Santa Monican Russell Howard makes hip-hop beats, but Howard beats to a different drum than most producers in the business.
He is a rarity in the constantly evolving revolutionary modern genre of music that is hip-hop.
Howard is just not another urban success story with battle wounds and gang tattoos who offers a synopsis of militia warfare and drug trafficking.
These “rags to riches” hip-hop players seem to stretch throughout the hip-hop mainstream.
Howard — unlike many hip-hop artists — is Caucasian and he grew up in an affluent white-collar neighborhood.
Growing up in the outskirts of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Howard had anything but the urban struggle that many of the popular hip-hop artists regularly reference.
Howard can recall practicing his beats on a Yamaha drum machine in the ninth grade in his parents’ home outside Philadelphia.
“I started writing raps, and it just wasn’t enough,” he recounts. “I needed music to go with the raps, so I bought a drum machine and started making my own beats.”
Howard, who has been producing tracks since he was a teenager, did not buy the nucleus of his producing equipment until four years ago.
The process of laying a track involves: making a drum beat; layering other beats; adding notes from other instruments; sequencing the sounds; and mixing the music together.
“Even though I started making tracks at a young age, I don’t think I was playing a fair game until I bought my MPC (Midi Production Center) 2000.”
The MPC 2000 is a music sampler, drum machine, and sequencing instrument commonly used by producers.
There are 16 drum pads on the MPC, each with four memory banks, making a total of 64 sounds capable of being stored simultaneously on the machine.
Howard says the big break in his music career came when NBA superstar Kobe Bryant, whom Howard grew up with in Pennsylvania, asked him to produce tracks for a rap album Bryant wanted to record.
“I was living in Orlando at the time,” Howard says. “I flew out to Los Angeles and started making tracks for Kobe.”
“I was constantly on the phone with Kobe and we would throw ideas back and forth.”
Howard says that, like Bryant’s commitment to his basketball game, Kobe was very focused and incorporated a strict work ethic in the recording studio.
Since Howard’s studio work with Bryant, he has worked with popular musical talents such as Destiny’s Child, Wu-Tang Clan, Trackmasters, Baby Face, and Jay-Z.
Howard says he began enjoying rap music as a teenager, listening to the highly controversial music of the rap group Public Enemy.
“I was obsessed with Public Enemy,” Howard says. “I was attracted to the energy in their music.”
“There was this power in Chuck D’s voice and I could relate to the aggression,” says Howard.
Listening to Public Enemy was about rebelling against the mainstream, he says.
He was inspired by music like Public Enemy, enough to begin writing his own rhymes.
“I started writing my own raps, but I wasn’t satisfied, I needed music too,” he says.
Currently, Howard has been collaborating on a project with pop music star Seal.
The project consists of creating part of the soundtrack of a soon-to-be released motion picture.
“As a producer, I sit in my studio and ask myself, ‘What am I going for? What is my angle for this song?’,” he observes.
Howard says he is influenced by all kinds of music from early rap to club and techno to rock and pop.
He says that often what is involved in producing tracks is having a sharp ear for catchy notes.
“I am constantly getting new ideas from music I listen to,” Howard says.
He records live acoustic and electric riffs performed by guitarist Genesis at his Hollywood studio.
Howard, himself, plays the keyboard.
As for appearing as an outcast in a mainly minority-based genre of music, Howard is unfazed.
“What I’m doing is not normal by any standards, but I’m not alone, it has been done before,” says Howard.
His intensity regarding his musical ambitions is evident.
What he does when he produces tracks “is like sculpting, it’s a process,” he says.
“It’s about filling in the holes” with what fits.
“It’s like creating a collage,” says Howard.
Russell Howard can be contacted via email,