The Equipment and Creative Process of Jean Grae, Q-Tip, Linafornia, and Easy Mo Bee

A look at the artistic evolution and gear of four notable producers.


Jean Grae

Jean Grae’s 30-year beatmaking journey first began when she acquired a “terrible Gemini mixer with ABCD loop buttons” as a teenager. Unlike some other producers, she did not fall in love with her first piece of gear. “It was waaack,” she tweeted in 2018.

Thankfully her underwhelming Gemini mixer didn’t deter her from making instrumentals in the future. She tried her hand with the E-mu SP-1200—one of the most important samplers in hip-hop history—but it was a later stint with an Ensoniq keyboard sampler that truly lit her creative fire. “I found keys were my home when I got an EPS 16+,” Grae wrote in a 2018 tweet. “I’ve used everything else since, but keyboards/playing are my place of comfy.”

According to Grae, the years right before the turn of the century were pivotal in developing her production chops. “I spent most of the late ‘90's trapped in the attic of Makin' Records glued to the EPS 16 plus,” she wrote in a 2009 tweet. “Good times.” 

It was during these marathon beatmaking sessions that she created the late-90s underground classics “Dynamic” and the subsequent remix for the late Brooklyn rapper Pumpkinhead. Over a decade after the song’s release esteemed producer Marco Polo tweeted, “Man ‘Dynamic’ is still one of those beats I wish I made.”

Grae continues to make vibrant, emotionally resonant beats today, including a recent highlight moment from the 2018 collaborative LP Everything’s Fine with her husband Quelle Chris. The lump-in-throat inducing production on the album’s conclusion “River,” coupled with her raw and brutally honest lyrics about childhood trauma and domestic abuse, make for an incredibly potent listening experience.

In the end, it seems that kind of honest emotional response is her guiding force while she works on new material. “I don’t know if I ever feel completely solid that everything is in place,” she wrote in a 2018 tweet. “I think I always go for what makes me FEEL the most. Usually that means what makes me cry. Depends. This album, ‘River.’”

Q-Tip

Long before a 30-year career in the music industry was even conceivable, A Tribe Called Quest MC and producer Q-Tip started out as a student of his father’s jazz record collection. At a certain point simply listening to the music wasn’t enough, so he put his parent’s cassette deck to work as a makeshift sampler. Using the pause tape method he repeated certain sections of his dad’s albums, sometimes rewinding the desired part of a sample up to one hundred times.

After drafting an early version of “Bonita Applebum” at age 15, a 16-year-old Tip made pause tape demo versions of many beats from Tribe’s groundbreaking debut People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Though DIY tape loops played a key role in their first album, other equipment was critical in advancing from pause tape demos to the official release fans know and love today. According to a 2009 Okayplayer interview with Ginger Lynn, Tip used an E-mu SP-12 to make beats for the album and started messing with the more advanced SP-1200 towards the end of the recording process.

In the same interview Tip explained that he started using the SP-1200 in tandem with an Akai S950 on Tribe’s Low End Theory—a popular equipment combination used at various times by Easy Mo Bee, J Dilla, Lord Finesse, Large Professor, and countless other influential producers. In fact, it was Large Pro who helped Tip reach new heights with one of these samplers. “Large Professor showed me how to work the SP-1200,” he told Keith Murphy in a 2011 Vibe interview. “I had all my pause tapes and ideas, but he used to show me how to actually make tracks.”

The Akai MPC also entered the fold when Tribe started recording 1993’s Midnight Marauders. Tip later upgraded to the MPC3000 on the group’s fourth effort Beats, Rhymes and Life, a progression that makes sense given collaborator and friend J Dilla’s affinity for the 3000 and his role producing tracks on the album as part of The Ummah.

By 2009 Tip had no set piece of gear and was rather open-minded about how he made beats. But 2012 saw the acquisition of an API 3288 32-channel, 22-monitor analog recording and mixing console, a purchase that would inform much of his production from 2014-2017.

