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.

Multifaceted: Interview with Christopher Diaz | Written Wednesday

Christopher Diaz is a Chamorro poet, freelance photographer, and military veteran. He graduated from Texas A&M University in 2009 with a B.A. in English, then served for six years as a Public Affairs officer in the U.S. Air Force. As a writer in residence with “Writers in the Schools”, he teaches performance poetry and creative writing to students across Houston. He is the Grand Slam Champion and co-coach of Write About Now’s 2017 slam poetry team; currently ranked ninth in the nation. He lives in Houston with his partner Emily, his dog Benny, and currently serves his poetry community as an organizer, workshop facilitator, video producer.

You are a photographer and poet. Do you ever find yourself drawn to one over the other?

I’ve definitely been more drawn to poetry over the past year than I have photography. I’m passionate about both but writing has always been my first love. My mom still has anthologies from grade school with these ridiculous poems I wrote — one about saving the Amazon rainforest, another one full of awful puns — you know, classic poetry themes.  It’s a long story, but I stopped writing poetry for more than seven years straight. So I constantly feel like I’m trying to make up for lost time, and I think that’s why poetry feels so much more urgent to me. I often preach patience for the process, but half of the time it’s me projecting my own insecurities — trying to convince myself it’s okay that I went on hiatus for so long.

Are there ways you’ve learned to fuse the two together?

Yes! But it was never a conscious effort. Back in 2014, my friend Amir Safi invited me to attend TGS (Texas Grand Slam Poetry Festival) in Bryan/College Station, TX. I was in the Air Force at the time, stationed in South Dakota, and had never photographed poets performing. I offered to shoot the event, and instantly fell in love with it (stayed up ‘til 4am the first night editing and posting photos). Fast forward four years later, and now I regularly shoot live performances. So many of us here in the South (and beyond, for that matter) love TGS, but it truly has a special place in my heart because it sparked a significant turning point in my life. Amir will deflect any credit, but I owe a lot to him for convincing me to come down that weekend. I will say, however, the proposition was to leave the snow in South Dakota for a weekend of poetry. And a free hotel room. And Whataburger, on him (his M.O. for out-of-towners). So … yeah — not the hardest decision I’ve ever made.

Tell us about how you got involved with Write About Now (both on and behind the camera).

My journey  to WAN starts with hardest decision I’ve ever made in my life — leaving the the Air Force (s/o to an awesome segue from that last question). I come from a military family and always thought I’d go career. When I decided to hang it up in 2015, my partner (Emily) and I were talking about potential places we’d move to after I got out. Barcelona, Seattle, anywhere but Texas (we love it but wanted somewhere new). So, long story long, Amir convinced me to try out Houston, and Emily agreed to support me (even though she had just moved from Houston to live with me in South Dakota. Trust me. I know.). I started slamming and managed to make it on WAN’s inaugural team, and eventually began filming when Amir and Brady Ware asked if I’d like to join the video team. Sidenote #2: Brady Ware = videographer/editor/master of all trades imaginable. He and Safi started the WAN YouTube channel and Brady taught both of us everything we know behind the camera and in post production. That guy is love, talent, and magic incarnate.

Performance - Christopher Diaz.JPG

Describe to us the behind-the-scenes process of filming, editing, and producing videos. What is the feeling once everything is uploaded?

The vision has always been to amplify poets’ voices. We know how dope and beautiful and necessary their work is, and we want the rest of the world to experience that, too. When anyone tell us their WAN videos help them book gigs or sell merch, or share their work with family and friends — it makes me so happy. And I know that’s a lazy way of describing it coming from a so-called poet, but, honestly, it just makes me really, really happy. I mean, last week I had a feature at a local library. A seven-year old girl and her mom came up to me afterward and the little girl said, “I came here to see you. I saw your video on the internet.” If one person on our channel has experienced that anywhere, it makes all of it worth it. And coming from someone who thought they’d never write again, I mean that.

I don’t want to get into too much detail with the technical behind the scenes work because it’s tedious and boring. I will say the process can definitely take time, from the moment we film a poet to the moment we publish their poem. At WAN we really care about the quality of our audio and aesthetic, and there’s a lot that goes into that — researching/purchasing/updating equipment, learning editing software/refining skills, establishing back-up procedures for inevitable technical difficulties, adjusting on the fly for the environment, blah blah boring, etc. It’s a labor of love though because we take pride in the end-product and hope the quality will help boost the poem’s/poet’s exposure.

