Drummer, producer, and engineer Darryl Moore (aka: JMD, Jamm Messenger D, Jamm Messenger Divine) has helped seminal hip-hop groups Freestyle Fellowship and The Pharcyde develop their sound. As a drummer, Moore has toured with legendary pianist Horace Tapscott, and continues to lead his own band, Underground Railroad. In 1993 he co-produced and performed on Freestyle Fellowship's ground breaking album, Innercity Griots. Those interested in innovative, creative hip-hop, with depth of groove and thought, must check this album out. Moore combined jazz composition, live ensemble performance, programmed beats, and choice samples with Freestyle Fellowship's rhythmically creative and stylistically singular rapping and lyrics to produce a record that stands as one of hip-hop's greatest albums. Deserving of wider recognition, I asked Darryl Moore to discuss his work as a producer, engineer, and musician, as well as his admiration for George Massenburg [Tape Op #54, 63].
On Freestyle Fellowship's Innercity Griots, there's a track where Billy Cobham's song "Spectrum" is sampled, but maybe kind of sped up?
Yeah. That's a tune called "Pure Thought." See, this album is like the first true hybrid of live and programmed beats. There're a lot of live things on everything. That was pretty much my job. [The Mighty] O-Roc [Ola Kennedy; now known as DJ Ozone] did beats by himself. Me and Mathmattiks [Matt Griffith] did beats together. I would pick out these records, hearing these samples, and since Matt had the hip-hop sensibility, he'd put the samples to where they made sense hip-hop-wise. So you could tell me and Matt's beats are different than O-Roc's beats, but I would play live elements, or replace things that we couldn't clear sample-wise. "Pure Thought" was all samples, all the way through. The Mighty O-Roc did that song. We're all the Earthquake Brothers – me, O-Roc, and Mathmattiks. That was our production team, the Earthquake Brothers. O-Roc did "Pure Thought," "Six Tray," and "Mary." But on "Six Tray," I had Don Littleton playing the percussion. That was all live; the cuíca and the congas. And on "Mary," I had Al Threats play an electric bass live. I played all the cymbals and electronic drums. I had a drum pad, so all the drum fills are me playing them with the pad. Randall Willis is playing flute on "Mary."
What samples were on "Way Cool" from that album?
At the beginning, that's all live – where you hear the horns. We recorded that at the same time we did the session at Crystal Sound, where we recorded "Inner City Boundaries" and "Park Bench People." "...Boundaries" was really supposed to be a solo song for [Freestyle Fellowship member] P.E.A.C.E. [Mtulazaji Davis], but they took the tapes to New York. When we recorded, P.E.A.C.E. was actually freestyling over that. [The record label] didn't like the freestyle, so they took it to New York and wrote it collectively. "Park Bench People" – me and Myka [Michael Troy, aka Myka 9, Myka Nyne] wrote that up in my apartment. I just took a loop of "Red Clay" [from Freddie Hubbard's album Red Clay], and he wrote to it. We did a different arrangement and played it live. Back to "Way Cool," the original sample was from Miles Davis' Miles in the Sky. "Black Comedy" was the tune. It was just an ascending line, so for the album I replaced that sample with a line that ascends and descends. That's like a whole ensemble, horn section, bass, drums, and everybody doing that live. Then the first loop that comes in is Kool & the Gang. But the drums you hear coming in there that sound big – with a roll – that was all me in my apartment, mono, with one microphone, to a DAT player. You'd be surprised [about] a lot of the drums on that. Then Matt sampled those drums. But also the drums on "Heavyweights," that was all recorded in my apartment with one microphone going to a DAT machine. Then we sampled it from that. Nothing fancy. We didn't know what the hell we were doing. I just had my drums set up, and I can't even tell you the mic placement. It was probably in front of my drums or something like that. The drums you hear in "Way Cool" are DAT. Then there's a sample with Ron Carter on "Way Cool" playing upright bass. The sample of the bass clarinet is from a Tony Newton record; he's the bass player who played with Tony Williams, but he also played bass clarinet. It's probably from that album where you see him with a double-necked bass [Mysticism & Romance]. The last loop where Acey [Edwin M. Hayes, Jr., aka Aceyalone] is rapping is from a two-second break from a very old Ohio Players record, like one of their first records, with a cowbell beat.
