It’s always easy to write up a song when it comes along by itself or you haven’t heard anything from the artist in awhile. But choosing a song to highlight from a mixtape can be quite the conundrum, especially when there are several standout tracks. That’s where I found myself when time came to highlight The Paxtons’ Manhattan Project. One particular car trip found I was settled on “What We Doin’ (Ballin),” but then on the ride back home, “Livin A Movie” stayed on repeat. The next day, I found myself relating heavily to “Money Right.”
So to shine a bit of extra light on one of the best full lengths of the recent year, we decided to reach out to Chris and Dave to get more insight on their creative process in making my personal faves from the project.
“As Told To” — The Paxtons
“Ceaser” — Caesar was one of the last tracks to be finished. It flips Diplo’s remix of “Caesar” by I Blame Coco. Mr. Garr brought us the original song and when we heard it, we knew it had to be the intro. The beat was so large and engaging that it was the perfect way to tell the story that birthed The Manhattan Project.
Chris: Making the opener dynamic from start to finish was very important. The first verse I wrote without hearing Dave’s was very cerebral and the flow pales in comparison as far as aesthetics. Most of the verse you hear now was intended for another song that didn’t make the project. The flow and the content fit better. It is more suited to the overall tone and vibe that we wanted to convey.
Dave: The chorus “who holds the shell will be Caesar” is a reference to Lord of the Flies. That’s our way of saying we have the floor and are to be taken seriously.
“What We Doin’ (Ballin) — Our longtime friend Skech185 of Tomorrow Kings brought us this beat back in December of ’08 for us to collaborate on. It was produced by Brenmar, drummer for Brooklyn based band These Are Powers.
Dave: It sat in the can during the WORK period but when The Blueprint 3 dropped and I heard that “…ballin, bitches eating yo food leaving dishes…” it dawned on me to cut it up for the hook. We knew we were going to grab attention with the sample. It was intended to double as a social commentary on materialism and where our priorities lie. Lyrically, it was the perfect platform to talk about what’s going on in the hoods of Chicago, from gangs to gentrification.
Chris: When we first laid verses we sent it back to Skech, who immediately sent it back to Brenmar as is. The rest is history.
“As Told To” — The Paxtons
“Super Stupid” (Feat. Jessica Neal) — When we were about 75% done with the songs that made the final cut, we were up on iTunes browsing mixtapes and benchmarking. That led to The Cool Kids Gone Fishing mixtape, which led to us finding “Jump Rope,” which led to us bodying that instrumental. The summertime-in-the-hood feel of that beat was exactly what TMP was missing at the time and it brought out the best of our Chicago influences. Both of those verses were finished in the same night.
Chris: I wanted to capture that same little hood girl feel that Tenille brought to the original and kick it up a notch, so we hit up Jessica Neal from TeLuv. She wrote and recorded a part at the end. As soon as I heard it, I knew the melody was a banger but we had sequenced the song to go into a different place on the project from where it was when I initially sent it to her. By the time I got her vocals back, I had a completely different vision for what I wanted her part to be about. So I kept the melody and rewrote the lyrics to be cohesive with “Foreplay” coming right after it. She was a lil salty with me but she went back in and re-recorded the vocals anyway. That’s why I love her tho. She’s crazy talented and puts up with my shit.
Dave: She brought the super stupid to the record. After like 48 dense bars, she brings you back in with that pop element and ties it into “Foreplay.”
“Living A Movie” (Feat. XO) — This was the first song we recorded when we moved to New York. Thinking back on all the layers that went into it, it’s still amazing to hear the final result. The skeleton was a flip of a ’70s synth opera score by Jean Michel Jarre. Dave’s drums were inspired by Jeezy’s “By The Way” and Cee laid all the pianos and synths. We brought in Tyrone Jackson for the live bass-line and DJ Nick Castle for the cuts, both from Chicago. XO’s verse was written and recorded in our hotel room at SXSW after building with the Diamond District crew at one of the showcases. It was dope to get that authentic DC perspective on the track. The third verse was initially intended for Donnis but for whatever reason, he passed on it.
Chris: I was actually on the plane to Cleveland last December when I wrote “posted on a plane I pen with qwerty not a pencil.” That was one of the more natural 16s on the whole mixtape. It was equal parts venting and celebration
Dave: I was writing on the same flight but when I heard what Cee came up with, I completely scrapped it and went back to the drawing board. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to trump it but in the spirit of competition, I did my best to keep up!
“As Told To” — The Paxtons
“Money Right” — This is was definitely the most personal record on TMP. It grew out of the self-imposed hibernation we placed on ourselves to finish the mixtape and the story that brought us to this point. It speaks to the independent artist’s struggle to juggle success, sacrifice and industry bullshit.
Dave: Everything in my verse was like a stream of consciousness reflecting on our past year in music that led to the move to New York and our first invite to SXSW. 2009 was kind of like a whirlwind between the positive reception of WORK and the ability to take our music on the road and see all these different places and people. For a time I had started to lose myself in it all and got my first wake up call when my grandma died in Cleveland while we were out partying with DJ Steph Floss. I wrote that verse in Austin as kind of catharsis.
