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Tape Op Magazine Interview with Ben Herson and Daniel Cantor

Tape Op Magazine Interview with Ben Herson and Daniel Cantor

African Underground: Guerilla Hip-Hop recording Senegalese Style


I sat down with cousins and co- producers Ben Herson and Daniel Cantor at Daniel's Notable Productions studio just outside of Boston. Over strong, delicious Senegalese coffee we discussed the first compilation CD they've helped create, their "guerrilla-style" production techniques and the state of Senegal's burgeoning underground hip-hop scene. Ben, a drummer and self- described neophyte in the world of recording and production, created the beats and grooves on African Underground Volume One: Hip-Hop Senegal, over which Senegalese rappers rhyme in Wolof, English, and French. He and his cousin Daniel, also a drummer, experienced recording engineer, songwriter and producer, traveled to Senegal to record a variety of Senegalese rappers on location, in the hundred-degree heat of a community center with just a hard disk recorder, a laptop and a few microphones. The two returned to the States, where Ben used his laptop to edit what they had recorded. Then they added overdubs and mixed the tracks at Daniel's studio just outside Boston. The resulting album is a beautiful mélange of slamming beats, subtle musical embellishments, strange noises and an array of intelligent, often overtly political rhymes.

You mentioned "unconventional and often uncomfortable recording conditions," power failures and surges and a power transformer bursting into flames. Could you talk a bit about the challenges of field recording in Africa?

BH: Sure. First of all, you should know that I began it as an academic project. Although I had also been playing drums in bands and recording and touring, I had never been behind the board. I'd never recorded anything, really. I had a 4-track, and I had one of these lovely machines [pointing to the Radio Shack tape recorder recording our conversation], but besides that, I'd really never done any recording. Dan is my cousin, and I'd spent a lot of time in his studio. So I approached Dan, and I said, "I've got this idea. I really want to put together a portable recording rig." So he really helped me come up with that first rig. It was crazy for a lot of reasons. First of all, the power over there, they're running on 220 [volts]. I decided that it would be a good idea to set up in a community center. It's sort of a central spot, there's space and there's technically grounded electricity — or there was supposed to be. One of the first days, before Dan even got there, I plugged in some stuff to test the equipment, and we later found out it was running at something like 89 volts. It was supposed to be 220.

DC: It was the UPC. He had one of those APC Back-UPS Pros, and it literally exploded.

BH: It completely burst into flames. I was totally freaked out — I had no clue what the fuck was going on. I plug it in, it explodes, end of story. We ended up actually having to get a buddy of mine over there, whose older brother is sort of an electrician. He knows how to wire stuff and how to work with it. There was grounded current coming from one of the wires in the ceiling, so they actually re-routed the whole goddamned thing for us.

What was the initial rig that you brought with you?

BH: That was a Tascam 788, which was one of those little 8-track, 24-bit hard disk recorders. It kind of looks like a 4-track, but it's eight tracks of digital. We brought one of those...

DC: ...and his black G3 laptop.

BH: A little MIDI controller that didn't even have velocity. It was just basically like straight up at 127or whatever.

DC: It was a pre-USB Midiman keyboard controller, a MOTU Micro Express half-rack MIDI interface. For [the] sake of size we actually tried the MOTU FreeStyle but it wouldn't spit MTC out continuously; it would mess up. The MTC was inconsistent when synchronized, so we had to get the half-rack MIDI converter, which was solid.

BH: It was before this guy over here [pointing to an M- Audio Oxygen MIDI controller] was invented. It was 2001, so they hadn't come out with any of these cute little keyboard things, so we opted for sort of the middle ground. And then I bought one of those three-mics-for-$100 sets.

DC: I was worried about the humidity affecting condensers and we didn't really know how safe it would be. We knew there was a lot of crime and dubious shipping, so I didn't want to bring too much gear. In fact, we broke down every night, packed all the gear up into a lockable footlocker, then carried it back to the room where we slept every night. And it was good, because every night, even the fuses that we bought and put into the municipal center were stolen and replaced with chewing gum wrappers.

BH: We had to take them out every night, because the first night the fuses got ripped off.

