In The Lab with The Alchemist and Evidence (Step Brothers)

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

The Alchemist had a very productive 2013, and we took the opportunity to highlight the abundance of bangers he was responsible for during the past twelve months as part of our #13for13 year-end wrap-up. But it’s a new year, which means it’s time for a fresh batch of fire. And the first full-length Alchemist-produced project of 2014 is the Step Brothers’ Lord Steppington (available January 21st, pre-order here), a group effort with long-time collaborator Evidence, featuring ALC on the boards (Evidence produced one track also), lead raps by both MCs, and guest appearances by Action Bronson, Roc Marciano, Styles P, Blu, and more.

We linked up with The Alchemist and Evidence earlier this week to find out more about Lord Steppington and how it was created for our first In The Lab feature of 2014. And it turns out, as we expected, these two have been breaking new ground inside the studio. They’re quite the innovators! Read below to find out all about the making of their new LP, from the beats to the rhymes to the post-production, and much more, including the truth about Rap Camp, and a few historic tidbits from their past studio experiences. And if you’re expecting a straightforward, non-comedic, button-upped interview, well, you came to the wrong place.

Studio Environment

The Alchemist: [The studio where we worked on Lord Steppington] is attached to where I live, one of the many places I live. The West Coast hideaway. It’s like an elevated bomb shelter, and it’s very secluded. It’s like a casino, where’s there’s not a lot of windows. If you smoke enough weed for enough days, you’re not even on earth [anymore]. You kind of get lost over there, and you don’t know if it’s five in the morning, or five at night.

Equipment

Al: I have an [exercise] bike that’s attached to the drum machine, so I can cycle and drum at the same time. I experiment with different fitness machines and drum machines. When you’re in the studio long enough, you get chicken flab muscles, and then you get crazy white skin because you’re in a fucking dungeon. So when you integrate fitness into producing, you always get a better result. And the blood rushes to your brain. More blood rushing is always a bonus. You don’t want to be a pasty Skeletor. It’s some next shit.

Evidence: You can’t literally do both at the same time, but almost.

Al: When you cycle, there’s a rhythm to it. The ideal thing is to make the cycle the same as your heartbeat, then you’re fully in sync. A different chakra opens up.

Ev: If you’re super-ill, you can ride double-time.

Al: It’s possible [that we could show you a picture of this], but it’s really makeshift.

Ev: Dr. Dre probably has a [more advanced] version of this. We have the other version.

Al: We’re developing a Bowflex version.

Studio Essentials

Ev: I got this old footage that my homie from Interscope had of Tupac making his album, Makaveli I think. It’s like an old VHS tape, with no edits, it’s just running. You can sit and watch it for like six hours and shit. But he had this thing about while he was recording, he had to be smoking a cigarette, inhaling in between takes. It was just what he wanted to do. So I don’t even smoke, but I started smoking Marlboros [during the making of this album] to channel the energy of Tupac Shakur. Rest In Peace.

Al: Trail mix. I eat dumb bags of trail mix. You can get a lot of essentials out of it. Pretty much trail mix is the only prerequisite. Everything else just kind of comes with the day.

Weed

Al: I just burn big chunks of [weed], and breathe over it.

Ev: [Laughs.]

Al: You don’t get as high. It’s not like an automatic thing. It’s like a weed incense. [It’s like a bonfire], and you just lean your head over the fire. It’s a more tantric way of getting high. It’s so zen. Evidence didn’t wear shoes once [while we recorded this album]. Not one shoe. [Laughs.]

Ev: Jay Electronica [once] called me up to get him weed back in the day, and I showed up to his apartment in L.A., and he answered the door with no shoes on. I was like, “Oh man, me and you are gonna get along well.”

Al: Did foot recognize foot at that moment? “My foot recognizes your foot, Holmes.” Did any of that go down? Did you guys do the Kid ‘n Play foot [dance]? [Laughs.]

Rap Camp/Creating Lord Steppington

Al: [Rap Camp] was made up. That shit was dumb fake.

Ev: All that shit was done through email.

Al: It never happened. [Laughs.] Nah, but basically, the studio environment always has to be fun. And it’s just a regular thing that happened at the studio, because it’s not a closed session type of thing. People converged, and music got made.

Ev: You go over [to Alchemist’s studio], and you see a lot of rappers that inspire you. Some people have names, some people might be on a major label, some people might be sick with it on the underground level. But when [Al] puts up a beat and everyone goes in, all that shit goes out the window. It doesn’t matter what you did yesterday. It’s just like, “Beat’s up. Who’s killing it?” And then it just goes from there. So that’s the dopest part about it. And then rapping with people like Roc Marci, and getting put on their shit. There’s a lot of opportunities from just being around. And I’m an opportunist, that’s all I do. I live for opportunities.

