In 2016, I was asked to produce an album by Detroit, MI artist Chris Orrick (fka Red Pill) for the well-known indie hip-hop label Mello Music Group. This project would become one of my favorite pieces of music and art I’ve ever had the pleasure to work on. Though the project was well-received upon release, it wasn’t as big a seller as anyone attached had hoped. Thus, I don’t really feel like it ever got it’s due. I think this album and accompanying videos are too important to let die. I think there are folks in this community who would really gravitate toward this honest, tragic and beautiful piece of work. So without further ado, I offer you guys a full in-depth written history on the creation, production and release of Chris Orrick (Red Pill)’s “Instinctive Drowning”.
The Devil knocks in Lansing
I met Chris back in 2008-2009 at a show of mine at Mac’s Bar in Lansing, MI. The encounter was brief but memorable enough to where years later I would recognize his name (at the time ‘Red Pill’) when his group Ugly Heroes began generating a buzz in the underground hip-hop community. I didn’t immediately check for the album, but I was happy to see Chris finding some footing on the national underground scene and I’m pretty sure it at least motivated me to follow him on Twitter and FB.
Following Chris on social media (which you can do here, here or here - and I do recommend it) was a wise choice for me. Not only did I vibe with his opinion and outspokenness on a lot of social issues, I loved the self-awareness, self-deprecation and sarcasm that defined his social media presence. Dude just seemed super-real, no bullshit no pretense.
A few months later, Chris released an EP, highlighted by a song speaking on police brutality and racial discrimination, specifically highlighting the recent Eric Garner death-by-police in New York. As a white emcee myself, I was skeptical of another white emcee finding the sensitivity, honestly and overall nuance to write about a situation, struggle and pain that was not his own, specifically one that could easily cause more damage than help by co-opting a black struggle or turning attention away from a very real discussion of justice reform and systematic oppression. I checked the song out and was blown away by how efficiently and successfully Chris had pulled off providing a searing commentary on race issues as a white artist without getting in the way of the issue or co-opting a pain that was not his. That shit is hard to do. I was instantly a fan of him as an artist and a human.
Shortly thereafter, Chris released his critically-acclaimed debut LP, “Look What This World Did To Us”, which was hailed for its dark-humored and self-effacing honesty on themes of depression and relatable every-man type shit.
Though his stock had risen considerably, he still seemed to be within reach of accepting beats, and was now on my short-list of artists to shoot some to when the time was right. In Summer 2015, I reached out and offered a folder of beats Chris’s way. By coincidence, Chris’s engineer, Charlie Beans (who would engineer the entire “Instinctive Drowning” album) had recommended me as a producer he should reach out to for his follow-up album.
All Along the Trolley
I sent Chris a small batch of beats that I was sending out to a small group of other artists at the time as well. We emailed back and forth a couple of times, but none of the beats seemed to stick. Growing tired of sending random beats out to artists, I was leaning more and more toward wanting to develop deeper relationships with key artists and customizing production from the ground up around their personalities and visions.
As fate would have it, Chris was prepping to go on a nationwide tour with indie heavyweight Murs and their first stop was set to be in my current home of San Diego, CA at a venue called The Casbah. I reached out to Chris and mentioned I’d be in that area on his show date and maybe we could catch up and grab a drink. My dirty secret being, I had absolutely no plans to be downtown near the Casbah and had no car, which meant an hour-long trolley ride down to the venue just for this quick meeting. We met briefly at the Casbah before doors opened and talked about random awkward shit. I remember at some point talking about Louis CK, but nothing else. Regardless, my goal was to get an understanding of where Chris’s artist head was at and do my best to custom-build some music for him. I apparently felt motivated enough by our convo to do just that.
An Ambition to Build
I went home (to the makeshift studio pictured above, which sat next to our tiny kitchen) and ultimately crafted what would become the first song on the album, “The New Normal” (streamable up top). Like many of the songs on this album, I developed an overall process for producing each track. Rather than go into repetitive detail on each song, the overall process looked something like this:
I help run a small record shop in the Barrio Logan District of San Diego called Beat Box Records alongside owner Bernie “DJ Inform” Fishman. The shop specializes in rare funk, soul, jazz, rock and hip-hop among tons of other sub-genres. For samples, arrangement studies and overall inspiration, my time at this shop has become invaluable. Many of the samples on “Instinctive Drowning” came from my time listening to hours of records at this shop.
