Earlier this year, Light in the Attic Records subsidiary Modern Classics Recordings reissued Digable Planets’ Reachin’ (A New Refutation of Time and Space) in commemoration of its 25th anniversary. (The deluxe packaging includes liner notes by Stranger contributor Larry Mizell Jr.)
Hailed by many critics for its piquant fusing of jazz and funk elements, consciousness-raising lyrics, deft vocal interplay, and for being one of the sexiest documents of ’90s hiphop (that last one might just be me), Reachin’ proved that Ishmael “Butterfly” Butler would be an important figure in music history. The album—whose single “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” won a Grammy—was an impressive opening salvo that laid the foundation for Butler’s extraordinary evolution as a producer and rapper, culminating with Shabazz Palaces’ innovative catalog over the last decade.
But as gifted as Ish was right out of the gate, he needed assistance in realizing his complex vision on Digable Planets’ debut full-length. That came from producers Mike Mangini and Shane “The Doctor” Faber, who operated at Calliope Studios in New York. That spot became a favored place for hiphop artists to track in the '80s and '90s.
Faber, an audio engineer and musician who played guitar in the power-pop band Bad Sneakers in the first half of the ’80s, found himself contributing his musical knowledge and audio wizardry to several classics of golden age hiphop.
His credits include Stetsasonic's In Full Gear (engineer), De La Soul's “Buddy,” “The Magic Number,” and “Ghetto Thang” (engineer), Queen Latifah's All Hail the Queen (engineer, bass), Jungle Brothers' Done by the Forces of Nature (engineer, keyboards), A Tribe Called Quest's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (engineer), and Biz Markie's “Just a Friend” (keyboards).
With a résumé like that, in addition to musical education at University of Miami (Florida)—where classmates included Jaco Pastorius, Phyllis Hyman, and Pat Metheny—Faber was well-equipped to facilitate Digable Planets’ unconventional, jazz-oriented approach to hiphop. As I’ve interviewed Butler several times and he’s likely tired of me putting a microphone in his face, I decided to talk to Faber to get his thoughts about Reachin’, which he enthusiastically related over nearly an hourlong phone conversation.
The Stranger: How did you get started in hiphop production and engineering? It looks like you really immersed yourself in the Native Tongues scene somehow. How did that happen?
Shane Faber: Well, I had a band [Bad Sneakers] in the '80s that played on the Jersey Shore. And we were together about six years and produced our own recordings. It was like, a power-pop, rock band. And we were playing on the shore in 1985, in the summer. And I met the guy that owned Calliope Studios in Manhattan, Chris Irwin. It was a 24-track studio on 8th avenue and 37th street in Manhattan. And he was a really talented musician and loved, got into recording, self-taught. Bought equipment and set this studio up.
And he was basically renting the studio out real cheap. After midnight he would charge $24 an hour for an eight-hour blocks. And it was one of the cheapest rates around for a 24-track studio. So I stayed in touch with him after the summer, and the band broke up about a year later.
And he offered me a job. Because we made all our records on an 8-track. He said, "Hey, if you start coming up to New York, I'll give you a job. You can engineer and help in my studio." So that's what I did.
And at the time I was living in Delaware. And I took the train up. I'd stay up there for three, or four, or five days, and then go home and regroup, and then go back. And that's who was using the studio, was Daddy-O and Stetasonic, and you know, [Prince] Paul, the DJ for Daddy-O was who brought some of the folks in. Paul ended up producing De La Soul. All these kids knew each other.
They weren't the hardcore meatball rappers. They were more creative than that. They weren't trying to be gangsters. Although they all very much wanted to be accepted by the core hiphop crowd. DJ Red Alert, he wasn't a gangster. These guys weren't gangsters. But they wanted [respect] from the core hiphop crowd. But of course it was white college kids that loved them. They had kind of a strange relationship.
But I got working with them because I have a degree in music. And I had spent 10 years playing in bands, and writing and recording. And I already knew that you could know all the chords in the world and still make shitty records.
And so all of a sudden I was immersed in the world of hiphop, which I literally knew nothing about. I had never really used a sampler before. I didn't know about beats and scratching. And the thing that I liked about it was it was different. And sometimes people who knew nothing about music could be very musical.
That's what really sucked me into it. Of course, [hiphop artists] were more into the beat than anything else. But they liked certain musical elements. And when they would bring in their records and play something, they wouldn't know a Stratocaster from a Les Paul, or a Wurlitzer electric piano from a Fender Rhodes. They just knew they liked the sound, or they didn't like it. So I sort of became a translator for the ability to do that for them. So I started recreating things. Because you know, this is when it first became a problem with sampling. Hiphop started to make money. And the publishers, and the record labels now began to get a little sensitive about samples?
A lot of the records they liked were from the '60s and '70s. They had no idea how the sounds were made. But they liked them. So I began to get a niche as the guy who could imitate a record. That's what led to Digable Planets.
