Saturday, February 17, 2007
Come on dBs, play one for me! An interview with Dan “100dBs” Brenner
Dan Brenner is tired.
After countless delays, Brenner’s Breaks Vol. 1 was supposed to be available for download on February 10th 2007. This date was not the result of some arbitrary decision; it was intended as a tribute to J-Dilla, who died in hospital one year ago. However the website needed to be redone and mixing was taking longer than expected. But rather than push the album back another week, 100dBs posted up for nearly 48 hours in order to deliver the goods on the morning of February 12th.
And the results are nothing less than stunning.
Dropping nearly two years after the release of his Jay-Z mashup, The Argyle Album, Brenner's Breaks is 100dBs' gritty sophomore offering. Featuring the talents of up and coming MCs Ryan O’Neil and J-iLL, 100dBs clever and nuanced production more than justifies the tardiness of this release. Tying the album together is a twisted series of skits featuring a drugged out Tony the Tiger, a cocaine traffiking Toucan Sam and a pimpin’ and jivin’ Sugar Bear. All of this and more in under sixty minutes.
Due to illness and academic stress, I rubbished the idea of writing a 1,500 word review of this album. (Besides, it would’ve been totally biased). Thankfully, my boy was able to muster up enough strength to answer a few questions about his latest release and life as a grown ass man in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Son, what took you so long? This mixtape was supposed to drop in time for summer of '06. It's now February '07!
I was just crazy busy. I could blame it on a lot of things: people had to re-record verses, I was stressed because school was killin' me, I had to make plans to sell my car and move because I didn't want to be at my parent's place in Jersey for too long, tons of shit.
But really what it came down to is that I'm a passionate dude. I can't release something unless I feel like it's damn near perfect. I won't release something wack. I just can't do it; it's not in me. What everyone says is one thing, but if I don't personally feel like it's up to snuff then there's no way the public's going to hear it.
You've cited the late J-Dilla as a huge influence on this album. Do you find him inspirational because he produced a voluminous body of quality work in such a short period of time?
Yeah, you took the words right out of my big mouth. Here you have a guy who passed away due to an incurable blood disease... but because he was so prolific, we'll (hopefully) be hearing previously unreleased shit for years to come.
And his work is timeless. I pride myself on being able to listen to a record I've never heard and be able to place it to within three years of its release date based on certain qualities. You can't do that with Dilla's shit, and I'm not sure we'll ever be able to. He was just too nice with it. Even the unused shit from his beat tapes, It’s all got that "instant classic" quality. And that phrase gets overused a lot, but it can't be overused in this case.I know it seems like I'm on his dick. Fuck it, maybe I am.
I thought about it, and it has less to do with the fact that we're lionizing him after his death and more to do with HOW he went out. He did Donuts on his deathbed, and you can hear the urgency. Think about that next time you give it a spin.
It seems like nowadays, a lot of heavy hitters (e.g. Clipse, Jay-Z, Nas,) in hip-hop are steering away from skits. What made you decide to throw in a storyline about cereal box mascots hustlin' in the underworld?
Well, credit Prince Paul for that influence, for better or for worse. He's hands-down my favorite hip-hop producer of all time. His vision for concepts is unparalleled. Oh, and forget about what Clipse are doing...their album was hyped too much anyway. I liked it but... well let's not get into that.
The point is skits can be awful if they're too abundant or irrelevant. Also, they get boring if they're too obvious. If you make ‘em a little weird or random, people will appreciate them once in a while. It's like spices with cooking. You don't want to overpower someone listening to your album... you want to assume that your audience is smart enough not to want to be smacked in the face by a big cold fish, on some cartoon shit.
What were the easiest tracks to record on Brenner's Breaks?
As far as production goes, "Right On" was real easy because it's just chopped up a bit. "Kellogg’s Don't Pay Me Shit" was pretty easy because my boy Outputmessage did a lot of the work. He's very talented. The "One Love" and "Air" remixes were easy as hell for some reason. Nas and Doom just put me into some mode where I immediately know what's necessary to put under their flows, and that’s rare.
And the hardest?
The most difficult? Well, “The Plan" was hard because I just couldn't get the bass to sound right for a while, and the whole thing needed to feel like some grand scheme. "Ms Jackson" was tough because people were saying "You can't touch a classic" and all that shit. I'll touch whatever I want, as long as I think I can do it justice.
