Top Tips for Hip-Hop

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By Lori Kennedy

Welcome to Keyboard's new urban production column, where each month we’ll gather tips and tricks from the industry’s hottest artists, producers, and pros. Some months we’ll dig deep and explore one specific production process; other months, we’ll present a variety of go-to tips from a handful of experts. This month, we have a selection—a sampler, if you will—of tips on topics we’ll cover more in-depth in future columns, all geared toward helping you perfect your hip-hop production skills.

Ultimately, this column is dedicated to those of us who like our bass a little—or a lot—bottom-heavy.

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*Photo by Howard Huang

1. Just Blaze (Jay-Z, Eminem, Busta Rhymes), on samples.

If he can’t clear base samples, as it so happened with Ghostface Killah’s “The Champ,” Just Blaze will hire musicians to replay the music, then effect the results until they sound like samples. “We did that very raw, just a drum and a music loop on the MPC2500. We had some dialog from Rocky III. But it is me doing all the voices; it was originally Mr.T, but we couldn’t clear the samples. We kept the drums but replayed everything else. We wanted to make it feel similar to the original ’70s loop we sampled. We tried to discern the instruments, down to the kind of Rhodes they used, upright piano, a French horn, trumpet, maybe two saxes instead of one—we listened that closely. Back then, they all played the song together in one room. They were miked up, and you took the best take. So we had everyone play in the same room at the same time to re-create that soul and spontaneity. I mixed all the individual parts to become a new sample, then cut it up and reassembled it in Pro Tools.”

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*Photo by T.H. Wright/The Wright

2. Chad Hugo (N*E*R*D, the Neptunes), on arranging.

Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo loop each part that they record for about six minutes (versus recording a few bars here and there), so once everything is laid down, the arrangement is solid with tracks. Then, with their ProControl console, they begin programming mutes. So if they only want to hear a guitar part during the bridge, they program the console to mute the track until the bridge. “It’s just cool because the palette is there all the time, and you just orchestrate like a conductor. Leave all the button-pushing and all the mixing stuff for later. Just lay all the parts on the table first. Frequencies and reverb, that’s just ear candy. At the end of the day, you can have great effects, but are people humming your tune?”

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*Photo by Scott Spellman

3. RZA (Wu-Tang Clan), on recording vocals.

“I don’t know if I want to tell anybody . . . but I’ll tell you. I’ll tell your magazine only. I recorded the vocals [for 8 Diagrams] in two to three mics at one time. I put a mic right at the chest, one up close to the throat, and one right in front of them. I wanted to be able to catch the MC’s chest ambience, his throat ambience, and maybe his nose ambience.”

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4. Mr. DJ (Common, OutKast, Mos Def, Organized Noize), on recording drums.

“I program sampled drums as if they’re a live set, then get a real drummer to play the exact thing that I’ve programmed. I mix the two together in Pro Tools for that real live feel. When you do tom overdubs and hi-hat fills, nothing sounds better than a real kit. I put live drums on ‘Make My Day,’ and I actually used a marching band bass drum on ‘Changes.’ I put it behind the regular kick, just turned down.”