When drummers become somebody that everyone knows the name of, it tends to be because of one dominant aspect of their playing style that is so in your face you just can’t miss it. Keith Moon played in such a maniacal way that entire songs were often one big fill that never ended. Meg White has power that makes a two piece sound gigantic somehow. There’s always a thing.
James Gadson doesn’t really have one ‘thing’ like those guys above. Yet he’s played on more hits than them and any other drummer you can name combined.
Gadson’s drumming style is both the reason why he may not be a household name and the reason he has likely been played in your household regularly for six decades. His approach is grounded in groove, restraint and a pure focus on making the song the best it can possibly be rather than making his part of it the most impressive it can be.
A key aspect of Gadson’s style is his use of groove, a nebulous idea of playing certain beats in a pattern very slightly off of the quantised beat. He’s able to drift in front and behind the beat in a way that makes it sound more natural– and in turn more fun to move to. It’s a subtle way to bring a song to life, and an idea that would eventually be adopted by groundbreaking artists like J Dilla and Flying Lotus.
“I can’t make you move if I’m not in control of what I’m doing,” Gadson tells Melodics. “I have to figure out how to make it human.”
In Bill Withers’ Use Me (above), Gadson’s kick drum is unwavering while his hi-hats and rimclicks are often fractionally behind or ahead of the beat.
In Grandma’s Hands, he dances around the beat constantly, giving the song a bounce that alters every other aspect of it. Not bad considering it would later be the key sample and inspiration for the greatest song ever written (see below).
Withers wrote some of the most depressing lyrics of the ‘60s but was still a gigantic popstar known for his catchy tunes. It’s all because of the groove,mannnnn.
Gadson might focus on subtlety over flashiness, but make no mistake – he has chops. He just uses them to make a song the best it can be, something which sets him apart from his peers during a period of excess in music.
To achieve longevity and consistently be the driving force behind artists from every era to achieve both pop stardom and critical acclaim, you must choose your spots with musicality in mind. With Dyke & the Blazers, we hear some of Gadson’s busiest ‘look at me’ drumming (see video below). There are the Keith Moon-like long fills and rapid-fire ghost notes but they are always the bookend to periods of minimal groove rather than the main course.
Gadson doesn’t even use his snare drum for the first quarter of Marvin Gaye’s classic I Want You (below). Instead, he adds aspects to his drum pattern only as the song builds momentum. He also adds subtle fills to help the transition between vocal phrases, while his hi-hat accents emphasise Gaye’s embellishments.
This approach to drumming and music in general as a holistic experience is what makes his style and the records he has been involved with so timeless. The influence of it can be heard everywhere from hip-hop, to jazz and even post-punk.
As Gadson himself says: “It’s not magic like a lot of people think it is. You can learn that.”
It’s attainable, based on shared experience and community. It’s also relevant in a time where groove is at the forefront of a lot of music once again and the perfect starting point for anyone learning the drums in 2020.
Has this inspired you? Check out the Melodics E-Drums course Gadson Groove creative in collaboration with James Gadson:
– Already have a Melodics account – click here
– New to Melodics? Click here to download the app first.
Hi there! I’m Spinscott, and I am a lifelong drummer, DJ, and music fanatic that has been obsessed with Jungle & Drum n Bass (DnB) music for over 20 years. During this time, I’ve always thought of DnB as a “Producers Genre”. What I mean by this phrase is that while every style of music involves levels of creativity and updates/changes to the sound, DnB just seems to evolve and push limits at an accelerated rate. In my opinion, it would be challenging to identify another genre of music that has more sub-genres, sub-sub-genres, spinoffs, clones, and variations to its sound while simultaneously retaining a listener base for just about all of its prior forms. Even with the common appearance of elements such as classic breaks like Amens (nod to my favorite genre, JUNGLE!), Think, Apache, bass (808, Reese, reverse, etc), and wonderfully recycled pads & vocal clips…, there is always an inherent drive to push limits and experiment with new applications of rhythm and sound.
In addition to the music itself, many forms of DnB are about creating and manipulating energy for the listeners and people’s moves on the dance floor. Relying on much more than just a “drop”, many producers strive to maintain a flow of energy and impact at the track level, and throughout an entire set or performance. Certainly these elements exist in other DJ related music genres, but they are quite prominent in DnB. As a “producer’s genre”, there is often a competitive and perfectionist nature that comes with making the music, with intense focus on not just the finished product, but on precision of rhythms, varying dominance in the mix, high sound quality and fidelity (sometimes lo-fi is preferred of course!), and endless new ways of using samples and new or classic effects.
