For many producers, remixing a track can help them get their foot in the door and advance their career. So when production veteran Small Professor was asked to rework a song from Sean Price and M-Phazes’ 2013 album Land of the Crooks, he jumped at the opportunity. As soon as Price listened to the producer’s ominous version of“Murdah Type Thinking,” the late Brooklyn MC knew he’d found a like-minded artist. “Automatically, he kind of heard that I was in tune with that grimy kind of sound,” Small Pro says.
In fact, Price was so taken with the Philly sample slicer’s work that he reached out to him on Twitter while employing a bit of the humor he was known for. “He was just like, ‘Yo, I need beats fam, I’m a fan.’ That was it.”
This initial communication turned into multiple phone conversations and a creative bond over some shared favorite producers. These discussions lead to Small Pro sending Price an extensive batch of beats in 2013 and early 2014. At first, there wasn’t much forward momentum with the musical exchange, but when Coalmine Records and Diamond Media founder Matt Diamond “masterminded” the idea of the duo recording an entire album together, both artists were game.
“He was just like, ‘Yo, I need beats fam, I’m a fan.’”
Though the creation of 86 Witness relied heavily on collaboration, Price and Small Pro never met in person for any studio sessions. Instead, both artists were allowed to create in familiar settings through an ongoing exchange of ideas and music via emails with Matt Diamond. “It was definitely long-distance, it was definitely in our respective spaces,” Small Pro says.
This arrangement led to a great deal of spontaneity while reducing the risk of overthinking or overproducing any songs on the album. Instead, Price rapped with great efficiency to any beat that caught his attention — capturing his full energy and initial creative spark in the process. “I just sent him beats and if he liked it a lot he hopped on it immediately,” Small Pro explains. “There was no real verbalization of concepts or anything like that. It was pretty much whatever beats caused him to rap, that’s what he did.”
Small Pro’s strategy for crafting beats to inspire Price was interesting and atypical. Instead of focusing solely on a certain kind of sound or overall vibe, he spent a great deal of time studying the tempo of songs Price gravitated towards on his recent projects. Paying special attention to P’s 2012 effort Mic Tyson, he noticed the Brooklyn rapper was favoring instrumentals with a slower speed later in his career — a pace that he himself gravitated towards.
“There was no real verbalization of concepts or anything like that. It was pretty much whatever beats caused him to rap, that’s what he did.”
In addition to producing songs at a slower pace, Pro also immersed himself in a few specific albums and the work of multiple production masters for inspiration. “I was very inspired by The Beatminerz’ Enta Da Stage and I was listening to Onyx’s second album a lot, All We Got Iz Us,” he says. “As always, a lot of RZA, a lot of Tribe, a lot of Jay Dee, a lot of Buckwild, everybody in D.I.T.C. Basically, anybody who made the dark, grimy stuff.”
The musical chemistry between Sean P and Small Pro strengthened throughout 2015 as Price continued to faithfully record songs for their full-length effort. Then on August 8th, the unthinkable happened — Duck Down Records sent out a press release that confirmed that Price had passed away in his sleep. The announcement sent shockwaves through the hip-hop community, as collaborators and friends shared stories of Price on social media while everyone grappled with the loss of such a unique talent and human being.
Though Small Pro had never actually met Price, the MC’s untimely death affected him quite a bit. As with many long-distance musical connections formed in the internet era, a shared love of sound helped them create a special work of art regardless of their physical distance. “We had a different kind of relationship,” he says. “We had a musical relationship. It meant something to me because he was a larger than life guy and amazingly talented.”
Further adding to the weight of losing Sean P was the fact that Small Pro’s grandmother, who he was extremely close with, had passed away just a few months prior.
“We had a different kind of relationship. We had a musical relationship. It meant something to me because he was a larger than life guy and amazingly talented.”
