In The Lab with Marco Polo
Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
If you’re looking for high-quality, head-nodding, New York-centric hip-hop music with hard-ass drums and slick samples, well then we suggest you go check out Marco Polo’s catalog. The Toronto-bred, Brooklyn-based producer has spent the past decade lacing legends like KRS-One, Buckshot, Kool G Rap, Large Professor, and Masta Ace with rock-solid beats. And yesterday, he dropped his latest album, PA2: The Director’s Cut, a nineteen track dose of freshness featuring everyone from Pharoahe Monch to Posdnuos.
To get a closer look at PA2, and what goes into creating an immaculate rap compilation album from the ground up, we asked Marco Polo to take us inside his home studio in Brooklyn and walk us through his daily routine, his sampling and digging techniques, how to construct a dope posse cut, and much more. We also asked him about his time spent in the early 2000s working at The Cutting Room recording studio in NYC, and he shared memories of sliding MCs his beat CDs on the low, and watching a young Kanye West play tracks for De La Soul. Check out our latest In The Lab interview with Marco Polo below, and make sure you go get that PA2: The Director’s Cut, available now on iTunes.
Marco Polo: “My first production setup was the Akai MPC 2000XL with records, a Technics 1200, and a mixer. When I passed the point just being a fan of hip-hop, and when collecting albums and being a listener and a fan wasn’t enough, I started doing research [about production]. I was specifically inspired by DJ Premier and Pete [Rock] and Large Professor, and looked to see what they were using. And I definitely saw the MPC as a classic machine. So that’s why I went out and bought that particular sampler. The pads looked cool to me, my boy Shylow taught me how to use it, and I’ve been using it ever since.
“[My setup now] is really the same setup. The 2000 XL is the heart of the setup. The only difference now is instead of strictly using records and sampling, I’ve incorporated a program called Komplete 8, which is made by Native Instruments. And it’s basically a giant library of sounds. I will use that, and sample from my computer into my MPC just like I was sampling a record, but I sample myself playing. And Komplete 8 has so many sounds. It’s got like vintage keyboards, organs, horns, and all types of crazy shit. So I approach it like I’m playing my own samples. And they sound dusty, that’s why I like it.
“There’s a lot of shit out there that’s really cheesy, and sounds really synthy, so for specific beats I’m working on, it doesn’t really work. But I fucking love these [Komplete 8] sounds. It’s kind of changed my production game, because now I can make stuff that sounds like samples, but it’s not. So I can get that licensing money, and expand my brand, which is important. Digging is never going to stop for me. That’s still the number one inspiration, collecting records and music. But now I have the ability to replay a sample that’s dope if it’s not going to the places I need it to. It’s a new option that definitely makes things more flexible.”
“A lot of the spots [in Toronto for digging] are gone now. There was a spot Ric’s, in The Beaches area of Toronto, I think they’re gone now. When I started, instead of record stores, I was more about junk spots. I used to go to Goodwill, Salvation Army, those type of places, because I was poor. [Laughs.] Well, not poor, but I was cheap, and I liked to go in and buy dollar records. And to this day, I still do that. And now, as my taste and knowledge has increased, I’m spending more money on records. But I couldn’t really site the spot I used to go to in Toronto, because it never really existed. Now, there are newer spots that are good.
“I moved to New York before I got heavy into digging, so all my digging spots are in New York more-so than in Toronto. My favorite spot has to be Academy, which is unfortunately getting blown up because everyone keeps shouting them out. They have a few locations. They just moved from Williamsburg in Brooklyn to Greenpoint, and they have another location in Manhattan. I think that’s the best record store in New York, period. It’s reasonably priced, you can come up on good solid stuff, different stuff, drums. Overall, you can go in there with not a huge budget and come up.
“I’ve had the privilege of traveling to a lot of places, rocking with Masta Ace, and doing my own stuff. And my favorite record store [overseas] is in Zurich. It’s called Hum Records. I was just there, and the basement part of it closed down. But that was my favorite spot in Europe to dig.
“I like to find different [stuff]. With a rap beat, if you’re going to loop something, it’s gotta be so dope that for four minutes you’re not going to get bored of it. You’ve gotta try to find something that can repeat, because that’s what it is. The simplest beats, if you look back in history, they’re the ones that stand the test of time. Specifically, a lot of Primo stuff, there’s this beauty in three chops that you can listen to for five minutes with someone rapping over it.
