In 1991 Biz Markie released I Need A Haircut, his third studio album on Cold Chillin’/Warner Bros. Records. Despite a high-profile $1.7 million dollar sample clearance settlement between De La Soul and The Turtles just two years prior, it was still customary to use large pieces of recognizable samples at the time. So when Biz’s label tried to clear a Gilbert O’Sullivan sample for the song “Alone Again” and O’Sullivan rejected the clearance, the label released the song anyway.
This ended up being a costly decision. O’Sullivan sued, and when the trial was over judge Kevin Duffy ruled that Biz owed the Irish singer/songwriter $250,000 in damages. To make matters worse, I Need A Haircut had to be pulled from stores and the case was referred to criminal court. Though many producers continue to sample today, the outcome of the case set a precedent that would forever change sample-based music.
For producer Easy Mo Bee, Duffy’s harsh ruling was a distinct turning point in his career. As a member of Russell Simmons’ RPM (Rush Producers Management), Mo Bee remembers the late Francesca Spero — his manager at the time — calling an emergency meeting. “She handed out a memo to all of the producers on the roster over there. The memo was a long list of artists like Anita Baker, Prince, and Steve Miller Band,” he explains. “She said, ‘OK, you see this list? Do not touch any of these artists. Don’t sample them.’”
“I said, ‘You know what? Don’t just sample. From now on, play samples.”
The realization that many of Mo Bee’s favorite artists were now off-limits as potential sample material was an emotional gut punch for the emerging producer. “There were so many names on there, so many old funk groups and artists that I loved,” Mo Bee tells me. “I left that office after she gave me that memo depressed like, ‘What am I gonna do?’”
Instead of dwelling on the new restrictions placed on his creative process, Mo Bee decided to make the best of it. “This is when the Easy Mo Bee style really began,” he explains. “I said, ‘You know what? Don’t just sample. From now on, play samples.”
For the first time in his career, Mo Bee was viewing the SP-1200 as an instrument instead of just a sampler. “Why do I have to sample an entire loop?” he remembers asking himself at the time. “Why can’t I hear the sound of a bass, a lick of a guitar, a 2.3 sample snatch of horns — and put it into my sampler, pitch the samples so they fit harmonically with each other, and make some original music?”
“She said, ‘OK, you see this list? Do not touch any of these artists. Don’t sample them.’”
Reinvigorated by his newfound outlook on producing, Mo Bee found additional motivation to outperform his competition after seeing the elaborate studio setups of some of his peers. “When I started out I had my SP-1200 and Akai S-950,” he says. “I remember going to dudes’ home studios and they had these racks of keyboards and all these modules in the rack in addition to their sampler and drum machine.”
Seeing such impressive studio rigs made it difficult not to question his own setup. “I’d go back home and look at my little SP-1200 and 950 and that’s all I had,” says Mo Bee. Refusing to use a lack of resources as an excuse he told himself, “‘They might have more than me. But I’m gonna make sure that I sound just as big if not bigger than them.’”
Using an arsenal of sampled sounds in his trusty SP-1200 “as if they were sounds in the bank of a keyboard” to “play back something original,” Mo Bee embarked on a hot streak that saw him produce over one-third of Biggie’s Ready To Die album and multiple tracks for 2Pac, Busta Rhymes, and a slew of other artists. Playing out samples on the SP soon became a core component of his success. “That process right there is mostly throughout everything I’ve done,” he says. “I used that process on ‘Flava In Ya Ear’ and ‘Everything Remains Raw’.”
“Come from your heart, be original, dig deep inside of yourself and do what you feel is right and what you want to do.”
Mo Bee considers Busta Rhymes’ “Everything Remains Raw” a peak moment in his evolution as a producer. “‘Everything Remains Raw’ is one of my favorite beats. When I got back and I listen to it I say, ‘Oh man! Do you hear what you was doin’?’” he says.
He can still hear still himself conducting every aspect of the song as a one-man band, playing out the samples with his SP-1200 as if they were live instruments. “There’s no loops going on. Everything that’s happening is stuff that I’m playing and making happen,” Mo Bee says. “If it’s the bassline, I’m actually playing the bassline. If you heard a guitar lick, I’m playin’ it back and doing something original with it. If you want to talk about an Easy Mo Bee style, that’s my style. To take it beyond the concept of just plain looping.”
Both the industry and the technology used to make beats have changed quite a bit since ‘Flava In Ya Ear’ and ‘Everything Remains Raw’, but Mo Bee sticks with the same SP-1200/S-950 setup that’s worked for him all along. And much like the equipment he used to perfect his craft, his philosophy for making music remains simple but effective. “Just make good music,” he tells me. “Come from your heart, be original, dig deep inside of yourself and do what you feel is right and what you want to do.”