You’ve been working with Nas on his new album. How’s the album coming?
It’s been going good. I’ve been working with Nas for six years now. We have that chemistry and that vibe where we can work on anything. In general, it’s what we normally do. I’m trying to push the envelope as far as our collaborations and I just watch what he does. I’m glad to be working with him because he’s a progressive artist. It’s definitely dope working with him and getting the chance to do it over and over again.
Nas has been getting more controversial with each album he’s putting out. Is this Nas’ most controversial album ever?
I don’t know. It’s introspective. I like to let him tell his story. If you listen to “What Goes Around”, it’s no different than what he’s saying today.
What kind of beats are you trying to bring Nas on this album?
Nas knows what he wants at all times, so I’m following his lead. In general, I follow his lead and what he’s into. We talk about it. Musically, I do what I do, but we talk about it. I like for him to tell me what he really needs for his record. I’ll let this speak for itself. He’s not complacent and he still does what he feels like doing, regardless of what the status quo does.
When Nas tells you what he wants, is it ever a challenge to deliver that?
Not really. Not for me. Nah. That’s why we’ve been working for so long. Whenever he feels like doing something, I’m like, ‘Whatever.’ Everything that we’ve done together has been a challenge. He’ll tell me he wants something that sounds like when Flavor Flav was in the “I Ain’t No Joke” video and when he was dancing with the clock and the first time he saw Rakim and that energy. I, myself, as a producer, I change daily and work with artists from Amy Winehouse to Nas to working with an orchestra. Whatever he wants to do, I’ll make the song. He can tell me anything. If he says, “I want to go there,” I’ll figure out how to get it done.
You’re getting back into reggae again. What inspired you to do that?
I’ve really been vibing with my whole rubber dub sound. That’s what I call it. That’s the last five or six years. I’ve been getting into the older dub mixes like Scientist and studying the old musicians from that era. I’ve been working with Shabba Ranks and artists on my label Boomtunes. I just did the remix for Alicia Keys for “No One” with Junior Reid on it. It’s good because you’ll think it’s sample, but I did it in my basement. I’m in a vibe now where I’m trying to push out a lot of reggae. It makes me feel like I’m in a whole ‘nother zone. Then I’ll leave it alone and do something else. Right now, I’m about to come out with a surplus of internationally-credible reggae music.
Do you change your production techniques as you work on music in different genres?
I think every record for me is a test. Each song, I’ll go in and figure out what I need to do to get that particular sound. My technique is the same for whatever I’m doing, to paint that particular picture, whether it’s live horns or programmed sounds. I’m just a musical historian. Whatever you want to get out, I’m going to find a way to make it. If you need your drums tailored like “Sucka MCs”, I can do that. I’m all about trying to come up with something that pushes the envelope. The technique is the same, whether I’m doing a classical mix of hip-hop and jazz or something else. I just keep it moving. It’s about whatever’s in my head.
What’s the first thing you do when you start working on a beat?
Hear it in my head. That’s usually what it is. I can sit down and listen to something for awhile or hear what somebody’s saying and then I start hearing it in my head for how it should be. It lets me know what sounds are necessary for me to do. Should I use live bass or programmed bass? Live drums or programmed drums? Should I play the keys on it? Most of all, I hear it in my head first.
How do you know when you’ve finished a beat?
It’s based on the song. I melted my beat ego in the ‘90s, like, ‘My beat is hot.’ When I’m able to mix a song and it sounds consistent from start to end, that’s what makes things timeless. There are certain records that I listen to that I’ve made over the years and I feel they still carry the same energy. 15 years later, I can still feel the energy that I felt in the room when I was working on it.
Do you still sample as much as you used to?
I got a whole room in my house that’s just my records and my MP. I can sample and I do a lot, but sampling to me is an art and how you sample makes a big difference. It’s not like I sample a particular way. Sometimes I’ll sample, but I’ll sample the shit out of something. I’m doing it to get a particular energy and a particular vibe out of it. The way I sample may be different from how other people do it because I look at it like if I’m going to sample, I’m going to sample the shit out of it and go all the way in. I’m not going to let the sample dictate what the record is. I’m going to use the sample to get what I want. I don’t use as much in hip-hop as I used to. I really diversified my whole career as far as growing. Look at the Amy Winehouse album. I was playing over notes and I really made it sound and feel that way.
At what point in your career did you develop that perspective on sampling?
That happened over the years. I would say by the mid-‘90s even. You got to a point where you had the sampler and the SP 1200 and my 960, but when The Chronic dropped, everything was sounding great. Everything was big and clear. Things were sounding sonically better. Rather than just having a loop, they had a guitar on top of the loop. If the guitar was only on the left side, I would play it on the right side just so it would sound in stereo and have better energy on it. By the time I was able to play all the different parts of the sample, sometimes the sample wouldn’t even be able to come out. That gave me a whole ‘nother tool as far as going somewhere. I keep going past it every day. When I worked with Nas and Cee-Lo, I could hear how they were going to come and I based it off of that. I like the instruments’ distinctive sounds. I play stuff that I would sample as opposed to just playing for playing’s sake.
