Pretty Lights: More Important Than Jordan

By: B. Getz

Derek Vincent Smith

Derek Vincent Smith has started a fire. As Pretty Lights, the producer-wunderkind has embarked on a mission for world domination. Releasing two full-length albums online, both totally free, like a slow, churning, smoldering blaze, the phenomenon began to spread. By Thanksgiving of 2008, it had built to a five-alarm inferno. Filthy breaks, glitchy broken-beat, crunkadelic juno-bass and ethereal soundscapes wrought with a kaleidoscope palette of emotions had taken the ever growing massive by storm.

The mind of Derek Vincent Smith is a myriad of boom-bap, jazzy daydreams, tech-step nightmares, computer turntablism and manic beat mining. While his choice samples, drum breaks, melodies and composition are really medium fare, it is how he applies these elements that separates Pretty Lights from the proverbial pack.

Beginning with 2006's inviting Taking Up Your Precious Time, which was initially downloaded 5,000 times, the number reached 50,000 on the heels of his ambitious sophomore effort, the album that set off the explosion. A two set, 26-track monster, Filling Up The City Skies triumphantly announced Smith's vision as more than just fun on a Mac or head-nodders for the crew cipher. This indeed was artistic vision, a manifest destiny.

For both albums, Smith enlisted a variety of styles and influences while tapping into different genres, although the core Pretty Lights sound has remained throughout. The producer's double-disc Filling Up The City Skies maintains laid-back, introspective vibrations, working well-laced jazzy horns and psychedelic guitars over lush, erotic atmospherics. The songs are often strange amalgamations of styles, where tracks begin and end somewhere near the same point, with a strolling down-tempo drum track, programmed synth/keyboard effects and cloud-formed, slowly unfolding, dub-influenced bass lines.

Part of what makes each song a different experience is the direction of effects in layering the aural emotions. In the age of Ableton, Fruity Loops and the Mac-book selector, a new frontier of turntablism and production has risen. Smith is a beatsmith at the forefront of this movement. Despite his prodigious talents and incredible rise to fame, the Pretty Lights project is of humble bedroom beginnings.

Pretty Lights by Benjamin Maas
Growing up, Smith learned the basics on bass and flute, but as he reached adolescence and beyond, hip-hop became his passion. His Ft. Collins, Colorado high school crew competed amongst themselves to arrange the hottest beats using the constantly evolving computer technologies. Today, his set-up doesn't include any wheels of steel, but instead a laptop and a device that remains the secret to his illness, the Monome 128. Hovering over a grid of countless buttons and knobs used to manipulate and interface with prerecorded tracks, Smith is the master of this domain.

"I really haven't had any musical training at all in the traditional sense. Everything that has to do with music that I know, I taught myself, from the instruments I play to all the recording gear and software I use," says Smith. "I started making hip-hop beats in high school, but my production style really started to develop when I began acting as audio engineer/producer for the bands I played in through the years. Then, eventually I worked at a pro recording studio as a self-taught engineer/producer. Something about making hip-hop beats while also producing records for bands and working with live musicians helped to forge my own style of production."

Too often, sample-based producers are not respected by traditional artists, as they borrow pre-recorded efforts and use those sounds to create a veritable collage of others' work. In its inception, simplistic samples, or 'jacks,' gave the concept/process of sampling a bad name, particularly amongst the generations of musicians that originally recorded much of the music being raided. Nearly a quarter century later, the practice of sampling and hip-hop production, has been revolutionized into an art form. It begins with meditative, focused methods of digging or mining through vinyl in search of inspiration or muse.

Derek Vincent Smith by T. Voggesser
"I've never spun a record onstage in my life," Smith admits. "I've definitely developed a number of methods when it comes to finding the right pieces to make up a good PL track though. For example, when I go digging for vinyl at a record shop or a flee market or even a garage sale, there's usually a massive amount of albums to sift though, so it's all about getting a feeling or a hunch from each record and learning to trust those hunches."

What exactly might pique that curiosity or internal hunch?

"I look for printing style [matte or gloss], visual aesthetic, color palette, musician lists and what instruments they play," says Smith, "and basically, I form a snap judgment about each one as I go. Most get passed up, but the others get a listen on the battery powered turntable."

Smith's passion and process in his production create what are indeed compositions; in the world of digital turntablism anything and everything can be flipped. Chopped samples, programmed drums, and layers of sonic interplay allow producers to play the role of culinary artist, and the distinction that this is indeed original composition is not lost on Smith. His fervent belief in the process is evident. When all is said and done, the completed work is a canvas of masterful efforts, a road trip of feelings and sounds.

That is the beauty and allure of Pretty Lights' music. One moment they are introspective and thought provoking and the next minute may touch your heart. A brief, wicked aural attack of dub-step juno-bass may overwhelm the listener for a moment, only to quickly seduce them with the emotionally drenched "Maybe Tomorrow." Just when the vibes get smooth and controlled, an adrenaline-fueled "More Important than Michael Jordan" provides a spastic sonic orgasm. The feel-good fun of "Hot Like Sauce" gives way to the even spicier "Solamente." The transitions are endless and continue to amaze. For sample-based music, this really seems a new frontier of artistry. This is an original sound and definitive style, as in not borrowed but developed.

Pretty Lights by Benjamin Maas
"One thing I've run into a lot is people that immediately judge artists who sample as music thieves without enough of their own creativity to make good music on their own," says Smith. "Now, with some producers, I'd say that might not be far from the truth, but I strive to always use samples in a way that brings new life and feeling to them. For example, my whole sampling style is based on combining several samples from different records, genres and decades, that, when made to work together, can create completely new emotions and styles. For me, taking many different samples that are in different keys and tempos and making them work together beautifully is where the difficulty lies and a huge amount of the potential creativity exists in my production style."

When Smith does play a song from another artist, he doesn't just drop the jam and let it ride, nor does he simply rock a remixed version of the established song. Instead, in the spirit of the great Madlib or dearly departed J Dilla, Smith chops, alters, and completely reworks the song. It is often only somewhat recognizable, a reinterpretation that also harks back to the transitional arrangements jazz musicians would employ when playing established popular music.

Case in point is a Pretty Lights live mainstay "Regulate," the classic G-Funk anthem recorded by Warren G. and Nate Dogg. "I completely remade 'Regulators' with the original vinyl samples, and added a lot of synths and newer production techniques," explains Smith. "That's just fun for me, to find the same records that Warren G used and remake the same beat but in my style."

Continue reading for more on Pretty Lights...

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