Chris: After I heard Dave’s lyrics, I initially didn’t want to write to it, because I didn’t want to follow it with another personal verse. That would’ve turned it into a competition, and that’s alright sometimes, but when it comes to serious shit about our lives, we want people to hear what we are saying and respect its gravity. Like Scarface said, “I could have rapped about my hard times in this song, but heaven knows I would’ve been wrong.” I was at an impasse though. I knew if I didn’t put something on it, it wouldn’t come out. So instead of dwelling on all the problems Dave brought up, I took the stance of moving forward.
“Beamin” (Feat. Oscar Wao) — After we finished the verses, Mr. Garr introduced us to a hidden interlude on Sam Sparro’s album that had a chord progression similar to the pianos in Lupe’s “I’m Beamin” and lyrics that cut right to the core of The Manhattan Project. DC producer, Hayling, came through with a piano arrangement that perfectly transposed The Neptunes chords into a rendition of Sparro’s interlude, and we brought in Oscar Wao to cover its first verse. We felt like the end result was the heart and soul of the project.
Dave: This was maybe the third song we worked on for TMP, but it was the centerpiece for the entire project. I had written a decent amount of stuff that was intended for the tape, prior to this, and the team wasn’t sold. They felt like it wasn’t a big enough leap from WORK. When I brought this verse to the table, our manager was like “that’s your best verse ever.” Mr. Garr was like, “if you can deliver a tape full of rhymes like these, we gon’ have a classic on our hands.” From that point on I never looked back.
Chris: After we heard Dave’s verse, my initial verse ended up on another track. The team pretty much said “either step up, or this is a solo joint.” After I went back to the drawing board, they had to honor it. I think that element of competition is what makes this tape so dynamic. We somehow managed to push each other to unprecedented levels to keep from getting “Phife’d.”
“As Told To” — The Paxtons
“Curtains” — We chopped up this Dexter Wansel sample like a year and a half ago during the WORK sessions and nothing seemed to stick. So we put it on ice. When we were trying to round out TMP we pulled it back out the stash and it just made sense. The hook came first and everything else followed suit. After we heard Wiz Khalifa and Melo-X drop flips of the same sample like a month apart, we were this close to cutting the track. But ironically it came back to the fans. We opened every show this summer with this record and the people loved it. We couldn’t let it go.
Chris:The original version we cut before the summer sounded nothing like the final one. It was a lot more laid back. During the live show, which had Oscar Wao accompanying on vocals, it was a lot bigger and more heartfelt. We went back in the studio after a summer of performing it and did our best to capture that live energy.
Dave: “Curtains” was the culmination of our year between WORK and TMP performing and traveling to promote our brand. It’s our take on the artist/fan relationship.
“Champion” — We’re big Clipse fans and draw a lot of inspiration from their records, “Champion” being one of the newer joints that really spoke to us. TMP was about overcoming anonymity, hardship and the like and this was the perfect closer to run a “victory lap.”
Chris: The verse I wrote for “Champion” actually started out as my verse for “Beamin.” But when Dave came with the dynamic flow and structure to kick it off, I had to completely start from scratch. When I sat down to “Champion,” I knew I wanted to paint a picture.
Dave: This was one of my favorite verses on TMP and it came together the fastest. After I heard Cee’s first line, I just kind of ran with it and had it written and recorded in a few hours. I wanted to give ’em something straightforward to wrap up the whole mixtape in 16 bars. “Damn it feels good getting paid to rap” was the perfect cliffhanger…
On choosing the title for the project — Though an allusion to our recent residence, The Manhattan Project is also the codename for a historic WWII project; the mission of which was to develop the first atomic bomb ahead of competing nations. In musical terms, we took the same approach by building a mixtape that we felt clearly showed an unseen hunger and level of progression and creativity that would blow anything else out of the water by comparison. Drawing the parallel further, our creative process similarly took place not only in New York but across a number of cities such as Chicago, Washington D.C. and St. Louis.
MZ: Aside from the music, the packaging of The Manhattan Project really impressed me. I picked up my iPod Touch while driving to run a song back and noticed that the full lyrics were on the screen. Scrolling through all of tracks, each had its own picture (which you see above the write-ups) and lyrics. As a supporter of album artwork and liner notes, this was the first time I ever felt like I might be able to buy mp3’s if CD’s were to ever stop being produced.
On putting together the presentation of the mixtape — When creating music, our thought process is centered around making experiences, not events. We always talk about what it was like to cut high school and stand in line for game-changing records like It’s Dark & Hell Is Hot or Aquemini and get home and read the lyrics and liner notes and so on. That made listening to those albums an experience. We wanted to do our best to convey those same emotions and experiences that made TMP so powerful for us through the digital medium.
Between Memorial Day and TMP’s Labor Day release, we did like twenty-something shows between New York, Philly and Chicago with our band Sela and employed some amazing photographers to capture it all. Afterward we went through the painstaking process of finding images that best connected with songs. For example, the image featuring my quote from “Caesar” was captured at the last show of the summer—a few days after my father passed. That was actually me holding back a emo moment [Laughs]. Since I do all of the graphic work associated with our brand, from the mixtape art to our website, everything is a hands-on process.
The Paxtons’ The Manhattan Project is available for stream/download now on their Bandcamp page. To keep up on their next maneuvers, follow them on Twitter: @ChrisThePaxtons, @DaveThePaxtons & @ThePaxtons