Summer has arrived early on a steamy May afternoon in New York, and it's hot enough even for a certain Atlanta native to take notice. “I'm so happy it's warm here,” she says, her voice zephyr-soft over the phone, “but today, boy, it's like — phew!”
Even with the humidity, it's hard to imagine N'Dea Davenport even BREAKing a sweat after all she's experienced in the last five years. Not only did she narrowly escape the World Trade Center disaster on 9/11 — “I was actually standing under the first building when it fell,” she recalls solemnly — but she even dodged Hurricane Katrina, having sold her property in New Orleans scarcely three months before the levees broke.
“I've been skinned by a few bullets,” she says, “but to me, that's something positive that means I'm supposed to be here. And now that I'm here, everybody better get used to it, you know?”
It seems a fitting title for one of the most eagerly anticipated reunion albums of the year. Get Used to It (Delicious Vinyl, 2006) marks the return — although they never really went away — of the Brand New Heavies (guitarist Simon Bartholomew, bassist Andrew Love Levy and drummer/keyboardist Jan Kincaid), who along with Davenport on lead vocals almost single-handedly ushered in the retro-soul movement of the early '90s with their sizzling brand of high-energy, acid jazz — influenced funk. The new album is their first together since Davenport departed in 1994 to embark on a solo career. And for Delicious Vinyl label founder and executive producer Michael Ross, it's a dream project that's been long overdue.
“Everybody was kind of doing their own thing after the Shelter record,” he says, referring to the album that the Heavies released on Delicious Vinyl in 1997 with singer Siedah Garrett. “It just felt like it was really time to try and get the old group back together again, so I went to New York and talked to N'Dea, and I talked to the group in London. I knew if we could go back in the studio and do it the way we used to do it, that we could make a really cool record. So we all went to New York, and it was just like old times. They just immediately fell back into a groove — suddenly everyone was together in the same room working on songs. That's really how it all happened.”
NOW, WHERE WERE WE?
Work on Get Used to It began late last fall at the legendary — and recently relocated — Chung King Studios in downtown Manhattan (see the sidebar, “Hail to the King”), but technically, this wasn't the first time that Davenport and the group had collaborated since Brother Sister (Delicious Vinyl, 1994). “Right before 9/11, I was spending quite a lot of time in Europe doing different projects,” Davenport recalls, “and the guys knew that I was there. So we had actually started doing a little long-distance collaborating for what might have been another album. And funny enough, a couple of those songs did make it onto this album, so it's almost like we got to complete what we started.”
Not even a missing drummer could keep the band from firing up. On the first day at the studio, when news arrived at Chung King that Jan Kincaid would be late getting in from London, Davenport herself took up a brief residency behind the drum kit. “N'Dea's actually a really good drummer,” bassist Andrew Love Levy notes approvingly. “She's been drumming for years, and she's got a very pure sense of timing — she's just so steady, and she plays very loud. So I picked up the bass, and I just jumped on this groove that she was playing, and what you're hearing on the album, that's the first time we played it.”
The track is called “Sex God” — a slow-burning, mesmeric funk jam (complete with deep-space flanged guitars by Bartholomew) that captures all the raw energy of an old-school analog tape session, thanks to a fortuitous bit of mic placement. “It was actually on that song that we discovered N'Dea's vocal mic had a great room sound,” engineer Ari Raskin says. The mic in question was a vintage Sony C37, although Davenport later tracked her lead vocal on a Neumann U 87. “We just had it running through a Neve 1073 and a Urei 1176 compressor into [Digidesign] Pro Tools, and it was picking her up jamming on the drums. It was supposed to just be a scratch track, but we liked the groove of it, so we went with it — all it needed was a little EQ to make it sound a little gritty but nice.”
As more vocals and a live brass section were added to the song, Davenport and Ross worked together to make sure that the stripped-down, sultry mood of the original jam was preserved in the final mix. “At one point, it seemed like we weren't really getting to the essence of the song, ” Ross says, “and I remember very clearly me and N'Dea trying to figure out, ‘Well, where are we really going with this song?’ There were a lot of vocals and a lot of background parts, and I felt like we really needed to strip it down and get to the essence of where she was going with it vocally. A lot of people really respond to that song, and I remember having that light-bulb moment in the studio, when we felt like, ‘Oh, now we know where this is going.’”