Tell us about your experience with teaching performance poetry (as co-coach of the WAN slam team and an educator to 8th grade classes). How can one get involved in something similar?

To anyone who wants get involved, I’d encourage them to connect with the poetry organizers in their community. I’ve been afforded all of these wonderful teaching opportunities through the non-profit Writers In the Schools, and I found out about the organization through Houston’s poetry leaders.

It’s been such a blessing to guide young writers through the craft. To watch a student find their voice, believe in the power of their story, and have fun with it — is incredibly inspiring. In addition to eighth-graders, I’ve worked with young adults with disabilities, high schoolers, and students as young as 1st grade. If I’ve learned anything about teaching, it’s that it’s not as easy as most people seem to think it is. I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect and gratitude for teachers, but being in the classroom has made me realize how much our educators actually do (and sadly how much our country undervalues them).

Co-coaching the WAN slam team was an incredible learning experience as well (s/o to my fellow co-coach RJ Wright). I’ll admit that it was stressful to be both a coach and team member, but my team was always there for me and I’m so grateful to have been trusted with that responsibility (ok I gotta s/o my teammates Ana and Xach, too). I’ve grown as both a writer and performer over the last year, and I’ve no doubt that coaching played a huge role.

How does one go about developing a unit plan for teaching performance poetry? Were there any lessons you found challenging to teach?

In my personal experience, the first step is always finding out where your students are coming from — socioeconomically, reading/writing level, everything. You have to make a consistent and conscious effort to get to know them throughout the year, but that basic info has to inform the way you approach the classroom and develop lesson/unit plans. Additionally, you have to expect that each class is going to be different, because rarely are they ever the same (e.g. first period is mostly quiet, fourth period is restless after lunch, third period is AP with tons of energy, varying comprehension levels throughout, etc.).

In between the resources at WITS, advice from my poet friends across the country, and online examples, I’ve had a lot of help in developing lessons. There are a million different ways to structure a unit plan and the beautiful thing is that you’re not the first to do it. Most educators I’ve met are eager to help those starting out and I certainly try to pay it forward whenever I can.

To me, the most challenging lesson to teach is any lesson on editing and revising. It becomes a delicate balance of showing students the power of revision, while simultaneously leaving their confidence in tact (as well as the integrity and authenticity of their voice). Creative writing can be such a personal and intimate endeavor, so you’ve got to guide students in viewing their art through an objective lens. Admittedly I’m not the best at these kinds of lessons, but I’ve learned a lot about guiding students through editing from Brendan Constantine and Bill Moran.

Headshot 3 - Christopher Diaz.jpg
How do you cater your lessons around your students before meeting them? What factors do you consider when creating lessons for a specific demographic?

I think this goes along the same lines as the previous answer, but you have to meet students where they are. You hear it all the time in education, but it’s because it’s true. Whether you’re teaching students for a year or leading a one-time workshop in the park, you’ve got to do what you can to find out who your audience is. Sometimes it’s speaking with the school/organizer, other times it’s spending the first ten minutes of a workshop on introductions.

One of the most important things to me in creating lesson plans has been the consideration for representation. For example, the majority of my 8th-grade classes were filled with black and brown students. Beyond the fact that marginalized voices are already underrepresented, it was imperative that my students see successful and talented poets who look like them. That was always (and easily) at the forefront of my mind, because growing up, I can’t remember seeing myself represented either.

How do you foster community in spaces you have never been to?

I’m not sure I ever walk into a space thinking that people need me to foster community. I think with most spaces there is likely a community existing and/or thriving there already. If I’m invited into a space for any reason, I try to listen and learn how the community works (or doesn’t work) together. From there it’s about serving them as best as I can if they’re open to it. If my presence isn’t based on serving them, I probably don’t have any business being there.

You have worked in a wide range of mediums both in art and education, how do your approaches to both fields differ?  How are they similar?  Which aspects of each do you find most challenging and which came most naturally to you?  

