New Tracks and the Inspiration and Techniques Behind Creating Them.

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I wanted to start something new.  I wanted to post some new tracks I have been working on for my new solo album and also working on for a long time collaborator and friend’s new album (both coming soon) and talk about the ideas, inspiration, and production techniques behind making them.

Drnem79 – 79 BPMs.  This track was inspired by one of my all time favorite music producers of all time and his many classic collaborations with one of my all time favorite musicians of all time.  This is the legendary Dr. Dre and his work with the shady one, Eminem.  “What’s the Difference” from Dr. Dre’s second solo album Dr. Dre 2001, first came to mind when composing this particular track, based on it’s epic, large scale, orchestrated sound and how complimentary it was for Eminem’s crazy delivery and lyrics. If I recall, Dre actually recruited a small symphony to play on the track.  For this one, I started with a simple string section and built from there. Obviously I don’t have the means to introduce an actual symphony on my track, but  I wanted this song to have the same feel of a symphony playing.  The best way to try to achieve this on a small scale, was to include many of the components or instruments you would expect to hear with a symphony and using the reverb and effect techniques to create a large open feel or create a good amount of head space in the recording with EQing and mixing techniques.

After the strings, I wanted to add a lead instrument during the middle of the verse sections so I decided to add brass as well as a piano lead.  One thing I noticed with Dr Dre’s hip hop production specifically and generally, high level music production is that the song builds layers of instruments as you go along, almost like a crescendo effect to build a climax within the song.  This is a departure from most hip hop production which is a lot of times, just simple samples or drum and bass loops played repetitiously and they then rely on the vocalist and or simple instrument or sample drop outs to create the variety and climactic action.

The introduction of the lead brass and piano were placed midway through each of the 3, 16 bar verse sections, in order to build a climax within the lyricist’s verses.  Taking it further, I also used instrument drop outs and other mixing techniques to further build on the climactic effect and add to the variety with each verse section.  One thing I always found appealing with better composed songs of any music genre, for example, “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys and “Thriller” by Michael Jackson, is that you have things to look forward to as far as musical changes and climaxes within the same song and you are not just subjected to a secondary instrument backing that relies solely on the vocalist to create these dynamics.  When both the music composition and the vocalist can contribute to this dynamic and do it synergistically, you have a stronger song as a whole.  Achieving this musical philosophy is a bit different and somewhat challenging in terms of my individual recording process and the typical electronic/hip hop work flow.  This is because my own recording process consists of creating and producing the instrumental track nearly 100 percent before the vocals are created and recorded. Aside from this being my own approach it is also very common both in today’s electronic based music production and hip hop as a genre since the actual tracks are mostly composed entirely electronically and in a lot of cases the producer is the composer. Also it is common that the tracks are given to and often remotely, to the artist to record vocals over as opposed to the producer and composer actually working in the studio, hand and hand, with the vocalists before and during the vocal recording process. That said, for this track I had ideas of how the verse and knew where and when I wanted the verses delivered and composed the music around these ideas.

After deciding on all the instruments for the verse sections, for the chorus sections,  I introduced a sustained electronic piano note and 16th note hihats, along with different effects and EQing on the other instruments in order to differentiate this chorus section from the verse sections and allow for the verses to reach a crescendo up to and into the chorus sections.  This technique is used by Dr Dre constantly and in the track “The Difference” that inspired this one, the chorus section introduced a rather infectious, whining lead synthesizer in this same way.

Lastly, I imported this track into Pro Tools to put the final touches and mixing on it, before it becomes a finished track, and ready for the vocals to be laid. Although most of my levels, panning, and general EQing are mostly decided by the time it leaves my Akai MPC system, the Pro Tools phase is for further EQ tweaking, panning, and level setting and additional effects.  Also during this Pro Tools stage of my recording process, I have some outboard effects I can and often introduce which further enhance the track.  From here, there will be more overall levels and efffects added after vocals are recorded but for the most part this is all decided after this phase of the recording process.

