Filed under: Interviews,Steady Bootleggin',Video Clips,White Label Remixes
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Just before he released what turned out to be the best album of 2006, I talked to producer K-Def about working with Marley Marl, his first group, a run-in with D.I.T.C. and the science of breaks. Look out for his album with El Da Sensai and a second instrumental full-length in 2007.
Robbie: The stuff you did for the Theodore Unit album – did you know Ghostface from the “Real Live” remix?
K-Def: We worked together back in ’96. I was in college at the time, and the two tracks I got to him, one of ‘em happened to be “It’s Over”. From there I went down to Miami and recorded with him, kind of touched base from what we was doin’ back in the day, it was all good. From the Theodore Unit, actually I had gave him stuff that was supposed to have been on the Pretty Tony thing, but he never really got a chance to get to it. I guess he got swamped with too many songs, so he decided to put it on Theodore Unit, being that it was more an independent aside from Def Jam.
I think there were some sample issues.
“Paychecks” was really a problem, I had to replay it all over.
Do you feel that some of your beats in the past have out-shined some of the MC’s that you’ve worked with?
I’ve been hearing that a million and one times. I’ve heard everyone tell me “Yo, the rappers weren’t good enough for your beats”…but it’s the game, man. It is what it is.
Were you rolling with Larry-O back in the days?
In ’86, ’87, I hooked-up with Awesome Two – Special K and Teddy Ted – and they lived around my way. They kinda got me a lot of the parties in New York, they got me a lotta parties around the way. Back then there was a lotta rappers coming through my town. From there, I think it was ’88, I got with Larry-O, we did an album. We had signed with an independent label called Tav Dash Records – they had R. Kelly at the time signed too, before he blew-up and went to Jive. We were supposed to come out in 88, we went to Tommy Boy, we went to Wild Pitch, we went to Select, we went to Profile, Def Jam…and everybody was scared of us at the time, so it didn’t really work out.
Was the content too street?
When Jay-Z finally arrived on the scene in like ’94 with his album, the stuff Jay-Z was talking about – I’ll be honest with you, Larry-O was talking about that back in ’88, ’89. Larry-O I felt was way ahead of the times, but when he did come out, being that Tupac and B.I.G. had died, nobody wanted to hear gangster rap no more. So it was really not looking good for him [chuckles].
What’d you do after that?
After that I did Lord Tariq “Cold World”, Craig Mack “Please Listen To My Demo”, then it was Jayo Felony called “Trued Up” on Universal, a record against Jay-Z. Not that I have no problem with Jay-Z, but business is business. Then I went to college for a couple of years, and then I got out and I hooked-up with Ghostface and I did the Pretty Toney stuff – I didn’t just do the one song on the Pretty Tony album, I did all the skits except for the first one. “Last Night Changed It All”, “Keisha’s House” and all those joints? That was all done by me. My credits wasn’t there, they screwed up with that. I did ODB, I did four joints on Osirus and I got song right now on El Da Sensai‘s album called “Rock It Out”. Me and El are working on an album right now.
You’ve gotta put that “Ain’t No Love” instrumental out, that’s crazy.
I definitely have the Real Live [instrumentals] too, nobody’s got that. I’m tryin’ to find a distributor right now that wants to take it off my hands. I’m still looking for that.
I’ve read a lot of things where old Juice Crew guys complain about Marley taking credit for stuff…
I don’t really talk bad about Marley, cause Marley never jerked me for my publishing or nothing like that. As far as those Juice Crew guys, I came in after that whole era was gone, but what I can say is there’s always two sides to the coin, and I would say that no one gets jerked unless they allow themselves to get jerked. If you got with a production company or a record label and didn’t have lawyer look over a contract – well what do you expect’ll happen? [laughs] There have been tracks that I’ve produced that didn’t have my name there – some stuff for LL.
That’s part of paying dues though.
Yeah, it’s kinda like paying dues. I felt like as many songs as I did come out at that time, I had like sixty-something songs with Marley, so I could deal with maybe three or four getting a little screwed-up.
Are there any in particular that you want people to know about?
