Makaya McCraven: The Beat Scientist
Drummer, ‘beat scientist’ and multi-instrumentalist Makaya McCraven is sitting outside his home in Chicago, reflecting on his lockdown through the medium of Zoom. “I took a really hearty pause from doing music-related things except for taking some guitar lessons and giving my kids some music lessons,” he says. “I wasn’t really working on anything for the first time in a long time. I’ve always had a bunch of projects on my plate and looming deadlines.”
There is a lot of music, and there always has been. He was born in Paris to musician parents – Hungarian folk singer Ágnes Zsigmondi and jazz drummer Stephen McCraven – raised in Massachusetts and developed his unique style in Chicago, fusing classically-trained and internationally-acclaimed drum skills with a sample-based approach to production.
The breakthrough came in 2015 with In The Moment on Chicago’s International Anthem Recording Co. It took live recordings and put them through his Ableton process in a way that bridged jazz and beatmaking producer culture. McCraven is closely associated with the label, which in keeping with the city’s friends and family vibe released his acclaimed albums Highly Rare, Universal Beings and Where We Come From (ChicagoxLondon Mixtape). Last month they released Universal Beings E&F Sides on vinyl and as a new documentary. And if that wasn’t enough, this year, XL released We’re New Again, which brought his reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s We’re New Here a decade after its original release.
Lockdown created a pause which is now being filled with new music. Specifically that means chopping and remaking his new In These Times suite in Ableton Live, and layering tracks using elements from these disparate times and places. The source music was recorded in studio sessions 2016-2020; from an intimate performance at In These Times’ magazine office in Chicago in September 2019; and from shows at the Walker Arts Centre in Minneapolis, from the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Chicago and from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Centre.
The Symphony Centre show took place just before the pandemic began to make its presence felt. It also featured archival film footage of Black musicians and activists and spoken word taken from oral historian Studs Terkel – who contributed to the progressive magazine that gave the music its title. The results will be released on International Anthem in 2021. “My lockdown has had ups and downs,” he says, “but I got a lot to be grateful for. Now I’ve been back to producing a lot. Finding that pause gave me some clarity on paths to finish the music.”
You’re a renowned jazz drummer and producer, and you bring both sides to your work. If you look back, whose path are you following?
I was a drummer who always wanted to produce records. Where I see the mixture is in the creative use of the studio. The record and the live experience are separate spaces. Recorded music is only relatively new – a hundred years ago you’d have to get the sheet music to someone who had some proficiency in an instrument. That has culturally changed with the recorded idiom, from tape loops and Les Paul to the Beatles to the drum machine to sample-based music, it’s all part of a continuum. I saw a video of Oscar Peterson playing synthesizers. I see that as a question: how are we using sound and what are the different ways you can use sound to create music and things of infinite joy? You can do that in the live realm or the recorded space. Hearing sample-based hip hop, and really being influenced by that and hearing jazz records [being sampled] and that connecting because I grew up in a jazz household. It’s all connected. When I tried to learn how to play those beats it didn’t sound the same. How is it being made? Oh, wow, you’re manipulating an old sound, or a different sound and repurposing it for something new. To me that was fascinating. Utilising what’s available, to create.
How has your process evolved since your 2016 International Anthem album In The Moment?
I have more and more techniques to chop things or repurpose the audio, rearrange it. It’s evolved. I chop a track freehand, like in Arrangement View. I’ll go through the whole track, chop up samples, colour code and then rearrange them. Those could be a variety of different sizes and I’ll rearrange them, re-edit them, then create a little composition collage with different moments of live playing. I’ll use that as a collage that tells a story that can be shaped one way or another. Other times I’ll use Push, chop a sample across Push, and re-perform that using a virtual instrument. So many ways you can chop the sample. Or I could do it in Clip View where I make a variety of different clips then I can arrange it or perform it and edit that depending on how it’ll fit with the narrative of the record. Every time I do a record I’m exploring [recording] as another process, another tool for creating sound.
The live sessions you use in your records come from a variety of sources. The Where We Come From mixtape sampled recordings from the live Chicago x London gigs at Total Refreshment Centre in the UK. Your recent reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s I’m New Here for XL sampled jam sessions you set up specifically for that record in your studio. What do you have to consider when you’re bringing musicians together to make music that you’ll later sample?
My main goal is to create some kind of electric moment. I love being in the studio but there’s a different feeling in the room when people are there. It heightens the feeling. In the studio there’s a different mood. It’s a completely different space. One of the things I’m trying to create is a cool, down to earth feeling, where it can be intimate and not too much of a hoopla and where everyone can be comfortable to just play. Ideally we can just capture some of the magic and I can distill that through the process. Part of it is capturing the energy. It’s more than capturing the best recording. I want to capture a fleeting moment that you don’t get all the time.
What are the varying sources of the material you used on the XL record?
Samples off my dad’s first three records – which I had to sample direct off vinyl, because it doesn't exist digitally. That was a fun old-school process. The sessions were with Ben Lamar Gay, Jeff Parker and Junius Paul. I play Wurly, synth, bass. Overdub sessions with Greg Spiro on piano and harpist Brandee Younger. Then it was me doing my Ableton process on everything: editing, composing or using the audio to manipulate and layer; creative mixing. That’s how I make music, pulling from my resources and booking sessions and trying to hear what the music needs and let the music lead the way. I make a lot of versions. As pieces settled, and I started to build the narrative and that’s when a lot of pieces came in, making more interludes.
