Sep 02

Hip-Hop Production 101: Hip-Hop & R&B Super Producer Tony Dofat Takes Us To School

by in Interviews

Tony Dofat is a world-renowned, Grammy-nominated producer, global DJ, audio engineer, music professor and author of four books about the business of music. He was one of the original hitmen, from the legendary squad of producers inside Bad Boy Records, working alongside Sean “Diddy” Combs and artists like Mary J. Blige.

Also known as the godfather of the remix, Tony is best known for his work on Mary’s “You Remind Me” and the insanely popular rework of that track. He was also nominated for a Grammy for his work with his longtime friend and collaborator Heavy D, on his reggae album, Vibes. He’s also worked with a range of artists including Will Smith, Tina Turner and the Notorious BIG. We caught up with Tony to learn the art of the game and the difference between making music back-in-the-day and now.

This is an edited version of the interview, for the full interview, listen to our podcast below.

Melodics Magazine: So how do you compare your background of learning to read and write music with today’s producers who are just laying everything down on computers?

Tony Dofat: Reading and writing music is definitely helpful because it helps you understand and speak the language and speak to fellow musicians or someone else who’s musically inclined. It’s great to have the terminology and understand how to count measures and what an E or A scale is.

Now I’m teaching students the essentials and why it’s important to learn and understand theory. You don’t have to become an educator or have a Master’s in music to make records, but you have to learn the fundamentals.

tony-dofat-masterclass
From the personal collection of Tony Dofat.

MM: If I walked into your classroom today what would be one of the first things I’d learn?

TD: Before you start making songs you have to understand what genre you’re working in, so I teach music genre and what makes genres different. Like the differences in why this is called funk and why this is called disco and why this is jazz. This knowledge will help you determine the type of artist you want to be.

Then I explain how one genre led to another—how funk birthed hip-hop and then how that turned into the remix. Then we talk about the timing of each genre.

Some students think theory is boring, but I try to keep it interesting and choose songs that are relevant—that everyone is listening to—and I point out different beats and rhythms of structure. I teach them the difference between a beat and a rhythm. A lot of people don’t know the difference. These are the essential things that a producer really needs to understand and that will help your career drastically.

MM: At the time you came up, early hip-hop music production used live studio bands, right?

TD: From my era, growing up, everything was live. Everything was acoustic. There were no drum machines. There were no computers. We didn’t even have internet. So it was all acoustic and analog music— the most they had was maybe a four-track and an eight-track and you would have to get the performance just right.

So, there were a lot of mistakes but those mistakes are what make the songs what they are and what made people like the songs. That’s one of the things that I really love about older music—you had one shot to get it right. That’s the same method I applied to my records when I first started. When you listen to all of Mary’s early records there were mistakes in every song and even vocally and we just let it go out and people loved it.

MM: What kind of tools did you use back then?

TD: Just one keyboard and one drum machine. The Korg M1 was a standard, the Triton, the Roland D 550 or the D 50 and the Akai MPC 60 or the MPC62. And then there’s an MPC3000, or the MPC2000 or MPC2000XL and the E-MU SP1200. I’ve owned all of those machines, but right now I just own two MPC2000XLs. I don’t use them, but If a client asks for that particular sound, I still have my sound cards built on those ready to go.

MM: What’s the importance of samples in hip-hop production?

TD: A lot of people used to get on us about sampling, but hip-hop is based on sampling. Hip-hop is based on the DJ playing someone else’s records. If we didn’t play it then it would just be funk. We make it hip hop because we take the best parts of the song—the break—to make people act the fool. We take that and we loop it.

MM: What are you looking for in a sample when you remix a song like Mary J. Blige’s, “You Remind Me?”

TD: Great musicians who made funk only had a little break that was maybe a minute-and-a-half. With the creativity of hip-hop, we turned that one little break into another full song. Our little secret back in the 90s for finding the right songs was to look at people’s reactions when you play music. If they’re not acting crazy then you’re not doing a good job.

It’s all based on two-and-four bar loops and just keep looping it back. Once you have that skeleton it’s gonna be hot and everyone will love it. If you just keep adding elements that don’t fit, you’re gonna mess it up and end up overproducing. That’s why the biggest hit records are the ones that are simple and contain the least amount of instrumentation.

From the personal collection of Tony Dofat
From the personal collection of Tony Dofat

MM: Has your sound changed over the years?

TD: My ear is the same. I can use today’s technology, but I won’t let it hurt my sound. It’s hard for people starting out today because they have no knowledge of the past. They haven’t developed a sound yet-they have a sound that’s given to them. In my era, we had to make our sound. In my masterclasses, I teach students how to develop their own sound kits and not rely on downloaded sound kits.

