#21 – Alchemist
|By AMIR SAID (SA’ID)|
Right from the beginning of his professional beatmaking career, ca. 1997, Alchemist’s beats have always had a basement-dust quality to them. I’m not talking about mixing quality; of course, there’s a timeless mix-sound component to Alchemist’s beats. I’m reality talking about the essence of Alchemist’s beats: They sound honest, like baked goods in the local whole-in-the-wall baker that everybody stands on line for, not the mass-produced chain brand that’s always missing that unique flavor.
As I mentioned in my description of DJ Khalil (#25 on the BeatTips Top 30), when it comes to west coast beatmaking, the west coast is often thought of as Dr. Dre’s domain. Which is to say that many people think west coast beatmaking styles and sounds mainly fall under one of Dre’s musical spectrums or another. But everything in the west coast is certainly not G funk based or west coast bounce. What’s lesser known is the fact that the west coast has it’s own form of east coast sound (think DJ Muggs, Domino, etc.). I call this the west-east sound.
The west-east sound is typified by most of the same fundamental components that you’d find in the basic east coast sound. There’s hard hitting drums, chopped samples and breaks, and typically a boom bap feel (sometimes more or less subtle). But the west-east sound also sometimes incorporates west coast-grown elements like moog bass parts, the west coast bounce, and a number of different sonic characteristics that students of the art of beatmaking associate with the west coast sound. Along with DJ Khalil, DJ Muggs, and Domino, Alchemist (who really rocks an east coast style and sound more than anything else), is one of the top practitioners of the west-east sound. But in recent years, Alchemist has made a clean departure from that west-east sound.
Also worth noting: One thing you’ll notice when studying Alchemist’s catalog is how his drums have changed. As he became more and more focused on finding complete phrases and re-working ready-made loops, his drums have become more tucked, serving more of an accompaniment role, albeit they’re always still crisp. Plus, he never fully left his boomp bap roots anyway, so from time to time, you’ll hear an out-front drum fill.
Any many ways, Alchemist’s sound has become an hybrid or culmination, depending how you want to look at it, of his own main interests: 1970s soul and obscure source material. Now, some of his beats are less complex, less involved, mostly cruising off of the essence of the break (the loop). But the vibe on these joints is always spectacularly sick and inviting to emcees. Other times, his beats are primarily made up of chopped sounds (some samples, some synthetic sounds). On these beats, there’s a bigger, more out front presence.
Both instances demonstrate Alchemist’s creative control. He never forces a beat; he does only what he feels the beat needs. The result? Some of his beats sound sparse and deceptively simple — it’s not so easy to find a that break and then loop it right, let alone match the right drums and drum framework. (By the way, for those who like to compare Alchemist and Marco Polo, understand: They’re working from two different base sciences! So think about the final result, both in terms of what the final product sounds like and the method used.)
Still, other Alchemist beats — sometimes a bit more complex, or thought out in nature, or featuring a late R&B sample — often surprise people that he even made them, given his penchant for diggin’ in the crates for breaks. But those familiar with Alchemist know that that’s his “other” sound. (For an example of what I mean, check out Nas’ “Mastermind.”) He even has another “other” sound; call it Alchemist’s Mobb Deep afiliation sound. This sound is featured on his work with Queensbridge rappers like Mobb Deep, Big Noyd, et. al.
Bottom line: Alchemist can flip several different styles and sounds, but he’s at his best when he hangs close to his diggin’ in the crates roots. I’m sure he would agree, as his more recent beats reflect that sensibility.
SPECIAL NOTE: Listen to the Durag Dynasty 360 Waves album, straight through, no interruptions. Also, check out this MusicStudy/Beat Breakdown that I did of “Keep It Thoro” beat by The Alchemist: “BeatTips MusicStudy: “Keep It Thoro;” Prodigy and The Alchemist” .
The Alchemist beats (Songs) Recommended for Study:
“Keep it Thoro” – Prodigy beat by Alchemist
“360 Waves” – Durag Dynasty (AKA Planet Asia, Tristate, and Killer Ben) beat by Alchemist
“Bloody Mess” – Blaq Poet beat by Alchemist
“Hold You Down” – Alchemist feat. Mobb Deep, Nina Sky, and Illa Ghee beat by Alchemist
“Perfectionist” – Rick Ross feat. Meek Mill beat by Alchemist
“A Glass of Astonishment – Durag Dynasty (Planet Asia, Tristate & Killer Ben) beat by Alchemist
“The Symbol” – Action Bronson and Alchemist beat by Alchemist
“A Gangster and a Gentleman” – Styles P beat by Alchemist
“Worst Comes to Worst” – Dilated Peoples beat by Alchemist
“Surgical Gloves” – Raekwon beat by Alchemist
“Shoot Em Up (Bang Bang, pt. 1) – Big Noyd beat by Alchemist
“Mama” – Big Pun beat by Alchemist
“The Realest” – Mobb Deep feat. Kool G Rap beat by The Alchemist
“We Gonna Make it” – Jadakiss feat. Styles P beat by Alchemist
“Return of the Mac” – Prodigy beat by Alchemist
“Checkstand 3” – Defari beat by The Alchemist
“The Juks” – Ghostface Killah feat. Trife Da God & Superb beat by Alchemist
“The Illest” – Mobb Deep beat by Alchemist
“Stock in the Game” Freddie Foxxx (AKA Bumpy Knuckles) beat by Alchemist
“I’m Black” – Styles P feat. Marsha Ambrosius
“No Ideas Original” – Nas beat by Alchemist
“Bring it On” – Terror Squad beat by The Alchemist
“Bang on Em” – Prodigy beat by Alchemist
“Got It Twisted” – Mobb Deep beat by Alchemist
“Fresh Flowers” – La the Darkman beat by Alchemist
“The Most Dangerous” – Durag Dynasty (AKA Planet Asia, Tristate, and Killer Ben) beat by AlchemistUncategorized