Al: It’s just complete chaos as far as, we’re not trying to organize it. It just goes. The environment is created by a bunch of people who are dope that somehow ended up together. And there’s no agenda. It’s almost like artists playing hooky from the real shit they gotta do. So that’s gonna be attractive and fun for a rapper, like, “Oh yeah, I can just go over here, and rap, and make beats, and just make shit?” And that’s when the best shit gets made, that’s what I think. If you’re squeezing your brain trying to make the best shit, you’re gonna get douche. Sometimes you gotta just float. So I pretend I don’t care, for creating purposes. Then after it’s done, we figure out where the chips fell. And that’s how we did Step Brothers.

Ev: It’s all shit that gets done anyway. I never even realized we were making an album. We never started it. It was just, “That was a good day. That happened. Put that away.” I went and got lunch, took a picture of a sunset on Instagram, and went and got some pussy after. And then we looked at everything, and we were like, “Oh shit, there’s a ton of music here.” It’s like the “Step Masters” first line, “Campfire pow wow, chief up the reefer.” That’s exactly what the hell is going on.

Al: Every day is like another war. But me and Evs, we’ve been making music since were fourteen together. So I don’t have to worry. If he brings over a beat, or I make a beat, it’s dope. For me, I just keep in mind what we’ve done in the past in the back of my head, so we don’t follow [what we’ve already put out]. Once we make a lot of songs, then it becomes the production job. Otherwise, it’s just beat-making, in a fucking tornado. You know, Ev’s coming over, I gotta cook something up. Then, once I knew what we were making [as a final product], I started crafting what we already had. And I hogged out on the beats. Ev could’ve did half the album. But I just bugged out. Rapping is fun, but I try to make the soundscape.

Ev: What Al’s been doing the past two years is crazy. I’m lucky to have a track [I produced] featured on one of his projects. For me, to even get a beat on [an Achemist-produced album] is crazy. I look at it like, “I’m one up. I got a track on an Alchemist project. Who else did?”

Looking for Samples/Beat-Making

Al: I’m a certified nut. Maniac. I have problems. And moderation is not a thing that I’m good at. If it’s YouTube, I get on the surfboard and just go berserk and just fall into oblivion, just clicking on fucking links until I find some next shit. Or, I’m in the record crates from the various islands that I’ve traveled. And it’s non-stop. Every genre of music on earth, every country, every continent. I love when people say all the good samples are gone. I love that. That’s the best thing I’ve ever heard. [Laughs.]

Ev: [Laughs.]

Al: You know how many countries there are, and years of life? You think that everything is gone? Inspiration is everywhere for me. As far as sounds, I get bored quick. I gotta find something that interests me, so I just move around. And the starting point is never the same for me. I might start with the drums. I might start with a maraca. Some people are methodic. They’re stuck to the way it’s gonna be. I don’t do that. I leave it open. You’ll probably hate me if you’re sitting there in the room while I’m making a beat, because it will morph seventy-five times. I really don’t listen to more than like a couple people when I’m making a beat.

Ev: Am I on that list?

Al: You’re on the list. But for the most part, I don’t want anyone to say shit while I’m doing it, because I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing yet. It’s just like someone writing a rhyme, and you going, “Let me see what’s on that paper? Change that word.” It’s like, “Let me spit it first. I didn’t even fucking say it yet.” Ev can sit and listen [and offer up suggestions]. But I’m just saying in general, I respect opinions, but fuck your opinion. [Laughs.] You have to trust yourself [when you’re in creation mode]. Once I know what’s there, then I’ll say, “What do you think?” Then you can crush my life and say, “It sucks.”

Ev: That’s like when I did the “We Gonna Make It” drum programming.

Al: Right. And I didn’t even like what Ev did to it, but I trusted him. He made the drums on [Jadakiss and Styles P’s] “We Gonna Make It,” and he was right on that one.

Ev: I just kind of hinted like, “Maybe do that pattern right there.” And he was like, “Fuck you.” But he ended up keeping it.

Writing Rhymes

Ev: I use a tablet, like Moses had.

Al: I have an Asian sand garden that I scribe [my rhymes in] with a stick. Or, if I don’t use that, I usually write on the walls with the blood of other producers. When I’m working in my like, Prodigy style of rapping, I write on the wall with blood. [Laughs.]

