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The Director's Cut: Conrad Clifton - IS IT YOU: Beat Tape (Full Circle)

Conrad Clifton goes into the creative process for his new sample-heavy beat tape.
Conrad Clifton

Conrad Clifton

Brooklyn producer Conrad Clifton has released his new project IS IT YOU: Beat Tape (Full Circle). The project leans heavily on samples to help add depth, emotion and even some surprises to the record. It brings him back to his days in Atlanta production crew Battery 5, pulling out unfinished and unreleased music from the past and supplementing it with a few new songs. A lot went into weaving these songs together, pulling at their fabric and meshing samples from R&B, soul, spoken word and hip-hop into a cohesive project.

With all of these moving parts, we asked Clifton to explain how this project came together and to delve into the creative process. Read on for his piece on the record, stream it below and get your copy here.

See past Director’s Cuts.

“This is the album I've always wanted to put out, but never did, due to fears of sample clearance issues. I just can't hold it back any longer. With this project, I feel like I've completed a creative cycle. It's meant to follow up last summer's “Get Your Whole Life,” and build off the theme of "Is It You" - the only hip-hop track on an uptempo, electronic album.

To put things into context, I moved to Brooklyn about 10 years ago, and started releasing music as Conrad Clifton. Prior to that, I was already building a music career in Atlanta, with a production crew called Battery 5. I went by HeadROC back then - seems like a lifetime ago.

A lot of the songs on this album were created in that era, where I knew I had something special, but didn't have a platform to express it. So I pulled a few of my favorites from the vault, updated and remastered everything. And now, we've come full circle.

Listen to the album as you read on, and gain deeper insight into my music and creative process.

1. "thatswheniknewyouwastheone"

This track is special and very personal to me. I put it first on the album, because I feel that way about this whole project.

This was one of the first times I experimented with reversing a sample. Once I chopped and reversed this legendary diva's orchestration, I fell in love with the new melodic patterns it produced. I was actually mesmerized by it.

Long before I ever put out any music, my girlfriend asked me to make her a beat CD, so she could hear my stuff while we were apart. This was the track that she would constantly have on repeat. And now she says, "when I heard this, that's when I knew you was the one." I guess I did alright, because we ended up getting married. She also inspired me to finally release this project (so just blame her if the album is trash, lol).

2. "High."

This is my tribute to J Dilla. He thoroughly inspired my creative direction, from an early age. He was the first producer that made me realize you could create the music and be the vocal artist - while at the same time, never compromising artistic integrity.

This song is based on Dilla's "Hi" from Donuts. I thought it was dope how he flipped a song with a 6/8 time signature into a beat with a 4/4 time signature. It's not a normal thing to do! So I physically tracked down the vinyl that he sampled from and dissected the pieces for myself - you can hear all that lo-fi grit and crackle from the warped record I used. Then I rebuilt in my own way, using different vocal parts, a different melody, and a few more musical layers. Vibes.

3. "dreambutdontsleep"

This is the newest song on the album. You can really hear the similarities between this and “Get Your Whole Life.” I wanted to include something kind of familiar for my newer listeners, while staying grounded in the sample-heavy sonic spectrum, familiar to my day one's.

Using obscure samples from very different genres (70s soul vs. soft rock) offers a contrast from section to section. There's a call-and-response, from a fun and confident mood, to a thoughtful self-reflective one.

You enter a dreamy sequence around 0:56 - full of lush chords, airy vocals and the ethereal bell I used in "H.E.R. (Tattoo)." Then you’re brought back to the up-tempo dance vibe - the “don’t sleep” part. It’s like my own self-motivation, but I hope I can share that feeling with the listeners.

4. "Hi, Still Here"

This was the first single off the album because, in this production style, it's one of the hardest beats I've ever made. It's full of energy, so people either love it or hate it (which just makes for good art). One of the blogs mentioned that this "plays out like a lost Madlib beat," and I can't think of a better compliment. There are cymbals everywhere, and that “Hi” vocal sample demands attention!

I made this around the time when I was working with Yelawolf, and was heavily into old rock samples (can't give up the source of this sample, I'll just say, it's the opposite of "no"). I’ve always loved blurring the lines between styles and genres. “Hi, Still Here” switches from this heavy rap battle track, to an introspective thoughtful moment, then goes hard again. Like a conversation, there's a flow to it. In a way, it’s similar to what I did with “Hunter Gather-Her.”

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5. Is It You?

