The Time-Bending Math Behind Makaya McCraven’s Sampling Science

Drummer and producer Makaya McCraven against an olive background.

Photo by Sulyiman Stokes.

Makaya McCraven diagrams the multi-level loop of his unique sampling style, and how nearly a decade of improvisational live performances generated the raw elements of his new album, In These Times.

Makaya McCraven has always been of at least two worlds. The son of an esoteric jazz musician and a multi-instrumentalist Hungarian folk singer, McCraven came of age in a household actively formulating its own unifying theory of modern music, in which diasporic aural traditions and their stateside evolutions could — and probably should — regularly interface.

As a decorated jazz drummer and producer who composes with an off-the-grid beatmaker’s brain, the 38-year-old continues to explore how genres and eras intersect in his own work, which extends across several mixtapes, ensemble albums, a pair of remix projects, a half dozen studio outings,  and now, a new album — In These Times. The culminating effort of nearly a decade of testing, teasing, and gestating material in a live performance setting, In These Times, out today (Friday, September 23) via International Anthem, is both the album McCraven has aspired to make for the bulk of his career and a new benchmark for his original arrangements.

Stacking bits of live recordings is a workflow McCraven has developed over the last 20 years of studying gifted, board-playing engineers and hip-hop producers who leaned heavily on lifted riffs from prized jazz records. It was an alchemy first exercised on his stellar 2015 breakout album, In The Moment. But on his latest, the process is seemingly mastered, hemming together expansive yet accessible compositions equally indebted to the polyrhythmic brilliance of J Dilla, and the irreverent genre deconstructions of Miles Davis. And all without ever sacrificing depth or complexity, resulting in a project that McCraven described as “something beautiful or light.”

We spoke with McCraven about the time-bending math behind his beat science, the multi-level looping at the core of his production process, the creatively crippling limits of genre, and how a decade of improvisational live performances generated the raw elements of his new album.

When did you start working on In These Times?

Makaya McCraven: Some of the tunes here I’ve been playing since In the Moment was made. That album, and even Split Decision before that, was born as I began having different opportunities playing around and doing different things. When I met Scotty from International Anthem, there was no International Anthem. We just started this series that eventually turned into In the Moment. When I started chopping that stuff up, it was a creative space I felt opened up a whole different direction for me. Those records came out of spontaneous composition, group composition, and then sampling and re-editing, changing it up from my side.

To perform it, I had to arrange it for the live stage, and a completely new project came out of that. I’ve been developing a lot of these on stage. So some of the stuff is not brand new or debuted. Also, Universal Beings led me into a space where I was doing some projects with strings and harp, and playing these large kind of ensemble pieces. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis commissioned me to do a multimedia performance of In These Times. That’s where I started to arrange it further for strings, and had elements of video and all this stuff. That, and another performance at Chicago Symphony Center, ended up being the live recordings on the record.

So, some of this has been gestating for almost a decade? 

Well, after Split Decision, technically. But while I was making that album, I had access to a nice studio and was managing this place, as well as playing there and putting on shows. I always thought of making this record where I would be taking the tunes in my playing, and doing it with production in mind and making a record-y record. 

The next thing I did after that publicly was In the Moment, which came of this other creative spark. I was always making beats but I didn’t really have a mindset for how I was going to do that on the side of my career as a working drummer, creative musician, and aspiring producer. But In These Times is a place where I can take all of these different things that have happened with my career, and pull them together into one album from the large ensemble. I really wanted to bring in elements of the production that I’ve been developing for the last few years, but more centered around things we play live. 

And each band, since we’re improvising, are key contributors to the music. I just filter it through production. But everybody’s voice is very much a part of the music. 

The way live performance feeds your writing, how the stage kind of generates the raw elements of your workflow as a producer, feels more unique than it should. But also, it’s very hip-hop in a way. How has beat-making influenced your production style as a jazz musician? 

Well, hip-hop is definitely a major influence of mine in beat-making. Even where I found the intersection of playing the music we call jazz, and being a young person of this generation tapping into crate digging culture. When I got further into trying to sample stuff, I found many crate diggers had better knowledge of the music than some of the people I would see, who were actually at some of the jazz clubs. They’d just be coming to the music from a different space.

There’s a time as a young jazz musician where you say “jazz” and it’s a bad word. Maybe not for the reasons I would say, but because it’s like, “Oh, that’s old crusty white people music” or something. But that’s not how I grew up around this culture. I remember my very first recording session backing up my mom. We’re in the studio and the engineer was doing a full live mix. He had to do all these moves, and he coached me to do one little mute and unmute. But it just blew my mind because I realized he was playing the mixing board like a musician.

Like a George Martin type of situation?

Yeah. That opened up a lot of things in my mind with interest in dubbing, reggae, tape loops and analog sound. And just music technology in general — how it evolved the sound and changed the direction of music. Even the invention of the drum set, that changed music to this day. Electronic music still uses kicks, snares and hats.

