When Dre Skull Met Vybz Kartel

In this condensed and edited excerpt from the 2013 Red Bull Music Academy, Brooklyn producer Dre Skull describes Kartel’s unorthodox approach to voicing riddims.

The first track I sent to Kartel, I think I waited three or four months and every week it was like, “Yeah, yeah, he’s going to be recording it this week,” endlessly like that. So, I was wondering, is this really going to happen? And then after three or four months I got an email saying, “You know what? You got to send something different.” So, I had the riddim for “Yuh Love” on my computer and I polished it a little bit, and send it over.

When I reached out to him, he was obviously a very big artist but he still hadn’t hit his full peak. His track “Ramping Shop” was just building buzz in the US and that went on to be a ‘Billboard Hot 100 radio play’-type of song, so it was a little bit fortuitous.

I definitely spent days in Kingston just waiting... but I knew that was part of the deal so it wasn’t so bad.

I didn’t really get to interact with him about the track too much, and I didn’t know what I would be getting back. But he sent this track “Yuh Love,” which was a very romantic love song, a little bit unusual for him and it just took on a life of its own and became a big hit on its own. About maybe nine months or so after “Yuh Love” had been out and had been building, I started going down to Jamaica, so I got to meet Kartel and it went from there.

I definitely spent days in Kingston just waiting, where he would be like, “Yeah, eight PM tonight, we’re good,” and then at eight he’s like, “Ten, we’re good at ten.” “We’re good at midnight.” And then he never shows up. So it was really a certain amount of patience and waiting, but I knew that was part of the deal so it wasn’t so bad. But once we got in the studio it was just unbelievable.

The way it would usually work is that I show up with the music. I don’t play him 20 beats and he picks three, I play him four beats and he records on all four. Generally, he will sit down in a chair. The tracks are already loaded up in ProTools and the lights go down, the mic is turned on. He’s got no pen and paper and the first time he hears the song, the record button is already pushed on the mic. So, maybe for the first ten or fifteen minutes he’s just listening back and he’s starting to, not mumble, but just hum and make different guttural sorts of sounds and find cadences and melody ideas. And I should say, he’ll tell the engineer, “Keep that little bit,” or, “Keep that little bit,” even though it’s this non-verbal sort of thing. That’ll be saved and muted and those are his guide reference points when he feels like he found something quite good.

Then within ten or fifteen minutes he’s now recording words onto the track. Within an hour, maybe an hour and half, the song is completely written, completely recorded. He’s recorded his doubles, his ad libs. It’s unbelievable. I think it’s because he’s an incredibly hard-working entertainer. I think he’s probably recording like fifteen songs a week for years, if not for over a decade, so he’s definitely done 3,000 or 4,000 songs or more. He’s really honed something and obviously has deep talent.

Once there was a 12-bar verse in a song and he recorded bar 12, then he recorded bar 11, bar 10 and literally recorded the entire verse, wrote it and recorded it, backwards.

Kartel blew my mind in a number of different ways, but he would do something where – on a hook – he would often record bar one then he’ll skip bar two and write something for bar three. Then he’ll go back and write bar two and bar four, and so it’s like this weird filling in this puzzle. My take on that is that there’s something actually subtly catchy about what happens when you hear the lyric. You would never listen back and think, “Oh, that sounds like it was recorded out of order,” but there might be something almost subconsciously that’s more catchy about the recorded quality of that. Then also, it has implications for the songwriting in terms of what words he’s choosing and stuff like that.

Once there was a 12-bar verse in a song and he recorded bar 12, then he recorded bar 11, bar 10 and literally recorded the entire verse, wrote it and recorded it, backwards. I was just like, “What the hell is going on?” Because I’d never heard of anything like that. But upon reflection I’m thinking, “OK, he knows lyrically where this verse is ending up, so he can build a path to that end and likewise with the melody.” So, there’s kind of a genius in working that way. I don’t know that many people could do it even if they wanted to.

By Dre Skull on November 18, 2013

On a different note