I've reached a critical point in the recording process of my next album - I've hit filler territory.
This is the place I hate to be in and no matter how hard I try to avoid it, I always end up here. For the better part of a year I've spent the majority of my time chipping away at 60-90 minutes of music from Rodney Hazard, searching for the 30-45 minutes of songs that will eventually become my third album.
In the beginning stages it's all about getting comfortable. As much as I would love to spend every day of my life in the studio, my financial situation won't allow for it. So instead of recording songs as they happen, I spend a year writing the album in full before I hear my own voice again.
The first few sessions are always a disaster. My flow, my delivery, everything is completely disjointed. I've been away too long and it doesn't feel natural. It's during this period that I'll typically record the same songs three or four times over. It's also during these sessions that self-doubt and depression enter the picture again.
Then one day it comes back to me. My voice erupts through the speakers and I'm connected again. For the next six months I will remain in the pocket - my delivery and flow falling into the dense holes between a kick and a snare drum. This is where the album comes to life and takes shape. The depression and self-doubt are still present but they're temporarily tucked into the back of my mind. It doesn't bother me when songs don't work out. We have a long road ahead of us and we'll find new songs along the way to bridge the gaps left by the old ones. I'm feeling great right now.
But as we get closer to the end, and the finish line comes into view, the album starts to break down. I'm incapable of writing new material to replace the discarded, half finished songs sitting in the trash can. Every album I write is a complete body from start to finish and if one song fails to live up to my standards, I will obsess over the missing piece constantly. The album will not be complete without it so I go back through the trash, fish it out and listen to it repetitively until I convince myself that my first inclination was wrong.
This is the worst part of making an album and this is where I make both great and terrible decisions. On my last album, "Pyramids In Stereo," my most well received song to date, "Forgetting How To Dream," was one of these songs. For months I toiled with that song, re-recording and re-working it until it was just a mash of painful sounds. After a handful of maddening studio sessions I ended up keeping it in its original version and tucked it away in the tracklisting at the end of the album. It wasn't until a number of people close to me heard the song and loved it that I decided to release it as a single and video. To this day it's the most universally appreciated single I've released and more recently went on to win a film festival award for best original song.
This is the scary thing about the trash bin. I don't want to lose something significant because of my own short sightedness. I had no idea that "Forgetting How To Dream" would connect with so many people and without it we would've lost at least 50% of the listeners who discovered that album.
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So this is where I am now; pacing my living room, flipping through an album three songs away from completion and struggling to listen as objectively as possible. I can hear every mistake, every missed note, every out of time backing vocal- I'm sinking into self-doubt again. Which songs should I cut? I've heard all of them a billion fucking times now. They don't sound like anything anymore. Just voices, chords and drums pounding through my headphones and creating what I call the "ambulance" effect; when you say the same word in repetition to the point that it loses all meaning.
Just three more songs. Or four. Or five.
FUCK! As the end gets closer, it drifts further away. My obsession is overwhelming and I'm analyzing every fine detail. I hate everything about this album. It's either really good or really bad; I can't tell anymore. I'm moving the pieces around to try and create a new narrative but it's not working. The more I move around, the more confusing the sequencing becomes. But I can't leave any holes. There can't be any empty spaces. Time to go back to the trash can and do some dumpster diving.
My depression tells me that it's never been this bad before, but my memory reminds me that it has. It's like this every time. The end gets close and I'm having trouble letting go. I want to create something perfect but with every song I make, perfection becomes more distant. My voice is like a jackhammer bouncing up and down in the music. It's driving me insane.
This time, though, I refuse to fill the gaps for the sake of pulling the songs together. But the urge to add songs back to the album is killing me. My conscious mind is rambling on about cohesiveness and fluidity; if this one is missing then this one and this one make no sense in the sequencing. You suck bro. You suck donkey dicks.
Why do I care so much? Nobody else does. Make a song for the girls, a song for the clubs, a song for the streets and a song for radio. It's that fucking easy, man! Make up a fun dance that everybody can do and laugh all the way to the bank. Do you really think that anybody is gonna listen to your tired old social and political bullshit more than once? Why am I putting so much effort into something that doesn't stand a chance against the Bobby Shmurdas of the world?
Fuck a formula, fuck hype and fuck the mainstream - I am none of these things. If I disappear from the musical landscape today, most of the world will never even know I was here. I have to change that. My time is running out and I’m far past my rapper expiration date. The concepts I write, the topics I cover- Hip Hop is a young man’s game and songs about drones in Pakistan are not appealing to most of the younger generation. Was Roger Waters thinking about where he fit within popular culture when he wrote “Dark Side of The Moon”? Were Bone Thugs-N-Harmony following the radio formula when they made “E.1999 Eternal”?
No, great art emerges from the darkest corners of the mind without influence. Timeless music is what I’m after and it has to come from a genuine place. One way or the other, I will make something that will last forever.
Just three more songs. Or ten. Or twenty.
[Jason James is an artist, freelance columnist and writer for DJBooth.net. You can read/download his free eBook, "This Is My Rifle" and listen/download his most recent album, "Pyramids in Stereo". You can also contact him here and here.]