Well folks, after you have played a few shows here and there, done some touring with the same brand of equipment and gotten no love from the endorsement side of things after trying repeatedly to contact a Yamaha company that shall remain nameless (oops)… There comes a time for a little something that I like to call “SELF endorsement”…
Endorsing one’s self doesn’t have to involve anything huge like opening a store or starting your own television channel…hell, you don’t even have to involve your ego. Most of the time it simply serves as a brief reminder to folks, corporate and otherwise that, “Hey, us bottom of the barrel musicians who travel the world using nothing but your products are working hard too!” *insert laugh here* With that being said, I’d like to introduce you to a product that was newly delivered to my studio earlier this evening… The “Zotif” Keyboard!
Looks like you may have seen this board before huh? I know, I know… Well, it actually functions verrrry similarly to the Yamaha Motif keyboard, BUT this one is crazy because it actually advertises my logo and new website. *waves index finger and quotes Eddie Murphy’s elder Jewish character from ‘Coming To America’* "Ahhhckkhaaaa!!!!!" I feel extremely privileged because they don’t manufacture too many of these, so I wouldn’t even waste my time on eBay or Craig’s List looking for one. I have heard the numbers from the manufacturer and they’re actually keeping it in the single digits, so I’ll be a nice guy and I’ll let you steal some views of mine… You may see me on stage at an +FE or a Zo! + Sy Smith show with a Zotif sometime soon - Then again now that I think about it some more, you just never know WHEN it may surface…
Studio Campfire Stories: "Ablyss..." ...(just over) Ten-Year Anniversary Of My First Album
When I look back on 2001, the first thing that comes to mind is, “DAMN! That was eleven years ago?!” But when I really dig into it and all that occurred that year, I can summarize it by simply stating that it was a year of transition and adjustment. I had just graduated in December of 2000 with a degree in Studio Art (Graphic Design) from Western Kentucky University and was on the hunt for a job in my field - a job hunt that actually continued THROUGH 2001. So I decided to enroll back in school at WKU to start working on an MBA Degree… BUT since I was a Graphic Design major and had little to no business-related courses at all, I had to spend 2001 taking “pre-requisite” courses to even be put on the correct path for an MBA… How fun. Once again looking back on things, hindsight tells me that a course called “Life after college” should probably be required DURING college, because clearly I had NO clue in regards to what the hell I was doing at the time once I got outta there. Baseball, the sport that paid fully for my college education and the sport that I had been playing since age nine ended for me in the summer of 2000 and I was still adjusting to a life without it. After moving to my first off-campus apartment during that same time, I was able to spread out a bit - there was a huge difference from the good ole 10X10 dorm rooms folks lived in while on-campus. This was important because it meant that I was able to find sufficient room for my keyboard and amp. Back then, I was armed with only a Yamaha EX5 (which I still have in the studio) and used its sequencer to program joints I did at the time. I later installed a version of Cubase onto my Mac and used it to record and edit everything via this Tascam mixer I picked up… It’s crazy typing this out and realizing that these pieces of equipment represent my first bit of a studio and start as a serious musician. The thing is, even then I wasn’t aware how serious it was or may become - SO much has changed since then. If you were to ask me back then what I was doing musically, I would have told you that I was “making beats” rather than “writing compositions.” I was content with just a 2, 4, or 8-bar loop…. Alright, that’s another beat, *press save*… and let’s move on to the next one. By doing this, I was able to fly through music, show it off to friends who would come through the apartment, see their reactions and be motivated to make more of it. Have you ever heard of the kats who brag about making 10-20+ beats in a day? I wanted to be that guy… Make a ton of music that sounded good because I knew I had the work ethic to keep it going (I have since learned that quantity has NOTHING on the quality of your music). In 2001, most of my friends didn’t even know that I played an instrument, much less knew that I understood how to put any type of music together… So hearing tracks from ME? Lorenzo the baseball player? … It was rather odd to some of them. I can remember a group of friends coming through one night, and while they were there I went to load some joints up. At that point, I had about 15-20 beats or so completed and saved to a 3.5” floppy disk………. and the disk decided it was going to go BAD. I kept attempting to load these joints up but to no avail… and to say the absolute least… I. Was. PISSED. All of that work = Gone forever… There were three things that I learned that night: 1. Back everything up, 2. BACK. EVERY. DAMN. THING. YOU. DO. UP. and 3. It is extremely difficult to capture the original feeling of your music by recreating it on the spot. I ignored the shit ouf of my guests the rest of that night and sat down at the keyboard mad as hell to make the music all over again, from memory. I didn’t want to talk with anyone, I wasn’t in the mood to crack any jokes… I was in “recovery mode”. As crazy as it sounds… THIS episode was actually the beginning of my very first album, Ablyss. I honestly do not remember how many of those 15-20+ tracks I ended up redoing that night from memory, but I do remember that being the incident that jumpstarted my mausicmaking. Pretty hilarious how things work out…
There are TWO cassette tapes of beats that exist prior to the Ablyss recording. I still have copies of them both and there are a couple more that I sent off to friends that may be floating around somewhere… But that’s IT. I have another cassette tape with a ton of remakes I did in high school between 1992 and 1996 and there is ONE copy of that. But the work I started doing for Ablyss was a bit different, it even felt different as I was creating it. I was motivated to create something to burn to a CD for the first time and have it serve as an “introduction” to my transition from baseball player to music maker - A difficult task? Absolutely. Impossible? Nah, I didn’t think so. Ok, now… Once I have enough joints to fill up an 80 minute CDr, how in the hell to I transfer this music from my sequencer to a disc?! I didn’t even know how to do that at the time. After asking around at a local music spot, it was suggested that I pick this up… a Tascam US-428 mixer that would control an early version of Cubase (recording software) already installed on my year old Mac desktop computer. When I opened the box to the brand new mixer and connected it to my computer, I just remembered thinking, "…The hell am I supposed to do NOW?" I would mess with the software, get frustrated and go back to it later to try again. This happened a couple of times before I finally got it to work for me. I was able to connect my keyboard directly into the mixer, record into Cubase, convert the music into a .wav file and burn it onto a CD by using iTunes. Talk about being excited to make some music… Of course, the recording and editing process was much different for me then too - Everything was trial and error. I recorded into Cubase as a two-track (a left and right stereo recording), which means that all of the ‘drops’ I inserted into the music were done in one take and manually by muting that particular track on the keyboard’s sequencer as the song played. I know, I know… I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t know what I was doing. BUT, I started to see an album begin to come together and that’s what mattered to me the most. At the end of this process, the album contained beats that I assigned numbers to rather than names ("Beat #23" for example), a couple of remakes including Prince’s “My Love Is Forever” from his For You album, and two “bonus tracks” that I did in Atlanta with a good friend of mine and fellow WKU alum, DJ/Producer Jon Doe from the group Prophetix.
Once the final song was recorded and I had burned the very first CD full of my own material… I took it to my truck (then equipped with 2 12” subwoofers in the trunk) popped it in the CD player and rode around Bowling Green, KY for more than two hours BLASTING the finished product all the way through TWICE starting at 3am. I have tried before to come up with a few words to fully explain how good it felt to hear my own music in the car that first time, but I simply cannot. Let’s just say I was floating on cloud nine for a couple of hours. After riding around past 5am and burning up some good ole $1.45/gallon gas, I wound up at the Wal-Mart across the street from my apartment… Why? Well, I was so excited about this new creation that I wanted to SHARE it with folks ASAP. So I bought a couple of packs of padded envelopes, went back home to do some quick cover art, printed it on regular paper and then started burning more CDs. I gathered up addresses of the people I was close to and started writing… There ended up being a total of 20 packages sent out the following day. I’m not sure if anyone still HAS an original copy of the album I sent out, but that would be real dope…
Ablyss is the only album that I still have available for purchase now that was created and completed in my college apartment. As an artist, you are always emotionally attached to your works but that first one is special. I mean, I can remember exactly what I was doing and what was going on around me while creating most of the joints on this album. For example, “Beat #20” was done while I was on the phone… and I can still remember who I was talking with. I just feel extremely blessed because the fact that I’m even sharing a story about my first album years later means that I have made it further than even I had initially envisioned. What an excellent feeling. …And I still can’t believe this all officially began 11 years ago.
