A Look Back at The A3's "Mocha Brown"

Chopped guitars, layered samples, the Roland MV-8800, and an unforgettable beat.

Long before earning production placements for Young Buck, Reks, and Black Rob, Inland Empire native The A3 grew up 30 miles east of LA studying the sounds of west coast legends Battlecat, Dr. Dre, and DJ Quik. In 2001 he started dabbling with FL Studio 3.4 and a cracked version of Cool Edit Pro to satisfy his growing curiosity about the production process.

Over time The A3 taught himself how to incorporate keyboards into his beats by playing along with various Neptunes productions, and by the time he entered college, extensive sample chopping helped him reach another plateau as a producer. “I started digging deeper into hip-hop and sampling once I made it to college,” he told me in a 2018 Micro-Chop interview. “I would chop up the same little samples as many different ways that I could, which laid the groundwork for my sound today.”

Though his style and sound continued to evolve, in 2009 he found the perfect production setup for an extended and important phase in his career. “For a solid 8 years, all I used was the Roland MV-8800, a turntable, vinyl, and no DAWs/production software,” he told Micro-Chop.

In August of 2009 The A3 arranged, mixed, and produced his entire The August Files debut with the MV-8800. He was so confident with his sample splicing and arranging that some of his beats featured seemingly endless layers of found sound. “I was in a deep sample layering phase at that point in time,” he told Micro-Chop. “I was layering 3–5 different samples per beat at times.”

Though layering came easily to The A3, The August Files’ standout moment “Mocha Brown” owes a debt of gratitude to a singular sample that sparked the idea for the entire beat. “I started off by chopping the guitar sample up,” he told Micro-Chop. “Then I already knew what drum pattern I wanted and I found the sounds and started programming.”

Seeking to evoke the same vibe as a ‘90s instrumental from the late, great J Dilla, The A3 continued experimenting with different ingredients until he perfected the track. “Once I get in the right zone, everything starts flowing organically and not forced,” he told Micro-Chop. “I snatched a little horn sample and programmed it. Then last I topped it off with the synth sample/loop.”

Though “Mocha Brown” is this writer’s personal favorite, the other selections on The August Files are also not to be missed. “Nite N Day” expertly blends together a classic ‘80s R & B sample, live playing, and some synth sample chops from a Moog record, while the west coast-inspired “Tha Gruvsetta”, the shorter yet impressive “Warm Up” beats, and the M.O.P. vocal sample on “Front Line” all give this instrumental album a nice dose of added punch.

Though The A3 has moved on to Logic Pro X for most of his production since releasing The August Files nearly 11 years ago, fans of his early work will note many of the familiar and appreciate elements of his sound on more recent tracks like “Old Fashioned Glaze” and “Just Begun.”

Whether your point of entry to The A3’s catalog is his first album, his production credits for other artists, or his more recent solo work, make sure to give the enduring beauty of “Mocha Brown” a listen today.

Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!

Little Brother, 9th Wonder, Murs, and Crackin's 'Makings of a Dream'

My 17 year journey from a powerful rap song to the original sample source.

In mid-2003 I was winding down my freshman year at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. My friend Matt had recently introduced me to Little Brother’s The Listening and I was a big fan of the album. When Clark booked them as one of the acts for their spring Spree Day celebration, I was fired up.

While walking around campus with a group of friends during the late morning/early afternoon on Spree Day, we happened to see Phonte, Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder from a distance. I remember drunkenly yelling something about how much I loved their music and it sparked a long conversation with them. They were the nicest guys ever—they stood there and talked to us for a solid 10-15 minutes and did the same thing after they performed too.

During their show I convinced a bunch of my friends to come down to the front of the stage and make noise during their set. Phonte and Pooh shouted me out on the mic. Before I knew it, they called me and a bunch of other people up on stage with them. Producer Mr. Green and rapper/producer Voli Contra were up there too, they were a grade ahead of me at Clark. 9th Wonder gave me a hug as I was running up on stage. It was crazy—I’ll never forget that moment.


My love of Little Brother and Little Brother-related projects continued throughout college and beyond. The following year some people put the Murs and 9th Wonder release Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition on my radar. With 10 songs and a running time just a tad over 35 minutes, I was instantly drawn to the music on this short, powerful release.

