Count Bass D's Journey from 'Pre-Life Crisis' to "Jussa Playa"

The musical miracles, artistic evolution, and serendipitous experiences behind his early work.

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Count Bass D's Journey from 'Pre-Life Crisis' to "Jussa Playa"

Count Bass D still vividly remembers his musical awakening. A mere four years old at the time, he sat mesmerized in the pews of his pastor father’s church while a visiting choir performed. After feeling a sudden urge to try out the percussionist’s drum kit, he turned to his mother to express interest. “I looked at what the person was playing and I said to my mother, ‘I really think I can do that,’” he told me in a 2017 Micro-Chop interview. “I remember this clear as day.”

The choir gave him an opportunity to play as the service came to a close, and with the adults in the room looking on in awe, Count was able to keep a beat despite lacking any prior experience. “This is the reason why I haven’t really abandoned Christianity as my spirituality,” he told Micro-Chop. “I continue to musically experience these miracles that can’t be explained, that are really supernatural.”

He spent the next few years mastering a children’s drum set before graduating to a full-sized kit and regular church gigs once he was old enough. Count kept demonstrating a preternatural musical ability as the years passed, teaching himself how to play the organ in just six weeks during the fourth grade. “I could play all my triads, all inversions, and play the 1, 4, 5 progressions in all twelve keys,” he told Micro-Chop. 

During his teenage years he further expanded his skills on the keys and managed to pick up the bass while studying at a Pennsylvania boarding school. By age 19 he was officially making money for his music and he released his debut Pre-Life Crisis just two years later.

The album was a major point of pride for the then-emerging musician, as all the beats featured Count Bass’ multi-instrumentalist composition skills. “I didn’t just sample and loop four musical bars on the track,” he told Havelock Nelson in a 1995 Billboard interview. “I gigged on my record.”

Further assisted on a few tracks by fellow artists Mark Nash on guitar, Rob McGahaw on flugelhorn and trumpet, and Roger “Rock” Williams on flute and sax, the combined musicianship displayed throughout Pre-Life Crisis makes for a captivating listen.

Though the album sounds significantly different than many of the sample-heavy projects released during one of rap’s “golden eras,” it still managed to catch the ear of some high-profile critics, with Spin’s Mike Rubin gushing “1995’s great hope may actually be Count Bass D.”

Count’s initial offering also earned a positive review in Vibe from esteemed hip-hop journalist Michael A. Gonzales. “Somewhere in Nashville, Count Bass D is making records that sound like it’s 1978,” Gonzales wrote, later adding, “Pre-Life Crisis is refreshing indeed; it’s what’s going on in hip-hop right now—what’s old (school) is new (school) again.”

Sadly, effusive praise wouldn’t help Pre-Life Crisis find its deserved audience. With only one single (“Sandwiches”) attached to the record, it struggled commercially. Count’s label admitted that their marketing campaign for Pre-Life Crisis was rather modest, but he has since offered another possible reason for the project’s limited sales.

Though labels like Sugar Hill Records featured an abundance of talented musicians on their releases, many producers with the highest public profiles were mostly sample-based by the mid-90s. Live instrumentation wasn’t unheard of, but it wasn’t necessarily favored either. “That was illegal when I first started,” Count told Micro-Chop. “It was The Roots and myself—and that was it. At the time, as soon as you brought a live instrument into the mix, the Timberland wearing, camouflage wearing guys would be breathing down your neck.”

Whatever the reasons for the album’s sluggish sales, Count was ultimately dropped from HOPPOH/The Work Group, which was distributed by Sony. His fans wouldn’t see another full-length release until 2002’s Dwight Spitz.

The album signified a change in direction artistically, as it featured instrumentals crafted with the Akai S3000 and MPC2000 samplers instead of the live instrumentation Count was previously known for.

The shift proved to be just what he needed to reinvigorate his career—it introduced him to a new demographic while simultaneously earning its share of critical acclaim. “If talent were money, Count Bass D would be richer than Nelly, P-Diddy, and Jermaine Dupri combined,” Nathan Rabin wote in a glowing 2002 A.V. Club review.

As for the creative process behind the music on Dwight Spitz, it was rather simple. Count let real world events dictate the direction of the music. “I live life and whatever comes out is the creative process,” he told Urban Smarts in a 2003 interview.

The origins of the album’s lead cut and one of the stand-out tracks dates all the way back to 1989, when the 16-year-old producer walked into his friend’s boarding school dorm room and heard him playing the classic rock sample source. “When I first started making this song, I didn't know why I was making it,” Count wrote in a 2002 blog post on his website. “I was introduced to a song by a folk group that I fell in love with in 1989. Perhaps I've been writing this song since that moment.”

According to Count, he sometimes listens songs 100 times before turning them into his own arrangement via sampling. “Jussa Playa” was no exception. “I took the lyric ‘just a player, on an old piano.’ and just started from there one day when I was listening to the song for the one hundred and first time,” he wrote.

A rough sketch of the beat seemed suitable for an interlude, but Count didn’t have any major plans for it. Then he started imagining different scenarios for how he could build the song into something more. “I started to get all these ideas of a piano player who is actually a player with the ladies (most piano players are huge macks). So I said this will be the piano player anthem for all piano players,” he wrote.

He found another element that helped bring the whole song together while watching a video from the library about jazz music. During one of the scenes, a famous musician explains the importance of piano mastery—a lecture he apparently gave to Miles Davis. The artist said, "You got to learn how to play the piano. You must learn how to play the piano so you can see the whole spectrum of the notes that you want to play, instead of playing one note at a time.”

Something about the quote resonated with Count, as he felt like it captured journey as a producer. “It explained my whole plight as a musician in hip-hop,” he wrote. “You must see the whole spectrum of notes in order to understand why playing the notes on the drum machine one note at a time was bigger than just some little fad of music.”

After adding the video snippet to the song’s opening, he narrowly avoided losing the in-process version of “Jussa Playa” forever due to a hard drive mishap. Thankfully he had a backup copy on CD.

With the trusty backup Count Bass D was able to add remaining parts needed to flesh out the song—much to the delight of his fans. The whole experience, like many aspects of his lengthy career, seemed destined to be. “You wouldn't believe what this song has been through,” he wrote. “But many people tell me it's one of their favorite tracks.”

Thanks for reading, see you on Monday!