The Rise of Memphis Rap Tapes

I hope this article finds you well. You may have noticed I haven’t published anything under the Micro-Chop umbrella for the past six weeks. I should have addressed this earlier but I’ve been burried with a summertime move and one of the longest, most involved pieces I’ve ever written. Both of these things have consumed much of my summer and left me with little time for anything else.

For those of you who are paying subscribers, I took the liberty of pausing payments around the beginning of my hiatus. In other words, no Micro-Chop subscribers will be charged for their subscriptions for the time being. I will follow up soon with some additional news about Micro-Chop and some thoughts on where I will direct my energy for the rest of 2021 and beyond.

For now, I’d like to direct your attention to my 7000+ word piece for Reverb titled “The Rise of Memphis Rap Tapes.” It’s an extremely deep dive on the history of independent and self-released Memphis rap tapes from the ‘90s.

The article starts with early work by DJ Sound, DJ Soni D and Kool K, Gangsta Pat, 8Ball & MJG, DJ Spanish Fly, and other Memphis originators and works its way up throughout the decade while covering many other artists. It also includes original interviews with Memphis MC/producer pioneers Grimm (then known as Lil Grim) and Shawty Pimp.

At over 7000 words the article is obviously very long. Expecting you to read the entire thing is a big ask. I also worked on this piece off and on for the better part of a year, so I hope you’ll at least give it a quick look.

If you prefer to stick to the music and skip the reading part, I understand. Luckily for you I compiled a 114-track YouTube playlist of Memphis rap cuts from the ‘90s including everything from well-known classics to long forgotten hidden gems. It’s definitely worth checking out if you have even the slightest interest in this genre.

It starts off with 187 Family’s essential Solo Tape (1996) cut “Drinking” and follows along with the narrative of my piece before switching to artists and recordings I wasn’t able to include because of word and time limits around the 52-track mark.

In addition to the Reverb article, I also recently made a long thread about the pioneering women of Memphis rap. If you’re on Twitter I hope you’ll take a minute to check it out.

And here’s the subsequent 30-track YouTube playlist. It starts off with Tommy Wright III’s Meters-sampling, Princess Loko-assisted banger “Comin For ‘94” and moves into a bunch of heaters by artists like The Legend Lady J, La Chat, Gangsta Boo, Boss Bytch, Ann P, and others.

That’s all for now, I’ll check back in soon with some more writing and updates on the newsletter.

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3 Cover Songs by Ahmad Jamal

A look at the legendary jazz pianist's interpretations of Steely Dan, Dusty Springfield, and Foster Sylvers.

After taking up piano at age three, renowned bandleader, composer, and jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal put out his debut record Ahmad Jamal Plays (later re-released as Chamber Music of the New Jazz) in 1955. He has since released 12 LPs with the Ahmad Jamal Trio and 72 solo albums - including the celebrated 2019 effort Ballades.

Jamal’s name is also well known in the world of rap music. Common, Nas, De La Soul, Jay-Z, and countless others have crafted classics by using his songs as a sample source.

With so many albums to choose from, one could spend a very long time immersing themselves in music by Ahmad Jamal. Today I want to narrow the focus a bit and take a look at his cover songs.

In 1974 Jamal released Jamalca on 20th Century Records. This all-cover album is currently unavailable on streaming and unknown to a many modern listeners, which is a shame. The project boasts heavy use of strings, a mix of Jamal on Fender Rhodes and traditional piano, and beautiful background vocals by Marilyn Haywood, Vivian Haywood, and Morra Stewart. Soul vocalist Chuck Colbert - who earned himself a slew of writing and arrangement credits during his career - also sang on the record while Dorothy Ashby and Ramsey Lewis collaborator Richard Evans provided arrangement and bass.

The cover version of Foster Sylvers’ “Misdemeanor” is one of several standout moments on the album. A stirring orchestral arrangement at the opening of the track sounds incredible while Jamal’s range on the Fender Rhodes is on full display. The song also finds an effective balance of taking some pretty dramatic departures from the original before bringing it back to the melody of the hook. If you enjoy this cut, chances are you’ll be a fan of Jamalca as a whole.

“Black Cow” from Jamal’s 1979 release One is also a winner. Serving as the leadoff track on the b-side of the vinyl, this interpretation of Steely Dan features Jamal on the Clavinet while Steve Bowling is credited with handling duties on the Fender Rhodes. The song is further aided by accomplished vocalists Eloise LawsStephanie Spruill, and Virginia Ayers, resulting in a breezy and immersive reimagining of a classic. Though One is not considered among his many classic albums, this song and several others make the project well worth tracking down. Like Jamalca, it is not available on streaming as of yet.

