CRATERY 88: Mr. Attic

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I first met Mr. Attic at York University’s 105.5 FM in ’95. It was my first year attending York and my favourite pastime had quickly become loitering around the campus/community radio station before, between and after classes. One of my favourite shows was called “Soul by the Pound” – a program dedicated to playing the soul, jazz, funk and rock songs that inspired the hip-hop songs of the era. Show creator Jeremy “Beatdawg” Weisfeld would blow my mind every week with source material for my favourite Pete Rock, Tribe and Large Professor songs with a level of insider knowledge I hadn’t encountered up until that point. It wasn’t long before pestering Jeremy on the phone every 5 mins for song titles turned into hanging out at the station and pestering him in person.

One week I turned up and Jeremy wasn’t there. Filling in for him that week was a dude who introduced himself as Seven. He was joined shortly by an unassuming cat with a bag full of records. The gentleman introduced himself as Attic. “That’s Mr. Attic from Da Grassroots”, Seven said, chiming in quickly. Da Grassroots? Wow. I had heard of the production trio through the work they had done for Toronto hip-hop outfit Ghetto Concept, including the classic “E-Z on the Motion” which I would later find out was actually produced by Attic himself. For the next hour, I stood by the studio door as Seven and Attic killed me with records I had never heard by groups like the Nite-Liters, Delfonics, Spirit and Don Covay (I remember going nuts off the original for Pete and CL’s Lots of Lovin remix). I was rhyming at the time, so I asked for Attic’s number at the end of the show in the hopes of securing a beat from the man himself.  Suprisingly, he actually obliged.

It’s important to note that Da Grassroots had already developed a bit of a reputation around the city during this time period. Ghetto Concept (along with counterparts ORB and Born II Roam) were already head and shoulders above what was happening in the city at that time. And a huge part of it was due to the production provided by Da Grassroots. The local rap showcase was particularly unforgiving to rival producers when their pithy kicks and snares were easily outclassed by the warm, comforting boom of a Grassroots riddim. Ghetto was already collectively great on the mic. But the beats made them even better. By ’95, Da Grassroots had miraculously won back to back Junos with Ghetto Concept for the independently released “Certified” and “E-Z on the Motion” singles. It wasn’t long before the trio of Attic, Swiff and Murray were becoming the stuff of legend in Toronto.

My first time at Attic’s crib was, well, in a single word: overwhelming. It was the first time I had ever seen that many OG records in a single place. I had been buying bootlegs and compilations trying to get more bang for my buck and here was this dude who, in my estimation at the time, had “everything”. The only people I knew that had those kinds of crates were the big U.S. producers of that era. I hadn’t seen anything like it outside of a magazine. I didn’t even own Superman Lover by Johnny Guitar Watson at the time, so seeing records like 1619 Badass Band was overkill on my 21-year-old brain.  That night, Attic made a beat off a Mongo Santamaria record and I remember hoping he would give it to me. Not only did he not give it to me, he nearly deleted it. I was dumbfounded. I thought the shit was single worthy and this guy was ready to toss it away without a thought. That was telling. After nearly 20 years of friendship I can say without a doubt that Attic is his own harshest and most ruthless critic, the definition of a perfectionist.

The next time I went to Attic’s place, I brought a friend of mine equally enthralled by sample mining: a budding producer I had met less than a year earlier by the name of Moss (featured on Cratery 33). We basically spent the entire night tapping Attic for sample knowledge. It was literally like typing searches into whosampled years before I even knew what a website was. Our holy grail? Learning that Master Ace’s “Brooklyn Battles” (a song we were both obsessed with) was a straight loop off Eddie Kendricks “If you let me”. When Attic dropped the needle on that one, we were rolling around on the ground of his bedroom like giddy little children. We couldn’t believe that we had a met a person that had so much of the knowledge we coveted so badly. After that visit, I gave all my compilations to a homie and began to focus on buying original pressings.

