Ya Herd #15: Jeremy Ford

For this edition of our “Ya Herd?” Q&A series, I spoke with my good friend Jeremy Ford, who’s finally self-releasing his debut album Self Seekers (website / bandcamp).

While Andrew & I mostly post indie rock here on Herd of Gorillas, we both still have a deep-rooted appreciation for hip-hop and beats, going back to high school when we first met and starting sharing music. In fact, the name Herd of Gorillas comes from a lyric by one of my favorite rappers, Slick Rick (off the track Frozen feat. Raekwon).

Heavy on the samples and scratches, Jeremy’s beats pay homage to the tradition of East Coast beat-making legends like DJ Premier and Pete Rock. Yet, Self Seekers is also a concept album — the notion of identity weaves throughout, giving you something to reflect on while you nod your head.

Congrats on finally releasing your debut record! How are you feeling?

Thanks man! It was literally a life goal of mine to put out a full-length album, so it feels great to have accomplished that. It also feels like a relief, as sad as that may sound. As an independent artist, I did everything myself (music, artwork, website, marketing, PR outreach) and it was a lot. I also experienced some unforeseen delays that were out of my control, which was a bit frustrating. Let’s just say that I’m happy with where things stand but I’m more than ready to move on to the next project.

Give us a quick self-bio — where you’re from, where you live, your interests, and so on.

I was born and raised in a small Connecticut town called Burlington. I moved to Brooklyn in 2010 and have been here ever since. I studied Graphic Design in college, and I’m currently a remote Product Designer at a software company based in San Francisco. Beyond music and design, I’ve been playing basketball since age six, and I watch a ton of films.

How long have you been producing beats?

I’ve been making beats on and off for about 15 years now, which is crazy to think about. My freshman year at Central Connecticut State University, I DJed a two-hour hip hop show for the school’s radio station – one of the best experiences of my college career, hands down. I loved geeking out about the music I loved with the other DJs at the station. Hersh, another hip hop DJ there, sold me my first turntable and mixer, which allowed me to get into sampling. Once I became aware of FL Studio (it was called Fruity Loops back then) I downloaded a free trial and never looked back. My first beats were AWFUL. They weren’t even beats, but more like an unfortunate series of disparate noises. And every “beat” was 4 bars because I didn’t know how to create a full arrangement. I still use FL Studio but I’d like to think I’ve improved a little since then.

You produce all your beats in your apartment. Describe to us what that looks like and how you do it.

I’m a minimalist, so I like to keep a simple setup. My studio consists of my vinyl collection, turnable, laptop, audio interface, a small MIDI controller, studio monitors, and headphones. I know some producers use an MPC, Mashine, Roland SP-404, and other various pieces of hardware, but I haven’t seen the need for those yet. Conversely, I’ve also seen there are producers now who make an entire beat on their phone, which is so wild to me. At the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter what you use to create the music, the result is the most important thing. I’m comfortable with my setup so I don’t have any plans to change it.

Typically, I start the beat making process by digging in my own crates. I have around 600 records I’ve collected over the years, everything from comedy and soundtracks to children’s records and soul music. I like to put a record on, put my phone in the other room, and just listen. When I hear something I think I can use, I capture the sound on my laptop using Adobe Audition. I’ll then bring the sound into FL Studio, chop it up, and use the MIDI controller to quickly try out some melodies. Once I have a melody I like, I’ll add drums, bass, and other elements until it sounds like a chorus. I find it much easier to build the chorus first, that way you can take away from the beat for the verses and change-ups. I’ve heard Illmind say he produces this way too, which was reassuring to hear.

So let’s dive into Self Seekers. When did this self-identity concept first develop, and how did it evolve into a theme that weaves through the entire record?

There are sort of two aspects to the identity theme of this album. The first is anonymity and the second is self-discovery. The idea originally stemmed from rush hour subway rides in New York City. I always found it so strange that a group of complete strangers can be intimately close for a few fleeting moments. And the notion that you can be completely anonymous to one person and so familiar to another. Social science man, it’s a complex thing.