That is a total collage. Very nice.
Yeah; just records, man. That whole album had two weeks of preproduction, and then we banged hard. Me, Matt, [DJ] Kiilu [Kiilu Beckwith], and O-Roc. O-Roc pretty much stayed by himself. He didn't bring the tracks for us to hear until a week after. He had very basic gear. A very basic sampler with an outboard sequencer that didn't work half the time or sync up. It was just pulling out records. We had a turntable; we'd be listening and smoking, and then I'd go, "Take this sample, Matt." He'd sample it right to the Ensoniq. He would put it together and make it make sense. I couldn't front like I was some hip-hop aficionado. He knew how to make it sound like hip-hop, and then Kiilu would come and sign off on it to make sure we weren't going too far. A lot of what we were doing was going way too far. It sounded like Sun Ra. We were gone. I enjoyed the preproduction process more than the album-making process. It was a thing of beauty to work with these cats, building every day for eight hours, just making shit.
You were collaborating, and everyone was open and listening.
Yeah. The only thing I did by myself was with Myka. He came to my Leimert Park apartment, which was upstairs. I took that little loop of "Red Clay," and he was thinking about how he was homeless and used to sleep in the park. He started writing "Park Bench People" about that experience. That's how that [was] born. We did a different arrangement and changed the horn line around. I got my mentor, Onaje Murray, to play vibes on that. I wanted to have a sound that would be very manly, like the Jazz Crusaders. That's why I used saxophone and trombone. I wanted Myka to catch that Gil Scott-[Heron] kind of vibe, but I wanted that masculine jazz sound I grew up hearing with the Jazz Crusaders. That's why we've got to have tenor sax and trombone. Later, José James recorded it for his album [The Dreamer], and it sounds great. José James is a monstrous singer, and he recorded it with my blessings. Also, while he was in London, he recorded it with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.
There's an organ on "Hot Potato." Do you remember if that was a sample?
Well, see, we did not do that. That's some producer [Edman, aka Edward Lawson] that their manager got from New York to do that track.
There's a different sound to that tune than the rest of the album.
That one, and "Bullies Of The Block," we didn't do [Bambawar, aka Bamba Nazar, produced]. Those are two New York guys. Their manager, Kedar Massenburg, felt he needed to have some New York tracks on there. The manager thought those were going to be hits. Those two songs should be occupied by [pianist, composer] Horace Tapscott's tracks. It was real jazz. We were playing, and [Freestyle Fellowship] were performing. Everything went down all at the same time, and the great engineer, Dennis Moody, recorded it. Dennis is a badass; he recorded a lot of those records for [jazz label] Nimbus [Records], so he was the best engineer for that Fellowship album. The reason it didn't make the album was that the A&R [rep] liked the music, but she wanted them to redo the vocals. I was dead set against it. "No, it's jazz. They're reacting. Everybody's reacting to one another." Horace Tapscott is reacting to what they're saying. Everything Mycha says, Horace is right there. Everything P.E.A.C.E. says, Horace is right there. Horace played beautifully. He killed it. But [A&R] was like, "I don't like the way the vocals sound." There're two other songs too; "Danger" and "Hot." They recorded another song called "Danger," but the one with Horace is me, Horace, Nedra Wheeler on bass, Randall Willis on saxophone, and Michael Hunter on trumpet. It's all straight ahead, no overdubs. Just straight killing. But again, they couldn't get it then. Now it would be the bomb. It's like what Kendrick Lamar is doing now. We did that 27 years ago. I did do a remix of "Hot Potato" myself that's far more progressive than that. I used my cats on that. There's a lot of underground work that I've done; mix tapes that people got out there before they got record deals, or things of that nature.
