PUBLIC ENEMY’S RECENT PERFORmance at top-shelf jazz club Yoshi’s San Francisco speaks volumes about the state of soul music. Once a scary street monster, hip-hop is now widely respected—especially in the case of Public Enemy, a band with live musicians. For nearly the past decade, bassist and musical director Brian Hardgroove led the band from the bottom with a jazz-rock feel. Guitarist Khari Wynn is now the M.D., and old P.E. friend Davy DMX is the new face on bass. DMX is a bona fi de hip-hop pioneer, and his feel is inherently tied to the genre he helped shape.
You’ve produced and performed on hits from Run-D.M.C. to Spoonie Gee. What track best represents the essence of your bass style?
My solo track “One for the Treble” is the best example. I came up playing in church. I like to run lines using lots of eighth- and 16th-notes; it’s kind of like what Rocco Prestia from Tower Of Power might sound like in a hip-hop context. My main influences are Marcus Miller’s groove, Stanley Clarke’s fingerstyle, and Larry Graham’s thumping thumb.
Did you have to adjust your style to play hip-hop originally, or to fit with Public Enemy now?
I may have to simplify and play less staccato at times, but it’s really all about feeling the groove, and I’ve been playing bass guitar grooves within the framework of hip-hop my whole career. The difference between what I was doing back in the early ’80s—compared to bands like the Sugarhill Gang—is that they were re-playing lines from songs like Chic’s “Good Times.” I always created my own bass lines. I’m still creating them. I just sent a few song demos to Chuck D. to consider for the new Public Enemy record. I’m not just playing bass in the live show—I’m a full contributing member of the group.
How did you initially learn the material?
I went back to the original studio recordings and figured out my own way of interpreting the bass parts. Many were obvious because there was a definite line from a sample of, say, a James Brown tune. If not, I’d put on my producer’s ear and find tones in the samples. The kick, the snare, the guitar snippet—everything produces a tone of some sort that you can home in on.
Did you ever go back and learn the source material in order to get a better understanding of the grooves in the samples?
No. An understanding of hip-hop is what’s truly required; that’s the source material a player needs to study. The James Brown grooves are apparent, but playing hip-hop bass requires even more discipline. You can’t go off and clash with the DJ—who I’m always listening to. The final requirement is a 5-string bass. I recently switched from a 4-string to a Jazz Bass 5 to usher in more depth to the Public Enemy sound, and it’s an incredible difference.
HEAR HIM ON
Jimmy Spicer, “The Bubble Bunch” [single , Mercury, 1982]; Davy DMX, Fresh [Tuff City, 1984]; Kurtis Blow, America [Mercury, 1985]; Run-D.M.C., Tougher Than Leather [Profile, 1988]
Basses Fender Jazz Bass, Fender Jazz Bass V
Rig Ampeg SVT-CL head, Ampeg SVT-810HP 8x10 cabinet
Strings D’Addario Chromes flatwounds