photo by Bobby Rogers
Five years ago, things were different. Teaching, starting a new studio, young family life with a wife and one-year-old son. I was new to Snapchat, having fun capturing some moments of him to share, and one night I decided to make a beat after putting him to bed, and documented my process clip by clip. With feedback coming in, creating and sharing on the spot gave me some new energy. I did it again a week later, and from then on, every week.
I was thirty-two at the time, and it had been a few years since I was making music for me—making music just to make it. Even though I was still immersed in it through engineering, teaching, mentoring . . . these weekly challenges got me back in touch with my craft in a real way. Dusting off old chops, curious to try things, it felt good to be excited about music in this way again.
Three years and 115 episodes later, I wasn’t thinking too much about the process itself. It was a way to be musically active. It was just something I regularly did. And like my other work, it was creating lanes for myself to reach people in and out of Minnesota. While my studio work as a producer-engineer gained more steam, these videos were helpful reminders to myself, and to anybody paying attention, that, yes, I do get down.
I always wanted to make my own album, but was either too wrapped up in other projects or being a perfectionist, and I knew this was the first time where the work was just getting made at a steady clip, and I would end up having a stockpile of songs to sift through for an album if I wanted one.
I started piecing together my favorites from this collection after some big life changes, and realized each of these pieces were like candid snapshots of my life during this time, each holding a story of its own. I want to show how they each play a role in telling the larger story. So, I’m going to break the album down, song by song, and I think it will be clearer why this was a record I had to make.
Their example was my foundation, but my goal was to expand on that . . . complete it in my own way.
I took that quote from a recorded conversation with my brother, Brandon, and placed it here with the intention to honor those who came before me, while doing my best to make my mark. But also, when I said it, I was referring to my parents.
I’ve been a fan of sampling cell phone recordings since getting introduced to Voice Memo in ’09. Brandon and I were trying to get away from using uncleared samples, and found using our smartphones as mics to record instruments sounded grimey like a record. Plus, being able to record anything, anywhere, and imagine it as a texture or part of a song rather than having to go to a record store, was a new high.
Which is why ideas for #beatstory were often generated in the moment. I got home from work and decided to make breakfast for family dinner: pancakes and smoothies. As I was stirring up the batter, I thought to record the bowl landing on the counter, and tap my whisk on the rim to make the kick and snare. The batter sizzling in the pan was similar to a cymbal splash, frozen mango dropping in our Vitamix made the whisk snare more chunky, and the grinding of all those ingredients together made a low hum I was able to make a bass line. I said “smoothie’s ready!” to my son, who was in the background pushing himself in a red car. He responded with “Ready!” and got out to come grab his cup. I placed the word in the beat, and turned his tiny voice into chords and melodies. When we sat down to eat, he also chewed loudly, giving me the nom, nom, nom sample. The additional vocal clips are from my verses on the 2005 Big Quarters song “Lou Diamond.” Felt appropriate.
Back for a second debut
It always made sense to start the record with this one. It highlights, for me, being in the new space of fatherhood, finding ways to be creative with limited time, and having fun. Theo was two years old, and at this point, having spent the time focusing my attention outside of myself—toward him, my work—kept pressure off creating or thinking I was competing with anyone other than myself.
2. Baby Monitor
When I started the series, the first seventeen weeks were shot in my basement, and I was just making music out of records using the ASR-10. For me, that’s therapeutic. Like how I imagine those people feel who sit on a porch, carving a stick into a toothpick. There’s certainly quicker ways to make music, but I had been using the machine since 2001, so I was happy to challenge myself by showing all of the techniques I had learned over my fifteen years with the classic sampler. When I was in the basement starting a beat, it would be after I put my son to sleep, so I would have his baby monitor set up on the record shelf, and you would catch glimpses of its green light in all of the early videos. By the time I would be nearly done, after midnight, the light would flicker, meaning he was stirring, waking up for his bottle.
