The Leon Sylvers III Interview Part 2

Reflections on reverse engineering Motown, the series of coincidences and the 100-person recording session that led to The Sylvers' "Don't Stop, Get Up," and Leon's early years with SOLAR.

Click here to read for Part 1 of my conversation with Leon Sylvers III.

With The Sylvers debut LP wrapped and “Misdemeanor” making its rounds as a hit record, Leon knew that nothing in the industry was promised—so he continued to put in long, hard hours practicing the bass. This insured he was always ready to execute any task required of him in the studio. “If we had to go over it more than one or two times, I wanted my fingers in shape,” he says. “Everything I did, I knew it was going to be hard. So I assumed it and just took it on like that.”

He now considers his diligence a critical part of his artistic growth that helped him compensate for a lack of formal training. “I think that was part of the maturation, as far as embedding that technique into my creative process,” he says. “How I practiced, it was based off everything new, ‘cause I wasn't taught no kind of way.”

In addition to neverending practice sessions, Leon also tried to reverse engineer his favorite Motown records during his free time to understand the complex dynamics of sound at play. Hours spent intently studying the famed label’s output helped him better understand the elements needed to arrange, produce, and write a great record. “I called it reverse music in my head,” he says. “I would buy it and then study it and take it apart—the drums the baseline, the melody, the lyrics, how they would able to sing off the beat. And that was part of the process too.”

While Leon continued to immerse himself in solo practice, studio sessions, and Motown record reverse engineering, he quickly realized he had found his life’s calling. “I was so into it,” he says. “I was supposed to do this for the rest of my life, I assume now, because that's what I'm still doing. And I love it.”

As The Sylvers’ second album started to come together, he further honed his songwriting skills by penning the majority of the tracks on the 1973 LP The Sylvers IIa rich, moving album beautifully co-produced by Keg Johnson and Jerry Peters. Much like his bass proficiency and understanding of song arrangement, the language needed to write many songs efficiently came from intense focus and deliberate practice. “When I was in the Nickerson Gardens projects, I would read almost halfway through the dictionary to learn words that nobody used,” he says. “Plus I did poetry before I started writing.”

Though The Sylvers II is now regarded as one of the group’s strongest efforts and was positively received at the time of release, their creative process started to evolve and change as work began on their next album—with Leon writing only two out of 10 tracks on the following year’s The Sylvers III. Pride also folded the same year, making The Sylvers III their final release with MGM.

The Capitol Records releases Showcase (featuring the hit “Boogie Fever”) and Something Special (featuring the hits “Hot Line” and “High School Dance”) both saw Leon write or co-write four out of 10 tracks. The group then self-produced their final album on Capitol, 1977’s New Horizons, marking the next major turning point in his career.

Leon’s move towards production began with The Sylvers 1978 release Forever Yours, an album he co-produced alongside Bob Cullen and Al Ross. Like so much of his catalog, the backstories surrounding the relea are plentiful. The LP’s hit record "Don't Stop, Get Off,’ for example, was birthed out of a series of coincidences that provided the inspiration for the song’s infectious hook.

First, the group attended a Brother’s Johnson concert together after an extended tour in Japan. When the energy in the show picked up, Leon noticed people in the crowd enthusiastically shouting, “ooh, ooh” to the beat. Immediately intrigued by how good it sounded, he asked the people near him about the chant. “Everybody around me said, ‘Where you been? That's what everybody do when they like something,’” he says. “I was like, ‘Ohhh.’ So I started writing the song right then.”

The rest of the “Don’t Stop, Get Off” chorus came from a Sylvers concert where the group sent Foster out with his bass to warm up the crowd and give the rest of the family a bit more time to get ready. One of the grooves he started to strum had an immediate impact on the crowd. “He had a funky bassline,” Leon says. “And the kids start saying, ‘don’t stop, get off’ to the beat.”

Not one to miss an opportunity for a unique recording, Leon grabbed a boombox that was handy and captured the impromptu bass/chant combo. “I recorded it right there,” he says. “And it was perfect. After the show I was waiting to get back and hear that.”

