Perfect Sound Forever


Photo from Timbaland Music website

Out of the Swamp to Four on the Floor
by Cody Pruitt, NYU '09
(June 2008)

Tim "Timbaland" Mosley, hip hop and pop producer extraordinaire, is getting in shape. It makes sense, considering his newfound exposure. The man who the world has heard for years, yet never seen much of has made it his mission to become a known face in the music industry. With Justin Timberlake's FutureSex/LoveSounds and Nelly Furtado's Loose pounding car and club subwoofers nationwide, Timbaland's music is as omnipresent as ever. This time, however, he's singing, rapping, or speaking on nearly every single off of these two albums, with his dirty come-ons and provocative suggestions popping up in "Sexyback" and "Promiscuous." As if placing his own voice in the two biggest club-bangers of last summer wasn't enough, Tim has recently released his first ever true solo album, entitled Shock Value. In between appearing in his artists' and his own videos, running the newly established Mosley Music Group, and writing and producing more chart-topping beats in his home studio, Tim works out. The chuckling man eating behind the keyboard in Jay-Z's Fade to Black DVD is now a lean, mean, beat machine, ready to take over the pop world the exact same way he did with rap and RnB. Hip Hop's greatest producer is ready to be photographed.

Overweight or not, Timbaland has always been a innovative and recognizable force in the music industry. Mosley started his career as a DJ, and discovered drum machines and keyboards a short while later, creating beats of his own. Soon after that, he met Melissa "Missy" Elliott, a performer in a all-girl quartet named Sista. When Devante Swing of the RnB group Jodeci signed Sista, Elliott brought Tim and Magoo along to New York, where they were picked up by Swing as well. Sista, Tim, and Magoo joined Swing Mob, a collective of performers and producers working closely with Jodeci. The group also included singers Ginuwine and Tweet, as well as the RnB trio Playa. Devante heard the unique rhythms and sounds of Tim's production, and took him under his wing, eventually asking the newly named Timbaland to add his own, uncredited production flavors to Jodeci's albums, including The Show, The After Party, The Hotel.

In 1995, most members of the Swing Mob left Devante Swing to go out on their own, although many of them continued to collaborate with each other. The following year, a young singer named Aaliyah contacted Tim and Missy Elliott, interested in enlisting their production and songwriting talents for her second album. The resulting One in a Million featured nine songs written and produced by the duo, three of which ended up as singles. This proved to be the breakout work by Aaliyah, turning her into one of the biggest RnB singers of the time. The title track is a textbook example of Timbaland's style. Featuring a tight, dry drum sound with a stuttering hihat pattern providing the groove, the track brings in at least three different kick drums, usually layered but sometimes offset to provide focus on the sub-boom, filling out the production with a low tone in the key of the song. The other two kicks are actual drum samples, one of which sounding like it came off a drum break, making up the mid-range frequencies of the kick. The small amount of noise at the tail of the sample gives it away, and ends up adding to the texture of the track. With the slow tempo and major focus on the bass, little noises such as this add a new level of grime to the already sexed-up tone of the song. The third kick is a drum sound that probably came from a keyboard workstation, adding the initial transient and attack to the low-end stack, cutting through the dominating synth-bass. The only other instrumentation found in "One in a Million" is made up delayed and otherwise effected synth pads and bubbly electric piano lines, filling out the stereo spectrum with harmonically rich chords. As icing on the cake, Timbaland added an effected seagull-ish sound, played continuously through the verse, with increasing volume leading into the chorus, where it dies away, replaced by the synthesizers.