Not long afterwards, Attic began taking Moss and I digging with him. That’s when I really started to learn how to shop for records. But he didn’t just put us on to records. He put us on to stores. The most important of which was Vinyl Museum’s Lakeshore location. The shit I personally saw Attic pull out of VM was crazy, so I can’t even imagine the level of stuff he was pulling between ’89-95. Back in ’95-96, trying to walk into a Toronto store looking for OG Donald Byrd and Roy Ayers LP’s was futile. The demand for those sorts of records was way too high at the time. But shopping for weird rock records, Canadian breaks and assorted sample fodder was still possible – especially in a store like Vinyl Museum, where it felt like almost everything had a $2.49 price tag. Attic taught us to gamble on these sorts of records. He took risks. That’s how he found stuff. And for 2 dollars a record, Vinyl Museum was a gambler’s paradise. It was, without question, Attic’s favourite place to dig.

On one of my first visits to Vinyl Museum with Attic, I found a copy of Frank Motley’s “Let it Be” album. I knew it was Canadian and rare, and for only $5, I wasn’t leaving it behind. I told our Seattle homie Jake One about my come up and he offered to trade me for it in exchange for a shit ton of basic records I was thirsting for at the time like 9th Creation and Les McCann. For me, a beginner, the trade made complete sense. Especially since the Motley was fetching over $200 back then. $200 worth of beginner records for a college kid with limited cash and a digging habit was gold, so naturally, I made the trade.  Later, Attic told me that the same Frank Motley record was a spare copy that he had traded back to the store for credit. “Oh you bought that?” he asked, surprised. When I asked him why he had traded it back, he told me the open break was “noisy”. In other words, it didn’t matter if it was rare, it was useless to him unless the was the record wasn’t sonically up to his standards. Attic would rather have his $5 back than resell or trade a noisy Frank Motley joint. Again, I was dumbfounded. Evaluating a record based on its condition wasn’t even something I had thought about. I was just happy to have the original.

As a producer, Attic is as carefree as he is meticulous. Blessed with an incredible ear and cursed with an attention to detail. Democratic about his record choices. And uncompromising about the sound of the final product. Attic’s signature weapon of choice throughout most of the 90’s was Ensoniq’s EPS 16+ (although he switched to the MPC 2000 later). And with it, he made some pretty legendary contributions to Toronto hip-hop around this time. “Drama” was his (and partner Swiff’s) first single under Da Grassroots moniker. I should note that sonically, this song was much different than the majority of hip hop being released in Toronto at the time, in that the mix sounded phenomenal. It didn’t sound like a local, basement record – it sounded full bodied and well rounded. This was in part, due to Da Grassroots connection to Noel “Gadjet” Campbell, an engineer with a golden ear and future Toronto legend, who was credited with the mix. No one in the city had really achieved those sort of sonics up until that point. The warm kicks, ample snares and moody rhodes on “Drama” was a milestone because it matched the quality of the sound being achieved stateside. The single did well by indie standards back then, and was even heavily bootlegged in Tokyo to try and meet the demand of the Japanese market. Attic’s continued work with Gadjet introduced him to the next wave of Toronto rappers like Saukrates, Choclair and Kardinal Offishall, all of whom have his joints in their discography, notably the latter’s “Ol Time Killin” which is an undisputed hometown classic. Da Grassroots forged a relationship with Seattle based Conception records (through our mutual homie Jake One) to release their own production-based debut album “Passage through time” in 1999, featuring a veritable who’s who of Toronto hip-hop at the time, including a debut single featuring yours truly. I was probably one of the lesser known artists on the album, but Da Grassroots always favoured the music, not the politics. Over the years, flagship Canadian artists like the Dream Warriors, Brass Munk, Thrust, IRS, Tara Chase, Marvel and Checkmate have all added Attic pieces to their discography. But his most frequent and closest collaborator remains Mr. Roam (originally of Born II Roam), whose “Postal Work”, “Price of Living”, “Groupie Central”, “System” and ultra-limited Tom Strokes album are timeless examples of Attic’s beat prowess and some of my personal favourites from his discography.