You can't see all that in your online discography. That type of work was really important to a lot of peoples' careers.
You can find the songs on YouTube, but I don't think there's any way you can purchase them or anything like that. That's the way it was, man.
Tell me again about your philosophy of recording the drum set as a whole instrument.
My philosophy on the bass drum, and drums in general, is that they are all one thing. I don't like to record them as a lot of separate entities. On my favorite records, the drum set sounds like a drum set. It doesn't sound like a bunch of individual instruments all over the place. On older jazz records, everybody [mainly] used two mics. A lot of times even one. I always wondered how Rudy Van Gelder [Tape Op #43] recorded. How I mic up my bass drum usually, because I don't like to use the hole in it, I'll get the tone, the roundness, and the attack from my technique that I read about as a kid by [drummer] Louie Bellson, [of] how you hit and strike the bass drum. You can hit it and push your foot into it, hold the beater down on the head, and get an attacking hit. Or you can let the beater come off – like you're a bass drum player in a marching band – and get the boom. When I'm playing hip-hop, that's way I get to have an 808 [Roland TR-808 sound] and a regular kick without having to do triggers and all that. It's all in my technique. When I'm recording the drums, I don't mind having cross-talk between them. Like I said, I look at them as one entity. Mics are cameras to me. In order to get the attack, I'll have a smaller diaphragm microphone pointed at the the beater. I like the Audix i5 more than I like the [Shure SM]57s. On the front, I have an AKG D112. I'll put that near the shell of the bass drum, maybe a little off-axis of the shell, about three inches from the edge of the shell pointed at the head, and about two inches back. That gives me a little bit of attack, plus the tone of the drum where you can hear the attack and the boom. I'll also place a large diaphragm mic about a foot away to get the overall tone of the drum. I'll generally EQ each piece together, rolling off everything under 200 [Hz] for the attack from the i5 at the back of the head, and I'll leave the other ones to their own design. Sometimes I'll put a dip in at 500 Hz on the AKG, a few dBs of that. Then I'll have the room mic a foot away; I'll just blend it in until it's all round. I will bus those three tracks to a mono aux. Sometimes I'll use compression on it, but not much. Just enough to control the ring of how long it's going to boom. I'll use an [Universal Audio] 1176 [compressor] with a very slow attack and then start dialing it in to let the boom go as long as I want it, and then the compressor lets it go. As far as the tom-toms, sometimes I don't even use tom mics dead on. I might place other large diaphragm mics around the drum set. I'll have one at tom-tom level if I'm playing my six-piece Gretsch; I'll have one by the hi-hat and a tom on the left. I have another one in the center between the two drums, mounted drums, and I have one to the right between the larger mounted tom and the floor tom. But that's not to say that I won't close mic the other ones. If I want to get shell resonance and make it sound like a nice picture, then I'll just pan them left, center, and right. Then I'll use overheads. A lot of times I use two snares. I'm a firm believer in mic'ing the top of the snare and the bottom. I believe in that, because if you're playing jazz, you want that. I want that snare. I don't want just the attack to pop off the top. I'll usually put a high-pass filter on the bottom snare and take out everything. I'll take it out to nothing, and then I'll start dialing it back until it sounds right with the other part. You just take the high-pass and turn that sucker all the way up until it's about 3 kHz; then you listen and dial it back until it sounds natural. You get a little bleed off the kick, but I don't care. I want the snare response when I do a press roll.
Would you do the same thing if you are recording a hip-hop tune?