You were involved with some of the greatest works of that era. What characteristics did you bring to those records? Was it simply your musical knowledge, and your ability to play these sounds that they loved on old records? Or was it something else? Tweaking those sounds?
I can't say that these guys came in and picked the engineer. Really the thing that was common through all these records was they were done at Calliope. And there was a group of three or four engineers. There was me, there was Bob Power, who went on to do all the Tribe Called Quest records.
It was the three or four of us on rotation [Bob Coulter, Chris Irwin, Ted Sabety]. And it was one room. I was doing the late-night shift. So a lot of times it would be me. It was accidental, to a degree. But [Digable Planets] were open to stuff. None of them wanted to be that musical. But when they needed something imitated, I would go to the trouble to imitate it, play it, and add it. And if they thought it fit, they'd use it.
Did they seek you out because of your track record?
I don't know... But I do know Digable Planets was different. Ishmael conceived that project. And he had mapped the whole thing out in his head. He was working at [Pendulum Records]. He was a gopher, an assistant at the label.
His demo was, like, 90 seconds and two-minute snippets of songs. What I heard as an outsider coming in, he seemed to be inspired by the Beat poets of the early '60s. And "jazzy" kinds of sounds around the rapping. And his source for his sounds sonically seemed to be coming from the Beat poets. Kind of African-American, from the '60s, where they would have poetry and they would have some sort of background Sonny Rollins-inspired, or Bird-inspired jazzy sounds.
[Ish] wanted to have a multi-cultural look. He wanted black musicians. He wanted Asian, Hispanic. And he actually went and got the people, and made a picture of this group that I'm not sure ever had actually performed. And he packaged the whole thing together, and he gave it to Dennis Wheeler, the A&R guy at the label.
[Wheeler had] heard about me. Because he had no money for samples, and he had heard that I was a guy that could get around that little issue. So that's how I got connected to the project.
The first sound you hear on Reachin' is what I think is Herbie Hancock's "Rain Dance." Is that not a sample? Is that just recreated in the studio?
Yeah. That's recreated.
Holy shit. I was totally fooled.
So was Herbie Hancock. His publisher actually called when the record came out. I said, "No, that's not a sample of your record." Like I said, that was why I got the Digable Planets gig.
Yeah. Well, the opening, "It's Good to Be Here," sounded to me like a bold statement that this wasn't gonna be your typical hiphop album.
No, it definitely wasn't.
So, it was a great strategy to begin that way. Did you, did you have any role in deciding what songs would be emulated, or interpolated in some way?
No, actually when we started to make the record, we realized that his demo had to be translated now. The record label liked the demo. They liked his whole visual concept that he had in mind. But they said, "Okay, now turn that into songs." And that was our first challenge. How are we gonna make these into songs?
So as far as what was being sampled, or what was gonna be copied and made to sound like a sample, that was all Ish. He had all of his sounds, and his background pieces that were gonna be for a track, he had all that worked out. And you know, when we started making the record it was him and Doodlebug and Ladybug Mecca. The three of them would come out from New York. My studio was in north New Jersey, right across from Manhattan. And they would take the bus over every day. And they'd show up in the morning at 9:00 or 10:00, we'd work 10 hours, they'd go home, come back the next day.
Ish wrote everything. He wrote the rhymes that they did. So he was the source of the sound of that record. And we actually recorded I'm gonna say close to 40 songs.
Because some of his ideas, when we tried to translate them into songs, they just didn't work. They weren't catchy. Because on an album, all of us wanted to put the best 12 things on. And Ish had a lot of ideas. But they didn't all work out when you tried to make them into something longer than 90 seconds.
And it turns out that a lot of the stuff that didn't make it on the first record is what he tried to use on the second record [Blowout Comb]. And I was not involved at all in the second record. And I'm quite proud, everybody likes the first one. I believe if I'd been involved, [Blowout Comb] might have turned out a little better. But I wasn’t, so...
But Blowout Comb has earned a lot of critical respect and cult status, and it's pretty much rated higher now than the debut, in retrospect...
That one is all Ish.
Do you think he didn't ask you back because he wanted more control over everything?
Oh yeah. Ish and I got in it at the mixing. He was very unhappy.
He was unhappy with the sound of Reachin'?
No, but you gotta understand, Ish was a young artist. Young artists, in general, they often don't know when to quit. And it's not a criticism; my job as a producer is to help someone make a record. I helped make [Reachin'], we worked on it together, I'm proud of it. I know he's proud of it. But when we were doing the mixing, I'd get it to a point, he was okay with it. We'd bring in the A&R people. They'd go, "We love it." But he'd keep going. He could mix every time you turn the tape machine on. He could do a completely different mix. And they were all good. But at the end of the day, at some point you've gotta say this is the mix that's going on the record.
