Beyond Public Enemy, Shocklee’s production credits range from Mary J. Blige, and Anthony Hamilton, to Ice Cube, and Slick Rick, as well as scoring work for Ridley Scott’s 2007 film American Gangster. Most recently, Shocklee released his first exclusive sample pack for Sounds.com, titled “Shocklee in the Temple of Boom.” It’s a release full of rich, distorted samples, designed to bring an element of grit and texture to the often hyper-clean world of digital audio production.
Among other things, Native Instruments spoke with Shocklee about working against studio engineers’ instincts to achieve Public Enemy’s signature sound, and tracing trap’s lineage back to the 1950s.
What was the underlying concept that drove your first pack release?
Every now and then I pick an area and then I start experimenting, and the area that I’ve started in is the area of distortion. The digital world that is kind of distortion free, very clean. I want to mimic the older recording processes, where you had tape involved, which gave you a certain level of distortion. When you had a console that gave you distortion, a microphone that gave you distortion, drum machines and samplers that all gave you distortion. When I was making records in the early stages, the thing I liked the most was the distortion that came from vinyl. Like when you played a vinyl very loud, and especially when you had a speaker next to the turntable — because you get that distortion, but you also get feedback with the distortion.
And I basically use two DAWs — Ableton for the sound design, and Logic for the processing — so between them I get a different sound that’s a combination of the two. I have all kinds of distortion plugins and distortion analog gear, and I just kind of rinse the samples through a lot of different pieces of gear.
A lot of inspiration came from the Central American and South American pyramids. A lot of those pyramids are buried, a lot of them haven’t been excavated — that’s why I chose the Central and South American pyramids, because they’re really not tourist sites.
Where does your pyramid fascination come from?
My enchantment with pyramids is that they’re pretty much misunderstood to a lot of us, and it’s definitely been kept out of the books. They have healing properties, they have preserving properties — they do a lot in terms of metaphysical and physical energy. They’re also sentient, they can communicate to each other, and they’re aligned with the constellations of the universe, which is amazing because they were built hundreds of thousands of years ago — how did they even know how to align them? That further gives us the understanding that we were not the only people that were here, because in order to be able to build them in that way, you’d need an aerial perspective of their geographic location. They’re very sacred, and they tune themselves to the Earth’s frequency, and they also act as balances, if you will, of energy. Since we’re making music, and we’re making sound — and sound is nothing but energy, and we’re playing with energy — I decided to kind of like blend all the those things together, and create a pack based off of that. And I wanted to make it bottom-heavy, bass-heavy for the bass-heavy culture.
What’s does your process look like when creating these samples?
I always start off with Ableton Live. I like the way it works with audio files — you can manipulate audio files like MIDI. A lot of stuff is time-stretched and things of that nature, and you get that kind of slurring that on it. If you listen to a lot of the drums, they have that slurring effect — almost like if you did something in reverse, but instead it’s just blurred.
And then Logic is there because I like the grit that it has on the high-end, because it really brings out noise. One of the things I ran it through was my Akai S3000, so I can reduce the bitrate and I can create more noise, and Logic accentuates that noise. That noise is pleasing to me, because I did it in a way where you can hear the noise, but you don’t get the digital distortion or ear fatigue. So you can play them really loud without the ear fatigue.
I want to make something so ugly, so distorted that it’s almost like if the speakers were blown, and you’re listening to the paper rattling and not hearing the full spectrum of the sound frequencies. Back in the day, Chuck [D] used to have an old Impala, and we used to listen to tapes in there. He would play it so loud that all you heard was pure distortion — you couldn’t hear the definition of the vocals or the instruments. I used to wonder, “Why is he listening to it so loud? You’re not hearing anything.” [laughs] It’s funny, because if you’d stand outside the car and listen — it was a sound, and I was never able to achieve that sound before. In the digital realm, I kind of figured out how to get that sound, but keep some sort of definition. That to me is the trick — if you can make something ugly sound beautiful.
When I’m looking at taking records and sampling from a record, then the idea is to try to make that record sound as clean as possible, because the sound source already has a little bit of grit in it. But in the digital realm, I’m not a fan of the digital sound because of the ear fatigue — it doesn’t matter how clean or how well-produced the record is, you still get that you still get the natural ear fatigue of the digital domain, which makes it so different from listening to vinyl. In the studio, we used to have the two-inch [tape] going, and we’d listen to the record from the beginning of the session to the end, without having to take a break. And that to me is the sound quality that that’s often misunderstood when it comes to when it comes to the digital domain — people don’t know the differences between what a cassette sounds like, or what a vinyl sounds like. And they think there’s not much of a difference, or that digital sounds better. I agree that digital has its advantages in terms of the frequency response, and has a wider frequency response. But the area in that cassette and vinyl wins, is in the mid-range — it’s so well-defined and so not ear-fatiguing, where digital is the opposite. I’m trying to bring back that that cassette/vinyl kind of feel in the digital realm.
How do you think these factors have affected the generational difference in music output?
The reason why trap music does very well today — and the boom bap from the golden era doesn’t do well today — has nothing to do with the style of music; it’s about the medium which it’s played on. If you go back and listen to all your favorite boom bap on cassette, where it was meant to be played, where the focus was in making the records back then, the midrange detail is so impeccable. You get that same feeling that you had when you first heard those records. The reason why we love those records was that midrange that was there. We didn’t have the wide frequency response that digital has, going from the top of the top to the low of the low. So we didn’t have a lot of that extra bottom end on the low, and we didn’t have that crunchiness on the top — but the midrange was unbelievable. I still have my cassette and my reel-to-reel, and I’ve still got vinyl. When I talk about sound and listening, I’m listening to it compared to those other sources. Those sources are more aligned with the human ear and the human soul, because you just don’t just hear with your ears, you also hear with your body. They’re alive because they’re organic and natural material.