I'll do the same thing. The snare wants to have that little rap sound off the snare. I don't have to, but that little bit of junk in the snare, I'll get the crack off the top head; but I want to get that too, the snare sound. Otherwise sometimes it sounds like a timbale. I play two snares, so I'll do that to the second snare on my left. I probably won't mic the bottom of that one, only because I don't have that many inputs. But if I did have that many inputs, I would. I think a lot of people concentrate too much on the top end of the snare, getting the crack and the attack, but none of the snare sound. I found that doing that with a high-pass filter, and just listening and dialing it in, I can bus those two signals to a mono aux and blend them until they sound good. You can have two different EQs on the individuals on their own track, but when you send them over, then you can process them a little bit further, maybe with more EQ. You can send them to reverb for a room sound, to put them in the right room or whatever. Maybe you put a compressor on one and not the other, just depending on what the song calls for. I'm not a huge believer in a whole bunch of compression. But if you use it wisely to make the drums breathe, according to the song, I see nothing wrong with a compressor, if you understand how they really work.
Compression is difficult to understand, especially if you're a musician in the recording studio.
As far as drums, just experiment for yourself. Record the drums with kick, snare, and hi-hat. Play a simple beat. Then play with the attack and the release. If you want a slow attack, before the compressor compresses, it'll allow the signal to be heard, and then it'll smash it down. It'll go "pow," and then swoop back down. That's the attack. The second part is the release. How long is it going to hold it down? You play with these two things. Just do it for yourself and experiment with it. You'll see. Play a stupid, simple beat. Some Al Green. Then, when you hear it start to breathe, you can make the compressor groove. A compressor can help [the] groove. That's what these old cats understand. The young cats don't. They just compress for loudness, not the groove. It can totally make the drums groove harder by using a compressor the right way. As an overall master bus compression, a tiny bit can glue it together, but a lot of it sucks it out. Lately I've been experimenting with different kinds of master bus compression, as well as limiting. I think I found the one I like the most, the Waves L3 [Multimaximizer]. It doesn't squash your whole mix, it actually makes things jump out. It's like no other master bus compressor/limiter I've ever heard. It doesn't crush everything down and make it loud. It's almost like an expander. For what I've been using it for lately, I really love that thing.
So a compressor can help with the groove, but you hear it being used a lot nowadays for just loudness?
Yeah. Trap music is what's making that happen. Everybody wants these individual parts to be as loud and present as they can. They assign certain parts to certain frequency spectrums, and they want them to stay there. You've got the bass dominating the bottom, zero in the middle, and then you have all the upper register. They want them to live in their own little frequency group. The claps and the hi-hats, the melody and the bells. They throw the vocal up in the middle there. They don't use the whole range of frequencies. They just want to smash these little pieces and assign them. "You're going to be at 3 kHz. You're going to be at 7. You at 4, you at 12. Now we have a trap song." They wouldn't be able to do a [George] Massenburg, and mix the whole spectrum of the audio. It's like the way Reggie Dozier and David Isaac do it; engineers of that caliber. There's a song by Earth, Wind & Fire, and it's entitled "Earth, Wind & Fire" off the Spirit album. Listen to that, and listen to what Massenburg does. He's the most genius mixer I've ever heard. He uses every bit of the spectrum. He has strings, horns, background vocals, lead vocals, bass, drums, and two guitar tracks – and everything is living together. Every time I need to get my ears straight, I listen to that track. The thing I learned is that when you solo things, it's going to sound terrible. You have to EQ it to make it fit in the song. If you solo the strings [that] Massenburg did, they'd probably sound thin, or the guitars would sound shrill. But in the complete picture of things, that is just to me the most jaw-dropping mix. When I was producing, I wish I'd understood engineering and the language behind it. My albums would have sounded a hell of a lot different, because I didn't yet have the vocabulary to explain what I was hearing to the engineer. I study cats like George Massenburg like I do Elvin Jones and John Coltrane.
When you did Innercity Griots, you hadn't developed that skill yet?
