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The Noise And How To Bring It: Hank Shocklee Interviewed
John Tatlock , February 4th, 2015 07:29

John Tatlock speaks to Hank Shocklee about key Public Enemy productions and other sonic innovations

Noise. That's what everyone calls it. That's even what Public Enemy call it. A wall of noise. A collage of noise.

I never really thought that was a good description of Public Enemy. Noise implies randomness; implies the accidental, the emergent. The very opposite of signal.

To me, Public Enemy are all signal and no noise. Listen to a track like 'Brothers Gonna Work It Out' from Fear Of A Black Planet. Sure, it conjures up images of chaos. Sure it carves up and glues together slices of Prince, James Brown, Melvin Bliss and many others, with total disregard for musical compatibility. But random, accidental? Not to these ears.

In the wake of the release of excellent expanded reissues of It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet, I got on the phone with producer Hank Shocklee (or "the Phil Spector of noise", in PE front-man Chuck D's words) to talk about the never-successfully imitated PE sound.

To get ready for this, I re-listened to the first four PE albums quite a bit. And while Yo! Bum Rush The Show is a very striking record, it's kind of minimalist and electronic where Nation Of Millions is much denser, and more fluid and organic. Was that evolution or was it a conscious choice?

Hank Shocklee: For me, it was a conscious choice because it was our first release on Def Jam. If you think back, at the time Def Jam was LL Cool J and Beastie Boys singles. They were just in the studio making the album Licensed To Ill, but it wasn't out yet. And the Def Jam sound was very minimal. And I didn't want to bring a totally different sound, because I thought would be too radical. but it still had to have the characteristics of where things were going to go.

But we pushed the envelope a bit further into the area of sampling. Because at that time we didn't know how that whole thing was going to play out. Doing sampling in terms of the commercial acceptability. Or even how we were going to get it through the record company

I remember reading that Chuck D said you don't like to talk about what the samples are because there are many that people still haven't discovered.

HS: Sure. The problem you have about sampling cases is that they're open-ended. It's just like a murder case. I always had the idea that I wanted to do something ridiculously dense and rich. But you have to do those things in stages. Otherwise the public has this reaction to it like they've seen an alien or something. And even that first album, it was pretty difficult to get even that across. Everyone looks back and says the record was great. But it was only great to a few people in the know. Hip hop heads. And we were lucky enough that a bunch of writers were into it. So it got that kind of critical acclaim.

It was seen as a cool record in the UK. I'm sure people have told you that before.

HS: Well, the UK is very astute about music. I mean that's where a lot of the jazz musicians are still touring today. In the states we've abandoned jazz. It's almost like classical music. But I only found out that it was big over there when Public Enemy toured, and they brought back the footage of the crowd that was later used on Nation Of Millions.

So you had a vision of the next couple of albums even right from the outset?

HS: Yeah. You have to remember, I was working on Bum Rush for three years before Rick Rubin even decided he wanted to sign us. It wasn't like he signed the group and then we decided to make the record. I anticipated doing the record. Where and how we'd do it was a whole other question. But three years was spent on developing the concept and the style and sound. I've never believed in making an album for release. I just believe in making a lot of music and then you're picking from those sources when it's time to release. So you create this body of work. And then when you need an album you cherry pick. So you can create something more cohesive and tell a better story.

I always thought of Nation and Fear as two chapters of the same book. But actually when I listen back I realise they're both quite distinct sonically. Nation is bright and punchy and almost like a rock album. And Fear is darker and more fluid and kind of soulful.

HS: How this all started with Bum Rush was, Rick asked us to do a single. And me and Chuck delivered seven tracks. I knew that I wanted to get an album out, because I knew that doing a single with a company like Sony behind it was a waste of time. Because I already knew that Sony was inept at promoting singles. So it had be an album from the start, otherwise PE wouldn't have made any traction. So that album had to be done at the cost of a single. When you listen to Yo! Bum Rush The Show... Quick. It was quick. The total expenditure on that record was $12,000. We'd been given $5,000 for the single so for an extra $7,000 you got a whole album. So that was an easier sell to Def Jam. And I already knew they were pulling $225,000 from Sony. So immediately the record was in the black. [Laughs]

And keep in mind at that time LL Cool J, Beastie Boys; those guys were spending close to half a million dollars on the records. So we broke the mould and came in ridiculously under budget. So when we got to Nation, the process was different. Nation was done at two different studios. With two completely different sounds. We started at Chung King and then moved to Greene Street. At Greene Street we got a chance to refine our skills. And then we could go on and create Fear Of A Black Planet. Fear was all done at Greene Street. And of course we had more time to work with. You have to understand that even while we were finishing Bum Rush in the mixing stages, we were already making what would become Nation and Fear.

