Legendary Brooklyn DJ/Producer DJ Clark Kent talks everything from the creative processes involved in beatmaking to the modern realities of the music industry.
By AMIR SAID (SA'ID)
In doing research for what would become the Fourth Edition of The BeatTips Manual, I sat down with DJ Clark Kent (excerpts from this interview were previously published in said edition.) One of the music industry’s most recognized and respected insiders, Clark, always measured and forthright, wears many hats — He’s a DJ, a label executive, a manager, a talent scout, a consultant, a marketing expert, and, of course, a producer. He knows what it takes to make hit records, both in terms of the mechanics and the concept, and his knowledge of the music industry (and familiarity with the types of people within it) continues to remain priceless.
Notable production credits include: “Brooklyn’s Finest” – Jay-Z and The Notorious B.I.G.”; “Stay A While” – Rakim; “Loverboy” – Mariah Carey; “Closer” – Capone –N- Noreaga; “Coming of Age” – Jay-Z feat. Memphis Bleek.
BeatTips: What’s the difference between a producer, as you saw it when you first came into the game, as opposed to what people now consider a producer to be?
DJ Clark Kent: Actually, I don’t think people should get the line blurred. A producer is someone who can bring to fruition what he has on his mind. So there isn’t a line between the word “producer” and producers that we know of now and the producers from back in the day. There’s only a difference between beatmakers and producers. Beatmakers just make beats! They don’t make sure the song gets done! They don’t make sure that the song is right. They just pass their beats on to whoever is a song writer or whoever is a rapper, whoever let’s them do what they do. A producer makes sure it’s done. So a producer doesn’t actually have to touch a machine to make sure that it’s done. If he can tell the guy who knows how to work the machine what he wants to hear, he’s producing. That’s what a producer is and that’s what a lot of people’s misconceptions are. There are some people who can physically make the music themselves, and there are beatmakers who are producers. That’s why you have so many people having meetings, placing beats for people. They are not actually shopping songs or creating artists and going looking for situations. They’re just trying to get their beats off…Let me give it to you from my standpoint. I can make the music. I can make sure that the rapper says the right rhyme. I can make sure that the singer sings the right song. And I can make sure that the record gets mixed properly. I can make sure it gets done.
BeatTips: What equipment were you using, when you first came into the game.
DJ Clark Kent: Linn Drum, SP 12, then the SP 1200, Akai S950…I don’t profess to send everybody to the S950, but I’ve been using it for years…If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And it’s extra easy and it sounds good.
BeatTips: You ever felt the need to get into software sequencers and such?
DJ Clark Kent: You mean computer stuff? Nah. I don’t do that. And I’m not saying that at some point in my career I might not start, but I mean…look at the legends. What do they use? They use physical equipment that you can touch. I’m-a physical equipment guy! Now I use a 4000 [MPC]. I only use it for sampling, and that’s because it samples in stereo, the same way a 950 can in mono. That’s the only reason I use the 4000. I still use the SP 1200. The SP 1200 is the brain in my house.
BeatTips: How do you start off? Do you try to get up a loop, drums, what?
DJ Clark Kent: Well, I’m pretty sample-driven. But there’s times…I don’t have a formula. I just go in there and whatever I hear that I feel that day, if it happens, it happens. Like I can sit in front of 100 loops that I know I have to use, then go to 101 and be like, "I’m not using those, I’m using this." It’s just what I feel. I don’t sit down and go, "O.K., I’m gonna do this kind of beat today." The way that I start to make tracks is that I just sit in my studio and listen to music. Listen to what’s the new records that’s out. Listen to music that I love. There’s records that I listen to every time I make a track, just to get me motivated.
BeatTips: What do you think of the notion that you don’t need to listen to music outside the genre of hip hop?
DJ Clark Kent: That’s retarded! That’s stupid! That’s stupid to think that because every piece of hip hop music comes from a piece of somebody else’s culture or music. Our music came from funk, disco and reggae and rock 'n’ roll. We used those records to make our basis to what we were rappin’ to. We didn’t have rap records to rap to. We didn’t have drum machines. We were cuttin’ up Aeorosmith, we were cuttin’ up Apache, you know what I’m sayin’. We were cuttin’ up records that we wouldn’t play in the house. It would be ignorant for anybody in hip hop to say that it doesn’t make since to listen to music outside of their culture. What we’re sampling is never hip hop. We’re always sampling everything else to make hip hop!
