Alchemist Interview Pt. 1
Author: William Ketchum III
The medieval philosophy of alchemy consisted of turning basic minerals and metals into gold. While the original idea of this is impossible to execute, uber-producer The Alchemist works magic with every track. Using the simplest samples to create flawless audio jewels, the Californian has created a grimy trademark sound that's been called upon by everyone from LA's Dilated Peoples to NY's Mobb Deep, and from heavyweights such as Nas or Mobb Deep to newcomers like Saigon. Even alternative acts Linkin Park and Morcheeba have enlisted his talents.
Now, The Alchemist is putting a face with his name. Previously known for his Zorro-like approach of making his mark without leaving picture ID, he doubles from behind the boards and steps up to the mic with his debut album, 1st Infantry. In Part 1 of a two-part interview with RapReviews.com, The Alchemist talks about his migration from the west coast to the east, the formula for his memorable street bangers, and letting the world hear his voice.
WK3: First off, you're from the West right?
Alchemist: No doubt, I'm from L.A.
WK3: So how did you end up in New York?
Alchemist: Just following my dreams pretty much. I went to school first (in New York) after high school. I basically put all my eggs in one basket and tried to get into NYU (New York University). I had plans to go to school, but underneath it all, I wanted to go to New York because when I was nine or ten I went on a vacation, just me and my mother up to New York. There was graffiti on the trains still, and there was just hip-hop running through the veins—it's like New York was the body, and hip-hop was the blood. I was just like, "Wow." It had an ill impression on me, so when it came time to go to college, I was like, "I want to go here." But I really wanted to get out there to do my thing in the music industry—not industry, but just really the music. I ended up going to school and after two years, I was doing general studies at NYU, and it was like, "Yo, time to pick a major." I didn't have a major for a plan, but I knew in the back of my head that I wanted to do this music. So I just took a chance—I stayed out here and lived on my own outside of school, and it paid off.
WK3: What was the first equipment that you used to make beats, and what do you use now?
Alchemist: (I still use) the same one I've still got, ASR-10.
WK3: Did you ever think about upgrading your stuff?
"I don't have to think at all when I want to make a beat — all
I'm thinking about is how I'm going to flip it..."
Alchemist: I'm all for the "if it's not broke, don't fix it" school; I'm not really a gadget freak.
Some people they love getting new machines and equipment, they're like, "Oh, I can do this now."
I think that's dope for people that have the patience, but when it comes to creativity, I'm impatient.
When I'm making beats, the place becomes a mess, because I run through records, and when I get an idea,
I want to spend all my energy creatively (on that idea). It takes a good amount of energy to figure
out a machine, and maybe it's just my stubbornness. But I'm comfortable with the machines (I have),
and I don't have to think at all when I want to make a beat—all I'm thinking about is how I'm going to
flip it, not what buttons I have to press, because I just know already with that machine. Maybe other
things might save me time, and maybe one day I'll get to it, but right now, I'm where I'm at.
WK3: How did your whole career with music start out?
Alchemist: First and foremost, I had a group when I was 15 years old, I was rapping and had never made a beat in my life. I was trying to DJ and rap, just a little hip-hop kid just raised off the music. We got down with Cypress Hill, the whole Soul Assassins movement. Their movement was one of the biggest in rap. To compare it to something these days for the kids, it was like G-Unit, where it was a whole team of people—they had House of Pain, Cypress Hill, Funk Dubious, everybody was doing their thing. We got put down with that camp, and it was a major put-on for me to be part of that team. I still wear my Soul Assassins ring to this day, I still represent Soul Assassins on the east coast. I carry on the legacy as much as I can, for the dudes who put me on, which are Muggs, B-Real, Everlast, you know. So that's how I got my start.
WK3: Nowadays, you're known for your work with Mobb Deep. Mobb Deep is pretty different from Cypress Hill…
Alchemist: I think it was a whole slow process of me getting where I'm at now. You become a product of your surroundings and your environment. I moved to New York and I clicked with them, things happened the way they did. Sometimes I think, "I might've hooked up with this guy or that person, we would've blown up and I would've been down with so and so." But we clicked, and it was just history. Same way I met up with Cypress; I didn't grow up with them, but I got put on through my travels, doing what I had to do to get my music out there, and we clicked. And it took a while, for me to be accepted by them as part of the team, they don't let people in like that. Prod (Prodigy, of Mobb Deep) is self-contained, Hav (of Mobb Deep) does the beats, they don't really need anybody. Those were just two of sickest people I'd ever been around, and they didn't need me, but for one reason or another they let me in, and it's just a blessing how it went down. They helped me at first by letting me get in the loop and do beats with them, and now I'm giving back by being able to do the single for their new album, or joints that people appreciate like "Keep It Thoro" for P's album. It paid off, the relationship on both sides. And besides just the music, we're personal friends—we know each others' families, we damn near live with each other, we go on the road together. It's just a blessing.
WK3: You said that you used to rhyme. When did you decide to just focus on making beats?
"I was 15 and I didn't
even know what the hell was going on, I just loved the fact that I was doing rap music."
Alchemist: We had this group, we were down with Cypress Hill, we did our thing. The minute I got
some paper from that deal, the first thing I did was go buy a drum machine. The album didn't really
do nothing, we got sidelined, we were really a product of the music industry. I was 15 and I didn't
even know what the hell was going on, I just loved the fact that I was doing rap music.
After that folded I stayed in the circle with Cypress, and I was already making beats, but I think Muggs took notice that I was a young cat that was excited, and open off of digging, I was just a product and disciple of Muggs and them. He noticed, took me in, and started utilizing my abilities. We all nurtured it together, and over time I just turned into the cat I am now. It took a long time to develop, but we did our thing.
WK3: You've worked with a lot of people. Tell me about some of your most memorable experiences in the studio.
Alchemist: Definitely working with Pun. Working with Pun was one of the most memorable experiences, because he was so funny, he had such a good heart. You've never seen a dude so big, and he was such a spectacle. He just embodied hip-hop. You know how hip-hop is always exaggerated, he was a human representation like that. I used to bug on the clothes he would wear, he'd have like these tailor-made green leather pants, this custom-made shit that was all hip-hop. I used to think he was gonna be like, "Yo what the fuck are you looking at," because I'd be stuck staring at him in the studio. I was afraid sometimes that he'd snap on me. He was such a good-hearted dude, 24 hours a day he was pulling pranks on people, clowning and joking. I got mad experiences with him in the studio that I'll never forget. He was a special dude, definitely missed in this rap game. They don't celebrate him like they do Big and PAC, but he's up there to me.
WK3: How do you make all of your songs sound different, but keep your own trademark sound?
"I think that when you deal with samples, you never know
what that record's going to throw at you."
Alchemist: I think that when you deal with samples, you never know what that record's going to throw at you. When you play your own keyboards, you tend to lean toward that same style, chords or sounds. Something's thrown different at me every time I go through records. I still have my formula and how I chop stuff, and add sounds and do my drums, but the samples I think in the music, the different vibes. I try to create emotions, and I don't want everyone to have the same thing. We all go through different feelings and emotions, and I try to make different feelings for different times of day. I think being able to just express myself—because I'm not rhyming on all of these beats—I still have to express to how I feel. Even if I play some stuff on the keyboard, I keep to my formula. I don't really know how to play, but I'll play stuff and I'll sample what I play and chop it up like it was a record. So I still keep my same formulas in how I do what I do.
Be sure to check next week's update of RapReviews.com, when we talk to The Alchemist about his new album, rhyming along with making beats, and which producers he respects in the game.
Originally posted: September 7, 2004