laced fully… The same thing happened to set the tone for SunStorm when she sent me back “Greatest Weapon Of All Time.” I get Sy the music and keep it moving onto something else without any worries whatsoever. At the end of May 2012, I remember getting a text from Sy saying that she had sent the new joint through – Checked my email and sure enough, there was a new one from her engineer Grant Nichols and the typed out lyrics from her… DOPE. The subject heading of Grant’s email read, “Hashtags & Do-Rags.” At first glance, I was like, “The hell does that mean?”… After realizing that was part of the hook for the sont, I kinda shook my head laughing while thinking, “Man, that line is Sy as hell.” Even with a short wait, the anticipation was killing me while the attachment downloaded and iTunes opened up and run it. She had already told me how much she loved the music, but I was completely on the edge of my seat to see what she ended up creating with it. So finally, the song started…. Immediately Sy opened up with a bit of vocal gymnastics, almost a quick ‘warm up’ to tease the listener before the music kicks in fully. They way she phrased and enunciated words like,



and “in-spi-RA-tion,”

I heard her personality come to life in that first verse and prehook. As a producer, that is priceless recording in my book because now listening to this song you know off the break that it’s nobody but Sy and it was your music that brought it out. But once that hook came in… the only thing I could think was, “Oh…. She done made this a jam.” I placed a synth line in the hook that she followed perfectly:

“Let’s….take….this….train…as far as it will go”

Joint was just…. catchy and exactly what this fun ass song needed…. a FUN ass chorus. Of course, later in the song she manages to jump through more vocal hoops and harmonies that usually welcomes a small bit of jealously into the hearts of the singing-challenged *clears throat* …such as myself. I ended up calling her after a few listens and the the thing that got me was, she was just as hyped up about the new joint as I was! The first thing I told her was… “Hashtags & Do-Rags?! That’s so damn YOU!” I remember her telling me, “I knew I couldn’t write anything ‘regular’ over that music, kinda like when I heard “Aquarius Rising” The randomness of “Hashtags…” was semi-inspired by the way that Sheila E. used to give her songs these titles that when you would check out the back of the album, you were kinda just left scratching your head with sheer confusion – “The Belle Of St. Mark” and “Merci For the Speed Of A Mad Clown In Summer,” are pretty solid examples. We later shortened the title to a more simple, “The Train”. …I mean, it’s not like it’s gonna stop people from calling the song “Hashtags and Do-Rags” ANYWAY. If I know my people the way that I know my people… I am fully aware that we could give not a damn about a song or a movie title. For example, can you please tell me the last time you heard someone refer to the Tina Turner biopic as What’s Love Got To Do With It and NOT “The Ike and Tina Movie”…….. I’ll wait.


…………I rest my case.

Seriously though, when I really think about it this song kind of embodies our “Sy Smith + Zo!” live performances. The joint is upbeat, fun, and randomness always equates to good music being made. Being as though we were making appearances in different cities cuttin’ up on stage throughout the majority of 2012, this was the perfect joint to set off ManMade with. Sy has now hit lead-off for my FOURTH consecutive album… Talk about consistency!!

Purchase ManMade HERE • Or on iTunes

Studio Campfire Stories: “Playing Your Game, Baby” (feat. Anthony David)

Music is pretty funny….. Scratch that. Music is hilarious – Particularly when it comes to its creation. I’d like to consider myself a free thinker when it comes to making music mostly because it eliminates any boundaries, but also because music can be so unpredictable… ALL the time. Being that this is the last SCS for …just visiting three, it’s only right that this one is probably the most interesting. So with that being said, I will begin the story by saying that “Playing Your Game, Baby” was chosen and re-created for none other than one of my favorite emcees of all-time (in my “Top 5” EASILY)… Tariq Trotter a/k/a Black Thought. Rewind back to 2009 when Phonte was working with The Roots on the How I Got Over album… He gave me a call after the work was finished and told me how big of a fan Black Thought was of our Zo! & Tigallo Love the 80’s album AND said that he was wanting to get on something in the future… I damn near dropped the phone. All I could manage to do or say was the brilliant, “WORD?!” But yeah, I was ready to run laps around Maryland… YES, the state. So, about a year or so later at the Roots Picnic in June of 2010, I was there with The Foreign Exchange relaxing, taking part in some good food and helluva jokes before going on stage to perform. Well, the next you know, Black Thought walked up to our table. We met and talked just a little bit after Phonte introduced everybody and after telling him that I was a huge fan he said, “I’ve gotta get up on one of your joints…”  *insert silence here* I was pretty proud of myself at the way I played it off… Because I FELT like saying, “OH SHIT! LET’S WORK TOMORROW THEN!!” …..But, I didn’t. We exchanged info and kept it moving…………. And I was hyped up about it, hell I can’t lie. Been listening to this brotha since ’93/’94 I had a right to be…!! Since SunStorm was already completed and manufactured by that time, the question then became, “Ok, HOW should we work? What would be the best situation?” 