I was just sent this picture from a young lady in Rio de Janeiro of a brand new tattoo that she got that reads "Don’t ever underestimate the power of your mind…" - a quote inspired by "Greatest Weapon Of All Time" from the SunStorm album. The lyrics were written and sung by my a great friend of mine, “tourmate” and sister, Sy Smith… I’m kinda at a loss for words here… but this is real dope - AND on top of all that, the tat looks good!! According to her, "It’s a very special song… Like a way of life…"
Wow… Talk about motivational.
Like I have said before… Sometimes we as artists are reminded why it is important to continue doing what we do. This picture and story is one concrete reminder… Made my day, completely.
Zo!’s Top Five Moments of 2011 – #1 Going Home and Receiving A Long Ovation at The Foreign Exchange Show in Detroit
May 8, 2011, Mother’s Day…
The +FE crew and I were set to take the short 2-hour and some change drive to Detroit from Cleveland to play our 4th show of the scheduled seven-show tour of Midwest cities. I was up and ready to go this particular morning as we were creeping up on the show date that I was most anticipating. Going back home to perform is always motivational to me because I’m able to catch everyone up on what I have been up to musically - The same people who saw me making music out of my bedroom in my parents’ house in what I used to call “Crowded Room Studios,” as there was more music and equipment in that spot than space to move around. To be able to bring new levels of success home to folks who have supported you from day one is truly a blessing… So needless to say, I was a bit anxious for this one. As soon as I found out the show was confirmed, I started to text a couple folks here and there and sent a few DMs via Twitter just to make sure that kats were blocking that date off far in advance because at that time folks kept asking, "When are y’all gonna come to The D?" …The thing was, May of 2011 wasn’t our first time playing in Detroit. The first +FE show at home was over two years ago in June of 2009 and I remember being hyped up for that one too, but this time was much different. First off, the buzz around the show was crazy and the people who were creating it seemed to be super excited. Secondly, there had been four +FE Music releases since that last show: City Lights 2: Shibuya (Sept. ‘09), …just visiting too (Nov. ‘09), SunStorm (Jul. ‘10) and Authenticity (Oct. ‘10). One thing was starting to become crystal clear to us… Detroit was ready, I just didn’t realize how ready.
I’ll put it like this, I was so amped up about the Detroit show that thinking back on it, I barely even remember the actual drive from Cleveland… I remember stopping once for gas after Toledo, but that’s about it. The next thing I remember is checking in to our hotel and asking, “Ayo, who’s coming to the house before soundcheck?” Our bassist, Kush El-Amin and drummer Tim Scott Jr. said that they would roll so we dropped our stuff off in our rooms and proceeded to head out to my parents’ house. As soon as we walked in, I as I normally do when I get home, went straight for the refrigerator to grab a water and a Faygo Redpop to take with me. But to my surprise, Moms had baked a damn sweet poe-tay-toe pie for our arrival… Yep, I said Poe. Tay. TOE. So, uhhh… the three of us had some pie. ….And uhhh…. y’all thought I was greedy as hell? The brotha T. Scott had two pieces.
After we left my parents’ house, I took the fellas to The Bread Basket for a Rueben and some Better Made chips… For the record, I am currently salivating just looking at the picture below.
After taking our food to go, we only had enough time to head back to the hotel and pick up the rest of the crew for soundcheck at the Magic Stick. Upon arriving to the venue, I started feeling anxious… At that point I just wanted the show to BEGIN. I hadn’t gone home to play in a year and a half, hadn’t been home with +FE in two… everyone was sounding all extra excited about the show - I was truly on edge……… A GOOD edge. Plus, the entire crew knew how big this show was for me… With all that said, I still wasn’t aware exactly how big.
We headed back to the hotel in order to change and get everything ready to go right back to the venue for the show. I was surprising cool, but I could feel my heart rate noticeably increase before taking the stage. Everybody in the crew was looking at me like, "You ready? Are you ready?" I was ready as hell… Normally, the time that we have backstage usually drags along anyway. But for the hometown show, time seemed to be moving at 120 seconds per minute. …..When we finally took the stage, I was the first to walk out to a sea of Detroit faces. I thought to myself, "This crowd is KILLIN the last one… They’re ready." We proceded to start the show and the crowd was with us the entire time. During the set, I saw a ton of familiar faces, which made me feel even more at home… But still once again, I wasn’t ready.
Now… for those of you who have ever attended an +FE show, you know that there is a portion set aside during each show where Phonte introduces the entire crew individually… The order is normally: band members, vocalists, and last, of course is Nicolay. Well… for the first time in our touring history, the introduction order was different and to say that it caught me way off guard would be an understatement. Phonte went through and introduced everyone and I noticed that he skipped me… I was thinking, “Ok, he’ll probably do it after Jeanne and Sy.” Welp! After introducing Jeanne Jolly and Sy Smith…. He introduced Nicolay. *blank stare* I wonder if anyone has pictures of my face during that time, I’d like to see them because in my head it was, “Oh shit! WTF?… I’m going LAST at the CRIB? This is crazy….!” The next thing I knew, Phonte told us to cut the music and proceeded to go into my introduction. I’m sure I was standing there looking silly and lost as hell leading up to….
"Give it up for your own… Lorenzo Ferguson a/k/a Zo! y’all!"
The place just got LOUD…….. and I couldn’t do a damn thing but stand there and cheese. In normal situations, people cheer, yell out, etc. and I’ll show love back by waving, bowing or something to make sure that they know I appreciate them. This time was a little different… Detroit got loud…. Matter of fact, Detroit got loud and HELD it. I was smiling… waving………smiling some more………. waving…… That’s when I first realized, "Oh damn, they’re not stopping!" I was completely in the moment at this point, plus my parents and younger sister were in the audience as well so this just became a helluva moment for me. I didn’t know what to do anymore or how to react - I just started looking around with the “This can’t be real” face on and man, it felt GREAT - SO great that I THEN thought to myself, "Oh ok, I see…. these negroes are tryna make me cry now." And damn if I didn’t feel a lump in my throat - Man, this ain’t good. I just kept thinking, "Naaaah man, I’m not going… I’m not going. Breeeeeathe." Of course, the more I thought that…. The louder they seemed to get and the bigger that lump got. THEN, I turned to my left to look at the crew, you know, just to kind of get their take on things and they were no help at all as Sy and Jeanne both had their hands on their mouths in the “Awwwww” position looking like THEY were about to cry. SHIT!! It was settled… I definitely wasn’t looking over at the crew for ANYmore support. The crowd thought they had me though!! - Because after awhile, instinctively I took my cap and covered my face with it while turning around. *sigh* This did nothing but fuel it and made them cheer even louder. Their loud ovation went on for a solid couple of minutes. I know I may seem to be making light of it, but it was by far one of the most unbelievable moments of my music career up to that point. Of course I’ve already had a few of my people jokingly say, "Aw man, you were about to cry, you were about to get emotional?" Maaaaaan listen… You work this hard for this long, keep it up after moving away from home and then return to that type of hometown love… If your throat doesn’t lump up from a reception like that, you may need to check and see if you have a pulse. I have never gotten an ovation like that before or since… That was a moment that left me truly humbled and I will never forget it.
