FDB Interview Spot – Eddie James
October 16, 2007, 2:59 pm
Filed under: Interviews, Producers

AK Skillz – East To West’
taken from One Life Ta Live 12” (Tru Criminal, 1996)

Eddie James – ‘My Thoughts’(Unreleased)

Seth Marcel – ‘Hardcore’ ft. Aki
taken from So Necessary(Unreleased)

Eddie James @ MySpace

When I wrote my recent post on three producers who I wish I’d heard more from, little did I know that it would lead to not one, but two interviews with the artists I mentioned. I’ve waxed lyrical on two occasions about Eddie James’s work here at FDB on the sensational AK Skillz 12” from ‘96: both ‘One Life Ta Live’ and ‘East To West’ are truly slammin’. I had the pleasure to talk to him last week, and I really appreciated his openness and friendly, upbeat manner which made it a true joy.

From Da Bricks: As I said to you the other day, that AK Skills 12’’ has been one of my discoveries of the year. Does it surprise you that 11 years later someone living in the UK is writing about it on a blog?

Eddie James: You know, it’s funny because Skills [director of Tru Criminal Records] called me up and was like, ‘Yo, you’re never gonna guess what I’ve seen. There’s this blog, and it’s about you!’ You never really know… I knew that I was doing something special back then. I talk with Just Blaze who I met essentially through MySpace, and we had met a couple of times before but he didn’t know that I was the guy who did that record. I asked him for some advice, and he was like, ‘Is this the Eddie James who did ‘East to West’ on Tru Criminal?’ He remembered my name from then even though he didn’t remember who the other artists were. I haven’t actually heard ‘East To West’ or ‘One Life Ta Live’ since ’97/’98.

FDB: Can you talk me though the construction of those songs?

EJ: I was using an MPC 60 through college and I was a part of a group called Channel Three, kinda like Main Source in a way where we were all DJs and producers. When I graduated from college I couldn’t take the equipment! Syracuse is about four hours from the metropolitan NYC area, so when I moved back down I copped an SP 1200 and the 950. The problem with the SP1200 was that it didn’t have a lot of sample time, maybe a total of about ten seconds. For ‘One Life Ta Live’ I multi-pitched a note from a Minnie Riperton song or something like that. I just took the keys. Part of my thing is that I’ve always been known to have drums: neck snappin’ and clean. If you listen closely ‘One Life Ta Live’ reminds me of a Pete Rock track, and the high hat is one that got used a lot, taken from an O.J.s’ record called ‘Give The People What They Want’. Listen to that record and you’ll hear the high hats, that’s where everyone used to rape them from during the early ‘90s.

FDB: It’s interesting that you’ve picked Pete Rock because the producer it really reminds me of is Buckwild. Would you say that’s a fair comparison? Has he been an influence on you?

EJ: Buck is my friend man. There were only three producers responsible for the Tru Criminal movement: myself, Buck and Domingo. I really loved Buck’s production on the AK Skillz track that was on the EP. It was a hard, hard record.

‘East To West’ was one of the first times I ever used the 950. It was simple, the drums were hard and the melody was soft. My father was a jazz artist and so I got a lot of my influences from his records. Pete Rock flipped the same sample and he used to play my record followed by his on the Future Flavas show with Marley Marl. We did the same thing with it, filtered it and let it run. AK was great on the vocals again and it feels like we were doing something special at that time.

FDB: Whatever happened to AK Skillz? I heard at one stage that he’d done a little time in prison. Is that right?

EJ: Yea, he did some time. AK was a strange guy man. He was good people, but he was the type of person that would talk in riddles all the time. You never really knew what the hell he was sayin’! [laughs] When it came to rhymes he was incredible. He reminds me of Nasty Nas, but you know the early stuff. If you listen to his verse on ‘Live At The BBQ’ it really reminds me of AK, you know the Queens rappers, they have the same cadence. Unfortunately, the streets are the streets and some people can’t get out of it. I haven’t spoken to him in about eight years bro. I wish him well, wherever he is.

FDB: How did you hook up with the Tru Criminal label and get your start in the production game?

