Q&A with Shawn J Period | Interview Features
Shawn J Period is one of the most amazing people I have ever had the pleasure of speaking with. I learned a lot in the time I spent with him and I will never forget his enthusiasm. I could tell he was excited to share his story, there were even a few moments where he had to catch himself because he felt like he was going too much into detail. He shared some amazing memories with me about growing up in a rural part of Virginia and waiting for his friend Tyrone to bring cassettes and videos of the rappers and DJ’s that stopped in Richmond to perform. He would soon find his way out of the small town and his talent would eventually put him deep into the heart of the hip hop movements occurring in New York. He experienced the industry as an artist when he was signed to Big Beat/Atlantic Record with the group Down South and the exposure that was garnished from Bobbito and Stretch Armstrong and many others. He would soon spend a lot of time in the studio with The Beatnuts and T-Ray during recording sessions, soaking in their knowledge and strengthening his own approach. He would also go on to learn to master the SP-1200 with his mentor Dr. Butcher and the story is truly legendary from this point on. Today, I am very excited to share with you, Shawn J Period’s exclusive interview with Sound Colour Vibration.
Shawn J Period recently released ‘Unspoken 90’s Volume 1’ order your copy here and check it out below!
Q&A with Shawn J Period
Conducted by Nick Abitia
Nick: Shawn, I wanted to thank you again for your time, I really appreciate you sitting down with me today.
Shawn: Thank you!
Nick: Your career has been amazing to say the least. When did you start making music and who were some of your earliest influences?
Shawn: I grew up in Virginia and I definitely had an early influence from my dad, I didn’t realize it at the time though, you know? I listened to a lot of jazz growing up but when you’re a youth, the music that you want to listen to and what your parents played in the house didn’t always coincide. I remember early on, my first hip-hop show was the New York City Fresh Fest, because it would come to Richmond, I think the headliner was the Fat Boys or something like that. I had already been exposed to hip hop prior to that from people who had videos of various people because various artists would come out to Richmond. There was this guy I grew up with named Tyrone who lived in the city, I lived in a more rural area so when he would come hang, he would bring videotapes and cassettes with various rappers on it. Man, there would be so many rappers on there it would be hard to name them all! I actually got into doing music and started making beats on a Roland TR-505, if I’m not mistaken. I just learned to do beats like that. Inadvertently, the jazz I was surrounded by became a part of my early productions; I didn’t necessarily intend it that way. I definitely think the music dad played ended up having a influence on me when I really started to produce music.
Nick: How did you originally get into the music business and who were the first people to open new doors for you?
Shawn: I actually started off as a rapper in a group called Down South. We got signed to Big Beat/Atlantic Records and then I moved to New York in 1992. We actually got that deal through a relationship our DJ had with Bobbito and Stretch Armstrong who had a radio show in New York. They were really popular at the time so we got a lot of exposure through them. Stretch was A&R for Big Beat/Atlantic so that’s how I formally got into the music industry. I was signed with the group Down South. It all just picked up from there.
Nick: When you first moved to New York, who were some of the people that made you feel the most at home?
Shawn: It’s interesting because I think that would have to be The Beatnuts and T-Ray. We moved to New York right when we we got signed so it wasn’t like any of us were from around there, we didn’t know anyone. The DJ’s family is from New York though so he had been exposed to different things already. When we came here we were immediately recording. I would say that the Beatnuts and T-Ray were the initial ones because of the actual process of the album, you know? We were always vibing with them and when we first came to New York, the sessions were pretty closed in. Eventually the Artifacts got signed to the label and we became label mates so we would hang with them – but it was never too much. Definitely connecting with them helped. Biggie used to live around the corner from us so we would see him, talk to him various times. I could go through a whole list of people that made us feel the most at home but that’s who we were around a lot of the time.
Shawn J Period with the group Down South utilizing a 70’s soul funk sample from the legendary Roy Ayers – “Southern Comfort” – Big Beat/Atlantic Records, 1994
Nick: When looking at your producer credits, it is hard to find only a few to talk about. Can you dive into “The Art of Facts” from 1996 and maybe give our readers a little inside look as to what the recording process was like on that?
