Apollo Brown didn't intend on releasing his newest album, a collaborative effort with rapper Planet Asia entitled Anchovies, on the same day that artists like Lil Uzi Vert, A$AP Mob, Action Bronson, BROCKHAMPTON and Daniel Caesar also released albums.
Although the veteran producer was not aware of how many notable projects were slated to drop on August 25, he also wasn't upset about the crowded release date. “A lot of the albums that came out the same time my album came out were probably great albums,” says Brown. “But they didn’t sound anything like mine. It was totally different. [Anchovies] goes back to when I first started making beats, when it was fun, back in ‘96.”
As Planet Asia raps about on album standout “Diamonds,” the music will have you dancing to those poems either way.
For nearly a decade, Brown has displayed his production prowess, working with everyone from highly-respected underground names like Elzhi, Skyzoo and Rapper Big Pooh to more notable wordsmiths like Danny Brown and Ghostface Killah. In fact, his work with the Wu-Tang Clan icon, 2013's The Brown Tape, might be his most impressive. A companion to Ghostface's Twelve Reasons to Die album, The Brown Tape is the result of Apollo accepting the challenge of making beats without hearing Ghost's lyrics or knowing the original tempos.
"When you don't have a tempo, a bar count or anything... you've just kind of got to put a beat to words and make sure you try to make it match. That was hell, bro. That was one of the worst experiences of my life. As a producer, that was a horrible. I hope to never have to do that again, but it came out great. I respect it more than anybody because I know what I did to make it happen."
While The Brown Tape was a necessary challenge to work with a legendary emcee like Ghostface, Brown usually becomes close friends with an artist before they make music together. As he puts it, it’s almost like interviewing a babysitter, except his beats are his children. If he enjoys their music, though, he is eager to make something happen together.
“I’m not too proud to go up to someone and say that I’m a big fan and want to work together,” says Brown. “Give somebody their flowers while they can still smell them. Everybody always ends up waiting until somebody dies so they can praise them but never praised them while they were here or how great their music was.”
He and Planet Asia, for example, have worked together on multiple occasions prior to Anchovies, including features from the rapper on Brown's albums Dice Game (2012) and Grandeur (2015), and a remix EP by Brown of tracks from Asia's 2013 album Abrasions with Gensu Dean.
Over the years, both artists were repeatedly asked on social media when they were going to put out a full-length project together, which Brown told me was inevitable, though aided along by fans. He calls his counterpart a cinematic, visual speaker who can take people places with the words he chooses.
Asia's vivid tongue-twisting is complemented on Anchovies by Brown's nostalgic production, timeless with the scratchy warmth of spinning vinyl. While he typically describes his music as boom bap, named so for the sounds that the kick and snare of a drum make, he intentionally neglected to add drums.
“I think a lot of people nowadays overproduce and I think less is more. Sometimes you need to leave it alone,” says Brown. “Sometimes it sounds goods with no drums. Sometimes just using the original drums in the sample and beefing those up a little bit sounds better than adding your own drums on top of it. It’s more of a natural sound. That’s how it was to begin with.”
For Anchovies, the recording process took approximately six days, though the sound for the album, tailored specifically for Asia, was something Brown had laid out in his head beforehand. Brown wanted the project to sound different than his previous albums; for it to be more bare-bones and minimal.
Though he could only think of maybe half a dozen emcees who would match this style of production—he specifically mentioned Madlib, Roc Marciano and Westside Gunn—Brown certainly found the right fit in Asia; standout single “The Aura” is a fantastic example.
Brown, who still uses a desktop PC that runs on Windows XP because it’s the only thing that’s compatible with Cool Edit 2000, is a loyal subscriber to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” school of philosophy—both with his approach to production and his setup.
Even with a new pair of monitors, which he recently purchased after blowing out a pair of old speakers, Brown estimates his entire studio setup is worth a mere $600. Brown uses this studio to make beats, though, when it’s time to record, he travels to a new location. Mixing and mastering are both in distinctly different locations as well.
All in all, Brown toggles between four studios throughout the creative process. This gives various engineers the opportunity to help move everything along with fresh ideas without becoming numb to the sound. However, to no surprise, he is a creature of habit and uses the same studios and engineers each time.
“When it comes to music, whether I’m making that music or listening to it from someone else, I need feeling,” says Brown. “To me, a lot of the music nowadays is just sounds and words with no emotional value. I need music to take me places—make me forget something or make me remember something. I need it to be a backdrop for reflection.”