So that's why on the second single, 'You're Gonna Get Yours', the b-side is 'Rebel Without A Pause' from Nation Of Millions. Which was the first track that was coming from the new body of work. And even a few months before that was released, Rick was producing the music for the movie Less Than Zero. And we had another track we were working on for that which became 'Bring The Noise'. So DJs were already playing 'Bring The Noise' in all the hip hop clubs, even before 'Rebel'. And then by the time we released the second single from Bum Rush, that single had 'Rebel Without A Pause' on the other side. So everybody immediately went to that.

Bum Rush had had to sit in the pipeline for about six months before it could come out. And in the world of hip hop, six months might as well be six years. Because at the time hip hop was a 12" culture. And 12"s, you can make and release in less than six weeks. That's fast.

So the production had to be an ongoing process of constantly working on stuff, because in six months, everything changes.

Understood. Hip hop is still very much about, "What's the new sound, the new style, what's the new thing?" It's not a particularly nostalgic field.

HS: Exactly. The 12" culture has now moved to the mixtape. Where people used to put a white label on the streets, they now put out a mixtape and that will keep things bubbling until they finish the full release. That's what propelled artists like 50 Cent. So that's a concept that still works today, where the rap market is very, very fast.

This is interesting. It's clear that as a producer you don't just think about the music. You think very tactically.

HS: That's what Public Enemy was all about. It was never a hip hop group, so to speak. We thought of it like a rock and roll band. Just one that lived in the hip hop world. In order to do that, everything had to be tactical. I learned a lot from when I used to manage a heavy metal record store [laughs]. Yeah! I was very interested in a lot of groups like Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag. Bands like that, everything they did was conceptual.

And Public Enemy followed in those footsteps. I mean at that time, in order to be a rap group. you had to perform to a rap audience before you could make your record. A lot of guys would do a lot of shows running around, and then they would put out the record. Public Enemy didn't do that. It was the first dawning of what I consider to be the concept of from the bedroom to the studio to the record company. You didn't have to pay your dues in terms of schlepping around and playing at all the parties, in order to gain reputation. So it had to have a concept that was airtight and easily graspable.

So that's why the S1Ws are there, that's why Flavor's there. Having Flavor was a challenge. Because he was the first rapper who was a non-rapper. He was a hype man. At first no one understood the concept of having someone on the mic who didn't really rap any lyrics. So that had to be sold to the audience and to the record company as well.

The original deal was for Chuck to do a solo record. It was just me and Chuck and we decided we wanted to do the deal. So as we started putting together the deal, I pulled up Eric Sadler, because he was working downstairs and I wanted someone to work with, who could help me flush out my crazy ideas. I wanted someone who I knew I trusted with musician skills, because there were things that I wanted to do with frequencies. I wanted to do something that was not melodic. I wanted frequencies that clashed with each other and created another frequency of dissonance. And that's a complex thing, because if you do that wrong, you create mess, and you don't get anything across.

When you're working with musical scales you have a bunch of things that you know will work well together. But when you're working with dissonance, you're taking the concept of scales and throwing it out of the window. If you play it on a piano it will sound like shit. But if you create the sound and the concept that goes with that sound then you're going to make something different.

That was the most important aspect of it. Because finding the samples, that was pretty easy because I had a ridiculous record collection. But finding the right pieces, in the right contexts was the hard part. That's why I needed people like Eric, because for every sample you hear on the record, there were like ten that have to be put in place to see if it works. Out of those ten you have to find the one that really expresses the emotion you intend to express. Like when you hear, "We're going to get on down now." Well, there's a bunch of different records that say we're going to get on down. But which get on down is going to have the emotional impact? [laughs].

