Music Production Site Oh Drat Interviews Hank Shocklee

Our own Hank Shocklee recently had a conversation with Chris Cartledge of the UK music production site Oh Drat…check it out!

Originally Published July 7th, 2011 on Oh Drat

It’s not every day you get to speak to a pioneer. Hank Shocklee, as part of the Bomb Squad, was one of legendary hip hop group Public Enemy’s founders and the Bomb Squad was the main production talent behind the group, as well as Ice Cube’s seminal AmerKKKa’s Most Wanted and tracks from Slick Rick, LL Cool J, Biv Bel Devoe, Run DMC, 3rd Bass and more. Over the years Hank has kept afoot with developments in electronic music, and his new sample pack Tactical Beats and Sample Artillery [that we reviewed here] is indicative of the heavy electronic and dubstep sounds that we can expect from his new album Bomb Squad – Future Frequency, out in September. We spoke with Hank about his opinions on the evolution of electronic music gear, the approaches, techniques and more, and he was more than willing to give his opinions and plenty of advice – read on…

Oh Drat: So what are you upto at the moment, Hank?

Hank Shocklee: Well, I’m doing a couple of shows in Chicago [that passed on the weekend this interview was recorded], and finishing up the last bit on the album I’m putting out, the Bomb Squad album.

OD: Excellent – so that’s coming up to the finishing stages now?

HS: Yeah…. You know, you never really be finished with something, you’re always working on stuff until you just have to surrender it! (laughs) So, I am… the way I think is putting the last finishing touches on it.

OD: Sure. So when you say ‘surrender’ it, do you find you have to force deadlines upon yourself, just because otherwise you’d never put anything out?

HS: It’s funny because, you know, everything I’ve ever done never really sounds finished to me (laughs). Every record that I’ve done. It’s weird.

OD: That’s interesting, looking at the Bomb Squad style and taking so many samples from so many records; did that attitude inspire that method of making things, in a way – just because you were always looking for things that you could add?

HS: Well, it’s funny, because back then… to me, I was looking for ‘musical changes’. In hip hop there wasn’t a lot of musical changes in the form. So I guess sampling from records that had those changes got me hooked in the whole sampling and taking pieces of stuff and putting it together… I just thought it was interesting to have things that musicians would normally have in their records that you couldn’t really do with drum machines and turntables and a sampler back then.

OD: So has having an ‘approach’ rather than a ‘sound’ been more your thing, the way you approach things made your sound… would that be accurate?

HS: Well, it’s kinda like both, I mean they both have to go together. To me the feeling has to be there AND the sound has to be there, I don’t distinguish them from each other… they both have to work in concert with each other to be really good to me. And that’s just how I’ve always looked at it, you know…

OD: Something you touched on a minute ago was back in the days when you were making records really heavily sampling, the way that you were doing things was very much based on the type of equipment. How do you feel about the idea that now there are almost no boundaries in electronic music…?

HS: Yeah, and to me that makes things great. I think the hardest thing for me about music nowadays is the categorisation of it. Like, how do you categorise music? And it’s dificult for a lot of people who make their living off categorising music to get a beat on what’s happening now. Music doesn’t have a form today, it doesn’t have a style, and it doesn’t have a time. So I think the coolest thing that’s happened is that music has become what it truly is, which is the formless, shapeless, timeless vibration that you can enjoy at that moment. So I guess in that respect it’s very difficult to figure out ‘where is the music, where’s it going’, you know, ‘what style is it, is it good, is it bad’… all that stuff is all relative now. There’ll always be some sort of consensus but I don’t think people will ever agree on what the top ten records are anymore, I think those days are gone.

OD: Do you think that that’s something to do with the fact that everything is global now, with the internet being as it is and people being able to be truly independent with the way they release music, collaborate internationally, and so on – it was inevitable, I guess?

HS: Well… Yes, that’s a big part of it, but also I think the technology is what made it. You know, ever since we could do things with drum machines and synthesisers, now that there became a commonality in music, which means that we’re all using the same production tools in order to make it… it used to be defined by the drummer, the drum set, the guitar, the bass and things of that nature, but now music is being defined by drum machines, samplers and synthesisers. I mean there’ll always be a place for guitars bass and drums, but I think the way of making music has redefined it. And the turntable has really redefined how we listen to music, you know, now music is part of the turntable experience, which is an outgrowth of the entire club experience.

OD: You say the turntable experience. When the turntable was, and is, used musically in its own right with scratching and so on and so forth, is that one of the greatest examples of technology not necessarily being the be all and end all? I guess getting round to the point that tools you used 25 years ago may still be the best things for the job now?

