A gaggle of famous MCs, a star of the extreme sports world, and a laptop recording setup in a hotel bedroom: could the MuskaBeatz project show the way ahead for rap music?
In the 1920s and '30s, Art Satherly, an Englishman and record label executive working from New York City, undertook regular peregrinations throughout the South-east United States, equipped with primitive recording equipment and a thirst to capture music in its element. It was a sound safari of sorts. Satherly's sojourns left the music world with some remarkable recordings, the best-remembered of which are the so-called Bristol sessions, recorded in a hotel room in the small town of Bristol, in eastern Tennessee, where he recorded the legendary Carter Family and which produced a lasting classic of the era, 'Wildflowers'. Satherly's work inspired countless other field recordists, including Alan Lomax, the BBC field recordist who recorded for posterity (and us) classic southern blues artists and folk performers including Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Burl Ives, and Pete Seeger.
Fast forward to the next century. Ensconced at the SoHo Grand, one of the generation of hip hostelries that now dot urban downtowns, a new conglomeration of cultural mavens accomplished much the same thing, without ever having heard of Satherly or Lomax. That's all right, because neither of them would have quite understood why someone needs a posse and a skateboard to make a record.
Both of those were in abundance in May 2002, when Chad Muska, world-champion skateboarder and Gen-X entrepreneur, and Dave Roen, a Los Angeles audio engineer and Muska's partner in 1212 Records, gathered an all-star crew of rappers to jam over Muska's beats, including Ice-T, Public Enemy's Flavor Flav, Prodigy, KRS-One, Biz Markie, Wu-Tang Clan's Raekwon and U-God, Grandmaster Melle Mel and MC Lyte, with the intention of creating an album which would be distributed through a global network of skateboarder and BMX action-hobby shops and chains. Since the record, dubbed MuskaBeatz, was released last February, it has sold several thousand units (it's hard to be precise without a SoundScan portal) without ever having been slimed by a major record label or sullied by radio payola. In fact, the entire project managed to stay clear of any conventional music industry or pro audio environment save for a brief stopover at Bernie Grundman Mastering in Los Angeles for a slight touch-up with compression and EQ. In the process, what 1212 Records' owners have done is outline a new paradigm for the music business and the music recording industry for the century to come: one of niche marketing, cross-cultural alliances and audio that is definitely not Abbey Road-approved. And they still managed to get room service.
Roen and Muska could not come from more disparate backgrounds as partners. Roen studied, then taught, music composition and theory after graduating with a masters degree in those disciplines from the University of California at Santa Cruz. The university's electronic music programme caught his ear and his fancy, and pulled him into the realm of audio engineering. He interned at Hans Zimmer's Media Ventures facility in Los Angeles before working as a salesperson at the Sam Ash music store chain in LA, where, in 1996, he met Muska.
By then, Muska was already a household name, assuming your household inventory included a skateboard. (A Google search on his name turns up over 10,500 hits, including an Anti-Muska site.) The Las Vegas native was an early star of what has become the multi-billion-dollar industry known as extreme sports, including skateboarding and BMX biking. Muska understood the power of branding and is a partner in some of the companies that manufacture the gear he uses, such as skateboard maker Shorty's and footwear company C1RCA. Muska was also developing his own instincts as a musician and producer. He had started a home studio based around an Akai MPC2000 hardware sequencer. With Roen's guidance, Muska expanded to a 500MHz Mac G4 running Cubase recording software and Propellerhead's Reason software studio.
"We would hook up once a month or so at his house and I'd show him a few things about using the equipment," Roen recalls. "He wasn't very technical but he had a good understanding of music, and he would take things I showed him and then take those concepts way beyond where I might have. He wasn't worried about the principles of professional audio. He was just looking to make cool sounds and beats."
In 1999, the pair started talking about starting a record label, one predicated on the fact that Muska's beats, which he created in his home studio for use during his skateboarding performances, were starting to generate interest among his fans. "The idea was to do an album of Muska's beats — MuskaBeatz," says Roen. "But we realised that it had to be an album that had the same basic recording approach as the beats he used in his skateboarding — really, really basic stuff."
So basic was the approach that it could be put into practice on the portable recording setup that Muska and Roen had assembled for the skateboarder's use on the road during extreme sports tours: a Mac G4 laptop using the same software he had at home, a MOTU audio interface, a USB-compatible Roland PC300 keyboard, a Sound Devices USB mic preamp, and an Audio-Technica AT4050 microphone. Roen augmented it with a Mackie 1402 mixer and some self-powered Yamaha monitors.
Thus, 1212 Records was born, complete with its own recording facility. (The label name is pronounced 'one-two, one-two', as Roen explains: "It's what you say when you're testing to see if a microphone is on, and what rap record doesn't have one track at least with that on it?") In discussing what to record, Muska and Roen started dreaming up a wish list of guest MCs, never guessing that virtually all of them would end up on the record. First up was Guru, from Gangstar, who lives in Los Angeles and was reached through mutual friends. Guru's enthusiastic embrace of the primitive coolness of the way the record was being recorded, and the random way that Muska presented beats for rappers to pick from and freelance on, made them realise that the classic rappers of hip-hop's golden era would be equally receptive. "We knew we had to go to New York, which is where rap all started," says Roen.
