Son Of Sam are the UK based quartet of Tom Caruana, Richard Halligen and brothers John and Joe Sam.
Talented musicians, Son Of Sam initially formed in 2003. A mutual love for purist hip-hop, combined with their musical talents allowed them to find a musical niche. Playing, re-creating and making original samples (live) for names like KRS 1 and Raekwon. Son Of Sam in turn built a name performing their live sets with guest emcees.
Ironically despite their name carrying such weight, an album by the collective did not become a reality. Reasons for this travesty are numerous. Finally however, a full project entitled Cinder Hill saw the light of day in September of this year.
In many ways Cinder Hill baulks at the current hip-hop machine. Instead of speed of production we get (albeit extremely long) a thought out, labour of love that has taken some fourteen years to be completed; from sourcing the right emcees, creating the right sound, to creating a tightly mixed and mastered project. The culmination of those difference aspects is a seventeen track bit of boom bap purist hip-hop.
It’s a project that thrusts you back to an era where jeans were baggy, jackets were huge and Timbaland boots stomped in unison to emcees like Rakim. But this is not a project that sounds dated. On the contrary it’s refreshing as a motherfucker. It’s the water in the oil, the hot to the cold, the Obama to the Trump (in musical terms). Large Pro, Sadat X and newer names like Quelle Chris et al, alongside Son Of Sam take us back to the future and it’s tidy.
We talked to the group’s producer Tom Caruana about the jourrney to create the labour of love Cinder Hill.
We’ve got some of the greatest figures in hip-hop on this album.
Ok so Tom explain initially your own musical heritage prior to Son Of Sam?
Well I grew up with access to a simple home studio. I learnt to play instruments and wrote my own songs and recorded them. But I was always into a range of music and different artists. The idea of making albums really interested me between the ages of 13-16. I made a few albums every year. I would create my own artwork to accompany the albums.
Break down the history of the others in the group.
John and Joe Sam were in a band called Stone Circle with a guy called Dylan. Dylan lived down my road and we became friends as we were both into music. They were such a tight band, I was in a rock band at the time and we got demolished by them at the school Battle of the Bands. The fact that John and Joe are brothers gives them a strong musical connection and they work so well together, even though they are quite different in terms of personalities.
I met Richard at college, he was making hip-hop and using an MPC, we connected and I introduced him to John and Joe. When Stone Circle broke up we started a new band with another couple of friends, but then I went to University and it kind of fizzled out. When I came back from University in 2003 we started playing together again but just with the 4 of us. That’s when we really started to find our sound, we tried out different vocalists but never found the right person, so we just gigged as the 4 of us, or sometimes with a DJ or guest rapper.
The current project was a timely process-why was that?
It’s been a LONG process. Some of the beats from the album were written as long ago as 2003. It was a quite fragmented process, so it feels amazing to be able to release the project. I am always working on multiple projects at the same time, which is great because I can jump from one project to another, but it does mean that everything takes longer. During the time period we were making the album I released about 8 other albums and had a daughter who is now 4 years old. Another reason for the length of time was finances. At the time I was funding the project myself so kept running out of money.
2003 is a while back for sure. Talk about the time you created the tracks and indeed what did that time mean for you?
We used to record pretty much every rehearsal onto mini-disk. When we decided to record an album we went through all those old recordings and picked our favourites. We all had different choices so we each gave our top 10-we ended up recording around 30. At first we tried to pitch it to my contact at Wu-Music group as a Wu-Tang album but nothing came of that.
Break down your technical approach to the project?
On that first day when we recorded the foundations of all the tracks, I didn’t play any instruments. I just set up the mics and recorded. I then took the recordings and worked on them at home, editing, mixing and adding a few parts. Then we had a few extra sessions to do more overdubbing. Once we had the vocals then we got other session musicians involved to try and expand the sound even further. We wanted to embrace the sound of samples to a certain extent so getting strings, harps and horns helped to make it less of a conventional band sound.
Sonically what were you aiming for-we note this idea to capture that 90s hip-hop sound?
Yeah exactly-we wanted to sound like classic samples, like the type of thing that; DITC, Wu-Tang or Brand Nubian might have sampled. We were also influenced by those breaks-David Axelrod, Dorothy Ashby, James Brown and Galt MacDermot. At the same time we wanted the drums to bang like it had been mixed for a hip-hop record. We were trying to be present in 2 worlds at the same time. The looped up bass heavy essence of 90s hip-hop and the melodic and openness of jazz, funk and instrumental library / dusty fingers type stuff.
We read that you wanted the rhymers to have common ground why was that important?
Producer style albums where you have an array of featured vocalists do run the risk of not being consistent enough with the content and approach. I made sure that we only sourced MCs to feature on the same tracks if there was some connection between them. For instance I asked Guilty Simpson to suggest who could do the second verse on Malt Liquor and I hadn’t heard of Fat Ray before. The continuity of the album was helped with the new links we made. It also helped when I was getting in touch with people for the first time. When I was talking to John Robinson he told me El Da Sensei had played him his track with us. It just made sense that there was already some links between the MCs.
There are some big lyricists on the project. Talk about them in terms of their importance to hip hop and your wish to have them on this project.
We’ve got some of the greatest figures in hip-hop on this album. I still can’t quite believe it. Large Pro, one of the most influential producers in hip-hop, his work with Main Source and Nas was a big influence on us. Prince Po of Organized Konfusion, those guys were so innovative and original. Masta Ace, J-Live, Sadat, El Da Sensei, Edo G all incredible lyricists who we’d always wanted to work with. I also discovered a lot of great newer artists that I didn’t know about during this album. At the time, I was listening to lots of newer stuff and discovered gems like Soundsci, Denmark Vessey, Quelle Chris, Dumbtron, Blaise B and yU. Whenever I heard something that grabbed me as being right for us I’d get in touch with them.
Talk more about the personnel behind the album sessions musicians, mixers and indeed your own instrumental input.
We got quite a lot of extra people involved by the end of it. This wasn’t something I had originally planned to do. We did the harp sessions first. Amy just jammed over the tracks and I took bits that I liked. The strings were quite different. We wrote the lines specifically and gave them to Dom who recorded them. I will be returning to these extra instruments on future albums but at that point I will use different instruments. I don’t think there’s going to be any harps or strings on our second album.
In terms of mixing, I had been mixing it myself over a long period of time. I was starting to go mad. I had just heard everything too many times. So I was making things sound worse the more I was working on them. It was tough to send it to someone else to mix but I’m really glad that we did. I sent it to these guys called Doctor Mix, they would reference my mixes but make them better.
My own instrumental input was fairly minimal. My role for this album was really just producing and getting other people to play. However, I did all the percussion, pianos and samples.
Lastly please elaborate on Maggie and why she was important to Son Of Man and the debut album?
Maggie (John & Joe’s mum) was SO supportive, we rehearsed around at their house pretty much every weekend, often late into the night. She was just happy music was being played in the house. She was so easy going. Cinder Hill is the location of the Sam’s family house.