Not really. Those songs weren’t no extravaganza records. 14 Shots To The Dome there were like two songs that I had part production on, and there was a couple of minor little twelve inches. Marley was really a stand-up guy. All the major projects that I was on like Da Youngsters, World Renown, Real Live, the Lords and Tragedy – all of those right there? Those were good business. I love him to death cause I really did get my credit right and it kinda let the world know that I was there and not just running under Marley all day long. Me and him still cool, we’re supposed to do some stuff together this year.
Were guys like 45 King, Ced-Gee or Mantronik an influence on you when you were coming up?
Marley was one of ‘em, Pete Rock, Premo, Xtra P, Prince Paul, of course Dr. Dre. There’s a couple of guys from the Bad Boy camp who made some great records. I really like Timbaland‘s programming, he’s really phenomenal. I really do follow that guy cause he has some records that really had me buggin’ out at the time. The golden era hip-hop – from ’90 to ’96 was incredible for hip-hop. It was this moment when everybody’s coming with so many good ideas from sampling and just making records, and it’s not like that anymore [laughs].
But who were you checking for in the 80s?
I think it was in ’78, my father actually let me stay-up late and listen to the radio, and they had a show on called The Afrika Islam Show. It was 105.9, it was right before the Awesome Two Show came on, it was like 1 o’clock in the morning, and I heard stuff that I never really heard again on regular radio. It was like “Where these records at?”. From there, when the 80′s came you had Red Alert and Chuck Chillout and Marley Marl. Them was like the three main dudes – every weekend I was listening to Chuck Chillout and Red Alert. When Marley did come on In Control sometimes I’d just leave my tape there, ready to record. If Pete Rock was there deejaying, it was crazy. In the ’80s I was doin’ a lotta break shopping, a lotta digging for records. Not really knowing what I was digging for, but just buying ‘em.
When they were still $2 a record!
Yeah, you’d find Isaac Hayes Ike’s Mood album for 99 cents, and if you find it now you may a hundred bucks for it. The last guy I’ve gotta mention in my list of guys is the 45 King – he’s definitely the one I paid attention to in the ’80s.
Did you ever catch the Zulu Beat Show?
Special K and them came on at 12 to 1, then from 1 to 2 or 3 Afrika Islam came on, then from 3 to 4 would be Donald D‘s show, then I think from 4 to 5 would be Awesome Two show again. I never could stay up that late, but I used to catch the Afrika Islam show every chance I could catch it because they would play breaks and have Granmaster Flash and Melle Mel and ‘em there doing freestyles live, recording live shows at Union Square or Latin Quarter or the World. I was hearing New York scene at eight years old! [laughs] There wasn’t no cursing or nothing like that, how it is now. I heard James Brown “Get Up, Get Into It and Get Involved” for the first time. When I was eight years old I heard that break, and they was cutting it and I went crazy. I was stuck in hip-hop from that point on. I found every James Brown record I could find, and little by little…Marley came into the scene, and then sampling really got big and I just started hearing these records being looped and I was like “Oh man, it’s a new era now”.
Are you from Jersey originally?
Yeah I’m from Jersey. And on the record, I wanna say that Jersey has breaks that no one else has, or no one else really knows about. I can say that with authority – I’m 35 years old, I’m an old man now and there’s breaks that I’ve been holding onto for almost twenty years – and I have not heard one person loop it, take a piece of it or nothing! I just want to throw that out there – New Jersey has breaks!
What happened with the Artifacts remix? I’ve got a white label that sounds like it was taped off the radio.
That’s why I gave up the masters to some guy in Japan and he re-issued it out.
Do you remember that J-Force kid?
Yeah, I was working at Sugarhill studios at one time, and he came through there and he had told me something that he did the song “25 To Life” and Marley got the credit for it. He said “Yo! I know why you left, yo!” I’m like “What are you talkin’ about? Whaddya mean ‘Why I left’?” He’s like “Yo! Yo! He be doin’ niggas foul!” and this and that. He was saying he did that song “LA, LA” and never got credit for it, but I didn’t even know nothing about it. I thought his name was on the record, but come to find out that record was a white label [chuckles]. I don’t know if you ever heard – Nas did a song, it was a song that Marley was playing called “On The Real”. Remember that?
