Hip‑hop's biggest stars have always been American, and their success has tended to overshadow artists from other countries. London‑based Russian DJ Vadim, however, is winning increasing recognition for his distinctive, cosmopolitan music. Sam Inglis finds out how he puts together his tracks.
The first thing you notice on visiting DJ Vadim's west London studio is the number of records in it. Vinyl is king in this house, and every available shelf is filled with it. This collection includes both the hip‑hop and drum & bass records that Vadim plays when DJing, and — more importantly — the sources for virtually all the sounds on his own records. These appear both under his own name through Coldcut's ultra‑cool Ninja Tune record company and, often under different names, on his own Jazz Fudge label.
"I've got about eight or nine thousand records, which is quite a bit, but not compared to other people," says Vadim modestly. "I daren't wonder how many Chris Tarrant's got — probably half a million, because he's been in the business for 30‑odd years. I buy all kinds of records. I'm into all kinds of music; I listen to everything. I love novelty records, spoken‑word records, children's records. I've got great spoken‑word records here telling you how to get an erection, how to attract the opposite sex, how to know if you're homosexual, how to spell, how to tell the time, how to look after your kittens, how to recognise a vampire... I love those. I've got one here to test yourself to see if you're about to have a heart attack. Why would anyone want to buy that? You'd give yourself a heart attack listening to it!
"There was a big argument going on for ages saying that sampling isn't really music, it's just stealing other peoples' sounds — which, depending on how you sample, I either agree or disagree with. If, like Puff Daddy, you just take like 16 bars of the Police, or of Queen or something, yes, you're stealing the music, you're not really doing anything with it. But I'm not doing that. I go into a record and take just one bass sound, like a C sharp or something, and then just take a kick, a snare, a hi‑hat, take a keyboard stab, a percussion sound, lots of little sounds from sound‑effects records and mix them up in a hodge‑podge.
"I don't do any loops or anything. Everything is sampled, then I chop it up. I don't use any programs like Recycle, I do everything manually. All I take is a kick, a snare and a hi‑hat. What usually happens is that I take a kick from one record, a snare from another, a hi‑hat from another, a bass from another and a sound from another. The vocals relate to the hi‑hats — you get a relationship there — and then the bass line relates to the kick and snare, and then those two things relate to each other. I keep going through the records until I get the right kick, snare and hi‑hat to match. Very rarely do I use the same kick, snare and hi‑hat from the same record.
"I've got sections in this room where I've got all my records with drum breaks; a lot of it's jazz and funk. In another section I've got spoken‑word records, in another section I've got contemporary classical records, I've got electronic records in another section, sound effects in another. So, if I was looking for a drum sound, I'd know exactly where to go. I always start with the drums, get a drum part going, and from there I'll build a track up. For me, that's the most important part — what's a track without drums?
"The one thing I try not to do is make anything too repetitive. I try to have lots of drops and breakdowns, make the kicks and snares go away, and try to really fragment the beat, and I do lots of stuff where I make the hi‑hats very quiet, or not even have any hi‑hats, and try and work out some strange drum programming, try and work around the time signatures."
Vadim's studio setup reflects the very specialised process of making hip‑hop music. Unsurprisingly, the most basic tools are his samplers (an Akai S3000 and MPC3000) and a pair of turntables. An Apple Mac, running Cubase, handles longer samples as well as audio editing, sequencing and processing tasks. "I sample everything at 45rpm," explains Vadim. "It's just a practice I've always had from using an Akai S950; to save sampling time, I've always sampled everything at twice the speed, and shifted it back. I play around a little bit with the EQ; if it's a drum, maybe I'll add a little bit more bass to it. With the drums, again, I play around with the speed. Sometimes I play the beat at 45, and it sounds better than at the original speed, just for the feel of the track. Sometimes I play a record upside‑down. If you turn the needle upside down, and put a spindle on, you can play a record upside down, and it plays backwards.
"Some people tell me I should go straight in to the computer and then normalise it straight away, clean it up, but I'd be there all day if I started doing stuff like that. It'd take me two days to make a track. I like being very quick, I like to make a track in two hours. I'll go straight in, I won't even normalise it in the sampler, just put it straight in, do the sequence and that's it. The thing is, you never know what a track's going to sound like, so there's no point sitting there normalising each individual sound, and then scrapping the track six hours later. I'd rather go through a whole sequence, make up a track, and see if I like it, record it to DAT, save samples, go to the next track... If I still like that track in two weeks' time, then I will go and normalise stuff, but that's how I generally work: I record the track down and I save it for a couple of weeks — sometimes you can get in to a particular rhythm at the instant, but when you listen back to it with fresh ears a day later, or a week later, you think well, it's not actually as good as I thought it was.
