Strictly Business: The Alchemist

When it comes to the art of making and selling hip-hop beats, few can compare with Alan Maman, aka Alchemist. For starters, the 25-year-old producer is a workaholic. “As long as I’m not on the road or out doing things, I’m home in the zone. I make beats all day,” he confirms. “I make ’em, erase ’em. You know what I mean? I got to get in the zone to start making that shit.”

Countless joints bore Alchemist’s imprint in 2001, from hit singles like Jadakiss’ “We Gonna Make It” and backpacker favorites such as Dilated Peoples’ “Worst Comes To Worst” to solid album tracks for the late Big Pun and Fat Joe. Each offered a variation on his signature gangster theme music: foreboding, ominous piano keys and guitars played against string orchestras, sparking mental images of sun ‘n’ guns straight out of a ’70s action drama. Irrepressibly grimy and unquestionably potent, Alchemist’s tracks tend to crawl along midtempo BPMs as their thugged-out accompanists spit the latest slanguage.

In contrast to the high drama of his beats, though, is the drudgery of maintaining a successful career as an in-demand producer. More than making beats, it requires shopping them to artists and signing contracts for their use, running sample clearances on the tracks if need be, and garnering enough contacts to ensure ongoing work. None of this, too, ensures the artist will use the final track on his album and/or single.

Appropriately, Alchemist tends to discuss his career in plainspoken business terms rather than impressionistic images, even when talking about the creative process. Identifiable sounds are “formulas”; beat-making skills are “techniques.”

“Every year, I pick up a new technique,” he says. “I listen to my beats two years ago and think, ‘I would have done this differently knowing what I know now.’ I’ve got certain stuff that I keep — techniques that I’ve had for five years — then there’s ones I picked up a year ago, like how to hook up the drums.”

Most of Alchemist’s tracks are cobbled together from stacks of wax he picks apart with his Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler, an instrument he’s shouted out so often in interviews, he jokes, “They’ve got to give me a couple of free keyboards.” “I just run through records. I’m not one of those collector cats,” he admits. “I dig. I got stuff. But most of the time I’m not like, ‘I need a mint copy.’ I can take a scratched-up copy.” These records vary from old jazz albums to an obscure Israeli record Alchemist used to make the beat Terror Squad’s “Bring It On.”

Evidence of Dilated Peoples, who has known Alchemist since their days attending high school in Malibu, California, speaks admiringly of Alchemist’s work habits. “He knows his place,” says Ev. “He’ll bop his head real hard and go through beats (for the artist to select), and then he’ll step away and let you do your thing as well. Like with ‘Worst Comes to Worst,’ he laid the beat down, and just let (Dilated Peoples) beat ride and do our thing.”

Queensbridge MC Cormega, for whom Alchemist contributed a remix of “Fallen Soldiers” from The Realness, noted, “you know what you get when you get an Alchemist CD.” Though he doesn’t know the producer as intimately as Evidence – “he might mix down a song and I’ll be somewhere else,” says Cormega – he’s still appreciative of Alchemist’s casual, laidback demeanor. “He’s a cool cat,” Cormega added.

But Alchemist tends to be a pragmatist when it comes to growing praise for his production abilities. “I’ve been able to place certain joints in the right hands, and that always helps,” he says. “If you get music to people who are more popular, you get more ears and more listeners.”

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Looking beneath the surface of Alchemist’s career behind the boards, you’ll find an intricate network of connections and disconnections, extended families and lifelong friendships. The thread begins in Los Angeles, where the fledgling artist — then called Mudfoot, as one-half of teenage knuckleheads and Cypress Hill protégés the Whooliganz — rapped on the [unreleased] 1994 album Make Way for the W, followed by an apprenticeship under mentor and producer DJ Muggs. “I started hanging around with Muggs,” says Alchemist, who started making beats for Muggs’ Soul Assassins crew. “Though I was always into the rapping, the music [making] felt more right,” he says. After moving to New York in 1996, he spent the latter half of the decade earning his stripes through production for underground acts like High and Mighty (“Open Mic Nights”) and Defari.

