An Interview With The Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee

Robert Ham speaks to the legendary hip-hop producer about composing the score for the forthcoming 'YE! A Jagun Story.' learning to adapt to Atmos, analog vs. digital and more.
By    February 8, 2023

Image via Hank Shocklee/Instagram

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No matter what Hank Shocklee does with his remaining years on this mortal coil, he has already secured his place in the history books as one of the pillars of hip-hop. As a member of The Bomb Squad with brother Keith and collaborators like Eric “Vietnam” Sadler and Chuck D, he concocted the dense, paralyzing productions that anchored Public Enemy’s greatest albums, Ice Cube’s most powerful solo effort, and the debut solo effort from the legendary Slick Rick. Without his guiding light, we would have no Madvillain, no J Dilla, no Alchemist.

Since the Bomb Squad’s dissolution, Shocklee has remained on the bleeding edge of the culture, collaborating with and mentoring up and coming artists and producers like U.K. future pop singer Emika, whose 2013 album Dva he executive produced. And he’s expanded his empire to work in the worlds of sound design and film score composition.

The latest project to feature Shocklee’s name finds him combining those two elements is YE! A Jagun Story, a new Afrofuturistic film from the Nigerian-American filmmaker John Oluwole ADEkoje. The story follows the journey of Stellar (played by Dakore Egbuson-Akande), the leader of a group of women whose combined psychic power helps to heal the broken minds of African people living outside the continent, as she attempts to avenge the murder of her family. In close concert with ADEkoje, Shocklee created an entire soundworld for this film, utilizing some fresh technology — the Dolby Atmos — and music from a group of up-and-coming African artists to sonically immerse viewers within this cinematic environment. Taking a quick break at his New York office, Shocklee opened up about his work on YE!, the artists he called on to help root the film in the modern African experience, and a bit about his legacy as a producer and artist. – Robert Ham

How did this all begin? How did you get connected with John Oluwole ADEkoje and become part of the creative team behind YE!?

Hank Shocklee: I connected with John about six or seven years ago. I was introduced to him by a good friend of mind, Dr. Patrice Gaston. She brought me up to the Boston Academy of Arts to speak to the kids there. I was in John’s class and he was teaching film. From there, we built a relationship, a bond on ideas. I’m a big film fan, and I follow directors. I have a set of directors that I think are trendsetters above all other directors they might admire. We kind of vibed on that as well. He’s an avid film buff and he’s interested in directors — in their points of view. He said, “I’m writing this script that’s a big film.” I immediately said, “That film is a big, big film that you want to do. In order to start, this thing’s gonna have to be broken down into smaller chunks.” Then we lost touch for a minute, and then he came back to me and we decided to make it into a trilogy, almost like a Black Mirror program.

The film has this immersive quality with the combination of the visuals and the soundscape you helped build. Was that something you had in mind from the start or did that come later as you guys figured out the logistics of the script and the story?

Hank Shocklee: John had sent me the rough cut of what we consider to be the first episode that’s actually episode two. We are starting with episode two and then we’re going to go back to one and then finish up with three. When he sent it to me, I loved the idea. It had nothing in it, just dialogue and some background stuff. I loved the way it was shot. I loved the story he was telling. And most importantly, John is big on actors. Dakore and Tony are some of the premier up and coming actors out there right now. So the film was good. But the idea of having immersive sound was something that I brought to the table because I’ve been dabbling in that sound area for a couple of years now. I got teamed up with Dolby and they gave me a special release of their version of Atmos before it went out to market. I’d been looking for an application like that and when Atmos came across my desk the first thing I thought was YE! I said, “We have to make this immersive. John shot the film with that kind of atmosphere in mind but he didn’t connect the dots to sound and atmosphere together. That’s the area that I took it to.

What can you tell me about your interest in what a program like Atmos can do? It sounds like you were interested in this before you started working on YE!. Were you thinking about how this kind of immersive sound could be used in a production context, for an album?

Hank Shocklee: I was definitely thinking of visuals. I think we’ve run our course on audio only. Everybody has a phone so we don’t listen to music anymore. We watch it. So I think Atmos has applications definitely for film and television and short content films. That’s gonna be the next emergence: nine minute-long pieces that you can put together as chunks to tell a bigger story. There’s so much content out there and people’s time isn’t like what it used to be. We used to sit down and watch an hour and a half to two hours. Now, two and a half hours is killer in terms of the time you’re eating up. Shorter condensed content series is, to me, the way of the future.

When it comes to getting your hands on a new toy like Atmos, are you a pretty quick study when it comes to new technology? Were you able to pick up the ins and outs of the software easily?

