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music: interview: the1shanti

the1shanti is a Hip-hop artist out on Rawkus. For his next album he plans to use Open Source software and here he gives us his take on Open Source and what he hopes to do.

First of all, you'd better tell us about your latest album.

It's self-titled (the1shanti) and out now on Flatbush Junction/Rawkus. Rawkus is the label which launched artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and many others from the 90's onwards. Flatbush Junction is my own label (www.flatbushjunction.com). Because of the type of heavy Native Tongue influence I wanted on this album, I thought Rawkus would be cool to partner with. They're well known for classic hip-hop, and that's the standard I'd like to be held to at least this time out.  It's primarily sample-based and will probably be my last project of this nature as I take a detour creatively into some new territory.


If you like Digable Planets, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def & Talib, the Beastie Boys and so forth, you'll dig it.


Did that represent any kind of change for you?
Yes and no. Yes because the material I'm kinda known for, in certain parts of the world is Indian influenced bhangra and Bollywood. No because I've been making music much like what is on my current album for much of my life. Although I've released it in bits and pieces along the way, this is the first time I've worked in that headspace continually. I'm touring with it now, and working on the foundations for the next one while on the road. The future's a tremendously optimistic place and I'm embracing everything from new online sales models to converting to linux on my laptop studio.


You said earlier that your next album was going to be made with
Linux apps. What was your pathway to this?
A few things which converged at once for me. The release of Ubuntu Studio aligning with the release of my current album combined with the thought of hip-hop culture and music as a whole kinda brought me to this. Hip-hop is a medium that gives a voice to the unheard whether it's DJing, emceeing, graf writing or breakin' it is a route for personal empowerment. For emcees it's become a bit more Madison Avenue than a voice for the individual. That's fine and good, but I get excited by the spirit of inquiry. What could be more empowering than a free operating system and apps to run your whole studio?


During the early days, I was one of the first people I knew who was using a computer to make beats and track demos (using Windows sound recorder of all things) if you tricked the system, you could import multiple layers for up to 60 seconds ( it was my virtual 4 track). Any limitations I would face would force me to travel inward and find the musicality in the piece and focus on that aspect. It forced me to learn what I was doing and use things around me to make music rather than simply loop a riff and place vocals on top of it.


Nowadays, it's become very easy to purchase (or torrent) a few industry standard plug-ins and Pro Tools and call it a day. There's two factors regarding this which I'm not really digging.


One is that I don't want the overhead of having to shell out big bucks for Pro Tools and the various plug-ins you can load into it. I don't want to steal them either. I loaded Vista onto my studio computer last year and everything stopped functioning. With one Microsoft update, most of what I need to make a living was DOA. Sure you can argue that I can stick with XP or migrate to a Mac, but there's absolutely no way you're going to get me to repurchase all that I've invested in software. And again, I'm not open to stealing it. On a larger level, I don't want to feed that part of the system anymore. I want to explore what my options are. As a creative person, I found the thought of being locked into a single company's process a scary thing (i.e. Microsoft, Apple, or Google - although for flash design, Adobe's kinda got me stuck). There's a wealth of music resources out there, and for the cost of sitting down and reading a bit, I figured that I can knock that aspect out. For free. All it costs me is my personal creativity, my time, and my openness to exploring. Also 'cause Linux doesn't have such processor overhead, I can use a slightly older machine because there's no tracking, critical updates, or reporting back to the mothership - that extra processor power gets used on actually making music instead of running background processes and crashing during my sessions.


The second thing that gets me is that once someone figures out one way to approach making a "hit" (i.e. T-Pain), the sheep will follow. Full disclosure: I'm guilty of it myself. What this homogenized approach lacks for me is a certain amount of texture. I need bits of imperfection, and I need limitations in order to make my music and the music I create for others feel natural. That's why some of the new open source packages have gotten me excited about my process again. It's the wild west, and I'm being forced to concentrate on creativity and song structure - playing more real instruments than using samples and synths.