The approach to both has been fairly similar for me. The biggest challenge I find in art and education is fostering artistic integrity and authenticity. I think it’s a challenge that has forever plagued any artist. Specifically with my own experience, I have to make a conscious effort to guide students in writing what they want to write — and doing it how they want to do. I think that’s hard for anyone though. Especially if you’re just starting out, it’s perfectly natural for your art to resemble the art that inspires you. There’s a quote I’ve seen (that I can’t find on Google right now) but it goes something like, “Don’t write what you think they want to hear, write what you have to say.” And I still have to remind myself of that sometimes. It’s wonderful because the internet provides endless examples when it comes to spoken word. It’s delicate because sometimes young writers (any writers, including myself) feel like they have to write or sound like the poetry they consume, or subconsciously do it and never realize it. Ultimately I find comfort in it all, and I say the more examples the better. Not only because more and more poets get to shine, but because I think, “Wow — look at all of these talented people with such vastly different styles and stories to share… I’m going to lean into everything that makes me, me.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Christopher Diaz, follow him on social media! Facebook, Twitter & IG: all @lightbulbchris

Written Wednesday | Interview With Shawn Crysis

The mission has been revamped for the current time. Shawn Crysis, bred from New/North Brunswick, New Jersey, has had change at his core from the moment he realized the impact he can have. Passion rivets through him as he expresses all phases of his life, thoughts, dreams, questions and everything in between. This is for the bigger purpose of aligning the world with love and truth. He is #hereforthechange.

Shawn Crysis, is a writer, poet, rapper, and a performer. We got a chance to talk to him about being a multi-faceted artist in the digital age. Read on to find out what we learned!

Tell us about your journey and introduction to poetry/rap.

Before all, it was poetry. I had a crush on a girl named Tamilia in middle school and my interest sparked from there and I began to write. In total, though, I probably only wrote  4-7 poems during those times. Then it started as a love for making beats on lunch tables; I used to be the unofficial drummer for the cyphers at my high school, NBTHS. When everyone was done rapping, the crowd was just in awe; the words that flew out were tight. And in certain times, I was able to control the pace of it: how the breakdown sounded with the bars that were coming. But, the rappers were always given the love.

 I wanted that kind of love and appreciation so I began to write. I broke out my Sidekick (cell phone), opened the notes, and began to write. I noticed that I made sense a lot, and I enjoyed making things connect and associate with each other. Words were fun. I then brought them to the lunch tables and my peers were feeling it. I remember practicing mad freestyles to make sure I had something to spit.

750x668.jpeg.2aae239f51eb44da81be96dfea1dbd26.large

From there, I got into the studio first with my boy Marquis. He was rapping as well so we formed a group called L.S., short for Light Skins *LMFAO*. We made, probably, a total of 5 tracks and I loved every bit of it so I continued to write and flow. Actually, if you look up L.S. – One Night Freak on Youtube you’ll see the work. The rest I have archived for my own amusement *LOL*.

After writing, I began to see it was making me happier and helping me process through events and situations in my life. Writing brought me clarity and a different perspective. It was therapy after a while. My first album, Table for One, was just that – therapy for self before I ever cared to appease the ears of folks. It was about aligning my self with me.

From there came performing. My very first open mic was at Soul by the Pound in New Brunswick, NJ and I had to sit down, actually, due to my nervousness. But they (the audience) enjoyed it. They enjoyed my life, pain, questions and struggle I was dealing with. They could relate. That’s when all hell broke loose for me. I loved giving my words in any form I can, song or spoken word.

While your music is easily accessible online, you do have CD’s available for sale. Tell us about what you learned regarding selling music this way in today’s digital world.

It is more personable. You know your answer right then and there whether someone will support you rather than waiting for a follow or a comment. It’s a more genuine connection with someone, especially cause it was done face to face – breaking todays social norms of actually interacting with people and allowing an actual relationship to be formed. I remember almost every face. It is bit harder, though; especially ’cause CD’s are becoming obsolete, more especially if you don’t have a car to listen to it in. But, the aspect of going up to someone to ask them to buy something from you makes it easier for online sales to be interacted. For me, now, it’s learning the marketing behind it.

Which way do you find more popular and why?

Online. The network is endless and folks are reachable at literally anytime of the day. I can be working or on the toilet making a sale or having someone tell me about my music. It is Mr. Fantastic reaching level, from Jersey to Beijing all with the click of a button.

Which way makes you feel more “successful”?

Hand-to-hand. You see the impact that you had on someone and their willingness to support, especially if I just performed. It’s like getting paid at the end of the day when you work and not waiting for a check. Someone enjoyed me and connected so much that they will support me to keep on doing it. I love that and I pray that it helps them do what they want to do.