Where do vocals fit into this paradigm shift?
If you’ve noticed, they’ve scooped out the middle, and the only thing that you hear is the top and the bottom, with the snare crack in that mid-range area. So the rock is vocals. Now we’re getting into the complexities of the vocal; the vocal kinda resets the imaging frequency spectrum, because now you’re listening to the human, an actual organic source. Where the vocal was almost an accompaniment to the instrumentation back in the boom bap era, in trap it’s the opposite — the beat is the accompaniment to the vocal. A lot of people of my era, they’re kind of criticizing trap music — they call it mumble rap or whatever. But that’s crazy, because what they’re doing is something that’s never before been done in rap music. They brought back they brought it back to the 50s — and these kids know nothing about the 50s — but the 50s was all about vocals and hooks. What’s trap music all about? Vocals and hooks.
For you, what are some of the differences between making sample packs and making records?
We have a prosumer market out there. When I say prosumer, they’re not actually professionals, but they’re not exactly consumers. Since the invention of the laptop and DAWs, we’ve created a new class of music enthusiasts. They’re now looking for stuff that they can play with. Some people like it really clean, but if you go back to the what made the hip hop back then, was the fact that it was the opposite of that – the samples weren’t right on, we didn’t get the truncation correct. So you got all this extra stuff in the record. And if you took a really old record that was that was scratched up like crazy, you didn’t care because the beat was hot. And the fact that back then we didn’t have correct syncing abilities, so you got a lot of flaming stuff that was going on. When I make my sample packs, I want to bring that back. I want to give you a little of that. I want you to have that vibration of something that we were doing back then. I can’t get inspiration from from a typical 909 kick or a Linndrum snare — that’s the reason why we sampled in the first place, because those sounds were too clean.
That was the source of the inspiration.
Yeah. The inspiration came from the spill-overs. We would get inspiration just from the snare, just because it had that a little bass in there, a little high-hat, a little vocal — all that stuff was in there, but you couldn’t really hear it because you truncate most of that stuff out, but you got that little spillover. And that’s the funk, man. And that’s what made you happy. [Laughs]
We live in a world of streaming today, which means that that we have to put out volume. Back then, we could put out one album every two or three years. Today you’re putting out an album a month. So you don’t have too much room for experimentation; this is where the sample packs come in, because I don’t have to do all the extra work, but I get the inspiration. A lot of people think it’s a lazy if you don’t do the sound design. But it’s about making a hot tune — not about spending all your days trying to make the sound. Those are two different heads.
This particular pack is going to be an album that I’m producing at the moment. Sort of a prequel — you get a prequel before the album comes out. That’s why I didn’t put together loops — I didn’t want to put it together for you. That, to me, is spoon-feeding you. I want you to be able to go in there and do what you see, not what I see. That to me is where the fun is.
It’s kinda become source material for you.
I was watching the movie Terminator — that’s actually kinda my favorite movie — and the whole key to that movie was was that the Terminator was trying to do a retroactive abortion. The same concept was applied to this: I’m gonna give you the sounds of an album that’s gonna be made in the future. I’m going to process them re-chop them and treat them like samples.
Back when Chuck was blowing out the speakers with those tapes, was it because he liked the sound, or because he was just running into the limits of how loud he could make it?
I think it was a combination of both. It was limiting, but he didn’t care because after a while he liked that sound. Now keep in mind that he was the total opposite of me — I didn’t want to hear the sound like that. I thought it was weird. But when I kind of unpacked what his reference was, I kind of said, “Wait, that’s a style.” And when we talked about noise, that’s where all that came from — it came from us wanting to bring out all that stuff, to bring out all the things that the engineers were trying to get rid of. Imagine the time that I had in the studio trying to re-educate the engineers that I worked with, who were hell-bent on attacking, searching, seeking and destroying noise [laughs]. I was boosting up a lot of the console’s flaws, just so I could get more distortion, which to me becomes more energy — because all distortion is, is cranking up all the frequencies so loud that it almost becomes like white noise. It’s just every frequency being played at the same volume.
Was it a struggle convincing the engineers to work against their training?
Oh, no doubt! They was never used to taking records and recording records on the tape — they were used to recording instruments! If you listen to all the early records back then, even the Marley Marl and Herbie Lovebuckle records, Rick Rubin, they were using instruments, mostly. All of the early Def Jam stuff was basically the DMX drum machine with stock sounds, and every now and then a sample would be a guitar riff on top of it.
Have you started thinking about your next sample pack?
I’m now starting to play with resonance, and that’s going to be the theme of my next sample pack. I’m really doing it a million different ways — comb filtering, and spatial resonances. When you think about it, all reverb is is nothing but resonance — a lot of delays, if you will. So dealing with delays on a micro level — you’re tapping into resonance, you start to understand rooms. The difference in resonance is that resonance goes outside of the speaker. So that’s what I’m focusing on now, working on it all summer and aiming for a fall release.
Sounds like you’re diving deep into sound design…
I think that the future of music is not just going to be about making you dance — the future of frequencies is going to be to create a vibration, an environment for you to live in. Fuck the jumping up and the hands in the air — I mean don’t get me wrong, that’s cool — but there’s another section of music that goes into the existence of something else. Not different from when you’re on a film set, and they take 30 seconds of quiet so that they can take room tones. We want to create room tones or room vibrations that are organic with your feeling — you might not hear a beat at all, but you’re going to feel a pulse. Everything that we are is a vibration — this is why we’re so engulfed and enamored by music — we don’t just hear it, it feeds us, it goes through us, it becomes a part of us. More powerful than anything on the planet.