In addition to putting the console to work on Tribe’s swan song We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, he also used the console for collaborations with Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, and Pusha T. “The circuitry, the way it was designed, the EQs are very concise and exact,” he told Eric Allen in a 2017 Vintage King interview. “You get a real sharpness and there is a clarity to it. You can hear the difference.”

Linafornia

Life circumstances were bright for producer Linafornia in 2013. In addition to successfully balancing a job and her education, she landed a coveted gig in Stones Throw Records’ street team promoting their upcoming documentary Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton. Then a severe car accident forced her to put everything on the back burner while she focused on the healing process.

The folks at Stones Throw responded to her predicament with sensitivity and kindness, sending her care packages loaded with a variety of new CDs to with her difficult recovery. In addition to providing some peace of mind, the music also nurtured her creative spirit. “That’s what pretty much inspired me to want to make music myself,” she told me in a 2019 Micro-Chop interview.

As she searched for a an affordable production setup during her recovery, it became evident that the full setup of turntables and a mixer was out of her price range. Thankfully the compact and ever-popular Roland SP-404 sampler provided a cost-effective alternative. By July of 2014 she had the confidence and health to do her first live show with fellow 404 enthusiast ALWAYZ PROFLIFIC.

Maintaining her love of the 404 over time, Linafornia also incorporated other software and samplers into her repertoire for her 2016 debut album. “I love FL Studio,” she told Micro-Chop. “My album [YUNG] is really like a melting pot of FL Studio, the 404, and the 555. I just make whatever works, whatever sounds good.”

Though she still make use of the aforementioned FL Studio and Rolan SPs, 2019 saw Linafornia shift her focus a bit towards producing with Ableton. Posting many of her latest creations on Soundcloud, she’s putting an emphasis on moving away from samples and creating original sounds to give herself more financial freedom. “I’m really excited to work on more original production and sampling myself just so I don’t have to worry about sample clearances so much,” she told Micro-Chop. “It will open up more opportunities for me to monetize my art. I’m really excited about that.”

Easy Mo Bee

Like Q-Tip and many other producers of his era, Easy Mo Bee’s first forays into beatmaking took place with a cassette deck. He made some of his earliest pause tape beats alongside his one-time neighbor Norman G of the The Bluez Brothers, a production duo who would later contribute to Biggie’s Ready To Die album.

Mo Bee’s pause tape beats moved from the bedroom into the studio when he added a Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard to his outfit. Despite the SK-1’s chuckle-worthy 1.4-second sampling time, it has a surprisingly rich and varied role throughout the history of recorded music. Large Professor employed the sampler in his early productions while Mutant Academy producer Tuamie used the sampler extensively on his Water Loops debut to achieve a vintage sound.

Mo Bee used his Macgyver-like tape deck / SK-1 setup to craft the demo versions of “Another Victory” and “Calling Mr. Welfare” for Big Daddy Kane’s 1989 LP It’s A Big Daddy Thing. Though the beats were later recreated with the aid of a studio engineer and a Synclavier, it was during these early beatmaking sessions that he demonstrated the ingenuity and talent that would make him one of the most in-demand producers of the 1990s.

By the early-‘90s Mo Bee had moved on to an SP-1200 and Akai S950, but a landmark legal case proved to be the true watershed moment in his artistic life. When Biz Markie used an uncleared sample of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again” on his 1991 I Need A Haircut album, it lead to a costly and historic lawsuit that would forever make sampling a more expensive and restrictive process. In the wake of the suit, Mo Bee recalled an emergency meeting with his late one-time manager Francesca Spero where she told him not to sample many well-known artists anymore. He was devastated.

Instead of dwelling on the new limitations imposed on his creative process, he decided to look at the situation as an opportunity to reinvent himself. Forgoing straight loops, Mo Bee committed himself to taking very tiny pieces of sounds from different records and using his SP-1200 to piece them together into new compositions. He even played out basslines live on records like “Runnin,’” a 1995 2Pac and Biggie collaboration from the One Million Strong compilation. “I played the bassline live all the way through that record from the SP-1200 through multi-pitch,” he told Dana Scott in an incredibly in-depth 2014 HipHopDX interview. “It was like a bass guitar strumming, and if I messed up, it was like ‘Yo bring it back, and plug me in.’”