Like in 'Night of the Living Baseheads' when you hear the little bit of David Bowie's 'Fame'. The reason for that was at that moment it needed a release. Because the tension is building up in this record so much, it has to crescendo somewhere and then have a release so we could pick it back up again. So we have to find that part the can release the tension from the intensity of the horns. But still holds the tension together.

This is fascinating. From the way you are describing it, it's not like just, "Oh this is a cool loop." It's more like you've got the composition in mind already, and now we've got to go and find the pieces.

HS: Exactly. And to go more deeply into it... Now, imagine with a sample you have a start and an end marker. Take 'Rebel Without A Pause' for example. The sax line on that. If that was taken on the downbeat it would be a lot more funkier, in terms of the listener being able to groove more, but it would lose a lot of intensity. So that sample had to be taken off of the two. But then placed on the one. so this sample that was originally a cool melodic piece now sits there like a rock guitar. And has that same feeling and vibration. Because one of the things I really wanted to do was have the feeling of rock & roll without a guitar.

Another thing is that if you look at all the productions, none of the productions have bass lines in them. And that's because bass lines represent melody. If it doesn't have melody no-one perceives it as musical; it just becomes a low frequency hum. Like you hear from machines in the laundromat or whatever. So it was important not to have a baseline but in its place we used the 808 drum. With the decay on it. And did it with clever pitch changes in it.

Now the only time people used the 808 was to create one note right? I'm talking about back then. And that one note would be the answer to the melody line. But we were using the 808 as the front note. You see, what most people were doing, they took the actual machine and went in the studio and played that note. But we would go and get a record that had recorded it already, and take that 808. Which is a texture thing. You get all the extra grittiness so it doesn't come across clean. So it comes across dirty and grimy. So that's keeping the low intensity dirty and grimy just like the top is dirty and grimy. I'm probably going too much into it. We should do books on this stuff [laughs].

Picture courtesy of Ronnie Randall/Retna

These records are often described as collages of noise. Which I always thought was too simplistic. And it's obvious from what you say that they were very much composed. There's nothing random about them. In particular, the music and the vocals interact directly and continuously. The music seems to respond phrase-by-phrase to what the rapping is doing, and vice versa.

HS: Yes. And in order to write like that, especially at that time, you really needed a team. Because there were so many areas that need to be attended to simultaneously. I'm glad that you picked up the fact that it was composed. I've got a big jazz background and listening to a lot of jazz records I got an understanding of how you can be eclectic, in terms of your musical scales. You could create melodies and rhythms that were atonal. It didn't necessarily have any real tone but the tone would be determined by what you layered on top of it.

So, for example, because Chuck has this kind of baritone voice, Chuck becomes the melody, and the track becomes the accompaniment. If you take a Billie Holiday record, and a Public Enemy record, in a way they are very similar. This is where it gets crazy. And Flav, well basically Flav is a tenor.

I read a Clive Davis interview. And to me, Clive is one of the greatest producers of all time. And he said something that was cool, he said the artist always has to be the star, and sound like a star. And the beautiful thing about the Public Enemy records is, Chuck and Flavor provide the melody, on all the records.

So you really know what the lyrics are. That's a whole important area. Because the tracks were so dissonant, you could lay pretty much any melody on it and it would work. And so the only thing you can think about, as a listener, is what Chuck and Flavor are saying. And when they're not rapping the music takes on a totally different complexion.

Now the mixing part of it, that was a whole other side. Nowadays you can get compressors and take samples from different sources and glue it all together. Everybody understands that concept now.

But there was no blueprint back then. All I had was the engineer in the studio, who knew traditionally how to record drums, how to record bass and all that. And where the whole concept was to keep things as clean as possible. But we were using samples. So if I wanted a snare, I couldn't just trim that and take it to the point where you could just hear the snare. There'd be all this other stuff on there too. But that would create the extra bit of energy and the little bit of melody that I wanted from that. And that's what gives everything the glue.

