(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Interview with Max Tannone

Max Tannone used to release his mashups under the name Minty Fresh Beats, but has now switched over to his own name for his projects. Most recently, he’s been moving more towards remixes and music production, but his mashup catalog stands out for using unexpected music samples like punk, dub and reggae. He’s tended to release whole albums of related material, like his Jamaican take on Mos Def, Mos Dub, or his earliest release, Jaydiohead, mashing Jay Z with Radiohead. We talked for almost 40 minutes on the phone for this interview.

This is part of a Mashup Artist Summit. Highlighted sections were mixed with other interview segments to create a conversation between several producers.

Jester Jay: Hi, Max. My introduction to your work was Mos Dub, but I later came back to listen to Jaydiohead. I really enjoyed that. Your mashups seem to be very fluid and natural sounding.

Max Tannone: Thanks a lot!

JJ: Listening to Mos Dub in particular, when I compare Mos Def’s original to your mix, it sounds like you’re fine-tuning the phrasing to fit the beat better.

MT: Yeah, definitely things are slid around a little bit to make it fit better or to make it sound for effects. I cut the vocals apart, and then I can take a certain word or phrase and have the effect on that portion of the audio. The end goal obviously is to make it on-beat with the music behind it.

JJ: On “In My Math,” the rhythm on that and the flow of the lyrics sound cleaner on your version than the original. It was sweet.

MT: Thanks. It wasn’t a conscious decision to make it that way. I never thought that the original wasn’t quite on beat; it was just that I make the backdrop, the music track, first and then I fit the block vocals in and then go back and tweak the music. I’m glad it sounded good.

JJ: On that track, the original beat is a little stuttered, so there’s more syncopation, where that rhythm doesn’t always mesh with his flow. It’s not bad, but yours is a thing of beauty. With the reggae groove, the vocals sit right in the pocket. 

MT: The original track was done by DJ Premier, one of my all-time favorite producers. I believe I read that that original track actually had a different beat and they couldn’t get sample clearance. So, that he made that one for the final version. I could be totally wrong on that, because I know that’s happened with a lot of songs, but I do think I read that somewhere.

I love the original and I love DJ Premier. DJ Premier and Mos Def together is a dream team for me. I was just happy to put my spin on it.

JJ: I listened to your latest project, Mic Check 1234!, and, once again, the meshing of flow to beats was natural. “Definition of Blitzkreig” made me wonder why no one has mashed up “Blitzkreig Bop” by the Ramones before. 

MT: That was a fun project. That was definitely the most challenging of any of the mixes that I’ve done. Generally a punk song is really fast, so the main issue is that you have all these songs that are 120 or 130 beats per minute. That really narrows your scope of acapellas that you can use over the track. I had to find fast rap songs to use or a slower punk song. Of course, there are fast rap songs and slow punk songs, but in general for those genres, it’s a fast punk song and a medium to slower tempo rap song.

JJ: I know you’ve covered this in other interviews, but our readers might not know. Could you tell us how you got started making mashups?

MT: Originally, I started just making music on my computer, just for fun. I was doing beats and putting sounds together, having a good time. Then I deejayed for a while growing up in middle school and high school, doing whatever parties, school dances, stuff like that and continued to make beats. I knew what a mashup was, I was familiar with The Grey Album [Danger Mouse], but I never tried it. Then, one night, I don’t even know why, I just looped the Radiohead song, “I Might Be Wrong” from AmnesiacI looped that up and then,  a few years later I was listening to Jay Z’s American Gangster album and those acapellas had come out. They were easy to find on the internet. So I just grabbed the acapella to his song “Pray” and put them together because they had the same vibe going. Lyrically and musically, it just made it. Everybody was on MySpace at the time, so I put that on MySpace and people liked it. I didn’t have the name Jaydiohead yet, it was just called “Wrong Prayer Remix.” A few weeks later, I did another Jaydiohead, what became Jaydiohead, track called “Ignorant Swan.” I was listening to the Thom Yorke solo album, The Eraser and I really liked “Black Swan.” So, I thought “Let me play with that.” I chopped that up and looped some pieces from that and put on another Jay Z vocal. I had those two songs, but they just sat for a long time, a year or nine months. Then, one day I was driving and I thought, “I have those two tracks. It might be fun to do a whole project of these.” I was listening to a lot of Radiohead at the time and I just came up with the name “Jaydiohead.” I thought it was really funny and catchy, too. I did 10 songs and everyone seemed to like it and I had a lot of fun doing it. So, I just kept going from there, seeing if I could do a few more of these projects. I’ve done a couple of them since then.

