Portrait of a beatmaker

About to drop his first solo album, Doomtree DJ/producer Paper Tiger explains how hip-hop's background maestros operate.

Guitars, we get: You plug them in, strike the strings and hope a power chord comes out. Drums are so basic they sell them as kids' toys. And we all know synthesizers from tinkering around on them in the aisles at Target. ¶ Now, what exactly is a sequencer MIDI controller? And how do you work a sequencer? And do you need a license to operate an 808? ¶ No longer just record collectors armed with two turntables, hip-hop beatmakers have grown up and plugged in. Fans see them onstage behind the rappers, pressing buttons and hitting gadgets that your grandfather or even Grandmaster Flash wouldn't recognize. ¶ You should see the sorts of things they keep in their apartments.

"One of the reasons it's hard to do this is because there's a lot of stuff to get, and it's expensive," Paper Tiger noted last week, surrounded by all the instruments he used to make his new album for the Doomtree record label.

One of the beatmakers behind Doomtree's crew of Minneapolis rappers (P.O.S., Dessa, Sims), Mr. Tiger -- aka John Samels, 29 -- makes a strong case for the growing artistry behind his own peculiar brand of musicmaking on "Made Like Us," his first full-length solo release. It's a moody, sometimes dark but also surprisingly elegant and cinematic collection, recalling DJ Shadow's best stuff. And it actually doesn't feature a lick of rapping. (Dessa sings, as does Lookbook's Maggie Morrison.)

Once you hear "Made Like Us," you won't be surprised that Paper Tiger has a music background well beyond beatmaking. His dad is '70s-era Twin Cities rocker Johnny Rey, who played in Flamingo (later the Flamin' Ohs) before fronting his own group. The younger John had his own guitar by age 6, and played in bands in high school.

He put music aside while attending Minneapolis College of Art & Design -- speaking of Target, you've likely seen Samels' graphic design work in the retailer's ads, if not on Doomtree materials -- but then got into beatmaking alongside his childhood pals from the Hopkins area, who would soon brand the Doomtree name.

"It wasn't until I graduated from school that I really had the money to buy the equipment, which happened to be when [the rest of Doomtree] started getting serious," he recalled.

This is the year of the beatmakers in Doomtree. "Made Like Us" will soon be followed in September by a full-length from his more bombastic "lavabreaking" peer Lazerbeak. Prior to this, Paper Tiger's work has been featured on Doomtree's "False Hopes" EPs, the all-crew full-length album and various tracks on the rappers' records, plus he has toured with P.O.S. and Dessa. The guy knows his stuff, and he did his best to let us in on it.

The equipment

Paper Tiger's three most essential tools are:

• Two Technics 1200 turntables. "They haven't really changed since the '70s," he said.

• MPC 1000 MIDI controller, a sampler/sequencer that's more or less the "beatmaker" tool, where beats (and other musical snippets) can be stored and laid on top of each other with the press of one of its many pads. These sequencers, he said, "pretty much changed how hip-hop is made."

• Two Apple laptops and three external hard-drives, between which he runs ProTools, the standard home recording/mixing program, plus Serato and Reason, two programs that are common for beatmakers, and iTunes, from which he sometimes pulls samples off one of his 11,620 tracks.

His other gear includes:

• Rane mixer, housed between the turntables, with level adjustments.

• Yamaha MG10/2 mixing console, sort of like a mini version of a club's soundboard.

• Pioneer EFX500 effects box, also used with turntables, that manipulates sounds, beats, whirs and provides the bleep-like "Daft Punk button," as he put it.

• Boss DR-202, a programmable drum machine, probably his least-used piece.

• Reason keyboard, used in conjunction with the Reason program, which does what a roomful of synthesizers could do.

• Two "virtual vinyl" LPs, which are played on the turntables just like vinyl but bend/scratch/manipulate music coming off the computers via the Serato program, negating the need to lug around crates full of records.

• An accordion, guitar and other "traditional" musical instruments.

As for an 808, he prefers not to use the retro-sounding electric drum machine, though plenty of beatmakers still do (like Kanye West).

The technique

"We all use a lot of the same equipment, but everybody kind of uses it differently because there are a lot of different things you can do," Paper Tiger said. His own approach changes from song to song when he's creating a new track, but more often than not, he said, "I just start with a sound, some kind of a note range, and you build something out of there, something that's totally different."

Those notes can be a vocal snippet or keyboard part sampled off a record, or a keyboard part he creates on his own, or the vocals he enlisted Dessa or Morrison to sing. The drum parts are also often a starting point. For those, he said, "I pretty much use all sampled drums. Occasionally I'll layer on electronic drums, just for a unique sound, but not often. I just like the sound of old tube-recorded drum kits."

Once the samples or original parts are stacked up in the MPC 1000 (sequencer), he said, "You take those and chop them up. You can replay all the different parts and mash them up." From there, he often pieces everything together and mixes it with ProTools. When he's working with the Doomtree rappers, "I'll usually finish some tracks and compile them on CD, and then give them to everybody in the crew to see who bites," he said. "And we collaborate from there."

The sampling

"It's just spending hours and hours going through old dusty crates to find the right part," he said. "It gets into this whole nerdy collector vibe, almost like baseball card collectors. But I like that."

Among the vinyl he pulled out at his place last week was Bobby Brown's first record, plus albums by Art Webb, Esther Phillips, Sheila Chandra and a band named Mississippi -- deliberately acts that are not currently well-known. Said Samels, "You usually have to use stuff that's not on a major label, so you don't have to worry about getting sued."

As for the oft-heard criticism that sampling is stealing, he said, "There's usually no way you can take these songs that people sample, use one little part of it along with a bunch of other pieces, and say it's the same song. It's a completely different operation at the end of the day."

The satisfaction

Said Samels -- who, by the way, is soon moving to New York but will stay active locally with Doomtree -- "It's an art form you can't really understand until you try it. It's really easy to say, 'They're just playing a record, or they're just looping drums.' But there's so much more to it than that. I understand if you go see electronic music, you usually just see a guy with a laptop. You really don't get to see all the work that goes into this.

"I like it because I can do it completely by myself. I love collaboration, and I love band stuff. But not having to rely on that is nice. I can work on something whenever I want. I can start on something at 2 a.m. if I want, or I can spend all day on it. It's all up to me."

chrisr@startribune.com • 612-673-4658

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