MOMENTS OF MOTOWN
Even when they cover a Motown classic, the Heavies consistently manage to push their sound forward into the here and now. The album's leadoff single “I Don't Know Why (I Love You)” was originally written by Stevie Wonder and covered by a young Michael Jackson — it's the latter version that Davenport emulates in her performance, making the track her own by belting it out flawlessly over a locked-up groove laid down by the band.
“That was Mike's moment of inspiration,” Levy recalls. “We were looking for a cover to do, and he suggested that. At first, we weren't convinced because the original is so Motown, which is a whole genre on its own that's really hard to approach, I think. But we started jamming it in the studio — I basically had to learn it in 10 minutes and try and give it the feel of James Jamerson [the original Motown bassist]. He has some amazing things in there, and it was beautiful to actually try and copy one of his bass lines. I would just never think of doing some of the stuff that he invented — and the funny thing is, that's what everyone does now.”
There's also a punchiness and an upfront presence to Kincaid's drum kit that gives the song — and, in fact, the entirety of Get Used to It — the feel of a more modern multitrack mix (carried out on one of Chung King's high-end Neve VR72 consoles) but with all the funky warmth that an old-school analog studio provides. Naturally, much of this dynamic originates with the mic scheme: a Neumann U 47 fet through a Neve 1073 preamp for the kick drum, a Beyerdynamic M 88 TG on the top and a Neumann KM 84 on the bottom of the snare, Sennheiser MD 421s on the toms, Microtech Gefell M300s on the hi-hat and Neumann U 87s for overheads.
For “Right On” — a moving-and-grooving James Brown — style workout with a low-end EQ on the kick drum that most hip-hop producers would envy — Kincaid's mic setup was simplified considerably, with just a Royer overhead mic and an RCA 77 room mic. “That track was a very last-minute thing,” Levy says. “Four days before the album was finished, we pulled that together. It definitely comes from our obsession with the JBs [James Brown's backing band], so that was the inspiration. I think it might sound a little too clean or a little too bright, but then, we didn't want it to stand out too much from the rest of the album.”
Of course, other tracks on Get Used to It were more involved in their construction, particularly from a technological standpoint. “Music” is a loping, lushly arranged hybrid of sampled and live elements that has its roots in a demo the band put together nearly six years ago.
“The core of that came together with Jan,” Levy recalls. “We just tried to think about how we could put some hip-hop beats together with programmed drums and live bass and live guitar. That was all done in my loft using Logic — we thought we'd take a BREAK from the live beats and maybe just program it. Jan had brought in some vinyl, and we chopped up a great tabla sample for that, and the bass line was from a synth. It was much later on in the studio when we recorded live drums on top of the programmed drums and added some new live parts to it.”
While the compatibility issues between Logic and Pro Tools were, for the most part, easy to resolve, the varied elements of the song still presented a challenge in the mixing phase. “It was a complicated mix,” Ross says, “because there are samples going on with live drums and programmed drums, and there's also programming on keyboards, as well as live playing. I remember we ended up stripping a lot of stuff away just to try and make everything fit. I mean, mixing is sometimes just a jigsaw puzzle of using the right stuff at the right time to build up the track, BREAK it down and then build it back up again. You can feel that in the BREAKdown of ‘Music,’ when the tabla sample is emphasized in the mix.”
Cyberspace also came into play when the Heavies weren't in the studio; if they needed to trade ideas back and forth over the Internet, MP3s were the file of choice. “We were using MP3 for the speed,” Levy explains, “and then when we got back together face-to-face, we would just exchange the MP3s for WAV files. We'd send stems back and forth, too — separate vocals, separate bass, keyboards and a track of drums — so we could mess around in each other's studios. It's amazing. I mean, the last time we worked together, it would have been an absolute dream to be able to do that.”