After grabbing samples from the shop, I would head home to my studio and get to work. My basic set-up at home during this time (and it is basic) was Ableton Live with an Axiom25 MIDI Controller and a turntable. I would essentially build a pretty complete piece of production, all the way down to breakdowns and arrangements, via creativity with samples and some playing over top. As Chris and I were feeling eachother out creatively, my goal was to send him something more than just a skeleton but not something so over-the-top that he felt there was no room for him, both sonically and creatively to maneuver and offer input.
As I stated above, “The New Normal” was the first track I made and sent to him and it would become the first track on the album. The second track on the album, “Four-Part Cure” would be the same process. This track was actually a rebuild of an old beat of mine from 2003-2004, but the same rules of process applied. This beat was sparse and, like with many tracks on the album, left room for live instrumentation as well.
After Chris confirmed about 3-4 tracks for the album, he asked if I’d be interested in producing the entire project. I felt (and still feel) Chris had an extremely unique voice and pen and was 100% on board to flesh this project out as a complete album. After working a basic agreement out with the label, Mello Music Group, we continued on. This decision allowed my imagination to really run wild, as I knew I had a bit more control over the entire sonic scope of this project, rather than just a small percentage of it.
As I continued to create tracks for the record, many of which almost in exact order as to how they’d eventually be sequenced, I was really looking forward to the live aspect of this album that would follow after we laid the foundation down. I was also deeply impressed by the writing and overall album theme Chris was fleshing this record out to be, which definitely pushed me to maximize my skill-set as a producer.
He and Charlie began shooting me their recordings to these beats, which inspired me to really begin thinking about who to bring in for additional instrumentation and vocals.
A Deeper Dive Into Production
Before I move fully into the live recording aspects of this record, I wanted to take a section here to really disassemble a couple of our records and show some of the specifics of my production process on this album. Spoiler Alert, this section here is built primarily for producers, engineers and music nerds.
The first song I’d like to break down is track 3 on the album, “Club Privilege”. Where as most of the album was created in sequence, “Club Privilege” was one of the last tracks created for the album. We were in search of a very specific vibe to address the very specific issue of white privilege in a very specific and creative way. I dug up an extremely rare 45 at the shop one day and pitched it down as low as possible. At this pitched speed, I heard the elements that would ultimately create the foundation of the bassline for this track.
I went home to chop the sample and begin producing around it. A few of the drums came from an old Roger & Zapp drum kit I came across years back. The beat is pretty standard head-nod 1,2 but I always like my drums a little off kilter to keep a swing in there. Plus, since Chris is a Michigan guy, I wanted to add a subtle nod to one of my favorite producers, J Dilla.
I side-chained the bass and samples to the kick just a bit to add to the pulsing feel the bass and drums were already giving me. The hook, sung by Marsha Mann, was also sung by our other vocalist Ingrid Rachel. Both gave incredible performances and it was difficult to choose, but I rolled with Marsha, as she leaned a bit more into the “Portishead” vibe that I was looking for on the track.I’d always wanted to release a version of this song with Ingrid’s vocals on here though. I think we could build an entirely new song around her hook. It gave the song an entirely new dimension.
Above is a screenshot of post-production effects signal flow on Marsha’s voice. A brief summary includes both a high-pass and low-pass filter dropping the very ends of low-end high-end frequency off, followed by a graphic EQ that allows for peak cuts in problem areas. From there we have one vocal chain of broader EQ’s, de-essers and compressors. Under this we have a chain of reverb, light delay and an EQ on this chain. Finally, under this we have an automated chain, allowing for the ability to play up delays and reverb tails within a certain mid-frequency range. As I dive deeper into posts like this, I’ll do my best to dive even further into elements like signal flow in my mixes, sample manipulation techniques, and more.
“Fuck Your Ambition”
The first single released for this album was “Fuck Your Ambition (FYA)” featuring P.O.S of Doomtree & Rhymesayers fame. He was the lone feature on this album and crushed it. Before his feature was even conceived, I’d fallen in love with Chris’s hook and verses for this track. Written at the beginning of the 2016 presidential campaign, the hook “the way they measure winners makes me want to be a loser” both captured Chris’s personal ethos while confrontationally questioning what it even means for any of us to ‘win’. Such a quick, piercing dart to pop the balloon of false ambition that our society tends to prop itself upon. But I digress, below is a breakdown of the actually production of this song:
The percussive sounds in here are from all over the place. 808 hats mixed with jazz snare rolls, light cowbell and distorted 808s. I love playing with the 120-130bpm range because you can drop it in half to 60-65bpm and really play with people’s energies. Under these drums sits a thick synth bassline and a few different instruments. First, we have a filtered pad drenched in reverb to provide a general melancholy ambience. On top of this the track floats between a few different instruments. First a somewhat flat organ side-chained to the percussion to give it an abstracted pulsing feel. Following this, what sounds like an out-of-tune piano key. Lastly, during the P.O.S verse, a poly-synth with a lot of automation in the panning and LFO.
