Silk Screens is a behind the scenes look at the making of a track.
For this edition of Silk Screens, Los Angeles hip hop trio clipping. dissect the track “bout.that” from their recently-released debut album midcity. Looking back I was admittedly a bit naive about just how much these three guys put into their music. Sure, I love the album and listen to it almost constantly, but after reading this dissection I can confidently say that my next look at the album will be done with new eyes… er, ears.
“Bout That” was one of the last songs we finished for midcity, and it came about through experimenting with classic hip hop structures. Specifically, we wanted to make a old school East Coast-style beat, using looped acoustic sources, letting those sounds stand in for hip-hop’s traditional instrumental palette of drums and keys, etc. We were also interested in the way those beats were put together, where the changes happen, how the elements are arranged, and particularly in the old trick where the beat drops out on the 1 of a bar, and comes back in on the 2—we do this in “Bout That” at the top of the second verse. It’s likely we didn’t totally succeed in evoking the atmosphere we were going for, and it sounds unbelievably pretentious to assume we could emulate anything like what DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Large Professor achieved in the 90s, but really, those were our associations when we made the track. I guess you could say, we wanted to know what it might have been like had Primo made a Gang Starr record with François Bayle at GRM.
The main loop you hear in the beginning of the track, which functions in part as our kick drum, was made simply by fumbling around with a microphone in our hands. We mixed it with some 808 drums to give it more punch, more low end.
The microphone we used for most of the sounds in “Bout That” was the SM58 that sits on the desk in our studio which we usually only use as a talkback mic when somebody is upstairs in the vocal booth. But for this track, it seemed appropriate to capture the sounds quickly and in a less-than-ideal recording environment to give them a rougher, more accidental feeling.
The other sound that is present in the beat at the top of the song is a windy-sounding wash of noise. This was made using a 5U modular synthesizer, containing mostly MOTM, Modcan and Dotcom modules. Pink noise runs through a couple of filters, one high pass, one lowpass and then into some light distortion. A sample-and-hold module sends new cutoff values to the filters, so that the character of the noise changes randomly on every bar.
After a four bar intro, two other elements—some clicks and a bell-like sound appear. We use clicks like these in a lot of Clipping beats, usually standing in for hi-hats. The clicks for “Bout That” were synthesized in an old Pluggo instrument Jonathan made years ago. I’m pretty sure Pluggo isn’t even supported in the newest version of Max/MSP, so it must have been something Jonathan built for another project before Clipping.
The bell sound is actually two water glasses clinking together. These specific glasses were stolen from the dining halls where Jonathan and I went to college. This detail isn’t significant to the concept of the track—we just thought they made the best sound— but it is an interesting (or perhaps boring) fact about the glasses.
Part of our ‘snare’ sound is a cassette case opening and closing. We used a hard plastic Norelco case, as opposed to a polybox, or a vinyl clamshell cassette case. We weren’t thinking about it at the time, but it’s easy to hear this as a kind of tribute to that format which was (and remains still) so important to both noise music and hip-hop. What is 90s rap without the boom box, the walkman, and the mixtape? What is 90s noise without home-recording and tape trading? In the isolated loop below, you can hear how compressed the recording is when the noise floor swells up after the case claps shut—it’s part of that roughness we were going for, leaving the sounds a little bit ragged and tattered.
The other element of the snare is a sheet of paper being torn. Contrary to the pictures we staged for this article, I think we were ripping up a Guitar Center catalog.
The beat changes again under the pre-chorus, with the addition of a ‘paper snap’ sound, functioning both as a sort of snare and hi-hat simultaneously. The character of the sound contains two parts that were produced in one quick gesture: crumpling the paper and then snapping it taught.
There’s also a bass line under this part that we created in a digital synth called Zebra.
Under the hook, we made these synth pads that, as they decay, slur into the next chord, so that in between they become this dense, shifting cloud of tones. As with the bass sound, Jonathan also programmed these in Zebra.