Last but not least is the beautiful, upbeat cover Dusty Springfield’s “The Look of Love” from the 1968 release Tranquility. Composed by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Springfield’s version was featured in the 1967 James Bond parody Casino Royale. In the 54 years since its initial release close to 170 artists have covered the tune, including The Delfonics, Isaac Hayes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and Nina Simone.

Drummer and Ahmad Jamal Trio member Frank Gant really shines on this one, providing remarkably crisp, clear, and quick drum hits that give the opening of the track a breakbeat kind of a feel. Frequent Jamal collaborator Jamil Sulieman’s handiwork is also impressive, as his heavy hits of bass on the opening of the song make you feel the composition on a deeper level. Ahmad Jamal is of course masterful on the piano, demonstrating an ability to shine as an individual musician while fitting perfectly within the ensemble as a whole.

In the end, listening to his Ahmad Jamal’s work is perhaps the best way to fully grasp his artistic accomplishments and influence over modern music. From covers to originals, he truly is a remarkable, one of a kind talent.

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Every Micro-Chop Interview from 2020 and 2021

In-depth conversations with DJ Harrison, JWords, Brainorchestra., sndtrak, Buscrates, J-Zone, Leon Sylvers III, DJ Manipulator, Elaquent, and Nothing_Neue.

I’ve worked hard to keep Micro-Chop afloat in 2020 and 2021. That said, the emotional toll of COVID and returning to teaching full-time in January 2020 have made it next to impossible to maintain a decent writing schedule. Despite my struggles to keep my writing life afloat, I’ve penned some pieces that I am very proud of. I want to highlight a few of those today.

First, if you want to check out the full Micro-Chop newsletter archives, click here. I write about lots of different stuff: cover songs, video game scores, unexpected sample sources, interesting production techniques, and more. You can also check out a list of the most popular pieces. I hope you enjoy some of these stories.

I also wanted to highlight the interviews I published in 2020 and 2021. It was an honor to conduct each and every one of these conversations. I hope you enjoy them and learn something from the insights of the artists.

Below is a full list of the 2020/2021 Micro-Chop interviews in reverse chronological order. Dig in and let me know what you think.

1) "Keep Multi-Tracking on That Level": A DJ Harrison Interview

2) The Musical Journey of JWords

3) Revisiting Brainorchestra.'s 'The Wizard's Scroll'

4) 'AND THEN THERE WAS LIGHT': A sndtrak Video Interview

5) "I Just Ride the Wave and Roll with Vibe": A Buscrates Interview

6) "I Would Spend Four Days Trying to Get the Perfect Drum Sound": A J-Zone Discussion

7) The Leon Sylvers III Interview Part 3

8) The Leon Sylvers III Interview Part 2

9) The Leon Sylvers III Interview Part 1

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

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

12) "I Just Need to Sit Still"—The Making of Nothing_Neue's 'RE: Collections'

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"Keep Multi-Tracking on That Level": A DJ Harrison Interview

The Richmond, VA artist explains influential instructors, karaoke machine multi-tracking, the influence of Ohbliv, reel-to-reel recording, his Christmas record, and more.

Born in Petersburg, Virginia in 1988, multi-instrumentalist and producer DJ Harrison  was surrounded by sound from the very beginning of his life. His father Lovander Shelton Jr.’s radio show on Magic 99 FM introduced listeners to funk, R & B, and soul that ranged from well-known acts to deep cuts. Harrison’s music aficionado mother also boasted a stellar vinyl collection of her own.

This steady diet of great music soon led to an ever-evolving fascination with all aspects of recording and distribution. “Just knowing what it takes to make a record from point A to Z,” he says. “It's kind of been my passion, even just from when I was a little kid.”

After his parents separated, Harrison’s mother took notice of his passion and helped him him build up an arsenal of gear to make his own music. First came a toy drum set before he started elementary school, then an amatuer keyboard a few years later. By the time he was six he added a trumpet to his collection and continued to endlessly immerse himself in an ongoing journey of self improvement.

When he entered Thomas Dale High School in the fall of 2002 he became part of the school’s drumline. The former director of bands Jason Morehouse and Harrison’s other teachers quickly realized he had perfect pitch - the ability to sing or play a desired note without a musical reference. Many instructors took note of his potential and played a role in his development, but nobody pushed him harder or helped him improve more than Mr. Morehouse. “Looking back on it, he was one of the most supportive people that’s responsible of me being who I am,” he says. “Seriously.”

