Modern hip-hop? Hank Shocklee doesn’t believe the hype
He produced Public Enemy and lit the fuse for Bomb Squad but don’t expect him to be hot for modern hip-hop
Hank Shocklee: ‘People diss Soundcloud and Spotify because of “music for free” and all that, but look at the artists who’ve got traction who would never have got traction under the old label regime.’ Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
The Bomb Squad were the crew who brought the noise. Back in the day, when hip-hop was still figuring out what time it was, a group of producers, DJs and MCs joined forces. There was Hank Shocklee, his brother Keith, Eric Sadler and this dude with an amazing voice called Chuck D, who spent his days moving furniture for his father’s business.
That Spectrum City collective started out doing a radio show on a college station in New York before one thing led to another, and we saw the birth of Public Enemy and the emergence of the Bomb Squad as production supremos.
Even today, the early albums on which the Bomb Squad worked for Public Enemy sound like thrillers. Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back may be coming up on the 30-year mark, but they remain striking, colourful, loud and immense. If these records stick out from the pack today, imagine their impact on release. They really were broadcasts from the thunderdome.
“The thing about Public Enemy is that they didn’t start out as artists but as a production crew,” says Hank Shocklee ahead of a visit to Dublin. “If you’re trying to figure PE out from the artist perspective, you got Chuck, Flav and Terminator. But that’s not how it happened. It came out of the production lab and it started with me, Chuck and Eric; that was the trio and it blossomed from that into other things.”
Walls of sound
The dense, fierce walls of sound that were part and parcel of every PE production came down to the collaborative process. “Back in the day, we took on more hands because we needed more people to help out. All the samples had to be designed, so teams were needed to do that. We’d comb through thousands and thousands of records to come with the kick drums or snare drums that we needed.
“All the guitars and horns had to be found through record-digging, so we needed a collaborative force to get that information together with the turntable or tape deck or sampler or drum machine. You’d a factory line to create what we needed.”
It’s a very different story today. “You don’t need a room full of people to do that any more, which is good and bad. The benefits are that everything is neatly categorised, even samples of old vinyl and old hardware. You have everything you can possibly imagine to put together any piece of music you want. The gear means you’re multidimensional.
“The drawbacks are that you don’t have the collaborations. You have one mind in a studio and what made the PE records great was that you had input from so many people. A lot of people had their say. We’d a constant push and pull for ideas which gave things the kind of tension and friction you don’t get from just having one person working on a track.”
When Shocklee talks about the artists who excite him today, he mentions acts such as like Flying Lotus, Machinedrum and Squarepusher. “When I listen to a Flying Lotus record, I can’t put him into any box. Is it funk, r’n’b, jazz, hip-hop, electronic? I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s a new type of vibration and that I like it.”
He’s not so enamoured with hip-hop. “Hip-hop has become mainstream now and my love of hip-hop always came from the fact that it was alternative. I was never a fan of mainstream music. When something becomes mainstream, it adopts certain principles. It doesn’t redefine anything any more and is instead defined by the mainstream.
“I think electronic music is far more exciting. With all the software you have today, you can push the envelope into new and different types of sound that you’ve never heard before. There’s nothing new about chopping up an old breakbeat record, or programming an 808 handclap with a sustained kickdrum. That’s great and all, but you can push things to different zones because the computer allows you to do that.”
Shocklee believes the hip-hop business has become a marketing game. “When A&R people are looking at hip-hop artists, they don’t want artists who make unique and interesting sounds. They’re looking for acts who are mass-market. When you’re always after mass-market, you’re thinking about guest appearances and especially celebrity ones.
“Mainstream music is celebrity-driven and not artist-driven and it means someone like Nicki Minaj can become a superstar when people don’t really know her records. It used to be about how dope your beats and rhymes were; now, it’s TV.”
The golden era of hip-hop
It was different back in the day. “One reason why people loved the golden era of hip-hop is because you’d groups like De La Soul using quirky odd rhythms on their tracks and samples,” Shocklee says. “You’d Digable Planets using jazz samples. You’d groups using rock’n’roll or dance elements, so hip-hop was spanning tempos and genres and it was really exciting. You don’t have that today. Today, hip-hop covers one strand of music, which is largely the r’n’b format.”
There are some changes that he welcomes, however. People’s listening habits mean that producers have to be on their toes. “People don’t just listen to the melody, but they’re also checking out how intricate your production is; how many different types of polyrhythms, samples, turnarounds and loops do you have to keep my interest in your music? It opens up a world for cats who can create soundscapes and rhythms and ideas and expressions that defy categorisation.”
He’s also a big fan of how online platforms such as Spotify and Soundcloud have revolutionised the music industry.
“It’s still in its embryonic stage. People think it’s the end but it’s just the end of one thing and the beginning of something totally new. People diss Soundcloud and Spotify because of ‘music for free’ and all that, but look at what those platforms do. Look at the artists who’ve got traction who would never have got traction under the old label regime. That process is so antiquated and it takes too long.
“I can hear amazing new artists today like Machinedrum or MRK1. They’re making music in their bedrooms, and, if it’s great, people are going to tune in because of the social network side built in. Artists you’ve never heard of now have a fanbase. Isn’t that incredible? People are curious, and that opens up new possibilities beyond the establishment. That can only be a good thing for the future.”
Hank Shocklee DJs at Dublin’s Sugar Club on April 10th. The event will also feature an audience Q&A and a screening of the documentary Prophets of Rage