Take a Trip Inside The Alchemist's Laboratory
By Alexander Fruchter
“I’m telling you I’m sick, man. I don’t know what’s going on here. You gotta keep up.”
The Alchemist has been behind some of Hip-Hop’s most beloved productions. In 2020, he’s more up-front than ever.
The Alchemist’s career trajectory tells a remarkable story that reflects smart career choices and a strong work ethic. He may describe his journey as typical, however, it’s anything but. Here’s some insight.
Daniel Alan Maman, The Alchemist, grew up in Beverly Hills, California. He remembers that the first concert he attended was U2 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and he was taken there by his older brother. As a young child, he wasn’t a music fan, but maybe a casual listener. His mother forced him to take piano lessons, and like a lot of boys growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, he abandoned them to play sports and chase girls, but not before learning to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” with one finger. Fun fact: His piano teacher was the keyboard player in the Knack, whose song “My Sharona,” was No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 year-end chart in 1979.
Like most kids that ended up pursuing music, Alchemist can remember his holy-shit moment. It happened upon hearing “Jam on It” by Newcleus. “That whole shit was mind-blowing,” he says during a phone interview. “Like, what is this? Some aliens singing? I remember hearing that as a kid and being blown away.”
The 12-inch vinyl for “The Show” with B-side “Lodi Dodi” soon followed as the first record he remembers purchasing. The acquisition marked a turning point: He was hooked on rap music. That led Al to form a band with individuals such as Scott Caan, whose famous father, James, appeared in The Godfather, among numerous other films.
B-Real, Sen Dog and DJ Muggs, of Cypress Hill / Photo by Lynn Goldsmith/ Corbis/VCG via Getty Images
What followed is far from typical: Alchemist signed a record deal with Tommy Boy Records, missed a year of high school touring with Cypress Hill, and learned how to make beats by DJ Muggs, but his description of what transpired makes it sound as mundane as eating a hotdog at a baseball game.
“I would go to Muggs’ crib after school,” he says. “We would just make beats. He would have crazy records for me to go through, he always had weed, he would give me $1,000 cash in little envelopes — money from the label — once a week, and we would eat at Benihana’s every day. I was living the best life ever.”
To summarize: He was in a rap group signed to the same label as De La Soul, got envelopes of unmarked cash from one of Hip-Hop’s best producers, and missed school to go on a nationwide tour. It was all a far cry from basic teenage shit.
The Alchemist’s career and journey in the music business has been nothing short of exceptional, at times unbelievable, and 100 percent original. Perhaps the only thing that outdistances his unique come-up is his ridiculous amount of skill and the respect he warrants among his peers. Many kids start out as childhood prodigies or are predicted for success, but few fulfill their promise and represent their mentors as Al did.
Alchemist maintains one of the longest-running and successful careers in Hip-Hop, one that is at a new peak in 2020. As Evidence, one of Alchemist’s best friends, longtime collaborator, and partner in Step Brothers puts it, “That’s hard. Very hard for somebody to do in the third, fourth, or fifth stage of their career. That’s not normal.”
Clearly Alchemist is having a banner run, and he admits it, as evidenced by his tweet: “I’m over 20 years in and arguably having one of my best years yet. Keep going, trust me!”
The tweet is motivational and self-aware. “That’s some interesting shit,” says Evidence, who knows Alchemist better than most. “I think it’s important for people to understand, he could have chilled at ‘Keep It Thoro,’ he could’ve chilled at ‘We Gonna Make It,’ Nas’ ‘Book of Rhymes.’ He could’ve chilled right there and been straight and been a legend. But he kept going and kept going and kept going.”
Alchemist has indeed kept going, even though, as LA music writer and label owner Jeff Weiss says, “Alchemist was already a legend before he was old enough to shave.”
