Cogito Ergo Sum Meets Two Turntables and a Microphone
Philosopher Rene Descartes and rap music usually do not get mentioned in the same sentence. For Mike Simpson ’86, the two seemingly disparate elements form part of the chain of good timing and fortune that has marked his path from a Pitzer philosophy major to a Grammy-winning songwriter and record producer as one of the Dust Brothers. Cartesian philosophy, famous for its split between body and mind, meets rap/hip-hop/soul music, famous for its fusion of body and mind. For Simpson, the fusion happened while at Pitzer.
“As a student at Grant High School in the San Fernando Valley, I missed all of the application deadlines for college, but my adviser had applied to Pitzer for me, so I got this call telling me I had been admitted to the College,” Simpson recalls. This was just one of the first of many well-timed circumstances: a philosophy major decided during a late night study session, a break in the music business born out of recrafted background tracks for public service announcements, and a major breakthrough album that came out of an unexpected visit. But don’t call it chance. There’s a nearly seamless logic that runs through it all: The recognition of Simpson’s talent and musical insight at just the right time. Pitzer turned out to be just the college to bring it all to the surface.
“There are so many great things about the College,” Simpson says. “The professors are incredible. They are so accessible to you while you carve your own path through college. The small classes are also a great environment for sharing ideas with peers and faculty members.”
While classes at Pitzer laid one of the cornerstones for Simpson, KSPC, the underground alternative radio station in Claremont, provided the outlet for his musical inclinations.
“The affiliation with KSPC was the major gateway for my business,” Simpson explains. “I started the first all-rap radio show there in 1983. I barely had enough records to fill a two-hour show. For years there were students who protested the show, claiming it didn’t serve the community. But Julie Frick, faculty director of the radio station, realized the community at large, cities such as Pomona and elsewhere, was greatly served by the show and the music. My show was wildly popular, second only in popularity to the polka show (a long-running staple of KSPC). The phones never stopped ringing during the show. And I was always in demand for DJ gigs in Pomona on the weekends.”
During the week, Simpson was soaking up as many classes as he could with Ron Rubin, professor of the History of Ideas at Pitzer. He says he was a huge fan of Rubin so he studied anything he taught. Chief among these subjects were logic and the 17th century thinker Descartes.
“When I came to Pitzer I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study. During a late-night study session with Matt Brandt ’85, who was going crazy with his philosophy paper, I rattled off this two-sentence answer to this problem and he said I should be a philosophy major. I took my first class with Rubin and I was hooked. In terms of running my business, philosophy gave me a footing in logic and also really opened me up to seeing things from different points of view,” Simpson says. “Although you always want to be right, there is often more than one point of view.”
Simpson met John King, a Claremont McKenna student, in 1985 and made him a partner in his mobile DJ business. They also continued the radio show while Simpson was enrolled in the Citrus College music program working in the studio and learning how to use computers to make music.
“We had to read these public service announcements during our segment and the background tracks just did not work with our show, so we made our own,” Simpson says. “From time to time we would have rappers come down and serve as guest DJs during the show. Tone Loc came down once and heard some of the background tracks we had made for the announcements and wanted to use them. The next day, we were invited to Hollywood and hired by Delicious Vinyl record company.”
Simpson’s first two production projects were Tone Loc’s “Wild Thing,” (1989) the first Top Ten rap song for a black rapper, and Young MC’s “Bust a Move” (1990). Loc’s album, Loc’ed After Dark, became the second rap release ever to top the pop charts, following the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill. Young MC’s single won a Grammy for Best Rap performance and the album, Stone Cold Rhymin’, went platinum.
The next big opportunity literally came knocking at the door of the homemade studio Simpson was working in above a brake shop.
“I was creating music around the clock. One day, the Beastie Boys, looking for a party, popped in and heard my music. They said, ‘Wow. Can we use these songs for our next record?’ So I made the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique,” Simpson says, surprisingly nonchalant, as if everyone produces records for the Beastie Boys.
“For much of the mid-’80s, the Beastie Boys were considered as macho clowns, and while their ambitious, Dust Brothers-produced second album, Paul’s Boutique, dismissed that theory, it was ignored by both the public and the press at the time. In retrospect, it was one of the first albums to predict the genre-bending, self-referential pop kaleidoscope of ‘90s pop,” according to Stephen Thomas Erlewine of All Music Guide on MTV.com. “Despite its poor commercial performance, Paul’s Boutique gained a cult following, and its cut-and-paste sample techniques would later be hailed as visionary, especially after the Dust Brothers altered the approach for Beck’s acclaimed 1996 album, Odelay,” Erlewine continues.
“Beck was my favorite artist to work with,” Simpson says. “Words can’t describe what it’s like to work with a real musical genius. You can bounce a bad idea off him and he turns it into something good. The worst, by comparison, was Vince Neil of Motley Crue. Basically he was always too drunk to sing. It was Vince’s second solo record in the early ‘90s and we literally had to take his vocals and produce them syllable by syllable correcting for timing and pitch.”