Hank Shocklee: I am not quick at all, man. It took me like a year, close to two years to get a grasp on it. Even when I was doing music back in the day with Public Enemy, I could never understand anything fully from just a tactile experience, touching buttons and turning knobs. My brother and Eric… those guys could touch stuff and figure out how it works. For me, I have to sit down with the manual. Because I don’t want to know it from just a surface level. I have to know it from a multi-dimensional level. I want to know what it does and what it doesn’t do. It’s the things that it doesn’t do that I want to add into the production, as well as the things that it does. That’s how we were able to come up with all kinds of concepts back in the day. We were doing filtering before anybody knew what filtering was. How I discovered filtering was just because with an SP 1200, if you stuck the 1/4″ jack halfway in, it took off all the high end. And at that time, equalization didn’t do that. It just attenuated the high end. It didn’t actually cut it off. I could go into a whole number of advances that we made through the imperfection of gear. So the same thing where I sit with it and figure out what it can actually do, I want to know its limitations.

The job for me in YE! was not necessarily to use Atmos in a gimmicky form. We already know we can put sound all around. But the idea for this film was to park you inside the film. It’s no different than if you walk into a train station and you’re inside an immersive sound environment. You don’t ever look at it as such because it’s a natural occurrence to you. The idea was taking the listener or the viewer inside the film, almost like you’re right there with the character.

What was your philosophy about composing the score to the film? Were you working really closely with John to figure out the right sounds and mood for each scene, or did he leave you to your own devices?

Hank Shocklee: John gave me freedom to go and do what I felt. Which was amazing because that’s the thing that got me really excited about it. I had a blank canvas to work with. I could just go. He had one song that he used in what we called the dance scene, which is actually the funeral that happens inside the film. Stellar is going through this emotion because she’s been hurt so the dance scene represents the future of a lost loved one. John used a Fela Kuti record called “Trouble Sleep,” and he just put it in as a temp track. When I first heard it, the piece was so great and it fit the vibe. I said, “First of all, let’s clear it and then let’s use that as the centerpiece.” So I already had a template. I took the “Trouble Sleep” concept and expanded it into a score. So that when you hear it, it’s kind of like if you were to DJ “Trouble Sleep” and the score into and out of each other, with that harmonic precision. I wanted to make sure it didn’t feel like I’m listening to the song. It had to hold up as a score for the story.

You helped put together the soundtrack for the film, as well, which features all these African and Pan-African artists from around the globe. What was that process like to dig around and find the right tunes and the right artists for this?

Hank Shocklee: My partner in crime in this is Jo-Ann Nina. She’s a huge digger. She’s like me back in the days when I was digging for records. The difference is that she scoured the Internet, and she found a lot of artists. She played me a bunch of them, and I picked what I thought was the best. The artist OWO came through a friend of mine, Will Calhoun from Living Colour. He said, “I was working with a film director that did her video, and you should check her.” And when I checked her, I liked what she was doing. I wasn’t really crazy about the material she was doing then, but after talking to her, she said, “Oh, I’ve got other stuff as well.” Then she came in with two amazing pieces. She’s a Nigerian version of what would be a cross between Beyoncé and Rihanna.

All the artists on the soundtrack are new. I didn’t want to run around and chase artists that have already blown up in their own right. I wanted to find new and upcoming artists that I think are really, really, really, really good. We have an artist by the name of Ninety and he delivered a song called “Sun Down.” He reminds me of a Nigerian version of Bob Marley but with the sensibilities of Drake. Drake has been a big influence on the Pan-African music scene. But the big difference with Ninety is: his subject matter’s what I love. I’m a big fan of people that have subject matter that’s uplifting. If you’re going to talk about issues, then you have to expose it in a way that gives it more insight as opposed to just being all about problems. There’s another artist Mizzle. He’s an engineer / artist. I think he’s phenomenal. He’s more in the line of a T-Pain. But the difference is he has natural singing abilities. He combines the rap and singing together so well that you can’t tell where the rap begins and the singing ends. Then we have a South African artist named Jackie Queens. She does South African house, and the cool thing about her is that she puts vocals on it. When we sent her the beginning sketches of the film idea, she went and wrote a powerful song to it called “I’ll Find A Way.” We featured it at the end of the film.

You talked about how you had been on the lookout for a program like Atmos. As someone who tries to keep up on the changes in audio technology, how have you had to adjust your way of work to compensate for the way people listen to music these days, whether it’s through earbuds or smartphone speakers or their laptops?