The beginning of high school also marked a period of increased experimentation with home recording. Early efforts and cover songs were captured with an elaborate system of DIY multi-tracking on a dual tape deck karaoke machine. “One was the record deck and one was the playback deck,” he says. “You record the drums on the record channel of the tape. Once that's done, you rewind it, have the drums played on the playback tape, and then on the brand new tape you record the drums and the bass. And then you keep swapping the tapes and keep multi-tracking on that level.”

Harrison eventually upgraded to a TASCAM MF-P01 4-track and the recording process suddenly seemed like a breeze. He still owns the multi-track recorder today.

During his college years Harrison became a standout percussionist in Virginia Commonwealth University’s jazz studies program. In between gigs and practice he developed a deeper appreciation for producers like Madlib and the way they melded soulful records from a bygone era with modern rap production techniques.

It was his connection with friend and Richmond-based producer Ohbliv, however, that left an especially strong impression. In Harrison’s eyes, few people reimagined the sounds the past with the same potency. Ohbliv’s work still evokes a uniquely strong emotional reaction within him today.

Like Ohbliv, Harrison found the Roland SP-404 to be a good fit for his production process. “I use the 404 for a lot of looping and a lot of cutting, chopping, and kind of gluing in different samples and whatnot together - for effects and things of that sort,” he says.

The purchase of an MPC1000 in 2007 enabled him to further fuse live playing and sampling, especially with regards to his percussion. “It came with the stock drums and then it came with an extra memory card that I ended up putting a lot of my drum sounds on,” he says.

The ability to toy with the machine’s quantize feature for select sections of drum beats proved especially satisfying. “Instead of putting the whole thing to a grid and quantizing the whole thing, there's certain parts of the drum beat that you can quantize but then kind of have it be loose around the actual framework.”

Harrison likes to record his songs with two particular devices in his beloved Richmond-based home recording space Jellowstone Studio. One is the Otari MX-5050 reel-to-reel, a machine that immediately won him over with its impeccable sound. “It's more heavy duty - a little cleaner.”

Then there’s the Akai 4000DS 4-track, two-channel, stereo reel-to-reel tape recorder that has “a certain tinge to it.” You can hear music recorded with the 4000DS on solo efforts like 2015’s TapeCookies and the 2014 Butcher Brown release All Purpose Music. Though the reel-to-reel played a pivotal role in helping him achieve the desired sound for many projects, it cost him next to nothing. “I got the Akai machine from a thrift store for 30 bucks,” he says with a laugh.

In a addition to trying out different recording devices, Harrison is also open to thinking outside the box for album ideas. After pondering a collection of Christmas songs for some time, Butcher Brown bandmate Corey Fonville gave him the necessary extra push to make a yuletide record.

At first he only put A DJHarrison Xmas up at Christmastime and the liner notes still indicate that it will be taken offline at some point, but the album unexpectedly turned into one of the most popular entries in his entire catalog. It even caught the ears of one of his biggest inspirations.

After traveling to DC to catch Madlib in concert in 2019 he had the opportunity to hang out with the legendary producer for a bit after the show. To his surprise, Madlib had a deep knowledge of his catalog and started listing various entries with enthusiasm. One of the first things he brought up was A DJHarrison Xmas. Though flattered, Harrison was stunned. “It was one of the first things he mentioned,” he says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Bro, what the fuck?’ Wait a minute, wait a minute.”

Now, with his 2020 Sons of James project with Rob Milton still making waves, the impeccable Pen Eyes instrumental album recently out on Bandcamp, and the five-song ENCORE EP just released with his Butcher Brown bandmates, DJ Harrison shows no signs of slowing down or letting up. Whether sampling records, playing live instruments, or using a combination of both, it looks like he will continue to provide listeners with a broad range of solo and collaborative projects for many years to come.

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The Musical Journey of JWords

From MC and pianist to producer of full-length collaborations, the multi-talented artist deconstructs her origins and current work.

New Jersey-based producer JWords first developed a strong interest in making music during high school. “I remember I was a junior and I was figuring out what I wanted to do in my life,” she says. “I was going to be an accountant or something. I love numbers.”

After her sister encouraged her to pursue music more seriously she took up piano lessons and enrolled in production classes at school. She also joined the band Jumanji in 2013 as an MC before moving away from the mic to focus more on her piano skills. Her transition from rapper to pianist and the collaborative nature of being in a group greatly expanded her ability to structure and compose songs.

