By Jerry L. Barrow
“I would come out of Lefrak with duffle bags full of records…” – Large Professor
He studied at the feet of a master and became one of the most influential beatsmiths in hip-hop. William Paul Mitchell, aka, Large Professor is the quintessential hip-hop producer; low-key, humble and continually making magic behind the scenes. His discography reads like a who’s who of hip-hop. As a member of the group Main Source he crafted classics like “Lookin’ At The Front Door,” “Live at The BBQ” and “Fakin The Funk.” As a producer he made legendary MCs like Rakim, Kool G Rap and Nas achieve their greatness and as a solo artist he’s given us two collectible solo albums, The LP and 1st Class.
After releasing two volumes of instrumentals the Queens,NY native is releasing a new CD of original beats and rhymes appropriately titled, Main Source on September 30th. Taking things back to the break-beat foundation the CD features guest appearances from Styles P, AZ, Jeru The Damaja and Big Noyd with a lush collection of chopped soul and pulsating ear candy. I caught up with Extra P to talk about the Late Paul C, teaching Q-Tip how how to make beats why Nas doesn’t like “wearing the same sneakers.”
NF: Why did you name your new project Main Source?
LP: I wanted people to know that I still embrace that. I think people started feeling that I didn’t embrace my foundation. And with the current state of hip-hop, the Main Source album is original recipe hip-hop. When it comes to that real hip-hop I’m the main source of it.
NF: RZA told me you were one of a few producers that had the Stax box set back in the day. Is that true?
LP: A lot of that stuff I had on original vinyl just being a fan of the Stax catalogue. They had the box set which is cool, but I’m a fan of that catalogue in general. I’d check for any and anything Stax.
NF: I was listening to “Fakin The Funk” wondered how you got those drums to hit so hard…
LP: That was the engineer, Gary Clarkson, he’s passed on now. Gary just went in and beefed them up the right way. Those were the Grady Tate “Be Black Baby” drums. We had a previous mix of it where the engineer made them stiff and flat, but Gary got them slappin’ the right way.
NF: How important is the engineer to hip-hop sounding the way it did?
LP: That’s a huge part of the sound. If you have an engineer that knows how to twist them knobs… Some dudes are blessed to know them frequencies, but coming from the street you really don’t know your bottoms and highs and where everything should be. They’d compress your kick, have your snare really knocking. Have your bass crazy. Some of my favorite engineers are my dude Anton Wichanski, Dino, my dude Max Vargas and my dude I just worked with Rich. He’s crazy on the boards.
NF: On the new CD you have this sample on “Sewin Love” that is so sweet and it’s on the tip of my tongue. When I find it I’mma call you.
LP: [Laughs] It’s an obvious joint but when you find it you gonna be like ‘wow.’ A lot of people when they dig they try to be so obscure but I’ve been kind of rockin with what’s there and brought it back to the joints we always love.
[note: I later realized what it was, called P to confirm and he asked me to keep it to my self. But a sharp ear will catch it faster than I did…]
NF: I was listening to “Lookin At the Front Door” and you took a sliver for that Donald Byrd and made a classic…
LP: A whole song…
NF: Where was your head when you made that record?
LP: I had the song written out kind of and I was kind of testing it to different beats. I was in H.S. writing my rhymes while I’m in class and a lot of my friends from back then would volunteer their parents’ records. I would come out of Lefrak with duffle bags full of records and that was one of the records I found amongst those. When I heard that little piece I was like “Aight cool.”
NF: How did you feel later on when Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam used that same part for “Let the Beat Hit ‘Em?”
LP: [Laughs] That was funny man. They gotta big success with that, but they took it to another level. We all built off eachother. I built off of Donald Byrd and they built off the Main Source joint. Dudes were telling me “they bitin of you, they bitin…” but in retrospect it’s all good, we just all buildin’…
NF: Pete Rock told me about the time you gave him the sample for T.R.O.Y. Tell me about the era of sharing samples and digging. Production felt like more of community back then.
LP: That was a good era because were were still dealing with the foundation of hip-hop, the records. We came from early drum machine stages. I always relate it to graffiti. First you had the scribble letters and then dudes got better and you had Wild Style burners. The beats we were doing were like burners cuz we were filtering the bass lines and taking different pieces and making a whole different phrase…
NF: I spoke with Pharoahe Monch recently and he told me about Paul C and how he helped him with his production. How did you meet him and how did he influence your career as a producer?