Fast forward to the top of 2011….. …just visiting three was in the middle of production and Phonte put Black Thought’s name out there as someone we should work with on the album. BET! Let’s do that!! Phonte hit him up, he said he was down… It was looking great. The only issue was…. What the hell song are we gonna have him sing?!?!!! A month went by……….. Two months………. We would go back to the conversation every now and then to see if there were ANY new ideas. There were a couple of joints in mind including one by uhh…. J.B. (not James Brown). Finally, a week or so after that conversation.. Phonte and I got back on the phone to decide once and for all what Tariq would be singing. Once again, I went to my trusty laptop and started scrolling through my iTunes selections. To be honest with you, I cannot remember who suggested Barry White… But I do remember picking the song “Playing Your Game, Baby” out directly from my iTunes library. From that, Phonte gave me the, “I’m wit that” and we moved forward in sending it and the lyrics through to Thought… In the meantime, I went in the studio to attempt to recreate this damn masterpiece of a song. Let me tell y’all something… The bond that me and “Playing Your Game, Baby” have formed over the years going all the way back to my days as a child is unbreakable. When Black Moon sampled it for the “I Got Cha Opin (Remix)” in ’94, I LOVED the joint. I even felt it when Ill Al Skratch used it for “Where My Homiez?” It’s just something about the big orchestration over that simplistic GROOVE. And one thing that I never realized until Anthony David and I talked about it later on was how simple Barry’s writing and vocals were. There was ONE vocal track, no adlibs, no harmonies… Not saying that this formula works all the time, but for this song it was a perfect compliment to what was going on musically.

Being that this song is another one of my personal favorites, I took great pride in wanting to do it correctly and do it some justice. I knew that the first things I thought about when someone talks about “Playing Your Game, Baby” are how crispy and pronounced the drums are and that simple but nasty and well-placed bassline. So that’s what I recorded first… I made sure the drums that I programmed were close to the original and I played the hi-hat out live. Once that was laid, I grabbed the bass guitar and and recorded it keeping it close to the original but adding a couple of my own licks here and there. The rhodes piece followed and then…. The strings. Man, man, MAN. That was a piece that would make or break the song. If the strings weren’t right, I would have scrapped the entire song without hesitation. BUT, they actually met my own skeptic ass approval and that particular draft was sent over to Black Thought to record to. Soon after we sent the music off, the horns were added. When I heard those horns on the track for the first time, I damn near turned my own computer over. They sounded GREAT!!! Now, we ran into trouble at this point because the brotha Tariq Trotter is BUSY AS ALL HELL. I don’t know if the dude ever stops going… He’s on constantly on the road and appearing on the Jimmy Fallon Show with The Roots, in the studio recording, popping up at spots performing internationally…. With that type of schedule, I was patient and understanding. If he couldn’t record it, not a problem at all – There will be time to work on something else in the future, I was definitely sure of that. But as we inched closer to the end of production for the album and its deadline, we had to figure something out. Who out here is gonna sing…. No, no, no… who out here is gonna SAING Barry White?! I mentioned Anthony David one time… Phonte and I talked about it briefly and let it sit for about a week or more. Finally, Phonte hit up A.D. and put him on alert… “Ayo, we may need you to come through and knock this Barry White joint out for the new album, you down to do it just in case?” He said he was down… So the music and the lyrics were sent to him. If I remember correctly, I think he was on the road doing some shows on the East Coast when he received the files. He said that once he got back home, he’d take care of it. Aaaaand just a few days later, I had an email with a file labeled “Playing Your Game AD Vox” ready to be downloaded. I damn near jumped outta my seat because these vocals were the LAST things needed for the album. I downloaded it and quickly played it in iTunes… I wasn’t patient enough to listen through the minute and a half long instrumental piece in the beginning, I scrolled right to the vocals and waited………… As SOON as I heard that first bar I said to myself… but outloud, “Maaaaan THIS dude is WHYLIN!” Ok, ok, ok…. He’s got the verse part down. NOW, let’s see what it’s lookin’ like when this hook comes in when Barry raises his voice and really let’s the girl know what’s on his mind…. *the hook comes and I hear Anthony David say* “Ya PLAYIN’ A GAAAAAME!!! IT’S SO PLAAAAAIN!!” And then the END of the hook when he hit the, “Nobody but YOOOOOUUUUUUUU AAAAAND MEEEEEEEE!!” ….Maaaaaaaaaaan, you would have thought a Detroit team had won a World Championship the way I was acting after hearing that – because without even hearing the rest of the song, I knew he had nailed it. To have come through in such a huge way, the respect I already HAD for the brotha tripled… And to this day, he and I have never even met face-to-face. Crazy, right?

I think with this song being one of the more familiar selections on the album along with the fact that it vamped out a little longer at the end musically, it was the perfect closing track. As I said at the beginning, music is totally unpredictable, but I’m extremely happy with how things turned out in the long run as I couldn’t have asked for better performances. I can’t wait to get up with everyone again for the next album….

