“I Would Sing into the Computer’s Mic”: The Making of ‘New Amerykah Part One’

Unwanted labels from critics, writer’s block, 2-track GarageBand demos, J Dilla tributes, and the four-year odyssey behind Erykah Badu’s fourth studio album.

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After the release of her 1997 debut Baduizm, Erykah Badu’s ascent from 26-year-old industry newcomer to global superstar happened at a pace that would have overwhelmed anyone. “I got about 15 awards that year, including Grammys, a BET, and American Music awards,” she told Evelyn McDonnell in a 2008 Interview Magazine feature. “I met the love of my life, André Benjamin, and had a baby when my second album, Live [1997], was released.”

From there, Badu dropped the critically acclaimed Mama’s Gun in 2000. As the album made its way into the world and sold over one million copies, music critics dubbed her the “queen of neo-soul”—an undoubtedly weighty crown to bear. It wasn’t long before Badu felt creatively stifled and overwhelmed by the ever-increasing pressure that came with the label. “I hated that because what if I don’t do that anymore?” she told Melena Ryzik in a 2008 New York Times interview. “What if I change? Then that puts me in a penitentiary.”

After dropping 2003’s Worldwide Underground to a generally lukewarm reception and conceding that she was experiencing writer’s block, Badu embarked on the Frustrated Artist tour in 2003 and 2004 to give herself a much-needed break from studio work.

After Roots drummer Questlove gave the burned out singer her first computer for Christmas in 2004, she started using iChat to talk to fellow Soulquarians J Dilla and Q-Tip. This direct line of communication gave ambitious producers a way to send her beats and encourage a much-anticipated return to the studio.

Unfortunately, her very first attempts to re-enter the creative realm fell flat. Frustrated by these initial struggles, Badu questioned if she still had the singing and songwriting magic displayed earlier in her career. “I had the baby in 2004, so in 2005 I kind of got up out of the bed, got in the world again, and started to record, and it just wouldn’t come,” she told Interview Magazine. “I thought I had lost my creative net.”

But when Badu’s son showed her how to use GarageBand, the newfound freedom to create anywhere and everywhere helped her break out of the slump. “For some reason, something woke up in me in 2007, and it came through by way of the digital world,” she told Interview Magazine.

In addition to having a new recording tool at her disposal, fresh sounds from producers like Shafiq Husayn, Madlib, James Poyser, Questlove, Karriem Riggins, and 9th Wonder helped reignite the spark Badu felt earlier in her career. “I dug deep down into the bottom of my hip-hop coin purse to find some of the freshest scientific, mathematical absurd geniuses that I could connect with because I was feeling pretty twisted myself,” she told Janeé Bolden in a 2007 SOHH interview.

With different producers sending her a slew of new beats to choose from, it wasn’t long before she started layering her vocals on top of the tracks. “I learned GarageBand and began to pull these tracks onto my Mac and throw vocals underneath,” she told Interview Magazine. “That’s how New Amerykah came about. I claim to be an analog girl, so I’m in this new world, invading its space.”

While she balanced homeschooling her daughter, touring, and recording demos for New Amerykah Part One, Badu found that making music on a computer allowed her to work around various time constraints. “I could be here, in my own space, with headphones on, and the kids could be doing what they doing, and I’m cooking dinner still, I’m making juices still, and it’s just so easy to sing,” she told The New York Times.

In fact, Badu felt so free while recording rough versions of New Amerykah Part One songs that she wouldn’t even bother singing everything through a proper microphone. “I was at home in Dallas making this,” she told Tamara Warren in a 2008 Venus Zine interview. “I would sing into the computer’s mic.”

Though it would make a better story if all of the album’s vocals were recorded this way, Badu explained how she re-sung and re-recorded some of them at Electric Lady studios in a 2008 Electronic Musician interview with Ken Micallef. During studio sessions, careful consideration was given to Badu’s proximity to the microphone as well as her position in the control room of the legendary recording space. “I put my mouth right up on it like an MC,” she said. “I sit right in the control room between the two speakers next to the engineer, and I can hear what is going on very well.”

Badu brought a meticulous attention to detail to Electric Lady sessions, but she ultimately stuck with the vocals that felt right. “I might do a vocal take 100 times and not get it, then come back the next day at 3 a.m., and laying down on the floor, my ears will get it,” she told Electronic Musician. “Pitch is good but feeling is better. I never cut and paste or punch in, I like a single vocal take.”

After putting such exhaustive effort into making sure that her voice conveyed the desired feeling and sound, Badu was understandably wary of an overzealous engineer or studio hand adding their unwanted touch to a flawless vocal take. Thankfully, based on available interviews, it seems like this sort of tampering wasn’t an issue.