Hank Shocklee: It really didn’t change too much in terms of how I work. The major change you have to go through is more of a mental stage. You have to understand that you’re inside a box now as opposed to working with analog gear. A lot of my friends have gotten out of the business because of not wanting to make that transition. For me, I’ve always been cutting edge. I had the SP-12 before it was the 1200. I had the MPC 60 before I had the MPC 3000. I’ve always been into gear. When I bought the first Mirage and went to the AKAI S-900. I’ve always been in search of new technologies that allow you to do things not necessarily faster, but differently. The biggest learning curve was to understand the differences between analog and digital. Digital is a different animal. It doesn’t respond the same way as analog.

Here’s a quick example: a lot of the records that we did with PE were analog. I could blend three snare drums together and come up with a totally different harmonic frequency in the analog world. In the digital world, I put three snares together, and they just mask each other. You don’t actually get a blending of those harmonics. You just get a stacking so whatever is the last layer is the one that wins. That’s the area where a lot of my musician friends and some producers and engineers I know were forced out of the business. They couldn’t understand that dynamic. It took me a long time to figure that out. I went through a lot of experimentation. We thought the CD sounded bad when it first came out. Well, the CD sounds super hi-fi compared to the mp3 once everything got into the digital stage. It became kind of like a Mad Max world where anybody could take any sound and throw it in there and they think the digital is going to sound good. That doesn’t work. That’s what gave digital a bad name, when people take a really shitty recording and throw it in the digital space and chop it up and think that that’s going to be cool.

My whole philosophy on sound has never been about quality. It’s always been about difference. Even back in the days when I used to listen to AM radio. I never looked at it as inferior to FM. I only looked at them as two different universes. That’s what led me to do all the PE records was to delve into those differences. I would look at things from not necessarily a clean perspective but also the grimy and dirty perspective — and how can I make a marriage of the two? How could you blend two things that really shouldn’t be in the same space? That’s commonplace today. That’s the beauty of music today, and the cool thing about being in the digital world. You can take all your analog stuff and bring it into that world. You’re not going to get exactly what analog was, but you’re gonna retain some of its value. And by retaining that value, it takes you a little bit further away from the actual plugin that you’re using. That’s why I’ve developed a hybrid situation between analog and digital.

I know you don’t want to dwell too much on your past work, but something I’ve always been curious about is that once you and The Bomb Squad really made a name for yourselves with records like It Takes A Nation of Millions, there had to have been dozens of folks knocking on your doors hoping that you would work with them, but you guys always seemed really selective about who you worked with. Is that fair to say?

Hank Shocklee: Well, two things. One is, yes we were very selective. But the other thing that happened was, at the time, people were getting away from albums. I didn’t do PE because I wanted to do a single. I would have never done that. The whole idea was to do an album because that way, you have a whole hour to tell your story. We brought that back. Rap started with singles and it was the singles that gave you the album. They were basically like a greatest hits album. That doesn’t have any cohesiveness to it. PE was one of the first artists that went in to make an album. A lot of artists we were hearing from didn’t have album deals. And not many artists wanted to give up the whole album to one particular producer.

How did you guys decide who to say yes to, then? What was it that made you want to work with a group like Young Black Teenagers or do a track with Manic Street Preachers?

Hank Shocklee: I gotta be able to see some vision in it. It can’t be like, “Okay, I’ve got a bunch of rhymes.” That’s where we are today, pretty much, which is guys that have a lot of rhymes. My quest has always been, “What do you have to say?” When we did the Slick Rick album, he had something to say right at that moment so I could go in and dive in and do a whole album. When we did R&B groups, I didn’t necessarily have to do a whole album because R&B was never really predicated on an album. It was pretty much always a singles market. I could do a single here and there. I can only take so much of an R&B singer. I can do maybe three good songs. After that, I’m burnt out. But that’s nothing to do with the artists. That’s just personal.

You’ve received a lot of accolades and awards and been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but you’ve never seemed like someone who takes that sort of attention too much to heart. Do you have a sense of the impact you’ve had on hip-hop and the culture?

Hank Shocklee: I’ve never looked at the impact because I’m a fan. I’m a fan of everybody that makes music. It’s hard to separate yourself and say, “I feel like we’ve made a small contribution to it.” On the technological side of it, I think we made a big contribution. That’s the area where I try to give back by sharing my knowledge with the younger generations, so they can have a platform to understand that they can take their visions to many levels. A lot of the youth today are stuck in what I consider to be a copycat culture. Everybody’s trying to mimic the next guy. They feel they have to mimic because otherwise nobody’s going to pay attention to them. My biggest contribution to them is allowing them to understand who they are, and to find their voice and to pursue that and not care about anything else. That’s a big task for a lot of young creatives because they don’t take rejection very easily. With me, I don’t really care what people think. I’ve never cared. My mission was to do something that was a little bit unique than what you have even though I’m using the same instruments everybody’s using, which is records and a sampler. I think that’s what resonated.

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