Studio Campfire Stories: “Same Ole Love” (feat. Jeanne Jolly)

Some of you may remember the good ole days when I taught music to Special Ed. High School kids (up until the school shut down completely at the top of August). Well, the most difficult part about maintaining a “9 to 5” and being a working musician is being able to keep some crazy late night hours. There were times that I would be getting off of a red eye flight from the west coast or getting off of an overnight MegaBus/BoltBus ride from a gig in NYC and then driving directly to work… This particular morning was no different. I don’t remember exactly how late I was up the previous night, but I do remember one thing… I. Was. TIRED. During the spring semester in 2011, second period was my planning period. So as soon as my first period class left the room, I would look VERY forward to my 50 solid minutes of peace and quiet before my rowdy ass third period class came in. But just as I was settling in to some silence… My cell phone started ringing – It was Phonte with an epiphany…

Phonte: “Ayo man… We need to remake “Same Ole Love”…. with JEANNE JOLLY and flip it into a COUNTRY song.”

Me: *thinking… humming the song to myself* “………..Hell yeah!”

P: “Cuz if you break it all the way down, “Same Ole Love” ain’t nothing but a country song anyway.”

M: “I say, let’s run it…”

I actually had “Same Ole Love” on the computer in my classroom and decided to learn the chords and changes as soon as we got off the phone. From learning the music, I was able to then hear my own drum pattern overtop of the hooks. I then walked over to the drumset in the classroom and practiced that particular pattern until it was time for my third period class to come in… Matter of fact, I practiced that pattern more than a few times because I wanted to be the one to record them and I wanted them to be laid with the same groove and swing that I had in my head.

One of the great things about this remake is not only Jeanne’s performance, but the fact that since she has been on the road with The Foreign Exchange and been pulled into various studio sessions covering several genres of music, she has ignored being a good “Country singer” and has begun to build a solid reputation as a being a dope SINGER… Period. We knew that creating this song for Jeanne and putting it on the album would be a wild card move, without question. Sometimes it is difficult to get listeners to think outside the box, especially with a song that a lot of folks connected and grew up with…. We could already see the tweets and the comments coming…. “Wait a minute, a white country singer redoing a joint by ANITA?!”  ….”I KNOW she ain’t doin’ no Anita Baker song!” No problem… We had a plan. First, we weren’t sure if Jeanne was familiar with the original version or not… Either way, we made it a point to keep Anita’s version away from her simply because Anita has such a distinct tone and sound and we didn’t want it to influence our version at all – plus I was confident that it would help our version stand out a little bit more. So after recording just the piano part to a click track or a metronome… Phonte laid down reference vocals for Jeanne to listen to before she actually went in to record it herself. I even put the piano/click track on my phone so that I could practice the drum pattern on the kit WITH the recorded music playing during my down time in the classroom…. At that point it was just a matter of figuring out when we were going to record the joint in full.

I just so happened to be in North Carolina at Phonte’s spot for what ended up being a few days in April, I was on Spring Break from teaching. Ironically enough, the majority of “Same Ole Love” was recorded the day after Phonte and I recorded our now infamous parody of Mark Morrison’s “Return Of the Mack.” My greedy ass was actually going to work on a Cookout burger while Jeanne came on through the house so she and Phonte could record vocals. In the meantime, I was waiting on a call from +FE frequent collaborator and live band guitarist, Chris Boerner so that I could take a trip to his house and record the drums. I mean, I had taken along one of my favorite snare drums on the plane and everything for this! I ended up getting the call and left the vocal session to head over to Boerner’s spot to set up for my first live drum recording session… On a full kit, that is. It was a quick set-up, no issues at all…. Levels were adjusted, a few drum mic tweaks here and there, then it was time. I played the kit and actually got the drums sounding the way I wanted them to sound on only the second take… Damn near surprised mySELF! Chris dumped the drum tracks on my flash drive and I took them AND the vocal tracks home with me the following day to plug into the open session in my studio. After putting them all together, I recorded the bass guitar track and some additional percussion instruments in order to make the song bounce a little bit more. After I sent the joint to Phonte, he had Boerner add some acoustic guitar… RHYTHM acoustic guitar that really added some more movement to the end hook and dammit… Allyn Love came in and “made the song cry” with that pedal steel guitar. When I heard those final two elements, I was rewinding things MORE than a few times. I was even influenced to add the string line at the end to give the song more of a finalé. Pedal steel guitar? Jeanne singing Anita and sounding GREAT? Kats were proud of this one simply because we felt as though we were breaking a couple of rules and pulled it off successfully… It almost makes me anxious to shatter some more

Download …just visiting three for FREE…. Here.