640x960.jpeg.ebea465d76a2469ea78991fb7f1f71f2.large

What was your inspiration behind your most project “nice to meet u ep (a she cursor)”?

She is. She is the women I have been in relationships with. Things I have learned, gained, took, given all while still appreciating who she is to me. It is my ode to woman. ‘nice to meet u’ is the pre-cursor, (she-cursor) to my album entitled she. which is an acronym for she’s his everything. It is the exploration also of my voice and looking into ways to bend it, pitch it and still make good sounding music while giving some bars.

In what ways do the samples used in the project help convey your message?

It helped set the tone of what the song was to be about or the feel I wanted to give. Earth, Wind and Fire was about how she was all of these natural forces all in one; in each verse, each beat breakdown/switch up I used the elements and described who she is to me. Sade eloquently provided the soul of the track and I followed suit.

Never Let Me Go was a quick run, something of an interlude but still a track, still impactful, still meaningful and pivotal. As just as quick the sample and tempo was, I wanted to match that and began to drift in between it.

640x960.jpeg.f5e4ec11df6f4e23ac552f7ae728dbfc.large

You have been seen performing at various platforms across the country. How do you secure a spot at these venues?

Networking from past events, people will inquire if I want to participate at the event. If I can, I’m there. Before being reached out to, it was looking in every nook and cranny of the tri-state area to find out where there was an open mic or showcase that I can be a part of. My friends would also tell me about events happening and who to contact if they seen a flyer online or knew someone.

Tell us about your experience(s) with competitions using your art.

I have made it to California for free – flight, room and board all paid for. I was apart of Daze Summit created by Scott Morris, which is a week long run of music shows, workshops, and a panel in NYC. It’s main purpose was to generate scholarship money for high school students.

This past year was the Fly Me to LA edition in which the two winners would receive an all expense paid trip to California for the BET Awards and I was sold on it right there. Being apart of the Deans List Tour, a musical artist based tour out of NYC, helped greatly with the gearing and rearing of performing and artist development. Having been apart of that, I knew that I had to simply perform my heart out -in which I did.

In a certain case when performing solely poetry, I was in the running to be a part of the New Jeru Slam Team. It was a heavy day when it comes to the greatness that was in that room and I had no idea that there people were SPITTING. There is something about poetry that I love with every inch of my heart. It enthralls me because I appreciate the words of people and what they are saying -and they were saying some SHIT! Sadly, I did not qualify to be a part of the Slam team. But, just the experience of doing it riveted me to want to try again. I love being heard, I want my words to be heard, no beat, no melody, just me.

1365x1365.jpeg.6aeb099330a5479d8fc1261f67a0e904.large

While also working towards growing as an artist, you volunteer your time at local schools to work with kids in exploring their own artistic identity. How have these experiences been for you?

Shawn luhh da kids! They teach me so much about the world they live and how it impacts them directly. I’ve learned about the school-to-prison pipeline working at the Dr. Marion Bolden Center in Newark. Having them (the students) explain what is so relevant to them and the sensitivity of being in the face of the dragon inspires me to help sharpen their blades. They bring me glee and hope for the future. Seeing them doing what they love to do brings me so much happiness. I want to let them know that their art, their talent, their actions are appreciated and can take them anywhere they choose to go. They explore a territory in which the process isn’t celebrated, only the creation. But it is showing them to celebrate the process of trying new things, failing, resiliency, all while trying to get what is in their mind out into the world.

Tell us how your life experiences have shaped your artistry.

They allow me to speak my truth and uncover my lies I have told myself. They make me deal with things I’m afraid of or unwilling to. They allow the passion to speak through me and come out as vividly as it came in. They teach me more about myself and the world and how to portray it to myself and others. It has been my life and while the artistry is only a part of me, it’s a major component of how life has been experienced.

Written Wednesday| Interview With Jonathan Stamper

Screen Shot 2018-01-11 at 5.46.38 PM

Jonathan Stamper has been singing since he was 4 years old. He plays several instruments, writes and produces original music, raps, and acts. Jonathan has toured Portugal and Spain in addition to singing backup for superstar recording artist Sting. Jonathan is not only the Flagship Artist but is also the Vice President of Artist Relations for Block IV Entertainment and CEO of Dominant Collective, a networking and artist development company built for empowering young artists. He has performed at many local community events such as the city of Newark’s annual 24-Hours-of Peace event in which he wrote the song The Drug PSA. This song awarded members of Dominant Collective as the winners of the N.J. Shout Down Drugs competition.

