An in-depth look at the Los Angeles producer's unique 2009 concept album.
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Exile Made an Entire Album Out of Radio Samples
Serving as one of his first musical memories, Los Angeles-based producer Exile’s grandfather taught him how to play the accordion at age five. His stint on the instrument would be short lived, however, as he developed an all-consuming drive to understand how beats were made several years later. “I knew I wanted to make beats and I would stop at nothing to figure out how it was done,” he told Acclaim in an undated interview. “I started with two tape decks and one turntable and would create tape loops.”
With his first days as a producer spent recreating the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” with his tape decks, he later graduated to a “push button sampler and a 4-track” before moving on to a Roland MS-1. Like many other producers, the experience of using imperfect equipment with limited options forced Exile to exercise his creative muscle. “There’s no looping except for a live loop, so I’d actually have to hold down samples and play the drums while I’m holding it down and press the change up of the beat,” he said while describing his tactics on the MS-1 in a 2008 Red Bull Music Academy interview.
But it wasn’t until he discovered the Akai MPC 2000XL that he learned to appreciate the full capability of a sampler as an instrument. After countless hours of practice, Exile saw how the MPC gave producers the ability to take finite fragments of multiple songs while merging them together into something beautiful and cohesive. “The idea is to have your own instrument, made up of other instruments: a chopped up guitar, horn, bass line, and drums; then add some synth keys,” he said in a 2010 San Francisco Bay Guardian interview. “You have all these instruments at your fingertips and you can rework them.”
This concept of taking tiny fragments of sound from all over and reworking them would eventually lead to an interest in sampling directly from the radio into his MPC. Exile first put this method to use during a trip to Miami while other people were handling driving responsibilities. After picking up an unspecified device at Radio Shack that connected to the car radio, he plugged it into his sampler and went to work—grabbing random sounds and chopping them up on the MPC’s pads while the car was in motion. “They had some weird line in thing so you could actually hear it out of the car speakers,” he said in 2010 video titled In Love by the Vimeo account Yours Truly. “I would just sit there and make beats.”
From this early experimentation Exile later laced The Mighty Underdogs with an official remix made entirely from radio samples. Then there was a tour with Blu, Ta'Raach, and Aloe Blacc, which provided ample time for perfecting his radio sampling process. “I was making beats in the front seat of the van the whole time,” he told In Love. “I had to save all the time because every once in a while it would just shut off.”
Working in a contained space and immersing himself with a limitless sample source turned out to be a transformative experience. After catching so many sounds at random and turning them into cohesive productions, Exile pondered if he could construct an entire album using this method. His first idea was to name the album Stereo and make the entire thing during a road trip. Though this exact idea didn’t quite end up working out, the all-radio samples concept stuck and eventually morphed into his 2009 record Radio.
Beyond making for an interesting concept album, taking samples from Los Angeles radio stations gave Exile the opportunity to convey messages to his listener. Instead of relying on an MC to provide the meaning behind his music, he strung together vocal samples from all over to convey his beliefs to his fans. “I realized that I could use volume switches as a cross-fader on my boombox, and that the vocal samples off the radio could be manipulated to communicate something that I believed to be true,” he told journalist Jeff Weiss in a 2009 L.A. Times Music Blog interview. “I tried to either sample things I agreed with or re-form things I didn’t, in a way that represented humanity.”
Exile also embraced the challenge of having to build every facet of each song directly from the radio. This took some serious creativity, as he used rather unconventional sounds for percussion and other elements of the beats. “I used some of the static as hi-hats,” he told XXL in a 2009 interview. “I used some of frequencies on AM, I put in key on the opening track.”
Other times Exile would sample clean, open drum breaks if he was lucky enough to be recording when one came on the radio. But he also took drums from songs that had other elements playing over the percussion, using the MPC’s filtering abilities to remove the excess noise. By the time he blended the filtered drums with other musical elements, it made it difficult for the listener to detect any imperfections. “Once I put all the other stuff around it, you can’t really tell,” he told XXL. “If you had the files you could hear the little sample attached to the clap.”
Though such complex sound manipulation might seem like it was born out of a strict and regimented recording sessions, Exile kept his music making process rather open-ended throughout. “I would just sit there and listen to the radio as I was recording and capture what came off to me,” he told XXL. “I would record the radio and then just start chopping it up.”
In the end, making Radio took about a year total from 2007 to 2008. During that time there was some pressure from label Plug Research to put out an instrumental album that wasn’t restricted to radio-sampled beats. Despite the label’s wishes, Exile refused to buckle and compromise his vision—every bit of sound had to emanate from a radio station. “I wouldn’t cheat,” he told Dan Monick in a 2009 L.A. Record interview. “Couldn’t cheat.”
When reflecting on the experience once the album was wrapped, Exile felt like the doubt and pressure from the label was an important ingredient in finishing his ambitious concept album. Though it was likely unpleasant to deal with those negative elements at the time, they helped create the best possible final product. “I’m really glad there was doubt in the beginning,” he told the L.A. Record. “It made me make it what it is now. This is the record I wanted to make. I always wanted to make an instrumental album, and I wanted to make it different.”
Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!