Studio Campfire Stories: “Everything She Wants” (feat. Phonte)

“Everything She Wants” was actually the LAST song recorded for the album. The reason why Phonte is on the joint is because…. well…. we both knew that he and I could complete a song super quickly and efficiently. At the time I was looking to get just ONE more joint on the album to being the total to seven and nothing was showing any promise. I was debating on whether or not to do an instrumental track as was done on …just visiting too, but selection-wise nothing was coming together. It’s kind of a difficult position to be in because as an artist because you never want to force creativity, yet the deadline you set for yourself is staring you in your face and suggesting otherwise. Well, there was about a week left until the deadline the day that I started looking through my iTunes collection and spotted a song that I thought might be perfect… My text to Phonte read: 

“Left field idea for JV3… “Everything She Wants” by Wham”

….Then I waited. 

Looking back in my text history, there IS no return text… Why? Because Phonte called me back…. Now we all know it serious when you send somebody a text and they hit that ‘talk’ button on you. And now, to give you more proof in regards to how much kats are on the same page musically, he basically told me that he had always wanted to remake that particular joint mainly because he talked about how well-written the song was. Well shit!! Sounds like we have a winner!! The discussion that followed involved HOW we were gonna remake it.  The first issue at hand: Tempo. We agreed that we would either have to do more of a sped up version of it to make it our own, or a version where the tempo was slower… we chose the latter. The funny thing is, I remember thinking of the drum pattern that I was going to use while he and I were still on the phone. As soon as we hung up, I went down to the studio and started working on a slower and more grooved-out version of “Everything She Wants” by programming and recording the drums… 

As a musician and a producer, it’s ALWAYS a positive when the music that you end up creating is identical to what you hear in your head. That is something that has taken me years of practice and repetition to be able to pull of more consistently. This is exactly what happened with “Everything…” – The drums, the swing, the recreation of the music became exactly what I heard in my head. And when this does happen, I get reeeeal hyped up about how it sounds. But even with everything sounding the way it did, I still felt as though it could go somewhere else. Once again, Phonte and I hopped on the phone… and we began to bounce ideas back and forth. I kept saying that the turnaround in the bridge sounded like SOMETHING and I couldn’t put my finger on it to save my life. After about 15-20 minutes of brainstorming… Dropping the subject and coming back to it, the conversation sounded something like this…

Me: “We’ve gotta be able to flip it into something else”

*a few seconds of silence*

Phonte: “Ok… What about ‘Remember The Time?'”

Me: *turned to the keys and played the music from “Everything She Wants” as it transitions into “Remember the Time”* “…………HEEEELL YEAH!!! THAT’S THE ONE!!!”

Soon after we got off the phone, I laid down a full demo version, which consisted of the already finished drums and just a Rhodes keyboard track where I played both the bass and the chord parts. I sent it on through to Phonte and waited for him to record his vocals. Once I got his vocal reference back, the one thing that stood out to me was that the slower tempo made me focus in on the lyrical content more. For those who know me well understand that this is HUGE, because I usually get so caught up in analyzing the music that never really pay attention to the lyrics, which is why it takes me forever to learn them. Vocally, I was hearing Phonte get bolder and more comfortable with his range and also with the harmonies he used throughout the song. Being able to witness this kat that I consider my brother grow as an artist firsthand has been a priceless experience in itself. And in my humble opinion, as was done with “Black Cow” joint – he nailed this one… 

Download …just visiting three for free HERE

Studio Campfire Stories: “Marzipan” (feat. Eric Roberson & Phonte)

There are two key characteristics that are common when Phonte and I get into very involved music conversations… 1. They are never planned. It’s never formally announced, “Ayo man, we’ve gotta get up and talk about some music.” …Nope. It just happens. 2. The conversation usually lasts for a few hours. Kats are usually sitting at our computers going through iTunes like, “Hol’lup… Have you heard THIS shit though?! …. NAH but WAIT!! Remember that Timbaland remix joint from so and so that was on the such and such soundtrack?!?” Yeah… 2-4 hours of this – Sending music back and forth and putting each other on to new joints. Well, about three years ago during one of these conversations Phonte put me up on this song called “Marzipan” by a kat named Eric Tagg who I looked up immediately and found out that he was most known for his work with guitarist Lee Ritenhour (“Is It You”). I can specifically remember how hyped Phonte was about the joint… and this was looong before we even talked about possibly covering it. I’m actually glad it happened that way, because it gave me a chance to just enjoy the song and let it sink into my memory for a couple of years before I began to really study it. I even ended up picking up Eric Tagg’s entire Dreamwalkin’ album just because of the one song… I had to hear more of his work. 

