Filed under: Interviews,Newest Latest,Steady Bootleggin'
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
Russel Gonzalez learned from the best. In his early days, he was hanging out with DJ Premier in their hometown of Houston, and got tips on using his first sampler from Rap-A-Lot producer Crazy C. By ’94 he had formed K-Otix with local rappers Mike and D, and they made a name for themselves amongst the mid-90’s indy explosion. By 2004, he decided to move on. He hasn’t looked back since.
Robbie: You started out working with K-Otix in the 90s, didn’t you?
The Are: K-Otix was my first group. We actually formed in 93-94. We had a good run, in terms of albums and twelve inches, but I pretty much stepped away from the group in 2003-2004.
Was that because of the state of the indy vinyl market, or creatively you want to try out some new stuff?
Just creatively, I wanted to move the forward and just work with different artists. One of the things with the group thing was having to give a lot of additional time to the group. A lot of times I’d kinda neglect myself in terms of working with other artists and hitting the road and hustling music or just shopping beats. It got to the point where things with K-Otix weren’t always moving as smoothly as they were in the 90’s, so I thought it would be best for me – if I was gonna grow as a producer – to move on and start working with many artists instead of just one or a handful.
There’s been a rich history of hip-hop from Houston, as far as early Rap-A-Lot stuff like Royal Flush Posse and the Def IV. Flipping harmonicas and church organs over sampled drums.
Houston always had a really rich hip-hop scene from early on. The difference is that Houston wasn’t getting as much press for it as let’s say an LA or a New York. So you had these groups that were out in 1988 and 1986 and so on. They were great records, it’s just that were kinda like hood records – they were strictly in the hood, at your local record shop, and that was about the extent of it. It wasn’t like this stuff was getting any further than Louisiana at the time!
After The Chronic came out, everyone started doing those synthersiser beats. Even groups like the Geto Boys started using live instruments on everything.
A lot of it has to do with the whole sample clearance. The whole ‘played instrument’ sound came about around ’95,’96 with artists like [Dr.] Dre, and then Rap-A-Lot was doing it with one of their main producers called N.O. Joe – he was playin’ a lot of stuff. A lot of it was built around not just the sound but cats don’t have to pay for the sample – it’s just easier to replay it than have to give-up the whole publishing check to the original artist.
It must be frustrating when you people have to sign over 100% of the publishing for a sample.
It happens a lot. One of the things I’m trying to stick by is for as long as I can, still keep my music sample-based. Even if I have to give up a portion of the publishing or deal with any kind of legal battles, because the music that we’re doing…there is a piece of the actual sample – that sound – that gives hip-hop it’s own soul, as opposed to playing it. I’ve worked with some musicians that can replay certain samples and certain things where you wouldn’t be able to tell. But at the same time, there’s nothing like that gritty record sound.
That K-Otix record “7 MCs Pt. 2″ was a nice stab at Puff and them.
In the underground back in the day, everybody kinda feels the same way. You have your underground and you have your mainstream – and the underground is usually not eating. We wanna focus more on our craft, and it builds a lotta frustration and animosity towards artists in the artists who are eating and in the mainstream and doing what they what they love to do. I think Mike and D from the group wrote from a perspective of young and hungry and from a desire for our music to be lucrative in some way. But when you think about it, it’s a little ridiculous – ‘cos if we wanted the underground to be huge then we would be the ones making the money and on TV and all that. So it doesn’t matter either way I guess – it’s either we get talked about, or you talk about.
I enjoyed the Dem Damb Jacksons record.
It was all Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson samples. I built the concept around that. I had two joints that were on my beat CD’s that were Michael Jackson chops, and I really liked the way they came out. It just hit me that I love Jacksons’ stuff so much, and it’s so melodic and has great melodies, and I was like, ‘Wow, I should do a whole project with all of these records’. I kinda got obsessed with it and did the whole project in three or four days.
I saw that was a free download on your MySpace. You can’t sell something like that in stores though, can you?
It’s kinda tricky. For projects like that, it’s more important about the press then it is the money. I did records like Manipulated Marauders and Jacksons projects – we gave ‘em away for free! It was a way to get your name poppin’, it wasn’t like, ‘I don’t want anyone to have this ‘cos I need to get ten dollars a piece for it’. I’d love to release it, but it’d be almost releasing it just for a collection purpose. I don’t even care about making money off the project. I’d like to release a couple of 45’s and maybe a picture disc. Something that people would buy just to have and collect.
It also demonstrates that even the most well-mined record can always be flipped. Even James Brown records that were already plundered still have hidden parts beyond the first four bars or whatever.
