The legendary west coast pioneer DJ Battlecat breaks down his journey with music, the importance of analog technology, and how his new partnership with Audible Reality has allowed him the opportunity to share his ears with the masses.
DJ Battlecat understands the importance of knowledge. Not only on the topic of West-Coast hip-hop -- in which he is a figure of great significance -- but of sound, period. The artform of engineering. Of deconstructing a mix and understanding the role each instrument, each frequency, plays in the puzzle at large.
Ever since Dr. Dre, fresh off departing the World Class Wreckin' Crew in the late eighties, taught him how to sequence a drum machine, Battlecat has remained fascinated by analog technology. In speaking with the legendary producer, it became clear how much he values the hardware of his formative years. He speaks with fondness on the prospect of toying with synthesizer knobs and discovering new sounds. "I was one of those kids that was curious about trying to fine-tune and pull something out," he reflects. "It really taught me the art of programming, turning the knobs every day and coming across new frequencies."
That curiosity paid off as Battlecat expanded his horizon, setting his sights on all manner of instruments; drums, bass, and talkboxes are but a few of his favorite toys. Today, his substantial body of work and legacy speaks for itself. So much so that he recently joined forces with Audible Reality, who granted Battlecat room to express his creative vision with his own signature "Vibe." Those who download the AR app can actually listen to existing music tailored to be heard through the ears of the veteran producer-- in fact, Battlecat has been actively testing some of his upcoming mixes through the app.
Currently in the midst of mixing for the upcoming Mt. Westmore project, a group venture from Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Too $hort, and E-40, I caught up with Battlecat for a lengthy conversation on sound, history, and his new creative partnership with Audible Reality. That conversation can be read below, edited for length and clarity.
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HNHH: How are you doing Battlecat?
DJ Battlecat: I’m good, man. Up late.
Thanks for taking the time. You're working in the studio, I see.
Yeah. That’s all the time man.
What’s the status right now? Mixing?
Everything. Composing, sound designing, mixing, everything. Everything except for mastering.
It goes without saying that your sound is an integral part of the West Coast. I think anyone who is familiar with West Coast hip-hop knows what Battlecat brings to the table -- what you’ve been bringing to the table for years now. You laid the foundation for a lot of the iconic sounds we’ve come to associate with the West today. How did you first start to build that foundation? What were some of the earliest memories you had absorbing music? Specifically music from your own location.
Well, my family definitely. My mother and father are artists and musicians. Both of them are vocalists. Both of them dibble and dab in piano. Both of them have a unique ear for hearing music, processing melodies, and “perfect pitching.” So they kind of passed it down to me and it helped me tremendously. I’m a drummer first. And a percussionist, which led me into other instruments. And I just kept pursuing it until it caterpillared into unique opportunities.
I know recording drums can be pretty challenging for a lot of people getting started in engineering. What was your own experience learning how to record live drums?
Trial and error. There's really no perfect way. I was open-minded about repositioning mics. I started with one mic, with a three-piece drum set, or four-piece. I just positioned the mic in an even space where it would pick up all the instrumentation and I knew how to play with velocity and dynamics, as far as making sure one instrument wasn’t louder than the other. That was a bit of a challenge, but it helped me when I started seeing on a professional platform how a mic is properly positioned. And the different names of mics and brands of mics I could use to get a distinctive sound, a pure sound, a solid acoustic sound.
I started indoors before outdoors. I never really mic’ed any drums outside, but miking drums paid off tremendously because we were in the early days of Hip-Hop -- we talking about 1988-89. I learned how to sample and sequence through two mentors of mine. One is a studio mentor, Alonzo Williams of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, where Dr. Dre began his first journey becoming himself and discovering himself as a DJ and a producer. And then it was actually Dr. Dre himself, while leaving to form NWA he came back in to grab some turntables and he saw me having trouble with trying to sequence a drum machine. So he showed me time signature and bars, which I never knew. I just knew how to play as a real drummer. But he helped me with drum programming and sampling. So it made my ears that much more broadened. Then I knew that I could actually sample precomposed master compositions. Whether if it was through a CD, cassette, or turntable, or any device. But it was amazing to hear what I could come up with and so what I wanted to do was actually develop my skillset there. If I was going to do any sampling, it was going to be my own sound, so I got into that early on.