Aside from the technical aspects of this track, artistically, I wanted this track to be near the beginning of an album and be an epic, anthem track that announces the artists return to the game.  I left the overalls structure as a 3, 16 bar verses, with pronounced chorus sections which will make this an attention grabber on an album.   The sparse instrumentation and mixing with a lot of head space and clean EQing, are made for consise and articulate lyrics, with simple intelligible deliveries, and meant to play loud and often.  The highs are mixed very clean and the lows do not drown out the other instruments.  The drums are crisp and stand out in the mix which will compliment clear, simple delivered vocals all done at a good, head nodding tempo.

 

Impressions of “Everythangs Corrupt”, an Album by Ice Cube

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“Everythangs Corrupt”, is the new full length studio effort from an artist with far too many aliases at this point to list, west coast, hip hop legend, Ice Cube.

It is easy to take for granted so many things about Ice Cube and hard to summarize the scope of his influence in hip hop in just a few sentences. It is very easy to forget his status as a pioneer of west coast hip hop and creator of an entire sub genre of hip hop in the form of gangster rap. Cube’s unheralded song writing ability helped establish him as one of the original hip hop ghost writers, i.e. NWA, and his innate ability to tell vivid stories in the form of rap helped influence future and fellow legendary artists like the late B.I.G. and Nas, to name a few.  He can also be remembered as the person who took battle rap and diss tracks to the next level with “No Vaseline.”  Ice Cube was also a key player in the era of politically charged rap music and at the front and center of social, cultural controversy with songs like “Fuck The Police” and albums like “Death Certificate”.  All this was just from his music endeavors, and one could equal time discussing his other successful ventures, whether the pop culture cross over and uber successful foray into Hollywood and entertainment, or his position as a preeminent, African-American Entrepreneur and entertainment mogul.

This brief synopsis hardly does Cube’s epic career justice but is worth mentioning since an artist and influential figure of this magnitude, still living and creating new work (and prolifically I might add) should never be taken for granite. Whenever they do release new stuff, it is always worth paying attention to, for better or worse.  After such a long and multi faceted career we ask, how does the new music stack up and is it, and the artist, still relevant?

In the midst of a tense political climate and troubled times in this country, it seems like the perfect opportunity for vintage Ice Cube to appear. For the once controversial figure, turned cultural and entertainment icon,  just the album’s title, “Everythangs Corrupt” insinuate that this might mark Cube’s long awaited return to classic political/gangster fueled rap. However, the first half of the album is marred by musical production that does not fit the direction and scope of Cube’s lyrics and subject matter.  The music production on the first eight songs comes off as a generic attempt at achieving a more modern, mainstream rap sound, and fails to fit the political subject matter. Songs like “Arrest The President” and “Chase Down The Bully” have so much potential in the context of great Ice Cube music, but fail to deliver on their promise.  The sparse, electronic driven production seem to force Cube to dumb down his delivery and lyrics, and at times, even force him to rhyme words just to fit the beats.  As a result, the social commentary is lost and he does not scratch the surface of the subject matter.  As a Cube fan, when you see the song titles you have this hope of a return to sample driven Sir Jinx or Bomb Squad style tracks fueling a vivid, aggressive, and witty story teller espousing fiery politics, think songs like  “I Wanna Kill Uncle Sam”. Instead you get cheap, generic “trap music” sounds that don’t give the legendary artist a chance to flex his legendary skill set.  Speaking of “trap sounds”, the remainder of the first half of “Everythangs Corrupt” ironically have Cube rapping about the very subject matter of dope and drugs over even more,  “not so dope” driven music.  Even if the subject of drugs and dope were relevant to the overall theme of the album, and were at the forefront of modern politics, which I believe they are, we don’t get anywhere close to Cube classics on this same subject like “Dopeman” or “What Can I Do?”.

If you are patient enough to wade thru the first half of “Everythangs Corrupt” and lucky enough to make it to “Street Sheds Tears”, then the “Super OG” finally gets to cooking and you get some of the vintage Cube you have been waiting for.  It takes an overused west coast sample on “Street Sheds Tears” to bring Cube back into old form and away from the trappings, pun intended, of  “Trap” style music.  He continues this old school approach with fellow west coast legend Too Short on “Ain’t Got No Haters” and the simplicity and nostalgia factor continue to shine.  He gets experimental and does a sort of “Jackin For Beats” but jacks different vanacular and takes references from different eras on the ultra cool, “Can you Dig It”.  With “The New Funkadelic” he pays homage to P funk and channels his “Bop Gun” days.  Here he draws from the most comparable Cube album to “Everythangs Corrupt” in “Lethal Injection”.  This comparison can be made as far as the album being comprised of mostly cleaner, more mainstream production at that perticular time period, that still compliment his classic skill set and also includes a share of vintage moments..

