Leading hip-hop producer sits down with Akai Pro to talk business, technology, and the industry.
The Alchemist is a hip-hop producer who has produced for many of hip-hop's leading artists in the 2000s, and has been hailed as “one of the top producers in the game.” Whether or not you know his name, chances are, you know his work on some of the biggest projects by name-brand artists. He produces with an MPC2500 and an MPC5000.
As a teenager, the Alchemist was half of the duo The Whooliganz and a member of rap collective The Soul Assassins, which included Cypress Hill and House of Pain. The Alchemist studied beat making with DJ Muggs of Cypress Hill and Evidence of Dilated Peoples.
After moving to New York, the Alchemist produced Mobb Deep, Pharoahe Monch, Royce da 5'9, Fat Joe, Defari, Freddy Foxxx, Ludacris, Big Daddy Kane, and Ghostface Killah, and even rock acts Linkin Park and Morcheeba. In 2004 the Alchemist released his first solo full-length, 1st Infantry, which, besides featuring his own beats, also had him rapping alongside Nas, Stat Quo, the Game, Lloyd Banks, Mobb Deep, and Dilated Peoples. In 2005, the Alchemist toured with Eminem as his DJ on the Anger Management 3 tour.
The Alchemist plans to release an ambitious three new albums in 2009. He is also currently serving as the music producer of the tenth installment of the Grand Theft Auto video game. He shared his background and his views on the current state production with us.
Akai: Where did you get your name?
The Alchemist: From a friend of mine who is into music; he was a rapper. He put a twist on my name, Al, because I had an interest in the scientific side of music and how it is put together. I discovered the meaning in the book “The Alchemist.” The metaphor made a lot of sense. I read the book after I got my name. Anyone who reads that book will find it inspiring.
Akai: When did you first get into music?
TA: I was into it from my induction into earth but I really started around 13 when I started messing around. I was writing raps, using turntables trying to scratch. I remember my first beats were like pause tapes. I’d record like one bar off a record and dub it and make a loop with it. Just messing around. I had an ear for music and just took it far.
Akai: What was your first MPC?
TA: The MPC3000, which was loaned to me by a friend. I guess I wasn’t ready yet but I loved the sound coming out of it. All my favorite producers used it. My first beats were on the [Ensoniq] ASR10 keyboard. I discovered you can get more busy to make rhythms with the [MPC] pads than with the keys because its feel is more like a drum.
Akai: What has the MPC5000 brought to the scene that made producing better for you? Were you able to use it on your upcoming release, Chemical Warfare?
TA: Yes. The thing about it is so crazy to me is the sound inside. I guess for the first time ever, the synth sounds really got me. The warmth and the quality and the way you can adjust sounds similar to a Moog or other analog instrument. You know when I’d start twisting knobs I started making sounds that are really unique.
I feel like my creativity is way iller with the 5000. Prior to this I’d sample [to create] all my beats but this machine encourages me to make stuff, not with just samples. I mean, if you know what you’re doing to can make stuff that sounds just like samples. Some of my favorite ones [were made with the MPC5000’s virtual analog synthesizer] too because the sonicness of it, it’s like it almost sounds like it uses more of the speaker, you now what I mean?
With the beats that I play off of the 5000, it’s like the whole speaker is being utilized versus more of a mono-sounding beat that I would hear with the ASR. There’s something about that machine, man. That’s what I like most about it is the fact that you can collaborate samples so you don’t have to stray from your sampling style of beats. You can still chop beats and then you can layer them with the sounds that come with it or that you can load into it. You know, sometimes I ended up dropping out the loop entirely. Once I got it layered up I have a whole new product, so that’s what’s dopest to me about the MPC5000.
Akai: What other artists have you worked with and how did they influence your music?
TA: I’ve been blessed to work with so many great artists from all different sides of the spectrum from Tone Loc to Cypress Hill, Mobb Deep, I mean there’s so many different artists I mean lately I’ve been working with Three 6 Mafia, Maxwell… I did records for Linkin Park for a remix album so I think being able to have a wide variety of sound and not stuck to a genre is the cool thing about being a producer. I feel like as a producer, it shows more versatility to be able to produce a rock or R&B record while at the same time you could be making a hip-hop record. It’s the whole spectrum of music. Also, I DJ a lot. When Eminem tours, I DJ for him, so lately I’ve been DJing more parties and adding that element into my production. When you DJ, you get to see the records that drive the crowds crazy and adding that element into the production is great for staying current.
