Filed under: Interviews | Tags: Exponential Records, Positive Thinking!, Rae Davis
Today’s guest is San Antonio’s very own jazz/hip hop fusion beat maestro Rae Davis. With an album that proves excellent in the genre of his inspirations, Davis is quite busy bringing his educated and nuanced sound to the stage with the likes of Kid Koala and Busdriver. Learn more about the young and passionate producer below as we chat about his transition into production and cop a lesson in jazz history. Below this post, be sure to catch a review of his brand new album “Positive Thinking!” out now on Exponential Records.
As a special treat to bump while reading, here is a Rae Davis remix of Flying Lotus’ “Tea Leaf Dancers”:
How did you originally get into the production side of music?
That was actually right out of high school. I was playing piano and guitar by then and listening to a lot of jazz and doing some classical guitar studies. Then out of high school my home boy gave me a copy of Fruity Loops and I was just playing with that. But then I needed more so I just bought the Pro Tools Rig, the LE version, and then basically when off from there. I’m using Reactor and Reason now and I’ve been learning from friends teaching me here and there. You know, little recording techniques and tricks.
What were you influenced by around the time that you started getting into production? I read you were playing in a few bands early on and then drifted more over to hip hop. Was there anything you were listening to that just made you say, “Damn, I want to sound like these guys”?
Yeah, I was in like an indie rock band for awhile. Every time we played I just wasn’t feeling it. I didn’t want to be the guy in the band that said, “maybe we should do this”. I was always the one who wanted to take the songs in a different direction. So I just decided to do my own thing. At the time I was listening to tons of hip hop and jazz shit. Especially jazz, that was main thing in high school, ever since I picked up jazz piano I was all about that. I got real into Telefon Tel Aviv around that time and some electronic shit. Then I started to listen to Boards of Canada and that influenced the more experimental side in me.
Yeah, I notice on the “Positive Thinking!” album there’s a lot of Rhodes sounds. Are those samples or are you playing that live?
Its all pretty much live. I run it through a lot of delay pedals and there’s a lot of EQing and little tricks to make the Rhodes sound a lot nicer quality. I definitely improved the sound from the Rhodes using plug-ins and all that, then make loops out of the best takes. But it’s written out first and then played live.
Thats cool. So you mentioned Pro Tools and I was wondering if there was any other production gear that you favor or what you’re working with right now?
I’ve been using the LE Pro Tools version a lot. That’s like my main thing and I love it, I’m always working in “grid mode“. That’s why I’m so into Pro Tools. I like to work in grid mode because I’m always adding like stutters but my friends mainly use shuffle and spot mode, and i find it very difficult to to work in. So I definitely favor Pro Tools, and I use Reason a lot to make beats and I use Reaktor for sound design. I have synthesizers I use for loops and things like that. I recently started using my SP-303 again and the stuff I’m doing right now is more sample based. I’m doing a lot with drum samples and making them kind of lost and broken. Like that SAMIYAM shit is fresh, I’m really into that sound right now. No particular time, you know, like broken beat so now I’ve been focusing on my SP-303.
Yeah, we’ve been focusing on that stuff a lot.
Yeah, I’ve always been a big believer on, you know, its not what you’ve got its how you use it. I mean, I know cats using big HD systems and I hear the stuff and it just sounds corny. But then I go to some dude’s house down the street who doesn’t have a studio but has a beat machine and sampler and is making really dope shit. Its definitely the mind behind the process thats for sure.
Definitely. As far as “Positive Thinking!”, it seems like there is one constant theme throughout the record. Are those songs you’ve pieced together recently or have you been working on it over a long period of time?
Yeah, I’ve been working on it over the course of like a year and a half just off and on. I’ll be writing and going back to the songs because I always felt like i was learning new shit. Especially when it comes to recording things like trumpets or percussion its pretty much just some mics in a room with some friends messing around for just like twenty minutes and then another session for twenty minutes. And then I took that home with me and arranged it to my satisfaction and I pretty much work from there. So I did this over the course of a year.
Thats a great process.
Yeah, “Old Pianos” is the only song on the record that’s made entirely out of samples. That’s me and my home boy Diego. I messed with samples off the SP-303 and then sent him the track and he did a lot of post-production work and sent it back to see if i dug what he had done. That was probably the track that was a bit out of the ordinary from my typical production style. It was the last song we did for the record. Everything was done and then I talked to Diego like, “Hey we should just do a track together to put on the record”.
And the label the record is on is Exponential?
Yeah, Ernest Gonzales label, a good friend of mine from San Antonio. I’m originally from San Antonio but I moved up to Austin to do the whole music thing like ninety percent of the people in that town. But yeah, he runs that label and we had been talking a lot about putting out my CD. So I sent it to him and he thought it was something that belonged on the label. He’s all about getting your name and music out and not trying to make money for himself. He’s definitely a real solid dude.
