The Kickdrums: The Heart Of It All
Quite a few have displayed ambidextrous talents in Hip Hop and Rock, without even getting close to Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit or Korn, who seem to have aged on record shelves less gracefully. Still, the Ohio natives The Kickdrums' debut album Just A Game, is - as the Gang Starr chorus scratched, "one of the best yet."
A group for nearly seven years, Cleveland area pals Alex Fitts and Matt Penttila have made The Kickdrums live up to their name. Having placed tracks with 50 Cent, Ray Cash and the Slaughterhouse single "Move On," this duo has made a name for themselves in Hip Hop production. However, on this month's partially David Axelrod-inspired digital album Just A Game, The Kickdrums' songwriting talents and music-making comes to vivid life.
Tilla and Alex got down with HipHopDX to talk about the Axe, Beastie Boys production, and how from their ode to Ohio, is the heart of it all.
HipHopDX: A major turning point for you both in the last year was the "Good Morning" Kanye West and Big Sean remix from the DJ Benzi and Plain Pat Sky High mixtape. When I personally heard the track, I could not stop playing it. It's wonderful to see the beat evolve to what is considered the most definitive Slaughterhouse track to date in "Move On." How did that happen?
Alex: We know a guy named Mike Herron who manages Joell [Ortiz] [click to read]. He was just asking for some beats. It was one of those things were we just sent him the tracks over, pretty much at the same time we were getting that remix job or whatever. We did the remix, and then Joell and [Slaughterhouse] jumped on that song. They kind of came together at the same time. It was an almost a mistake, but it worked out in the long run because it was a remix before they jumped on it, but they didn't know about the remix - if you know what I mean? They put it out, and we were like, "Well, this is a remix too." They were like, "It's whatever. We'll just roll with it."
Tilla: The thing that was crazy was DJ Benzi, he was working on Sky High [click to listen] and we had worked with him on the Joe Budden [click to read] mixtape [Mood Muzik: We Got The Remix] [click to listen] he did of all the Mood Muzik stuff. He hit us up about the Kanye [West] thing, and we just sat in the studio one day and banged that "Good Morning remix" out, and it just shows you how good that actual beat was. Everybody gravitated towards it, and I think that was foreshadowing that the song is a classic.
DX: So that beat was made in a day?
Tilla: Yeah. Well, originally it was like a rough track. For a couple weeks it was really rough. Alex put together this rough beat. When we started working on "Good Morning," we were like, "What about that one beat?" So we started to try that one. It fit with the Kanye vocals, and we were like, "This is pretty cool." We switched a couple things around.
DX: How do you think Ohio, if at all, finds its way into your music?
Alex: I would say that any place you're at, as a musician or an artist, in some way, shape or form kind of [affects] your art. When I wrote all the lyrics to [Just A Game] [click to read], I was in Cleveland, but I was far out - I was 20 minutes outside the city. So it was wide open spaces, grass, not a whole lot going on. I had a dog, and I was just walking him. I worked on a lot of the songs' lyrics while walking him around my little apartment complex or whatever. That kind of affected me and the songs. Now I live in Manhattan. It's a whole different thing now. It's affecting the music the same way that Ohio affected the Just A Game album.
DX: When Jay-Z worked with Chris Martin of Coldplay, or 50 Cent working with M.I.A. - and those are cliche examples, rappers say that the iPod is making it that people are going through more genres of music than they used to. I'm fascinated with your abilities. Do you think your ability to switch between Hip Hop production and this Just A Game album is a product of the "iPod generation" or is it the way music has always been?
Alex: I think that plays into the last question, about being from Ohio. If you're from California, [you're exposed to a lot of cultures of music]. Being from Ohio, we don't really have one specific type of music. We grew up listening to Soul, Rock, Hip Hop, all that. [I don't know] about the term "iPod generation."
DX: When Rik Cordero put "Things Work Out" in the trailer of his film Inside A Change, that was truly an awakening, for me at least, of your abilities as self-contained musicians. On the songwriting side, tell me a little about the inspiration of that song, particularly its chorus...
Alex: A lot of times with lyrics, I try to settle down and put myself into the song a little bit. That song... [Laughs] I always say that, all the time, any one who knows me knows that I say ["things work out."] Being a musician, there's a lot of ups and downs. There's a lot of things that go great and there's a lot of things that go catastrophic on you. It always works out. It always does.
Some of the lyrics in the chorus had to do with Ohio. I had a real [awkward relationship] with Ohio the last few years. Just some of the people we'd see around, no direction in life. I don't know if that's how the whole world works, but I'm sure every place has its fair share of people. Ohio is just a sleepy place. Everybody is happy just going to the bar, grabbing a beer, going to bed. I was like, "Go. Do this! Do this!" Everybody was like, "Nah."
DX: That brings me to my next question. What were The Kickdrums' activities four and five years ago? Was it more-so an inward thing, where you were in the studio working? Or were you guys doing gigs?
Tilla: I think our approach to being successful and having a career in this was as producers at that time. We had our little groups on the side, but never really found an in with our connections we had and our ability to produce music - and there was a high demand for it.
We weren't really focused on making our own music, and I don't even think we were really ready for that. It took like a couple years of a lot of frustration, bouncing around and trying to figure things out for us to finally reach the breaking point and for Alex to start picking up the pen and to start writing, and us take this thing into our own hands.
