page contents
 

Follow Prince Charles

Sign up now

Prince Charles past albums

Elizabeth Warren, Grammy Winner? She’s Up For One In The Spoken Word Category

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

By DEBORAH BECKER and LYNN JOLICOEUR

Among the Grammy nominees gearing up for Sunday’s awards — alongside musicians such as U2, Sam Smith and Chick Corea — is Oklahoma native, grandmother and former Harvard professor-turned Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Warren is nominated in the Spoken Word category of the Grammys for her audio book “A Fighting Chance.” In the book, she talks about her battle against big banks, big oil and a system she says is “rigged” in favor of those with money and power.

In sections of the book like the following, Warren says her passion stems from her working class upbringing:

I will be grateful to my mother and daddy until the day I die. They worked hard, really hard, to help my brothers and me along. But we also succeeded, at least in part, because we were lucky enough to grow up in an America that invested in kids like us and helped build a future where we could flourish.

Warren has some stiff competition, including former President Jimmy Carter and the late comedian Joan Rivers. And though she won’t be at the ceremonies this weekend, according to her office, she did previously tweet that she was “tickled” to be nominated.

WBUR’s Deborah Becker spoke about Warren’s Grammy nomination with Prince Charles Alexander. Alexander is a professor of music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music. He’s also a Grammy-winning producer and is on the Grammy board.

Click here to register for the EdX Vocal Recording Technology class taught by Prince Charles Alexander!

Prince_Charles_Alexander

Prince Charles Alexander, center, at the Business of Hip-Hop Symposium. (Photo by Matt Dolland)

In 1979, I hated “Rapper’s Delight.” You could have shut down hip-hop right there for me and called that a novelty record. How dare they steal Nile Rodgers’ hard-earned intellectual property! Besides, I had just put out my first single and that record was taking up my airtime at local radio.

In 1996, while working as the mixing engineer on The Notorious B.I.G.’s second album, he wrote a song on the spot called “You’re Nobody (Til Somebody Kills You).” I asked him why he would want to put that thought into the universe, and he answered, “Because that is how it is right now, out here, in these streets.” And then he was gone…

You see, I had hated hip-hop for so long that I no longer had the energy to hate it anymore. And I feared hip-hop so much that I chose to face it instead of fleeing from it. And what I learned was that my hate was a byproduct of jealousy and my fear was a byproduct of ignorance.

I’m often asked if our current black culture is in jeopardy from the misogynistic, cannibalistic, zombie-inducing cultural codes that are being thrown at our children. And my reply is, “Have you ever heard a beat that was misogynistic? Have you ever heard a melody that reeked of thug life? Have you ever heard a harmony that endangered a child? Has an instrument ever placed a culture into despair?”

It is not music that is the problem in the music business; it is the message and the messengers.

"If you do not speak to this generation in a language they can understand, then people who are uninformed will gladly continue defining music culture for years to come."

Black music in America sounds the way it does because musicians are not at the table trying to make 21st century music. Musicians are spending their time complaining about why their 20th century “thing” is not being received well.

The language of your craft has gone way beyond your instrument. How much of it do you know? Are we clear that musicians are like doctors that speak medicine, and the rest of the population is like doctors’ patients that need be spoken to in layman’s terms?

I am not condoning any immature rapper’s lyrics. I am putting out a call to all musicians to stop hating and get busy creating music that speaks to this generation and the 21st century. If you do not speak to the people of this generation in a language they can understand, then people who are uninformed will gladly continue defining music culture, and the culture of your neighborhoods, for years to come.

What is the solution for the current state of music in America? For musicians to stop hating it. For musicians to stop fearing it. For musicians to begin understanding the necessary musical and sonic vocabularies so that they can recapture their place as innovators within the 21st century’s version of this most innovative art form.

I’m asking every musician to modernize their creativity, to up their technology, to increase their entrepreneurial net worth. Before we can get the hearts and minds of the audiences that are listening to the destructive messages in today’s music, we must first conquer the music itself. Listen, absorb, understand, contextualize… then create.

 

Prince Charles Alexander is a Grammy Award-winning musician, recording artist, record producer, audio engineer, and educator. He is a professor in the Music Production and Engineering Department at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.

 

The Making of Ready to Die
Family Business

Biggiefinger.jpg

Originally appears in XXL‘s April 2004 issue

The Notorious B.I.G.’s 1994 debut Ready To Die is a double threat: a serious, artistic album equipped with catchy, radio-friendly singles. Rap Svengali Sean “Puffy” Combs encouraged his hardcore young MC to put his mack down on records like “Big Poppa” and “One More Chance”; Biggie played along, and it worked. Becoming hip-hop’s answer to the hedgehog-looking porn star Ron Jeremy (if he could get laid, anyone could), the plus-size charmer conquered the pop charts and watched his sales pass the two-million mark.

Mainly, though, Ready To Die offers uncompromising street material—a grim depiction of urban hopelessness told in one of the most immediate voices the form has ever known.

The difference between the grimier content and the hit singles might be explained by a two-part recording process. Songs like “Ready To Die,” “Gimme The Loot” and “Things Done Changed” (which engineer “Prince” Charles Alexander characterized as “a scream from the ghetto”) were recorded in 1993—shortly after Puffy signed Big to Uptown Records on the strength of a demo tape made in the basement of former Big Daddy Kane DJ, Mister Cee. On these records, an inexperienced, higher-pitched Biggie sounds hungry and paranoid. Also notable were the notebooks Biggie brought to the studio; he was still writing down some of his rhymes.

But with less than a full album’s worth of material recorded, Puffy was fired from Uptown, leaving his signee in contractual limbo. Big quickly slid back into the drug game, famously leaving a North Carolina drug house—at the behest of Puff, who’d sent him a ticket back to New York—one day before it was raided by the police and its occupants were sent to jail.

