It’s the first official day of Fall in NYC, but Summer has yet to relinquish her temperate embrace on The Big Apple. The sun is setting on a section of Brooklyn where no roses are growing from the concrete and the relatively warm breeze kicks up the smell of decay. The wild grass stubbornly protruding from the cracks in the sidewalk is fertilized with broken glass and cigarette butts. Decrepit textile factories tattooed with Krylon ink stand sentry as a reminder of what is yet to be gentrified. It is amidst this backdrop that Detroit producer Apollo Brown has chosen to shoot the video for his single “Neva Eva,” a brazen track from his first compilation album, Grandeur, featuring his friends and Brooklyn natives, Skyzoo and Torae. Director Jay Brown shadows the Barrel Brothers as they verbally fill the air with their defiance: “Never penned the verses filler/My shit is stellar though/But Hov ain’t telling y’all, so you never know.” It’s about 600 miles from Apollo’s midwest home but this captures the mood precisely.
“If I was in Detroit right now this would be the type of spot I’d pick to shoot,” Apollo explains when the shoot is done. We’ve taken up temporary residence in a booth at a nearby restaurant called Tutu’s. It’s so clean and friendly it could be a world away from the shoot locale, but is only a few blocks around the corner. “I’m so blue collar and it’s such an industrial area here in Bushwick. We had cement trucks behind us and it was dusty. I wanted that feel. I like that.” When asked what the comparable spot in Detroit would be he answers, “Detroit! The whole city. You could shoot a video anywhere in Detroit. But that’s how I like it. It’s organic to me. I don’t like clean stuff. I don’t like clean beats, clean videos. It’s not me. It’s not who I am.”
Apollo Brown–a name he adopted in a moment of desperation while registering for a beat battle– originally hails from Grand Rapids, Michigan, but relocated to Detroit in 2003 after graduating from college. It was in that same year that he began making music professionally, though he’d been making beats since the late 90s. With no beat machine or turntables at his disposal he took a sound editing program on Windows ’95 called Voyetra and bent it to his will. He then graduated to a mixing program called Cool Edit and acquired a Roland SP-50 to play bass lines. He’d literally cut and paste beats with about thirty browser windows open to orchestrate his dirty sound. It’s an unconventional method that he employs to this day.
“I’m still using old programs with beat up speakers and Windows XP,” he confesses. “Cool Edit is only compatible up to Windows XP. That’s five or six operating systems ago. I have three different PCs because they crash. I wipe ‘em and rotate em. But I know how to manipulate it and make it sound good. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But it’s about to be broke, because the way I make music is soooo obsolete now. It’s a tedious process. I have Maschine but I haven’t really put it use. Native Instruments gave me one at A3C a few years ago but I haven’t really used it. I’m not a fan of change and having to take a hiatus to relearn something sounds like more hassle to me but I’m gonna have to soon. The way I produce is becoming obsolete so I’m gonna have to change it up. I’m not going to change up my style and my sound but the WAY that I do it. There are only but so many XP CDs you can rotate or get off eBay.”
Apollo’s loyalty to his process is understandable. Since 2010 he’s released a staggering fifteen projects. Grandeur is his twelfth with Arizona based label Mello Music Group, who he enjoys a strong working relationship with. Thanks to instrumental projects like The Reset, and .38 and collaborative albums like Dice Game with Guilty Simpson, Blasphemy with Ras Kass, Trophies with O.C. and Words Paint Pictures with Rapper Big Pooh, Brown has sustained a career outside of the Matrix, serving up filtered low-fi vibes both stateside and overseas building a trustworthy brand of ’90s New York influenced, sample-based hip-hop.
“I’ve been making a living at this since January 2010. That’s why I put so many albums out. If you don’t work, you don’t eat. If you don’t work you don’t stay relevant. If you take a little bit of a hiatus somebody is waiting to pick you off and take your spot. I don’t want the output to be that high. I don’t want to make two albums per year. I’d rather make one album per year and be good but it’s not the ’90s anymore. You can’t make an album and sit on it for three years. There’s too many artists and producers out here now. The access is so easy. You don’t have to have a label or equipment to make a song. You don’t even have to have a platform, just post it on Soundcloud and you’re in the industry.”