Though Forever Yours eventually came out on Casablanca, The Sylvers were still with Capitol Records during the recording process. As they set out to make the album version of “Don’t Stop, Get Off” in the studio, Leon asked Bob Cullen to get as many Capitol employees as possible to participate in the “ooh, ooh” part of the song. People showed up in droves and the recording session soon turned into a party. “Almost a hundred from the Capitol building, they came and did that to the beat and stayed,” he says. “It was fun. And it sounded great on record.”

Feeling that the group had captured a soon-to-be trend with the “ooh, ooh” and “don’t stop, get off” chants, Leon pleaded with Larkin Arnold—the head of Capitol’s Black Music Division—to push the single immediately before another act beat them to the punch. He remembers telling the executives at Capitol, “‘This is a new thing. If we get at the beginning of it, this will work because the people created it. And once they hear themselves on radio, it’s a trend.’”

Unfortunately, his please fell on deaf ears. “They didn't understand what it was at Capitol,” hes says. “And so it was one of them things, man—that record sat for almost two years.”

Leon’s frustration grew when songs started coming out to commercial success that featured a similar “ooh, ooh” in the mix. When Foxy released their 1978 single “Get Off” and it proved to be a major hit, it felt like it was too late for The Sylvers’ inventive single to gain any traction. But the group prevailed, eventually finding success with “Don’t Stop, Get Off” during their transition to Casablanca.

Despite the disappointing conclusion to his time at Capitol, the experience of having his input ignored provided a valuable lesson. “That showed me, as a producer, when you get a move like that, when you can catch something like that, it's important to always listen,” he says. “The powers that be didn't understand it, but I did.”

Events were already taking place that would help with Leon’s solo production journey before Forever Yours saw commercial release. The Sylvers had established themselves as a presence on Soul Train early on and quickly won the affections of host Don Cornelius and talent coordinator Dick Griffey (pictured above with Leon). When the two industry icons asked The Sylvers to be part of a Soul Train tour a few years before Griffey founded SOLAR, the siblings eagerly agreed.

During the tour the group worked the the Chi-Lites “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” (later sampled by on Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” in 2003) into their set with a choreographed step, much to the delight of Griffey. “Dick loved it, he would come on the side of the stage just to see us do that move,” Leon says. “He told me, ‘That that's a bad move Leon. That that's a bad move right there.’”

Leon’s friend Richard Aaron, who had co-produced Jerry Peters’ Blueprint For Discovery with Peters and Keg Johnson, helped cement the business relationship between Griffey and Leon by setting up a meeting between the two men. Never one to show up unprepared, Leon invested $10,000 to cut three master recordings to bring along with some unreleased Sylvers material he had produced.

One of the self-funded recordings later became the Dynasty hit “I Don't Want To Be A Freak (But I Can't Help Myself)” from their 1979 SOLAR debut Your Piece Of The Rock, which Leon produced front to back. The second song he recorded for the meeting was “Take Another Look at Love” from the group’s sophomore album Adventures In The Land Of Music, also entirely produced by Leon. Though the third song never became an official release, the $10,000 investmore proved more than worth it. “It couldn't happen any better,” he says. “Usually when you do that, you kind of write it off as learning, but those two songs royalty wise paid for itself and above paid for itself.”

Before any of the Dynasty material came out, however, Griffey wanted Leon to attend to Shalamar after being impressed by his material during their Richard Aaron-facilitated meeting. His first production credit and hit with the group was 1978’s “Take That to the Bank,” a rhythmically similar number to Dynasty’s “I Don't Want To Be A Freak (But I Can't Help Myself).”

Using the basic rhythm of the song he had cut as a demonstration track for Griffey, Leon focused specifically on the drums first and used a seasoned studio musician who later joined Dynasty to help enhance the song. “I had a cow bell, conga, timbale rig,” he says. “I would bring it studio. And I used Kevin Spencer, who used to play with The Sylvers at that time. He played bass and keyboards. I did the baseline and was singing the melodies and then so he jumped right in.”