“I’m definitely moved by album covers, but I also have learned that you shouldn’t judge a record by its cover, because you will miss out on a ton of dope shit. Sometimes some generic-looking shit has the flyest music on it. I try and keep my mind open when I’m grabbing stuff, and try to find stuff that looks different, and not the usual. If hip-hop’s going through a period where everyone and their mother is doing sped-up soul samples, or just tons of soul, I’m gonna be in the psych rock section. Not that I don’t love soul. But I definitely want to be a little to the left or right, and still keeping it funky.
“And we all have our tips. Every producer will tell you that they look on the back of the record to see who’s playing on it. The musicians, the producers, the studio, the label. All those things are definites to help you find something. ‘Oh shit, that drummer played on this record that had that ill break, I gotta check it out.’ It’s like back in the day, when you saw Def Jam. It’s the same when you’re digging for samples. You see Stax, or Fantasy, and you’re like, ‘Oh shit.’ Right off the bat, you’re interested in checking it out.”
“Sometimes I’m looking stuff in particular. But if I buy new records—and that’s probably my favorite part of digging, when I buy a new stash of records and get the chance to go back to the studio and sit down and listen to stuff I haven’t heard—I’ll sit down [and start listening], and the moment I hear a sound, a loop, or it can just be one note, I’ll throw it in the MPC. I’ll start from that, and just see what happens. It’s really nothing epic. It’s just as soon as I’m moved by something that I hear, I move forward with the beat.
“I dump a lot of records into my computer, and I download a lot of music, too. I’m not one of those nerds that doesn’t download music. I download tons of shit from the Internet. And I don’t give a fuck about the record nerds, because I’ve been digging. A lot of times I discover stuff online, and then I’ll go buy the record. Because I like to own everything I sample. But it’s so much easier to sit in your crib on a fast Internet connection and find a bunch of music. Then I have a section in my iTunes that I check off like, ‘Okay, I gotta use that for a beat.’”
“I have a great life, and I thank hip-hop Jesus every day. My routine is great. I wake up in the morning, I go downstairs, and I get a large red eye. Nothing starts until caffeine has entered my system. A red eye is a large drip coffee with three shots of espresso. It’s pretty next level. A lot of people don’t know, but I’ve been clean and sober, on the wagon, for nineteen years. I don’t do drugs or drink. So that’s all I have left, Newports and coffee. [Laughs.] So I go downstairs to the bougie little coffee spot, get my red eye, and sit on the bench outside and smoke a couple Newports.
“Once I feel that caffeine circulating in the bloodline, I head upstairs, and that’s my prime time. I have a two hour window where I’m up, and alert. I’ll put on records, or I’ll even play new music to get inspired, and just start vibing. And the moment I catch something, or hear a sound, [I’ll go in]. Or I work completely backwards. I’ll load up drums before I even find a sample, which is an unorthodox approach, but I like to be nodding my head before I even find samples sometimes. So I’ll program drums, because it will put me in the BPM zone I want to be in. If I know I want to make something above 90 [BPMs], I’ll kind of trap myself into that by programming the drums at that speed. And then I’ll find chops and samples to fit that. I don’t do that all the time, but I would say for my first four albums that approach definitely set it off. I would not recommend that approach to other producers. You’re more trapped into that world. It’s counterproductive for me some days, like, you’re stuck with drums and can’t find anything to work with them. But sometimes I like to challenge myself.
“I’m on that corporate schedule over here. I’m pretty good. I’m pretty much a beat factory between like 9 to 6. I rarely eat, which is fucking terrible. Smoking is a great substitute for food. Newports have tons of vitamins. They’re so good for you. [Laughs.] Then finally, I’ll have a migraine at like 6 or 7, and my body’s like, ‘Alright, you’re a fucking douche. Go get some food.’ Then I’ll shower away the stench of Newports and go eat food. And that literally happens Monday to Saturday, and Sunday is my day of rest.
“I have one beat if I’m lucky [by the end of the day]. If I make two beats in a day, it’s a miracle. I’m a perfectionist with my shit. I’ll listen to something for six hours straight. I’ve seen interviews with dudes that I’m fans of, like Nottz, or 9th Wonder, and they’re like, ‘I make thirteen beats a day.’ That is not my life, though I wish it was. In a good week, I’m making six, seven beats.”
