Based in the Southern hip-hop hotbed of Atlanta, GA, Sol Messiah is a DJ and producer who has created and shaped tracks for the likes of Nappy Roots, Chamillionaire, Dead Prez, and many more. We sat down with this busy Akai Pro Artist for some quality time and talked about music, production, hip-hop, and a lot more.
Akai Professional: What was your first Akai Pro instrument and on which albums have you used Akai Pro gear?
Sol Messiah: Around 90-91, I met a guy named Claude Austin. I was doing music already and he bought me an MPC60. He said, “You learn this thing and help me and my brother make music.” He also said, “This is your pay.” So I ended up keeping it. Van Hunt was the first guy who let me use one in his studio before Claude bought me one.
“Y’all so stupid” on Rowdy Records (Arista) had a track and album named “Van Full of Pakistan.” Some of the first records I also used it on were for Boys II Men, TLC, Madonna… You know the funny part? I have an MPC3000 they say is Boys II Men’s MPC! They left it. I worked with two other producers named Tim & Bob on something called “Vibin’’ with the MPC. TLC was in there too. I worked on “Creep” with an MPC60. Now I’m using an MPC2000XL. Still have a MPC3000, and I want the MPC5000 but I’ve been getting into Logic [production software] lately so I want to see how the MPD series swings with Logic. I still use all the sounds from the beginning and I love using the built-in sequencer.
AP: What inspired you to get into music?
SM: When I was younger I was a breaker [dancer] and a DJ around ‘79-80 and in 1980, I was like, “OMG what is this stuff?” It wasn’t called hip-hop then. Being a DJ got deep around ‘82-83 with rappers and we were spinning breaks behind them, but things moved fast. Every time technology jumped, I jumped.
AP:: Let’s talk about producing. Your tracks have a richness that make full use of the stereo sound field. Especially on tracks like Nappy Roots’ “Swerve & Lean” from The Humdinger. Where did you learn this?
SM: I use a lot of live instrumentation, you know. I’ll sample a live guitar player into Pro Tools and then back into the MPC. As you can imagine, I do a lot of stacking. Hip-hop was getting boring. It didn’t have a lot of richness to it. I wanted to sound like Curtis Mayfield records. They’d be panning people in each speaker back then and I listened to old records and wanted mix that sound with hip-hop. What we did back then was put it thought a drum machine.
AP: What about synths? Do you find yourself laying synth parts on tracks to kind of give them an edge?
SM: I play a lot of synths on stuff. When you hear keys on tracks I produced, it’s me. Lately I’ve used a lot of Reason and Logic but mainly mostly Reason on the newest records. If it is a sample, like a piano, I’ll just stack ‘em, stack ‘em, and stack ‘em to make them as big as possible. When we were doing a lot of Dallas Austin records, and when I think about it, probably early Boyz II Men, it was the first mixture of hip-hop and R&B using the SP1200 [drum machine]. I used to use an Akai Pro S950 sampler before the MPC. Diamond D, who did the Fugees, still uses the S950! We used those a lot for a long time. They weren’t sequencers – just rack-mount samplers and you couldn’t get much time on it.
AP: What impact has the MPC had on hip-hop?
SM: Shoot. You know what? The MPC IS hip-hop. You wouldn’t have hip-hop if you didn’t have the MPC. The most important part is the drums. You know how it has a natural swing? Whatever was put in those is what all the experienced producers who shaped this society insist on using. If we’re not using the MPC we’re trying to emulate it. You can tell who’s not using MPC because it’s popcorn music. Kanye West uses MPC on his stuff. Diamond D, Just Blaze… a lot of people use it. The beat sticks in your head because of that swing. It brought the swing to hip-hop.
AP: Tell us about some of the artists you’ve worked with. How did you hook up with them?
SM: I worked with a lot of great people. With me, I’m in Atlanta born and raised. We all hung around the same circles. They had their camp, and they wanted a specific sound. Chamillionaire is a great example. He was buying songs for a mix tape. I gave him a CD and he wanted two songs for his album. So those two turned out to be Rain (with Scarface) and Picture Perfect with Bun B from UGK. So through Outkast I met Chamillionaire and Tahir/Dead Prez. I met Dead Prez because he went to college with my wife.
I moved to Brooklyn around 2001 and ended up doing that song with Dead Prez featuring Jay-Z, “Hell Yeah” and that was all MPC. That was a nice connect. Of course a lot of the big names were through Dallas Austin. A lot of what I’ve done was from working with Dallas. Nappy Roots was also through Mr. DJ through Outkast. I ended up doing one song on their first album and became their producer.
I’m also the DJ for Nappy Roots and still travel with them. My main stuff I’m getting with is a female rap group She The Hard Way, five female MCs all from Atlanta. I put them all together and they’re getting a lot of buzz with their single, “Breakdown.” Saroc is one woman who is getting a lot of buzz. I’m also working with Aleon Craft who used to be with The Backwood. He went solo and they’re burning up the Southeast really good right now. Those projects are real crazy because it’s time for good new talent to come out of what we’re doing. You know, it’s a first for women to get a place in hip-hop. This is a good time for them to get in there.
AP: What can you tell us about your latest project, “Food, Clothing & Hip-hop”. How did you come up with the idea?
SM: I do a lot of instrumental albums. This one only had one rap track. It featured whatever musicians I was working with at the time. It allowed me as a DJ to travel without a lot of rappers with me. Rappers get popular and they can become harder to work with. A lot of times rappers mess things up so this is the first in a series. They’ll all be instrumental.
AP: How different was it producing your own work vs. that of others?
SM: I don’t have to deal with attitudes. I like it like this. It’s like doing jazz. I grew up on that. You try to transfer what you’re doing through the technology like the MPC. Seldom any mistakes, and when there are they’re usually really good mistakes!
AP: Where do you see hip-hop headed right now musically and socially?
SM: Socially it’s coming back to political and social issues, people like the woman I’m talking about Sarroc. Her song, “A conscious rapper” sticks. Most Grammy nominees were like Mos Def [whose lyrics cover social matters]. Good hip-hop with some serious subject matter is coming back. Sonically and politically it’s coming back. Musically it’s starting to have grooves again like underground hip-hop does. That music is on its way back. It might not be mainstream yet, but it will be. It’s synths and sampled drums, you know? That’s why people like Jay Electronica are hot right now. It was dying for a minute and you still hear Auto-tune sometimes but that old sound is coming back.
AP: You have one of the coolest names in music. What was the inspiration for your name?
SM: Actually, it’s my given name. First name Sol, last name Messiah. It’s a name that fits for hip-hop, you know, when you’re in hip-hop and your last name means savior that helps, so I just ended up using my real name and it stuck. There’s always the sun [Sol] and Messiah means savior.
AP: What’s next for you?
SM: I want to be able to travel with the music I’m producing and take it around the world with whatever rapper or singer I have, and present it the way I want. You know Soul II Soul? I use them as a launching pad – they were DJs, they were quick and were able to play it and travel. I want to be able to play these festivals around the world. I want to use hip-hop, soul… and take hip-hop to those places and present it the way I want to present it.
AP: Any advice for up and coming producers?
SM: Study where it came from. You cannot truly know a thing without knowing its roots. You don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where it came from. Study original hip-hop. It’s like going into a society without knowing anything about its history. You don’t know where it’s going to go if you don’t know where it came from.