Inside Fishtown’s Watts Studio with budding production duo DYAD
ˈdīad/ noun technical
- something that consists of two elements or parts.
Seated in the spacious control room of Watts Studios located on the second floor of a unassuming Warehouse Space in near Front & Girard, producer/engineer Micah Forsyth cracks jokes with Anwar Marshall, a fellow producer, arranger and his musical partner in DYAD. Marshall, who also plays in the magnificent Philly Jazz Ensemble Fresh Cut Orchestra, crack jokes and casually discuss the work of Nigerian afro-beat pioneer, Fela Kuti. As a small crew of musicians filter into the space greeting the duo, Forsyth plays a rough demo recorded on Marshall’s phone. The voicemail is a recording of rapper and multi-Instrumentalist Khemist strumming a few chords on acoustic guitar.
Marshall recalls the recording excitedly: “As soon as I heard him playing that, I had to record it!” After laying down a drum track that references the complex, polyrhythmic pulse of legendary Fela drummer Tony Allen, Marshall finds his way over to a small keyboard in the corner of the control room and begins plucking out chords and incomplete riffs. Building on the energy of the track, the crew adds a sleek, live horn section and hip, peacocking bassline. As the tune begins to take on a life of its own, Khemist idles around the room, listening. The tune they are working on is for his upcoming solo project and it is clear that he is gearing up to put his stamp on the track. Forsyth asks “you got something?” Khemist nods and makes his way into the booth. In no time he lays down two verses and a slick, Latin inspired hook for the song. Slowly but surely, what started out as a rough demo is blossoming into an elaborate, fully formed piece of music. In the midst of the jokes and easy-going chats lies a serious sense of traditional musical craftsmanship met with modern creativity to make magic possible, even on a random Thursday afternoon in North Philly.
With a sound that fuses hip-hop and soul with tasteful, jazz-informed arrangements, DYAD bring to mind a modern update of 70s jazz-funk pioneers The Mizell Brothers or Steely Dan if Walter Becker and Donald Fagen had been born in the hip-hop generation. Over the past couple years, the duo has been making serious inroads in the city’s music scene, producing tunes for a host of artists including The Bul Bey, Elle Morris and their standout work on STS’ (aka Sugar Tongue Slim) recent Ladies Night project.
The duo is surrounded by an Incredibly fertile community of musicians, rappers, and singers whose come together to infuse their modern music productions with live instrumentation, creating a sound that is both classic and contemporary. This collaborative approach to making records adds to the depth and soul of the DYAD sound. “The musicians are really important that we couldn’t do it without them.” Forsyth explains. “We’re just lucky to have a bunch of friends who are super amazing people and super amazing at their instruments.”
Marshall and Forsyth connected several years ago while working in the Philly music scene. Marshall recalls: “I met Micah when he had his basement studios in North Philly. I was the drummer for a couple of groups that were recording there, but i was also producing some of those groups. Mainly [alternative-soul singer] Josiah Wise’s group and The 20Somthings [now known as Sumfolk].” Forsyth adds that the two struck up a working partnership early on with Marshall playing the role of producer / beatmaker for local groups and Forsyth fulfilling the engineering duties.
As the partnership grew and evolved, it began working in studios spaces such as the Boom Room in Fishtown and West Philly, eventually settling in North Philly and building the impressive space that currently houses Watts Studio. Sitting in on a few of their sessions, it is immediately noticeable how quickly the two flesh out song ideas and arrangements. It is clear that their working relationship is not only rooted in friendship but a hard-won musical compatibility. “It’s really fun being a part of production with him,” says Forsyth. “Makes my job fun and relaxing. I can just play with sound cause I can trust Anwar to think critically about the harmonic and rhythmic content and not just settle on the first idea. We also just really have a similar vision for songs so we almost never get slowed down by disagreeing.”
The group’s philosophy behind record producing and songcraft is deceptively simple, they study the classics and do their best to keep it fresh: “Really our main intention is to make music we like,” Forsyth says with a laugh. “But for real, we both are mostly inspired by music made in the late 60s, 70s and early 80s, but don’t wanna be boring and just remake old shit. We also do a lot of listening for references which usually end up being Stevie Wonder, Prince, Chaka Khan, Marvin Gaye and the rest of the crew. We try and pull sonic and harmonic ideas from those songs.”
Marshall agrees and adds a bit of insight on how the practice of deep, critical listening to the funk, Soul, disco and jazz of the past informs their work: “We try to take the lessons we learn from that music but apply them to modern music. The attention to detail that’s what I notice about my favorite recorded music. Folks like Sly Stone, George Clinton, Miles, Prince…it is uncanny.”
With a wealth of upcoming production work for some of the city’s brightest artists, DYAD are keen to bring back classic record producing, carrying on the tradition laid down by area pioneers Gamble & Huff, The Butcher Bros, Dexter Wansel and countless others who pushed boundaries, transforming the recording studio into an instrument of its own.