Fast-forward to January 2011… Phonte threw the song out there as an idea for …just visiting three – this was no surprise to me at all. Funny enough, the FIRST thing that came to mind was the famous Cosby Show “CHALLLLLOOOONNGE!!” scene because knowing how the song went, I understood that the chords and the off-count of the verses were NOT straightforward at all… I knew from the jump that I would definitely have my work cut out for me. The good thing is, I enjoy challenges. So I figured that if I sat with the song long enough in “study mode” everything would fall into place. Well…. that’s KINDA what happened. It took me getting frustrated with the verse chord progression, shutting the song down…. coming back to it, and cussing out Eric Tagg and his engineer because the keys were tucked so well in the mix in that there were spots in the song where I couldn’t even hear specific chords. BUT… I FINALLY figured it out. That was by far the toughest part of the song to cover. Once those chords were figured out, I damn near felt in the clear. So finally, late January during a day that school was canceled because of heavy snow and ice, I turned the studio on in the morning and ended up recording the full instrumental by lunch time. I was hyped up because I had just purchased a new snare drum a week or two prior and wanted to utilize it for this particular recording session. To be honest, it was the new snare’s sound that helped shape and mold the direction and recreation of this song… I’m not really sure how I can explain that, but I’ll try my best. If you understand the abilities and the full working potential of a NEW instrument, not only will your ideas be enhanced, but production doors will fly open for you. Picking up that new piece of equipment and demoing it during the recording process allowed me to take another risk or two with my drum playing that I probably wouldn’t have been pleased with otherwise. This is why I usually have NO problem with investing in studio equipment. More sounds = more ideas = more risks being taken in the studio.

Another interesting part about recording a cover is finding the correct vocalist for the song. We were looking for a male vocalist  who could match the feel and the tone of the original joint. With Eric Tagg singing in a naturally higher register with a warm tone, there was only ONE kat who was even mentioned or thought about for this piece… Eric Roberson. Phonte who at the time had just finished recording a joint for Erro’s upcoming album Mr. Nice Guy, reached back out to him for my album. From what I remember, it didn’t take him long at ALL to turn the vocals around. But in the meantime, Phonte took the time to the hooks down, which gave the song new life in itself so when I finally heard Erro’s vocals on it, my instrumental sounded like a totally different joint. I hit Phonte up like, “Ayo… This is IT.” Just for good measure, instead of duplicating the guitar/synth solos in the original song, we decided to change it up just a bit and run guitar/trumpet solos back-to-back. Frequent +FE collaborator and live band guitarist Chris Boerner was called on once again to perform the guitar solo, which he took full advantage of by showing no mercy in the eight bars of space he was allotted. Mr. Johnny-On-the-Spot himself, trumpeter Stan Graham who can also be found on “Take Off the Blues,” “If I Could Tell You No,” and “Flight of the Blackbyrd” competed the solo package by adding his own melodic stamp, which opened up the feeling of the song even further. It’s amazing just how much appreciation you gain for certain pieces of music once you try to recreate it… “Marzipan” was a perfect example. I can’t listen to this song without completely reliving its creative process…

Studio Campfire Stories: “Driving” (feat. Sy Smith)

It seems as though all of the stories for …just visiting three begin with a phone conversation between Phonte and I. Welp, I guess with that being said……….. 

I was having a conversation with Phonte one day…… and he was telling me about a recent connection he made with a certain well-known female vocalist who essentially made it known that she was down to be on the album. Now knowing how things can change on a dime in music without much warning, I decided very early that I wasn’t gonna get too excited until I was listening to a final version of a song with her vocals on it. A few days later, Phonte sent me a folder of four joints, which included the song “Driving” by Everything But the Girl. I’ll admit, I remembered the song VERY vaguely… BUT out of the four that he sent, this is the one that both of us gravitated toward. Technically speaking, when I listened to the song and heard it bounce back and forth basically between two or three chords, I thought to myself, this is gonna be a pretty easy song to redo… This shouldn’t be a problem at all – That is, until I listened closer and heard about 593 layers of synth in the joint. It seemed like every time I listened, a brand new synth patch would mysteriously appear – the track was VERY deceiving. Even when I sent what I thought was the final music to Phonte… he hit me back right back, “Ayo… There’s a synth line that you missed. Go to (insert minute mark value here) and check it out…” DAMN!! I thought I GOT all of um!!! *Angrily opens Pro Tools file back up*

