Behind The Boards: Seven on Strange Music, Live Instruments & More
Remember that scene in Back To The Future where Marty plays an "oldie" in Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" at the dance? Well, it's eerily reminiscent of how Strange Music's go-to producer, Michael "Seven" Summers, was introduced to Tech N9ne. While at a small, underground show in Kansas, someone had some prophetic advice for Seven:
"There was an artist in Topeka that I was working with when I was 14 or so and I remember Tech used to be in a group called Nuthouse. There was a talent show in Topeka and they had a guest act during intermission. I was with this artist I was producing for and Tech went up to perform with Nuthouse at this intermission. He was like, 'that's who you need to be working with!'"
The rest, as the say, is history...
If you are reading this, I am going to assume you already know the deal with Strange Music. If not, all you need to know is that they are the leaders of this new independent era. With the help of an incredible arsenal of talented artists, a rigorous touring schedule and, of course, the production of Summers, Strange Music has become one of the most successful independent labels around. Of course, before performances on Jimmy Kimmel and energy drink partnerships there was just a teenage producer and a hungry emcee. Let's take it back to where, at least for Seven and Tech, it all started.
"The first beat I did with him [Tech] was a song called 'Ready For The Meat Wagon'. It was on a compilation album called 50 Emcees that DJ Fresh put together around '97 or '98."
Now, technically, "Meatwagon" is the first Seven/Tech collab, but all the smart Strange Music fans (and there are a lot of 'em) will point to "Come Gangsta" as the one of the first (and one of the best) collaborations between the two. Even Seven calls it, "The essence of what I wanted to do as a producer." So how did it come to fruition?
When I made that beat, I worked on it for three days; it was the longest I've ever spent on a beat. I worked for 12 hours every single day just arranging it all. I wasn't talking to him at the time, I was just putting together all of these parts--this harpsichord part and this acoustic part that all had intricate patterns--and I thought this is would be so dope if he could follow all of these patterns exactly how I wrote them. So I gave him the track, he liked it a lot, called me a little while later to check it out....It was exactly the way that I made it. I didn't tell him anything. I just gave him the track and he did it exactly the way I made it.
Apparently, not much has changed. After talking about how natural "Come Gangsta" came way back when, we moved on to the present day. Though they have progressed so far in just a decade, their natural chemistry is still palpable.
"Ever since then, anytime I give him a track, I never have to say 'you should follow this part or that part.' As we grew closer, I would offer more suggestions, but he just listens to the percussion. Everything is so drum driven--it's all about the drum patterns-- so whenever I'm making tracks for him, I'm really paying attention to the drums..."
Okay, so it's not all done through magic and brain waves. As Seven tells us, there is still a ton of back and forth between the two, including voicemails. Yes, your favorite track may have been birthed by a voicemail.
"We've made a track every way you can imagine. Sometimes I'll have the ideas, and there's been a lot of times where he has an idea and he'll call me and tell me about it; he wants the drums like this or wants it to move at this tempo. Sometimes he'll even have a melody, so he'll call me back and leave it on my voicemail, and as I make the beat I listen to the voicemail over and over again. They are crazy. I think that he's even put a few out [like that] before. He actually put one on a song off the last album called 'Which One.'
"What Tech likes to do when he makes albums, he likes to fill the album up as much as possible. When we make albums, if there's 52 seconds left to be burnt onto a disk, he has to find a way to fill up those 52 seconds. When I'm working on a Tech album it's all I'm working on. I don't give him 15 beats to listen to. I get up in the morning, start working on a beat and by 8 or 9 at night I send it to him and we talk about it. So he hears one beat at a time. That's how I work with artists 99 percent of the time. I talk to them so much, I get a specific idea. I don't have to make, you know, 10 beats, and try to guess the direction of the album. I figure it out before we start working on the album. I have to know who I'm working on a beat for and what project it is. That's just how I get my ideas."
Now, Tech might be the face of Strange, but he certainly isn't the only emcee chomping at the bit for Seven's production. As Seven alluded to, there are plenty of other artists who use his canvases. While those artists, (Rittz and Brotha Lynch Hung for example) are different, there is still a distinct Strange Music sound running through them. Or maybe, rather, Seven's sound and Strange Music's sound have become almost indistinguishably symbiotic. When you feel the frenetic, potent beat melting your face off and you wake up delirious, with blood leaking from your ears, you know you just heard a Seven beat. In my opinion, that distinct, violently epic sound is due in large part to Seven's style of production, which is heavily based on live instrumentation. Where guys like Statik and !llmind deal with samples and kits, Seven has a different experience because of the emphasis on the live instrumentation.
"It's always live. That's my biggest thing. I love to start working on a track and as it comes to, be like, 'okay, it needs to have guitars. Needs to have strings on it. I need to put live bass on it.' So I have a team of musicians I work with and call them in to work on the parts and put it all together. It's always live."
Really, Strange's unique sound is perfectly summed up in one quote.
"As many live elements as the budget will allow."
Now live instrumentals are great, but any producer (or hip-hop head) will tell you a producer without samples is like Lebron with out the ability to dribble. It's often the essence of many producers do, but what about Seven? Does Strange's emphasis on original, live production hinder his ability to sample?
"It's much more of a challenge for me to put together something without a sample. I've become accustomed to not sampling and trying to make original stuff sound like sampling. Like, people will swear a beat is a sample, but it's really not. I've just spend days and days--so many hours of my life- trying to figure out how to make music sound like a sample. It's been so long since I've sampled, that, now when I sit down to sample, it kind of feels weird. I don't know if I could still do it the same way I used to.
There have been a lot of times where there will be something I want to sample and I'll interpolate it and change the progression and get what I want from it. Then I go a little further with it and chop it up even more to make it really different from what I was going from. If it's not something coming directly from the artist, like Tech leaving a voicemail with a drum pattern or melody, then it comes from somewhere else. I hear something, it doesn't even have to be hip-hop, and if I like, say the chord progression, I'll move a few things around and kind of get what I want. Then completely destroy it from there."
As I mentioned earlier, Strange's success is due in large part to how well they tour. Not only the amount but the quality. Having recently attended my first two Strange shows, I can tell you first hand that It is really an experience unlike any other. While sampling may not be a priority, making sure the sound translates to a sold out venue certainly is.
"Absolutely. Always. That's what I'm always thinking about. When I have a track and have Tech come in, we talk about it. I'm always saying 'You could do this at a live show' or 'Imagine arranging it this way and having an intro like this', or 'we could take the strings from the outro and create this intro that's big and dramatic".' I'm always thinking about that."
Seven, a big fan of The Cure and The Pixies by the way, is currently hard at work on Tech N9ne's next solo album, Special Effects, which according to the producer is set of a January release. January is a ways away, but if your curious as to what it may sound like, keep in mind something Seven said, "I always want the label and the sound to move forward and evolve. I don't ever want to stay in the same spot." So how is he moving forward with Special Effects?
"I'm hiring a whole symphony."
With so much music out there, you have to be different if you want to stand out. That Strange Music sound is unlike anything else out there, and it's because guys like Seven are committed to making something brand new every time. So long as he is raising the bar each time, like, say, adding a symphony to a Tech song, Strange will continue to grow and prosper.
To stay in the loop, you can follow Seven on Twitter, but, as he admitted to me, he really isn't a social media kind of guy. So be sure to follow Strange Music for the latest and greatest from this indie powerhouse.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]