SHOCKLEE’s career points one-way, and one-way only: to the future. The producer rose up through dance culture, absorbing club mechanics before diving into the hip-hop revolution.
A founding member of Public Enemy, SHOCKLEE would form the production crew that became known as The Bomb Squad, the sonic technicians who would provide some of hip-hop’s golden age with its most thrilling, groundbreaking, and unexpected beats.
And he’s still moving forwards. Now the lynchpin of Shocklee Entertainment, the company’s web portal contains a stunning manifesto, one that ends: We are universal and we are intergalactic. We’re a nation of billions building a new world. We are creators and we’re on the Future Frequency.
“Today, we're in a 360 world, where you have to have your hands in a lot of different things,” he tells Clash. “So I designed the company – along with Jo-Ann Nina – to be multi-faceted, to be multi-dimensional, to be able to do a bunch of things. Whether we do tech stuff, or us being involved with helping to launch documentaries. We've kind of had to have our hand in a lot of things that's going on.”
Running through all of this, though, is a commitment to fresh ideas, and new technology: SHOCKLEE is forever looking for the new thing. “I used to have a full-fledged analogue recording studio. And I sold my recording studio, and picked up a couple of computers. And so I've been in the box since I've done it, since the early 2000s.”
“Everybody thought I was crazy for giving up all my analogue equipment, but what I saw was that the analogue equipment could be easily replicated inside the computer,” he continues. “So it was a great space-saving tool. No longer did I need this huge facility to house all this. And it also pushed me to get into this new era, when a lot of my colleagues have either decided to go in another direction, or to abandon it all together because of the learning curve.”
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Today, we're in a 360 world...
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The producer emphasizes this isn’t a new appetite, but rather the latest iteration of something that has been present throughout his career. “Even as a DJ,” the producer insists, “I was always in a record pool that gave me exclusives, and new music before it got to radio, or in the hands of other DJs. And I've always been an avid record collector, for what's coming up & new. So my head has always been about keeping my eyes moving forward, instead of going backwards.”
As the founder of The Bomb Squad the producer’s approach was to grab the latest piece of technology and push it until it breaks. These fractures in sound would become essential aspects of their style, de-constructing established techniques to find new passageways in production. “What I've done in the past, it was with this new era in mind today,” he argues. “So, for example, a lot of the techniques that people are using today are partly of the stuff that I was developing when we were in the studio in the late 80s and early 90s. So when you look back and you see all the filtering, time-stretching, all these different parameters that was relegated to this new technology I was on the cusp of the invention side of it, and I had to use the machines to get me those things. And most of the time those machines, were those glitches, those were errors in the machine, and I realised that those errors could be used to create new techniques, and new ways of dealing with sound.”
“A lot of people call them 'happy accidents' – those are things that I find to be pleasing,” he continues. “And keep in mind, there are certain things that sound like an obvious mistake, and then there are certain things that appear to be a mistake but actually enhance the rhythm, actually enhance the production of what you're doing.”
Initially entering music as a DJ, SHOCKLEE admits that he finds many artists within the electronic sphere to be too slavish in their adherence to technology’s functionality, often at the expense of their music’s innate humanity. “If you look today, because of the fact that we have beat-mapping and beat-matching and things of that nature, what's happening is it's rendered... if you're looking to do something perfect today, that's boring. Because part of the aspect of DJing was the randomness that you had to take two different sources and make 'em line up. Now, when those sources can automatically be lined up, now you have to search back for the randomness again, to keep it somewhat human.”
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The human experience is not robotics...
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“The human experience is not robotics,” he insists. “For example, if your heartbeat is steady at 88BPM and your heart rate is doing that all the time then what happens if you want to relax? Or when you want to get super excited? The regulated heartbeat is going to prevent you from feeling those emotions, because it's very robotic. Well, that's not the human experience. The human experience is variable.”
“And that’s the reason why we're still infatuated with those records from the 70s, and the 60s, and even parts of the 80s, it's because of the randomness, the humanness of the drums, the live drummer. The humanness of the bass player, the live guitar player, because a lot of the stuff that they were doing was off. So it's that humanness that we're searching for, that keeps all this music alive.”
SHOCKLEE’s music is certainly alive. Even today, rappers are picking apart those golden age beats, searching for ideas that have yet to be mined. It’s a tribute to the spirit that guided them, a process that continually asked questions. “The thing that I was doing with Public Enemy was that it was explorative, it was experimental, but at the same time it has a feel like it wasn't. There are times when you can go into the experimental zone, and you can get so far off the rails that it goes into this land of randomness. Which doesn't really appeal to anybody. But the thing that I wanted to do was create that evolution of experimentation but at the same time contain it, so that it creates a feeling, a vibration, that you wouldn't get.”
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It creates a feeling, a vibration, that you wouldn't get...
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“So in other words, if you listen to the music you cannot pick out exactly what the timing is of anything that's going on. And when you can't really hone in on the timing of individual instruments, you have to look at everything as a total picture. And when you look at things as a total picture, now you're getting this information that's coming back to you, and all these little random changes, and time variances that makes this thing exciting – because you can't figure it out. And I think that's the question you're talking about. That's me raising that question of... what is sound? What is timing? What does that feel like?”
These are questions that SHOCKLEE has not yet tired in asking. Shocklee Entertainment is engaged in a huge number of new projects, from working on the score for an animated series to the producer’s first ever techno EP. With the huge array of technological options available, he argues, creativity has a duty to open things up, to shake up the imagination. “I mean, that’s what we’re here for,” he says. “We’re here to push things forward. It’s nice to look backwards, and reminisce, and even try to re-create some of that stuff. I think that there’s a place for that, as well. But I also think that there’s a place for people to push the envelope, to push things forward. Because that’s where we’re going to get new invention from, new ideas, new concepts, new ways of dealing with stuff.”
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Clash has obtained a full live set from SHOCKLEE - all techno, all innovation. Tune in below.
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Follow SHOCKLEE online HERE.
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Words: Robin Murray
Images: Paul Hyde