Apollo Brown Interview

August 31, 2010

Born and raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., Apollo Brown has created a name for himself as the go to producer that has that classic throwback sound circa mid 90’s with his own unique twist. Inspired by albums like Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage and production from greats like Dilla, Pete Rock, and Premier, he’s committed to keeping the boom bap vibe alive and thriving. He’s produced tracks for Little Brother, Finale, and is the man behind the phenomenal “Contra” by Danny Brown and eLZhi. With two instrumental albums (Skilled Trade and Make Do) and a Detroit Red Bull Big Tune championship (2009) under his belt, 2010 saw the release of his first album with Mello Music Group, The Reset. With emcees like Finale, Ken Starr, Grap Luva and others on the mic, Apollo steps to the plate to make this collection of remakes one of his best yet. MiHH had the opportunity to catch up with Apollo Brown as he breaks down how garbage his studio set up is, meshing his skills behind the camera with his skills behind the boards, why he will never be an emcee, and the abundance of upcoming projects he’s readying for the rest of the year.

MiHH: I love the cover of The Reset, and I have a theory behind the title that ties in with what we are talking about. But I wanted to ask you first, what is the meaning behind the name?

Apollo Brown: Well, most of the songs on the album are all reworks. We came up in a time when the remix was actually a remix—it was a rework. Remember we had the maxi-singles and you had the new jack swing remix, the New York remix…

MiHH: A quiet storm remix!

Apollo Brown: Exactly! And every song sounded like a different song even though it was the same song. What these people call a “remix” now is putting another rapper at the end of the song. It’s the same hook, same beat, same everything—just another verse. That’s not a remix. That is just adding another person to the song. I wanted to actually make remixes and reworks. My main goal was to make an original song sound like a brand new song. So I took vocals and rearranged verses; I took different parts of the vocals and made hooks out of them. I wanted the whole feeling of the song to change and I wanted to rework everything that I did so it was like setting the reset button on a Playstation. … Most of the songs are all reworks. There are a couple of new tracks but some of the others have never hit the light of day so these are going to be the original to some people. I renamed a lot of them. I did all kinds of stuff but that’s how it should be.

MiHH: I am glad I asked you. I would’ve looked like an ass because my interpretation was different…

Apollo Brown: I want to hear yours.

MiHH: I thought that you were hitting the reset button on Hip Hop. And interestingly enough, I was listening to “Hungry” and I was like, “Aren’t these the same lyrics that Big Pooh and Black Milk spit on Oddisee’s “Drugs Outside?” I was going to ask you about that, but now that you’ve explained it, it makes sense.

Apollo Brown: Well first off, I like your interpretation because it’s a broader spectrum and that can also be the meaning for the album as well. I like that—and that is what I am trying to do…the album was supposed to be a warm up, kind of my introduction on the label. I didn’t expect it to get the love and support that its been getting, because it is a remix album and again, it’s kind of a warm up to me. The next three albums are the “ones.” But The Reset has gotten a lot of love … I’m glad that some people recognize the originals but there are a lot of people that don’t. You see how on “Drugs Outside,” I took part of Milk’s verse and made a hook out of it…that’s what I was doing to all the songs. I was trying to really do work on these songs.

MiHH: You definitely did that! So tell me, what was your first big placement?

Apollo Brown: I don’t think I’ve had any big placements yet. Big placements to me are ones that will make me a lot of money and be on some nationally widespread albums. But I will say one song that did it for me was “Contra,” with Danny Brown and eLZhi. That beat was a throwaway. I would’ve never let Danny Brown listen to that beat but we were talking or something and the beat came on and I went to go skip it and he wanted me to go back to it. I was like, “Nah, I’m good on this one,” but he wanted to hear it. He wanted it and it ended up turning into a really dope song. They did their thing on it and it got me a lot of love around the world. I did the intro for Finale’s album and I did some work with Kam Moye, a.k.a. Supastition. We did a song called “Sky High” and that got a lot of love around the world also. Now, I am working on Heather B’s new album and Roc Marciano’s album also. I have this other album that I can’t tell anyone about just yet. It’s more of a larger scale emcee. I can’t disclose it but people will know about it soon.

MiHH: You have a project with DJ Soko and Journalist 103 coming out also, right?

