So we all know the instantly recognisable arpeggiated chords from Dr. Dre’s iconic Hip Hop classic Still D.R.E — but what is the actual music theory that underpins this catchy slice of hip-hop history?
Initially these chords might seem kind of strange. The first is C-E-A, followed by B-E-A, and then B-E-G.
Each chord only changes a single note from the previous one, making for a delightfully simple, yet very effective little progression.
An easy way to figure out what is going on is to look at the bassline, which alternates between A (which accompanies the first chord), and E, (which accompanies the last two chords).
With the bassline defining the root notes of these chords, it becomes clear that these are actually inversions. C-E-A, our first chord, is the first inversion of A minor, which means that the root note, A, has been moved up the keyboard, above the other two notes.
The next two chords (B-E-A, and B-E-G), are the second inversions of Esus4 and Eminor respectively. The second inversion means that both the root note AND the third have been moved up the keyboard, leaving the fifth, B, as the lowest note in these chords.
It’s like a minor i-v chord progression, with a suspended chord thrown in there to add a little tension and release.
Still D.R.E.’s 3 basic chords have left an everlasting impact on hip hop. Yet this song is a great example of how using simple chord inversions can lead to really exciting chord voicings that still don’t need you to move your fingers a large amount.
Download Melodics for guided courses on practical applications of music theory like using chord inversions, and many, many more.
Justin Aswell is a Finger Drummer, DJ, Producer, MC, Record/Mix/Master and teacher at Dubspot. His skills on the pads can be seen in his awesome Youtube videos that he began posting way back in 2006. Since then he has appeared on Native Instruments and Dubspot displaying his finger drumming prowess. While indeed talented there is a strong regimented work ethic behind Aswell’s success. We were lucky enough to talk with Justin about his practice process. The following is a must read for any beginning or aspiring producers.
You are well know online for your finger drumming skills. What got you into finger drumming and inspired you to post your performances online?
Well I’ve always been a drummer at heart. I was always banging on pots and beating rhythms on tables since I can remember. I played drums throughout my youth and when I eventually got a sampler it only made sense. Here’s this thing with drums loaded on it and I can tap out patterns like I would anything else. I didn’t really know I was doing something different for a long time. I’d been finger drumming for many years before I ever uploaded a video. It wasn’t even really planned out honestly. My roommate at the time bought a new camera and wanted to record something. I was already practicing and he just started filming. We uploaded it to YouTube and at the time there weren’t many MPC videos at all. It started picking up speed and before we knew it, it had made the YouTube home page.
What was it about Melodics that made you want to get involved? What do you like most about the app?
I was tagged by several of my friends in a video review done by DJcityTV on YouTube.I remember as soon as I saw it I knew I had to be involved. Ever since the days of Guitar Hero and Rockband I’d dreamed of an application like this. I’m really surprised it took this long for someone to create it! My favorite thing about the app is how well it shows wether you’re dragging or rushing particular rhythms. That’s always been a concern of mine. Sometimes you know you’re off but you just can’t figure out how to correct the problem.
You have released three lessons this week based around daily practice. They are called ‘8 on a hand’,’16 note accent’ and ‘Bucks’. Are you able to give a bit of detail as to what each exercise help users with?
Anyone that’s been in a marching band will recognize these to some degree. These are classics in the Drumline world. I’ve adapted them to make more sense in the finger drumming context. 8 on a hand is meant as an initial warm up and should played focusing on being relaxed and playing even. Bucks will get us accustomed to playing doubles and triples evenly. 16 note accent is both for technique and for a rhythmic understanding of the 16th note grid. This understanding will help to give the player a better ability to express rhythms on the fly.
You’ve previously stated that you believe that practicing five minutes a day, seven days a week is more effective than practicing once a week, for 35 minutes. Are you able to give insight into why this is the case?
Absolutely! Each day you don’t practice is an exponential loss. You lose more and more each day you don’t practice consecutively. I like to think of each day as stacking time towards improvement. If you practice back to back days you’re not going to lose any of the time you put the previous day. You may even find you’ve GAINED time by using consistency in your favor. This is called the compound effect. And the sooner you start using it, the bigger the gain!