And keep in mind that none of these records have got reverb. I'm not using reverb on any of these records. Because reverb softens the sound. And that's not Public Enemy's sound. Public Enemy has to be brimstone and fire. Thunder and lightning. It can't be soft and warm and familiar. Otherwise it won't create agitation. So with each sample I was pulling up the high frequencies, in order to pull up, not just the snare of the guitar or whatever, but also pulling up the ambience, and even the imperfections in the vinyl itself. So that's why people started talking about "noise". Because I was inverting the engineer's entire concept of mixing. So to be able to balance all that stuff and get it to the point where it sounds pleasing, that was the hat trick

It's amazing how coherent those records are, sonically, despite all these different sources. I can't begin to imagine how you would pull that off.

HS: The reason why Fear sounds so coherent is because now we've worked with the same engineers for long enough that they understand the concept. So now Eric [Sadler] and Keith [Shocklee] and everyone else can bring in their talent. They can step up now, because they understand where I'm going. So now they can kind of finish my sentences. But the first two albums weren't that. They were me with my crazy-ass ideas and everybody's trying to figure out where I'm going, and how they could fit in.

I was going to ask about that. The Bomb Squad was an unusual setup. Four or sometimes more producers, when production is usually a one man job. What were the roles?

HS: Well. Eric's role was to basically keep me under control. Keep me from going too far over the edge. Because I would go so far over the edge, but I would create... Sometimes I would want to go too far. And also communicating my ideas to all the other engineers. So that I don't get surprised with something that's not supposed to be there. For example, we were working on, I can't remember the exact song, but it was 48 tracks. At that time you had to put up two 24 track reels to do that. So I tell the engineer to put the tracks up and I'm listening to the playback. And it's a complete mess. the guy can't figure it out. And I say you're playing two different songs at the same time. We switched the second reel, and now you can start to make sense of it. That goes to show you how dense and how deep and how many things that were there. Because to them the shit was all noise anyway. They thought it was pretty random.

But people came in to do different functions. And to me, I'm a believer in giving people credit. I could have easily done a Timbaland or Dr Dre type thing, were it's like it's just me and everybody that's helping me is just work for hire. But I don't believe in that. Because the statement I wanted to put out there is, "We are a team doing this." For example, people don't even know, but Terminator was part of the Bomb Squad. Flavor Flav was part of it. On 'Rebel Without A Pause', Flavor was playing fill beats by hand. Because sequencing is wack to me. Because everything happens predictably at the same point. That's not how a band plays. So samples have to perform like they are a band. So having Flavor play the beats by hand, gave it the soul that it needed to have. One thing about Flavor is he could have been a great musician, if he was disciplined enough [laughs]. Because he's got a great ear. Flavor was the only one who could do it. If I did it or Eric did it or Keith it would have been too correct.

One of the things that was amazing to me as a fan, was that at the time you were making these records, the Bomb Squad were also producing so many other records, in so many different styles. Paula Abdul, Ice Cube, Slick Rick, Bell Biv DeVoe. The amount of stuff you created in that two-to-three year period is astonishing.

HS: Yeah. That was a run. It kind of culminated for me on the Juice project that I did on my SOUL label. There was so much going on that in order to create that kind of output you really have to just create a lot of things, like I said before. I've always felt that if you get asked to produce a track for somebody and then you have to go write it that's the wrong approach. That's where a lot of bands get caught in the sophomore jinx and things of that nature. Because you're under a lot of pressure to produce and you're trying to write at the same time. And writing and producing are two different things. Can't do them at the same time. So you have to write all the time. No different thing than Kobe Bryant being in the gym. But if you put a lot of pre-work, then it just becomes a matter of selection. The work doesn't have to be completed; the ideas just have to be flushed out. It just has to have a basic rhythm and the emotional content has to be there.

So when you get a situation like a Bell Biv DeVoe or an Ice Cube then it just becomes a matter of pulling something out and thinking this could work for that, this looks like that. The lyrics and the track have to look like they belong together. And that's the area I don't see happening today. I'm not hearing lyrical emotional information, and the track echoing that. The difference today is that you can take any acapella and put it on the beat and it will work. I'm talking about in rap. The Public Enemy records, you can't do that.

You can't, I know. When I was djing I used to try.

