Thursday, April 30, 2015

Recording

So in my attempts to be an actual musician, I have to create and record music, not just perform it live. When I started the process of becoming a musician, I literally had no idea how to record and create music. I had hosted podcasts and such before that, but those were using dummy-proof software that made it so easy a state legislator could figure it out (if you don't get that joke, trust me that most state legislators are pretty ignorant people when it comes to technology).

In my earliest days, I was part of a group called the Cap City Mob (starting in approximately 2007), led by an old friend. I won't rehash what happened there, but let's just say he was difficult to work with. But starting the group and including me in it was his idea (as was my stage name). Once I was invited to participate, he handled all the composition of the music and all of the entire recording process. He was talented and creative, but he didn't want to create original sounds (everything was created from copywritten material), he didn't want to work often enough (which is fine, because he had a life), and he refused to share any of his knowledge. These things bothered me enough that they added to an environment where other interpersonal issues led to me leaving the group and we haven't talked since.

After that, I really wanted to ramp things up, but didn't know how. So I did what any responsible person would do, I bought a microphone, grabbed my laptop and started figuring things out on my own. That was in early 2012 or so. By the time I had left Tallahassee permanently later that year, I had created a handful of beats, done some well-received solo live shows, and had recorded songs for each of those beats. None of those early recordings still exists, because as I improved at what I was doing, I rerecorded songs over and over again until they were better and better. So it isn't song ideas or concepts that was deleted, just early takes that weren't as good.

Since then, I've spent more than 150 hours recording songs and while I have figured out quite a bit of stuff, a lot of it is just from repetition and there almost certainly things that I'm doing the hard way that I could do easier. But, most of the time, I am happy with the way my voice sounds after recording, so I'm sufficiently happy with my skillset for now. I don't really have much interest in being an engineer or mixer or any of those things, I'm more a writer/vocalist, and I've only taken on these other roles out of necessity.

So my goals with recording are a bit varied. First and foremost is to create good music that will entertain or educate others. That is always at the top of my mind. My musical tastes are varied, but start with hip hop, punk, postpunk, new wave, indie, alternative, and the like. I want to create music that derives from those genres, even if I have some pop sensibilities that might also make their way into the songs. And, in no uncertain terms, my music always has some kind of message. A lefty political/social message. Even the party songs have something in that realm. And all of the songs are meant to be entertaining on some level, too. So creating music that fits that general concept is first.

I have two other related goals with recording. The first is to learn the technical stuff more, so that I can create the sounds I have in my head more easily. The other is to learn what my voice is, what it can do, and learn how to improve and expand upon it. That becomes a lot easier when you record the same lines over and over again, trying to perfect the line readings and try different approaches, enunciation, voices, etc. This is one of the reasons I post raw demos pretty frequently, it not only leads to feedback, it provides a strong incentive to continually improve and rework things. If I make a shitty recording and it's out there, someone could hear it unless I work on it and make it better.

I am a prolific songwriter. I have written more than 100 songs in the last three years and I have many, many more ideas that are in various stages of writing. But it can become an echo chamber when I write and record by myself and don't have to interact with the ideas and artistry of others. So I have made it a goal to not just record my own material, but that of others, too. I really like the idea of the artist, such as Prince or 2Pac, that spends massive amounts of time in the studio recording their voice, their songs, their inspirations, and leaves a lot behind for the world to listen to. The idea came from an article I read once where some semi-famous rapper started recording himself doing a bunch of other people's songs and posting the videos on YouTube. For some reason, I haven't been able to find that article again and I'm not sure who it was. I want to say Action Bronson, but I can't say that for sure since I can't find it. But it really made me think a few things. One was that doing a bunch of different rappers, with a bunch of different styles, in recorded fashion, would make my ability to perform and vocalize much better. And that has certainly been true as I've done it. The other was that if I had interesting takes or good performances of songs that already had fans, I would, in the great cover song tradition, obtain more fans. That has also been true, too, although to a lesser extent.

So in addition to recording more than 70 original tracks, I also started recording various cover songs. The first goal was to record 200 different rappers. Not just different songs, but 200 songs each by a different artist (I'm well past 50 on that goal now). But after recording a few songs by artists I really like, I quickly found that I wanted to record more songs by those artists, so I expanded my recordings to allow for that. A third approach I took on was to take songs that weren't strictly hip hop songs, but contained relevant elements. Songs that might not be rap, but sounded pretty close. For this series of "Almost Hip Hop" songs, I decided to take those tracks, and make them more hip hop, more in my own voice. It quickly became an idea that I didn't just want to copy the songs, doing all the exact same words and exact same line deliveries. Some songs I did relatively straightforward takes on, others I made some pretty significant changes to. My version of "Parents Just Don't Understand" is a pretty faithful Fresh Prince imitation, while my cover of Nirvana's "Downer" is so radically different than the original, it's a post-punk hip hop poetry reading kind of think, almost like a Butthole Surfers song.

