The Low-End Legacy of D'Angelo's "Voodoo"

Pino Palladino (2014). Photo by Cedric Ribeiro/Getty Images.. D'Angelo (2015). Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

When Voodoo arrived in early 2000, it was hailed for being a departure, an organic funk and soul masterpiece that stood in foggy yet crystal-clear contrast to the commercial R&B of its time.

Its status as a beloved outlier has only grown in the 20 years since its release, but if you know anything about the intent of D'Angelo and his co-pilot on the album, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, you'll know that Voodoo was in part a musical manifesto. D'Angelo, Ahmir, and the album's other creators were summoning the spirits of Prince, Curtis, Jimi, Sly, and other "Yodas"—as they called such legends—to impart the vision of the classics and remake the present in their image.

"Is there any room for artistry in hip hop’s decadent man-sion?" the liner notes ask. "We have come in the name of Jimi, Sly, Marvin, Stevie... We have come bearing instruments and our voices..." Through such invocations, written by poet Saul Williams, Voodoo set itself up as the answer to "all the glitter and glamour that has dominated most successful Black artistry of recent years."

For any number of reasons—D'Angelo's retreat from the public eye, the inertia of the pop music industry, and even a culture-wide rejection of the idea that artistry is necessarily opposed to glitz and glamour—the manifesto did not lead to revolution. The following decades would still contain plenty of pop-flavored R&B and pop-flavored rap. Neo-soul as a genre, with Voodoo as one of its most transcendent moments, blossomed for a time and remains a touchstone for plenty of artists working today. But the Top 40, then as now, remained—if not entirely neo-soulless—slicker and straighter by comparison.

However, one thing that Voodoo did change lies in the low-end. The bass on Voodoo is round and woozy. Flatwound and vintage. A thumping, bubbling, dominant presence devoid of the bright snappiness of the album's contemporaries. Played mostly by Pino Palladino, with three tracks handled by guitarist/bassist Charlie Hunter, the bass sounds on Voodoo made bassists and producers everywhere take notice. From neo-soul stalwarts to new pop upstarts, the lower registers of future hit records would follow D'Angelo's lead.

Pop Bass Before Voodoo

In January 2000, the big chart hits included Brian McKnight's "Back at One," Destiny Child's "Say My Name," and Jennifer Lopez's "Waiting for Tonight," each with its own bass sound typical of the pre-Voodoo era. The production value of the "Back at One" bass is as close to Celine Dion's as anything else—a straightforward playing of a full-frequencied roundwound electric. "Say My Name" has a slightly more aggressive thump, but it contains the growl and upper-register harmonics of a relatively untreated signal. "Waiting for Tonight" is more muted and dance-oriented, but it's still clean and bright, more big-tent electronica than gritty techno or house.

Brian McKnight - "Back at One"
D'Angelo - "The Line"

The bass of Voodoo is far different. It's closer to Sly & The Family Stone's There's a Riot Goin' On—with its fuzzy, overdubbed-to-near-oblivion tape saturation—than any of its year-2000 contemporaries. But Voodoo goes one further. The bass of Sly's "Family Affair," while plenty muted and thumping, still has some quack to it. Voodoo seems to have a low-pass filter reining in all such highs, the treble rolled back to the point where there's little articulation at all.

The basslines on Voodoo tracks like "Left and Right" and "The Line" seem to pop out of nowhere. It's almost like you're listening through a wall. And even on "Untitled (How Does It Feel)"—the album's biggest single and most straightforward song—the bass is more wooly, fat, and rounded than even the Prince lines it was referencing.

How the Voodoo Bass Sound Was Created

The bass sound of Voodoo sprung from the confluence of three stylistic streams: house music, vintage soul and funk, and the influence of James Dewitt Yancey, aka J Dilla or Jay Dee.

Speaking to NPR this weekend for the album's 20th anniversary, Voodoo engineer Russell Elevado explained the house music roots of his approach to the low-end:

When I first started engineering I was doing a lot of house music, with Frankie Knuckles and David Morales. I first started getting my feet wet with that, and doing hip-hop remixes with this producer Clark Kent. From there, more R&B people started recognizing what I was doing, and I started going through the R&B circuit.

Later on, I realized how much it [Voodoo] was like the work I was doing on house music. Because the bass has to be right. And the kick drum should have its own presence to not get in the way of the bass. Striving to get that in my early part of my career, I think I intuitively started to know how to make the bass pump without being too large, and get the impact of the drums. House music is all about the bass and drums, and I guess that filters into everything else I did.

Holed up in Jimi Hendrix's Electric Lady Studios over the course of three years, D'Angelo, Questlove, Elevado, and a cast of collaborators including bassist Palladino honed in on the vintage sound of '60s and '70s soul and funk records, which they'd study and jam to for hours.

On the cusp of the digital-only recording era, they put the studio's analog equipment to work, after "literally blowing dust off of the Fender Rhodes" and "wiping dust off of the microphones" that had been neglected since the studio's first heyday, as Elevado told Red Bull Music Academy (RBMA). Though D'Angelo wrote most of the basslines himself, he insisted that Palladino play them on vintage Precision Basses (Pino had both a '61 and a '63) or a four-string Moon Larry Graham signature, while improvising as he saw fit. Those basses were strung with heavy-gauge La Bella flatwounds, tuned down to D (DGCF) or even a half-step lower, and played mostly through an Ampeg B-15 (or a B-18 when not). The amp was recorded with a Neumann U 47 FET, tube U 47, or M 49, into an AMS Neve 1081 mic-pre , and treated with an LA-2A compressor, according to Elevado.

