We caught up with Che recently to discuss his winding career path and his recent Apollo Artist Session, where he produced a pulsating live track with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in their legendary 200-year-old space in the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans.
Your productions tend to be eclectic, with everything from vintage jazz to soul to hip-hop to alternative rock showing up in your work.
I’ve always done more than just hip-hop. I’m from Boston — between Dorchester and Brookline — so as much as hip-hop was an influence at the time, rock and punk were huge influences on me as well, and I knew as much about them as I did about soul and hip‑hop.
What gear did you start on?
When I started creating beats and sounds, I started on things like the Ensoniq Mirage, Roland S-Series keyboards like the S-50, and an AKAI S900 sampler. All this was well before the MPC was even available, though I would graduate to an MPC-60 eventually.
But at that time, I’d use whatever was available; the school studio at Hampton University, for example, had a Kurzweil K2000S. But I really developed my ability to put tracks together on a rackmount Tascam 134B 4-track Syncaset that belonged to a bass player friend of mine.
In your recent work with A$AP Rocky, as with Wyclef Jean back in the day, you incorporate a nice blend of live instruments and sampled beats.
I suppose that if I’m known for anything, it’s the combination of samples and live instruments. A lot of my commercial work has that combination because that’s really what people come to me for.
When I came into the game, DJ Premier of Gang Starr was a huge inspiration. I was enamored with how he manipulated samples, because when I came up, it was the time when people used to just loop samples, and Premier was one of the first to go to the next level of chopping up samples, and processing them in more experimental ways.
Because I play instruments, I could incorporate them along with this new way of creating beats from samples. It enabled me to be a lot more free and experimental with the productions.
Though it’s easy to see samples as simply pre-recorded sounds and instruments, they’re almost a different medium entirely. What do they bring to the table in a production?
Samples are great because they have interesting textures. Something that was recorded in a dusty room in Memphis in 1966 is going to have a very unique texture and flavor to it — and that’s something that’s very hard to create with live instruments.
What are some ways you add texture to a sample?
Guitar pedals — I carry around at least 50 of them. You can use them to distort and disrupt clean-sounding signals in unexpected ways. In fact, I especially like pedals from the ’60s and ’70s, like an old Maestro Fuzz, for instance, for that very reason. They add so much character and texture to live sound, and get them much closer to the vibe you get from a really great vintage sample.
Are there dangers to the wide availability of commercial samples and beats, perhaps a certain sameness creeping in?
Sure. Someone recently commented that 95% of today’s beats sound the same, and I think that’s basically true. Don’t get me wrong; I’m someone who’s very aware of the evolution of music technology, and I care about what the kids are into, because as far as I’m concerned, everything begins with the present generation of kids, just like it did in my day.
Not all hip-hop is going in that direction however.
No. I mean, you think of an album like Kanye’s Yeezus and Life of Pablo — they are very different than the majority of rap records. I recently read a quote with 50-Cent talking about Jay-Z’s last album, 4:44, and his “criticism” was really more of a compliment. He said it was too grown-up, too mature. I thought, the man’s a 47-year-old rapper! He should be making mature albums. You could say the same thing about a Kendrick Lamar album — the incredibly high level of intelligence and sophistication — or J Cole’s new album,KOD, that everyone’s talking about.
Let’s talk about the Apollo Artist Session you did with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in New Orleans. What were the particular challenges of recording in that space, completely live?
The biggest problem was separation. Normally, I’ll isolate things and baffle up different instruments in the studio, but in this live setting I didn’t have that luxury. We had one AKG C24 stereo room mic; we had the brass miked on the left; the reeds on the right, and we had an overhead Neumann U47 vocal mic on the brass side, too, because there’s a vocal part on the song.
The brass players are sort of playing into the horn mic, and then leaning up to the overhead mic when they do their vocal. The idea was to really stay away as much as possible from making choices that wouldn’t have been used in a session in the ’60s, and except for the fact that we used nine tracks, without any bouncing, I’d say we kept it pretty tight.
You’ve got the resources and the skills to use pretty much any plug-in, so what makes Apollo and UAD plug-ins special for you?
When I discovered Apollo interfaces, it changed my life. I came up in the era of tape, recording on SSL and Neve boards, and tweaking real Lexicon reverbs, and being able to actually touch and control all that stuff. So, even as digital recording became the norm, and it was easy to get kind of “plug-in happy,” I wouldn’t say that there were ever very many of them that I really loved using.
Then I started using Apollo interfaces and UAD plug-ins in Console, and my productions sounded so much better than what I had before.
I mean, I’d even A/B the UAD plug-ins against the comparable hardware units when I was in big studios — recording through a vintage hardware Neve 1073, for example, then comparing it to the UAD Neve 1073, and they always sounded great against the “real thing.”
What would say to someone hoping to emulate your success as both producer/composer and business person?
You have to take control of your schedule! I can only speak for myself, but I really can’t mix being a producer and a businessman. If you’re following a musical idea in your studio, you’re focused, you’re locked in. And if you have to interrupt that with an email or a phone call, it’s completely disruptive to your creative process.
I did this thing a few years back I call “Taking Back Your Schedule,” where I made some firm decisions about, y’know, this is my phone call and email time. This is when I’m reachable. And this is when I go into creative mode without any interruptions, unless they’re urgent.
It’s tough. There have been times I’ve been working with artists, and it’s been very problematic when business keeps interrupting the flow. So I’ve been working more and more to make sure that separation really sticks.
In general, mornings up to about 2pm are for business calls and emails and all that; 3pm on is for creating music. Look, if you’re going to do both — and in many ways you especially need to do both these days — you need to craft a system that works for you. Doing so will make a significant impact on your ability to be productive in your creative and business life.