Talking Music Creation with Red Rack’em
Danny Berman is a DJ and music producer who has been creating dynamic sound collages for the past two decades as Red Rack’em. In the early 2000s he became well known for edits that gained worldwide appeal. In 2016 he dropped the track,”Wonky Bassline Disco Banger” and gained a new audience with his original productions. On Friday October 18 Red Rack’em joins Jimmy Maheras at Le Club, happening at the Standard Downtown Los Angeles. We caught up with Danny to chat music production, samplers, and the human touch in advance of his performance later this week.
Michael Walsh: We’re excited for your return to Los Angeles this month! We’re big fans of your productions and wanted to pick your brain on music, samplers, and creativity. Thanks for doing this!
Danny Berman: No problem - it's actually my first ever time the US so unless I visited LA in a past life, this will be my first time in the city.
MW: We love your music and the heavy emphasis on samples. So to start.. what’s your favorite sampler? (and why?)
DB: Ah thank you. Well to be honest I haven't used hardware sampler for years. Back in my early drum and bass days around 95-97 I was producing on an Akai S2000 (which had no screen so was horrible to edit on) and then my friends upgraded to an EMU ESI4000 which was marginally better. I also used an MPC2000 and a 2000XL back in the day too to make hip hop beats. I enjoyed it but tended to make Preemo straight beat NYC style hip hop on it. I never made any clubby stuff on an MPC. The sampler I have most experience with is the EXS24 on Logic but in the end I only use that for playing midi stuff. Usually if I am using samples without wanting to play them on a keyboard, I just drop the audio on the timeline and cut it up on there. I have always done that. So my favourite sampler is just cutting up audio and moving it around the timeline of logic. I just find that the quickest way to work. I can instantly change the whole rhythm of something by cutting it up and moving it around.
This technique comes from my background as an Avid editor which I gave up in late 1999 to pursue music. Well I didn't actually choose to give up editing. After having a WHALE of a time in Liverpool working for a local cable channel (it was the height of 'cool Britannia' good times), I moved to Nottingham in 99 to start a new job working for a post production house who specialized in corporate content and ads. Unfortunately I got the sack after 1 month which was a bit heavy as a sensitive 21 year old raver. I was doing television editing around the same time I was starting to use sequencers and samplers so it all kind of fit together. I even remember doing a disco edit on an Avid Media composer in 1999 much the chagrin of my then boss. Come to think of it, maybe he was right to sack me.
MW: Quoting Discogs, Monsieur says “Dude has deep crates -- these samples come from all over the place.” Without giving away too many secrets, where do you find sample sources? Digging? Youtube? Found sounds?
DB: I really envy people who have big, organized sample libraries. I have been working with Jim from Crazy P recently and he's got reams of ace samples - he just recorded loads of stuff in and it's a goldmine. I own thousands of records but I don't really tend to sample my own records so much. I really would love to just hook up a deck to my laptop and just hit record and sample a stack of vinyl one day but I tend to be too 'busy' making records to do the housekeeping which would actually improve my work practices. OK, so for sampling off the top of my head - I have sampled a really cosmic relaxation CD which my dad gave me as a teenager on quite a few tracks. I have sampled some absolutely tragic records to try to turn shit into diamonds or whatever the saying is. I have sampled a lot of documentaries on youtube. The great thing about that is you can get great music, hiss AND spoken word in the same samples. My friends Dunc and Ryan sampled everything in their house years ago when I was at college in Nottingham so I sometimes use that too. Recently I found all my old drum and bass samples and started doing breakbeat house stuff on some remixes - I was a bit bored of 'normal' house so this enabled me to be a bit more hardcore with the drum programming - hoping to enrich my 'normal' house with this skill set soon. I would say the 2 things I have sampled the most are a load of live recordings from Detroit which were obviously done by a taper in the crowd - so you get the live playing and also the crowd noise in the samples. Quite a few records came from them. I also tried to make a house track from every record on the DJ Rels mix which Madlib did to promote the amazing Rels album which was helpfully a wav - maybe that's what he wanted me to do?