Zo!’s Top Five Moments of 2011 – #2 My First Trips Overseas b/w The Release of '...just visiting three'
Performing in Amsterdam • Photo by Sarah Jane Van Beek
I quickly went from having never traveled to Europe… to traveling to Europe three times in the first three months of the year. In January, I went overseas with The Foreign Exchange for our first European Tour as a collective, which covered London, Amsterdam, Paris, Köln, and back to London for a second show. While the tour was extremely tiring and my feet hung off of the ends of ALL of the beds in the hotels, I was very grateful to see the outpouring of love we received in each city. These kats were hyped up to see us and their energy was taken in and transferred right back to them via our shows. We were also fortunate enough to get together with the talented and VERY quick learning drummer UK Laurie Lowe who held us down on stage the entire time we were over there. BIG up…!! I know I’m leaving out a ton of details, so please don’t hesitate to click on each city above to read my write-ups on each date…
In February, I went back over to Paris with DC based, Grammy-nominated artist Kokayi at the Maison des Arts festival playing alongside Jean Grae and Pharoahe Monch… Talk about FUN. We arrived in Paris a day early, so we were able to walk around the city and take our time to really take everything in. This is generally uncommon during multi-city touring where you usually arrive to a city, check-in, soundcheck, get ready fo the show, play the show and get ready to do it all over again the next day. I experienced some excellent food, beer mixed with tequila, as well as a pigeon that decided he needed to initiate me by letting himself loose on my hat and coat. Great… The show itself was crazy… Especially when I was able to see kids start to breakdance on the sides of the thatre. I was looking like, “Wooooooooow, for real?!” Fun, fun times…
I think the most memorable time overseas was the last time I went, in March with Sy Smith - these were actually the FIRST of our “Duo” shows. We had two shows scheduled in Paris at Bizz’Art and London’s famed Jazz Café. But our schedule was pretty interesting. Despite playing the Paris show first, we flew in to London’s Heathrow airport the morning of Thursday, March 3rd where we were picked up by one of the vocalists and taken to our hotel. We had the rest of the day to explore London, or rest before rehearsal began that night with the band. The next morning (the 4th) we took the train to Paris and was greeted by our promoter upon arrival who then walked us to our hotel to check in and gave us a brief tour of the city as well as the venue we were going to be performing in the next night. We had some wine, did an interview, rested up and enjoyed a helluva dinner at a spot across the street from our hotel. The actual day of the show, March 5th… We met up with the Paris band at the venue who we could already hear rehearing our material as we walked in. That crew of musicians was on POINT. I actually remember thinking to myself when I heard the second keyboard player, “Damn, he might know my shit better than ME!” That Paris show was NUTS. Bizz’Art was filled up, the people were into the show from start to finish and showed their appreciation afterward by forming a line to the merch table where we were seated that seemed to never end. I was extremely grateful.
The following morning (Sunday the 6th), we took the train back to London to check back into our hotel and prepare for our first performance at the Jazz Café. After a quick soundcheck and a couple of interviews, we got started that night and had a BALL. Although we didn’t get on stage until late, the London crowd had a lot of energy for us. I can still remember a few kats on the sides of me who were actually “studying” what I was playing… I could tell this, because I would hear them comment or say, “Whooooo!!!” after I would hit a certain series of notes or chords. Now THAT was kinda crazy as I hadn’t experienced that before. We ended the show with an “acoustic” encore, just Sy singing and me on the keys, which gave us the idea to make our going out on the road as a team more permanent - Combined with the love we received in both London and Paris, the Zo! + Sy Smith show became solidified. Now the question is… When can we go BACk overseas?!
I’m gonna let ch’all in on a little well-known secret among us artists… Releasing new music NEVER gets old. One of the reasons is because we are always being asked, “So what’s next?” “What are you working on currently?” I had a couple of people ask me “When’s your next album coming out?” just three days after I released SunStorm in 2010. To have your current music, your “baby” see the light of day and watching people react to it in realtime via Twitter, FB, etc. is one helluva reward in itself. This time around, I was able to SEE people’s first time reactions to the new music in the form of a series of …just visiting three listening parties. The first one was the night of its release at a very intimate setting in Washington D.C. at a spot called Tap & Parlour. Right at midnight, while the album was being released online, I got up on the mic to introduce the new material to everyone in attendance and DJ 2-Tone Jones spun it straight through. To see people react to …just visiting three’s song selection, yelling out “SOOOOMEBOOOODY TEEEEELL MEEEEEEE” during the hook for "Everything She Wants" and yelling out “OHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!” when "Playing Your Game, Baby" started…. and ANOTHER “OOOOHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!” when Anthony David proceeded to start singing and take ownership of the song. I was sitting in the spot with my laptop open reading reactions to the album and experiencing them all at the same time. That feeling was absolutely priceless… I can’t wait to do it again in 2012.
Zo!’s Top Five Moments of 2011 – #3 Rock Creek Academy in D.C. Closes Down = Full-Time Musicianship...
Friday, August 5th began early for me as I was picked up from my hotel room in Houston at about 4:45am to catch an early flight back home after wrapping up another successful listening party for my then new release, …just visiting three. For those of you who know me personally, along with others who happen to follow me on Twitter or Facebook know that I taught Music at a Special Education Charter school in Washington D.C. (Rock Creek Academy) to high school kids for five years. Well, August 5th is significant because it marked the last day of summer school at RCA, which also meant that our staff had the entire following week off before it was back to the start of yet another fall semester. I would ALWAYS take the summers off, just so I could regain my sanity and have some time to myself in regards to being productive in the studio without having to worry about my day job. Despite not working in the summer, I was still able to remain connected to the happenings in the school because I still received work emails on my phone. That morning, we all received an email from the CEO of the school that read like this:
After reading the email, I saw nothing out of the ordinary. Normally when we would get this same type of email at the end of each semester or summer session, it would serve almost as our “enjoy your time NOW… because in a week, it’s back to the plantation!” warning. Even with seeing and reading this email, I was so determined to keep the school out of my mind until it was actually that time to go back in there to work - I think any teacher can relate to that. At the time I was focused on my upcoming trip to Atlanta that I had scheduled for another…just visiting three album listening party at Moods Music that Sunday, the 7th. Soon after returning home from Atlanta on Monday, August 8th, received a text from a friend of mine who was formally employed at Rock Creek Academy with me…
"You hear about RCA?"
I responded… “No, what happened?” …but I already pretty much knew what she was about to respond with. When folks text you out of the blue asking if you’ve “heard about” someone or something, it is rare that a positive update will follow. She then proceeded to tell me that the school had shut down and that there should be a letter in the mail formally confirming this. I got up and walked outside to check the mailbox. Sure enough there was a large white envelope from Rock Creek Academy, Inc. that contained one letter of recommendation, a letter instructing us on how to keep our health benefits, and a two-page letter informing us that our signed, upcoming 10-month teaching contracts were “terminated” effective immediately due to the permanent closure of the school. Although the news came as no surprise to many of us (even though we were “assured” throughout the spring semester of 2011 that we had nothing to worry about as the school would remain open in the future), it was kind of a shock when it actually happened. What wasn’t a shock though was the fact that the two-page letter was dated Friday, August 5th… The same day the CEO sent out the “not-so-out-of-the-ordinary” email above thus confirming in print what we all already suspected… He knew. How far in advance did he know the school was shutting down? There’s no telling, but I think he was aware of it way in advance. Personally, I have always thought that was shady as shit… Regardless of what it was, what I SAW was the door to “Full-Time Musicianship” fly wide open, which was excellent… There was also a HUGE change taking place, which set the stage for a rather intense mental battle to take place… The battle started off as a back and forth debate…
"But you’re making a huge impact in some of these kids’ lives" vs. "You’re also making an impact in people’s lives who listen to your music"
"You are salaried at the school" vs. "Music isn’t salaried, but you can definitely work to make it very consistent"
The debate slowly started becoming a bit one-sided…
"Your being an artist was not at all respected by the school at all… Until it was time to show you and your students off" vs. "Your art is respected by your listeners and supporters"
"While you ARE salaried, the school has it set up to where they are not paying you for two consecutive missed days whether you have leave hours or not" vs. "You can go out on the road whenever you need to - No permission needed, no leave slips"
These were all factors that I was weighing when deciding whether or not to go back into the classroom as a music teacher. The thing is, I am very passionate about passing music down to the younger generation of kids - whether it comes in the form of music theory and education or just simply letting them hear my favorite Earth, Wind & Fire record to expose them to what I think is “good music.” I think that it is our duty as music lovers to expose these children early to some good undeniable music. It’s always silly to me when I hear people complaining about what our kids listen to, yet they have never once schooled a kid on anything music-related. Let these kids hear some stuff and pass some history along with the song and they just may surprise you by taking to it. I eventually decided to continue passing along my knowledge of music in the form of private piano lessons, which actually started at the top of this month… Despite not working in a formal classroom setting, music education never stops.
The one thing that I’ve learned since becoming a musician full-time is if you want to know how people truly feel about you, go into business for yourself and start doing what you love as a profession. Maaaaaan, that shit is TELLING!! The few things that I have learned about myself have been interesting as well. For example, I realized that once I get focused on productivity and being consistent whether in the studio, the gym, or on-stage, I have an extremely low tolerance for folks with constant negative energy. I wasn’t fully aware of that until recently and I have certainly had to adjust accordingly. On the other hand, my family and close friends have been nothing BUT supportive in my recently enhanced musical journey and to them I would like to say, “Thank you” and “I love you” for it because honestly, it is part of what drives me during some of those “low” days. Overall, the school’s immediate closure has certainly opened up brand new opportunities as well as a brand new purpose and motivation behind my music career that has resulted in a greater amount of shows and studio time and subsequently a lesser amount of sleep. I am extremely anxious to let you all hear what I have been working on since the closing of Rock Creek Academy and thank YOU for continuing to support what I love to do and that’s create and release quality music.