Originally inspired by Robert Blake’s catch phrase on the detective TV show Baretta, “Take That to the Bank” established Leon as a producer by providing him with his first hit at SOLAR. The single also set to stage for a remarkable five-year run of successes as the label’s in-house sculptor of sound, with Billboard magazine dubbing him, “the man of the hour in R & B” in a 1981 article.

Stay tuned for Part 3 of my conversation with Leon Sylvers III, where we discuss the frequent sampling of his family’s catalog.

If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to the Micro-Chop newsletter to support independent music journalism.

The Leon Sylvers III Interview Part 1

The legendary multi-instrumentalist, producer, and songwriter reflects on homemade DIY drum kits, The Little Angels, The Sylvers' self-titled debut, and the creation of Foster Sylvers' "Misdemeanor."

The biography of Leon Sylvers III far exceeds a single article. His production and songwriting accomplishments require an entire book, yet even massive volume would fail to fully capture his rise as one of the most sought after creative minds in Black music during the 1970s and 1980s.

Despite Leon’s remarkable and varied career that spans across many decades, the excellent Questlove Supreme Episode #69 is the only long-form interview with him available online.

That changes now. Here is Part 1 of our conversation.

Growing up in Los Angeles near Adams and Crenshaw, Leon Sylvers III built his own drum kit out of coat hangers, a broom sweeper, and a box spring when he was just six years old. This exercise wasn’t simple child’s play, the eventual in-house producer for Dick Griffey's SOLAR Records was already demonstrating a preternatural ability to analyze and compose sound.

Utilizing a level of dedication and focus well beyond his years, he tried to mimic actual percussion as accurately as he could. “The hanger was the high hat, the broom—the hard part—were the rims and the snare, and the box spring was the kick,” he says. “I trying to create as close to the sound as possible.”

Not only was Leon mimicking actual kits, he would also retain his drum patterns and build them into full songs. “I would memorize the beat,” he says. “And if I had a title, a song that fit that beat and the melodies too, I would memorize everything. And when I would think about it, everything would flow, would pop up in my head, you know?”

By the time he was seven, his career started to transition from bedroom box spring drummer to professional artist. When his mother heard Leon and his siblings Charmaine, James, and Olympia, singing along with a three-part harmony for potato chip commercial one day, she told their father about the promising young vocalists. With a bit of coaching from their dad, the four Sylvers children were soon dubbed The Little Angels. They cut the 7” single “Santa Claus Parade”/”I'll Be A) Little Angel” on Riverdale Records, put out the 1960 Capitol Records 7” “Says You”/ “Olympia,” and earned appearances on such as TV shows like Make Room for DaddyYou Bet Your Life, and The Spike Jones Show.

Watching videos of The Little Angels’ TV guest appearances, it’s remarkable that they had the ability rehearse and perform together in such a cooperative, focused manner. Leon attributes this to several factors: the lack of easily accessible entertainment and distractions during their childhoods, a social climate where children were expected to be obedient to their parents, and the emergence of “the Motown sound.”

As much as he loved the overall Motown sound, Leon was especially taken with legendary bassist James Jamerson. Jamerson, along with drummer Benny Benjamin and the rest of Motown’s The Funk Brothers backing band, was instrumental in shaping the legendary label’s early signature aesthetic by providing the instrumentation on hits like “Dancing In The Street” by Martha and the Vandellas. “I loved the songs, but I was attracted to the bass,” he says. “Even at a young age, I loved the way it sounded.”

An opportunity to try to his own hand at bass presented itself when The Little Angels were booked at the Moulin Rouge, better known now as Nickelodeon on Sunset, alongside Dennis the Menace actor Jay North for a Christmas show in the early ‘60s. All the young performers were given gifts and Leon received a guitar at the conclusion of the show. He immediately went to work modifying the instrument, much like he did his makeshift drum kit from a few years prior. “I took the two high strings off because I knew a bass only had four,” he says. “And that's how I started learning bass. That's how detailed and strong willed I was in liking the bass over any other instrument.”

Though he didn’t realize it at the time, this decision to alter his guitar was a pivotal step in developing the novel sound that helped him become one of the most sought after songwriters and producers in the industry several years later. “The bass was the other half of my writing,” he says. “I always used it as a harmonic to my melody instead of just playing bottom. And that developed a style. All my basslines, even the hits back in the day with SOLAR, the bass is harmonic to the melody.”

