Frank Nitt speaks on his new Delicious Vinyl EP and his collaborations with J Dilla, and premieres exclusive MP3
In recent years, Los Angeles has emerged as a quasi-outpost of Detroit. Following the lead of the late producer J Dilla, who relocated in the middle part of the last decade, everyone from DJ HouseShoes to Dilla's brother, Illa J, to Guilty Simpson to Mayer Hawthorne (technically from Ann Arbor) have spent a heavy portion of their time basking in the affable weather and laid-back West Coast vibes.
One of the most notable transplants has been longtime Dilla collaborator Frank Nitt, best known as one half of the duo Frank-N-Dank.
Though his Motor City roots will always figure prominently into his music, the rapper born Frank Bush has assimilated well into his new digs, collaborating with Madib on a forthcoming Medicine Show, working with Mike Ross of the venerable Delicious Vinyl, and now releasing "Jewels in My Backpack," an entirely Terrace Martin-produced EP on the famed imprint.
Featuring guest spots from left coast legends DJ Quik and Kurupt, the record breaks new stylistic ground for Nitt, a rapper best known for rhyming over the gritty and spare bangers of Dilla's post-Slum Village phase. "Jewels in My Backpack" aims to find a middle ground between Bush's gruff Detroit bark and Martin's plush West Coast rider music -- hence the title that seeks to balance the glossy with the grimy.
In conjunction with the release, Nitt spoke to Pop & Hiss about his new record, how he got down with Delicious Vinyl, and of course, his work with the legendary J Dilla. Additionally, he premiered an MP3 for "L.O.V.E." featuring DJ Quik and J. Black.How did Frank-n-Dank form in the first place?
We'd been in a group since 1995. At first, Dank was a dancer -- the idea to form Frank-n-Dank was T3 of Slum Village's idea. Dank already had the nickname because he was the only dude in the crew to smoke weed at the start, so we called him President Dankworth because that was the name of this album that Dilla had on his wall.
How did the MCA deal come about?
They were trying to sign Dilla to a production contract; it was never about us. But since we were his best friends, he told them that they needed to sign us. At the same time, he formed McNasty records to put his own record out -- he had had a prior relationship with MCA and worked on the Common record and with The Roots. So he just got to talking to Wendy Goldstein, who was an executive there at the time, and she came down to sign him. The whole time he played her nothing but Frank-n-Dank rapping over his beats, and that was it and we were signed to McNasty.
There was always a major controversy over '48 Hrs' because there were two versions floating around the Internet. One with samples and one without. What was the actual story there?
The story is twisted. When we originally did '48 Hrs,' we did it over what the executives wanted. Jay Dee beats and soul samples -- basically, what the Slum Village record sounded like, which had just come out. MCA wanted the dirtier Frank-n-Dank sounds on top of Slum Village soul samples, and that's what we were going to do. Our original plan was to work with a bunch of producers like Pete Rock and DJ Premier, but the label said this is McNasty Records, focus on Dilla, get a couple features and build up your name. We just wanted to get our album out.
So why the stylistic shift to sample-free production?
One day we were in the studio with Eminem and D-12, who we'd known from Detroit through Proof. And then Dre was there, and he and Dilla got to talking and hanging out. We left for a little bit and when we returned Dilla was like, "Yo, I ain't using samples anymore." The thing was that we had already made 10 of the 13 tracks on the album, but it didn't matter.
What happened next?
He took the vocals, stripped them down and redid the beats with his new sound. So we delivered the record to MCA that way, and they said they loved it, but it didn't have a commercial single or anything that sounded like what people knew. That's where "Take Dem Clothes Off" came from; we went back in and did that as a single. But by the time we did that, all the internal stuff happened at MCA, and there was a period where there were new executives working with us every two months. They were falling apart. I was just persistent enough, calling them every day, that I was able to get out of the deal.
So how did the album leak to the Internet? Did you do it yourself?
No, it was all bootleggers. However, I’m all for music being out there one way or the other. We still have plans to officially put it out --- we own it now and want to do something with it. But it'll stay the same way it was. It doesn't make sense to mess with it.
That record seemed to mark Dilla's breaking point with the orchestral Slum Village sound into his "Champion Sound" period, where he was experimenting with live stuff and a more electronic influenced sound. Do you agree?
That was when Jay Dee became J Dilla. It was a transformative period. If you go back and listen to the beats that he did for Slum Village's "Trinity" album, that was the same electronic style that he had on "48 Hrs."
So looking back, was it Dr. Dre that led to that change?
I think it was just seeing the way Dre worked and coming to an understanding of how he could grow with the music. Dre was someone he'd always looked up to, and he walked in and saw him working with six MPCs and a bass player and a light went off. Dilla was always three steps ahead of the game; he was always trying to keep moving, and Dre spurred another phase of his evolution.
