The Noise And How To Bring It: Hank Shocklee Interviewed By The Quietus

shockwebpic_hankshockleequietusIn case you missed it, music writer John Tatlock had an in depth conversation with Hank for the outstanding UK music magazine The Quietus. Here is an excerpt…

The Noise And How To Bring It: Hank Shocklee Interviewed
John Tatlock , February 4th, 2015

Noise. That’s what everyone calls it. That’s even what Public Enemy call it. A wall of noise. A collage of noise.

I never really thought that was a good description of Public Enemy. Noise implies randomness; implies the accidental, the emergent. The very opposite of signal.

To me, Public Enemy are all signal and no noise. Listen to a track like ‘Brothers Gonna Work It Out’ from Fear Of A Black Planet. Sure, it conjures up images of chaos. Sure it carves up and glues together slices of Prince, James Brown, Melvin Bliss and many others, with total disregard for musical compatibility. But random, accidental? Not to these ears.

In the wake of the release of excellent expanded reissues of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet, I got on the phone with producer Hank Shocklee (or “the Phil Spector of noise”, in PE front-man Chuck D’s words) to talk about the never-successfully imitated PE sound.

To get ready for this, I re-listened to the first four PE albums quite a bit. And while Yo! Bum Rush The Show is a very striking record, it’s kind of minimalist and electronic where Nation Of Millions is much denser, and more fluid and organic. Was that evolution or was it a conscious choice?

Hank Shocklee: For me, it was a conscious choice because it was our first release on Def Jam. If you think back, at the time Def Jam was LL Cool J and Beastie Boys singles. They were just in the studio making the album Licensed To Ill, but it wasn’t out yet. And the Def Jam sound was very minimal. And I didn’t want to bring a totally different sound, because I thought would be too radical. but it still had to have the characteristics of where things were going to go.

But we pushed the envelope a bit further into the area of sampling. Because at that time we didn’t know how that whole thing was going to play out. Doing sampling in terms of the commercial acceptability. Or even how we were going to get it through the record company

I remember reading that Chuck D said you don’t like to talk about what the samples are because there are many that people still haven’t discovered.

HS: Sure. The problem you have about sampling cases is that they’re open-ended. It’s just like a murder case. I always had the idea that I wanted to do something ridiculously dense and rich. But you have to do those things in stages. Otherwise the public has this reaction to it like they’ve seen an alien or something. And even that first album, it was pretty difficult to get even that across. Everyone looks back and says the record was great. But it was only great to a few people in the know. Hip hop heads. And we were lucky enough that a bunch of writers were into it. So it got that kind of critical acclaim.

It was seen as a cool record in the UK. I’m sure people have told you that before.

HS: Well, the UK is very astute about music. I mean that’s where a lot of the jazz musicians are still touring today. In the states we’ve abandoned jazz. It’s almost like classical music. But I only found out that it was big over there when Public Enemy toured, and they brought back the footage of the crowd that was later used on Nation Of Millions.

So you had a vision of the next couple of albums even right from the outset?

HS: Yeah. You have to remember, I was working on Bum Rush for three years before Rick Rubin even decided he wanted to sign us. It wasn’t like he signed the group and then we decided to make the record. I anticipated doing the record. Where and how we’d do it was a whole other question. But three years was spent on developing the concept and the style and sound. I’ve never believed in making an album for release. I just believe in making a lot of music and then you’re picking from those sources when it’s time to release. So you create this body of work. And then when you need an album you cherry pick. So you can create something more cohesive and tell a better story.

I always thought of Nation and Fear as two chapters of the same book. But actually when I listen back I realise they’re both quite distinct sonically. Nation is bright and punchy and almost like a rock album. And Fear is darker and more fluid and kind of soulful.

HS: How this all started with Bum Rush was, Rick asked us to do a single. And me and Chuck delivered seven tracks. I knew that I wanted to get an album out, because I knew that doing a single with a company like Sony behind it was a waste of time. Because I already knew that Sony was inept at promoting singles. So it had be an album from the start, otherwise PE wouldn’t have made any traction. So that album had to be done at the cost of a single. When you listen to Yo! Bum Rush The Show… Quick. It was quick. The total expenditure on that record was $12,000. We’d been given $5,000 for the single so for an extra $7,000 you got a whole album. So that was an easier sell to Def Jam. And I already knew they were pulling $225,000 from Sony. So immediately the record was in the black. [Laughs]

And keep in mind at that time LL Cool J, Beastie Boys; those guys were spending close to half a million dollars on the records. So we broke the mould and came in ridiculously under budget. So when we got to Nation, the process was different. Nation was done at two different studios. With two completely different sounds. We started at Chung King and then moved to Greene Street. At Greene Street we got a chance to refine our skills. And then we could go on and create Fear Of A Black Planet. Fear was all done at Greene Street. And of course we had more time to work with. You have to understand that even while we were finishing Bum Rush in the mixing stages, we were already making what would become Nation and Fear.

So that’s why on the second single, ‘You’re Gonna Get Yours’, the b-side is ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ from Nation Of Millions. Which was the first track that was coming from the new body of work. And even a few months before that was released, Rick was producing the music for the movie Less Than Zero. And we had another track we were working on for that which became ‘Bring The Noise’. So DJs were already playing ‘Bring The Noise’ in all the hip hop clubs, even before ‘Rebel’. And then by the time we released the second single from Bum Rush, that single had ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ on the other side. So everybody immediately went to that.

