The journey of music production: An interview with Ski Beatz

Brent Dixon

 

 

Life, for many of us, is seldom linear. Our trajectories take twists and turns, not always ending up at the destination we expected, but then again…that’s life. It’s the journey that matters -the impact you have, the legacy you leave, and the people you help -and help you- along the way that bring with it the rewards and satisfaction. And, if you keep evolving, your worth to self and others evolves as well.

We had the chance to catch up with Ski Beatz recently and he’s someone who personifies the evolution of the music producer/sound designer. He’s recorded classic records (yes, plural) with Jay-Z and Camp Lo, embraced the move from hardware-based to software-based production, continually elevates his sound design game, and sows back into his students with his Dojo production classes. On top of it all, he remains an all-around humble and good dude, equally willing to share knowledge and eager to learn. 

 

How did your group Original Flavor come about?

It really started with this group I was in called the Bizzie Boyz with me, Mixmaster D (rest his soul), two dancers (Move & Groove) and DJ Rhythm Fanatic. A lot of people don’t know I’m originally from Greensboro, NC. That was where I learned music production as Fanatic taught me how to use the SP1200. Back then, we were one of the first groups in North Carolina to actually put out records and get things played on the radio. We would open up for all the major acts that would come down our way, like Dana Dane (a bunch of times) and others. That’s how I met Clark Kent who was his DJ at the time. He said I should look him up the next time I’m in New York visiting or whatever.

A little later I had the opportunity to move to New York City with an SP1200 that my mom bought me before I left North Carolina. I was up there making beats out of this studio in New Jersey where I happened to be living at the time as well. This cop and this guy named Suave used to come by the studio and they overheard me playing beats, and the cop was asking about the beats. He mentioned that he had an extra apartment in Harlem where I could live if I’d make beats for him and his artists. 

Around this time, I remembered that Clark was now an A&R over at Atlantic Records. He told me to come through and I dropped the tape of songs off at the front desk since he wasn’t available. He liked the beats so much that he said, “Yo, Atlantic Records wants to sign you guys.” So, now, me and Suave are signed to Atlantic Records off the strength of that tape. It was through this relationship with Clark that I met Dame, who began managing me at that point. That’s how Original Flavor started like that!

What was it about the SP1200 that you were really digging?

We originally started making music on the (Roland TR)808 drum machine. Like I said, we used to open up for all the major acts that came through NC at the time and Biz Markie happened to be down there for a show. He was telling us that we needed it and Marley (Marl) was using it and it’s got all this sampling time; and it can make your drums sound a certain way…it’s crazy! 

So, we did our research and found one. We told Biz and he was like, “If you give your 808 drum machine, I’ll send you all of Marley Marl’s sounds that we use.” We were like, “Yo, that’s amazing!” So, we sent him our 808 and he never sent the sounds. He didn’t send us any sounds! He never sent them, but it’s all good. We were a young group. We figured the SP out on our own. This was like ’86 or ’87. 

Our sound with the Bizzie Boyz really took off at this point. I was reading the manual and Fanatic was figuring out the SP1200. When he would leave his crib, I would jump on the SP. Keep in mind: I wanted to be a rapper originally, but I started figuring out the 1200 then, too. 

Ok, take us back to Original Flavor and all of that back in NYC.

We’ve got the deal going with Atlantic, like a two album deal, and we just dropped the first one that featured Suave in the original lineup. “Here We Go” and “When I Make It” were featured joints on the first album. At the video shoot, Dame comes through with Jay-Z, Jaz-O, and Sauce Money. They were actually a group at the time called the Hard Pack. They get to rapping and it was fire! They were rapping on a totally different level, which is why I fell back from rapping to focus more on production. So, Dame, in addition to managing me, starts managing all of them and Jay, Jaz, and Sauce start coming to the crib more and we start making all these records there.  

Jay always kind of stood out, you know what I mean? Jaz-O was super scientific with his rhymes and you had to be intelligent to catch that. Sauce was raw, like a pit bull. Still to this day Sauce is an animal! Jay was on some real fast type rapping back then, but he just stood out and we started working together more. 