BeatTips: One thing I notice is that producers who sample are generally better arrangers than producers who don’t sample. Why do you think that is?
DJ Clark Kent: Because it’s harder to take a sample and do something with it than…I think maybe it’s that you’re so limited that your creativity takes you to do something else, or do as much as possible with the limitations that you have. You understand what I mean. Back in the day, when I had the 1200, you had 10 seconds! You could never put 10 seconds on one pad. Each pad had the ability to take 2.5 seconds. And if you took 2.5 seconds on one pad at one time, the next pad wouldn’t let you take a whole 2.5 seconds. It would give you like a second or 1.2 seconds. So you had to become creative. Being an arranger…you had no choice!
BeatTips: Now, equipment can do more. But music is so mimicked today. Do you think that this ability to do so much more with equipment is creating a lack of creativity?
DJ Clark Kent: When you give somebody 30 to 40 minutes of sampling time, stereo, what do they have to be creative with, if they got all that time? Like I can take [just] two bars of a song and create 8 different musical loops with it. I can create you 8 sections to make off of a 2 bar loop. And the best part about this interview is that my engineer is right here. He’s seen me do it, hundreds of times. Look at “Brooklyn’s Finest” [Biggie and Jay-Z], it’s a five bar loop. First of all, everybody was lost on how I made that beat. But if you listen to the beat, I did things inside of the beat, inside of the five bars. It wasn’t a loop!!! It was pieces that I had to put together so it would go without the singing.
BeatTips: I believe that song ushered in the whole style of being able to layer drums over loud samples. Because, remember, people used to be heavy on filtering and bringing the mids and the highs down.
DJ Clark Kent: I’ve been telling people. I’ve been using vocals in samples, at least 5, to 6, to 7, to 8 years before anybody started using vocals in samples. Like I did it forever ago. So when I look at the things that I’m hearing now, you hear vocals go through samples, I’m just like, "That’s hot, now?" I did that like 10 years ago. That’s not new to have a vocal going through. I’m like, "O.K., so now it’s cool." When I was doing it, people thought it was crazy.
BeatTips: What was your first hit record?
DJ Clark Kent: “Spread My Wings” by Troop, a platinum record. If you do that out the gate, your work’s damn near cut out for you, ‘cuz it comes to you. You just have to keep repeating the task.
BeatTips: Now, people really promote their company…
DJ Clark Kent: Yeah, people promote their company because we went from Generation X to Generation Now. Generation X said, "This is the generation of the unknown, so let’s try and figure out the unknown." Generation Now says, "I want the unknown figured out, soon as you give it to me, and if it’s not, I’m not fuckin’ with it." That’s why you have to be associated with this, connected with that. This person’s gotta be on your album…Back in the day, nothing mattered about features. Nobody had to drive your album to be sold. You didn’t need to be part of a click, you needed to have a hot record, that was it! Now, because people are so Generation Now conscious, it’s like if they don’t make it in their first week, they’re deemed a failure, ‘cuz record companies give up on artists.
BeatTips: Do you recommend that new producers formulate a company?
DJ Clark Kent: I think that a new producer, first off, he should be a producer and not a beatmaker. He should be able to clarify what he is. Like if you’re a beatmaker, go find someone to teach you how to be a producer. Study your craft to the point where you become a producer, so when you stumble upon an artist you’re not just making beats. Your making him some songs. So once you sell that artist, you get recognized for being the crafter of an artist. 95% of these artists that you see needs someone to craft them. If you’re just a guy that gives them a beat, they’re not being crafted, they’re actually crafting themselves. But if you can craft them, then you become much more important, much more instrumental in these artists careers.
BeatTips: What were the practical things you did in studying your craft?
DJ Clark Kent: I’ve been a DJ since I was 9. So I genuinely really care about music. Since I was 9, I was playing music. Before that, my mother was singing with the New York Philharmonic. She taught piano. I was exposed to any kind of music. When I was 8, I went to a Parliament Funkadelic concert. When I was 13, I was in places that no one should be in. When I was 16, I was in the Garage [late 1980s NYC night club]. My uncle was friends with Kool Herc… My biggest advantage when it comes to making records is that I am a DJ!!! Nothing comes before the fact that I’m a DJ. I don’t know how to produce for any reason but I’m a DJ. I don’t know how to pick a record for any reason but I’m a DJ. I don’t know how to find talent for any reason but I’m a DJ. Me being a DJ spawned me knowing when a rapper was good…spawned me knowing when a beat was good…spawned me knowing how to work a machine…I had every drum machine. I had and have every drum machine. Anything…when drum boxes came…press that button and the shit was playing, I had it.