As well, working with MCs is often difficult because you have to worry more about recording quality, breath control, and all kinds of performance factors. Especially if you got limited time to work on something or people are not living where you are…. Ryan, for example, recorded most of his shit for BBV1 in less than 24 hours... it was the first time we met and he took a bus down to DC from NYC to record a few joints and he'd heard one before coming over.
Speaking of MCs, this was the first time you recorded with live MCs on a release. Tell us a little bit about working with J-iLL and Ryan O’Neil.
I met J-iLL at UMD. At that time, she was the realest MC I’d heard in the DC area, male or female. I'm not going to mince my words; most rappers down there are wack. It was frustrating, because as a producer all you really want is to back someone ill and you end up fuckin' with acapellas because everyone you hear is awful. It sucks because people talk mad shit - whereas here in New York people may talk shit but they learn to step up real quick because NO ONE pays attention if you're not dope.
As for Ryan, I met him a year ago and it truly feels like we've known each other our whole lives. I've worked with tons of musicians throughout my life and can honestly say I didn't expect to have this much chemistry in a producer/MC situation. It was a pleasant surprise. He's a monster on the mic so keep your eyes open for our debut this year. Summer 2007? Who knows? When it's done, it'll be out.
You were the house DJ at the Francis Estate (EDITOR'S NOTE: our house at University of Maryland @ College Park) from fall '05 till May '06. Now, I don't want to brag, but we threw some of the best parties in the area. On the real, we had peeps from George Washington University and Howard taking taxis from DC to party with us. Did that have any effect on you or your work?
Whatever Reverend, you know you had a lot to with that shit! We put in work, that's all there is to it. Basically, what I took away from that was that I know I can build something from the ground up in the middle of nowhere. So if I can do that there, I have even more confidence in my abilities when I'm in a more vibrant place. I'm used to starting from scratch, so anywhere there's already some form of network established...I feel like I can break in.
True true.. Earlier this month, you and Ryan came down for a special performance at the Francis Estate. It was the first time you'd DJed down here since you left. It was also the first time any of us had seen you and your boy perform as a dynamic duo. I must say, people were really feelin' you.
I really wanted people to hear him. I’m Ryan’s biggest fan, after himself that is. When people ask about what I'm doing, the first thing I say is "working with this sick MC from Queens." It's not "Oh I got this instrumental joint coming up" or "I'm tryin' to get beats to this person or that person." I'm just glad people appreciated some real shit.
Now that we're on the topic of life at U-Md, you've just reminded me...you almost didn't finish your Electrical Engineering degree! What the hell happened?
When I work on music, my brain shuts everything else off. It's stupid, but I used to be in class trying to pay attention to the equations on the board... and all of a sudden I'd get an idea that just kept bothering me. I used to just get up in the middle of class and walk home to execute the idea. Some people write shit down to remind themselves or record themselves humming a tune. Well first of all, writing shit down doesn't help you hear it.It's a conceptual approximation at best, and worthless at worst. Also, I have the worst voice ever. So I can't sing for shit to remind myself of what I'm tryin' to do when I get home. Even worse, my memory is terrible. So I have to do shit as soon as I think of it. The upside? I've learned to work really quickly and I'm willing to bet that some of your favorite beats on my releases were done in less than an hour.
It's been nearly two years since your first full-length release, "The Argyle Album." Have you listened to it since then? Are you happy with your progress?
I have, though it took me a long time to listen to it again after the final mixes. You get really sick of your own music.
I'm quite happy with where my sound has gone since then. I hope I'm not biting anyone. But if I am, then it's only subconscious and that's just my brain's natural way of complimenting those who came before me. When I listen to my favorite productions, I hear simplicity. Not to say I don't still layer things a lot, but I'm trying to be a little more minimal and it's making things more beautiful.
If you stayed in the DC area, you coulda been a big fish in a small pond. What made you go to New York and start at the bottom of the heap?
It wasn't really a tough or deliberate decision. I just know that it's the only place I've ever felt truly comfortable. If that ever changes, I'll move again.
So what's it like trying to promote yourself in the oversaturated hip-hop market in the world? In Brooklyn, for example, every other dude is a "producer" or an “MC.”
It's true, you do. It's tough. I just hope the music will speak for itself. The key is to not get ahead of one’s self.
