Ski Beatz And Sean O'Connell Talk "Twilight," Curren$y's "Muscle Car Chronicles"
Exclusive: Two of BluRoc's chief maestros chop it up about their latest projects and the ethos of sampling versus live instrumentation.
For an independent label whose flagship effort was an rap album entirely performed by blues rock duo the Black Keys, it’s hard to imagine that Dame Dash’s BluRoc imprint could get any more sonically eclectic. But over the past few years since fans heard the likes of Mos Def, Jim Jones and Raekwon spit over the Grammy Award-winning duo’s fuzzy guitars and face-slapping snares, the musical leg of DD172 has expanded to include a whole variety of acts, from smoked-out rappers to New Age singers to even a rock act. But despite the wide range of genres that the label encompasses, there’s one thing that unites its artists: the quality of music.
Now, with BluRoc gearing up to drop two full length LPs – Curren$y’s Rock-inflected Muscle Car Chronicles and Ski Beatz’ 24 Hour Karate School Presents Twilight both on February 14 – HipHopDX sat down with two of the label’s chief producers Ski Beatz and Muscle Car’s Sean O’Connell to talk about making music in the house of Dame and the differing arts of sampling and live instrumentation.
Twilight At The Dojo: Ski Beatz
HipHopDX: You've got 24 Karate School Presents Twilight coming out next week. How did you approach this installment in the series different than the two previous installments of 24 Hour Karate School?
Ski Beatz: The title's Twilight, [and] I wanted this one to be more intimate, kinda more smooth, kinda laid-back. I didn't want it to be too up-tempo. I just wanted the people to have something to listen to while they're in the crib chilling, smoking or drinking, whatever. Just something to ease their minds, kinda slow their pace down, and what I did was I had all these records already recorded and I found the right ones that kinda fit the mood and I just put it together.
DX: The production on Twilight has a really different vibe than either of the other two 24 Karate School projects - it sounds more Jazz-inspired. What artists inspired you with regards to the sounds you utilized on this project?
Ski Beatz: Not artists, just more the music. The artists [featured on Twilight] just somehow magically come when they come. I guess the powers of the universe [brought them to me]. I'm blessed to work with cool artists, 'cause I didn't go out and ask Stalley or go out and get a CPlus or whatever; I just had the music and these people just came in at the right moment and it just worked out.
DX: That's kinda funny, because one of the things that always really entertaining to hear on your projects is how each song, from the way the beat is sequenced to who's featured on it, sounds really specifically constructed. When you record, do you go into it with the exact product you're looking for in mind or do things happen more naturally?
Ski Beatz: During the creative process, it's all effortless and natural. I don't have any intentions at all; I'm just making music. When everything is recorded and done, then I guess the effort comes in when I'm just trying to maybe put the tracks in a certain order or just making sure the right songs are placed right behind each other. That's the only effort that comes in. But while I'm recording, it's really all effortless because it's no intentions. I didn't know I was gonna make an album called 24 Hour Karate School. All this stuff just happens, and now with Twilight, it just happened.
Like I said, these are all records that I had on the cutting room floor that were just there. I might have done like maybe two or three new ones like ["Heaven Is"] with CPlus and ["Gentlemen's Quarterly" ] with Stalley…but for the most part, all these records were just in the stash. We just put them together, and you know, thanks to Dame [Dash], 'cause if Dame wouldn't have told me, "Yo, get these records together, you've got all this material, you need to make another project" - if it wasn't for Dame, these records would still be on my hard drive just sitting there.
DX: You mentioned Dame, and you've been working with Dame for what, nearly 15 years now?
Ski Beatz: Yeah, probably longer than that.
DX: With how diverse BluRoc's line-up is, how big is his involvement in the creative part of an album? How important is his opinion about music to you both as a business partner and a friend?