Tracks like “Walk Like a Man” and “The Animal” featuring Phonte originally hit me the hardest, but as I listened to the album over the years I found myself coming back to “And This Is For…” again and again. Featuring mournful, stirring production from 9th, Murs’ lyrics address the issue of white privilege in rap fans and rappers, his own internal struggle with having mostly white fans at that stage of his career, and white people using the n-word.

It’s a very thoughtful and nuanced examination of all of these topics. It has also helped evolve my own thinking over the years regarding my privilege as a white rap and sample-based music fan/writer who often covers those genres.

In many ways, the following lyrics feel just as relevant today if not more so.

“Now you could be down, but let's act growed up
Cause we ain't the same color when police show up
My culture's not a trend, being Black is not in
But for you it's just a phase you're gonna have to transcend
While even if I tried, I could never blend in
To society's mainstream, American dream
Yeah, it's all one love, but remember one thing
This music is my life, not a cultural fling
It's an expression of the soul when we dance and sing
And you are blessed to have a chance to even glance the scene”- Murs

The lyrics of “And This Is For…” certainly justify their own extensive long-form breakdown, but today I’m going to focus on 9th Wonder’s production. I’ve written about 9th’s music and production process several times over the past four years and I’ve included “And This Is For…” in multiple playlists. Before starting Micro-Chop, I honestly hadn’t listened to it in a while. Once I revisited the track, I found myself intensely moved by the instrumental and decided I wanted to learn more about the sample source and the group that created it.

My search for the beat’s origins brought me to a song called “You’re Winning” by Crackin’. Listen to “You’re Winning” and the rest of their 1977 effort Makings Of A Dream and you’ll hear a truly unique blend of disco, funk, and (somewhat soft) rock, with certain tracks playing out like multiple songs blended together into one incredibly ambitious creation. It’s a powerful work of art from a talented group and producer/Phil Spector protege Russ Titelman.

I don’t know how deep his connection to Makings Of A Dream was, but I love the mental image of a young 9th Wonder listening to the album and considering the opening of “You’re Winning” as possible sample fodder for the first time.

Some of my personal favorites from this largely forgotten gem of an LP include “Take Me to the Bridge,” which an enchanting, almost orchestral quality in several key moments that highlights the versatility of Makings Of A Dream producer Russ Titelman. "I Want to Sing It to You” is another standout track, with Titelman giving the vocals of group member Lester Abrams appropriate room to breathe by stripping down the production a bit.

In the end, however, it’s 9th Wonder’s sample choice “You’re Winning” that truly steals the show, from the gorgeous, somber opening to the song’s completely unexpected uptick in energy and rather inspirational, feel-good hook.

Now, after tracing “And This Is For…” back to the origins, I’ve spent the last 6-8 months obsessively listening to “You’re Winning” and the rest of Makings Of A Dream.

As I get older and write more music-related stories, I find myself revisiting so many bits and pieces of my musical past. By traveling back in time through various songs and albums, I often find that I still have a deep emotional connection to the music I loved when I was much younger—even if I haven’t sat with it for some time.

But these journeys aren’t just a form of glorified nostalgia. Going back to my origins with a writing lens often inspires me to trace the various connections, sample sources, and influences that helped give birth to records like Little Brother’s The Listening and Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition. In the process, producers like 9th Wonder become valuable teachers, providing me with endless portals of further musical discovery.

16 years after producing Murs 3:16: The 9th Edition, it appears 9th’s desire to help educate people about great music from a wide variety of genres is stronger than ever. As of late, he’s using IG Live as well as his production to connect with listeners and shine a light on forgotten sounds of the past.

Thank you 9th, for helping a teenaged me figure out who I was before I even knew, and for pushing to explore music on an even deeper level almost two decades later.

Thanks for reading, see you on Monday!

Moving Units Without a Major Label

How small market artists went gold and platinum in the 80s and 90s by believing in themselves and the independent route.

I first published this article as a paid subscriber post on Aug 21, 2019, when the Micro-Chop Substack newsletter was still in its infancy. It never quite found the audience I was hoping after I unlocked the post, for so I’m republishing it today for my entire mailing list.

