Doctor Zygote: a journey into sound with Boot Records’ creative architect.
If you ask me which has been the most interesting (borderline awe-inspiring, actually) Hip-Hop act that came out on the international scene in the last decade or so, probably the first name I’m gonna say is that of Strange U.
Does it ring a bell? If not, you either don’t like Hip-Hop or you only follow the charts. Either way, what we are here to discuss today is the musical mastermind behind that project: Doctor Zygote, or Dr. Zygote, if you fancy.
These days, among other things, he’s the counterpart to King Kashmere’s lyrical prowess, to put it simply, but there’s much more than that. The funkiest and most informed of you may probably remember Strange U’s debut LP4080 from a couple of years ago, maybe?
Although the Doctor’s name as such is not really well-known outside England (or, to be blunt, it is criminally overlooked, like many other non-American beat-smiths and music producers), his career spans over almost three decades and crosses different genres and styles of music production.
Over the years, the experimentation with different influences and sounds has always been an essential element of his creative process, and distinctive to his sound.
I remember Dr. Zygote first as half of a production duo, alongside his partner Jazz T. They were part of the underground supergroup Diversion Tactics: their cult classic debut “Pubs, Drunks And Hip-Hop” could be easily considered as one of the UK’s most interesting albums of the early TwoThou’s.
In 1999, he and Jazz T also started a small independent label, Boot Records, mostly as a vehicle to release their own beats, with several other projects that piled up over the years. Have a look at the label’s catalog to catch a glimpse of what is lurking in the shadows of UK’s Hip Hop – and check also Zoot Records, Boot’s offshoot label. You probably won’t be surprised to find also some Senz Beats in their coming catalogue.
The idea of “weird” and “odd experiments” in music production: Dr. Zygote’s recipe.
Doctor Zygote is one of those producers that remain firmly anchored to his own idea of music, despite everything. He’s well capable of odd experiments, noodling about sound and vibes, but, as far as I see it, always with a peculiar taste, refusing to pander the cyclical currents of what the taste of the moment offers.
Plus, not only he sometimes dabbles with real instruments, which leads to tracks produced with almost-to-none samples, but under the moniker The Maghreban he also produces dance music (a glimpse of what he is up to recently could be found browsing the Doctor’s own Soundcloud page).
In all honesty, I can hardly find something more fit to be called “weird” than Strange U’s overall atmosphere and soundscapes, with maybe the notable and, in a way, commendatory exception of Kool Keith. Other than King Kashmere’s poignant lyrics, the merit is of those uniquely dark-but-grand instrumental sceneries that the Doctor delivers effortlessly.
In fact, as Strange U has recently published two new epic (and somewhat Merovingian, let me say) songs on vinyl, a dope double-sided 45 rpm single, we strongly advise you to go get it!
Doctor Zygote was so kind to have a brief palaver with us, opening the boxes of his production expertise and musical creativity, so take notes and…keep experimenting!
Hello Dr., thanks for being with us. Let’s start from the beginning of your musical journey. Can you remember what was your first beat, either sold or placed?
I cannot remember really! I think maybe the first beat I placed with an emcee who was outside our crew could have been one myself and Jazz T made, and we gave it to Kashmere for a track called “Drunken Style” on his “Raiders of the Lost Archives” album.
How long did it take you to produce something that you were proud of, once you began messing with samplers and machines?
I started producing in 1993 and had my first record out in 1994, and I was proud of that. That was a jungle record. So pretty quickly I think, not too long.
What is your favourite production set-up to this day?
At the moment, it’s Ableton Live as my sampler and sequencer. I’ve been through many setups: Akai S01 with a Mac running Opcode Easy Vision Sequencer, then upgraded to an Akai S1000, then started using Cakewalk to sequence on a PC, then got an AKAI S5000. Then onto all-in-the-box with Logic 5.5.1 on the PC, Logic on a Mac, and then now Ableton Live. This has to be my favourite. It’s so quick. I’ve got a small desk and a couple of bits of outboard and some synths which all help, but in the main, it’s all in the box, and sampling.
What is the best digging advice, if any, that you’ve received from someone ever?
The best advice I got from someone else? I guess like a few names of people to check for, from some people who came before me. Like someone passed me a record and said “Check the drums on this”, or told me about a particular bass player that was good, to look out for, or a good label. Jazz T showed me a lot early on, and then we learnt a lot together. My advice to someone else would be: “Listen to the shit, cheap records, there’s always a sound somewhere”.
Is there any producer, in the last 3 months, that made you say: “Oh, shit, I have to go back to the lab!”?
On a hip-hop level, I rate Sumgii. I rate Beat Butcha.
What is the worst production mistake you’ve ever made, in your opinion?
Overcompressing drums sometimes in the past before I learnt about parallel compression. Sometimes I sucked the life out of my drums that way. Always learning still.
Let’s get it home: one essential mixing tip from the Doctor, and we’re off.
See above. Now I mix into a bus compressor “Glue Compressor” on Ableton and put a good RMS meter on the master chain so I can see when I am not getting enough dynamics. I try and preserve as much natural dynamics as I can. So, I won’t compress the drums other than the mix bus compressor, unless they need beefing up, in which case I will smash them through parallel compression, and add that in until I get the desired heft.