30 Seconds: Reflections on Guru, creative
collaborations and inadvertently inventing
Artistic collaboration is never easy! The pig-headed ego of the artist makes
compromise difficult; at times impossible. Once you start mixing your mediums, the
difficulties can escalate.
However, when it works, the product is way more than the sum of the totals! Here
When Ashwan hit me up with a chilled out instrumental sometime in the mid
noughties, I was initially less than excited. I wanted boom bap, boom bap and
nothing but boom bap. I wanted clattering snares and horrific industrial sfx filling the
spaces. I wanted hard and I wanted masculine! I wanted Hiphop!
Despite this, the beat was dope. A kind of Cafe Del Mar meets Mo Wax vibe with a
beautiful Robocopesque sample informing the listener as well as the MC that they
only had '30 seconds to respond'. And so was born the title of the track - 30 Seconds.
I wrote to the theme and crafted a couple of verses, aimed at matching the mood of
the instrumental. The verses were short so I wanted to pack in the words, but the
delivery had to be smooth enough to sit comfortably on the sparse and melancholic
soundscape. I hit the booth; take after take. The verses were tight but they just
didn't fit. I reflected on Guru's advice as I went about my own daily operation -
mostly the voice
, were the words that guided and scared me. Perhaps, I just didn't
have the right voice for this project; perhaps not for rap at all. This wasn't the first
time I had felt this. My softer; higher than desirably pitched vocals had caused me
angst right through my MC 'career'.
I sent the vocals off the Ash. This was always a nervous time. Ashwan had been as
much a mentor to me as he was a collaborator, contemporary or friend. His opinion
counted; even if I didn't always agree with it! I don't often agree with much, unless
I've thought it first myself. This is not a strength.
At some point during this anxious time, Ashwan hit me back with a suggestion. "Try
whispering it," he said. Now, I was used to Ash pushing me to try new approaches
and styles; perhaps he was as aware of the shortcomings of my less than street
crafted vocals as I was.
I was reluctant, as usual, and then agreed to give it a
go, as always. In there is the key to successful collaboration - try what you don't
want to do, if the other person thinks it’s worth it. Respect each other’s knowledge
I spent an evening hoarsening my voice whispering loudly into an over-ramped
condenser mic, desperately trying to manage my plosives and maintain some clarity
within my new guise of the heavy-breathing MC. After several takes were ruined by
coughing and wheezing (nothing to do with smoking obviously) I sat down and
disappointedly scanned through the multiple takes. None worked right. However,
they all nearly worked. The next task was to begin adding weight back to the vocals
that had been lost in all that breath. I recorded a dub track that was more of a
mumble than a whisper. Once done, I layered the various takes until they sounded
like a verse; rather than a strange experiment in supernatural communication. I sent
the vox back to Ash and awaited the results. Within a couple of days, the track was
back, mixed, reverbed and condensed. The weight was there as was the subtlety and
moodiness the beat demanded. The hook shuffled far enough towards sing-
whispering to provide a lift into the chorus and a drop back into the verse. There was
movement. We had lift off.
The track did the usual rounds of the Internet sites that we always shared to; the
ones where people liked our shit and where we were able to ignore the unqualified
nature of the adulation and feel, every few weeks, just for a few days, like rap stars!
Time passed and the track slid down the 'newly uploaded' list and further back into
Years later, now transformed from wannabe street MC into respectable spoken word
poet, I am reminded of the track as I trawl through nearly-forgotten recordings and
rediscover the one-time sure shot game-changers that never quite changed the
game in the way they promised. I listen to 30 seconds. It isn't what I came trawling
for. I wanted the older stuff;
Cuss Ya Claat
and all the other
'anthems' of our mid-noughties forays in rap. As the instrumental gently
reintroduced itself I was reminded, warmly, of the whole process, all that I've said
above came back to the light of my mind in the moment of that intro. Then the drone
of the vocal sample; a roll of the drums and into the verse. I'm surprised at how
much better it now sounds. Perhaps it is a sign of my lessened personal criticality;
perhaps a sign that these tunes really were as far ahead of the game as we secretly
wished. Whatever the case, this was a tune now; more than it ever had been.
Reflecting on the delivery, I decided to return to the whispering style for a poem.
is my ode to the clandestine world of the graffiti artist; perhaps the
last real painters left. The whispering delivery, now more controlled through
experience of voice control and a greater comfort in front of the mic, falls easier from
the tongue and retains the punch that needed to be reinserted into the original
It has been all too easy over the last decade to downplay the enormous amount of
vocal development that took place during my 'hip hop years'. However, much in the
same as Guru cited on his 1992 album track; and as I often find myself reciting in
response to the slam poets, MCs and public speakers I now help to develop through
my work as a Hip-hop educationalist and slam poetry promoter, it is indeed,
Mostly tha voice, that gets you up
It's mostly tha voice, that makes you buck
A lot of rappers got flavor, and some got skills
But if your voice ain't dope then you need to chill...
Not all of us can be blessed with Guru's unique and distinctive tone, but where
there's a will, there are many, many ways. And I'm sure Guru would agree that
without a critical, creative collaborator to compliment his voice, he may just have
been a guy with a dope voice uploading to share sites for the adoration of
uninformed and grossly biased fans, rather than being one half of Hip Hop's most
Guru was right; it is
the voice, but when it comes to music, it's a lot more