By Anupa Mistry
It’s been six years since Scratch — aka Kyle Jones — released a solo album. Best known for his work with the Roots, Scratch got his start beatboxing on tracks with the Grammy-winning hip-hop band. Since releasing his debut record, 2002’s The Embodiment of Instrumentation — an album filled with mind-bending vocal manipulation — he’s continued to tour with the Roots, travelled across Africa with Blur’s Damon Albarn and found out he’s going to be a father. Exclaim! caught up with the hip-hop catchall to talk about his latest album Loss 4 Wordz, an eclectic compilation album that features a rote of equally eclectic guests (from Albarn to M.O.P.) guesting over Scratch’s mouth made beats.
How’s it going?
I’m doing good, I just got finished cooking dinner.
What’d you make?
I made fried chicken, corn and coconut rice. I used to be a sous chef. I always knew music was my life but when you’re trying to get by, you’ve got to pay bills. So that’s pretty much what I did: work in the kitchen. I started off as a dishwasher and worked my way up the front. The executive chef there graduated from the number one school in the country so when he took me under his wing I was like “Bam!” I’m in good shape.
You took a six-year break in between your last record and now. How does it feel to have an album out?
I’m really excited about the whole thing because it took some time to put the record together after dealing with the ups and downs. I’m really excited that it’s finally about to see some light.
What ups and downs did you have?
One was just finding a label home for the record. And then once I achieved that, during recording it was about trying to get everyone scheduled and situated because Kanye’s a busy man and Damon Albarn and Talib Kweli. All these different artists that got down on the record were on completely different schedules than mine. By the time we were ready to record, it was like “Okay! I gotta fly where to do it?” It took two and a half years and I recorded 40-something songs.
Let’s rewind for a minute and talk about how you got into hip-hop in the first place and, more specifically, beatboxing.
Music has always been a part of me ever since I was a kid. I’ve been doing music since I was a kid and have always been fascinated with it. When I got older I started vocally doing it: basically reciting what I would hear off the radio. I never did it around people because I was too nervous, but when I finally started doing it around friends they were like “Yo! You need to do something with that.” And so I just kept pursuing it. Any time I had a chance to get in front of a microphone, I just got on.
You’re known as a producer, MC, beatboxer and DJ, but how would you classify yourself?
When you say beatboxer it limits me. Somebody who is not familiar with it is just going to think about someone making sounds with their mouth. I would say ‘musician magician’ [laughs]. That’s one of the best ways to give a description of what I do. I do everything so it’s hard to pin it down. People say he’s one third this, one third that, but I would just label myself as an artist of many statures.
Explain how Loss 4 Wordz came about.
Well, the first time around was a very experimental venture in comparison to stuff that I had done previously with other artists and my group. So that’s why I gave the first album an experimental name, The Embodiment of Instrumentation, because that’s what it was: an experiment, to see if people would take to it. And then, when the record sold close to 40,000 copies without really any promotion whatsoever, that’s when I thought if people are digging it I could really sit down and put something together that really makes sense. And, after that it was just getting with different artists that I’m friends with. I came up with the title two days before my first album dropped. It’s really hard to explain my music to people when they actually hear it. They like the songs but they have no idea how the song was created. When they hear it, they say “whoa.” And I also didn’t just put out a hip-hop or R&B record. And instead of just going in the studio and being repetitive like the way the market is now, I’m trying to create something groundbreaking as well as new and refreshing to the market instead of the same old, same old.
This record sounds a lot less organic than your first. Did you use more instrumentation or was there more manipulation of sound?
Some of it is a manipulation of sound and then I added more instrumentation than I did on the first record because I didn’t want people to get bored. The attention span of people nowadays is ten to 15 seconds. If you don’t grab them in that period of time, they’re not going to want to listen anymore. So for example (on “Too Late”) Damon Albarn played the upright piano and we had a nine-piece orchestra playing with us. That is what gave it a different edge instead of me just going in there, making sounds and having someone rap or sing along with the track. It was a building experience, starting from ground zero and working our way up to make a skyscraper.
On this record you’ve got everyone from Talib Kweli to Kanye West to Daniel Bedingfield. How do you work with your collaborators?
Each track was done in different ways. Damon and I did “Too Late” together. The song with Musiq Soulchild (“Tonite”) I worked with an up and coming producer doing different rhythms and he added keyboard on top of it. After the track was done, the first thing that came to my mind was getting Musiq to sing on it because he was the only person I could hear on it. Actually, initially, I was thinking of him or Snoop to be on it because it has a little bit of a funkadelic vibe. But that’s how I went about it: some tracks I would make in the studio before I would present to the artist because I felt as though it would be the perfect marriage with the artist. Some artists I worked with. With Kanye, I called him up and the next day he came down to the studio at my house with Consequence and we cut the vocals that day.
Even though you’ve got all of these collaborators, the end result has your name on it. How can you express what you feel through your work even though you’re not rapping or singing?
