Jason Forrest's music (formerly released under the Donna Summer alias) is a crazy pastiche of recognizable pop themes and postmodern noise, from glitch to cock rock. But before 34-year-old Forrest was performing demented laptop surgery, he was a kid from the deep South finding solace in punk rock; and somewhere–in between playing dubbed cassettes of Bad Brains and Minor Threat down to the nibs–a friend turned him onto Public Enemy. PE remains a major inspiration to Forrest's work, particularly their production techniques and philosophies, which were steered by the Bomb Squad's Hank Shocklee (who is behind the amazing production of 1987's Yo! Bum Rush The Show and 1988's It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back). With Shocklee working on his multi-armed music company Shocklee Entertainment and Forrest about to release a new album on Sonig, we used the magic of transatlantic phone lines to connect the two for a discussion of the whys and hows of bringing the noise.
Jason Forrest: Obviously the Bomb Squad did something no one else really had done at the time when you first began producing. Why were you so interested in all this noise?
Hank Shocklee: We wanted to do something that we knew was going to wake up people. We wanted to alert them to a message that was frustrating us. We were calling it noise because nobody wanted to hear it--they didn't want to hear our ideas, they didn't want to hear our ideologies about music. So we bottled it as noise and threw it at them.
I always like how Chuck's MCing, this idea of a hard pill to swallow, matched up with this literal idea of noise–of a Prince guitar solo being fed back and looped so that it made this big slab of sound. How did you decide to choose this aesthetic?
Rhythm was a very big key with PE. I'm into harmonics from a dissonant point of view. I like the way harmonies work together, and I can also appreciate harmonies that don't work together but they gel. PE was basically an experiment with sound. I wanted to make sure that the sound that we were doing matched the mood of what we were about. We were very angry about everything at the time–noise was something that was coined out of the aggressiveness that we were creating. If you go back through musical history, anything that was done that pushed the envelope was perceived as noise. Rock 'n' roll was noise. Classical music was noise. We came across with a new form of music–basically taking music that was already pre-recorded and pulling out the frequencies and sustaining them and stretching them and bending them and controlling them in a fashion that felt to us like rock 'n' roll. We took anything and made it feel like a rock guitar, whether it be a horn blast or a violin string pad.
There's so many small elements of other people's music that do pop out and are recognizable in your music. I've mentioned Prince, the intro for "Fame" from David Bowie, Beatles bits. Why did you allow things to be recognizable?
Because that was the fun in it. It was the musical hook, if you would. If everything is unknown then it gets washed out. Some things have to have some context to it. So you could go, 'Oh! I know where that part came from!' but you're not going to know where all the other things came from.
Every record we made was a one-off. There is so much done in those records that we don't even know where these things come from. If we put a kick drum onto a track it would be layered with two other kick drums so that it would create one sound. If we wanted to do a deep bass sound we might use the 808. Or we would make our own 808 and we would truncate the parts differently. We would take the attack off the 808 off the front and just use the sustain portion. We may take [the sound] off of a record and scratch it and then take the warping sound of it and trigger that inside. There was no one technique that we used on anything. You can never just sit there and go 'Okay, I'm going to go pull up an SP1200 and pull up a stock sound of a kickdrum and a snare and I'll get your sound.' That's not going to happen.
Another thing I was always so bewildered by initially and have come to cherish are the little cut-up parts between tracks.
To make these records work was very detailed, it took a lot of time. We would do a lot of preliminary work before we would go into a studio. We've always wanted to make the sound as visual as possible. We were doing foley that cats would do in movies on albums. Say, for example, we wanted a speech that said things in a certain way but the speech only said half the phrase. We may go back in and recreate the way the speech was recorded using all the studio effects we have, then insert them in as samples so that those things became seamless. We would add in the hiss, we would add in the crackle–all of the things that made it appear like it was a sample.
Now those are presets, but we created those things before all these companies even knew what the hell was going on. When you look at filtering, for example, that was a thing that we were doing because we stumbled across it. It was actually a defect in the original SB12 design. When you plugged in the plug into the mix out of a SB12, and the cord doesn't go in all the way, it still makes a connection but it shaves off the high end; what was left was the bass portions of the sound. When we realized that we said 'Oh wow, that's a cool effect.'
What did each member of the Bomb Squad do to make up the sound? That part to me seems really mysterious.
We all did everything. Besides me, Keith, Eric, and Chuck, there was Flavor Flav and Terminator X. Everything was divvied up to whoever was feeling what at that particular moment. If Eric felt like 'I can add a little sequence part here'–it may just be a tambourine loop–then he would add that. If Flav feels like 'I wanna add the timing to this little drum sample,' he's going to add that. Everything went through my control because I'm the one that's overseeing the entire process. Nobody had a station, but what we did do is get down as a band. Eric might be on the drum pads, Keith might be on another set of drum pads, Chuck might be on a turntable, Flavor might grab a bass, Terminator was on a turntable, I might be on a keyboard sampler. And we're all just jamming–just making a fucking mess–but we're running tape. Every now and then you'll get a moment that will be the most incredible five seconds and that little piece might end up being a part of a record.
We did not sequence things. We wanted everything to have our feel. If you really listen closely, a lot of the timing on things is not correct and it's not supposed to be correct. You can easily take a high hat, put it into a machine, quantize it at 16s, and let it run from beginning to end. That sounds very mechanical. You're not going to get the loose feel of it. When we play it by hand, the high hats are at different lengths and different timing. When you start stacking those things, you're getting a groove that's being created from all the things that are a little bit off. The reason why most records made today are boring is because they're linear. They begin and end doing the same patterns, the same spacing, the same timing. Records are supposed to be a living, breathing thing.