When he returned to the studio to record the second half of the album in 1994, he possessed a smoother, more confident vocal tone. He had also learned to commit his lyrics to memory, eschewing pens and paper. By this time, Puffy, who had eyes beyond the East Coast, had launched his own company, Bad Boy Entertainment, with Craig Mack’s smash, “Flava In Ya Ear,” and invented the remix. (Or at least introduced the concept of the overbearing executive producer to hip-hop.) Endlessly tinkering with instrumentals, mixes and vocals, Puffy worked from a blueprint more Motown than Cold Chillin’—the Bad Boy brand superseded all else. This was obvious on “One More Chance,” which was remixed three times for the album and once more for 12-inch release. If the original producer wasn’t present, Puff would ask another producer to add drums, a sample or even a whole new instrumental.

While Puffy’s vision pushed Ready To Die to higher heights than other records of the era, it was Big’s ability to be menacing one moment (“I don’t give a fuck if you’re pregnant/Gimme the baby rings and the ‘Number One Mom’ pendant…”) and heart-wrenchingly honest the next (“My mama got cancer in her breast/Don’t ask me why I’m muthafuckin’ stressed…”) that truly sets his debut apart. Ready To Die is more than a street record; it’s a vulnerable record.

On the seventh anniversary of Biggie’s death [eds. note: 2013 is the sixteenth anniversary], XXL has compiled a track-by-track, behind-the-scenes breakdown of the work that went into creating a classic, Ready To Die, as told by those involved.—ADAM MATTHEWS

Ready to Remember
Biggie’s Bad Boys:

-Lil’ Cease: Biggie’s close friend, member of rap group Junior M.A.F.I.A.
-Banger: Junior M.A.F.I.A. member
-“Prince” Charles AlexanderReady To Die engineer
-Easy Mo Bee: Producer
-Chucky Thompson: Producer, member of Bad Boy Records’ Hitmen collective
-Nashiem Myrick: Producer, member of the Hitmen
-Mister Cee: DJ at New York’s Hot 97, former DJ for Big Daddy Kane, discovered Biggie in 1992.
-Matteo “Matt Lyphe” Capoluongo (a.k.a. “Matty C”): Former Source staffer, brought Big’s demo to Sean “Puffy” Combs
-Method Man: Wu-Tang Clan rapper
-Jean “Poke” Oliver: Producer, one-half of the beatmaking duo TrackMasters
-Digga: Producer/Artist
-DJ Premier: Producer, one-half of rap duo Gang Starr
-Lord Finesse: Producer, member of Diggin’ in the Crates collective

How technology killed the talent in urban music

Opinion


 
Technology-killed-the-talent-in-urban-music.jpg

The “neo-soul” movement, which for a brief moment brought a lyrical and musical depth back to urban-pop at the close of the ‘90s, gave way to a colder, heavily digitalized sound in the last decade. Most of it was concocted on a laptop. Once upon a time, arrangements cushioned voices in urban music. Sure, the beat was always important, but the voice often drove it.

Not so in the last decade. Urban music – what used to be called soul, R&B and you can throw hip-hop in there too – is now all about layers of noise throbbing, whizzing, palpitating, bouncing off the walls. And the voice, even the most distinguished ones, is often reduced to just another sound in the arrangement, or robotized altogether by Auto-Tunes. Melodies have been supplanted by repetitive chants perfectly suited for ringtones, which saw big business in the last 10 years.

But as the music industry itself, crippled by the Internet age, struggles for relevance, as artists see less and less royalties from album sales, and as the pop audience continues to fragment, what will become of urban music in the next decade?

“Technology has helped creativity to go beyond one interpretation of an idea,” says Prince Charles Alexander, associate professor of music production and engineering at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

He says the proliferation of production software, like Pro Tools and Digital Audio Workstations, has provided almost limitless possibilities in urban music. Perhaps raw talent may not be all that important anymore.

“Can a great artist be great if there is specifically nothing great about them, or do we have to lower the bar in order to appreciate their talents?” says Alexander, whose production credits include Mary J. Blige, Destiny’s Child and Luther Vandross. “All of this is a direct result of technology freeing artists from the rigors of practice and focus.” 
So new urban music, at least the sounds pumped through the mainstream, may remain hollow and ultimately disposable for a while.

But another great aspect of the technological boom of last decade is that the consumer can easily discover new music on his own. The more adventurous urban music, the sounds that fondly remember black music’s rich past while strutting into the future, is certainly out there. But given that the Internet has all but destroyed a shared pop culture, major label infrastructures have crumbled and commercial radio has long become a wasteland, local venues for live music are probably the best way to discover new sounds in urban music.

“I think the urban music scene will continue to fragment into subcultures with more tightly defined forms and audiences,” says Curt Olsen, a member of Kitchen Fire, a San Francisco-based band known for its “urban twang” style – a little bit country, a little bit soul. “I think this is a real boom for small bands like ours.”

Even well established artists in the last decade reaped more success working outside irrelevant industry models. The alt-rock band Radiohead is the best example. But urban artists have mostly remained with major labels, often getting lost in the shuffle, or worked hard on an underground circuit that thrives mostly on word of mouth.

The aesthetics of urban music may still be in a state of flux, but its growth in the next decade will depend on inventive ways of distribution.

“The hope is that [urban music] can be defined by empowered urban artists that understand the power of the distribution process,” says Berklee’s Alexander. “Whether it be to10 people or 10 million people, that is a huge undertaking and responsibility.”

But in the meantime, there doesn’t seem to be an urban music renaissance on the horizon.

“Only if it is a cohesive creative statement and is controlled by artists that want to share in that cohesive statement,” Alexander says. “The current climate is not looking for one cohesive statement but is fragmented and drifting away.”