Thursday, August 25, 2016

Godfrey de Grut - My Part in Kanye's Future Success

NZ Musician did a major overhaul of their website earlier this year, following a successful crowdfunding campaign. It looks great but their online archive of two decades worth of interviews is not currently available. I hope this gets restored as it's a valuable cultural snapshot. Like this story....

NZ Musician, April/May 2006 (Vol:12, No:8) By Godfrey de Grut

Godfrey De Grut was recently asked to do a keyboard session for Kanye West, possibly the world's most in-demand hip hop producer, and a multi platinum selling artist in his own right. U2 had invited Kanye to open for them on the Australasian leg of their world tour, but as we know, postponed the shows. This meant Mr West had some time to record at Neil Finn's studio in Newton, Auckland. Godfrey shares his experience with NZM...

The call came Thursday afternoon from Neil Baldock, whom I've known for years, first as the in house engineer at Revolver, and later working on Che Fu's 'Navigator' album and subsequent Crates' tours.

"Godfrey, can you do a session tomorrow?"

"Sorry, I teach at Dio on Fridays."

"That's a shame, it's for Kanye West."

Gulp... "Okay, when do you want me?"

Kanye requested a Yamaha Motif be used for the session. I'd organised to hire one from MusicWorks for the day, and also bought along my Korg Triton, showing up at Roundhead studios at 1pm.

I was greeted by Neil Baldock and given a tour of the nearly completed multi-million dollar Finn facility. The place is huge, littered with rare and vintage keyboards, guitars and amplifiers.

Neil had no idea what they wanted keys for but said much of the previous day had been limited to Kanye making beats on an Ensoniq ASR sampling keyboard and an MPC 2000 XL. These would later be recorded to Pro Tools and then dumped onto a CD.

I waited nervously for an hour before Kanye and entourage arrived. With him were MC Common plus bodyguard, stylist, manager, BV singers and two others whose job description I never fathomed. Every one had G4 Power Books, and started emailing furiously while Kanye got down to business on a beat he had begun the day before, and asked me to play keys along with it. I gave him a basic Ab to Eb minor 7 progression for a bar, which he seemed to like.

"Okay, where could this go for a bridge?" he asked. I responded with a quick 2-5 in the relative minor and landed us in Fmin.

The male backing vocalist piped up and began singing possible bridge melodies. He and Kanye riffed for a while and we began extending the bridge phrase to incorporate a shift to Db.

I felt electrified, here I was jamming with one of the biggest hip hop stars in the world and he seemed to like what I was doing.

Round and round we went, looping the verse and bringing in the Db bridge, but somehow it still lacked momentum. Kanye re-iterated his fondness for longer phrases that "... fly, and take it somewhere else".

After a quick calculation I re-jigged things to begin on Db (using an Ab stab in the sample as the upper structure to a DbMaj9. With a Bb minor 7 and C+7Alt to provide some harmonic rhythm I hit a Fmin7 the following bar. Next was a chromatic side step through Emin 7 to Eb min7 setting up a strong finish on chord 5 (Ab)).

It was pure gospel - they loved it. Hands were waving in the air; heads were nodding to the beat. I was stoked, trembling with excitement; all I needed now was a bridge.

"Just do the bridge you were doing before," said Kanye.

Tony the BV guy pointed out that it had been appropriated for the new verse.

"Try something else then," said Kanye.

I spent about five minutes trying just that, but to my dismay all the progressions were met with either indifference or outright horror.

"No no noooo," shouted Kanye, spinning around in his chair, arms flailing wildly at my attempt to jazz it up.

"Don't ever play that chord again," he menaced.

The sweat started to build in my armpits. Nothing I was doing would satisfy him.

He started to lose interest.

"I'm not a technical musician," explained Kanye. "I just know what I like - long phrases that build. You just keep playing the same chords over and over again. I don't want to spend too much time on this."

We wrapped the track up soon after. I played the four bar verse phrase into his sampling keyboard, and he began a new tune.

I was exhausted, and somewhat crushed.

The rest of the day was spent enduring long hours of boredom, interspersed with moments of panic when he would request additional chords, bass lines or little melody hooks to the beats he was building. The pressure was intense. Kanye was not patient, and would expect everything instantly.
I constantly had to keep track of what scale we were in, and what the progression was. This meant furtive trips next door to a spare piano to check the key, as Kanye constantly shifted the samples up and down in speed and therefore in pitch as well.

The biggest embarrassment occurred when Neil Finn arrived to see how the session was going. Kanye sang a melody to me and asked for it to be played with a glockenspiel sound. I tried to play back the riff while juggling with the Yamaha Motif's presets, fumbling terribly under pressure. Luckily Neil Finn intervened and saved my bacon by offering to track the part himself on a vintage vibraphone in the next room. I'd been up-staged, but was grateful nonetheless.

Kanye worked tirelessly, he didn't drink or eat all afternoon, hardly left the chair behind his work desk and ended up passing out at midnight from what I can only guess was exhaustion. That day he had built six tracks from scratch. His process was exclusively sampling bits of old soul and funk records. One chunk would be as long as 20 seconds - which were then cut up later into smaller pieces, usually molding the samples to chord changes rather than the start or end of the bar, but always allowing the phrase to contain a seamless groove. These were then spiced up with additional 808 samples from his G4.

He moved lightning fast and knew his gear inside out. Nobody interrupted him, but he didn't mind his friends bantering in the background. Every now and again he would ask Neil Baldock to turn the monitors up really loud, and would rap along with the beat, inviting Common to trade phrases and jam snatches of melody. All the while fielding international calls and emails from mates like Jay-Z and Nas.

It was unreal. At the end of the night they asked me to come back the next day. I caught myself thinking, "This is it. The highlight of my musical career. If I nail this I'll get asked to up stakes and tour the world with hip hop's number one star."

Fingers crossed.

Godfrey De Grut was a co-winner of the 2002 Silver Scroll with Che Fu. He has recorded with Brooke Fraser, Elemeno P, Nesian Mystic, and Amber Clare providing keyboards, guitar, sax, horn and string arrangements. He is currently preparing to tour Australia with Elemeno P in support of The Veronicas, before recording his own debut album.

(retrieved from Wayback Machine archive)

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