All this leaves room for Chris and P.O.S to get to work. We have a lot of stacked vocals on this hook, and Charlie had fun adding some subtle pitch shifts to Chris in certain key areas. There are some subtle glitch effects automated into his voice during some breakdowns as well.
In hindsight, the mix on this could have been warmer. There’s a chunk of frequency range I dropped out during the various mixes that I didn’t find the ear to regain until we’d released it. But I still love the hell out of this song, that critique is splitting heirs for something I still love to this day.
Chris and Charlie continued to send me rough recordings of the songs, which gave me a greater clarity as to the overall theme and story of the project, allowing me to be very specific with my choices for the addition of live instrumentation and vocalists as well as stylistic effects toward Chris’s voice and these musicians. Below is an introduction to each musician and vocalist who contributed to this project as well as a brief write-up on where they contributed.
I’ve known Evan for years by way of our time spent in the Columbus, Ohio music scene. Evan fronted a successful band, The Evan Oberla Project, and was lead trombone for rock band O.A.R. and [Allen Stone(https://www.allenstone.com/) during their tour seasons. He often played in my band during my Columbus tenure and we kept in steady contact ever since. Evan added his beautiful trombone work to “The New Normal” and “Gin & Tonic”, specifically closing out the end of each song beautifully, allowing for great transitions into each respective song that followed.
Like Evan, I knew Alex from my stay in the Columbus scene. Like Evan, Alex often played in my band when he wasn’t fronting his own Alex Schrock Trio or producing his own spaced out beats. Alex reminds me of one of my favorite guitar players ever, Pat Metheny; buttery jazz guitar that feels like each note rolls off the last. His additions to “Four-Part Cure” and “Gin & Tonic” were purposefully and perfectly understated. He fills pockets so well, and the dance between his guitar and Evan’s trombone at the end of “Gin & Tonic” is one of my favorite moments of the record.
I’ve been working with Ingrid for years. We met in the Cincinnati music scene (which preceded my stay in Columbus) and have worked together since. She’s featured on many of my records (which I’ll get to in future posts) and knew exactly how to approach her features on these songs. You can actually read the notes I built for her HERE. I love Ingrid because she takes these basic notes and explores a creative path with her voice that builds in ways I’d never imagined, all while never overtaking the original song concept or vibe. She knows how to both fit into song and add her own dimension without taking away anything at all, which is a rare and masterful skill to hold. You can hear her on “Stars”, “Gin & Tonic”* and especially on “When The Devil Knocks” which she took to places I’d never imagined. She’s also a phenomenal writer and often rocks live with her own band, The Ingrid Rachel Project.
I met Marsha at the record shop one day. Marsha was a singer in the emerging LA Punk scene of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. She has stories for DAYS about hanging out with Jim Morrison or being in studio during The Rolling Stones ‘Exile on Main Street’ sessions, not to mention stories about her band from that era, Cipher. Marsha was amazing to work with. I headed to her apartment and we recorded her vocals for the song “Club Privilege” and “Jeffrey Star” as well as her primal screams for “Four-Part Cure”. Marsha is a master of her voice. She can stretch it out further than anyone I’ve ever worked with and has a complete, no-nonsense bravery in doing so. She was able to transform her voice from the Beth-Gibbons-of-Portishead-inspired vocals on “Club Privilege” to the Eurythmics-style hook and psychedelic wailing on “Jeffrey Star”. As with Ingrid, I definitely look forward to working with her in the future.
P.O.S had been a favorite of mine since he was referencing Mitch Hedberg bits in this song and making my head explode in this video here. To get to produce a record he’d be featured on was definitely a career milestone as a producer. We’d built ”Fuck Your Ambition” to be centered around his verse. In many ways, we’d built the whole album to be featured around his verse. As fate would have it, his verse was the last audio clip to be put into the project. It wasn’t until I was in Michigan with Charli and Chris putting final touches on the mix that we would receive P.O.S’s verse to drop in to the track.
Unfortunately, as dope as his verse was, it wasn’t the energy we were hoping for. With the deadline for turning the album in quickly approaching (we had 2 more days), we brainstormed on what to do. After a couple hours of debating, I reached out to P.O.S and let him know the verse didn’t quite work. After a quick set of email exchanges, he agreed to re-write and record a new verse within our two-day deadline. Needless to say, he delivered above and beyond our expectations. We were all elated. I bring this story up for a couple reasons:
One thing I’ve learned as a producer is that production goes well beyond what you can do with your hands and what sounds you can create. It goes into effectively communicating with musicians and artists to get a desired result that makes everyone happy. Producing is just as much about getting into the psychology of those around you and uniting everyone to one wavelength as it is about pushing buttons.