"I learned how to sample and sequence through two mentors of mine. One is a studio mentor, Alonzo Williams of the World Class Wreckin’ Cru, where Dr. Dre began his first journey becoming himself and discovering himself as a DJ and a producer. And then it was actually Dr. Dre himself, while leaving to form NWA he came back in to grab some turntables and he saw me having trouble with trying to sequence a drum machine. So he showed me time signature and bars, which I never knew. I just knew how to play as a real drummer. But he helped me with drum programming and sampling."
Discovering that process must have been pretty exciting. I find that bass is another big component of your sounds and the way you blend it with percussion really shows a lot of experience. D you have any history with any bass players?
Yes. I've always been a fan of the bass because of the Motown sound. Definitely Larry Graham, of Graham Central Station and the original bass player of Sly and the Family Stone. But later on, I started to get passionate about synthesizers. So Bernie Worell, Rojer Troutman, Brass Construction, George Duke, and Herbie Hancock just to name a few -- and Kashif, the great legendary Kashif, who was very instrumental in my life indirectly because of his great contribution to music.
So, I started learning how to handle the low-end frequencies. It's sometimes the foundation of the music. I tinkered a little bit with the live bass. I’m a two-string finger bass player, I have a few basses here. I got a chance to appreciate the sound of a musician from the acoustic point of view, before later technology. I’m glad I witnessed that because imperfection is the perfection of music. Plugging stuff up and not knowing that the volume is up and all that. I saw the do’s and don’ts. But then I heard a lot of things that sounded good to me in the imperfection of how to operate plugging up instruments. I didn’t have a manual at the time I was first discovering how bass works.
The legendary Howard Johnson, he was an A&M artist signed through Kashif, he made a classic record called “So Fine.” I had a chance to meet this gentleman through a few of my best friends and he trusted me enough to lend me his custom Minimoog. Back in the 80s, it was hard to get anyone to be responsible or trustworthy with such a classic keyboard. But he met my family he knew that I had such a passion for loving and embracing my own equipment and keeping it up to par and safe. So he trusted me and lent me the Minimoog. One thing about the Minimoog is that you have to create the sound. There's no presets. So that had me puzzled for a minute. But I was one of those kids that was curious about trying to fine-tune and pull something out.
It really taught me the art of programming, turning the knobs every day and coming across new frequencies. The frequency knob, the resonance knob, the attack, the decay, the sustain. The same language that's still on hardware and software today. But I had to make a sound that would be a best friend to me. So I would tweak the oscillators until I was able to emulate exactly what I heard on wax. That did me well, because given the opportunity to start playing bass for people, they’re looking for if not an exact same sound then one that's similar. If I was going to create sounds, I needed to create them at my own discretion and with my own character so I could stand among the other great and new producers coming up. We didn’t want to have this thing where we would copy other people’s signature sound or whatnot. It was just good having fun finding how these classic bass lines were tweaked to become the classic music that we love.
To sum it up, being in love with the biggest speakers of the house -- the woofer -- and having a good friend, really an uncle to me, with a DJ system. I would hear classic bass and drum songs through R&B, soul, hip-hop, and gospel. It just blew my mind, and I said if I ever get a chance to do this on a professional level bass and drum will be my foundation.
I think that you really pulled it off.
[Laughs] Thanks, man.
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Someone you named that really stood out was Roger Troutman. I think that people might not know how influential he really was on a lot of hip-hop production in the West especially. Did you ever have a chance to work with him? Did you ever end up meeting him?
You know it’s funny that you say that. Indirectly, I did. Through a couple of executives, independent guys who had a beautiful relationship with him. It happened to be over my production, which was amazing of course. I didn’t have a Talkbox with me at the time, but they always wanted to work with Roger Troutman, and they seized the opportunity once it came. It was three records for an artist named Vontel out of Arizona. Roger did the honors and played on three of my records and I cried like a baby. Maybe a month before he passed, they flew down from Arizona to LA and they let me hear three of the songs. [Roger] was very intrigued by one of the records, because one of them was his good friend Charlie Wilson. We did “Say Playa” and he played over that.