In addition to the constraint-free demo-recording process, expertly crafted tracks from talented beat makers, and intricate vocal recording, New Amerykah Part One owes a debt of gratitude to the musicians who added new dimensions to the music. With industry heavyweights like late Roy Hargrove, Jr. on trumpet, Thundercat playing bass, Karriem Riggins hitting drums in addition to producing a track, James Poyser showing off his keyboard dexterity, and Jef Lee Johnson strumming guitar, the combined talents of all involved resulted in a gorgeous, textured sound that blended production methods old and new.

Esteemed engineer and producer Mike “Chav” Chavarria held down many of the duties behind the boards throughout, helping Badu maintain the magic of her original demos while simultaneously enriching them.

According to Chav, the Shafiq Husayn-produced “Me” is perhaps the most shining example of a rough demo take turning into a polished, album-ready song. With the original version of Badu singing over Shafiq Husayn’s beat recorded in Dallas, she brought the 2-track version to L.A. so Thundercat could layer in some added bass. From there, Badu and Chav went back to New York City for a studio session with Roy Hargrove. With tight time constraints preventing them from setting up a proper recording session in Pro Tools, Hargrove also played trumpet over the primary source Dallas recording.

This unorthodox method of recording was both an unprecedented and illuminating experience for Chav. “On this record, I did more over 2-tracks than I have ever done on any record,” he told Electronic Musician. “And that is because it came straight from her laptop, and we couldn’t get Pro Tools sessions from producers. We were able to build around them.”

With so many fascinating angles of recording to dissect, it’s easy to overlook the equally important lyrical content of New Amerykah Part One—which would be a tremendous disservice to the thoughtful songwriting demonstrated throughout the album

The beautiful “Telephone” came to be while Badu was recording in L.A. with a proposed super-group that consisted of herself, guitarist Doyle Bramhall, Dr. Dre bassline supplier Mike Elizondo, Jazzy Jeff, two members of Prince’s Revolution, and Questlove. As the incredible collection of talent worked on some new material, they received a devastating phone call informing them that J Dilla had passed. “We were hanging out in LA and we got that call,” she told Eothen "Egon" Alapatt in a 2011 Red Bull Music Academy interview. “How we express ourselves is through music and that day we recorded this song ‘Telephone.’”

Fans of the moving Dilla tribute may have noticed the interesting lyrics, “It’s Ol’ Dirty/He wants to give you directions home/They won’t be too long/Said it won’t be too long,” and wondered about their intended meaning.

According to Badu’s Red Bull Music Academy interview, this section of the song was inspired by a story Maureen Yancey shared with her. According to Yancey, the painkillers prescribed to Dilla during his time in the hospital caused frequent hallucinations and he would sometimes have conversations with people who weren’t there. When his mother asked him who he was talking to, he told her it was Ol’ Dirty Bastard.

Ms. Yancey asked Dilla what ODB had said to him and he responded, “He was telling me which bus to get on when I cross over. He said, ‘Don’t get on the red bus, get on the white bus. The red bus looks fun, but that’s not the one. Get on the white bus.’”

Badu was so moved by the story that she decided to incorporate it into the lyrics as a tribute to her collaborator and friend.

In addition to using her voice to pay tribute to important people in her life, New Amerykah Part One showcases Badu singing candidly about her journey of self-discovery. On “Me,” she shares her thoughts about being under constant public scrutiny at a relatively young age and learning to accept changes in her age, appearance, and life circumstances.

With the album’s 12-year-anniversary approaching on February 26th, now is the perfect time to sit down and listen to this weighty 11-track masterwork in its entirety again. Clocking in at just under one hour of total playing time, the thought and care Erykah Badu put into each individual track is evident throughout.

Whether singing over a five-year-old 9th Wonder Fruity Loops beat on “Honey,” paying a moving tribute to one of the greatest producers of all time on “Telephone,” utilizing dusted Madlib production on “The Healer” and “My People,” or giving fans an intimate peek into her mind on “Me,” the record serves as a remarkable union of soulful vocals and modern beatmaking techniques.

Though a difficult period of creative self-doubt was required to achieve the final product, it was likely worth it. New Amerykah Part One (4th World War) will undoubtedly remain an enduring and essential part of Erykah Badu’s catalog for many years to come.

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

Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!

Large Professor Made Eric B. & Rakim’s “In The Ghetto” from a Cassette Sample

How a Paul C sample tape was transformed into a seminal record for one of rap’s all-time great duos, plus a 40-track Large Professor playlist.

Before Large Professor met his late mentor Paul C. McKasty, he initially found his way into rap music by DJing, making simple loops with a Casio SK-1 keyboard sampler, and creating pause tape beats on his cassette deck.

