Since the mid-'60s, production teams like Gamble & Huff and Holland-Dozier-Holland have masterminded the regional innovations and aesthetics behind R&B and soul. Studio partnerships like Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, The Bomb Squad, The Neptunes, and MIDI Mafia are all cast from that old blueprint, stamping their production style into veritable empires within the pop music landscape. Of course, these sorts of empires are never made overnight, and MIDI Mafia's body of work took years to solidify before they collaborated with 50 Cent on the breakout hit "21 Questions." Widening 50's crossover from urban centers to the bingo parlors of Middle America was no small task, and the Mafia's efforts were quickly noticed by industry tastemakers and artists alike. Since then, MIDI Mafia's Dirty Swift and Bruce Wayne have capitalized on the opportunity, approaching hit-making with a "just add vocals" philosophy. With a consistent barrage of songs like Lil Kim's "Who Shot Ya" and Deemi's "Soundtrack of My Life" on Hot 97 rotation, apparently the philosophy works. Dirty Swift fills us in on the process.
XLR8R: What are you guys working on right now?
We have our own artist on Atlantic Records; her name is Deemi and she's signed through our label, Family Ties. We just finished her album, looking to drop the single towards the end of the year and get the full album out next year. We're also in the studio with [American Idol winner] Fantasia [Barrino]. [We] did, like, five records with her so far; [we 're] not sure how many we'll have on the album, but it's looking like close to half. And there's this new rapper on Interscope called Haze. We did four records for him as well. We're trying to set up our own thing, but we've also got to keep out there as much as possible, so we're out shopping beats, too.
Did you get 50 Cent to do "21 Questions" through shopping beats?
It was being in the right place at the right time with the right shit. 50 was just starting his new situation; he had just got out of Sony. It was a year before the Shady/Aftermath deal that we recorded "21 Questions," so at the time 50 Cent was no big deal. But we liked his stuff from before, so we got him a beat CD through a friend that was trying to sign him for Universal. So we cut the song. It ended up being one of his favorite records and he said he was going to put it on the album... and he was true to his word.
What are you producing with right now? Is it all on the MPC?
We're both on the MPC 4000. We used MPCs forever before that, so it's interchangeable without any problems. We also both use a lot of soft synths with Pro Tools; the whole Native Instruments collection; [Spectrasonics] Trilogy for bass; Kontakt 2 a lot; the B4 organ is really good... the Korg stuff, too. We pretty much got rid of all the hardware synths we had and just keep it all in the software world. Oh, and I've got to plug the [Waves] SSL plug-ins. They really do sound like the board.
Do you have any production standbys you rely on?
Keep it natural, for one. But also, I program with mixing in mind, because I come from an engineering background. So when I'm programming, I'm thinking, 'OK, I've got to make sure this 808 doesn't conflict with the bass, because it's the same frequency.' A lot of it is just choosing your sounds well, which you can pick up on from listening to guys like [Dr.] Dre, where every sound is deliberate. He picked that kick. Why? Because it cuts through. You've got to pick your frequencies, which is sort of like painting with different colors... you pick the wrong ones and it'll end up muddy. So if you build your stuff from that perspective from the gate, you'll always have a good sonic range.
Do you ever use session musicians?
We had this remix to do a couple years ago, but it was a ballad and we were like, 'What the hell are we gonna do with this?' So I thought, 'Let's do the craziest thing we can think of... Let's go get a guy from Times Square playing the paint buckets, and make a beat out of it.' So we got this guy to play the buckets, paid him whatever, and went from there. We had him play for like 10 or 15 minutes and then chopped it up in Pro Tools, got a guitarist in, and had Talib Kweli rap on it. It's still one of my favorite things we've ever done, just because it was so off the wall.