It was a surprising blow for fans of the New York avant-garde hip-hop quartet, who bravely charted forays into experimental electronics under the motto of “disturb the equilibrium.” Their second full-length album, 2002’s Arrhythmia, was a groundbreaking masterwork full of imaginatively constructed sounds, like the bouncing ping-pong ball signifying “Ping Pong.” Released on noted U.K. label Warp, its underground success made their subsequent breakup all the more surprising.
For a time, the members focused on separate projects. Sayyid and High Priest released a disc as Airborn Audio, and both Priest and Beans issued solo albums. “Even as we were separated and doing individual things, or half-collectively, we were still in touch with each other,” Beans says.
“Time heals all things,” says Sayyid. “We linked up one time and said, ‘You know what? Let’s see what’s good. Let’s see if we can do it.’”
The MCs decided to reunite at the end of 2007, and then set to work on Fluorescent Black (Big Dada). A series of international tours lengthened the process. So did the fact that Sayyid, Priest, and Beans live and work in different areas of New York state, from White Plains (where Sayyid lives) to Brooklyn (where Priest and Beans reside).
That’s where Earl Blaize comes in: He handles Anti-Pop Consortium’s programming, editing, and postproduction from his Brooklyn home studio. “I wanted all the vocals to be recorded at the same location, using the same mic,” says Blaize, who uses a Studio Projects C1 microphone. He likes the high-end it produces, because, he says, “I’m trying to add less EQ to the vocals.” Although Priest’s unusually low voice required further tweaking: “I usually drop the low-end out of Priest’s vocal because it’s difficult to record.”
As each member completed his vocal track, the next in line would springboard from the previous idea. “If Priest is doing the track,” Blaize explains, “he’ll have the track done and the verse for it, and then Beans and Sayyid will follow suit. They’ll write according to Priest’s concept.”
In addition to doing rapping duties, the guys each use a battery of equipment. Beans plays with a Korg MicroKorg analog synthesizer with a Behringer Slow Motion effects pedal. Priest works with a Moog Modular Systems keyboard, an ARP 2600 synthesizer, and a MacBook Pro stocked with studio programs such as the Future Audio Workshop Circle VST, Arguru Psycle, Ableton Live, and Cycling ’74 Max/MSP. Sayyid uses an Akai MPC2000XL sampling workstation and an E-mu MIDI controller keyboard.
While the four members worked on individual beats, there are moments when the quartet came together to improvise on electronics, a popular element of Anti-Pop’s live set. “For example, for a track such as ‘Timpani,’ Sayyid and Blaize produced the first half of it, and then the second half is us collectively improvising,” Beans says. During the instrumental section, Sayyid played his MPC, Blaize tweaked an E-mu MP7, Beans used his Korg with a Boss Reverb/Delay effects pedal, and Priest worked his MacBook Pro with Propellerhead Reason software. “Additionally, the small percussive and ambient sounds were programmed in Steinberg Cubase SX4,” Blaize says.
Fluorescent Black is filled with noticeable elements that illustrate Anti-Pop’s attention to detail. It’s peppered with small oscillating effects, from the keyboard arpeggio Priest generates for “Volcano” to the reverberating stereo bits Blaize creates using Waves plug-ins. Most dramatically, there’s the furious intro to “Lay Me Down,” which captures a medley between two guest musicians, guitarist Ryan “Dolphin” Adams and bassist/keyboardist Manny “MegMan” Oquendo. “We wanted some fanfare at the beginning of the album, and [Dolphin] came through with the guitar pyrotechnics,” says Priest, who produced the track.
Meanwhile, Earl Blaize took a few parts from a drum sounds library, Tony Brock’s Sony ACID Loops, and then chopped and edited them with ACID Pro 6 software. He then blended the guitar, drum, and bass parts together with Steinberg Cubase SX4, his mixing software of choice. “Priest wanted a prog-rock feel, like punked out,” he says. For the last six bars of the medley, Blaize burned the entire track onto CD, popped it into a Pioneer CDJ-1000, and slowly sped it up, giving the intro a phosphorous feel as it slowly faded into “Lay Me Down.”
Anti-Pop is often considered a predominately electronic group, but Blaize clarifies that perception: “My mentality is acoustic, but my tools are digital. When I was younger, I practiced playing drums, and my mom didn’t appreciate the noise I was making. I’ve since reincorporated that into my drum programming. It’s still a level of skill involved in the editing to make it sound like a drummer’s playing when he’s not. I come from a hands-on perspective.”