The method was especially useful for Davenport because it allowed her to record vocals in New York and e-mail the audio files to London. “We worked on ‘I Don't Know Why (I Love You)’ that way,” she reveals. “The backing tracks were done here in New York. When the guys went back to London, I put down my lead vocal with the engineer, and then we sent the track back to the UK to record the horns. Technology like that is just way beyond how we used to work.”
If it could be said — all new-age psychology aside — that maturity and wisdom breed inner peace, then the Brand New Heavies sound today like a group of artists who are operating completely (and comfortably) outside the oppressive, pressure-sensitive apparatus of the watered-down major-label mindset. As the lyrics to a song like the anthemic big-beat rocker “I Just Realized” so vividly suggest, creative freedom should always represent the alpha and omega of how we live our lives.
“You know, there's some video of us actually writing another song on the album called ‘Let's Do It Again,’” Levy observes, citing the string-heavy disco number that recalls the best of the Philly Salsoul sound, “and that shows immediately what it's about with this group. It sounds like a cliché, but there's a magic, a chemistry. We feed off each other in different ways, and that's what makes me feel so privileged about this happening again.”
With her Brand New Heavies reunion, N'Dea Davenport is back to where she began, but that's no reason to feel complacent. She likens it to her singing style and how she prefers to be recorded — raw, unadorned and unremittingly real and present tense. “When you use a warm microphone and not too many effects on my voice,” she explains, “you get a real sense of who I am and what I'm trying to say. And right now, I think it's really important to represent that realness and not the pretense of making something sound wimpy. I'm not a wimpy chick whatsoever, so I guess I have this thing already, like, ‘Dude, do not wimp me out, you know? This has gotta be raw, and it needs to sound like what I'm talking about and what I'm saying right now.’”
HAIL TO THE KING
Back in 1986, Chung King House of Metal in New York's Chinatown neighborhood had become the instant mecca for hip-hop recording, thanks to owner John King's early support for Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons' fledgling Def Jam label. Run DMC, LL Cool J, the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy all tracked classic records in the one-room studio, securing its reputation as a magic space where hits were made.
Now relocated to the ritzier Soho district, Chung King Studios (www.chungkingstudios.com) is a state-of-the-art facility with four separate self-contained studios, multiple Neve consoles and Digidesign Pro Tools|HD installed throughout. For freelance recording engineer Ari Raskin, the studio was perfect for the Brand New Heavies' unique way of working.
“I was told that we would start by doing some writing for the first few weeks,” Raskin says, “and it turned out that meant they were basically writing with Pro Tools. Normally, when a band tells you they're gonna be writing, you just sit around and watch TV, and they call you when they need you. [Laughs.] But in this case, they would jam directly to Pro Tools, and they might listen back to one section and loop it and then start jamming on top of the loop. All the songs that they wrote in the studio, that's how they worked.”
Computer, DAW, recording hardware
Apple Mac G5 with Pro Tools|HD3 Accel
Apple PowerBook G4 with Logic 7
Studer A820 ½-inch tape machine for stereo mixdowns
Custom Neve VR72 with flying faders and total recall
Synths, plug-ins, instruments
Apple Logic soft synths (Rhodes, D6 Clavinet, ES1, ES2, EFM1, etc.)
Bomb Factory and Waves Renaissance bundles
Music Man StingRay II electric guitar
Fender Jazz, Precision basses
Sonor drum kit with Zildjian cymbals
Beyerdynamic M 88 TG
Microtech Gefell M300 (2)
Neumann KM 84, U 47 fet, U 87
Sennheiser MD 421 (2)
Avalon Design Vt-737sp, M2
Focusrite ISA 110 preamp/EQ
dbx 165 (for bass)
Neve 33609 (for whole mix)
Summit Audio DCL-200 (for whole mix)
Universal Audio/Teletronix LA-2A
Urei 1176 black face
Focusrite Red 2
Tube-Tech PE 1C
AMS DMX Sampling Delay (for guitar)
EMT/Martech EMT-140 plate reverb
Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer
Klark-Teknik DN780 digital reverb
Lexicon MPX-1 multi-effects processor
MXR 126 Flanger/Doubler (for guitar)
TC Electronic M5000 multi-effects processor
George Augspurger dual 16-inch mains loaded with TAD components