JWords graduated high school in 2014 and broke off from Jumanji in 2015. In effort to nurture her abilities an individual artist she purchased a Roland SP-404SX and a Roland Juno synthesizer. She constructed tracks using her SP in tandem with her ear for piano melodies. “I sampled piano parts and put it in the pads,” she says. “And then I started to do drums.”

“I was just trying at that point. I didn't know what I was doing,” she adds with a laugh.

Though early efforts to add the right mix of percussion to her instrumentals were trying, her continued practice quickly bore fruit. The 2016 song “Voodoo Mama” - a collaborative effort with fellow vocalists Mello and NajaTheGreat - served as one of her first notable recordings. With JWords providing raps in addition to the track’s production, the three artists combined to create a potent sound.

Though she appreciated the experience of this collaboration, her desire to become a solo artist intensified. Drawing on her Dominican roots, the rhythms of her production began to reflect influences of bachata, Latin jazz, merengue, and salsa. She also purchased a discounted Teenage Engineering OP-1 portable synthesizer to expand her selection of gear.

As her sound matured JWords found herself increasingly inspired by the vibrant beat scene percolating in New York in 2017 - especially the work of producer vhvl. She was also drawn to several other artists making a name for themselves in various scenes and spaces. “Suzi Analogue was a big inspiration for me too during that time,” she says. “I was just looking at the women doing it - Linfornia, SassyBlack, Stas Thee Boss. They were all big inspirations for me back then. They still are now, you know?”

As JWords continued to develop a unique sound and style, she picked up Teenage Engineering’s PO-28 robot sequencer and synthesizer and started posting videos on her Instagram account. This eventually led to contact with the Teenage Engineering staff and an official relationship with the popular sampler and synth manufacturer. “I'm an ambassador for their company now,” she says. “I went on tour with them and I do a lot of workshops and shows for them.”

The company also equipped her with two OP-Z sequencer/synthesizers. She appreciates the powerful machine as tool for live performances and the ability to tailor the synth to her individual needs as an artist. “With the OP-Z, you can sample your own sounds into it,” she says. “You can create the unit to be your own sound. For me, it's way easier to just carry that around rather than bring all my other gear to make music.”

While her live performances have become a bit more streamlined in terms of equipment, JWords continues to use a variety of options for sampling depending on the feel of the music she’s working on. “I usually sample songs that I love,” she says. “I sample from the internet or I sample something that I've recorded on my phone from the outside world.”

She also creates her own original samples through an innovative process of gear combination. “I'll make another beat on my Minimoog and then I'll record it onto my OP-Z,” she says. “Then it chops it up really interesting. There's a lot of forms of sampling that I do.”

As for official releases, 2020 and 2021 have been very busy and fruitful years. After spending time as part of her mentor Suzi Analogue’s collective Never Normal Records, JWords released her debut project SÍN SÉNAL with the collective in February of 2020. Showing off her production range and diverse skill set, the six-track album contains hypnotic moments like the pulsating, uptempo “Stay Away.”

She recently left the Never Normal collective to focus on her own music as well as a video production entity, but she remains very grateful for her relationship with Suzi. “We've been close and she's been a good mentor,” she says. “She's always been there for me.”

JWords immediately followed up SÍN SÉNAL with three three-song EPs - dancepackvol​.​1, dancepackvol​.​2, and the Nappy Nina and KONCEPT JACK$ON-assisted Year 2300, which she describes as a “rap kind of futuristic album.”

In September 2020 she joined forces with Brooklyn MC maassai as the group H31R. Their impressive debut Ve·Loc·i·Ty seamlessly bridges the influences of a broad spectrum of genres including electronic, drum & bass, and rap. She then closed out 2020 with Sonic Liberation, a collection of tracks crafted with her Eurorack modular synth and her pocket operators.

March of 2021 saw the release of another full-length MC collaboration via the Double Down project with Brooklyn resident and Oakland native Nappy Nina. Featuring co-production from keiyaA on the massai-assisted winner “Thin Ice,” additional guest verses from Stas Thee Boss on the potent “Real Tea,” and some very badass cover art, the record serves as another notch in her belt.

Now, with write ups in Bandcamp Daily and Wire, a role as a brand ambassador and mentor for Teenage Engineering, two impressive collaborative albums with talented MCs, and a growing catalog of solo work, the future looks incredibly bright for JWords.

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