MW: Some of your music, such as 2019’s “Wonky Techno Banger,” features unique synthesizer sounds that contrast sampled textures. What are your favorite synths to use in 2019?
DB: I have been lucky enough to have a couple of quite substantial sessions in the hardware heaven of Devon Analogue studio so I really enjoyed using the Waldorf Waves there. They also have an Alesis Andromeda which was nice too. I really love all the classic stuff like the Arp Odyssey, Arp Solina, Moog Voyager, Korg MS20 and stuff like that. I do also use soft synths too. I am not some analogue synth snob though - doing dance music as a job hasn't led me to have a room full of vintage synths sadly. Not yet anyway.
'Wonky Techno Banger' was pure hardware - well the kick drum was a sample I think, but apart from that it was pretty much all played in by me. I used the Wave, and a modified 303 devil fish put through an Arp 1601 CV sequencer which created an amazing flicky, clicky uptight sound on the bassline. If you listen to stuff on Gold Und Liebe by DAF you can totally hear the same CV sequencer being used on that. I actually made 8 tracks in Devon Analogue so I have more stuff to release in that vein. The thing I would say about using all hardware is it's much harder to mix as all the sounds are so 'big'.
MW: If you feel like sharing, how did you find the crazy baseline for Wonky Disco Bassline Banger? (and is there a randomized element to your sequences?)
DB: Everyone always asks me about how I did it. It's honestly not rocket science. I spent years playing drums and bass guitar as a teenager and although I am a pretty ropey musician, I can totally 'hear' what I want to play. So with things like basslines, I get the chance to program the stuff which has a bit of a live, musical touch. So it's really just either played in live or I deliberately sequence it like that. It's not random as it's deliberate if that makes sense? I love stuff like early 80s electro funk which was sequenced and using synths but was super loose and dodgy on the timing. It's just about being funky really. Dance music is so straight these days. It's partly because people are just warping live samples on Ableton and putting a beat on them so they are basically straightening things out so it's in time with super on the grid drums.
I am all about the human touch - I can't stand sanitized, quantized straight dance music. It's the devil. I am not saying it all has to be some kind of Dilla super off mad out of time stuff but come on - the reason people love 80s house and electro boogie is because it was played by real musicians, was on tape and was programmed on really shady built in sequencers on the synths which all had their own individual latency. As most music made today is coming out of one source - the computer/laptop/mcp whatever, I think one way round the 'cleanness' is to make the music as funky as possible. Funk is by definition bad playing. It comes from the word for a bad smell or the smell of sex. It's about being in time but also off. Funk isn't just programming either, it's like a kind of aesthetic which you can choose to use in differing levels of concentration. So with WBDB - I could have made a safe, boring same ol same ol disco house edit type release but where's the fun in that? I want to push the envelope and by getting someones drunk grandad to badly solo over the top of the tune, my whole intention was to make a track which was acceptable to the masses but had something in it which would push their boundaries. If you listen to good quality dance music to me it's pretty standard really. I think the key thing was that it got heard by a huge amount of people, some of whom aren't used to hearing stuff like Moon B, Nas1 or Radiq. This is where I think being an active DJ can be an asset for your music production as I am definitely influenced by the more underground end of what I dig and I try to bring this vibe to more mainstream audiences.
MW: Your recent music has moved to more original compositions and less sampling. Do you prefer one more than the other?
