The Equipment and Creative Process of Jean Grae, Q-Tip, Linafornia, and Easy Mo Bee
A look at the artistic evolution and gear of four notable producers.
|Gino Sorcinelli||Jan 13|| 2|
Jean Grae’s 30-year beatmaking journey first began when she acquired a “terrible Gemini mixer with ABCD loop buttons” as a teenager. Unlike some other producers, she did not fall in love with her first piece of gear. “It was waaack,” she tweeted in 2018.
Thankfully her underwhelming Gemini mixer didn’t deter her from making instrumentals in the future. She tried her hand with the E-mu SP-1200—one of the most important samplers in hip-hop history—but it was a later stint with an Ensoniq keyboard sampler that truly lit her creative fire. “I found keys were my home when I got an EPS 16+,” Grae wrote in a 2018 tweet. “I’ve used everything else since, but keyboards/playing are my place of comfy.”
According to Grae, the years right before the turn of the century were pivotal in developing her production chops. “I spent most of the late ‘90's trapped in the attic of Makin' Records glued to the EPS 16 plus,” she wrote in a 2009 tweet. “Good times.”
It was during these marathon beatmaking sessions that she created the late-90s underground classics “Dynamic” and the subsequent remix for the late Brooklyn rapper Pumpkinhead. Over a decade after the song’s release esteemed producer Marco Polo tweeted, “Man ‘Dynamic’ is still one of those beats I wish I made.”
Grae continues to make vibrant, emotionally resonant beats today, including a recent highlight moment from the 2018 collaborative LP Everything’s Fine with her husband Quelle Chris. The lump-in-throat inducing production on the album’s conclusion “River,” coupled with her raw and brutally honest lyrics about childhood trauma and domestic abuse, make for an incredibly potent listening experience.
In the end, it seems that kind of honest emotional response is her guiding force while she works on new material. “I don’t know if I ever feel completely solid that everything is in place,” she wrote in a 2018 tweet. “I think I always go for what makes me FEEL the most. Usually that means what makes me cry. Depends. This album, ‘River.’”
Long before a 30-year career in the music industry was even conceivable, A Tribe Called Quest MC and producer Q-Tip started out as a student of his father’s jazz record collection. At a certain point simply listening to the music wasn’t enough, so he put his parent’s cassette deck to work as a makeshift sampler. Using the pause tape method he repeated certain sections of his dad’s albums, sometimes rewinding the desired part of a sample up to one hundred times.
After drafting an early version of “Bonita Applebum” at age 15, a 16-year-old Tip made pause tape demo versions of many beats from Tribe’s groundbreaking debut People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. Though DIY tape loops played a key role in their first album, other equipment was critical in advancing from pause tape demos to the official release fans know and love today. According to a 2009 Okayplayer interview with Ginger Lynn, Tip used an E-mu SP-12 to make beats for the album and started messing with the more advanced SP-1200 towards the end of the recording process.
In the same interview Tip explained that he started using the SP-1200 in tandem with an Akai S950 on Tribe’s Low End Theory—a popular equipment combination used at various times by Easy Mo Bee, J Dilla, Lord Finesse, Large Professor, and countless other influential producers. In fact, it was Large Pro who helped Tip reach new heights with one of these samplers. “Large Professor showed me how to work the SP-1200,” he told Keith Murphy in a 2011 Vibe interview. “I had all my pause tapes and ideas, but he used to show me how to actually make tracks.”
The Akai MPC also entered the fold when Tribe started recording 1993’s Midnight Marauders. Tip later upgraded to the MPC3000 on the group’s fourth effort Beats, Rhymes and Life, a progression that makes sense given collaborator and friend J Dilla’s affinity for the 3000 and his role producing tracks on the album as part of The Ummah.
By 2009 Tip had no set piece of gear and was rather open-minded about how he made beats. But 2012 saw the acquisition of an API 3288 32-channel, 22-monitor analog recording and mixing console, a purchase that would inform much of his production from 2014-2017.
In addition to putting the console to work on Tribe’s swan song We Got It from Here... Thank You 4 Your Service, he also used the console for collaborations with Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, and Pusha T. “The circuitry, the way it was designed, the EQs are very concise and exact,” he told Eric Allen in a 2017 Vintage King interview. “You get a real sharpness and there is a clarity to it. You can hear the difference.”