Exactly. There’s a ton of stuff to really flip. It’s like that with every record, just depending on how you flip it. I’m actually in the studio right now with a lot of R&B artists, and I’ve had to adapt to doin’ some hip-hop R&B. One of the things I notice in looking for a sample or something that’s going to work for an R&B record – I keep runnin’ into stuff that’s really popular, like a Brothers Johnson ‘Strawberry Letter’ song or a BT Express song that kinda sounds disco, and it’s stuff that I would normally shy-away from. But since it’s for an R&B record I’m finding new pieces that can be chopped-up and almost made like a totally different song. A perfect example is the joint I did on the Jacksons project called ‘Oh’ where I flipped ‘Baby Be Mine’. Most people – if not everyone – knows that track, but most producers would probably never touch that track because it’s so distinctive and popular, but when I went into to it and finally got down to it, I really flipped-it in a way that I never imagined could’ve been flipped. That’s coming about because my chopping technique has gotten to a point where I feel like I can take any record and just chop it and make it brand new again. To a degree that no one else can do. Common records that we all know and these producers would never touch, it’s making those records perfect for me, ‘cos I’m going in and I’m killing ‘em!
I guess the longer that you make records, you have a different ear for what you’re listening for. You might find parts of records that you ignored in the past.
Right. You grow into a comfortable state of chopping and manipulating songs. You just hear things different according to the way you chop. I’ve realized that over the past year, when I’ve been just trying to have fun and chop something that’s already been used, but then I end-up chopping it in a way that’s totally new again. I used to be, ‘Oh, I can’t believe they used that sample again!’ I used to be totally against that. The difference with now is that it doesn’t matter what record it is if you flip it and make it new – give it your own flavor. That’s what we need to do instead of recycling the same stuff in the same way.
You worked with Premier in your earlier days, didn’t you?
I wouldn’t actually say ‘worked’ with him, but we were friends from way back, probably from late 80’s when No More Mr. Nice Guy came out. He’s from Houston, and we had a lot of the same friends. After I’d met him in Houston he’d moved to New York to begin being a full-time part of Gangstarr, and I came to New York for a little stretch from like ’90-’92, and during that time Premier and I would hang out a little bit in the studio. I’d hang out and just watch Preme do his thing. That’s really what got me to the point where I wanted to make beats – just watching him in the studio and wanting to be a part of that.
Based on that I’m surprised you didn’t pick-up an MPC-60.
Yeah, I use the ASR-10. When I got back to Houston I needed a sampler, and it just so happened that there was a dude that we knew that had an Ensonic EPS, which was the first one. I bought it from him and just started learning how to make beats on my own – no manual or nothing. A good friend of mine named Crazy C – who did a lot of the Rap-A-Lot stuff – I used call him and he used to give me tips on the EPS. He was the only one I knew that had one or knew how to use one, and I wanna say he used the EPS to do the “Method Man” remix back in the day. It wasn’t a matter of choice when it came to the EPS – it was just a matter of necessity.
Is there a certain quality that you look for in a vocalist?
Right now, working with Trackmasters, it’s not really a matter of me really looking for anyone because we have a whole operation going on in the studio. There’s artists such as Mariah Carey and Ashanti and Jamie Foxx.
When did you sign up with Poke and Tone?
I got up to New York in October, and we’ve been in Battery Studios for 40-something days, and we got a whole slew of artists that are coming through to work on their albums. Right now we’re in the studio for 13-14 hours, six days a week.
That’s hardcore. You must eat a lot of take-out.
I’ve been trying to maintain that and not eat too much junk. For me, it’s so important to eat right. I’m not a kid anymore so I can’t just eat chocolate and survive off of Twix!
You can’t just eat pork rinds and MSG! Do you still get time to work with underground groups as well?
Oh yeah, I’mma always do that stuff. That’s where my heart is, in terms of making weird and kinda crazy tracks that wouldn’t necessarily fly in the mainstream. I still got my man K down in Houston, we’re still working on a project. Everything from Together Brothers and Oh No…I’m never gonna shy away from that. I’ve gotta focus at the moment in getting my foot in the game. Being part of Trackmaters is just one of the ways of getting my foot in the game. Everything’s great! I’m gonna try and cover all ground and work with commercial artists as well as underground artists. I’m never gonna leave that behind.
It must give you more leverage to do experimental stuff.
It’s gonna make things a lot easier to work with the underground artists and help them come up in the game. Plus, even with the mainstream artists that I might work with, my signature is still gonna be in that record. I just did the Lil’ Kim single that just hit the streets. It’s called ‘Chillin’ Tonight’ and it’s as raw as ever! [chuckles]
You also did that Manipulated Marauders project where you flipped Tribe Called Quest samples?
I just thought it would be a great concept to go back and take all of the original samples that were used and re-flip ‘em, and in some cases go deeper into the original record and use another piece of the record, and just put it together in the same format as Midnight Marauders, with the intro, and just set it up the same way – but in a new light. It worked out really well, something again that I did really quick. We leaked it out, and because of the concept people were familiar with it already.
Anchorman or Talladga Nights? What do think is the best Will Farrell joint?
[laughs] That’s a hard one because they were both pretty ill, but I might have to go with Talladega Nights.
Shake and bake!
The Are – “Beat Medley” [unreleased Unkut Dot Com exclusive]
K-Otix – “7 MC’s Pt. II”
The Are – “Oh”
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