Stripped-Down Soul: A New State of Mind


Stripped-Down Soul: A New State of Mind

A new release by ASM means a new playing field for the producer and two emcees. The jazzy boom bap on an early release like 'Platypus Funk' differs in many ways from the orchestral compositions on 2015's 'The Jade Amulet,' or the heavy 808s and bass on last year's album. Their new 'Blue Cocoon' EP is once again a new take on hip-hop and sampling. Tracklib spoke to ASM producer RHINO about his raw chops and soulful loops, taking away traditional drum patterns, and productions by the likes of The Alchemist and Madlib.


Danny Veekens


September 23, 2020

It’s refreshing to hear that Blue Cocoon is full of raw soul chops and loops. Especially compared with a release like The Jade Amulet.

During the process of The Jade Amulet, I got to the point that I was like, ‘I can’t really use samples anymore.’ Even more so after we spent so much money on clearing samples for the previous album, Crown Yard.

For me, The Jade Amulet with all the live musicians and the orchestra, was some of my best production. Ever. But we were still constantly chasing the idea of ‘How can we make it sound like samples?’ So we went into a studio in Paris called One Two Pass It, to work with Mr. Gib who is a specialist in analog gear from the 60s and 70s. So we recorded and mixed everything 100% analog. Took away the laptops and all the digital stuff, used only vintage gear, and recorded everything to tape. Just because we were after that 70s sound we usually got to through sampling. That’s the music we like to listen to the most: the 60s and 70s. Or hip-hop sampling music from those decades. So even without samples, we were chasing that warm, analog, vintage sound.

ASM A State of Mind Hip-hop Group France

Guess that’s also the case for Blue Cocoon. Let me put it this way: You go back to your love for sampling. Yet at the same time, it also feels very new: less traditional drum patterns, and sampling techniques more in line with newer releases by the likes of The Alchemist or Madlib, to name two examples.

I guess after years of making hip-hop drums-based music with ASM, we wanted to try something different and interesting. That’s also the case for all our releases: every album has its own ‘sound aesthetic.’ Each one is a progression. If you want jazzy boom bap beats, there’s Platypus Funk. If you want epic orchestral compositions, you have The Jade Amulet. Our last album, Color Wheel, was a bit more heavy with the bass and 808s. But for Blue Cocoon we wanted to strip it all the way down to raw, soulful loops and take away the drums.

Why take away the drums?

So much of the music we listen to is like that. We listen to a lot of jazz, soul, funk & reggae from the 70s. That music doesn’t always have those super forward head-nodding drums. And recently, there’s been a bit of a revolution in that by producers like Madlib and The Alchemist. Or even when you go back a decade and a half, to J Dilla: he was the king of snappy, swinging drums. And then he did Donuts and kind of stripped way back and added minimal bits of drums here and there. That album was also heavily grounded in soulful cut-up loops.

We always wanted to do that with ASM, but didn’t really have the opportunity to get so nerdy with samples because of the possible issues with clearing. So once Tracklib became available, we saw new possibilities to go that route without worrying about potential clearance issues.

It’s fascinating to see music originally birthed from drum breaks now move to productions with less prominent drum patterns. Do you feel like it’s a current trend, or does it hint a bigger innovation in beatmaking?

In a way, it’s kind of like the anti-trap movement. A lot of the beats you hear these days have the exact same drums, the rattling hi-hats, those 808s… I don’t want to hate on that, it’s cool in some situations. But somehow, it all starts to get a bit samey. I feel like there are some producers who move away from that to do the total opposite. To take it all the way back down to its essence: the samples. The loops. The little chops. To me, that’s so much fun. When I make trap-oriented beats, I don’t find so much fun in it because I often get locked into following certain patterns. But when you find a sample and chop it up, it’s always going to be different. A sample always gives you new life or a new direction it takes you in.

That struck me while listening to Blue Cocoon. There are no drum grooves in the traditional sense, but it still feels like there’s a certain groove throughout the EP.

Exactly. That's because it’s not stripped down to nothing. It still uses some of the original drums from the sampled tracks, and I use a lot of EQs and compressors to bring out the original drums a bit more. To make it knock a little louder, without necessarily adding a phat hip-hop break.

"We wanted to strip it all the way down to raw, soulful loops and take away the drums."

—Fade a.k.a. Rhino

In which way did that approach change your process of producing beats?

I guess it took me back to getting a little choppy and loopy with samples, which I haven’t done for years. It was a natural progression to me of rediscovering my love for that. I’ve been making beats since I was fifteen years old. From there, you grow and keep getting better and better, and work on a variety of projects. In my case, also more electronic-based productions as Rhino, some reggae, or the early boom bap tracks with ASM. Then when you return to sampling, all those little elements of different production techniques you’ve picked up on, get their influence into it.

There are a lot of sirens in reggae music that I put into some of the tracks on Blue Cocoon. I also sample a lot of 1950s sci-fi theremins and weird sounds like that. This is also because during the production process, I envisioned this dystopian 50s sci-fi end-of-the-world kind of thing. It felt a bit like that was going on while we were making the music, with the lockdowns and COVID-19 as this crazy invisible enemy…

The samples also clearly play a role in that theme.