Zo!'s Top Five Moments of 2011 - #5 The Co-Signing of "Flight Of The Blackbyrd" by Original Member Of The Blackbyrds, Allan Barnes
Whenever I do a cover of a song, or in this case an original piece that serves as dedication track paying homage a favorite group (The Blackbyrds) and favorite production team (The Mizell Brothers), the way that I judge the finished product is by asking myself, “Do you think that this piece can be presented to the original artist… WITH confidence?” If the answer to that question is a “yes”… I keep it. If I feel otherwise, I will not hesitate to start over or completely scrap something I don’t deem high-quality enough to keep around. With that being said, let’s discuss a phone call I received the afternoon of January 18th while I was in the classroom teaching… I couldn’t get to my phone obviously, so I let it go to voicemail. When I finally had a free minute to check it, I looked and saw that it was saxophonist and original Blackbyrds band member, Allan Barnes who called. Oh damn, word?! Now, I had not talked to him since the summer of 2007 when I went back home to play keys in Detroit’s CityFest with my former band, The Gorilla Funk Mob (ironically, I actually JUST found footage of this performance on YouTube last month). From checking the voice mail, he was giving me a shout letting me know that he was in D.C. for a day or two… Alright, sounds good to me. So, I called him back and we chopped it up about that for a few minutes. Suddenly, it hit me… I need to ask him about hearing "Flight Of the Blackbyrd" from SunStorm!! A friend of mine and GFM drummer, Tate McBroom told me that he played the record for him a few months prior… Being an original Blackbyrd, I was anxious to hear his opinion first-hand…
Me:I’ve been meaning to ask you about this for a minute…. Have you heard the “Flight Of the Blackbyrd” joint?
Allan Barnes:What? Your joint?
Me:Yeah… The one that just came out last year.
AB:Oh yeeeeeeeah!! That’s the SHIT man!!
Me: *Trying my best not to attempt a back flip that I know I can’t execute*
It was probably the shortest and most direct approval I had ever received, but it didn’t lessen how humbled I was, especially being as though the only other song I have ever received praise for from the original artist was my cover of "Star Of the Story" by Heatwave… Of course as soon as I got off the phone with AB… I passed the positive news along to Phonte.
Allan’s words came in addition to what happened soon after SunStorm was released in July of 2010. Larry Mizell Jr. tweeted Phonte and I regarding “Flight Of the Blackbyrd” giving the Mizell Family’s approval… (I wish I would have favorited that tweet). Talk about HONORED. You never know who is listening and possibly enjoying your music - particularly when your music is “to” them…
Studio Campfire Stories: "Playing Your Game, Baby" (feat. Anthony David - @Antneedee)
Music is pretty funny….. Scratch that. Music is hilarious - Particularly when it comes to its creation. I’d like to consider myself a free thinker when it comes to making music mostly because it eliminates any boundaries, but also because music can be so unpredictable… ALL the time. Being that this is the last SCS for …just visiting three, it’s only right that this one is probably the most interesting. So with that being said, I will begin the story by saying that "Playing Your Game, Baby" was chosen and re-created for none other than one of my favorite emcees of all-time (in my “Top 5” EASILY)… Tariq Trotter a/k/a Black Thought. Rewind back to 2009 when Phonte was working with The Roots on the How I Got Over album… He gave me a call after the work was finished and told me how big of a fan Black Thought was of our Zo! & Tigallo Love the 80’s album AND said that he was wanting to get on something in the future… I damn near dropped the phone. All I could manage to do or say was the brilliant, “WORD?!” But yeah, I was ready to run laps around Maryland… YES, the state. So, about a year or so later at the Roots Picnic in June of 2010, I was there with The Foreign Exchange relaxing, taking part in some good food and helluva jokes before going on stage to perform. Well, the next you know, Black Thought walked up to our table. We met and talked just a little bit after Phonte introduced everybody and after telling him that I was a huge fan he said, "I’ve gotta get up on one of your joints…" *insert silence here* I was pretty proud of myself at the way I played it off… Because I FELT like saying, "OH SHIT! LET’S WORK TOMORROW THEN!!" …..But, I didn’t. We exchanged info and kept it moving…………. And I was hyped up about it, hell I can’t lie. Been listening to this brotha since ‘93/’94 I had a right to be…!! Since SunStorm was already completed and manufactured by that time, the question then became, “Ok, HOW should we work? What would be the best situation?”
Fast forward to the top of 2011….. …just visiting three was in the middle of production and Phonte put Black Thought’s name out there as someone we should work with on the album. BET! Let’s do that!! Phonte hit him up, he said he was down… It was looking great. The only issue was…. What the hell song are we gonna have him sing?!?!!! A month went by……….. Two months………. We would go back to the conversation every now and then to see if there were ANY new ideas. There were a couple of joints in mind including one by uhh…. J.B. (not James Brown). Finally, a week or so after that conversation.. Phonte and I got back on the phone to decide once and for all what Tariq would be singing. Once again, I went to my trusty laptop and started scrolling through my iTunes selections. To be honest with you, I cannot remember who suggested Barry White… But I do remember picking the song “Playing Your Game, Baby” out directly from my iTunes library. From that, Phonte gave me the, “I’m wit that” and we moved forward in sending it and the lyrics through to Thought… In the meantime, I went in the studio to attempt to recreate this damn masterpiece of a song. Let me tell y’all something… The bond that me and “Playing Your Game, Baby” have formed over the years going all the way back to my days as a child is unbreakable. When Black Moon sampled it for the "I Got Cha Opin (Remix)" in ‘94, I LOVED the joint. I even felt it when Ill Al Skratch used it for "Where My Homiez?" It’s just something about the big orchestration over that simplistic GROOVE. And one thing that I never realized until Anthony David and I talked about it later on was how simple Barry’s writing and vocals were. There was ONE vocal track, no adlibs, no harmonies… Not saying that this formula works all the time, but for this song it was a perfect compliment to what was going on musically.
Being that this song is another one of my personal favorites, I took great pride in wanting to do it correctly and do it some justice. I knew that the first things I thought about when someone talks about “Playing Your Game, Baby” are how crispy and pronounced the drums are and that simple but nasty and well-placed bassline. So that’s what I recorded first… I made sure the drums that I programmed were close to the original and I played the hi-hat out live. Once that was laid, I grabbed the bass guitar and and recorded it keeping it close to the original but adding a couple of my own licks here and there. The rhodes piece followed and then…. The strings. Man, man, MAN. That was a piece that would make or break the song. If the strings weren’t right, I would have scrapped the entire song without hesitation. BUT, they actually met my own skeptic ass approval and that particular draft was sent over to Black Thought to record to. Soon after we sent the music off, the horns were added. When I heard those horns on the track for the first time, I damn near turned my own computer over. They sounded GREAT!!! Now, we ran into trouble at this point because the brotha Tariq Trotter is BUSY AS ALL HELL. I don’t know if the dude ever stops going… He’s on constantly on the road and appearing on the Jimmy Fallon Show with The Roots, in the studio recording, popping up at spots performing internationally…. With that type of schedule, I was patient and understanding. If he couldn’t record it, not a problem at all - There will be time to work on something else in the future, I was definitely sure of that. But as we inched closer to the end of production for the album and its deadline, we had to figure something out. Who out here is gonna sing…. No, no, no… who out here is gonna SAING Barry White?! I mentioned Anthony David one time… Phonte and I talked about it briefly and let it sit for about a week or more. Finally, Phonte hit up A.D. and put him on alert… ”Ayo, we may need you to come through and knock this Barry White joint out for the new album, you down to do it just in case?” He said he was down… So the music and the lyrics were sent to him. If I remember correctly, I think he was on the road doing some shows on the East Coast when he received the files. He said that once he got back home, he’d take care of it. Aaaaand just a few days later, I had an email with a file labeled “Playing Your Game AD Vox” ready to be downloaded. I damn near jumped outta my seat because these vocals were the LAST things needed for the album. I downloaded it and quickly played it in iTunes… I wasn’t patient enough to listen through the minute and a half long instrumental piece in the beginning, I scrolled right to the vocals and waited………… As SOON as I heard that first bar I said to myself… but outloud, "Maaaaan THIS dude is WHYLIN!" Ok, ok, ok…. He’s got the verse part down. NOW, let’s see what it’s lookin’ like when this hook comes in when Barry raises his voice and really let’s the girl know what’s on his mind…. *the hook comes and I hear Anthony David say* "Ya PLAYIN’ A GAAAAAME!!! IT’S SO PLAAAAAIN!!" And then the END of the hook when he hit the, "Nobody but YOOOOOUUUUUUUU AAAAAND MEEEEEEEE!!" ….Maaaaaaaaaaan, you would have thought a Detroit team had won a World Championship the way I was acting after hearing that - because without even hearing the rest of the song, I knew he had nailed it. To have come through in such a huge way, the respect I already HAD for the brotha tripled… And to this day, he and I have never even met face-to-face. Crazy, right?