DB: Well I do feel a bit of a hack when I use samples tbh. I mean here's me banging on about standards and I am still sampling left right and centre - I mean I guess for me it's about the outcome. If you sample a simple loop and put a kick on it and then repeat that for 5 mins then it's a bit like 'where's the effort?'. But if you do that and then play in some totally cool bassline or synths and mix someone flicking through the radio dial over the top and reverse the loop at the end of every 16 and mute the kick when things drop back in and maybe put the kick in some offbeat position to create some funk and you know put some of YOU in the track then I think sampling is ok. Hardware can sometimes just be a very expensive excuse for being boring. Matthew Herbert used to smash a glass live in a club, sample it and make the funk out of it. Pepe Bradocks remix of Iz and Diz 'Mouth' is up there in the best ever house tune list and it's all made by noises from a human mouth. I think if I was a better musician I would love hardware more. I really enjoy using synths but for me it always sounds less warm and human than using samples. Even if I write a whole tune from scratch with hardware, by the very electronic nature of the sounds, I tend to go in a more techno or ambient direction. I can't really imagine writing a soulful house tune using hardware but that's probably partly down to the fact I have made so much house using samples. When I get access to hardware, I tend to just think 'techno' or want to make some really self indulgent ambient stuff. Tbh it's VERY therapeutic for me to use hardware as it gets me off Logic and away from the computer screen.
MW: On your 2019 record, “Deep in Love,” you take an uplifting melody and take it to a dark place with a chord.. but then bring it back to light. Tell us about your feelings on darkness and light in music and creativity.
DB: I was worried about that bit on 'Deep In Love' as I felt it kind of took it down a dark road. I thought perhaps people wouldn't be able to handle this happy, party tune being twisted out but in the end several DJs told me they loved that bit on the track as it went more edgy. For me as a pretty bi-polar person, I can feel happy, sad, frustrated, elated, hopeful, frightened, immature, wise, creepy and altruistic on loop throughout the course of an average day. It can be pretty exhausting. So I guess that kaleidoscope of emotions is something which influences my take on music.
If you want to look at how the action of creating affects my emotions, the initial creative burst is an escape into mindfulness as I am lost in the moment of just making up something new, but then when you lose that initial spurt and have to do some arranging or find a new sound, I can slump into a bit of a stress as I start to question if I can get it 'right'. Then when it comes to turning a 2-3 min idea into a full track you realize you have a long road ahead of you to get the thing finished to release standard. That can often evoke quite a bleak feeling within me as I know it's a lot of fine tuning and micro editing ahead. Which I don't relish sometimes. Making music is kind of like problem solving. You can record something in live or sing but unless you're a virtuoso, you have to do some editing and tidy things up somewhat after. You can come up with some great sections in a track but making them all fit together in a coherent arrangement can sometimes feel like a creative mountain looming ahead in the distance. It can sometimes just feel like a load of smashed up wood lying on the floor which you have to assemble into some beautiful bookcases, but there's no light in the room and your wood glue has dried out.
For all the joy you're hoping the music will bring to others, the mundanity of actually making the track can sometimes be a bit galling. But it's also good for your discipline to see things through and it can often be cathartic to condense your emotional state into something which 60-70% of the time no one else will hear. I am sitting on tens of thousands of hours of work and several days worth of music which perhaps no one will ever hear, so there's something to be said for the balancing effect of being creative.
In terms of darkness and light, music serves different people in different ways. For some, it's just a way of augmenting their burgeoning DJ career or perhaps secretly creating content for someone else to take the shine, for a suitable price of course. For others it's a way of feverishly chasing the dream of a big hit or perhaps letting off steam after 50 hours in a day job during the week and reminiscing upon a time before kids and a partner. And for others it's raw expression and a way of communicating in a world which has become an even more strange and confusing place. I don't really question why I create - I guess it's a safe space in some ways but as I said it also leads an inordinate amount of stress when the track becomes a device to create more opportunities to earn money as a touring DJ. I wish it was as simple as just making a track. Maybe it would be if I had a normal job.
MW: Writer Simon Reynolds (Retromania) believes that modern music is moving in a creative loop, repeating our past over and over in a continuing cycle. What do you think of this idea and where do you think music is headed in 2020?