What were the mics?

BH: They were cheap Sennheisers. They sounded like 58s, but a little brighter.

DC: But I did pack an extra mic, a stereo VP88 Shure, which actually is a pretty nice all around mic, even though for vocals it's stereo. We didn't have that many tracks going into the Tascam. You can only do four at once, and we had no isolation. We hung some blankets to kill reflections of this boxy little room at one point. But we actually spread people around the VP88 for some of the lead vocal tracks. There were a bunch of rappers improvising, like on the Slam Revolution/BMG 44 collaboration.

BH: Yeah, on that track there must have been about eight MCs. And I literally was in there holding a mic, and whoever was doing their shit, I'd put the mic up to them.

DC: Keep in mind that the room we're in is a hundred degrees.

BH: At least.

DC: And at different times of the day the amount of electricity would vary by 30 or 40 volts. And so we would keep an eye on the converter, which had a meter on it. And when it would get below a certain amount, we'd turn everything off, save and do a coffee break. Because it would go below and then everything would shut down, so we had to keep an eye on that.

BH: We would shut it down and save it before we lost it. We learned very early on, when the UPC backup blew up, not to trust the electricity.

Were you saving to the hard drive of your laptop?

BH: To the Tascam hard drive, and we'd burn CDs as well.

The hard disk recorder burns CDs?

DC: Yeah, that little guy is very convenient. It has mic pres, although we brought an extra pair of Symmetrix 202s, which are really good, inexpensive mic pres. But the hard disk recorder has mic pres, it has an external SCSI CD burner, it has a mixer with effects, and it's tiny.

How much do those Tascams cost?

BH: That rig? I got it used for $600 or $700 with the CD burner. So it was very inexpensive. I know they're selling for even cheaper now.

DC: It's also 24-bit.

BH: It's a great little unit. I sort of wish I didn't have to sell it. I got rid of it because I upgraded some things.

What software did you have on the laptop?

BH: We brought Logic specifically for the MIDI. We didn't record any of the audio into the laptop at all. It was just really for the MIDI tracks.

DC: Benny had made a bunch of grooves and sent them over [to rappers in Senegal]. He sent them and said, "Pick the ones you like, and then we'll work with the ones you like. Or, if you really don't like them, we'll write some new ones." So when we got there, there were a few people who were like, "We like this one, but can we speed it up, or can we change the flavor of it? I want a little flute thing going on here. Can you do this?"

When and why did you go to Senegal the first time?

BH: I went over there in '98 for my first time. A good friend of mine who lives in Boston, a Senegalese drummer, Abdullah Sall, I met him when I was like 15. And he became friends with the family, and Dan and I both studied [drumming] with him. He took me over my first time, in the summer of '98. I'm a drummer. I was really interested in studying sabar. He was a djembe player. Sabar is the national drum of Senegal. It's played a lot at the wrestling matches and stuff.

DC: It's played with one hand and one stick. It's kind of unusual.

BH: So I went over there then, and I was in the marketplace and I saw there was a bunch of local music and local hip-hop stuff. Being a fan of hip-hop, I thought, 'Where am I ever going to find something like this again?' I picked some of that up, brought it back with me, and that got my curiosity going. I was at Hampshire College at the time, getting ready to write my thesis, and I had this idea of doing something with Senegalese hip-hop. So I went over there for about three months, and I studied the [Wolof] language before I went. I got very lucky when across the street from where I was living was one of the old school MCs from Senegal. This was Shiffai, who's on the compilation — he rhymes in English. He introduced me to a lot of different people and the ball started rolling. I wrote the thesis, sent it back, said, "Okay, great, good luck, guys. Keep in touch." But then we kept e-mailing and calling back and forth, and the idea kind of got going. I thought, the thesis is an interesting way to show people about this and disseminate some of this stuff, but not everyone's going to sit down and read a fucking college thesis, it's just not going to happen.

What was the gist of the thesis?

BH: The thesis was really about how hip-hop in Senegal was used as a tool for political change. They had been working under a single party system since independence. So for about thirty years the PS [Le Partie Socialiste] party was in control, and in particular, this one guy, Abdou Diouf, who'd been in control for about fifteen years or so. And the country was getting poorer and poorer, he was building more villas in France — it was just a ridiculous situation.