"There's some programs I don't understand why people get into, like Recycle, which I just think are for lazy people. Recycle is just for if you're going to do a big loop — but for me, loops are something people did in the mid‑'80s. It's time to move on. That's why I don't need Recycle. If I'm only sampling a kick drum, why would I need it? I just truncate it, it takes about 20 seconds. I don't need to put it in the computer and send it back to my sampler.
"House and techno is more repetitive than hip‑hop; there's not so much going on, but it's quite up‑tempo — 120, 130bpm — and relies on the repetitiveness of the rhythm, and a lot of filters and stuff like that. You have a sound and a sound comes filtered in, and you have a breakdown, and a drum loop, and the song continues, and there's not really much going on. I suppose you could probably say the same about a hip‑hop record — it's just a drum break and a stab, and a guy rapping, not much goes on — but in terms of what I do, there's a lot of samples going into most tracks. On average, I'm using maybe 50 or 60 samples per track, and sometimes going up to 100 or 120, depending how complex the track is. Which is quite a lot compared to a house track. I have made house tracks in the past, under different names, and they use like eight or 10 samples in total. Because it's so repetitive, you don't need that much to go on. I find that the more down‑tempo a music is, the more space you have to put sounds in, whereas if it's very up‑tempo, you don't have the space, because the time it takes for each bar to elapse is much shorter, so you've got less space to put sound into that bar. So if you do put lots of sound into that bar you're either going to miss the point of it, not hear it, or it just gets too busy, too crowded. I find that 120, 130bpm music has to be very simple to get the point across. Whereas if you're making music at 90 or 100 bpm, you've got much more space to work with, and you can put more sounds in.
"I used to sequence on the MPC3000, but I couldn't get into doing it by numbers — you have to copy the bars across, and work out how many bars you've got in the song and in this sequence and that sequence. It's much easier to do it with Cubase: you make up a basic two‑, four‑, or eight‑bar sequence, and then you copy that across 50 times or something, and then on top of that you put in things that only come in once in the whole track. Then I'd go into the drum track, and go all the way through the drum track and erase hi‑hats and snares and kicks, just to give it a flow, to give the illusion that it's not just a loop going round. I don't use loops — I wouldn't sample a two‑bar loop and just loop it, but there is a sequence, a rhythm of music that repeats itself, and I want it to be moving all the time. I record big long samples into Cubase; I've got loads of contemporary classical records, and strange sound‑effects records, and I'd use some filters or something to bring them in and out. I don't sample from compilation records or CDs or anything, just from the original records, just to get the original feel and the crackle and the crustiness.
"All the drums are done on the MPC: that's basically what I use the MPC for. All the bass lines and other sounds, small sounds, are done in the S3000. All the vocals are on the computer, all the vinyl scratches are on the computer. I also record everything to ADAT, just to keep a hard, backup copy in case anything happens to the computer.
"I find that with the decays and the attacks you've got on the MPC, it's so good for drums. It really makes them thump. So I could sample a drum beat into the sampler, or put it into the MPC, or record it straight into the computer, and each will sound totally different. The MPC gives the sample the most thump. So if I'm after a really thumping beat I'll go for that, if I'm after something more gentle it'll probably go in the S3000.
"I'd like to get an 8‑bit sampler like a Casio RZ1, or an SP12, which is nice and crusty. You can take things down from 16‑bit to 8‑bit in Cubase, but it's not like sampling to an 8‑bit sampler. When you've heard how an 8‑bit sampler sounds, and you hear a computer, it doesn't sound as good. It's like playing a proper Fender Rhodes, compared to playing a top‑of‑the‑line Roland synth with a Fender Rhodes setting."
The Global Perspective
Vadim's home studio is certainly well suited for his purposes, but as he freely admits, it doesn't compare with the luxurious facilities available to top American hip‑hop acts. "I'd like to have the experience of going to an American studio," says Vadim. "The one thing that the Americans have got, for me, that we haven't got here, is they've got people in studios who are very trained and professionally qualified and just doing hip‑hop. There are studios that have just done hip‑hop, all day, every day, for the last 10 or 15 years — places like DND and House of Hits. The mixing engineers, the setup engineers, the mastering engineers, they know exactly what to do. I'd love to see what they do to get that booming sound, and then bring back that knowledge and do it here.
