Monday, May 3, 2010

Interview with Max Tannone: Remixing Mos Def With Reggae Classics To Create The Reggae Album Of The Year

As much as I love 2-Tone ska and spend hours scouring the Web for tid-bits of information about long-forgotten British and American ska bands, I also try to keep my ear to the ground for new sounds that keep the ska and reggae genre alive and kicking. Earlier this month I found one that has taken up regular residence in my iPod.

Following hot on the heels of the fantastic and inventive 'MJ A Rocker' mix by The Drastics last summer, comes 'Mos Dub', a wildly creative and highly addictive mix of classic reggae tracks re-imagined by the remix artist Max Tannone. Where The Drastics recorded faithful rocksteady reggae studio versions of Michael Jackson's well known songs before dropping his original vocals on top, Tannone has matched the acapella vocals of hip-hop artist Mos Def to classic dub and roots reggae classics. The result may be one of the best reggae recordings of 2010.

Some may be familiar with Tannone's earlier projects, including 'Jaydiohead', which combined Jay-Z's vocal vocal tracks over Radiohead songs or 'Doublecheck You Head' which mixed Beastie Boys vocals over instrumental tracks the band recorded for the 'Check Your Head' disc. While I have enjoyed both of those recordings very much, the 'Mos Dub' recordings are on another level. Perhaps its because I'm a old school reggae fan at heart or because I'm a frustrated remix artist myself. Either way, I find myself drawn back to the songs Tannone has created. Though I'm not a huge hip-hop fan (I know Mos Def more for his acting career: Be Kind Rewind is one of my favorite movies), his lyrics and vocal stylings are tailor made for reggae and dub. Tannone has wisely highlighted the hooks of the many well known tracks he employs to give listeners ears something familiar to hang on to (hooks from The Slickers 'Johnny Too Bad' and Desmond Dekker's '007') while taking the tracks in completely new directions.

Only 23 years old, Tannone has already established himself as a talented hip-hop producer who also understands the nuances and feel of reggae. Here's to hoping he continues to explore the genre. Below is a interview I very recently conducted with him.

For the uninitiated, can you describe what you do? Would you call yourself a producer? Re-mixer?
I guess technically I'm a remixer and beatmaker, although the term producer is broader and more widely used. Music producers usually work with other artists developing their projects in a studio setting - I'm more of a remix artist, since I'm making these projects usually without the input of the original artists. However, producer is still accurate, and a lot of beat-makers and remixers still call themselves producers.

I'm most known for my remix projects. I've done 3 so far. You may be familiar with the term "mash-up", which somewhat fits what I do. For example, in my project "Jaydiohead" I combined Jay-Z with Radiohead.

What are your earliest memories related to reggae, rock steady and dub music? Do you remember the first reggae or dub album you ever heard?
The first reggae album I heard was "Legends" by Bob Marley and the Wailers. It always seemed to be playing at barbecues and parties that I would go to with my parents when I was younger. I got into ska a little more with Operation Ivy, and also got heavily into Sublime who I still listened to. Sublime is my biggest early influence. It wasn't until years later that I began to discover the original tunes they were covering or at least inspired by. I also discovered the dub artist Scientist through the video game Grand Theft Auto 3, his tunes played through the in-game radio station "K-Jah." From what I've read Scientist got ripped off by his record label Greensleeves, who never compensated him for the tracks they licensed to the GTA people. I was sorry to hear that, but I'm certainly glad I got to hear those tunes in the game.

Who are some of your favorite reggae and dub artists? Producers?
Other than the Easy Star All Stars, I'm not very familiar with modern reggae and dub artists or producers. I like Damian Marley, and am excited about his upcoming project with Nas. Other than that, its pretty much older stuff. Scientist is my favorite dub artist. I listen to all of the greats though, King Tubby, Lee Perry, Prince Jammy, Culture, Dennis Bovell, Dub Specialist, and many more. I'm reading this great book about the history of reggae, "Bass Culture", and am discovering a lot of artists.

Explain how you do what you do from a technical standpoint. What kind of equipment do you use and what is the process involved in creating track from scratch using acapella vocals and combining them with musical backing tracks? How long does it take to complete a song?
I make everything on a laptop computer. The process is pretty simple. I find an acapella and a song I want to sample. Next I chop up the original song into short pieces so I can re-arrange it, and from here I build the track around the vocals. Once the skeleton is completed, I began adding drums, FX, other instruments, edit the vocals, etc. Really just making it as you go.

If I'm doing a totally original remix, without sampling, I usually start with the drums and a basic melody. Again I build this beneath the vocals, and build up from there until it sounds full and ultimately finished!

The length really varies. Sometimes the tracks come together quickly and sometimes its a little tougher. On average though it takes me 1-2 weeks for a track, from nothing to fully mastered.

