Dubspot Interview: Dre Skull (Mixpak / Vybz Kartel) Talks Production, Dancehall, Vocalists +

The world took notice of Dre Skull, creator of the New York-based label Mixpak, when he produced a full length album last year with Vybz Kartel, easily the top dancehall deejay prior to his incarceration. And he continues to work with a growing list of the most famous artists in the Caribbean. Some artists have even started releasing their music under bootleg Mixpak logos in attempt to benefit from his name. But Dre had been doing his thing for a while before that, as many people with an interest in forward thinking club music could tell you. He’s known for the eclectic list of artists on his label. It’s all over the place in terms of tempo and genre, but generally has a common strain of individuality, brash sounds meant for the dancefloor, and a certain analog-tinged sensibility. Yet it’s impossible to brand the overall arch definitively, as evidenced by the inclusion of Japanese rockers Hard Nips on the roster. He’s also released work with a number of prominent American rappers. Below, Dre discusses his production set up and writing process – which includes using iPhone earbuds; what it’s like in the studio with vocalists; as well as the appeal and challenges of working in a broad range of genres. – MS

[Loudspeaker Riddim preview feat Beenie Man, Natalie Storm, Machel Montano and Popcaan. Out May 22nd on Mixpak.]

What is your production set up?

I’m usually working off my laptop, sometimes I’m in a small production studio. Most of my production is done in Logic Pro, with some use of Ableton and Pro Tools as needed. I have a Juno 106, a basic M-Audio MIDI controller, and a portable Akai controller. I used to have a Casio Dg-20 Guitar Synth MIDI controller, but I sold it. I would like to get a MIDI guitar again sometime. Sometimes I’m in a small production studio, but lately I’ve been working off my laptop with simple earbuds. At least while I’m in the creative side of coming up with new track ideas. My next riddim, the Loudspeaker Riddim, was written on a plane flying to the Caribbean, for example. Afterwards, I check on different headphones and multiple sets of monitors and then on a few regular speakers. Basically, whatever I can listen on. I started using earbuds while I was traveling and those were just the headphones I had with me… and then I convinced myself that many people who hear my music will listen to it on earbuds.

What do you use software for specifically?

Well, a lot of my vocal sessions are recorded in Pro Tools, as that is still pretty much a studio standard for tracking. So I’ll bounce a rough two-track of the instrumental from Logic and record the vocals in Pro Tools and then bring the vocals back into Logic. With Ableton, I sometimes run it slaved to Logic and use it to try out little things with audio because it lets me mock ideas up pretty quickly. I never really program synths or use any virtual instruments in Ableton, just mess around with audio and render it and bring it into Logic .

What is your workflow?

For better or worse, I don’t have my go-to kicks or snares or anything. Basically, when I start a track I open a new session and try to divine what I think I need. If I’m working with a particular vocalist I might reach for sounds or ideas that suit them, but I also like to keep things free. I never like to get too comfortable with one method of making tracks, so I like to write melodies in different ways… sometimes I draw them into the computer, sometimes I play on a keyboard, and lately I’ve been writing melodies by singing into my phone and then transcribing them.

When you produce a track, do you gear it towards an audience?

Usually, if I’m producing something for a vocalist, I’m thinking more about the vocalist and what I want from them as opposed to any audience. I definitely do think about context though. What is this track for? What is it trying to achieve? I don’t necessarily have those answers, but I drop the question in and let it guide me a bit.

[Vybz Kartel - "Wine Pon Me," Mixpak 2011 | Photo By Michael Schmelling.]

Do you usually write with a vocalist in mind?

When I know I’m going to be working with a vocalist or aspire to work with someone, I definitely do. Occasionally, I’ll just do something freeform, but at this point, I usually have something very specific I’m trying to get done. That being said, having a vocalist in mind can just be a good motivator and guide and even if you don’t end up working with them, it can help you shape a vibe.

What happens in the studio when working with a vocalist?

It really depends on the situation. Sometimes I weigh in with some direction about what I picture on the track – give a hook, a vocal delivery idea, or just a basic song concept – but other times I let the music be the guide and see where the vocalist takes it. The beat is usually finished by the time we get in the studio. Generally speaking, there is a time sensitivity, and as much as I think that creating from the track from scratch with a vocalist in the studio is a great process, it just doesn’t happen very often. I hope to do more of that going forward.

What makes for a good vocalist in your opinion?

The best vocalists I’ve worked with seem to be able to add something almost mystical to a song. It’s not about having the best voice necessarily, but it’s a way their voice can embody the words, melodies, and the intent or energy of the song that can ultimately create something that is greater than the sum of the parts.

How much work do you do on a track after you’ve recorded vocals?

I almost never have a great mix when I record vocals. For one, this helps limit the risks of leaks, but also I always like to re-work the production around the vocals and the song that ends up on top of the track. When it’s a project I control, that’s definitely my preferred way of working. I think it gives an opportunity to get the track working more precisely to serve the energy of the song that was written on it. That being said, sometimes things come together with the track and vocals and there’s nothing to add but a good mixdown.

[Popcaan - "Get Gal Easy (Prod. by Dre Skull)," Mixpak 2012]

Are you enlisting producers from Jamaica for Mixpak too?

I’ve been trying for over a year, but it never seems to materialize. Even among producers who I count as my friends, it doesn’t seem to happen, no matter how much we talk about it. Hopefully I won’t put a hex on it by speaking too soon, but finally I think we should have something from an incredible Jamaican producer coming out in June. Let’s see…

What do you look for in a producer for a Mixpak release?

I’m looking for interesting ideas, producers who make me think about some new idea or strain of an idea and get me excited about it. Generally there has to be some kind of hook, whether it’s a vocal thing, a synth sound, or something with the percussion… just something to catch the ear.

Do you think genres are limiting? Or that they intensify creativity? Or some of both?

Genres are like maps, they can help you make sense of where things are… to a point. But then you have to go there yourself, whether as a producer or a listener or a club full of people. For example, hearing a certain genre in the club can make all the sense in the world on one night in one city and that power cannot be denied, but in a different night or city all bets are off. I think a good example where that’s happened to me would be when playing some 160bpm power Soca. I’ve completely torn down clubs with it on given nights and then other times I’ve have played it and it just seems to be too overwhelmingly fast and the club isn’t ready. Music exists in the larger context. I’m not mad at genres though.

  • Dre Skull Mashes Boogat's "El Hueso" with Loudspeaker Riddim Refix
  • 5/13/2012

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