Voodoo Bass Gear

"I played either my '63 P-Bass tuned down to D (DGCF) or my Moon Larry Graham signature 4-string tuned down to C# (C#F#BE). Both had heavy-gauge LaBella flatwounds, which can be rough on necks; that's originally why I tuned down the Precision," Pino told Bass Player. "I plugged into a mic'd Ampeg B-15, and I'm pretty sure that was the only signal we took. I've also got my Boss octave pedal, which I used on one track."

The third element was Dilla's enormous influence. Even though he was still just an up-and-coming producer, D'Angelo and Questlove both noticed his genius for beatmaking early on. As Questlove writes in Mo' Meta Blues, they geeked out over Dilla's work on The Pharcyde's Labcabincalifornia and a Slum Village record, Fantastic Vol. 1, which they heard and passed around in 1997—with D'Angelo and Q-Tip leaving snippets of beats on Questlove's answering machine—even though it wouldn't be officially released until 2006.

D'Angelo - "Chicken Grease"

"It was a messiah moment, in a way, for people like me and D'Angelo and Q-Tip," Questlove writes. "There wasn't a sound there and then, suddenly, there was one. It's a magic trick."

Dilla was sampling from jazz and soul records, chopping and pitching kicks and basslines to create his own new warbly compositions. Questlove and D'Angelo—who would collaborate with Dilla as The Soulquarians during and after the Voodoo sessions—brought these non-quantized rhythms to life with the acoustic kit and Palladino's bass.

Palladino told Jason King for the liner notes of a 2013 Voodoo reissue:

"Hip-hop is music that’s been deconstructed, it's made up of bits of samples arranged in different places and often placed behind the beat. The way people sampled stuff influenced [D'Angelo] in terms of the way he would write his music. When I first heard the backing tracks for Voodoo, it struck me as the kind of thing J Dilla would do, how he would deconstruct and reconstruct rhythms and just kinda deliberately mess things up. So you get these messed-up wobbly rhythms. You know, Dilla might take a four-chord pattern and start it on the second chord. D does that kinda thing too in his writing.”

King sums it up by writing, "The backphrasing means that the bass is constantly changing its location. ... The effect is a jumpy, unsettling pulse. The bass seems out of joint, never quite landing where you'd expect."

All together, Elevado's ears for perfect placement (the bass-to-kick relationship honed in his house music years), the vintage tone of the Precision Bass and Electric Lady equipment, and Dilla's non-quantized pulse made for Voodoo's unique bass. These elements would almost immediately affect the prevailing modes of bass production as soon as the album hit.

Pop Bass After Voodoo

The long, stretched-out sessions for Voodoo made Electric Lady a hotbed for other musicians and producers looking to soak in the atmosphere around D'Angelo. Elevado himself would also engineer Erykah Badu's Mama's Gun and Common's Like Water for Chocolate at Electric Lady during this time.

He told RMBA in 2015 that plenty of other artists outside of those sessions would come by the studio to catch a glimpse of what D'Angelo was doing: "Mariah Carey, Lauryn Hill, Q-Tip, Eric Clapton, Chris Rock, Rick Rubin, and not to mention all the amazing people and musicians who were involved in making Voodoo." The legend of the recordings grew for the three years the sessions took place, with D'Angelo's reputation as a musician's musician only getting stronger.

When the album was finally released on January 25, 2000, its bass sound—with or without the non-quantized feel—set the new high-water mark for low-end tones.

LA session players were asked to leave their active-pickup five-strings at home in favor of Precisions. Session bassist Sean Hurley talked about this dynamic on an episode of the Scott's Bass Lessons YouTube channel.

He had just bought a '98 five-string Lakland with an active-pickup. "It was 1998, I got it—it was happening," Hurley says. "I saw the shift coming. Some of it might just simply be that Voodoo came out, and we all knew Pino played a P-Bass on it with flats and it sounded awesome. Everybody, even when you're not trying to mimic Voodoo, everybody's going, 'Yeah, but that's the coolest stuff, so let's try to do something like that.'"

All of a sudden, those pricey Laklands were out of favor. And Pino himself was asked to play on records by Badu, Musiq Soulchild, Anthony Hamilton, Talib Kweli, and many other R&B and hip-hop artists.

Destiny Child's - "Say My Name"
Beyoncé - "Crazy In Love"

But what's more is that the type of bright, in-your-face bass tones that dominated the pop music of the late '90s and earliest days of 2000, like those heard on "Back at One" and "Say My Name," gave way to the rounder, lower-register, more-saturated basslines like those on Voodoo.

You can hear the shift from Sean Hurley's brighter, pre-Voodoo bass work on Mya's Fear of Flying, recorded in the last months of 1999, and Mya's 2003 release Moodring, which, with different bass players and production, has deeper, rounder bass throughout and even samples a Pharcyde-era Dilla beat for "Fallen." You can hear the influence on Beyoncé's solo work from the low, propulsive bass of 2003's "Crazy In Love" onward—which, when compared to the Destiny Child's songs that immediately preceded it—is a different era indeed.

Of course, that same confluence of styles—house, classic funk, and Dilla—that so influenced D'Angelo influenced others directly as well, but the album's stature and immediate widespread respect among other players and producers ushered in those sounds to the mainstream.

Whether made on electric basses or with pitched 808 kicks (essentially, a sine wave plus saturation and compression), thick wooly basslines became the norm in the years that followed Voodoo—with low registers felt more than they were heard—and the snappy bass it replaced felt more and more passé as the 2000s wore on. Like a drummer swiping chimes at the head of a verse or the particular brand of digital piano sounds used by all the Clive Davis–approved artists of the '90s, it became a sonic marker of an earlier time.

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