Hank Shocklee: Instant Vintage

posted November 06, 2007 12:00:00 AM CST | 8 comments

The Bomb Squad's Hank Shocklee is widely known for exposing the future of music. His slaughtered samples and layered tracking was the only thing plausible to match Chuck D's booming voice on seminal Public Enemy albums. With timeless work also with Ice Cube, Slick Rick and Keith Sweat, it was Shocklee's understanding of the past that allowed the ear of the golden era to so brilliantly forecast the future.

This proved to be pivotal in creating the source music for American Gangster. Shocklee helped sprinkle the patina in the music, set between 1969 and 1973 with original compositions made to sound like dusty relics from glory years of "blue magic." The sonic icon also produced the Anthony Hamilton hit single "Do You Feel Me?" in an old world studio in Brooklyn. Will the motivation of another nation bring Hank back to Hip Hop for second go-round? Whatever the case, one of the kings of boom bap gets technical about his technique.

HipHopDX: Was your hand in American Gangster geared towards the soundtrack or the score? To my understanding, its been a bit of both
Hank Shocklee:
We have to differentiate from the score. I did the source music. Anytime you hear somebody put a song in a movie, a record that you know, thats considered source music. Normally what happens in those situations is that people go look for records to find and put in a particular movie, especially when it comes to a period piece. When I was contracted from the music supervisor, Kathy Nelson, I suggested to her that we do something a little different, which is instead of finding music, we could recreate our own music. This way, you have original pieces, but vintage sounding pieces. What that does is give the film director a lot more to work with, because you have all the components broken out. You can have the bass guitar in the left speaker, the drums somewhere in the back, the horns and pan them. You can do something thats really, really cool. Now you have that in 5.1 sound with records that sound like 70s Funk records. Thats something that you dont have because you dont have access to the original tapes with that. I feel that that lent itself, to the movie, a three-dimensional feel. Now there can be a seamless integration between the source music that you hear and the score.

This is where the lines got blurry. People think I did the score. But [Marc Streitenfeld] did the score. He scored Gladiator; hes Ridley Scotts man. What I did was I gave him pieces so we could blend the score into the source music with a seamless integration. It just heightened the attention for the viewer. Now youre drawn into the film as opposed to things just cutting in and cutting off, so to speak.

DX: You coordinated The Juice Soundtrack. Have you manipulated the source music before?
Ive always been into film. I just never wanted to take up scoring and stuff like that. Its a lot of time, very time-intensive, and with very little gratification. So I didnt really want to do that. But every now and then, somebody will come to me with a project that I think will be interesting. When this project was brought to me, I immediately thought it would be interesting. Im not really interested in being a Hollywood scorer, but the fact about it is that this film allowed me to take the music that I love, which is early Soul, Funk and Blues. Im known for doing Hip Hop. Im known for finding and sampling these records and making new records from them. Now I get to do it in reverse. I get to create those records with my Hip Hop sensibility. I think that the coolest thing it was, was doing that, and the hardest thing. Its easy to make things sound good in this day and age. Its hard to make things sound bad. What I mean by bad, I mean recreate tape hiss, you have to recreate the noise and buzzing from amplifiers and things of that nature. If you notice, those early 70s records, they were not very clean as records today. Thus, thats a challenge in of itself not only from a creative standpoint but from a sound mixing perspective. Its very difficult to [find] engineers and musicians that understand that process. Bands that I was around growing up taught me a lot of those tricks that they would use in recording. These were things that I knew and used in my Public Enemy productions.

DX: The Anthony Hamilton record Do You Feel Me? which you produced has been a hit on our website. That is a tangible example of what youre talking about. In addition to source music, how was it creating an entirely new song for his and your catalog?
The song itself, the demo was brought to me by the music supervisor. She had ran through Diane Warrens catalog, and she was looking for a song for Anthony. Painstakingly, we couldnt find anything. We knew we wanted him to recreate an older song. But nothing seemed to work. We didnt want to do something that everybody has recorded before. We didnt want to do something that was played out. We didnt want to do something that youve heard all the time. In the 70s, everybodys using the same records in each film. Thus, the music supervisor found the song Do You Feel Me? in Diane Warrens catalog. This song was recorded by a female vocalist, and it was recorded modern. So it had drum machines, a [Korg] Triton keyboard; it was done with all the sounds that everybody uses in todays songs. To me, the challenge was to reinterpret that song into something that sounds very vintage, recording it the same way cats recorded back in the days.

