Words by Benjamin Bradley Photos by Amy Cheung
Previously known for his hip hop production work, including credits on tracks like “95 till Infinity” with Joey Bada$$ – Lee Bannon has always been pushing the envelope as far as his process and mindset, causing him to venture into other genres such as Drum and Bass and Jungle. Mass Appeal journeyed through Brooklyn with the producer to eat Vietnamese food and talk shop about his new record Alternate/Endings, the shift in his output, and his newfound home on the genre-pushing powerhouse British label Ninja Tune.
Mass Appeal: What are your feelings about revealing your production and setup?
Lee Bannon: I mean, everyones got exposed to the gear. I was using super primitive stuff, and now everybody thinks they know. So I have been rebuilding it. I may let them think that. I just got this new piece today, on some German engineering… every sound on here is super crisp. They’re not ready for this yet.
There is such an obvious shift from the beats you were making to your new material.
You know why it’s so blatant? It’s not subtle at all? It’s because a lot of those beats that you’re hearing now, they’re old, from around 2008. So people are hearing that and taking it like this is what I sound like. I would rather make music for myself to listen to than make a beat that I think a rapper is gonna like, you know what I mean? Then it feels subpar.
So how did you and Joey link up first?
We had the same manager. That was temporary for me, though. Ultimately I got with management that knew what I was trying to accomplish and knew the field [ie: jungle, drum-n-bass]. We still talk, it’s just more on a professional basis. If they want me to come in the studio and work with Joey, it’s 100% business every time. It’s not like the old days when me and Joey would just sit there and make a beat and he raps on it.
Has that changed your relationship with him at all?
No, it’s the same. Joey kinda made it like that. He became a business, got bigger and bigger to where it had to be structured right. We wouldn’t even have done one song if we hadn’t been friends. When I first sent him beats, I didn’t even know what he sounded like. None of them really worked, that’s why I wasn’t on 1999. But then we were around each other for longer and longer amounts of time and then eventually everything I was making he wanted to rap on. But cut to a year ago, there was so much smokin’ and jokin’ and all that stuff, it’s like a lot of comedy involved. I wanted to be a more serious artist than all that.
Like the people you were with out west.
When I came up, I was with Madlib and Oh No and Alchemist and all them, I was with Planet Asia when Strong Arm Steady was being recorded, I was from Cali. That was when I first met Madlib. I was a bigger fan of him, but it got to the point though where I was around all of them, Babu, Alc, I just learned all the techniques. I seen what they were doing and it just stopped blowing my mind as much. It’s like that with anything, it’s just de-mystified to where now we’re just hanging out with heads making beats.
That seems to always be a part of the Dilla legend, as well. Where he told different people different techniques so no one knows exactly all of it.
Yeah he got a lot of those techniques from Madlib too, people don’t know. Madlibs always on the 303, 404, or SP-1200. That machine is the easiest to use, you just have to have patience. I love that he sticks with it, making purist beats. I can tell you right now, what I’m actually using for my new tracks, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to do it.
So out of all of them, who was your major hip hop producer influence?
I would probably say Alchemist was, he taught me a lot and also influenced me a lot as well. Yeah, hip hop wise, as far as staying relevant, making good stuff, knowing his shit. Again, being around, seeing some of the methods…remember that show Samurai Jack?
One of the best western animations.
All Jack did was walk around and learn shit from people. All I did was training. Basically, traveling and learning. On a mission, like Kung Fu. So you learn all the different styles and once you get most of them you are able to eventually develop your own and become your own thing.
Are you into animation like that? What are you watching right now?
“The Wire.” It’s funny, every time I’m working on a project, I’m watching “Sopranos.” All nine seasons. “X-Files” a little bit. I’m just watching “The Wire,” listening to a lot of music while continuing to build up my repertoire.
What are you listening to right now?
LB: Tim Hecker, some Aphex Twin. Venetian Snares. Oneohtrix Point Never. These people are insane. Next level. Silent Servant. Actress. The only hip hop I’m really listening to that has MC’s on it? Probably Death Grips, Rat King. Rat King is killing it out here. Their production is on some next level shit. Everything else is kinda predictable, and I just know what’s going on before I get to track two. Kanye of course. Kendrick is really dope, I want to see what he does on his next album, but the last one was dope. We did tracks together. There’s one with us and Consequence. It’s super old. I remember seeing him off La Brea and San Vicente at the studio. We would run into each other every now and then. The whole Kendrick thing, I get it. My grandmother’s from Compton. I’m around, but I’ve just been traveling, going back to Samurai Jack. I like the concept, the mythology. What it says on paper.
Will.i.am actually made the beat for that.
Man, don’t let Will.i.am fool you. He killed it out there in LA. Root Down Soundclash. Beat battles of Madlib vs Cut Chemist, Will.i.am vs. Thes One… I feel like that kind of morphed into the new instrumental scene. Flying Lotus, Dibiase, myself, Gaslamp Killer, a bunch of different people. Will.i.am has been around. He was doing really good gritty hip hop for a long time, like four albums.
They had a Premier joint on one of those.
Yeah, at that point he must have been like, “What more can I do?” It’s like Outkast right now. What more do they have to prove? They can if they wanted to, but they already mastered it and came out with a crazy body of work. “Bombs Over Baghdad,” there’s a little jungle in there. Production-wise for hip hop right now, it’s still Kanye. I mean, he uses other producers, but no ones really fuckin’ with his vision at the moment. Kanye definitely added his own thing to sampling. RZA too. What happened to RZA is actually he lost a lot of stuff in a flood and that’s when he switched his whole style up, after Wu-Tang Forever. But RZA doesn’t have to make another beat for the rest of his life after 36 Chambers.