But as any music fan or neophyte artist can tell you, simply putting your wares out on the market isn’t enough to get it consumed. Two things come into play; the quality of your art and a head for business. The former has not been an issue for Apollo thus far.
“Apollo’s ear is what makes him special as a producer,” says Skyzoo. “Being able to find certain loops and chops, rare and abstract digging, and being able to turn anything into grit. Regardless of the loop, he can make it sound like pure gritty hip hop. It’s a true science within itself.” Torae adds, “As a person, Apollo is a stand up dude. Very honest and loyal. In this business you come across a lot of suckers, liars, opportunists etc. Apollo is the total opposite.”
On the business side Apollo is very realistic about his standing in the game but is very in tune with the niche fanbase he has carved out for himself. His analog era sensibilities extend beyond his music. He knows that part of creating permanence in the game is literally giving the people something they can feel, and that’s where his label comes in.
“Obviously with the music I make there is a glass ceiling. I could see up there but it’s real hard and I probably won’t be able to break through it. But I enjoy where I’m at right now. I think me being any bigger than I am right now might cause problems for me. People thrive off digital sales but I’m old school, I like tangible product. I like to have things in my hand and read ‘em. CDs are going away but I still pump out CDs because there are a lot of us still driving 1998 cars or 2001 cars that have CD players in them. If you have a Playstation or XBox you can play ‘em on there. Depending on the project I even pump out tapes. They sell out but I think they just like to have [them]. It’s a novelty product. You can go into Best Buy and see vinyl on the shelf. There’s a demand for it. I know people domestically and overseas that only buy vinyl, so I’ll always include vinyl as part of my package. I like having those formats. You limit yourself if you only have one format.”
Looking at Apollo Brown it’s kind of easy to understand why he loves vinyl. He is a walking, talking record in his own way. To experience that warm, vintage sound the record has to be kept clean. Dust is actually the enemy. Record collectors go through great lengths to preserve the platters to keep the music playable. In the same way he is adorned in a pristine crimson hoody, gold chain and Detroit Tigers fitted pulled so low you can barely see his eyes. His wheat Timbs barely have a scuff on them. His goatee’s line-up is damn near surgical. It could be in a geometry textbook. He’s the cleanest grimiest motherfunker you ever did see.
“You know how those pretty dudes try to make themselves dirty on purpose?” Ras Kass jokes. “That’s Apollo.”
Apollo insists that his Timbs “have a few scuffs on ‘em” but residual self-image is something he is very cognizant of, hence the title of the album.
“The concept of like ‘delusions of grandeur’ is seeing yourself differently than other people see you. Looking in the mirror and see a lion but you’re really a little cat. That’s delusions. And grandeur is like the upper echelon, the peak, the culmination of everything. And I always do every album like it’s my last album. If I could leave hip-hop or die tomorrow or went deaf I am happy with my catalogue. This is the culmination of what was before it. This is the first compilation. It’s been a while and the fans have been wanting it but I had to choose the right time. That’s kind of why I named it that.”
Grandeur boasts an eclectic supporting cast of Oddisee, Ras Kass, Masta Ace, Rapper Big Pooh and newer voices like Your Old Droog and Westside Gunn. The lead single “Detonate” features M.O.P. and came about during his work with Lil Fame on his remix of Ghostface’s 12 Reasons To Die. Brown has been questioned in the past about his predisposition for working with old school MCs and his reasoning is pretty simple.
“I like working with tried and true. I don’t have to babysit these MCs. These are legends man. They’re professional and they’re gonna churn out a good product. I think my beats are dope, so if I have these MCs that can spit I’m going to be confident we’ll make a good song together.”
It’s this reason why Apollo finds kindred spirits in young veterans like Skyzoo and Tor, who he’s toured with on several occasions and provided the beat for “Got If From Here” from their Barrel Brothers debut.