JJ: So, a one-off or a couple of fun things motivated you to dive in all the way. It looks like most of your mashup projects have been full, album-length collections. Is that what you enjoy doing the most?

MT: Yeah. I like to do groups of songs to really get into a theme. I like to explore a certain theme. Mos Dub and Dub Kweli [based on Talib Kweli] were probably my favorites because I really enjoy that type of music and it was an excuse to watch hours of crazy soundsystem videos on YouTube from the early ‘80s, under the guise of research. But throughout this time, I’ve been also been making beats and doing remixes for other people that might have sampled elements or not. It wouldn’t be considered mashup music. This is actually what I want to focus on, going forward.

JJ: Your site has a Nora Jones track and a number of other remix tracks that you’ve done. Are those authorized remixes? If you don’t mind me using that word…

MT: The Nora Jones is kind of an in-between thing, but it boils down to “no.” They were never released officially. The Nora Jones is, essentially, a bootleg remix, but I don’t think too many other people actually got the acapella. That wasn’t sanctioned by her or at least it wasn’t released by her. Whatever other mixes are on there…Well, there are a few that I did with an artist. I have a remix for Duncan Sheik, the singer/songwriter. That was an official remix that was on his album of remixes. But everything else is pretty much a case where I liked the song and I found the acapella or I knew a friend who’s in the band of the person that I’m remixing. Or I find someone online and reach out to them or sometimes people reach out to me on the internet. Usually it’s an artist and, if I have the time and I’m interested, I’ll just do it to do it.

JJ: So, you’re doing more remixes than mashups these days?

MT: Definitely. I want to put more focus on that and also on original production in general. I just finished a project with a rapper in New York City, his name is Champagne Jerry. We just finished his album and we’re still trying to figure out how we’re going to release it. I did like 12 or 13 songs on that, making beats. It’s not a mashup.

The lines get a little blurred, too, because even when I was making all these quote unquote mashup projects, at some point I’d wonder if it was a mashup or just a beat that heavily samples a dub song. You know what I mean? The same sort of track released by someone else might not be called a mashup, especially if it had original lyrics. It might just be an album heavily sampling dub. So, I was trying to blur the line. I wasn’t just taking a song and putting lyrics over it. I was really interested in adding more elements and doing all kinds of stuff to it.

JJ: Your work stands out, because your production is not just a simple beat and a vocal track. Like on “History Town” from Mos Dub, you’re getting some scratchy effects by chopping and sampling the source material. That focus on production seems to be key to your style.

MT: It’s gratifying that other people pick up on that. I was intentionally trying to make it sound cool. If something is simple, just putting the two tracks together and matching up the tempo… if I really thought that sounded the best it could be and that adding stuff just detracted from the overall feel of it, then I would leave it simple. But it’s all about the end goal. I was just trying to make it interesting and put my own style onto it. There’s so many mashups because it’s easy to do. Just because it’s easy to do doesn’t necessarily take anything away from it. On the contrary, that’s one of the cool things about it. But I just thought it was fun to take it to a new level.

JJ: I know it’s a matter of taste, but what qualities do you think define the perfect mashup?

MT: I don’t like things that are super crazy necessarily. Not to take anything away from artists like Girl Talk, I think he’s incredibly talented and obviously, the guy has a lot of skill. Personally, I don’t listen to that type of music, with tons of samples flying in and out from different songs. It might be fun at a party I guess, but it’s not really my thing. I stick to a simple idea that’s executed consistently and makes sense.

I don’t listen to a lot of mashups by other artists, but there’s an album of Bob Marley and Mobb Deep mashups. I was super into that. But again, they’re really similar to what I try to accomplish. There’s a lot of extra stuff happening and I really like that project. Anything that makes you think, “Wow, I never heard this song in this context…” It makes sense, it’s really cool and it makes the person want to go and explore the catalogs of the source material being used. That comes into play, especially when you’re using obscure music that you’re sampling from, which I’ve done several times.

I know I’m rambling a bit. It’s something that doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, but it makes you realize that it’s a new context and it’s not necessarily trying to do too many things at once. That’s just me. Some people might like the sort of more frenetic style, which is cool.