A few guidelines I have for these variant takes:

  1. I never, ever use the N-word. No matter what. I'm a guest in hip hop and I understand the history from where it comes, so regardless of the original, I change the word to something else. I've even been given permission to use the word by numerous African American performers and fans and I will never use it.
  2. I rarely use words like "bitch" or other slurs that denigrate women or homosexuals. I don't fully eliminate them because at times they are being used by a character in the song. Robert DeNiro doesn't refuse to play sexist or homophobic characters because he can say something important through those characters and it isn't necessarily an endorsement of a character that you play them. I refuse to record lines, though, that are explicitly me using those slurs to denigrate anyone, unless the point is ironic (such as a recording of a 2 Live Crew song). Yes, I get the inconsistency between #1 on this list and #2. The reason for that is that the artform I'm using, hip hop, is an African American form, so I'm showing my respect for that by not insulting the innovators of the form I'm using. I try not to insult anyone based on such characteristics, so it's safe to assume that if you hear a word like "bitch," it isn't meant as a literal, unironic use of the word to denigrate women. I understand some will still reject my take on the topic, but that's the path I've chosen.
  3. I do my best to remain true to the spirit of the original track. I may change things around a bit, but the goal is homage and respect, not just the repeating of words that I like.
  4. As with most hip hop cover songs I've ever heard, when I choose to, I change references to the original artist's name to some variation of my own. Think Snoop Dogg's cover of "Lodi Dodi," which is true to the original, but has many Snoop-ified changes in the lyrics.
  5. I literally want to record at least one track by every hip hop artist for whom I can find an instrumental. Since none of these songs is meant for commercial release, I have no problem using other people's music and lyrics to make interesting sounds of my own. And since my goals involve diversity and technical skill, I will record versions of songs from artists I don't like, although I will note that when I have done that, it has increased my appreciation of those artists at times. At some point, I'd like to be able to say that I've recorded cover versions of more rappers than any other person on the planet. I assume that I'm already well on the way to that goal, considering I've now done 57 different rappers by my latest count.
  6. I want to add new things to songs. I like adding subtext, making cultural references, and tying different forms of art together. When I have an idea that serves that purpose, I pursue it.
  7. I want to make the songs work for my voice. I have a pretty good ability to mimic other voices, I always have. But in my efforts to perfect my own voice, it's important not to bite anyone else's style for the purpose of a recording. So while some of my recordings are pretty imitative of the original, others make pretty significant changes to line deliveries, particularly with rappers like Jay-Z or Kanye who, at times, eschew traditional melodies or pronounce or say words in ways that I wouldn't. I'm absolutely not interested in doing a Iggy Azalea and adopting speech patterns and slang that aren't authentic to who I am. I grew up in the Deep South, lived in mostly black neighborhoods much of my life, and from an early age was deeply immersed in hip hop and basketball culture. And you likely wouldn't know any of that from my recorded voice, since I'm not trying to adopt the patterns and culture of others, I'm trying to forge new ground in my own voice. On those rare occasions where you hear me use black slang, it's black slang I use all the time as part of my daily life, it's not an affect taken on for the purpose of a recording.

(I may think of more of those that I have used later and will add them to the list if I do.)

So, to give you all an example of these principles in action, I present to you, my most recent recording, an interpretation of Beck's song "Loser."

Here are the above principles in action for this song:

  1. Beck doesn't use the N-word, so not relevant.
  2. Similar to #1, not a concern here.
  3. I certainly change the vocals quite a bit here. Beck's original is laid back and almost indifferent to what is going on in the song. I use my more natural rapping voice, which is a bit of a hybrid of Beastie Boys and Chuck D. The original is just Beck singing, too, while I felt that my version was better served by having backing vocals for emphasis on certain parts. I also changed some line deliveries by adding a little delay here and there and having the rest of the line in question be rapped in double time. I think it creates some really interesting moments. I also radically reworked the chorus, going for a specific Rage Against the Machine feel and reference which I think add an layer to the song that, while not in the original, are in line with the original's mood, if not tone.
  4. I didn't do this a lot on this one, although I added a "motherfucker" to a spot where I couldn't get a good read on one of Beck's deliveries.
  5. Beck's not a rapper, of course, so this one fits the "Almost Hip Hop" approach, but he is an artist I have never covered before (and rarely sing in public), so it is in line with the spirit of trying different voices.
  6. There isn't much new subtext here (although there is some in the reworking of the chorus and the change in the vocal style from apathetic to aggressive), but the tie in to other cultural points is pretty extensive. In addition to the Rage-style chorus, the end of the song includes an explicit Rage line that is added, much of the vocal presentation ties in to artists like the Beastie Boys, and the added backing vocals have a wide range of influences from Beasties to Afroman to Eminem and others. There are also some attempts at sophomoric humor (emphasizing the word "balls," a Cartman reference on the word "beef") and to the sing-songy nursery rhyme styles of early rap songs (which is done on the actual nursery rhyme that Beck included in the lyrics). And these are just the conscious references I made during the recording, there are certainly likely to be subconscious references or things I forgot.
  7. I've already addressed this one, but needless to say, there are very few points in this song where I sound anything like Beck, either in my voice or in my line deliveries.