If you are interested in hearing more of Jonathan Stamper, you can find his music on SoundCloud. Check out his album Summertime Vibes below. To find out more about him, continue reading! 

 

 

Tell us about your collective (Dominant Collective) and the role you play in it.

Well basically, Dominant operates as a community of creative people. We all bring different skills and styles together to collaborate on all kinds of projects. I’m the leader, the CEO. I’m also the artist that connects the rest of the artists to opportunities that will help them further their career.
What are the biggest factors that played a part in your growth as a musician?

Meeting my stepdad for sure. He opened me up to so many different genres of music. He’s also the person who got me to rapping and singing. I didn’t think it was possible before he told me it could work.

As a rapper and singer, how have you struggled with trying to balance and/or blend the two?

I always struggle, haha.. my goal has really been to blend them to the point where I’m so fluent in both that I flow seamlessly from one to the other, like Spanish and English. For a long time the balance was so hard to strike. But, I think there isn’t a perfect balance. You serve each song, album, and audience what they need at that given time. This makes every experience special.

25487307_10155033711896937_67299553222178026_o

How does your faith connect with your music?

It’s really my foundation for everything. I try my best to tell honest stories and relate to everyone so everyone feels like they’re heard and understood. But, ultimately, I want them to know there’s hope at the end of every struggle we face. Jesus is that hope for me.

Tell us about your experience with connecting with the community in your hometown.

Honestly, I’ve always been about home. I want to travel the world, but the city that really shaped me is Newark. It made me who I am. I feel connected there forever so i want to represent them well. Not just that, but help to see the city thrive in any way possible.

How about outside of your hometown?

 I want to connect to the world. At the end of it all, I want to have a reach that is so much greater than me. So, if I can affect communities all over the globe and leave my mark in a positive way, that’s the best way to create a legacy that can stand the test of time.

You’ve performed at various venues across the country. How do you decide which venue is “worth” traveling out for?

It really depends on the kind of crowd, the influence of the event, and how much creative freedom i have. I just want to perform anywhere where true creativity is welcomed.

Your performances include a lot of high energy and crowd engagement. What is your advice to other artists in terms of being comfortable on stage and working a crowd?

If you’re not nervous, you’re in the wrong profession. But, know that once you start, you gotta be all in. Also, understand that every person won’t accept what you offer or match your energy. But, be unapologetically you no matter what and people will respond.

What your favorite record you ever recorded?

That’s hard man. All my songs are like my kids. But, if I had to choose one, it’d probably be a song called “Uptown”.  Even then, it would probably change if you asked me in a couple hours.

 

How important is it as an artist to have a manager and/or team behind you?

It’s crucial. No man is an island. Even the most talented people can’t see or perceive everything. We got to have people we trust to take on our vision and help us get to where we want to go. Otherwise, we won’t accomplish anything of significance.

Rate and explain the level of importance (in terms of crowd attraction) between singing/rapping a cover versus an original piece

I think putting your spin on someone else’s work is one of the most underrated forms of creativity. If you have a mind creative enough you can take anything and make it your own. Covers are one of the best ways to test those creative limits.

15385275_115738265583198_1276524639393343539_o.jpg

How does sampling music/songs inspire you?

Sampling always challenges my creativity. I want to invoke a feeling of nostalgia with innovation whenever I sample an artist. I want to connect their story to mine and the audiences. So, the sonics of it are just as important in crafting a story as lyrics because music can take you to a place. That’s the beauty of sampling, taking you somewhere familiar and uncharted at the same time.

What should one look out for when doing something like this?

Be original. Don’t just copy what was done. Add your sound and your touch to what they did. Also, do the sample and the artist justice. If you’re going to take from their piece, make sure that it honors their work and is on par with it. That’s the best way to do it.

Do you have any advice for someone interested in pursuing the arts as a career? How can one know this is what they want/what is meant for them?

The best advice I could give someone in that position is to figure out if you really want it  or if you just want popularity and fame, because that’s not enough to sustain you. You have to have a deep love for your craft and a security about yourself to be successful.