LP: I met Paul being a part of Main Source. At that time everything was word of mouth. Around the way people trying to make their demos were asking, “how do I make a quality demo?” and people were like there’s this guy in Jamaica named Paul C, he did “Do The James..” they start spittin’ his credentials so we went to see him. I was already hungry making pause tapes and I knew what I wanted to do with certain records and how I wanted to chop ‘em. When Paul introduced me to doing it on the drum machine it was just on. He knew I had that drive and took me under his wing. This is the early days and an SP-1200 was a $2500 machine. Anybody didn’t just have an SP-1200. Paul knew my hunger and gave me the machine for like two weeks. He said ‘I’m gonna be in the studio, you can use the machine.’ My first beats that I sold to Intelligent Hoodlum came out of that two weeks.
NF: Had Paul C lived how do you think people would remember him?
LP: With the racial barriers and everything I think Paul C would be right up there with Rick Rubin. Paul C was that dude for real for real.
NF:What do you remember about working with Eric B and Rakim?
LP: Aww man! That was a dream come true for me. Rakim was my idol on the mic and Eric B was that dude around the way. I just put my all into everything I did for them. That took me from zero to 100 in seconds. I hooked up with them on their third album, Let The Rhyhtm Hit ‘Em. Paul C was originally working with them on LTRH but because of his untimely demise, they wanted the next dude that could do the style that he was doing. Word of mouth in the street was that I was that dude that could finish Paul’s work. I worked on “The Ghetto” “No Omega,” “Let The Rhythm Hit’ EM.” The only ones I didn’t do was “Mahogany” and “Run For Cover” and “Untouchable.”
NF: You were already familiar with “Nautilus” loop from “Live At The BBQ” what was your approach to make it different?
LP: They had the idea to use Nautilus already but I came in and flipped the drums a certain way. They just had it going [beatboxing] and I changed it [to what it is now.]
NF: That’s interesting cuz Green Lantern did over “The Ghetto” for Nas’ Nigger mixtape. Have you heard it?
LP: Yeah, it’s hot. Green is ill. He’s one of those dudes that carry on the legacy of chopping shit right.
NF: Some people credit you with Illmatic sounding so good because you picked the beats. Is that true?
LP: Wow. Na, really that was Nas. I just got him around the right people. I knew the right people that would complement his style. I didn’t want him to have no beginner producers. I wanted to have dudes that were for real, and I had those contacts. So when he was like “you think Pete Rock and Premier would give me a beat?” I was like sure. They knew from Live At the BBQ that Nas was no joke. I was there when Q-Tip gave him the “One Love” beat, seeing all that magic come together was a blessing for me.
NF: You and Tip are real close. Were you an honorary member of the Ummah?
LP: You could say that. Me and Tip became brothers. Tip was originally relying on engineers to do his beats and he was like ‘I wanna do my own beats on the drum machine’ so I helped him out. I just showed him my little style on the SP-1200 and he took some of that and took it a step further and got busy.
NF: So what did you think when you heard Low End Theory?
LP: Yo that was CRAZY! You just hear the sounds these dudes were picking that they were very thorough with the records. They were picking some old ill other shit. Low End Theory was one of the most put together joints.
NF: Are there any beats out there that you wish you’d done?
LP: I like the beat to “Breathe Easy” by the Lox. P Killer did that. Then there’s the second “Crooklyn Dodgers” that Premier did, or “Supastar,” the group home joint. That’s one of my favorites.
NF: Did you ever do a beat that you almost gave away to somebody else?
LP: Yeah! I sold “Fakin The Funk” to D-Nice! But I ain’t get no real feedback on that. And then recently I did a joint for Styles P and AZ and I submitted that beat to 50 Cent. When I go to dudes I don’t use my cards cryin’ wolf. When I come to see a dude, I’m coming with heat. If you really not feeling it I understand it, but sometimes I feel like they don’t be gettin’ at these dudes.
NF: What are your three favorite breaks?
LP: Definitely James Brown’s “Funky Drummer,” “Ashley’s Roachclip” by the Soul Searchers and I’ll say “Hoochie Coochie Man”. I just wanna throw one of those rare ones. I don’t walk around with a list but those are the ones that come to mind off the cuff.