Bum Rush had had to sit in the pipeline for about six months before it could come out. And in the world of hip hop, six months might as well be six years. Because at the time hip hop was a 12″ culture. And 12″s, you can make and release in less than six weeks. That’s fast.

So the production had to be an ongoing process of constantly working on stuff, because in six months, everything changes.

Understood. Hip hop is still very much about, “What’s the new sound, the new style, what’s the new thing?” It’s not a particularly nostalgic field.

HS: Exactly. The 12″ culture has now moved to the mixtape. Where people used to put a white label on the streets, they now put out a mixtape and that will keep things bubbling until they finish the full release. That’s what propelled artists like 50 Cent. So that’s a concept that still works today, where the rap market is very, very fast.

This is interesting. It’s clear that as a producer you don’t just think about the music. You think very tactically.

HS: That’s what Public Enemy was all about. It was never a hip hop group, so to speak. We thought of it like a rock and roll band. Just one that lived in the hip hop world. In order to do that, everything had to be tactical. I learned a lot from when I used to manage a heavy metal record store [laughs]. Yeah! I was very interested in a lot of groups like Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag. Bands like that, everything they did was conceptual.

And Public Enemy followed in those footsteps. I mean at that time, in order to be a rap group. you had to perform to a rap audience before you could make your record. A lot of guys would do a lot of shows running around, and then they would put out the record. Public Enemy didn’t do that. It was the first dawning of what I consider to be the concept of from the bedroom to the studio to the record company. You didn’t have to pay your dues in terms of schlepping around and playing at all the parties, in order to gain reputation. So it had to have a concept that was airtight and easily graspable.

So that’s why the S1Ws are there, that’s why Flavor’s there. Having Flavor was a challenge. Because he was the first rapper who was a non-rapper. He was a hype man. At first no one understood the concept of having someone on the mic who didn’t really rap any lyrics. So that had to be sold to the audience and to the record company as well.

The original deal was for Chuck to do a solo record. It was just me and Chuck and we decided we wanted to do the deal. So as we started putting together the deal, I pulled up Eric Sadler, because he was working downstairs and I wanted someone to work with, who could help me flush out my crazy ideas. I wanted someone who I knew I trusted with musician skills, because there were things that I wanted to do with frequencies. I wanted to do something that was not melodic. I wanted frequencies that clashed with each other and created another frequency of dissonance. And that’s a complex thing, because if you do that wrong, you create mess, and you don’t get anything across.

When you’re working with musical scales you have a bunch of things that you know will work well together. But when you’re working with dissonance, you’re taking the concept of scales and throwing it out of the window. If you play it on a piano it will sound like shit. But if you create the sound and the concept that goes with that sound then you’re going to make something different.

That was the most important aspect of it. Because finding the samples, that was pretty easy because I had a ridiculous record collection. But finding the right pieces, in the right contexts was the hard part. That’s why I needed people like Eric, because for every sample you hear on the record, there were like ten that have to be put in place to see if it works. Out of those ten you have to find the one that really expresses the emotion you intend to express. Like when you hear, “We’re going to get on down now.” Well, there’s a bunch of different records that say we’re going to get on down. But which get on down is going to have the emotional impact? [laughs].

Like in ‘Night of the Living Baseheads’ when you hear the little bit of David Bowie’s ‘Fame’. The reason for that was at that moment it needed a release. Because the tension is building up in this record so much, it has to crescendo somewhere and then have a release so we could pick it back up again. So we have to find that part the can release the tension from the intensity of the horns. But still holds the tension together.

This is fascinating. From the way you are describing it, it’s not like just, “Oh this is a cool loop.” It’s more like you’ve got the composition in mind already, and now we’ve got to go and find the pieces.

HS: Exactly. And to go more deeply into it… Now, imagine with a sample you have a start and an end marker. Take ‘Rebel Without A Pause’ for example. The sax line on that. If that was taken on the downbeat it would be a lot more funkier, in terms of the listener being able to groove more, but it would lose a lot of intensity. So that sample had to be taken off of the two. But then placed on the one. so this sample that was originally a cool melodic piece now sits there like a rock guitar. And has that same feeling and vibration. Because one of the things I really wanted to do was have the feeling of rock & roll without a guitar.

Another thing is that if you look at all the productions, none of the productions have bass lines in them. And that’s because bass lines represent melody. If it doesn’t have melody no-one perceives it as musical; it just becomes a low frequency hum. Like you hear from machines in the laundromat or whatever. So it was important not to have a baseline but in its place we used the 808 drum. With the decay on it. And did it with clever pitch changes in it.

Now the only time people used the 808 was to create one note right? I’m talking about back then. And that one note would be the answer to the melody line. But we were using the 808 as the front note. You see, what most people were doing, they took the actual machine and went in the studio and played that note. But we would go and get a record that had recorded it already, and take that 808. Which is a texture thing. You get all the extra grittiness so it doesn’t come across clean. So it comes across dirty and grimy. So that’s keeping the low intensity dirty and grimy just like the top is dirty and grimy. I’m probably going too much into it. We should do books on this stuff [laughs].

Read the rest of the article at The Quietus.

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