While there are countless rhythms utilized in the production of DnB , with new ones evolving and emerging constantly, there are certain primary rhythms that lay a foundation for the genre as a whole. To be clear, I’m speaking of the rhythms themselves, not the sounds, because in production there is an unlimited array of drum sounds that can be substituted or layered into the same rhythms. Bringing things back to a fundamental level, I’ve broken down three essential rhythm variations into steps that will enable people to play them live as real-time performances, while learning how to differentiate between the beats. The nature of these beats originates from the methodology of splitting up a break phrase and using various start points, as has traditionally been done using sequences or partial sequences. As a drummer, I’ve always programmed the sampler using single notes, or “one shots”, and play them like one would play bongos or other hand drums. This enables real-time variations and freestyling that breaks the boundaries of using pre-defined sequences of notes.
The DnB Quads course that I have created with Melodics, focuses on three rhythms (or beats) containing Kick+Snare+Hat+Bass sounds. These beats likely have a variety of names in the industry, but I have always referred to them as “The Forward“, “The Step Back“, and “The Stomper“, so those are the names I’ve chosen to accompany the DnB Quads lessons.
Utilizing 16 pads on the standard sampler/drum machine layout split into four quadrants, the beats are played sequentially through each quadrant, with bar one in Quad 1, bar two in Quad 2, and so forth, repeating the cycle. One of the reasons I constructed the lessons in this manner is so that the player can concentrate on the rhythm, while the base notes change during each run.
Unless you’re the type of crate digger that actually reads the back of records, or like me had a subscription to Modern Drummer magazine during your teens, you might not know the name James Gadson. But you will definitely know his music.
That’s because Gadson has been making people move since the ‘60s as a drummer on upwards of 300 gold records. He’s played for everyone from Bill Withers to Paul McCartney to Herbie Hancock to Roy Ayers to freakin’ Jimmy Barnes (!). He also played on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and on a rare Pharoah Sanders album where every song is surprisingly less than ten minutes long. The number, variety and importance of the releases Gadson has been involved in is just staggering.
Gadson’s path to becoming one of the most vital session drummers in the history of pop music is a serendipitous one rather than a master plan. Born and raised in Kansas City, despite his musician father’s hopes that he wouldn’t follow in his footsteps, Gadson’s first involvement in music was forming doo wop band The Carpets with his brother. As lead singer and songwriter, Gadson’s first focus in music was on songcraft holistically, an ethos which would go on to influence his drumming in later years.
After releasing a few songs and auditioning for some key RnB labels, The Carpets’ success was ultimately stifled by their location (not LA), so Gadson up and left for a stint in the Air Force. When he returned to Kansas, he started playing the drums purely out of necessity, joining his brother’s jazz band as the drummer simply because it was the only position available.
Despite never before playing behind a kit, and playing left handed on a right handed setup, it all came pretty naturally. “I didn’t have any knowledge of left handed guys moving stuff over,” he tells Melodics. “So I’d just sit down and play it the way it was and learn.”
Gadson saw himself merely as “a jazz guy” when he eventually made the move to LA in 1966, but his thirst to play would land him drumming behind RnB guitarist Charles Wright. It was somewhat of a challenge considering he didn’t even know how to play RnB, or how to stay locked in a groove rhythmically and, at first, it didn’t go well. “He fired me 5 times!” Gadson remembers. His response was to simply keep at it. “You got to practice basics, 1 2 3 4, timing, so you can be in control of it.”
Mastering timing with intent on playing around with it, rather than just presenting it like a metronome, would define his playing style and not coincidentally a lot of pop music from then on.
Wright Sounds became the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band and one of the most in demand funk/soul bands in LA during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Many years later, the band would be sampled by artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Mos Def, N.W.A. and Madlib. From here Gadson became Bill Withers’ drummer during his most commercially successful period and performed the title track on Marvin Gaye’s 1976 album I Want You, my favourite Marvin track and low-key a proto-house track when you look at it from a certain point of view.
The ‘70s and ‘80s were a lock for Gadson, when any genre with the dancefloor or groove in mind found him. There was disco with Diana Ross, boogie with Cheryl Lynn and slow jams with Patrice Rushen. He’s stayed busy in these genres while never being restricted to them. He played on a bunch of Beck albums (even the sad one), a Jaime Liddell album and also produced a UB40 album, which is pretty buzzy.
In the 21st century he has been tapped for albums by shiny pop stars like Justin Timberlake (FutureLoveSexSounds) and Lana Del Rey (Paradise / Born To Die), while collaborating with more classic RnB leaning artists like D’Angelo.
The story of Gadson’s involvement in D’Angelo’s Sugah Daddy is a kind of metaphor for his career and playing style. Unaware he was being recorded, Gadson was drumming and clapping with his hands on his knees – a habit that many drummers have without realising. D’Angelo immediately asked to use the recording of these clapping sounds and they became the basis for a highlight on an album we’d been waiting 15 years for from soul and RnB’s most important figure since Marvin Gaye himself. “I just started playing something… whatever I did, I don’t know what I did… (D’Angelo asked) ‘Mr Gadson, can I use that?’”
James Gadson is not bothered with what he plays, how he plays it or the level of recognition he gets for it. His discography is proof that all he really wants is to make people move and have fun.