I think with this song being one of the more familiar selections on the album along with the fact that it vamped out a little longer at the end musically, it was the perfect closing track. As I said at the beginning, music is totally unpredictable, but I’m extremely happy with how things turned out in the long run as I couldn’t have asked for better performances. I can’t wait to get up with everyone again for the next album….
Studio Campfire Stories: "Same Ole Love" (feat. Jeanne Jolly @Jeanne_Jolly)
Some of you may remember the good ole days when I taught music to Special Ed. High School kids (up until the school shut down completely at the top of August). Well, the most difficult part about maintaining a “9 to 5” and being a working musician is being able to keep some crazy late night hours. There were times that I would be getting off of a red eye flight from the west coast or getting off of an overnight MegaBus/BoltBus ride from a gig in NYC and then driving directly to work… This particular morning was no different. I don’t remember exactly how late I was up the previous night, but I do remember one thing… I. Was. TIRED. During the spring semester in 2011, second period was my planning period. So as soon as my first period class left the room, I would look VERY forward to my 50 solid minutes of peace and quiet before my rowdy ass third period class came in. But just as I was settling in to some silence… My cell phone started ringing - It was Phonte with an epiphany…
Phonte: "Ayo man… We need to remake "Same Ole Love"…. with JEANNE JOLLY and flip it into a COUNTRY song.”
Me: *thinking… humming the song to myself* "………..Hell yeah!"
P: "Cuz if you break it all the way down, "Same Ole Love" ain’t nothing but a country song anyway."
M: "I say, let’s run it…"
I actually had “Same Ole Love” on the computer in my classroom and decided to learn the chords and changes as soon as we got off the phone. From learning the music, I was able to then hear my own drum pattern overtop of the hooks. I then walked over to the drumset in the classroom and practiced that particular pattern until it was time for my third period class to come in… Matter of fact, I practiced that pattern more than a few times because I wanted to be the one to record them and I wanted them to be laid with the same groove and swing that I had in my head.
One of the great things about this remake is not only Jeanne’s performance, but the fact that since she has been on the road with The Foreign Exchange and been pulled into various studio sessions covering several genres of music, she has ignored being a good “Country singer” and has begun to build a solid reputation as a being a dope SINGER… Period. We knew that creating this song for Jeanne and putting it on the album would be a wild card move, without question. Sometimes it is difficult to get listeners to think outside the box, especially with a song that a lot of folks connected and grew up with…. We could already see the tweets and the comments coming…. “Wait a minute, a white country singer redoing a joint by ANITA?!” ….”I KNOW she ain’t doin’ no Anita Baker song!” No problem… We had a plan. First, we weren’t sure if Jeanne was familiar with the original version or not… Either way, we made it a point to keep Anita’s version away from her simply because Anita has such a distinct tone and sound and we didn’t want it to influence our version at all - plus I was confident that it would help our version stand out a little bit more. So after recording just the piano part to a click track or a metronome… Phonte laid down reference vocals for Jeanne to listen to before she actually went in to record it herself. I even put the piano/click track on my phone so that I could practice the drum pattern on the kit WITH the recorded music playing during my down time in the classroom…. At that point it was just a matter of figuring out when we were going to record the joint in full.
I just so happened to be in North Carolina at Phonte’s spot for what ended up being a few days in April, I was on Spring Break from teaching. Ironically enough, the majority of “Same Ole Love” was recorded the day after Phonte and I recorded our now infamous parody of Mark Morrison’s "Return Of the Mack." My greedy ass was actually going to work on a Cookout burger while Jeanne came on through the house so she and Phonte could record vocals. In the meantime, I was waiting on a call from +FE frequent collaborator and live band guitarist, Chris Boerner so that I could take a trip to his house and record the drums. I mean, I had taken along one of my favorite snare drums on the plane and everything for this! I ended up getting the call and left the vocal session to head over to Boerner’s spot to set up for my first live drum recording session… On a full kit, that is. It was a quick set-up, no issues at all…. Levels were adjusted, a few drum mic tweaks here and there, then it was time. I played the kit and actually got the drums sounding the way I wanted them to sound on only the second take… Damn near surprised mySELF! Chris dumped the drum tracks on my flash drive and I took them AND the vocal tracks home with me the following day to plug into the open session in my studio. After putting them all together, I recorded the bass guitar track and some additional percussion instruments in order to make the song bounce a little bit more. After I sent the joint to Phonte, he had Boerner add some acoustic guitar… RHYTHM acoustic guitar that really added some more movement to the end hook and dammit… Allyn Love came in and “made the song cry” with that pedal steel guitar. When I heard those final two elements, I was rewinding things MORE than a few times. I was even influenced to add the string line at the end to give the song more of a finalé. Pedal steel guitar? Jeanne singing Anita and sounding GREAT? Kats were proud of this one simply because we felt as though we were breaking a couple of rules and pulled it off successfully… It almost makes me anxious to shatter some more.
My first birthday cake (9/11/79)… I was probably analyzing the best method of attack at that point.
At approximately 10:50am in 1978, September 11th and I began to form a bond that would go on to last a lifetime to say the absolute least. This would become the day that as a kid I would get so hyped up that I would establish countdowns to simply because the date would involve celebration, presents, and most importantly… FOOD. In grade school, 9/11 was the day that marked my becoming another year older, which meant I could puff my little bird chest out a little bit more. THIS of course meant I was more… well… “grown”… or so I thought. I mean saying, “I’m 10” always sounded so much better than saying, “I’m 9” combined with whatever large fraction I could find to attach to my age in attempts to make myself sound even older, right? There were some 9/11’s where rather than baking a cake, Moms would make my favorite pie (cherry) and put birthday candles in that! Other times, I may have asked her to bring in cupcakes in for my classmates on 9/11 so that they could partake in one of my favorite pastimes: being greedy as all hell. Then of course, the highlight of my 9/11 was coming home after school and asking Moms if I could open the gifts that she and Dad picked up for me, not realizing at the time how fortunate I truly was………….. Well, then I would tear those presents open as if I had no home training at all.
Yeah, September 11th and I go back a quite a ways…
The World Trade Center Towers, NYC
9/11 began a bit differently in 2001. Already graduated with Bachelor’s in Studio Art (Graphic Design), I was still living in Bowling Green, KY working on pre-requisite courses for an MBA Degree a/k/a “I didn’t know what then hell I wanted to do with my life at that particular time.” Young, silly-acting and all set to turn 23, I began the early morning hours by running my mouth on the phone all night, which consequently caused me not to get much sleep at ALL, with the exception of maybe 30-45 minutes on the couch of my apartment after finally laying down at about 5:30am. One of my cousins from Florida called me to wish me a Happy Birthday…… At 6-something AM. He hit me with, "Happy Birthday cuuuuz…" My response was something like, ”#@%&!!!!, You realize it’s 6:00 in the damn morning??!…. Well… At least you called, thanks a lot.” After getting off of the phone with him, I decided like a crazy person to drive to campus so that I could get an early morning workout. Surprisingly, I had sufficient energy to start and complete the full workout routine. Upon finishing, my number one objective for the day then became: GET SOME REST… IMMEDIATELY. I got back to the apartment, took a shower, and was fully prepared to get in the bed, cover my face with the covers to help shield any additional morning sunlight that wanted to try and peek through the blinds and then drift off into dreamland. But by the time I peeled the covers back, the phone rang… I didn’t answer it. I had sleeping to do. …The phone rang again…. Same thing, I didn’t answer it. I definitely wasn’t expecting the phone to ring a third time in a row. So finally, I decided to pick it up…. It was one of my boys calling from campus. No “Hello”, just straight to…
"AYO… They flying planes into the Twin Towers!"