But the unreleased shit is where it’s at. The good fortune of being this man’s friend has given me the chance to be exposed to countless gems at various basement sessions over the years. And let me assure you, there are plenty. For example, many would be surprised to know that Attic has nearly an album’s worth of material with Saukrates from the early to mid 2000’s which never saw the light of day. I have heard it with my own ears and it is as incredible as an Attic/Sauks collabo sounds. The Ghetto Concept album that was to follow “E-Z on the Motion” on Groove-A-Lot records was chock full of Grassroots heat that remains in the vault. Mr. Roam had a project before the Grassroots album entitled “W.A.R (the World According to Roam)” which was produced by Attic in its entirety and never released. Nor was Roam’s “Mean Food” project that was teased on the Tom Strokes album. Rexdale representatives Redlife had a few Attic bangers on their unreleased LP. And then there’s the stash from Attic’s solo project, which was also in the works, for which numerous songs were recorded. And that’s not even counting the endless disks of random unreleased beats.

Some of those beats ended up on Jeremy “Beatdawg” Weisfeld’s Deep Crates documentaries in the early to mid 2000’s when he enlisted Attic to score both films, which were dedicated to the art of digging. But it was also during this time period that the music industry was experiencing a massive shift. And with it, came a shift in Attic’s attitude towards making music. Da Grassroots album “Passage through time”, although considered a classic by many, fell short of its potential in some ways, due in part to the untimely disbanding of Conception records. It also seemed like the beat placement game had become more about hustle and less about talent. The Napsters and Soul Seeks of the world were taking a massive bite out of full length album sales and labels were trying to save money by discouraging artists from using samples. Plus, with institutions like Vinyl Museum closing, we weren’t buying records as diligently as we once were. Our focus on executing projects had dwindled. We were all jaded and kind of over the industry hype. The demand for Attic’s mentor Gadjet had become so high in Toronto that it was difficult for him to make time for every single person lobbying for his attention. All of this frustrated the hell out of Attic, whose archive of unreleased projects and seemed to be destined for eternal limbo. Like many of us who have balanced our careers and our passion for music our whole lives, when the industry failed him, he shifted his focus back to his 9 to 5.

But Attic never really stopped creating. While the industry may have no longer formally been a focus, he would continue to toil away on personal projects in his Brampton basement, still using vinyl as his primary tool. One of our crew favourites was a project called “A.R.M.”(short for Add Rhyme and Mix), a mostly instrumental EP that was built around samples that didn’t require any additional drums. All anybody needed to add to the beat was a rhyme and mix (hence the title). Fingers crossed, A.R.M. may not remain unreleased for much longer. And the recent reissue of the Da Grassroots “Drama” single on 45 from Tokyo/Toronto based Chuku records could be a sign that more music is on the way.

I could regale with you Attic related digging tales for days. Like the time he walked into Vinyl Museum in the early 90’s and cleaned out the Axelrod section for $2.49 per LP after the homie Roam had hipped him to the producer’s work. Or the time he walked into the same store and bought “Champ” 45 for a quarter. Or the time he found 4 perfect copies of the highly coveted “Spacing Out” LP by The Invaders at the same time for next to nothing. Or perhaps you’d like to hear about the day he came up on a S.O.U.L. “What is it” for a buck at an Ohio record show back in the late 90s. I’ve seen this dude pull so many records it might seem effortless had I not seen the endless hours of digging and numerous failed gambles first hand. Attic was definitely blessed with them golden hands. But he also put in the work.

Attic was and always will be an OG to all of us in Cratery. That’s why it’s always an honour to play records with him. And that might sound a little weird, given that he’s also a close friend. But as much as he’s become a peer, for some reason we all still look on him with this enduring reverence. Before googling samples was a thing, we had Attic. Before sourcing your drum sounds off a web site was a thing, we had Attic. I don’t even know if I’d be digging this much if I didn’t go to Attic’s house in the early days. It was only then that I understood that having an amazing collection of original pressings was even possible. He was this seemingly endless reservoir of beat knowledge and we were all thirsty for anything break related. I remember walking through Vinyl Museum picking up records and bothering Attic: “Anything on this man? Is there a beat on this? What about this one?” I’d ask, expecting my more knowledgeable homie to put me on. “If I tell you everything, how will you develop your own instincts?” he would respond. “So you’re just gonna let me buy this wack record even if you know there’s nothing good on it?” I’d rebut. “Yep” he’d say, as he’d walk to the counter. “It’s called learning”.

–ARCEE


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