Bay Area native Ant Banks’ discography is impressive—the website Discogs currently lists his production credits at 177 songs. Though his name is likely familiar to die-hard fans of Too Short and his Dangerous Crew affiliates like Spice 1, Banks has been relatively quiet since the early 2000s and isn’t as widely known as some other producers with smaller catalogs. There was a time, however, when he was a dominant force in the music industry.

It all began in the 1980s when Banks learned to play several instruments in his school’s band while simultaneously teaching himself to emulate Funkadelic and The Gap Band on his Casio keyboard. By the time he entered high school towards the end of the decade, he started making DIY tapes with his friend M.C. Ant.

These recordings of Banks’ beats and the late M.C. Ant’s lyrics turned into a hot commodity and spread far beyond the confines of the classroom. “We made our first little tape and took it to school and started selling it,” Banks recalled in a 2007 DubCNN interview with journalist Chad Kiser. “It became popular all over school, and from the school it went all over the city.”

M.C. Ant’s 1988 full-length effort M.C. Ant The Great ended up being Banks’ first official release, with the west coast vet handling production duties alongside fellow Bay Area producer Terry T. Put out by Raw Dog Records as one of the label’s only releases, the album sold 80-90,000 units on CD and cassette in the Bay Area alone.

To a modern artist living in an era of ever-declining album sales those numbers are likely staggering—especially when considering they were achieved in such a limited geographic location.

Banks’ success didn’t stop there—far from it. Projects in subsequent years with Pooh-manSpice-1, and Dangerous Dame yielded sales of 200,000 units, nearly 300,000 units, and 100,000 units respectively.

It wasn’t long before artists all over the Bay Area took notice of Banks and his remarkable track record. “I was doing independent tape, after independent tape, and they was all selling like 200-300,000 units,” Banks told DubCNN. “Just independently, with no label, no nothing. During that time in the Bay, I was the one that if you wanted a whole CD done, I was the man to come see.”

Banks’ numbers were remarkable, no doubt about it, but as he dominated his region of California, a largely unknown Orlando DJ and producer named Magic Mike was gearing up to sell 5-6 times as many records with the release of his debut album.

No stranger to phenomenal success at a young age, Magic Mike first earned himself a radio gig at age 13 with a pause tape mix. By the time he was 22, his DJ Magic Mike And The Royal Posse debut was slated for release on Cheetah Records.

With no distributor to speak of, Mike’s first official album started to move units at a breakneck speed. By selling to Florida residents directly out of the back of his van, Mike unloaded so many copies of his debut record that he and his team were unable to to keep track. “We didn’t realize what we were or where we were at,” he told Red Bull Music Academy hosts Torsten Schmidt and Emma Warren in a 2004 interview. “Once we counted how many albums we had sold, we were at 1.3 million copies.”

An overwhelming figure for any industry newcomer, Mike admitted that the tremendous financial results were too much for his team to handle and they had to bring in professionals to help with money management. Despite needing outside help, Mike maintained that selling directly to the listener was a critical step in his story and should be a crucial part of any artist’s business model. “Just the humbleness to always know where you came from and how it got started,” he told Red Bull Music Academy. “No one’s going to sell your project better than you.”

When pressed about how he would approach Steve Jobs regarding iTunes (remember, this interview is from 2004), Mike held fast to the concept of building your own entity as an artist—that way the major players come to you. In other words, don’t stress the Steve Jobs of the world and focus on yourself. “You have to be able to maintain it—just in case,” he told Red Bull Music Academy. “If they don’t call, well, as long as you’re doing okay on your own, then you sell your records.”

This concept of building up your own catalog and brand by any means necessary still holds up in a much different industry 15 years later.

Several years before Ant Banks and Magic Mike moved countless albums in their respective markets, Sir Mix-A-Lot was turning himself into an independent juggernaut in Seattle. After first partnering with local radio DJ Nasty Nes in 1985 to form the NastyMix label, Mix starting making noise with local anthems like “Let’s G (Watch Out!)” and “7 Rainier.” 

