By: Chris “SPanky” Moss
In the world of glamour and glitz Hip Hop that we are so reluctantly accustomed to, it’s nice when you hear about a producer that is dedicated to his craft and understands the storied history before him. Taking influences from Run-DMC & The Beastie Boys to Dr. Dre and Pimp C, this producer understands Hip Hop. Even though he has produced music for major-label releases such as: Young Bleed, C-Loc, Lil Boosie, Webbie and UGK, Steve Below (pronounced Bee-low) remains under the radar in most circles. However, with a closer look, you will see that he produced the heat on the above-mentioned projects that had the critics and fans singing his praises. Through it all, Below remains a humble cat that takes everything in great stride which says a lot considering one of his more recent tracks is the lead off song on UGK’s final album, Underground Kingz. Oh, did I mention that he had two placements on UGK’s album as well as being included into Pimp C’s production team, The 808 Boyz, before he passed? It’s safe to say Steve Below’s time is now.
Below, you’ve worked with some pretty big names in the industry. How did the relationship with Trill Entertainment come about?
“Well, it was my homie, Curt B from Baton Rouge, who knew a cat that was looking to start an independent label. The guy he knew turned out to be Big Mel, one of the CEO’s of Trill Entertainment. Through me developing that relationship with Big Mel I was able to get hooked in with Lil Boosie and Webbie. They had been making some noise in Baton Rouge and the Gulf Region for a couple years when Asylum Records came knocking and offered them a distribution deal. Actually, it was Asylum that wondered if Trill had something a little different to offer as far as beats are concerned. I mean, they were happy with the current sound but they were curious at the same time. So, that’s where I came in. I did “Crank It Up” and “Retarded” on Webbie’s Asylum debut, Savage Life.” That album moved over 400,000 units and “Crank It Up” got critical acclaim in the reviews that it received.
It was through Big Mel that you met Pimp C. Right?
“Yeah, it was in 1998 when UGK had come to Baton Rouge to do some features on some No Limit projects. Pimp and Bun stopped by and came in the room where I was making a beat. I put a beat on for them and they got that look. You know when you squinch your face like ‘That shit is jamming.’ I didn’t know what they were gonna think at first; but when I saw that look, I knew I had done my job. Pimp had liked the fact that I could make that kind of shit come out of a Roland W-30 keyboard/sampler. Because anyone that ever owned one knows that it wasn’t a very easy piece of equipment to work. Hell, I had trouble workin’ that bitch; but shit, it’s all I had.”
So you were working with the Roland W-30?
“It was what I had available to me at the time. It was between buying that or the Akai 3000 at the time and I obviously chose the W-30. It had the keys and that’s the main reason why I chose it. I can chop up a small portion or a note in a sample and replay it on the keys. The machine doesn’t always loop clean since you can’t do a definite truncation like on the Akai samplers, for example.” It’s just something you work through.
Where do you get your sounds from?
I get them from the Internet and download them through the USB outlet to the MPC 1000. Also, I use sample CDs from some of the major companies out there because the sounds are already cleared for use. “Sounds are your lifeblood.” So, it’s important to not limit yourself to the possibilities that are out there for producers today.
Do you have a lot of beats on disk from when you first started?
“Well, let me tell you a story. Back in college, I didn’t have a lot of money so when I did new beats, I would save the beat on the floppy that had the old beat on it. I thought if the new beat was jammin’ that I might as well save that one instead.” Out with the old and in with the new
“Also it was around that time that I hooked up this Isley Brother’s song, ’Summer Breeze.’ I did the beat and put it on cassette so I could listen to it. About two weeks later, I heard ‘Tell Me Something Good’ by UGK and this was in 1991. This was UGK’s first song on the radio and it was right then that I knew I was doing something right. It showed that I was at least on the right path.”
So, little did you know that you and Pimp would cross paths so much. Tell us about the current songs that you have on UGK’s latest album, Underground Kingz.
“The idea for ’Swishas and Dosha” came about when I was riding with my cousin in Natchitoches, LA and he had a Zydeco mix CD in the deck. (Ed. note: Zydeco is music native to Louisiana). This song by Steprideau (pronounced Step-ree-do), a local Zydeco artist, broke down at the end into a jam session and it just struck me. I’m always on the lookout for sounds or samples. It was just shortly after that I took the CD from my cousin and chopped up the sample. I took the two bar loop at the end and repeated it twice and then another two bar loop at the end and repeated it twice making an eight bar loop for the beat. I put some pianos and some other keys on there from the Roland 1080. Finally, I added some 808 drums and percussion and it was complete. That track was done also with the W-30 and the Akai 1000”
Did you have any problems clearing the sample?
Well, that’s another story. “The album was being completed and Jive was scrambling to get beats from some big name producers out there. So, needless to say, I didn’t feel like a priority to them but Pimp really wanted that song on there. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I Google searched Steprideau and found his manager’s information. I called him and told him the situation. I explained to him that the budget was maxed out but we could offer some publishing credit. A few days later, his people called Pimp’s people and they worked it out. So, I basically got the sample cleared myself.”
