Mike Elizondo Brings Diversity & Soul To Dr. Dre's Hip-Hop World
The bass guitar is playing an ever-increasing role in hip-hop-from the rubbery, crafty grooves of Raphael Saadiq and Pino Palladino to the dirt-fisted funk of Leonard "Hub" Hubbard and Preston "P-Groover" Crump. Deep within Dr. Dre's Southern California hit factory, another low-end voice-Mike Elizondo-is creating waves through the recordings of Dre, Eminem (most recently, the Dre-produced Eminem Show), 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, Eve, and Mary J. Blige. From his plum position as a writer/multi-instrumentalist in the Dre camp, Mike joins friends like Chris Chaney, Justin Meldal-Johnsen, and Paul Bushnell in the new crew of L.A. session bassists. Elizondo has tracked with everyone from Christina Aguilera to T-Bone Burnett, and he has written and recorded with Sheryl Crow, Nelly Furtado, and Fiona Apple.
Born on October 22, 1972, in Pacoima, California-a Mexican-American community in the San Fernando Valley-Mike found himself immediately immersed in music. His singer/multi-instrumentalist father, Miguel, built one of the first home recording studios in the Valley and was constantly helping local bands record and get gigs. Classic rock, from the Beatles to Hendrix, was usually on the turntable when nine-year-old Mike began accordion lessons. He added tenor sax in junior high and tried guitar around the house. A keyboardist friend, who was tired of playing left-hand bass parts in a neighborhood rock band, convinced Mike to join on electric bass at age 13. The instrument instantly felt natural in Elizondo's hands, and he was soon jamming along with Led Zeppelin, Iron Maiden, Metallica, and Mötley Crüe albums.
While attending the Hamilton High School Academy of Music, Elizondo met drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. (son of the legendary session bassist), who turned him onto classic jazz, fusion, funk, and R&B. Mike's groove tightened, his ears opened, and he began playing upright, which he studied classically at Cal State Northridge. In 1994, he left Cal State after three years to balance his gig load, which included rock and R&B bands, a brief tour with Rickie Lee Jones, and the occasional TV or film date. Upright jazz moved to the forefront through gigs with drummer/percussionist Alex Cline and other members of L.A.'s avant-garde scene, and via a trio with Alan Pasqua and Peter Erskine. That changed when the R&B band Elizondo was playing in, Buda Hat, got signed by Atlantic in 1996. Although an album never got released, Mike met production coordinators and engineers, who began steering sessions his way with producers like Matthew Wilder and Matt Wallace. Not long afterward, one of these connections led him to a budding music mogul with a doctorate in hip-hop.
How do you come up with your bass lines with Dr. Dre?
I draw from a combination of the music I've listened to and the music I've played. I listen to Dre's drum beat, and it's almost like there's already a bass line there-I can hear it in my head. I try to be lyrical, hooky, and have a great tone, all at the same time. The bass line has to be something you won't get tired of hearing for four minutes, and it needs to be as infectious as the drum beat. I've picked up a lot from Dre in learning how to create a bass part: where notes are placed, how long to hold a note, and what type of tone to get from the bass to match or contrast the kick and bring the whole "kit" out. He opened my eyes to those kinds of concepts. Where the notes stop makes a huge difference in what the groove feels like. The key for me is to free my mind and allow myself to be open, tune into Dre's beat, and react in the moment. There are times when I come up with a part and I have no idea why I played it. Dre's beats can get so hypnotic that sometimes I'll hear the one in the wrong place. When he starts the beat up again, my part might be a quarter-note or an eighth-note off, and I'll have to refigure it to fit the phrase!
How have you developed your ability to play all around the pocket?
