LIVING THE DREAM
Sometimes, life can throw up situations that are so amazing, that afterwards you’re not really sure whether it was all a dream, or if it actually happened… As he flew back to his home of New York, having just spent 17 long days and nights in Bob Marley’s legendary Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston Jamaica recording an album with Diplo and Snoop Dogg, it’s fair to imagine that Brooklyn-based DJ and producer Dre Skull was pinching himself, trying to work out if he was still alive, or had just stumbled into record producer heaven…
But it was no dream. After several whirlwind years that had seen the bearded New Yorker produce Vybz Kartel’s critically acclaimed ‘Kingston Story’ album and release numerous collaborations with a bunch of Jamaican dancehall’s biggest stars, the 32-year-old Mixpak Records boss really had just spent a couple of weeks recording with two of the most famous musicians on the planet, readying a project that the whole world has been talking about ever since Snoop announced he was no longer a Dogg, but a Lion.
After several missed Skype calls and numerous emails, it’s in his New York home that Trap finally reaches Dre Skull, fresh from his trip to the UK where he’d just played alongside Diplo, Sean Paul and others on the Major Lazer stage at Notting Hill Carnival. Technology is a beautiful thing, but it’s cursing us tonight, and despite the dropped calls and occasional ear-splitting feedback, after the year he’s had, Dre Skull has plenty to talk about…
You’ve just been over in the UK for Carnival – as a producer who has recorded with a lot of different Jamaican vocalists, are there any other UK artists you’d like to work with?
“Sure, there’s a whole bunch; I would love to work with Ms Dynamite. I managed to get in the studio and do a track with Stylo G while I was in London, and then I linked with Sneak Bo, too. Carnival was amazing, such a good party. I’d never been to Carnival before so it was great to just be there.”
You’ve released a lot of music on your label Mixpak from UK artists like Melé, who features alongside Mr Mitch and others on the new ‘Mixpak Pressure Vol 1’ compilation. Has the UK been the influence on you that it appears?
“Well, I’m really interested in different Jamaican born music, and I’ve always been interested in the ways that the UK has taken that music and interacted with it, and given it a UK slant. That’s something that definitely interests me. As someone who is working as an outsider, bringing my own take to different Jamaican musical forms, it’s really interesting to see how that’s been done in the UK over the years by the people from Jamaican backgrounds, but who’ve grown up there.”
So where did you grow up, and what was the music around you?
“My family moved around a lot when I was growing up. I’ve been in NY for about eight years, and before that I was down in Philadelphia. There wasn’t one genre that was primarily dominant. Obviously, rap music was super influential growing up. And I guess through my love of rap, I started to discover the different music that rap producers were sampling. That took me through every different genre in a way. All the music I’ve come across has been influential, and that’s been a very wide swathe of different genres…”
Which could explain the diversity of genres, sounds and styles that you’ve put out through Mixpak?
“Yeah, it probably does. You know, producing music gives me perspective that any music can now be interesting, to a certain degree, which means my ear is always keen to hear a lot of different things. And so with Mixpak, I think it’s kind of an extension of my own listening in a way – in the sense that anything I find exciting is something I’d put out on Mixpak and get behind.
“Also, I always thought it would be interesting to do singles and EPs with major artists, and established, as well as up-and-coming, producers. So that’s the thinking behind doing something with Vybz Kartel, then following that up with a Melé release. In the world I’m living in, there’s nothing that strange about that. That falls along the lines of what I might be listening to on any given day.”
You mentioned Vybz Kartel… You started doing tracks with him a good while ago, and produced his album ‘Kingston Story’ last year – what was he like?
“He was really great to work with in the studio. One thing I heard second hand is that if you go back ten years, he would write his songs in notebooks. By the time we started working together he’d trained himself to not work in that way. I would play him a new riddim, he’d be hearing it for the first time in the studio and he’d just start writing right away, from the first beat – not writing with a pen and paper but in his mind. He would write straight into the microphone and record.
“I think he deliberately trained himself to work that way because he realised it would give a different vibe to the song. It’s a different approach to the craft of song writing and I think that’s what has enabled him to write so prolifically. I’m sure we did songs that he heard the track for the first time and then was done recording it, all the arrangement, in under an hour. I work with a lot of different song writers and it’s incredibly rare to meet someone who works that quickly and has such intuition for what to do with the track.”
Despite the bad press that surrounds Kartel, and the fact he’s awaiting trial for murder, a lot of people have suggested that he’ll be remembered as one of Jamaican music’s greatest and most influential talents…
“One thing I got to see up close is not only is he unbelievably talented; he’s very smart and very driven. So he will do three, four or five songs in a night and easily do 15 songs in a week. It’s not just that he can do it; it’s that he does do it. Kartel himself has literally written three or four thousand songs. It’s insane.
“But beyond music, I think Kartel was very innovative and provocative culturally, and learnt how to keep things very frenetically paced in his career; always in the news every week, with interesting stories and talking points surrounding him. I think that’s his legacy in a way, it’s almost hard to see outside of Jamaica just how profoundly impactful that was and is in Kingston and in Jamaica.”
Jamaica is obviously under your skin?
“Yes, it is. For a long time, I’ve been drawn to Jamaican music and been fascinated by it. On one level it’s amazing the amount of important music that has come out of such a small island. There’s an amazing tradition of making music there. You know, I have a love for dancehall, but then I love the older productions – what Lee Scratch Perry and those guys did in the 1970s. Jamaican music has shaped my thinking about music in general. So, for me, it’s such a great feeling to be working in the studios down there and with great Jamaican artists. There’s such a long tradition of recording; it’s special.”
Beyond your work with Kartel, you’ve recently put out riddims featuring Popcaan, Beenie Man and bunch of other dancehall superstars. We’ve discussed your diversity as a producer, but does your focus lie with dancehall at the moment…
“Well, this summer I’ve done two ‘riddim’ releases, and been very much focused on some dancehall stuff. But I’m also working in a lot of different directions as a producer. So, in that realm, it’s a bit more diverse. I’m keen to keep working in dancehall but there’s a lot of rap production and stuff; I’m working on a project with Pusha T and I’m also in the process of signing a new vocalist from New York.”
Which leads us onto your work on the Snoop Dogg album over in Jamaica with Diplo earlier this year… Had you worked with Snoop before?
“No, not at all. Obviously, Snoop is someone I listened to growing up and I’m a big fan, so it was just an amazing situation to be able to work on his record. The album is Major Lazer and me – Diplo brought me in to partner with him and the other producer who works with him on Major Lazer. So the three of us went down to Jamaica with Snoop and some writers and produced the album.”
That must have been quite a moment… are you past getting star-struck these days? Or did you think ‘What the fuck, I’m sat in Jamaica with Snoop Dogg’?
“The first day I met Snoop was in Tuff Gong studios in Kingston. He was there with his crew, his wife was there, and we were playing some of my tracks and to watch him getting excited, that was definitely a cool feeling. But pretty quickly, it becomes about communicating with him and trying to understand his vision and bring that to life. You can’t sit around for too long getting excited that you’re working with him; you’ve gotta get to work! So we worked seven days a week, up to 18 hours a day trying to turn out this album. We were there 17 days, and we did the whole album in that time. It was pretty cool.”
Words: Jon Cook
Images: Francesca Tamse
‘Mixpak Pressure Volume 1’ is out now on Mixpak Records.