"In the same way, the drum & bass from America sounds terrible. Engineers in England know how to do drum & bass. If you listen to American drum & bass, they haven't got the knack of it; it sounds like a little fluffy 'pook' sound. I think the sound that I'm getting now is good, but it could be better; there are certain people, like Gang Starr, who do get a better sound.
"Everything that comes out of DND Studios is thumping. I'd love to know how they do it to make it so thumping — it's not like they've got some secret compressor that it's illegal to export to England, they've got exactly the same equipment that's available to us. I'm sure at DND they use Eventide harmonisers; what other vocal harmoniser are they going to use? I'm sure they use Akais. It's the configuration, how you do your sound — whether you first go to your compressor and then do your parametric, how you do your sends, what they're mixing down to. They push their levels and they're comfortable with that, but engineers in this country are afraid to push it to that level.
"One telling thing is that in this country, people would master an album in one day in a studio, or two days. In America, they spend two weeks mastering an album. It's just because the industry's set up there, with the whole system, and they know what they're doing, whereas here you're still getting going — we don't have a history of producing loads of hip‑hop acts out of this country."
Hip‑hop has never had a particularly high profile in the UK, and few British or European acts have had widespread commercial success even here. According to Vadim, however, a hip‑hop scene is developing outside the US, and non‑American artists are beginning to develop new styles: "There's so little stuff that's particularly British at the moment, but there is a growing British scene, where people do sound British, they are talking about British things, talking about areas and locations that people can relate to. Sometimes it's very difficult for the average person to relate to something that's happening in Queens, or in the Bronx. It's like 'So what, what does that matter to me?' Whereas if people are talking about Camden or Elephant & Castle or Buckingham Palace, people can go 'I've been there, I know what you're talking about, I know those words, I know the English slang.'
"The other stuff that I'm doing on my own label Jazz Fudge, and the stuff coming through Ninja Tunes, we've got a growing audience in Europe: it's really going well in Scandinavia, in Germany, the Netherlands, France, Japan, Australia. America's very difficult, though; America's a very insular country. We are doing better now than we ever have before, but at every juncture you've got a brick wall against you. They're not particularly interested in hearing music from other places around the world. And that's true across the board, whatever music you name, whether it's rock, country, folk, pop, reggae, anything. They think they can do it the best, and they do it better than the rest, and they're just not interested in anything else. So it's very difficult when we're faced with that sort of attitude — why should we want to listen to your hip‑hop when we've got our own hip‑hop? Why should we listen to your rock music when we've got our own rock music? It's very difficult, and the amount of British music that breaks in America is not that much."
In Britain, hip‑hop is still a minority interest compared to styles such as house, techno, and drum & bass, and even hip‑hop DJs such as Vadim play other music when they play most clubs. As a consequence, the British hip‑hop that is starting to emerge is distinctive partly because of the influence of these styles. "Most of the clubs here just play house and techno — the club scene and the culture scene is more based around that as opposed to America, where more people are R & B orientated, or rock, or country orientated. I think the good thing in England and Europe is that people do listen to a wide range of music, and there are lots of magazines that cover a wide range of music. We have a kind of eclecticism here, much more so than in America — it's not as strict or as compartmentalised."
It's clear that DJ Vadim thrives on this freshness and diversity, and on the never‑ending quest for originality: "I travel round the world looking for breaks and stuff; I go to record fairs and travel round Europe and America just going record shopping, finding rare rock breaks and drum breaks and so on. But ultimately, someone else might find that same drum break, so there's no point using it in the same way that someone else who's got that record might do as well. So what I do is take different sounds from different records and combine them in a way that no‑one else will. The idea, for me, is to try to make a record that no‑one else could do."
Vadim's first album for Ninja Tune, USSR Repertoire, was almost entirely sample‑based. On his new album Life From The Other Side, however, many of the tracks are collaborations between Vadim and rappers from around the world. Most of these vocalists were recorded by Vadim in his studio, a process which was clearly a learning experience for him. "My main concern is the vocals, I need to improve the recording of the vocals. I'm not after a pop sound; I don't want to make a record that sounds like Janet Jackson, or Madonna, but I want it to be to a professional standard, to be clear and crisp."