“I make beats like a machine, and then stash it in what me and my boy Shylow call ‘The Catalog.’ And when I make something extraordinary, we put it in the PA2 stash. Shylow is my brother from another. He produces, DJs, does scratches on my stuff, raps. Every time I make a new beat, it gets sent to him. The world will not hear it until he hears it. [Laughs.] He critiques the shit out of it, like, ‘That’s crazy dope,’ or, ‘The beat is dope, but those drums are ass.’ He’s definitely like my Obi-Wan Kenobi of beats. And me and him will figure out out together after I make a bunch of beats [what to do with them]. Like, ‘This joint would be ill for [Masta] Ace,’ or, ‘Send that to Large [Professor].’
“I’m not that dude to send an MC thirteen beats and be like, ‘Pick whatever you want.’ I hate that shit, because in my experience, if you give the MC the option to pick the wrong beat, nine out of ten times they will. [Laughs.] But if you do send [a batch of beats], make sure that any beat you send them, you’ll be happy with it if they pick it. I always send beats that no matter what they pick, I’m cool with it.”
Working at The Cutting Room in the early 2000s
“I assistant engineered and managed The Cutting Room in New York when I moved here, which was a really good spot to work. I started interning there, and luckily, my little bitch phase of mopping and getting coffee lasted about one month, and then I got hired. Then I started assistant engineering, which is basically like interning, because you play the wall, and do whatever the engineer asks you to do. ‘Go plug this in, set up this mic, go get a sandwich for Benzino.’ Whatever they say, you do it. Then, I started managing the studio, so I was booking sessions. But everyone kind of plays many roles. I engineered sessions, too. I remember tracking vocals for Carl Thomas, Inspectah Deck, and Talib Kweli. So I did all that shit.
“The Cutting Room was dope. It moved around the corner since I was there. It wasn’t the fanciest studio. It had an A Room, which had the million dollar SSL [analog mixing board], and a smaller B Room with a digital console. But honestly, from Port Authority to Double Barrel to The eXXecution, I did it all in my crib in Brooklyn. And I feel like I achieved better results than a lot of people flexing in the studio spending $200 an hour in the studio. It has nothing to do with the fancy gear. It has to do with your knowledge of recording.”
The Key to Being a Good Engineer
“I went to school for all that. All these schools you see like Full Sail, I went to one of those schools in Toronto. What makes you the best engineer is not even necessarily your technical knowledge. It’s a customer-based industry. So your job is to shut the fuck up and do whatever the artist you’re working with wants you to do. The worst engineers are the ones that are failed musicians who want to have their little stamp of [creativity] in the studio session.
“So if a rapper comes in like, ‘I wanna loop up U2 and put an 808 on it,’ in your mind, you’re like, ‘That’s the worst idea ever.’ But the difference between a good engineer and bad one is a good engineer loops up U2 and puts an 808 on it. You do what the artist wants you to do. [Laughs.] If they ask you what you think, and only if they ask you, then maybe you can chime in and be like, ‘Musically, it would be better…’ But if not, you’re a paid person, paid to do a job. If you’re a producer, and there is a trust established, that’s different. But an engineer is there to help you achieve your musical goals. Recording things undistorted, getting levels good, making sure everything is recorded the best it can be.”
“When it comes to my albums, if it’s geographically possible or I’m working with an MC from New York, I’m pushing for them to come through and record [at my crib], all the time. But there’s definitely people on my albums that were not in New York, and I didn’t have a choice. If anything, I’m involved in where they record, and if I have to throw some loot for them to go to spot [then I’ll do that]. I know a lot of people on the West Coast and in Toronto, so if I have someone recording there, I holler at one of my studio buddies, like, ‘Yo, can you track these vocals?’ Because I trust them to do it right. If given the opportunity, people will record their vocals in the worst place, and they’ll end up distorted, and that’s the type of thing I don’t play around with. I won’t use it if it sounds shitty.”
“Do It Man” with Masta Ace and Big Noyd/Beat CDs
“For me, at the time, moving to New York and trying to establish my name, [“Do It Man”] was absolutely [my first big placement]. I met Ace at the The Cutting Room. I have so many stories about working there. Seeing Kanye right before he blew up, Mos Def, Kweli, Common, De La Soul. Ace came through to do something with The Beatnuts, and they had Studio B. So he came in, and I gave him a beat CD as he was walking out. That was the one thing you do when you work at a studio and you’re trying to come up, you slide your beat CDs to MCs. [Laughs.]