But the troubles didn’t end there…
“No, Jive was pushing back saying that the album was done and that they didn’t need anymore songs and whatever else. But it was Pimp who fought for me and the song to make it no matter what the label said. He didn’t accept ‘No’ for an answer. That’s just the type of guy that Pimp was and no one was telling him what to do. Ironically enough, it was a Jive A&R who came back and said, ‘UGK couldn’t have started the album with a better song.”
Jive obviously liked something because you got another placement on the project. Tell us about the “Like That (Remix)”
“Yeah, Pimp fought for that one, too!” This one was done on Reason with a Mac laptop. “I have been on the go a lot and it’s just easier for me to carry the laptop around then a bag full of sound modules. Feel me? Plus, I can download sounds off Internet and then just feed them into the Reason program.”
“Anyway, we were in Pimp’s apartment in Houston and he started to hum this bass line. Pimp was looking for a remix to “Like That” that had a little different feel. He told me to ‘freak the beat’ and then he went to sleep. I thought to myself, ‘I got a chance to do this beat for the album and I am not going to sleep.’” I stayed up all night at his kitchen table putting the harp sounds together over the 808 drums and percussion until the beat was just right. Pimp woke up around noon the next day and heard the track. He said, “Yeah, that’s it, that’s it!” We grabbed breakfast and then hit the studio to record the song.
What was it like to work with Pimp C in the studio?
“He was a perfectionist. It took him two to three days to complete a song. He knew what he wanted and he didn’t let anyone tell him otherwise. It could be the engineer telling him something but he didn’t listen to them either. Pimp was real hands-on, too. Even his approach to producing, he had the sample, drums, hook, and vocals all in his head before his hands touched the gear.”
“When him and Bun would be writing in the studio, they would write in separate corners. They would get their verses done and head into the booth. When they spit their rhymes it was as if they had practiced for hours. It came together so smoothly. They’re true professionals.”
What kind of gear did he use?
“The Roland R-8 was his weapon of choice. It was the one thing that he said was instrumental to his success as a producer. The drum sounds were so clean and they were drum machine sounds, not sampled drums. The drums are so strong and true. He showed me how to use it as well and this is where I learned what kind of dude he really was. Most producers, especially of his caliber, won’t show you the tricks of the trade. This wasn’t that kind of dude. I haven’t used it on any tracks yet, but I do know how to program it. Yet, no one will be able to freak it like Pimp did. You will be hearing some tracks from me using the R-8, just not right now. I’ve got to be able to do it right, and I ain’t there yet.”
The R-8 was the cornerstone to his setup; but what else did he use?
“He had an ASR-10 as well as B-3 organ. Most people probably don’t know that Pimp was nice on the keys, too. He could play for real.”
It’s rumored that Pimp C had a large record collector. Is that true?
“Let me say that when I stayed in Atlanta with him he had at least 6000 records there with him. That was only what he had in Atlanta! That doesn’t include what he had at the other cribs or at his mom’s place either.”
“People think that Pimp was just into Soul or R&B or Blues. He was but his taste was diverse because he had Portishead, Depeche Mode, and the Meters all in his collection. Of course, he was into the Soul and Blues, but it was more than that.” For the title song of UGK’s opus, Ridin’ Dirty, Pimp chopped up a smooth Wes Montgomery break. Of course, he added his signature 808 sound and turned a jazz sample into a slow riding, Hip Hop banger.
Can you share with us one of your personal stories about Pimp C?
“We were at the Waffle House just before he passed and this was the last time I hung out with him. We walked in and people would be looking at him like ‘This must be Pimp C.’ You know that look that people have when they can’t believe or don’t know for sure that it’s someone famous. Well, people started coming up to him asking for autographs and Pimp started signing them as he exchanged hugs and pounds with the people. Within minutes, these same people started calling their friends and family members and they showed up to Waffle House. Needless to say, Pimp signed their autographs, too. That’s just the kind of guy Pimp was. He never got tired of his fans or burned out with his fame.”that story that best explains Pimp C and UGK’s influence on Hip Hop worldwide, not just “Southern Hip Hop.” It was the appreciation of the music and the care at which Pimp crafted his music that made him a favorite amongst his fans and peers alike. He didn’t isolate himself from the rest of the movements around the country and he equally understood the importance of the rappers/MCs that came before him. If you doubt that then why would UGK bring together Marley Marl, Big Daddy Kane, and Kool G. Rap for a “Symphony” remake on their latest album? Also, what other Hip Hop group regardless of their home base could pack the Houston Astrodome and have their fans rap word for word to every song that was performed? Maybe these questions will never be answered. But the fact remains that Pimp C and his friend and rhyme partner Bun B started something special almost 20 years ago back in Port Arthur, TX. Hip Hop fans can be grateful that we were able to witness the boom just as if it came out of Pimp C’s Roland R-8 drum machine.
That tradition continues with Steve Below who is building on the musical foundation that Pimp C laid. He is carving out his own place in Hip Hop music and you can tell that he doesn’t take his role lightly in carrying on the legacy. The teacher imparted his wisdom to the student. But then again, what else would you expect from an Underground King?