How can becoming a better finger drummer help a producer or DJ get better at their craft?
Creativity is all about capturing moments. Ideas come and go very quickly. Have the ability to just play what’s in your head instantly without deliberation allows the artist to capitalize on ideas with ease. I’ve had so many people tell me “I just can’t get the rhythms I hear out of my head” over the years. It’s never the serious finger drummers.
Have you always been a naturally gifted finger drummer? How did your practice routines help with your development?
I don’t really buy into the idea of “naturally gifted” honestly. I think people may be naturally inclined or drawn to certain skills but it takes work to get good. I often say the only way to get good is to be bad for a real long time. I still feel I have tons of work even at the skill level I’m at currently. That’s why I still utilize things like Melodics in my arsenal of improvement. I practice constantly. I’m always tapping. My practice routine is my development. I wouldn’t be answering these questions had I not implemented them.
You have made videos with the likes of Dubspot and are very in involved in teaching music in particular finger drumming. Do you have any examples of how finger drumming has evolved since you have been involved with it?
Finger drumming is still very new to the scene. There aren’t any rules you know? The major difference I see would be how many people are out doing it now. When I first started posting videos there were only a handful of people posting content online. Now there’s a new video by a new artist daily. There’s groups that have a finger drummer in the line up. It’s really on the verge of blowing up. It’s super exciting to see.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out and is wanting to become as good as you are?
Start practicing now. Practice often. Make a lot of music. Collaborate with diverse artists. Play shows. Play lots of shows. Post your progress online. Analyze your progress. Focus on both strengths and weaknesses. Don’t be overwhelmed by what you don’t know. Be excited there’s so much to learn. Stay consistent. Don’t stop.
What does 2016 have install for Justin Aswell in terms of music?
I’ve got a collaborative record with my dear friend Andy The Doorbum coming out in May on Fake Four Records. I’ve got a handful of records I’m executive producing. I’m traveling all over and taking up residencies in cities to do as much collaborative work as possible. 2016 is a year of fearless collaboration.
Justin Aswell has released some new practice exercises on Melodics this week that cover the ‘8 on a hand’ , ‘Bucks’ and ’16 note accent’ exercises he uses daily. While playing the hard lessons is awesome building a rhythmic foundation through daily practice will solidify your skills.
So try out these new lessons and start your daily practice today!
Mark de Clive-Lowe has been involved in music from the age of four. Since then he has gone on to live in some of the world’s biggest musical capitals. Whether it be London’s West End , New York or his current home in Los Angeles, Mark has used each pit stop to refine and at times revisit his craft. This week the New Zealand artist was able to answer a few questions about some of his career highlights so far and his creative approach.
You grew up in good old Auckland NZ and started played piano at 4 years old. In your teen years you became influenced by hip hop and started trying to make your own beats. However you would go on to sell all your looping equipment as you did not see the point of making ‘loops’. How did this affect your musical development and what happened next?
You’ve done your research! I was making beats when I was 14 and didn’t really know what I was doing. I remember waking up one day and thinking that making all these loops wasn’t really fulfilling me. That was my cue to get back to just the piano and Miles and Trane records. Ten years later and the opposite happened – I totally shelved my jazz and piano side and went full force into the beats, remixing and production world. Much for the same reason. Now it’s all come together as one story.
Music has taken you around the world and you have been able to experience many different scenes. Are you able to describe in one sentence how each of these locations has shaped your musical journey?
Auckland – Was where I grew up for the most part. My first experiences playing with other musicians and exploring my own taste. Of particular influence from there were Nathan Haines, Manuel Bundy and back during my round one of early-teen years beat making there was the whole Voodoo Rhyme Syndicate that I was part of along with a lot of great Auckland-based hip hop and R&B/dance artists. We were all influenced by different aspects of US and UK music culture and it was pretty special to be able to incubate those influences so far from those epicenters – it allowed me to be free of any creative expectation but still be inspired by it.