At first, Muska and Roen considered using a conventional studio in New York. Time had been pencilled in at The Game, a rather hardcore rap studio in downtown Manhattan, perhaps best known for its work on the Hip Hop Honeys DVD series, a kind of rapper Girls Gone Wild. Chung King, one of the larger Manhattan studios and one which had built itself on rap work in the 1980s, got wind of the project and offered time at a steep discount. MuskaBeatz was building momentum before Roen and Muska had the key to a room.
While still considering whether to use a conventional studio for any of the project, the pair set up the portable gear in a room at the SoHo Grand to experiment with beats. When Biz Markie stopped in to meet them, he was immediately enamoured of the idea of doing a rap right then and there. That locked in the idea of a hotel recording marathon, one which would last through early July.
The hotel was chosen by many of the same criteria one might choose a recording studio: it's centrally located in a hip downtown area, and Muska's girlfriend, a model, was able to secure a reduced rate through a deal with her agency. So in a standard double room at the SoHo Grand, Roen set up the G4-based recording system augmented by a Rolls four-output distribution amplifier for headphones. The stereo output of Cubase was fed into the Mackie 1402, and the Rode NT2 microphone Roen chose for the project was lined through a Mindprint mic pre with a touch of compression dialled in, then into the Mackie mixer. That, simply put, was total signal path for the project. Everything else was pure vibe, and that seemed to be equally simple. "We pushed the two beds up against the walls and made couches out of them," Roen says. "We made sure there were plenty of snacks and drinks, and after that it was just one artist after another coming through the room."
There was no need for any acoustical treatment in the room, or to create any isolated spaces. As Roen puts it, the entire room was the vocal booth. Just as well, because the posse effect was often present. Gangstar's Guru brought a crew with him that nearly filled the chamber. "Everyone was drinking and smoking and talking, and every time I wanted to do a take I had to yell, 'Shut up!' to get everyone to quiet down," Roen recalls, laughing at the thought of it now.
Some of the sessions were planned. Biz Markie, the first of the New York-based artists to record, did his tracks in a few hours, choosing from an array of beats Muska had looped and then launching into a rap. Other sessions were decidedly ad hoc and of the moment. "We weren't sure if Ice-T was going to cruise by or not," Roen says. "There was a video crew also staying at the hotel and they were friends of ours and were working with Ice-T. [T is now a regular on the hit prime-time television detective series Law & Order, which shoots in New York.] We were just finishing our tracks with U-God when Ice-T knocked on the door. He was with his girlfriend. We played him a couple of tracks and he was psyched immediately. This was around 10 o'clock at night. Then the guys from the video shoot came in and it was mayhem for a while. We had to eject as many people as we could. It was just me, Chad, Ice and his girlfriend Coco. Ice picked a couple of beats out and just started writing. It went down quickly."
Roen used a couple of techniques that are peculiar to rap sessions. The nature of the music is often totally spontaneous, with an inspired rapper ready to grab the microphone without warning to break in on a track. Roen, who had worked with rap artists as an engineer in LA, knew beforehand to always keep a certain amount of compression and limiting on the microphone. "You don't get a chance to do a level check every time," he cautions. "You don't know what's coming at you, so you want the compressor to grab it to tame it a bit."
Secondly, Roen ran a Tascam DAP1 DAT deck continuously during the sessions, with one channel being fed from the computer and one from the microphone through the mixer, not even turning it off between takes. "I lost some freestyle raps that Raekwon had done for the record at Chad's place in LA when the computer crashed," he explains. "It was really good stuff, too, and I was pissed off. So from then on, I always run a DAT deck during sessions constantly. On a rap session, you never know when the next take is coming. You always have to be ready. And I got everything, even the sound of people kicking back and hanging out, which is also cool stuff to put on a record like this. Some of that kind of stuff is on the Biz Markie track, just him and us talking."
There was no isolation or soundproofing in the hotel room, and the playbacks at four in the morning over the Yamaha monitors sometimes crept up in volume. However, over the course of a month's recording, there was not one noise complaint. "We got away with murder on that," laughs Roen. "What was even funnier was that each room has a crummy shelf-type stereo system in it, and when the guys in the video crew first checked in, they got complaints from the front desk to turn it down within a half an hour. Meanwhile, they never said a word to us."
The next step in the project was to bail on New York and head back to Los Angeles to 'mix' the record. "Really, there wasn't much to mix," says Roen, noting that the looped beats were on stereo tracks on the laptop and the vocals were mono, making for a grand total of three tracks. But there was editing at Muska's studio. Working on a Mac G4 with dual 800MHz processors and a TC Electronic Powercore DSP card as a signal processor, the two cut some new beats around the vocals, muting them here and there to create dynamics. "It wasn't so much mixing as it was arranging after the fact," says Roen. "More like rearranging."
When mastering legend Bernie Grundman got the record, Roen says he also appreciated its primitive rawness. "He couldn't believe it was recorded in a hotel room," he says. "It barely needed any EQ or compression."
'Barely' is a word that aptly describes the entire MuskaBeatz project. Yet it comprehensively encapsulates the paradigm shift the process and business of making music is undergoing. It probably seems natural to someone like Muska, who lives and breathes new models of business in a sporting sector that barely existed a decade ago. Roen, on the other hand, is traditionally trained and admits to being somewhat conventional in his thinking, and says he's still on a learning curve for the whole thing. But his sense of humour will certainly help him along.
"Everyone is used to working in a certain way," he says. "It's ironic: I have a master's degree in music and I've composed a symphony. Yet the one thing I'm most known for musically is that I wrote a couple of original tracks for the Jackass movie. I look at this whole project as though I was still in school. I'm still learning."