Every so often there is a technical innovation that rocks the world of Hip Hop DJing and production. From Grandmaster Flash’s “quick mix” theory and creation of the slipmat to the invention of the LinnDrum and the MPC, new tools have inspired and pushed creators to new heights.
In 2004 Serato’s Scratch Live software changed the DJ game forever by allowing the play of digital files, eliminating the need for vinyl records or CDs. A decade later the team at Serato has introduced another seismic shift in the world of music with Serato Stems, which is made available in the latest 2.0 update for Serato Studio.
Powered by Serato’s one-of-a-kind machine-learning algorithm, Stems enables producers to instantaneously isolate and manipulate four different audio stems, while maintaining optimal audio quality. Stems splits songs into distinct tracks for vocals, bass, drums, and melodies, enabling producers to instantly create acapellas and instrumental tracks and providing easy integration of additional samples or original sounds with the push of a button.
HipHopDX spoke with the legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff about how this new tool will enhance his creative process.
What were the first stems you got your hands on and how did you use them?
Jazzy Jeff: I think I was one of the early, early stem adopters because I watched the waves happen. I got into stems from my brother Kenny Dope. The origin of the stems really came in from when the format went from analog to digital, they needed to back up all of those tapes.
What happened is they would back the tapes up, they wouldn’t get a world-class engineer to back the tapes up. They would get an assistant engineer that would basically put the tapes up, run the tapes down, put the tapes on Pro Tools. A lot of the assistant engineers, we knew that it was like, “Hey man, if I slip you this hard drive, maybe you’ll drop something on the hard drive.”
“You just took your record collection and timed it by four.”
It really came from remixers and because the dance guys were the ones that were doing the remix of a lot of the classics, they would give them the two-inch tapes.
I remember being a part of a remix project that we were remixing Chic’s “Good Times,” and they sent me the tapes. I took the acapella off and I sent the tapes back and Kenny was like, “Yo, what are you doing? You don’t send the tapes back.” He’s like, “They didn’t give you a master copy in the first place. They copied it to give to you.” He was like, “At least make a copy of it and then send them the tapes back.” I was like, “I didn’t know.” Because I didn’t realize that he had all of these stems from all of the remix records that people would ask them to do. That kind of started it for me.
I also think that it became almost like this trading cards thing. People weren’t necessarily trying to put them out as much as [we] really wanted to hear the behind the scenes. Getting a Marvin Gaye stem and hearing Marvin Gaye have a conversation with Tammy Terrell gives you goosebumps because both of them are no longer here.
That became the thing and I just started collecting them and putting them on the drive and every three, four months you will open up the drive and pick something and play it and just be like, “Wow, that’s how it really was done or that’s how it really sounded.” That was it for me.
How do you explain for the casual music fan why this innovation from Serato is such a big deal, considering how coveted stems are and were?
Jazzy Jeff: Because there are not stems of everything. There have been a couple of unforeseen disasters in the music industry where a lot of these master tapes got burnt up. There’s no master tape of this record. The only recording that you have is the one that we’re listening to. There’s no way to break it down. There’s no way to solo it.
Being a producer for as long as I have, this was a flying car. This don’t happen. There’s no way that we are going to get to the point that technology is going to allow us to strip the drums out of something or strip the keys out of something or the bass or the vocals out of something, let alone to be able to do that live. This was one of those things that, to explain it to someone who doesn’t do music, it gives you a peak underneath the hood how not only a lot of this stuff is done, but now you can almost make your own arrangements of it.
Anytime it seems like there’s an innovation with tech in Hip Hop, there are the purists who are like, “This will make it too easy.” When Serato Scratch Live first came out and you didn’t have to carry crates anymore, it’s like, “Oh, it’s making it too easy.” What are your thoughts on that in general and this particular innovation? Is it really going to make it that much easier if you don’t know what you’re doing?
Jazzy Jeff: I encountered this a lot and my answer to this is we all have the same paint as Picasso [but] ain’t none of us Picasso. Stop putting it on the tools. It’s what you do with the tools is what matters. I’m kind of like, I’m pretty sure nobody wants to carry their couch up 15 flights of steps and you appreciate the elevator. I’m pretty sure you don’t want to cook your food for eight hours. You appreciate the microwave.
There’s always going to be a purist that says an advancement in technology, even with Serato, I kind of looked at it like, hey, you may have algorithms that can put things on beat for you and can kind of grid it, [but] until they develop an algorithm that can read a crowd and play music for people in a way that they are happy, I’m not trying to hear that. The stem function is just a tool and I don’t understand people who complain about the tools. It’s kind of like, “Hey man, just give me some wood and some fire and I’m okay.” I’m like, “Nah, I need the stove.” I actually need the microwave or the air fryer.”
Acapellas are coveted and instrumentals are coveted. If you had to only pick one or the other as a DJing producer to get your hands on via the stems, is it the vocal or a musical element?
Jazz Jeff: As a producer, it would probably be acapella to do a remix. It might be the same thing as a DJ because if I can get the acapella, I can put that acapella over whatever beat or whatever music that I want to use. We used to do that or try to do that as much as we could with filtering out stuff, but to be able to just have the straight acapella is really cool. I’ve done stuff that I started [where] the record was one beat and dropped the music out and added another beat underneath of it and did the next part with another beat. So, yeah, I think it’s a very beneficial tool.
Is there a song from your catalog where if you think you had Serato Stems, that it would’ve either helped or changed the way you made the record? Or a sample that maybe gave you challenges? You’re like, “Damn, if I had stems and I could have isolated this bass line, it would’ve been dope.”
Jazz Jeff: Ah, man, it’s too many to name, because the stem functionality is talked about from the DJ aspect. To use that in production, to be able to dig through records and find something that you’re like, “Oh my God, this is amazing but I want to put my own drums to it.” You can just take the drums out. It clears out space. We used to do tricks of filtering one part of it outputting, getting the vocals and just putting all of the mids in the vocals and putting all of the bottom in the bass and to make it fuller. The tricks that we used to have to try to do when we didn’t have Stems makes this all the more sweeter.
Your Playlist Retreat seems like that ideal place for you and your peers to play with Stems. The pandemic had put a kibosh on a bunch of events, but will the Playlist Retreat be returning?
Jazz Jeff: I definitely hope so, it just won’t be returning this year because I did not want to interfere with the 50th anniversary of Hip Hop. So the likeliness is high on it coming back in 2024.
Now that you’ve got Stems, I can imagine folks are going to lose their minds on the creative side. If you have a dream concept now that you’ve got the stems that you could tease for us, what would it be?
Jazz Jeff: You know what I think? Once I saw how great Stems worked, I became more excited of waiting…of what other people were going to do. What happens is, almost every day, I’m getting something from somebody that somebody did that’s a great idea. Because now you’re looking at your entire record collection differently. You’re looking at your record collection that every record can be broken down, that you can honestly sit there and say, “You know, what if Mobb Deep rapped off of a Pete Rock beat?” And you can make that happen. I’m more excited about that, but I don’t think you can really narrow it down to an idea, because you just took your record collection and timed it by four, so sky’s the limit.