The sounds for this track are from a combination of videos I was sent, but most were found on my own (one of them being the beep made by my son’s baby monitor). A fun thing about field recording is finding little tones and chirps from daily life, and spreading them across a keyboard to turn them into melodies. Chris Graham, a jazz guitarist, sent me a video of him playing a drum kit he found. He was tapping the rim of the floor tom instead of the hi-hat for some reason, and I’d never seen that before. I pitched down the audio and chopped it slightly to adjust the feel. I added my car keys and something else I’m proud of—tapping chopsticks on the edge of my wood dining table, and moving them along to change the pitch of the tapping.
Having all these new beats led to new shows, and I would experiment live with different synth sounds, samples, effects, and drops. When I sat down in the studio to mix everything, I thought to bring those spontaneous ideas back. I can’t think of many projects where this has happened, other than my album with Mankwe Ndosi, Science and Spirit, but it’s rare for me to make demos, develop the song live, and then have the new version make it onto the finished album.
Before I was a father, I remember how good it felt to help prepare the bedroom for our baby. To paint the walls, pick out books for the shelves, buy a little record player, and pull some records from my collection to keep in his room. (I used to wake him up to Jackson 5.) It now makes me think how we go through life trying to curate our children’s experiences, provide space to play and be safe, until they're old enough to dream up the kinds of spaces they want to be in, and make them a reality.
The basement I was shooting in used to be my home studio, but during that time, all that was still there was my sampler, portable turntable, and record wall. I had transitioned to working at Woodgrain, a studio house I helped start and manage. I then turned my basement at home into a big play area for my child. So I figured, let’s go into the playroom and see what sounds I can come up with.
The main rhythm is chopped from the sounds of magnetic letters clicking to a fridge, kid’s safety scissors cutting across the frame, me writing my name in crayon to emulate the sound of a shaker, as well as a piggy bank full of change for extra percussion. I shot a basket on the little child hoop we had, and pitched the bouncing ball down so it sounded like a deep kick. I tapped one note on the small, colorful, toy xylophone, and turned it into something bigger and spacier. Sampled myself plucking one note on a blue ukulele, pitched and filtered it down to make the simple, driving bass. The next melody part comes from looping this wooden train whistle, and the last series of blips comes from another toy where you hit a button, sending a character up a stick, playing a song you might hear during a carnival ride.
For a finishing touch, I found an older video of him playing with toys, and added that audio in as the beat opens up. It was fortunate, moving my studio to a place outside of home for the first time, and beautiful, getting to make more room for our son to thrive.
4. Domesticated Type Beat
What could maybe pass as brushes on a snare are my sneakers brushing against the treadmill—now collecting dust in our basement—creating a pulse. The scrubbing of my pans that were collecting water in the sink are now shakers. The sound of getting those dishes on the rack, then lifting it up and clicking it shut, are now the main drum kit.
Walking around the house whistling, I grabbed a bag of dirty diapers to take to the trash. I then put my whistle on loop and autofiltered it, allowing me to play it as pitched down chords, almost resembling a Rhodes, but maybe floating on water. The bass (and kick) were born from a small, plastic, empty trash can falling to the ground after I took the diapers out. Refilling the toilet paper roll made a squeak, and I played a melody out of it, which I still think sounds like sneakers on a basketball court. A mellow melody comes in, a synth I made from recording myself vacuuming around toys on the living room carpet. There’s a final percussive sound, and I’d say it’s dub inspired, with heavy delay, originating from the clanking of the recliner in the living room when I sat back and relaxed. And finally, as I’m often the chef inside and outside of the studio, the three high notes at the end of the melody come from the noise letting me know the oven’s preheated.
As I got older, the sense of urgency around making beats went away, and my family and paid work became my focus. Maybe I was comfortable, since I wasn’t risking putting myself out there as much, and before making weekly beat videos, I could say I was stagnant. Looking at my daily life, I thought I could combat—and comment on—that by making music out of ordinary, boring things around my house, and make the most of the mundane.
5. Twenty Years
The first four songs are mostly me on my own, experimenting with found sounds. As I progressed with this workflow, I started to include more people. Artists might come over, or I’d go to them, and I would do my best to just capture moments, and if there were multiple instruments, I would have things played separately, out of context from each other, because I enjoyed the challenge of figuring out for myself how all of this was going to fit musically. I think I liked that because it reminded me of making one beat out of multiple records. It reminded me that I grew up playing with legos without instructions, and would spend all day building from my imagination.