“Hybrid Drumming is basically using half an acoustic drum kit and half electronic drums at the same time.” explains drummer Ben Barter. A Los Angeles-based New Zealander, Barter is the tour drummer for Lorde and has performed with acts such as Broods, Jarryd James, Passion Pit, and Katelyn Tarver. He’s also worked as a session drummer, most notably with producers Tommy English and Joel Little (a Grammy Award winner), playing on songs by artists including K.flay and Kacey Musgraves in the process. Recently, Barter created a set of virtual lessons for Melodics based around the “Hybrid Drumming” concept, an approach which is fast becoming the norm.
“You can put triggers onto your acoustic drums so that when you hit them, they trigger an electronic sample,” Barter continues. “The idea is to make the live drums stay true to the original production of the record, especially if it’s a more programmed song with sample elements and drum machine parts. Then the acoustic drums add the excitement and punch under the electronic elements.” Given how common a heavily produced recording sound has become within contemporary pop, R&B, dance, and rap, and the ravenous audience demand for live performances by artists from within these genres, Barter’s approach makes a lot of sense. However, it’s not without its rigours.
“Some of the challenges are playing parts that aren’t written for a traditional drummer to play,” he explains. It can be a bit of a mind-bender working then out. The other big one is the technical side to having a bunch of electronic pads that are triggered by vibrations. They can often misfire, causing all sorts of chaos. I have to make lots of little adjustments to the settings to stop that from happening.”
The virtual drums course Barter created for Melodics is divided into six lessons. On a collective level, they are designed to teach you how samples can be incorporated into a Hybrid Drumming setup, before continuing to develop your hand independence as a drummer, and teaching you how to find creative solutions to shifting samples from their traditional positions. Helpfully, Barter has provided a few notes for us each of the lessons.
Drumline: I was looking at locking in with a complex backing track, so playing a simple beat with a few off notes over the top of a drumline style beat on the track. Getting your stuff locked in with everything else going on is vital to making the whole show sound tight and punchy. It’s easy to be in your own world during a show thinking you sound great, but when there is other percussion on backing tracks, you’ll sometimes need to adjust your feel to match what else is going on.
Rollers: This one is about helping your kick foot really lock in with your hi-hat rhythm. It’s about playing quicker straight 16ths on the hi-hat, with a slightly complex locked pattern underneath. We also practice switching back and forth with a slower section to help you make those transitions smoothly. Practising the switch between fast to slow parts is important as it’s easy to get carried away in the energy of a big part, but you need to be able to control that quickly so that energy doesn’t run over into a quieter chill part if need be.
Discuss: I was looking at playing a faster 16th note hi-hat in a disco type rhythm, then a section with an open/closed hi-hat pattern. I find that when I play live, it can be handy in bringing extra energy to a chorus, etc. Playing hh patterns which open and close in electronic music can have a human touch which is nice but sometimes you need them to be really tight and consistent. So working out how much to open the hats is vital, you often don’t need to open them a lot for a tight, controlled hi-hat pattern.
Left Over: Here, we’re playing extra rhythm parts with your left hand. I always have a bunch of samples to my left, which I’ll play as I’m holding down the main pattern with my right hand and the kick drum. This is basically just independence; being able to separate your limbs to do different parts is a key to hybrid drumming. Being able to cover more parts and take elements of the tracks will make you a valuable asset for artists.
Diving Bells: This is a slow, simple beat. You really have to listen to the rest of the track to properly sit back and get it feeling nice. There are also some basic offbeat elements, which need to fit in smoothly with the slower tempo. Everyone has got a different feel, it’s really the beauty of summers, but often you need to be able to match what’s on the record. Playing along to different genres of music helps this a lot. And really listening to where top drummers place their notes has helped me a lot, being able to play the simplest beat and make it feel really good to me is one of the most important but underrated attributes a drummer can have.
Poppin’: Poppin’ is a kick pattern I find myself using on about 30% of the songs I play. It can be tricky to get it sounding smooth. It can often sound quite robotic, so it needs a very slight swing. In the lesson, you learn to play it over two different hi-hat patterns, which will help you with independence and tightness. Try experimenting placing the off note beat before the snare just slightly before and after the beat. You can get a feel of what suits the song and can get a little bounce going which people will respond to. I think one of my main roles as a drummer is to get the crowd moving; it’s amazing how easy a well-executed simple beat can do this.
Alongside developing our Hybrid Drumming course, Barter has been working with Germany electronic drum company Gewa to develop a new drum kit and module called the G9. He’s also been recording an EP of kooky disco songs inspired by ORM and Patrick Cowley under the alias BB Normal.
Rachel K Collier is a vocalist, electronic music producer and performer from Swansea in Wales. Coming from a background working in songwriting as a topliner (writing vocal parts over instrumentation), she is a die-hard Ableton enthusiast who loves finding fresh ways to perform her original tracks in a live setting. Whether performing solo or with live percussionists and interactive visuals, Rachel’s expressive, high energy performances are rooted in a multi-instrument based technical setup while allows her to bring the studio to the stage.
