“Spinna Saved That Record From The Dumpster”: Joc Max Deconstructs The Basement Khemist’s “Correct Technique”
From establishing himself as a serious DJ presence in late elementary school to signing a deal with Elektra Records as part of The Basement Khemist in the mid-90s, Kansas City, Missouri native Joc Max has been a central figure in the city’s hip-hop scene for well over 30 years.
Long before he was revered for his live DJ sets, Joc’s fascination with owning two turntables and a mixer started at a very young age. “I didn’t really understand the whole concept of two turntables until the late 70s,” he says. “My next door neighbor had a boyfriend who was a Jamaican selecta. I went over there and saw for the very first time what it looked like to DJ.”
From there, Joc convinced his parents to help him assemble a makeshift setup so he could further hone his skills at home. “My first pair of decks we bought from a pawn shop,” he says. “We pieced ‘em together — my mom, my dad, and myself.”
“By the time you got through you had a hiss-filled mess.”
Before long, Joc landed himself a residency DJing at the Skateland roller rink in Kansas City, Kanses at a mere 12 years old, playing a continuous live set from 7 to 11 pm on Saturday nights. “I waited all week to do that because they had better equipment than I did,” he says. “So I could maybe get a few things off at the skating rink that I couldn’t get off at home.”
While his budding career as a DJ grew, Joc became increasingly aware of rap music and hip-hop culture taking root in cities all over the country — including his own. Though access in Kansas City was limited, a dedicated movement started to form and he knew he wanted to be a part of it. “You have to keep in mind, there wasn’t a lot of hip-hop going on in Kansas City,” he says. “There wasn’t YouTube, there were no TV shows, you really had to just figure this thing out on your own.”
As he figured it out, Joc saved up funds from a job at a local movie theater and pocketed his school lunch money to buy his first pair of Technics 1200 turntables. He also scored a Synsonics drum machine in the early 80s to satisfy his growing fascination with music production before graduating to an Alesis drum machine. By 1982 he was cutting his teeth with keyboard samplers and experimenting with the very primitive but popular Casio SK-1.
“There wasn’t YouTube, there were no TV shows, you really had to just figure this thing out on your own.”
Joc’s simple drum beats and SK-1 compositions gave way to pause-tapes in the mid-80s, a technique also utilized early by many seminal producers like The Bomb Squad and Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest. “I started making tape loops kind of early,” he says. “Then I actually got good enough catching the beat to make layered tape productions — taking a copy of two breaks, doing that for three minutes, and then going back and finding a sound that you want to put over it. By the time you got through you had a hiss-filled mess.”
After many years spent tinkering with limited tools, Joc formed the group The Basement Khemist along with fellow Kansas City residents J Lee and Taha Kaliq aka Brother Neves in 1992. When J Lee purchased an Ensoniq EPS 16+ keyboard sampler, Joc finally had some equipment that could help him take his sound to the next level.“I was just grinding, learning how to program drums on a keyboard and using whatever I could,” he says.
After landing a remix gig on Das EFX’s “Microphone Master”, he used the subsequent check to add an E-mu SP-1200 to his rig. This turned out to be another key moment in his production career, as he started using the 16+ and 1200 together in tandem. This style of combining the strengths of both samplers became a go-to method for many Basement Khemist productions, including one of their best-known songs “Correct Technique”.
“Spinna saved that record from the dumpster to be honest with you. If it was up to us it would have never saw the light of day.”
“Correct Technique” showcases Joc blending multiple samples from disparate sources while making everything sound coherent and smooth, a technique he discovered while collaborating with a highly-regarded veteran DJ and producer. “DJ Spinna and I became friends many many years ago,” he says. “He had a friend that lived in Kansas City that he would come visit. We actually connected on one of his first visits. He’s my brother — I love him to death.”
Although he had been layering samples since his early pause-tape days, Spinna taught him how to elevate his musicality to another level. “Learning how to flip those samples harmonically — that was me making beats with Spinna,” he says. “That was really me learning from him, figuring it out, and taking it and making it my own.”