No. I didn't go to school until 2003. I did the Freestyle Fellowship album in 1993 or ‘94, so I had no idea. I went to RIT [Recording Institute of Technology] at the Musicians Institute and studied there. That's where I got my formal training. We were using some good gear, when I look back at it, but the engineer [Matt Hyde] we had was not the right guy for what we were doing. He did good on some things, but other parts he didn't get, because he was really an indie rock guy. He was doing Porno for Pyros and bands like that. He was working at Crystal [Sound], a legendary studio in Hollywood. I had to make him back off on the reverb, because he kept putting too much on. Some of the totally live parts would sound dull, and it didn't bump the way we wanted. But people still like it for what it is. It sounds like it did because we didn't have Pro Tools at the time. We were going straight to 2-inch tape. I wish someone else had mixed it. I didn't mind [Hyde] recording it with the gear he had, but he was not the right person to mix it. I wish, to this day, that I could go to Island and say, "Hey, let me mix this shit the right way." That didn't have as much sheen and bump on it as the Pharcyde record that I did [Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde]. I played drums on that record. I think that Eric Sarafin [Tape Op #34] did a great job on that. He made that record bump. It sounded like a hip-hop record and all the beats really banged. Everything was brilliant. I loved his engineering.
When you were recording a mix of live music and samples on Innercity Griots, what was your recording method?
It was all tapes. [The engineer] striped the board for SMPTE, so there was a click. We had a click that we could play. Since the sample stuff would be laid first, we'd stripe the tape with a click. You only needed a click at the beginning, like on "Way Cool." We never needed it for anything else other than that. We'd ask the engineer how many bars before the sound starts. Eight? Okay, click, click, and then, when the song started coming in, we'd kill the click. For live playing, the beats we'd use would be done first, and then the live playing would be done with the existing beats. How I work now, a lot of people don't like to work with the grid. I love the grid. If I make a beat now in Pro Tools or Logic, I have the tempo set. I might have a temporary beat there, and then I'll come replace it later with real drums.
THE Dubber. Global Warning album.
Another record I did was this album by THE Dubber called Global Warning. I think it's [on iTunes]. It was all recorded at my house. It's not a household name, but this dude is a big-time artist. He's from South Carolina. He's making stuff happen. It's a really great album for when it was recorded, like 2010. It's like another album that was before its time. A lot of live stuff, a lot of acoustic guitars and drums, as well as some programmed and hybrid-type stuff. Now I record to the grid all the time. I don't try to make all my drum parts line up exactly to the grid, but I will make the downbeat and the end line up to the grid, you know what I mean? It'll have that human feel. I don't want it to be so damn stiff. It can still be swing and loose in between those particular downbeats, but it gives me good points of reference. At least it lets me see how far off I am. I want to tell you right now that being sloppy is what's happening, especially with hip-hop. I call them the herky-jerky beats. They want the bass drum rushing and the snare dragging, and the hi-hat forward a couple of milliseconds. I don't really like that style, but being a little sloppy is what's in.
The "Celestial Blues" with Blue Note.
There's a track on a record label sampler CD with your band, Underground Railroad [Acid Jazz: U.S. Past and Present Vol. 1, Prophecy Records 1997].
That was made from a demo I did. Chick Corea paid for it and we presented it to Blue Note, but they passed on it. That's "Celestial Blues." There're like three or four other tracks on there that are the bomb, but they never got mixed. I got the masters to them, but I need to get those tapes baked so I can transfer them to Pro Tools. I've got some stuff with Medusa and Riddler. There're some bad cats on that. I thought "Celestial Blues" was going to get us a record deal. It's just a bomb track. We played right in front of Bruce [Lundvall, former head of Blue Note Records] and the whole dang office. They took us to Capitol Records and we played. They brought everybody down from the office and watched us play. We hit them with everything we could hit them with, and they just didn't have a clue, you know?
I remember hearing about that.
Yeah. He got us a demo deal. His record label couldn't do anything, but we got a demo deal. I was trying to get on with Blue Note. Blue Note just...
They blew it.
Yeah, they fucked up. They were just like, "Oh, we have Charlie Hunter." Fuck that.
It's totally different.
Yeah. My band was smaller than Kamasi Washington's band. I was trying to come at it like that. I had a seven-piece band. I was like, "Come on man, really?" They would kill themselves now to have Kamasi on Blue Note. They'd do anything to sign Kamasi.