Dame started gravitating more toward Jay, too. One of his marketing ideas was getting Jay on some of the Original Flavor joints. So, the first record we featured him on was “Can I Get Open.” It was around this time that new lineup for Original Flavor took shape, the second wave, as Suave went on to do his own thing and in steps Tone Hooker and Chubby Chubb.

Around early ’96 or so, I remember getting Jay’s “In My Lifetime” 12 inch single and spinning that all the time. Bring us back to that vibe before things really took off.

Man, that was really before we knew where we wanted to go musically. That was more of a hard, New York kind of record. If you listen, you can even hear the pops in the sample. It was just raw! That was the first that he started slowing down his flow more and not rhyming fast. The moment he found that packet is when everything changed. The lyrics went to another level, no play-play as he was painting pictures now and he was really good at it. Clark started bringing around the records he did with Jay and I could really see how things were taking shape. It was now time for me to bring that same energy production-wise to match Jay’s energy and flow.

Many people talk about “Dead Presidents,” but it’s “Feelin’ It” that I want you to touch on as that record is slick and has stood the test of time, too.

It’s dope! That record was not a Camp Lo record either, but my record for a solo album that I was working on after Original Flavor thing wasn’t happening like that anymore, we were kind of free agents at the time. I put Geechi (from Camp Lo) on there and my homegirl Mecca from Maryland on the hook. I was excited about that record and took it and played it for Dame. Jay was over there and was like, “Bruh, you know you’re gonna have to give me that song; I need that song! I want the hook and how you’re rhyming on it and we’re gonna keep everything like that.” He obviously changed the lyrics and I knew he would come back with some crazy shit. 

Of all the songs you produced for Reasonable Doubt, what’s your favorite one?

I mean, I love them all but it’s definitely between “Dead Presidents” and “Politics as Usual” for me. I was driving, coming from somewhere, and that Stylistics record came on the radio. I heard the part in the song and I had to go to the record store immediately to get it. So, I copped the CD, went home and heard the sample and how I wanted to hook it up. The next day, Jay and I are in the studio hooking up the song for “Politics as Usual.”

What gear were you using at the time?

I was using the SP1200 and the Akai S950.

One of my all-time favorite joints that you did with Jay was “Streets Is Watching.” What went in to making that record?

It was Jay’s idea to put the movie snippets in there, let me say that. Let me say, I wasn’t versed in chopping samples like that back then. I was catching some dope loops, the right loops, and adding some crazy drums to my production. “Streets Is Watching” took me about a week to get it right. When I got it, Jay, he just kept rapping on it and wouldn’t stop! I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re going to long.” But he was killing it; it’s Hip Hop and every line is good. After this joint, I got better at chopping samples like you saw on “Who You Wit.”

Jay’s first two albums feature your production work on there. In comes the third album and you’re nowhere to be found. What was going on around this time?

My imprint, Roc-A-Blok, had just signed with Ruffhouse/Columbia, so I was focused on doing my own thing and working with my artists over there like the Sporty Thievz and Pacewon. I had this opportunity to start my own label and do my thing. I’m still down with Roc-A-Fella, but I had to jump at this chance. My last record I think I did with Jay was a track on the MTV Unplugged album called “I Hear The People.” People thought it as Kanye or Just Blaze, but it was me.

Talk about the Camp Lo music. That material was ahead of the curve and so slick, from the music to the lyrics to the look of Geechi Suede and Sonny Cheeba.

I was living with this girl up in the Bronx, actually on the same block as Geechi. So, I was checking how he and his brother were dressing and talking, and they were doing that before the records came out. I took him over to Clark Kent’s house and we made this joint called “I Heard You Could Rhyme, Kid.” He didn’t know about song structure and all that at the time. 

Fast forward, about a year later, we meet back up and he brings Sonny Cheeba through and they’re talking about naming their group Cee-lo, like the dice game. I’m like, “That’s some New York shit and you’re gonna trap yourself in New York because nobody on the outside knows what that is.” They changed it to Camp Lo after that. Hearing these guys rap and the slang they used from the Blaxploitation movies, it just made me think of the Jackson 5 cartoon and all those colors. So, from there, I had a feel on how they should sound. 