Though Leon’s proficiency on the bass started to blossom, the popularity of The Little Angeles fizzled over time and the group eventually disbanded. After his parent’s separation, there was a relocation to Watts with his mother and siblings and a brief period where he was out of the public eye. But the 1970s brought about the reunion of Leon, Charmaine, James, and Olympia, and the addition of younger Sylvers siblings Edmund and Ricky.

By 1971 they had inked a deal with MGM Records’ Pride imprint and rebranded themselves as The Sylvers. Linking up with the well-established and highly successful Jerry Butler and co-producer Keg Johnson for their 1972 self-titled debut, the group became especially close to Johnson after an early meeting with him. He showed up with some songs Butler had pre-written for them to perform, but The Sylvers asked to audition their own material instead. Johnson was so impressed with their original music that he threw Butler’s songs in the trash. “I was a teenager then,” Leon says. “He was my guy after that. When he did that, we all looked at each other and smiled, and we knew what was up.”

Leon’s songwriting process for The Sylvers’ 1972 self-titled debut was just as memorable as his first meeting with Keg Johnson. When all was said and done, he ended up writing 7 out of the album’s 10 total tracks. And like any good wordsmith, he paid close attention to his surroundings for inspiration.

As an 11th grader at Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, he absorbed passionate lessons from a revolutionary history teacher named Mr. Simon. Not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom or the status quo, Mr. Simon would review the textbook version of a lesson, flip over his giant chalkboard, and tell the class, “This is what really happened,” before exploring different angles of the topic at hand. Apparently Mr. Simon’s lessons were progressive and against the grain that they became an issue of grave concern to the powers that be. FBI agents even showed up in his classroom one day and were rumored to be monitoring him.

As he wrote “Fool’s Paradise,” Leon found himself drawing upon Mr. Simon’s lessons and his language. “He used words and stuff like euphemisms, and I put that in the song,” he says. “That song was inspired by him.”

Scholarly inspiration wasn’t limited to “Fool’s Paradise,” as “Wish That I Could Talk to You” was also born in an academic setting. Apparently, Leon was busy coming up with the track’s lyrics during a math lesson when the teacher called on him for an answer. Not wanting to lose the rhythm of his work in progress and realizing he didn’t have a chance of answering it correctly, he used blunt honesty in his response and asked to be sent to detention. When his teacher pressed again him for an answer, his response remained the same “I said, ‘Ms. So and So, send me to detention. ‘Cause at this point I'm not even going to try to act like I know.’”

His decision to take the punishment and finish the song in detention turned out to be the right one. “Wish That I Could Talk to You” was The Sylvers’ first #1 single on the r & b charts and received significant airplay on KDAY.

With the group now a known entity in the record industry, Leon wasted little time creating his younger brother Foster’s hit song “Misdemeanor.”  Using a Sanyo radio cassette player/recorder, his bass, and his foot, he laid down a demo that would inform the album version later co-produced by Jerry Peters and Keg Johnson. Though the Sanyo tape recorder was simple, Leon believes it played an important role in capturing the desired sound for his little brother’s smash single. “That was a great machine,” he says. “It had the perfect condenser. It had one big, giant mono speaker.”

As he worked on the demo tape, Leon was so meticulous in the recording process that he even memorized the appropriate distance between his foot—which functioned as his drums—and the mic. “I put the cassette player at an angle,” he says. “I stomped my foot and then I started singing. The sound of the condenser mic was lovely. I was like, ‘Woah,’ I noticed how good it sounded.”

This method of a bass coupled with foot stomp percussion played into the Sanyo machine became a go-to process for Leon’s demos.

Though Keg Johnson and Jerry Peters are listed as co-producers, Leon recalls Johnson playing a larger role in the song’s creation. That said, he is quick to acknowledge the genius of Jerry Peters and his gift for song arrangement.