The strength of the second half of the album continues even on his most mainstream effort and NBA TV anthem–esque “Non Believers”, where the beat choice and delivery finally seem to blend well, unlike the aforementioned first half album tracks.  Finally, he closes out “Everythangs Corrupt” on the political tip with the title track and “Good Cop Bad Cop”, a track that initially surfaced as one of the bonus tracks on the 25th Anniversary Edition, of what I believe is Cube’s Magnus Opus, “Death Certificate”.  Here we are treated to a fiery, Cube tackling the latest politics, and although it fails to reach the levels of the album it first appeared on, (for the record it was obvious then, that it was not recorded during the “Death Certificate” sessions but long after), it still gives fans a glimpse into what makes him so great as a rap artist, and musician for that matter.

A  good analogy  for Ice  Cube’s latest studio album, “Everythangs  Corrupt”, and something I wrote about awhile back, is the older athlete. This is the perfect analogy given that Cube is the founder and owner of a basketball  league, The Big Three, which, is comprised of older NBA player. In this case Cube, himself, is the older athlete. By the time we trudge through the first half we are left realizing that it took quite awhile for the older athlete to warm up and find their rhythm. It also seems as if the elder statesman is busy trying to keep up with the younger players instead of doing what they are best at. By the second half, we do catch glimpses of what made them great and for brief moments at a time they not only keep up with, but they surpass their younger contemporaries.  We are then left wondering if the older athlete can continually sustain this vintage form and become as dominant as they once were in an everchanging landscape and evolving sport.  On this album, Cube, shows flashes of his old brilliance but you just get that feeling that he might have lost a slight step, and at this point in a long and illustrious career, he may not be capable of creating an entire classic from beginning to end.  However, since we are dealing with an all time great, whose face belongs on the Mt. Rushmore of Hip Hop,  a fall off for him still puts him above most of his modern peers, especially, when he is still motivated and when the conditions are just right.

 

 

 

 

 

New Music from Sickman VC

Here’s a taste of some new tracks I cooked up in my newly renovated home music studio. They are for a new solo project I’m putting together as well as for my big homie, C-nut, out in Cali’s, newest project.

 

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“Theories on the Simulation”- Impressions of “Simulation Theory”, an album by Muse.

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“Big rock” trio, Muse, is back at it with their eighth studio effort, “Simulation Theory”. After what was announced as possibly their last studio album, “Drones”, three years ago, “Simulation Theory” seems like a sudden and surprising offering from the group, but in reality was an organic creation, slowly formed over their multi year hiatus. The result is a very inspired effort and the most cohesive, epic, and theamatic work since “Black Holes and Revelations”, twelve years ago.

For a band of just three, Muse sure comes off as one very big band, with a larger than life sound and persona. Their pop music and pop culture sensibilities further solidify them as a giant, mainstream rock band, almost to the point of becoming a guilty pleasure for any hard core music enthusiast, especially when you consider them as being synonomous with teens and “Twilight” vampires. What breaks them from this mold, are the dark and distopian themes that are increasingly pervasive in their music, all the while achieving the polish and superior craftsmanship associated with more mainstream music acts. “Simulation Theory” has struck this delicate balance.

Outside of the recent resurgence of vinyl as a popular music medium, the relevance of a music album’s cover art is certainly not what it once was. So, when Muse recruited Kyle Lambert of “Stranger Things” fame, to do the cover art to “Simulation Theory”, it was a very clever play on the aforementioned band’s pop sensibilities and mainstream appeal while at the same time staying true to the dark and distopian themes that dominate their music. Beside the popularity of the artist, the actual art does a great job of capturing this duality of the band. The colors and style scream pop, yet some of the imagery hint at an underlying darkness and mystery. If this was an LP from the eighties, the cover art would have gone a very long way into creating the mystique and mystery of what was to come before the listener dives into the “Simulation”.