Yeah I’ve got that.
I was on the radio one day, cause I used to the radio with Marley on pirate, I played that break for the first time and Marley had recorded that radio show and looped it up and then put Nas’ vocals on it, and then claimed the fame for that track. I’m not here talking dirty about it, I’m just saying that’s what really happened, so if you ever interview Marley Marl and you ask him about that, he should confer to that and say “Yeah, that did happen”.
When the “Funky Child” remix came out, there was that little thing with Showbiz & AG where they got mad about that loop…
Oh, the “Chief Rocka” remix. Yeah I did the remix and I must say, in this land of hip-hop a break is a break. If Showbiz & AG felt that Jack Bruce was meant to end-up in their hands only, then I’m sadly mistaken, because if that’s the case then I could say that Biz Mark stole “The Vapors” from me. A break is a break, bro. And at that – it was a remix! It wasn’t even like it was out in the forefront, it was just a remix – it didn’t matter. The main thing was that D.I.T.C. was having problems with the Lords of the Underground. Mr. Funkee had problems with Lord Finesse, and it was like anything they did at the time it was automatically take a diss at ‘em. I felt like the Lords were on the radio, they were selling records, they were doing shows, they were making things happen for themselves as a group, and being that those guys [DITC] were from New York and they had such a big following behind them, that it wouldn’t have been no problem, but Lord Finesse wasn’t the kind of rapper that was making records where the commercial wanted to accept him no matter what! The Lords didn’t have nothing to do with them not being successful on the commercial scene. They went commercial, and they went commercial with my original mix – not the remix.
It was a cheap-shot, because I know exactly what you’re talking about cause I read that in The Source, and I really was upset about that because I’m like “I didn’t bite nothing from them! I took Jack Bruce’s record!” Heltah Skeltah used it, about a thousand people used that break back then! [laughs] I feel ‘em, I understand that it is what it is, but I was making more records then all of them guys at the time. I was with Marley Marl at the time where he had five or six different album budgets. That means that you’ve got twelve songs each album. You can’t sit there and be like “I’m not gonna use nothing if…” the artist likes it, you’re gonna give it to ‘em. You wanna get it out of the way cause you’ve got other stuff to do.
What was your first track that got released?
My first track was probably Ed OG & DA BULLDOGS. That “I Gotta Have It” album I was a part of. I did some things there, some cuts there, some production on some of the songs. Wasn’t like I did no tracks – I didn’t produce, I didn’t know how to do that, but I had mad loops and breaks at the time. Back in the day in the late 80s, it was just basically whatever you find, you loop it up and that’s it. You got more loops? Loop ‘em all! The more the merrier. It was a little crazy back then.
When you’re making a song, do you usually program your drums first or do you find the loop first and then work around that?
I stopped using the MP a long time now. I’ve been on G5 and Logic Audio, Cubase and Reason. So basically I spend most of my time – before I make tracks at night, during the day – pulling out records, recordin’ them, editing them and cleaning them up. Looping them the way I want ‘em to go, chopping it – whatever be the case. Pretty much just having them all my disposal, depending on what I feel each given day. I just load one of them up and say “OK, this is what I’m gonna play over today”. I’m really playing stuff over now ’cause sampling’s really crazy right now. I still sample, but I’d rather give-up a percentage of the publishing and not give-up the master by playing it over, instead of giving-up both.
If you do replay it, you might not get as close to the original, but you’ve got the option now to change the scale, change the note arrangements – which you can’t do with a sample – and once you start changing and manipulating it, whatever you play now is 100% your record. There’s no publishing or no master-uses to give-up. I feel like I can give myself that chance to do that, then just to be looping shit up and then hoping and pray that the publisher doesn’t want a 100% publishing and a hundred grand up top, or takes the whole record. If it’s not gonna be a single? I’m not sampling. If it’s gonna be a single and I know it’s gonna give me more props and more work or whatever? Yeah, I’ll sample. But if it’s gonna be an album cut? Nah, you’re not getting no samples. I wanna eat as much as I can, because I’ve been doing it for so long…I’ve been sampling for ten, fifteen years, and the publishers are eating off of me. I’m not even eatin’ off my records…unless it goes double platinum! But who’s LL here? Nobody’s LL, so it can’t happen that way.