Even though Mix never bothered putting out “7 Rainer” as a proper release, former Seattle radio personality and music journalist Mike Clark named it one of the most important records from his catalog. “It was never released, he used to just put them on tape and he would slang his tapes back in the day,” Clark told journalist Andrew Nosnitsky (Noz) in a 2009 Cocaine Blunts interview. “But for a lot of heads here that’s still one of Mix’s biggest songs to never be released on a national basis.”

Mix may have had a loyal following by the mid-80s through his DJ gigs and early NastyMix releases, but it was his 1988 debut album Swass that truly demonstrated how vast his reach was in terms of commercial potential. Dropping the minimalist, 808-laced “Posse on Broadway” as the album’s lead single, Mix somehow made his personal ode to a busy Seattle street a certified hit both in and outside the city.

On the strength of “Posse,” Swass managed to creep onto the Billboard R & B top 20 album chart and eventually went platinum. For a Seattle rapper on an indie label in the 1980s, this was absolutely unheard of.

Further proving his breakthrough success wasn’t a fluke, Mix’s 1989 follow-up effort Seminar moved a very respectable 700,000 units, making him an unparalleled legend in the Seattle rap game. Though financial conflicts with Nes led to a parting of ways with NastyMix 1990, it wasn’t long after that Rick Rubin picked up Mix for his Def American label and put out Mack Daddy and “Baby Got Back” in 1992.

Mix’s massive success carried over to his major label endeavors. According to his estimate, “Baby Got Back” has earned a cool $100,000,000 in the 28 years since its release.

Another unforgettable example of trailblazing ingenuity and spirit came out of Houston a few years after the success of Ant Banks, DJ Magic Mike, and Sir Mix-A-Lot. Known for bringing music down to a glacially slow pace during his DJ sets and mixes, DJ Screw compiled an almost unfathomable 300+ mixtapes in a seven year span of manic activity from 1993 to 2000.

Now, almost two decades since Screw’s untimely passing, artists continue to marvel at the number of mixtapes he sold to die hard fans in a single day during his prime. “I would watch this man go to car shows and press up literally 10,000 to 15,000 tapes and he would sell out,” Screwed Up Click rapper Lil Flip told DJ Vlad in a 2015 VladTV interview. “He used to have so much money we used to have to count it four and five times.”

"I’m Gonna Screw the World Up" — Honoring Houston Legend DJ Screw On His 46th Birthday

Some people have disputed figures like this, but several close friends and collaborators have verified that Screw sold tapes at a level that few DJs have likely ever rivaled. Fellow S.U.C. rapper Z-Ro echoed statistics similar to Flip and further confirmed Screw’s absurd success. “He’d be making like $15,000 a day off his whole catalog,” he said in a 2015 Noisey interview with Kyle Kramer.

Difficult as it may be to believe, Screw never showed an interest in moving on to the major labels—even though he was outselling some of their artists with his mixtapes. Strange Music senior executive vice president and general manager David Weiner worked at Priority Records during Screw’s meteoric rise and knew what he was capable of, so he offered Screw a deal. It didn’t take long for the Houston legend to turn him down. “It wasn’t about the money for him,” Weiner told Soren Baker in a 2001 MTV News interview. “It was about doing what he wanted to do with his homeboys.”

Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!

You Never Know Who's Reading

If you're a music journalist, keep writing--the reach of your words might surprise you.

(Credit: maissoma)

In May of 2006 I graduated from Clark University in Worcester, MA. After living with my parents and working all summer, I moved to Astoria, Queens with one of my best friends on a one-month sublet and no guaranteed work.

I eventually figured out a long-term living situation, but my dreams of living in one of the world’s cultural epicenters didn’t pan out. For the next 10 months New York City proceeded to kick my ass on a daily basis, as nothing ever quite clicked in terms of career options and work. I was employed the whole time, but like many New Yorkers, I worked all the time just to afford my tiny living space. By early June of 2007 I returned to my hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, thoroughly humbled and clueless about what to do next.

I didn’t have much to show for my time in Astoria, but it did provide me with some very important writing experiences. I read a bunch of different music blogs on Blogger and I eventually decided to start my own. I self-published some interviews, including a discussion with one of my all-time favorite mixtape creators DJ Neil Armstrong. After reading The Smoking Section religiously for several months, I passed along the Neil Armstrong interview and some other recent clippings to site editor/founder/writer John Gotty. This sparked a conversation and an opportunity to write my Smoking Section debut—another interview with Neil Armstrong about his conceptual Bittersweet mixtape.