Most of the raps were recorded, via Vadim's Rode NT2 mic and Focusrite Green voice channel, to a provisional rhythm or backing track. With the vocals in the can, Vadim then went back and reworked the music around the rap. "Of all the rap tracks that I've done on the album, 90 percent I changed after the lyricist had done the vocals. They might hate me for that, but I'm always trying to make the music fit better with what they've rapped about, or to their tone. Everyone has a particular tone when they speak, and that tone may sound better with a different key or a different musical instrument. If someone's got a coarser, or very gruffy vocal, it sounds very good over a sparser backing track. Female voices sound better over jazzier, more relaxed sounds. So it all varies on what type of vocalist it is.
"I had a problem with a rapper who was rocking backwards and forwards from the microphone when he was rapping, so the lyrics were going louder‑quieter, louder‑quieter, and that was a bitch, because I tried all the different compressors and limiters and gates and stuff to make it so it would be a uniform level, but I couldn't do it. So the only way to do it was to sample in every single word of this whole 3‑minute rap. I had to take maybe 70 samples and chop it up and put attacks and decays on it to make it a uniform level."
The selection of gear in Vadim's studio reflects the extent to which his tracks are dependent on sampling from vinyl. Perhaps the most unusual feature of the setup is the absence of a master keyboard or any synth modules: Vadim programs entirely using his Akai MPC3000 and computer, and his sounds are obtained almost entirely by sampling from records. The only keyboards are a Clavia Nord Lead and a Fender Rhodes electric piano, both of which are used merely as occasional sound sources — each appears only on one track on Life From The Other Side.
His array of processing and effects gear is also rather specialised, and is perhaps summarised as 'compressors, compressors, and more compressors': "The thing that I need the most is compression — and now, parametric EQ. Because I'm working from a mixed‑down form already, I don't effect things that much. Having strange effects is the most useful. There is some reverb on the snare, but it's very minimal; I'm not a big reverb lover. I hate reverb on vocals. Because I use so many samples, and a variety of samples, I try to keep those as dry as possible, becaues they've already been effected in whatever way.
"Depending on how much compression I want to use, sometimes I will put kick, snare and hi‑hat all through the Joemeek SC2. The Joemeek is great for drums: it's not very subtle, but it's a really good workhorse compressor, especially for hip‑hop, it's really great for drums. For that kind of hard hip‑hop beat, I put the whole beat through it. Sometimes I put the kick in the Focusrite, the snare in the Drawmer, and then put them both back through the Joemeek, and then compress the whole mix back through the TL Audio.
"After I've got all my music up and running on the board, I go through the TL Audio, into the Finalizer, record it down to DAT, then I go from there, record it on to Sound Designer in the computer, go into Peak SFX, boost it up there, go into Cubase and there's another couple of things where you can peak it in there, really make it thump. So I normalise it two or three times, and also sequence up the 12‑inch and the album versions."
- Akai S3000 and MPC3000 samplers, fully upgraded.
- Alesis ADAT digital multitracker.
- Alesis Quadraverb multi‑effects.
- Apple Mac with Digidesign Audiomedia III card, running Cubase.
- Atari ST.
"I never thought of getting a Mac until about a year ago, but it's amazing the power it gives me — all the hard disk recording, editing, stuff like that. You can have a whole album, 80 minutes of music, and chop it up and do all kinds of things to it. But in terms of sync'ing and crashing and locking it's terrible compared to the Atari. I've kept the Atari just as a sync for when I need to run the ADAT."
- BBE Sonic Maximiser.
- Drawmer DS241 compressor.
- Drawmer DS401 gate.
- Ensoniq DP2 multi‑effects.
- Eventide H3000 Ultra Harmonizer.
"All my vocals go through there, though I don't always use it for vocals; sometimes I put scratches through it, and I've tried putting a whole track through it. On some songs I just put the whole mix through the Eventide and did loads of different passes, put it on the computer, used a dry pass, and added in lots of different chopped‑up effected passes."
- Focusrite Green channel strip.
- Joemeek SC2 compressor.
- LA 4G gate.
"Sometimes I put drums in and they're so crusty and I want to get away from the original sound as much as possible, so I compress it to f••k then stick it through a gate, so you just get the tiniest bit through."
- Mackie desk.
- Rode NT2 microphone.
- Tascam DA20 DAT recorder.
- TC Electronic Finalizer Plus mastering processor.
"I like the fact that it has the soft clipping, you can take it to the maximum level on DAT, and some of the compression and limiting is very valuable. That's probably one of my most valuable pieces of equipment."
- TL Audio C1 dual valve compressor.
"That's the last thing I come out of the mixing desk through."
- Urei 1176 compressor.
- Zoom Studio 1201 multi‑effects.
"That's wicked — I mean, it's a cheap old thing, it's only 100 quid, but for that it's amazing."