Though production equipment has evolved considerably since Mo Bee first picked up his 1200 and S950, he continues to use both samplers as he main tools of the trade. He even showcases some of his classic beats with his 1200 live on Instagram, including a tribute to his late collaborator and friend Craig Mack. It’s been a long time since he first laid down tracks like “Flava In Ya Ear,” but Easy Mo Bee still sounds as fresh as ever.

ORIGINAL #SP1200 FILES
Made with less than 8 seconds of sampling time
#RIP #CraigMack May 10, 1971 - March 12, 2018

Flava In Ya Ear - #CraigMack
Produced by @therealeasymobee
Recorded at #TheHitFactory #NYC
From the album #ProjectFunkTheWorld
(Badboy/Arista Records 1994)
March 14, 2018

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Mannie Fresh's DJ Roots

Looking back at the super producer's family influence, legendary live shows, and bounce music contributions.


Long before he established himself as an elite producer through his extensive work with Cash Money Records, New Orleans native Mannie Fresh saw his father develop a reputation as one of the cities best DJs during the early 1980s. Known for more than just his considerable skills, the elder Fresh had a reputation for playing sets that bridged generation gaps. “My dad went from the Motown era to the streets, to hip hop,” Fresh told Andrew Nosnitsky in a 2007 interview for his now defunct Cocaine Blunts blog.

Not only did his dad know how to control the party with a meticulous song selections pulled from many genres, he also fed his family with the fruits of his DJ craft. “I got two sisters and me, my mom, a few step brothers or whatever and my dad provided for us as a street DJ,” Fresh told Cocaine Blunts. “So you know, this is genuine love. I’m second generation.”

Given his father’s growing legend and his family’s general love of music, it seemed inevitable that Fresh would eventually enter the family trade. For some reason, however, music didn’t quite take at first. His parents tried to bolster his enthusiasm by giving him instruments and equipment for Christmas, but he often responded with disinterest or indifference. “Somebody got an Atari game, I got a trumpet,” he told Andrew Nosnitsky in a 2011 Red Bull Music Academy interview. “This stuff started to just stack up.” 

Despite his initial lukewarm feelings towards making music, a few key events helped spark a desire to try his own hand at DJing. According to a 2005 Electronic Musician articles by Bill Murphy, a pair of turntables that were gifted to him in elementary school and the seminal 1981 DJ record “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” helped set the wheels in motion initially.

Then his father put a 13-year-old Fresh to work hauling equipment and records to some of his early ‘80s gigs at “hole-in-the-wall spots.” Seeing the reaction his father got from various women at the clubs further motivated Mannie to hone his skills on the turntables. “It’s crazy to say it, but I’m gonna say it—these women used to go crazy when my dad played,” he told Red Bull Music Academy. “I was like, ‘You know what? I wanna do this.’”

Now possessing the necessary internal desire to develop his abilities, Fresh had to confront the fact that he had a less-than ideal setup. “The first turntables I had were some Toshiba belt-drives with this big old club mixer the size of a computer screen,” he told Electronic Musician.

The clumsiness of belt drive turntables and frequent skipping that happens when DJ maneuvers are executed on them would likely drive a modern DJ insane, but Fresh used the limitations of his setup to his advantage. “I learned to do some magical things with a belt-drive,” he told Electronic Musician. “I didn't have pitch control or none of that, but I could lock my songs up tight.”

After a few years of self-directed practice and live gigs, a golden opportunity for career advancement presented itself when Fresh’s friend DJ Wop introduced him to his cousin, successful mobile DJ, and New York City native Denny D. Having heard of his DJ prowess through the grapevine, Denny asked if the up and coming teenager would audition a live set. Fresh’s subsequent performance left Wop and Denny D in awe.

A short time later the three DJ’s formed the group New York Incorporated with future No Limit MC Mia X. Now part of an established crew, Mannie and his New York Incorporated counterparts dominated the vibrant live music scene in New Orleans for many years. “That was my first family, my first DJ group and we pretty much ran the city from the 80s to the 90s,” he told Cocaine Blunts. “Ain’t a house we ain’t been to, ain’t a school dance we didn’t do.”