That same year, former Swing Mobber Ginuwine released his debut album, entitled Ginuwine . . . The Bachelor. Produced entirely by Timbaland, The Bachelor was recorded during the Swing Mob years, between 1993 and 1995, providing a clear look at Timbaland's influences and early production concepts. His signature style is entirely apparent, complete with odd synth patches, stuttering drums, and effected sounds used as instrumentation. The single, "Pony" best showed Tim's potential, with a slow, grinding, porno groove and unusual synth choices. The song begins with synth vocals, playing the word "yeah" in a cyclical melody. The drums are entirely synthesized as well. The kick is straight out of a drum machine, with attack for days and a contained yet present low end. There are several hi-hats: one panned slightly left, another in the center, and a swishing open hat on the right side. The alternating, straight eighth-note rhythm of the left and center hi-hats provide the track's movement once again, as in "One in a Million." This moving hi-hat or shaker style has been a constant in Timbaland's productions for years, and continues in songs like Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around . . . Comes Around." The rhythm is nearly identical, the tempo fairly similar, as well, yet it hasn't gotten derivative over the past 11 years, a testament to Timbaland's genius. There are so many instruments playing different lines in "Pony," it's almost impossible to dissect the whole thing from top to bottom and back to front. Another Timbo production trick seen here for the first but not last time can be found in the snare drum. Most hip hop and RnB tracks have a small, punchy snare or clap panned directly center, for emphasis. Tim changes it up, keeping the kick small and punchy in the center, and stereoizing the snare drum. Compared to the rest of the kit, the snare appears as if two different snares are being played simultaneously, in opposite ends of the room, acting as a sort of aural bookends, keeping the sonic nastiness and layered arrangement contained. The synth voice continues throughout the song, but is soon punctuated by a synthesized high pitched "bloop" sound effect, followed by a car screeching its tires, of course perfectly in tune and in the same key as the rest of the song. The beauty of this song's seemingly chaotic and random arrangement is that it is entirely calculated, never taking the attention away from the vocal melody and lyrics. Once again, this is the genius of Timbo.

As the years went by, Tim's popularity grew, but he remained faithful to his friends, continuing to collaborate with and produce for Missy Elliott, Aaliyah, and Ginuwine, among others. Towards the end of 1999, he worked with Jay-Z, creating several beats that ended up on Vol. 3... Life and Times of S. Carter, including the breakthrough single "Big Pimpin'." This track was a clear indication of Tim's direction for the next few years. Enhancing his already complex rhythmic approach to beatmaking was Middle Eastern and Asian instrumentation. Tim's synth melodies in his previous songs often featured accented half-steps and note bends like those found in Eastern styles, but never before had the instrumentation and melodic style of such disparate genres been juxtaposed in one song so flawlessly. The groove was authentic to the sound, yet it still made people dance. The production is yet again different from the rest of hip hop at that time, not only in the instrumentation, but also in terms of the mix. The percussion is all pitched, matching the key of the song, with the kick drum filling up both of the listener's ears, as big and stereo as possible. This, like the snare drum in "Pony," ties everything else together. By placing the core rhythmic instrument at the far sides of the stereo spectrum, Timbaland forces everything else to remain inside, closer to the center. This focuses the mix so that a single vocal track can carry it, dispensing with the usual vocal layering and overdubs. The vocals occupy very little space in the song even when they are doubled during the chorus. The mix without the vocals is full, with a rich atmosphere created by the ambient flute riff at the end of every two bars. As soon as the vocals begin, nothing changes in the mix to give Jay some space, but it turns out that he doesn't need it. Timbaland's productions, no matter how complex and layered, always leave room for the vocals, as do those of Quincy Jones. In fact, only a few years after "Big Pimpin'," Timbaland would find himself acting as Quincy Jones to Justin Timberlake's Michael Jackson, creating epic yet catchy dance tracks.

A year later, in 2001, Missy Elliott released Miss E . . . So Addictive, featuring several Timbaland tracks, including "Get Ur Freak On." This proved the most dramatic shift from his original sound to date, fully incorporating many of the Eastern influences that he had so skillfully introduced in "Big Pimpin." Featuring a simple and repetitive looped melody accompanied by frantic percussion and oddly out of place apocalyptic strings, the track was something entirely new. Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone described it as "a sonic orgasmatron of Indian tablas and Dirty South future-shock funk," that works "into every crevice of your body that knows how to wiggle." Sheffield observed that it didn't sound anything like Timbaland, and for the most part, he was right. He had never done anything close to this before, and his signature dirty, swamped-up sex grooves were nowhere to be seen. All it had in common with his previous work was that it sounded fresh and people could dance to it.

