It’s funny what tidbits of information you can pick up in interviews. Did you know cats sleep an average of 17 hours a day or that American car horns beep in the note of F? Neither did we until we spoke with Alchemist – as informative with his knowledge as he is impressive with his production.
Throughout his 15-year career Alchemist has supplied standout tracks for mainstream A-listers, but it is artful projects like his soon to be released Russian Roulette, a crate digger’s opera, that may be his greatest contribution to Hip Hop. Teaming up with a rather special generation of lyricists for this project, Alchemist gives props to this extraordinary league of gentlemen for whom he feels his production just isn’t enough. They in turn return the favor with their distinct diction and lyrical dexterity heard throughout the album’s multiple movements.
Acknowledging his profound love of visual art as a starting point for RR, Alchemist breaks down just how the album continued to morph and how free-falling was the chosen motion for its creation. Late night studio sessions, cut-and-paste collages and Rocky IV memories enabled this West Coast staple to present his label Decon with his most cohesive album to date. Yet while Russian Roulette may be more “scenic” and subjective than prior projects, Alchemist is quick to point out he still has those big beats to rumble with.
Photograph by Jason Goldwatch
HipHopDX: Listening to Russian Roulette, you can’t help but think, due to your meticulous nature and the content of the project, it was quite some time in the making.
Alchemist: Man, if you saw the Pro Tools session for this you would think I was crazy. You can’t ask someone in an art gallery how to look at a painting, but I feel with this project, people listen to it from beginning to end. Even some of the parts when look at the tracklisting, are so short. It wasn’t made like an album – it is more a project of audio art. I just threw it together and really spent time out hoping it will be a project you play from beginning to end. I even envisioned parts of it like a fake movie to inspire me.
DX: That comes through though, the movie aspect when you listen to it though. How did you piece it all together?
Alchemist: Well people who know me, the ones who come around, they know I do collages. I cut shit up out of magazines and just do weird shit in the off hours when people are writing rhymes. It’s like I have Tourette’s syndrome – you know where you don’t sit still? I think I have that. I do a lot of collages and I approached this album like that, it’s art, it’s music whatever, it’s all the same. Over time, it was more of an instrumental project I was doing. I was just piecing shit together and then it just kept morphing and taking a shape of its own. I was spending late nights just piecing more little bits on top, the same way you do with a collage and then it just felt like it was worthy. There were certain parts where I felt people could rap and it really was a puzzle over time. I had no idea where it was going to take me
DX: As a creative mind though, isn’t that how the best projects materialize?
Alchemist: I’ve heard some interviews with some Electronic artists from Germany where the say it’s always good to have an idea when you are creating instead of just free-falling and I like that style too, but I think with this one I had the energy and I know it was going to be fun and I just wanted to go wherever it was going. Then I just kind of re-evaluated, I would wake up and go back to it and it eventually turned into what it is. Who knew what it would out like?
DX: Now the Russia concept, where did that inspiration come from? Have you been there?
Alchemist: Yes, I’ve travelled to Russia; it is a real big country. I grew up in the ’80s during the Cold War time and it’s like when we grew up there was all these things that made us think Russia was bad. Look at [the film] Red Dawn where the Russians come parachuting in and fuck up the whole city and then Rocky IV with Ivan Drago. I think Russia attacked the video games and it was all propaganda, shit was funny. So I was like “Let me do something for Russia, man” and now you have Russian Roulette.
DX: Can’t help thinking we have some sort of theme going on with these album titles though, Chemical Warfare, 1st Infantry and now Russian Roulette...
Alchemist: I don’t know, I never even thought about it. You’re forcing me to think about it. I see how you could think there is some theme going on there. I just like to grow musically and take on different things at different times. There’s probably those people out there who want the “Alchemist-sound from 2000,” and I understand that people go for a certain style. But this project called for this style at the moment and it is really stripped down. There’s no big beats rumbling through your system, it’s about the music. For some reason I imagine myself on a big stadium type stage for some of this project. There are parts in it where I felt like I was there on stage with the crowd wildin’.
DX: Doesn’t that come back to feeling like you were scoring a movie? Is that something you have thought of getting into – movie scoring?
Alchemist: I’ve tested it before and it’s pretty tough, I don’t know. Yeah, I would love to ruin a movie – let’s go.
DX: Going back to what you said about people expecting a certain sound from you, do you believe you have been pigeonholed to create a specific sound?
