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Kendrick Lamar: Learning from Dr Dre how to produce a succesful record

17 Jan 2017

Interview kind: text · Reading time: 14 minutes

While I was researching To Pimp A Butterfly – watching documentaries, reading interviews – my imagination kept pushing me more and more to associate Kendrick Lamar with Ezekiel Books, the character from the Netflix series The Get Down. Like Ezekiel, Kendrick is not your stereotypical rapper, he is more of a engaging poet, who moves in a world on the outskirts of reality, protected by his black hat, looking for his inspiration, Shaolin Fantastic. Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Shaolin Fantastic’ is Derek Ali, a 25 year-old audio engineer, capable of channelling all of the input from the team of producers behind the scenes of the project, into a unique three-dimensional experience.
 
«They say that a particular frequency exists which is capable of stimulating a person’s brain to the point of making them fall madly in love with a song» says Kendrick Lamar in an interview for OZY, «and Derek knows perfectly well how to make this frequency come out in a mix» This student of Dr Dre has certainly learnt from the master how to produce successful albums. In fact, despite making the epic mistake of publishing an album a whole week early because of a misunderstanding between the three lables TDE, Aftermath Entertainment, and Interscope Records, To Pimp A Butterfly went on to sell 920,000 copies in the first six months.
 
Is this the moment in which the student, Derek Ali, surpasses the master, Dr Dre? Or is it that self-congratulatory delusions, typical in Hip-Hop, are confusing things, or is this suspicion becoming more concrete? To understand it, let’s move on into the history.
 
The two were born in Compton, California, and, unlike many other guys in the wake of the N.W.A, they don’t lead a typical ‘gangster rap’ lifestyle. Kendrick is committed to his studies and writes engaging songs (of significance is Ignorance is Bliss in which he condemns criminal action), while Derek composes mobile phone ringtones at his Polish grandparents’ house. It was from this bizarre start that his passion for sound engineering was born.  Not having enough money to pay for a specialised college, Derek became professional by studying online tutorials, analyzing the Outkast albums sound by sound, and producing small local rappers. In 2008 the two met at the independent label Top Dawg Entertainment, which was situated in the lounge of the founder Anthony Tiffith’s house. The recording studio was always based there, consisting of a system of ProTools interfaced to an M-Audio. Finally, Ali abandons Fruity Loops and begins recording from there for five years, producing dozens of albums, contributing with Kendrick to the success of the TDE. 
 
 
It’s 2013, Kendrick Lamar travels on Kanye West’s tour bus for the opening of The Yeezus Store shows. The only songs that can be heard are by Parliament-Funkadelic and James Brown. Along with Kendrick and Derek, the Sounwave team of producers, Tae Beast, Terence Martin, are inspired by funk from another age. The group have been working on the huge new album since the release of Good Kid, M.A.A.D City the year before. Derek installed a small studio on board: ProTools HD, two microphones, a Neuman U47, a Sony C800G, and an Avalon preamp. This way any idea can immediately be recorded (there around 80 sketch already in total). In the documentary created by Premierwuzhere, Sounwave says, “When we began giving the outside world new songs to listen to, there was instantly huge enthusiasm, so much so that once word got out we began receiving loads of offers for collaboration”. It is for this reason that as well as the role of producer, Sounwave also assumed the role of A & R, with the main task being to better manage all of the collaborations. It was backstage during The Yeezus Tour that the guys met Thundercat, who immediately expressed the will and desire to record an album with them. From that moment on they could no longer do without his energy in the studio. 
 
To Pimp A Butterfly boasts impressive collaborations: George Clinton plays the sax in Wesley’s Theory produced by Flying Lotus, Snoop Dog sings in Instituzionalized, Pharrel Williams produced the single Alright, and Tupac comes back to life in Mortal Man thanks to the adaptation of an unpublished interview released on Swedish radio, a song in which there is also Kamasi Washington with his sax.
 
