It’s been long-forgotten and oft-considered forgettable; but I love the first single from the oft-rumored, oft-delayed, and never to see the light of day, Detox. “Kush” came and went because it was formulaic: Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg tag team for another big record, with piano keys on fortissimo; but the 2010 version, so we’re gonna add Akon on it to make it stick. Perhaps “Kush” was more of a contact high because the buzz wore off rather quickly.
As I write these words, “Kush” plays in my headphones on full blast. For all I know, my daughter could be on my right, yell at the top of her lungs, and I wouldn’t hear a word. It’s the mix.
Mixing a song is a technical craft; this is the reason a person who does so is called an engineer. After an artist writes and records a song, they leave the studio and wait to hear the finished product. An audio engineer understands music equal parts art and science. They understand we hear frequency waves in decibels and what makes speakers work is rooted in the principles of magnetism; the thing everyone fell asleep on in physics class. Anyone worth their salt will tell you it doesn’t matter how great your chord progressions, lyrics, melody, harmony, or percussion is; if it isn’t mixed well, your song fucking sucks.
With ease, I could write 10,000 words about audio engineering and all of the little things the casual listener will never know exists in a song, one pays absolutely no attention to, but its presence is why you love the song (peep “California Love” at 3:19).
Of course, “Kush” is a masterful mix; Dr. Dre’s perfectionism has been well-documented over the past 30 years. Every drum sound, note, word and its cadence, and element in his production has been picked with meticulousness of a great accountant. In the 2017 series, The Defiant Ones, several of Andre Young’s greatest muses delve in great detail-well as much detail as they’re allowed to disclose-how intense a session can be. Snoop Dogg proclaimed “You can’t roll a regular blunt,” Eminem stated the man he owes his life to would throw away records Slim Shady felt was the most incredible music he’d ever heard; Interscope Records founder Jimmy Iovine made a callback to his production days with Bruce Springsteen, who’d spend weeks in search of the perfect drum sound and yell “Stick!;” and Gwen Stefani mimics his pursuit of perfection with a “Do it again! Do it again! Do it again!”
I could not help but chuckle at Gwen Stefani. While I am no Dr. Dre, I heard my friends who stood in front of a microphone-for hours accumulated well in to the hundreds-tell them “Do it again,” after they were told and believed the blatant lie of “One more time, this is the last take.” The other popular phrase one has heard from me would be “more energy.”
There have been many moments of opposition-even hostility-towards me over this. I have and will continue to tell them to their face “You may hate me right now; but you’ll love the song when it’s done.”
I do not consider myself a perfectionist. Psychology Today defines its characteristics as unrealistic and high expectations, very critical of mistakes, procrastinate projects due to a fear of failure, shrug off compliments and reluctant to celebrate their success, and look towards a select few in their inner circle for validation and approval. Maybe I am a perfectionist…
Most of the previous paragraph describes aspects of my personality to a tee. My fear of failure and subsequent procrastination makes me second-guess lots of opportunities; but I am much more phobic of success and how different life would become. I tend to minimize positive feedback and bypass victory laps in favor of my next project. Before I release any thought or idea into the world, I will run them down-equipped with full-on explanations-to a select few; often the ones I know I will not have to give said explanation to.
I do not consider myself a perfectionist because despite the high expectations I set for myself and others, they are attainable goals. If anything, my relentless pursuit in myself and others is to realize we are much better than our expectations of ourselves. The self-doubt we cast on ourselves I deem unrealistic because what we tell ourselves we are capable of is nowhere near close to who we are, or what we can do. I love imperfections because I feel it gives character. If I am to push whomever to a high standard, it is because I think very highly of you; at times, I think more highly of you than you do of yourself.
Somewhere in the creative process, almost every vocalist I have every worked with has scrunched up their face and said some variance of “I hate how my voice sounds.” Each time, word-for-word, I deliver to each person the same speech:
Nobody likes their voice. Here’s the scientific breakdown of why. When we hear ourselves talk, sing, rap, or whatever, we only hear 60% of our voice. The air travels from our mouth and has to wrap around for our ears to hear it. Therefore, we lose almost half of what we hear. However, when you speak into a mic, it picks up 100% of your voice. So all of those things you don’t hear because it gets lost in space, you do hear. But those little things you don’t hear, everyone else does.
Often, my words provide a level of comfort to performers. They have a tangible explanation which normalizes an anxiety every person has about themselves. In a pseudo-aha moment, my pursuit is not perfectionism; but for us all to get familiar with 100% of our voice because we are used to the 60%, and share it.
Perfectionism bucks at the construct of time. It is rooted in our phobias and insecurities which will either hold us back or push us forward. It is to look said insecurities dead in the face, tell it and ourselves it’s a fictitious ghost. The fear is an unexercised muscle one must be relentless to exercise, only to discover there are so many other underdeveloped ones which require the same-and sometimes more-level of dedication to develop. I love to do my part to help people ignore this man-made discouragement.
More than I love a perfect mix, or the final result of a collaborative project, or the creative process itself, I love to watch those whom I’ve worked with leave after our session. Since I was 15 years old and recorded my friends-who didn’t rap or sing at all-finish a song, listen to the playback, and walk out of the door is the joyful payoff. Everyone leaves with an air of accomplishment and inspired confidence. They exit with their heads held higher and shoulders broadened from their natural slouch. I watch the body language of whomever attempt to hold back their excitement, and at the very least, temporarily view the world from a different vantage point and feel encouraged to take this energy into other aspects of their lives. To me, this is the greatest accomplishment and my personal muse.
It’s a natural high, comparable to good “Kush.”