DB: I totally agree we're in a loop but the reasons for that are down to the lack of any fresh current influences and input and a cycle of younger people feverishly discovering things from before 'their time'. I mean I have done that for most of my adult life too. I was recently playing in Seoul with the Wavecord crew who are an awesome 5 person DJ team who are all playing loosely disco funk italo electro funk stuff. They all play other stuff as well but in that constellation they seem to be mainly playing soulful funky disco ish stuff. Hanging with them took me back to the early - mid 2000s in Nottingham when me and my friends were playing 'Underwater' by Harry Thurman on 33 (copying maestro Baldelli of course), shocking out to 'Reduction' by Material etc - I can't quite compare us to them as they are playing Korean, Japanese and Cantonese Disco as well as the US stuff but I could totally relate to their love of the retro sounds as a kind of reaction to the static status quo of house and techno. I think these cycles are being endlessly repeated and restarted all over the world. I think there is plenty of fresh music out there but you have to look pretty hard for it these days amongst the piles of generic 'ok' stuff. So I think the reason it's such a loop could be that it's just a steady succession of younger consumers, journalists, bookers and burgeoning producers all speed dialing round the genre clock with us oldies either trying to avoid the trends by playing stuff which ISN'T on trend.
God help me if I am on trend - I used to be back in the day when I was in my twenties but after 30 odd years of collecting music, I prefer to cherry pick from all of it than play something because it's fashionable at that moment. The market gets flooded with whatever is the sound de jour and then of course all the newer artists also start to put an electro tune on their EP or an ambient tune. When I am checking promos for my radio shows, it's often quite impressive how many records are not just the same type of music but are even sequenced in the same way so the track order and vibe is crazy similar. I guess it makes it easier for the PR companies when they are rehashing the press release. Actually maybe that's it - maybe they just send the press release out as a guide to a few different producers to make sure the music is on trend.
MW: Why do you create music?
DB: A form of protest against the scene being sold out to pop idol style management companies who are creating sponsored actors to take the places of genuine artists on the scene. I guess I think I have something to say. Or something I want to say. But mainly to myself it seems. I really wish I could release more music. Maybe some kind of creative tourettes? I dunno. That's a tough question. I just do it. I guess in the one sense I want people to enjoy dancing or listening to my music, but on the other hand I also want people to question the quality of the stuff being pumped to them and dig a bit deeper and support some genuine artists. I guess in the end maybe I am being too serious about it all? I dunno it's hard not to be serious about something you've dedicated nearly all your life to. I enjoy making music but I also find it a bit daunting sometimes having to finish something to its full potential and make it 'sing'. I guess I get satisfaction out of expressing myself musically. Expensive wanking.
MW: What’s more fun - DJ or Producing?
DB: DJing by a mile. But the conditions surrounding the actual gig can often not be so nice or conducive to actually playing well. If I had a choice I would happily give up producing and just be a DJ. BUT. Big capital BUT. DJing and touring is much more impacting on my mental and physical health than producing. Well, it's a lot more extreme. I mean I get kind of low level depressed when making tracks - you know like 'why do I have to sit here every day and move silly blocks round on a sequencer? I wish I was on a plane to somewhere exciting before getting to play a 3 hour set on a dope system to a room full of adoring fans' But then fast forward to 3 weeks on the road and you're just going mad in some hotel room and you've been eating out for days on end and just want a nice unsalty home cooked meal and to not have to speak to anyone anymore.
Producing isn't as fun as DJing but making records seems to be feel a bit more holistic than DJing these days. There's not a row of people filming me and thrusting their phones in my face with messages and orders on them when I am sat in the studio making a tune. However, there's increasing pressure on artists to do a million instagram stories a day nowadays so even that haven of the studio and making a track isn't sacred anymore. There's always some disturbance. Isn't modern life so intrusive?
MW: What kind of jams are you packing for your DJ performance at the Standard in LA this week?
DB: I think I will play it pretty fun. Disco, housey stuff, nothing too mental. It all depends on how open minded the crowd are really. Good music hopefully.
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