Chuck Inglish of The Cool Kids shares a few drum secrets and calls out rappers who are only making music to get famous.
One of the first Chuck Inglish beats most people heard was track one of The Cool Kids’ breakout EP, The Bake Sale. Its unmistakable use of vocals saying the instrument they’re taking the place of was ingeniously self-aware. Aside from the beat’s conceptual cleverness, the song manages to not sound too busy or cluttered, despite using vocals as part of a beat with more vocals layered on top. The beatmaker behind The Cool Kids never returned to that sound (he would probably call it a gimmick at this point), but it precluded many more years of extremely fat 808 hits and funky bass lines that toe the line between new and old school.
Evan Ingersoll sits in the HotNewHipHop studio, swiveling subtly back and forth in the producer’s chair. He’s wearing an unassuming USA Soccer jersey, New Balance sneakers and horn rimmed glasses. Asked why his drums have such a fat, distinctive sound, Chuck answers with a question of his own: “have you read Outliers [by Malcolm Gladwell]?” He’s 40,000 hours into his drums, achieving the author’s theorized prerequisite training time multiple times over. “Drum machines make me happy,” he explains more plainly.
As a kid, Chuck played the drums at the encouragement of a father who always wanted to be a musician but never had the time. After showing an adeptness, he got formal lessons. He also learned how to read and write sheet music for drummers, giving him “a nice introduction into how music theory went about at a young age.” His love for rhythm eventually extended to the bass, as evidenced in his beats, which tend to eschew synths in favor of bass melodies. “I love coming up with bass lines,” the Michigan native explains. “Bass tabs and bass scales are a little bit easier for me to wrap my head around.”
40,000 hours of work will inevitably grant you a lot of insight, but Chuck is reluctant to give away all of his secret sauce. He did share one insight into his sound, courtesy of Dave Sitek (of TV On The Radio). Most producers (and audio engineers) pay attention to a red light that warns when an audio channel’s output is too loud and may distort. Producers shouldn’t rely on that light as a rule, Chuck advises. “Use your ear to decide how much volume or headroom you deserve with that shit. If it distorts you’re an asshole, but it can be loud, it can be pushed,” he details. “When I push it there, I put a compressor over it and I take down the attack so it doesn’t come out as hard. And I take down the release so it forces it through.”
On a particular heavy mushroom trip (more on those later), Chuck placed his face in front of a speaker for hours, engulfing himself in the beat. Feeling a beat on a physical level is a common refrain for Inglish, and he uses it to explain how different types of drums should be compressed and mixed. “When the bottom hits, you’ll feel it in your feet. When the mid hits, you hit it in the waist. If it’s a top kick,” the producer continues, motioning to different places on his body, “you should feel it right here. Snare should be right here, hi hat should be right here.” Music is nothing but combined waves of sound, so Chuck is not hallucinating his musical understanding as much as he’s intellectualizing something most of us can only understand on a visceral level. “No drums should be on the same spectrum,” he affirms. With this in mind, it makes sense why the “What Up Man” beat feels so effortless and clean.
Chuck has a well-documented love of cars, and says they're his favorite place to listen to music. He doesn’t point to complex acoustic theory when asked why. Sometimes, the simplest reason is the best: “I listen to shit in the car so much because that’s just how I grew up. When I first heard some of the most fire songs, it was in the car.” Positive memories create positive attachments, and he produces with these real life environments in mind – “beach, car, headphones.” However, not all real life environments are created equal in Chuck’s eyes (and ears). One that draws particular ire is computer speakers. Listening to music on laptop speakers is an injustice to the music, and he makes a simple comparison to get his point across – “Would you watch 'Transformers' on your iPhone first?” Of course, many people do just that, but that’s another rant for another day.
While everything Chuck Inglish and The Cool Kids have made is hip hop, Chuck’s influences are far more diverse. Growing up in Michigan, he had strong ties to artists coming out of Minneapolis – Prince and The Time. As a budding drummer, he listened to rock music to improve. He went through phases of listening heavily to 311 and Sublime, because of the drumming on each album. The Red Hot Chili Peppers had probably the biggest influence, showing him genre is fluid and he didn’t need to be confined to one type of sound to make music. “The Chili Peppers – their favorite group was Parliament Funkadelic. Anthony Kiedis – the way he delivered words – it’s pretty much rap,” muses Chuck. “To me, that shit kind of like anchored me in a different direction.”
This is not to say Chuck Inglish didn’t have early indoctrination to hip hop – his father and grandfather loved “Paid In Full” by Rakim and Eric B so much they taught him to recite all the lyrics at two years old. It would be a party trick to have a young Evan Ingersoll recite the words at family gatherings.
Just as he’s unattached to specific genre rules, he also agnostic when it comes to the programs (DAWs) he uses to produce music. He’s used it all since he started producing in college, beginning with Acid Pro, then adopting early versions of Fruity Loops before moving on to Reason and Ableton. He’s used Logic, but isn’t a fan because it reminds him too much of his education in technical film production. He calls upon each part of his versatile skill set depending on the need, granting greater flexibility for the sounds he can experiment with.
“If I wanna use a break or if I wanna use any sort of loops or any samples – things I’m gonna chop and make something out of – I’ll use Ableton. If it’s just an idea that’s pure synthesizer – maybe directing a couple instruments and playing or programming drums myself – I’ll use Reason. And if I’m doing everything live, I’ll use Pro Tools.”