It is Kamasi himself who best descrive the mood of the album: “What is Jazz? For me it is an over-used term, because it is either too restrictive or too broad to describe the musicality of a song.” he says, in an interview for Noisey. “If you describe Jelly Roll Morton as jazz, and John Coltrane as jazz, then why can’t the same be said of Kendrick Lamar?” To Pimp a Butterfly is an amalgamation of genres: hip-hop, free jazz, funk, soul, and spoken word which can’t help but astound us with its complex beauty.
Music is at the service of Kendrick’s rhetoric. He skillfully knits together texts in which each word has a specific weight. The resulting feeling is one of sitting together in a group and talking about our dreams which often happens in these cases. The American Dream was broken however the moment a black president sat in the White House.  Therefore he urges everyone, not without provocation, to get more engaged in society. The messages transmitted in his songs make him a symbol of Black Lives Matter, the movement which fights against the killings of blacks by the police.
 
 
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Everytime the tour bus stops, Kendrick and his crew meet in the studios of the record company, Interscope, owned by Dr Dre. It was in the ‘No Excuses Studio’ where the Ali and Dre met, and it’s where the transfer of knowledge took place between the producer of ‘The Chronic’ (an avant-garde album if you consider that it was published in 1992) and the advocate of a new educated and refined Hip-Hop. It seems as though Derek Ali took the beats of the ‘The Chronic’ and has softened them, and interspersed them with all the upper mid range frequencies and by the superfluous punch, in order to reform a fresh idea of sound. And also, on top of the rhythm section is the real dynamic, namely the sudden and surpising change despite its consistency, with variation of harmony, timing, and the injection of samples, effects and hooks.
 
Derek managed to create a perfectly-balanced working method which merges the use of software applications with the depth and clarity of analogue methods. For example, in the equalization stage the filtering is done exclusively with a plugin, while the boost is done with the eq on the SSL 4000G+ desk. In the case of snares, an API 550EQ outboard is used to boost internally to 1kHz and apply a shelving on the high frequencies to then crop the same part with the eq from the SSL. In an interview for  Pensado’s Place he confirms having learnt from Dr Dre how to do most of the mixing in mono, listening to a single Auratone monitor. If using the S-1 Waves Imager on practically everything, especially on sensitive elements such as the vocals, it’s essential that this mixing is carried out like this. The S-1 makes slight modifications in stages which can lead to the phenomenon of destructive interference with the sound, therefore by combining the two stereo components it’s possible to always keep this phenomenon under control.
 
Ali’s greatest talent lies in his treatment of vocals. On the main vocals, for example in These Walls, he isn’t afraid of using effects such as the Waves Metaflanger and Air Chorus. The reverbs are generally applied at the end of the mix, with a EMT 250 (which Derek mistook for a fridge the first time he saw it in the studio) and an AMS RMX16 used for the longer tails. In Alright there are reverbs which grow and autofeed themselves then stop suddenly in rhythm with the song. The delays on the second vocals in Institutionalized sound like sudden splashes of water.
 
 
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All of Kendrick Lamar’s vocals were recorded with a Telefunken U47 tube condenser except for in Alright, for which a Neuman U67 was used, and in For Free? in which two Electrovoice RE20s were used esoterically, one on top of the other. The signal was preamplified by a Neve 1073 and then compressed by a Tube-Tech CL1B, the perfect choice to give warmth and depth to the vocals. Even the processing was very accurate. A Waves Renaissance compressor was used from the start to eliminate any nasal sounds and superfluous mid range frequencies. Then the SSL Channel Strip plugin was used for the filters, given that the vast majority of the balancing was done at the desk. Then the vocal was passed through the S1-Imager in an attempt to open it up further, while constantly paying close attention to the phasing. The crisp effect was provided by the Distressor. Finally, the parallel compression was performed with the legendary Fairchild 670.
 