I wrote on and off for The Smoking Section for the next two years or so. I try not to have too many regrets in life, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder how things might have worked out differently in my writing life if I’d handled my time there a bit differently. I wish I’d been more professional, shown more gratitude towards Gotty and others who helped me, worked harder to build relationships with and champion other Smoking Section writers, taken better advantage of Gotty’s insane music industry Rolodex, and written more articles/stories. But for whatever reason I just didn’t have the maturity and motivation to maximize the situation.

Despite not always pushing things to the fullest, writing for TSS gave me a boost of confidence and some much needed experience. The most memorable was a multi-day project in August of 2008 that covered De La Soul’s body of work from their 3 Feet High and Rising debut to their fourth album Stakes Is High. My contribution was a two-part long-form piece that included interviews with authors Ethan Brown and Brian Coleman, V103 DJ and Scratch Atlanta instructor DJ Jaycee, graphic designer and mixtape DJ Scott Williams, and Prince Paul. (Click here for to revisit Part 1 and here for Part 2) Jaycee even made an unbelievable, incredibly comprehensive De La Soul mixtape to help promote the article.

Gotty did what all great leaders do during this extended celebration of De La. He saw that I was really passionate about something and serious about pulling it off, so he empowered me despite my limited experience while also providing crucial editorial guidance so that I would find success in the end. It all ended up working out really well—both De La Soul articles were by far the best-received and most widely circulated piece I wrote for many years.

After sort of walking away from writing in 2009 to get my master’s degree in special education, I wrote on and off several times over the years but I couldn’t quite get back into the groove of regular writing. In early 2016 I decided to re-up some of my old Smoking Section pieces on Medium just to see if anyone would still care about them. I edited part of my 2008 conversation with Prince Paul where we discussed De La Soul’s first two records and turned the interview into a new article that focused on De La Soul is Dead, my favorite album of all time. Then this happened.

Having Questlove randomly tweet out something I had originally written eight years prior was one of those, “Oh shit, someone important who I admire liked something I wrote and shared it with the world without me begging them to,” moments. It was a major boost of energy when I needed some encouragement to give music journalism yet another go.

The four years since Questlove’s tweet have been a pretty epic rollercoaster of writing highs and lows. I started the Micro-Chop Medium publication, wrote articles for Ableton, HipHopDX, Okayplayer, Red Bull Music Academy, Reverb, UndergroundHipHop.com, and eventually launched the Micro-Chop Substack newsletter last summer in a moment of financial desperation. I also failed a million times at various things along the way and almost called it quits (again) more than once.

With the four-year anniversary of launching Micro-Chop not far away, De La Soul is Dead turned 29 on May 14th. As fate would have it, I once again find myself once again at a crossroads, weighing the amount of blood, sweat, and tears I put into my work work and asking myself if it’s all worth it. I think this summer, when I can focus more time and energy on writing than I have been able to in a while, will help provide some clarity.

As I pondered some of these questions about my future as a writer, this happened.

For those who don’t know, David Dennis Jr. is a big deal and one of many very esteemed alumni from The Smoking Section. He is an adjunct professor of English and journalism at Morehouse College. He writes for ESPN’s The Undefeated. He also has a debut book due out soon that HarperCollins is publishing. Titled The Movement Made Us, the book is a described as “father-son dialogue across generations” with his father Dave Dennis, Sr., “an original 1961 Freedom Rider, former director of CORE and Civil Rights hero.”

Needless to say, I was flattered by his words.

As much as I love music and writing about music, I often ask myself questions like, “Does this even matter” and “Who cares?” I’m not really sure what the answers to these questions are, but the fact that something I wrote 12 years ago about my favorite group and album still resonates with David Dennis Jr. is pretty special. All the thanks in the world go out to John Gotty for giving me such a memorable opportunity.

I can’t say where writing will take me in the ensuing years, but a conversation I had with my favorite producer in my mid-20s had an effect on two special people. At the moment, that’s enough for me.

Thanks for reading, see you on Monday!

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