(Ed.note:In the spirit of The Bomb Squad this article was sampled from “Cool’eh Magazine”…there’s always a free stack of them at my laundrymat. visit them @ http://coolehmag.com)
BUM RUSH THE SHOW
words: DZANA TSOMONDO
Hank Shocklee is an icon. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know who he is or never heard of the Bomb Squad. When you can say you were Chuck D’s mentor you are an icon. When your production credits run from Public Enemy’s“It Takes a Nation of Millions” to Ice Cube’s “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” to Slick Rick’s “Great Adventures” to RUN-DMC’s “Down with the King”…you are an icon. His fingerprints are on half the significant hip-hop records in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and Hank Shocklee is nowhere near done. The man has an opinion on everything and isn’t afraid to share it, including what makes a great artist, the future of the music industry and why dubstep is speaking to him right now.
CE: When you look back is there anyone you would have liked to work with that you didn’t get the chance to?
HS: Hmm. That’s a hard one, man…you know something, I would have liked to work with Kane. If anybody, I would have loved to have done a whole project with him. Someone I respect and like a lot, I like Saul Williams. I would love to work with Saul Williams and I don’t know why, it’s just because I vibrate with him. I work with who I vibrate with. I’ve been blessed man, after working with P.E, Ice Cube, Slick Rick…after a while, you know, not that everyone else is not good…I would have loved to work with BIG, that would have been a whole ‘nother zone. That would have been incredible, the difference with BIG is I could have made art with BIG, record after record, it would have been ridiculous. The thing is, when you work with people that cover the range that they cover, like Ice Cube. Cube contacted me wanting to know if we could do a few tracks for his solo album after the whole NWA thing came to what it was and I was like, I’ll do it if I can do the whole album. And he said, that’s what I was hoping you would say…y’know…and when we were in the studio he showed up with notebooks and notebooks full of new rhymes, a bag full of rhymebooks.
The reason why I liked Ice Cube was Ice Cube’s viewpoint was a lot more dangerous, even more than what I was used to with Chuck and P.E.. He came from the school of “tell a nigga like it is and not give a fuck” and his “not give a fuck” was so ecstatic, so real, so concentrated that it was like wow! That’s how I judge artists, besides your voice and all that… those intangibles are what gets me. I work with L.L., fucking L.L man…look L.L. is not anybody’s favorite rapper, he’s not mentioned in the top five, but the thing about L.L. that no one talks about is his drive, his drive, the spirit that moves him. L.L. is a beast! If he played sports he would be Michael Jordan because he don’t stop, he don’t take no for an answer. I mean, this guy is the longest running rapper in the history of the game…he shoulda been over decades ago…L.L. was fucking five years before P.E.
CE: Pretty impressive, yeah.
HS: Damn impressive, okay. Because everyone from his era is nowhere near the game. So I look at him like he’s the Barry Bonds of our generation, it’s those intangibles that get me. The thing that I liked about Kane was that when he first came out, that was Kane! The part I didn’t like was when he became “Smooth Chocolate” or whatever it was, when he got to the part that he was smooth. That’s when I lost that feeling because Kane was your little brother’s man from the projects who was a knothead, but at the same time he knew what he was doing, he didn’t care but he was determined, no frosting in his game. He was the type to walk up to the club, jump the line, walk straight up to the bouncer and dare somebody to stop him.
CE: The intangibles…
HS: Imagination. [One time] Biggie and Premier are in the studio and Premier is playing him tracks—
CE: What were you doing in the studio, A&Ring?
