September 26, 2014

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When Jonwayne dies, bury him with velour on

When I was very young, on a day I couldn’t point out if I tried, I started to formulate the truth: I didn’t have to rely on my mother to dress me. On an unsuspecting morning, I opened the drawers that held my clothes like familiar but undiscovered treasure. Much like the registration of a car being passed on from previous to current owner, these clothes went from foreign, snakeskin artifacts that inexplicably went from being on my floor to being on my body a week later, to things that started making sense outside of that cycle. I stared at the folded gifts inside, my imagination churning and smoke pouring out the holes in my head. I became immediately overwhelmed with the combination of outfits at display. I almost achieved a certain amount of ego over the possibilities I had concocted in my tiny brain.

Full of pride and with a smile that could have been a muse for an animator, I marched into my parents’ bedroom wearing what was perhaps the most confused mishmash my mother had ever laid eyes on. Not being able to see her face of shock due to my smugness closing my eyes, I only heard her voice: amazed, proud, rewarding. We immediately went back to the other room and dressed me properly. I went about my day in preschool, feeling like more of a man for understanding how clothes work.

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Present day, I would say I still have just as decent an understanding of clothing as I did then. Sporting sandals, basketball shorts and a shirt that’s too big, I show up to Cosmic Zoo, this studio I’ve been working out of in Atwater Village, and meet a friend there to record. The place is modest in looks yet packs the sound potential of a bigger studio, one where you would pay much more for not much more. I’d say beyond making music of my own, my great passion is engineering and producing other people’s sessions. It feels natural to me and I make time for any opportunity to do so alongside an artist in which I respect and see potential.

We talk, eat lunch, and go into the work. It’s a smooth process when done correctly and before long, with chemistry, we end up with great results. The next day I play the session back to Kev (who runs the studio) and the first thing he notes is how much more clear and on-point my friend sounded on the recording. “Probably the best I’ve ever heard from him”. I agreed yet brought up some past material to play as the devil’s advocate. I went to push play on my favorite song of his, expecting us to be blown away and… the sound just fell flat. The quality of the music and the lyrics were there but they didn’t reach us like the other recordings did, especially back-to-back. That moment was definitely an eye-opener for me, and in the past I have been one of the biggest offenders.

Propelled by a sense of pride in individualism being pushed by our culture, there is an epidemic of independent, indie-label and even major artists who want to dress themselves in the morning but don’t know enough not to sport the wrong outfits. I’m speaking specifically about hip-hop, but it applies to all. There is so much more that goes into putting together music than getting a great take of performance and mixing it until it sounds good enough. When I’m in the studio helping these guys get the proper take, it almost takes a certain amount of coaxing to get them to where they sound best on the record. I didn’t realize how important the process was until I went back into the studio to record new music and had people who’s opinions I trusted behind the boards to guide me while being in such an open, vulnerable state. It’s a back and forth of communication, a second opinion, a witness of the energy taking place. There are hardly any artists who can get the job done by themselves with a final product in the same ballpark as when a proper team gets it done.

What’s even worse is a yes man behind the boards. Another person’s reassurance of a train wreck establishes the confidence of the illusion even more. The reality of the situation isn’t pleasing for most to hear but it’s the truth: most artists need direction in the studio. You need to have someone there who understands your vision and/or projects a similar one with your work. You need to have someone there that you trust will tell you when you need to do something over again or with a different inflection. It’s not impossible for an artist to be that person but unless he’s doing everything else himself, it’s likely that he’s not. The role of direction and discretion is a dying breed within a world of just wanting to get a mixtape done so you can drop it tomorrow. It absolutely has to come out tomorrow. Throw a limiter on the whole 2 track and call it a day. That take sounds good. Just cut out the dead air and we’re good.

The decline in quality is conditioning hip-hop fans to not appreciate releases as much, and why should they? If you’re cutting corners in the studio, shouldn’t they cut corners with their wallets? It isn’t such a mystery when you realize that this mentality extends beyond the studio into nearly every facet of the experience artists are offering to their fans. Just because you’re independent doesn’t mean you can’t present your product with style, and with the Internet the tools aren’t out of anyone’s reach. If you need funds to help put a better project together, go get a job. If you can’t get a job…then hustle mixtapes, I guess.

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