JJ: Part of the joy of listening to Girl Talk is trying to identify the track before it goes away in the mix. It’s more about flow than it is about a simple idea.

MT: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I can see why that would be cool. And it brings me back to Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys. The lyrics were obviously new, but that’s essentially a mashup record. We get into these technicalities of is it a mashup or what, but it’s just sampled music that samples are flying in and out. That being said, it’s one of my favorite albums. I guess in certain contexts, it can be great.

JJ: How would you respond to critics that dismiss mashups or even remixes?

MT – Everyone likes what they like. I can’t speak for how other people see it. I see the argument that, in some instances, sampling can be really “lazy”. But it can be really interesting and inspiring. I would point to artists that sample incredibly, like Four Tet. He’s an electronic musician that does incredible work with samples. He’s an electronic guy, but definitely hip hop influenced. He’s really amazing. He’s not strictly sampling; he plays a lot of instruments. Or take Beck for example; listen to Odelay. Or go back to Paul’s Boutique or De La Soul. To me it’s really interesting, seeing how different elements are put together. It’s cool if some people don’t like it or want to deride it.

There are a lot of examples that can support the use of sampling. I think that if John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix were alive today, they would be super into sampling and all of this crazy computer manipulation and remix culture. They wouldn’t have to because they can play instruments really well and write songs, but I feel like they would be into it because it’s a new twist and it allows you to do things you couldn’t otherwise do. I could be wrong, it’s pure speculation. But to invalidate it just because it goes against your viewpoint. – it’s kind of a blanket statement, “Sampling is bad, anyone who does it has no talent.” That’s like saying anyone who plays guitar isn’t a real musician. It’s the same argument in a new era.

JJ: Another factor could be that a lot of mashups are seen as novelties; the idea is often humorous or ironic. But you seem to take a more artistic approach rather than using humor.

MT – I don’t strive to. I guess because I start the projects from an idea coming from sounds. So, I want to do a project with… then insert some kind of music. For example, I want to do a project with African funk music from the ‘70s because I think it sounds amazing. Wouldn’t it be cool to have somebody rap over this if it were done a certain way? It’s coming from that. If I were trying to be intentionally funny, like an album of Kanye West and Taylor Swift together, I guess it would be cool, but it’s just not…I have to be interested in whatever I’m working on. Otherwise, I’d never finish it. I probably would never be able to start it. There’s nothing wrong with going for humor, I think that’s great. It’s just not what I’ve done thus far.

JJ: Your mashups are all hip hop focused. Have you considered doing stepping outside of that?

MT: I’ve thought about it but most of my experience has been within the hip hop world, and it seems like it’s easier to find rap acapellas. Maybe it’s because I’ve only really been looking for them. There’s a lot of rap acapellas, so there’s a lot of source material to work with.  Also, it’s easier to use a rap acapella compared to someone singing because you don’t have to worry about melody so much. You don’t have to worry about the key of the music that you’re sampling, for the most part.

JJ: But even on Mos Dub, you have some lines that Mos Def is half singing and you made that fit with the tune.

MT: That was a conscious effort to make sure that would sound like that. He had some melody there. Obviously, you have to worry about tempo, but now you have the additional complexity of pitch. You have to fit the key of both elements.

JJ: What’s your favorite project out of your own collection? What are you most proud of?

MT – If I had to choose one, I’d choose Mos Dub. Not because of the way it turned out, but because of the process when I was making it. It was the most enjoyable and I learned the most from it. Which I guess is not really, “Which one do you like the best?” But I can’t really separate the creation process from the end product. I really enjoy how that project got me into that kind of music super heavy because I ended up doing a follow up with Talib Kweli’s lyrics. And still, to this day, I listen to it all the time.

JJ: Aside from that Bob Marley/Mobb Deep mashup, are there other producers you really respect?

 MT: I’m trying to think. Off the top of my head, I can’t really think of anyone. I don’t listen to that type of music a lot. I wish I had more. I’ve checked out stuff over the years. Not a lot, but here and there you hear about something. That one example is the only thing that comes into my head and I still listen to that today. That was hosted by Swindle, I guess that’s a DJ, but I don’t know if that DJ put it together. [note: it was Jon Moskowitz and DJ Swindle]  I wish I had more interesting recommendations.

JJ: Thanks for talking to me, I really appreciate your time.

MT: Thank you for the opportunity

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