BeatTips: Do you sample your drums from vinyl?
DJ Clark Kent: You know what I do? If you notice, on every single record I’ve done, the drums are different. My thing is I always want my drums to sound like somebody actually played them. I sample raw. Also, the idea is I listen to the drum pattern that’s in the loop. If you match the drum pattern that’s in the loop, it will never sound bumpy. It will sound like the drums belong in the loop. Most people try to add an extra kick here and there…You’re creating something that’s not there, so when you put that extra drum in, that drummer sounds so much more different than the drum that’s under the regular looped drum, you’re gonna be like, "Why does that shit sound so…?" I want my shit to sound smooth. I don’t want it to feel like a beat, I want it to feel like music. So if you slip it in where the beat already is, you won’t have it fucked up. Unless you just get a sample with no drums, then you can play whatever. If a sample has drums in it, first of all, truncate your snares and kicks so that they land perfectly. That’s another thing that [a lot of] people don’t do with a SP 1200.
BeatTips: Do you use timestretch?
DJ Clark Kent: I’ve taken a loop that’s going 60 beats per minute, and not change the speed of the loop, [while at the same time] make the loop play 90 beats per minute, without [using] Timestretch. I did it on “Player’s Anthem." If you take it in pieces, real small pieces; every bar is eight pieces. One bar is eight pieces! If you take each bar of eight pieces and push ‘em closer together, they’re still gonna play the same note. It’s just gonna be closer together.
BeatTips: Do you think that it’s a good idea for someone who’s just getting into production to try and learn both production and engineering?
DJ Clark Kent: If they can. One thing I think, though, you know what’s really hard to do, is to learn how to produce. That’s the hard part. Learning how to engineer, that’s numbers…Learning to produce is some shit that you gotta pull out of your heart. See that’s what the problem is with today’s inventions, like Fruity Loops and…it’s in front of you…doesn’t teach you how to be a producer. Learning to be a producer is something that’s already with you. You gotta be musical.
BeatTips: Why do you think many new successful producers do not like to share or help…
DJ Clark Kent: Let me tell you what that’s about. That’s just them probably feeling like they were never shared with anything in the whole world. The big fucking smoke screen about the music business is kids believe there’s money in it; not knowing that out of every 100 people who get into the music business, only 4 of them become successful. That’s a 96% failure rate in the music business! There’s only 4% of everything in the music business that’s actually making a dollar over what it cost to make the record. ONE DOLLAR! But these kids see this shit on T.V., and they sensationalize it. Motherfuckers looking like they’re millionaires, they don’t do shit for real. T.V., video stations keep promoting it. They keep promoting a sense of false hope.
BeatTips: Is the radio a reflection of name brand producers?
DJ Clark Kent: It’s a reflection of…I look at the radio as a…That’s probably the reason that I’m not on radio anymore. ‘Cuz radio is such a controlled medium that you just can’t get on and be free with music. I was the first DJ to be asked to be on Power 105 [popular radio station in NYC], and they said, "Here’s the play list." And I was like, "O.K., how do I get my other records that I want to play?" They were like, "Oh, no. You don’t. This is the play list."
BeatTips: Do you think that radio is more influenced by producers or artists?
DJ Clark Kent: It’s more influenced by commercials! Who’s gonna pay the bills. That’s the bottom line. Who’s paying the bills and who’s not. Because if you take the money away, they’ll play anything. That’s why when you listen to college radio, they play whatever.
BeatTips: So what about producers who are shaping their music just for radio?
DJ Clark Kent: This “me, me” Generation “now,” says: You have to make it accessible, immediately. ‘Cuz if it’s not, they not fuckin’ with it. They are not trying to get cultivated to nothing. So when a producer’s trying to make something that’s easily accessible, he’s trying to make money. You can’t knock that. But at the same time, if you’re an influential producer, you might want to elevate.
BeatTips: If somebody’s going to study DJ Clark Kent, where should that they start?
DJ Clark Kent: The Ohio Players! There’s records that I did. But yo, if it wasn’t for records before me…Marvin Gaye, Parliament, etc., I wouldn’t be nothing!
The music and videos below are presented here for the purpose of scholarship.
Jay-Z feat Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls) - "Brooklyns Finest" prod. by DJ Clark Kent