Shawn: I remember making the beats in a basement of the place we where staying in Brooklyn; I remember at that time, I was sampling various records and things. I remember getting an album from a record store somewhere in Virginia when I was back home and when I got back to New York, I started chopping up the drums. I liked the drums because they had a certain sound to them; it wasn’t just an open kick, snare and high hat that you would normally chop up. This one had a sound to it too, it went: [hums a melody], and I really liked it, so I chopped it and programmed it. I would play it and I’m not sure at what point they picked that particular song, but that was definitely one of the ones we recorded in that Platinum Island Studio. I remember they wrote some great rhymes, like the great lyricists they are, but we were trying to figure out the chorus. Tame was in there… they obviously rhyme about smoking and all that stuff – that’s what they were doing, you know what I mean? He was just in there going [sings]: “ooh.. oooh.. ooh.. oh!” I was like, “alright get in the booth!” I was used to using natural feeling things, not necessarily super concocted, I don’t like keeping it strictly a certain way. I would love to pull in from more natural elements; usually it would be perfect. He jumped in the booth and recorded what ended up becoming the chorus of the song, you know what I mean? It just worked!
Nick: Let’s go in to the classic, “Universal Magnetic”. When did you meet Mos Def and can you tell me a story about that track?
Shawn: Ah, “Universal Magnetic,” interesting story! I actually met Mos Def when I was working with Da Bush Babies. I had a few songs on their album and I did the intro and outro of it. They knew Mos, so he came to the studio and me and him hit it off in the studio. He actually did the intro and outro part of the album over the beat that I did. Mister Man (aka Lord Khaliyl) brought him into the studio and they came to my house and we started vibing and stuff. I had already finished a couple of tracks for Da Bush Babies and it was getting down to the end; they just needed one or two more songs to finish the album. I remember staying up to work on this beat to give to them because I just wanted another spot on the album – you always try to get as many as you can [laughs]! One day, I got to the studio at a decent time and didn’t leave until early morning, but whenever that would happen, there would be a bird there, outside of the window – honestly, that bird would be outside of that window four days out of the week. You know, life is filled with sounds and I love to use natural sounds. Some people forget it’s not like we just hear music; we hear planes flying over our heads, we hear birds chirping, wind blowing, rustling leaves, things like. I tried to be open to not just stuff that comes out of the keyboard or a musical note, but things that I haven’t used and I used that bird. I have always said that one day I know that bird is going to find me and want to publish it! Anyways, I finished this beat and I took it to the Bush Babies and they liked it but it wasn’t what they wanted to use to finish up the album with. I’m not sure where Mos heard it the first time but I know he heard it and he wanted to rap over it. Rawkus Records at the time was doing their thing and he wasn’t signed to them yet, but they had already approached him about doing a single for Rawkus. He basically chose the beat for “Universal Magnetic” and he chose the “If You Can Huh! You Can Hear” beat that day.
When we recorded in the beginning, and it’s not credited this way, he goes “A, B-boys, rock the world,” and all of that stuff. I had the beat already programed in on the SP and I think I was using my EPS-16 on that song. He was just banging on it with his fingers. He just started doing that beat with those sounds. He was like, “let’s record this,” ’cause he is real spontaneous and stuff. After that we ended up putting that in the intro. He actually hand played the beginning part using the drums I had originally programmed for the song and then he rapped over it: “A, B-boys, rock the world…”
That song brings back a lot of memories because there is a lot that went in to it. Mos is Muslim and I’m Christian but we had a respect for each other and although we didn’t agree religiously, we respected each-other for striving to be spiritual in our own ways. Anyways, he had read a book that was talking about the way certain evil forces are conjured up by certain instruments, like, string instruments and horns, or something like that. The original “Universal Magnetic” had a an actual bass sound in it but since I was trying to respect what he had going on at the time I moved some things around. I already had the Rhodes part in the song, the Rhodes didn’t violate anything he had read so I left it in. For the bass, I took a rubber band and close mic’d it. I don’t even know how I got a sound out of it. It must have been a really thick rubber band or something like that so I ended up using that. In the intro of the song when he is humming, [reenacts the humming], he is doing it with his mouth because it all had to do with not using horns.
Mos Def – “Universal Magnetic” – Rawkus Records, 1997 – Produced by Shawn J Period
Nick: When did Talib Kweli get added to the mix and what was it like working with Mos again when you did “Children’s Story” with Black Star?