Apollo Brown: Yeah, but let me start with the first album. It’s an album called Brown Study with Boog Brown and I. She’s a female emcee but she is just a dope emcee period. She is from Detroit, but lives in Atlanta now. She is a really ill emcee that I had the pleasure of working with. The album is all done, in the works ready to go—that will be coming out in September. I have a collective called The Left with Journalist 103 and DJ Soko and that album is called Gas Mask. It’s kind of a mythical album. It’s been done for about a year. We’ve just been waiting for the right deal and vehicle to put it out, and we found it through Mello Music Group. So that will be coming out in October. And I have another album coming with an emcee out of Rochester called Hassaan Mackey. He’s a really dope emcee and a pleasure to work with. That album is almost done. We are called Daily Bread, and that will be coming out in December.

MiHH: You have a lot of projects on deck!

Apollo Brown: You have to stay busy when you don’t have a job and this is what you do full time. Time and beats are money. This is how I make my living, so I have to stay busy.

MiHH: True that. Now I know that you are also an accomplished photographer. Have you ever thought about making the photo your “emcee” and having an instrumental album go with a collection of photos—almost like the photo tells the story of the beat?

Apollo Brown: I have a business called Crush Media Group with my business partner. We started back in 2005 and we focus on urban photography. I shoot a lot of artists around the city…artists, poets, groups, etc. I’ve been published all over the place (such as XXL magazine), and we have a website that has over 110,000 photos on our site right now. We do everything from weddings to any type of events to personal photography. I am just into the arts and music and photography are two of my loves.

And it’s interesting you say that. I’ve never done anything like that but I am working on a project right now that has a lot to do with production through my photography. It’s a book that is geared towards the producer and his lab that he works out of. I can’t really disclose a lot but I am picking 25 producers and I am actually showcasing the lab that they work in…the place where they make their beats rather it’s the dirtiest most grimy dusty, pop cans everywhere…Doritos, potato chips all over his MPC. I don’t want them to clean it up. I want it to be lived in. And I’m going to surprise them. I’m not going to give them a chance to clean up. I want to document how these guys make their beats. Nowadays people don’t want to just hear your music—they want to see how you make it. People want to see where you make it and what equipment you use so I am working on that…it’s more of a coffee table book. It’s minimal writing. It’s more so what these producers’ lives are all about through photos.

MiHH: That sounds dope! Since we are on the subject, walk me through a day in the studio with you.

Apollo Brown: I’m actually in the middle of a beat right now. But I get up about 10:30 every morning. I go downstairs and brush my teeth and wash my face and all that good stuff. Walk over to my desk: my lab is called The Box, [because] I live in a loft and it’s basically a box. I start going through samples and making a beat. I will come back and work on any extra things that I have to do, like tracking out or sending things off, then I will go back and…try to find things to sample. Someone might come over to chill and listen to beats. I might showcase for an emcee. My day is really boring. At night, I will go out to shows and put my face out there. If not, I am at home making a beat. But I usually just look for samples…I am always digging. On the weekend I go digging, but my day is just really boring.

People want me to do a beat making video. But I’m like, “You don’t want to watch me.” It’s boring. It’s a ridiculous, tedious process. I don’t make beats like other people. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. You keep hearing the same drums over and over again. The finished product is beautiful but the process is horrible and it’s nothing that you want to put on film and watch. I wouldn’t recommend anyone make beats like me…there are only a few people that [do]. But it’s just the process, the program we use, the way we chop things—the things that we use are really unorthodox and the way that we do things is unorthodox. Our process is horrible but that’s how we do it.

MiHH: I know you are a huge fan of Breaking Atoms and Enta Da Stage, as well as that boom bap sound. Explain to me how you’ve been able to incorporate that sound that you love so much but maintain your own unique style?

Apollo Brown: I think my unique sound comes with the way I chop things. It’s almost like a dunk contest. There really is no dunk that no one has ever done. That’s why they are so boring because everyone has done that dunk. It’s all been done so it’s all about preserving it. It’s preserving what Dilla, Pete Rock, and Premiere did in the early to mid 90’s. It’s not that you can come with something totally different—it’s just preserving that sound that you grew up on and the sound that you like. I can’t say that I am much different. I know I set myself apart from Detroit producers because I don’t have the Detroit sound; I have an East Coast sound. I don’t have that Detroit swing or bounce. Mine is more boom bap, gritty, straight-to-the-point music. I try to set myself apart with my sound and chops but you can’t really say you are setting yourself apart because it’s already been done. I’m just really preserving it.

