Analog Players Society

by Corey O'Flanagan

What do you do if you're a producer and you run out of tracks to sample? If you're the guys behind Analog Players Society - Ben Rubin and Amon Drum - you gather a group of New York City's best musicians, put them in a room, and hit record.

It is with this mentality that the record Soundtrack For A Nonexistent Film came to be. Released in October 2020 and based on four tracks recorded in April 2019 in Amon's The Bridge Studio, this eclectic mix of tunes is a must listen for any jazz or hip-hop fan.

Ben is a producer, mixer, bass player and engineer; Amon, who started off as a percussionist, designs and builds studios, is a producer, tracking engineer (as of late), and a mixing engineer who owns his own studio in Brooklyn, where both artists reside. Today on the show I talk to them about making these tracks and also get into their latest release, Home In America, featuring powerful lyrical accompaniment from Masta Ace.


Analog Players Society Concept

Amon Drum: APS has been around since 2009 or maybe 2010, but I've got these other things like being a studio owner, so I didn't get a chance to work on it very much, but when we decided to revive and reboot APS, I came to my homey Ben, and he was like, "Let's make our own sample material."

The idea was, let's make a hip-hop kind of record but let's make our own sample material, and we gladly lifted that idea from De La Soul, who made a whole record that way - their most recent record - and I was like, let's see if we can get in the studio, and get some stuff on tape and go from there. So, I picked up the phone and was able to make four phone calls and get four of the heaviest musicians in New York City to come over to The Bridge here.

So that's the whole concept behind the band. I guess I started it but I try not to think of it as mine. It's more like a collective of musicians that very honestly I just see in studio sessions, and I'm like, "Hey, you're a cool person and holy shit can you play," so you keep the relationship going and you get to cherry-pick all these great musicians, and they always want to just come back to the studio and drop a couple passes on something you're doing, so it's really about just the collective of musicians. It's like session players worldwide that can come together and have fun while making music - that's the concept.


The Bridge Studio

Ben Rubin: The point of coming to a studio like this is to create an atmosphere where something unexpected would happen. I like using the Quincy Jones quote, which is, "You've gotta leave space for God to walk through the room." I'm not a religious person but I think it's a perfect metaphor for creating an opportunity for something to happen.

On this series of records we wanted to do something different, so we hired a band that everyone knew each other - they've all played together in different configurations. We have Donny McCaslin, who is one of the best tenor saxophone players on earth, and David Bowie lifted his band for Blackstar, so he and his band are the band on Blackstar.

And then I chose some other musicians that I've had the opportunity to work with a lot, like Orrin Evans, who has been an incredible pianist for as long as I can remember, and then Dezron Douglas on bass, who is just one of the best bass players on the planet and someone who I've worked with on many records at this point, including a solo track I just mixed for him which is really, really cool. And then Eric McPherson, you put him in Amon's drum booth and the record's done!

Amon: I love E-MC! But we have a rule in here as far as the staff. I always say, "good vibes only," and I got that from another engineer. But the studio concept in general is to remove barriers, and that's what I try to do: remove the barriers of noise and the outside world and also make it feel good in here so that you don't have the barrier of, Why am I in this dark box sweating my ass off?

Ben: Recording should be special, it should feel special when you walk in. I would have sent them cars to bring them here, whatever it takes to make it feel like it's a special occasion. From the producer's side, I want them to walk in and be able to just let the floodgates open, let the spirit out. They shouldn't be thinking about anything except playing their instrument.

Amon: It's a sacred space where anything can happen.


Ben RubinBen Rubin

Albums Tilted and Soundtrack For A Nonexistent Film

Tilted, a three-song jazz album released ahead of Soundtrack For A Nonexistent Film, is formed from a single acoustic session.

Ben: Tilted is basically the source material or what we thought was the releasable source material - the best 12 songs.

Amon: There were four takes, four full passes of things that we've done, and three of them we released. I was about to release another one and the band was like, "Nah, let's not."

In my original concept, I would have released Tilted after Soundtrack but that's just not how it went down. I wanted people to hear the hip-hop tracks first and then discover the source material that it came from. I listen to music all the time and I'm like, "Oh, that's that sample." Now my son does it too. So I picked the two standards that are on the record: "Epistrophy" by Thelonious Monk and "One Note Samba" by the great Antonio Carlos Jobim.

I picked those songs specifically because I felt like harmonically or structurally, I could maybe chop them up or move them around and it would still work somehow. That was my idea. Plus, they are four tunes that I knew I could just ask them to play and there wouldn't be any barrier - they wouldn't have their heads in charts trying to read something. It's just tunes I knew they knew.

We got all of this music out of a three-hour session, so having a song they knew - huge barrier gone. Having them all play together - huge barrier gone. Having everything set up before they arrive - they can walk in and play their horn. Recording time was really two hours I'd say, although the motto of The Bridge is "always rolling," so anything that went down while the mics were on was fair game for us to sample on, and some great stuff did get sampled. So, we asked them to play those two songs, and that was all I said to the band, except I said to Eric, "Keep your drumming on the boom-bap side." That was the only other instruction I gave them.

We recorded all this stuff and then we both had the Pro Tools session files, so we both took it back to our respective studios.

Ben: A year and a half went by.

Amon: This location is going to be open now for three years, so I had to take everything that I could, so I wasn't able to get to work on it until... THE PANDEMIC!!

So, when the pandemic hit, right up to the wire before they shut down the city, I was in here doing stuff for bands. Bands were coming in because they needed to stockpile a whole bunch of stuff because after they shut down, there was literally nothing going on - it was a ghost town. I've been through a couple of hurricanes, natural disasters, craziness, and I always want to have an instrument or something around so that if it's the end of the world, I can make something.