“Skyzoo and Torae are amazing solo MCs that come together to make an amazing collective. Great guys man. If you can hang out with anybody in the industry it would be these guys. They know what hard work is and they’re talented. I grew up on East Coast hip-hop. It was about bubble gooses and Timberlands. That’s where my sound comes from. Everyone always asks me about J Dilla but it’s always been about DJ Premier for me. And it’s sad that I can’t get that from the East Coast anymore. They’re almost the last of a dying breed with east coast hip-hop. They’re still putting on for that.”
Sadly, Apollo’s last statement is not mere hyperbole, as we find ourselves only a month or so removed from the untimely passing of Brooklyn rhyme legend Sean Price, who leaves his eternal knuckle prints on Grandeur’s “Yesman Shit.”
“We made that song not too long ago. Just a few months back. It was cool that he would do that for me. We’d met a few times and talked on the phone. We’d discussed making an album together but the whole “is it going be on Mello Music Group or Duck Down or as a joint project?” got it put to the way side. He was a busy dude, always doing something. One of the most revered MCs in the game, braggadocio at its finest. I had talked to him just a week before his passing. He enjoyed himself and had a lot of fun. I’m glad to have made music with him on a few occasions. I was in bed at home when I found out. I gotta text from my cousin and it was more of a question, ‘Sean P died?’ So next step is going to social media and I see it. I was like woah. After that happened I got on the phone with Mike from Mello, he doesn’t just run the label, he’s one of my best friends. And we talked about having more fun with this.”
Apollo had a baby girl in 2014 and he practically glows when you ask him about his daughter. The family man is known amongst his peers to be that guy on tour in the hotel lobby Skyping with his wife because that’s where the wifi signal is strongest. He’s gotten just as much parenting advice from DJ Premier as production advice and it’s put a lot of things in perspective.
“These days I find myself getting more stressed, getting anxiety over what I’m doing and not doing. It’s not as fun anymore. It’s become a job and music has become secondary. I can’t let it do that. I want to get back to loving all the music I make and not worrying so much about the business aspect of it. I don’t want to care about that anymore. Obviously this is my livelihood but all in all that will come. I should be more worried about not catching an ulcer, eating right and being present for my family. Having fun with my career so I’m not stressed at home. Come back to earth. Sean P passing reminded me that life is short.”
Working to maintain a proper work/life balance is important to Apollo. So while you may hear some producers brag about making a gang of beats per day, he maintains a realistic pace.
“If I can make four beats a week I’m good. My whole thing is four beats a week, 16 beats a month. That’s an album’s worth of beats per month. I don’t need to make more than that. That’s an album right there. As long as I can stay on that pace I’m alright. And I have back catalogue. I made beats for 10 years before I even showed anybody what I was doing. From 1996 to 2007 I was a bedroom beat maker just stockpiling beats. So I have a back catalogue of all kinds of stuff.”
Part of his artistic evolution may be branching into R&B, which only makes sense considering where so much of his source material originates.
“I’m so into that because I really do want to switch genres for a minute. I’ve been making a lot of soul stuff and it’s about finding the right singer that could compliment my music. Remember when What’s the 411 came out, everyone was puzzled because they weren’t traditional R&B beats. Those were hip-hop tracks. And to be able to sing over a hip-hop track takes a special person. I like raspy Anthony Hamilton types of voices. Like Bilal can do it. But I make grimy, rugged stuff. They’ll probably listen to it and say they can’t make love to that, but I think it could work. It’s definitely gonna be niche but I think it would go off well. And I wouldn’t alienate my fans. I think I can do it within the next year and half. It’s a whole different process too because singers need more time to write. An MC can write a 16-bar verse in 10 minutes but you can’t do that with a singer. They gotta harmonize and use counter melodies. It’ll take a little longer but on the flip side it’ll be a shorter album. You’re not making a 17-track album.”
But in the meantime his fans will keep getting double doses of his special brand of boom-bap. The software might change and he may have to find new ways to crank out the boom around the baby’s sleep cycle but he will keep raging against the machine one dirty kick at a time.
“I have a good track record and I don’t tend to disappoint. Not trying to toot my own horn but if I can stay consistent I can have longevity in this game. When I finish a beat and I listen to it over and over for an hour and I feel it in my body, that’s the motivation. I made that. Whether it took me four hours or four days, I made that.”