I do a little bit of songwriting, adding on to what somebody is doing. Or sometimes I give direction. On the next album I plan to be more vocal on the hooks, but I don’t want to totally just jump out there when people aren’t ready for that yet. I’m gradually working to that point. Before, I just didn’t think the time was right for it. I just didn’t think my voice was perfected enough to broadcast itself like that. I thought this is the time to just fall back and let people who have mastered their craft do what they do best, and I’ll do what I do best and make something that’s unified and has a tight sound rather than us being too experimental and losing control.
Who is in control?
I’m basically in control. The artist I’m working with, they bring what they have. They bring the best out of me and I bring the best out of them. Kanye brought the best out of me because that song is 100 percent vocals: there are no instruments in that song at all, he really pushed me to the limit. And it was the same with Damon Albarn, he pushed me to the limit.
How’d you hook up with Damon anyway?
We hung out a couple of times in London, and I said it would be great to work together. I joined this movement called African Express that he started where we went to Mali, Guinea, Congo, Nigeria… basically to uplift African musicians, instead of contributing to the media image of Africa that it’s so hard out there. So we’re trying to show the good that’s coming out of there. So throughout that project that we’ve been doing for the last three years, we also got in the studio. There’s also a Gorillaz movie that’s in post-production right now and I’m going to be doing something in that as well.
I had no idea that you travelled across Africa. What’d you see?
It’s amazing to see people who have so much less than what we have and still be happy. And the music influentially is innovative for somebody who has never heard anything like that. And they’re also using homemade instruments to create songs! It’s almost a spiritual movement, and the setting of listening to somebody who doesn’t have much with all of this talent. It makes me just go “Wow, you should be [the one] with a record deal. Not me!” It was a touching and experimental and spiritual experience that I thank Damon for bringing me along on, because he didn’t have to. We went and visited more places again and Massive Attack came out, De La Soul came along and some others like Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The way you describe the places you went sounds almost like the passion that comes out of Philly musicians. What’s up with Philly producing such prolific artists?
It started from way back with Patti LaBelle. Hall and Oates came from Philly and Teddy Pendergrass too. The talent and the atmosphere have always been there, but it’s about having an outlet for that talent to be seen and heard. When you’re in Philly, there are so many people with talent that still haven’t been heard yet. There are all these different jam sessions and things going on and people are getting up on stage and perfecting their craft each week. Back in the day, we had Roots jam sessions and one for the females called Black Lily.
Everybody looks after everybody. For example, a lot of artists that came out of Philly in the last ten years came out through the Roots. Eve’s first appearance was on “You Got Me,” Beanie Segal was on the song “Adrenaline.” Peedi Crakk, even though he’s with State Property, kept his name flying around because he was working with the Roots on their last two albums.
You were part of the Roots crew from about ‘98 to 2003…
I’m still part of the Roots crew. I did shows last year with them, as well as Rock the Vote, and on the last album (Rising Down) I redid the scratches for “Get Busy.” All I’ve got to do is make a phone call. When you say the Roots a person identifies with that, but when you name the artist it gets more difficult. If you say ?uestlove, you know who he is because he has that landmark of a big afro and being a big guy and smacking those drums up. And if you say Black Thought, you know him because he’s a lyricist and a great MC and he’s out there. If you say Kamal from the Roots, it’s harder but you still identify because he has the Roots name attached to him. That’s the same for me. So that’s what this process is about: to be able to say my name and you automatically know who that is.
The Roots are constantly touring and recording. When you were working more intensively with them, what did you get out of the experience?
If it wasn’t for the Roots I wouldn’t be in the position that I’m in right now. Working with them was like having a big brother and becoming a person that could be better focussed in learning the industry. I had Ahmir (?uestlove) and Tariq (Black Thought) to show me the do’s and not do’s of the game, and to make me a better artist and a better performer each time I touched the stage or got behind the mic or worked in the studio with them. It’s all about perfection when it comes to working in the studio with them, so they helped me step my game up. As soon as I finished the record I went and played it for them and they were like “Yo, alright cool!” So when they gave me the stamp of approval it made me feel better than just putting the record out and them going “Aw Scratch, why’d you do that?” I’m proud to be a part of the number one hip-hop band in the world, to have that status and get a Grammy and plaques through them. It’s a privilege.
So if you can just call them up, does that mean we’ll see you on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon soon?
We don’t know because of my schedule. I can get on whenever I want. It’s never a thing where it’s like “No! Not Scratch!” [laughs]
I also read that you’re judging the World Beatbox Championship in Berlin at the end of May. Is it important for you to stay connected to that community?
I would never go astray because a lot of those people who are performing look up to me because they see how far I got from just beatboxing. I was with my fiancé, walking around in this big house and I was like “Yo! I got this from beatboxing!” And even Kanye, when he saw my house and studio, he was like “Yo! You did all this from beatboxing? You weren’t selling drugs or anything?” [laughs] So, that all being said I would never go astray from the up and coming because there’s so much talent out there and I could learn from them and they can learn from me.