EJ: The guys who ran Tru Criminal were my college buddies. We all went to Syracuse together and they kinda brought me along with them. I’m actually from Syracuse so I wasn’t actually in the tri-state area so it was hard for me to get a hold and compete with the producers. I used to DJ a lot in battles and stuff like that, and I knew I could do the scratches that Jazzy Jeff was doing and I carried that approach over to production. If your beats didn’t sound remotely like Pete Rock, Extra P or Ali Shaheed Muhammad then you really wasn’t doing it right. It wasn’t like I was bitin’, but any person who says they’re not a reflection of somebody then they’re fucking lying.

FDB: I guess that’s the nature of all art. There is always a basis on things that have gone before.

EJ: Take someone like Timbaland. He’s one of my favourite producers but there’s someone in the UK he’s jacking samples from: I don’t think anybody is truly original. I’d like to think of myself as a good collage of a lot of producers.

FDB: How come the label released such a limited amount of material?

EJ: That whole movement came at a time when things were changing. The music changed around ‘97/’98: I’d say Puffy really fucked shit up! Really, that’s when underground records started becoming really underground. Tru Criminal actually got a deal with New Line, and received some national coverage on some Rush Hoursoundtracks.

For me, I started to produce for some other groups like Born Suspicious who were Derrick Coleman’s cousins from Detroit. Derrick was also a friend of mine from college. Those records were alright, but nothing really to go crazy about.

FDB: It’s clear from your MySpace and your more recent material that Dilla has been a big influence for you. What do you think it was about his production style that made it so special?

EJ: The first record of his I ever heard was the ‘She Said’ remix for Pharcyde. That record really hit me. As well as that there was Beats, Rhymes & Life, which to me was a fucking incredible album. A lot of people say it’s too dark for Tribe, but that album is incredible. I knew there was something different about their sound: the melodies were still the same but the basslines had more sub-bass that really attracted me to it. I checked the insleeve and saw that some cat called Jaydee had been involved in the production. My old manager used to work for Jive Records and I can remember meeting Dilla years ago at Battery Studios while he was working on the Keith Murray record. He had a sense of not really giving a fuck when it came to basslines and drums. I used to quantise my drums just to be on the safe side but he was the first producer to not really do it and if you listen to his music the bass kicks are sometimes a little bit off or maybe the high hat, but always on time and the basslines were just incredible. I’d never heard anything like it, and from that point on I was a fanatic. I finally wound up meeting him again because we recorded at the same studio in Detroit. He was a constant professional and just a good person man.

The music speaks for itself; the guy was way ahead of his time. Everybody is using the hard kicks and the claps now but if you listen to the Slum Village albums he’s rockin’ those same claps that everybody eventually used. The D’Angelo Voodoo album uses a clap that ended up on everybody’s records like three years ago. The Trakmasterz ran that clap to the ground! I saw him work as well and at the beginning it sometimes looked like a song wasn’t going to work but when they were finished they were incredible.

FDB: According to Discogs your output is limited to that Tru Criminal phase, but what else have you done between then and now?

EJ: Since then I’ve gone onto work with the likes of Jadakiss, Joe Budden, Obie Trice and my cousin Seth Marcel on On Point Recordings owned by Derrick Coleman. Seth is one hell of an MC man. I was working on a project with him that started in 2000. I didn’t really do that much between ’97 and then. I was still working in the industry, I worked for Def Jam for a while, and I just compiled a library of beats. It’s not like I hit hard times, but it was just a funny time and a lot of guys didn’t want to hear the backpack shit at all. People were sampling big ‘70s records and I just wasn’t with that shit, but I was always producing. Unfortunately the Seth Marcel record was never released. About 2003, a lot of money was spent but no real results followed so it never came out. I did a couple of remixes, like I did a Britney Spears ‘Toxic’ remix, and I worked with R Kelly’s old group Public Announcement; I did a remix for them that featured Big Daddy Kane. It’s just been a case of odd production jobs here and there.