Wait a minute… Huh?! THE Twin Towers?…. What do you even say to that? Except for, ”The hell are you talking about?!”
"Maaan, turn the TV on CNN! It’s on there!"
I hung the phone up, went downstairs and turned the TV on and not only was it on CNN, but on EVERY channel there was a shot of the Twin Towers. By this time the North Tower had already been hit, was still on fire and some of its floors were engulfed in smoke… The first thing I thought about was my best friend and then former roommate who had JUST moved out of the apartment to NYC two or three weeks prior. I was trying to call him… Nothing. I couldn’t get through - there were way too many calls going to New York at the time and the phone carriers were overextended. As I was attempting to call him, the calls began pouring in to my phone. To this day, I have never witnessed that much call activity on a phone that I owned in my life. Birthday wishes quickly turned into a, “Maaaan, this shit is crazy!” conversation… My mother even called and said,
"Are you watching the news?!! ………OH!! Happy Birthday."
That was a pretty hilarious moment to me looking back on it. But I think the seriousness of 9/11/01 REALLY sunk in when I saw the second plane hit the South Tower on live television… I was actually on the phone with someone at the time and we BOTH blurted out, "Oh SHIT!! ….Did you see that?!?!!" …and then there was just silence. I later found out that a young lady I grew up with was actually able to evacuate from one of the towers and avoid harm. Ironically enough, her first day on the job happened to be Monday September 10th, 2001.
The main question of the day became, “Where are they gonna hit next?” And even more importantly, WHO exactly is “they?” I even remember the mall in Bowling Green, KY closing down early that day and I thinking…. "Maaaaaaaan, terrorists ain’t thinking about attacking the damn Bowling Green mall!!" This was one day that I will say that there was entirely too much going on, but there was absolutely nothing you could do about it but remain glued to the news. Oh, and I failed to mention the fact that I had an Economics exam scheduled for 5:30pm that day as well… Let’s just say I didn’t get to finish studying for it. And that sleep I was attempting to get all day, that didn’t happen either. And while I was hearing that campuses were canceling classes nationwide, we still went to Economics class that evening and took the exam. It was the only thing I got a “B” on the entire semester… But on the way back from class, I stopped through Best Buy and scooped up the following new releases… Jay-Z’s The Blueprint CD and the Blow DVD.
No one really understood just how deeply we would be impacted by 9/11. It hit me like a ton of bricks when I was on a plane less than two weeks later. I sat down in my assigned seat and noticed that I had an entire row to myself. Hell… I had damn near the entire plane to myself! It seemed to have come with a cost because for the first time, I stood in a security line for almost an hour and a half. I remember being sent to a checkpoint of security where they would look through you bag in front of you by hand - tossing, lifting, shaking and adjusting the clothing in your suitcase until they were satisfied that you were “clean.” There were so many copycat acts of terrorism that followed that it just got to be ridiculous. For example, we can blame kats like Richard Reid for our having to place our footwear in a bin and having to walk through security detectors shoeless. The proces of catching a flight and even picking someone up from the airport hasen’t been the same since. Things changed damn near overnight pretty much to the point where we can specifically point to two very distinct eras in modern history, “Pre-9/11” and “Post 9/11.”
Showing no mercy on my birthday cheesecake during a restaurant celebration in September 2001 …Yes, this is normal activity.
Well… Post-9/11, I have chosen since its first anniversary in 2002 not to watch the news or any 9/11 related documentaries that day. As a matter of fact, I’ve watched one documentary on 9/11, of which I checked out only once back in 2003. It was so extremely detailed, well produced and ridiculously heavy that I don’t feel the need to look at any others… Since 9/11 and I have such a rich history, I will continue to utilize it as a day of celebration with my family and close friends… AND a celebratory alcoholic beverage…. AND a helluva plate of food!!
"Happy B-Day! Love, Zo" was the cake I made to mySELF in 2001… Hell, nobody else made one for a brovah!
Prayers and respect to those who were affected by the events of 9/11.
Love to my 9/11 Birthday family… Miz Korona, Curtis, and my brotha Grap Luva…
Studio Campfire Stories: "Everything She Wants" (feat. Phonte - @Phontigallo)
"Everything She Wants" was actually the LAST song recorded for the album. The reason why Phonte is on the joint is because…. well…. we both knew that he and I could complete a song super quickly and efficiently. At the time I was looking to get just ONE more joint on the album to being the total to seven and nothing was showing any promise. I was debating on whether or not to do an instrumental track as was done on …just visiting too, but selection-wise nothing was coming together. It’s kind of a difficult position to be in because as an artist because you never want to force creativity, yet the deadline you set for yourself is staring you in your face and suggesting otherwise. Well, there was about a week left until the deadline the day that I started looking through my iTunes collection and spotted a song that I thought might be perfect… My text to Phonte read:
"Left field idea for JV3… "Everything She Wants" by Wham"
….Then I waited.
Looking back in my text history, there IS no return text… Why? Because Phonte called me back…. Now we all know it serious when you send somebody a text and they hit that ‘talk’ button on you. And now, to give you more proof in regards to how much kats are on the same page musically, he basically told me that he had always wanted to remake that particular joint mainly because he talked about how well-written the song was. Well shit!! Sounds like we have a winner!! The discussion that followed involved HOW we were gonna remake it. The first issue at hand: Tempo. We agreed that we would either have to do more of a sped up version of it to make it our own, or a version where the tempo was slower… we chose the latter. The funny thing is, I remember thinking of the drum pattern that I was going to use while he and I were still on the phone. As soon as we hung up, I went down to the studio and started working on a slower and more grooved-out version of “Everything She Wants” by programming and recording the drums…
As a musician and a producer, it’s ALWAYS a positive when the music that you end up creating is identical to what you hear in your head. That is something that has taken me years of practice and repetition to be able to pull of more consistently. This is exactly what happened with “Everything…” - The drums, the swing, the recreation of the music became exactly what I heard in my head. And when this does happen, I get reeeeal hyped up about how it sounds. But even with everything sounding the way it did, I still felt as though it could go somewhere else. Once again, Phonte and I hopped on the phone… and we began to bounce ideas back and forth. I kept saying that the turnaround in the bridge sounded like SOMETHING and I couldn’t put my finger on it to save my life. After about 15-20 minutes of brainstorming… Dropping the subject and coming back to it, the conversation sounded something like this…
Me:"We’ve gotta be able to flip it into something else"
*a few seconds of silence*
Phonte:"Ok… What about ‘Remember The Time?’"
Me: *turned to the keys and played the music from “Everything She Wants” as it transitions into “Remember the Time”* “…………HEEEELL YEAH!!! THAT’S THE ONE!!!”
Soon after we got off the phone, I laid down a full demo version, which consisted of the already finished drums and just a Rhodes keyboard track where I played both the bass and the chord parts. I sent it on through to Phonte and waited for him to record his vocals. Once I got his vocal reference back, the one thing that stood out to me was that the slower tempo made me focus in on the lyrical content more. For those who know me well understand that this is HUGE, because I usually get so caught up in analyzing the music that never really pay attention to the lyrics, which is why it takes me forever to learn them. Vocally, I was hearing Phonte get bolder and more comfortable with his range and also with the harmonies he used throughout the song. Being able to witness this kat that I consider my brother grow as an artist firsthand has been a priceless experience in itself. And in my humble opinion, as was done with "Black Cow" joint - he nailed this one…
Studio Campfire Stories: "Marzipan" (feat. Eric Roberson & Phonte)
There are two key characteristics that are common when Phonte and I get into very involved music conversations… 1. They are never planned. It’s never formally announced, “Ayo man, we’ve gotta get up and talk about some music.” …Nope. It just happens. 2. The conversation usually lasts for a few hours. Kats are usually sitting at our computers going through iTunes like, “Hol’lup… Have you heard THIS shit though?! …. NAH but WAIT!! Remember that Timbaland remix joint from so and so that was on the such and such soundtrack?!?” Yeah… 2-4 hours of this - Sending music back and forth and putting each other on to new joints. Well, about three years ago during one of these conversations Phonte put me up on this song called "Marzipan" by a kat named Eric Tagg who I looked up immediately and found out that he was most known for his work with guitarist Lee Ritenhour ("Is It You"). I can specifically remember how hyped Phonte was about the joint… and this was looong before we even talked about possibly covering it. I’m actually glad it happened that way, because it gave me a chance to just enjoy the song and let it sink into my memory for a couple of years before I began to really study it. I even ended up picking up Eric Tagg’s entire Dreamwalkin’ album just because of the one song… I had to hear more of his work.