Ski Beatz: [Dame Dash is] creative with the business, and I'm creative with the music. He doesn't really interfere with the music at all. He just lets me do what I want to do and when he gets creative with the business, I just let him do what he wants to do. I stay in my lane, he stays in his lane. You know, he gives me suggestions on the business, and I might give him some suggestions on what I think might sound better [with a certain project], but that's about it. He doesn't come to the studio and go, "Nah man, you should do a song like this, you should do a song like that," it's never like that. It's just like I create something and I say, "Yo, check this out." Half the time, he just trusts me to do what I gotta do and he just knows that whatever's gonna come out how it's gonna come out, and he just figures a way out to make it look cool.
DX: How important is that kind of independent mind state with making music, and has there ever been a point in your career where you've had to deal with label executives trying to direct your music?
Ski Beatz: Early in my career when I got signed - the moment I got signed and I was dealing with corporate America, I guess my creativity got some people started trying to put their two cents in and change me up. I love this new independent mind frame because we can pretty do whatever we want to do and we can drop whatever kind of music [we want]. I don't have put out a radio record or a club record, I can just make what I love to make and put it out and the people accept it as great. If they don't, that's great too, because I'm kind of making this for me and I don't have no motive of trying to make money or trying to be famous. It's nothing like that; it's that whole Hip Hop feeling, like when I first fell in love with it and that correlation with that. [My music's a] blank canvas; just make something that sounds right and then make something that then we can outdo.
It's all just for the love of the music, and I think once I took out the whole concept of me trying to be a super-star producer or me trying to make a lot of money doing [music], that's when I kinda freed up another side of me creatively, 'cause I don't even think about that aspect of the game, and even though I know that's part of the game…when you're a young rapper, you want to be rich and famous - that's the first thing you think about. That's what I used to think about. As I grew up, I realized, y'know what? Being successful isn't really about the money or the fame…it's doing something that you love, so I feel like I'm successful all the time.
DX: About a year back, you spoke to DX about the 24 Hour Karate School series and how you brought in a live band instead of sampling because of sample clearance fees. Has that changed for Twilight?
Ski Beatz: Nope, it’s pretty much all live.
DX: That's pretty interesting, because in listening to the album, it sounds like a lot of the songs are made up of samples. How did you ensure that the quality of sound is so vintage in a sense?
Ski Beatz: I'm an old Soul brother. I just love that sound, I love that vintage sound, I love melody, I love music, I love chord progressions - I love all of that, and I like to incorporate that into my music. That's where I get it from, from years from listening to all these old records and…all these different styles of music. I appreciate the new musical styles now, but I'm just [on] more of an older type of vibe…but what I try to do, I try to make it a little bit [like new styles of music], I don't want it to be too dusty where it loses people. A lot of times…instead of sampling, I use the live music and it just makes sound a little cooler.
DX: As an artist, you've seen both sides of the production world, from sampling to working with a live band. What are the similarities between those two modes of production?
Ski Beatz: When you sample, all you're sampling is a live band anyway…you don't have control over the track; it's just the two track of the sample. You can't break it down, you can't go deep into the instruments and pull certain things out. But when you do it live, you've got control. You just have the bass going, you can have just the horn parts playing, you can have just the keys at a certain part - you can totally control it. You can manipulate it even more. What I like to do is I like to, when my band plays, I'll sample what they play to make it even more sound more like a sample, which is kinda cool.
DX: Going back to the interview I mentioned before, you said one of the reasons you don't sample as much anymore is because of the costs of clearing a sample. As a producer who's been in it for over a decade and a half now, what is the climate like with regards to sampling? Is it a dying art at the independent scale simply because the costs are too high?
Ski Beatz: I don't think it's a dying art because there's a lot of Hip Hop producers that still sample. I mean, I still sample. I just know that the music that I sample I can't sell it. I could probably make an ill-ass mixtape with all samples and rappers and give it away for free, which is cool, I'm cool with that. As far as me trying to put music out and not get in trouble because I know we don't have the money to pay for the samples that I would want to use, I have to use the band. What I love about using the band, though, it's kind of teaching me more about music, but sampling is definitely not a dying art. Sampling is a part of Hip Hop. Everything contains a sample or some form of a sample somehow.