My friends Heiruspecs were having a holiday show at the end of December ’17, and they were also celebrating twenty years as a band. I wanted to do a #beatstory to honor and help them promote their show. It turned out they invited my brother to perform his solo “Song For Brown Babies” off our debut album Cost of Living, so we both went over to Sean McPherson’s basement where they were rehearsing. All the guys were familiar with what I did in my videos, so I told them I was just going to grab a bit of playing from them. Part of the challenge is deciding on what angle to shoot each member from, but otherwise, it all happens pretty quick. I had them choose a key they’d all play in, but other than that they all improvised apart from each other. Peter Leggett laid down this straight-up raw break. Sean did a walking, jazzy line on his upright electric bass. Devon Gray played some thoughtful, pretty chords from a piano patch on his keyboard. Josh Peterson played electric guitar and manipulated his pedalboard to make it sound like it was going backwards—I was unsure how that was going to fit, but it ended up being a change the beat needed. Finally, Felix, who leads on vocals in the band alongside Muad’Dib, rapped a couple bars, including shouting me out, so I got that on video, chopped it into the beat, as well as making it the interlude before the song. Felix didn’t tell me to use his vocals in the way that I did, but considering we’re from a similar era, I wonder if he knew he was throwing me the alley-oop by giving me some rap vocals to sample. It was perfect.
By the time I was assembling the album and titling the song, I realized I was coming up on my own twenty years of making this music. And Felix’s quote was resonating with me even more.
Sharper than a switch-switchblade, ready, waiting . . .
I was starting to work with Javier Santiago, an incredible jazz pianist, composer, and hip-hop producer, in the summer of ’17. He was bringing me some of his Fantasy Studios recording sessions for what would become his albums Phoenix and B-Sides because he needed some editing and additional recording done. We spent fifteen minutes together after wrapping one of those sessions to grab footage of him on a few different instruments. I chopped up him playing his flugelhorn, turned some chords from the Prophet-6 into a spacy stab, and made use of three chords he played on this little old air organ, and made it the main melody of the beat. Another thing to note about this album: I made all the beats in Ableton. And looking at my footage, I’m realizing this was the second beat I ever made on it.
End of summer 2009 I got married, and my wife and I bought a house not long after. The basement wasn’t fully finished, but it was a dream for setting up a real home studio. Around then, Greg Grease came over to the new spot so we could try recording him on the drums. We made a beat that day, too, but I didn’t look at those drum sessions again until several years later. I mixed them and sent them to Greg, like, “Remember?!” Anyways, that’s a long winded explanation to tell you where the kick and snare in this song comes from. I’m glad Greg got woven into the album this way. We go back as friends, and I’ve been working with him as an engineer on several albums since 2013, including his group Astralblak (formerly ZuluZuluu), which their debut What’s The Price? was the first record I worked on at Woodgrain. I have to mention that when I told Greg about this album and my title options, it was his encouragement that helped me go with Bad By Myself.
The song is titled “Winded” because it uses an air organ, a small vintage electric plastic three-octave keyboard, like the one that was upstairs at my grandparent’s house. While some of the other instruments required lung capacity, this was also how I felt about aspects of my career, and just needing change in general.
Open Mike Eagle at 7th St. Entry
7. Hold The Parade (feat. Open Mike Eagle)
Fall ’17, Mike had just released Brick Body Kids Still Daydream, and was on tour. I reached out to him saying I do these videos and these beats, and asked if he’d want to do an episode where I get sounds of him before a show at 7th St. Entry in Minneapolis. He was with it.
Mike became one of my favorite artists and people doing things over the years. ’06 in LA, I saw him at Project Blowed in Leimert Park, but we actually became acquainted after running into each other at Low End Theory in early ’08. We chopped it up, mostly about what we were doing or trying to do, and stayed connected after that. We played some shows together in Minneapolis over the past decade. But in general, I’m just a supporter and admirer of his work. In 2011, I think, he was playing a random house party a few blocks down the street from our home on the northside, and that might’ve been when he gave me a copy of his album Rappers Will Die of Natural Causes, and I wore that record out. The way he settled into his tone was real dope, and gave the beats more space, but I was also just relating to the content, heavy. Felt like I could relate to a lot of his experiences as a creative, educator, and husband. Maybe that resonated with me because I didn’t have many peers in these specific spaces all at once, and I didn’t hear people talk about it in rap music.