HS: No, I was just in the building and someone told me Biggie was downstairs and I just happened to go down there and hang out. Because I knew Un [Rivera], we did a lot of work back, back…so those guys are all in the studio and BIG is in there and he’s working on one of his records, but Premier came in with a bunch of DATS and he was playing BIG all kinda shit. Every cut was banging. Every cut…and I’m sitting there like damn, but BIG is just like “nah, nah”. And I am like what the fuck is this guy looking for…then BIG is like give me that cut you did for Wendy Williams. It was when she was on Hot 97 and it was the promo for her countdown show, it was a promo and Premier was like “You want that?” and so Premier played it and I heard it, was sitting there going okay, because out of all the tracks, this was the worst. It had to be the worst. Even Premier was shocked. When I heard the finished record I said, “he’s a genius”, that was Biggie’s defining moment. It’s the imagination that makes it, if your imagination is beyond wild and you can blaze it, c’mon man, that’s touchdown. That’s touchdown. It’s like Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story”…I mean, what, how the fuck you…who would even think of some shit like that! Where was you at thinking about this? That to me is what separates the legendary artists from all the other artists. Like Common, I think that he is a good artist, I don’t think he had that defining moment that separated him. Even Mos, I thought Mos was a good artist but I haven’t record that made me be like…y’know…I heard a lot of good records. Talib was on his way with that first record but then he kinda got off of that and he also stopped letting Hi-Tek do his beats. Him and Hi-Tek was a match made in Heaven…I like a lot of different stuff, I liked Slum Village when they were all together, I thought they had a nice little style. With Jay-Dee, J-Dilla, I don’t know why he changed to J-Dilla, it thought that was like admitting that he wasn’t big enough to handle Jay-Dee. I thought he shoulda stayed Jay-Dee…
CE: Well, at that time J.D. [Atlanta producer Jermaine Dupri] was one of the biggest artists in the game…
HS: Yeah, and, so what!? So fucking what! Battle, nigga…because as far as I am concerned Jay Dee was one of the hottest underground producers coming up, he was gonna take that ass. See, it’s all about confidence, the whole game is about confidence. You don’t have no confidence, you can’t fuck with this rap shit, man.
CE: As a producer, what do you consider your crowning achievement?
HS: Wow, that’s big, that’s big. My crowning achievement…you know what, as a producer I would have to say my first release of a record and for me that was a song I did for Spectrum City [early version of Public Enemy]. It was called “Check out the radio” and the reason I pick that is because it was the first time that I got a chance to manifest my idea and actually saw it in a physical form. That to me has to be it because what it did was re-instill in me the fact that yes, anything is possible as long as you stay committed to whatever you want to do. Sure, there have been other moments after that that picked you up higher than that, but as an initial [moment], there was nothing better because it was a realization that you can give birth to something. And that right there…once you realize you can do that, all you need is something that brings you out from childhood to adulthood, and that was the record Rebel without a Pause. Once you move from alright, we’ve been dabbling at this thing, but then that one moment where you actually break through…
CE: You are talking about just holding the vinyl in your hands?
HS: That’s the first one, yeah, holding “Check out the radio” in my hands, but the second one was Rebel without a Pause. And that was just actually finishing the record, making that record…I call it the Michael Jordan shot, like when he was at North Carolina and he made that shot to win the championship and he realized like “I could really do this now”.
For me that has to be Rebel without a Pause and once that happens you get a little spring in your walk, you now got a little swagger, because now you know that what you are doing is right. And once you put it all together and you can see the finish line that’s when everything becomes so vivid that your manifestation from nothing to something becomes almost automatic. And once that happens your entire life changes, because now…see, that’s why making records is such a beautiful thing because it’s one of the only places where you can take your imagination and make it tangible. And once your imagination is tangible to people and people buy into it, it’s a whole ‘nother high and for me that process is very, very spiritual because that process has a lot to do with faith, with energy and the energy that you send out to people because the energy that you send out is the same energy that you get back. And I know that to be true because I have witnessed too many scenarios where I saw how it comes back…
CE: Give me some examples.
HS: I was walking down the street with Chuck, we was in Harlem. “Bum Rush the Show” had just come out and we happened to walk by the record shop and we saw this new group called Boogie Down Productions and they had an album.
We already knew them from having a single but now they had an album out and when I saw KRS-1 and Scott La Rock on the cover with arsenals of guns and grenades and bullets strapped around it was amazing [laughs]. They looked like superheroes. But I told Chuck, they’re sending out the wrong message, because the message they’re sending out is one of “I’m a bad man”, “I’m a rude boy gangsta kid”, and the only problem about that is what I said before, what you send out there comes back to you. So a few months later, what happens, D-Nice gets into some bullshit, gets Scott to come help him out with this bullshit and what happens? Niggas just start spraying on them…why? Because the message that they sent out was that “I’m a bad boy”, but really you don’t have to worry about bad boys because the true gangsters, the real bad boys are not fucking with you unless you are fucking with them. It’s the punk niggas you gotta worry about because those are the motherfuckers that are scared, those are the motherfuckers that will shoot first and ask questions later. And what happened, Scott La Rock lost his life…that was one of the first times I saw the way [the universe] works. Another time I was at the mall and I was with this kid and asked what he was listening to and he said Biggie, Ready to Die and I was like “Whoa, this kid put out an album called Ready to Die???” Don’t people understand what we are messing with when we talk about the universe? The universe is positioned…believe in God or not, you don’t have to believe alright but understand this…the universe is set up for you to manifest anything that you can process that you put out there is able to be manifest into reality. You put out there love, peace and happiness and that is what will manifest, you put out there chaos, destruction and mayhem and that is what will come back to you…we are in the communications business. We communicate with the universe and you want to be careful what you send out into the universe…
CE: What then to make of the idea that in the ‘80s hip-hop was a lot more fun, playful and harmless, but New York’s crime and murder rates were off the charts, whereas now the “conventional wisdom” is that hip-hop lyrics are much more violent and negative but the city is safer than it has been for forty years? Wouldn’t that contradict that concept?