The hook contains some pitched-down vocals. This is an effect we try not to use too often. The main reason for this is as follows: it pisses us off that (white) people who make indie, and experimental music often name drop DJ Screw as an influence, even if they clearly don’t listen to any other rap music. It’s as if they think that by slowing down C-BO, Scarface and Lil Kim, Screw turned crass, commercial rap songs into art worthy of high-minded serious music listeners. This is bullshit. Screw didn’t think like that and neither should anybody else. We generally want to distance ourselves from these kinds of ideas.
Moreover, screwed-down vocals are over-used even in mainstream rap nowadays. So I’m not saying Clipping won’t use them—we have used them, obviously, and will likely continue to do so on rare occasions we feel warrant them—but we do have our issues with the process and its connotations. One of the ways we alleviate these issues is by doing the pitch-shifting with an Eventide H3000 harmonizer, which is an amazing, old piece of gear, first released in the late 1980s, and it sounds much better than software.
During the bridge in “Bout That,” we bring in a new sound: a swirling digital additive synth we made in a program called MetaSynth. In MetaSynth, you draw on a coordinate plane, where y is the pitch and x is time, and the program generates a sound based on the drawing. You can load pictures into it and they’ll reappear if you listen to the sound through a spectrograph. (Check out Aphex Twin’s “[Equation]” track from the Windowlicker EP and you can see that he used MetaSynth to synthesize an image of his own face). Without getting too much into it, this is another reference to classic musique concrète and computer music, relating specifically to Iannis Xenakis’s UPIC program. We like that when it shows up in the track, it’s as if it has come from an entirely different sound-world that doesn’t fit with the acoustic elements in the beat, but, for us, still comes from the same inter-textual reference point. Over the top of the MetaSynth sound, we mixed in the sound of screws rolling around in a wooden box that we recorded using a contact microphone.
When the beat was finished, it occurred to us that some scratching might be appropriate, considering that we were thinking of “Bout That” as our ‘old-school’ track. We’d been looking for a reason to collaborate with our friend Derrick Estrada, who is a great turntablist (is that still a word?) and producer who performs as Baseck. We went over to his house and brought him a record we wanted him to scratch with. I’m hesitant to say what record it is, because the song has been out for two months now and nobody has recognized the sample yet. It’s by one of my all-time favorite artists. I mean, it should be so obvious to anybody interested in weird music who’s voice Derrick is scratching, but nobody has said anything to me about it. Seriously: free Clipping t-shirt to the first person who correctly identifies the record.
This is what Daveed has to say about the lyrics:
The initial idea for the track was to make something that had that sort of early-mid 90′s east coast rap feel. Big puff coats and chain link fences, etc. But when I heard the first rough cut of the beat it was filled with so many other era appropriate influences that I made the lyrics into a compilation of styles from that era. Rhythmically, I tried to write an ode to the early gangster rap influences of all regions. Thus the hook to me feels very southern—think early UGK—while the verses combine all of the west coast influences that I remember and draw from often (Snoop, E-40, Pac, Freestyle Fellowship, Souls of Mischief), with a lot of the colder east coast imagery of the times (B.I.G., Mobb Deep, M.O.P., BDP, Boot Camp). Lyrically it was about collecting images that you would see in that era driving through skid row, the bottoms, south-side, Anypoorurbanneighborhood, USA and saying “this is for you” and “this is what it’s ’bout.” Then on the third verse after the scratching bridge, we sort of shift into the present in fast forward. I was trying to make it feel like high speed scrubbing through a bunch of images and themes that rap has been appropriating since forever.
It would be shocking if anybody picked up on even a small fraction of these things while listening. I think the hope is just that it feels equal parts nostalgic, and gangster.
It’s hard to not sound pretentious when writing in such detail about our process, but we hope this is mildly interesting to somebody out there. None of this really matters at all, of course. It isn’t necessary to recognize that the snare sound is ripping paper, or that the kick drum was made out of mic handling noise. The materiality of these sounds aren’t conceptually related to the track at all — that’s not the point. They are just the sounds that worked for us, and that we thought sounded good together. And lyrically, none of Daveed’s references are explicit or essential — it should just sound like dope rapping. “Bout That” has no extra-musical concept outside of exactly what you hear. We just hope people are able to enjoy the track for what it is, and how it feels, regardless of all the bullshit that went into making it.
Curated by Ian Stanley.