Kind of typical post-colonial African situation.

BH: Very typical, but the one thing that is very atypical about Senegal is that they have very liberal media, and they have many, many radio stations and privately owned newspapers. The government doesn't control most of this. They have one government- controlled TV station, one government-controlled radio station, but the rest is all private. Because of that, they had a lot of music coming in from outside of Senegal, and they had a lot of free speech, free- thinking ideas going on. That, coupled with the angry young kids that were really into hip-hop, was a huge motivating factor to get a large population of kids that had never gone to the polls before to vote against this guy. The lyrics were very political, and it completely changed things over there. That's what inspired me to continue working with this, because they were really saying something unique. They were really saying something different, something I felt we could learn from, especially because we had just had an election here, which was pretty dismal, in my opinion. And so here you go across the world to Muslim West Africa, where we're trying to push our own political agenda, our own idea of democracy — which doesn't even work here — that works even better over there. That was certainly inspiring.

Slam Revolution in "Wax Degg" ["Speak Truth"] talks about the government's attempts to silence Senegalese hip- hop groups. Given what you've said about free speech and the media in Senegal, how does the government try to silence hip-hop artists?

BH: They walk a fine line, the Senegalese government. And to be quite honest, they have a very hard time finding ways to silence people because of these really open outlets. They know that if they come down too hard they're going to be criticized even more. They're trying to function as a democracy, and so the ways that they do it usually tend to be kind of police scare tactics. One thing [the police] do to intimidate people is they'll bring one of those Mercedes vans in filled with cops, and everybody goes running.

DC: When we were out for dinner one night with some of the rappers, we were walking down the street and one of the guys heard a police car coming, and our friend just grabbed me and we ran down this side street to get away from the police. I asked, "Why?" He said, "We don't even wait to see them. We just run."

BH: The military's got a code, a certain uniform, a sort of code of honor, a way you're supposed to act and dress, a certain kind of gun. The police, especially in certain areas of Africa, [are] a little more disorganized and they're dealing more specifically, not with mobs of people. They're really dealing sort of one-on-one with street gangs and stuff. I guess like here — the line gets blurred.

Are there venues for people to perform over there?

BH: Lot of clubs and a lot of makeshift happenings, street parties and stuff. Similar to what you might see in Jamaica. People with a bunch of big speakers and somebody rigs up something.

Eight guys on one stereo mic?

DC: Well, there were three guys on one stereo mic and then four guys trading off on two other mics. And they would literally run up to the mic. We couldn't bring mic stands. Someone had actually welded a mic stand at one height, with one clip. So we had one mic stand at one height. You couldn't move it up or down, you couldn't turn it. You kind of had to shove the metal of the mic right in there and then we had to put guys up on telephone books to get to the right height.

BH: We've got some hilarious pictures. I'm not going to say which artist it was, but one of the artists who's particularly short had to stand on a couple of different phonebooks.

Is there anything you would've done differently about the recordings you made in the field?

DC: More mic inputs simultaneously so more people could've done their thing all at once, 'cause there wasn't much in the way of overdubs. There were a few things, but we were limited to four things at once, 'cause this Tascam can only record four at once.

BH: I've been back to Senegal to record again and I ended up stripping it down. I basically just brought one mic. I brought a couple of mics but I mostly used an AT4050, one decent mic pre. I did bring a pop filter, had another mic stand welded for me.

And you didn't have a separate mixer.

DC: Yeah, and I didn't really want a separate mixer, so we were basically balancing people.

So it was a lack of mic inputs that made you use just a few mics at a time.

DC: Yeah. I would've brought lots of pop filters, which we were stupid not to bring.

How did you handle pops? Did you use Pro Tools to chop stuff out?

DC: Yeah, and EQing, chopping things off, some compression. A lot of stuff didn't stay in the digital realm, which helped a lot.

That's another question I had. Was the whole project recorded and mixed in digital, or at some point did you dump everything to analog tape?

