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One session yielding two completely different records from the same music: That was the plan when Jeffrey Amon and Ben Rubin — accomplished producers and engineers who came of age during the golden era of rap in the ’80s and ’90s— assembled an all-star jazz quartet to record the live session that resulted in Tilted. Featuring saxophonist Donny McCaslin and pianist Orrin Evans, the album included a pair of radically reworked standards (Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “One Note Samba” and Thelonious Monk’s “Epistrophy”) and one improvised original. Amon and Rubin then sampled and “chopped” (mixed) the music from Tilted to create Soundtrack for a Nonexistent Film (Ropeadope).
For the six tracks he produced, Amon (a.k.a. Amon Drum) tried to capture the surreal nature of the early days of the pandemic-induced lockdown in New York City. The constant Doppler effect of sirens from early evening through the next morning was the grim audio backdrop for many residents at that time; empty streets provided the eerie visuals.
“New York City was sort of this weird landscape that you had to traverse,” Amon says during a conference call with his producing partner (a.k.a. Benny Cha Cha). “I would try to get out of the house and go on walks, and then you’re like, ‘Shit, I gotta stay away from other people.’ It was all about the soundtrack of traveling across Gotham in a weird time.”
The result is what Amon describes as “kind of a dirt dystopian thriller,” even if the movie only existed in his mind. Indeed, the titles of Amon’s contributions (“Chase,” “Safe Place”) suggest a thematic unity. “I had legit scenes,” he says. “It’s kind of like an odyssey of this person trying to get away from whatever it is that’s chasing him.”
Rubin’s intentions were more straightforward for his five tracks, aiming for what he calls a De La Soul-style recording session. “I was just looking for good beats. I wanted to make an old-schoolish boom bap record. I just love the freedom of bringing this live band in and keeping that live feel that is missing in a lot of hip-hop. And I liked the idea of just creating our own source materials, so there’s no chance it’s going to sound like something else, except in feel and zeitgeisty references.”
“I wanted to make an old-schoolish boom bap record. I just love the freedom of bringing this live band in and keeping that live feel that is missing in a lot of hip-hop.”
Soundtrack delivers great pleasures on its own, but listeners will appreciate it even more when hearing it in the context of Tilted. Snippets of all three tracks from Tilted waft in like apparitions. Meanwhile, wobbly piano chords, reverberant sax lines and booming bass figures create a dreamlike haze. With beats, of course.
And about that band. It’s a musically omnivorous bunch, comprising McCaslin, Evans and bassist Dezron Douglas. But it’s drummer Eric McPherson who serves as the catalyst of the sound the producers wanted to capture. Amon and Rubin marvel at McPherson’s expansive color palette and his ability to create his own sound effects while playing live. “There’s so many contradictory feelings going on right now,” Rubin says of people’s reactions to life during COVID. “I don’t know if it was conscious for me, but that’s just kind of what I was hoping would come through in those beats and the hardcore [rapper-producer] J Dilla, jittery factor that just comes from Eric naturally.”
The life of this theoretical soundtrack will continue. Rubin had always intended for MCs to use his tracks as a foundation to rap over, and a single of “Starry Night” featuring hip-hop legend Masta Ace was scheduled for a spring release. “I’m hoping it’s a formula of some kind and we can make another record,” Rubin says. “Maybe with the same band, maybe with a different band. But it doesn’t matter. It’s gonna get different results every single time.”