Life circumstances were bright for producer Linafornia in 2013. In addition to successfully balancing a job and her education, she landed a coveted gig in Stones Throw Records’ street team promoting their upcoming documentary Our Vinyl Weighs a Ton. Then a severe car accident forced her to put everything on the back burner while she focused on the healing process.
The folks at Stones Throw responded to her predicament with sensitivity and kindness, sending her care packages loaded with a variety of new CDs to with her difficult recovery. In addition to providing some peace of mind, the music also nurtured her creative spirit. “That’s what pretty much inspired me to want to make music myself,” she told me in a 2019 Micro-Chop interview.
As she searched for a an affordable production setup during her recovery, it became evident that the full setup of turntables and a mixer was out of her price range. Thankfully the compact and ever-popular Roland SP-404 sampler provided a cost-effective alternative. By July of 2014 she had the confidence and health to do her first live show with fellow 404 enthusiast ALWAYZ PROFLIFIC.
Maintaining her love of the 404 over time, Linafornia also incorporated other software and samplers into her repertoire for her 2016 debut album. “I love FL Studio,” she told Micro-Chop. “My album [YUNG] is really like a melting pot of FL Studio, the 404, and the 555. I just make whatever works, whatever sounds good.”
Though she still make use of the aforementioned FL Studio and Rolan SPs, 2019 saw Linafornia shift her focus a bit towards producing with Ableton. Posting many of her latest creations on Soundcloud, she’s putting an emphasis on moving away from samples and creating original sounds to give herself more financial freedom. “I’m really excited to work on more original production and sampling myself just so I don’t have to worry about sample clearances so much,” she told Micro-Chop. “It will open up more opportunities for me to monetize my art. I’m really excited about that.”
Easy Mo Bee
Like Q-Tip and many other producers of his era, Easy Mo Bee’s first forays into beatmaking took place with a cassette deck. He made some of his earliest pause tape beats alongside his one-time neighbor Norman G of the The Bluez Brothers, a production duo who would later contribute to Biggie’s Ready To Die album.
Mo Bee’s pause tape beats moved from the bedroom into the studio when he added a Casio SK-1 sampling keyboard to his outfit. Despite the SK-1’s chuckle-worthy 1.4-second sampling time, it has a surprisingly rich and varied role throughout the history of recorded music. Large Professor employed the sampler in his early productions while Mutant Academy producer Tuamie used the sampler extensively on his Water Loops debut to achieve a vintage sound.
Mo Bee used his Macgyver-like tape deck / SK-1 setup to craft the demo versions of “Another Victory” and “Calling Mr. Welfare” for Big Daddy Kane’s 1989 LP It’s A Big Daddy Thing. Though the beats were later recreated with the aid of a studio engineer and a Synclavier, it was during these early beatmaking sessions that he demonstrated the ingenuity and talent that would make him one of the most in-demand producers of the 1990s.
By the early-‘90s Mo Bee had moved on to an SP-1200 and Akai S950, but a landmark legal case proved to be the true watershed moment in his artistic life. When Biz Markie used an uncleared sample of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again” on his 1991 I Need A Haircut album, it lead to a costly and historic lawsuit that would forever make sampling a more expensive and restrictive process. In the wake of the suit, Mo Bee recalled an emergency meeting with his late one-time manager Francesca Spero where she told him not to sample many well-known artists anymore. He was devastated.
Instead of dwelling on the new limitations imposed on his creative process, he decided to look at the situation as an opportunity to reinvent himself. Forgoing straight loops, Mo Bee committed himself to taking very tiny pieces of sounds from different records and using his SP-1200 to piece them together into new compositions. He even played out basslines live on records like “Runnin,’” a 1995 2Pac and Biggie collaboration from the One Million Strong compilation. “I played the bassline live all the way through that record from the SP-1200 through multi-pitch,” he told Dana Scott in an incredibly in-depth 2014 HipHopDX interview. “It was like a bass guitar strumming, and if I messed up, it was like ‘Yo bring it back, and plug me in.’”
Though production equipment has evolved considerably since Mo Bee first picked up his 1200 and S950, he continues to use both samplers as he main tools of the trade. He even showcases some of his classic beats with his 1200 live on Instagram, including a tribute to his late collaborator and friend Craig Mack. It’s been a long time since he first laid down tracks like “Flava In Ya Ear,” but Easy Mo Bee still sounds as fresh as ever.
Thanks for reading, see you on Wednesday!