Tokyo – I have a lot of family in Japan, but most pivotally, I spent my last year of high school there. My Buddhist priest homestay host father was a jazz head through and through and we’d go out most nights to check out some incredible live music – often touring international artists, sometimes local artists – which was hugely inspirational to me. I got to see the working musician lifestyle first hand and fell in love with it. I went back to NZ after that year and fairly promptly dropped out of law school in favor of the minstrel life!
West London – In the mid to late 90s I drew a lot of inspiration from the UK’s jungle movement especially. 4Hero’s “Loveless” was a seminal piece of music for me – I’d never heard anything quite like it – and I was regularly consuming the latest jungle and drum’n’bass 12s that would land at the local record store in Auckland. By the time I got to London in 1998 that movement was at its peak and what became the West London broken beat was forming. That whole community blew my mind. They were taking the entire history of everything I loved – soul, jazz, funk, house, jungle, breaks, afro carribean and afrobeat, and creating a new form from all those influences. I quickly became a core member of the movement collaborating with artists who I consider to be some of the most creative anywhere – IG Culture, Restless Soul, Dego, Bugz in the Attic – it was an amazing time. I evolved as a musician and producer there, and really developed my live show concepts touring Europe almost every week.
Los Angeles – I’d visited LA a few times touring before relocating there and was hearing a lot of great music coming from there too – early Sa-Ra demos, J*Davey, Blu and the whole Sound in Color camp – it was like a version of the West London scene but half a world away. When the opportunity came to move there it felt like the right thing to do. A decade in London was plenty for me and it was the right time to start a whole new chapter. LA has been most pivotal for me in that it reconnected me with my jazz roots. I hadn’t played the acoustic piano or a jazz gig in over a decade having been so deeply in the beat scene in the UK. In LA I was able to find my love for the piano again and bring everything together, full circle so to speak. Now the music is riding this line right in between jazz and beats, live musicians and sampling/live programming – really fusing the worlds that I grew up on.
In 2003 you said you had a ‘Jazz Epiphany with a drum machine in Budapest’. Describe this story and what you learned from this epiphany?
Up until that moment I would always pre-program my beats for live shows. The MPC3000 was the heart of my rig and I’d change patterns or say, mute the kick, live, but for the most part it was pre-programmed and I’d be playing keys live over the top. This one time in Hungary, we performed the whole set – including the encore – in the main set. I’d planned on there not being an encore. When the time came though, the crowd insisted on more, the promoter insisted on more, and I felt like I didn’t really have much choice in the matter. I remember walking back on stage and looking at the MPC thinking, “dammit. I guess I’m going to have to program a beat live right now!”. I was nervous for sure. Something I’d never done before and had no idea how it would turn out. I hit record on the MPC and started banging out beats. It was a complete epiphany. The whole spirit of improvisation and spontaneity that I had grown up with in a jazz context now became apparent to me in a whole different setting. From that day on, every gig was programmed on the fly from scratch. Often with no preconceived notions. It was never like performing a routine – it was about using the drum machine as a creative instrument and improvising grooves and ideas that could be sequenced on the fly live on stage.
In a previous interview you described a funny story about your first visit to South Africa, and how you ended up playing a live set on National TV during prime time. Are you able to give a bit of background into this story?
I do remember my very first show in SA – I’d just stepped off the plane and was so hype to be there. For years I’d heard how soulful house was on a whole other level in SA and how the audiences went nuts for it all the time. I was doing a full live production live remixing set and tore into it, tempo wise at a similar bpm to how I was playing peak time sets in Europe around this time – starting around 122 bpm and building up to 130 or so. The frustrating thing was that I could tell that the set just wasn’t connecting with the audience and I couldn’t understand why. The support DJ after me got on when I was done and dropped a jam at about 110 bpm and suddenly the whole room was in the pocket. That was a huge epiphany. In SA, they like their jams slower! My next set I started at 100 bpm and peaked at 122 and had the whole club entranced the whole way. It was great too, because even though the context was house music, when you slow it down, the music has so much more room to breathe. As soon as you get into the mid 120s, it’s mostly the kick and off beat hats that are driving everything. It was great to get away from that and remind myself of the beauty of being outside the box.