HS: Well, see that is where crack comes in. Crack created so much turmoil in our communities that I am not sure you can make that point because that changed everything. And at the same time, as bad as things were then, we still had our spirit, as a people we still had our spirit…nowadays, I am not so sure…
CE: Back to the Bomb Squad, a lot of people say that the production you did back then still couldn’t be replicated now…
HS: Naw, plus the sample laws changed. You couldn’t [layer samples] like that now, it’s got to the point where all you could do is one. All I can say is that it was a moment in time, man, that I personally had an axe to grind. I was tired and fed up of all the bullshit out there, and not just in music, I’m talking about politics, life…when you got the drama from your family, baby mommas or whatever the case may be, you get to the point where when you get in the studio it becomes your sanctuary, and it allows you to vent. You can vent musically and that is why I am not a fan of smooth styles because life, to me, is hectic. It’s chaotic, life is grimy, it ain’t soft and smooth and pretty and harmonious. It has its moments, but the whole trip is not that, and especially the plight of the black man. The black man gets no respect on the fucking planet. None. We catch hell on every level and get no sympathy from anyone. So when I look at my black brothers out there I felt like I had to give special homage, give them a pound, just because…just because. You ain’t have to do nothing, just because I know what you holding down. I don’t care what you holding down, some of us are stronger than others, and some of us can hold it down better than others, but that does not mean you are not trying to hold it down. Some of us give up and say fuck it, and say “I’m gonna go another route” and I can’t blame them either.
So what is Hank Shocklee doing in 2007?
HS: When you have been in the [game] as long as I have been you have what I consider to be like, lives. And your first life is always just starting to get in the game, starting to understand what’s happening and then something good happens for you and that’s your second [life]. And then you move into another place, which is the third life in your career, where now that you understand what’s going on, now that you have all this know-how, how do you take all those years of experience and give something back to those that don’t have. And ever since the start everything about me has been about elevating or enlightening and if you ask anybody…I mentored a lot of people. I started out by mentoring Chuck, Eric, Keith and sometimes Flav [laughs]. And it just spread, from cats like Harry Allen and L.L. Cool J, then it moved to Doug Fresh and Daddy-O from Stesasonic. Basically, I have been like a mentor to a lot of cats, and it continues on in my life and it’s always been that way, also my entire time at Def Jam. Even when I went in as an executive at MCA/Universal records, I’ve always been a mentor to different artists whether it be Lil’ Mo, Chucky Thompson, Stevie J, Rodney Jerkins…anybody that I come across I try to give them insight to what I’ve learned. Right now with Shocklee Entertainment, it’s a two-step process. The business right now has moved from analog to digital, and what that means is that now anybody can have access. The middleman is pretty much almost eliminated because back in the days the only way that you could be in the business was you had to be signed to a major label, the only way that you could record a record was you had to have a big enough budget to get into a recording studio, and the only way you could release a record was to get it into a retail store. That, to me, is the old analog business and now we are in a digital realm, you can get a pretty inexpensive sorfware program like Fruity Loops, make your own tracks, record them in Pro-Tools and upload it onto MySpace or get it on one of the digital download companies like Orchard or what have you, or even make a website and put it up yourself. So now what it does is give the producer? More hands-on control of their entire career…but with that, as in everything, there is a tendency to be abused. So now we are inundated with all kinds of information, good and bad. We are flooded with all kinds of material, good and bad…So what I am trying to do is concentrate and try to create a new community of cats so that, you know, we can take the business on to our own hands without necessarily having the major labels involved.
With all the financial woes of the industry, the impending death of the CD and the prevalence of file-sharing, do you think there is still a business model that can be successful. I mean, there are kids growing up to whom the idea of paying for music is something antiquated and just foreign, and if they do buy something it might just be one or two songs off the album on Itunes as opposed to the whole album when it was on CD or vinyl. Obviously, that narrows the potential profit margin significantly, and also changes the way that the audience consumes the music. I guess what I am suggesting is that while people will always make music, perhaps the idea of music as a business is about to be done.