DC: No, we never went to analog tape, but it did go through analog processing. So we did a painful digital dump from the 788 because it only goes out two digital tracks at a time. So if we had twelve tracks or eight tracks we'd have to do them two at a time, and we'd have to have them synced. So we went through the process of doing all those dumps, twelve songs — making sure it was all synced up — that was a pain. But when we started processing things in Pro Tools, plug-ins are great, but when you've got a funky old compressor or EQ it's just so much nicer.

What kinds of funky old analog gear did you use?

DC: I've got some [UA] LA-4s, which are compressors that I love for doing vocal things. Actually some older Troisi EQs were really helpful at removing filtering problems. I even ran some stuff out to tube preamps to give them some more vibe. I went in and out of some Neve preamps and some of the Tube-Techs.

And you went through this board? Or is this new since you did the African Underground project?

DC: Yeah, it's new to me and this was the first real project I got to mix on it. It is a 1979 Neve 5316 that actually came out of an ESPN truck that had been recording basketball and hockey games. It was a bargain. So many people are dumping really fine analog gear.

Are you still using the SX202?

BH: I was using that Symetrix, yeah.

DC: That's a great cheap mic pre, and it can be altered to be made better. You can get them for around $175 for two channels, used.

And did you bring the same Tascam hard disk recorder?

BH: Not the next time, no. I ended up selling it. I ended up upgrading this Mac laptop to a G4 processor, and I used a [RME] Hammerfall card, Multiface card, which has some great A to D converters, and I recorded everything in Logic. The last one we did we sequenced it all in Reason, and I actually brought tons of samples with me I also had recording capability, so we recorded some people live and made beats out of that. It was a lot more flexible, being able to do stuff on the fly.

DC: We had some fun with overdubbing other instruments, and even doing remixes of our own original efforts. Because by the time we got back and listened to things, we were like, "We can do better than this." And we had time here in the studio to sample a bass, or sample drums, or play a groove and cut it up.

Did you make samples of live drums and then create drum loops?

BH: Well, when I first started I had been making beats for a very short time. So I was really experimenting with a bunch of different things. When I first started making beats I was making beats on a program called Sound Edit 16. Imagine Pro Tools Free, if it was like...

DC: It's way worse than Pro Tools Free.

BH: It was a nice effort for the time, but it was kind of ridiculous. You couldn't even really record for more than like twelve seconds. But you could just sort of mess around with it and multitrack stuff. So when I was first doing it I would sample like transient hits that I liked off of a drum groove. I would take a bass drum...

Off a record, you mean.

BH: Yeah, off a record. I'd take a bass drum groove, a snare drum hit, a high-hat and I would just literally place the transients — the most tedious process in the world.

DC: There's no quantizing. He was working in a vacuum. And I was like, "Come on over to the nice side." I was already working with Logic and DP for years. After Benny got hip to some of that Mac stuff we started talking about it constantly and trying methods of working. We did some live drumming and sampling each other. And I was fascinated politically by what he was telling me was going on in Senegal. I had actually kind of lost enthusiasm about rap because there was so much selfish American, "look at my bling bling" attitude. Ben introduced me to this culture of people who were singing about really important issues, so I was impressed. And he said, "Come with me to Africa," and I was like, "Yeah, let's go!"

Did you have any experience doing hip- hop or dance music production before this project?

DC: Some, but not so much. I do a lot more acoustic recording and album production, but I've written a lot of music for multimedia where they do require that kind of stuff, so I had done some, but it was not the focus of what I was doing. But he's totally into that, so it's been a nice partnership.

I was wondering if there are any female rappers in Senegal, and if so, did you work with any?

BH: When I first started going over there, because of the religious thing, men and women — although they're friends and friendly, they don't socialize together as much. If you're in the club there's more of that, but not on the street. In terms of women participating in hip-hop, there are more now than there used to be. At the time that we recorded the first one I really didn't know that many. Now there's a group called ALIF, and I'm working with this organization to bring them to the global hip-hop summit, which we're going to in France. There's another girl who's really great, named Fatim, who's totally blowing up right now. She's super, super hardcore, really energetic and intense. And she is making some waves. She's going to be on the next compilation. But there's not a whole lot. I recorded another group called the Amazons. They were really young, like 15, 16, maybe 17 years old, and they clearly had never seen a microphone before. So it took a little while to get the song done.