DX: But going more into that, right now, I’m making a short documentary about sampling for my thesis project at school, and I spoke to a sampling clearance who said that it's really only Hip Hop that gets speculated over by corporations when it comes to sampling, while non-Hip Hop artists who sample or cover other peoples' music don't get the same kind of scrutiny. Why is it that Hip Hop usually gets all the flack about sampling?
Ski Beatz: Because most musicians feel like sampling is not an art; it's more just a jack. At the end of the day, it's all just creativity - that's what it is, your version of the music. My whole career is based of sampling and a lot of the samples I chose brought life to a lot of these older artists that nobody even knew and it put eyeballs on them and made the younger generation go, "I didn't know that Ronnie Wilson Smith played a song called 'Cincinnati.'" it's kinda cool…and to me, it's like I'm paying homage to these older cats by sampling their music because I love that vibe and since nobody creates that type of music anymore, [I can]. Nobody does that, so the only time I can get [that kind of sound] is to sample them. That's my take on it. I might chop it up in a certain way or I might just throw drums or throw music around it just to paint the picture. But it's all creativity, man. That's how I look at it.
Muscle Car Sound System: Sean O’Connell
HipHopDX: Curren$y’s Muscle Car Chronicles has been a long time coming for fans. What initially inspired the project?
Sean O'Connell: It was Damon [Dash] meeting Curren$y, because Damon was interested in him just because he was hearing him so much coming from a variety of people, so he called him and got him to come up to New York to meet him…The first reason he was called [in to New York] was because I was working with Da$h…and we both wanted to work with Curren$y and Damon had just gone through the motions of making Blakroc [with the Black Keys], so he was in the mood of working with rappers and trying to put together music just to enjoy the trip [of it] and he was like, "I'll get whoever you want to work with you." We both told him Curren$y, he didn't know who he was, he didn't know how to get in touch with him.
Eventually, we found somebody who knew him, and then Curren$y came up and it was just [supposed to be] getting to meet Damon and so, me being like a close friend with the studio, they brought him over to me. In the time that it took Curren$y to get there from the conversations and agreeing to come to New York and when we actually started working with him [on Muscle Car Chronicles] was three days. Me and my friend made 30 beats in three days just for Curren$y because we didn't think it was a smart idea to put him on something that was old; we thought it would be cooler to celebrate the very idea of just being fearless and making something up brand new, 'cause Curren$y was my favorite rapper back then, so I was very motivated to go ahead and do something [new] and work really, really hard for him because I already knew how good he was so I knew that he would deliver.
DX: The album was initially announced about a year ago. What took so long for it to release?
Sean O'Connell: The main reason I think is because it was a side project, meaning that it was nobody's main focus. It was something that took two days [to record], and therefore to put it out back then, before Curren$y had really established himself as a rapper's rapper…this record has got mainly rock music on it, so that would have been distracting for Damon to put it out first back then. It wouldn't have made any sense 'cause it would have made it seem like Curren$y's thing was to rap over Rock music and it isn't; it's just something that he did once.
[Muscle Car Chronicles] really was something that was really an art project. It was not necessarily like a career move in a traditional [sense] - or what I'm perceiving as [a career move in] the modern Rap scene. But now it can be perceived as a career move now that Curren$y has established himself as a rapper's rapper and got to work with Ski Beatz, and that opened the door for things like [Covert Coupe with] the Alchemist and other things…so now, for something like this [album] to come out [is] like a side little glimpse into what it would be like for two days of him working on Rock music. It makes a lot more sense now.
DX: It's interesting you say that, because outside of this and a handful of other projects, the majority of emcees seem a bit unwilling to step outside the box on a project and work on a rock-influenced project. Why do you think that is and what kind of an edge do artists gain by doing a project like this?