In addition to the killer bassline written by Leon, the song is notable for having a different percussion arrangement than the one he expected. “I knew the baseline was going to be exactly the way I did it. I didn't think the drums was going to be that beat. It was so different than what I put in my mind, but I was like, ‘OK, that'll probably work’ because the baseline was there. It was enough, ‘cause it worked, and we didn't have that much promotion and that record kind of took off.”

In another intriguing footnote to the “Misdemeanor” backstory, it was originally intended for The Sylvers’ sophomore effort The Sylvers II. That all changed when Keg Johnson showed the song to film/record producer, Incredible Bongo Band founder, and audiobook innovator Michael Viner, who was in charge of MGM’s Pride division at the time. When Viner heard that Leon and the rest of The Sylvers were waiting to release “Misdemeanor” with the next group project, he urgently insisted that it come out right away. “Keg told him about it and he heard it and said, ‘No, we gotta put that out now.’”

It instead ended up on Foster Sylvers’ impressive 1973 self-titled debut—released well before his 12th birthday—and became a surprise hit.

Click here to read Part 2 of my conversation with Leon Sylvers III.

If you enjoyed this article, please subscribe to the Micro-Chop newsletter to support independent music journalism.

"The SP is More Like My Sketching Tool": DJ Manipulator Breaks Down 'The Synth Tape'

From early Jean Michel Jarre and Synergy influences to his multifaceted production process, the Worcester, MA DJ/producer dissects his memorable concept album.

Growing up in Hempstead, Long Island, DJ Manipulator often heard jazz, merengue, and reggae eminanting from his family’s stereo system. Over the years he took note of his dad’s willingness to purchase music based on a random whim or an intriguing album cover, a technique that later turned into a critical part of his own crate digging excursions. “When I first started, I didn't really know what I was doing,” he says. “So if I saw some wild shit on the cover, I was gonna pick it up and try to do something.”

Once his father provided the initial foundation for his musical tastes, Manipulator’s brother introduced him to rap. By the time he relocated from Hempstead to Worcester, MA in the late ‘90s, the DJ/producer started to pay close attention to sample sources—leading to the eventual discovery of electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk.

After graduating high school he developed a particular fascination with Trans-Euro Express, Jean Michel Jarre’s Oxygène, and Synergy’s Cords. For Manipulator, part of the appeal of these classic, analog synth-heavy albums was both the novel sound and the unique process behind the music. “It wasn't like someone playing the drums or piano or whatever,” he says. “Some of these instruments are just someone turning knobs.”

Armed with a better understanding of rap production and sample sources, he picked up his first set of turntables in 2002 and a Roland SP-303 in 2003. He admits to rushing into 303 beats while tossing the manual to the side after listening to Madlib and MF DOOM’s classic Madvillainy, a decision that lead to some subpar initial output.

Regardless of the dissatisfaction he felt with his early work, Manipulator stayed the course and continued to work on his craft. In addition to dropping his debut Dusted The F#​%​k Out Vol. 1, the instrumental mega-mix 15 Minutes Of Madness!, and the Zilla Rocca-assisted single “Nobody's Safe From Crime” in 2012, he also continued to study synthesizer use in recorded music—with a particular focus on albums that utilized the ARP 2600 and classic Moog synths. Five years after putting out his first release he started working on a synth-based concept album of his own.

From the very first beat he laid down for The Synth Tape, Manipulator thought of the project as one singular unit that had to flow effortlessly from track to track. Pointing to the 2002 album Blazing Arrow as a particular inspiration, he notes how Blackalicious was able to make a cohesive LP that maintained a theme without sacrificing the quality of the music.

He also studied how the group used a sample of the word “arrow” to weave a common thread throughout their record. For The Synth Tape, Manipulator scoured the depths of YouTube to extract samples from instructional synth videos that could achieve the same function. He uses these vocal samples for a clever dual purpose, both to maintain the synthe-centric theme and to form his own thoughtful commentary on the relationship between artists and technology. As one sampled voice tells the listener towards the end of “Roland,” “There is more to the art of sound design than tweaking parameters of your favorite preset or twisting knobs.”