So you're going over to Africa and producing these artists who wouldn't have an outlet to record and make records otherwise. And you're putting stuff out on Nomadic Wax, your label, as well.

BH: Right, and that's really what I'm more interested in. Because there is a hip-hop industry, there's a music industry in Senegal. It may not be huge, but Youssou N'Dour was able to break out. There's certainly a structure there for people to be able to work through. The problem with that structure is that a lot of these groups that I really liked, that I was going out and seeing live, they just don't have the money to be able to go in the studio. So I sort of saw this middle ground there. There were some groups in Senegal that were doing hip-hop at a more pop level, who were doing really well with it, that were making really great music and having some international success even. So there was that thin layer on top but then there was all this stuff in between, which is how the African Underground thing got started.

So you took these tracks back to the States, and you started editing them at Nomadic Wax in New York?

BH: Basically just in my apartment, yeah.

What program did you use for editing when you got back to New York?

BH: Logic and Reason. We're still going through this interesting songwriting process now. I'll do a bunch of stuff at my apartment in Brooklyn, mess around with some things, have some musicians come over, sample some drum hits off records or whatever, and I'll throw stuff together 'til I like it. I'll bounce it all down into 24-bit SDII files, and I'll put it on my iPod, then bring it over here. Dan'll throw it into Pro Tools, and then from there, these songs and beats start coming together.

Are you talking specifically about sounds, arrangements or both?

DC: Song structure, yeah. I'll listen to it and be like, "Oh, the chorus could go to a different key." But he's great at making beats. He'll give me like ten tracks of drums, and maybe I'll reprocess something to change it so it fits together better in the mix. And then if we transplant a chorus, or if I want to go into a different key or different chordal structure, then we'll add other acoustic instruments or maybe reprocess stuff. He actually may be sitting there with his laptop while I'm working on this, and I'll send him a file that I'm working on and say, "Quantize this. Throw this back into Reason and chop it up." And then I'll work on getting the bass line going, so it's fairly organic that way.

BH: There's a lot of circulating of files going on.

Do you email files to each other?

DC: Not really. Most of the time we like working in the same room together.

The drum sounds on the record are really great.

BH: We're both drummers so we're really picky.

Like the snare, high hat and kick sounds are amazing. Did you generally start by sampling live drums, records or . . .?

BH: A lot of them came from breakbeats. I would take a kit that had a really great front end, and then I'd throw a little 808 under it, for a little beef. One of my favorite things to do with snare drums is I'll take a relatively thin, but nice sounding snare, and I'll throw a really thick rim, a cross stick, underneath it. So it gives it like that extra thwack, so it hits you in the chest, really mid-rangey. Hi-hats the same thing, lot of layered shit.

DC: A few things we added ran back out through my Champ and then mic'd it, and then overdubbed it, recorded it with a ribbon mic. We were like, "More noise!"

Were you double or triple tracking things as well?

DC: Some guitar things, and then I would double track them and then sample them in stereo, then he would edit them.

So you'd come back from Africa with these skeletal songs . . .

DC: There was a lot of vocal editing to do, word-by-word, manual compression, because their mic technique was horrible. We were there for twelve days, and we released ten cuts, but there were more than that recorded. The Senegalese concept of appointment is really loose, the part of the culture is, "I'll see you later." So for us there was a lot of unpredictability as to who would come when, so we would try to record whenever somebody was there, and people would hang out and do stuff.

And you had some hits on Senegalese radio?

DC: I think we had some top three, top four hits.

BH: We had a bunch of hits on Senegalese radio, yeah. As a matter of fact, last time I went there, there were a couple of tracks, like the Yat Fu track, that were being played all the time. Every club I went to, eventually it would come on at some point during the night. It was a weird experience to see that happen, sort of organically, without me. I wasn't pushing it. The artists really sort of took it under their own wing and decided to do something with it, or not.

Text courtesy of TapeOp magazine and writer interviewer Jason Hatfield.

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