Are you playing any live sets to promote the album? What do those look like for you?
Thats what’s tricky, I kind of hate playing live. I wish I had a full band to play with me, but basically when I play live I have 2 laptops set up, a midi controller, a sampler and of course my Rhodes. I basically play live over the tracks. Its kind of boring, like I said I wish I had a live band so we could improvise and vibe off each other. Lately I’ve been playing live though because it’s part of the game. You know, getting people to hear to the record and get my name out. I played last night here in San Antonio and it was a good crowd and people responded really nice to it. But in the end I feel like it could be ten times better then it is.
Nice. What’s next recording wise?
My boy Diego is moving up to Canada but I’ll be keeping it going with him, trading tracks and doing a lot of stuff like “Old Pianos” but more of the jazz influence stuff. What I really want to do is produce for people. I really want to be behind the artist and produce for some female vocalists. Or maybe some marching bands, that’d be dope. There’s a bunch down in Houston and shit, those guys have so much flavor.
Are there any colabs that’d you love to make happen?
No one real famous, really. I’d love to work with like Ahu Dolly or this girl whose local, some girl named Kat Edmonsen. But I haven’t approached her yet. She’s a jazz vocalist who has worked with Ephraim Owens whose Erykah Badu‘s trumpet player and her voice is just perfect for what I’m trying to do next.
What have you been listening to recently? Is there anything that you’d recommend?
A friend of mine hooked me up with some new D’Angelo shit and thats all I’ve been listening to lately. Apparently he’s been recording on and off for the past couple years. I love “Voodoo”, it’s a big inspiration for the sound I like to go for. His new shit is amazing. The new Clipse shit too, “Re-Up Gang Vol. 3”, that shit’s hot.
What about producers that are around now. Anyone you especially like?
Definitely Madlib, a big inspiration to me. As far as my favorite producer, I’d say definitely J Dilla. I remember hearing Pharcyde‘s “Runnin'” and lovin’ it. All the shit he did for Tribe Called Quest, D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. I love all that stuff and it all comes from Dilla. But on the other side, I also love all the ambient stuff. Like Brian Eno is amazing and Jeff Buckley for some rock influences. Just so many people.
What were you listening to during the process of the album? You mentioned some jazz cats.
Definitely a lot of Coltrane. “A Love Supreme” just blew me away when I first heard it, especially the opening track, “Acknowledgment.” Oliver Nelson‘s record, “Blues and the Abstract Truth”. That is an amazing record especially the track, “Stolen Moments” it’s basically the ultimate jazz standard for me. I was listening to a lot of Ornette Coleman and Hank Mobley as well, those two guys are amazing. Actually, “This I Dig of You” is a Hank Mobley tune that I basically stole the name for a track on “Positive Thinking!”. Definitely pick up Hank Mobley’s “The Soul Station”.
Thank you very much Rae, good to talk to you.
Thanks man, take it easy.
interview by Justin Staple
Texas swing is now rendered into clicking beats and psychedelic samples: think J Dilla inspired grooves from the streets of San Antonio. 24 year old Rae Davis (yes, I know you’re thinking of The Kinks) has released his soft-jazz and harder-beat album Positive Thinking under the San Antonio label Exponential (home to acts like DJ Jester the Filipino Fist and Theory of Everything). The album itself is an exercise in hip-hop fusion, much influenced by Davis’ interest in the legends of jazz along with a light, down-tempo understanding of beats. The album opens with the comfortable, gentle ambience of “Yesterday’s History” and “Pyramids”, but soon the build-up – characterized by one particular repeating beatbox line – comes at you full force perhaps a little too predictable to the casual listener.
His recording style, however, suggests a strong sense of detail that might elude those consumers who have a limited base of knowledge in the prolific field of underground or fusion hip-hop. The latter of those two songs , it bears mentioning, has one of the strongest bass lines in an album that uses them sparingly and for effect. Davis excels when he allows for that sort of subtlety.
As the album progresses it never leaves the jazz-inflected realm, leaving room for ambience and implied tones. “Old Pianos” displays this sort of nuance well, with a slowly building series of click-clacks and layers of electronic “fuzz”. The sort of flow that he enjoys can also suffer from its own minimal movement and progression. At its best, Positive Thinking holds a beat like nobody’s business. At its least motivated, it holds that beat a fraction too long. Regardless, Rae Davis is, without a doubt, a jazzed young talent. Pay attention to this cat.
Find out more about Rae Davis
Words and Subliminal Messages by Miles King