As of this writing in 2020, Alchemist has released acclaimed collaborative projects with Conway the Machine, Boldy James, and the Cool Kids. He’s also produced songs for JAY-Z and Jay Electronica, Eminem, Roc Marciano, Earl Sweatshirt, and West$ide Gunn. He’s one of the few active producers who has produced for damn-near everybody from damn-near every era. He’s the unofficial fourth member of Dilated Peoples, the unofficial third member of Mobb Deep, had a hand in Cypress Hill’s classic Temple of Boom LP, and is at the center of Hip-Hop’s current movement toward grimy street raps, which includes the sounds, sample styles, and artists he’s been championing for years. As Peter Rosenberg says after recently watching Alchemist on IG Live, “It reminded me of just how many different lives he’s lived.”
Eminem / Photo by Samir Hussein/Getty Images
So what’s changed? What aligned for the Alchemist to achieve this notoriety, visibility, and résumé after two decades?
“I don’t know if I’m equipped to answer that,” Alchemist says, laughing. It’s the kind of laugh that comes from seeing something others haven’t, when you know things will work out, possibly before the work has even started. “I could tell you, it wasn’t really anything that I did differently. I didn’t predict it, that’s for sure.”
It’s early Friday evening on May 1 of this year. After a series of emails, I finally connect with Alc — the man, the myth, the legend, the one they used to call Mudfoot — perhaps the only producer regarded as an architect of sounds from each coast, an artist who lived on both sides of the mainstream vs underground division during the height of that division. I don’t know anyone else producing for High & Mighty and Jadakiss or another producer that would put Dilated Peoples and Lloyd Banks on the same LP. His credits go as far back as 1996 and include Fashawn, Fat Joe, Bishop Lamont, Rick Ross, Action Bronson, B.o.B., La Coka Nostra, Lil’ Wayne, as well as group projects such as Step Brothers, Durag Dynasty, and Gangrene.
Several attributes have poised Alchemist to succeed, some key internal and external factors that have led to a hall of fame career. Just like the science from which he pulls his name, it is a delicate mix.
One of Alchemist’s key traits is patience coupled with just the right amount of stubbornness. It’s not easy to stick to your guns and wait for others to catch up. He DJ’d for Eminem for a long time before producing a true Eminem song, as was told to me in a 2006 interview when he became Em’s DJ. “I’ve been with Em on numerous occasions. I never pushed him [to] ‘Check out this beat.’ ” he said in the interview. “Being a part of these kinds of teams that are just so huge, I just gotta sit on my hands. Believe me, my hands are making the beats while I’m sitting on them.”
In addition, Alchemist sold weed to Mobb Deep before they knew he made beats. And he’s been working with a core of artists that the world is finally waking up to like the whole Griselda camp and Boldy James. But Al’s been awake, both literally and figuratively.
“If you know him, you know he doesn’t sleep sleep,” says Rakaa Iriscience of Dilated Peoples, an LA-based trio that came to be synonymous with the Cali underground scene and sound. Rakaa has known Alchemist since he was a teenager and started coming around LA’s Hip-Hop shop with Evidence, Rakaa’s partner in Dilated Peoples.
Dilated Peoples, left to right: Rakaa, Babu, and Evidence / Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
“I’d go stay at his crib in New York many times, fly out to NYC and go to work, stay at his crib, and chill,” Rakaa recounts. “His bed will stay made the whole time. He’ll go into his room fully clothed, hoodie on, jacket, he’ll kick off one shoe and lay down on top of his bed at 5 a.m., sleep until 7 a.m., get up, brush his teeth, snap a bowl, and back to work. He’s not an either-or type of person, he’s just like, ‘I’ma do more.’ ”
DJ Premier agrees. “Al has one of the greatest work ethics. He’ll go and go and go, you got to love it. I love that guy, he’s like a little brother I never had,” he says. “Even if it’s 6 a.m., I can FaceTime Al, he’s going to pick up, he’s definitely going to be blowing some trees, and we’re both like playing each other’s stuff on FaceTime. You can’t do that with everybody.”
DJ Premier also met Alchemist when Al he was just a teen, running the smoke machine for Cypress Hill’s live show, making sure the giant inflatable Buddha filled up quickly. Fuck! That’s an example of get in where you fit in gone horribly right.
