Creating art with whatever you have around you is a daunting task. It’s a bit easier when you’re sitting in a cozy, multi-million dollar studio with the best production equipment the world has to offer, but it’s easy to be discouraged about making something that will stand the test of time when all you have is a busted Casio SK-1 and a dusty mic with some unsteady copper wiring.
One of Kanye West’s first songs, “Green Eggs & Ham,” was recorded in a dingy basement studio with a mic on a clothes hanger when he was 13, but the sheer will to create led him to use what he had around him, recording the track that would eventually lead to him meeting No I.D.
Soul beat impresario 9th Wonder was in those shoes when his compulsion to make beats lead him to Fruity Loops. “That’s what I used. It’s no secret. I didn’t use it just because I was trying to be cool, I used it because I couldn’t afford an [MPC],” he explained to Murs during a sit-down interview. “I’m old enough to be pre-internet, so I didn’t know, man. I just wanted to make beats. And now niggas mad, and the reason niggas mad is because they had Fruity Loops on their machines for about 6-7 years and didn’t know they could do all that.”
Like Calvin and Hobbes said, “there’s treasure everywhere,” even in the mesh of old software.
Last week, I approached Matt Martians’ solo debutThe Drum Chord Theory for the N.E.R.D. fan worship in the crunchy guitar riffs, vocal layerings and the air of mystery surrounding a Martians independent of The Internet and Jet Age of Tomorrow; but I ended up staying for the lush, fuzzy instrumentation and raw feelings of newfound love and confidence that will define it as a summer record come June.
To create Drum Chord Theory, Martians set up a studio in his childhood bedroom, a comforting space reflected in lead single “Diamond In Da Ruff.”
The song’s punchy drums and a crunchy guitar riff—no doubt from co-producer Steve Lacey—only became more impressive, though, when Martians revealed that the song was actually recorded... on a phone.
Forget a desktop with Pro Tools; cats have tiny computers burning holes in their pockets. I wonder if any of the sessions for Ego Death were this adventurous?
Whether the path to success is through your bedroom or into the depths of a production dungeon, that same adventurous spark has prodded some of the industry’s best producers into the light.
Madlib, who famously cut his teeth producing while literally amassing four tons of records, started his music career by scratching up his father’s record collection, sometimes using pen tips if he didn’t have a needle. This experimentation led the self-professed Loop Digga to drop out of school and tour with The Alkaholiks, become Quasimoto, and hone his craft enough to record Madvillainy sessions on a janky setup in a Brazilian hotel room.
Two of the album’s best songs, “Raid” and “Rhinestone Cowboy,” were born here. And just last year, the man who risked beatings over his father’s scratched records revealed that he made the beat for Kanye West’s “No More Parties In LA” on an iPad.
Even after all these years, Madlib is still taking his crate-digging sensibilities to new heights.
That same level of devotion—the one that can cause sparks to fly at any given moment—is what drove Gorillaz co-founder Damon Albarn to create The Fall on his iPad while touring the world off of their last record Plastic Beach, pushed Just Blaze to teach himself code to recreate classic beats—complete with reverb and delay—on an old Motorolla two-way pager, and comforted J Dilla—whose SP-303 was never far from his side—during his last days while fighting a rare blood clot disorder.
For Donuts, Dilla’s third and final full-length album, 29 of the 31 instrumental tracks were crafted while the late producer laid in a hospital bed. Like his brother-in-beats Madlib, Dilla’s kitchen-sink mentality and his drive to create are the biggest reasons why he still has unreleased jams being rolled out 11 years after his death.
Beginning my career as a bedroom writer, I know how daunting it is to follow your path down the proverbial rabbit hole. But the bravery to face down that keyboard, MIDI pedal, or phone mic can and will push you to do amazing things.
You don’t need to work in a studio with thousands of soundboards or that $3000 custom mic you’re only gonna touch once. Sometimes a tin can mic, GarageBand on iPhone 6, and an open mind is all you need to spawn that ear magic.
Seriously, give it a try.
By CineMasai. Follow him on Twitter.