[Ish] had some control issues. That's fine. But yeah, there was some difference of opinion, shall we say. But perhaps some of that friction is what helped make the record come out as great as it did. Who can say? I got along fine with Ish. I got along fine with everyone in the process. Until about the end. [laughs]
Ish wrote [Ladybug Mecca and Doodlebug's] rhymes. And neither one of them was really that much of a rapper. We would spend hours editing their rhymes, and cutting them together so they sounded smooth. And it was partly because Ish was adamant about it sounding a certain way. And their voices handling what he wrote, and it sounding a certain way. And the fact is that he could pull it off. We spent quite a lot of time making them sound the way that he wanted them to sound. But they worked just as hard as he did when it was their time to do things. And we worked very hard on turning all of those ideas into songs.
You said you had some conflicts with Ish. What was the biggest disagreement you may have had?
I think it was just probably the mixing. Because we had a budget. We had to mix the whole record in a week. We did all the tracking at my studio out in Jersey. We just got a lump sum payment to produce the record, and it was tiny money for the time. I think $30,000 was our budget for the whole thing. Soup to nuts. And that was not a lot of money. So we did all the demoing and recording and rearranging the songs at my studio.
And then when it came time to schlep into the city, we're working at Sound on Sound, $200 an hour. Gotta get all these songs mixed, all the versioning, everything done. And it was a whole different story. I think the label threw some more money at it at the end. They decided, even up to the last minute. "Cool Like Dat," he decided that he wasn't sure if he wanted to use the sample or not. And we actually brought in an upright bass player and had him actually play the part live, and then dust it, make it sound like it came off a record, and then loop it back down the track.
So actually in the mixing, at the last minute, the label and his manager decided, "Okay, we'll pay the money for using the sample." So they'd actually gone out and said to the publisher, "We want to use this little sample. How much are you gonna charge us for it?" And they decided okay, he liked the way the sample sounded. They decided to make the deal and pay for it. It was actually from the middle of a bass solo on a jazz record that I can't even remember [Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers' “Stretching”]. And it was a super-fast bebop tune. And there's this little snippet in the middle of the solo where Ish would go, "That little thing right there. That's what I want."
But that one, you never would have recognized where it came from. It was a little piece in a 16-bar upright bass solo that Ish heard and said, "That I can make into something and slow it down." He didn't know how to slow it down, but he knew in his own head how it could sound.
Was pot in the mix when you were working on Reachin'?
No, there was no pot-smoking going on on their part or our part. I could never run all that recording stuff and keep my ears in shape if I was doing drugs. That's not a good idea. And they weren't, either. They worked hard.
Was it a goal to make Reachin' sound sexy?
No. But if you're gonna use the adjective "sexy," it's not gonna be fast music in general, right? It's gonna have more of a groove. And that's another thing about rap that people don't think about that often. It's pretty tough to rap at fast speeds. Although there are some rappers who now have done some things interesting in that regard. But real classic rapping is between 86 and 94 beats a minute. And that sort of sweet spot is, and a lot of the stuff that Ish did was groove driven by stuff that was below 98, 96, 92 bpm.
I was a lot older than a lot of these artists I was working with. I graduated music school in '77. I grew up in the time of when rock and jazz were going together in the '70s and the early '80s. And I loved all that stuff. So I had a connection to what Ish was doing, because I loved his source material. Everywhere that he was biting sounds and records and stuff, the stuff that I understood and knew from a musical standpoint, and so it was good.
Are you still on good terms with Ish?
I never spoke to Ish again after the record came out.
Yeah. I didn't know the degree to which he was unhappy with me until after the record came out. And it blew up. And suddenly Ish took credit for everything, and Mike and I never got mentioned. It was like, we weren't there at all. We weren't written about in any articles. Everything just said Ish is the genius behind this record, and he did everything.
[Reached by e-mail, Ish responded to this charge: "I never had a problem with [Faber and Mangini]. The accusation of me taking all the credit is something I dispute. But whatever, man, people remember things how they remember them. I had all the concepts mapped out pretty thoroughly; my vision was very clear. I had never been in a real studio before. Shane and Mike are very pro and their work in molding the album into what it was was invaluable. Couldn’t have happened without them. I simply did not have the know-how, hence their co-production credit. I respect him and Mike immensely."]
So, ultimately, producers like you are responsible for a lot of that studio magic; what you're hearing on the record is the result of a lot of behind-the-scenes tinkering.
Yeah. Like I said, there was some tinkering that went on. But that's what I'm supposed to do. I'm supposed to emphasize the strengths, minimize the weaknesses. You keep your eye on what the artist does great. And you don't do things where they don't sound good. I feel like I did my job.
How do you rank Reachin' in the hierarchy of your discography?
It was certainly the most successful record, project. I take it back. Probably the Biz record ["Just a Friend"] was bigger. But you know, [Reachin'] was fun to do. It was very successful. I went on to do a lot of rap and hiphop, and dance music, until about '95. Reachin' was definitely one of the high points. Frankly, I'm glad that people still like it. And it's got an audience.