Small Professor on His Orchestral Beats & Bugged-Out Vocals

Photos by James Johnson, courtesy of the artist. Collage by Reverb.

Germantown is a green and (mostly) quiet neighborhood located in the northwest section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Full of large 18th and 19th century colonial buildings and modest homes built in the post-WWII boom, the neighborhood's population is primarily made up of working class Black folks.

A long-time hotspot for the city's counterculture, Germantown also sports a rich jazz history as the former home of musical giants like Sun Ra, Rufus Harley, Khan Jamal, and Byard Lancaster. It was here that veteran hip-hop producer, Small Professor—aka Jamil Marshall—was born and raised.

Small Professor
Photos by James Johnson, courtesy of the artist. Collage by Reverb.

Speaking with Reverb, Marshall described growing up in a household full of art and music (side note: Marshall's brother is renowned virtuoso jazz drummer Anwar Marshall). "As a kid, I didn't do music until much later, but I was always into something artistic. Mainly it was drawing. I used to draw a lot, I used to design clothes and I used to write a lot."

While attending college at the Art Institute in Philly, Marshall was inspired to make beats by the intricately chopped soul samples of Little Brother and 9th Wonder.

"When Little Brother came out I fancied myself a knowledgeable hip-hop guy and everybody was like 'Yo 9th Wonder, the next DJ Premier…this is the next up-and-coming all-time great,'" Marshall recalls. "I was listening to his music and I was like, 'Man, this guy is amazing.' I found out that he made beats off of FL Studio and Adobe Audition. I was like 'that's something I can download and I can do beats like that?'"

Struck by this initial flash of inspiration, Marshall quickly threw himself into the craft of beatmaking and studied the catalogs and techniques of the great hip-hop producers that came before him. By picking apart certain sample sources that older producers used and gaining an understanding of how they were manipulated in order to create new compositions, Marshall was effectively able to mentally reverse-engineer a number of classic hip-hop tracks.

"My brother really helped me understand what was happening in everybody's beats from a musical aspect. This was before WhoSampled, so I was going off of people's actual credits to find samples and there were a couple of blogs that did all the samples from like Jay-Z's The Blueprint or Common's Like Water For Chocolate. So eventually, you start finding out where everybody was getting samples from and what was their mindset in digging for whatever time period they did those beats."

Marshall goes on to explain how these formative years of intense study helped inform his current production style. "That was really fun—when I was really learning how to make the kind of beats that I do with multiple layers. With Pete Rock, you gotta find the five different samples that he got in the joint and then you have to figure out how he put the beat together. Just because you have all the ingredients, doesn't mean you can make the pasta."

Today, Marshall's music-making setup reflects 9th Wonder's influence from his early days—he still works with the FL/Audition combo and an old Windows PC. The thoughts that he shares about his process and the minimal tools that he employs are fascinating.

"I have a couple of 10GB flash drives—one might have a lot of gospel, one might have a lot of soul—and it's basically become my record collection. If I want to be really thorough, I'll open up an album folder and pull every song into Adobe Audition. I'll chop however I'm hearing the beat coming together already, then put those chops into FL Studio and arrange from there. Every beat usually has three samples in it. I'm trying to downsize but I'm kinda stuck with the filtered bassline, one sound for the bass, one sample for the mid-range and I'll usually leave the high-end for percussion."

For the booming, head-nodding drums that show up on so many Small Professor tracks, Marshall uses dusty drum breaks—as so many of his predecessors did—but he employs FL Studio's time-stretching and editing capabilities to give his drums a unique feel.

"Stuff usually gets broken down in some kind of way just for the sake of trying to make things sound as natural as I hear it. Even if I loop stuff, I've gotten into the habit of delaying it a little bit so that it doesn't loop perfectly. FL Studio's stretch function is kind of gradually slowing it down and that adds a cool rhythmic element sometimes. I'm chopping everything just to make sure everything is connected."

After years of honing his skills and building an exhaustive knowledge of sample-based music, Marshall released his debut instrumental project Slowbus on the Seclusiasis label. Full of dramatic, orchestral beats and bugged-out vocal samples, the album is a clear snapshot of the distinct style that Marshall would continue to refine throughout the next decade and change.

Though this style of heavy, chopped up drum breaks and layered samples works well in the instrumental hip-hop idiom—as evidenced on projects like the Herbie Hancock tribute with Arcka and his over 20-volume Jawns series—some of Marshall's most significant work has come in the form of collaborations with members of his Wrecking Crew collective underground rap luminaries like Armand Hammer, Guilty Simpson, and the late Sean Price who passed away in the summer of 2015.

When describing the process of creating the album 86 Witness with Price, Marshall says that the chemistry between the two was easy—Price picked the tracks that perfectly suited his style, then sent them back for Marshall to flesh out and rearrange.

"That was one of the easiest and most natural connections I've ever had. He would take a couple months sometimes so I wouldn't know what was up per se, but I would be sending him back edits or whatever. Me sitting around and twiddling my thumbs was how the beat switch from 'Latoya Jackson' came about. I think I was at work and Doug E. Fresh & Slick Rick's 'La Di Da Di' was on the radio so I heard the end and I was like 'Yo, I don't know if I've heard anybody sample that'. P had sent me a verse on another beat so I took those vocals and put them on the flip I did. It all came out pretty naturally, considering that we never met in person and were never in the studio together."

With multiple instrumental albums and collaborations with vocalists on deck in the future, Small Professor's catalog continues to grow and the quality of the music that he produces reflects the deep care and intention that he brings to the art of making beats. His flips are a joy to the ear and a testament to the infinite creative potential of sampling.

Keep up to date with Small Professor on his Bandcamp, Instagram, and Twitter pages.

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