I actually finished a “to be recorded to” draft of the song pretty early… and THAT’S when the real fun began. Once Phonte got back in touch with the originally chosen vocalist, we discovered that her schedule, our album deadline, combined with our touring schedule probably wouldn’t work out – So we ended up having to look elsewhere. But I’m sure we will get to work with her in the near future on some original material… So we turned our attention to Paris, Amber, and Anita… otherwise known collectively as KING to handle the vocals. They were completely down AND were already familiar with the song, ok… dope! Well…… That is, until they were called on to do a small gig opening up at the LA Forum for uhhh….. none other than….. well, this kat outta Minneapolis, MN named…… Prince Rogers Nelson. We were REALLY happy for them landing that show and with the rehearsal schedule they were gonna have to keep, there was no way that they would have been able to record this song and we understood that completely. Meanwhile, during the creation of the JV3, I already knew that it was a must that I had to have a joint with my sister Sy Smith a/k/a “See Smeet”… I always tell people, Sy is one of the sweetest, most down-to-earth people you’ll ever come across…. AND she’s probably also “more real” than a lot of dudes you know – love her to death. And while I was racking my brain trying to think of a song to redo that would be tailor-made to fit her vocally, the answer was sitting right in front of my face the entire time. “Driving” was for Sy Smith… Period. Phonte and I were already plotting on her to record the joint before she even knew about it or heard it! I finally ended up playing the instrumental for her in the van while we were on the road with The Foreign Exchange traveling from Chicago to Indianapolis back in May and she loved it. After we went home from that Midwest run, she got together with Phonte and recorded her vocals. Once I heard the vocal draft, I thought to myself, “She sounds a little different than normal… But it sounds dope as HELL.” I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the difference was or why she sounded the way she did… I just knew that I loved it. When I got Phonte on the phone, he told me that Sy didn’t feel too well while recording it… Ahhhhhhhhh, NOW it makes sense. To me, her not feeling 100% ADDED to the emotion and the sincerity of what she was singing about and it also helped to make it her song. To drive that point home even further, I wanted to change the song at the end into one of my all-time favorite slow joints, “Inside My Love” by Minnie Riperton. When arranging in my head what I wanted to do to re-create “Driving”, the first song I thought about was “Inside My Love”… the drums had a similar feel to me. So I allowed that particular drum pattern from the intro and the verses of Minnie’s song be the influence for the entire cover… I love Sy’s interpolation with the lyrics during that piece. She took Minnie’s opening “Two people….” line and played with it just enough to let the listener know what song we were changing into, but still subtle enough to where it may not hit you until the change is almost over……. Pretty sneaky there, See Smeet. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Zo! & Phonte feat. Tigallo the Tay God – “Return Of the Mack”

Zo! & Phonte feat. Tigallo the Tay God

On a breezy Sunday afternoon in North Carolina, me and my brother Zo! took to the studio to clown around and pay homage to one of the greatest late 90’s white people club songs ever.”  -Phonte

There is a reason why you don’t let me and Phonte sit around with nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon with access to recording equipment, because we like to do shit on the fly… Why? Because once you’re inspired to record something whether you’re serious or just joking around, there’s only a certain space of time you have to do it before life gets in the way – inspiration, gone.

WELP! Sitting in the studio yesterday with Phonte… kats had their laptops out, surfing that good nigganet…… And the thing that kicked off the clownery was Lil B jams and Lil B videos. Maaaaaaaaaaaaaan?!?!!!?!!????!!!! I thought for a second EMS was gonna have to come to the spot to assist kats with breathing. After laughing about that announcement for a good hour, Mark Morrison’s 1996 joint “Return Of the Mack” then became the topic of discussion. Now, I didn’t like the joint when it was popular… and I mean it was a HUGE record when it dropped and continues to get pretty consistent run to this day. But as we started talking about it… the vocal imitations followed, then the discussion spilled over into de Twittuhs. The next thing you know, Phonte started setting up the vocal mic and I was pulling a chair up to the keyboard. Now, being that I already teach my classes how to play “Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me” by the Geto Boys, I was already familiar with how to play it. Simply because…

“Return Of the Mack” = “Games” Chuckii Booker = “Mind’s Playing Tricks On Me” Geto Boys = “Hung Up On My Baby” Isaac Hayes + “Genius Of Love” Drums by Tom Tom Club

When I first played it on the piano, we went through the first verse or so in regular speed, but once it hit that hook… We slowed it up on some silly shit just to see how it sounded. We played with the ‘mellowed out’ tempo because with the vocals, it sounded funny as hell… So after going through the joint a couple of times with just vocals and piano, we hit the record button and got to work and got to LAUGHING…. I also captured some of the recording session on video with my laptop’s camera. Now THAT footage?! Lawdheppmehpleeese. We even shot the “cover art” in the MIDDLE of recording takes.

In the original, we talked about how hilarious it was that the adlibs for his hook extended through half of the verse. So we had to make sure we included that aspect in the remake but completely exaggerated… Listening to Phonte record the vocals was straight up classic material. There were more than a few occasions where the ‘stop’ button had to be hit IMMEDIATELY following recording so that we could bust out laughing…

THEN playing off of the Lil B joints from earlier, being stupid, one of us would just break out into a random, simple ass freestyle based on a single topic of choice while the other would hit the “swag..swag..swag..swag..whoo!..swag…swag…” adlibs. THIS shit went on all day long as its comedic value and appeal steadily increased with each passing hour.

And just to let ch’all know, kats DIED LAUGHING throughout the entire recording process, my damn head hurt by the time we actually went on Twitter and posted a link to the actual joint. Glad that y’all could be a part of us cutting up in the studio because this is exactly how it goes  once recording has stopped. Thanks as always for the love and for listening…!!

