Album Cover via Son Raw/Instagram
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Son Raw talks about it AND he lives it.
The bar to be considered a successful DJ, at least in your 20s, is incredibly low. I’ve experienced this personally. No matter how small the gig, no matter how shitty the dive bar or sketchy the rave, there’s always someone who’s impressed by a DJ – if only because the DJ stereotype of the party-starting bon-vivant doesn’t really allow for an alternative. There are no sad DJs in popular culture.
This is not the case for rappers or for frankly, for anyone involved in making hip-hop music. Maybe it’s because decades of music videos with rented cars and mansions have warped people’s vision of rap success, or maybe it’s because we all know one struggle rapper who never should have rhymed in the first place. But for civilians without music industry connections, a rap album that does not lead to fame and an immediate financial windfall is a fool’s errand. Creating art of any sort can seem like a Quixiotic undertaking in modern society – but trust me when I say this – no one will encourage you to make a rap album. Personally, the prospect seemed even more daunting in my late 30s after 15-plus years of music criticism: I could see every snarky review I’d ever written rising from the dead to haunt me, should I not come correct. All I could think of was Meth’s immortal bars: “f*ck a rap critic, they talk about it while I live it.”
But life’s too short to give a f*ck about any of that – doubly so in the maelstrom of death that was the pandemic in 2021. And so, after years of DJing and beat tapes, I decided to produce my first full hip-hop album with an emcee named Five Steez from Jamaica. It became the most challenging but also the most rewarding artistic experience of my life. This is the story of that album’s creation.
But first, some perfunctory scene-setting and background info.
Hailing from Kingston, Five Steez is 1/4th of The Council Of The Gods, Jamaica’s premier hip-hop group and an artist I met through Equiknoxx, the shadowy Dancehall collective that has had a hand in everything from experimental instrumentals on UK labels to riddims laced by premier deejays like Busy Signal. I was invited to contribute a few beats to their group album, produced a solo single for fellow crew member Nomad Carlos, and eventually sent beats’ Steez’ way in May of 2021. I didn’t think much of it initially – I send out about 10% of the beats I make and do so very sporadically – but we’d already developed a rapport and as interest turned into conversations and conversations into plans and shared goals, we found ourselves making what we thought might turn into an EP, but which eventually became Re:Defined, a full collaborative album.
Neither of us realized this would be a two-year process. Looking back at the entirety of our DMs while writing this piece, I could see us building a rapport and then a friendship in real time, commiserating on our passion for classic New York hip-hop while remaining on the outside looking in – on account of not being from Montreal and Kingston respectively. Just as importantly, our first year on the project was spent figuring out each other artistically: I was going back to previous Steez projects like Quietude and Love N Art, discovering the depth of his pen in a solo context and what sounds pair best with his voice. Steez meanwhile, was honing on a couple of specific beats that would form the foundation for the album – ultimately leaning into my most soulful, but also some of my most unorthodox joints.
This was the first great lesson the project gave me. Ultimately, the artist has to lead the project. Sending beats to Steez might have been the first step, but it was his choices that allowed me to lock in and create complimentary sounds. From routing practically all of the beats through an SP404 sampler/FX-unit to building out a sonic universe sampling American, East and West African, Middle-Eastern and Japanese records, Re:Defined was a true give and take. I pushed Steez to rhyme on what some might call drumless beats – in reality, chops with plenty of percussion built in – while he nudged me away from Roc Marci tributes, choosing joints that featured upfront percussion. Both of us wound up meeting in the middle. Sooner than later, I was writing beats with no one but Steez in mind, at least until we had a solid track list.
This is the part of the narrative that might be well served by conflict or a big blow out fight, but I regret to inform you that our writing process went fairly smoothly. Truth is, during the year-long development of Re:Defined, I’d grown to not only trust Steez personally, but truly appreciate the career he’d built for himself through his discography. My goal was to provide music that would push him to further heights, and so my feedback about the vocals involved tweaking the delivery on hooks, rather than any Dr Dre-like critiques and demands for rewritten verses. Simultaneously, as the album’s reflective themes and scope came together, I began to think of potential interludes and track sequences. A year and some change after we started, we had a lean 30-minute project that we were both proud of, with no guest verses and plenty of depth. Then came the mixdowns.
This is where I need to shout out the project’s unsung hero, Ini Muzik, an incredible multi-instrumentalist whose work I’ve already gushed about here. In the midst of global health crisis and with the Quebec government imposing ridiculous curfews that did little to nothing to lower covid transmission rates, but did plenty to slow down this album’s progress, he stepped up to mix the project to my specifications. Unfortunately, that required me to communicate both what I wanted and Steez’ requirements.
All humility aside, I think my beats are fire. I’m also, I hope, a persuasive writer and a clever-enough DJ [ed. note: can confirm.] What I’m not however, at least so far in my life, is a brilliant project manager able to clearly convey my needs. Communicating and leading a team of people in the sort of interpersonal pain in the ass that I fastidiously avoid at my day job, and so triangulating the valid concerns of an artist in Jamaica to a (very reasonably) busy engineer in the midst of a pandemic was, for no reason beyond my own personality, a bit of a nightmare. Throw in a close family member’s tough diagnosis f*cking up my mental health, and our progress slowed to a crawl. Suddenly, weeks passed between song revisions, as we had to coordinate availabilities. Things got even slower once Steez and I decided “New Kingston,” our lead single, needed a big attention-grabbing hook, rather than our initial plans for a Max-B style singsong. Thankfully, we found the perfect artist to provide it in Annaje, who absolutely killed it, but this great sung hook only led to more complications. As it turns out, mixing R&B makes hip- hop look like a cakewalk. This led to the second great lesson I learned from this project: if you can’t do it yourself (insert KRS-ONE voice) – you must learn. I’ve since committed to improving my own home studio to mix projects myself, learning the fundamentals and investing in better to give myself more opportunities to experiment and develop a project’s sound on my own.
To Steez’ eternal credit, he never faltered in keeping the project on track – developing artwork and reaching out for help to ensure “New Kingston” was mixed to perfection, even as I escaped Montreal for Bangkok in early 2023 to recover from non-music-related burnout. It may have taken a year longer than we’d planned but by May 2023, we had the final masters in hand and were making plans for release. This involved a new round of discussions: Bandcamp exclusivity first, or a simultaneous release on all streaming services? Tapes or CDs? How could we publicize the project in a media environment best described as “brutal?” (Answer: an oral history on POW!)
Ultimately, the release is a work in progress, with plenty more events and opportunities to come, but we’re already thrilled with the reception, including positive reviews, looks on OkayPlayer and Complex, and strong support from DJs including DJ Eclipse and Rhettmatic. Circling back to my original comments on rap success: making this album was far from easy, but the reception so far has validated all of the hard work and years of effort that went into it. Personally, listening to an album I made is still a crazy feeling, and I learned an incredible amount of what it takes to create and release a full album. Above all else, I made an incredible friend in Steez, and I’m committed to making sure Re:Defined goes the distance, even if it demands that I put myself out there. All art does.