How much of your musical ability comes naturally versus coming through hard work?
I know that I have some kind of natural ability because I grew up with music. There must be something that allows me to hear and feel music the way I do. At the same time, I’m a workaholic and I’m going hard in the studio while everybody else is chilling out and eating shrimp. I go hard and I get something done. I definitely feel like the hard work keeps me elevated. I’m not usually sitting on the same place for a long time.
After accomplishing so much in the game, how do you stay motivated to come up with that next hit?
I never got complacent based on what I did yesterday. I’m ordering plaques now because there were 40-50 plaques that I never got and I’m decorating my house. I was at a point where I didn’t want to see those. I’ll put the Timberlands and the t-shirt and hoody on and go to work like I want to accomplish something. I’m not sitting here like, ‘I made it.’ I’m sitting here today, sick as fuck and tired as hell and trying to push the envelope. The workaholic in me definitely makes me push past what anyone else is trying to come up with.
Have you ever felt yourself getting complacent?
I moved to Miami 5 years ago. I kind of had a crazy 2001. My mom had passed and September 11th happened and I had been living in Manhattan since ’89. I moved to Miami and I kind of chilled out, but my chilling out was doing one project at a time instead of four. Those projects were God’s Son and Amy Winehouse’s album. Those are things that still have critical and international acclaim. I was still working. In general, the last couple of years, since 2003, I’ve kind of chilled to a point, but in 2005 and 2006, I got back on my grind. I got to the point where I wasn’t taking no for an answer.
Do you work better when you have a project with direction as opposed to making beats just to make beats?
Oh, for sure. For sure. Realistically, that’s something that I do. A big part of making music is listening to music. I’ll just go in my record room and listen to records. It’s a small room with big speakers and whatever comes off the wall, I’ll just listen to it and take it in. My collection is so solid that I can listen to a lot of different things. I’ll listen to the music and get into it. The majority of the time I work I have a task at hand and that task is what I’m really focused on.
Do you limit yourself as to how many projects you take on at one time or is that not an issue to you?
I multi-task. I usually have 3, 4, 5, 6 projects going on at once. If a project is getting released soon, I’ll prioritize it, but I work 7 days a week and 19-20 hours a day. I always have something cooking up in the off-season, in between times. But I usually keep a few things in the works.
You’re not one of those producers who always has one beat on everyone’s album. Do you like working on one project in a more hands-on way as opposed to sending beat CDs out to every big rapper with a budget?
For sure. That’s the type of producer I am. Most of the people I’ve had success with, we’ve had a body of work because our chemistry just flows and locks in. And what we’ve come up with has its own vibe. That’s between me and the artist, from the Fugees to Amy Winehouse to Nas. It’s really between me and the artists. It’s really about how me and the artists vibe and how me and the artists stick together to make it work.
Has moving to Miami changed your sound at all?
Nah, not really. I had sandals on when I made “Made U Look”. I was on the beach with shorts and sandals on. But at the end of the day, New York is in me. When I need to get that Queens vibe back, I listen to “New York State of Mind” real quick and I’ll be right back to where I always have been. At the end of the day, my whole makeup in hip-hop comes back to when I was rhyming with Chuck Chillout and running around with Funkmaster Flex and being in the Latin Quarter. It’s been in me since the ‘80s to now. It’s always been in me and it’s not going nowhere.
Being that you’ve been into hip-hop for so long and seen it go through many trends, do you think the hip-hop music today is really that much different, in terms of quality, from the ‘90s?
One thing that I have to say that’s really crazy. You have to realize that when hip-hop jumped off, when Melle Mel made “The Message”, it’s not like he was a grown-ass man. When Nas said, “The buck that bought a bottle could have struck the lotto,” it seems like he’s a 40 year-old man but he was really a teenager. It’s really about looking to the next set people coming up and asking who are the next generals. You don’t have to be 30 years-old and be the owner of a company to be the next big person that can inspire the elders. Big Daddy Kane and Slick Rick were impressing people in their teens. It’s really about seeing who can hold it down next. You have to have the skill, persona and charisma to inspire the whole nation. That’s really what’s being looked at. I can respect some of these boys down South. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re making it in their bedroom and then they can sell a million of them shits.
Do you enjoy working with seasoned artists like Nas as opposed to young artists who may be more rough around the edges?
I’ve come across seasoned in terms of skill and people reaching their full potential, but it’s a combination of both. If I come across someone who I feel is next, I don’t need somebody else to tell me that it’s hot. I like working with both. If I can get with a seasoned artist and we vibe and we click, then that’s dope. I’m also always looking at the new class coming in.
You’re also working on a punk rock album called Prauge-Nosis. How’s that coming?
