Jump to the music example.

No one knows and works as well with Public Enemy founder Chuck D as Johnny "Juice" Rosado. An original B-boy break-dancing kid from the Bronx projects, Juice served as the DJ on the band’s epic Yo! Bum Rush the Show and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back before taking a six-year detour at a top-secret submarine base in California. What he studied there—nuclear subs, Nietzsche, electronics, martial arts, record engineering, Japanese, and Korean—turned out to be the perfect regimen for when he returned to work with one of the most insightful, prolific, and incendiary speakers of our time.

No one but a longtime collaborator can talk with Chuck D the way Juice does, either. But Chuck listens.

“Chuck thinks he’s like some big producer or something sittin’ down at his desk to record over there,” laughs Rosado. “I tell him he’s got to stand up when he rhymes and records! ‘Come on, man, be a rapper. What’s all this about, sittin’ down to rap?!’ From the glow of his two laptop screens on that desk over there, he looks like he’s sittin’ around a campfire. I call it his digital campfire.”

Both Rosado and Chuck D are constantly busy on a wide range of Public Enemy recordings, solo works, and outside projects. The band is releasing two albums this year, and Rosado is managing the production of one of them, New Whirl Odor. (Hear a sample.) He also recently completed the sound track (including sound design and Foley) for The Dawn, a Spanglish comedy about the number one New York City morning radio show, La Mega’s “El Vacilon de La Manana”; and the sound track for a documentary about Mumia Abu-Jamal. Chuck’s Air America talk show, “Unfiltered,” and endless cross-continental lecture touring have kept Rosado plenty busy as well.

Okay, Juice, really—what’s it like to work closely with Chuck D every day?

Chuck is like MacGyver, man, because he jury-rigs all his wiring! I go in there and with one look it’s like, “Oh, yeah, this is a Chuck D production.” Downstairs from the studio at his house we have a cable router, four computers, and an archive of about 10,000 records and 15,000 CDs and cassettes. My main collection is at my house—another 60- or 70,000 pieces of vinyl—and you can find every little song in it all indexed on one computer. We use another Mac for our video editing, another for everyday use, and then there’s one more in a little production room.

Chuck and Juice Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Johnny Juice at the Sonar workstation.

But what about the loose wiring?

Chuck also uses two Apple laptops with wireless Airport cards, but all you see down there are his wires running around everywhere! Hell, there are even wires hanging down from the ceiling all around him sometimes. And the file cabinets in there don’t align with the wall and his desk. I have a degree in electrical engineering, so I’m the IS guy here, and my main job is to make sure everything is handled correctly.

Sonar Screenshot The Sonar track view, aligning loops and applying automation curves.

How are Chuck, you, and the band working together digitally?

When Chuck’s not recording with me into our main [Cakewalk] Sonar system, he records into [Digidesign] Pro Tools LE at home and then burns me a 2-track of the a cappella voice tracks, soloed without his beats. Then he’ll give me the beats on another CD, and I’ll sync those back together in Sonar here at the main system. Most of the time, though, Chuck records his stuff then emails me his vocals alone for me to build my beats around. I usually then bounce that back to him along with 30, 40, or 50 beats of mine, which he then picks through and rhymes to some more.

How does he bounce everything back to you?

He records again in Pro Tools and then emails it all as separate files to me. I then align ’em all in Sonar again and do a more complete arrangement of the song with beats before he comes in to do more parts over that and mix. Sometimes that works just fine from home for him, but sometimes Chuck might get too close to the mic, and his vocals get distorted. I get him to pick up on that vibe again over here and do it even better.

If that’s easier for you both, why doesn’t he always work from home and just email you everything?

Because it’s about him being miked just right and keeping him from standing too close to the mic. And because you need to be produced in a studio, and just because he’s Chuck D doesn’t mean he can get away with distorted vocals! I’ll tell him, too; I’ll say something like, “Hey Chuck, man, that take sucked. It’s whack distorted; you got to do it again.” From the outside looking in, that must sound harsh, because no one tells Chuck D that his take sucks! But I do. Mostly—in fact, almost all of the time, it’s just Chuck and me recording together in a room anyway. No one sees Chuck screw up, but I do.

Public Enemy 2002Public Enemy in 2002. Photo: John Nikolai

Are the other members of Public Enemy working on digital audio workstations as well? How do you bring all those files together?

[Professor] Griff uses Steinberg’s Nuendo and Cubase. He just sends me a 2-track mix that he wants Chuck to rhyme off of; usually he just sends that on an audio CD in the U.S. mail. He’ll send one to Chuck, too, who will either rhyme to it on his G4 PowerBook’s Mbox [Digidesign audio interface], or he’ll tell me to load up the same thing in Sonar so he can come over to the studio and rhyme and vocal-booth it [that is, record in a more professional setting].

Is that when he’s at his “digital campfire”?

Yeah. Chuck just sits at his little desk in his room there, which is more like his actual room than it is a studio. He sits at his desk there all day answering emails and doing phone interviews, then records there all night—everything from the same desk! He has two laptops side by side on it, one set up with his Mbox, where he’ll record his rhymes to Griff’s 2-track grooves. That’s his campfire.