At the end of October, Rachel released her debut album RKC, and has just had her first Melodics lesson set ‘And I Breathe’ released on keys, drums and pads. On Tuesday 19 November, she’s playing a special headline show at The Grace in London. You can purchase tickets over on her website here.
Melodics: Is live performance the most important part of music for you?
Rachel K Collier: I’d say I’m 50/50 between producer and live performer. I feel like as an electronic performer, you’re either recreating parts you wrote in the studio in a live setting or stem DJing them. I feel like since you spend so much time in the studio crafting those parts, the most rewarding way to play it live is to actually play them live, rather than just having a band play those parts, or having everything set up as tracks. When you play live, you really get to show off your studio productions in the best way, and it’s kind of like taking the studio to the stage, but obviously with some compromises.
Melodics:Do you enjoy how recreating your songs live can add an element of danger to the performance?
RKC: 100%. There is room for human error, things are going to go wrong, and you have freedom. You can have big breakdown sections and be doing all these live effects, live manipulations, and it’s different every single time.
Melodics: How important is improvisation to you?
RKC: My productions actually start from improvisation, and when I perform without any pre-made stems or clips, which I do, I’ll just be starting there with eight empty channels. I’m basically creating a whole track from scratch, and there is something so liberating and amazing about that. I get to record myself playing percussion, vocal loops, key loops, trigger them, and I can change them up into any shape or form that I want to.
Melodics: It’s very rewarding when you get into a flow with this sort of thing, isn’t it?
RKC: Exactly. You get into a flow, and you might just do one extra note on a loop, but it’s really sick, so you decide to do it again next time. I feel like it is really important to leave a bit of it up to chance. I’m the type of person who gets bored really quickly. With this live set-up, I can constantly evolve things, which means it never gets boring.
Melodics: Would you like to tell us anything about your debut album, RKC?
RKC: When I was in the topliner world, I got very bored of writing generic pop lyrics, so every song on the record is a personal experience for me. If you’re a songwriter and you want to produce your own music, you should just go for it. Even if it takes time, you can do it, because I did it. I hope everyone enjoys it and gives it a chance because all the tracks are quite different.
Melodics: Could you talk about your live performance set-up?
RKC: I have two live set-ups. One where I’m alone, and I create everything from scratch, and one with percussionists and visuals. I use two little Yamaha Refaces. I’ve got the Arturia MiniBrute, Ableton Push 2, two additional midi controllers, a DJ TechTools Midi Fighter, an Akai LPD8. So I have three midi controllers and several synths. When I add my percussionists to my show, I have a KingKord synth on stage as well. Everything runs through Ableton on my laptop.
Melodics: How much time do you spend practising your live show?
RKC: I practice a lot. When you are practising for a technology-based set, as well as actually singing or playing, getting the notes right, there are always little tech amendments you need to be doing. I’ll do a little vocal warm-up, then I’ll try to do my set, but instead of programming and rehearsing at the same time, I’ll make notes about the programming changes, before having a break, and then practising again, but the next practice session will be a programming session. I separate out the technology rehearsals and the actual physical performance rehearsals. Sometimes I play Tetris in-between sessions because when you concentrate that hard, you need to take breaks. I can’t really have anything else going on that day. I have to devote days to practice. If I have to make a video or finish producing a track, I can’t practice as well.
Melodics: What can you tell us about your Melodics lesson ‘And I Breathe’?
RKC: It isn’t really a typical song type of thing; actually, it’s really odd. I’ll never forget how happy writing it made me feel because it represents a turning point where I realised I was becoming a really good producer. When we play it live, no matter the show, it’s always my favourite. There is a big synth solo at the end, a big percussion solo, and the song is about when everything gets too much, and the world feels crazy. It’s about the feeling of release you can get from music.
Melodics: How do you feel about having your song converted into a lesson people can play?
RKC: I think it’s really cool. Melodics can really enhance your production. It’s about more than just playing in time. Learning those grooves, chords and keys, that’s the type of stuff that can actually inspire you when you are creating music. It’s a lesson for you to get tighter at your finger drumming, and you can use that when you perform live, but for me, Melodics inspires me to create with different grooves. I like to go on Melodics for fifteen minutes before I start producing because it just warms me up and really gets me into the groove. Instead of just looking at the plug-ins on a song in a production tutorial, you can actually have a go at playing those rhythms. I think it is amazing and I am looking forward to sharing my lesson with everyone.
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.
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.
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.
K.Flay (née Khristine Meredith Flaherty) is a singer, songwriter, rapper, multi-instrumentalist, and producer who got her start making music in her dorm room at Stanford University. Fed up with the misogyny in rap, she grabbed a mic, laid down some tracks on her computer and dropped the (now extremely hard to get your hands on) mixtape Suburban Rap Queen. Four mixtapes, two EPS, two full-length albums, and two Grammy noms later, she’s back with her third full-length release, Solutions, fusing pop, rock, hip-hop and electronic sounds.