Chuck hasn’t touched Fruity Loops since 2004, but not because of any ill-opinion of the program. He simply says, “when I see the step programming of the drums it takes me back to a place when my beats sucked. There was a point in time when my shit was not fire.” Like many perfectionist creatives, Chuck is overly critical of his past work. He’s quick to credit other producers who use FL Studio (the current evolution of Fruity Loops) though. “There’s a lot of people who developed their style with Fruity Loops – and it sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before.”
Another thing Inglish prides himself on is rooted in his experience with all of the modern digital audio workstations. He can name which program any song was made on, just by hearing it. He says it’s because he knows the capability of each mixing program, down to the sample rate of the drums (naturally).
The past few weeks, Chuck has been back in the headlines with Sir Michael Rocks after tweeting that The Cool Kids were working on an album. People took this as an announcement that the influential group had gotten back together, but they had in fact done so back in 2014, releasing two tracks (to much less fanfare than they’re receiving now). Chuck is nonplussed at the reaction, asking (semi-rhetorically), “us getting back together – what does that mean to everyone else?” The internet has a very short memory, and likes to re-hash things.
The Cook Kids have always had a contentious relationship with internet culture. They’re often credited as being progenitors of the “internet rap” that became popular on early hip hop blogs, replete with bright colors and (arguably) ironic throwback attire. This is just how Chuck Inglish and Michael Rocks dress; they never set out to start a movement. Nowadays, Chuck is just as likely to lament the overwhelming amount of music content and accompanying paralysis of choice that’s the norm these days as he is to repost songs on Soundcloud (which is often). As often happens on the ’net, even the narrative of their formation has been distorted to fit fans' perception. Despite what’s often reported, they did not meet on Myspace but in real life, person to person.
Whatever the perception of their relationship might be, it’s simple to Chuck. “With him, I never gotta worry about if the hook’s gonna be tight,” he explains of Sir Michael Rocks. “I just gotta tell him what the hook is. Boom. You come back the next morning, turn the shit on and be like ‘how the fuck did you think of that?’” On another mushroom trip the duo went on, they sat listening to a beat Chuck had made on repeat. Sir Michael Rocks turned his head, staring wide-eyed at his musical partner, cheshire cat smile splayed across his face like The Joker. It was as if Michael Rocks had just learned some secret he couldn’t wait to tell Chuck Inglish. That secret was revealed the next day in the form of the hook to “Bundle Up.”
The next album is already underway, according to Chuck. “We got everything mapped out to be one of the illest hip hop film that you’ve heard of all time,” he says. “It’s kid of like going through different chapters of the culture and shit.”
If you ask Chuck Inglish what’s wrong with hip hop today, he’ll point to one thing: greed. Not to say pursuing and making money is bad (he’s no ascetic), but he sees the pursuit of money (and it’s sister sin, fame) beginning to erode the quality of the music. When people try to take shortcuts to become famous or rich, it diminishes the importance of the process of making music. Creativity shouldn’t be easy, and Chuck’s 40,000 hours on his drums is something he holds as a sort of moral standard. For him, it’s impossible to extricate the music from how it’s made; a balance of Process and Purpose.
There are many ways the producer sees greed manifesting in hip hop. Most obviously, he blames industry greed for the death of the golden era hip hop sound via litigation against sample-based music. Forced, ill-fitting collaborations that are meant to cross-pollinate fans and don’t try and build something new with each artist’s respective sounds are one. “I’ve seen a lot of people get 2 Chainz on a song because it’s 2 Chainz and he can make the song go farther. That’s the worst way to make a collaboration happen,” Chuck opines. Another result of the greed Inglish sees is a high volume output of music that inevitably waters down the quality of the output and he says, “it’s annoying when I hear really talented people do half-assed shit.” The purpose becomes fame and fortune instead of creating good music.
Chuck says the chase for fame and greed in an increasingly crowded genre also becomes internalized into artists’ mentalities, as they try to find ways to meet the industry’s expectation for them rather than putting in the work on the music. People shouldn’t put their own ego above the music, and he explains, “you are a conduit, not the product itself.” He continues his assault on musicians who make music for fame, laying the criticism that, “when it becomes about you and not the song, that’s when you become a meme. When you become bigger than the shit you do, you become a costume. A lot of rap is a parody of itself.”
He reserves his harshest criticisms for the recent rise of emcees freestyling their songs in the booth rather than writing them down beforehand, probably his most contentious point. “You should appreciate the process,” is his declaration. “You don’t wanna write the words so you can stay in the pocket, ‘cause you don’t have any fucking words. Which means quit rapping.” It may seem harsh, but music is life to Chuck, so he asks, “rapping is pocket, pattern, rhythm, all at the same time. And if you can’t know those three then what the fuck do you want to rap for?” Of course, the answer will be one or both of the cardinal sins he’s assigned to the industry: fame and fortune.
Even in fame, Chuck sees the importance of process. “‘On’ is a big responsibility, dawg. That shit eats people up,” he says, perhaps speaking from personal experience. “It destroys your life if you’re not prepared for it.” However, that destruction can be grounds for fertile growth. The struggle of coming up and having things not go your way can give you the hunger to be even greater," Chuck theorizes. Even if you, “don’t see things fall apart, even if you knew they were perfect, it doesn’t toughen you up.” Chuck Inglish and The Cool Kids have been through the ringer, from soundtracking video games to quietly popular underground releases. They’ve calloused themselves to the game, learning every step of the process. It’s taken 6 years, but The Cool Kids are ready to give us something we didn’t know we needed. Again.