I understand you’re taking that campfire concept to the next level.

Yeah, from that comment, Chuck actually started a column called “Digital Campfire.” It’s Public Enemy’s push to try to educate younger rappers and cats in the game about how things used to be back in the day. We want to take it another step further, doing it together with them. It’s just like the old-school guys standing around a campfire out there somewhere, passing along their heritage to their kids at night. It’s an ancestral kind of thing.

Speaking of tradition, you’re an electrical engineer using computers in your music and DJ work, but there are many traditional DJs and turntablists who don’t.

Any old-school, traditional purists using vinyl look down on technology. I used to be one, too, but I’ve also been a technological junkie for a long, long time. Yet I’m also still a purist at heart. I used to only use a computer as if it were tape for recording; I would never, ever think of using a computer to generate sounds. Never! Now there’s the TASCAM, Final Scratch, and Serato DJ products where you can scratch audio files from vinyl, and I use that kind of stuff now—hell, yeah.

But I’m not like a guy that just sits around scratching records all day and not giving a damn about rockin’ the party. I’m a DJ first, then a scratcher. There are two distinct schools: there are DJs, and there are turntablists, and a lot of the time they can’t coexist within one person.

How do you view technology in general for your music?

Your software has to be an extension of yourself; it shouldn’t become what you are to the point that you can’t make a key sound or effect in a song without that software running at that particular time in order for you to do so. I can make more than enough music with just an Akai MPC 2000, Propellerhead Reason, Cakewalk Project 5, whatever—hell, even with just a pair of rocks and two sticks! What matters is that the music is me.

Scratching with two rocks?

[Laughs.] Yeah, maybe that’s the next big thing! Seriously, have you seen the Scratch Perverts? They’re from England, where DJ battles now are getting to the point where it’s common to see these entire crews of turntablists battling one another in battle teams. These two guys in Scratch Perverts started off scratching “Take It Off” by De La Soul, then took all their records off the turntables entirely and put the EQs on their channel faders all the way up, every frequency band, until it all started feeding back on itself—and then they started scratching the feedback! It was just like Jimi Hendrix, man, cutting their faders back and forth and scratching the noise. I was like, “Now why didn’t I think of that?” No records, just scratching feedback. Amazing.

What did it sound like?

One DJ set his mixer with the bass turned all the way up, and the other with his treble all the way up. Then the “bass” DJ cut his fader back and forth rhythmically so that the feedback signal sounded like a kick drum. The “treble” DJ then cut his signal in and out in a complementary polyrhythm that sounded like a snare drum. Together, it sounded crazy! Like they were making music out of thin air. That was a great example of people using technology’s shortcomings—feedback, in this case—to create a great, great thing. Using technology not just to get more technical with it but instead to innovate: that is the attitude that is missing in today’s music.

What about Public Enemy’s new albums? Are you coming up with new ideas by using technology in unique ways?

In Public Enemy, we always try to make albums that mean something, not just beats and rhymes. From one PE album to the next, you hear a big change in sound or maybe how we do something different sonically, musically, everything. Maybe thematically there’s consistency from one PE album to the next with that one big central theme of ours, which is “Be proud of who you are regardless of what race you are.” If you listen closely, you can hear that in the first few albums Chuck wasn’t talking about putting down white people but was actually calling black people to task for not doing enough to change things.

And, musically speaking, Chuck never picks beats that are the same from one album to the next. He’s always going with what sounds new and different from the last time. He actually picks a lot of what we call “ugly beats” around here—beats that disrupt him in a certain deep kind of way.

What does your main workstation look like now?

I use Sonar for everything. At first I just used it for recording, but now I’m into using lots of the soft synths and signal processing plugins with it. I have my Korg Triton synth, a pair of Fender Rhodes, a Kurzweil K2000, a Minimoog, and I’m looking for a huge B3. Nothing like the sound of a real Hammond B3 and rotary Leslie speaker cabinet. I just ordered a pair of TASCAM’s FE-8 eight-channel expanders for the FW-1884 [FireWire fader] controller Chuck and I use every day with Sonar. I also use their US-122 USB [audio/MIDI] interface plugged into my laptop—something I can take on the road when all I need is a pair of mic pre's to record voices or horns.

TASCAM US-122 The TASCAM US-122, powered by USB, features two phantom-powered XLR mic inputs, two balanced 1/4" line-level inputs (switchable to guitar level), and MIDI I/O. It also sports adjustable line-level and headphone outputs. Surprisingly for such a compact interface, it also includes insert jacks, which let you plug analog hardware such as compressors into the signal chain.

What’s an example of recording on the road?

I was supposed to record Gene Barge in Chicago for a project we were working on while he was to be working with Etta James. Unfortunately, one of his bandmates, legendary bassist and horn player Louie Satterfield [an original member of Earth, Wind & Fire and acclaimed Chess Records sessionist] passed away, and nobody’s schedules were working out to get together in one place for the project after that. The best thing was for me to fly a lot and carry around either the FW-1884 or, better yet, the smaller 122. Just my little laptop, Sonar, and the 122 in stereo for the horns.

