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Dallas Austin Sheds Light on Beat Thang, New Artist + More

Jason LaVeris, FilmMagic

Dallas Austin is sagacious. The esteemed songwriter-producer knows what works and what doesn’t when it comes to his music business. Just look at his track record, creating magic in the studio for the likes of TLC (‘Creep’), Michael Jackson (‘Wanna Be Where You Are (Remix)’) and Gwen Stefani (‘Cool’), among others. Hits like the aforementioned aren’t made without dripping a little bit of blood, sweat and tears in the studio.

The 40-year-old Atlanta native, who hasn’t had his name splashed across headlines for bad behavior as of late, has kept out of the spotlight for good reason. He’s been busy tinkering away at his newest prized possession: Beat Thang. Austin created the mobile music-making machine to give aspiring producers endless access to crafting beats much the same way he has over his storied career.

Beat Thang, available exclusively at Best Buy, is the Rowdy Records founder’s way of bestowing some creativity upon the masses. In an industry where songs seem to blend into the next without a second thought, Austin aims to recharge music enthusiasts’ brain cells and change sonic art, now that his beat machine is on the market. Read on as the virtuoso lets loose about bringing his production technology into outer space in 2013, having no desire to work on a Beyonce record and discovering a fresh-faced Bahamian songstress that will take his sound to another dimension.

Equipment like the MPC has been given more mainstream attention as a result of artists like Kanye West, araabMUZIK and Erykah Badu‘s use of it. Are you looking to gain the same kind of exposure with Beat Thang?

I’m looking to take all their exposure, actually. I’ve been a fanatic of equipment forever. I’ve had every MPC, every SP1200, Yamaha drum machines, every drum machine that ever came out. And a lot of them, as times changed and equipment changed, a lot of it just got more complicated the more stuff it did. I’m a fan of pads and not just playing on keys. When I made the machine, it’s because I kept kind of like trying to find MPC60s and 5000s that would work with Pro Tools and Logic, and we kept having that problem — that they wouldn’t really communicate. One day, Apple came around and said, “Do you want to do sounds for Apple Loops,” or something and I said, “Nah, I don’t wanna do that.” Then I started developing some electronics and I met the guys Aja and Rev who had the Beat Thang virtual, and the idea was to take the Beat Thang and put it into a box and it can really be effective from a sound standpoint, from a standpoint of what we’d want it to do or not. I just started diving in on it. I made it really simple. And I wanted a box that has its own sound to it and we put our own components into it. We just put a lot of time into it.

How long did it take to create the machine from start to finish?

About a seven year process [it took myself and] my partners Aja and Rev — they are two producers also — from the start to development. Then it took another two years to really put the box together. And plus, its one of those things, it’s a living box, it’s like a computer. We update from online, it’s a living, breathing, functioning box, more than just a beat machine. And then at the end of the day, every time we thought of something else, we’d be like, “Oh, well man, maybe we should make it where you can unplug it and take it with you.” Like what if you wanted to go into the car and plug it up now ’cause there are so many auxiliary cables in each car. Every time we thought of something that was kinda cool we’d add it and then we’d say, “OK, let’s stop right here.”

So if someone wanted to, they could plug it in and make a beat in the car?

Oh, yeah. I do it all the time. I plug it into the auxiliary and I ride around making my beats while whoever is driving.

Watch Dallas Austin’s Beat Thang in Action

The Beat Thang comes with a hefty price tag of $1,500. Why is such a high price attached to the machine?

For one, an MPC60 is $1,800. And when you get an MPC, you don’t get 3,000 sounds that have been EQ’d and developed. It’s a sampler but you cant even get through the sounds that we got in there ’cause we got so many great, amazing, unique sounds in there. I almost didn’t wanna give the box up. They go through my sounds and other producers’ sounds. We have a sound lab that powers the sound of the box. What people gotta understand is, they think because it lights up and because they make it small, that they think it’s not as serious. It’s way more series than a MPC5000, it has way bigger hard drives. You have piano sounds and synth sounds but you play them chromatically, just like a key scale. The bottom of it is set up like a keyboard and the top is set up like a recording device. It’s a very serious machine. It’s pretty heavy, it’s small so when people see it and they see it light up and stuff, I think they think of it like, “Oh, it must be a toy.” It’s no where near a toy. It’s way more powerful than any machine that’s been made.

Some high-profile artist friends of yours have gotten a chance to experient with the Beat Thang. Who has used it and what has their feedback been?