After he connected with the late LL Cool J, Onyx, and De La Soul producer Chyskillz, the two aspiring beatmakers composed some rather advanced instrumentals given the equipment they had at their disposal. “He would cut up ‘Synthetic Substitution’ breakbeat on one tape,” Large Pro told Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Frannie Kelley in a 2015 Microphone Check interview. “You had the two and three tape decks, and he would put the tape in there. And then he would play that tape and overdub some bass lines.”

These tape compositions may sound compelling, but the limitations of the SK-1 and a cassette deck made Large Pro yearn for something more advanced. He finally found his opportunity when his new group Main Source went to work on their demo tape in 1989. As they tried to make a record that would get them signed, they sought the services of the late Paul C—an engineer and producer whose name was generating significant buzz in Jamaica, Queens for his work at 1212 Studio.

According to Large Pro, the two struck up an immediate friendship when Paul noticed his affinity for records outside of the commonly sampled James Brown canon. As their creative bond and friendship blossomed, Paul introduced Large Professor to the sampler that changed his career. “He took me out of that tape deck era,” Large Pro told Jeff “Chairman” Mao in a 2015 Red Bull Music Academy interview. “He was like, ‘This is the SP-1200, this is the machine you want to rock with.’”

When Paul invited him over to his house for an epic crash course on how to use the 1200, Large Pro made beats for hours and continued to familiarize himself with the sampler long after Paul fell asleep. “I sat there and just went crazy,” he told Red Bull Music Academy. “I was like, ‘I hope he doesn’t wake up, because I want to hook another beat and I want to make mad discs to fill and everything.’”

His desire to make beats with extreme intensity hit another level when Paul agreed to lend him the sampler for two weeks so he could further hone his craft. “I swear I maybe made 30 or 40 beats like in that little two week period,” he told Microphone Check.

A short time after his manic half-month creative spell was broken, Large Pro sold the first beat of his career to Intelligent Hoodlum.

Beyond giving Large Pro space and time to grow on his own, Paul C also showed him many invaluable tips for using the 1200 that left a lasting impression. “He put me on to the SP-1200, tracks, compression, and chopping on the drum machine, and everything like that,” he told Daniel Isenberg in a 2012 Complex interview. “He took my ideas to another level.”

As Large Pro and his mentor continued to spend countless hours together in the studio, Paul C was slated for some heavy involvement with Eric B. & Rakim’s third effort Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em. During the album’s inception, Paul stumbled upon a sample that seemed like a perfect fit for his new project and immediately phoned Large Pro to give him a sneak preview. “I remember Paul called me when he found the record at a flea market in the back blocks of Rockaway,” he told Complex. “He played it for me over the phone and was like, ‘Yo, this is tough.’”

In a tragic and unexpected turn of events, Paul was murdered in his own home just a short time later. His death sent shockwaves through the 1212 Studio community and beyond, altering the careers of many artists in the process. The loss of such a close friend also left Large Professor completely devastated. “That dude, man, he showed so many people love. He was really unique,” he told Microphone Check. “Someone just couldn’t handle that.”

In the wake of his death, the large cohort of artists Paul C worked with did their best to soldier on. Large Pro stepped in to help with production on Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em despite being a mere senior in high school at the time.

Paul continued to influence Large Professor and Rakim’s creative process, even though he was no longer around to help with the album’s creation. Before his passing, Paul often made cassette tapes of sample ideas for the artists he worked with. When Rakim came to the studio with one of these tapes, Large Pro immediately recognized the sample Paul had played him over the phone. They decided to take the sample right off the cassette after agreeing that it was too good to pass up. “I looped it up off the tape right there,” Large Pro told Complex. “Rakim was like, ‘Yo, I want the pauses in it. All the drops.’”

Once he had the loop, Large Professor spent considerable time tinkering with the sample to transform it into a completely fleshed out beat. He even employed a popular stereo multi-effects processor to make it sound just right. “I sat there and messed with that loop,” he told Complex. “I threw it in the Publison, and did all of this chopping and all of that, and put it together.”

Unfortunately, as is the case with several important rap records from the 80s and 90s, Large Professor and Paul C were not given official credit for their work when Let The Rhythm Hit ’Em dropped in 1990. Eric B. & Rakim are listed as the producers on the album’s Discogs page despite Large Pro’s role in producing “In The Ghetto,” “No Omega,” and “Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em.”

It’s an oversight Large Pro credits in part to his lack of familiarity with the business aspect of the industry. “I wasn’t on the professional side, like, ‘Show me the contracts.’ I was just in there doing beats,” he told Complex. “On the strength of Paul C, I was in the studio. It wasn’t like, ‘You’re going to get credited for this and that.’”