And the second aspect of the identity theme builds off of that. To a stranger, someone lacks an identity. And sometimes a person can also be a stranger to themselves. I wouldn’t say my situation is quite so extreme (I know who I am), but I have dealt with the challenges of an identity crisis. I attribute this to outside influences and being a self-diagnosed people-pleaser. There’s a constant pressure from all angles to improve, which can make us question who we are. We see it in spammy article headlines like “Things you’re doing wrong…” and Instagram ads that showcase fitness models to make us feel guilty for looking how we look and living how we live. In fact, there’s so much pressure to appear like something we aren’t, that some people create two Instagram accounts – one for their ingenuine self and one for their real self (Finstagram)! This is so sad to me, but an unfortunate reality. Anyway, the second aspect of the identity theme addresses this. It’s about the process of figuring out who you are, embracing it, and fending off the outside influences that try to change you. “Honestly expressing yourself, now it is very difficult to do,” as Bruce Lee once said in an interview.

I really love the use of samples on this record– you’ve really nailed it with the selection and timing. On “So Elusive” we hear proverbs like “The most fascinating problem in the world is… who am I”, and “We all wear masks, metaphorically- speaking.” My personal favorite, on “Alone Together”, comes from wise Buckaroo Bonzai — “No matter where you go, there you are.” Where do you dig for your samples?

Haha I love that you recognized that one! And thank you. I find the process of crate digging to be equally as enjoyable as creating the music itself. It’s ridiculously time-consuming, but it ends up being worth it when you uncover the perfect sample. Once I committed to the identity theme for Self Seekers, I became hyper-aware of everything I heard in a movie, interview, show, etc. Any dialogue related to self expression or soul searching was fair game for inclusion in the album. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to hear something you know will work for a song, it feels like you’ve struck gold.

As for the sample sources, the majority of my musical material comes from my evolving vinyl collection. As for the vocal snippets, I would rather not reveal those sources since they yield really obscure, fun samples that I’d like to hoard all for myself. That being said, the sites aren’t so secretive and anyone else could find similar samples if they have the patience to sift.

Who is that speaking on Intro/Outro & Interludes?

That’s my longtime penpal, Yadi Alamin. He’s one of the wittiest, funniest, creative people I’ve ever met. I really think he should have his own TV show. Yadi and I met on Myspace back when that was the platform artists used to showcase their work. We collaborated on a few tracks, virtually, most of which were comical. We had one song where he freestyled over a beat I made that sampled the Home Alone theme. The beat was intentionally light-hearted and corny, but his rhymes were so street, it was a hilarious juxtaposition. We were just creating music to entertain ourselves.

Funny story, Yadi and I finally met in person for the first time last year! He lives in Charlotte, and I was in Asheville for a vacation, so I decided to surprise him at his office on my way back to the airport. It was such an awesome moment.

How did you link up with emcees that are featured on the record (Wordsworth, Fatt Father, and Qwill)?

I feel so blessed to have been able to work with these artists, they are so incredibly talented. 

I’ve been a huge fan of Wordsworth since he was a regular on MTV’s The Lyricist Lounge Show and featured on Black Star’s album back in 1998. A couple years ago, I reached out to Wordsworth via Instagram about doing a collaboration and was surprised when he actually responded. I sent him a batch of beats and he chose the one for “You Know The Name,” which I released as the first single from the album. To this day, that song seems to get the most positive response from any of my published music.

Anyone who follows the Detroit hip hop scene has likely heard Fatt Father, whether they’re aware of it or not. Besides being featured on records by artists like Sean Price, Apollo Brown, Black Milk, D12, and Elzhi, he was the lead character in the “Lincoln” skit on Royce Da 5’9”’s album, Layers.

I first heard Fatt Father on Dabrye’s song “Stranded” and thought he had such an awesome presence on the track. I reached out to him via Instagram as well and we started chatting. What’s crazy is that his brother’s name is Jerry Ford. He told me when he saw my name he felt like we were meant to work together. It is a pretty strange coincidence, I must say.

Qwill and I have been friends for a very long time. He’s such a talented, underrated musician, and a really genuine guy. When I was living in CT, I went out with a few friends to a bar in Hartford called The Half Door. Qwil was performing on the stage in the back, and it seemed like no one was really paying much attention. When I heard his soulful voice, my ears perked up. I’m pretty sure I ignored my friends completely for the rest of the night to hone in. After his performance, I went up to him to let him know I appreciated it, and we exchanged contact info. We kept in touch and made a two-track EP, remotely, called Hope. A few years later, GMC Trucks picked up the instrumental version of the EP’s single to use in a couple explainer videos for their new Sierra, which was an incredible milestone in my music career. Qwill and I have been in touch ever since.

In terms of what’s next, do you plan to continue focusing on instrumental tracks, or production for MCs/vocalists?