After dinner at the Depot, we went into the basement of the Entry to try and figure out what sounds Mike makes before a show. I had him open and close the greenroom fridge so I could make that closing sound into a kick. When he twisted open a plastic water bottle, it made a popping sound I was able to use as my snare. I asked him to do push-ups, like he was getting amped, and I put a hi-pass filter on the sounds of him counting up to make the hi-hats. Then we broke out the Maker’s Mark (courtesy of First Avenue), scooped up some ice in a plastic cup, and poured it over the ice, making a glug-glug-glug sound, which became a bubbling loop to go along with the minimal drum beat. He busted out his phone to watch something, so I sampled a single note from the sound of an app starting and turned it into the main melody. As our time in the basement was closing, some weed got passed around, and Mike’s touring partner in charge of projections and lights, Video Dave, let out a cough which made its way onto the beat. I wasn’t sure if I had enough sounds or footage, so I grabbed some stuff from his set, too. There’s a point where he said “Yeah!” on stage, and I pitched that down. I also filtered down the bass from the Entry’s sound system, and turned it into an 808 hit. Lastly, I grabbed footage of the crowd chanting “One more song! One more song!”
A year ago, I was set on my album being all instrumental, and I also cherished having this collaboration with Mike on it, different as it was. I got some feedback from a couple people who heard an early version, and they wanted to hear a verse or feature somewhere. I was reluctant, but I thought, “they’re right” and this beat was in the best part of the album to change it up. I was still hesitant because, now I knew if I was going to get anybody, I wanted to get Mike, and I was just unsure about taking the chance and the time to add any more to the record. Then he announced his new album Anime, Trauma and Divorce, and the ways in which I connected to his music years ago had now made this circle, and I knew I had to reach out to get him on this song, because it seemed like he had made music to process the end of his marriage. And there I was working through something pretty similar.
Early on at Woodgrain, the band Crunchy Kids (Chance York, Eric Mayson, Marcus Skallman, and Eric Burton) came by to spend a day recording a project. Like I did with Javier on “Winded,” when we were done for the day, I spent fifteen or twenty minutes going to each member with my phone’s camera pointed at them and asking them to play something. Marcus knocked out a complex drum rhythm I cut into something more straightforward. Burton laid down a heavy riff on the bass that went in the direction of some psych rock. Then, Mayson went from playing the vibes to downstairs at his synth. He started playing some beautiful flute chords and drifted off singing on top of it, no words, for about a minute. Quite possibly the most amazing stuff I got to capture and work with as source material on the whole album.
Eric Mayson of Crunchy Kids
I’ve known Chance York since ’02 or ’03 when we were both basically teenagers getting on the mic at the Pasta Bar MC Battles. We were just sporadically around each other over the years, growing in the scene together. I remember us relating on our journeys as we both became teachers, too. This past year, I joined his wellness coaching program. It seemed like our years of familiarity made it easy to be vulnerable, and the stuff we got to in our conversations did a lot for me. It was helpful in getting me focused, being able to reflect on my growth, knowing it was hard, believing I could do more, and especially in this challenging year, being able to remain grateful.
Anyway—that day, for his sounds, he ran down my stairs and said “Blaow!” into the camera, and also walked through the living room clapping to a beat in his head. Those were the bulk of his contributions to this beat, but I felt it was necessary to point out that, now, three or four years later, he’s made a significant contribution to my life.
When I was doing final touches before mastering, I went back to the Crunchy Kids songs we recorded that day, which never came out, and sampled a line of his. It’s definitely how I’ve felt every time I’ve reached the end of a big project.
You the architect with your art, you can feel it / build it till it’s finished, but even when it’s finished it’s beginning
9. Can't Make You
I became a youth worker in an afterschool program in ’04 after being asked by a new friend who was leading one to come teach what I was already doing—making beats and rapping. I never had any interest in teaching, but at this point, I was around other artists in Minneapolis who were doing similar work, so it made sense to dip my toe in. Once I saw the eyes of a young person light up when showing them how to loop or chop something, realizing they could do it too, I told myself right there: if music isn’t my main job, teaching is it for me. My first time meeting my son’s mother was at our training for this job. We became friends, and we were together not long after that.