Sean O'Connell: First of all, the more real you make something…the more [angles] you have available as far as how deep you can make it. What I men by that is if you're sampling or working on a computer with no outboard gain other than just rapping on that mic, than you're creating like a two-tone picture of something that could have been incredible. And it may still be incredible, like a black and white picture is sometimes better than a color picture…but working with a live band and all the challenges and all the steps that [you] put in the process is like - a bass line is like, yeah, it's a bass line, but my bass player plays it how I how I play it the whole song [through]...everything has got a lot more space and depth and thinking to it, so I mean, I don't think that rap music should be thought of as any different from any other music or form of anything: I think that just like everything else, you should try to do you best job at every step of the process because you're only as strong as your weakest link.
Therefore, what you have to gain by it [is] that you have a far more complex and thorough recording if you work with a live band, and you can do a lot of things in a computer, but I don't think that humans are necessarily going to respond to the depths of a creation born in a computer as much as they would respond to something that people were actually moving around…the more you have to work with – if it’s a good drummer, if it’s a good bass line and if you did a good job recording it – to me, that will always in at least one way be way cooler than a simple sample of a drum machine and a sample of somebody else playing a guitar.
DX: The music on Muscle Car Chronicles really sounds like a Tarantino flick, which makes a to of sense since they filmed a flick to accompany this. To what extent did films or film soundtracks play into the sound of the LP?
Sean O'Connell: I would say that cinema - just if you're an artist looking at cinema and you're trying to think like what's the difference between the two - I don't see the difference between the two. It's art, it's our sense of perceiving it, and then the reason I was gonna say that I think cinema and soundtracks probably play a huge role in the Muscle Car Chronicles is because we were trying to create ideas that were gonna sound good looping with something else being the entertainment. I gotta create something so that when the rapper raps over it, that's when it makes sense because it's not meant to be listened to without him. I'm building something for him. Soundtrack music and movies are kind of the same thing; it's the way the music relates to the movies.
What I really wanna say is that me and the guy that wrote the music, we don't have any training in music; we don't understand music, so the way that we're thinking is art makes us feel good and everything is influential, from like the design of the chairs in my room to the food I eat to the music I listen to and to the movies I watch. When I work in the studio, I'm usually working with movies on mute on my TV. I would say it's probably easier to think of people that you care about or [scenes in] movies you really like - or if you're privileged and lucky, places you've been. Those things are the things that I'm thinking about when I'm writing my music. I'm never really thinking about the technicalities of trying to build of off something somebody else has done, even though I see myself going there 'cus that would just be another way of thinking about it.
DX: You've also had a number of solo projects drop over the past years, most recently At First Light, which definitely has a more Folk-vibe to it. How did you push yourself sonically to keep open musically and maintain the cohesiveness of a single project?
Sean O'Connell: First of all, it's really important to see them as projects and as albums, but it's also important while you're working to kind of forget that, to kind of accept even not making the record as a possibility. It's always kind of important to be open minded [with a single project]. I keep my projects up on a whiteboard on a wall, and then how do I push myself? I just always make sure I say yes to things that I haven't done, so that even if I'm being lazy [I will push myself].
Another thing that really helps me is that I hang out with Da$h a lot, and he's only 19, so he spends all of his time on his phone and on his computer and hanging out with his friends. When you're 19 years old, all you want to do is figure out what's happening. Working with him, he's in my studio like once a week, 'cause we hang out and get high and sometimes just record to the beats that are gonna come out on his mixtapes - not even his written songs. He keeps me really in touch with what's happening because it's about like…I see it as a job, what I'm doing. When I make money and I don't, keeping in touch with what's happening and all your different options for music and all the different songs and ideas that are coming out is kind of my job because it's my job to make sounds, too. I should at least try to keep my hand on some type of pulse as to what's happening.
Working on different [types of] music, to me it just feels really natural because I genuinely like all these things and I see them as challenges and I appreciate the different styles that goes into it. I've never tried to rap because I don't think stylistically that makes sense, and I've still never tried to play the drums on a record 'cus I just don't think I'm good [at them] even though I play them everyday. It's about really pushing yourself and really listening to what other people are doing and have done and just trying to be honest [with yourself]…it's not necessarily about what kind of music it is because I've spent all my time thinking about music so I know what kind of music I'm making.