Was it pretty immediately noticeable in his approach to music?
Yup, I was his best friend and right-hand man, so I was with him every day. I knew what motivated him. His hero was Pete Rock. He would always tell me, "I need to go home to the crib and work because I know Pete Rock is working right now."
Obviously, Detroit is one of the electronic music capitals of the world. How important was that type of music to your sound?
Well, me and Dilla and basically everyone in the crew started off as dancers, as kids just loving music in Detroit. We'd go the parties and hang out. That eventually elevated to doing beats and rhyming, but at first, it was about DJ'ing. Dilla showed me how to do all of that. Music and dance music and partying was always a part of our thing, and with that, the electronic sound was natural and very well ingrained.
So are you a permanent resident of L.A. now?
I'm always going to be rooted in Detroit, but I'm in L.A. right now. I had to grab a spot in Hollywood, down the street from Delicious Vinyl, who I've been working with.
Why has L.A. emerged as a hub for Detroit transplants?
I think the two places are very similar once you venture outside of Hollywood. Both places have people who work hard to make their money and value car culture. I think it's a draw from Detroit, because the weather is better, everything closes at 2:00 a.m like in Detroit, and the lifestyle is pretty great.
How did you hook up with Delicious Vinyl?
I'd known them since Dilla had been working on "Labincalifornia" in the mid-'90s, but I was more of a fly on the wall, soaking up and absorbing everything. I'd been visiting town a lot when Illa J was doing his record for Delicious Vinyl, and then one day, I told [owner] Mike Ross that I needed to play him some records. A week or two later, I was in his office and I had 40 joints produced by everyone from Madlib to DJ Babu to Terrace Martin. The Terrace Martin ones caught his ear, and that's what he wanted to put out.
We put out the single "Go Girl," and it did well, so we decided to do an EP. We had a previous history, so it wasn't like two guys trying to figure everything out. "Jewels in My Backpack" was essentially my way to blend the two worlds of L.A. and Detroit together.
How did you and Terrace Martin get to working?
It was Terrace’s idea. We had a mutual friend who knew Terrace's manager, and Terrace knew the history of Frank-n-Dank and thought we could make some dope music. I knew about him working with Battlecat and Snoop Dogg and DJ Quik -- that was different for me, and it was interesting. So he reached out, we spoke on the phone, and two weeks later I was in L.A. I jumped in the studio, we recorded nine songs in three days and that was the EP.
Were you in the studio with DJ Quik when you recorded "Love."
Yep, he just came in, listened to the beat for about 10 or 15 minutes and went into the booth. No writing anything down. Two takes and that was it.
I spoke to Quik last year, and it struck me by how much of a fan he was of Dilla. Did you guys come together over that?
Definitely. We met when he and Terrace Martin came by Illa’s crib. They just showed up one day; Terrace had lost my phone number and just came by. They'd been record shopping and then they saw Illa's set-up, with all of Dilla's old MPCs, his Korg, basically his whole studio. He had some records already, and we started listening to them. The next thing I knew, Quik was underneath the board trying to connect stuff, hooking up the turntables to try to make a beat then and there, rolling around with the dust balls.
You've got a Madlib Medicine show record dropping soon. How did that come together?
He told me he wanted to do it, and I’ve known Madib since the "Champion Sound" days. But even before that, Dilla and I were always bugging out to the Lootpack records. He sent me some beats, I recorded over them, and I'm trying to give him the rest, but he's hard to track down. No phone, no e-mail; you've got to go to his studio and give him a CD.
I assume you didn't actually record with him, considering he almost never records with people.
No, actually for the first six or seven songs, he was in the studio. He hooked me up with studio time, and we were at J. Rocc's crib and everyone was bugging out that he was even there. There were like, "I don't know what you did to actually get him to show up for a recording."
So what's next for you?
I'm doing a single with my new group, Orio Circus. I'm teaming up with my boy, Grim Ace. It's basically about that I'm this black quintessential Detroit rapper and he's a white surfer-looking dude from California, but he can really spit. But really, I'm just trying to all kinds of records. The Orio Circus record is at 85 to 95 BPM, like a hip-hop record, but on others, I'm doing stuff at 100 BPMs, danceable and fun records. Of course, there's rapping, but it's a throwback to the old school dance rapping days. Mike Ross heard it at Delivious Vinyl and was like, "Damn, Frank, that's another one that I'm going to have to release."
I pride myself on being versatile and able to work within all genres. That’s something that Dilla instilled in me. He wasn't a 24-hour die-hard hip-hop dude. He'd have me listening to classical music in the car, telling me to listen to the melodic changes. I feel that that education allowed me to do anything.
-- Jeff Weiss
Download: (Pop & Hiss Exclusive)
MP3: Frank Nitt ft. DJ Quik & J Black - "L.O.V.E."
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