“It’s a very tricky situation, because the owner of the studio doesn’t want you to harass [people paying to do work there]. So I always had to do it with tact, or on the low, or when the vibe was right. But Just Blaze worked at The Cutting Room a few years before me, and I’m pretty sure that’s exactly how he got on. Having his beats playing in the office, and some of the early Roc-A-Fella artists coming through, like, ‘What’s that?’ Don’t quote me on that, because that [may not be how it happened]. But he definitely started in the same studio. And that’s what [producers who work in studios] do. Sit around playing our beats, hoping someone comes in like, ‘Hey, what’s that?!’ [Laughs.] But a rapper exists because of beats. So giving a beat CD is always a better look than, ‘Yo, I’m gonna kick bars for you right here in the street and it’s gonna get awkward really quickly.’”
Memories of Kanye West at The Cutting Room
“That guy, he’s always been special. I don’t know him, and he would never remember me, but I remember he came in to The Cutting Room to play beats for De La Soul, and just played the back. That’s what you do as an assistant engineer. I think he was playing them beats for The Grind Date album. But it was definitely an experience to see him come in with his energy and his confidence, and play beats for De La. And I got to hear him come in and play a lot of records from his first album before it came out. And I remember specifically Mos Def talking to Kweli in a session about Kanye, like, ‘Yo, that guy is about to take shit over.’”
The Anatomy of a Posse Cut: Creating “Astonishing” with Large Professor, Inspectah Deck, O.C., and Tragedy
“I made the beat, and I knew it was something energetic. I like to have records like that. Shit that gets you amped up, and makes you want to punch somebody in the face. That’s the type of rap I grew up on, listening to M.O.P. and Gang Starr. I definitely have [other types of beats], but on a Marco Polo album, you’re gona get energy. So I had that beat, and I sent it to Large. I don’t even think it was his favorite beat out of the few that I sent him, but I kind of pushed him to get on that joint. He came through, dropped his verse, and I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ So that was the starting point.
“So Large lays his verse, then me and Shylow build, like, ‘Okay, what happens now? Do we do a generic verse hook verse hook? Or do we do it where the next verse connects and add a bunch of people?’ And we just felt like it was a posse cut, where the next person should connect after Large’s last word. We get very detailed about shit.
“So I hit up Deck, because I always wanted to get him on something. And I let him know [what we had in mind]. That’s the whole thing, communication. That’s what I think the problem is with a lot of young producers. They’re too intimidated, and they don’t communicate.
“So I send Deck the song with Large, and I said, ‘Can you just make sure your verse starts in a way where it’s connecting from Large’s?’ And it wasn’t like Large was rapping about anything conceptual. It was just some rap stuff. High energy, vintage Large. Then we knew at that point, we were gonna have a hook and then two more MCs. And that’s how it went. I left eight bars, then I had O.C. do the third verse.
“The fourth verse, that was the problem. I won’t name names, but I had four other MCs lay a fourth verse, but they just didn’t fit the song. So there were many casualties [while recording] that fourth verse. [Laughs.] Ones that actually hurt my heart, but it just didn’t work out for various reasons. And all of those people were ones that I wasn’t in the studio with. And that’s the downer of not being there. If I was, I could’ve stopped them if I knew it wasn’t going [in the right direction], and been like, ‘Yo, what you’re doing is dope. But on this particular song, it needs to be like this.’ But then I finally connected with Trag, and he was the perfect closer. He just [went in] and blacked out. So I had the four verses, and I reached out to DJ Revolution to take care of the chorus and the outro scratches.
“It’s tough. [A posse cut] can’t just be randomness. A lot of people just get three popping names, and put them on a song. Like, ‘They’re all big names, so it’s cool.’ But it’s not cool. You can’t have a guy on the first verse talking about selling crack, and then on the next verse someone talking about saving the children. For me, what I had made sense. It was four legendary, I hate to say ‘Golden Era,’ but all dudes that I consider legends. It all made sense that they were on the track together, so it fit. I’m not a fan of super-random shit. I like things that make sense.”