On Freestyle Fellowship's innovations and influence...
The way you combined the use of live musicians and samples, the choices you made about what to sample, the unique rhythmical approach and storytelling of Freestyle Fellowship, and the performances of the musicians, makes Innercity Griots my favorite hip-hop album. When other groups tried to do that, it always sounded contrived to me. Whether it was Gang Starr, or Digable Planets, or whatever, you never heard people do it right. Although, there's a live Steve Coleman album, Myths, Modes, and Means: Live at Hot Brass [Steve Coleman and the Mystic Rhythm Society, BMG 1995] where he does it really well.
Yeah, I love Steve Coleman. He's one of the few who did it right. He did it right, but we did it first. Thank you for your compliment. It's definitely how I wanted to do it. That was my plan. There were other things I did with them, even before they got record deals, that were on that level. Like you said, their rhyme patterns and chops – they invented that style.
And they could improvise.
Oh, yeah; and they still can. I'm working with [rapper] Busdriver [Regan Farquhar] right now, and we're doing some incredible music. I can't wait for the world to hear it. He's going to take it to the next level. The thing is, those cadences, and that style, that was born in 1990, and people are still eating off that style. Everybody who's considered a progressive rapper is rapping in that style now, [from] almost 30 years ago. We're the forefathers of our style. That style comes from The Good Life [Cafe], primarily from Myka 9, and the other members of Freestyle Fellowship. If I had to make a comparison, I'd say that Big Daddy Kane was the first to clear up that style and cadence. He started using triplets and dotted eighths and sixteenths. Then when Myka came along, he took it to another level. I'd say Big Daddy Kane would be like Charlie Parker. Myka 9 is like John Coltrane, you know what I mean? In that regard. Kendrick [Lamar], everything he spit is nothing I never heard already. Every style, everything. I've heard it already. I love Kendrick. I love his pen. He writes his ass off. I'm a fan, and I'll continue to be a fan, because I understand where he's coming from. I know he studied the art form, and I know where it's coming from. I know he knows, but he won't say it. The same thing with other guys like A-F-R-O, who are chopping. Our style got bit first by some dudes from Ohio. Bone Thug [Bone Thugs-n-Harmony] stole that style from us.
Yeah. There was an underground mixtape called To Whom It May Concern by Freestyle Fellowship. That tape went all over the world. That tape is on YouTube. That tape was circulated physically, from L.A., to Japan, to Europe, and all over the United States before it was on the internet. There were tapes. When people heard that, it was over with. There was nothing else like it. You could hear all of those styles that everybody's doing now on that tape, or some variation of it.
Can you elaborate on how Bone Thugs-n-Harmony were influenced?
The chops. Just think of them more like drums. Get away from the singing part and listen to the way they chop the syllables.
Oh, yeah; I can hear that. Okay.
One of the biggest groups in the world is Migos, and they don't even rap without triplets. But the thing is, they get monotonous. The thing about chopping is not just to stay on one particular pattern. It's to utilize them all. Be like Tito Puente on the damn timbales. That's what my boys do.
Oh, man! Yeah, exactly. Even when they do that triplet...
It's just for a second, not for the whole song.
Just the timbre, their voices too. They have dynamics.