Akai: What do you think it is that has made the MPC so widely used by producers?
TA: I think it’s probably hands down the most handy machines when it comes to production. It has just what you need. It pretty much defined the standard of production for beats in the same way that when you go to record vocals these days, they use Avalon [microphone preamplifiers] and they have the Neumann U 87 [microphones]. It’s like the combination of these two as microphone and preamp are the standard for 85-90% of records as far as rap vocals.
I feel like with the MPC it’s the standard. Partly because of the swing capabilities [MPC Swing] in it, which made the drums for a lot of producers over the years. You knew automatically because of their drum swing that it was something the MPC did. Even when I used the ASR10, I was always trying to simulate the style of production that was made on the MPC. Once I got to the MPC, I was like, ‘YES, this is what I was trying to do the whole time!
From the way that the pads are set, you can set them to chop each other off or each sample cuts each other off. The timing from the timing-correct button to the velocity on the pads, which enables you to give it more of a live feel.
Also, it’s like an instrument. I know some people who work the machine in a way where on stage with no sequencer, it’s incredible. I can’t think of any machine that’s similar. It seems like they’re just imitating it, even as they sound, it’s a similar machine with a virtual something. They always seem like they have to have the 16 pads and basically simulate the style of the MPC. I was watching a demo of one and thought, ‘this is very MPC-esque.’
In general, MPC always has and always will be the standard as far as when you’re talking about rap, beats and production. You know, my favorite producers from day one were Premier – MPC. Pete Rock? MPC. Diamond D? MPC. I mean I could go down the list forever. It’s pretty much the standard. It’s good to be able to even follow in those footsteps and keep that tradition going forward. You know, making music that comes out of that machine it sounds crazy.
Impersonation has gotten to extreme levels with regards to MPC with people trying to copy it but I think at the end of the day with the sound that comes out of it, I can usually call it. I can say, ‘that’s MPC, yo.’ There’s a lot of other technology that can let you make beats with a computer and stuff but I think it takes away from the live ability. In general the MPC is an instrument because of what you can do with it. I’ve seen guys treating it like a turntable. The turntable was made for one thing and you can make creative turntablism out of it. With the MPC there’s like a whole style of live entertainment that actually hasn’t been fully explored. It’s crazy. That’s what separates it from a lot of these new things. You can’t use your little computer out live and then treat it like an instrument – it’s a computer!
Akai: Have you used any other Akai Pro equipment than the MPC?
TA: I go from the MPC right into ProTools. I don’t run it through too much. To me, because of the built-in compressor that it has and the effects, the EQ and master, I try to make my beats coming out of the machine sounding like the way I want them to be when I mix them. So when it comes time to mix, I don’t have to have the engineer do magic tricks for my beat. What I’m delivering him right out of the machine is pretty much what it’s going to sound like. So that way when I’m playing beats live, or when I’m playing beats for someone I want it to sound… you know, I spend time with the EQ, I spend time with the edit steps, I’ll move a kick one to the right if it’s too much, one to the left it’s too little, so it’s like I get it exactly where I want it to be. Especially with the new 5000 and the 960ppq [sequencer] resolution, I mean it’s crazy. It’s as close as you can come to a live drummer as far as the swinging. The closest thing to that is taking the timing [quantization] off entirely and just being Clyde Stubblefield on the MPC. You know what I mean? They got it down to a science now with the swing.
Akai: We noticed you have some turntables here too. Tell us about those.
TA: I use the Numark TT500. I love that turntable because the reverse on one button, that’s like my favorite feature. I don’t even take the needle off when I’m going through records. I’ll just reverse that back. If I hear that sample, I’ll hit reverse instead of picking the needle up because sometimes I hear something when it’s playing backwards, and it’s like, ‘woah!’ that little sound is good for something. Making beats for hip-hop, anything goes, so I might take a snare backwards and load it back into the MPC. The backward button is crazy. You know, just on command, go reverse. Oh yeah, plus the pitch range on that is killing all the other turntables. Sometimes I wanted to hear a record extremely slow, but it wouldn’t go that way. I used to have to put my finger on the side of the Technics to try to make it sound slow and it would just be wobbling it just wasn’t it. With the TT500 you can speed it up and slow it down so much you’re almost unlimited when you want to hear something in a different tone or pitch, or whatever it will work.