P.O.S did not have to go back and rewrite or re-record his vocals. The way he handled the entire exchange was both humble and professional. I’d always respected him as an artist, but after this exchange I respected him as man and businessman. I’ll always have great things to say about dude from this experience.
I know Jesse as Jay. He and his brother Carlos (drummer, below) play with me all the time out here in California. Jay pulls from gospel, soul, R&B and house in his playing. His chords are other-wordly and he can go from jamming at 100% to pulling back to an extremely nuanced and intimate playing. On my way to Michigan to finalize this album, I’d stopped in Ohio to knock out some business and see family. Though I was happy with nearly everything on the album by this point, I was less-than-satisfied with the progress on the album closer ”Jeffrey Star”. It wasn’t up to production standard of the rest of the album, and as a closer that couldn’t do. Thankfully, my manager and I found ourselves in Jay and Carlos’s Columbus, Ohio basement. I pulled out the song, and within 15 minutes we were recording brand new keys and drums. Jay’s chords are so beautiful on this song they actually close out the entire record, fading out for nearly a minute as the album drifts into silence. One of my favorite moments on the entire project, and only full appreciated in context to the whole album’s story.
Carlos Fisher (Ill Atmospherics)
Carlos is a monstrosity; someone you’d have to see on stage live to believe. And even then, you may not believe what you’re seeing. Not only is he a live drummer, he’s a live drummer/producer/DJ, building, looping and chopping tracks and samples live while drumming. Carlos is truly from another planet. We’ve been playing together for years on stage so it was only natural to bring him in on drums for this record and he smashed as usual.
As I stated before, Charlie was the man responsible for really bringing Chris and I together to create a full project. But beyond that, Charlie engineered every one of Chris’s recording sessions, getting understated but emotional takes out of Chris that perfectly complimented the production. Case in point, the title track of this album is a soul-crushing, much due to a single crack in Chris’s voice in the first verse, allowing one split second of emotion to pierce through a very guarded delivery. Charlie heard this and knew it was the keeper. This is what makes an engineer an artist. As far as post-production, Charlie handled the bulk of vocal processing for this project, where as I handled the mixing of the music.
Coming Up For Air
Mello flew me out to Michigan for our final marathon session of wrapping this album. Beyond the P.O.S verse and mixing in Jay and Carlos’s keys and drums into ”Jeffrey Star”, we were mostly perfecting mixes and discussing release strategies for the album. Beyond that, we hung out, drank, ate pizza and enjoyed the time of just hanging out and bonding a little bit in person. This entire album had been created via online exchanges and phone calls up to this point, so it was nice to wrap such a personal album and experience in person. On the final day, all three of us (Charlie, myself and Chris) stepped outside for a quick smoke, then walked inside and listened to the finished album, front to back. We all knew we had something extremely special with this album. Every song felt like a masterpiece inside of an even greater piece of work that was the entire album. Everyone had at least one moment where they shed a tear.
We sent the album off to Mike (owner of Mello Music Group) and awaited his opinion. Thankfully, he loved the album and had a ton of ideas in moving forward with releases strategies.
Our team is used to putting out our own records and films via our platform @definitionmusic. Through the years, we’ve developed strategies, timelines and campaign assets in rolling out a project. Only after the project is completed do we start brainstorming as a team on marketing, touring, budgets and all other aspects that incorporate a successful release. Because of this experience, we wanted to offer not just production on the album, but creative ideas for the release that would potentially meld well with Mello Music Group’s successful machine. For those of you interested in these type of details, especially those looking to build their own label, you can read up on some of the behind-the-scenes details of the album release HERE.
Visualizing ‘Instinctive Drowning’
If you’ve read my posts on Tetralume or “Poster Grrl”, you know that I work hand in hand with my guy @asonintrigue. This project is no different. Mello hired on Ason to direct the title track to this album, “Instinctive Drowning”. Ason will be providing an in-depth post on this part of the process, but I’d like to single out a couple important things about this shoot.