Now, we got drum machines emulating drummers and drummers emulating drum machines, and things that you can do in the recorded realm that people have been doing for a long time. And with hip-hop, there’s so many things — scratching records, beat juggling, electronic drums, sequencing, sampling, and the MPC. All of that has influenced all contemporary music. This stuff has been standard in the commercial space for 30-40 years. 

Being a young musician, I want to interact with the things that creatively inspire me. I want all of it to be available to me without having to even really figure out how to define it. Is it hip-hop and jazz? I don’t know. Where do the walls of genre begin? What’s allowed or available to me when there’s so much possible?

It sounds like you were never much of a purist in any real way, and that your relationship with “jazz” — both the institution and the term — is pretty complicated? 

It is complicated. But there’s also so much debate there. Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, [Charles] Mingus — all had their own issues with the word “jazz.” That’s one side. If I want to follow them, rejecting jazz is not rejecting them or the music. Depending on who I’m speaking to, if I say, “I play jazz music,” that means something different to different people.

Is that “something” noisy? Is it smooth? Is it within the tradition or the idiom of jazz music? If we’re talking about a period, is it swing? Or is it some of the more creative stuff? Where does a lot of contemporary music fall? Is it jazz just because it’s instrumental? Don’t get me wrong, it’s definitely a useful word. But it’s insufficient at best and offensive at worst. Writing about music is dancing about architecture, right? So, it’s easier for me to just describe what I do sometimes. 

But this conversation is part of its legacy, and that’s complicated. When a genre goes and goes and goes, we get into that circular conversation asking the same question for 40-50 years. “Is jazz dead?” Like, what what does that even mean? What are we even saying?

Another great hip-hop analog. 

Is hip-hop the same hip-hop that hip-hop was? There’s definitely a lot of parallels with certain things you see in hip-hop as it ages in the conversation. But maybe that’s a conversation where the past and the present future kind of converge.

That sort of time-bending is kind of inherent to your production process, particularly on In These Times. Are there songs on the album that have changed more drastically than others over the last decade?

Well, there’s definitely pieces in here that have matured from performance. I would say “The Knew Untitled” had many, many renditions. It had some different feels, a slightly different arrangement to how we move around live in the song. “This Place That Place” has been played countless times with many variations to the band and also to the arrangement. 

A lot of this stuff was kind of based in certain rhythmic concepts. Everything except for “This Place That Place” is in some sort of odd meter, poly rhythm or poly meter. That one is in 4/4, but it’s all about the displaced rhythms throughout the whole piece. Hence, In These Times.

Can you tell me a bit about how you approach sampling your own live performances? 

I think a lot of people make music like that. I mean, in some ways, jamming and documenting it, is not reinventing the wheel.

I guess a lot of great musicians have their games — like an athlete on tape, ready to study.

Right. But different people like to do it differently. Not everybody likes to jam quite like that. If you have the luxury of a studio, you can document a lot. Nowadays, it’s easier and more accessible to do that on your own. I’ve always kind of had a bit of that luxury; some relationship with different studios and engineers, and my own kind of setups at homes over the years. But there was just something that really kind of clicked with In the Moment. Something magic about capturing the live spirit in the room, or looking through all these different recordings I had and being like, “OK, oh, damn. That was the little inspired moment.” Even if we played for 45 minutes and it took a long time, we eventually fell into something that was really special that would have been impossible to try to just write or figure out.

I don’t know, there’s just something so cool about the energy in a live setting. It’s more about the moment than it is about the execution; the energy and the feeling in the room. Capturing it, but also using it as something for the recorded space. That’s what’s dope about sampling.

So, you’re taking tapes from live performances, chopping those up, and then feeding them through your own machine? 

Kind of, yeah. I was using the actual recordings — the saxophone solo from this night, the band from the studio, and strings from this live show. Or full band from the studio over another part of a live show where the guitar solo and the whole band is from a different live show.

Oh, wow. How are you managing all of those individual components? 

They don’t call it studio magic for nothing. That’s one of the things I’m interested in, too. What ways can we manipulate mix audio, how to use different tools and tricks? With this project it’s no different, gathering a bunch of different takes and different recordings that were recorded in different ways, and then bringing them together and making a piece out of it.

It sounds like you’ve made the album you set out to make. What’s next? 

I’m gearing up right now to go on the road for a little while with my group, and then doing select shows for the full orchestrated In These Times gigs with the full string quartet, and maybe eight to nine other people. A lot of the tour is how I generally tour with a kind of shape-shifting quintet, quartet, or sextet, with a couple different cats coming in and out. And we play to the total of my catalog. So you’ll hear In These TimesIn the MomentUniversal Beings, and Deciphering the Message. 

Are you excited to hear how the material resonates in different spaces with different players?

No, I love that. I don’t generally call musicians for the instruments they play. I’m not looking for another harp player or even vibraphonists. I call the people I call for their musicality and their personality, and then whatever their instrument and their style bring. I don’t want to call somebody and put them in handcuffs. You get the baddest cat in the world and then you tell them what to do? That don’t make sense to me. 

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