Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Agile of Brassmunk

Attention: absolutely zero Vampire Weekend content in this blog post.

Further to the Amon Tobin discussions earlier on this site, I penned another piece for the SOCAN magazine about the state of sampling in hip-hop songwriting today. It was inspired in part by Del Cowie's piece on Agile of Brassmunk and Big Black Lincoln that ran in Exclaim last summer. That article included a paragraph where Agile was explaining his shift from sample-based composition to playing most of the instruments on the new Brassmunk album, Fewturistic--without a doubt one of the most notable Canadian hip-hop albums of 2007.

The tone of the article is definitely directed at a non-hip-hop audience who might be confused how that genre works--especially when it comes to songwriting royalties--and so the line of questioning plays devil's advocate a bit.

I also interviewed Skratch Bastid for this article regarding his work on Buck 65's Situation album; that conversation is forthcoming.

Thanks to Mr. Cowie, ever the gentleman, for the hook-up.

DJ Agile, Brassmunk
January 23, 2008
Locale: phone conversation from his home studio

What advantages are there to avoiding samples altogether?

As an artist, you never know where a song is going to end up. And you don’t know if the person you’re sampling is cool with you getting a fair share of the publishing, depending on what kind of portion of the work you used. Sometimes it’s not so cool. I know an artist who sampled George Benson, but it wasn’t popular Benson stuff, it was obscure. He took some horn stabs and changed the composition of them; it wasn’t like he took a loop. And Benson wanted all the publishing. Obviously, he’s the songwriter and he can demand whatever he wants. A person like him probably doesn’t need the money; he doesn’t need to ask for 50 per cent of the publishing just for a couple of horn stabs. It’s not like the horn stabs were used like they were in the original; it’s not the same chord progression. If he asked for up to half the publishing, okay—but all of it?

So not sampling alleviates headaches. There’s a lot less paperwork, and it’s easier to maximize the earning potential of a song. Say Apple wants to use your song in an iPod commercial, and whoever you sampled from doesn’t like Steve Jobs and says no, you lose that opportunity.

I’m curious about how it works on hip-hop records where, say, one track has three samples on it, and each of those samples comes from a song credited to every guy in the band. So you end up with 15 people credited with composing the sampled tracks, plus however many people were involved in the production and lyrics of the new track, and then you have 20 people splitting all the royalties for one song.

Not really. It’s the sample and you. Say you and I did a track and we sampled some Earth Wind and Fire—sometimes they have a lot of songwriters on their stuff. They decide to go 50/50 with us. So that means you and I would split our 50, which is 25 each, and they get the other 50. That’s usually how it works.

How has this changed for you? I know that Fewturistic used far less samples than earlier Brassmunk stuff.

It’s the evolution of me as a producer. When I started, I was very old school and came from that Pete Rock/Dilla/Premier type of mindstate. I’m a DJ, so I always looked at hip-hop coming from DJs as it did in the beginning. DJs use records and samples, and that’s what my mentality was. I didn’t use a lot of keyboard stuff. My, how that has changed! It’s just age and experience. Now I’m open to new technology, new soundscapes, plug-ins. That whole world opened a third eye for me. It’s amazing and it’s helped me grow as an individual. I can’t remember how I used to make music before plug-ins. I listen to some old production and think, wow, I did a lot with nothing!

That’s impressive that you did, though.

It’s crazy when I think about what we used to do with an SI-50, a Kurzweil K-2000 and some samples. I don’t use either of those things anymore. I use my MPC 3000, ProTools on my Mac, and a tonne of plug-ins on my PC.

But is that better that what you were doing before, or is it the same thing but different? There’s a chance for people who don’t understand hip-hop to say, ‘Of course, he got better, he learned instruments.’ At the same time there’s a magic to what you can make with so little.

I definitely think I’ve got better, but I don’t think it’s the tools. They’re bigger and shinier than they’ve ever been, but getting a bigger and shinier car doesn’t make you a better driver. The same rules apply in music. Cooler tools will not make you a better songwriter or producer. For me, having those tools sparks excitement, but they’re not making me better. They’re giving me opportunities to do things I couldn’t do before.

Does this mean at some point in your career you’re going to do a back-to-basics record?

I’m working on something like that right now with a young guy from Toronto called Daytona. It’s an internet-only thing, and I’m using samples that we could never get cleared. I don’t have a Jay-Z budget. I don’t have a million dollars to buy a big sample.

Is that not unheard of?

Yeah, I do believe he paid a million dollars for “Hard Knock Life” from Annie. But, you know, he sold eight million records so it was a good investment. (laughs)

It’s been a long time since I’ve been using loops and adding drums. I was doing that in the mid-90s. Those days are over for me. Most of the samples I use now, I’m chopping them up. If I do sample something now, I’m mauling it until it’s unrecognizable. So if I do start a composition with a sample, I’ll hire a session player to replace certain elements. I can’t play guitar, so I have several guitar players on speed dial and they come in and re-play the sample, so I can take it out totally. That’s how Dre does his production; he’ll start with samples and then replays everything, and with his budgets he can get all the strings and everything.

So for you sampling is part of the compositional process rather than the end result.


What’s going on with your solo record?

It’s good. It’s more of a marriage now between commerce and music.

How so?

I have a bunch of songs done, and I have to get some featured artists on them. Then it’s a question of how to put it out. I’d like to put out an album, but the market is moving away from albums, more of a singles market again. That leaves me in a different headspace. I have 10-15 songs done, and a bunch of other sketches I’m touching up. I’m really focusing on how to put out my record. I’m looking at the better releases last year that actually scanned units; I mean, they had absurd marketing budgets, but at the same time they put out singles before the record came out.

Are you talking digitally? Physically?

A bit of both. Some freebies. Myspace-rs, Facebook-ers. You have to micromarket on the net now. Look at 50 [Cent]’s last album. He had four or five singles come out before the album. And Kanye did the same thing, and leaked a bunch of stuff that didn’t end up on the record. That seems to be the format now. Also, Radiohead did their pay-what-you-can thing, and they’re making money doing it. They’re a bigger band, obviously, but the business model has totally changed. Now that I have my project 60 per cent done, I have to think about that next step. I can’t just blindly make music.

When do you think you’ll start rolling it out?

By late spring the first piece of the puzzle will be out there.

Do you have any beats going out to other people right now?

I have a new person working my material, which I haven’t had for a while. But I’ve been focusing on my projects. The whole beat game has totally changed, and I don’t like where it’s going. It’s the music biz, so it’s always been shady, but it’s shadier than it’s ever been.

People undercutting, or what?

A lack of respect for artists’ work, period. Don’t get me wrong: I download like everyone else, but I also buy music. Why not download a song before you buy it?

Especially if you can’t hear it on the radio.

Exactly. So sure, go ahead. But there’s a whole generation growing up who are not supporting artists at all. Nothing is for free. The quality of the music that’s coming out is going to drop, because most artists can’t make a living at it and they’re going to do something else. The next Stevie Wonder is going to be a computer programmer, because he can’t make a living playing music. As a culture, we all suffer, because we’re going to lose that cultural contribution from that individual. Downloading for free may cost you nothing, but we all lose.

How’s your major label deal these days?

I don’t have one anymore. The Brassmunk deal with Virgin is done, and the distro deal with Universal for Big Black Lincoln is done as well. So for the first time in a long time, I’m a free agent.

Is that liberating or terrifying?

It’s great!

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