HS: Well yes, but what I was saying about the turntable was the fact that now the turntable to me represents records, and the best place for a record to work in is a community environment. And the best community environment that we have is known as a club, or some sort of concert venue… some sort of environment where the audience is participating. So the turntable represents that framework where you can rock beats, club tracks, funk tracks; the turntable itself becomes a medium for where you can create that movement in sound that connects with people. So, every producer that goes into the studio, the first thing you do is think about how you’re gonna do something that’s gonna translate into that medium to a crowd. And that right there to me is where the whole musical vibration is shifted. Before that the relationship was a band and an audience. Now the relationship is the turntable and an audience. Whether the turntable’s a CD, or a waveform being played in Serato or Ableton Live, it’s still a product of the turntable slash DJ slash audience experience.

OD: I see… so what ratio would you say artistically you weigh up those decisions between speaking to an audience and on the other hand just cathartically doing something for yourself?

HS: Wow, what’s the ratio… that’s a good question… it varies. There’s certain times when you want to create an artistic expression and you really couldn’t care about what the audience thinks. And then there’s times when the audience want that, they want your artistic side and they don’t want you to just play to them. And then there’s times when the audience want to be serenaded, so to speak. And to me that’s where your differences in projects come in, so there are some artists that make their living off of creating artistic expression and not really concerned about audience participation, or reaction or movement. And then there’s artists that that’s their main thrust, that audience participation and movement. Those are the two elements that define our musical landscape today, one is artistic and one is audience participating, and most pop music, and one of the problems we’ve had with the major record companies is that their ability to not get that point is the area where they kinda missed the ball. They think there’s only one type of audience out there, that needs to be seranaded, catered to, if you would, and that’s not the entire audience – it’s probably half the picture. The other half of the audience are the ones that want to get something from the artistic value without wanting [the artist] to cater to or play to an audience.

OD: That brings me really well onto something else I wanted to poke at; if you could give advice to musicians and producers, do you have recommendations on how people can find their own style if everyone does have the same technology and technology can do pretty much anything, how do people…

HS: How do people find their own voice, so to speak?

OD: Yeah.

HS: I think that one of the things that any new artist has to understand is that they have to be confident within themselves. The one thing we always look for, especially when we do things in an entertainment environment, is that we look for immediate gratification. We want that response, that appreciation right away, and I think that as a new artist you can’t look for appreciation – you have to look for development of your craft, whatever that is. The better you develop your craft the more you’ll be appreciated, but appreciation is an after effect and I think that what happens a lot of times is that we’ve put the cart before the horse in that respect and look for appreciation before we’ve actually done anything.

I think there’s still a process in making records that I think that’s been lost because it’s so immediate, and the minute that you start and you want to put out a record and [feel like] that record has to be immediately accepted by the majority of people right off the bat or it’s not worth anything. I think that’s not true at all, because if you understand that there’s a relationship that has to be built between the artist and the audience, and there’s a trust that has to be built in before the audience accepts you. You have to build towards that, which means there’s a trial and error scenario that you have to constantly create. I’ll put out something new and people will be like ‘naw I’m not really with that’, and then I have to stand back and go okay, why are they not with that, what do I need to do better in order to hit the mark, because I know what it is that I’m tryna get across, my question is why isn’t it getting across to the audience? That kinda tweaking is needed until you hit that frequency that the audience is not vibing with you on. And that could be two things: it could be that you’re a little bit ahead of the audience, aight, or you could be a little bit behind the audience, and you don’t know what that point is. And the audience have to warm up to you just like anything else, everything isn’t immediate. I think for new artists that’s the number one thing that you have to understand; this isn’t an immediate situation, it’s a situation that takes cultivation and development.

OD: That’s a great way to look at things. I’ve seen interviews with you before where you describe really having to figure out how things could be done in the studio, because comparatively with now things were really primitive in electronic music studios. Do you think there’s a case to be made for creating limitation in a studio to try and find that creativity that you get from that, or do you think that it’s good that it’s just blown the doors open now that you don’t have limitation to as great an extent?

HS: I think the latter is true. Back in the days you had to go into a recording studio and you were on a clock, so to speak; you were spending money per hour, thus a lot of the records had to be done quicker so you didn’t have a lot of the experimentation, looking at it and then going back and retweaking, you didn’t have total recall like you have today. Today you can stop at a certain point and pick right up where you left off and continue on. You could tweak until the point where it’s near perfect and I think in a way that’s good and in a way it’s not good, because when you’re tweaking to perfection who’s to determine that perfection is needed? Sometimes imperfection is just as important as perfection. We’re developing a culture where everything sounds perfect, so everything sounds the same, so everything sounds boring. The beautiful things we love, a lot of the classics from back in the day, a lot of it was mistakes. People dug those mistakes because it gave a sense of life, certain unpredictability, certain tonal shape that it didn’t have before. We’re moving away from the human approach to music and towards the mechanical side of music – and some of that’s cool, but too much of it becomes like too…

OD: Clinical?