Of all the different sounds Joc blends together on “Correct Technique”, one of the most distinct elements is the beautiful piano sample. Though the original source of the “Correct Technique” piano has since been touched by Dilla, Illa J, and Mac Miller, Joc was the first producer to flip it after discovering the record while working at the record store 7th Heaven. After bringing the record to his mom’s house to study, he caught the tiny snippet that he would later chop to perfection. “That piano piece that I took isn’t really that long,” he says. “I heard it and thought it was beautiful, but I had to find out a way to make it rhythmically correct.”
“It was just organic. If we didn’t make music, I think we would’a went crazy.”
To do this, Joc broke down the piano keys note by note. “There was a function in the EPS 16+ and ASR 10 where you could actually take that note and stretch it and loop it,” he says. “It would keep it going, stretch it, and bring it right back to the beginning. So I would meticulously go through with that function, stretch each note, and make sure it was rhythmically correct. That way I felt like I would have more control over the notes.”
Despite his tireless attention to detail, there was one problem that could have derailed the beat — the piano keys sounded harsh after undergoing so much reworking. Undeterred, Joc figured out a way to blend them with the other elements of the song. “The drums disguised it to where it wasn’t harsh to the ears,” he says. “Just trying to do little sonic tricks, it kind of gave me what I wanted.”
Joc added further texture to the beat by incorporating one of the most famous samples of all-time. “My whole formula was you gotta find toppings to go on the record to give it life,” he says. “I would take records that I knew had open keys, open horns, ambient noises, open voices, and open guitar riffs. I would continuously play certain records that I thought were in key with what I had looped. And it just so happened that this record was in the same key.”
Manipulating the sample to make it work perfectly in both key and sequence with his piano samples, Joc wove all the elements together and brought it to his crew mates for approval. “I put it on the tape, I let my crew hear it, and they were like, ‘Yeah, it’s cool,’” he says. “And that was it.”
“That piano piece that I took isn’t really that long. I heard it and thought it was beautiful, but I had to find out a way to make it rhythmically correct.”
Around the time The Basement Khemist finalized “Correct Technique”, the group received an advanced copy of InI’s Pete Rock-produced Center of Attention album. Overwhelmed by the quality of the beats crafted by one of their musical heroes, the group almost scrapped their entire album after deciding it wasn’t up to snuff. “Spinna saved ‘Correct Technique’ from the dumpster to be honest with you,” says Joc. “If it was up to us it would have never saw the light of day.”
A short time later, the very person who almost made The Basement Khemist throw their recordings in the trash was the same person who gave them the biggest high of their career. “Our shining moment was when Pete and Marley Marl had the Future Flavas radio show,” Joc says. “Pete played our record. One of my heroes validated what I had done and played a song that I made. What else could I ask for?”
Despite getting love from esteemed peers like Marley Marl, Pete Rock, and DJ Spinna, The Basement Khemist’s label didn’t show the same level of support and eventually dropped the group. “Elektra felt it was underdeveloped, so they chose to pull the plug on it and not go any further with it,” Joc says of their unreleased album.
“One of my heroes validated what I had done and played a song that I made. What else could I ask for?”
Looking back on The Basement Khemist experience many years later, Joc Max remains grateful for it despite the harsh conclusion. “It was just organic,” he says. “If we didn’t make music, I think we would’a went crazy. If there were five people that felt like, ‘It’s good enough for us,’ then we made it for those five people.”
Now, over two decades since “Correct Technique” was released as a limited pressing vinyl single, the song is finding a second life on YouTube. With 800,000 views and counting, The Basement Khemist have a bigger audience than Joc could have ever imagined. “I actually thought that people had maybe forgotten about it,” he admits. “It wasn’t a mainstream record, so the fact that people have listened to it that many times is surprising. I’m humbled. I’m shocked. I never would have expected that.”
The group has no set plans for an official reissue at the moment, but if “Correct Technique” continues its meteoric rise on YouTube, The Basement Khemist might want to consider dusting off their old master recordings and giving them a proper release. There’s certainly enough organic interest to justify such a project.