On the production side, I was definitely trying to find and use samples that make me feel like what was going on in the world. For example, in ‘Return of the Sabretooth,’ there’s this vocal sample of “Give back the freedom…”, sampling ‘Get Your Point Over’ by Sebastian Williams. To me, that sample perfectly illustrates the lockdown situation.

Or the second part of our track ‘Quarantina’ with the vocals “I want to walk out the door, I can’t stay here no more…”, taken from 'I'm Gonna Move On' by The Deltas. When I heard that, it sounded like a world in lockdown.

Was it refreshing for you to chop samples without the need to think about how the structures would be for the emcees? Did your new takes on the productions change their rhyming?

Definitely. One aspect which is really key when rhyming over these kinds of soul loops is not just the unique flows and patterns you have to find. But the fact that the vocals take on a different role: less percussive, sitting in the pocket and more like a lead trumpet or lead guitar. The words become more important as they're not just a rhythmic element sitting in the track, but are typically the element that clearly stands out in the mix.

Plus I tried to throw Green T and Funk.E Poet a few curveballs. Like the flow of the piano on the last track, ‘Say Goodbye’, is not super easy to rap over… Or sometimes I’d have a little word in a loop and they write that into their verse. I went nerdy on the digging side of things, and they—as real masters of the written word—went all-out nerdy on metaphors, syllables, deliveries, flows, themes… Also in, ‘How can we lead the mind of the listener in a certain pattern and turn it around?’ That’s something an emcee like MF DOOM does really well: he sets up a punchline, as a listener you think you know what he’s going to say—and then he says something else. He takes the listener on a journey.

Both Green T and Funk.E were up for a challenge with this release. They were equally a bit sick of constantly rapping over the same type of drum beats. I mean, there are Japanese poets who just write haiku all their life. Striving to find the perfect version. So we still love boom bap and those who master that craft. But for GT and FP, they wanted to try something new as well.

"We didn’t really have the opportunity to get so nerdy with samples because of the possible issues with clearing. So once Tracklib became available, we saw new possibilities."

—Fade a.k.a. Rhino

What does your digging process on Tracklib look like?

I have a LOT of folders on Tracklib with different sounds, different inspirations, and various projects, too. For this specific project, I took the date range of 1955 to 1970. I looked through the R&B/Soul and Funk categories, and any subcategories that came up. Generally, to start with, I filter on the Category C license. Not even because A and B are more expensive—that’s often because the artists are better known. But I like to find those hidden gems. Category C is where you can find the more obscure gems. To me, it feels like digging through the dollar bins in a record store. Finding bands I never heard of, but getting the record anyway because the cover looks dope. That’s what Category C feels like to me.

Everything sampled on Blue Cocoon is from that license category. There are even Ike & Tina Turner tracks in that license category! That’s crazy… For another project I sampled Ray Charles from that category. A track I never heard before. That’s super dope.

It’s interesting that you compare Category C with the dollar bins in a record store. So there are similarities between Tracklib and digging in record stores to you?

For sure! It’s a little bit different, though. When I only sampled from vinyl, I looked at the grooves, because you can see where there might be a breakdown or a drum break because the tint of the groove slightly changes. And of course needle-skipping through records. But I guess that’s also similar to when I dig through Tracklib: I click through the waveforms.

I just want to be able to get my ideas off of what I’m sampling straight into my sampler to start working the fastest. So I’m not a purist that I’m sad it’s not vinyl. I mean, I love records. But I just want to make the best music possible. If it’s dope: I go for it. Plus what I love a lot now, is that Loop Player.

Have you used Tracklib's Loop Player a lot for this new loop-based release?

We had a few inspirational talks together over Zoom. We talked about songs by Action Bronson and The Alchemist, and obviously Freddie Gibbs and Madlib with Bandana, or Alfredo by The Alchemist and Freddie. We were like, it’s time to finally do it. Using the Loop Player was a great start to find the right loop, or to hear if you had to get rid of a certain element.

For example, I selected the piano piece for ‘Quarantina’ from Ike & Tina Turner’s ‘Feel Good’ by using the Loop Player. And the one by The Deltas for ‘Survival Manifesto’ as well. That loop function is super dope. You know what would be sick? A way to pitch the music up and down while you loop. But then again, I live in the countryside and my internet is already having a hard time. Let alone with such a feature. [Laughs]

Do you feel like Tracklib can change the way people sample?

I think so, yes. There’s access to types of music I wasn’t able to find while digging in the crates back then, unless I went to that specific country or region. I love that Tracklib added loads of crazy Chinese music and Bollywood songs and soundtracks and all. Not everyone gets the opportunity to travel to those regions and dig for music. So it’s very cool that all of that is now within reach for any producer now.

Plus the fact that when you’re flipping music, you don’t have to hide the samples as much. That might change the way people make beats. Usually when I sample, I don’t use any vocals because that’s the most recognizable piece. But now, because I know I’m gonna fully clear the sample, I can take the full track, chop it up, and do anything with it. That’s what also happened on Blue Cocoon: I don’t have to hide anything. I can now even use vocal loops as little choruses or stories.

One other thing Tracklib is going to change, is that people can sample newer music more easily. There’s music on Tracklib released in 2018 or 2019. I know some people are like “Oh… I don’t know about that…” But it’s like, if you can make something great with it; go for it! We gotta stop using all these rules or looking down on other producers. Just do what feels good. Don't care too much about the so-called “producer rules.”

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