This is the title track that the whole concept is built around. My idea while making this song for Get Your Whole Life was to spotlight the origin of the sounds on that album - which are up-tempo and electronic, but rooted in hip-hop production. *Note: almost all modern music is rooted in, or at least influenced by hip-hop. This is largely overlooked in electronic music (which is a deeper conversion).

So in the context of that album, I wanted the listener to think "is this still Conrad Clifton?" - but still vibe with it even if it's not their usual musical preference. And for day one listeners, I wanted them to think, "yo, is that HeadROC?" - and feel a level of pride in riding with me for so long.

From my own perspective, I was just testing the waters... To see if you could still rock with me, when I switched up the style. Like, "are we good? Still with me? Is it you? Ok bet! Let's get it."

6. Black Dynamite (I Am Smiling)

This song always makes me think of Blaxploitation films, like Super Fly, Dolemite and Cleopatra Jones. Since this was a nod to them, and it's been updated for a more modern audience, I named it after Michael Jai White's film Black Dynamite, which follows the same creative approach.

During the process of finalizing this album, I realized I needed an interlude to transition between songs, while adding cohesiveness of the overall project. I found the perfect movie clip from Coffy, starring Pam Grier. There's some cool action and dialog happening, but more importantly, the original song that I sampled is actually playing in this movie clip - so they end up flowing perfectly together. I love when stuff works out like that! I also love that you're presented with this strong female character, as we progress into the B-Side of the album, where things soften up, and get a little more soulful.

7. Out Here On My Own

Admittedly, I was a little emo when I made this. But whatever, I'm an artist, I'm allowed to be a little emo. I just remember that when I found this sample, the vocals really spoke to me at a time when I was feeling like no one really understood me - either as a creative, or as a young black man in America. But, "out here on my own, and I'm so all alone" is a statement that people from ALL backgrounds can relate to.

The musical progression, and the tone of the song, builds into more of a hopeful feeling. It may start a bit somber, but when the drums break down, leaving the keys, strings and soul clap - you get a sense that "everything will be ok." At least, that's what I wanted to feel.

8. wegotathinggoinon

I'm going for something a little more romantic, on this one. It's the flipside of those somber emotions from earlier. This is happiness - the joy of a new relationship, or just getting to know someone special. I always try to incorporate emotion and story into the music. Like a film score - you don't even need a vocalist to tell you what to think, or how to feel - it's just there already.

I also love the balance of opposing energies here. The drums remind me of Biggie's "Dead Wrong (feat. Eminem)," which is super masculine. But when I bring in the strings and piano, it softens it up, adding more feminine energy. Towards the end, I put in a short clip of a live rehearsal with a band I used to be in, called Cloud Fighter. Plus, I got my boy Mozartt Sutton to add a piano solo at the end. This helps to wrap up the song with a more organic, and personal tone.

9. I Want You!

This is actually an instrumental for a song I did with the homie TRIMM (who I collaborated with on "King Of Dope") and Esther Dean (from NBC's Songland & countless other hits). I'm sad the song never came out, because it was fire, but at least I have an opportunity to share the musical part of it.

With "I Want You," I wanted to bring together two worlds that, at the time were divided - traditional hip-hop and trap music (southern rap), specifically with the sample-heavy theme, the half-time rhythm, and running hi-hats. I never felt like they should be separate and living in Atlanta really taught me how those two worlds should coexist. Thirteen years later, I love how hip-hop has matured to include so many nuanced aspects of creativity.

I pulled in Mozartt Sutton again, to lace me with some keys on this one. And keeping with the theme of cohesiveness, you hear more of that reversed sampling technique from earlier in the album - it's introduced as the track switches up towards the end.

10. Bath Candles Is Lit

This is a song from my past, which bears a close resemblance to the way I make music now. There's multiple influences, from hip-hop and soul, to film sound design. With my love for experimental electronic music, I was starting to explore a future-bass-type sound, before if was even a thing. If you listen closely, you can hear 3 or 4 different kick sounds in the drum pattern.

The original sample comes from an iconic r&b family band (if you know who it is, DM me). Once I chopped and reversed this sample, I found myself mesmerized again. I would just zone out and listen to it on repeat. Listening that deep, you start to hear a subliminal melodic progression. So I followed that melody, as I added a few subtle musical elements. I like to leave songs open enough, so the listener can get lost in the music, and in their imagination.

I thought there was a sexual mood to this one, so I wanted to design more elements to support it. I asked a friend with a sexy German accent, to record a vocal intro for me, and then I added some bathing and water sounds. I wanted the listener to imagine that there's a beautiful nude woman, having a sensual moment in her bathtub, and this is her soundtrack.

Everyone loves a happy ending, lol. 

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