I’d been waiting for eons for the perfect marriage between lyrical hip-hop and electronic music when it suddenly popped up right in my own back yard. Philadelphia duo Super Galactic Expansive is composed of producer KiloWatts, who we’ve spoken to about his process, and MC Amagine, an immensely cerebral rapper with a massive, scientific vocabulary. Amagine and I used to rap together back when we were in college, and despite all my 18-year-old braggadocio, he scared the living crap out of me. His freestyle was biting and clever, and his written work painted vast psychedelic images, abstract yet vivid in their detail.
In KiloWatts, Amagine found a producer capable of crafting dynamic beats that formed themselves to the lyrics and their rhythm, fusing together beat and rhyme into a single voice. Upon hearing their early work, I was blown away by the intricacy and execution, and even managed to weasel my way onto their first album Supersensible Science as the only feature, on a track called “The Movement Of Sound.”
That was a couple of years ago, and the pair now returns with their new release Constants & Variables. In this edition of LAYERS, the guys break down the construction of the track, not so much in terms of every component of the beat, but rather the intertwining of the beat and the lyrics. Remarkable stuff. Let’s do this.
Amagine: With some very big changes taking place in life after the release of Supersensible Science, KiloWatts and I took a bit of time before sitting back down in the studio to begin working on the next Super Galactic Expansive album. Batting ideas around one day as to where to start, KiloWatts sends me this super wonky, wompy beat that defied the odds for me to fit any previously written lyrics I had in my notebook. For many of the previous songs we’d written together for Supersensible Science, the lyrics were written before the music was created, thus giving KiloWatts an inkling to work off so the sounds he created would capture the vibe and emotive quality behind the words. However, “Metacognition” found its beginnings in the exact opposite process. With its off- kilter rhythm, throbbing bass, sharp, glitchy micro-edits drenched in an underlying current of psychedelia, I had no previously written lyrics that would naturally fit to the music. So, I sat with that skeleton of a beat and started constructing a linguistic image of what the sounds felt like to me. After several re-writes to perfect the multisyllabic rhyme scheme, I brought the lyrics into the studio to lay down the first take over the skeleton, and from this point forward, we start customizing the beat and the lyrics, going back and forth over the course of several more studio sessions until the rhymes and the music—the words and beat—became one resonating voice. More about this process as we continue below…
Amagine: As briefly touched upon above, one of the most distinctive and interesting qualities of an SGE song is how the beat/rhyme dichotomy found in a typical hip-hop track is not always upheld. Instead, there are involved sequences where the beat follows the complex multisyllabic rhyme scheme exactly, creating a singular voice in their expression. Take for example, this snippet at the climactic height of the second verse. After the lyrics are recorded over the skeleton of the beat, we look at the words, particularly where there are tight rhyme schemes and see if it’s a good spot to chop of up the beat. In this specific example, I remember sitting in studio, as KiloWatts yelled out “Geez, when does this friggin’ end?!” after he already started cutting up the beat to the “chit-chit; riff-raff, slick wits, etc.” pattern, not realizing how long it actually went on for. Nevertheless, he followed it all the way to the finish with intricate precision, once again bolstering the quirky uniqueness of the SGE sound.
Metacognition Sound Effects
Amagine: “It is what it sounds like,” has always been a recurring phrase that comes to our minds when making SGE tracks. So based on that premise, much of the sound effects found buried within the track are based directly off of the lyrics. Many of the sounds we use are found from The Freesound Project, a fantastic site filled with user-created sound files of just about anything and everything you could possibly imagine and then some. This snippet from “Metacognition” is filled with all of the quirky sound effects we used throughout the entire track. After a few sessions of working on this song, things started to get a little bonkers in our thought process, as we really honed in on the idea of “tinkering with your thinking.” Naturally, we envisioned some cybernetic, mind-melting workshop inside your head where we sat chopping up, electrocuting, hammering, sawing, soldering, drilling, and giving your hardware an overall upgrade as you listened unsuspectingly. Many thanks to all of the contributors to The Freesound Project. Without your efforts our songs wouldn’t be anywhere near as cheeky as they should be.
Amagine: Another distinguishing trait of the SGE sound are the extreme vocal treatments used on certain lines, particularly ones where we either hope to emphasize the meaning of the lyrics, or where we hope to evoke hallucinations of demonic, other-worldly beings as they drive their talons deep into your psyches in a harrowing attempt to clean up the cobwebs and skeletons we all tend to forget about from time to time. There are few plug-ins, in particular Reaktor, used to create more common effects like vocoders, reverbs, pitch-shifts, and delays, to some much complex plug-ins which I’ll let KiloWatts tell you about below:
KiloWatts: Geometer is nearly ten years old now. This is a free effect plug-in from DestroyFX, who is part of the audio collective SmartElectronix. Geometer could be classified as a distortion effect, but it works by analyzing and modifying the incoming waveform in interesting ways. I stumbled on a unique combination of the “dy/dx” and “friends” functions, which create some interesting effects. The “dx/dy” function places points on the waveform according to an amplitude threshold. The “friends” function then draws a line between those points. What results is intermittent “stuck buffer” type sounds, popping up in between the words.
Resochord is an ensemble for Reaktor, as part of the Reaktor Electronic Instruments Vol. 2 pack. It’s like a comb-filter on steroids. What sets it apart is the ability to individually control each frequency band, and potentially do things like build chords with the resonant spikes. This can get out of hand if you run it on tonal-based sounds, but it sounds pretty nice on vocals. This effect is applied to various parts of Amagine’s voice in the chorus. You’ll recognize it because it sounds like yelling into a microphone in an underground tunnel with barely-tolerable feedback… and there’s a freight train at the end of the tunnel heading your way.
Metacognition (Full Song)
Amagine: So, there you have it. A pretty detailed breakdown of Super Galactic Expansive’s song-writing process. “Metacognition” was really one of the most fun songs to write for our forthcoming EP, Constants & Variables (out October 9th on 1320 Records). Lyrically, it’s a song about thinking about thinking, y’know, knowing about
knowing. We try to keep things simple around here. As I alluded to above, when I first sat down to write these lyrics over this wonky, wompy beat, I really just started
writing about what the sounds reminded me off–neural firings in my brain, rapidly sending data encoded in electrical impulses across a quadrillion synapses. And as all the layers came together, I think the listener is given the opportunity to feel that process from an objective observers view. So, put on your thinking caps and enjoy…