Doing the Dirty Work

Chuck and Juice still pack some choice analog gear into their digital tool belts. Both cite a 30-year-old TASCAM Portastudio 4-track cassette recorder as essential to their sound.

Chuck D Basketball

“Soul is a beautiful accident in musical terms,” Chuck explains. “Sometimes, when you’re reaching for the stars, you should dig in the dirt, too. That’s what we do with our old Portastudio, man: we dig into the dirt. You’ve got to be as honest as you possibly can with your sounds.”

Any parting thoughts on the state of music and DJ production?

People learning DJing and scratching methods today are learning it far too technically. They’re not learning about the soul aspect of it, the feeling. I was talking to a guy once who was teaching DJ lessons in Chicago, and I don’t think he likes me anymore, because I told him there are some people who just shouldn’t be doing certain things, such as scratching. [Laughs.] You can teach a person technically how to do an orbit scratch, but you can’t teach them soul.

I became a DJ mostly because I wanted to control people’s emotions. There is a power you feel when you DJ that is simply amazing. I can make people cry; I can make them laugh; I can make them horny, angry, happy, and all of that without saying a damn word. It’s all about timing. It’s not about whether they like what we’re playing or scratching, but just about whether they understand what we’re saying. Someone may hate what I’m saying or how it sounds, but at least understand what I am saying.

Juice’s QuickTip 1: Creating “Pause Button” Song Tapes

Before digital technology, all it took was two cassette decks, a microphone, a small mixer, and a pair of stereo RCA cables to create endlessly layered music mixes. With that rudimentary multitrack recorder, the sky was the limit when it came to track count. Of course, the results of all those analog bounces were extremely hissy, but they also had an undeniable vibe.

To make a pause-button song tape yourself, just play or sing a part into one cassette recorder, rewind it, play it back through a small mixer, and record your new part along with the original as it all plays into the second tape machine. (Some artists even did this type of ping-pong layering wirelessly by aiming two boom boxes at each other and recording back and forth with the built-in mics.) Lather, rinse, and repeat until you get the bulk you want or the collective hiss frightens the neighborhood cats.

With practice, you can even do editing and looping this way. “Using a prerecorded cassette tape, find and play a one-, two-, or four-bar loop into the second tape recorder, then hit Pause [on the second recorder] at the exact right beat,” explains Juice. “Find your next loop on tape A, and do the same thing with it by playing it into tape B and hitting Play, then Pause on both machines at just the right moments.” Repeat this process until you’ve built up a track of sufficient length on tape B.

“It’s a very, very low-budget way to work with loop-based music,” says Juice. “This was how Chuck and we all came up with mix tapes back when we didn’t have any samplers or drum machines.”

Line 6 Bass POD XT Pro With 28 amp models, 22 cabinet models, 4 mic models, and 6 simultaneous effects, the Line 6 Bass PODXT offers endless ways to wiggle your woofers. The POD also includes a USB audio interface and 24-bit, 96kHz digital I/O.

Juice’s QuickTip 2: Stone Cold Re-Amping

Johnny Juice says he, Chuck D, and Public Enemy often like to re-amplify instrument tracks, vocals, or sound effects to come up with a sound that only rerecording the part acoustically can produce.

“I record the bass direct in, and mic up [a second] channel separately, then work with the [IK Multimedia] Amplitube and Line 6’s Bass POD Pro XT rack to come up with a good starting sound,” he explains. “I can also bus the POD signal out and record it on its own track in Sonar. Sometimes I’ll just bus the clean, direct-in line out of Sonar, plug that into the TASCAM FW-1884, and just mic that output directly, or I’ll send that output from the FW to an external studio monitor cabinet and mic the cabinet.

TASCAM FW-1884 With motorized faders, eight line-level inputs, eight mic inputs, and eight outputs (ideal for surround sound), the TASCAM FW-1884 FireWire controller and audio interface has become a popular front end for computer audio production. You can add additional channels in blocks of eight with “sidecars.”

“If I want a bass track to sound like an old 1962 recording,” Juice continues, “I’ll just run the bass direct line out to a pair of really banged-up old DJ speakers, throw a mic up on that, and record that back in through the FW-1884 and into Sonar again onto its own track as well. Then, if I want to make it sound really grimy, I’ll dump it off to an old Portastudio 4-track cassette recorder and back into Sonar on yet another track, and then mix those sources together. People always ask me about these sorts of sounds on our albums, like, ‘Where did you get that sample? Which library is that from?’ But I never tell them how I do it.”

Johnny Juice: Music Example

Here’s an excerpt from the upcoming Public Enemy album, New Whirl Odor:

Digital Audio Essentials

Related Reading

Digital Audio Essentials
A comprehensive guide to creating, recording, editing, and sharing music and other audio
By Bruce Fries, Marty Fries

Randy Alberts is an author, musician, and photographer who lives on Lummi Island, Washington.


Return to digitalmedia.oreilly.com