Emàge’s “Feel The Funk” and the Sample Stacking Production of Black Sheep's Mr. Lawnge

A look back at some key selections from the producer's modest but impressive production credits.

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In October of 2011 former HipHopDX journalist Paul Arnold interviewed Black Sheep MC Dres about the making of group’s critically acclaimed 1991 debut album A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing. Dres and group member/producer Mista Lawnge are listed as co-producers in the album credits, but there’s a very interesting exchange in the article where Dres provides some additional insight into the particulars of their production process.

DX: Speaking of Lawnge and the collage of sampled sounds on the album, was Lawnge doing all the diggin’ and programming, or were you doing some of it?  

Dres: I was doing a very small amount. I would say probably 95% Lawnge. I think one of the tracks that I really leaned on was [the album version of] “Similak Child.” I know I had a lot to do with “Similak.” Because, I remember I pause buttoned that main loop for maybe about five minutes just so I could write to it. And here and there I might hear something that I thought might fit. I think I had a lot more to do with the arrangements, as opposed to the actual tracking. The actual tracking pretty much was Lawnge. I was much more concepts, rhymes …. I definitely was buying records as well, but I wasn’t trying to take on the burden of producing. I just looked at Lawnge as a genius.

We learn a few very interesting details here. For one thing, “Similak Child” started out as a pause tape beat. There’s definitely an longform article to be written about the role pause tape beats played in many classic Native Tongue creations.

It also seems that although Dres did play some role in producing the album’s instrumentals, Lawnge was taking on most of the production responsibility.

Dres and Lawnge first started buzzing with their demo a few years before Gilbert O'Sullivan’s sample clearance lawsuit again Biz Markie changed rap music forever by making sampling much more restrictive. Like many producers at the time, Lawnge used a multitude of samples on each individual song. “Similak Child,” for example, uses five total including Jefferson Airplane’s version of “Today.”

On Chi Ali’s 1992 single “Age Ain't Nothin' But a #” Lawnge also wove together five samples, including a nice flip of Stanley Turrentine’s “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon.” Though having a multitude of borrowed source material at his disposal seemed to serve his creative process well, sampling strategies changed drastically throughout the ‘90s and beyond due to cost and potential legal ramifications.

A quick random side note for the sake of documentation: he also contributed a really killer and largely forgotten remix to the star studded “The Points” 12” from the Panther (1995) soundtrack.

As Micro-Chop reader @sklutecase noted recently, it’s not just the number of samples that Mista Lawnge used on his production that’s impressive—it’s the way he made so many samples in a different key work together so they made sense musically. This talent for meticulously blending disparate elements together was also essential in early releases from the Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, and De La Soul.

Lawnge provided some valuable insight into his sample stacking process in an in-depth 2006 interview with HalftimeOnline. He notes that the studio engineers played an important role in making all the different parts of each beat work together. “It’s basically starting from many different bits and pieces from many different albums and I’d fold them together like cards,” he said. “Then I’d take them to the studio to use the equipment I didn’t have like AKAIs and all that and then direct the engineers on what I wanted to have done. Each piece of each record went down on its own track.”

Lawnge’s flawless sample blending is on full display with Emàge’s “Feel The Funk” from their 1994 album Soul Deepthough the production credits here are a bit vague and difficult to track down. WhoSampled lists him as the lone producer, AllMusic cites Black Sheep—indicating that Dres was involved in the track, while Discogs credits Black Sheep as executive producers but doesn’t have production credits for individual tracks. Having said that, the beat does have the feel of other Lawnge production from that time in his career.

The song starts with a familiar bassline sample that I can’t quite place and Emàge’s beautiful three-part harmonies. Around the 7-second mark some perfectly placed string samples start to build into the beat before he cuts them off and drops in an extended piano sample from “Ike’s Mood I.” The production here is masterful—it works as a perfect compliment to impressive vocals displayed throughout the song. After the first hook the piano drops out again, giving us another stirring mix of the bass, strings, and some beautiful singing. These kind of changeups throughout make the tune all the more effective.

Unfortunately, despite displaying so much promise on “Feel The Funk” and other standout moments at the beginning of his career, Lawnge’s production and general output really slowed down after the release of Black Sheep’s 1994 sophomore effort Non-Fiction. On this project Black Sheep are again listed as co-producers as a group instead of individuals, though details are lacking about how the division of responsibilities may have changed or stayed that same after the first album. There are some more recent releases on his SoundCloud page and a few post-2010 credits on Discogs, but it has been several years since he has released any new music.

Whether it was suffocating sampling laws or just general music industry burnout, it’s a shame Mista Lawnge moved away from producing and music in general over the years. He certainly seemed to have a lot more creative output to offer the world.

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