Ben: You can score it.

Amon: Or record something for posterity so that when the world has been destroyed and the aliens come thousands of years from now, they'll be like, "Look at this record. What is this piece of plastic?"

Ben: So it's the quarantine that got this record made. We tracked this in April 2019 and then we both went back to our studios. We also hung out a bunch of times and listened together and were picking spots that we liked and we'd send them to each other, but basically anything was fair game.

Amon: When we got into Soundtrack, you and I picked different sections organically on our own, which is great. I started gravitating to a whole bunch of the little stuff that was going on between the takes, mostly because of E-Mac, because he just keeps warm by doing this crazy footwork.

I was on an apocalyptic tip and I personally had a COVID scare right at the beginning. We had the windows open and I was quarantined for two days. We were next to the street and all I heard for two days straight was just sirens, sirens, sirens, so I wanted to find a way to get that feeling into it. Also, I'm a big fan of DJ Shadow and even the Bomb Squad with their collages and that dark, dystopian, synthy shit.


The Video For "Chase"

Amon: Jude Goergen is the director behind that. He's out of New York City / Chicago. Good friend, ex-bandmate, genius. But we had a great chunk of actors that helped us out and some of them put in a lot. My boy Ramin [Hedayati], he was the first actor to be like, "Yeah I'm in for anything." He was the one that was wearing the suit for the most part. At one point I had to give him my Adidas because he came fully dressed.

Ben: Jude has basically been the architect of the whole visuals for APS. He's done all three covers. He did all of the promo photos and stuff.


The Song "Chase"

Amon: Donny is one of the greatest sax players in the city. He's got a really particular voice and I was able to find this one little snippet. I was thinking about an actual car chase, like some Starsky & Hutch.

Ben: It builds melodically and goes back down, and it's got this tension to it that doesn't really go away.

Amon: I was just lucky to have the genius of all the musicians in there. The only thing that I added was the synth bassline, which really is stupid simple, but that's what I wanted. I wanted something that was grinding and ridiculous.


The Song "Home In America," Featuring Masta Ace

Ben: Well, my half of Soundtrack I had a simple goal, which was make some good-feeling, childhood-remembering boom-bap beats. That was really my only goal. I just kept it simple on this one.

Amon: You didn't go off into a dystopian alien story.

Ben: In fact, my titles are mostly like space-related: "Starry Night," "Celestial Message."

I look at mine as more like a beat reel than anything else, and my goal from the beginning was always to add a vocal and lyrical component to this, and that's where Masta Ace comes in. Once we put Soundtrack out, I found a band to start working on that, and my goal was to find an MC who was around our age, like late 40s or even older. Somebody who's been around, has a ton of cred, and knows how to tell the larger story through the small.

Just like I did with the band, I gave him a little guidance. I said, "I'm looking for something that provokes people to think but has a clear message."

It is clearly anti-racist and something that I can play for my kids. It's clean enough that it can be played anywhere for any audience but it still will get the hip-hop heads moving. And honestly, Masta Ace was the first cat I called and he was into it. His vocal on the record is his demo - he didn't even redo it. We did agree to add a third half-verse at the end. He sent me the first two verses at first and then I was like, "I think we need to wrap this up with something," and that's when he wrote the third verse. So, he was open to my production.


Influences

Ben: I studied in Guinea, West Africa, so I came up with a lot of those master musicians who happened to be in the States and then studied with them. I also came up in house, deep house, global house as a percussionist, so I tried to combine those two things while I was on the East Coast.

I got introduced to hip-hop in the first wave, in the early '80s. My introduction to hip-hop was on Z100, the hit radio station in the very early '80s was playing UTFO and Grandmaster Flash and Roxanne Shanté and stuff like that - that's how far back it goes for me.

My background is extremely varied. I'm very much a generalist, but I've played and produced a ton of jazz records, but I've also worked on punk records and country records and everything in between. So, I love all kinds of music, and my goal as a producer is really just to help whoever I'm working with to reach their best potential.


Amon DrumAmon Drum

Are Jazz and Hip-Hop a Natural Fit?

Amon: They are more alike than they are different in my mind.

Ben: There's no doubt that jazz has definitely influenced hip-hop greatly over the years. Partly why I wanted to make this record is that I haven't been very happy with a lot of the iterations of it. The way that we're doing it is just a really organic way of combining players playing, improvising and turning that into a hip-hop record, then bringing in an MC over that. I just hadn't seen it done that way particularly, and I think the connections between jazz and hip-hop are pretty clear.


Creating Their Own Sample Tracks

Amon: I've been doing it unofficially for a while. I'll do a session and sometimes when I'm starting some stuff out, I'll just get the rice and beans. I'll get a drummer and a bassist together and go through ideas, and then I will come back and chop up a line - maybe it's just the drums, maybe it's just the bass - and then use that as a starting point and then do editing. So is that sampling?

Ben: Yes!

Amon: I guess it is.

Years ago, I was feeling a little miffed. I'm like, "Y'all need to start making some new sample material." Everybody was taking Clyde Stubblefield and "Impeach The President" and all these classic samples, and I'm like, "Great, let's make some new sample material," and that's how I came up with Analog Players. These are musicians that are actually making this. I'm pro-sample but I'm also pro-make-some-new-shit.

Ben: I've been thinking a lot lately about how copyright law really killed a beautiful, young artform almost in the cradle. Fear Of A Black Planet, It Takes A Nation Of Millions and Paul's Boutique, those records are impossible to make now because of sample clearance. That's really sad to me. Another example is The Grey Album. That's just an incredible record that Danger Mouse had to give away because he couldn't get the rights to it.

July 7, 2021

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Photos: Jude Goergen

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