It’s funny that you say that because before I left Universal [in 1999] I went to the COO of Universal and was basically explaining to them that there was a lot of stuff they were missing. And I was telling them that there is a lot of attention that needs to be paid to records from zero to two hundred thousand. And I wanted them to create another…division, if you would, that would deal with the introduction of artists from zero to two hundred thousand. I thought that needed special attention. And I was basically told flat out, we really don’t care about that. What we are concerned about is three hundred thousand to five hundred thousand, if you can’t do that then forget it. And I was like, yeah, that’s cool but…you know, there’s two schools of thought with the music business. One is that it’s losing ground, the other is that it’s actually getting bigger than it has ever been and the problem now is that you have to create a new paradigm to deal with the changing business. What does that mean? That means you can’t be lazy anymore! Before you could be lazy, you could just say “I got the new R. Kelly record, there’s only one way for people to get it and everyone is going to have to buy the CD”. And even if he only had two songs on the record, you were stuck with the other songs and that is how the business pretty much made it’s money, they would hype one situation and one song and then everyone would have to buy the album just for that one song. And that started happening from ’93 to be honest. There is only about five or six albums that you can say from ’93 on till today that can be considered classics. And what do we mean by classics? An album that you can listen to from top to bottom and every single song is banging!
CE: Well, I might have to disagree with you a little bit there, not on the general idea of the industry taking shortcuts but five or six classics is way off.
HS: Yeah, we all are gonna disagree on that part but that is not my argument…you can probably agree that there are a lot less records like that coming out than their used to be…
CE: I agree 100% on that.
HS: Right, so what I am saying is that 90% of those records were still selling, they got a lot of mileage out of those records. I picked up the Mase record, years ago and y’know, the record had two songs on it. It was shit! This records sold three and a half million records and it’s not that my taste…my taste is a little elitist but even if you go to kids they will tell you that they like three or four songs and the rest is ehhhh. So it ain’t just that, I think that we got lazy. In the marketing and promotions, everything, we just got lazy. We are doing the same things, what do you do with a record? Get it the street team, get it on radio, get it on BET, that’s the end! All marketing plans are like that. And that breeds mediocrity and laziness, and these A&R cats who signed these R&B chicks that just look good but don’t have any real talent, a la Christine Milan and the likes…and that same formula has crossed over to the hip-hop world where it’s just like, have one good song on your record and put all the video chicks in your video and drive up the sales…those days are gone! Now you have to be a little more strategic in what you are doing, because now with the advent of the Ipod you have sixties music along with 2007 music. You have artists ranging from alternative rock to ska to reggae to dub and your palate is a lot bigger, I don’t think there is any more genre. Why are we talking about alternative rock versus hip-hop versus R&B, when to me all of that stuff is lapping. Everyone’s level of musical taste has risen, everybody’s level of musical knowledge has risen, so you can’t deal with them from a simplistic level, if at the end of the day you don’t have any substance to offer. Everybody is listening to the best of the best in their Ipods, the people are more sophisticated now, they are listening to music from all generations. And what the record companies have not done is figure out how to react to that, and that is what I don’t understand, their…failure to react. I know we aren’t here for that but I can go on for days on why the music business is fucked up.
CE: Well, allow me to play devil’s advocate and ask does anyone have the patience to listen to albums in this Ipod era? As you pointed out, everyone is listening to more and more music, everyone is walking around with what amounts to a limitless jukebox in their pocket, who has time to listen to an album? For better or worse, isn’t the modern music listener all about their playlist? And again, I am not saying it’s bad or good, but there is a whole new generation coming up behind them that has been downloading music their whole lives. For those kids the idea of music as a physical product that you go and buy escapes them, and the idea of listening to an entire album front to back is unfathomable. They pick their favorite songs and delete everything else to save hard drive space, so what sort of future could the album possibly have?
HS: You are absolutely correct on those points. Once again there’s good and the bad, we have moved into a zone where there is no right or wrong any more, only degrees of right and left [laughs]. So let’s go back to when the record companies moved these fans away from artist-driven into song-driven, now you open up the floodgates where people are like “if it’s only about the song, let me just get the song any way that I can.” That’s a bad marketing move, okay. I don’t know about you, but when I was getting into music I didn’t buy music based off a song, I was a fan of the artist. And if I’m a fan of the artist, I am gonna go get you no matter what you do or what you got. Now let’s talk about the medium of the album dissipating, you know, the style of the album has dissipated. Listen, I created an album that people call one of the best records of the century, It takes a Nation of Millions. Now that record is put together like a mixtape, it has no breaks or stops in it and I have no idea why companies are still making albums with songs that start on one side and die on the other. I listen to this group called Mars Volta and you put this band’s record on at any given point and it just goes on. It just goes on.