“I’ve mostly created in my parents’ basement,” says the 33-year-old K.Flay about her preference of making music in unpretentious environments, like the modest subterranean floor of her parents’ Brooklyn and then Bay Area homes—also her obvious comfort zone. “It’s definitely not a professional environment in any way, (but), I wrote, recorded and produced everything down there.”
It’s no coincidence that, when working on her latest effort, Solutions, released by Night Street/Interscope Records on July 12, K.Flay made sure her recording spaces, albeit not her beloved basement, were appropriately comfy. She recorded part of it in Nashville, at a studio a friend built on his countryside property and the rest in Los Angeles, at producer Tommy English’s back house/studio.
“These studios are embedded in home environments, where there is a lack of pretentiousness,” says the Illinois native. “Everyone is different and everyone wants different things out of their creative environment. For me, what I aim to do is figure out how I can approximate the safety of my parents’ basement but add the creativeness and expertise of talented producers.”
From the sounds of Solutions, and the accolades it has received from music critics, it appears K.Flay’s modus operandi has worked. She “starts her third studio CD with the wonderfully autobiographical statement song “I Like Myself (Most of the Time)” and ends with a wistful tune about her father, “DNA,” wrote the Chicago Tribune. “In between, we get to celebrate all the gloriously different sides of an artist who resists getting boxed up in one genre,” writes The Guardian. The first single off her latest release, “Bad Vibes,” backed by a pop-rock, hip-hop sound, is a song about learning to let go of the negative things in your life.
Melodics Magazine caught up with K. Flay, right before she headed off on her “The Solutions Tour,” to learn about her journey to making her newest album. We dug into her artistic process, how necessity drove her to make her own beats and why she values collaboration. She also talks about what fans can expect from her soon-to-be-released microcast.
Melodics Magazine:You kind of stumbled upon music. For our readers that don’t know, how did you begin your career?
K. Flay: Initially, it was sort of, goofing off. By the time I got to college, I was listening to stuff like the Beach Boys, the Talking Heads, the Beatles, that kind of stuff. And then, whatever was on the radio. But, I hadn’t consumed independent music, and then I was confronted with all of that. I was like, this is f**** up. I’m 18, 19-years-old, and I think I know everything. I got into an argument with someone at my dorm and was like, “Why is this on the radio? I could write something like this.” And his response was: you’ve never even written a song.
MM: How’d that first songwriting session turn out?
KF: I’ve always enjoyed crossword puzzles. Songwriting, in many ways, is kind of like word puzzles–there was something about that process that clicked with me right away.
MM: At what point did you become emotionally invested in music?
KF: I think it was my junior year of college. The agenda started to become, “Oh, this isn’t just a song, there is an element of self-discovery that I am getting in touch with.” And, that felt very exciting for me.
MM: You are a singer and a songwriter, but you are also a producer. How did you learn to make beats?
KF: At the beginning, I was self-contained. I produced, made my beats, sang, all out of necessity. I didn’t know people who could do it for me and, necessity is always a great instigator. All of my production stuff was self-taught, from watching YouTube tutorials and then meeting people on campus, where there was a very small recording studio for the engineering program there.
A good friend in college was in that program and he was the first person to show me Pro Tools. I learned what I know through trial and error. Sometimes, I watch sessions by trained engineers and they absolutely shred it. I’m not quite as good, but, I have a pretty good system.
MM: Three albums later, has your process for creating music changed at all?
KF: For me, the shift was really in the last two records, and it was finding producers that I could really become creative partners with. When I was producing my own stuff… there were elements of that process that I enjoyed. But it wasn’t the primary thing I enjoyed about making music.
MM: How does the collaborative process usually work for you?
KF: In the last record, every song was recorded in an apartment or a house. I think there is something to that. Everyone is different, everyone wants different things out of their creative environment. For me, what I aim to do is figure out how I can approximate the safety of my parents’ basement but add the creativeness and expertise of talented producers. I was initially hesitant to collaborate in a certain way. My thought was, I do my own stuff, I am a one-woman entity. But, I think, collaboration is incredibly powerful and, good things can happen.
MM: Would you collaborate behind-the-scenes with other artists?
KF: I’m starting to see in my creative life, that I can do more writing with other artists on their records. I’m starting to understand my role, not just as an artist, but how I can be part of the support staff. And, I love it, honestly. I’ve been enjoying it so much. When it’s done, and when you do it well, it is really just about making space for somebody to be unabashedly honest and creative.
MM: There aren’t many female producers, especially not in hip-hop. Do you consider yourself a role model?
KF: What’s interesting is I haven’t worked with many female producers. I do understand there is an element of my experience and what I do that, for young women, especially young women starting in music, that can be slightly role-model-ish. I do see the importance in that as far as looking out into the world and looking for representation.
MM: How did you find your sound for Solutions?