Ev: I [wrote raps] with my left hand a lot on this album. Hand motions are important. People think that [writing raps] with your left hand or your right hand affects different sides of your brain, and how your words come out.

Al: I write with tears in the shower, on the shower curtain. Every time I write, I cry. It’s emotional. It takes a lot out of me. By the fourth bar, I usually swell up, and I’m tearing crazy. Then I gotta just chill for a minute, and think about that life.

Ev: I’ve been using a quill.

Al: [Laughs.]

Recording

Ev: Alchemist hates a rapper who’s not ready to go in the booth. It’s like a chick who won’t get wet or something.

Al: “Are you ready!?!!”

Ev: Don’t go in the booth if you haven’t figured it quite out yet. There will literally be steam coming out of his ears.

Al: I don’t even know how to deal with it. I don’t know what to do with myself when it happens.

Ev: He’ll send you home.

Al: I like professionals!

Ev: I’ve learned to not give one shit about [how many takes someone needs to do to get the verse done right]. You might impress the six people in there listening, like, “I did it in one take,” but the rest of the world has no fucking idea. They don’t care where your record, or how the shit gets made, they just want to like it. There’s people who take forever to record, there’s people who do it in one take and nail it, but the end result is all that matters.

Mixing Records

Ev: That’s one thing we’re good at. All the other shit we suck at, but that part, we’re killing it.

Al: You have to [be able to] smell a good mix. A mix has to appeal to all the senses.

Action Bronson’s Greatest In-Studio Prepared Meal

Al: It was a rump roast. A crazy rump. He buried it for like two days in the dirt.

Ev: In the backyard.

Al: He buried the rump. Then he flavored it, we ate it, and everybody rejoiced.

Recording with Actor Scott Caan (of The Whooliganz)

Ev: We’re not used to the paparazzi coming to the studio, and people waiting outside.

Al: He didn’t even snap out of his role. He came to the studio as Danno, [his character from Hawaii Five-O]. It was ill. He was method acting, so he couldn’t snap out of it. We had to address him as Danno for the whole session. That’s my brother for life, though.

Ev: Domo Genesis was star-struck. He was gassed. He said there were two big moments in his life—meeting Cam’ron and Scott Caan.

Evidence Co-Producing “Last Call” for Kanye West

Ev: I remember having an idea for a beat for him, and driving around town playing it for him. It was kind of like that at the time, which is crazy. Jay Z was doing The Black Album at the time, so I asked if he could get it to him for The Black Album. He was the only person I knew who could do that. He liked it, but I think that made him feel weird. It was kind of puzzling to him, why I wouldn’t want him to have it. He was like, “I’m the new Mr. Roc-A-Fella.” And I was like, “Okay, tight.” Then he went to play it for Jay Z [which you can see in Fade to Black], and then he hit me and said, “Jay Z passed. We’re gonna prove a point.” [Laughs.] But it wasn’t like, “Fuck Jay Z.” It was like, “I tried to get it to him, but it didn’t work out, so we’re gonna do this.”

When you listen to the beat, and why it says it’s produced by me and him and not just me, he deserves it. The sample didn’t clear, so he had everybody re-play it. The “Get By” drums are in there. If you hear my rough, compared to what you hear there with all the instruments and the horns, and how when he really went in, he deserves it. I don’t have any problem admitting that. But, there is something to be said for a raw-ass beat.

Shout out to my homie Porse, my good buddy who lives in Sweden. He’s the one who showed me the loop. None of this would’ve happened if he didn’t show me the record. If you look on the credits, there’s additional production by Porse. I made sure he got that.

Alchemist Studio Sessions with Mobb Deep in the Late ‘90s

Al: Hennessey, whores, drugs, unlimited budget, beats, one white guy. Next question.

Ev: I made it into a couple of those sessions, and everyone was looking at me like, “Who the fuck is Thun?”

Future Projects

Al: I got something coming out that I’m gonna let everyone know. You ready for it? Here it goes. [Long pause.] That’s it. That’s the name of the album, and that’s what it is. You heard it here first. It’s never been done. The expectations are crazy for that. They don’t know what to expect. The Beatles did The White Album, but I changed the game just now. I humbly changed the game, on a NahRight interview, which is really monumental.

Photos via Mass Appeal, The Alchemist’s Instagram, Spliff Breaks, and the NahRight archives.

Previously: In The Lab with Thelonious Martin | In The Lab with Troy Ave |  In The Lab with Marco Polo |  In The Lab with Black Milk | In The Lab with Oddisee | In The Lab with Pete Rock | In The Lab with Party Supplies | In The Lab with Mac Miller | In The Lab with Roc Marciano