I met him as well. I think it was the premiere of Thin Line Between Love and Hate. I was on that soundtrack, Shirley Murdock was on there too. I just introduced myself to him and let him know that it was great to know him and I appreciate his contribution. Then I had the honors, after his death, to meet his family. Lester Troutman and Zapp Troutman did some incredible records with Kurupt and Snoop. As far as influence, let me say this, he’s a big brother to me. I love his message in music. During junior high in the early ’80s, I was into dancing as a kid. Dancing and DJ’ing and playing drums. The message in his records was always a thing to hold on to, to be inspired to stay focused on my dreams. He had this one record, “So Ruff So Tuff” and The Many Faces of Roger was his first solo album, and that really just blew my mind. It was like a big brother I never had to keep me company.
We had Walkmans back in the day with the cassettes, so I would always listen to his contributions and his passion for music. I said this record is my personality, it’s my character, it’s my temple. He taught me how to love and appreciate having a voice as well. I sing a little bit, but it encouraged me to eventually pick up the Talkbox and learn it. I started to utilize the Talkbox as an instrument for the unheard and unseen in the community of music in my side of the town. When you have a beautiful community that’s well respected, like Charlie Wilson, Snoop Dogg, and Dre and a few other people that I did Talkbox for. They all have told me that you are an extended essence in the sound of Roger without trying to be Roger. It’s one thing to use the Talkbox, but then I made it mandatory to learn how to use my own melodies and riffs so I could have a distinguished spirit and sound. That’s what it is with me with the Roger Troutman influence.
A lot of people love the sound to this day, we are talking about records I composed 21 years ago with Roger Troutman and Zapp. An incredible sound I incorporated with Snoop Dogg and his friends Tray Dee and Goldie Loc. We actually set Doggystyle Records off to a successful note by bringing the Ohio sound to California and keeping it alive and giving it back. So I was very grateful for having that opportunity.
I remember that Eastsidaz album. I used to really follow the West Coast scene, way back when the blogs first started. So like DubCNN, for example. That’s where I was always got news on the West Coast artists. I actually came to discover your music through one of my favorite rappers, Xzibit. That song "Been A Long Time" off Restless.
Yes, we worked quite close together on many facets of entertainment. Especially with Dr. Dre, when he wanted to form Beats One Apple Music Radio -- that was an incredible experience. Shout out to Xzibit, he’s always keeping me in the loop of technology. Because Dre is that guy, he taught us all not to leave that out of the equation because that’s how the evolution of everything has been happening -- through technology.
So is that what brought you to connecting with AR Pro, having your own signature Vibe?
I’ve been in love with the technology aspect of it for a long time. These gentlemen at AR Pro, Matt and Mike, have encouraged me to attach myself to something that would affect not only my generation, but the new generation. I’m so grateful to be a part of this movement. I never thought people would be so passionate about my sound. The fact that the application would give you the experience of my ears and my perception of how I hear stereo, mono, layers of mixes, frequencies -- the whole experience. I’m very, very honored to be with this family. My wife thought it was a genius move and it would behoove me to be a part of it, so much gratitude to Mrs. Vanessa Gilliam.
You mentioned hearing music through the ears of Battlecat. Can you elaborate on that?
It comes down to pinpointing how you would hear music. You would walk around all the perimeters of your own room. I do that a lot. Sweet spots. My room is pretty fair. It's important to me that I have the right quality monitors for playback. Being a fan of NS10s, Auratones, I’m now using Reftones, Adams, and JBLs. It started from the first generation of listening to music. I had the early '80s experience of how music is composed, mixed, ranged, engineered. I look for warmth, always. Have I been a fan of certain sounds that are digital? Yes and no. Yes, because of my early experience learning how to manipulate frequency. I started with acoustic instruments first and tape, so I have a first-generation and second-generation approach to composing and creating sounds.