One of my first one’s was Jim Jonsin. Jim Jonsin is an MPC60 fanatic. He was one of my first kinda ambassadors. I said, “Jim, play with this. See if you like it. Let me know what you think.” He absolutely loves it. He’s actually one of the producers we have soundpacks from. Another thing we do, ’cause of me being a producer, I have a really good connection with other producers and they take my word for what I’m doing. I’m like, “Hey, I got my soundpack coming with 6,000 sounds in January,” and then Jim Jonsin has his soundpack. We have Roger Sanchez, Drumma Boy. People like Drumma Boy, when they played with it, and DJ Toomp, they were like, “Man! Are you serious?” Our first week sales were great, considering that it’s just getting in the stores. The responses I’m getting are “I can’t believe you put this much power in this box,” [and] “Oh my god, you gave me the super powers now.” Instantly you sound like a good producer.

Why did you want to create this new kind of production machine?

I wanted to make it where kids and people had access and could be like, “Come on, man. Let’s make some good music.” Let’s keep this thing moving. Art was done because we listen to the radio and say, “Yo, how did they make that song?” “Where did they get that sound from?” “Where did they get those snares?” Now you just go, “Oh, well there’s the same sound,” “That’s Fruity Loops.” I wanted to make it where this box, it’s a magic box. You can take this and you will change music. We have modulation wheels and pitch wheels on the side of the box, which we have a patent on. It’s the only box that has that where you can take your drum sounds and stretch ‘em. It adds a whole uniqueness to music. It’s going to change the way music sounds.

You’re going to travel to space in 2013 on a commercial space shuttle. Do you have plans to bring the Beat Thang with you and try to create a beat while up there?

Well, yes, if I’m gonna go there, I might as well do what I’m good at. I’m a space fanatic, I love ‘Tron’ and everything else, all those futuristic movies, so when I first started talking about the space flights and going out with Virgin and doing the preliminairies and all that stuff, then I thought about it. I saw the space craft, I was like, you know while I’m up there I might as well go ahead and have my songs programmed and ready so I can at least have my song written in space to say, “Hey, this is the first out-of-this-world experience I’ve had with music.” That’s my goal.

As a producer, have you ever made a song for an artist using the machine?

The first song that’s coming out that we made with the machine is a song called ‘Let ‘Em Know’, from Alex242, who’s my new artist on Interscope. She’s from the Bahamas. If you go to the BeatThang.com site, you hear the instrumental of it when you see the commercial of me walking around with the machine. So you can kinda hear some of the things that the machine does. I did that whole song with the machine. It’s sick. It’s actually coming out in about two weeks. Then from that point, whether it’s stuff that I’ve done for Chris Brown, called ‘Key to Your Heart,’ that’s on his next record, a lot of the records I’ve done I’ve been working on since I’ve had the machine [and] they’re coming out all during the year. I had to get it in before everybody else had it. So I’ve been using it for a minute to get a headstart on everybody.

Where does Alex242 fit into your Rowdy Records imprint?

Alex is the catalyst for everything. She’s like my new digital protégé from the Bahamas. She’s amazing. She dances and sings her ass off. She kinda has this twang to her, so we call [her music] twang music. It’s a combination of like, I call it musical gumbo because it’s very dubstep, then it’s very electro, then it gets very hip-hop. She’s like a gumbo; she’s an amalgamation of everything that the world is right now. And so, sometimes you’ll hear it and say, “Man, is this Indian? Is she Asian?” We call it twang music because of the style of singing and rapping that she has. It’s super, super exciting. She’s a No. 1 priority at Interscope Records. The song is called ‘Let ‘Em Know.’ She’s the first catalyst so when this song comes out, it’ll be the first time the Beat Thang is really 100 percent exposed. Eve is rapping on the beginning of it with her.

Does she have an album that she’s also working on?

The single’s the focus but the album is done. Right now, we’re doing our single promo. So we go to all the Best Buys where the beat machine is and we’ll come to markets and perform songs and I’ll sit there and do workshops and I’ll do radio stations in the morning. From that point, she’ll stay on the road. The album release will be at the top of the year.

You’re revered for working with chart-topping artists. Who have you been working with in the studio recently?

Leona Lewis. Chris Brown, of course. Lady Gaga. I’ve been kinda bouncing around now, trying to make sure I tap into probably everybody I think is gonna be benefical with a new sound. I’ve changed my sound so much now. I’m always a songwriter first. I’ve always written and produced my own songs, all of ‘em. The song is always gonna be in my forefront. I’ve been kinda regrouping myself for like a year or two, signing Alex. After awhile, there was just not really any more artists for me to work on, to tell you the truth, that I felt like it could be benefeical to making a difference. Just cause you get on a Beyonce album, like she’s already Beyonce at this point, you don’t really care who’s producing on the album, you know what I’m saying. So what I was the best at, what we we’re great at in Atlanta, is developing new acts and making sure they become TLC or Monica or Kris Kross or Arrested Development. That’s where the real power is for us right now because there’s not really any new artists. All the artists, except for Justin [Bieber] and Gaga, who they have one album, everybody else is over 10 albums or 10 years. We need some new, exciting music.

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