KF: The initial inspiration point was LCD Soundsystem’s record This is Happening. It felt like very excellent lyricism along with those kind of drum machine sounds. That felt compelling to me. I certainly do not think Solutions is anything like that record. But spiritually, that was the first thing – the first song on the record, the synthesizer, that was an LCD-inspired synth. And, there is more synthesizer presence on this album.
MM: What else inspired you on this album?
KF: The other kind of inspiration was tempo in a lot of ways. Most of the songs have a fluid tempo to them. There is one ballad on the record, but I wanted the songs to feel like uptempo, I guess. On the last record, there were lots of moments of intentional darkness. That is not the place I am at and not what I wanted to put out into the world right now. [Editor’s Note: K. Flay dates musician Miya Folick and has been open about being in a dark place before their relationship.]
MM: Let’s break down two of your tracks on Solutions—”Sister” and “This Baby Don’t Cry.” On “Sister” you worked with Joel Little, who worked with Taylor Swift and Lorde and on “This Baby Don’t Cry,” you worked with Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons and Tommy English, who worked with you on your last Grammy-nominated album. When you made those songs, were you guys working all in digital or was it analog?
KF: On “Sister,” the guitar is analog, and some of the synthesizers are as well—we used a live prophet on that track.
On “This Baby Don’t Cry,” I’m pretty sure the whole song is analog instruments. I played bass, Tommy played guitar, the claps and the drums are live samples. Honestly, at first, I found the rhythm of the clapping pattern to be slightly brain-melting. It took me like a full five minutes to get it fully implanted in my brain
MM: What’s your preference—drum pads or real drums?
KF: On “Sister,” the drums were programmed. On “This Baby Don’t Cry,” we used live drum samples and Tommy and I sampled the hand-clapping for that song as well.
MM: What were Dan Reynolds’ contributions to “This Baby Don’t Cry?”
KF: Dan had the initial idea to make it a punky, riff-driven song. I was almost at the end of the album writing process, and that felt like a spirit and a vibe I was missing. He played that riff on bass and right away I started writing lyrics.
MM: Overall the track has a very 80s feel to it, what was the inspiration behind that?
KF: The inspiration for the track was really just to keep it as basic but as impactful as possible. How do we use the fewest number of instruments but still make the song feel huge? We went through a few different versions of the song—all of which contained more sonic and melodic elements than the version you hear today. But we ended up feeling like the best version was the simplest. That felt like the brave move. To strip layers away.
MM: Just as your tour approaches, you launched your own microcast, “What Am I Doing Here,” which is a shorter form podcast. Tell us more.
There are millions of Alexa and Google Homes in the world right now, and no one is creating content for that medium. For me, what’s exciting about making anything is when there are no rules. This is a similar situation. I love produced content like podcasts and radio. This is kind of the new frontier in that world because no one has really explored it. What I want to do and the premise of the show is, I’m often not home, so, how can I bring that experience of where I am and what I am doing here into someone’s home space? That is really exciting for me and really the inspiration for it.
some cool news. I HAVE A MICROCAST!!!
(it’s like a podcast, but shorter) and every week i’ll be answering the geographical & philosophical question
Amsterdam producer, guitarist and singer Robert Mathijs is the man behind The Quest For Groove, a website and YouTube channel devoted to helping users become expert finger drummers. Over a series of courses and videos, Rob combines his experience with live performance, studio production, finger drumming, web design and teaching into approachable steps and processes for understanding his three stages of musical mastery. Stage one: What to play (what pads to hit). Stage two: How to play it (loud, soft, laid-back, energetic etc.) Stage three: Why do I play this and not something else? For Rob, his engagement with finger drumming grew out of a desire to record his own groovy rhythm parts in studio sessions without hiring a session drummer. From there, he began exploring the creative possibilities of pad controllers and other new ways of bridging that musical gap between humans and computers. Given this, he was a natural lesson partner for Melodics. Below, Rob walks us through some of the challenges he sees new finger drummers facing, and his thoughts around the art of practice.
What are some of the common challenges you see new finger drummers coming up against? I noticed a lot of beginning finger drummers struggle with picking the right gear, the right software and setting everything up. There are a lot of options available on the hardware and software front, and unfortunately, a lot of those options don’t work if you want to play the way I play. Either the pads aren’t sensitive enough, or the sensitivity varies too much between pads, or the software that comes with the pads doesn’t provide you with the right sounds.
My preferred setup currently involves putting a Maschine MK3 in midi mode, completely ditching the Maschine software and then triggering Addictive Drums 2 with it. That’s not a very straightforward thing to do and takes a lot of messing around with midi learn and stuff, but it’s necessary for me to get both that great pad sensitivity and that hyper-realistic drum sound.