A lot of it comes from playing with drum machines and Dre's beats. His drum machine, an Akai MPC3000, allows you to adjust how much a pattern swings by setting a percentage. Once I heard that, it kind of re-opened my mind to all those areas in between straight and swung feels, and how many different ways there are to play eighth- and 16th-notes. Plus, you realize how you can play straight against a swung figure, or vice versa, to create tension. It's a matter of experimenting. A good idea, if you have Pro Tools or a drum machine with the option, is to program or sample a drum pattern and play along as you vary the swing percentage. Once that's in your ears, program a simple quarter-note kick-and-snare pattern at 92 bpm and explore the different feels you can create by moving around the pocket with your bass lines.
Drum machines also changed the way I heard live drummers. I became more aware of a drummer's individual lope, and I was able to tune in better. Now, I listen not only to the kick and snare but also to the hi-hat and how the drummer is subdividing the inflections, which helps me figure out what will match up the best.
Has your hip-hop studio side led to any new techniques?
Not really-nothing out of the ordinary. It all comes down to simply trying to get a sound out of your head. I mostly pluck with my two fingers, or I use a pick, and occasionally I do some slapping or popping. Sometimes I experiment by plucking or picking the strings at different points between the bottom of the fingerboard and the bridge. I also like to use the palm mute, both with my thumb, or thumb and index finger, and with a pick. It enables me to get that Minimoog-like fundamental. Keyboard bass, from Stevie Wonder to Greg Phillinganes to hip-hop, has had a definite impact on my technique-especially my left-hand phrasing, with slide-ins, hammer-ons, and vibrato.
What bassists have been a major influence?
Paul McCartney always comes to mind first, for the melodic and musical way he approaches his parts. Hard rock and heavy metal was big for me early on. The first bass line I learned was Jack Bruce's part on "White Room"; then it was folks like Cliff Burton, John Paul Jones, and Geddy Lee. In high school Abe Laboriel Jr. turned me on to players like James Jamerson, Chuck Rainey, Jaco Pastorius, John Patitucci, and of course, his dad, Abe Sr. Seeing Christian McBride when I was in high school inspired me to start playing upright bass, which led me to study with Gary Pratt and Ed Meares at Cal State Northridge. New wave also made an impression-Sting with the Police, and the Talking Heads' Tina Weymouth.
When did you first connect with Dr. Dre?
I met him in 1997 through an engineer named Segal, who I knew from high school. Dre was looking for new blood and wanted to use live musicians, which was rare at the time. He didn't want to risk someone else sampling the same song as him; he wanted something unique. At first, I would go in on bass, with a guitarist, keyboardist, and Dre on his drum machine, and we created tracks that became songs on Dre's 2001 CD and Eminem's first two discs. Later, there were some sessions where the other musicians were booked for other sessions, so I'd play bass, guitar, and keyboard. I started bringing in guitars and pedals and keyboards that Dre hadn't heard, and that enabled me to carve a niche as a multi-instrumentalist/writer. Eventually, Dre and I developed a shared musical vocabulary; I'd know what he wanted without him having to say much.
How would you describe Dre's musical instincts?
Dre has incredible ears, both rhythmically and harmonically. He knows if something is off and he'll sing a note he wants to hear, and that one little change will make the part happen. He's a great producer who knows how to pick the right combination of people to come in and create. Dre is also an encyclopedia of music. He's hip to the Beatles, hard rock, classical music, jazz, funk, and R&B. So if I come up with a psychedelic Mellotron part over his beat, he can easily identify it and appreciate it. The whole hip-hop culture is based on a DJ mentality; these folks are record enthusiasts. Dre didn't learn how to play piano-he learned how to spin vinyl records and move a crowd at a party.
How does a Dre writing session unfold?