Alchemist: No. But I feel like I hear a lot of producers or people who make music like I do, and sometimes it’s tough because you switch up a lot. And I definitely felt that with this project it was like throwing the dice and I am not worried anymore. I make music that I like to listen to and I’m not really concerned with a snare or that “you flipped that” sort of thing – I just want the music to be dope and you to listen to it for experience. Plus I don’t feel like I have anything to prove because I’ve got those beats too and I can rumble with them.
DX: Well you have proved yourself time and time again over the years.
Alchemist: Thank you, but this was a fun one. I didn’t know whether it was going to come out.
Alchemist: Well it was something I was experimenting with and I was just bugging out doing. But when I played it to people they thought it was dope and it just morphed.
DX: Do you think experimenting with projects keeps people relevant?
Alchemist: I don’t know, I am just a stubborn guy.
DX: You are going against the grain of who people expect to see on an Alchemist project when it comes to the appearances on Russian Roulette – at least compared to those we heard on 1st Infantry. But you have some dope lyricists on there.
Alchemist: Yeah, we are going against the grain, I hate grain. The rappers on there are pretty much the people I fuck with. There was no reaching out and trying to go through management and going through hoops and no begging. These are the people that come through the Rap sanctuary. So basically my friends are the best. That’s fucking arrogant; I shouldn’t say that. I like my friend’s music the best right now. There’s a lot of great artists out there right now, I shouldn’t say these guys are the best. Roc Marciano, Action Bronson, Evidence to name a few, I could keep going. The words they are spitting right now, I feel my beats aren’t good enough, that’s exactly how I feel. I am hearing greatness these days and everyone needs to step their game up.
DX: Which is exciting I am sure for you as a producer.
Alchemist: Hell yeah, nothing better. I work with the people with the rhymes who excite me; it’s about making the proper marriage. I don’t care how many records you have sold or if you are a big artist or if the budget is there. I need to hear that shit, I’m stunned.
DX: The lineup is incredible.
Alchemist: It just kept coming and its funny, because Doo-Rag Dynasty, which is Planet Asia, Killa Ben and Tri State, I have actually worked on a project with them which is coming very soon, the track those guys rapped on from Russian Roulette was the first time anyone had actually rapped on anything. They set it off and I felt like the caliber and the way they were rapping, it just set it off. We had no idea it was going to turn into what it became. [“Junkyard Fight Scene” is] probably my favorite joint too, you just flow into it.
DX: Your name comes up when talking about the new Nas Life Is Good album due on the same day as Russian Roulette, is there a chance we can hear you on there? (Editors note, this interview was conducted prior to the official release of Life Is Good tracklist)
Alchemist: I have no music on [Life Is Good by Nas], but I am sure it will be a great album. Shouts out to Nas and the whole crew. I set up shop on the West Coast in an undisclosed bunker on the beach and out of everyone I’ve worked with, from Prodigy to Jadakiss to Busta Rhymes to Roc Marciano to Evidence to B-Real to N.O.R.E., they’ve all come out here, there’s only one left. So Nas, if you see this interview you’re the last one man, come on let’s work.
DX: God’s Son, was that the last time you guys worked together?
Alchemist: Man, it’s been a while. But I will say I am lucky to even know him.
DX: You are one of the few producers who have stuck to their guns when it comes to what you produce.
Alchemist: Back to that stubborn thing. [Laughs]
DX: You even ponder on what could have been?
Alchemist: Yeah, I could have been next level, right? [Laughs]
DX: [Laughs] Yeah crossing over to pop was never an option?
Alchemist: Man, I’m almost there, I got myself a new hairstyle – I’m on the way.
DX: Back to the good stuff, a new Gangrene project coming up with you and Oh No.
Alchemist: Yeah and make sure you go out and get Oh No’s [OhNoMite] album which is out now. It is a piece of audio art and the [“3 Dollars”] single with MF DOOM is great.
DX: How did that relationship evolve?
Alchemist: I don’t know really, but you know he is a genius. The level which he works at he needs a room full of smaller versions of him who do equal amount of work. He works at an inhuman rate as well as having a family and being a father. The only problem I have with him, and the same with Evidence, is they’re both kinda taller than me so it fucks my ego up. All pictures have to be taken in the distance so I look taller. I like them but this height thing is giving me the Danny Devito vibe.
DX: Are there plans to take Russian Roulette out on the road?
Alchemist: It is possible, as it is muchlike a play so it would be great to see this come to life visually.
DX: One final question, as you are so inspired by art, give us a couple of names of those artists who really have an impact on you.
Alchemist: Devin Flynn, an animation artist who did my “Lose Your Life” video, my man Reas, Russ Karablin who has the clothing line SSUR and photographer Estevan Oriol. I am more inspired by my friends who do art than by funky musicians.