Yeah. It's to get a lyric off, not to be showing off. You need to be able to use this many words in a certain area, just like drums. When I first met them, they could all rap like crazy. They were already good. I would just show them other things. I work closely with all of them. I'm a Good Lifer. I work closely with all The Good Life kids. Project Blowed came later. In the Good Life, we would have ciphers and stuff like that. I'd come by, bring drums, and play. I'd throw different time signatures at them that they would never hear on other records. Like on Innercity Griots, that song "Six String" is the first hip-hop song ever in 6. It goes from 6 to 4, and then back to 6 again. It's not a 4/4 time signature. I used to throw different time signatures, 6s, 8s, 7s, 12s at them, and they can easily ride those beats. I also made sure to play them tracks by King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, Jon Hendricks, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and some [Louis] Armstrong; all the cats who can scat to give them the harmonious part of it. I just sit back. In that era of the early ‘90s, rappers went to the library and bought records. They studied. Now it's Twitter and Wikipedia. They get all their information from that. I'm from the era where a dude would go to the library and study so that when he came to the Good Lifers he could drop some shit, and some knowledge. It would increase their vocabulary. Because of the no cussing rule [at the Good Life], you had to have lyrics. You had to have a way to say something without using profanity. You couldn't just go, "Motherfucking fuck you, I'll kill your whole fucking family." You had to come up with a creative way to blow somebody up without using profanity. It made them all better MCs. The Good Life created this all. Just that simple rule made everybody better. If you cussed at the Good Life, they snatched the mic from you and turned off your mic. They pulled you off the stage.
I remember when the Underground Railroad was playing at Fifth Street Dick's every week, like every Friday or Saturday night. To this day, I can see it in my mind's eye. There was a cipher going on, and I've never seen freestyle rapping that good, before or since. It was ridiculous. It was just one of those moments that you remember because it was so good. People were improvising, unreal, bouncing off the music, listening; it was pretty amazing.
Yeah, those kids really raised up and sharpened their swords. They did the work. They put in the work. To me, they're just as important, just as good, and just as equal to the jazz musicians I'm playing with. To me, they were jazz musicians. They just did it with words. You play the head, and after that you improvise. So, you have the beginning of the rules, and then you play around within the rules. Their minds were so incredibly sharp, and a lot of them are still that way. That's why I love working with Busdriver. Busdriver today still makes me shake my head. Now that he's older, he understands so much more. Lyrically, musically, tonally. He's the most completely studied cat I've ever worked with. He totally understands rhythm. He does his homework. He puts in the work. Busdriver is a modern-day genius. Lots of people can freestyle, but he can say something with some content and context. Many beautiful nights like that went down at Fifth Street Dick's, because a lot of the Good Lifers would go over to Project Blowed, and they continued at Project Blowed, because they were allowed to cuss there. But they still had the Good Life mentality of lyric, and flows, and being able to improvise. That's how you were judged. All of those dudes can freestyle at a decent level. Some of them at an extraordinary level. Certain MCs, I would teach them how to shadow solos, so they could learn the language.
Project Blowed, 5th Street Dick's, Billy Childs, Bennie Maupin, Chick Corea, and getting locked in a pressure chamber.
I would teach a lot of those kids to shadow solos, like being in a Spanish immersion class. I will pick a record out, and then say, "Watch me." They'll hear John Coltrane [play a line], and I'll teach them to go right behind it. So they learn the language of jazz. It gave them better rhythm and more harmony to understand how the music would go. They would just do it. They were open. They were not hardheaded kids at all. They were all about doing whatever it took to get better. That's why I loved being there and working with all of those dudes. They really worked hard at trying to be good. Nobody wanted to be whack. Everyone wanted to be heard. Everyone put in the work. They would work from Friday to Thursday, because they all wanted to blow up on that Thursday night. Everybody wanted to be dope. They weren't tripping on money. They weren't tripping about fame. They were tripping about the art. They wanted to be considered dope by their peers, you know what I mean? A lot of them are still making money today. Jurassic 5 is still going today. Some good people came out of there, and some people made some good records. Volume 10 and Skee-Lo, Erule, and, of course, Fellowship. Pharcyde – they weren't really Good Lifers, but they'd come hang out. The good thing about being up there at Fifth Street Dick's was not just the jazz musicians, but the rappers were getting open. Bennie Maupin would come up there and sit in. Then I had Billy Childs come up and listen to us one night. He was like, "Man, I want to play with you guys." This was a dude who got Grammys. Billy would bring his keyboard. He spent money to play with us. For all of the people we put in there, we probably never made more than $50 or $60 at the door. It's such a small room. People would be downstairs and outside, doing whatever they could do to hear the music. Billy would pay somebody like $50 to come and set up his Fender Rhodes there. He played with us for about two years. Bennie Maupin came and sat in. He played with Miles on Bitches Brew. He played with Herbie Hancock on Thrust and Head Hunters. He hung out with Lee Morgan and Sonny Rollins. Bennie Maupin is actually the reason that I'm an engineer. He's the one who guided me to become an engineer.