What are your thoughts around the roles finger-drumming can play within modern music paradigms? I think now that digital has basically absorbed analog (I believe we’re at a point were digital can ’emulate’ most analog behaviour) it’s time to start developing ways to get the same amount of precise and subtle control over our digital environments as ‘traditional’ musicians have over their instruments. The computer is the studio now, or the instrument, or the orchestra for that matter. As humans, we want to make it truly understand what’s in our hearts and one of the ways to do this is finger drumming. It’s one of the most direct ways to communicate the grooves we feel to the computer instead of playing by the rules of the computer and going out of our way to speak the computer’s language (which is how I feel when I have to program a beat).
Do you have any advice for users on how to create a regular practice routine and keep at it? The most important thing is to have your music setup ready to go whenever you are. It’s a bit silly, but one of the main reasons I’ve been playing more guitar lately is because I put it in a stand next to the couch instead of keeping it in its suitcase. All it takes is the reach of an arm to start playing. For finger drumming or anything electronic it’ll usually take booting up your computer and firing up the software, but you can at least make sure all your music making stuff is hooked up to one USB hub so you can plug it into your laptop and everything works right away. Have shortcuts to all your favourite music making programs ready on your desktop and preferably create standard templates for those programs, so they boot up with your favourite drum kit loaded and your favourite songs ready to go in a Spotify playlist or something. Another trick is to attach practicing to something that’s already part of your daily routine. Breakfast? Brushing your teeth? Watching The Late Show? Attach your practice sessions to one of those things.
Now that you’ve been involved in creating Melodics lessons, what sort of initial suggestions would you have for Melodics users around finger drumming? I think the most important thing when doing a melodics lesson is to realise that it’ll help you learn what pads to hit when. Once you know what to do, maybe close your eyes, don’t look at your hands, don’t look at a screen but just listen to what you’re playing and how that feels. In the end that’s what it’s all about.
Do you have any other thoughts on Melodics, and how it can mesh in with users personal interests in playing and creating music? One of the first things I was extremely jealous of was how easy it was to start playing. Melodics app makes it so easy to set up your pad controller. No explanation video could ever beat that! Secondly, something I also noticed with some of my guitar students who played ‘Rocksmith’ (basically the guitar version of melodics on a PlayStation) is that this gamification of practice is so incredibly helpful in nudging people towards practicing the right way. Like slowing it down, focusing your attention on certain weaknesses and stuff like that. It also creates this nice crossover between reading sheet music and doing everything by ear.
Growing up amongst the futuristic skyscrapers, rammed subways, serene temples, palaces and bustling street markets of Seoul, South Korean beatmaker, finger-drummer and DJ Lionclad always felt out of place. Things slid into place for her when she discovered trip-hop, abstract hip-hop, experimental music, and the worlds that surround them. With headphones wrapped around her ears, the psychedelic, late-night sounds of Björk, Portishead, Massive Attack, Cypress Hill, Morcheeba and Zero 7 let her reimagine life as a black and white film noir. Everyone else in the metropolis was at hyperspeed, but Lionclad was moving in slow motion. “The music told me it was okay to explore the emotions inside me deeply, and made me realise that if I wanted to, I could focus on myself rather than everyone around me,” she explains.
“Growing up in an Asian country, you are always forced to be part of the community. That always made me feel more isolated from everyone around me, and the music gave me comfort and helped me realise my feelings were valid.”
These qualities come through in her moody beat production work and dexterous live finger-drumming performances, many of which you can watch or listen to through youtube and Instagram. They’ve won her a cult reputation around South Korea and set her up to take things further. Lionclad was also equally fascinated by media art as a teenager and considered working in video before music. She loved vintage horror movies (“Creature from The Black Lagoon, Godzilla, The Blob, etc.”), anime, and quirky cartoons; genres often associated with music by way of sampling or direct references. In that era, the downbeat sounds of the UK and the bass of blunted west coast rap came packaged with fittingly trippy music videos, and it only took a few steps sideways for her to come across 90s IDM artists such as Amon Tobin, and South Korean trip-hop group Mot. Music made sense. Making and playing it would be her thing. With some childhood experience playing keyboard and trumpet behind her, early cassette tape recordings led to beat making and production. Initially, Lionclad’s tools of choice were the Roland SP-404 sampling workstation, the Akai MPC2500 Music Production Center, FL Studio, and Cubase.
“I began arranging tracks in FL Studio and Cubase first, then I started taking samples from vinyl records with my MPC and creating loops,” she says. “From there, I started using the MPC as a performance tool to share my music. DJing came, later on, followed by Ableton Live.”