It was around this time I was learning at home how to record and mix. I think many DIY artists have this experience, where you learn a skill out of necessity, then you’re helping friends, and eventually it becomes a side hustle. Engineering became a skill I could use, but it was never my intent to work on other people’s music professionally. But, like with teaching, the way it was connected to my passion for creating, I was happy to throw myself into the work when it came my way.
Probably from being an educator and artist, I was more driven to coach and offer insight on any part of the process. There’s room to do that informally while engineering, but I also want to make sure my contributions get recognized when it makes sense, and I think this is where my interest in playing a producer role on projects I engineered came in. I always kept my ears open for new challenges, and hoped an opportunity might present itself.
I met Bailey Cogan, the bandleader for 26 Bats!, when I was working on Dismembered & Unarmed with I Self Devine, and G.P. Jacob invited them to the studio to work on the song “Colors.” Coincidently, I had just seen a live video of 26 Bats! from Radio K’s Off The Record and was pretty blown away. It was this seven-minute minute song called “Rotten Bones,” which had a jazzy, two-minute intro, then switched up to this guitar line that just haunted me in the best way, all over some bouncy live drums. It was everything I loved. It was sweet, melodic but grimey, and it went hard. I knew I wanted to work with them.
Bailey liked working with me, and later asked if I would record and mix their single “No Limit.” I met the rest of 26 Bats! at the session. All members play multiple roles in the band and lead other bands themselves, while each plays different instruments in each other’s bands—I was impressed. By their talent, drive, sound.
Happy with how the single turned out, Bailey came back wanting to work again, this time ready to record the first song I had heard them perform, “Rotten Bones.” It might’ve been one of the sessions for this song where I gave Bailey the idea they should do a twenty-six-minute album, and that’s sort of the genesis of me co-producing their album Onyx.
One of the days when we were wrapping up in the studio, I told them I wanted to go around to all of them and grab moments of video for a #beatstory. But we ran out of time, so they each sent me videos of themselves. Warren sent me a clip of himself on his drum kit playing something uptempo and noisy, and I decided to chop his drums into small pieces, and try to make them subtle yet punchy. He also played something that could fit in a sci-fi from the ’60s on his MicroBrute, so I used a couple notes like they were strings in the background. Christian Wheeler always plays with a lot of feeling, and laid a soulful solo on what looked like Paul McCartney’s bass guitar. Chavo delivered a chanting line on his trumpet that reminded me of some funky horn sections, but since we only had him, I grabbed two notes and put some effects on it, making it a shorter horn sample. Bailey sent clips of them playing the upright piano, singing, and I chopped it all up. I really can’t forget Karl though, who wrote and played the melody on the acoustic guitar, and I chopped, and built all of the other band member’s samples around it.
Karl Remus of 26 Bats!
A couple years ago, when I started piecing together the album, I started with my favorite thirty beats. Then narrowed it down to my favorite nineteen. I was starting to get a sense of what was cohesive, what beats felt good going into what, and then there were twelve. I was looking at each beat for the story. What are the song titles, and is there a theme for the record? All these beats were time stamped with something happening at the time, giving me inspiration, and titles could be self explanatory, but going down this road reminded me I made this one on my thirty-fourth birthday, March 30, 2018. The next day was basically the first day of the end of my marriage.
10. The Family Band
I leaned on my family a lot during the beginning of the separation, when I was figuring out how to see my son while not staying under the same roof. Full disclosure, that part was the most trying and difficult: asking for, and accepting, help.
I have epilepsy. I was diagnosed back in 2011 after having a seizure in the shower one morning before going into work and school. Basically, the last thing I remembered was showering. Next thing I knew, I was slowly coming to in an ambulance.
I was teaching a couple classes, it was my first semester as a full-time student, and at this specific time, musically, Big Quarters was the focus. We had just put out our third album, Party Like A Young Commie, so I was running myself ragged, regularly sleeping only four hours a night. After the seizure, I remember having my now ex-wife there with me in a small hospital room as things were starting to make sense, I think my parents showed up, and I was having the realization that all I cared about was if I was going to be okay to play our release show in a few days. I was able to get the EEGs, the MRIs, and there wasn’t anything drastic going on except that, yes, my brain was susceptible to seizures. I had a different neurologist years later tell me had I first seen them, they likely wouldn’t have prescribed me medication, but the first person to see my brain did.