I’m now working with someone called Candice Jones, and I think she’s going to be that one. It’s kind of funny, you go full circle from hip hop to R ‘n’ B but I keep the same approach to making music now as I did in ’97. She’s gonna be my claim to fame, for real. I’m doing about 50% of the upcoming album, and I think she’s also working with Raphael Saadiq on the project right now. There’s also somebody called Sinatra who I’m gonna be working with and he is definitely going to be somebody.

I also do music for television; I’ve been doing that since 2004. I license music for different shows like the Oprah Winfrey show, CSI, MTV Cribs… different avenues bro!

I got a wishlist of people I want to work with in the future when I finish my projects. I got the right person to broker my tracks now in Skills so I’m trying to get on some bigger projects. More soulful, you know like Angie Stone, hopefully Bilal and maybe Common, so I’m just trying to get with the right guys.

FDB: How do you view the culture in this phase of its development? Where do you see it going from here?

EJ: Hip hop is definitely not dead! It can’t be dead. Kanye sold damn near a million copies in a week. Two months prior to that Finding Forever was the number one record in the country. I mean Finding Forever? Common?! Two weeks after that Ear Drum was number two. However, things have changed man. The A & Rs pretty much want to be the fucking artist now, and they glorify some of the fucking shit coming out now. I guess it’s a reflection of our youth right now; I DJ and sometimes I find myself playing bullshit records. All that South shit I just can’t get with it at all. I like some of it, I like T.I., I like Jeezy because they keep it real gutter and I can believe them, you know what I ‘m sayin’? I like UGK and Eightball. I can fuck with that because they’ve been doing it for a long time but all these other guys, I don’t even know their names, but it’s fucked up. But then you look on any corner, every ‘hood and the suburbs and this is what young people are listening to man. I guess my shit is old now, our shit is old. Finding Forever and Ear Drum, there’s the hope right there. Common sold like 200,000 records in the first week, that’s pretty amazing.

There’s only a couple of producers in the game now who I’m really checkin’ for. I still think Dr Dre is amazing, I don’t care what anybody says. His shit is always cutting edge, his drums and basslines are crazy, you know that theatrical hip hop that he does. I put him high up on a pedestal. I think Madlib is absolutely incredible. I heard bits of the Percee P jump off, I got the India Beat Konducta album. It pisses me off all the Dilla fans who hit him up on his website like ‘we miss you’ and ‘you were fucking God, but where the fuck were these people when he was alive and doing it. It’s the same thing with Madlib, he’s big amongst his community but to the masses it’s like, whatever. I guess you’re never really nothing until you pass away. It is fucked up.

FDB: Just to wrap things up Eddie, I know you’re a family man now. How has that affected you as a musician?

EJ: I appreciate you saying musician because I like to consider myself as one. I had to cut the sampling out because a couple of times I did do some work and I got taxed on it and in about 2002 I started playing keys. The whole family thing really hasn’t really changed my approach because I find myself still listening to the same shit. The good thing is that I’ve matured a lot and I think my music is now as mature as it’s gonna get. If you listen again to ‘One Life Ta Live’ or ‘East To West’ I had the same approach: if it’s ’97 or 2007 I still have the same approach. I call it ‘hard love’, hard drums with melodic keys and that has always been my approach.

I had a death in the family when my son Morgan passed away in 2005. The record on my MySpace page called ‘Perfect Angel’ is dedicated to him.

FDB: I’m really sorry to hear that.

EJ: It was a crib death, and if there’s such a thing as rock bottom then that’s it. I guess if I can get through that then I can get through anything. My music has gotten a little more meaningful now, and with the next body of work I do you’ll see a growth in it. It’s still gonna be the same hip hop shit, R ‘n’ B or whatever. Children will do that to ya. As long as my four year old keeps bobbin’ his head when he comes in the lab then I know I’m doing alright.

FDB: It’s been really great to talk to you Eddie.

EJ: It’s good to talk to you too man, stay blessed.

Let’s hope we hear more from Eddie in the future and that he gets the recognition he deserves. I’ll be hipping you to anything that he drops, and make sure you go and check out his MySpace and show him some love. Damn shame that Seth Marcel joint never made it out: ‘Hardcore’ is real tasty street record. Props to the man for sending me over some of his unreleased material as well; I hope you enjoy them as much as I have been.

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