As a producer, your sound is your identity. If you have the same sound kit as everyone in the room then you’re not differentiating yourself. I sculpted my own sounds. Yeah, I sampled but that process is different. A lot of new producers are talented, but they can reach higher if they just stop being lazy.

MM: Overall, how has production changed over the years, like triplets are big now?

TD: I think music has been the same for the past 10 years. The only thing that changed are songs and artists. I think if a producer today played a track from 10 years ago it would still sell. The tracks are pretty similar and the sound has been recycled from 10 years ago. Possibly the only things that change are a pattern, but the triplet high hats have been going on for six or seven years.

We didn’t really use a lot of 808s or low frequencies like 50 or 60 Hz, but today a lot more of that is being used. They use a different layering, but it’s still pretty much the same style.

MM: You’re also a sound engineer. Is that an important skill for a producer to learn?

TD: It’s very beneficial for a producer to learn frequencies, learn dynamic processing, and learn everything about the tonality of a sound because it’ll make your job a lot easier when you’re sculpting and creating sounds. I learned just from working with some of the greatest engineers, but they couldn’t give me the sound that I was still looking for.

I was looking for a specific sound, so I had to learn software from all of the consoles and I had to learn every button on the console to operate it myself.

MM: I want you to solve a debate for us—MPC vs. MIDI keyboard with drum pads.

TD: There are some differences because with MIDI there is a delay, it’s minimal but there is latency. The feel of the pad is also different and having everything self-contained in the MPC is a lot easier. You can just click on a pad and develop a tune in just a matter of seconds and you don’t have to learn all of these VST plugins. You can edit it, and truncate the beginning and the decay at the end. You can do all of that instantly and add filters and just program your beat right in the machine as opposed to using your controller and your software.

Essentially it does the same thing and software like Ableton does make it easier because you can automatically cut your loops and sounds. But would you rather rely on a computer to do it or would you want to do it by ear? That’s the difference because every producer has their own style of truncating sounds.

Aug 19

Patterns of Rhythm: Trapetón (Latin Trap)

by in Music

If you’ve ever bobbed your head or wiggled your hips to the remix of Post Malone’s “Rockstar featuring Ozuna or Farruko’s “Krippy Krush (Remix)” featuring Nicki Minaj, 21 Savage and Travis Scott, then you, my dear friend, have been hit by Trapeton (aka Latin Trap aka Trap en Español) fever. This latest international pop music craze—blending elements of Reggaeton, hip-hop and even its kissing cousin, Afrobeat—is blowing up all over streaming, especially YouTube and Spotify.

At its core, Latin Trap, as it’s most widely known in English-speaking countries, is what happens when you fuse Reggaetón with Trap music. On one side of the equation you have Reggaetón, a blend of Caribbean dancehall, Latin rhythms and hip-hop, while on the other end you have Trap music, a form of hip-hop that originated in the American Southern states  as a sound that combines brass, triangle, loud kicks, snappy snares, low-end 808 bass samples, and most notably—aggressive triplet hi-hats. With the two genres combined and paired with a bravado-fueled artist singing and/or rapping in Spanish over the sparse beat, you have an infectious melody.

The artist most closely linked with Latin Trap’s blazing success is Puerto-Rican born Bad Bunny, who has a rhythmic cadence and low, slow slurring vocals that put him in a class with the Migos and Future from Atlanta. Hailed as the King of Latin Trap, he’s steadily been one of Youtube’s Top 10 Most Viewed artists and has done major collabs with chart-topping pop acts like Cardi B, Drake, Will Smith, Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. His artistry has a dual nature, where he’s boasting on one track and then goes all emo on the next, he’s also as comfortable flowing over a trap beat as he is traditional Reggaeton. Considering Latin Trap has its roots in Reggaeton, his ability to ride both rhythms makes perfect sense.

What is Reggaetón?

Latin Trap is often viewed as the resurgence of Reggaetón, though the two styles are somewhat distinct. Today’s Reggaeton sounds like DJ Snake’s banger “Taki Taki” featuring Cardi B, Ozuna and Selena Gomez, as well as Justin Bieber on “Despacito” with Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, or J Balvin and Willy William’s “Mi Gente,” featuring Beyonce—a little bit pop and a little bit Moombahton, a mix of house music and reggaeton, and a little bit dembow. Dembow is a riddim built from dancehall artist Shabba Rank’s 1990 hit song, “Dem Bow,” produced by reggae and dancehall producer, Bobby Digital, who earned his name for being one of the first in his genre to experiment with digital rhythms. A riddim is Jamaican for the rhythm that accompanies a track and is stripped of its original vocals so that it can be used by other artists.