Despite the amount of work involved in finding all the various vocal tibets throughout the project, this process never felt tedious or dull. “I have good memories of making the beats and picking which vocal samples are going to go in between the songs,” he says.

To compose The Synth Tape instrumentals, Manipulator used a blend of live playing and sampling—about 20% of the sounds came from his microKORG or various VSTs, while the remaining 80% were sourced from vinyl. As part of his overall production process, he typically focuses on giving each and every sound the desired texture before he starts chopping his samples—a technique that proved critical on this album. “Anytime I sample a record, I run my samples the SP [404] first, just so I can either get that SP texture or experiment with affects,” he says.

The 404 also played a vital role when samples weren’t being used. “I can put my microKORG through my SP too,” he says. “Maybe I'll hit a chord and then try to mess with effects just to make it sound unique. I did that a lot on The Synth Tape actually.”

After using the SP-404 effects and filters to hit just the right notes, he incorporated other DAWs and samplers to bring his concept album to fruition. Editing and constructing each beat in Maschine, Manipulator eventually exported the song stems to Logic for mixing purposes. Then it was back to the 404 for some added accents effects. “I'd say the SP is more like my sketching tool,” he says.

Cutting and scratching also played as much a part of the production process as samples and synths. Expertly placed scratches are an key element on the flawlessly layered “Circuit Breaker,” the floaty follow-up “What The Fuzz,” and the remainder of the record.

Regardless of what technology and samples he used to create the final product, The Synth Tape flows seamlessly from beginning to end, just as intended. It makes a very compelling listen, whether it’s a casual one or an in-depth study of Manipulator’s technique and storytelling through sampling. With clever nods to his synth favorites, like the scratch heavy, haunting “Arp,” or the understated but equally powerful “Jarre,” this instrumental album is not to be missed.

Thanks for reading, see you on Monday!

“I Don't Believe in Giving Up on a Beat": An Elaquent Interview

The Mello Music Group artist on almost walking away from music, dusting off 14-year-old beats, and collaborating with Blu, Oddisee, and Guilty Simpson.

From an outsider’s perspective, the decade-plus leading up to Elaquent’s latest album Forever Is A Pretty Long Time likely seemed like an impressive hot streak. After self-releasing his debut In Colour, Vol. 1 in 2008, the Guelph, Ontario producer put out a remarkable 19 records in 12 years, including a string of successful projects with Toronto-based label URBNET.

After earning a release in Fat Beat’s prestigious Baker’s Dozen instrumental album series, he signed to Mello Music Group—home of Apollo Brown, Quelle Chris, Open Mike Eagle, Oddisee, and many other celebrated MCs and producers. When the label put out his debut Blessing In Disguise in February of 2019, Elaquent appeared poised to make major moves.

Beneath the surface, however, frustration brewed. The grind of continuously making music, keeping the public’s interest, and a social media side hustle that so many artists must contend with nowadays led to fatigue, and more recently, a near breaking point. “That's something that I have to sort of live with multiple times every year,” he says. “Last year in particular, I almost said just fuck music altogether on at least five different occasions.”

A modest initial response to his Forever Is A Pretty Long Time rollout—one that included movie poster-style artwork for the Guilty Simpson-assisted “Thread Count”—didn’t help. Comparing the online reception of his hard work to the clamor over the latest celebrity gossip made him question his career path. “I have my moments where I just feel unstoppable,” he says. “But I also have a lot days where I'm just like, ‘Why am I still doing this?’”

Thankfully, Elaquent was able to navigate the highs and lows and stay the course. His sophomore Mello Music Group effort hit shelves in February 2020 and has since earned strong praise from several outlets. Ashley Hampson wrote an especially glowing review for Exclaim! that praised the album’s drastic shift from his typically beat-focused releases, with guest MCs spitting verses on nine of the album’s 13 cuts.

Though the volume of guest vocalists is notable and may be a sharp contrast to his earlier records, the creative process for Forever Is A Pretty Long Time remained largely the same. Elaquent is still leaning heavily on FL Studio 8.0.0, a version of the famed software that came out 12 years ago.