NF: Back when you were digging, did you ever give a way a break that you wish you’d kept for yourself?
LP: [Laughs] Definitely that joint for Pete. That TROY joint, but we were building. If he goes in on it, that’s your record now. I’m not even touching that no more.
NF: So how did Main Source come together and eventually part ways?
LP: Main Source just came together from three dudes in school sharing the same interests and wanting to make a record. One of the DJs mothers’ supported us, invested in us heavily. We started our own buzz and pressed our own records up. We put out Breakin Atoms and got a good response. One of the things that was always a good and a bad was the DJ’s mother being our manager. There was conflict of interest sometimes. A nepotism thing. After a while that just came to a head and it was time for everybody to go our separate ways.
NF: Do you still keep in touch with either of them?
LP: I’m still in touch with K-Cut. He’s a cool dude.
NF: How do you think the break up effected you creatively?
LP: It was a crazy effect because once you get in the industry you can’t stop and take a break. You gotta keep going. But I had to stop for a minute and get everything together for a solo career. So a little steam was lost. Also, people don’t do good with change sometimes. People were like “we like you, but we like the group too.”
NF: Why haven’t you done more with Nas in recent years?
LP: Nas is an artistic dude. He’s not just a rapper. He’s going to explore. He’s not gonna wear the same sneakers for years and years. I understood that he wanted to go out there and broaden his horizons. But when we do get up its that magic. It’s all good.
NF: What do you think the science of hip-hop is?
LP: The science of hip-hop is the street. Hip-hop comes from the street. They done industrialized everything but it comes from the street first and foremost. Paying homage to people that come before you. That’s why I can’t understand hip-hop today when they talk about you’re old school. When hip-hop started we cut up James Brown records to pay homage. The old timers could come and say ‘ya’ll scratching the records I listened to’ and it brought everybody together.
NF: I asked because I was watching a video you did in the studio and you said “this is the science of hip-hop”
LP: Oh yeah, I was talking about chopping those records and putting them formulas together. That’s the science right there.
NF: What are you using in the studio these days?
LP: I’m rocking the MPC 1000 and the Micro Korg. I like those pieces. Coming from the early clunky drum machine days these are blessings for me because they can damn near fit in your pocket. I like rocking with those and a few modules. I still keep my stuff sample-based so the 1000 is my choice.
NF: How much time do you spend a day making beats?
LP: It varies because right now outside its hot. So I’m out and about. But when it’s a little colder and you spend more time in doors I’ll be getting it in.
NF: How do you feel about replaying samples?
LP: I like replaying if you can get it right. My dude Bob Perry is coming out with a series where he does these break-beats over with a live band, but he’s having the engineer dusty the mix up and his stuff sounds exactly like the record. If you can recapture that essence [do it]. Sometimes you get stuff and its too clean and it’s not as funky or soulful. That real dusty feeling.
NF: When you are sitting down making a beat do you have records in mind that have certain sounds?
LP: I don’t really consider myself a digger anymore, I’m a record collector. I go out and buy these records and I really listen to them, the whole record. If something catches my ear I’ll play it again and again. Then it’s memorized. My joints are alphabetized, I put ‘em away. I got all my drums together and my sounds together. Then I’ll just be walking around and a song will pop up in my head and I’ll say I gotta flip that. That’s one way I go about it.
NF: On the day of the Sean Bell verdict XM65 The Rhyme was playing your song “A Friendly Game of Baseball” a lot, which spoke on police brutality years ago. As a Queens native how did you feel about the Sean Bell verdict?
LP: That’s definitely a problem that we face in urban America. Police brutality and being profiled and all these things. Even back then I knew it was something worthy to be speaking on. I hate that it even exists and that I even had to put it down like that. I hate that the Sean Bell situation happened. It’s just a mess.
Random Question, what happened to Fatal from Live at The BBQ?
LP: Fatal is good. Fatal wasn’t a rapper to begin with. He was a hip-hop do-it-all. He could be a manager, a DJ. He was DJing for Tragedy at one time. I think he’s doing magazines in California now.
NF: So what’s next for you?
LP: More projects, just keep feeding ‘em. After this drops Sept. 30th something will be coming right then and there.