The dembow riddim, with its pulsating drum machine sounds, became the backbone of the Reggaeton sound. Reggaeton is said to have formulated in the early 90s in San Juan, Puerto Rico when DJ Playero put out mixtapes featuring Spanish freestyle raps over hip-hop and reggae fusions. At the time, Reggaeton was mainly underground because its themes were too aggressive or vulgar for radio play. There was also the musical collective, The Noise, consisting of a band of rappers, DJs and producers, including DJ Nelson, DJ Negro and Ivy Queen who were doing their part to bring Reggaeton out of the streets of San Juan and onto the mainstage.

But the most widely known Reggaeton artist, who is also known as the King of Reggaeton today is Daddy Yankee, who got his start on one of DJ Playero’s mixtapes that were recorded in a small studio back in 1991. Daddy Yankee would later go on to craft an explosive international Reggaeton hit in 2004 called “Gasolina,” featuring a catchy chorus and the dembow banging beat, that was said to definitively put the genre on the international music map.

In the 90s, there was another branch of Reggaeton emerging from Panama, led by El General, whose 1988 release of “Estas Buena,” a Spanish-language cover of Shabba Rank’s “Dem Bow,” sounded just like it came out of the Jamaican dancehall. El General found success with another track, “Tu Pun Pun,” that received American airplay, riding on the wave of the dancehall popularity of the time. He also experienced some cross-over love when he was featured on a pop music hit with C&C Music Factory. Some music critics call El General the father of Reggaeton, but others argue that his music was more Reggae en Español, because it was just Spanish-language Reggae, while Reggaetón has more of a kinship with hip-hop. This is one of the main reasons that Latin Trap is said to have its roots in Reggaetón music, especially since many Latin Trap artists ride the fence of both genres—hip-hop and reggae.

The early-to-mid aughts also gave birth to a Reggaeton movement within New York City, with rapper Noreaga’s release of “Oye Mi Canto,” in 2004 featuring reggaeton artists Gem Star, Daddy Yankee and Big Mato, as well as New-York based sister-twin duo Nina Sky. Nore and Nina Sky, with their Puerto Rican roots, fused the music of their native land with the hip-hop they grew up within NYC.

What is Trap?

Trap music originated in Atlanta in the early aughts. With this musical style, it’s like, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Some wonder whether the genre rose from its lyrical content or from its musical style—rapid-fire hi-hats and pared-down drum patterns programmed on the Roland 808, with pitchy resampled funk or hip-hop samples. Rapper T.I. claims to have coined the term when he released his seminal hip-hop album Trap Muzik, with trap being a reference for a place where drugs are sold and the content of the album centering around that lifestyle.

Other music critics suggest that trap music is really all about the sound, which can be credited to producer Lex Luger, who started out making beats on Fruity Loops featuring hard-hitting 808 kicks, spooky synthesizers and crisp snare drums creating a boombastic orchestral blast. His sound cemented its place in hip-hop with Atlanta-based rapper Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard in da Paint,” single off the album of the same name released in 2010. Around the same time, producer Shawty Redd was also in Atlanta creating dope-boy music with Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, also signaling the birth of trap, as these productions featured a multilayered, drum-laden style while the rappers’ lyrical content focused on life in the drug game.

Today’s Trap music has elevated itself to pop music status, with artists like Migos, Future and 2 Chainz crossing over into the mainstream, yet continuing the tradition of trap music from both a content and musical perspective.

What is Latin Trap (Trapeton)?

The worlds in which Latin Trap and American Trap converge is most notably when artists collab, but it’s also in the way the Roland 808 drum patterns sound, along with how the vocals flow in triplets, where you have three notes—either in a word or phrase—cascading over one beat. The triplet flow is also known as the Migos flow, the Versace flow, and the infamous mumble rap. But where mumble rappers and Trapeton artists diverge is where songs are sung either in all Spanish or bilingual style and the rhythm contains Latin flavor and elements of the dembow riddim most closely tied back to Reggaeton.

Latin Trap came about as the convergence of Spanish-language remixes of trap club bangers and Reggaeton artists gravitating toward a more hip-hop influenced sound. Besides Bad Bunny,  artists like Ozuna, Farruko, Messiah and De La Ghetto are leading Latin Trap’s assault on the mainstream.

In this track “La Ocasión,” featuring Latin Trap and Reggaeton all-stars De La Ghetto, Arcangel, Ozuna, Anuel Aa, Dj Luian, Mambo Kingz, you can hear the influence of Trap—the staccato triplet rhyme flow, the punchy vocal ad-libs, the lo-fi bass, the crazy skittering hihats and the snappy snares—in an ominous orchestration.

Usually, a wave of music lasts about a good decade. Latin Trap is now just a little bit over 10, but hip-hop has lived long past 30. If the current focus on Latin-inspired music on the global stage is any indication of the genre’s long-lasting success, then Latin Trap just may go on to live as long as its hip-hop brother.