MiHH: I had a conversation with Bob James about the software vs. hardware debate and I was shocked at what he had to say, so I’ve been asking producers what they think.

Apollo Brown: Wow, Bob James? He’s a legend. Well, I started with software. I tried to hit pads but I don’t hit pads. I tried to do the whole MPC thing. It’s cool but I am really all about precise chops, and I couldn’t get as precise as I wanted to. And I have these certain attacks that I like to put on my chops and there were just certain things that I couldn’t do with the MPC, but I can do them with my program. I’ve grown accustomed not just to hearing what I am making, but seeing what I am making. I’m used to looking at my beat on a screen and I have no problems with anybody who uses an MPC and is good at it. I respect the hell out of those people. Watching Kev Brown make a beat is ridiculous. but in the same token, they watch me and are like, “How did you do that? What the hell are you doing?”

So I respect those that use hardware or software, and I don’t care if you use spoons and animal hair. Or throw a brick at a metal wall and create a dope snare. What matters is the outcome. A lot of cats have $20,000 worth of equipment and don’t know how to use it, and everything that comes out of the speaker is garbage. My equipment probably costs about 200 bucks. I use an old HP computer that I’ve had since 2001, and I have to erase stuff off it in order to make a beat because it has no memory and I use my same old program that I bought in 97. I have a Roland XP 50 that I used to put bass lines on, but there was a flood in my apartment and I woke up to water all over my keyboard. So now, only 16 keys work. And both of my speakers are blown. Actually, my whole setup is garbage. People look at it and laugh. I’m like, go ahead and look at it and laugh. But I know a lot of cats that use stuff like that. They don’t have a lot of money but they make due. That’s why I titled my second instrumental album Make Do. I don’t care how you make your beats or what you make it on—just the outcome.

MiHH: How have you evolved from where you were, to where you are now? And what would you like to experiment with that you haven’t already?

Apollo Brown: My sound has always been the same. Boom bap and a lot of hard music has always been there for me, [but] my quality, the sound, and the way that I filter music has gotten better. Usually when I am done with a beat, it doesn’t need to be mixed. A lot of engineers tell me that—I don’t need to track my music out. So, it’s basically the quality. I don’t know what I want to tackle next. My sound doesn’t change really. It changes a little bit based on my mood but there really isn’t anything that I want. I don’t want to make club bangers or bounce out music. I kind of want to do the whole 9th Wonder thing where I take a dip in the commercial pool, and then go back to the underground. I don’t want to be one of those producers who gets a taste of the commercial pool and swims. I just want to take a dip. I want to maintain my respect in the underground. I don’t want to stay in the commercial lane. I just want to let people know that I can do it.

MiHH: My signature question: If you encountered someone that was deaf and they wanted you to describe the sound of your music through color, what would those colors be?

Apollo Brown: Wow…that’s a dope question. I would say grey. Grey is a somber color. Most of my music isn’t really happy—it’s not really upbeat or uplifting as much. It’s more of a struggling, life sound. I would definitely say grey. I would describe the early 90’s as grey. Premier’s sound was grey—it’s hard as hell but it’s thought provoking. It’s something that will take you to another place and wake you up.


  1. Thomas says:

    I first learned about Apollo on Finale’s album then when that “Contra” dropped it was like “Whoa!” (c) Black Rob. The Reset is a dope album and the rest of his releases this fall (Brown Study, Gas Mask, and the Daily Bread) should all be dope. He will be on many top producer list at the end of the year.

    The last question was a dope one…co-sign that.

    Good job A!

    August 31st, 2010 at 11:14 pm

  2. Emily Donaldson says:

    This piece just proves that Apollo Brown is the art he produces; honest, heartfelt, intellectual, and a little gritty. Life is hard and “The Reset” speaks to me. Not about the same old stuff, either, “The Reset” is those familiar flavors that give us comfort with a harder, but organic and dynamic pound that hits you right in the chest. We all need that.

    October 8th, 2010 at 11:47 am

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