Profile Records was digging the project, but they said they needed one more record, something to take it over the top. “Coolie High” was a good introduction but they needed something more to secure their fanbase. By the graces of God, I found the sample and thought, “This is ill.” I threw some drums on it, added a little piano thing and that was it. By the way, “Luchini” was the last record that we did. I wrote the hook to that joint, too. When it came out, it took off immediately. It’s one of those records where you remember exactly where you were back then. 

Things are jumping off production-wise in the mid to late 90’s, explain how this Fat Joe record came about.

That was Reef who was A&Ring that album for Atlantic. He hit me up and was like, “I got this Fat Joe record and we need a remix for it.” So, he sends me the joint and it was cool. But I’m like, “Let me meet you at the studio and I’ll make the beat on the spot.” I found the Mandrill sample and chopped it up and thought it would be dope to have a live violin on it. Reef knew someone who played violin and he called her up. She played the intro and all of that and he got his homeboy to do the cuts. The only people in the studio with me were Reef, the violinist, and Fat Joe, since he was overseeing everything. 

As we move into the 2000s, you’re working getting the 24 Hour Karate School projects together. Around this time, you start working heavily with Curren$y. How did that transpire?

Backup a little bit, I was in North Carolina engaged and with a house. I wasn’t even really thinking about production at that point, just living a regular life. Shortly after, I move back to New York and I look Dame up, just to see what’s good. He invites me down as he’s working with the Black Keys and I think Pharoahe Monch was in there and RZA, too. All these Rock & Roll guys are playing and the MCs are doing their thing, blending the worlds or Rock and Hip Hop. 

It was a minifactory with all this going on down at Dame’s studio, just a lot of energy. This was when I worked on Mos Def’s “Taxi” joint and all these people started coming through and we were just recording. So, Dame’s nephew suggested that I meet this cat named Curren$y. So, he flew in from New Orleans and, keep in mind, I don’t know any of this guy’s music. Dame introduces us and I’m thinking he wants me to do some Mannie Fresh bounce style music for him. But Curren$y was a fan of my music, like the Camp Lo stuff, and he wanted me to do me. I just started making these beats with a lot of instrumentation since he’s a fan of Marvin Gaye and that style of music, music with emotion. We just caught a vibe and we started making a lot of music. We made Pilot Talk 1 and Pilot Talk 2 at the same time since we just recorded so much music.

So, when did this sound design come about?

Well, that happened when I got invited to a speaking engagement at Dub Spot and they wanted me to talk about how I use Ableton and my beatmaking process with that. They had a sound design curriculum and I asked to take that in exchange for me speaking there. At the time I was looking at filters and envelopes and not understanding what they entirely do. The class was a year long and it was super dope. I actually use some of those techniques when I teach my Dojo classes, so the students can learn the possibilities of the samples they are using. 

Talk a little more about the Dojo.

This sprang from the 24 Hour Karate School thing, my band was the Senseis, I was a sensei, and it came from all of that. I was actually in North Carolina taking piano lessons and I saw that my teacher had a note pad of students on there, like me, who were paying to be taught at various times throughout the day. So why couldn’t I do the same thing with students? Granted, I didn’t play the piano, but I was always in to teaching people things. I can show these kids some of the stuff we learned in the 90’s with the some of the new techniques of now. In return, they teach me tips and different ways to approach things in class. As producers we sometimes hit that glass ceiling and get in a rut that we all get into from time to time. It helps to be around people to show you a different way and get the creativity rolling again.

 

What projects are you working on now?


Curren$y and I finished up Pilot Talk 4 and that will be out after he releases a few more of his projects that he’s got dropping. That dude stays working! I’m focused on the Dojo and working with that curriculum. I just finished up 404 Food which will be coming out on Sounds.com and I took the samples and ran them through the SP 404. Also, Smack Pack is available now at my site skibeatz.com for people to download and start making beats.



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