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LAYERS: Inside The Brain Of Hot Sugar's "#Mindcontrol"

This week’s LAYERS brings us New York’s own sample maverick Hot Sugar. Fresh off a Grammy nomination for his work on The Roots’ “Sleep,” Hot Sugar has kept up his pace of making full, forward-thinking hip-hop productions for the likes of Haleek Maul and HEEMS.

His productions are notable for their abstract and mind-bending sample manipulation. He records everything from cap guns to dial-up tones, tirelessly breaking them down until he achieves classic hip hop sounds with the depth and spontaneity that can only be captured from live recordings. Read below to find out how Koenig used this very technique to create the vast sonic landscape of “#Mindcontrol,” the lead single off his 2012 Ninja Tune EP Moon Money.

Rat Heartbeat, Scratching Glass Table, Various Rat Sounds:

I have a stethoscope microphone that allows me to record what you would hear wearing a stethoscope. My favorite musical collaborator ever (by far) was a pet rat named Sarah Michelle Gellar (R.I.P.).  

I used to hang out and play with her, so one day I put the rat on its back and placed the stethoscope on it’s little belly.  The rat’s heart was beating really fast so I slowed the recording down a bit and isolated one of the beats, turning it into the kick drum.  The rat also scratched everything from my couch to a glass table.  I messed around with those sounds and made snares and other types of percussion out of it. 

Bones, Percussion: 

I recorded human skulls and bones in an underground cemetery a couple of years ago. I used them as percussion.

There are also other drum sounds I made out of other things in here, but I was stupid and labeled them ‘drum5", “drum6”, etc.  So I don’t remember what I used other than bones :(.

Bones FX: 

I was excited about how creepy the bones sounded so I kept playing around with them. These sounds came from those recordings.

Metal Pole In The Stairwell:

The people that ride the elevator in my building have hideously huge dogs that lick my legs with no consequence. I take the stairs to avoid them. While walking up the bleakly color stairwell I noticed a metal pole that runs up the entire building. I don’t know what it does but anytime you try to talk or make any noise in the stairwell the pole resonates.

I hit the pole with a blunt object once (I don’t even remember what) and recorded the seemingly endless ring that came from it. This patch is made from that pole’s ring.

Noise From A Tape Deck:

As cassette tape recorders get older and dirtier, they magnetize and deteriorate in ways that make traditional recording a lot harder.  I have a cassette deck that is so broken it not only records everything with the worst buzz and humming sound imaginable, it also violently electrocutes me anytime I press “record” and “stop”.

I recorded silence on the cassette deck, and sure enough the silence was a very noisy buzzing hiss.  After EQ-ing the hiss, I managed to isolate a pitch and shape it into what sounds like a synth. I mapped it to a sampler keyboard and it kind of sounds like a synth. This track includes two different patches I made using the “silence” from that cassette deck.

Kick Turned Into Bass Synth: 

This is the part of the song that I’m most proud of. When two notes are played really quickly they seemingly blend together. When a single note or sound is repeated very quickly, it takes the shape of another sound altogether. When you loop a few milliseconds of a sample it will sound completely different from the sample because you aren’t even giving it a chance to play in its entirety. Taking a fraction of one sound and repeating it make an unrecognizable and unpredictable result, often in a completely different pitch.

I played a kick drum faster and faster until it turned into a stuttery drum roll, and eventually the drum roll sounded like a bass (which I then tuned to different keys, following the melody). The sound of the bass was important and there was no way of anticipating what that bass would sound like based on the kick drum alone. I had to try this technique with countless different kicks, and since every kick drum has a different length, the acceleration rate and stuttering pattern had to be re-calculated every time, which took forever.

After settling on my favorite, I spent forever trying to make the transition between “kicks to bass” fit the timing and rhythm of the song. Since the transition is a result of millisecond long changes in the loop rate, the slightest tweak would completely change the entire pitch and sound of everything. After a couple months, I finally managed to get a kick drum to seamlessly turn into a bass without conflicting with the rhythm or pitch of the melody.

Plastic Toy Handclapper:

I found this at a dollar store…

It used to have a cool sticker on it but my idiot friend ripped it off. I think its made by McDonalds?  Look at the M logo.  But yea, that’s what the clap sounds are made of.

Guitars:

I wanted this song to be creepy, so I tried to play and manipulate the guitars in a slithery way.

Dying Omnichord:

When the batteries in old battery powered synths run low the synths start making glitch sounds and the sample rate deteriorates.  Dead or dying batteries make synths sounds very dirty and unpredictable.  The PortaSound I play in the piece “Making Music” is a perfect example of what happens to a synth when its running low, and I like to take advantage of that. 

In this case, I recorded a bass sound from an Omnichord as it struggled with battery life, and mapped it to my sampler keyboard. The crispiness and wobble are the result of the batteries dying.

Smashing Bottles:

I threw a bottle at a pile of other bottles. Some of the bottles broke.

Xaphoon Jones Playing Bass:

My friend Xaphoon Jones was really into the “Moon Money” EP drafts he heard, and one day when he was over he asked to lay down a bass guitar riff.  I normally don’t like other people playing on my songs, but he has been a vocal supporter of mine since before anyone ever knew me.  Plus he’s really good. 

He played a nice melody but it was too convoluted.  I didn’t want to delete it so I removed most of the notes, and then added an endless chain of effects until it no longer sounded like anything that he had played. It’s still him playing though, technically.

Subliminal Chants:

When I realized that this might be the single I recorded subliminal messages just in case it would hit international radio airwaves.  I disguised them as percussion.

Human Choir:

This is a combination of a 90’s choir sampler patch mixed with my voice and dead air.  The shrill high notes are me and the low notes are from the choir keyboard.  Running it through boomboxes creates weird phasing and made it sound wider and less fake. It almost sounds like a real choir, even though it’s not.

My 87-Year-Old Friend Bill’s Voice:

Bill is my friend. He is a MiDi legend in my eyes but he hates what he calls, “contemporary pop music”.  Which is what he refers to as anything after 1920.

He has emphysema so his voice doesn’t have much range anymore.  I put a microphone up to his neck and recorded it vibrating as he hummed an “ahhh”.  I took a small stab of that and made this bass, or whatever sound you’d call it.

Put them all together and here’s what you get. “#Mindcontrol” by Hot Sugar.

@justinstaple

Previously on LAYERS: Riding The Waves Of The Stepkids’ “Sweet Salvation”

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