Any time an artist dies before the completion of a project, it raises ethical questions: Should the album be released? Do the people involved in the project have the right to add to or alter the music as-needed to make the record cohesive? In the case of 86 Witness, the vast majority of the album had already been completed while Price was still alive, so those closest to Sean P felt good about releasing it. With the blessing for an official release from both Duck Down Records and Price’s wife Bernadette, all parties got to work on figuring out the best strategy for putting the project out into the world. “Sean had other releases coming out, so we were basically trying to space things out as much as possible,” Small Pro says. “We didn’t want there to be any accidental competition between projects or any kind of confusion, so we wanted to make sure everything was done collaboratively and respectfully.”
In February of 2019, 86 Witness became available for purchase nearly three years after the project was wrapped. In addition to giving Sean Price fans yet another impressive addition to his significant catalog, listeners of the album will find the instrumentals dynamic and multi-dimensional. On the Quelle Chris and DJ Revolution assisted “Latoya Jackson,” Small Pro constructs the track’s unique percussion out of the beatbox sounds from a somewhat forgotten mid-80s rap classic. Revolution heightens the listening experiencing by flawlessly incorporating his deft turntable wizardry as Price drops vintage P verses like, “No doubt, Sean is the veteran, better than most out, most out/Better B-boy/Beam me up Scottie, this shotty’s for Leonard Nimoy/Sell crack in Iraq, that’s the desert D-boy/Pocketless sweatpants, dammit the man Leroy.” The end result is a mesmerizing listening experience with all elements of sound working together in perfect tandem.
For Small Pro, having Revolution’s involvement on four of the album’s ten songs was a critical element that helped take the entire project to another level. He feels the veteran DJ’s contributions were especially valuable on the “Bear Witness” intro, which sets the stage for the entire album by showcasing Revolution cutting up various snippets and Sean Price vocal samples. “DJ Revolution is amazing,” says Small Pro. “He just makes my beats come alive, so I’m trying to give him his props as much as possible.”
“There’s me and Sean collaborating, but then me and Droog have a kind of musical conversation. DJ Revolution was playing off some things I was doing and vice versa. It kind of felt like jazz in some respects.”
Another favorite moment for Small Pro was “John Gotti,” which features AG Da Coroner, Guilty Simpson, and Your Old Droog offering their microphone mastery on a very impressive addition to the posse cut canon. Listen carefully and you’ll hear Small Pro mixing in subtle variations during Your Old Droog’s verse to heighten the intensity of the track as it comes to a dramatic close. These sort of small but meaningful additions can be heard throughout the album.
It was this freedom to experiment and play with the format that Small Pro saw as one of the most rewarding aspects of making 86 Witness. He found himself and other artists developing a special synergy throughout the recording process. “That’s one thing I like personally about the album,” he says. “There’s me and Sean collaborating, but then me and Droog have a kind of musical conversation. DJ Revolution was playing off some things I was doing and vice versa. It kind of felt like jazz in some respects.
Other album highlights include P reuniting with his Heltah Skeltah groupmate Rock on the memorable “Refrigerator P.” The song title keeps within the theme of exploring the year 1986 and its significance to rap music and the various cultural trends emerging in the United States at the time. Though such a specific theme might sound as though it could lose some listeners, it doesn’t present any problems. People who enjoy dissecting lyrics will have a lot to work with, while those who prefer not to hyper-analyze each line won’t find themselves overwhelmed by the frequent 80s references.
“We didn’t want there to be any accidental competition between projects or any kind of confusion, so we wanted to make sure everything was done collaboratively and respectfully.”
Now, four months after the album’s initial release, Duck Down and Coalmine are once again joining forces to bring another offering for fans of 86 Witness. For those looking to put Small Pro’s beats under a microscope, the instrumental version of the album was released on June 14th, 2019. Listening to the beats in isolation is helpful for digesting the project as a whole — it gives some insight into P’s beat selection process and makes his verses all the more impressive when returning to the regular version of the album. It also heightens the listener’s appreciation for Small Pro’s deft skills behind the boards.
By giving both Sean Price’s revered talents on the mic and Small Professor’s beat mastery ample room to breathe, all parties involved in bringing these albums to life have created two enduring works of art that P likely would have been proud of. They will certainly aid in helping his legacy live on for many years to come.
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