HS: That to me is what production is about. Making that track and that artist have ownership in each other. Public Enemy tracks were good. I thought they were good. But what made them great, is the marriage of the track and vocals. When you put those together and create this kind of combustion, everything becomes like it's on steroids. And Public Enemy records hold up on their own. If you played a PE record in a club everybody would be like, "What the fuck you doing?" But if you played five Public Enemy records in a row, you'd change the frequency of what's going on.

Yeah, I always find when I listen to those albums it's hard to listen to anything else immediately afterwards.

HS: Exactly. It's doing everything that music is not supposed to do. And that's why those records are one-offs. You could never duplicate them again; it just can't be done. I don't even remember half the samples. Chuck always reminds me about intricate things that I've completely forgotten about. I don't even have my own copy. Because I never wanted to fall in love with the production.

So obviously the records made cutting edge use of the technology that was available. Are you still excited about new music technology?

HS: Oh yeah absolutely. If you look at it you'll notice that when digital came out in some people kind of fell out of music. Because it was a whole new learning curve. To me, I got rid of my old gear, and decided to concentrate inside the box. I've been doing sound design for a lot of companies. And now I want to start doing production with artists again, but I'm going to go into electronic music. That to me is an area for breaking new ideas. When hip hop became mainstream, it lost its alternative edge. It's not as daring as it once was. It's kind of a pop music culture. And that's cool, but I was never really about pop music. I'm more into experimental. To me the frontier is cats like Amon Tobin and Flying Lotus. They're just doing some amazing things, you know.

I always thought of Public Enemy as in some ways like a post-punk act.

HS: Yes. That's why we broke in the UK first. Public Enemy crossed over to the US, not the other way around. It was always appreciated on the street level in the US. But it wasn't appreciated by the mass majority of the hip-hop audience. I remember Daddy-O from Stetsasonic saying to me, "Have you been to the Latin Quarter?" where Red Alert and KRS-One were getting down. They had a Tuesday night gig and he said they were playing 'Bring The Noise' like crazy in there. That to me is the beauty of those records. They capture the moment of time when everything was pretty innocent. I mean, we didn't know what it was. Today, everyone knows what hip hop is. Back then nobody knew. It could be a 130 bpm C&C Music Factory record. Or a rock record like a Beasties record. Or it could be this eclectic jazz vibration that came from De La, or Pharcyde. The funk sound like NWA. Everything was so diverse. But now in hip hop if you're not dealing with that narrow band of what they know, they tend to deal with it like it's some foreign substance. And it's very difficult to get the artist to be creative now because they're in a mould of being just like everybody else.

So the reason why Kanye West is so big, is he's one of the few people who does things nobody else would do. Bring a Ray Charles sample, or a Daft Punk vibration. He will push the envelope, and hardly anyone else will. It's too limiting when instead of being an artist you're just being an act. Because when you get someone who does do something different, they blow up through the roof. Like when I saw the Adele record selling 30 million copies, it wasn't a surprise to me. Everybody goes, "Oh this is real, this is a real record". Because people took some time and put some thought behind it. It isn't like what Beyonce is doing right now, which is, "Find me anybody who's got a hot beat, and I'll stick some lyrics on it and throw it out." And she's way more talented than that. She could do something that would change people's concept of music. She could do that. But the pressure is so on, that if they slip two percentage points down in the ratings, they feel like they're over with.

I suppose the music industry has got more conservative. People are anxious about sales. More anxious about money than they ever been.

HS: That's why the independent scene is on the up surge. I could go on for days about people who are doing some ridiculously brilliant dance stuff. And in 1997, the record companies abandoned dance altogether. So that music went underground and now it's come back up and it's pop music. And that's a great sign. That's a sign that people are waking up musically. So now is a good time to do some really interesting things. Something I'd like to see is the older artists doing more. What I don't like is when older artists are still trying to be radio relevant. You know, like I want to hear a really good Gang Of Four. But I don't want it to sound like Maroon 5 [laughs]. I want to hear what they would do today, given the technology today. One of the records I thought was really cool recently was the My Bloody Valentine record. Dope. It stayed true to what it was. And that shows you don't have to be on this commercial timeline of putting out a record every year.