CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Artist’s Choice: Makaya McCraven on the Studio as Instrument

The drummer and producer selects tracks by A Tribe Called Quest, Miles Davis, Pete Rock, Meshell Ndegeocello, and more for this custom playlist

Makaya McCraven
Makaya McCraven (photo: Leslie Kirchoff)

We’ve had recorded music for a little over 100 years. Before that, if you wanted to hear music, you had to have someone physically present, singing or playing an instrument. Recorded sound changed that whole environment: We can create music in almost an alternate dimension, where things that couldn’t happen in real life can happen on record. The recording studio itself becomes an instrument. The tracks I chose below have been a major influence on me and my understanding of what’s possible in terms of making something new and original out of recorded music. 

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all of the songs in this Artist’s Choice:

A Tribe Called Quest (with Ron Carter)
“Verses from the Abstract”
The Low End Theory (Jive, 1991)

Low End Theory is one of the first albums I ever bought. My dad [drummer Stephen McCraven] being a jazz musician, I knew about Ron Carter; the crossover on “Verses from the Abstract” of his live instrumentation—his upright bass—with sampling and production is really dope. It was definitely a catalyst for me to want to be able to take different parts of my personality and world and mesh them into one thing. Even more influential was the idea that music doesn’t have to be all modern and electronic, or all acoustic, especially at a time when there wasn’t an avenue for creating out-of-the-box content.

Miles Davis
“Sivad”
Live-Evil (Columbia, 1970)

I did a concert with Greg Ward some years ago at a regular Chicago gig where you cover a record. Greg covered Live-Evil and did some arrangements of that record. I was about to tour for my first album, In the Moment, and it struck me how similar my process was to Miles and his producer, Teo Macero. My dad had been playing Live-Evil, Jack Johnson, and other Miles records from that era since I was a kid, so it had always been in my head, but until then I’d never connected the dots about how they processed and re-edited these recordings, and how much of that process we share. When we went to Europe—Greg was with me—“Sivad” became a regular part of our set.

Yesterdays New Quintet
“Sunrays”
Elle’s Theme (Stones Throw, 2001)

Madlib is a rapper, DJ, and producer, but his Yesterdays New Quintet albums were part of a jazz project. He was actually all five members of the quintet, but he used a different alias for each instrument he played. That was fascinating to me, this idea of one musician playing all these different instruments in the studio, but at the same time you’re trying to figure out what he’s sampling and what might have been Karriem Riggins—or whoever he’s collaborating with. The listener can’t really decipher how it was put together, what was played live and what was sampled. Ultimately it becomes a moot point. “Sunrays” is just emblematic of that.

Pete Rock
“The Boss”
PeteStrumentals (BBE, 2001)
Pete Rock has the same thing going on “The Boss” that Madlib has on “Sunrays,” but through the lens of a more traditional hip-hop producer. Where did these sounds come from? Where did he get these jazz samples? I watched a video once of him explaining how he produces a beat: He chops up the track onto all the [drum] pads, and then plays the pads in time backwards, so it’s recontextualized into something fresh. A whole new generation can relate to these classic jazz recordings. In his more recent years, Pete Rock is working with a lot of great young jazz musicians. A lot of my friends, in fact, are getting to work with him.

King Tubby
“The Stepping Dub”
King Tubby Presents the Roots of Dub (Clocktower, 1975)

For me, King Tubby opened up the world of dub reggae, which was this whole world of using the studio as another instrument. “Stepping Dub” is a great example of where he took a song by a band that he had in the studio and, by muting things, using reverb, taking tracks in and out when he wants in real time, making a new piece of music out of it. But at the same time you can hear the remnants of the song that he’s making the music from. That was incredibly groundbreaking, for music in general and for me in particular.

Me’shell Ndegeocello and Yerba Buena
“Gentleman”
Various Artists, Red Hot + Riot: The Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti (MCA, 2002)

Red Hot + Riot was a compilation of artists covering Fela Kuti’s music as a fundraiser for AIDS. I love Me’shell Ndegeocello, and I like this record, but her track stood out immediately on it. It features parts of the original recordings from Fela, so now you have Me’shell performing with Fela in this time-traveling experience—you’re hearing this classic recording, with updated music, in a collaboration between artists, across a plane that doesn’t exist in the physical world. This record gave me a context from which to approach my reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s We’re New Again.

Squarepusher
“Beep Street”
Hard Normal Daddy (Warp, 1997)
The thing that got me when I first encountered Squarepusher, in college, was the super-driven drumming that then is chopped up in really aggressive ways. It’s full of all kinds of jumps and changes; as a percussionist, knowing that this was electronic music, I wanted to be able to play that in real life. The electronic beat is supposed to be imitating live drums, but I was trying to make live drums imitate the electronics. On “Beep Street,” you hear him do the same thing, at the same time, with the bass—creating all this cool syncopation—then layering this really contemporary electronic music on top. It’s a sonic realm where anything is possible.

Konono No. 1
“Paradiso”
Congotronics (Crammed Discs, 2004)
Konono No. 1 are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and they take traditional African instruments, like kalimbas and balafons, and use old transistor radio parts and speakers to amplify their sounds. They get this distorted, electronic-sounding music on these traditional Congolese rhythms and melodies. On “Paradiso,” changing the tones on these thousand-year-old instruments brings them into a futuristic realm. The way that the music is presented changes the way we perceive it, and when I was making In the Moment, that idea of recontextualizing the music kept coming up. We could take something that was performed live, in a small underground space, and make it exist in a popular context.

[as told to Michael J. West]

Makaya McCraven

Makaya McCraven is a drummer, composer, producer, and self-described “beat scientist.” His latest album, Universal Beings E&F Sides, was released by International Anthem in July 2020.