I don’t know how familiar you are with what happens to your life once you find out you can’t trust your body to not drop at any moment, but things change. My loved ones who knew were worried. Any loud noise in the house could be me falling down. I couldn’t drive for my own—or anyone’s—safety, or legally, until I was seizure free for three months. Doctor’s orders.
Fortunately, I didn’t have another seizure until my son was about five or six months old in the fall of 2015. I got to live four years seizure free, but got hit again, going back to losing confidence, control of myself, increasing anxiety in the house, while being a new parent. The way our family life worked before that, I was home with my son during the day, three days a week, while his mom was at her job. I was able to mix records from home during naptime or with him on my arm, and a few nights a week, I taught at two different schools when his mom came home from work. On top of the usual changes after having a seizure, the newest, toughest one was losing independence with my son. I was just beginning to get used to casually bringing my baby with me places, and I not only couldn’t drive, I couldn’t be alone with him anymore. For his safety. So three months go by. I think by the time we’re well into the summer of 2016, things feel a bit normal again. But pretty much a year from the last seizure, I had another. And a year later, another. Then seven months pass—again. And one more seven months after that.
I can’t specifically recall all of the events anymore, but the recurring theme was I was either losing track of taking my medication, or I was throwing caution to the wind when it came to my triggers (lack of sleep, caffeine, and figuring out the correct dosage I should be taking). Another thing I could point out: four years had gone by seizure free, and the dosage of my medication never changed. I wanted to get off the meds. And then, those early months of parenthood, waking up in the middle of the night, changing, feeding—I was definitely losing sleep, exhausted, would lose track of meds, so it was obvious why that seizure happened. Bouncing back wasn’t as scary. They also never ran my blood before to see what the meds were actually doing, and upping the dosage for the first time in four years was a good look. It was a long road to get it under control that I could’ve managed better, and, ultimately, it was a strain on our marriage.
My parents were already watching my brother’s kids while he and his wife were at work, and my son, Theo, would sometimes go over to Brandon’s house after daycare. When I came by to pick my son up, I realized time with my family was what I needed. I didn’t know what I was in for, so I was filled with worry, but having my family around was helpful. I mean, I was going through a separation, and I wanted to still do my weekly music series—something was wrong with me. But in that time, there wasn’t anything else I could do, so continuing this thing became an escape—and also a support—having to be introverted working alone in the studio a lot, regularly releasing things kept me social in a way that didn’t appear dreary, online and off.
Brandon Allday of Big Quarters
Brandon started to learn guitar, bongos, and cajón about eight years ago, when his first child was on the way. Now, he’s a guy who collects little instruments and encourages playing them with his kids. This beat was made a week after “Can’t Make You”, sampling all the sound that was constantly being made over there. I first had Brandon’s youngest, Joaquin, tapping on the bongos, but Brandon’s rhythm was what I pitched down and chopped up, and I did the same with his playing of the cajón. We were on the porch recording some of this stuff, and my son was playing with the mail slot, which had a flap that was spring loaded, so you could lift it open, let it go, and it would slam loudly on the metal door. Next, Brandon showed me he added a pickup to a ukulele, and played it through a practice amp, which is what I pitched down, chopped, and used for the lead melody. I grabbed a moment of my son running by, shouting into a toy microphone. If our parents thought of siblings as gifts for one another, then I would say us getting to see our kids play together is the gift that keeps on giving. My niece Pia showed me some of her skills on the recorder, and I polished it into an airy synth I could play chords with. I did the same with her on the xylophone playing of “Twinkle, Twinkle,” then I messed with the autofilter to make it more interesting.
Once this track became “The Family Band” for my album, I felt it needed something more, and I knew I had to reach out to my good friend, one of my closest collaborators, Mankwe Ndosi. With the song’s title, I felt it was significant to include her because she’s like family to me. In the scope of Big Quarters, when we were last playing shows nearly a decade ago, she was very much a part of our outfit, joining us on several songs. I know we were all together on stage at the Triple Rock for that release show I was worried I was going to miss.
