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Monday, June 9, 2014

Influenced: Klassik Finds Jazz in The Neptunes

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In Influenced, we talk to Milwaukee musicians about the artists that shaped and inspired them, both as performers and listeners.

Milwaukee rapper/producer Klassik has enjoyed solid recognition over the last four years, due in no small part to his extreme work ethic and passion for his craft. Klassik sat down with us to discuss a production team whose risk taking and distinct style got him interested in the art of hip-hop production, The Neptunes.


Let’s talk a little bit about your upbringing and the role music played in it.

I grew up in a musical household pretty much from day one, lots of stuff from classical to Marvin Gaye to Prince to Michael Jackson, especially Michael Jackson. I have memories of my mom and I doing the dance routine to “Scream” every time the music video played [laughs]. But yeah, music was pretty much there from the beginning for me. I started playing saxophone in 4th grade, which got me into jazz. I think when I was about 11 my favorite artist was Charlie Parker.

Are your parents musically inclined?

They enjoy music but they don’t really play it. My dad played a little violin and was involved in theater productions around here with like the Andre Lee Ellis Company, though. I remember him doing Driving Miss Daisy. He passed away when I was 11, so I’d like to think that I’m kind of continuing his legacy in being a performer and entertainer.

Were you aware of what was popular at the time or were you more concerned with jazz records?

Coming up I was aware of more contemporary stuff because of my mom, but as I started developing my own tastes, I was drawn to jazz. I took playing my instrument so seriously and I was told that the best jazz musicians spend a lot of time listening to recordings, so I viewed that as part of my development with the saxophone.

One of the first records that got me into hip hop, though, was A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory. At the time, I didn’t really know what I was listening to, and I didn’t really think of it as hip hop because it was so jazz-centric. I just remember listening to it and thinking “yeah this is like jazz but cooler.” Around then was when I checked out The Neptunes, specifically their album The Neptunes Present…Clones.

What made you check that album out specifically?

The single “Frontin,” that was my jam. It had this simple drum track but then those crazy like spaceship sounds in the background and a cool bridge. I loved it, and I wanted to pick the album up, so I rode my bike to Sam Goody at Bay Shore to buy it. I remember listening to it on my Discman on the ride home.

Having been immersed in jazz, what was it like hearing that record?


It was interesting, actually, because after listening to it a few times through, I started to hear elements of jazz in what The Neptunes were doing. I heard a musicality in their productions that I hadn’t heard in a lot of other hip hop records from that time. There are a lot of musicians on there and a lot of different kinds of music on there, but it worked. That’s something I noticed about it too-how it varied in style but was all unified by that “Neptunes sound.” It came with a DVD that I still have, actually. It showed them in the studio and how they made some of these tracks and where the sounds came from, and that also kind of introduced me to what a producer does. Hearing Clones is what made me want to start producing my own music. The intro track on there, which is still one of my favorite Neptunes beats ever, that’s the track that made me say “Ok, this is what I want to do."

What was different about what The Neptunes were doing than say, the stuff you’d hear on a Ja Rule record or DMX record?

Everything, really. They were so creative and had so much variety to what they were doing, but again, you always knew it was a Neptunes record. They could be really minimal-they were the kings of making really minimal beats with just like a simple kick and snare pattern, but you knew it was them because they had this really distinct sound.

So you started to become more aware of them and what they were about?

Yeah, I started researching what else they had done, and I quickly realized that not only had they produced a lot of stuff, but a lot of stuff that I both knew and liked. I think around that time was when “Give it to Me” came out, and then Clipse’s Lord Willin followed not long after that.

“Grindin” is one of their most recognizable beats. I used to hear kids at school pounding that beat out on lockers between classes.

Oh yeah man, everywhere. It always made me think of trashcans, like I just pictured Pharell out in the alley beating on some trash cans.

But yeah, like you were saying-real minimal.

Yeah, definitely, there’s not too much going on in “Grindin” aside from those drums, but that’s all you need, you know? That big trashy sounding beat is the focus of that song.

What other productions of their stood out to you?

There’s a track on Clones that’s called “Good Girl” that I really love. It’s got those super new jack swing sounding orchestral stabs going on, but they use them in a different way, so it’s like giving new life to something familiar. It’s kind of a girly song or whatever, and my friends might give me a hard time for liking it…

I mean, the beat they made for Britney Spears’ “Toxic” is one of their best.