The success of Beck’s album made Simpson realize that being in the business means you have to play the game, he says.
“I hired a publicist and started doing magazine articles and getting all kinds of offers for records and movies,” he says. “The first was Fight Club, which was amazing. David Fincher, the director, was a big fan of Paul’s Boutique so that was a tremendous opportunity.” Simpson’s soundtrack for Fight Club was nominated for a Brit Award for best soundtrack in 2000.
Success followed success for Simpson. At one point he was vice president at Dreamworks records, president of Ideal Records at Disney (they had bought Nickel Bag records, the label he had started on his own), and president of Dust Brothers. Jeffrey Katzenberg, Steven Spielberg and David Geffen decided to start Dream-works records in 1996 and had asked Simpson to help start the company.
It was at that point that Dust Brothers became sort of a music factory, Simpson explains. So he started another company, Los Angeles Produce, for purely solo projects such as the scores for Road Trip, Zoolander, and Freddy Got Fingered, as well as music and soundtrack work for all of the Gap campaigns from 2000 to 2004, Sponge Bob Square Pants, and jingles for Nike, Alpine, Georgia Power and Fox Sports commercials.
In addition to critical acclaim, Simpson’s work has picked up some Hollywood hardware. He has been nominated for multiple Grammys: three for Beck’s 1996 release Odelay, one for Beck’s 1999 release Midnite Vultures, one for Hanson’s 1997 debut album Middle of Nowhere, and another for best instrumental artist for the theme for the X-Files movie. He wrote and produced the song, “Wishing It Was,” on Santana’s Supernatural, for which Simpson received a Grammy in 2000 for Album of the Year.
Simpson has never forgotten his roots, hiring many Pitzer graduates along the way.
“Every Pitzer student who has contacted us has gotten a job,” he says. “I feel like Pitzer is one of the best schools in the country for encouraging self-motivators. The curriculum and the way the course of study is set up means you really have to figure out what you want to do. All of the graduates I have hired have been very focused and self-starters. Pitzer students are good problem solvers, don’t need to be supervised, and are very responsible.”
In a business that he calls 90 percent luck and timing, Simpson has made it a point to give Pitzer graduates a leg up. It’s only logical.
Mike Simpson on Producing
|“In addition to being producers, we also engineer our own projects, which is an important distinction. So, not only are we in there pushing the buttons and turning the knobs and working on the computer, which is all very technical, but the producer’s main role is to provide a good environment, the best possible environment, for the artist to be creative and that can be any number of things. Some producers are very hands-off, and they just book the studio time, make sure all the musicians are going to be there, hire an engineer. And then they come at the beginning of a session and, you know, they just sort of create a good vibe and they just sort of take off and let the band do their own thing. We are sort of at the other end of the spectrum. We are very hands-on. We get involved with the artist very early and help them select which songs they’re going to record. We might help them work on their songs, work on their arrangements, work on the tempo, work on the approach to the song. When we get in the studio, we’re right in there listening to every take and making suggestions and bouncing ideas off each other and, basically, sort of overseeing the whole album. Overseeing the whole recording of the whole album. Everything from creating a budget to taking care of the administrative stuff to making creative decisions in terms of song and arrangement and things like that.”
Samples of Work
Beastie Boys (Capitol)
Odelay - entire album (except “Minus” and “Ramshackle”)
Beck (A&M Records)
A Life Less Ordinary soundtrack - “Deadweight”
Biz Markie (Polygram)
Guilty Pleasures - “Love Rollercoaster”
Coolio (MCA Records)
Half-Baked soundtrack - “(I’m In Love With) Mary Jane”
Middle of Nowhere - “Mmm Bop,” “Thinking of You”
Howard Stern and The Dust Brothers (Warner Brothers)
Howard Stern’s Private Parts soundtrack - “Tortured Man”
Korn and The Dust Brothers (Immortal/Epic)
Spawn soundtrack - “Kick the P.A.”
Mellow Man Ace (Capitol)
Escape From Havana - “Hip-Hop Creature”
Rolling Stones (Virgin)
Bridges to Babylon - “Anybody Seen My Baby,” “Saint of Me,” “Might as Well Get Juiced”
Smashmouth (MCA Records)
Half-Baked soundtrack - “Virgin Girl”
Tone Loc (Delicious Vinyl)
Loc’ed After Dark - “Wild Thing,” “Loc’ed After Dark,” “Cheebah Cheebah,” “On Fire,” “Cutting Rhythms,” “Next Episode,” “Don’t Get Close”
Young M.C. (Delicious Vinyl)
Stone Cold Rhymin’ - “Knowhow,” “Got More Rhymes”