One last thing on recording. I have literally no patience or skill for rearranging and editing and punching things in. My process begins with the beginning of the song, I hit record, and I go forward from there. I generally record the song chronologically and do my best to do entire verses without a break. I've not always done that in the past, but I think discerning listeners can tell when the songs are edited, so if a song has a 16 bar verse, I try to record that interrupted before moving to the next part, and will try the same part over and over again until I am happy with every word (or nearly every word) in the segment, only breaking things up when it is naturally part of the song. The first verse of the Beck song above is one take, although it was far from the first take. I particularly have to pay close attention to improper breathing, which often shows up, sound levels (although those can be adjusted after the recording, it's better not to have to adjust them, it just sounds better), contact with anything else in the studio, etc. Ambient sounds usually aren't picked up by my mic, so that's fine, but if I bump the mic during a recording session, that take is a wash. I have a screen in front of the mic, so I don't get too many "P" sound problems, although there are still some other sounds (like "S" at the beginning of a word) that can be very problematic in recording. For a song like this with backing vocals and such, I will record the main versus and chorus first and come back in on a separate track and add those. I don't generally rehearse a lot before the song, unless it's new, although I'm generally recording songs I've heard many times, and usually songs I've performed at karaoke, so they have been practiced. Mass transit in a big city also gives ample opportunity to run through songs in your head before a recording session, so it's not exactly like I go in unprepared. Part of this is that I don't want to overdo a bad line and get it stuck in my head, so I like to be able to listen to what I've rapped to see if I'm doing it in a way that I'm happy with. I can only do that when recording and listening to the playback.

Okay, that's probably way more than enough for this post, although I'm sure that I'll talk more about recording when introducing other songs in the future. My next post will be about karaoke and why that's important to what I'm doing.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Goals

So for this first post of the new direction, I wanted to briefly talk about my goals as a musician, to provide a bigger context for what I'm doing and what I'm writing and creating. It won't be the most in-depth examination ever, but will give you a basic idea for what's to come...

So, my ultimate goal as a musician would be to become a worldwide superstar who performs for millions of people while retaining complete integrity in my music and voice, making people dance and sing along to my radical politics. Basically to be at the level that Kanye and Jay-Z are, where they can kind of do and say whatever they want and people are along for the ride in big numbers.

I realize that goal is totally unlikely to happen for any number of reasons.

A secondary goal, and a much more realistic one, would be to forge a career that lasts a few decades where I get to make whatever music I want and I build a fanbase that wants to hear what I want to make, wants to see me live, and where I can be a respected musician among other musicians for creating art that is true to my vision and values. In this scenario, I would get to tour, get to perform at festivals, collaborate with other great musicians, maybe even get on the radio or TV a bit as a feature on other people's work, and get to create art that people like and learn from.

I realize that is a lot of hard work and that most people who attempt to go down this path don't stick with it. But that's one of the great things about having asperger's, I'm obsessive enough about the concept that I'll stick with it as long as it takes, regardless of what other people think. I've been doing it long enough already to know that there will always be haters, including people that are friends or people that, by any logical though process, should enjoy what I do. But art, and people's reactions to it, is not logical and I understand that doesn't always happen.

The old saying about it taking 10,000 hours to become a master of a particular skill may not be particularly accurate, but you have to learn a lot by putting in those hours. I haven't done that yet, but I am closing in on 1,000 hours of activity related to becoming the best writer and performer I can be. I still have a long way to go, but I'm really happy with the progress I've made.

And while I know that a lot of artists like to only present the polished, fully-developed product to their fans, I've always thought a little differently about that and prefer to open up the door and show people what I'm doing, even if I make mistakes, even if I fail. I can handle the feedback and it all helps me develop my knowledge and skill towards being better, so I'll keep doing it.

Slight Change of Direction

The direction of this blog will change a bit. I will still be adding album reviews and pop culture memories and such things, but I'll also be chronicling my music and creativity, discussing and explaining my thought process and giving you a look behind the scenes at Professor Rex.