DX: Alex, is your songwriting something then that you only started in the last few years?
Alex: No. Actually, I grew up my whole life playing music. My dad was a musician. He actually met my mom through music. My sisters played music; everybody played music. I actually think I wrote and recorded my first song, like I swear, when I was in fourth grade or something. I learned how to play all the different instruments growing up; I was the lead singer in different bands when I was a freshman in high school. I've been writing songs my whole life. Like Matt said, when we got to the producing angle, we kind of found an in, and we stuck with that. It was really hard at trying to place beats, but we did good. At the end of day though, we wanted something more for ourselves. I sat down and just wrote a couple songs and played them for Matt. Matt was like, "This is really good." We started playing them for other people and everybody seemed to like it. That was probably like two years ago. Even at that point, we were keeping it somewhat under wraps, just seeing what direction the music would take. We ended up where we are now basically.
DX: You mentioned connections a minute ago. It's not often we see Rock bands getting co-signs from deejays and media sites like we do in Hip Hop. Tell me how relationships like yours with Mick Boogie or an OnSMASH have helped propel you to where you are today?
Tilla: I think it was like...extremely necessary. "You're only as strong as your team," that's something Alex always says. It's funny. The influential people that gravitated toward our music before anybody else. People that are jumping on the band-wagon, they heard the music and they were on it. Legend [click to read] and OnSMASH [click to download], Rik Cordero, Mick Boogie [click to read], Leo G, DJ Benzi, all these people - they heard the music and were just like, "Yo, I heard what you guys are doing. How can I help?" Even yourself. You reached out for this interview. That's been extremely helpful. That type of exposure, that type of support is something that's integral to what we do.
DX: David Axelrod has had such a major influence on Hip Hop. Guys like Dr. Dre, Diamond, Hi-Tek use his samples a lot. It's cool to see younger guys like you pay respect. Tell me about this "Mental Traveler" track being on the album. What's that about?
Tilla: Let me start this one off. This is probably... the whole album started off as a [David] Axelrod...I don't know. The whole first concept was just to take Axelrod, and flip it - our version. Because we love that sound. That's why you hear the two samples: "Just A Game" [click to view] is Axelrod and "Mental Traveler." After that, we just started venturing off, after those couple tracks. We just got into something completely different, picking up all the different sounds, and going into a different direction with the project. That was the initial direction. "Mental Traveler" was the first song recorded for the CD.
DX: Flowing along with that, I wanted to ask about musical influences. What's that definitive album you both each have to take with you, if your cribs were burning?
Tilla: Oh man! [Laughs] There's definitely a couple, but the one right now is The Flaming Lips' album Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots. Probably, aside from [Pink Floyd's] Dark Side Of The Moon, it's probably the greatest album I've ever heard in my life. That album is absolutely incredible.
Alex: I have to agree with that. Just on the old school tip, I gotta throw in something that's always interesting to listen to is Paul's Boutique [click to read] by the Beastie Boys. I think the production on that album is so creative and all over the place. That's an album you can't place in any type of genre. 'Cause it's the Beastie Boys, you automatically think Hip Hop, but I think if you listen to the production on that, it was just so well-put-together.
The Kickdrums - When I Come Down from The Kickdrums on Vimeo.
DX: Funny that you say that. When I listen to "When I Come Down," it sounds more Check Your Head than Paul's Boutique to me, but very Beasties-influenced on the production side.
Tilla: People have been saying that - especially with that song. I don't know if you've heard that Alex, but "When I Come Down" just sounds like [Beastie Boys]. Somebody said it before. I never really thought about it, but now that you mention it.
DX: I picture you in my head to both be touching every instrument, every piece of equipment. But as a production team, I want to ask: do you both have specific duties in the lab?
Alex: Yes. A lot of times, Matt will handle the sampling. I'll do some samples too. If you went down track-by-track through the sample, we could do, "I did that sample" or "Matt did that sample" or "Oh, I played that." For the most part, Matt will come with a sample and I'll fill it out with instruments and write the lyrics to it. We've been doing it for a long time, so we have the keyboards, we have the drum machines and the compressors and all the different stuff that you need. Most of the time, depending on the track, we really do touch every single piece of gear of the studio. Being a producer, you go from thing-to-thing-to-thing.
DX: Do you see Just A Game eventually going to CD or going to vinyl?
Alex: Yeah, we would love to do that. Right now there's a couple things on the table that would allow us to do that, so we're just gonna see how it works out. One of my dreams has always been to release an album, our album, on a piece of vinyl. We have probably a few singles that we put out with labels and those got pressed up on vinyl, and I have those suckers framed. I just love vinyl. That would be a dream come true.
DX: Last question. In the way of upcoming work on the production tip, what's happening?
Tilla: We're working on a lot of our own new material. We've already actually knocked out a full album since this album. We're just working a lot. I don't want to confirm anything [too much], but Slaughterhouse, definitely working with them.
Alex: Before it's said and done, we'll probably do something with [Kid] Cudi.
DX: "Move On" will be on the album coming?
Alex: Yeah, Mike said it's gonna be on there. They're working on all the red tape around it or whatever, 'cause the song is like eight minutes long. They got that video [click to view], and they want to take it over to MTV. We sent them over the sessions to mix it down.