With countless live shows under his belt, Fresh saw an opportunity to take take his live sets to unprecedented heights and make people rethink their expectations of what a DJ was capable of. As any DJ knows, intense innovation in live performances can be a double edged sword. Straying from the norm might earn you a fiercely loyal fanbase and a stellar reputation, but it can also alienate audiences and empty dance floors in seconds.

Regardless of the calculated risks, Fresh frequently turned his DJ sets into live performances that featured his emerging keyboard skills. Using a drum machine backing track, he would reply hit records and other songs with his own unique twist. The response was overwhelmingly positive more often than not. “I would stop the party and put my 808 on and break out with one of my analog keyboards, a Moog, a Juno or something and play other peoples songs, funk it how I wanted to funk it,” he told Cocaine Blunts. “And then it became a big thing.”

In addition to his unique live playing, Fresh was also instrumental in introducing a cornerstone sample of bounce music and southern rap—The Showboys “Drag Rap,” which is perhaps better known now as “Triggerman.” Though Memphis innovator and underground rap tape legend DJ Spanish Fly is thought to be the man responsible for bringing the obscure New York rap group’s failed single to the south, Mannie also recalled his role as an early innovator who put “Drag Rap” to work during performances. “I was one of the first people to take ‘Triggerman’ and flip it over to the instrumental before T Tucker was even doing it,” he told Sam Backer during a 2017 Afropop Worldwide interview. “He was just one of the guys who was first to record it.”

Fresh also believes the way he incorporated deep basslines into bounce productions and mixed those elements with famous pop songs helped introduce bounce to new listeners outside of New Orleans. “I would take an old ‘80s song, like Tears For Fears or something, and mix it on top of a bounce beat and loop it,” he told Afropop Worldwide. “People would be like, ‘I heard that song somewhere but I don’t know where.’”

30 years after establishing himself with his early DJ sets, Fresh showed an NPR audience that he still had the magic in 2014 when he performed a live DJ/remix set using the Beatmaker 2 app on his iPad. Staying true to his DJ roots, Fresh wowed the onlookers with his bounce renditions of Earth, Wind & Fire, Hall and Oates, Janet Jackson, country music, and much more. The joy on his face throughout the performance is a reminder that no matter how many platinum plaques he might earn as a producer, DJing is still Mannie Fresh’s first love.

When breaking down his set for the audience he had this valuable insight into why DJing and bounce remixes remain still such an integral part of his creative process:

“If I can’t get your attention I’ll just figure out a way to remix the song. I’m like, ‘Hey, if you like country, I’ll put some New Orleans behind it and I’ll get your attention.’ I have songs in here from Hall and Oates to whatever you want to call it. Real talk, that’s bounce, where you’ll be like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe he put that beat behind that.’ But, I think, you know, when I’m trying to get your attention, that’s where I’m at. That’s what I do.”


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J Dilla Disassembled His Cassette Deck to Extend Certain Samples

How one of rap music’s most storied producers used technological innovation to make incredible pause tape beats.

In mid-October of 2006, Cincinnati native and esteemed veteran producer Hi-Tek dropped his sophomore album Hi-Teknology²: The Chip. Featuring Common, Devin The Dude, Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes, and many other talented MCs spitting verses over his expert production, the record received widespread praise from critics.

Hi-Teknology²: The Chip contains no shortage of highlight verses, but the most moving moment on the entire project may be an answering machine message from the late J Dilla during the opening of “Music For Life.”

The Detroit icon, who had tragically passed away just eight months prior to the album’s release, had the following to say about his lifelong love of sound. “Music is — my total existence, dawg, straight up/Everything in my life revolves around music/It’s like, I can’t get in a relationship/’Cause I’m still with my first love, which is music/You know what I’m sayin’? For real/It’s the reason I’m here.”

Dilla’s unrivaled passion for creating sound was evident throughout his life, but when and where did the relationship with his first love start?

