Artistic Isolation vs. Collaborative Production: Lessons from Maurice White

Photo of Earth Wind & Fire from Columbia Records

by Madeline Lessing

I don’t think I realized that I never knew what a music producer really does until I started working with one in 2018. Watching Cam Hawkins work with my music has made production, the process of overseeing the creation of music and guiding it towards a successful destination, seem like a super power. Production is so stunning that it feels cheap to even try to put it to words. It is the ability to listen to a song first written on a ukulele and know it is destined for a piano. It is so much like fetal development. Though inherently miraculous, music and babies need to develop so many different parts before they can truly function in the world. Recording music is a grueling process of faith and recalculation. Like a pregnancy, there is no instant gratification, it is an often expensive, drawn out, nerve-wracking process. This is especially true if you are as new it, as I am.

Having the opportunity to record my music in a studio (shout out to The Record Company in Roxbury!) and observe production, engineering, and other musicians, has fostered a huge admiration and curiosity in me, for the parts of music that the average person dismisses. I wonder about what, in the music that I have listened to for so long, was a kept accident and what was intentional. I wonder who decided on the exact instrument, rhythm, effect, tuning, emphasis, or concept that turned a regular song into an undeniable hit. I wonder how many microphones Carly Rae Jepsen recorded on before she or her producer picked one. I wonder all of this after watching my producer, Cam Hawkins, wonder these things, and use their creativity to shape my music into something closer to the feelings I am trying to elicit, closer to a sonic image I can’t yet fully picture.

Writing about this is important to me, in part, because I feel so lucky to be let in on this special world, but also because art, too often, feels like something we have to achieve alone, and that is a MONSTER LIE. The marketing of artists as the sole creators of their art is an idea as widespread as it is false, and frankly, shitty. The most concrete way that this idea damages people is by validating popular artists’ failure to acknowledge and credit the people involved in making their art. When a bandcamp page for an EP fails to list the drummer, the engineer, the background vocalists, who designed the cover, and other contributors, it disrespects the time and effort of those involved, while also prohibiting them from using that work to get more opportunities. I understand that there’s something really attractive and profitable about making artists seem like polished geniuses who thought of and did everything alone, but 37 people make up the string sections of three songs on Beyonce’s Lemonade. Had this information not been well documented and easily available to the public, it would be a huge erasure of the rich, fascinating culture of music production, a beginner’s map to discovering how the complexity of great music is achieved.

Cam Hawkins’ path leading towards music engineering and production makes a lot of sense knowing that Hawkins grew up worshiping Maurice White, who formed the band Earth, Wind, & Fire. Maurice White was a gentle, highly intentional, collaborative genius. A quilter of transcendent sounds, White meticulously handpicked members of Earth, Wind, & Fire to birth and raise effortless-seeming bops such as “September” and “Shining Star”, as well as gift humans with one of the most innovative, genre-bending discographies ever. One reference to understand how truly convoluted the musical makeup of this band is can be found here.

What I think was really admirable about Maurice White was both his understanding of collaboration as a necessity, and his individual contributions to music. His 1985 solo album had about 40 contributors. “I bet half of them were percussionists”, Cam said to me. I counted 18 after that comment, one that really highlights Maurice, a drummer, as the ultimate architect of his art. Other trademarks, such as production, kalimba, and sweeping falsetto make Maurice’s solo album undeniably his, and a simple joy to listen to.

I’m not saying forty people need to be involved in art for it to be meaningful, I’m saying that art is undivorceable from connection to other people, and the world around it. I think producers are magicians for their ability to know what a song needs, all by themselves, as well as for their willingness to work with as many people as they require in order to get it right. That level of talent and humbleness is something we can all aspire to.

The Other Side Of The Game: An Interview With Diya Drake

 

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Naadiya Drake

Age: 21

From: Willingboro, NJ

Singer, Writer, Rapper/Lyricist

Interviewed by Steven Ikegwu

How did you get the opportunity to become a radio host? How nerve wrecking was your first broadcast?

