Anatomy of a hip-hop song: Local producers weigh in on what it takes to make a great track
Boonie Mayfield is a quiet storm of humble brilliance and sincere motivation. A natural born teacher, his YouTube videos display his ability to teach and inspire. His skill is matched by his humility and child-like awe. "I'm an only child," he reveals in a hushed tone. "So music has always been the thing I could relate to the most. I am cautious of too much confidence, because sometimes, I have no clue where the music comes from." We caught up with Boonie as he was preparing to head to Chicago for the Big Tune finals for a heady conversation on beat making with an emphasis on the creative side of production.
Westword: Break down the physical components that a beat can't survive without.
Boonie Mayfield: As far as physical components these days... it can't really survive without an at least decent computer. Sure you can use all hardware to produce, but at the rate of technology's growth... every professional studio is using some type of DAW like ProTools, Logic, Cubase, Ableton or Sonar to get good mixing and mastering down. Aside from that, I'd say a keyboard of some sort and/or drum-pads.
Do you prefer the hands on approach of beat making or the overall director's approach in a full production session?
I haven't had the pleasure of directing a full production session with live musicians yet, but I most definitely plan to, and I'm sure I'll love it. I think that's what the West Coast helped bring into the hip-hop game of the early '90s. There were some cats from the East occasionally bringing in live bass players etc., like Q-Tip did, but the West Coast producers, like Quik, Dre, Warren G., Daz, Battlecat and others, were really known for incorporating other musicians to really spice up their production. And then, of course, can't forget The Roots! I think hip-hop needs a lot more of that.
How do you keep from making the same song over again?
By not setting too many restrictions on myself and not sticking to some "formula." Also by trying different rhythms and vibes. You can make unlimited songs using the same exact chords, and a lot of people won't tell a difference, when the melodies are different, the tempo, rhythms and placement of the chords are different. I just try to incorporate elements from different genres to set tracks apart from each other.
What are the key pieces to the best production team?
Chemistry is the first major key piece, and versatility. It's always great to have a team with people who all specialize in certain elements. There could be someone who specializes in basslines... someone who specializes in drum-programming, someone who specializes in melodies, someone who specializes in harmony etc. The key is just having everybody bring something special to the table, yet they can still hold their own if need be.
When you go in to make a beat, what is the thing you build first?
Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's the drums I build first. Even if I'm sampling, I'm going to know the way I want my drums to sound. So I always start with it first.
What do you think are the commonalities in producers who have worked on -- and will work on -- some of the most inspiring and iconic albums?
One commonality I notice in most producers out there is a humble attitude. Most producers I know might be rappers and/or singers, as well... but they are willing to chill behind the scenes and not need to be in the limelight all the time. They're willing to let their creativity shine through the artists they work with, without trying to get all the recognition and fame.
The other commonality has nothing to do with albums. The other commonality I notice in producers is that most of us are "geeks" or "nerds" in some kind of way. A lot of producers I come across are fanatics of something, whether it 's video games, comic books, independent films, science fiction, rare vinyl collections, automobiles, music equipment/gear, or even just other genres of music. I know a lot of producers who will talk about artists' and albums that the average person never heard of.
Speaking of iconic albums, can you name the top three most eloquently produced albums of any genre?
I can't help it... I have to mention four. I would have to say: Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, D'Angelo's Voodoo, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall and Andre 3000's The Love Below.
Producing is a lot about musical inspiration but still comes with a high level of education needed. Talk about the technical responsibility in making beats.
Aside from having to at least know a little about connecting cables with equipment, understanding how to route MIDI, programming sequences etc., the other things that are essential to making beats is simply understanding music. You don't have to know how to read or write music at all, but if you don't know how to do little things like count bars or understand measures, you're going to have problems.
Another thing is working with singers and understanding their range and strengths. Knowing how to transpose a composition if need be. There's a lot of responsibility that comes with producing tracks. An artist who has no clue about making tracks or playing instruments might not be able to describe exactly what may be wrong with what the two of you are working on.
They just might know how to sing and write great songs and that's it. They might NOT know that it's the rimshot you laid down that's making the beat sound too bland... or that the tempo is too slow or too fast.... but they CAN sense that there's something missing. You need to know how to figure out what's missing or what can be used to enhance whatever you're working on. It's a ton of responsibility.