DX: Common and Mos Def have used Electric Ladyland Studio in New York to channel the 60s Bohemian vibe. Did you use a vintage studio to boot?
Of course! I went to Brooklyn and used the Daptone Studio. I wanted those musicians because those guys do a lot of Afrobeat records. If you listen to Afrobeat records, they have the same sensibilities as early Soul and Funk. A lot of members from the group Antibalas did some of the tracking for it. The beauty of going to Daptone Studio is the fact that they still record in a vintage way. Theres not many places in the city that do. We recorded everything onto a one-inch 16 track. You cant even find [that] machine anymore. We used the old MCI Board which is something that nobody ever uses. The last time I saw an MCI Board was when I was recording Public Enemys Yo! Bumrush The Show, which was in INS Studios. I also worked there with Keith Sweat on his first record. That just goes to show you how long ago.

DX: On a personal level, what did it mean for you to be working for Def Jam again, 15 years later?
Its funny, because things come around again. I didnt even think about it. When I was doing it, I was doing it for the [film]. Then, when they said L.A. Reid wanted to pick up the soundtrack, I said, That would be amazing, cause that brings me back home again after all these years. Even from that perspective, the thing that I thought was most amazing was me actually working with live musicians again. I think that is an art that has been lost. Everybody is more drum machine and sample-oriented now. Very seldom do I hire a band. It gave me the perspective on working with a band.

DX: One of my favorite films, another period piece, Crooklyn featured The Crooklyn Dodgers in its soundtrack. To some, having Hip Hop in an early 70s film was an anachronism. As the original producer, tell me about Public Enemys Cant Truss It appearing on the soundtrack and its significance
Its funny, because once you see the moviethe movie takes place from 1969 to 1973. So that period, you have to be accurate. The one thing you dont want to do is you dont want to see a cell phone in a [period piece]. [Laughs] Because it wasnt invented then. You still gotta be accurate to the piece. In the end, Frank [Lucas] does some time. He does like 17 years. Hes coming out and its 1991. In 1991, Cant Truss It was one of the number one records of that time. Thus, thats why that worked in that particular scenario. I do believe that everything has to be based upon the movie that youre trying to portray. I think its important to be as historically accurate as possible. I commend Jay-Z on doing the inspired by [album]. If you look at it, Blues, Funk, Soul, R&B, all that stuff is the early beginnings. So its only quite natural and fitting for somebody to do an inspired by. Im just happy that it was Jay-Z who decided to do that. In its strange way, I think it works out great for everyone. It gives people and kids an understanding of the history, and it also gives them an understanding of how the history is being applied today.

DX: Jay-Z turned a lot of heads when he and Rick Rubin collaborated on 99 Problems. Along with Rick, you were and are the sound of Def Jams heritage. Do you feel the possibility of doing that blockbuster single or album yet again not as Hank Shocklee, but as The Bomb Squad, yet again?
Oh, yeah! Im definitely interested, man. A lot of people look at me as a producer, some people look at me as a pioneer, a legend, many different waysbut I look at myself as a fan. Im a fan of the music. To me it doesnt matter about time and place. Its about whether its hot or its not. I dont look at things as most people do. I look at things as based uponIm a fan of the new sound just as much as Im a fan of the old sound. Im not one of those elitists that will [criticize] the sound of today. We move on. The only thing that I see missing from today is the area of experimentation. Were not experimenting enough like we could be, like we did back in the days. The other thing is originality. We should all be striving to not sound like the next, but to sound different and apart from. Those are the only two areas that I miss from the golden age of Hip Hop. The thing that I would love to be able to do is work with a group or person I personally [prefer] groups to artists. I want to experiment, give them their own voice, give them a sound thats separate and different from anything else thats out there right now. You dont have to conform to anything.

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