Dibiase Discusses 303s, 404s, MPCs, and Tape Hiss—Part 2
The uncut, 6800-word version of an enduring Micro-Chop favorite in two parts.
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Dibiase Discusses 303s, 404s, MPCs, and Tape Hiss—Part 2
(Click here to read Part 1 of my two-part interview with Dibiase.)
Gino: Did you have a mentor or anyone showing you how to make beats or were you classically trained in music?
Dibiase: I just taught myself man. It’s funny how I found out about MPCs. Some of my boys, we would go to this one dude’s studio. He had a 4-track and an MPC MIDI’d up to a keyboard. I wasn’t understanding what MIDI was back then, but he was basically having the keyboard sounds going through the MPC. I was like “Damn, I want to make some Premier type, chopping samples type shit. What drum machine does that?”
I was having like these little Boss drum machines and Alesis drum machines that you couldn’t sample with. I even had some Roland R8 drum machines. With the eight second sampler you couldn’t micro-chop nuthin’. It was pretty much loops and that was it. They had two second banks, like four two second banks. It was crazy man.
And those beats was sounding off because I was making stuff with swing back then. When I had those drum machines, before I had the MPC, I didn’t know how to turn the swing feature off. A lot of times I would do the drums live into the sampler instead of programming it. I would sample it into the sampler with live timing and do the hi-hats live. The homies was always trying to correct me. This was in ‘95, before swing was a so-called Dilla thing. The drum machine was sounding too mechanical to me.
Anyway, I like my beats sounding like some Wu and shit, that grimy shit. This dude was making these keyboard sounding beats and it wasn’t matching what I was rhyming. So I was like, “Man, I need to start making some of my own beats.”
When I was seeing the MPC, I wasn’t sold on it. It sounded like a keyboard, because he had keyboard sounds coming out of it. I guess about a year down the line I went to one of the other homie’s house. They was freestyling and this cat was playing some beats in the van. The beats had samples and he was flipping some grimey, boom bap shit, and even some drum and bass type shit. I was like, “Damn, what are you using to make this?”
He said, “An MPC.”
I was like, “OK, I might need to do some research on this.”
This is around ‘97. Then I went to another studio and this cat had a lot of vinyl in his garage. He had an MPC and he was chopping up records. Maybe a couple of months later I made a down payment on an MPC and my moms helped me get it from Guitar Center. I was making payments on that shit forever. This was even before I was working at the park. Once I got the job I just started making payments on it forever.
Gino: MPCs are definitely not cheap. Countless well-known songs have made using the MPC. Besides the obvious examples like Madlib, are you aware of any well-known songs or albums that were done on the 303 or 404?
Dibiase: Shit, pretty much all of the homies were the ones using the 303 at one time. No cats like Premier or nothing. I have seen some of them having a 404 in their studios. They had it, but they were mainly using it for effects and running a CDJ or turntable through it or some shit. They didn’t even know how powerful it was. I even saw Just Blaze clowin’ the 404 on Twitter before. He said something like, “Man, I’m trying to give this shit away.”
It was a picture of a 404. I saw like, “Wow.”
But what they think is junk is another man’s gold. Madlib was probably the first one that I know who was using the 303. I remember going to certain stores and seeing a 303 with a sign next to it saying, “Madlib makes beats using this drum machine,” trying to use that as a way to get people to buy them.
Gino: I question why Roland has never reached out to you, Madlib, Ras G, Nick Tha 1nda, or anyone else who has utilized the 303 or 404 to do some kind of endorsement. Other samplers like the MPC and Maschine go really hard at getting sponsored tutorials online with people showing what they can do with the equipment. It seems like Roland has never cosigned videos showcasing the SP producers who seem to do the most with their product.
Dibiase: I don’t know if they really know how crazy the movement is with the SPs. They discontinued them, but they brought the 404SX back. My wife actually got an email from one of the people at Roland. I probably will get at them about something. They should do videos like that. I’d be down to do videos and tutorials on that shit.
Gino: I would love to see some Roland endorsed videos. A lot of the stuff I’ve seen you do with the 404 in your live shows blows my mind. I’d like to see a tutorial of you breaking it all down.
Dibiase: Man, that shit was an accident. The first beat set I did was Boombox in L.A. in ‘07. I did a few little beat shows at Project Blowed with an MPC and 8-track, but Boombox was the first club. One of my homies always said, “Make sure there is no dead space in your set, you want it a constant flow of beats.”
So I made a mix because the 303 couldn’t hold that much time. I had a laptop and I ran it through the 303. I was doing the effects live and I had certain sounds on the 303 that I was triggering over the mix I made. It was a 15 minute set. That night it was Flying Lotus, me, Exile, and Cook Classics. That was pretty much the first set I did.
I didn’t have the 404 then, so I was like, “Man, I need some more time.”
This one cat I knew wanted to buy some beats from me. He came to the crib and he wanted some spaced out sounding shit. I had made some beats and he was like, “That’s the shit I want.”
