These Are the Breaks
Talking Hiphop Beats with Truckasauras and Their Kevin Collabo-rators
Hiphop has a simple formula—rapper plus beats—but it's a combination that can produce wildly variable results. And while a rapper's unique cadences and lyrical skills undoubtedly make for the higher-profile half of hiphop's fundamental equation, the genre's greatest musical attribute may be its unlimited omnivorous sonic appetite. A hiphop beat can come from anywhere—an old disco 12-inch or funk break looped by a live DJ; a simple 808 drum-machine pattern; any variety of samples cut up, triggered, and refigured by a producer on MPC or other sampler; or, more rarely, from live musical accompaniment.
Seattle act Truckasauras are three dudes on live analog synths, drum machines (and sometimes acoustic drums), keys, effects, and other electronics, plus one dude manning a pair of VHS decks loaded with campy video clips. Their music is muscular yet melodic, ranging from jump-up party jams to heady, head-nodding instrumentals, acidic techno to swinging, old-school electro. This week, the Truck are lending their beats to 30-plus Seattle MCs for an event they've dubbed Kevin Collabo, after the old Voice of the Seattle Supersonics (a typically nostalgic, mass-cultural, 206-centric reference for these guys).
If Truckasauras's sound seems like an unlikely hiphop backdrop, consider Afrika Bambaataa's pioneering use of Kraftwerk's Krauty robotica. Or just recall the Truck's previous collaborations, backing a handful of MCs for a take on "The Bridge Is Over" during Blue Scholars' three-night stand at Neumos last year, or more recently joining forces to perform with Fresh Espresso and Head Like a Kite. Truckasauras's sound is 16-step gridded but surprisingly pliable, and their lowbrow aesthetic belies serious musical and technical craft. To get in the mood for the Collabo, The Stranger asked Truckasauras's Adam and Tyler Swan (along with a few of their guest MCs—see below) to discuss some of their favorite hiphop beats (besides their own) of all time. These are their breaks.
Adam: "Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad are definitely some of the best to ever do it. Each track they produce has an album's worth of samples crammed into it—so many layers upon layers of samples, drum machines, and noise. These guys are a huge influence on the Truck, so much so that for the first year or so of Truck shows, we used only Public Enemy samples for in between the tracks in our set. These two tracks in particular are great examples of the depth of their productions, as well as two of our favorites."
Tyler: "Probably still my favorite MF Doom beat. It's crazy how emotional just a simple loop like that can be."
Adam: "Pretty much everything J Dilla did was impeccably produced. It is damn near impossible to match his drum sounds. When I finally got around to looking up who produced a ton of classic rap tracks when I started engineering, it ended up a lot of them were J Dilla. This is one of them."
Tyler: "It seemed like this song was everyone's favorite rap beat before they realized J Dilla was their favorite producer. Probably the best samba flippin' ever."
Adam: "Flipping Johnny Mathis for a beat? I bought a 45 of the original Johnny Mathis track that Prince Paul used on this beat as a Christmas present for Tyler one year. This might be the best rap beat ever. Prince Paul is the greatest looper of all time—totally seamless, and it still sounds like a band. Most of his albums are concept albums as opposed to just a collection of rap tracks, as well, so you can tell how much work he puts into his production. Plus, he's Prince Paul."
Adam: "The production on this whole album [Paul's Boutique] is off the hook—definitely my favorite Beastie Boys album by far, and it's because of the production. This beat in particular is how I would test out the booming car stereos I built while I was in high school. I actually got pulled over bumping this track for breaking the noise ordinance in Kirkland. So gangster."
Adam: "Within the first few seconds of listening to this album for the first time, we were hooked. Like Prince Paul, the RZA has so many beats to choose from that are rap classics, but this one is definitely a standout beat."
Tyler: "I still bug the fuck out every time I hear this song."
Adam: "West Coast shit. 'Nuff said."
Adam: "Love this track. Probably the best use of Melvin Bliss's 'Synthetic Substitution' break ever (fuck 'O.P.P'), and it's got Kool Keith on it."
Specs One: "There are really too many: 'If the Papes Come' by A Tribe Called Quest, a dope B-side, a Lou Donaldson loop—a certain group based their whole cadence on this one song. 'Mecca and the Soul Brother' by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, an O'Donel Levy loop! Just plain dope! 'Words I Manifest' by Gang Starr, a 'Night in Tunisia' loop by Dizzy Gillespie, the first song I ever heard from Gang Starr in 1988. What connects these songs is they took simple loops and made them classic hiphop songs. It seems like hiphop has forgotten its simplistic roots; a lot of stuff I hear today seems forced and overproduced."
Mr. Chatman (formerly DJ Collage): "'Eye Know' by De La Soul, which samples 'Peg' by Steely Dan. This was the 'daisy age' of hiphop—everybody wanted to be a hiphop "hippie" when this album came out. And I was already a big fan of the Steely Dan song they sampled here. 'Bonita Applebum' by A Tribe Called Quest, which samples 'Daylight' by Ramp. This track is probably my favorite hiphop 'love' song, combining a smooth, soulful jazz sample with a simple, funky, and effective backbeat. Playful, fun, and full of vibes. 'The R' by Eric B. & Rakim, which samples 'Rock Creek Park' by Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds. When I hear this track, I start to visualize the late-'80s street wear of Troop, 8Ball jackets, and gold chains! My dad had this Donald Byrd album, so I knew the sample right away when I first heard it. The combination of that sample slowed down with hard-hitting drums gives this track a dark, sinister but still funky vibe.
Thomas Gray (Champagne Champagne): "You gotta start with 'Paid in Full,' some Eric B. & Rakim in there. Another beat that's a banger that came along in my life and changed things was 'Who Shot Ya?' that Biggie beat. There's a lot of slept-on producers, too—you could give me some early Tribal Productions, that's Vitamin [D]'s early crew. It just sounded like Seattle shit. The beats in hiphop can go anywhere—it's just like how I feel right now, like right now, after two Coca-Colas, sitting here, I'll think of those; on the way home, I'll think of like 40 more."