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It's All in Their Mix : Beck's 'Odelay' Is the Latest Sonic Pastiche Produced by John King and Michael Simpson, a.k.a. the Dust Brothers

July 02, 1996|SARA SCRIBNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The recording studio of the Dust Brothers is so cramped in the den of a ranch-style house in Silver Lake that it's hard to imagine the production duo spending full days here.

John King and Michael Simpson aren't usually alone, either, but are fighting for space with rock bands and the occasional hip-hop folkie. But the team--which produced and co-wrote Beck's brilliant new "Odelay" album--isn't complaining about the tight quarters.

After all, the two 31-year-olds have turned their hobby--putting samples of everything from CB radio static to backward Alice Cooper riffs into new musical contexts--into a career that has earned the respect of musicians and fans alike.

They first made a name for themselves in the late '80s with a series of influential hits on Delicious Vinyl Records, including Tone-Loc's "Wild Thing." Their production on the Beastie Boys' "Paul's Boutique" album in 1989 is still viewed as an unparalleled marriage of hip-hop and psychedelic soul.

"Making the samples feel like an organic part of the song is our main mission. . . . It's a huge part of what we do," says King, who sports a bristling black buzz cut.

"A lot of it is experience, just knowing the technology, and then a lot of it's luck," says Simpson, who looks like a skateboarder with his dark blond hair, scruffy goatee and baggy T-shirt, which reads "Skate or Die" in German.

On this afternoon, a member of Sugartooth, whose new Geffen Records album is being produced by the Dust Brothers, strums a guitar as King studies an elaborate Macintosh Quadra 950 computer.

The black-and-lavender screen displays a jagged series of peaks and valleys, like the action of a heart-rate monitor. But here a regular guitar riff unfurls after being dragged through the mud of distortion, looped end to end and then jolted by an out-of-place scrap: a cowbell at first, quickly followed by a bite from a radio commercial, a Wurlitzer keyboard squawk or a rap emcee's boast.

To King, each cliff on his computer is one small step toward patching together the kind of complex yet seamless groove that the Dust Brothers have made their trademark.

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That signature owes a lot to what's on the floor-to-ceiling shelves in the tiny room: thousands of vinyl LPs, from a "Breaks, Beats & Scratches--For DJs, Mixers and Rappers Only" box set to a "Soul Shouts: Screamin' Soul Sisters" compilation. They're the source of many of the sounds processed by the team.

It's this freewheeling musical imagination that has made the Dust Brothers such a fresh force on the pop scene--and in such high demand.

Within the course of three days, the duo will help Sugartooth add hip-hop flavor to its upcoming album and also do remixes of two recordings on the soundtrack for "The Crow: City of Angels." They won't leave the studio until 3 a.m.--just another normal day for the busy team, who seemed an unlikely pair upon meeting in 1985 while both were college students.

King, an ex-punk who loved such bands as the Dead Kennedys and the Germs, was studying economics at Claremont McKenna College and computer science at Harvey Mudd. Simpson, a fan of New York hard-core rap, was studying philosophy at Pitzer College.

Both worked as deejays at college parties in the Claremont area, spinning funk and tossing in the rare hip-hop track. Teaming up, they launched what is believed to be Southern California radio's first rap show, on the college station.

Two years later, someone gave them a tape of a song by Tone-Loc, a then-unknown rapper who eventually brought them to the Delicious Vinyl label. For the next two years the Brothers had the run of the company's studio, where they concocted music for Tone-Loc, Young M.C. and Def Jef.

Says Simpson: "The current in hip-hop was very sparse and we were using all these textures, sampling and just layering sounds--a lot of times they were odd sounds. People described it as being very 'dusted,' these multilayered soundscapes, so we called ourselves the Dust Brothers."

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But not all the dust found a place to settle, so they kept a stash of those soundscapes that didn't work for Delicious Vinyl's outfits.

"The Beastie Boys . . . [stopped by] the studio and heard the tracks," Simpson says. "They were like, 'Wow, this stuff's incredible, can we buy these songs from you?' "

Instead, King and Simpson ended up working in the studio with the trio on "Paul's Boutique." Their reputation continued to grow as the credits piled up--mostly on rap albums--and then they were introduced to Beck, whose own sound collages had received much acclaim on his first album, "Mellow Gold." While the Beasties' album clearly foreshadows Beck's new "Odelay," Simpson says their approach was completely different.

"There were about 250 samples on 'Paul's Boutique.' If we had to do that album today, it would cost us millions and millions of dollars," he notes, alluding to the practice of record companies demanding royalty payments for sampled bites of their music, which didn't occur until the early '90s.

The Brothers' answer was to play the "Odelay" tracks live and then distort them with static and record-needle scratches or by playing them backward.

"Because if you just played it live, it would sound just like everybody else's record," Simpson explains.

Simpson was recently named an A&R executive and staff producer at the new DreamWorks label, but that doesn't signal any slowdown for the Dust Brothers. On top of everything else, they have also launched their own independent label, Nickel Bag Records, which specializes in local bands and will release a Dust Brothers record this fall.

Not that they're looking to be the stars.

"We never wanted to be in the limelight," says Simpson, crossing his arms with finality. "We prefer to do our work, and, y'know, let the Beastie Boys go do the photo shoots."

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