I think we were talking about equipment and I mentioned how I was looking into getting a 404. He was like, “Yo, I actually got one. I’ll trade you the 404 for this beat and $50.”
The only thing it needed was a memory card. That’s how I got my 404. And I still got it to this day.
Gino: Just one beat and $50?
Dibiase: Yeah, and once I started making beats on there I realized it could hold over an hour. I was like, “I can do hour long sets just on this? I’m good.”
Gino: If I just gave you a 404 and a bunch of records to make a set, how much can you do with internal sequencing if you don’t have a laptop and software to help with multi-tracking?
Dibiase: There are different compact flashcards for the OG 404 that can hold one gig. But the 404SX can do more than one gig. One gig is quite a bit. I’ve done over an hour before, and sometimes when I’ve had two 404s I was rocking two hour sets.
Gino: Besides the SP-303, 404, and MPC2000XL, what other equipment stands out to you?
Dibiase: One homie just got an SP-1200 as a gift. I need to make a beat on that in my lifetime. I have the SP-12, but the 1200? Never. The homie had one and I thought I was gonna make a beat on it. I turned it on and tried to sample with it, and it wasn’t sampling. His shit was broke. He just had it sitting. I should have bought it from him regardless and had it repaired.
Gino: That’s expensive though. A working SP-1200 goes for a lot of money on EBay.
Dibiase: How I got The SP-12 is a funny story. I had a friend who lived in Lancaster. He was like, “Yeah, I got a homie with an SP-12. It’s just sitting in his garage, collecting dust.”
I was like, “Damn, see if he wants to sell that shit.”
This dude with the SP was on that gangster shit. He wasn’t tripping on SP-1200s and didn’t know the history. So he was trying to sell his SP-12 for $150 because it was broken. This was in 2001, and I was ready to spend $500. I was like, “Man, I’ll have the money tomorrow.”
When I went over there the next day to buy it, he was still talking $150. His cousin walked in and saw the SP-12 out. His cousin wasn’t a numbskull, he was a hip hop head. He said, “Oh shit, you got an SP-12? De La Soul made 3 Feet High off of this drum machine,” and started dropping all kind of knowledge.
I was like, “Shut the fuck up man.” (Laughs)
So they went in to the corner to talk some shit over and re-consult some shit. He came back like, “Yo man, I gotta sell if for $250 dog.”
In my head I was like, “That’s it? OK.”
But I was like, “Oh man, how you gonna bump the price up like that.” The price was still low. I was ready to spend $500, maybe even $700 if I had to. But it was broke; it was missing a fuse on the back of it. I was like, “Fuck it” and gave him the bread.
I drove back to L.A., took it to this spot, and they fixed it for $100. So I basically spent like $350 on the SP-12. I just run drums through it. But years down the line it fucked up on me again. So it was sitting for like three years. I thought it was a simple fix, but it was way more serious than that. It was like $600 to fix. But yeah man, it’s crazy—I’m addicted to the equipment.
Gino: As much as you like equipment, you seem to be able to make do with anything. You were able to rock an 8-second sampler, tape deck, and Walkman. Do you have any other interesting sampling methods that you’ve used over the years?
Dibiase: In ‘95 I was sampling from the radio station. My homie had the little receiver with the antenna on the back and I’d sample from the jazz station or whatever. Sometimes the reception was bad, so I’d hold the antenna with one hand and use the other hand to press the button to start and stop the sample. You might hear a little buzz in it. But fuck it, it gives it character. Sometimes I’d just put a tape on and record the station all through the night. I’d wake up the next morning, listen to the tape, and sample from the tape.
Gino: Do you have any of tapes from those sessions?
Dibiase: Oh man, that was before I had the 4-track. A lot of those tapes, nah, I don’t have them. I still have some tapes at my mom’s in the garage. Every time I go, I be going through, finding tapes, and bringing ‘em back. Some are 4-track tapes, some are regular tapes. Some of the tapes from ‘90-something are all warped.
Gino: Earlier in the interview you mentioned being self-trained when it comes to drum machines and samplers. How much of technical understanding did you have for music when you started?
Dibiase: I don’t play cords or nothin’. I don’t read music like that. I just go off of the feeling man, pretty much. I said something online once about how my whole sound is imperfections. Something could be technically off, but I don’t know, that’s what I was feeling at the moment. I don’t know how to play drums or nothing, but I kind of understand the pocket and velocity. Like with hi-hats, sometimes certain hi-hats shouldn’t all be at the same volume, it should have a certain velocity like a real drummer. A real drummer, when he’s hitting the drums, he’s not hitting it at the same volume every time. So I just try to have that approach. It’s a certain pocket man, I can’t even explain it. I know cats that actually play the drums, and they can explain it. They know all of the time signatures and all of that. I don’t know. I just hear it and...(Laughs)
Gino: I feel like that’s inspiring for people who want to make music but don’t have classical training.
Dibia$e: I do want to learn though, definitely. I want to learn the drums and piano, to understand the theory of it. Once you know the rules, you can break the rules. You know what you can get away with. I’m not a purist, not at all. I remember when I was rhyming; I wouldn’t even structure my beats. I wasn’t tripping off of hooks or nothing. Then I started structuring beats for the 16 bar and 8 bar hooks.