Your earlier remixes were hip-hop focused (Jaydiohead and Doublecheck You Head). What was the inspiration behind pairing Mos Def with a variety of classic reggae and dub track. His vocal cadences seem well suited for reggae.
The dub tunes themselves inspired me. Just hearing these great riddims, grooving so deep and steady. I thought they would sound great sampled for a hip-hop track. Mos Def was the first artist that came to mind. His lyrical content is thoughtful and the dub tunes are a great backdrop for that. There are a few other artists I think would sound good over this type of stuff too. I'm still doing some experimenting.

How did you decide which reggae tracks to use in the Mos Dub project? I loved that 3 of the tracks are based on classic tracks by The Slickers, Desmond Dekker and Johnny Osbourne. I also noticed that you went with iconic reggae producers Scientist and Lee Perry.
I just love those songs and artists. The Slickers track and the Dekker track, I heard those when I discovered The Harder They Come, like 10 years ago. Great movie, even better soundtrack. They are just incredible tunes - it was a personal challenge to re-interpret them in a fresh and respectful way. I wanted to do justice to all of the original tunes. That was my aim with Mos Dub. I could never do a remix project of artists I didn't enjoy. It be too much like work.

What kind of response have you gotten to the 'Mos Dub' project? How has it been received in the reggae community? How about the hip-hop community?
Overwhelmingly positive. I've only seen 1 or 2 negative comments out of hundreds, so that was very encouraging. The music blogs, reggae, hip-hop, and even some indie rock blogs, have been very supportive - which I'm thankful for. Not to sound corny, but Mos Def is a musical hero of mine, as well as Scientist, King Tubby, Lee Perry, the authentic old school dub producers. I hope its a fitting tribute to them. I was honored to work with their material, even though its all on my own and I wasn't asked to do this or anything like that. Most importantly, I'm honored people are enjoying it.

I've noticed that all of your musical projects have a distinctly New York approach considering you have used all New York-based artists. Is there something about New York artists that is inspiring?
Its just what I'm familiar with, what I listen to. Radiohead obviously isn't from NY, so I'm not 100% Empire State. I have no bias about where a group is from, NY just happens to have produced a majority of the best hip-hop. I love music from everywhere though.

Have you heard The Drastics 'MJ A Rocker'? Its a skinhead reggae take on Michael Jackson. They dropped Jackson's original vocals on top of rock steady tracks of Jackson 5 and solo songs that they recorded. Very inventive stuff.
No I haven't, but as soon as I'm done with this interview, I am going to check it out. It sounds pretty cool. I'm especially curious about the ones they did with the Jackson 5 tracks. There is another reggae/rap remix album that I love. Its called Bobb Deep and mixes Mobb Deep with Bob Marley. Its produced by this guy DJ Swindle - he's dope.

Do you have plans for any more reggae projects? With The Specials blowing up again, I would love to hear what you could do with some of their classic tracks. The song 'Ghost Town has some great sounds on it.
I'm considering it. There are a few hip-hop artists I still want to do projects with. I love the Specials, and yes, Ghost Town is a really cool song. I actually considering using a Specials track for Mos Dub but ended up going in a different direction. We'll see though...until then keep enjoying the tunes!

Below is a track-by-track primer which breaks down the vocal and backing tracks Tannone used to create each song:

01 Johnny Too Beef (»Beef« X »Johnny Too Bad« – The Slickers)
02 History Town (»History« X »007« – Desmond Dekker & The Aces)
03 Ms. Vampire Booty (»Ms. Fat Booty« X »The Mummy Shroud« – Scientist)
04 In My Math (»Mathematics« X »Your Teeth In My Neck« – Scientist)
05 Travellin’ Underground (»Travellin’ Man« X »Underground« – Lee Perry)
06 Shroud The Stars (»Bright As The Stars« X »The Mummy Shroud« – Scientist)
07 Mr. Universe (»Next Universe« X »Mr. D. Brown Skank« – Observer All-Stars)
08 Summertime Running (»Summertime« X »Running Dub« – King Tubby)
09 Kampala Truth Work (»Work It Out« X »Truth & Rights« – Johnny Osbourne)
10 Hurricane Black (»Hurricane« X »Black Moon« – Third World All Star)

You can download the entire mix for free at the Mos Dub Web site.


Steve from Moon said...

Really good stuff. Of course, Max is carrying on the proud Jamaican tradition of versioning (and since the reggae deejays--respect to DJ Kool Herc!--gave rise to rap and hip hop, the mash-up of reggae and ska classics with hip-hop vocals makes complete sense!).

Marco On The Bass said...

You totally nailed it Steve! Max is carrying on the time honored reggae tradition of versioning songs albeit in a whole new 21st century 'mash up' sort of way.