What is this nonsense about format, why does everything have to have a format? And why does everyone have to make a hit record, I never made an album full of hit records, I purposely would never do that! Once you get into that mindset the first thing you are going to do is stylize every record like that last hit record, and thus there is only gonna be one or two of those records that you can take. After that, you’re looking for a whole new flavor. But everyone’s making the same record, ten or fifteen of them and making the same format; verse, chorus, verse, chorus, verse, chorus…I don’t even hear verse, chorus, bridge anymore. I don’t even hear bridge, bridge, chorus anymore. You can close your eyes and you know where everything is gonna come, what are the intervals? 8/16, 8/8…it doesn’t matter, nothing varies, so what happens? Everyone gets bored out of their fucking minds. So yeah, you don’t have time to listen to the record because it’s fucking work! People give me CDs all day long and you know what, they are fucking boring. You get that same intro all the time, you get that same chorus music all the time, so that you know what’s gonna follow the chorus music, it’s boring. That’s the reason why nobody is buying it, you bought music because there was an element of surprise, because when you listened to it there was excitement, because of the element of surprise…Wu-Tang was one of the most fabulous groups that came across our table in the last 25 years and let me tell you why. In their early records, you never knew what the fuck was going to happen. I was listening to an ODB record and one of the tracks was him going “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” for the first minute of the song…
CE: That is a great song [“Going down”]. But hold on, because while I agree with you on all those points, I think that a lot of that applies to the mainstream but is affecting everyone. By that I mean that although there is a lot of garbage, there is a lot of great independent music coming out that is imaginative and creative. If you look at the mainstream, not so much, but then again, if you like movies and you go look at what the big studios are putting out it’s gonna be Die Hard 4 and Fantastic Four 3 but if you go to Cannes and so forth you will see some interesting movies.
HS: That is where I am at. One of the things is, the cream always rises to the top. Right now we are going through a transitional period, thus Amy Winehouse is one of the hottest records out right now with the least amount of promotion behind it. That is a clear indication of where we are going, and it’s a non-traditional record, it’s not New York Soul…you can’t put it in a box…we are starting to find our way now in this business, and by that I mean that people like yourself are asking the right questions. People like myself are asking the right questions and more importantly, coming back with some bit of an answer. And one of the answers is going to be that there have to be people and situations out there that are helping to promote those new and exciting pieces of product out there…there is a record store in Manhattan called Other Music, it was right across the street from Tower Records and Tower went out of business but Other Music is still in business, and what does Other Music have? All the music that Tower wouldn’t carry…
CE: So where does this all end up…what is next if we agree that the old model of CD’s is over?
HS: Did you ever think when you first started listening to rap music that a rapper would one day make $400 million?
CE: I guess not….
HS: When I came up listening to Grandmaster Flash, I was told rap was a fad that was going to die out. I could have never thought in my wildest imagination that a rapper would make anywhere near that money. I would have just said “Wow!”, that goes to show how far we have come. The same thing is happening with this new music business, it will go beyond our wildest imagination. We didn’t see the internet happening, there’s a lot of things we didn’t foresee happening and it’s happened good and it’s happened bad. Now one thing about the capitalist system is that they will find a way to make you pay for whatever it is. There’s gonna be a day when we are paying for air, okay [laughs]. The quad gave way to 5.1, VHS gave way to the DVD, we will still find a way…I personally think the audio business is over at the level we have seen it and the reason why is that things have moved on. I mean, back in the 1900s if you were the author of a book you were the fucking man but the phonograph changed that. And so thus the visual element has changed audio forever, like why hear it only when you can watch it and hear it. We haven’t even begun to cross those waters [as an industry], we have phones that show images, we are not limited anymore. So yeah, audio might fall by the wayside but it’s gonna give rise to the video.
CE: So, who out there has Hank Shocklee excited right now? Who’s music are you vibrating with? If you were to go out and give a big cosign to one artist who would it be, like we are playing pickup basketball, who do you pick first?
HS: Oh shit…that’s rough because…okay, you really want to know? You really want to know? I would go pick up DMZ, I would go and fuck with [dubstep collective] Digital Mysticz and the reason why I say that is I think that there is a vibration that they got that the world needs to feel. And what it is, it’s weird, it’s not a person, it’s not an artist…it’s different, it’s almost a being in their sound.