Yeah. We had talked. He knew my history and records I produced. He told me I needed to go study. I took a class at PCC [Pasadena City College] with the late Al Davis up there. I took Al Davis's MIDI class, and that whet my appetite. I was just immersed in this class. He used to tell me, "You should go on back to school and get your degree so you can teach." I said, "Man, by the time I get my degree, I'll be 50!" He said, "You're going to be 50 anyway, right?" After I finished taking classes with Al Davis up there at PCC, I'd go hang out with Bobby Bradford [trumpet & cornet player known for working with Ornette Coleman and clarinetist John Carter] downstairs. He was teaching in the music program.
Yeah, I just went on and got in. I got hurt on my job, and part of my vocational rehabilitation was to get trained for another job. I almost got killed doing aircraft [work].
Yeah. They locked me in a cargo pit and forgot I was in there! They pressurized the plane while I was on the ground. It almost killed me. I almost got the bends. Pressurizing the airplane on the ground is like being two hundred feet underwater. By the time they remembered I was down there, they unpressurized it too fast. But I was in the middle of the desert, and there was no decompression chamber. I was fucked up for a long time. I couldn't sleep laying down. I had to sleep sitting up for months, because I had ear damage. The bed would spin. I would throw up. Anyway, it was terrible. A tragedy turned into a life-saving thing. They paid for me to go to school. I got my vocational rehabilitation award for suing these fools for almost killing me. It paid for my education to become an engineer. I had to go through all kinds of hoops to explain to them how I could earn money as an engineer. Well, look at me now. I'm back in aircraft. I can't earn a living as an engineer. I did for a little while.
It's tough. As you know, the music industry has changed so much.
Yeah. I really tried. I built my own studio and had my own clientele. I was doing voiceovers, beats, and all of that. Then suddenly every little kid on the corner started getting FruityLoops [now called FL Studio] and a laptop, and they call themselves an engineer without having any idea what engineering is about. You want to charge $40 an hour, which I think is a bargain, with a four-hour minimum lockout for someone who knows what they're doing; it's a bargain, compared to a kid who doesn't understand anything with Ableton Live. Because I've got a program in my computer, now I'm a producer, or a beatmaker, or an engineer? You ain't none of them. You're just a little shorty with a computer, and you're messing up the game by charging $20 an hour, or selling your beats for $100 a piece. Stupid shit.
So what are the chances of getting an Underground Railroad album out on a label with distribution, even if you guys record it on your own?
It's very difficult now. People gotta eat. If I don't have a budget... I've got enough recorded already, so I'm going to release my solo album first. I've always wanted to do an Underground Railroad album. It hasn't worked out, because I can't pay cats to keep their attention long enough.
Yeah. They keep hearing the same song for years, and years, and years, and we're always trying to get someone else to pay for it. Why can't we just do it ourselves? "I got this gig, I need these bills paid." Okay, fuck it then. I've got enough to have them on it anyways. I have a monster album in the can. I have a monster album using players from Underground Railroad, and some of the best MCs. When I do form another band, it's going to be with all young cats. I'll probably have Randall [Willis, reeds, flute] still in the band, because I can't imagine anyone else in the band but Randall.
He's great, man.
Yeah. He's always been a trooper. He's my right-hand man. I'm going to get a group of young cats. I'm tired of dealing with the old dudes. I love the grease that the old cats bring, I love it; but they all have problems. They all have bills, and wives, and girlfriends, and rent. They've got problems. Young dudes just want to play. They're just down. Let's do it.