Es-K - “TAPEHEADED”
Posted by Justin Boland on Apr 30, 2023 | 0 Comments
I’ve been calling Vermont artist Es-K a “superproducer” in print for years now. Hyperbole is a proud part of music journalism, of course, but I do think I’m just offering an objective description of where he’s at. Like so many terms of trade, producer has been shattered into a kaleidoscope of different meanings and contexts.
Es-K’s diverse skillsets and immense accomplishments encompass all of them.
Go ahead and hit play. “TAPEHEADED” is as good an introduction to Es-K’s output as anything else: dynamic, laid-back, funky, yet despite being dirty as sin & heavily chopped up, undeniably all musical compositions. His feel for swinging pockets is world class, but it is the restless creativity of his process that sets him apart. When you look at his catalog as a whole it’s hard to see past how prolific he is, but taken as songs, as any individual track from that catalog, it’s clear he’s never once rushed the product.
As I put it back in 2018: “His real genius isn’t just in finding the perfect loops, but finishing them.” It’s the little things: the transitions and modulations, the small touches at the turnarounds, the unexpected drops, the background elements you don’t even hear until you listen again later. And you definitely will. The hypnotic power of beats arises from repetition, but the alchemy that Es-K practices is more refined. These are beats that any musician could love, and I say this knowing many dozens of them who do.
“Producer” means “beatsmith,” welder of samples, sculptor of loops. Some of them are crate diggers, some of them cook up their own ingredients, but almost all of them have a system, a workflow they call their own & stick to for their entire career. So it is perhaps impossible to separate Es-K’s vast output from the fact he’s been constantly experimenting and expanding his approach. He is comfortable on a huge range of interfaces, DAWs, and hardware. His workflow been a constant work in progress and in recent years, his process has grown more and more tactile, more real.
Notably absent from the photograph above: computers. The music on “TAPEHEADED” was all generated by hand, created on interfaces that humanize the cold abstractions of digitized samples.
The title is a dual purpose pun. His signal chain includes Handsome Audio’s ZULU, an analog tape simulator, and it all gets recorded onto the Tascam Model 12 board over on the left. The ZULU box is one of the most remarkable studio toys of the past decade. While the circuitry is incredible, what really makes it great is the interface, providing a huge universe of possibilities from a very small, intuitive set of parameters and knobs. Producers are faced with an effectively infinite set of options, so it’s important to have constraints to inspire your creativity.
“Producer” also means Quincy Jones and Phil Spector, T Bone Burnett and Prince Rogers Nelson. Churning out beats is undeniably a skill, but the demands of being a producer in this larger, more meaningful sense are exponentially higher stakes. Much has been made of Rick Rubin’s joking comments about having no technical or musical background, but the man is a Zen Abbot pointing at the moon: there truly is a separate, ineffable martial art to orchestrating the chaos and Organizing the Noize. These waters are deep.
Es-K is every bit as comfortable out here, though, and he’s been racking up Executive Producer credits on some outstanding albums, most recently Danny James’s crazy smooth R&B debut, “Heatwave.” I’ve already reviewed it elsewhere, but it’s a world class LP, polished and professional work.
If you’re just getting tuned in to Es-K, you waited for the right time. In addition to a slew of new releases on the horizon, he’s also launched a monthly newsletter. It takes a ferocious work ethic to juggle so many roles, but he’s equal to the task.
Be impressed, be inspired, but be thinking about how this level of output gets achieved over time; the small decisions and fine tuning involved. Social media is full of endless debates (samples or drums first? chopping or looping? playing pads or moving a mouse?) and all of it is meaningless. You need to be fluent in damn near everything. There is always more to learn. And never lose sight of what made you fall in love with all this, way back at the beginning.