Handbook - Beats, Times, and Life
Handbook is one of those beatmakers/producers that I love to champion. His work ethic is insane and his output is consistent to his brand. I first discovered Handbook back in 2011 while perusing Bandcamp for standout tracks to use on a project I was working on at the time. His signature sound stood out which says a lot considering he made his very first beat in 2010 with an initial setup of an MPC1000, MicroKorg, and a pair of headphones.
He describes his first beat ever made as “Sketchy as anything. It was called ‘The River’ and contained a sloppy sample of a Bobbi Humphrey track (perhaps ‘Harlem River Drive’) and I think, the drums from Led Zeppelin’s ‘When the Levee Breaks’. A truly jarring flip and horrendous quality recording. Static and all sorts of mess tangled up in the track.”
Fast forward a year later and I stumble across an intriguing flip of a Barry Manilow sample (or might have been Paul Davis...not sure) which I still play to this day. The York based beatmaker gives off a kind of soulfulness that keeps your head on auto-nod the entire two minutes plus through each beat.
Since your initial equipment setup, what has changed?
(At first) I didn’t even have a desk and just made beats on my bed. It took me a little while to work out how to even get the tracks off the MPC. My setup has totally changed since and I now use a Maschine Studio, Laptop, Yamaha HS8 monitors, MIDI keyboard and guitars, basses etc.
The beat scene has seem to become a bit oversaturated as of recent. What is your approach to standing out and maintaining your drive?
Just a bit! Standing out is the hard part. It’s working hard to refine and expand your core sound. You’ll end up taking bits from different artists and coming up with a formula that is “your sound”. Effective curation also helps to hone in on your specific sound, which is a difficult process because working out what your sound means looking for a combination of musical elements that doesn’t exist, but if you’re determined, it’s easier. As for maintaining drive, that’s easy: having a passion for creating music. If you have that, you have drive.
Your early material was soul sample vocal heavy, while I notice your newer work balances synth and sample. Is that intentional or does it depend on the project?
It’s an absolutely conscious effort. A soul based beat can be easy to do. You find 5-10 seconds of pure soul joy, loop it, maybe chop it up, slap a beat on it and you’re there. Fusing that core sample with an auxiliary sample or two, a rich bassline and some complementary synth work is a lot harder, and much closer to an art form. When you operate like that, you’ve been far more creative and people are likely to say “oh, he sounds like whoever” or “she has that blah blah vibe.”
What is the most surprising feedback you have received on some of your work?
That’s a really tricky question to answer as I receive feedback all the time in various forms. When I started sharing music I was genuinely surprised by the range of responses and the passion behind them. People pick up on so many different things that are in one’s music, which again ties into finding your distinctive sound. I guess that’s probably the most surprising thing: that people continuously pick up on things in your music that you missed during the 100+ times you looped the track whilst creating it.
Explain your process for creating a beat. Do you lay your drums first or melody? Do you mix while you create?
I approach tracks in a variety of ways, depending on how I’m going about it. If it’s heavily sample-based, I get the sample in order, chopped and arranged how I want it, then drums come next, bass and then the range of sounds and effects. After the track is arranged, then the mixing begins...
What was the first song (or beat) you heard that made you say “I want to be a part of hip hop”? Where were you when you heard it?
Hmmm, hard to pin down, but I have a strong feeling it’s J Dilla-centric. When I heard ‘The Shining’ album, I was so moved. It evoked something within me, and drove me to work out how this one dude was creating all these magnificent tracks. I was most likely still at my Mum’s house, working out what sort of direction my life was heading in during my early 20s - certainly didn’t expect this trajectory.
Let’s talk artists for a second. Who are your top three wishlist artists (artists you would like to work with)?
OK, OK. I think I can do this. (Old) Kanye, Chance The Rapper, Sinead Harnett. (Really tough decision there)
Tell us a bit about your relationship with Supreme Sol. How did that relationship form and build with him being located in the United States?
Soundcloud had a crucial role in helping Sol and I making a connection and discovering each other’s work. I heard a project he made (it was called something like ‘100 bars’) and I thought ‘is this guy for real? Is he doing this?’ An undeniable talent and I’m proud to have worked with him on so many projects. The internet has made all of that possible.
What affect does living in York have on your creativity (be it negative or positive)?
Very little really. I suppose it’s negative because there aren’t many artists that I’m aware of who inspire me. There have been some, Bambooman for example, and a few brilliant guys from the Nez Perce collective who ran some great beats nights a couple of years ago. I guess the city itself has this quaint feel which maybe influences my sound, but I would say the travels I’ve been on have influenced me more.
When you aren’t making beats, what are you doing? How do you balance life and art?
There are the few normal things, such as spending time with friends and family, as well as working. Beyond that, I am studying for an English Literature and Language degree. Most of my time revolves around music - if I’m not making it, I’m discovering new music and listening to a vast selection of different sounds. Jazz, Rock, Classical - you name it.
Outside of music, what inspires you to create?
I’m not sure really. Emotions I’m feeling. Events that happen. I’ve been through some difficult experiences recently, which initially left me unable to create anything, but then inspired me to create more than I ever have. I wrote an album of beats the other weekend, which may or may not surface sometime soon.
If you could go back in time, what would you say to the 16 year old version of yourself?
So so much. I’d tell him to get his haircut straight way. I’d tell him that life gets so much better and to stop worrying so much about EVERYTHING. I’d tell him life doesn’t get interesting til your mid twenties. I’d certainly tell him that he will eventually grow decent facial hair (currently waiting for 40 year old me to visit me and confirm this.)
Who would we be surprised to find out you listen to? In other words, what’s the most embarrassing piece of music right now in your library?
Great question. I suppose it wouldn’t be obvious that I love artists like Slayer and Motorhead. Or that I enjoy Chopin, or that I like Ska/Reggae sounds. I do enjoy chart fodder too occasionally. Most embarrassing track? I have a Bahah Men’s ‘Who Let The Dogs Out?’ on CD single. I sang that all the time when I was 11. That’s embarrassing to think of, even now - my poor parents.
Speaking of artists, do you prefer to work alone creating beats or producing songs with artists? Why?
When producing, I like to do all the work myself if I can. It’s just more straightforward. However, I do love working with fellow producer Hugh Fothergill, who is a genius, and making big moves currently. We were in a band at school and have a strong creative connection - he lives in London, so we don’t get many opportunities to create together.
That recurring dream you have...what is it about?
Man, it is always about teeth falling out. I think that means worry in general (although I do worry about my teeth falling out anyway). I went to the dentist recently to get them checked and they’re fine, but I still get the dreams!?
What sound do you love?
Just one? I can’t do it. It’s impossible. You see I love the sound of a harp on an old jazz or soul record - but that is accentuated by the hiss or crackle of the recording. A snare sounds so good because it’s contrasting with the kick. The sound of rain is amazing, but is made even better by whatever it happens to land on.
What plug-in, sound(s), or sample pack can’t you live without?
Native Instruments sound bank is vital, and even picking one of those is tricky.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Freelance painter. In an ideal, romanticised world, I would love to be a successful painter, based in a cool Parisian apartment above a bakery. I would paint canon-shifting pieces that look beautiful in a museum or in a hipster’s home. If I had the skills, that’s how I’d ideally pay the bills.
What would you like to improve upon as a beatmaker?
The musicality of my tracks. I can’t read music particularly well, and my knowledge of music theory is basic. I should do something about that, and when the time is right, I will.
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