Often you’re also playing in these sessions. Obviously you’ll be in the flow of the playing but are you also thinking about the session as a sample source?
Yes, in some ways. I take some responsibility on the bandstand to manage the thing. It all started from a series of gigs we were doing in Chicago, this Spontaneous Composition series where we’d just have guys and women play two 45-minute sets and we recorded all of them. That material became In The Moment. We were playing free but I like to try and bring in different grooves, finding different spaces, and I’d always have ways I’d try to end it on a high note.
There are so many layers when it comes to improvisation. There could be non-idiomatic styles of improvisation where we’re abstracting traditional sound or rhythm and keeping away from time. Or a jam band or straight ahead jazz where you’re playing over a loop. That’s one of the things about straight ahead jazz, it’s cyclical: AAB, a recurring form of a loop and a beat that goes and goes and goes. People can take solos on it, it can go on forever. It’s a cyclical format. It’s all connected. If I’m going to improvise, especially for an audience, I’m going to keep a bit of direction. Moderate the conversation a bit, keep it concise, be aware of how long it’s supposed to be. I don’t like to get stuck on one idea for too long, I like to keep things going, I like an element of freedom in the sets. All that makes it more interesting for the sampling than if we’re super tight.
I wonder if some people have some preconceptions about improvisation. What do you have to say to anyone who might feel that improvisation is a special thing, only for the avant-garde people?
For me that’s a foreign way of thinking about it. I think of improvisation as life. We all do it. When people say ‘I can’t improvise’ I think it’s interesting. We all do it, every moment, every day.
We’re doing it now…
We’re doing it now. We bring order and time and schedule and try to confine the chaos. Improvisation in jazz is the same thing, depending on the style and the tune. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re just doing what you want. You’re playing to the form, you’re playing within the harmony, you’re playing with the rhythm, within a style or sound, you’re playing in the same tuning as other people. Even if you’re reading music verbatim, your inflection or your intent could be really in the moment and that is improvising to some level. I would argue we’re all improvising as artists. Improvisation in music is an expression of life and it can be done in every style of music. It’s not unique to jazz.
Where’s your studio?
Chicago, at home. Walk down the open staircase and there’s a large room, full of stuff everywhere. That’s the entry room. There’s couches, a child’s drum set, a couple of samplers, sheet music, a percussion rack, posters of festivals I’ve done since I was 15, and some drums against the wall. Then you come into the room 15x12 feet, it’s big enough. My piano has a Roland Juno-60 on top of it, there’s a drum set, an acoustic bass – it’s a bit cluttered. My Rhodes has an Akai sampler on top of it. Then there’s the bass corner, where the bass amp lives, a wooden xylophone set up on a piano bench, some dirty clothes, another sampler and keyboard station with the Wurlitzer – that’s probably the favourite of my instruments – and on top of that is a Minimoog. Then there’s my desk with a 20-30 inch screen TV connected to my laptop. Studio monitors, more samplers, studio PA. I have microphones. It’s set up for rehearsal and I can record. There’s stuff everywhere.
You’ve been involved with the Ableton University workshops. What was the equivalent for you when you were coming up? Where did you go to soak up the knowledge?
I was a drummer who made music with different bands [but] any sort of creative production, I was interested in. So when I came to Chicago I used to go to a couple of beat communities here including one at [now-shuttered Chicago venue] Morseland. They had a beat night and all these different cats would come through and it was a community. I just went to check things out and listen.
What were you using back then and what were the questions you wanted answered?
I had a couple of sequencers I was messing with. First it was in the studio, getting into editing, with an engineer working with ProTools and me sitting on the couch trying to ask them to do XYZ. I started making beats with a Line 6 Pedal, just looping stuff off vinyl and recording it into my computer. Even then I was messing with some Reason and some Ableton on my college room mate’s computer, starting to mess with samples. I started using Ableton Live pretty early on. I was intrigued. I loved the way you can use it like a DAW but it has this whole Clip View thing so you’re always looking at music cyclically. To me that’s a profound difference. Viewing the music cyclically as loops which can go on forever and you can change them and manipulate them, to be performative not just a recording tool.
When you’re learning a new piece of kit are you someone who goes straight to the tutorials or do you prefer to play and see?
I’ll just play with it and see what it can do. I’ll try to catch some tutorials, skim through stuff and read, but then actually talk to people who use it either on the user hang, virtually or in person. If you want to use something, leave no stone unturned, investigate from a lot of different angles and seek opinions of people who are more knowledgeable and better at it than you.
There’s a growing community of highly-skilled musicians, some of whom are also producers like Emma-Jean Thackray or harpist-beatmakers Nala Sinephro and Marysia Osu. Do you think this moment, where there’s a spotlight on jazz-related music, will create a new set of producers who also have high levels of musicianship?
It’s not entirely out of nowhere. We’ve had this kind of energy happening for years. It has prominence or attention now. The culture around recorded music, how to make it and what’s possible, who has access – these things are ever-changing and evolving. There’s more space for it, more demand for it, more inclusion for this kind of music from a broader audience. More and more people are bridging these gaps.
Keep up with Makaya McCraven on his website.
Text and interview: Emma Warren
Emma Warren is the author of Make Some Space: Tuning Into Total Refreshment Centre. Her new pamphlet Document Your Culture is available on Bandcamp.