HS: Boring, rigid, sterile, clinical… it becomes something that’s not really hitting the human soul.

OD: With that in mind, do you have tools that you still use because they have unpredictabilities in them, or maybe that you have little tricks when you push them in a certain way, that you still involve in your productions today?

HS: Well I think that it’s not so much the equipment, I think it’s more technique. There’s a clear division between people who understand one technique, which may be considered an oldschool technique, where you take a band and you record them onto tape, aight? All the computer is is a modern day tape machine. You can record a band onto computer and get the same kind of results as recording the same band onto tape, but it’s a different technique. You can use automation clinically, or just to keep the train from going off the track, so to speak. When you start seeing the kind of techniques that were used back in the day to create songs is when you’ll start seeing more soul and more character come back into the musical process.

OD: A lot of people will still use an SP-1200, or an S950 for the 12 bit character, or old analogue synthesisers with voltage controlled oscillators that have that character because of their unpredictability. Do you find you use modern tools to emulate that now, to apply those techniques to totally new equipment?

HS: Yeah, once again it’s two schools. A lot of people like to use the old equipment, not necessarily for the sound quality because let’s understand something: you can get the same sound quality in the digital realm that you can get in the analogue realm. The same. The difference that people like when they use the 1200 and those things is the physicality of those machines. You can’t emulate a performance. There’s a different type of performance when you are pushing a fader to when you’re rotating a knob, so thus when you’re using the old hardware, it offers a different feel that you can employ that can give your track a ‘feel’ that you like – and that feel we mistake for sound. Some of the kids coming up nowadays aren’t even using keyboards, they’re inputting everything with the mouse. Those are just different techniques.

OD: So where do you stand on equipment – I don’t know if you have anything resembling a permanent setup but if you do how are things for you at the moment?

HS: Well right now I’m a fan of everything inside the computer, because I feel we’ve gotten to the point where the emulation process is very close. The only thing we haven’t done is we still have a way to go with the physical aspects of it. You still can’t emulate a clarinet or a flute perfectly but we’re closer, there are flute and clarinet expression tools, but we’re not there yet. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t look at the tools as being one thing or another, I look at it as whatever you’re trying to achieve you can do it. If you don’t have a full string orchestra, you can emulate the strings and get them pretty close.

OD: And so which softwares are your favourites at the moment?

HS: Well, I have a lot of em, so I’ll have to tell you which I have and why as opposed to which are my favourites, I know it sounds crazy, but… (laughs) You have to have Pro Tools, it’s kinda like an industry standard that all the record and film companies use. Pro Tools for me is a great tool for editing and a great recorder. As far as MIDI manipulation or writing, creating, for me Logic is really good because you can get an idea down in Logic pretty easily because of the way it treats audio and MIDI pretty much the same, so the integration’s seamless. To me Logic is like a great pen and pad. And then when you’re looking for manipulating on an experimental level, I use Ableton Live, because Live does things with audio that Logic and Pro Tools don’t do. If you wanna create some new sounds you haven’t heard before, I’m gonna rock to Ableton. And then I got Reason, because Reason is self contained, it uses very little CPU, I can write on it in the plane, or the train, I don’t have to worry about huge drives full of sounds, and I can get my ideas down and embellish them very easily, then if I want to move them over into something else I can do that. So to me those are the big four and the reason why.

OD: I’m conscious of the fact that I could chew your ear off all day so to wrap up what pieces of advice would you would give to beginners, to people who feel creatively stuck, and people that want to push things over to another level..?

HS: To me, if you wanna start and you have a computer, I think that a great starting tool is Reason. It’s low CPU usage and it has pretty much everything contained in there: synths, samplers, sounds, pretty much all in there. And it’s pretty easy to learn. When you wanna move up, if you decide you’ve already experienced Garageband and you wanna move up, then I’d say Logic. It’s a good composer’s tool and you won’t have to go out and buy any plugins, effects and all that stuff is built in. Now, if you’re into sample manipulation coming from a DJ perspective or you’re coming from a hip hop perspective and you’re coming from an SP-1200 or an MPC type of vibration I would go straight to Ableton instead of straight to Logic. Logic is more linear composing and Ableton is more beat making.

OD: Anything you’d like to tell our readers, as far as your new stuff goes?

HS: Well yeah, we just did a thing with Loopmasters, the Bomb Squad Tactical Beats and Sample Artillery [which we reviewed here] pack, which contains some of the samples that I’m using for the Bomb Squad Future Frequency album that’s coming out in September, and for more information they can hit me at shocklee.com and we can kick it from there!

OD: Thanks so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.

HS: No, thank you!

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