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August 15, 2014

The Dude - Quincy Jones

dream team quincyThis MixCheck is a throwback moment. In the early 80s the fantastic Quincy Jones released a solo album called The Dude. At that point he was in his late 40s, had achieved pretty much everything a musician and producer could dream of achieving and had no idea that he would become even more legendary after producing Michael Jackson’s Thriller album the following year.

It is very interesting to analyze the result of the hard work of the A-Team of the time (Quincy, Bruce Swedien, Michael Jackson, James Ingram, Stevie Wonder, Rod Temperton, Patti Austin, Louis Johnson, John Robinson, Greg Phillinganes, Paulinho Da Costa, Michael Boddicker, etc, etc…) and compare it with today esthetics. It is also fascinating to witness the impact of those records on modern records, the details that got borrowed and the ideas that got stolen.

The Dude is the second track on the record. The first striking thing is how long it is: 5.38min. A rarity these days. Bear in mind this whole record was done on tape and consoles without access to groove editing, or much tweaking on any kind. Every effect was a piece of hardware set and probably shared across different tracks and, more importantly, everything you hear was actually played that way. Which means that that drummer, bass player and keyboard player could play something that feels that good without electronic help. (It is the reason why when the same names come back over and over again when you read player credits from that era. If you hired that team, you had a record that grooved without having to belabor it). It also means that the keyboard player played that wurlitzer riff for the whole song, no loops, no flying things around, none of that. Listen to the whole track with that in mind and reflect on whether we have made progress or not.

Listen here:

Notice the unusual structure and free interpretations of sections. There are two intros, every verse is made out of 2 sub verses, There is an instrumental horn break that comes several times in various incarnations, the choruses are either sung or instrumental or both somehow, the bridge is a keyboard solo by Stevie Wonder sandwiched by female chorus riffs, and then it ad-libs. Hardly a radio ready structure.

The verses are introduced by a female chorus and then James Ingram sings his bit. Every time, except for the 3rd verse when he comes in without the soft launch (The chorus does sing a bridge like-riff just before verse 4, but a different part). Verse 3 is a repeat of verse 1b but jumps straight to the Chorus instead of going through the horn break and then another rap.

Song Structure

  • Intro. (Guitar and fills)
  • Intro 2 (with verse groove)
  • Verse 1a (Female Chorus)
  • Verse 1b (James Ingram)
  • Horn break
  • Rap verse by Quincy
  • Chorus with back vox lead.
  • Re-intro
  • Verse 2a (Female Chorus)
  • Verse 2b (James Ingram)
  • Horn Break 2
  • Rap Verse 2
  • Chorus (with Alto Sax instead of lead voxes)
  • Bridge like vocal riff.
  • Keyboard Solo. Thank you Stevie.
  • Horn Break 3 (Twice as long as before)
  • Bridge Like vocal
  • riff again
  • Verse 3 (James Ingram)
  • Chorus with back vox and answers Chorus with badass ad-libs by James Ingram
  • Chorus instrumental with ad-lib and back answers
  • Fade

If you just listen without paying close attention, it does not seem so elaborate, but it’s always evolving. so it stays interesting even though it’s mostly a one chord pocket except for the chorus. Who knew?

Other musically interesting details that have made me come back to this track over and over again, besides the ridiculous playing and singing, are the loose instrument parts. They are parts but the players interpret them and riff and embellish randomly, something we have almost completely lost in the copy paste era. Also it is very enlightening to focus on the drum pocket. The whole balance actually comes comes a cowbell. Paulinho Da Costa plays what seems to be a mid size cowbell mounted on a stand on almost every quarter note of the song (Go verify, I’ll wait). When he stops the whole motion of the track halts. Isn’t that amazing? (From time you can hear him play an eighth note just to show he’s alive and well. You also can hear the cowbell and the snare flam a couple times). I also love the big stereo piano low notes that only come twice to punctuate the slap bass riff on the intro and bridge. It makes me wonder what else was ganged up with the piano on that track. Also, remember that at the time claps were actually made by people clapping. It seems easy in writing, but getting a bunch of musicians to have the right groove and be quiet in between claps and to get just the right sound is not easy. (Try it on your next song instead of using a sample and send me a postcard) they nailed it, both groove and sound. Notice how they are present from the top of the track in a lighter fashion (Less people clapping) but then swell for the chorus.

While we are there, it’s a good idea to study the chorus for counterpoint mastery between the lead, the background vocals, the horns, the keyboard riff and the slap bass. It is such a tight piece of writing and arranging with flawless execution.