Before diving into the “Simulation”, it is also worth mentioning that another once, significant aspect of music that has changed in recent times is the relevance and purpose of music videos and how this band decided to address this as well. Just like with the album artwork, Muse decided to defy modern convention and went “all in” on music videos for “Simulation Theory”. They created a series of videos for multiple songs off the album that portray the various simulations that the listener, or viewer in the case of VR, can partake in. These music videos capture much of the imagery off of the album cover art and they work synergistically to reveal the overall theme of the album which is that that there’s a wizard behind the curtain or simulation that is controlling the whole show. Besides faithfully recreating much of Kyle Lambert’s imagery on the album cover, the style, casting, and individual plots of each video go a very long way in also capturing the bands pop sensibilities and mainstream appeal, while revealing some of the dark themes that also define their current sound.

Beyond the artwork and the videos, the actual music is where “Simulation Theory” shines. As much as the cover art and videos help contribute to the album’s dystopian theme, ironically, when you ignore these visual components and just consider the sounds and the music, “Simulation Theory”, is an intoxicating and immersive journey into Muse’s hellish vision of the world. The music itself is the perfect showcase for the band’s aforementioned duality with it’s tight, epic, and bombastic sounds that speak about dark subject matter.

Right off the bat, with “Algorithms” they lead the listener into a pulsating soundscape that slowly builds with pianos, synths, and guitars, and which is metaphorically taking the subject into the “simulation”. Just like the musical stylings on this opening track , the lyricism is also trademark Muse. They are sparse, yet poetic and anthem-esque lyrics that flirt with profundity and hint at density, but not at the risk of pretentiousness.

Once inside the “simulation”, this album seems to play out in two parts. Although certainly not done chronilogically, and maybe not intentionally, part of “Simulation Theory” speaks about oppression, the oppressive forces, and literally transports listeners to “The Darkside”. The other part of the album, albeit the majority, speaks about rising against this oppression and emerging out of the dark.

An excellent example of the dark that the band has conjured up for part of this album is “Thought Contagion”. They certainly don’t do themselves any favors escaping the “Twilight” vampire association, but this song is a really fun vampire analogy about being bit and infected by lies and deception. You have songs like the co-produced Timberland, “Propoganda”, that further articulate the oppressive forces at work, in “The Simulation.” Even at the end of the album and after “The Simulation” is revealed and the hero is summoned to rise above, the enescapable darkness still lurks in “The Void”, which is the very last song on the album.

Then there’s the other part of “Simulation Theory”. Muse spends most of their time and energy on the album playing music to fuel the revolution and quite a few tracks come off like incantations or battle cries for the good fight taking place. Once the curtain is pulled back and the “simulation” is revealed, the band beckons the listener to manifest the energy and strength to fight and emerge from the darkness and lies taking place around them. Songs like “Pressure” and it’s marching band music,  (there’s even a really cool version with the UCLA marching band!), are energetic anthems that seem to pull the listener out of the abyss every time it gets deeper. If it’s not at a pep rally, with a  marching band that get the listener out of the rut, Muse takes things to church and sing the good gospel with “Dig Down”. Encouraging listeners to “Get up and Fight”, playing all this motivational music on over one half of the album is very good for the band. It shows their vast technical capabilities, their  musical diversity, and a great understanding of a wide range of sounds. The music continues to come off as epic and cinematic in scope, each and every time, yet never corny or derivative.

“Something Human” is the strongest song on “Simulation Theory” and sums up Muse’s latest work, best. Since the album is about humans living in a simulation, and breaking out of it, “Something Human” is the moment where one takes a deep breath and step back and realizes what the whole thing is about. It is the realization of humanity in the midst of artificiality. Since this album is void (no pun intended) of singing about love in a romantic sense, part of this song’s brilliance lies in it being the only ballet on the album, and it does what any good ballet does and talks about love, only, love in the sense of love for and of humanity, in this case. This cryptic message and dualistic meaning along with the beauty and grand scale of the music, make “Something Human”, a very special way of tying the album together and it epitomizes where Muse is at as musicians and what they are going for on “Simulation Theory”.