11. Bad By Myself
So I moved into Woodgrain. Funny enough, in the past I would often tell people the one thing I didn’t do in life (and wish I had done) was live by myself. And here I was, after fourteen years with my person, living alone.
It had been a year-plus since my last seizure, and being really on my stuff with my health and medication, it felt safe to drive again, but my son wasn’t going to be staying with me, and I would get rides from some friends, but I relied on my Dad to help me pick him up from daycare, hangout, bring him to his mom, and then I would get him ready for bed and put him in his crib. For eight more months, that was how I saw my son. I can’t tell you how low it felt to be doing all of that at thirty-four years old. But I reminded myself I was lucky to have that support. Still, it was very hard to see things getting better.
I’m not going to do a play by play of these past three years. A lot has happened. I could sum up my experience in separation as feeling isolated and depressed, self-medicating, and overall, just not being what I wanted to be. Once things were certainly headed toward divorce, I felt like I was out of limbo, and even though I didn’t want that outcome, I at least felt positive about being able to move forward.
I think I woke up one morning and scheduled my eye doctor appointment so I could get contacts again—the first time since I was eighteen. I had been rocking black frames for many years, and I thought my face needed a rebrand. I started jogging again, and boxing. I found a watch that alerts my family and close friends if, and where, I’m having a seizure, and that was what allowed my son to start staying with me half of the week.
And here I was. Feeling something I hadn’t felt in most of my three and a half years as a father: being able to just hangout with my son, him and I, like many new parents get to do.
Like how this story started, reconnecting with my personal process around making music gave me life, an outlet, kept me going, and it wasn’t until much later I realized all this music told this story. A story I definitely didn’t want to tell, but once I saw it was there, I knew I had to. Especially while I’ve been writing these last few chapters. I put them off because I knew how much I was going to have to dig, but I also wanted to find some clarity about why I was doing this, and lay it all out, and also have some closure.
There’s several things about this track that make this the title cut. Most of the instruments are played by me. Since I know how to dabble and build chords on keys, I figured I could find my way around on a guitar. Now, I’ve plucked a guitar before, don’t get me wrong, but I’ve never taken the time to learn, and I definitely didn’t know any chords, so most of the guitars on early beats of mine are by session musicians. Anyways, I was able to figure out how to switch between two chords, and played a fender strat with a wah pedal. First time for everything. One of the samples was from me taking a quick little video of my good friend Noam The Drummer on the studio kit in the cement booth at Woodgrain. When the beat was done, I sent it to him at his apartment in Brooklyn to scratch my vocals over it. I came up with the synth chords on the Yamaha CS-50, then added vibraphone, and recorded a vocal chorus of my own, singing through a mic on my earbuds.
Even before I knew I was going to tell my story through this album, I knew this song was going to help close it. When I was listening to the beats over and over, I could hear a story being told, and when we got here, this was the sound of celebration. That’s what I discovered through all of this. I reconnected with my purpose. My work. My son. My self.
12. Scabbed Over
I became acquainted with Adriana Rimpel four or five years ago through an arts organization, Kulture Klub Collaborative (KKC), where we both had been hired as teaching artists, working on a project with young people together. I was aware of her rise in the music scene further back though, starting out as the singer for the band Malamanya, which has a Cuban-based sound, before she moved into an experimental, electronic, R&B sound with her group VANDAAM, leading on vocals and backed by producers Adept and Sloslylove. And then, soon after, she became Lady Midnight.
I hadn’t caught her live, nor had we met. It was through KKC, our mutual connections with Jon Jon Scott, Delano Lee, and the community of artists making the projects put out on Jon Jon’s Sound Verite Records (Greg Grease, ZuluZuluu, Astralblak) that brought us together to work on her debut solo album, Death Before Mourning.