We essentially have studio jam sessions, with Dre on his MPC3000, myself, producer/keyboardist Mark Batson, and producer/programmer Che Pope. Dre starts a beat, the rest of us chime in looking for a sound or melody that will be a musical hook, and then we proceed to build a skeleton track. Ninety percent of the time, I start off writing on guitar or keyboard, and then I pick up my bass-usually my Sadowsky 5 or a Vintage 4-string. Sometimes I'll play the bass part on keyboard if it's appropriate, or just because it's in hand and I have a cool sound. We have these old Electrix Repeater 4-track looping machines that aren't made anymore. They're syncable through MIDI; you can enter your in and out loop points with a footpedal, and the loops will be perfectly synced to the other MIDI instruments. So I'll add a four-bar loop on guitar or keyboard first, and then I'll get my bass and loop that in. It enables us to hear what the full track will sound like. We spend about 20 minutes on an idea, and when we're done we put the track onto a DAT tape, and the engineer catalogs all the sounds and saves all the sequences. Later, when an artist hears our tracks and wants to record one, we recall all the sounds, throw everything onto Pro Tools, and add finishing touches, usually to the arrangement.
How closely do you work with Eminem and 50 Cent?
Very closely; I'm in the studio with them all the time. Those guys are very musical, more so than people probably realize. They'll come in with an idea for a bass or keyboard line and hum it to us. Eminem has interacted with me on bass, guitar, and keyboard. Em, 50 Cent, Eve, and Mary J. Blige all like to participate. I'm one of the fortunate few who gets to see how deeply these artists are involved in their tracks. They spend hours and hours in the studio working on their craft.
Does the lyrical content of some of the artists affect you?
It is an issue. Everyone has a personal take on what's said, what's appropriate, and what goes too far. With my belief in God, my view is that through the music I'm creating, I'm trying to bring glory to Him. I try to be a positive light in any working situation; I try to bring joy to it. These artists are speaking to their environments; everyone who has recorded with us is real, and they're brave enough to speak their minds. The public image is that they're angry, intense, and unapproachable, but in reality they're very easygoing and have a lot of fun making music. The irony is I've worked on pop sessions with artists who have a squeaky-clean image, but what's behind the scenes is a lot darker than people's perception of the hip-hop world.
What do traditionally trained musicians not understand about the simplicity and repetition of hip-hop and rap songs?
The key is you can't look at it the same way you look at traditional songwriting, where there's an intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, and so on. You have to know where the music came from: people working turntables at parties, trying to find a hypnotic beat that would keep everyone on the dance floor. That's Dre's approach: a hypnotic core groove beneath the vocals, with subliminal changes coming in and out, that keeps on cycling. That suits me well, because I've always been content to play something simple and not draw attention to what I'm doing. I like being the band's sort of subliminal force. I always try to play as little as possible to get the job done; I think it's best to be asked to step out, as opposed to coming across too busy and being told to tone it down. It's a real challenge to create a repetitive piece of music that will appeal to the average person at a club or vibing out at home, without getting boring.
How are your sessions for singer/songwriters and other non-hip-hop artists different?
Actually, they're similar in a lot of ways: I'm trying to create a part that's appropriate and maybe even adds an extra element, because you can never have enough hooks in a song. When I worked with Glenn Ballard on Shelby Lynne's Love, Shelby CD, we had a whole live band in the studio. That's rare now with younger producers-they think it's radical to have the bassist and drummer in at the same time! My success with Dre has actually gotten me calls from artists outside of hip-hop. I've been asked to bring my drum machine and beats in addition to my basses, and I'm thrilled, because I like to keep my musical career diverse. I make myself available to Dre first and foremost, and he's real good about giving me advance notice of my schedule so I can do other sessions.
What are some of your current projects and future goals?
With Dre, we're working on new material for Eminem, 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes, Eve, and a new artist called the Game. I'm producing Fiona Apple's next album, which we just started. And I did a cool Ry Cooder album on upright bass called Chavez Ravine, with [drummer] Jim Keltner, who recommended me. It's a tribute to the important post-swing/pre-rock Mexican-American musicians in East L.A. Some of them are on the CD.I'd like to continue on my current career path and perhaps eventually start an independently run label with the freedom to develop and record talented artists; I just built my own recording studio. My goal as a musician is to keep growing and improving so I don't have to think about what I'm doing-I'm just reacting to what's going on around me.