I Used to Love H.E.R.: Chris Testa (Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer)

The 53rd installment of I Used to Love H.E.R., a series in which artists/bloggers/writers discuss their most essential or favorite hip-hop albums and songs, comes from Los Angeles-based producer/mixer/engineer Chris Testa, who won three Grammys for his work on the Dixie Chicks’ 2006 album Taking the Long Way.

Chris’ resume is extensive, and he’s become the go-to guy for several Phoenix/Tempe bands, including Jimmy Eat World, Source Victoria, Kinch and Reubens Accomplice (2011 should be a big year).

I’ve pestered Chris for a while now about doing this, and it turned out to be worth the wait. Just when I thought that maybe he’d forgotten, he emailed me this obviously passionate post about an album he calls “hip-hop’s most creative record” – on the exact 19th anniversary (April 21, 1992) of its release, no less.

check your headBeastie Boys, Check Your Head
(Capitol, 1992)

I was high the first time I heard Check Your Head … in my friend’s car at a party in Jersey. He had bought it and was freaking on it. I remember walking down into the basement of this party and seeing him see me and stop the cassette player, hit eject, grab a cassette and say, “Dude, you gotta hear this!” We went out to his car, smoked one and I heard it for the fist time. It was so fresh … so FRESH. The first track was more creative than most full hip-hop records (although calling it hip-hop could just be limiting what it really is). It’s one of the funkiest records of all time. Completely done in their own style, taking a real understanding of the past and totally doing something new with it. I feel in some way every great hip-hop record is basically a tribute to yourself and how “bad” you are. They’re proving grounds, but it was really about how creative you can be that makes Check Your Head the top contender. The thing is that the Beasties got their groove, whether it’s programmed music, fully live, or just a DJ, but their decision to start playing more themselves (and the brilliant production of Mario Caldato Jr.) just enforced their style on all parts of the sounds. This was the first record where everything coming at you was them (any samples seem more like them sampling themselves, minus the super obvious ones). It was a huge leap into a totally different thing than anyone expected. Most people never even knew they played. It was awesome to see “Bass: MCA, Drums: Mike D and Gtr: Ad-Rock”. I didn’t know what to think … all I can remember was a state of disbelief that their playing was something they just hadn’t shown us yet. How often are you that surprised by what your favorite bands do? I have an answer – rarely ever. At the time I was heavily into all of the pioneers of funk like James Brown, Sly Stone, P Funk, the Meters and every other band that introduced the word to the deep groove. The Beastie Boys were just like a lot of their heros from the ’70s, innovators in their time by making something new of that past … they had it all together. If you look back now at their clothes, their guitars, their fucking drum heads for that matter … all totally new and different from what was going on at the time, yet a total homage to everything that was cool in the past. They were reinventing, and it was dope.

There’s so many things that the Beasties really innovated with Check Your Head. It’s hard to think of just one, so I’m going to break it down:

Their humor

I think one of the main things that everyone related to that existed through all of their records was their humor. Let’s face it: They were funny at shit. Just watch any video. It’s not easy to take something that’s initially funny and twist it into something cool, but they managed to do that all the time. I mean, “The Biz v. The Nuge”… I mean, Biz Markie was a decently big rap star at the time, but Ted Nugent, he had nothing going on. It’s almost like what Quentin Tarantino did with John Travolta. “Let’s pick the most underappreciated artist and hip people back onto them.” Who else would have put a Ted Nugent sample on their record? They pulled the greatest out of the most random people and references, like grabbing Jimmie Walker’s “Dy-No-Mite!” before anyone else did.

The shout-outs

Buddy Rich, Rufus Thomas, Bob Dylan, Minnie the Moocher, Grady Tate, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder – it’s the history of groundbreaking music

The lyrics

Lyrically I don’t think anyone ever really expected anything for the B Boys after their first record, but they did introduce a lot of people to Buddhism on this record with Yauch’s track Namaste. Their wise-ass-ness from the first two records seemed to turn into intelligent sarcasm with style, and is it me or is “Funky Boss” really “Fuck Your Boss”?

The message

The message was straight off an early Sly and the Family Stone record. Stand Together, Time for Livin’, Gratitude, Namaste – bringing people together and paying thanks, almost non-existent in hip-hop music today. Their group camaraderie made them seem like a gang. Almost all hip-hop acts at the beginning were groups, not solo artists. The Beastie Boys continued that tradition. The Ghetto Boys, Public Enemy, NWA, the Furious Five, Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, Cypress Hill, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest – all groups that fed off each other, respected each other, wrote songs and rhymes with each of the other guys in mind. in order to share the wealth you need to have respect and to give room to others and collaborate on views and opinions. The mentality today in rap is virtually incapable of doing that … collaborating requires skill as well.

The sonics

Sonically it was an entirely different thing than they had done and, by far, miles apart from any hip-hop record of the time – distortion, delays, spooky reverbs, percussion, mixed-up samples. It took Paul’s Boutique to a higher yet rawer level … way more stoner. It combined everything in hip-hop, rock, punk and funk, something that had never been done before. The record was made with DATs, four-tracks, two-inch tape, cassettes and anything else that they could record to. Sonically it was super creative without ever really caring about how it sonically sounded – as long as it grooved and had attitude it was kept.

Their studio

The Beastie Boys were so far ahead of anyone with the creation of their own studio, G-Son Studios. No one had their own studio in 1992. Well, maybe some very famous session musicians or someone like Neil Young, but certainly no rock bands and definitely no hip-hop groups. They realized early on (and supposedly their decision to create their own place came out of the massive expense of Paul’s Boutique, the studio time and the sample clearance) that they needed a spot to relax and find their own groove and sound without worrying about the clock, a concept most people didn’t get into until about 10 years later. The whole record was recorded and mixed there. It was punk hip-hop, especially since it was in a shitty part of town in a building that they couldn’t even start recording in until 6 p.m.

The tracks

The standout tracks in my mind were almost too many to list. That’s why the record is so great. They’re all standout tracks – every one.

It was one of those records that made you feel more like a badass when you listened to it. It’s one of those few records that make you feel stoned even when you’re not. And if you are, shit, it’s way better. It sounds as fresh today as it did that night in Jersey sitting in that car hearing it for the first time.

5 thoughts on “I Used to Love H.E.R.: Chris Testa (Grammy Award-winning producer/engineer)”

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