His preferred version of Windows being in an “end-of-life” phase may force him to upgrade eventually, but until then, the veteran producer remains content leaving things as-is. “I'm kind of stubborn,” he says. “I'm a very strong believer and if it didn't break, don't fix it.”

To chop up samples for his expertly constructed FL Studio beats, Elaquent often puts the 22-year-old multi-track recording program Cool Edit Pro to work. He also us uses the DAW for much more advanced tasks in his composition process. “Especially in the case of this record, when I'm actually arranging shit with locals and so forth, it's usually Cool Edit where I'm doing my edits and sort of lining things up with the beat,” he says.

(Cool Edit Pro project session for “Reminisce” featuring Blu & Cicero courtesy of Elaquent.)

To set the perfect tone for the album, Elaquent dug into the archives and pulled out the “Forever Intro” from his 2006 session files. First composed in a much less refined period of his beatmaking process, he initially made the song by chopping up a sample from an producer forum sound pack with Cool Edit Pro. In an exercise of addition by subtraction, he removed the hi-hats, kick, and snare from the 14-year-old beat until it was something fresh and new. This process of breathing new life into old, unfinished beats is something Elaquent prides himself on. “I don't believe in giving up on a beat,” he says. “I've literally never deleted a beat that I started before.”

The album’s second track “Guidelines” is another highlight moment—one that almost didn’t happen. After connecting with Oddisee at the Toronto Jazz Festival, Elaquent first emailed him the instrumental while his labelmate was in the middle of a busy tour. With the album deadline looming and no reply email containing a recorded verse, Elaquent decided to reach out one more time before leaving the song as an instrumental. To his pleasant surprise, he received a complete song a few days later with deeply personal verses and a beautifully sung chorus. “I was kind of just in awe, like, ‘This is is one of the best songs that I've had my name attached to,’” Elaquent says. “I was borderline in tears just geeking out about it.”

Working with variety of MCs in addition to Oddisee was also a humbling experience, one that taught Elaquent when to scale back his production to let the verses shine and when to use the hook as a way to inject a different energy into the song. This was especially true on “Reminisce” featuring Blu and Cicero. “I basically had to sort of strip down the beat a little bit during the raps, otherwise, you know, it gets drowned out,” he says. “Then it's like, “Dude, you have Blue on this song. Let him shine on it.’”

On other standout tracks, Detroit legend Guilty Simpson bodies a beat outside of his typical wheelhouse with “Thread Count,” producer peer and MC brainorchestra. laces the head-nodding “Lottery Check,” and the stuttering drums, beautifully laid piano keys, and a fluttering accents on “Vices” provides the perfect instrumental outro.

Even though he was close to walking away from music recently, Elaquent’s latest project proves that his work is needed now more than ever. What was originally intended to be a mostly-instrumental LP morphed into an important entry in the producer album canon.

Regardless of what he cooks up next, the music on Forever Is A Pretty Long Time will undoubtedly endure.

Thanks for reading, see you on Friday!

“You and Me” by Penny & The Quarters is a Demo Recording Someone Found at an Estate Sale

One long-forgotten song's epic journey of rediscovery.

Image for post

Singing played a constant role in the lives Columbus, Ohio natives Nannie “Penny” Sharpe and her brothers Donald, John, and William “Preston” Coulter. Now known to the world as Penny & The Quarters, the four siblings always found a way to make music together, no matter what the occasion. “We’d sing all the time, in church, in the house,” Sharpe told Sean Michaels in a 2011 Guardian interview. “We’d stand around, helping whoever’s turn it was to wash dishes that week, singing together.”

After hearing that the Columbus record label Prix needed regional talent in 1969, they decided to take their love of music to the next level. The ensuing trip to Prix’s Harmonic Sounds studio landed Penny, Donald, John, and William a gig doing backup vocal work, leading to long days at filled with endless takes. Sharpe, who was only 19 at the time, didn’t always love the process. “We would go over there every Saturday morning and stay all day, from 7am to 4pm,” Sharpe told The Guardian. “I remember thinking: ‘Do we have to stay all day?’”