I see people on the corner everyday yelling at you to buy their $10 mixtape. They’re all like"I see you in that Wu shirt, I KNOW you're down." And I’m like “Fuck that, I don't know you. You might sound like shit. You might be great." I'm not willing to part with the equivalent of two Hop Poh Kitchen specials just to find out you rap about killin' dudes when you really live in your mom's basement. I'll give you my card and you can go online and get my shit for free.
It's time to pay dues. Get that shit out there, and see who bites. This is not the time to be thinkin' about money.
What was your lowest moment as a producer?
Hmmm. In fall 2005,there was a beat battle at Maryland run by a few heads from some hip-hop association or some bullshit group. I don't remember. Anyway, long story short, I "lost" to some dude in the early rounds, despite the fact that mine was the more murderous beat. He just happened to bring more heads to the place,so they cheered louder. Or the judges said. As far as I could tell, everyone knew each other and I was the outsider.
A lot of people came up to me after the event to give me love and say there was no way I should have lost to some Scott Storch wanna-be. However, I think the dude knew he lost because he gave me this look afterwards like "Yeah, I know." It's all good though, because he later came to parties at the house and gave me props, and I wasn't mad.
It is what it is. I went home that night and made another beat. Actually, the beat that I lost on became the Roots Manuva "Witness Remix" on BBV1!!!!
Have you ever wanted to throw in the towel?
I don't think I've ever wanted to. But there have been times where, for whatever reason, I wouldn't touch music for months. Eventually it makes me feel awful. Thankfully, I haven't done that in a long time.
I dunno man. I mean, you've got a good job, a tight crib in Brooklyn.Why are you still doin' this? What's keepin' you in the game for real?
That's a stupid question! The music. It's certainly not the money. If I can just hear once in a while that people were lovin' some shit that I put out and it made them smile, or made them cry, or made them do anything but sit down and watch TV, I'm happy.
Alright, now for the big philosophical questions. First and foremost, will underground hip-hop ever recover? Or are we gonna have to clutch our worn out copies of Soundbombing and just reminisce?"
Everything goes in cycles. Rawkus was good while it lasted, then Def Jux was good for a while, Anticon had their thing, whatever. The labels that are really gonna last are the ones that pay less attention to being obscure and "independent" and more attention to just putting out quality material, no matter what it is (READ: STONES THROW). To be honest, they're the only "hip hop" label I've been feelin' with any degree of consistency lately. Until more labels start approaching it like they do, we won't see a solid "underground" movement again. But I think we will again soon, don't worry.
Well, I'm pretty sick of waiting. We could use another 1989 or 1993 or 1997-99. Hmmmm what else...Err, do you think that Ego Trip’s The White Rapper Show on VH1 is a joke?
Of course the show is a joke. I haven't really seen it (I saw a clip online once), but MC Serch is not stupid. And anything Prince Paul's involved with gets the nod from me on principle. Call me an idealist, but I think once we have a couple hundred dudes who can spit like Eminem (who I'm not even into, but respect) there will be less of a color line. Until then, step your game up.
Alright, fair enough. But I still don’t get it. There’s plenty of amazing white producers, but there's not enough quality white MCs out there getting publicity. Why this restriction to the boards?
You’re right, there are plenty of white producers. Dope ones. A white dude mentored Large Professor.
Why is it that we stay in the production lane? I'm not sure. I think a lot of white dudes don't have the confidence to rap. Those who do choose to rap do one of two things: they thug out and act like they think they should, OR they get really abstract and speak in metaphors that don't make sense with mouth diarrhea. Me? I just never liked my voice. I don't sing. It's the one thing I feel I could never do, musically. Hand me any instrument that I'm interested in and I believe I could play it passably. I can't do shit with my voice.
Last question.What do women really want?
I dunno, you'll have to ask Mel Gibson about that one. What do I think women really want? Most of them want men. Most of them want music as much as they want men. I think we proved that at the Francis Estate. If you build it, they will come. We were a mile or so off campus, and a lot of heads walked to our house. If you provide quality entertainment, people will remember the night as more than just getting drunk with a bunch of idiots. I mean, you're still getting drunk with a bunch of idiots, but you get to dance to the 45 King!
Brenner, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions. I know that shit has been hectic, but you pulled through and I really appreciate it. Any last words?
Thank you once again for this opportunity, some good questions for once. I wanna say whatup to Ryan O'Neil, J-iLL, and Outputmessage. Look out for collaborations this year. Big things.
Download Brenner’s Breaks Volume 1 NOW
100dBs at MySpace.Com