Until a producer has industry clout – and/or a manager – they need to proactively reach out to artists if they want to collaborate, which can be really exhausting. While I’ve had some success with it, the amount of time I spend cold emailing and DMing artists is sort of crazy. The hustle is fun and the results are always great, but part of me likes the idea of being completely self-sufficient. There’s something empowering about being totally independent, which allows me to release records on my own schedule. That being said, I will likely lean toward the instrumental route for a while.

I do have a couple one-off collaborations in the works that I’m super pumped about – both are with extremely gifted emcees who have really blown up in the past year. Fingers crossed those will materialize in 2021.

Who are some producers that you’d say inspired you or influenced your sound?

I would cite DJ Premier, Pete Rock, The Alchemist, and Marco Polo as my top influences. Each of them are masters of their sound and have created such wonderful records over the years. While my sound goes through phases, the style I find myself subconsciously replicating most often is that of The Alchemist. I think the raw, grimy, aggressive vibe of his older work burrowed itself deep into a corner of my brain. I can’t keep my head still when I listen to his beats, which is essentially how I gauge whether something is good.

You definitely have an element of old-school, boom bap going on. What’s your take on new-school era hip-hop and production? 

For sure. Long live boom bap! I feel like I might get myself in trouble for this, but I struggle with modern hip hop styles to be honest. I’ve tried several times, but I just can’t get into them.

Part of it is probably because you tend to like what you grew up with – and I grew up with conscious, lyrical boom bap. But another part of it is that a lot of the popular trap and “SoundCloud rap” feels really lazy to me. As a consumer of art, I really respect the effort and thoughtfulness that goes into it. And as I learn more about my own preferences, I’ve recognized that there’s a direct correlation between the level of craft an artist puts into their work and how much I like it. When something sounds like it was created in a few minutes with stock sounds, and features a vocalist who uses auto-tune to spew nonsense, I instantly lose interest. It’s just not for me. Just like boom bap might not be for someone else. It’s all subjective.

Another interesting style that has become popular recently is the drumless sample loop that we hear on records from artists like Roc Marciano and Ka. I don’t mind this style when it’s used sparingly to showcase an emcee’s lyricism, but when the whole album utilizes this style I find it a bit boring. I think my favorite example of this done well is “Hold The Drums” by Smoke DZA and Pete Rock. The sample is so beautiful that I could listen to it for hours and not get sick of it. Plus, the bassline is incredible.

It’s all part of the creator’s curse. I tend to listen to music with the critical ear of a beatmaker, which means I’m thinking about how something was made. I’d imagine a filmmaker watches films the same way.

Besides hip-hop beats, what other kinds of music are you into?

I’m all over the place. Over the past few years, some of my favorite releases have been from artists like Four Tet, Jim James, Foals, Teen Daze, Novo Amor, Royksopp, Cass McCombs, The Strokes, Majical Cloudz, Apparat, Deerhunter, Khruangbin, Joon Moon… the list goes on. The only genres I don’t really listen to are country and trance, but everything else is fair game.

What music platforms/sites do you use on the regular?

Lately, I’ve been steering away from Spotify since I’ve realized it’s not the most supportive platform for independent artists. I tried canceling my Premium account, but the free experience is so bad that I think I’ll have to sign up again. I really like Bandcamp’s mission and I’m making it a goal to use it more next year.

Lastly, let us reflect a bit on 2020 and look ahead to the start of a new year. Do you have any words for your fellow self seekers?

This year has obviously been really rough on all of us. I don’t know about you, but I almost feel numb to terrible news nowadays; if we were told tomorrow there was an asteroid heading towards earth I wouldn’t be surprised. But despite all the negative aspects of everything going on, it’s been a very productive year for me. I attribute a lot of that to finally acknowledging my desire for change. Prior to the pandemic, I had a lot of things I wanted to do, but I was letting distractions and complacency get in the way. As the pandemic sidelined those distractions, it actually helped to realign my priorities and allowed me to focus on certain goals. I’m not grateful for the pandemic in any way, but for an introvert who likes time to himself anyway, staying home has been an ok experience. 

As far as 2021, I’m in no position to give advice – but I will say that I hope anyone who struggles with their personal identity can find a way to get through it. It might sound corny but… Be you. Do what is best for you. Fend off all the influence from advertisers who are only interested in your money. At the end of the day, what’s most crucial is that you are content with the life you have made for yourself, and no one is going to make it for you.

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