Image for post
An early photo of Nannie “Penny” Sharpe. (Photo Credit: Numero Group)

Once she honed her skills as a backup singer, Sharpe wanted a chance for her family to take center stage and eventually worked up the courage to ask Harmonic songwriter Jay Robinson to work with them. “I remember he used to emphasize to us to enunciate those words, and he liked the phrase ‘my, my, my, my’ to illustrate,” Sharpe told The Guardian.

After the group felt Robinson had appropriately polished their sound they hit the studio, with the Harmonic songwriter penning an original titled “You and Me” for their session. The fateful recording of their now-famous song was a one-take demo where listeners can hear Sharpe utilizing the “my, my, my, my” mentioned above several times.

Though the lone recording of the song is strikingly beautiful, Sharpe’s brother Preston later said the group was unaware someone was recording them as they performed it. “I didn’t even realize they were recording,” he told Eric Lyttle in a 2011 feature for The Other Paper, a now defunct Columbus alternative weekly that broke the story about the song’s origins. “We were just trying to get ourselves on record."

For Penny & The Quarters, the recording session at Harmonic Sounds was their one and only—changing consumer tastes and a lack of funds led to the studio’s eventual demise. After Sharpe’s brief stint as a backup vocalist, she worked as a mail sorter for 30 years before retiring. The group’s demo reel went into storage and remained untouched for the next 35 years.

Then, according to the Eccentric Soul: The Prix Label liner notes, Columbus record collector Blake Oliver was checking local yard sales for hidden gems in 2005—a regular Saturday morning ritual for him. During his travels he stumbled upon an estate sale and picked up a box of tapes that caught his eye. The tapes eventually made their way to Numero Group owner Rob Sevier and renowned Ohio soul expert Dante Carfagna. After giving them a listen, Carfagna and Sevier realized they were demos and unreleased recording from Harmonic Sounds.

The Numero Group fell in love with “You and Me” right away, but couldn’t figure out who the performers were. Though they talked to anyone and everyone they could find who knew about the Columbus scene, “including retired DJs, producers, and important local artists,” nobody could tell them anything about Penny & The Quarters.

Despite their lack of knowledge regarding the song, The Numero Group put it on their Eccentric Soul: The Prix Label compilation. They admitted to neglecting it a bit at first, as “it may’ve ended up a bit buried on our original compilation, as #18 of 19 tracks.”

The story of Penny & The Quarters then took another surprising turn when Ryan Gosling visited his PR agent two years after the release of Eccentric Soul: The Prix Label. During the visit, his agent played him some songs from the compilation and Gosling was immediately struck by “You & Me.” A short time later he approached Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance about using the song in the film, giving the unreleased demo cut from Ohio yet another act in its ever-evolving story.

Image for post
An early photo of The Quarters. (Photo Credit: Numero Group)

As “You & Me” made it’s way from forgotten demo to soul compilation to Ryan Gosling movie in the span of 5 years, Penny & The Quarters were unaware of the song’s resurgence. According to The Other Paper, that changed when Sharpe’s daughter Jayma was having dinner with a friends and one of them brought up the recording and the mystery surrounding the unknown artists responsible for it.

After she did some cursory internet research, Jayma realized that the singer was her mother—resulting in a string of happily frantic texts to her mom announcing the good news. Upon learning of her song’s resurgence some 40 years later, Sharpe couldn’t believe it had found such a broad and passionate fan base. “It is a cute song, but I had totally forgotten about it,” she told Jeffrey Sheban in a 2011 Columbus Dispatch interview.

Sadly, Jay Robinson passed away before the song made it on the Blue Valentine soundtrack, and Sharpe’s brother Donald died in 2014. Despite the loss of some of the original artists involved with the demo, it continues to endure.

“You and Me” seems to have taken on a life of its own over the past five decades and will likely continue to inspire new listeners for many years to come. As The Numero Group said on their website, the song, “could not be suppressed: not when Prix failed to release it; not when Penny & the Quarters were forgotten; not when Numero stuck it at the bitter end of a much overlooked compilation.”

(This article is a modified and updated version of a story that originally appeared on the Micro-Chop Medium publication.)

Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!

Loading more posts…