Oh yeah, definitely. Or even “Im a Slave 4 U”, which was actually originally intended to be a Janet Jackson song.

I vaguely remember hearing something about that.

Yeah, I saw an interview with Pharell where he was talking about how they’ll sometimes write something with a specific person in mind but it will end up someplace else. Like “Rock Your Body” was originally intended for Michael Jackson apparently.

That makes sense. Justin Timberlake did a pretty solid job with it, though.

Oh yeah, definitely. Justified probably has some of my favorite Neptunes beats on it in fact.

What’s interesting about their productions is how they always kind of had that slightly weird quality about them.

Yeah, I mean their name was really fitting. Their records definitely have this sort of otherworldly kind of sound to them. A lot of it came from weird old vintage keyboards and analog synthesizers, so it had this retro kind of vibe to it, but it was also really spacey and futuristic at the same time.

Do you think weird beats lend themselves to weird rhymes, be it the lyrics themselves or the delivery?

I think any good musician should write for that specific song, you know? If they’re a really good writer and they’ve got a good ear and they understand how to use space within a composition, I think they will naturally write something that fits that particular track. If the beat is kinda weird and quirky, the rhymes will probably be as well.

What makes for a good beat?

That’s tough … but definitely something that sounds good whether there’s a vocal or not. It usually is something that will grab me immediately. It’s gotta have something unique about it that makes it stand out, whether it’s timing or what it’s made up of, or the groove.

The Neptunes were just doing whatever they liked and didn’t really follow trends, but they also took a lot of risks. Do you think their willingness to take risks has shaped the modern landscape of hip hop?

The field is more open for more risk takers, definitely now more than ever. Even though it might not seem like it, they took a risk in bringing back that musicality to hip-hop, which should always be the case. A Tribe Called Quest were definitely responsible for doing that the first time around, but it sort of got lost there for a while. The Neptunes are definitely responsible for making it cool for hip-hop records to be musical again.

You mentioned earlier that it was The Neptunes that made you want to start producing? How did you go about doing that?

Yeah, like literally after hearing Clones I decided that I wanted to start producing and making beats. My introduction was computer software like Acid Pro. That was my first introduction into chopping up and sequencing loops. That was for me what pause tapes were for dudes coming up in the early days. I got into other kinds of software, too, and I started to teach myself how to play keys around that time as well. I would deconstruct Kanye West beats and try to recreate them as a way of practicing and figuring out how to assemble a beat.

So did you ever get into using samplers?

I actually didn’t and it’s primarily because of me not really considering myself to be just a beat maker per say. The focus for me is the actual composition of the song and all of its different elements. I just do a lot of layering in terms of mixing my own playing with samples and stuff, and so I see myself as a composer and arranger more than anything, and that came from studying The Neptunes.

So even in relation to being a lyricist, do you think of yourself more as a composer and arranger?

Yeah, I do. Sometimes I’ll see myself come up in discussions or on lists of people’s favorite rappers in town and stuff, and I’m grateful for that for sure, but I also think there are a lot of rappers in town who are much better at it than I am. Those dudes are like writing all the time, filling up notebooks with tons of really cool verses. I write lyrics for a song, and nine times out of ten, the music just kind of writes the song for me.

Did you eventually start making beats for other people?

Not for a few years. I remember like freshman or sophomore year of high school I was making $10 beats that I sold to a few people. A lot of them were very Kanye West inspired, with the sped up soul vocal samples and stuff, but that’s what I was doing at the time. That’s when I started getting my name out there. I think at the time I was calling myself “AK,” which was just my initials backwards, but I was into it because I thought it made me sound super hard [laughs].

It’s safe to say that you aren’t alone in being influenced by The Neptunes as many others feel similarly. Do you think they will be revered in the same way in years to come, not unlike J Dilla?

Absolutely. They were like J Dilla in that they were both total game changers, and once they established themselves, they also established new trends in hip hop production. Back in ’09, Billboard named them the producers of the decade. For them to be given that distinction, that says a lot about them and their contributions towards the continuation of the art form.

Twelve years after you were first introduced to The Neptunes, what can you say they have done for you?

They made it cool to be different and just trust your own instincts and break the mold, and that’s something I’m always going to do. Hip-hop would currently sound a lot different than it does if it weren’t for The Neptunes.

Klassik will be appearing at Summerfest on July 2.