Though the lack of credits likely stung, and Eric B. even took to The Source at the time to defend himself and give his side of the story, Large Pro doesn’t seem to harbor any resentment based on somewhat recent interviews. “I just put my all into everything I did for them,” he told Jerry L Barrow in a 2008 Nodfactor interview. “That took me from zero to 100 in seconds.”

Many years after first going from zero to 100, Large Pro and Paul C’s connection unexpectedly came full circle when engineer and producer Nick Hook obtained Paul’s SP-1200. After adding it to his massive collection of gear, where it still resides today, mutual acquaintance recloose helped bring Large Pro and the machine back together while capturing the moment with an incredible picture.

The veteran MC and producer’s face says it all.

@nickhook- thought you'd wanna see the don @plargepro reunited with your/Paul C's SP1200 today at #studio2NYC...
August 26, 2015

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

Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!

Looking Back at Bobby Womack's 'Understanding'

Legendary recording studios, Beatles and Neil Diamond covers, a tribute to his late brother, and the making of a classic.

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Fresh off of his stints as a session musician for are Sly & the Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On and Janis Joplin's Pearl, the late Bobby Womack proved himself an unstoppable force on this brief, powerful, self-produced United Artists release from the winter of 1972. Keeping within an overall running time just shy of 37 minutes, Understanding is all killer and no filler.

With recording sessions split between Memphis, Tennessee’s short-lived but historic American Sound Studio and Sheffield, Alabama’s legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, the album owes a debt to the incredibly talented Memphis Boys and Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section—the respective in-house bands for both facilities.

Working as the album’s producer, Womack enlisted revered late session players like Barry Beckett, Bobby Emmons, and Muscle Shoals co-founder Jimmy Johnson to ensure that every single track worked as a perfect musical moment.

Womack shows off his remarkable vocal range and even lets loose on the guitar a bit during the uptempo lead song “I Can Understand It,” a track that gives off the vibes of low key party starter.

The second cut and album’s lead single “Woman’s Gotta Have It” was a #1 record on the Billboard R & B charts, beating out the Chi-Lites and The Staple Singers for the top spot. American Sound engineer Darryl Carter and Sam Cooke’s daughter Linda Womack co-wrote the track for Jackie Wilson, but it was Womack who turned their lyrics into an unforgettable classic.

Anchored by a timeless bassline groove played by The Memphis Boys’ Mike Leech, the soulful, mid-tempo production is bolstered by a beautiful string arrangement provided by Leech and Womack. The lyrics serve as a warning to any man who ignores the needs of their romantic partner, with Womack telling listeners, “You bet you better keep on you Ps and Qs. If you don't the woman you can easily lose.”

The next number is Womack’s cover of The Beatles “And I Love Her”—a stunning reminganing of the original. With Leech and Womack once again working together to provide a rich string arrangement, Womack’s voice if full of ernest emotion and passion throughout. The song is further enhanced by the piano and organ work of The Memphis Boys’ Bobby Emmons and Bobby Wood. Every single vocal hit and bit of instrumentation here works together in perfect synergy to create one of the finest Beatles cover songs this writer has ever heard.

The inclusion of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” may give some listeners pause, but Womack’s version is good enough to make the song likeable again. Womack again demonstrates the full scope of his influences on “Ruby Dean,” a gorgeous and unexpected interpolation of country singer Johnny Darrell’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.”

The album’s final track “Harry Hippie” is a moving endnote and perhaps the most personal record of Womack’s entire career, though it didn’t start out that way. Penned by veteran songwriter Jim Ford, the song was supposed to be a light-hearted tribute to Bobby’s brother Harry—a free spirit with hippie sensibilities. The two siblings had a very close relationship after many years recording and performing together as part of the Womack brother ensemble The Valentinos, both before and during Womack’s solo success.

Tragically, Harry was killed by his ex-girlfriend and the mother of his 1-year-old daughter during a domestic dispute while living at Bobby’s Los Angeles home in 1974. Underscoring the senselessness of his death was Harry’s renewed optimism about his future after cutting two new singles with The Valentinos in ‘73 and providing backup vocals for Womack’s Lookin' For A Love Again. He even hoped to start a scholarship fund, something Bobby later did to honor his memory.

Bobby continued to pay tribute to his fallen brother by keeping the song in his setlist for decades after his passing. “At that time, ‘Harry Hippie’ wasn't a joke anymore; I had lost a brother,” he said in Marc Taylor’s 1996 book A Touch of Classic Soul: Soul Singers of the Early 1970s. “I still do that song in his honor today.”

With Bobby, his brother, and so many of the artists involved in the creation of Understanding no longer with us, there has never been a better time to give this album a listen. From the touching tribute “Harry Hippie” to the #1 Billboard single “Woman’s Gotta Have It,” all nine songs on this record deserve frequent and repeated listens.

Thanks for reading, see you on Monday!

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