Anatomy of a hip-hop song: Local producers weigh in on what it takes to make a great track
Es-Nine (aka Carlos Ayala) is the production mastermind behind Prime Element (the trio formerly known as 3 the Hardway). He is a technical guy, in that he can break down the specifics of producing in a way that makes it sounds more like a prolonged game of Jenga, rather than a complex system of bells, whistles and other tricks designed to create audio euphoria.
An engineer at the core, Es-Nine is a hip-hop purist, preferring the boom-bap and the kick of hard drums to the more shallow approach of modern production. For Es-Nine, the hip-hop connection to the track is all about the sample, and that art is perfected only by being an avid crate digger.
Like many producers we've spoken with, Esnine moves off of inspiration. He does not over think the process of making the perfect beat. Rather he uses a tried and true formula of drums, bass line (he refers to the perfect bass line as "warm") and a hip-hop centered sample.
We chopped it up with Es-Nine to get more insight on his middle of the line approach in being the creator and the director, as well as learning about the anatomy of the most poignant hip-hop beat.
Westword: What are the physical components that a beat just can't survive without?
Es-Nine: From a hip-hop stand point, I would have to say some banging ass drums -- from a record of course; a real fresh sample, either from a record, or played, but you gotta sample it and give it that hip-hop feel; and a nice warm bass line, filtered or played, and I suggest both.
Do you prefer the hands on approach of beat making or the overall director's approach in a full production session?
Yeah, I gotta say I do both the hands on approach and director's approach. I just believe it will give the song more weight and cohesiveness if you have your hand in on everything from diggin' for the samples, giving the session musician's direction on what you what played over your samples, to what the MC's content is and how it's said over the track.
How do you keep from making the same song over again?
I try not to over think it or force a song, and I always create music with a feeling, emotion, or mood in mind. I'm also always open to suggestions or new sounds and types of records.
What is the first thing that jumps out at you from a song?
It depends. If I'm listening to some hip-hop, it's the drums! They gotta bang and have the right swing. If I'm diggin' for samples, it's the keys and strings.
When you go in to make a beat, what is the thing you build first?
I don't have a set way of creating a beat, but I do usually start with the sample 'cause that's always a great guide for the feel of a track and how to go about catering it to an MC or concept.
What is it like working with an artist during a production session? How do you balance your vision -- especially if you created the beat -- with that of the artist and still maintain the integrity of the record?
I have had it go both ways "great and completely wack." From my standpoint and the kind of tracks I produce, it's great to work with an artist who has no ego and has a good feel for the producer's style that he is working with and why he's working with him. Unless it's my project, I am here to produce for you, and it's my job to create something that fits your vision or concept and have my style/touch on it Because that's why you came to me.
From Fela Kuti to Dilla to Premier, Dre, No ID, and others, the producer gammut -- especially in hip-hop -- is wide and strong. 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?
They all sampled records and continue to sample records or create their own samples that sound like a record. I can't say it enough: Hip-hop came from the breaks, and it will always have to go to the breaks.
Can you name the top three most eloquently produced albums of any genre?
Wow, that's hard to answer 'cause i have too many to mention, but I'll give it a shot. For me it would have to be: Bob James' One, David Axelrod's Songs Of Experience and Michael Jackson's Thriller.
What are your thoughts on technical responsibility with production?
From a hip-hop standpoint, learn your record history and what key records were sampled, to craft classic hip-hop and also what gear was used to create them. Then really educate yourself on the engineering side of things. Go and take some classes or work with an engineer who has a good ear and feel for hip-hop.