That’s so important because we know when we hear something that’s organic versus something that’s virtual. We always find ourselves, making up for it by using plugins and other processors. When I first started with drum machines I would always EQ my drums before I even loaded them into the drum machine. As I got more educated on how to maintain my sound and frequency, I would take all my drum sounds and master them. I would have a well-arranged and engineered sound where I didn't have to spend a lot of time processing. Even samples, I would master everything then pull it up. It allowed me to save time and compose on the fly. It's important to me to have good sound from the gate because then I don't have to spend a lot of time in the engineering department.
"That’s so important because we know when we hear something that’s organic versus something that’s virtual. We always find ourselves, making up for it by using plugins and other processors. When I first started with drum machines I would always EQ my drums before I even loaded them into the drum machine. As I got more educated on how to maintain my sound and frequency, I would take all my drum sounds and master them. I would have a well-arranged and engineered sound where I didn't have to spend a lot of time processing. Even samples, I would master everything then pull it up. It allowed me to save time and compose on the fly. It's important to me to have good sound from the gate because then I don't have to spend a lot of time in the engineering department."
Cool. So when people download your AR Pro Vibe, they can basically listen to any existing song and hear it the way you would hear it?
Yes, the whole experience of Battlecat’s sound. It’s cool, It’s fun. It’s a unique way to get your day started. Start your template off and you have something to pull from that comes from an experienced point of producer and musician.
Fans will enjoy listening to songs through your ears, but also aspiring producers, aspiring engineers who are looking to try and hone in on that warmth -- it might help them kind of reverse-engineer your sounds. I think it's a really interesting technology with potential.
You’re right. I think it's very important that they have someone exactly like me and anyone else who appreciates giving back to the community. This type of distinctive and necessary thing called sound. We understand that the younger generation has a fast-food way of approaching and hearing music. Through the AR experience, at least you’ll have a chance to say this is from someone who I followed all my life as a kid and now as an adult. Or just being an adult and being a fan of my contributions. This is something that’s very unique and I think it's endearing to the people who love to hear music the way it should be heard.
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Yeah, definitely. It also puts an emphasis on how some people might hear music and not really think about how it's being mixed to sound a certain way, then mastered to sound another way. But when you have something that specifically alters the way people listen to music by tailoring to a certain artist, it might make them think about the technical side a little further. That might even lead to an interest in mixing or engineering. Maybe this is a generalization, but anyone who has any serious interest in sound engineering is going to want to know about the technology and analog side.
You’re right that’s why I’m glad we have Dave Pensados and any other incredible educators of engineering and sound designing. I come from that era where I love to tap into the ones who’ve done it before me because they are always changing and growing. There’s no one set way of hearing and appreciating sound. Especially when you’re doing a mesh of other types of music. It's so important that you understand what was used in the earlier days. It pays to read the labels on the back of the album covers or cassettes. Researching who the engineers were, the equipment they used, and the history of the studio. A lot of people are just coming in and plugging their shit from the auxiliary and working inside the box. Not really utilizing and maximizing the first generation of music that's right there in front of you. How would you be able to appreciate what your digital software has to offer if you didn’t have any comparison from the first generation?
I will always encourage people on my live feed to really take some time and invest. Don’t only compose -- if you do, just mess around for a twelve-hour block out. You want to experience how your music actually sounds going through the channels. We talking about electricity, vibrations. The sound and evolution of music will only be appreciated to the fullest by going back to how it was done. And then you'll have some comparison and appreciate what you do have, and why this other software holds so much integrity in keeping the essence of analogism in the digital world.
Definitely. I'm glad that there are still places where people are actually caring about the importance of analog. Even if it’s on a level of someone wanting to listen to music through someone else's ears.
It encouraged me to not have a heavy system in my car. I used to love having a big system in my car. Now if I was to do one, I would maybe enhance the bass just a little bit but with smaller speakers. Like 8", versus 10" or 12". I have always been a car system person, but I need my ears for the fidelity and dynamics of sound. It’s important to me to take care of my ears and not have things so dramatically loud. As you get older, your ears are not what they used to be. To keep up with today’s technology it pays to have a decent set of healthy ears.