That’s my instrumental album that I did in Prague. I went to Prague and recorded it. I played pieces with an orchestra. That’s my instrumental album on ideas I had. I arranged it and created it and it pretty much inspired me to go back in and come out with something made from scratch. I actually arranged and composed this. I’m working with a punk rock group in London. That’s enough outside of my normal realm of things, but it’s definitely dope. It has a real fly energy to it.
Where do you want to take your label Boomtunes?
To me, it’s a boutique label and a label I love. I’ve been building on projects over the years for that and now it’s starting to come together. I can put out whatever it is I feel like putting out. I have a lot of music with a lot of artists. I’m putting it together. I have all different types of music that encompasses my whole mind. It can be anything, but it’s going to be good music at the end of the day.
Your career has been nothing short of illustrious. Does any one particular song stand out to you that you’re most proud of?
I think that’s what I try to make every day, so looking back at it, I can’t name just one. You can see the effects of Wyclef in will.i.am and Akon. You can see Lauryn Hill’s influence. I’m really proud of my whole body of work and I’m sure there are going to be some new things coming out too.
will.i.am used the same Michael Viner “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” sample on “Hip-Hop Is Dead” that you used on “Thief’s Theme”. Whose version did you like better?
“Theif’s Theme” was just a loop. I think part of the whole irony of the whole thing was that it was the same sample. It’s like, ‘Hip-hop is so dead that I’m going to use the same sample twice.’ That was part of the whole joke of it. A couple people heard and recognized these things. When “Thief’s Theme” came out, it was a crazy murmur but it didn’t get its just due. After “Hip-Hop is Dead” came out, people said they loved “Thief’s Theme”. I’m proud of “Thief’s Theme”. It was dusty and dirty music. At that time, I felt crazy about it and I still do. The two songs have different energies. The “Hip-Hop Is Dead” energy doesn’t have the same vibe as “Thief’s Theme”. “Thief’s Theme” is a lot more dusty.
You never scream your name on beats or put your drops in beats like Just Blaze, Alchemist and Swizz Beats do. Do you enjoy staying somewhat anonymous on tracks?
I always felt that I wanted the record to be doing the talking without me saying it. I wanted you to really be impressed by the beat and be captured by what the beat and the record was saying to you without you knowing who did it. That’s my personality. That’s just how I move. I don’t mind being looked at as a creative figure. I’m a musical person, but I’m not really trying to be a public figure. I enjoy standing up and having no one pay any attention to me.
Do you get the respect you deserve today for what you’ve done?
I’m cool. I have no problems. I don’t really have an ego or nothing. Everybody does what they do. I have that whole body of work and I do what I continue to do. I’m excited about what I’m doing and I’m not really looking back. I’ll look back when I’m on the other side of the mountain, whenever that may be.
Where do you want to take your production in the future?
The thing is is that certain people look at how commercial something is or something like that. At the end of the day, I’m a music lover. I have 25,000 records in my iTunes and if I add one more to it, I want it to be something that I’m so proud of. I’m probably going to make a beat today and in my mind, it has to be better than everything I did. I’m really trying to push forward and be a person who continues to make great music and continues to grow based on my art and being an artist. I want to come up with great music. It’s not really about anything else. I get props and it’s great if it comes up. Cool.
Have your production techniques changed over the years?
I think anything that I’ve I was actually in the studio with Joell Ortiz not too long ago. I brought out my SP1200 and my 950 and a box of disks because there was a snare that I had. It was something that I used 15 years ago and we used it. At the end of the day, I mix it all up.
A lot of big producers have up-and-coming producers signed to them. Is that something you want to do?
Ultimately, where I’m going, I don’t know where I’m going. I’m still pushing somewhere. There are plenty of people who I’ve helped out over the years, who have grown and have done their own thing. I’ve worked with producers who have done big things. My man actually did a couple of joints on the new Nas record. Different people I have known have things that come up. When it fits, it fits. Dirty Harry lived by me in Brooklyn and he’s doing what he’s doing.
What’s the next move for Salaam Remi?
I’m actually working on Sex in the City: The Movie. I’m working on some of the music for that. You’re going to see a lot of Boomtunes stuff coming out. I have the Alicia Keys and Junior Reid “No One (Remix)” out. The whole Boomtunes thing is going to jump off. I got stuff all over the place. I’m actually working on a lot of movies and doing a lot of film stuff. That allows me to really just get creative. I’m doing that and I’m just growing. I don’t know where I’m going. I’ll find out tomorrow, I guess.
What’s it like making the switch to movie scores and TV shows?
It’s a learning process. I was actually executive-producing the Rush Hour soundtrack, which has Kevin Lyttle on it. I learned a lot about how they actually go about deciding what to do with the film stuff. The more I got into it, the more it allowed me to grow. I was able to work on music for a new TV show Blue Blood. I know exactly how music is done and my focus is showing what goes on the screen with the music. The same way that I’m trying to support an artist and their vision is the same way I’m making the music come across on the show.
What do you want to say to everybody?
Hold your head and do what you do. If you’re about it, be about it and get it done. So many people talk about it and don’t do shit. Make it happen.