When Derek is in the recording stage he prefers to work exclusively in the box, which is his most comfortable environment, and only later does he try to replace the plugins with the outboard, making simple AB comparisons. It happens, therefore, that he replaces unsuspecting plugins such as the S1-Imager and the MetaFlanger with the Eventide H3500
 
Even when he is wearing his Sound Engineer’s hat, Derek has very clear ideas. He has an old fashioned approach to recording despite his young age. In For Free? we discover a sound typical of the fifties. In fact the jazz band was recorded live just like the canons from that era. As for the drum, a RCA 77 was used for the left overhead and a Neuman U48 for the right, a RCA 44 for the front of the drum kit, and a AKG C24 as an ambient room mic but turned towards the sax. The close mic on this was a M49, while on the contra bass there was a U48. Finally, for the piano two AKG 414EBs with C12 capsule were used, with each microphone recording in mono compression.
 
For all the other songs the drums were recorded using the more classical technique of close miking: an AKG D112 for the kick in, a Neuman U47FET for the kick out, two Shure SM57 for the snare above and below, two Senneisher 421s for the toms, a Neuman KM84 for the ride, a Shure SM81 for the hi hat, two Neuman U87s for the overheads, and an AKG C24 and a TLM 170 as the room mic. 
 
In To Pimp a Butterfly the drum has just the right punch and presence without drowning out the bass and voice. The whole drum kit is set up behind the other two elements, so as not to overdevelop it and risk falling into a vicious circle. The SPL Transient Designer is used to give maximum definition to the impact, without swelling up the bass frequencies, and a Neve 2254 is used for parallel compression. Finally a Pultec EQP-1A is used to enrich the high-end frequencies along with the S1-Imager, coupled with the Waves Doubler. The Doubler was also used on the catchy bass lines recorded by Thundercat to give coarse and funky attitudes to the instruments recorded exclusively in DI.  
 
The Hip-Hop producers are masters in their field. On the album you won’t be able to miss exceptional samples which have been collected in this Spotify playlist
 
In addition to the more classic James Brown and Michael Jackson we find references to All For My Self by Sufjan Stevens and I Know Get Eye For Back by the African Fela Kuti. 
 
The mixdown was passed through a SSL Bus Compressor and a GML 8200. I remember that in a seminar the audio engineer Irko advised against the use of the SSL Bus Compressor on the master because it could cause a possible loss of punch necessary for the song. But in this case it made everything smoother and more blended, resulting in a successful record. After everything was put on to the tape the songs were sent to the Bernie Grundman Mastering studios to be mastered by Mike Bozzi. It’s quite something to think that in these same studios ‘The Chronic’ was mastered and not without the disappointment of Bernie Grundman. In fact an argument broke out between Dr Dre and the mastering technician over the limiter. Dr Dre wanted to go to the estreme with the limiting, ignoring the subsequent distortion. The legend wanted Bernie Grundman to leave the finalisation of the work to an assistant, and as such The Chronic is still to this day considered one of the loudest albums in history, and a symbol of the loudness war.
 
To Pimp A Butterfly is from a completely different planet to The Chronic. It is also the one which reveals a different approach between Dr Dre and Derek Ali. The former has always been used to churning out radio hits and as a result has pushed his albums to the limit according to the principal of fewer dynamics =more listening= more sales. The latter is young and self-taught, and until a few years ago worked for an independent record label producing albums with a refined sound. His meeting with Dr Dre in a high profile studio produced a powerful chemical reaction which resulted in To Pimp A Butterfly, an album which opened up new musical roads to follow. Dave Pensado maintains that in Derek Ali there is not that eagerness typical in the young to overproduce every single sound, looking for the most punch possible, but rather a huge respect for the original sounds which come from the stereo panorama, giving life to a genuine three-dimensional experience. Now all we can do is wait impatiently for a new masterpiece like To Pimp A Butterfly to satisfy our nerdy curiosity.
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