I was asked to do a live remix set on national TV on that first SA tour – that was kind of mind blowing. A 2 hr set, live on TV, with no ads, on a Friday night! SA just has a whole other culture when it comes to soulful music. I really can’t wait to get back there again.
How did you get involved with Melodics? What about Melodics do you think benefits its users from a production and live performance standpoint?
Sam hit me up really early in the conceptualising process knowing my interests in both pads as a musical interface and music education in general. I’m big on empowering creative and sharing process. There’s no need to hide any special tricks from the next enthusiast because we’re all going to use the same equipment or interfaces in a different way. Melodics can give the committed student more confidence when it comes to rhythm and the language and conversation that the different parts of a drum kit or beat have with each other. Especially for producers who step sequence or draw in drum programming it helps them work infinitely faster and have a more direct connection between the idea in their brain and the reality coming out of the speakers.
You are releasing your second lesson called ‘The Ummm’ on Melodics this week what can users expect from this lesson?
The idea of ‘The Ummm’ was to take a classic Native Tongues style hip hop vibe but push it up to a dancefloor tempo, bridging those different worlds. I wanted to make sure there was both a rhythmic and harmonic vibe to it so it’s a combination of beat and Rhodes sample. I wanted to use as few elements as possible to create something that sounds pretty complete already. Often simplicity is where the beauty of a vibe is!
Describe your workflow and creative process when it comes to production? What equipment do you use?
I like to start from different places – sometimes I’ll be sitting at the piano composing in a more traditional way; other times I’ll start on the drum machine banging out a rhythm idea; or playing around with harmonies on the Rhodes; sometimes I’ll be chopping up a sample and finding the inspiration there. For the most part though, it is important to me to have fundamental rhythmic, melodic and harmonic elements in any one track so that it has identifiable signature elements – to the point that you could play the same signature elements on a piano or a guitar and the track would be recognisable without any of the production or electronic elements.
Some of my favorite workhorses at the moment are: NI Maschine, Ableton, Logic, NI Komplete, Arturia collection, Fender Rhodes, Roland Juno 6, Korg KP3+… I love analog synths too – can’t wait to get my hands on a new Dave Smith Prophet keyboard.
What advice would you give to someone who has just seen one of your performances or songs and decides they want to be a DJ and producer just like you?
Practice. That’s the only way to be able to execute anything live. So yeah, diligence goes a long, long way. Also to be open to a diverse range of music. If you primarily make house music and you want to find your own sound, then the last thing you should be listening to is house music. The more diverse a range of musical stimuli you have, the wider range of influences and inspirations are there to be drawn from. I’m also a big proponent of understanding music theory – music is sonic mathematics, and the more you understand the rules and formulas that make up the language, the more empowered you are when you create.
“Hip Hops the love of his life yeah that’s apparent / Jazz gave the piano life it’s so exquisite” – Describe how these bars from John Robinson on your song ‘The Mission’ describes your career so far and your album/club nights ‘CHURCH’?
JR really nailed it with his verses telling the story of my musical journey thus far – he’s an amazing MC like that. Hip hop has been at the core for a long time – I’ve always resonated with it and especially in my formative early teen years in NZ, it was everything. I love the whole concept of 90s hip hop production too – sampling the history and flipping it into a whole new context. The mash up before that even became a term. I had a funny relationship with the piano growing up – my dad forced me to take lessons from a very young age so I felt like I never chose the instrument myself. It wasn’t really until I connected with jazz music that the piano started to become my own instrument and not just the one I was told to play.
CHURCH is all about sharing my whole journey with the audience – from the jazz club to the banging dancefloor, blurring the lines between live musicians and electronics, improvised moments and live sampling and remixing – one minute we could be in a jazz groove, the next in a deep Detroit techno-meets-afrobeat vibe. That freedom.
Make sure to try out Mark de Clive Lowe’s new lesson ‘The Ummm’ this week and also follow his work on his website and social channels ->