Fast-forward to January 2011… Phonte threw the song out there as an idea for …just visiting three - this was no surprise to me at all. Funny enough, the FIRST thing that came to mind was the famous Cosby Show"CHALLLLLOOOONNGE!!" scene because knowing how the song went, I understood that the chords and the off-count of the verses were NOT straightforward at all… I knew from the jump that I would definitely have my work cut out for me. The good thing is, I enjoy challenges. So I figured that if I sat with the song long enough in “study mode” everything would fall into place. Well…. that’s KINDA what happened. It took me getting frustrated with the verse chord progression, shutting the song down…. coming back to it, and cussing out Eric Tagg and his engineer because the keys were tucked so well in the mix in that there were spots in the song where I couldn’t even hear specific chords. BUT… I FINALLY figured it out. That was by far the toughest part of the song to cover. Once those chords were figured out, I damn near felt in the clear. So finally, late January during a day that school was canceled because of heavy snow and ice, I turned the studio on in the morning and ended up recording the full instrumental by lunch time. I was hyped up because I had just purchased a new snare drum a week or two prior and wanted to utilize it for this particular recording session. To be honest, it was the new snare’s sound that helped shape and mold the direction and recreation of this song… I’m not really sure how I can explain that, but I’ll try my best. If you understand the abilities and the full working potential of a NEW instrument, not only will your ideas be enhanced, but production doors will fly open for you. Picking up that new piece of equipment and demoing it during the recording process allowed me to take another risk or two with my drum playing that I probably wouldn’t have been pleased with otherwise. This is why I usually have NO problem with investing in studio equipment. More sounds = more ideas = more risks being taken in the studio.
Another interesting part about recording a cover is finding the correct vocalist for the song. We were looking for a male vocalist who could match the feel and the tone of the original joint. With Eric Tagg singing in a naturally higher register with a warm tone, there was only ONE kat who was even mentioned or thought about for this piece… Eric Roberson. Phonte who at the time had just finished recording a joint for Erro’s upcoming album Mr. Nice Guy, reached back out to him for my album. From what I remember, it didn’t take him long at ALL to turn the vocals around. But in the meantime, Phonte took the time to the hooks down, which gave the song new life in itself so when I finally heard Erro’s vocals on it, my instrumental sounded like a totally different joint. I hit Phonte up like, “Ayo… This is IT.” Just for good measure, instead of duplicating the guitar/synth solos in the original song, we decided to change it up just a bit and run guitar/trumpet solos back-to-back. Frequent +FE collaborator and live band guitarist Chris Boerner was called on once again to perform the guitar solo, which he took full advantage of by showing no mercy in the eight bars of space he was allotted. Mr. Johnny-On-the-Spot himself, trumpeter Stan Graham who can also be found on “Take Off the Blues,” “If I Could Tell You No,” and “Flight of the Blackbyrd” competed the solo package by adding his own melodic stamp, which opened up the feeling of the song even further. It’s amazing just how much appreciation you gain for certain pieces of music once you try to recreate it… “Marzipan” was a perfect example. I can’t listen to this song without completely reliving its creative process…
Videos & Pics from 1st Hit Listening Lounge Featuring Zo! (in Atlanta)
Zo! and Jodine During the Meet & Greet Source: Grown Folks MusicBy: Kimberly Kennedy Charles Zo! was in the building at Moods Music on August 7 for the Music Addikts and Harmony In Life’s 1st Hit Listening Lounge. Host Jodine Dorce of Jodine’s Corner and Zo! chop it up in an intimate, “Inside the Actors Studio” fashion about his background and passion before music, how some of his hottest collaboration tracks came to fruition, who his musical inspirations are and even why he gives away some of his music for free! It was a great time as in-store fans and fans via Twitter alike got the chance to interact and vibe with Zo! Watch the videos and see the pics here:
Ok, so I lied... Here's ANOTHER "Student Quotable"...
I had a student a couple of years ago who came into my classroom super late one day, I’m talking 5-10 minutes left of class late. So naturally, when he came through the door, I looked at him crazy and asked him, “Where were YOU?!” He responded by letting me know that he was caught by DC’s Truancy Police earlier that morning… He proceeded to explain to me how he attempted to outwit the police and it went horribly wrong.
"They told me to write out what school I went to (he attended Rock Creek Academy), I tried to lie and put "Roosevelt"….. But I didn’t know how to spell it. …So I just put "Rock Creek."
Studio Campfire Stories: "Driving" (feat. Sy Smith @Syberspace)
It seems as though all of the stories for …just visiting three begin with a phone conversation between Phonte and I. Welp, I guess with that being said………..
I was having a conversation with Phonte one day…… and he was telling me about a recent connection he made with a certain well-known female vocalist who essentially made it known that she was down to be on the album. Now knowing how things can change on a dime in music without much warning, I decided very early that I wasn’t gonna get too excited until I was listening to a final version of a song with her vocals on it. A few days later, Phonte sent me a folder of four joints, which included the song "Driving" by Everything But the Girl. I’ll admit, I remembered the song VERY vaguely… BUT out of the four that he sent, this is the one that both of us gravitated toward. Technically speaking, when I listened to the song and heard it bounce back and forth basically between two or three chords, I thought to myself, this is gonna be a pretty easy song to redo… This shouldn’t be a problem at all - That is, until I listened closer and heard about 593 layers of synth in the joint. It seemed like every time I listened, a brand new synth patch would mysteriously appear - the track was VERY deceiving. Even when I sent what I thought was the final music to Phonte… he hit me back right back, “Ayo… There’s a synth line that you missed. Go to (insert minute mark value here) and check it out…” DAMN!! I thought I GOT all of um!!! *Angrily opens Pro Tools file back up*
I actually finished a “to be recorded to” draft of the song pretty early… and THAT’S when the real fun began. Once Phonte got back in touch with the originally chosen vocalist, we discovered that her schedule, our album deadline, combined with our touring schedule probably wouldn’t work out - So we ended up having to look elsewhere. But I’m sure we will get to work with her in the near future on some original material… So we turned our attention to Paris, Amber, and Anita… otherwise known collectively as KING to handle the vocals. They were completely down AND were already familiar with the song, ok… dope! Well…… That is, until they were called on to do a small gig opening up at the LA Forum for uhhh….. none other than….. well, this kat outta Minneapolis, MN named…… Prince Rogers Nelson. We were REALLY happy for them landing that show and with the rehearsal schedule they were gonna have to keep, there was no way that they would have been able to record this song and we understood that completely. Meanwhile, during the creation of the JV3, I already knew that it was a must that I had to have a joint with my sister Sy Smith a/k/a “See Smeet”… I always tell people, Sy is one of the sweetest, most down-to-earth people you’ll ever come across…. AND she’s probably also “more real” than a lot of dudes you know - love her to death. And while I was racking my brain trying to think of a song to redo that would be tailor-made to fit her vocally, the answer was sitting right in front of my face the entire time. “Driving” was for Sy Smith… Period. Phonte and I were already plotting on her to record the joint before she even knew about it or heard it! I finally ended up playing the instrumental for her in the van while we were on the road with The Foreign Exchange traveling from Chicago to Indianapolis back in May and she loved it. After we went home from that Midwest run, she got together with Phonte and recorded her vocals. Once I heard the vocal draft, I thought to myself, “She sounds a little different than normal… But it sounds dope as HELL.” I couldn’t quite put my finger on what the difference was or why she sounded the way she did… I just knew that I loved it. When I got Phonte on the phone, he told me that Sy didn’t feel too well while recording it… Ahhhhhhhhh, NOW it makes sense. To me, her not feeling 100% ADDED to the emotion and the sincerity of what she was singing about and it also helped to make it her song. To drive that point home even further, I wanted to change the song at the end into one of my all-time favorite slow joints, "Inside My Love" by Minnie Riperton. When arranging in my head what I wanted to do to re-create “Driving”, the first song I thought about was ”Inside My Love”… the drums had a similar feel to me. So I allowed that particular drum pattern from the intro and the verses of Minnie’s song be the influence for the entire cover… I love Sy’s interpolation with the lyrics during that piece. She took Minnie’s opening “Two people….” line and played with it just enough to let the listener know what song we were changing into, but still subtle enough to where it may not hit you until the change is almost over……. Pretty sneaky there See Smeet.
