A lesser producer would have been left at a loss by the ramshackle surroundings: a Philips stereo with blown speakers, a 20-year-old HP desktop computer, a keyboard with only 16 functional keys because of flood damage. Yet, this is the equipment that Detroit beatsmith Apollo Brown is adamant about using — the setup that he insisted New York MC Skyzoo fly to the Motor City for so they could record their new joint album, The Easy Truth. Despite those flaws, the pair used that environment to craft some of the best songs of either of their storied careers.
"I don't consider them to be limitations," Brown tells Exclaim! "We all know it's not how you make the beat, or what you make the beat on, but the outcome. My equipment is the worst, but I know how to manipulate it, because I've been using all of it since I started in '96. Once it fails, I don't know where I'll be at. But, of course, the most important piece of equipment you can have is your ears."
Skyzoo wasn't phased by Brown's less than state-of-the-art digs when he arrived in Detroit earlier this year to work on The Easy Truth. On the contrary, he "wanted the album to have a black and white feel," Skyzoo says of the classic, stark minimalism he was striving for, adding that Brown was the best producer to provide that tone because "what he does is all but lost in hip-hop — the loops, the dustiness on the drums, the soul, the head nod, the knocking. Few producers embody that as well as he does."
Given Skyzoo's admiration of those unique talents, the MC was more than happy to accommodate yet another of Brown's old-school requirements: writing and recording the songs in person. That's no small feat in an age when instrumentals and vocals are typically stitched together in email exchanges. For Brown, the benefits of those face-to-face sessions are obvious: "My process is keeping it natural, vibing, watching the MC's expression when he's in the booth."
Skyzoo is quick to concur, saying that a long distance, digital arrangement would have made the project suffer, before adding: "I came up on beats that I might not have heard if I was in New York. Even though he sent me 30 beats to pick from when I was still home, the second day I came [to Detroit] he was all 'Yo, I made these beats last night,' that turned into [The Easy Truth songs like] 'Nodding Off," and 'A Couple Dollars.' But if we were emailing, I would have missed out."
Indeed, the sessions were a back-to-basics affair through and through, providing Skyzoo with songs that stand apart from the rest of his discography. Brown explains: "He's used to rapping over big instrumentation, amazing industry tracks. I'm a simple guy making regular beats."
And while Skyzoo was more than eager to scale things back, those efforts did go against his regular tendencies. "There's only trumpets on three of the new album's songs — if it'd been up to me, we would've had them on all 15," he jokes. "It was good to have no string sections, few keys, mostly just beats and rhymes. And I pulled things out of him sonically — like on 'The Vibes' and 'A Couple Dollars,' which have 808s and different drums and snares that his fans aren't used to hearing him using."
It's the sort of collaboration that's all too rare in an age when travel budgets are skimpy, and entire songs are built via email. The thought of two rap vets traversing time zones to work shoulder-to-shoulder, on aged equipment that spits out gritty tracks, seems unfeasible for most indie rappers in 2016.
And while Brown admits the arrangement for The Easy Truth was anything but easy, he insists it was worth it, saying: "Our respective schedules are jam packed, crazy. But for me, if you really want something, you're going to make it happen and you're going to make time for it."
The Easy Truth is out now on Mello Music Group.