Were the majority of the Pro Era joints done with the (Roland Sp) 404 and Ableton?
Not all of them. Some of those were Cakewalk, from before I even had a Mac. The 404 wasn’t even mine it was a friend’s. I literally just grabbed four things and just made a beat. Its not like “Oh I use this everyday” you know? I use a lot of digital. I got Logic up right now.
Do you have a favorite piece of equipment from your hip hop production?
Well, the 505 is pretty much the same as the 404, just bigger. I would pretty much say that. This is a crazy one [points] the 303 remake. It’s pretty sick. I’m still using Ableton. The new project though, Alternate/Endings, it’s a lot of analogue as well. Everything about this project I’m super into. This is my favorite project ever.
Drugs are so prevalent in the hip hop scene, especially weed and lean. Do drugs/weed help or hinder your creativity?
Hell no it doesn’t help me. [Laughs] I don’t even smoke…I mean I could, I have weed, it’s just if I get too high then I’m not productive at all. I was with Joey (Bada$$) and we were recording Summer Knights and he’s like “Press record!” [Laughs] I couldn’t handle it, I was too high so I stopped. Some dude from LRG brought cookies, and some other stuff. It was insane. It might be different when you’re a rapper, but when you’re trying to push buttons and tweak stuff, I had to slow down. I used to do it but… I don’t know, especially now if I smoke, I’d probably be passed out right now.
In light of your recent departure from more typical rap production, what’s your opinion on the current state of hip hop culture?
Man, hip hop got so corny to me that I stopped even paying attention. Then Joey came along. But I stopped paying attention a lot in the last couple of years or whatever.
How did you get the moniker Lee Bannon?
Actually, the “Wu-Tang Manual” came out and I started reading it in like 8th grade. It’s pronounced Lebanon originally, it was slang for California, from the dictionary part in the back.
My favorite name from that was one of the aka’s for Method Man: Hot Nixon.
[Laughs] Yeah I feel like they definitely just made some of those up for the book.
So did you ever end up doing any of these beat battles out west?
Before he did Redbull, me and Dibiase used to battle in events. I did some early, early on with judges, but mostly it was just crowds having fun while we threw down.
Do you think technology dictates creativity or is it our creativity that breathes life through the machine?
Right now it’s like people are held back by it. The get Ableton and they share the template, they hear the drum patterns and the drum sounds and they stick with what they hear. They don’t push outside the box. The word producer is abused now. I’m trying to do my own thing, explore sounds. I think in my career I’ve worked with enough people that now it’s gotten to the point where I can make music for myself.
Do you think that artists need to create in a bubble? Or is having barriers detrimental to the creative process?
I would say it depends on what type of artist you are. Drake makes music for the masses. I think I did connect better with earlier work, with hip hop. Now I don’t give a fuck. But it’s funny, I feel like I’m even more successful now that I’m just making music for myself then when I did that.
Success meaning going from being a producer associated with an up and coming rap crew to being on one of the most important indie labels in the world, Ninja Tune.
It was never strictly about Ninja, I was talking to other labels too. Ninja just had the best new artists too. Really I think the best thing to do is just do you what you want to do. Producers get so bummed when rappers don’t like their beats. I’ll make a beat tape and not play any of the beats for rappers. Fatboy Slim did the same thing as Dilla, with all vocal samples, but no one looks at his stuff as an instrumental album. He did what Dilla was doing but on the mass scale. The beats are so crazy that people look at them as songs. You do your own thing and do it proper and stay true to that, you’ll get results. Otherwise, you end up jeopardizing your sound. Better off sticking with what you like.
Do you feel like you’re always trying to make the same, or “perfect,” beat or song?
When I make hip hop, yeah. The same song. It’s either about the girl, or it’s rapping about rapping. Then you rap about what you get from rapping. It’s like inception. “I rap so good, I got a record deal, I got a car,” it drives me crazy. I can’t listen to that.
Is your art like work or do you just run with inspiration when it comes?
As soon as I stopped caring about the money, I made this really chill music to sleep too. I slept to it for like a week, hundreds of times. I said I’m gonna put that out. This is like something you could buy for a baby and put inside its crib.
Like Brian Eno with Music for Airports.
How much of your process is goal oriented and how much of it would you say is freestyle?
I have to be in the zone nowadays to actually execute something. It doesn’t take much to get me in the zone though. It could be anything. If a guy came in right now and spit the best verse ever or something that blew my mind, I could get inspired and want to make beats again. I don’t plan on disappearing from hip hop forever. I just think it’s in a weak spot right now. It’s like rock in the late ’80s. You know when rockstars had the leather pants and all the crazy hair, glam rock. It’s mad corny. You look back and it looks mad silly.
I feel as if you are acutely aware of the current scene, so you almost make music to be listened to in the future.
Exactly! My music in ten years I hope will sound like Alternate/Endings as well, because it can be played back and still fit in, like that Aphex drum-n-bass shit from 1992. Hopefully. You know, there’s a mold. You get on the XXL cover, you do this, you do that, you know what I mean? It really seems like I’m fine to do me right now. And if I do comeback and do [hip hop], they’ll say “It must be worth it, he’s coming back for it a reason, this must be legit.” I do have beats on Joey’s next album though.