Looking for vinyl records to sample from took her to music stores around Seoul’s Myong Dong, Hong Dae, Itaewon and Gangnam districts, where she connected with, and learned from, DJ Son and DJ Soulscape, two pioneering local DJs with open-ears and similar musical interests to hers. They’d invite her to their studios for jams and listening sessions, and when they saw her fast-developing finger drumming skill level, helped her get gigs around the same districts. “Community was crucial for me,” she says. “I’d meet people, and they’d introduce me to other people I could play with. It’s also fun because you get to learn their stories in music and how they did what they did. It gives me a lot of inspiration around what I do now.” Outside of the DJ scene, Lionclad also cites experimental artists like Kim Oki, Akimbo, 4kapas and Cifika as part of her community, and a reminder of what she prizes the most, the power of live performance and the moment. “The DJs and musicians gave me a lot of influence, but I wanted to give people inspiration by showing them how music can be made live, and how the beat is felt by tapping it with the fingers,” she reflects. “There are very few MPC players in Seoul, but I think it’s good because people think it’s a very special kind of thing that they can’t see easily.” In 2016, Lionclad released her self-titled debut album. Since then, her work has been celebrated by GQ Korea and Playboy, and she’s found herself collaborating with an array of rising K-pop and K-rap vocalists including Muddychild, Danny Roots, Taedo, SSamdark, Yumdda, Jvcki Wai, Justhis, Sogumm, Kimximya and more, bringing her moody production sound into those melodramatic realms. She also took part in the Red Bull Bass Camp Seoul in 2017, began creating lessons for us at Melodics in 2018 (see her lessons here), and is working towards a second album. Although trip-hop, beats, and abstract hip-hop still don’t have a large audience in South Korea, more recently, Lionclad has been sensing a cultural sea change, one she’s very excited about, and hopes will take her overseas sooner rather than later. “These genres are still not that common here,” she admits. “But it looks like people these days are finally ready to accept uncommon things.”
Fabian Mazur first became an emergent figure within the Danish club music scene in 2010. Since then, the Copenhagen-based music producer and DJ’s buoyant tracks have caught the ears of international EDM frontrunners like Martin Garrix, Tiesto, and Afrojack, in the process helping him build a growing profile. Ostensibly hybrid trap EDM with glossy synth-overtones, his music ripples with touches drawn from traditional east coast hip-hop and R&B, and when he hypes it up on the microphone over the top, lifts the whole club up. In 2013, Fabian received a platinum-certification for his remix of ‘Chuck Norris’ by Kongsted, and in 2014 he began touring around the world. When he isn’t programming his own music, producing for other artists, or DJing, Fabian creates producer sample kits for Splice. It’s one of the ways he likes to give back and help the next generation of producers. This week, in partnership with Splice, we present Fabian’s first Melodics lesson for the track ‘Settle’. Read our interview with him below and try his lesson here.
Could you tell us a bit about how you got your start as a musician?
Growing up, my mum and dad were both jazz musicians. I used to tour with them a lot as a kid. I’d see them perform, play, and rehearse, so I was always rooted in jazz and world music. Even though I didn’t really like the music myself, it provided me with a lot of knowledge about rhythm and melody. My mother is from New York. She was born and raised there, but she came to Europe as a teenager. We stayed connected with her family there. I think this influenced me a little bit. Back in the day, I used to listen to a lot of east coast hip-hop, DJ Premier, Nas, Jay-Z, so when I started making music as a teenager, I was into 90s hip-hop and R&B. After a few years, I had a friend who got me into DJing and got me into EDM acts like Swedish House Mafia.
How did you take these influences and shape them into the sound you’re now known for? It definitely took me a lot of years. I guess I think it took almost ten years to get to the sound I wanted. I took some courses, and I studied a little bit. I did all types of stuff, but the main thing that got me there was putting in a lot of work, and making a lot of terrible music before I made good music.
The terrible music clears the way for the good music, right? Exactly. After a few years of making pretty terrible music, I figured out I was actually getting pretty good. My music wasn’t where I wanted it to be, but it was almost there. I feel like people talk about the whole 10,000 hours of putting work into a specific task. I think that is true with playing, writing, and producing music. When I was coming up, I didn’t have Splice or all the features of the modern DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). I feel like I put in way more than 10,000 hours to get good at music production. As a creative and a music artist, it actually took me a really long time to find a genre or soundscape that I liked for my own music, and wanted to be affiliated with. I spent years making tons of different music, hip-hop beats, R&B beats, deep house, EDM, dubstep, whatever, and that experimenting really got me to where I am today.
Would you tell young producers to listen to and make a range of music until they find out what they really click with? Or in the case of Melodics users, try out a range of lessons from different genres? Yes. That is one of the main pieces of advice I give people when they ask me how I got to where I am. I tell them to listen to a lot of different music and try to create a lot of different music. Don’t try to keep your eye on a specific genre or sound at first. A lot of people make that mistake at the start; they decide they want to be a dubstep producer only and only produce dubstep from the get-go. I think that is a very big mistake to make when you’re starting out.
You can hear the influence of listening to, and producing different types of music in your work.
It’s kinda natural. Genres have always had the tendency to merge at some point. Maybe it’s all just a natural part of the process, especially with the digital age of music production we’re in right now. With things like Melodics and Splice, it’s never been easier for people to merge genres the way they want to.
Melodics™ is the best way to build your musical skills.
Free to download, play 60 free lessons for 5 performance minutes a day to start building your rhythm, timing, and muscle memory immediately. Then subscribe for unlimited access to premium lessons, including exclusive lessons from acclaimed artists.