When she came to me to record, mix, and master her record, she had been performing most of it for about a year, and she had tried recording some of the songs already, but was having some issue with finishing them, or being happy with how they were turning out. I’ll say this as a vocal producer and engineer: when the singer is good, it only gets harder trying to be critical of the performances getting recorded. I had that experience the first time I started with Mankwe in ’08—I was like, “First take was good. I don’t know how to critique that.” It was a skill I needed to learn. And actually, since I was used to working with rappers, it was a new journey to train my ears to hear different things in the voice and performance. I was already in awe of Adriana before we started, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. I wanted her to believe I could take on her project and get us to the end no problem. So, like I was saying, she was already regularly performing most of the songs, and was dialed in, so my goal was to get her performances sounding like her on her best night. Aside from using her Helicon for vocal effects on a few songs, there’s really hardly a note of pitch correction used on the album. We worked tirelessly to get the takes we needed, and it’s just straight up her voice all over that record.
A year and a half later, the album finally came out, and to celebrate, I wanted to make a #beatstory with her. Much of her project was dealing with loss in her life, and figuring out how to heal, so for this video, I wanted to highlight some of her healing and spiritual practices and the sounds they made. She set down a bowl on a small table in my piano room, and it made a very subtle knock against the wood. I pitched and filtered that knock down to turn it into my kick drum. She sprinkled some dry leaves of sage into the bowl. I chopped up the crinkling of the leaves and turned it into a steady rhythm. The lighter struck on the sage, and I took that sound to make it a crispier layer on my snare. Next, she lit some copal, which kind of looked like a small hockey puck, but is a tree resin burned for spiritual cleansing and used as a ritual offering to the gods in Aztec and Mayan ceremonies. When it got lit, it sizzled, and I chopped up the sizzle to make it my hi-hat. She had to blow on it to keep it burning, and when she inhaled, I sampled that sound, and made it like an open hi-hat in the beat. The sound of her putting out the copal made a little bit of a small cymbal sound, too. She then held up her singing bowl, moving the mallet along the rim, and it started to emit a pure tone. I looped and autofiltered it, which gave it a rhythm, and I came up with some chords, while also playing a lead melody on top that almost sounded like whistling. Aside from a couple bass notes, the last things I added were Adriana’s voice. She sang a song she learned from her mother, something that is sung in prayer and at funerals. I chopped it into several pieces, and pitched them up to be a lead voice.
The actual last bit of music I made for the album is the interlude following “Bad By Myself,” leading into this last song. I felt it was important because it’s upbeat, it’s a pretty different sound for me, and I wanted it to symbolize some of the growth, processing I’ve done, and my being able to move forward positively with my life. The only problem I felt was it was just tagged on to the end, and I felt it would be even better if there was more of a setup for it. So I extended just one of the singing bowl chords, making it into a drone, then played piano, vibes, sax, and shaker over it, plus added some more recordings of talking, like the other interludes on the album. I can look at the first song and hear my son at two years old in a highchair chewing pancakes, then right before the end of the album, hear him at five-and-a-half saying “look at this,” right before rolling down our neighbor’s driveway on his scooter. If there’s anything that reminds me that life just goes on, that it’s worth living, everyday, it’s him.
And that’s it. That’s the album. Five years in the making. My career and life in the making.
Thank you to everyone that played a part in this album. Thanks to Chantz Erolin, who helped me edit these words. Thank you to my family, and friends. The people I hold, and hold me close.
Thank you to my brother Brandon. No one has supported or believed in me, and my journey in music more than him. He’s given me an incredible amount of lessons on what it means to lead by example, being true to who you are, being selfless, focused on family, and grateful. And one of his biggest skills is encouraging people. Our mom did that for us. We do the same. But if anybody looks at the both of us as leaders, I want people to know how often I followed his lead early on. We haven’t been actively making music together for a while. When we were active, we were self-managed, so managing myself is something I’m used to, but I’m always bouncing things off of him, and he almost always has great advice. One day, he came to my house because we were working on a song (it’s the only song we’ve made in seven years and I love it. Called “Nothing in a Mask”). We were supposed to write, and I was telling him how I was working on my album, and he said, “Let me mic you up with this lapel mic connected to my phone, and let’s go walk around for a while, record us talking, and you can use it.” I knew what my album was about, had the sequence, but he gave me that idea, and we hung out for three hours, not writing our song at all, but just us talking, walking, and driving around East Lake Street. Love you, Brandon.
And thank you, Theo.