Compilation Album Headaches
“[Putting together a compilation album is] the biggest headache in the world. [Laughs.] This album took me five years to make. It was the biggest pain in my balls ever. [Laughs.] But I don’t regret it. Off the bat, you have forty different artists. You’re trying to make forty different voices connect over beats in a cohesive way. And this is in the independent world. I’m not on a major label budget. I can’t be like [Dr.] Dre, and fly people in like, ‘Hey, come spend a week with me. I’ll pay for everything. We’ll record a bunch of shit, and I’ll take whatever I want.’ If that was the case, this album would’ve been done in two months.
“A lot of this shit—without saying any names—we work on the love system. The trade system. They respect what I do, and they’re cool with me. So instead of giving them money, I give them a beat. But in that world, when you’re working on the barter system, you can’t be like, ‘Yo, knock out that verse right away.’ You have to be flexible. Everyone’s trying to make money, and pay their bills. So if you’re an MC, and you wake up in the morning and you have to do six verses, you’re going to do the ones that you’re going to get paid for first before you do the favor for Marco Polo. It’s a lot of patience and waiting. I appreciate everyone on the album, and I was totally cool with that. But it’s definitely a factor in terms of finishing something quickly. It takes forever.”
Favorite Verses on PA2: The Director’s Cut
“I’m happy with everything, but there’s definitely a couple [favorites]. Pharoahe [Monch’s] verse on the intro I think is retarded. Ill Bill’s verse on ‘Savages’ is fucking insane. He ends that song, and to me, he just blacks out. I hear that verse, and I’m like, ‘Did you even breathe?’ There’s so many, but those are definitely two standouts.”
The Story Behind “G.U.R.U.” with Talib Kweli and DJ Premier
“Without sounding all sentimental, the beat for that song was made the day Guru passed away. So that was number one. I was definitely going through something that day as a fan, feeling like I lost a friend I’ve known forever, even though I had only met him once. I was definitely fucked up that day, I’ll never forget that day. And I didn’t make the beat like, ‘This song has to be about Guru.’ I just made the beat that day, and that was that.
“So I sent Kweli the beat, and said, ‘I made this beat the day Guru passed. All I’m asking is whatever you end up writing about or doing with the song, just make sure it’s something conceptual, or something with emotion in it.’ Sometimes, rappers will end up just doing something bragadocio, and I love that. I have a million songs like that. But I wanted him to do something with emotion or meaning, because that beat meant something to me. And me telling him that story, he ended up doing the whole song dedicated to Guru, which was dope. When he sent it back, I was in awe. All the verses, and how specific he got. It was crazy.
“Then Kweli ended up playing the record for Primo, and Primo was like, ‘Yo, this is amazing.’ And of course, I’m blessed to call Primo a friend in 2013. So I asked him to get on the song and do the scratches, just to solidify it.
“I’m lucky enough that I’ve been in the studio many times with Premier when he’s making beats. And I was there the night he did the scratches. It was dope, because he has access to way more Gang Starr acapellas than anyone else. So he used a bunch of unreleased shit. He did the scratches, and that was the icing on the cake. It’s one of the best songs I’ve ever been a part of.”
Brooklyn Nets Theme Music
“If you’re a Brooklyn Nets fan, I did the theme song for the Brooklyn Nets. It played last season, and it will play this season as well. So if you’re in the New York area, and you’re watching all the televised games, when you hear the music, it’s mine. A lot of people don’t know that, but I like to shout it out. And I’ve been in Brooklyn for twelve years, so I feel like a Brooklynite. It was a really great opportunity.
“I had to craft a beat from scratch. They gave me a reference track, the Jay Z ‘Roc Boys’ song with the horns in it. I think that was the track they wanted to use, but they couldn’t for some reason. So they said, ‘We want something original with this type of energy.’ And they picked it. Shouts to my boy Brian Hamilton for hooking up that opportunity.”
Future Production Ventures
“I did a bunch of work on Pharoahe Monch’s new album, three joints on there. One specifically has him and Black Thought, called ‘Rapid Eye Movement.’ I don’t know if Pharoahe’s gonna get pissed at me for leaking that information, but fuck it. It’s fucking amazing.
“Besides that, I’m just making a lot of beats. And what I’m going to start doing, which I’ve never done in my career, is start making the effort to get my beats out to bigger projects. I’ve always focused on my indie career, doing albums and touring. I’ve never made it a focus to send a bunch of beats to labels and try to get placements. I’ve already done it with the licensing game. I have a lot of shit in movies, and the Nets thing. I put out three albums this year, so I’ve done my indie thing for a minute.”
Pics via Marco Polo’s Instagram