I've also encouraged so many people who really didn’t understand the art of sound and how it works. Just them seeing me point out every intricate part of a song, the levels. I can create a decent mix without using EQ and compression, just off the frequency. I'm going back and listening to my music that I made in the early 80s, late ’80s, and ’90s. We talking about 8-12 bit sampling drum machines. It’s crazy hearing the first generation of what I started or what I was using to become Battlecat and make the Battlecat sound. I still have all of that technology to this day. I’m talking about hardware, everything you can think of. The SC1, the 2080, the SP-1200, the 3000 MPC. Vinyl. I’m just glad we are having this discussion about helping the younger generation achieve their accomplishments in being a producer, or sound designer, or even an engineer.
You hit the nail on the head. This appreciation for the craft that you have, that you’ve clearly had since you first started... Break-dancing, Dj’ing, those are the elements of hip-hop. If you don’t know the foundation, you’re not going to have longevity. That dedication is part of why you're able to make a beat on the fly, freestyle a beat. I’ve seen those videos. It's crazy.
Oh wow [laughs] Yeah, the "Cali Iz Active" video and a few other ones. One of my proteges out of Arizona, Amplify, he did me a tremendous favor by recording me while I was in my zone. He edited it and set me up a YouTube channel back in the day and posted the video. It just blew my mind. I didn’t know how many people were attuned and intrigued by what I was bringing to the table. First of all, they was liking the fact that I was picking up an instrument. Two, the setting and what was coming out of it, it was just amazing looking at me and my vibe. Just how I was happy about just doing it. Doing it for the love. Not really thinking too hard about it, but appreciating space and adding new layers.
You can reach me @DJBattlecat on Instagram. I’m always live, doing my thing when I can and sharing with the universe how I’m feeling about music today and my approach. I actually showed my audience and fans how I approach layering and keeping the cohesiveness of the music of someone else’s production. It wasn’t actually mine. To actually put my ears on someone else's contribution is a blessing. That’s what we doing with the AR -- giving you the Battlecat experience. I got more presets that’s going to be coming that's going to be ear candy for those who love music period.
Before you go, I got to ask. Mt. Westmore. How’s that coming along? What’s the vibe like?
It’s a crazy contribution to hip-hop and to experience at this time. It’s something that’s expected, but I didn’t see it coming. The relationship has been there in more ways than I can imagine. I did two tours with Snoopy called How the West Was Won. And I always would see Cube and E-40 come on these tours. Then I stopped touring and they still continued. It was amazing to see that they would take this time to bring their success, their professionalism, and their personal lives to the table as brothers, friends, and family. And through a group, it makes so much sense because they've so much individually. And they all have had experiences in a group, one way or another. Maybe not Too $hort, but he knows the feeling because of just being in the room of great musicians and producers. It’s still the same experience regardless of the title.
"It’s a crazy contribution to hip-hop and to experience at this time. It’s something that’s expected, but I didn’t see it coming. The relationship has been there in more ways than I can imagine. I did two tours with Snoopy called How the West Was Won. And I always would see Cube and E-40 come on these tours. Then I stopped touring and they still continued. It was amazing to see that they would take this time to bring their success, their professionalism, and their personal lives to the table as brothers, friends, and family. And through a group, it makes so much sense because they've so much individually. And they all have had experiences in a group, one way or another. Maybe not Too $hort, but he knows the feeling because of just being in the room of great musicians and producers. It’s still the same experience regardless of the title."
I was so glad that they wanted to make this move. It was something that we wanted to do as far as giving back. We haven’t seen a supergroup in a long time from the West Coast with this much history and volume of life experiences, entertainment experiences. Just everything across the border. They all are successful men in film, TV, bottles of wine, beverages, and merch. To come together like this and be a voice of the whole community of hip-hop on the West Coast and for those who love music period.
I have the honor to bring a few records to the table and mix some records, and you're going to be able to appreciate that, as well as hearing the experience through the AR app. That’s going to be dope to hear the mixes because I’ve actually been putting my music through the headphones and the app, and listening to it. I’m impressed with what I’m hearing. Just starting from the root of what I’m doing here, it started here. I've been mixing the records right here, the guys have been loving my contribution. The album is just about done. I think it’s something incredible for all those who love the Bay, that love LA, and want to hear all these guys come together and bring their perspective to the universe. This is going to be real, real special.
I can’t wait.