Right off the bat I should tell you that "Everything She Wants" by Wham! has been one of my favorite songs since I first heard it as an impressionable nine-year-old, even though its themes of love being washed away by consumerism and economic pressures were far beyond my years; its gentle shimmy and dollop of funk on already-existing synthpop tropes—and, of course, the bravura vocal by the pre-Faith George Michael (particularly on the breakdown)—made me drop the needle on it again and again. This morning I was alerted to a cover of the track by the musician-producer Zo! and Phonte (late of Little Brother, now of The Foreign Exchange), and oh is it good; it slows the track down just enough to wring the longing out of it in a completely different way, with sputtering synths and a nice, juicy bassline. And there’s even a shout-out to Michael Jackson near the end, although I won’t spoil its exact nature… Read the Full Article
Studio Campfire Stories: "Let It Go" (feat. Nicholas Ryan Gant)
I can remember being reintroduced to the original song by Pages back in the summer of 2009 when Questlove tweeted it one day saying that he currently had the joint on repeat. From there, hell… I had it on repeat. The joint is yet ANOTHER reason why I could give a damn about a “genre.” Because if you look at a picture of Pages, there’s no way you would think that they created the many soul-infused gems that they did. But I remember tweeting Questlove back and my man DJ Brainchild catching what I wrote and letting me know to check their albums out as well… So I ended up grabbing three of their albums including their self-titled joint that was released in 1978. Fast forward to 2011 to yet another phone conversation between Phonte and I where we were discussing song ideas… “Let It Go” came up. My first response came in the form of words spoken by the legendary Negro Physician, Dr. Dre, "HEY-ELL yeeeah."
As a listener, I felt it was gonna be VERY important to try and recapture the warmth of that 70’s recorded instrumentation from the original record. I could tell that the updating was going to begin with the drums… So once again, I started recording and programming the drums first, along with a live hi-hat and a cabasa pattern that mimicked the “Zimba-Ku” drum break. Once I heard the drums fully recorded, I couldn’t WAIT to lay the rest of the song. (I actually video recorded myself laying down the live bass on the record, which I’ll be sure to post later on…) The keys were the hardest to pick up on because I couldn’t hear them too well in certain places, Pages’ mix had those chords tucked real well in some spots. The FUN parts were the synth solos, particularly in the middle of the song where it breaks down… there are a few layering techniques I used to manipulate it sonically to where it is now. It was one of those solos where if I messed up while recording it, I wasn’t mad because it was fun as hell to play anyway!
Of course once the music was finished, we had to figure out who was going to sing in this high ass register provided to us by the Pages brothers… especially those hooks! At first we thought of two vocalists, one to sing the verses and the other to sing the hooks… but one of the vocalists we were going to ask to do it was on extended vocal rest. To make sure he remained healthy and continued to improve, Phonte brought up Nicholas Ryan Gant. Now, I met Nicholas right around the time I moved out to Maryland in 2006 as he was singing background for Muhsinah. The thing is, I didn’t realize how extremely vocally talented he was until maybe last year when he came on stage with us as The Foreign Exchange was performing "Maybe She’ll Dream Of Me" in NYC at BB King’s in October. Man look…. I don’t even think Nicholas understands how talented Nicholas is. He was killin’ on stage… We exchanged numbers very soon after that impromptu performance. lol Needless to say, when Phonte brought him up… I was all for it. He sent Nicholas the music and we waited…. In the meantime, Phonte hit me up with the “check your email” text… UH oh. I checked the joint…. and Tay has laid some background vocals on it, now the song is slowly starting to come to life. The part that was getting me was “Let cha!! …Love GO!!” ……”Whoa-whooooa …whoaaaaawhooaaoooooo!!” I was like, “YO!! This shit is CRAZY!” With all that going on, I still wasn’t quite prepared for what was sent to me about one week later. When I finally got the demoed full vocal version from Nicholas, I was sitting in my classroom at the end of the school day and was forced to grab some student headphones to plug into my phone just so I was able listen right then and there. When I heard all of what was going on vocally, my only response was, “The hell is this kat DOING?! …..DAMN!! (followed by an additional array of colorful curse words and phrases)” The harmonies were on point, the dude’s runs were precise and not overdone and the original was still in tact. I called Phonte after about three listens and didn’t say much at all. Phonte responds to me by saying, “Man, he bodied that shit…” Uhh… Yeah, I agree. I actually sat in the studio and soloed a couple parts of his vocals so I could appreciate all of what he did to the song. There’s actually one vocal part that I didn’t even catch until later… The top of the third verse, listen closely to what happens… “There’s no need to explaaaaa-aaaaaa-aaaaa-aaaaaaain…” Nicholas takes the word “explain” and proceeds to drop the note three times… I didn’t catch it for a month. It may not be a big deal to him or to other kats who can “saing”… But I tried it (while alone, of course), and I sounded like an idiot…. The brotha is talented and I’m glad he got down and did his thing on the album as there aren’t many who can do what he does.
Sidenote: This was the first song completed for the album…
Studio Campfire Stories: "Black Cow" (feat. Phonte & Sy Smith)
Production work on …just visiting three began on December 22nd, 2010 following a phone conversation I had with Phonte discussing songs that I wanted to recreate for the new album. One of the songs that had my full attention at that particular time was Steely Dan’s “Black Cow.” I was already familiar with the song and the legendary Aja album that it comes from, but for some reason around this time, the song was hitting me a bit differently - I was beginning to break it down into individual parts and mapping out the different possibilities for the song in my head, which usually means that I am ready to sit down and start working on it. I took some time out to listen through it a few times to pick up on not only the instrumentation, but the overall “feel” of the record. In the past, I actually stayed away from this song because it’s one of those joints that I enjoy so much that I would want to be able to do it justice if and when I ever decided to tackle it (as was the case with Minnie Riperton’s “Perfect Angel” on …just visiting too). I’m a strong believer in completely trashing a song if I don’t feel like I’ve done it correctly. Luckily, with “Black Cow” I knew it was a keeper after I programmed the drums, then learned and recorded the bassline… Now, the TOUGHEST part about covering this song?!?! Learning. Those. Damn. Chord. Changes. Steely Dan…. WHAT were y’all ON creating this joint?! Whewww!!! Honestly, I took a couple of days to practice the chords on the keys before even sending it to Phonte as a demo run…
I finally sent the demo to Phonte as just the drums, live bass, and one keys track… We got back on the phone to discuss additions. My partner in crime, Sy Smith was scheduled to be on the East Coast to knock out a couple of solo shows, so the goal was to have her head on down to NC to record her vocals. The Foreign Exchange touring guitarist, Chris Boerner got the call to play those same chord changes overtop of my demo version… We actually laughed having to learn those changes later on at a soundcheck in Chicago… But he nailed it as usual. Next, we had to cover some of the horn parts. Phonte put in the call to the “go to” trio of woodwind instrumentalists consisting of Stan Graham on trumpet ("Flight of the Blackbyrd" & "If I Could Tell You No"), Andrew Kleindienst on trombone ("All Is Well With Love") and Matt Douglas on saxophone came through once again… We later gave the trio a group name: Wind Parade.
One of the best parts about working on a song with a vocalist or a collective of vocalists is… well, actually HEARING the vocals over your music! In this case I was extra hyped up because after working on the demo version for “Black Cow”, I immediately jumped over to start working on the music for "Marzipan." So to have received the vocals to that FIRST joint was an accomplishment - It always kinda serves as the album’s “ice breaker” to where, this is the project’s first major progression….NOW we’re off and running. And what a helluva progression it was. To hear Phonte “Donald” Fagen holding down the lead vocals almost brought back the same feeling I had hearing his vocals for our cover of Toto’s “Africa” four years prior. Right as I was thinking and saying to myself while listening to the first couple of bars, "You’ve GOT to be kidding me…. THIS is CRA….. *out of nowhere the harmony part with Sy comes in “Yooooooooou were high!!”* ……………………*BLANK STARE* "…OH ok, these kats are TRULY whylin’ out right now!!" From there, I re-laid my key parts which included the rhodes solo, added a live hi-hat to complete the drum pattern, and some additional strings at the end to add some dynamics. I know that I’ve heard that Steely Dan isn’t too keen on people sampling them, but I would LOVE for Donald Fagen and Walter Becker to hear our version just to get their thoughts… That would be an honor.