Soon after the release of So Addictive, Aaliyah was killed in a plane crash, sending Timbaland into a depression. He didn't feel like making any music, especially the hyper beats he was known for. Not that he stopped. But he was no longer omnipresent. During the time from 2001 to 2004, Timbo still kept busy, working with Ludacris, Lil Kim, and Jay Z, yet again. He is seen playing beats for Jay in the studio on the Fade to Black DVD. Sitting behind his old keyboard sequencer, he distorts his face and shakes his larger-than-life frame to the snarling beats, bouncing enthusiastically to his own work while he munches on a banana. Jay teases him, telling him "there's no bounce" in his tracks, yet Tim keeps his kindergartener-on-candy smirk the whole time, scrolling through beat after beat, chuckling at his collection of future chart-toppers. We're privileged to hear tracks that will later appear on a Ludacris song, as well as several other instantly recognizable Timbo specials. Once Jay selects one, everything's already been set in motion, and is finished before you know it. He jumps into the vocal booth and lays down the first track to what quickly becomes "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," Tim dancing in the background the whole time.

In 2002, Timbaland's output dwindled to a few songs on Justin Timberlake's Justified and Missy Elliott's Under Construction. His best known song from this period displayed a new fondness for incorporating his vocal beatboxing into beats. Timbaland had been known for years to initially create rhythms with his mouth, translating it to samples later on, but only rarely had he recorded vocal drum tracks directly onto songs. The incorporation of the vocal beat into "Cry Me a River" was the next logical step. Later productions, such as Justin's "LoveStoned/I Think She Knows Interlude," use the technique with great success. This new texture was accompanied by the piano stylings and writing of up and coming producer Scott Storch, who had previously been a ghostproducer for Dr. Dre. Later on, Storch claimed that he had significant input in the song's production as well, but this is unsubstantiated, and given Storch's penchant for self-promotion, should be taken with a grain of salt. The claim matters, however, because "Cry Me a River" was Timbaland's biggest hit in a couple years, and the first to truly have him collaborate with another producer. Only a year later, Tim took Nate "Danja, or Danjahandz" Hills under his wing, adopting him as his own ghostproducer.

From the beginning of 2003 till earlier this year, Danja worked at Timbo's side, often creating whole beats and songs by himself, and giving them to Mosley to add finishing touches. On his work with Tim prior to Lloyd Banks's 2004 "I'm So Fly," his first credited co-production, the extent of his input is sketchy. More than likely, he acted primarily as a sound designer for Timbaland, giving him samples and keyboard patches. Later on, however, his input definitely increased, nearly to the point of the superproducer taking credit for Danja's work. The gated, Euro-trance keyboard pattern in Justin Timberlake's "My Love," as well as most of Nelly Furtado's "Say it Right" and "Promiscuous" has Hills's signature on it. Clearly Hills was more than a collaborator; he signalled a change of direction for the superproducer. Upon Danja's officially credited arrival as "co"-producer, Tim's inclusion of world music seems to almost vanish, replaced by the European dance and techno influence that his keyboard sounds had exhibited for so long.

Turning Tim back onto the techno and house music that he had earlier referenced served as a stylistic about-face, going from the abstract Asian stylings to the nearly straightforward pop evident throughout Nelly Furtado's Loose as well as Danja's last credited co-production, Timbaland's own Shock Value. The dance influence is entirely unmasked in "Way I Are," featuring Keri Hilson and D.O.E., where the central detuned, wave-your-glowsticks keyboard line follows the same galloping rhythm as that of "My Love," and the drums forgo any of Tim's signature syncopation or polyrhythms, opting instead for house and techno's tried and true four-on-the-floor. The vocals are so heavily effected they'd make Daft Punk proud. The bridge introduces a nearly identical synth-percussion sound to that of "My Love," as well, once again in a scarily familiar rhythm. Timbo has his name on it, but I doubt he contributed much more than vocals and some mixing ideas. Danja has long since left the Timbaland camp, but "the Danja sound" is all over Tim's recent work.

Since his arrival as a producer in 1995, Timbaland has had an overwhelming influence on the hip hop industry. Other than Dr. Dre's clean and clear West Coast G-Funk revolution, no single producer has had more power over hip hop and pop in general for longer than Mosley. Garrett Kamps called him "his generation's Phil Spector." In an age when most producers were digging through their vinyl collections and created sample collages, Timbo was writing music, producing instead of simply making beats. And where the once big guy hid behind the mixing boards and platinum albums, the new improved Timbaland has emerged from behind the curtain, cementing the bridge between pop and hip hop.

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