Not to be misunderstood, I think sampling is an art in and of itself. Just think old school Dust Brothers (Paul's Boutique for the Beastie Boys especially), the Bomb Squad (Public Enemy), Moby, the Chemical Brothers, and so on. I've been crazy about the thought of creating my own samples as well. Geoff Barrow (Portishead) completely gets it - writing and recording pieces and then cutting a dub plate (piece of vinyl which can be played a limited number of times before experiencing sound degrading) and then sampling from it (as was done with Portishead's sophomore self-titled album). I'm hoping that the limitations in open source software will force an additional layer of innovation for me. I'm looking to update my creative process by taking a step backwards.

 
Go through the process with us and tell us what you'll be using. I'll
make a guess that Ardour will have a significant part to play.
I've started a project where people can make the switch the way that I have, or simply track my progress and process. It's located at www.opensourcehiphop.org.


I’ve got an ASUS Eee PC with ReZound, Audacity and a few other apps (haven't decided which one's make the cut) for doing quick and dirty things. I'm also running Ubuntu Studio 7.10 on a Dell 700m laptop which used to run Windows XP Pro. Basically, it's free, and I'm stress/road testing it to see if I can really squeeze all of the potential out of it.


So, there's the slight cheater approach - which I have tried and decided I won't employ due to it requiring that I pay for a full version - Reaper. I think the program is great, and it was developed by the team who created Winamp. It's a replacement for ACID or Cubase. I just don't want to pay for it. There's also the issue of having to use Wine to run it in Linux.


Audacity is wonderful for the quick and dirty stuff. I evolved from Cool Edit Pro to Audition when Adobe took over. Audacity is closest to Cool Edit and it comes with a host of useful plug-ins. A bonus for me is it auto-detects M-Audio USB interfaces, which really makes it simple for me to grab session work while on the run with my laptop. 9 times out of 10 if I need to record scratch takes and want to just get something out, I reach for it.


Ardour is the natural default for replacing Pro Tools. I haven't quite mastered all of it yet and unlocked the potential, but I'm hoping that it's going to weather the storm, so to speak. I usually cut vocals and execute all of the layering later in my process. Right now, I'm still writing and capturing one-off takes of instruments.


Of course, there's a wide variety of MIDI sequencing software I'm testing out at the moment. I'm writing about my thoughts and results at opensourcehiphop.org.


What sort of advantages does this setup have for you? Is it a
mixture of practical and philosophical, or mostly just one?

Both. It's nice to know that the next time I land in Bangkok or Bombay (Mumbai) to peel out session work, all I have to do is log onto opensourcehiphop.org and have everything I need right there, free of charge. What's more exciting is that I don't have to worry about having the latest and greatest processor or disk size - linux doesn't require the heavy background processing that Windows and Macs require. I like that kind of freedom.

Is there any way in which you think your palette will be broadened by
using these tools?

I don't really know. That's the fun part. I'm discovering new applications daily. I'm having to go back and rely upon real instruments to create a sample base. Applications have become what they, in my opinion, should be relegated to:  Tools which help enhance what I’ve already got going between my brain and hands playing the instrument.

Do you have any kind of wishlist of things you'd like to see
available - not only small improvements and additions, but Big Idea
stuff?
If Ableton Live and Reason + Recycle were made for Linux, it would solidify my permanent shift. I have a lot of producers who send me sessions in both formats and for that, I require keeping an XP partition running. Otherwise, the folks who put together Ubuntu Studio have put something into my hands that I feel can help produce hit songs and I'll keep documenting the process for people to keep track of. One thing that Ableton, ACID and Cubase have going which I'm looking for is a multi track editor with a grid I can snap to. Maybe it's already in there and I have yet to discover it in Ardour.


What performances have you got coming up (Feb/March 08 on)?

I'm in Amsterdam and France from the end of January into February. I'll be appearing in New York three times in February promoting and performing for a few charities and raising awareness for opensourcehiphop.org. You can log onto my site,  www.the1shanti.com, and see where I'm at. It's got links to all my social networks as well. Hit me up.


Thanks to you and all of your readers for taking the time to chat.


Our pleasure.

photo credit: Vishal Kanwar

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