Akai: What is your current project and what Akai Pro products are you using on it?
TA: My current album called Chemical Warfare and is a follow-up to my first album, which was called 1st Infantry. It’s basically a collaboration album with a lot of artists I’ve worked with in the past. I have a new single trying to get out and I’m basically in the studio just finishing up the final mixes on the album and get it out by the middle of the year. That’s going to take me out of the studio a little bit so I’m happy just to take the MPC, pack it up and take it on the bus.
When you go into album mode you also have to go into promote mode, which isn’t always my favorite. If it was up to me, I’d be in studio all day. But I’ll probably be out on the road doing a lot of promotion with a couple of tours to promote this album.
I’m also just getting ready to shoot a video to gear up for the album. Hopefully Eminem is going to come out with his album. I’m pretty sure he’s going to come out with his album this year, and I’ll probably hit the road with him. That’s always quite an experience going on the road with him.
Akai: Is your latest work a departure from anything you’ve done in the past or are you sticking to a formula that works well for you?
TA: It’s a little bit new and I think the last album I hadn’t started working on the MPC yet. This is the first one where I’ve been able to work on the MPC and showcase the beats. Also I was able to develop what I consider somewhat of a new style for the album where I was chopping up samples and trying to move them like hi-hats instead of using hi-hats and keeping the production real sparse with just kick and snare and making the music move around. It’s an intense album as far as the sound. I love the way the beats came out. I was able to really showcase the new sound as far as the MPC on this album. It’s exciting to me. I think as I put the album together it has a vibe that I was able to make with a lot of different artists. It’s hard you know sometimes you’re working with 15 different rappers that have nothing to do with each other. You wonder, what’s going to be the current sound [when the album is released]? What’s going to keep this album together? That was my challenge, but I think I did it well and it all fits in a strange way. It’s an experience.
On the new album I started with the MPC2500 and once I got my hands on the 5000 I was able to start experimenting. One record I put out was a CNN record, Capone-N-Noreaga, called Follow The Dollar. They just shot a video that should be out in early 2009. We’re using the MPC5000 for both albums. Everybody really loved the sound. They thought the synth stuff I did was a sample but it wasn’t. Also I’m able to I go back to songs I started on it. I fooled a lot of people. They thought it was a sample. It wasn’t. The cat’s out the bag or whatever. I was playing around with some people and they said, “yeah was that a sample or not?” What I’ll do is I go back to songs that I started with the 2500 and I’ll sprinkle that with sounds I got from the 5000. So as I’m finishing the album, I like to have the 5000 there just ‘cuz it’s like, it’s foreign. The sounds that are in it if I need something real quick like to lay on top of a sound, or I need a pad to lay underneath the hook, or I might need a hi-hat or something, that to me is what I need at the end of the album for some spice.
Akai: When is your current project due out?
TA: May 2009. We just released the first single called Smile featuring Maxwell, Twista and myself. I’m rapping more on this one than the last one, like maybe about 30% of the album. I just try to follow in Dre’s footsteps. Not soundwise I mean, because nobody can compare, obviously to Dr. Dre, but the way that he put out albums that were technically compilation albums, and he’s still able to rap on a song here and there, throughout the album and it still felt like his album. Even if he wasn’t on the song it’s still his album and he played a part on a product that was his. I’m trying to follow in those footsteps and that model and get people into me without changing totally who I am.
Akai: Do you have any tips or tricks you'd like to share with up and coming producers who may be reading this interview?
TA: Persistence overcomes resistance and that goes across the board. That might mean go back to that sample that you got defeated by, or couldn’t hook up the right way, try that loop again or write that song again. The bottom line is that I don’t think it’s a battle of talents it’s a battle of spirits and who goes hardest. Keep your spirit up and enjoy it. If you can find a way to get paid making music you know there’s nothing better but the money thing shouldn’t motivate you, in the end it should be the icing on the cake, So just keep on.