I was pretty anxious to get on the radio. I did some research on radio stations on the campus of Rutgers to see what their operating hours were, who I should call/email. When I found what I was looking for, I put on my shoes and headed to the Core’s location. From there, I got to speak to a couple of DJs who actually let me sit in on my show. After that, I made it my mission to complete all the necessary training for my own slot. I was pretty nervous for my own show, but it didn’t trump my excitement. I tried to make sure I was well prepared by familiarizing myself with the equipment/rules and putting my first playlist together the night before.

What factors do you consider when choosing to work with someone, both in music and in radio?

Pertaining to music, who I work and collab with has a lot to do with style. It’s all about the vibe and the sound. I believe music isn’t just something you hear, but something you feel. I want myself to feel it, the person/people I’m creating with to feel it, and the audience to feel it as well. In short, I like working with people who can use their art to create different atmospheres. As far as radio is concerned, I signed up in hopes of developing a platform that gives a voice to the unheard. While I like to play “what’s hot”, I also like to put the spotlight on artists who aren’t necessarily top 40. Whether they be local, independent or just working with a smaller audience, everybody deserves a platform to share their talent. A lot of my fellow DJs share a similar mindset and its nice to be apart of it. For both music and radio, there’s, of course, a certain level of professionalism and respect. I need to trust that you’ll respect what I’m doing (and I’ll do the same) in addition to respecting the physical, mental and emotional space.

Who are your musical influences?

TOO MANY to name but here’s a few off the top of my head: Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, India Arie, Lalah Hathaway, Queen Latifah, Sade, Solange, Kelela, Chance the Rapper, Chance the Rapper, Chance the Rapper, Chance the Rapper, Noname, Rapsody, The Roots, Kendrick Lamar (and many more but we’ll stop there)

 

You work in OSG and Divine Write. How do you express your individuality in collaborative projects?

I believe everyone plays a role in collaborative projects. You have to know that everyone is bringing something different. Whether it be my tone, choice of words or overall style, I just try to make sure that whatever I’m bringing meshes, but stands out at the same time.

What does OSG stand for and how did you and Naomi come together to form it

OSG stands for Other Side of the Game (like the song by Erykah Badu). Naomi and I were at TGI Friday’s after a performance with our friends and we were talking about how we always introduce ourselves as “Diya Drake and Naomi Jay” before we start. We still go by those names but if we were gonna continue to perform as a unit, it would be best to have a name that can be associated with both of us. We discussed possible names in the past but none of them really made us wanna jump on it. The idea of naming our group after a song by a huge musical influence seemed pretty cool. “Other Side of the Game” just fit. We hope that when people heard it, they would know off bat that we were trying to bring something different to the table.

What is your creative process like?

The creative process varies. I could be inspired by good conversation, an argument, or a crisis. I go for walks a lot and I often get ideas while doing so. I have a journal where I dump a lot of my thoughts. In some cases, I take what i’ve written and reflect on what I was feeling in that moment. From there I try to build off of those emotions. Other times, it’s not so structured. I like to free write as well. There are times where I just put on music and say whatever comes to my mind. It honestly depends.

Do you ever feel limited when it comes to performance venues because you and Naomi carry instruments along?

Yes! If it was possible, we’d have an entire ensemble everywhere we go, lol. Having our own equipment definitely makes travel a LOT harder but it’s an important part of what we do. I’ll always appreciate Naomi for bringing her keyboard along because it is definitely heavy. Hopefully as we expand, transportation of instruments and equipment will be easier, but right now we just make it happen the best way we know how. We always take location of the venue and spacing into account when it comes to our set.  

Did you ever receive any vocal training?

I’ve been apart of different choirs, but I’ve never had any private or one-on-one lessons. I am definitely looking into a vocal coach or taking lessons!

Interested to learn more? Check out OSG’s music on SoundCloud!