R.I.P. To the Queen

 

R.I. P.  to the Queen, Aretha Franklin.  A huge musical influence, especially as a young aspiring Hip Hop producer who sampled her sounds and as an emcee who admired the social and cultural transcendence of her music and career.

Her 30 Greatest Hits Album from 1985, in particular, holds a special place in my heart. This was one of the first pieces of vinyl I owned, and I sampled many sounds from this record, and I listened to all the songs on so many different occasions.  Although it is obscure in the hierarchy of the Queen’s anthology, I always think back to my favorite song off of this double LP, “Daydreaming”, with Aretha’s crooning voice, the droning bassline, and then the break at the end into an ambient, dreamscape of sound that personify the literal and figurative “dream” theme of the song. The production value of this song was not only way ahead of it’s time but was a huge influence on my own musical production style.

It’s Been Awhile, a Couple Months to be Exact, or Better Yet, an Entire Summer…

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It has been a couple months since I last posted, so I am now committed to blogging more regularly.  I find that the exercise of blogging is therapeutic for my soul and psyche, and going long periods without, for me, has the same effect as lapses in physical exercise and lapses in creative expression; both of which I try to avoid going without for any prolong period.  So, what have I been up to the last couple months?  Actually we can say, what did I do this entire summer. Let’s see.

I have most importantly, spent quality time with the family in the form of a couple beach trips.

I have experienced my oldest daughter’s first summer in between the school year which has consisted of a variety of summer camps.  (Kudos to my wife for her stellar organization and scheduling skills and making this period seamless and smooth for us all!)

Next, I attended a college friend’s wedding and got to spend time with some other college buddies, and it was at my old NC mountain stomping grounds. It felt really good to revisit this terrain, and was both a beautiful wedding ceremony and scenery.

I got to take my daughters to their first concert, and their first live baseball game which they thoroughly enjoyed.  I also got to attend another concert with my wife that was on my music bucket list.

Speaking of music, I got to listen to a lot of good new music, and make some new music for myself and my best friend’s new project.  (congrats to my pal and the birth of his baby girl during this time!)

And of course, I’ve read a lot of good books, watched a lot good movies, and played some good video games these past couple months.

Finally, I tried to keep my physical fitness up, the whole time, in the form of regular, weekly gym sessions and pickup basketball.  The weather has been extremely hot and rainy so the outdoor activity has been very limited, but I have tried to compensate in the form of hard workouts, good nutrition, and supplementation.  As a matter of fact, these last two months I have been doing a form of fasting called time restricted feeding which I will blog about soon.  I feel really good, but we will see what the results are since I am in the process of my annual physical and blood work as we speak.

That about wraps it up, and it has been a very fruitful and enjoyable past couple months. I look forward to writing in detail about some of these things, very soon.

Workouts, Vacation, and Ruminations from the Last Two Weeks.

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Managed 4 workouts over the last 2 weeks I was absent from this blog (3 at the gym and 1 at home).  2 of the gym workouts were at my new gym and focused on metabolic conditioning centered primarily around the crossfit box.  The third gym workout was at my old gym and centered around heavier compound lifting with H.I.I.T. sets between lifting sets.  The home workout was body weight focused with some cardio intervals and a lot of stretching and active recovery.  Also was able to get in some walking and body weight work while on vacation.

 

 

Spent 3.5 days at Emerald Isle on Memorial Day vacation with the family and with the in laws.  Perfect, albeit hot, and sunny beach weather and nice water conditions for three days.  Did have a real scare with my older English Bulldog on the way to the beach with the 3 hour drive. He managed to get severely overheated despite the AC conditions in our vehicle to the point where we had to make an emergency landing and cool him off and narrowly missed a fatal outcome.  He recovered and we took precautionary measures on the trip back and he is doing fine now.  The heavy rain on the way back helped and that rain has continued daily since Monday, 5/28/18, with today being Thursday the 31st!

 

 

 

In this time I was able to watch some sports, MMA and the NBA playoffs.  Most of these events were lackluster so I may not bother to write about them individually.

I was able to listen to great podcasts like Onnit with Paul Check part 2 and JRE with GSP, as well as great music like the new albums by Beachhouse and Pusha T.  I will probably write about those soon.