Studio Campfire Stories: The ‘SunStorm’ Edition – “All Is Well With Love” and “MakeLuv2Me”

11. All Is Well With Love (feat. Chantae Cann)
Before I even begin this story, just understand that there is always one… No matter what album you work on, there is always one joint that is just a pain in the ass to complete. Welp, ladies and gentlemen… Allow me to introduce you all to one of my most beloved tracks, “All Is Well With Love!”

I recorded the original chord progression for this song at the tail end of 2009, it was a couple of days after Christmas to be exact… December 28th, 2009 (I’m great with numbers and dates, what can I say). Upon hearing it and talking about it, the first idea that Phonte and I had was having someone sing the joint in a different language – in this case, Portuguese. Phonte threw a couple of names my way that I wasn’t quite familiar with, but in trusting his judgment I was like, “I’m widdit.” It turns out that a couple months later he discovered that he had a direct contact with one of the artists that we wanted to sing on the song. We reached out to the artist’s assistant who responded by saying that she was swamped and would not be able to record the song… BUT, they wanted a copy of the song to listen to. Ummm…. that would be a “hell” and a “no.” Not too long after that, another female vocalist was suggested to us and… uhhhh, quite simply just did not work out…. A month and a half later, a musical friend of Phonte’s suggested we check into a friend of hers who she thought would be perfect for the song. Phonte hit me up, told me about her and sent me an mp3 of her work and her vocal ability was absolutely ridiculous… she was saingin’ that damn song… in Spanish. We were both impressed and ended up reaching out to her via email. A few days went by, and there was no response at all and finally after a week, we pretty much considered that attempt to be a wash. A good friend of mine and talented vocalist suggested that I try his vocal coach – a jazz vocalist who he said occasionally sings in different languages. He put us in contact via the good ole message inbox on Facebook… Once again, a few days went by…. a week…. two weeks and I heard nothing back. So if my math is correct, that would make FOUR failed female vocalist attempts!! Y’all exhausted yet? Now at this point, we were damn near close to putting the APB out on Twitter like, “Who sings or know someone who can saing in Portuguese?!” Not sure what would have happened as a result, but we were at our wits end. The song was truly in jeopardy of either getting scrapped or just absolutely reworked into something totally different. Just when we thought it was the end of road in regards to finding vocalists, up steps Atlanta-based Chantae Cann. Phonte hit me up one day and told me about her and sent me an accompanying .mp3 so that I could hear what she sounded like. I opened the inbox to find the Jaspecs joint “Find My Way To Love” from their The Polkadotted Stripe album. Now I was familiar with Jaspects as my brova Asheru had worked with them in the past… But I did not know who Chantae was, until I double clicked that mp3……

That VOICE…. It was so different… commanding, full …and sexy. It was exactly what we needed for this joint (tentatively titled “6/4” because that is the time signature it’s written in… Matter of fact, there are some stores online who actually have this song listed as just that, “6/4”). But this time, I made sure not to fall too much in love with her voice just yet… she still had to agree to sing first! Phonte spoke to her and locked in a date for studio time…THAT’S when I started to get hyped up about it.

Since the vocalist was put in place, I had to rework the music piece. The problem I encountered was that for WHATEVER reason I did not record the original composition to a metronome or a click-track – meaning: I recorded it “free form,” which means my speed or tempo could have easily swayed fairly noticeably in some spots. So when I sent the track to my brovah Biscuit to record his live drums on, he had no luck in synching it up for his recording. Therefore, he had to record them “free form” as well. The first draft he did, he didn’t even let me hear… but the second time around, the drums were craziness. I was so excited about how good the drums sounded that I damn near forgot the direction we were trying to take the song into. So I had to re-record my key and bass parts all over again AND write a brand new hook… something that was more definitive and a tad bit stronger than the original draft. So one night after a long day of teaching and a four-hour rehearsal with Ab, I went home tired as all hell and re-recorded my parts… to a METRONOME this time (*applause*). I sent it on through to Phonte and he recorded a reference with the scratch vocals and we finally had a song!!!

Now for the fun part…

Someone put Phonte up on this Brazilian-jazz player who would be able to take the song that was written in English and translate it to Portuguese so that Chantae could sing it. Perfect!…. Well… Perfection on paper, I guess. Phonte was in correspondence with the gentleman via email and phone. He agreed to be a part of the process and received the lyrics typed out in an email along with the rough joint in English as an attachment… A couple of days went by with no response. He was reminded of the tight deadline that we were working with. Well, his response was that ‘love poems’ take time and should not be rushed…. But the song had already been written and referenced in English to be translated. We could understand if there were parts of the song that could not directly translate and would therefore throw off the cadence of the original lyrics, but at this rate, we felt that our only option was to abandon the original idea of recording the song in Portuguese altogether. So Chantae got into the studio with Phonte and held it DOWN – I don’t give a damn if the song was sung in English, Portuguese, German, or French…. She would have put out quality work in any circumstance. Once the vocals were laid, it was just a matter of getting the remaining players on the same page to complete the song, which at this point was the easy part. My man, “Biscuit” Bynum laid the drums (on TWO separate occasions), the horn and flutes were laid soon after (which Phonte did those arrangements), then the congas…and lastly the acoustic guitars were recorded by Omar Hunter-El. And dammit, we were FINALLY FINISHED.

