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Selling Sankofa's Sound

Hip-hop artists torn between popularity's demands and creative integrity .

But in the studio, Ian Schreier -- Sankofa's record producer -- is king.

Whereas Sankofa is the heart of the effort, Schreier is the brain that brings it all together and gets the product out on the street even when the band only wants to make music.

"When I am on stage, it is like I'm in a playground," Greenlee said. "Out there it is spontaneous, fun; it is all about the people and getting them hype.

"But everything in the studio is so precise -- I feel like half the time it is a battle between the MC and the producer. In the past producers have tried to take the spirit of Sankofa out of the sound just to make something that they think will sell."

Sankofa, the local sensation that has been at the top of the Chapel Hill hip-hop scene since 1998, will have to put out a song that will attract an audience, rule the radio and ensnare the execs to garner a major record deal.

"My job is basically getting the best recording that the band can do and helping them with their arrangements and the building of the best mix," Schreier said. "We are trying to expand their core audience while also trying to attract new listeners.

"If that means putting out a radio-friendly single, then that is what we'll do."

So, faced with the reality that their basement-born sound hasn't broken into popular culture, the members of Sankofa decided to take their sound off the stage and into the studio -- hoping to make a mainstream recording without losing their identity.

Drummer Steven "The Apple Juice Kid" Levitan said that although the local following is personal, band members have to start looking at the bigger picture if they are ever going to make a living as musicians.

With that mindset, the members met earlier this month at Osceola Recording Studios in Raleigh to lay down two crowd favorites, "Down by Law" and "Do the Do."

And with two days of recording ahead of them at $450 each day, they had to battle time, pressure and the difference between making art and making records.

But Sankofa couldn't just step into the soundproof room, plug in instruments, jam away and walk out smiling. The stifled atmosphere of the studio is a far reach from the musical mayhem of the stage.

The band members spent more than four hours waiting before even picking up their instruments for the first song. Lem Butler, known behind the turntables as DJ Pez, sat in the lounge beside Levitan restlessly cracking jokes while bassist Matt Brandau and guitarist Dana "DNA" Chell warmed up.

"This is the part that really sucks," Butler said. "We come in here to record about seven minutes of track and end up waiting half the day before we even start."

Chell spent the majority of the time toying with the tunes of his guitar synth while Schreier was readying mics, cords and soundboards. The same five notes purred out of the padded room more than a hundred times over as Chell's fingers danced up and down the strings. In between each chord he tweaked a knob, only to turn it back after the next practice run.

"The more that I play with the way the effects are set the better it will end up sounding in the end," he said. "If I have to spend all day in here getting it just right, then I will sit here all day."

Once everything was finally in place, however, ready-made tracks didn't exactly spill out of the speakers like perfect gems from the first attempt.

Members argued over the way one bridge should sound or the way one instrument should layer onto the next while Schreier demanded cut after cut. Out of every 10 attempts, only one or two would be saved, and Schreier needed several for editing.

The process was like building a tower out of toothpicks, tedious and frustrating, collapsing under any missed cymbal crash or botched trumpet blast.

"The studio is the complete opposite of the stage," Brandau said. "It is hard because you have to capture the energy of the stage in a flawless form.

"It is as much sitting around working on five seconds of a 3 1/2 minute song as it is playing -- if not more."

After more than 12 hours in the studio -- filled with playing, mixing, building, editing, changing, replaying, rerecording and remixing -- the members were strained and the atmosphere tense. But whenever tempers flared and members began to feud, DJ Pez would scratch samples of female orgasms and Greenlee would do his worst DMX impression -- relieving the tension and reminding them of their goals.

The result was a pair of powerful cuts that will, they hope, blow away old fans and draw in new followers. "Down by Law" burst out as a raw and multilayered unchained beast, energetic but carefully structured -- a bold blend of stage and studio sound.

"Do the Do," on the other hand, was a chilled, romantic night out at a club with a solid bass backbone, slow, smoothed rhymes and rolling guitar synth -- all without demeaning women.

Eventually, both Schreier and Sankofa walked out happy. Each song can give the listeners and the band exactly what they want -- radio labels will get a demo with breakthrough potential, and Sankofa will keep true to itself.

"As much freedom as I give to the producer, I will never change my subject matter," Greenlee said. "Right now what is popular is not what I am spittin' out, but when people get sick of hearing about bling, bling and Bentleys and listening to something true, I will be ready.

"Whenever the world is ready, I will be waiting with a notebook full of rhymes."

But he might end up waiting a while given the band's stubborn refusal to sell short its artistic integrity.

"There is a formula to make a radio single. It is hard to do that giving up what we sound like and just pumping out 'It's getting hot in here,'" he said.

"We are working hard to stay true to ourselves, to stay Sankofa."

The Arts & Entertainment Editor can be reached at artsdesk@unc.edu.

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