When I started getting in beat battles, I started sequencing my beats a certain way to have different transitions. I was trying to cram all of it into a minute. In beat battles, you have a minute to play your beat, so I wasn’t trying to play a loop or nothin’. I was trying to make certain transitions and have crazy change ups—like some surprise shit, some unconventional shit. I don’t know. It’s just experimenting, pretty much.
Gino: How do you think being from Watts/L.A. has influenced your music?
Dibiase: When I was young, in elementary school, I was kind of the music dude. One of my best friends, he had a brother who was way older than us, so he would dub all of the music for us. I would have N.W.A., 2 Live Crew, and all of that controversial stuff on cassette in elementary school. When the homies were dubbing all of those tapes for me I’d be sitting in the car with my moms listening to the tapes. I’d have all of the tapes memorized and when the cuss word would come up, I would turn the volume down real quick, like a mute out. It was like my signature mute out that I do now on the beat, but I was in 6th grade doing it on the car stereo. (Laughs) At a certain point she wasn’t even tripping on the cuss words. By junior high or high school it wasn’t no issue. I remember when I went to YMCA summer camp in 6th grade. Our councilors were in high school and they were coming to me and having me dub all the new music for them. It was funny. I was that dude back then. A lot of that stuff was Geto Boys, X Clan, Ice Cube’s first solo album.
There are a lot of influences man. My pops had a restaurant with a jukebox. Any time I would chill at the restaurant, I would be listening to the jukebox. A lot of times rappers would eat at that restaurant. People like Ice Cube and Eazy E would give him 45s to put in the jukebox. They would autograph them and all that.
Gino: Was he friends with those guys?
Dibiase: Yeah. He knew a lot of them. He had a restaurant by Freemont High in the ‘80s called McGary’s. Basically every weekend, I’d either play arcade games at the laundromat across the street or be inside the cafe listening to music on the jukebox. I’d just be picking random stuff like Ray Parker Jr.’s "Ghostbusters," and of course I’d listen to the hip-hop stuff that was in there all day. There were also all kind of oldies, and as I got older and was familiar with that kind of music, I’d flip all of that stuff.
Gino: You’re in Sacramento now. It’s amazing how much the Internet has taught me about regional rap scenes. I check the website Rap Music Guide a lot and listen to the tapes put out by R8R & L-Wood. They had one tape that was all Sacramento rap. I didn’t even realize people like Brotha Lynch Hung were from there too.
Dibiase: Yeah, that’s all I know about Sacramento rap pretty much, is Brotha Lynch Hung. Back in the day I knew he was on that grimy stuff. Odd Future before there was Odd Future. Horrorcore. I’m just super low key out here in Sactown. I barely do anything out here besides making beats in the lab or going to work. Most of the shows be out of town. I don’t know what’s up with the beat scene out here, but they got some cats that rhyme. Chuuwee is pretty sick. I’m still adjusting to living out here and figuring out who’s who.
Gino: Sometimes it’s good to move out of your comfort zone.
Dibiase: Yeah. It’s a mission though, sometimes. I’m so used to L.A.. Sacramento is cool; it’s slower paced out here. I’m real laid back anyway, so I don’t like stuff to be too fast-paced. When L.A. got too fast-paced, I’d just go in the lab. There was a lot of inspiration in L.A.. It’s tough to find inspiration out here, but we definitely try. San Francisco is only 45 minutes away and it definitely be cracking there. A lot of the homies that make beats live in San Fran and Oakland.
Gino: Earlier in the interview we talked about having to give up doing music as a full time job. Do you think you’ll be able to do it for a living again with all of the responsibilities you have and your new location?
Dibiase: I was doing it full time until about eight months ago; from like 2008 until 2013. That was a good run and I could live off of it for a time. But the thing is; most of your money comes from touring. I can’t be gone on tour for months at a time. I have a lot of homies who just be gone for months in Europe and crazy shit like that. The most I could do is tour for two, maybe three weeks. When I went to Australia, we went for two weeks. It was cool man.
If I was younger.…When the beat scene started for me, I had already been doing it since ‘95. The beat scene started cracking ‘07 and ‘08, when cats was traveling off of this stuff and making beat albums, like the original back in the day beat albums, like DJ Shadow. For a while cats wasn’t making instrumental concept albums like they doing now. Cats is touring all over the world off of that shit. When I decided I was rhyming, I was doing a lot of shows with my old crew. We were opening for cats like Doom, GZA, and J-Zone. I did like 400 shows rhyming from like ‘97 to 2005.
Once I started doing the beats I had to start from ground zero. A lot of cats is young so they can still tour. I can’t really afford to tour for months. If there was a beat scene back in the '90s, I definitely would have tried to be on the road a lot more. But it’s cool. I’m just happy to make beats and put some stuff online. Get out a little bit. Travel a little bit. It doesn’t have to be aggressive.
Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!