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Producer Sessions is a series from Dancing Astronaut meant to shine a brighter light on the producer community. Each volume will guide producers toward professionals in their field.P
Conrad Clifton is a Brooklyn-based electronic artist who recently released his GET YOUR WHOLE LIFE album. The project features a variety of sounds strung together that makes it difficult to pinpoint a genre. He expertly fuses elements of house, hip-hop, indie, ambient, afro beat, trap, funk, soul, disco into singular works that play seamlessly into the album’s whole. Clifton’s painstaking search for intriguing new sonic combinations and sampling makes him a sound pioneer of sorts, on a mission to find the perfect harmonies to add his vast collection. From the sound of his new 10-track album, he’s succeeding.
He’s shared the stage with notable artists like San Holo, Sweater Beats, Chrome Sparks, Pomo, Jay Prince, StayLoose and GANZ. Dancing Astronaut had a chance to Interview the multi-facetted artist below about his new long player and music production.
Do you have a typical production process? If so, what is it? (what instruments/tracks do you start with – do you use a skeleton or blank slate).
Yeah man, I always start with a blank slate. With this album specifically, I knew I wanted it to be uptempo and super vibey, but that was my only direction (and that’s still pretty broad). The process is basically three things – experimentation, going where the music takes me, and then perfecting the overall technical sound quality.
While experimenting, anything goes. I’m searching through virtual instruments, sound packs I’ve downloaded, samples I’ve recorded from vinyl, my field recordings, movie sound effects, whatever. I really like finding sounds that aren’t meant to be musical, and using them in a musical way. Like in the song “OH!”, there’s a rhythmic layer that kinda sounds like Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” but that’s actually a short clip of an old blues musician tapping his guitar and snapping.
Once I find a sound or element that feels texturally interesting – and has a groove – I just let it direct me. If you’re tuned into that creative energy, it’ll tell you what to do next, but you really gotta listen. And with more than just your ears! The process is really meditative and spiritual for me.
What are the messages you’re trying to portray in this project?
‘GET YOUR WHOLE LIFE’ is a phrase made popular by women of color and the LGBTQ community. My lady says it all the time and it’s hilarious. She also happens to be on the album cover, and was a huge inspiration for the project.
There’s a few reasons I used this title though. It should grab your attention if you’re about that life (aka #fortheculture). But no matter who you are, it should at least pique your interest. I also wanted the title to be inspiration or encouragement to be self-motivated. We all need a little reminder every now and then! But, this is the first album where I literally did everything myself. Production, recording, writing, singing, mixing, mastering, cover art graffiti, photography, design, promotion … everything. It just means “there is no excuse,” get ya life.
I wasn’t NOT going to make this album, ya know?
The other reason for this creative direction is the lack of inclusion within electronic music as a whole. It’s not that people other than white males are NOT making good electronic music, it’s that it’s not being supported. For the longest time, I would avoid sending out any music pitches with my photo attached, because people judge what they see before they ever listen to the music. In my personal experience, it made a difference in the amount of coverage I received, unfortunately.
So my hat is off to you Chris, and Dancing Astronaut for the unbiased journalism. In 2019, it’s easy to forget that house music and trap were both created by African Americans. Of course, the music itself is the most important thing! And that’s my point. In a world full of cultural diversity, I believe we can do better as a genre to include more unique influences, from people of different backgrounds.
Do you have a go-to MIDI controller?
Definitely Ableton Push 2. I use it to produce, and perform live. The other one I use most is Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol. I love hardware controllers that are built specifically for the software, and match everything that’s happening on screen.
Any special VST that really took the productions home?
I actually focused more on textural sounds and manipulating samples, for this album. But my go-to for layering elements, and adding ear candy was reFX Nexus. I have plenty of expansion packs, so there’s tons of stuff to choose from.
Which song took the longest work and why?
Either “HUNTER GATHER-HER” or “Neva Seen (A Broken Heart)” both for the same reasons. Blending the natural/organic sounds with more compressed/electronic sounds was difficult to get right in the mix. It’s very technical, but I had to swap out certain sounds to get everything to fit just right in the frequency spectrum. And you don’t know if you have the right combination until going through the mastering phase.
So I think I ended up with like 17 to 20 versions of the mix and the master with those songs.
Who helped you on the album?
