PREMIERE: El Michels Affair ‘Return To The 37th Chamber’
A few weeks back MASS APPEAL premiered an animated video of “Iron Man” from an extra-dusted analog project called Return to the 37th Chamber. Today we’re giving you the whole damn thing. Now here’s the back story on this singular album and an interview with the man behind it, Leon Michels. In the summer of 2005, I served as the Urban & Variety Specialist at ASCAP’s radio-monitoring outpost in suburban Philadelphia. A package landed on my desk: two CDs from Leon Michels’ newly formed Truth & Soul label. A copy of El Michels Affair’s debut, Sounding Out The City and a compilation called Fallin’ Off The Reel. The latter had instrumental re-interpretations of Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” and Raekwon’s “Glaciers Of Ice.” Four years later, EMA dropped Enter The 37th Chamber, a cult classic. Now, eight years after this release, Leon and I had a chance to talk. Here’s the premiere of Return To The 37th Chamber to set the tone while you read our interview.
You’re from Brooklyn?
I moved to Brooklyn. I’m from Manhattan.
Where in Manhattan?
I grew up on the Lower East Side. I moved to Green Point, then I was in Williamsburg for awhile. The Truth & Soul studio used to be in Williamsburg, but now I’m in Prospect Heights.
You set up shop in Williamsburg?
Yeah, that’s where Truth & Soul started and that’s where I was hanging out most of the time when I moved to Brooklyn some 12 years ago.
Tell me about some of the early scenes you were involved in.
When I got together with Desco Records, which is sort of where it all started, I was 16, I was still in high school. I had that band The Mighty Imperials and through that I joined the Dap-Kings who were at the time The Soul Providers. That scene was just bubbling. For the first six years we were playing gigs for like 100 people max, but it was still cool. Bands like Antibalas, Lee Fields and Sharon Jones (R.I.P.) as well. It all started with Desco.
You mentioned Dap-Kings and Sharon Jones. You’re one of the central figures of that specific sound: Budos Band, Antibalas, Menahan Street Band. Do you want to talk about how this sound intertwined with Mark Ronson and Amy Winehouse?
Yeah, the story with that is, Mark had sampled a Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings song for Here Comes The Fuzz, which was his first producer record. So, in the process of clearing the sample, he hit up Gabe (Roth, founder of Dap-Tone Records) and was like ‘I love what you guys do, I want to come to the studio and hire you to re-play samples or play this beat live.” It started with that record, so I think when [Mark] did the Winehouse thing, he always had it in his head that he was gonna use the Dap-Kings.
Did you play on that Winehouse record?
I was in the band when I was 16 to 24, and I literally quit the band six months before that record started. I started Truth & Soul and I had been touring with Dap-Kings for seven years. I was a little burnt out on touring. I just wanted to do my own thing.
So much has branched out from the Truth & Soul/Daptone umbrella. Jay-Z sampled Menahan Street Band for a huge record. I read you’ve collaborated and written songs with Cee-Lo, Adele and Aloe Blacc.
My friend Jeff Silverman and I produced and co-wrote Aloe Blacc’s whole breakthrough record (Good Things, 2010). Basically when Winehouse became such a huge hit, a lot of people came knocking on our doors trying to do the same thing. It upped the visibility of our scene and people came to us to essentially recreate what was done with Winehouse, which most of the time didn’t work. But if you wanted that sound, you went to Dap-Tone or Truth & Soul for like four or five years.
Let’s get into EMA’s new record, Return To The 37th Chamber. Truth & Soul is now Big Crown. Obviously you have an affinity for the Wu. You got a break in 2005 when Scion asked you to tour with Raekwon. Did you develop some musical relationships with members of the Wu?
We had a string of concerts with Raekwon which Scion put on and they went over really well. So they started adding other members of Wu-Tang to the shows and we ended up going to SXSW with them and did a show at B.B. King’s. It was billed as El Michels Affair & Wu-Tang but really we were just a backing band.
The instrumentals sounded so cool and kind of different that we decided to put out that one 45 (C.R.E.A.M. b/w Glaciers Of Ice). At the time at Truth & Soul we were selling like 500 copies of a record, but we put that one out and ended up selling like 6,000. So we figured, people want to hear this stuff, might as well do a whole record. That record (Enter The 37th Chamber, 2009) took two weeks to make.
Let’s talk about your favorite Wu albums.
Well, number one would be Enter The 36 Chambers. Definitely in my top-five records of all time.
I’d be curious to hear some of your other favorites.
My other favorite producer is Lee Perry so Blackboard Jungle Dub is up there. James Brown’s box set Star Time, I listened to that for like three years straight. Wait, I gotta think for a second. Another desert island disc is Curtis Mayfield’s Live at The Bitter End, Captain Beefheart’s Safe As Milk.
That’s a good balance.
Yeah, gotta keep it interesting. Wait, that’s not fair. Biggie’s Ready To Die is up there, too.
You mentioned the Wu-Tang debut. What about some other Wu records, solo or otherwise?
Only Built 4 Cuban Linx. Return To The 36 Chambers, the ODB record, is way up there. I love that record. To me, that record is The RZA’s shining moment. It’s so out-there and creative, I can only imagine he basically had limited material from ODB and he made this fucking masterpiece out of it.
Yeah, I really dig the Lee Fields’ version of “Snakes” on the new EMA record. It’s a little more of an obscure Wu-Tang cut.
Yeah, deep album cut.
I just recently heard the Joe Tex song he’s referencing.
Yeah, it’s essentially a cover of that.
It works real well.
Yeah, on the first 37th Chamber record, I was basically just pulling the (Wu’s) hits. But on this new joint, I just thought about what would be the most fun to cover. So some of that stuff is pretty deep into the catalog. That version of “Tearz,” it does justice to the Wu song but also to the sample. Lee Fields’ take is just brilliant.
Raekwon dropped an album this week. Did you peep it all?
You know, I’ve said this in other interviews. No disrespect to any of the new records, but that record, 36 Chambers, has such a special place for me that I can’t even get outside of it sometimes. It’s so nostalgic that I’m always comparing it to the new records. It’s not fair, but it happens.
The last Wu record (A Better Tomorrow, 2014), I couldn’t even get into it. I would like to hear that Martin Shrekli record though. That whole business…
Yeah [laughing]. Fuck that guy…
What do you think of groups like Badbadnotgood and Will Sessions Band. Do you dig on what they’re doing?
I like Badbadnotgood, they’re one of those groups I’m always Shazam’ing and I’m like, ‘Oh, shit,’ it’s them.
When I first heard Sounding Out The City, I obviously was digging it, but when I heard “Hung Up On My Baby,” the Isaac Hayes cut. I imagine you knew the Geto Boyz Sample.
Yeah, when we cut that record, I figured I heard the Geto Boyz version before I heard the Tough Guys version. That song was essentially a reggae cover of “My Mind Is Playing Tricks On Me.”
Yeah, I can see that’s a lot of what EMA is about, melding a hip hop version with its source material. That’s kind of the whole thing there.
Leon Michels will be at Coachella 2017 backing Lee Fields & The Expressions.