From your point of view, is it better to do an original production or a remix?
The remixes are kind of iffy, because if you’re a producer and you’re getting some vocals that weren’t a part of you making your track, then it’s really hard to find that right set of vocals to go on that right beat. You really don’t know what that artist or that label wants or what they’re looking for particularly by you just flying some beat on top of some vocals, unlike if the artist came in and y’all say down and collabed and y’all did something together – then it would come out a whole lot more beneficial. But the remix stuff is cool for somebody who just wants a couple of grand and wants to keep it moving, or if you’ve got great vocals and a a good song? yeah, it’s good to remix it. But if it’s just like a lotta underground mixtape stuff and somebody’s just throwing you some accapella’s…it’s really wack doing it that way. There’s no fun it, there’s no creativity – it’s nothing.
Was your “Street Dreams” remix an official thing?
That was down at Atlantic where I had a little hook-up where they wanted me to do some things with some accapella’s and stuff. I was a Nas fan really hardcore at that time, and they gave me a DAT of the “Street Dreams” accapella – ’cause the single wasn’t even out at the time – and I just go ahead and remixed it and they just threw it overseas. I never seen it again! Last year somebody must’ve got their hands on it and thet started circulating it around, and my boy Rich was like “Yo! Street Dreams – I didn’t know you did that?”.
Back then it was so crazy. Premo, Xtra P, Pete Rock and RZA – those four dudes were sampling breaks that I had all the breaks. Like “One Love” break…I had all those breaks before they used it, they just were sitting there. Like Xtra P and Pete Rock was very big fans of Milt Jackson‘s Enchanted Lady album. Then you had DJ Premier, where he was more into the latter-more stuff, he had a lot of down South breaks and Xtra P and Pete Rock had more jazz, East Coast, up here breaks. My father was into jazz, so I had all the jazz breaks. I had all of it and they were beatin’ me to the punch! It was crazy because I was really tryin’ to get on Marley like “Yo Marly, man. I got the breaks, we need to get these out” “Hook ‘em up, man! Hook ‘em up!” By the time I hooked them up – here comes Pete Rock with somethin’, here comes Premo with somethin’….I couldn’t win for losing so at some point it was like I had to dig deeper.
By the time the Real Live album came out, I had to make sure that I used breaks that no one was not gonna find or use for quite some time. I was really upset about the David Axelrod shit. I was the first one to use the “Terry’s Tune” joint, and everybody and their mama used it after me, and I really was really upset after that because you had Buckwild and Diggin’ In The Crates diggin’ with David Axelrod with the Capitol stuff, and they was successful with that. He did Fat Joe and Artifacts “Come On Wit Da Get Down” remix with Axelrod…they was really claiming to fame with David Axelrod, and then out of nowhere I see Easy Moe Bee at a store, downtown in Manhattan, and he’s looking at me going “Don’t buy that album! He’s crazy! He wants 200 for it”. But you know as soon as he walked out of that store, I bought that album. That was the same album I used for “Trilogy of Terror” on the Real Live joint, and two years later brothers was using it. I used “Ain’t No Love In The Heart of the City”. Jay-Z and Kanye West ended-up using that from me a year or two later. Then Just Blaze did a track for Beans‘ album before he got locked-up and he used the “Turnaround” loop. I ain’t mad about it though.
What’s happened to Larry-O?
Me and Larry-O did an album in 2004. It was 85-90% completed and then me and him had some differences and I’m stuck with an album right now, trying to find a distributor for it. As far as us working together? That will never happen again.
Real Live – “Real Live Shit (Remix)” video
Real Live - Ain’t No Love [The Turnaround: The Long Awaited Drama, Big Beat, 1996]
Nas - Street Dreams (K-Def Remix) [white label, 1996]
Mic Geronimo - For Tha Family (K-Def Remix) [unreleased]
Lord Finesse & Lord Tariq - LOTUG Diss
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