Shawn: Working with Black Star was definitely good! I met Talib through Mos when they were first forming the group. “Children’s Story” began like any other song, they obviously had to hear it and want it. I already had a beat in mind for them, it was just a kick, snare, and bassline. I had an intro to my beat, I think it was only about 8 bars, but then it went into another beat. I was so excited because I had produced this beat and I wanted Mos to hear it! He was like “ah man, the beat its cool, but I really like the beginning part.” I was thinking, “man, but that’s just the intro, I want you to like the other part!” That’s when he came up with the whole concept of doing the song and stuff like that! He was still in the same frame of mind from “Universal Magnetic” in regards to the type of sounds he would use. I had used a bass sound in the original version but I replaced it and replayed it on the Rhodes. I probably used some more of that rubber band too!
Nick: Who were some of your earliest influences as a producer and who ultimately had the biggest impact on your sound?
Shawn: I remember the first time I heard Gang Starr’s “Manifest,” I was like, “wow, this is incredible.” I think Premier had a big influence on me because I was just amazed at how he did stuff and I really didn’t know what chopping was back then. No one told me to follow him, I was just drawn to the way he did things. I know he had earlier songs then that, but that was my first exposure to him. I think it’s the standards though, Premier, obviously Pete Rock. It’s interesting though, the guy who ultimately was my biggest influence was a producer named Dr. Butcher who I met when I first moved to New York. Because of working and interacting with him I learned a lot in regards to, let’s say, using the SP-1200 or things like that. The Beatnuts and T-Ray were the main producers on the first album with Down South so I ended up being around them a lot, working with them from an artist side. I produced on the album, but obviously because I was an artist, I had to get with them, you know, listen to their music, write to it. All of those various people had a major impact on me.
Nick: You obviously have an amazing perspective on the evolution of hip hop. Can you talk a bit about the progression of the culture and maybe talk about what you have seen change and how do you feel about it?
Shawn: I think that it is natural to anything that progresses; with greater exposure comes a greater input. Hip hop first started in New York, so it was a small microcosm. When it progressively became more exposed, I was part of the unfolding of it, but I didn’t grow up in New York. I was a part of a wave that was growing and progressing. The one thing I see now that has happened because of social media and all that, you can be directly exposed to so many more people instantly now. We had fan clubs back in the day, you know? People writing letters and stuff like that. I think we have lost a certain cohesiveness in the real social side of life and that’s just the way we communicate now. Now, it’s not necessarily in person and it’s somewhat informal. Hip hop culture is alive, you know? Don’t get me wrong but I feel there is some sort of disconnect where before it felt more communal. A lot of people will say, “oh I don’t like hip hop today.” I can’t necessarily understand that, now having grown a little older. I can listen to it from a musicality standpoint and I don’t necessarily get it in full, but that’s okay! You know, now a days with people using the triplet high hats, I mean, we did that stuff back in the day too, but you know, it changes and is constantly growing. I celebrate the fact that more people are being able to contribute into it. I just don’t like when it begins to get one-sided.
From the popular side, it is always going to be one-sided. Whatever can be spoon-fed to the masses to generate mass amounts of money from whatever groups of people they want. It’s always going to be like that. But then you have people like you guys who approached me! Your site and what you all are doing, you are one to not necessarily feed just in to pop culture, you want to support what builds every culture, the sub culture. Pop culture comes out of sub culture and all of the popular artists were once sub artists. From that perspective, I think that music will continue to evolve. I don’t count it as bad. Some people who are hip hop purists would say: “no it has to sound like this.” But then if you do that then it will never grow. All of us have grown. We like what we like but at the end of the day, it needs to grow. I just wish it wasn’t so one-sided, particularly in the major exposure style but that’s just economics.
Nick: I appreciate the words Shawn! What advice do you have for the people out there who are trying to evolve, be progressive, and at the same time, show respect to the past?
Shawn: One thing I would say and I hold to this: be different. If you look back during that time frame in the 90’s, you had so many people who were different from each other. Tribe was different from Cypress Hill, who were different from EPMD, you know? You could just go on and on. Being different was actually celebrated where as now I think people have started to want to copy, you know? They will say, “this is the popular thing, so I’m going to do it.” My advice is be unique. All of us have different fingerprints, God created us unique and in being unique, you have to wait your turn. Meaning that your uniqueness will not always be celebrated at the time. Being creative is being unique to yourself. That’s the way we contribute back in to the culture. You are who you are. I am who I am. My copy of you is nothing more than a second hand copy. I could never be you totally, I can only be an attempt to be you and vice-versa. I say, be creative and be different.
Nick: Wow, Shawn, we really appreciate your time and thank you so much for sitting down with us. It has been an amazing time.
Shawn: You are welcome man, any time!
Black Star – “Children’s Story” – Rawkus Records, 1998 – Produced by Shawn J Period