Earlier this week VICE Records released Kingston Story Deluxe, Vybz Kartel’s first full album with a single producer. That producer is Dre Skull, the founder of Brooklyn-based Mixpak Records, which released the album digitally last year. Boomshots caught up with Dre Skull to get the lowdown on how broke into the game and his reflections on working with dancehall’s most wanted. At first I was trying to do film. Been in NY for 8 years. Before that I was in Philly.
Had meetings with Bad Boy records… Like 2006/7. By the time I started Mixpak I was pretty frustrated with major labels and trying to land beats.
It costs them nothing to have me come in. They wanna hear my beats and they say we want you to do something for Gorilla Zoe. And then it’s four months before you hear it got sent to Block Entertainment in Atlanta… After that frustration I’m like “I’m just gonna start a label.”
The first record I did on Mixpak was something with Sizzla. I don’t think of myself as a dancehall producer. But I love dancehall. It’s one of the most cutting-edge musical cultures. Even like the use of Auto-Tune, they were at the forefront of that, which was always interesting to me. So I’ve been a big fan. But it wasn’t like “I’m gonna do a dancehall label” and go in like that. I definitely love rap and pop all sorts of stuff.
The Sizzla link was facilitated by some dancehall heads I knew.
And Kartel I got to do a dubplate for me.
I was a fan of Kartel and I was just like, I wanna reach out. It was a very modest thing.
He just did almost 30 drops. So I had done that and I was like “I’d like to work with Kartel.” I think it was 2009 framework.
I would get cryptic emails back, like, “soon come…”
After something like 4 months of waiting, they asked me to send a different instrumental which I did and then, within 24 hours, I was getting texts like “Mad ting” “Sell off” and then within another 24 hours it was leaked to YouTube. They were really fired up about it. That song was “Yuh Love.”
Vybz Kartel “Yuh Love”
He shot a video. It leaked but because Mixpak’s pretty nimble, I had it mixed, mastered, cover art rushed and called my distributor and we had it up for sale in 10 days time. He shot this video and it was charting in Jamaica. In terms of the Youtube we got over 5 million on the official video. If you add up all the YouTube views of that video it’s been well over 10 million.
So in a way it just worked out. The riddim that was ultimately used had been sitting on my computer for a year and a half. In a lot of ways at that stage of my life I would make a track just to make a track without necessarily having a vision on where or how to release it.
So why Kartel? In some ways I wonder if I really remember. It was fortuitous, cause he wasn’t signed to a label. But basically I’m just a fan. I think he’s really versatile and has really interesting wordplay and his melodicism is really impressive. I’m much more impressed now after having worked with him in the studio. I haven’t worked with that many world-class vocalists but I really think he’s gotta be one of the true greats.
I have some theories about why that would be. You take a US artist, an “average” one, if you will—whatever that means—and over the course of a really successful career they might do 300 songs and that’s a lot. I mean Kartel has written three or four thousand songs if you really add it up. There’s something that’s going to come from that if you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell type the 10,000 hours theory of becoming an expert. But I also think it comes from the Jamaican music culture; he was mentored by people who have made that many songs so the craft is passed down.
We recorded 15 songs in 8 or 9 days. Like we would do three or four songs in a night of work. <h1>He’s truly a world-class songwriter.</h1>
I’d walk in there, he sits down. He says, “Let me hear what you’ve got.” He’s never heard it. He sits down in front of a mic, lights off, record on. Maybe sometimes listen to it for 45 seconds with the lights on then, “Let’s go.”
So as we worked and he got more comfortable with me, I would give input. He often said “What kind of song do you want? You tell me.”
Vybz Kartel “Jamaica”
For the intro of the record on the track “Jamaica,” I asked him to picture flying over Kingston in a helicopter in the opening scene of a movie and describe what he saw.
But sometimes it would be like “this song is an ode to women who you respect.” Or “this is a flossing song.” And when he did the song “My Crew” that was an epic night. That one I leaned into him. I was like, “I’m picturing you with a low voice.”I haven’t heard him go at this tempo before. The beat is 140 or halftime 70.But I don’t take credit for that. Cause I don’t think you can do that with your average vocalist.
He instantly knows how the structure works. HE completely understands it. He’ll kind of start to make almost gutteral sounds, or he’s humming quietly. But the recording process has started. So if he finds a good run, it’s recorded. It’s like a dance between him and the engineer. Within about 10 minutes every time he’s basically come the melody ideas figured out.
He doesn’t do a demo. He’ll be like “Pan that one left” I’m doing a double for that line. He’s hearing the final mix. I think that’s some serious innate knowledge. He’s a craftsman. He’s done so much of this. Literally an hour, or an hour and a half, and it’s done.
So literally we’d have nights where it was like four songs. Six and a half, seven hours and I’m walking out with four songs.
Most of it was done out of Not Nice’s studio. And then the very last trip which was roughly February of last year, and that was done at Shocking Vibes. Working in Not Nice’s studio was cool. It’s basically about the vibe he’s catching. They had a really good chemistry. Not Nice is a producer, and in some sense he was doing me a big favor putting on the engineer hat.
Addi never voices the same way twice. Even as a craftsman, it’s just like whatever comes to him. There’s a verse on one song, a 12 bar verse where he voices the 12th bar first, then he says run It back and then he does the 11th and then the 10th and he did it completely backwards bar by bar. Which was mind-blowing to watch.
I think he was just going with his natural flow. You know your destination and you can build a path that leads there. That’s true in a melodic sense, getting the melody to resolve. And also in the meaning of the verse. I think that was the song “Push It In.”
Many times he’d do bar 1 and bar 3 and then punch in bar 2 and bar 4.
In some ways he’s become more melodic. He got into that Auto-Tune thing too.
Also I wonder how much would have to do with what tracks are being delivered to him. I don’t know what tracks he turned down. I will say he pretty much turned down nothing from me.