This joint was actually the last song completed for the entire album, which made it even more of an accomplishment… Because “All Is Well With Love” ALMOST never happened.

12. MakeLuv2Me (feat. Monica Blaire)
Ahhhhh, the closer. The history behind the MUSIC of this track is involved enough for a blog series of its own… Please allow me to break that part down first (the condensed version) and then I’ll get into how it developed into what it ultimately became.

There was a time between 2005 through about 2008 where I spent a significant amount of valuable time working on an album with a female vocalist (no names) whose project never saw the light of day. There were no features on the album, just me on the music and she on vocals. As a matter of fact, this album was completed… I’m talking mixed AND mastered. The only thing that needed to be done was the artwork. But due to… well, I don’t know exactly WHAT it was due to. All I know is that in the summer of 2008, I started getting calls from her brand new manager (after we had been in direct contact for three years) saying that she didn’t want to put the album out anymore. Hmmm… Interesting. This particular music originally served as a remix for the unreleased album… Reason being, with one more song to finish for the album to be completed, the artist expressed to me that she wasn’t able to write anymore material… and we needed a strong closer for the project. So I ended up taking her vocals from another song on the album, started and completed the remix process and the next thing you know, we had a finished project. The vocal portion only covered about 3 minutes and I took the remaining 7.5 minutes as an opportunity to put my own personal musical ‘stamp’ on the song… yes, I wanted to ‘show off’ again (see the “Flight of the Blackbyrd” story). It seemed to have worked out nicely… BUT, things have their proper places in life and happen for reasons much bigger than our own reasoning… THIS song is a perfect example.

So after completely scrapping the aforementioned project and hitting the “mute” button on all vocal tracks in the Pro Tools sessions, there was one session in particular that I kept in mind for my next solo project… I had to keep that 10 minute joint for myself!!

But who the hell would I get to write to and MURDER a 10 minute track?!……..

….I’ve known Monica Blaire since maybe 2004 or 2005 – always been good people to me… and supportive (I can actually remember her buying Re:Definition from me at a show back in ’05 when it came out). I can even remember playing keys behind her once in late 2005 at Alvin’s (I think I still have a few pics from that show too). After I moved to the East Coast, we reconnected via Waajeed and PPP when we started performing with them in March of 2009. And I’ll say this about Blaire… If you ever meet her, she’s such a sweetheart. She’s a genuinely free-spirited, ole happy ass love-to-laugh type of person who is even pretty shy at times. NOW, if you have ever had the pleasure of witnessing her take over a stage?… That shy shit goes out the window, QUICKLY. The stage transforms her into something serious… she is a dynamic performer, someone who you can’t never seem to keep your eyes off of. Once we reconnected, we talked about working together on something… at that point I couldn’t put my finger on what we would do yet. BUT, I knew it wouldn’t be too hard putting something together with her because she is a multi-dimensional artist whose creativity can carry her in so many different directions. Knowledgeable about her passion for performing and understanding her natural ability to pull the listener into any song she does was what provoked me ask her to record this particular joint last summer. I remember telling her about the style of the song and warning her that it is in fact, over TEN minutes long…. I received the ‘O.K.’ and soon after, I emailed her the full instrumental….

Then in August of 2009, I was on the elevator going down, about to leave the apartment to head out to a midnight rehearsal. I received Blaire’s text while on the elevator….

Yo, just sent the joint FINALLY!! Lemme know what ya think…

As soon as my elevator TOUCHED the ground floor, I hit the button next to “15” and went RIGHT back upstairs to my apartment so that I could listen to this song as I was HIGHLY anticipating what she recorded… I damn near powerwalked to the apartment, opened my email and loaded the song up. What I heard come through those speakers was EXACTLY what I envisioned for the music. The joint was SEXY… From the lyrics, to her vocal presence, to the delivery…. all the way down to the reverb placed on her vocals. I KNEW we had something because first of all, when was the last time you heard a 10 minute slow grinding sexy song? This song was definitely ten-minutes for a REASON. Secondly, in the era of ‘slow’ songs that either a.) all sound like hip-hop joints or b.) contain straight-to-the-point-leaving-nothing-to-be-desired-type lyrics where the artists will simply tell you through the duration of the track, “I wanna fuck ya girrrrr-huuuurrrrrrl!” – even the title became significant with the use of the word “love.” I mean, who falls in love anymore? And the fact that she recorded to ALL 10 minutes of this song showed me how much of a pure artist Blaire is. She took my challenge, found her place, and completely conquered it… with intention AND purpose.