Other noteworthy details are the use of a vocoder for answers on the verses (30 years before Daft Punk) and the fact that Quincy RAPS on the track. This was 1980 ish, Rap had barely gotten out of New York yet, it was definitely not a mainstream style. It was ballsy of Quincy to do this on a mainstream record. It shows how in touch, and often ahead, Quincy Jones was of the musical trends throughout his career.

Sonically, the first thing that should hit you is that it does not sound very fat. Does it? (Go compare with Angel from Massive Attack or a more modern track like tom Ford by Jay-Z and let’s talk).

Why is that? Because these are real instruments and that there are no bottom faking special effects being used (They did not exist, or were in infancy). A real bass drum will never record as fat as an 808 Kick, unless you use technology to make it so. (Go listen t your drummer in the rehearsal room and report. Pock. Pock. Pock).

At that point in time it was common to have the bass guitar be fatter than the kick, just like in this track, because that was what you got out of the actual instruments. Notice how loud the bass is by the way. It is round and even and is the center of the whole track. This was probably one of the fattest sounding tracks of the day, which was probably expected of that team at that point. Some serious combo of controlled playing, compression and riding allowed the bass to be so loud. Notice the relationship between the bass and the bass drum, it is very different from what would happen if this were mixed today. The relationship would probably be inverted.

Also notice just how loud the claps are of the chorus sections and how thin the toms are when they get played. All very time stamped tones, but to fully understand the esthetic choices of the mix, it is important to listen to the mix on small speakers like Auratones  or something like that. You can hear that everything makes sense on those speakers. Even the bottom. If Bruce Swedien was mixing it today, it would very different. (Probably still good on Auratones though)

While we are on levels, pay attention to the vocal levels. It’s particularly striking on the chorus vocals. Notice how modest they are compared to modern standards. Almost like one of the instrumental parts. Same thing with the female chorus of voices answering the leads. Most vocals are pushed quite far back. The rap is a little louder. It had reverb too. That’s fun and rarely heard these days. Actually most vocals share that long plate reverb, along with claps, alto horn and the lead guitar. Maybe an EMT140. Check it out. (Also if you have the capability, listen to the mix in mono and watch the reverb disappear quite a bit)

The guitars are kept quite thin and moved to the sides to avoid clashing with the wurly riff. Even the stereo parts, like the intro or the bridge quasi solo are really mono takes with a short delay panned opposite. It allows for a wide sound, saves a track on the tape machine (Hey, they needed it for that one time piano part) and makes room in the middle. The other residents of the sides are the horns, very Earth Wind And Fire in spirit that come in to lift the chorus nicely. They are quite loud, louder and more present than the vocals for example. Interesting no? Notice how they are not playing on the two choruses at the end and only come back on, with a new part, for the fade. Neat.

Another interesting feature of this track is the assembly work that seems to have taken place. Before digital editing, copy pasting meant taking scissors to a piece of tape and gluing it back together where you wanted it. It has to be experienced to be appreciated (I predict a lot less cursing at your DAW after you try an edit on a 2 inch tape master).

Listen to the first intro (The one before the verse groove comes in). Notice how the drums sound different (darker) and how the vocal are quite different to. My guess is that this was another part of the song (Probably part of the bridge if you listen to the guitar sound, or maybe another song) and that it was mixed to two track as part of a rough or final mix. At another point, someone cut that part out (Maybe to add Stevie on solo keys) and that piece of tape was salvaged and at one point added as the first intro. Check out the cut point when the groove starts. Boom.

Another fun edit is at the end of the first Horn break Check out how the tail of the reverb just cuts out. That’s a serious edit right there. Would it be ok today?

Another fun nerdy detail can be heard towards the end of the track when the chorus repeats and James Ingram comes in with ad-libs. Check out the word ‘out’ in ‘Aint nobody out there’. What is that?? I vote for a punch in that was a little late (tape machines did not have instant punch capabilities, they were a bit lazy sometimes and punching was an art form) and for a split second you heard both the original take and the punch fighting for attention. So there you have it, pitch twirling 30 years before T-Pain. They evidently chose to keep it because they did not feel it mattered. There is a lesson in there too.

Overall this track is a treasure trove of skills sets. It takes a few tens of listens to fully grasp the source of the groove, the very unusual choice of balances, the crazy structure and vocal arrangements and to try and connect it with the many many songs that were inspired by it that came in its wake.

Other amazing pockets on the album are ‘Betcha Wouldn’t Hurt Me’ and ‘Ai No Corrida’. Well worth $1.29 each.