First, this shoot features real people having real conversations and real interactions. None realer than our friend Nes Wordz, a Columbus, Ohio icon of the hip-hop and music community (and generally the Columbus community period) who came out to the shoot at a moment’s notice and kicked it with us the whole time. Nes’ energy is hard to fully articulate on paper, it could only ever be experienced in person. And anyone who ever experienced Nes in person walked away feeling a deep love and hope for themselves and the world around them. This shoot was no different. Nes passed away unexpectedly this time last year to the shock and tears of an entire community. His presence has been deeply missed, not just by those closest to him, but by those of us who shared conversations and brief moments of social connection. Dude was special and I advise looking his name up on any streaming platform you can get your hands on and listening in. Sadly, you’ll never get to see him perform live; his live show was one of the greatest live performances I’ve ever experienced in my life.
Second: Chris wears his emotions in his words, his delivery and in his eyes. You can see everything he speaks about in this song on his face throughout the entire video. This video, much like “Poster Grrl” is meant to have a raw, un-glossy, punk feel. It’s meant to shave away all the extra and leave you with nothing but the rawest nerve. This is what Chris does so well in his writing and I feel Ason did a great job of interpreting that with this video.
Sink or Swim
The first single for this project was the P.O.S assisted “Your Ambition”, followed by “Gin & Tonic” and the “Instinctive Drowning” video, which debuted on the eve of the full album release. The whole roll-out was filled with optimism, depression, and anxiety, which is pretty par for the course for any release I’ve been a part of throughout my career. I’m not sure if every artist experiences this, but I do.
As lengthy as my past about the creative process appears, that portion is the easiest. It’s still filled with a ton of frustration and stress; i.e. keeping bills paid while waiting for the advance, working songs to their maximum potential. But creativity is such a safe and private place; a place where my ego doesn’t have much interest. On the flip side, releasing extremely personal and honest material to the world where we know we’ve given it our absolute all can be a bit terrifying. Though this record was well-received by press (read some here, here and here) and a strong section of Chris’s fan base, it didn’t really blow like anyone had hoped. Touring didn’t materialize like we’d thought. So there’s a bit of a sad sentiment to release, at least for me. A feeling that this amazing and deeply personal piece of work just didn’t make the connection we’d hoped (this seems to be a hallmark of my career). It makes you question just how ‘amazing’ was the record? Was this all in my head, or our heads? Could we have done things differently? These are the things your ego goes to sleep with and wakes you up with at 4 in the morning. You want to grow from previous mistakes but at the same time time, not overthink something that may have just been out of your control. Time tends to put it all in perspective and moving on to the next project gives each previous project a greater context.
This is why I love vinyl so much. As I said before, I help run a record shop, Beat Box Records, in San Diego, so my opinion on vinyl is clearly biased. But I do feel it’s a the best platform for treating music like the experience it can truly be. There’s a ritual that comes with vinyl; from opening a physical package, putting it on a player, having a drink or smoke and just focusing on the music. Vinyl tends to let music become the focus rather than the soundtrack to another focus (exercise, cleaning your house, checking Facebook). For this reason, no matter how well an album has been received in the fly-by-night moment of the internet, vinyl is a physical representation that a timeless project can in fact become timeless on it’s own merit. On vinyl, it doesn’t matter when this album came out; today, last year or 30 years ago. You pick it up and judge it for exactly what it is. This is why the ”Instinctive Drowning” vinyl is my favorite aspect of this release campaign. Shameless plug, you can still cop the vinyl HERE.
A couple quick things in closing:
First, Chris’s follow-up to ”Instinctive Drowning” is called ”Portraits”, and you should check it out ASAP right here! You can read Chris’s thoughts during the ID campaign via some great interviews with Bandcamp and RESPECT Magazine.
Second, an artist like Chris comes around once in a lifetime. To this day, I feel there is no other voice in music speaking for who he speaks for in the way that he speaks for us. Please check anything out by Chris and spread the word on his music.
If you dig what you hear and you’re intrigued by the process, I have production available for artists in need. I also provide exclusive production, in which we can really get down; bringing musicians in the studio, sound-designing synths, etc. If interested, you can reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and view my production & graphic design portfolio at www.soundrzn.com.
In Case You Missed It
Also, we debuted our short film “Poster Grrl” on Steem a couple weeks ago and gave in-depth analysis on how the film was created, shot and released. I wrote about my sound-designing and art layout HERE. Ason wrote about his experience directing HERE and our guy @thelocomotive wrote about filming and Post-EFX HERE.
You can catch up on other events and projects of ours via our tumblr blog at www.definitionmusic.tumblr.com. And don’t forget about the Steem-Powered “Broken Brain Tour” which is gearing up to hit your city soon. If interested in bringing our tour your way, reach out to @asonintrigue or email@example.com with booking inquiries.
See y’all next time.