In 1999, Alchemist’s work on Mobb Deep’s Murda Muzik made the New York rap establishment take notice. “Over the years, they put me down. It’s like family,” he says of the duo that adopted him into their Infamous Mobb click, making him an honorary dun. The next year brought more hits, too, with Prodigy (“Keep It Thoro”) and Capone-N-Noreaga (“Bang Bang”).

Alchemist says he still “represents California.” But the producer would have a hard time moving so easily between the mainstream and underground on the West Coast, where the divide between gangsta rap and indie-rap is much more pronounced. East Coast producers, too, tend to make more sample-based music, while the West Coast has been pushing G-funk for the better part of a decade. “That’s not what I really do,” says Alchemist.

“Look, I got up with Snoop, and we did a song on the Eastsidaz album (“Friends” from Duces ‘n Trayz the Old Fashioned Way), and we connected,” he excitedly adds. “That may bring me back to the West, you never know. But I’m not going to change my sound.

“These are all people who I have personal relationships with,” Alchemist confirms. “It’s not like I have a manager call up and say, ‘Hey, you want to work with Alchemist?’” When he crafts joints for little-known NYC acts like Black Opz or Saigon, he says, “That’s the love; that’s the relationship in this music.”

Sometimes these associations can serve as a source of musical inspiration, as is the case with Dilated Peoples. “I like the joints I did on Expansion Team because they push me,” he says. “Unlike other artists who just want to hear a beat, Ev and them will be like, ‘Yo, throw the breakdowns in there!’ They really encourage me to make the production special and give it character.”

Then there’s Alchemist’s role as a frequent guest producer for Mobb Deep, which already have a successful beat maker with producer-MC Havoc. “They’re self-contained,” says Alchemist of the Queensbridge duo.  “So I see what direction they’re going and try to bring something to the table,” adding a bit of variety to Havoc’s moody, keyboard-based tracks.

On occasion, however these relationships can go awry, as his now notorious falling-out with Ras Kass, who accused Alchemist of selling the same “We Gonna Make It” beat to both Ras Kass (who used it for his “Home Sweet Home” single) and Jadakiss, illustrated. When asked if there’s any lingering beef, Alchemist replies, “It’s not like that. We have a lot of mutual friends, and through my talking with them and whatnot [they told me] it’s not that serious. It’s fucked up, I’m sure he’s sad about it, but that’s about it. It was a business situation.”

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Alchemist is a student of a generation that helped transform hip-hop culture into a thriving industry and a beneficiary of the protocol his forbears created for bringing rap music to the public. “Beatminerz, Showbiz, Premier, Large Professor, Diamond D,” he says, offering a roll call of his studio heroes. “I follow in that format of beat making as far as sampling off of records.”

That entrepreneurial spirit, passed down by DJ Muggs, Premier — who introduced him to clients like Freddie Foxxx — and other mentors, led Alchemist to form ALC Records last year with his brother Neil Maman, who is also a manager at Goliath Records. Thanks to his name recognition, ALC Records enjoyed almost immediate success with its first four releases, two of which compiled previously unavailable Alchemist instrumentals of popular tracks under the title The Chemistry Files.

None of these power moves, however, can determine whether Alchemist will have a long-lasting impact on hip-hop music beyond the present-day MCs who clamor for his services and the fans who look for his name in album credits, much like one would seek out their favorite player in the final box score of a basketball game.

“Remember when Pete Rock had such an ill format, when he was killing ’em?” asks Alchemist. “I love his shit, always, everything he does up to date. Sometimes, when he flips his style because he just wants to be creative, people be like, ‘Aw, that’s not him.’

“I never want to fall into that realm. I always want to be able do different stuff, but at the same time people be like, ‘Yeah, that’s Al; that’s his joint.’” Like any good entrepreneur, Alchemist knows that a strong trademark is as pivotal to success as raw talent.

Originally published in URB, April 2002. Photo by Michael Schreiber.

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