I only had one feature, from an incredible singer/songwriter named Linda Diaz. I love her voice and can’t wait to do more with her. “Everything / I’ll Be Your” is actually our first collab.
Other than Linda, I didn’t have any help. I love the creative freedom, so that’s the trade off to having to do everything yourself.
How would you define your sound?
Genre-fluid. Maybe genreless?
I love so many styles of music, and I’ve never wanted to limit myself to just one. That just seems like such a waste. So I subconsciously borrow the elements that I love from different styles, bring them together, and let them inform where I should go creatively. The main influences are hip-hop and electronic music, so they usually make up the foundation, and then I’m free to just go anywhere with it.
What DAW do you use and why?
It’s been Ableton for the last 5 years, but before that it was Pro Tools. With Ableton you can be way more creatively free. You can record a bunch of different ideas, in the form of ‘clips’, and then audition the clips together in different combinations to hear what goes together the best. Usually, you’ll have more than one combination that works well, and with more than one combo you already have enough to start making different sections for your song, like a verse, chorus, drop, etc.
And the fact that you can perform live with it, sets it apart from any other DAW I’ve ever used.
What was the most difficult sound to conquer on the project?
It was something that should’ve been the most simple, but instead, created the most headache haha.
The claps on “Neva Seen (A Broken Heart)”. Yo, I tried so many combinations and could never get it right. It didn’t matter how many layers of claps I stacked on each other, they were either all in the center (no stereo), or all on the sides (no middle). And they didn’t sound like “real” claps. I wanted it to feel like there were people in a small room with you, on both sides clapping in unison.
I finally figured it out though. I ended up recording myself clapping, and then it was about hard panning different claps left & right. Then I added a subtle snare drum under them, to add more body.
What was the most difficult melody to conquer and why?
I’ve been a vocalist on music in the past, but “Silent City (Everything Is Connected)” would be the first time anyone would hear me sing on an official release, so I had to get it right.
The singing was easy, but the difficulty was in the mix. I wanted to have a modern vocal mix, that would be strong, clear, and lightweight so it floats over the music. I plugged in some mix references from Quavo, Drake, and Wiz Kid and tried to match those characteristics. It took a decent amount of effort, but I think I did alright. This song specifically, is one of the most interesting and dynamic mixes I’ve ever done. Really happy with the way it turned out.
Do you have any unique studio habits?
I have a small Pomeranian dog that likes to be in the studio while I work. I’m usually sitting on the edge of my seat, so sometimes I’ll put him in the chair with me, behind me. He’ll just chill there while I do my thing.
What was your most memorable in-studio moment while producing the album?
Probably the first time I played “Magic Chapstick” for my lady haha. She was in shock for a while, and couldn’t believe it was me! It was a pretty dope moment. A few minutes into it, she realized that the song was totally inspired by her, always asking me for my Chapstick. She was like, “ooOOoo strugggggle” hahaha!
Do you have a music background aside from production?
Before I decided to focus solely on production, I was also a songwriter – rapping and singing hooks. I actually started rapping and producing at the same time, and for years I was doing both. But at some point, I realised I could have more creative freedom with production. The voice is just one instrument in an ensemble, however important it may be. But to be the ensemble is just a whole different experience.
Is there any hardware or software that you’re yearning to buy next?
I’m actually looking forward to getting Ableton 10. I’m using an earlier version right now, but they seem to have some pretty cool upgrades for their instruments and the Push controller interface. Also the earlier versions aren’t compatible with the latest OS X Mojave update, which I wanna try out.
When did you start producing music?
1999. But I wasn’t any good until 2004/2005.
What is your favorite in-studio snack?
I don’t really eat in the studio because my hands are always busy. But when I take a break, I like healthy vegan snacks, like dried mango, roasted seaweed snacks, or a banana.
What is next for Conrad Clifton?
I just did a secret album showcase with ROARK & Visual Concept Group, at Legendary Republic in Brooklyn. It was a crazy immersive audio-visual experience with huge LED screens, and projection mapping on the surrounding walls. I performed live versions of the new songs from ‘GET YOUR WHOLE LIFE’, and it was such a success that we’re discussing ways to bring the show to more audiences, so I think a tour could manifest from this.
I’m also hoping to build a solid team with a manager and booking agent.
Production-wise, I’m planning to land more sync placements in TV & film releases. I’m open to using my music wherever opportunities are available. Let’s get it!
Photo Credit: Sam Shannon