According to a 2003 interview with Rimehis reverence for making music began with elementary school music class and piano/drum lessons in church. Then Run DMC dropped “Sucker MCs” and Whodini released “Big Mouth” in 1984, sparking a neverending fascination with music production. “Those songs were the first time I heard the beats that weren’t melodic—just drums,” he told Rime.

Dilla, who started building his skills as a DJ at a young age and played records in a local park when he was two, began a multi-year odyssey of making pause tape beats not long after hearing “Sucker MCs” and “Big Mouth.” Based on observations from some of his collaborators, Dilla’s pause tape productions were a cut above most after just a few years of practice.

According to late Slum Village rapper Baatin, a teenaged Dilla would pick up him, Dilla’s brother, and T3 up in his Escort and drive them around Detroit while showcasing his latest pause button concoctions. Some of the samples he flipped were pretty surprising. “He would come and pick us up in the Escort and play these beats from the song ‘Louie Louie’ that he had sampled on two tape decks,” Baatin told Bill Murphy in a 2006 Electronic Musician article.  

No matter what song he sampled, the music that came through the speakers often left the passengers in awe. “We’d roll around listening to beats he made with the pause and record on two tape decks,” Baatin told journalist Ronnie Reese in his timeless 2006 Wax Poetics cover story on Dilla. “He was just a genius at that, even back then. The beats sounded so perfect.”

Dilla’s pause button finesse was so impressive that it even lead to an early, unreleased Slum Village track. But how did he manage to make something so damn good with such restrictive equipment? His cousin and early collaborator Que. D shed some light on the topic in the Wax Poetics cover story

In true DIY fashion the late Detroit producer disassembled his cassette deck and modified it so he could elongate specific parts of the tape and sample them. This next level ingenuity proved to Que. D that his cousin was operating on a different wavelength than most of his peers. “That shit, to me, showed that he was more than a beat maker—he was like a mad scientist,” he told Wax Poetics.

Que. D wasn’t the only one impressed by Dilla’s production prowess. After meeting Detroit singer, songwriter, producer, musician, and former Parliament member Amp Fiddler, Dilla showed him some of his cassette deck beats. Like others who had been lucky enough to hear the iconic producer’s early work, Fiddler heard talent and potential. “There were a few drops—but for the most part it was pretty damn precise,” he told Kelly “K-Fresh” Frazier, Tate McBroom, and T3 for Real Detroit Weekly’s excellent 2006 cover story on Dilla.

Fiddler assigned Dilla some homework afterwards to see if he could take his talents beyond the tape deck. “I told him he needs to go home and separate all the samples to load into the MPC, and he came back with all the samples separated and mapped out exactly how he wanted it,” he told Real Detroit Weekly. “As time went on, he got better and better.”

As Dilla honed his skills and the quality of his output increased, he experimented with several samplers after leaving pause tape beats behind. He started with an E-mu SP-12, moved on to the more powerful SP-1200, and then brought an Akai S950 intro the fold while producing songs like “The Jam” for Richmond, Virginia native Skillz.

He later he switched over to AKAI MPC60 and 60II, before eventually settling on the MPC3000 as his favorite. “I’ve tried other samplers but the 3000 is best for me for what I like to do,” he said in his final interview, a 2006 Scratch magazine piece written by Alvin Blanco.

Dilla continued to amaze listeners with his ability to make magic on any and every piece of equipment until the end of his life, creating the majority of Donuts on a Roland SP-303 in his hospital bed before succumbing to health complications from what was reported as both the rare blood disorder thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) and lupus.

Regardless of what equipment or process he used, it’s the enduring emotion and resonance of Dilla’s music that matters. He crafted songs that took listeners to a higher place, whether it was early pause tape beats played for his high school friends, guest production for other artists, collaborative albums, or an instrumental release of his own.

In the 14 years since his passing Dilla’s influence shows no signs of losing any luster. The sounds that started out as extended samples from his tape deck and grew into trademark off-kilter MPC drums and untouchable sample chops will undoubtedly continue to endure.

(This article is a modified and updated version of a story that was originally published on Micro-Chop.)


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