“He’d already told me he was working on beats ’cause Muggs was mentoring him, and before he got to the level of putting his name on stuff, Muggs was showing him the ropes,” Premier recalls. “We went on tour together when Alchemist was a roadie for Cypress Hill. During all of that tour, our tour buses would pull up at the same time, and we’d always hang out together, and we just became buddies. We would always smoke, and he would tell me about the beats he was working on: ‘I gotta play you some stuff.’ And then when the [“Open Mic Night”] remix came out, I was like, ‘Oh, this is nasty.’ I liked his version better than the original, and he was starting to make some noise. Then I took him to my D’Angelo sessions when I was making ‘Devil’s Pie.’ ”
That “Devil’s Pie” session birthed this photo of Premier, Dilla, D’Angelo, and a young Alchemist fresh off dropping out of NYU and ready to breakthrough with Mobb Deep. Side note: He also got invited to that session because D’Angelo kept badgering Premier to “bring that kid back, the one with the California weed.”
While Premier is humble and prefers to think of Alchemist “more like another good friend that I acquired in my life,” instead of as a mentee or protégé, Alchemist is quick to recognize Premier as a major influence.
“That’s all I wanted to be, like Premier,” says Alchemist. “I used to buy albums and if I see Premier’s name, I’m going right to that song, and that’s gonna be my favorite song on the album. That was what I wanted to be, and that was my goal. I always told Preem that’s what I got most from him. I knew I couldn’t do his sound, nobody can. But his reputation, and how he was on albums, that’s what I always wanted to be. Oh, you see the name? It’s definitely gotta be something. May not be the hit, but it’s the one that’s gonna hit your heart. It’s gonna be that hard shit, whatever it is, it’s special."
Music producer and recording artist The Alchemist in New York City./ Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage MAIN
That evolution did not happen overnight. Evidence explains, “A lot of those [early] beats were, not mockeries, but they were highly influenced by whoever he was inspired by at the time. So if it was Large Professor, he had some shit that sounded like Large Professor. Pete Rock, same. Premier? Especially. He wasn’t imitating, but he was, I think, emulating. It was obvious what he was going after when I would hear the beat, ‘Oh that’s some Premier shit. Oh, that’s like some Pete Rock shit.’ To me, his originality hadn’t happened yet. What was so dope was how good he could do that. Because just to be able to make something that sounds like Premier without just ripping it off, that’s a skill set in itself.”
Eventually Alchemist broke through. Evidence shows it was around the year 2000 when Dilated Peoples finished their debut LP, The Platform. “I tell people all the time, if you want to see how a car’s built, take it apart and put it back together. I think that’s what he was doing in his early stages, kind of emulating those tracks, figuring out how everybody was doing what they’re doing. Once he figured that out, he moved past it and started to form a sound that I hadn’t heard before. It was still directly influenced by his inspirations, but it no longer had that emulation feel. It moved more into innovation. At that point, I was like, ‘This is some shit.’ ”
To that end, it’s an interesting fact that quite a few Jews wrote famous Christmas songs. Maybe it’s because they had an outside perspective on the holiday or maybe they were just great songwriters. And when it comes to drawing from the outside, even though Al is from LA (and a defining part of an LA Hip-Hop sound), he also tracked an era of New York rap, some of the most recognizable NYC records with some of the Kings of New York.
“The New York sound hit us in a crazy way. I don’t know how it happened, but it was like, that New York sound, those producers, Diamond D, Large Professor, Pete Rock, the Beatnuts, EPMD, the Beatminerz, Q-Tip. That sound fucked me up more,” Al explains. And while he officially attended NYU (“I’ll be honest, I didn’t even apply to another school”), he unofficially went to test his mettle in the Hip-Hop mecca. He had to put himself in the center of it all.
“He left LA to go to New York [for] college,” Evidence says. “And he told me one day, ‘I’m going to chill on rapping. I’m going to really move forward with this production shit. I’m gonna call myself the Alchemist.’ Something about it just rang right away. As a homie who was used to something, I could’ve been like, ‘Nah’ or ‘I don’t know if that’s gonna work bro,’ or whatever. But when he said that, something about it was like, ‘Bet, that’s gonna work.’ And it did.”
Alchemist thinks fondly of his early days in New York, a time when he came into his own. He walked the streets charged up, ready to put his foot into the production world.
“I didn’t have a musical identity prior to moving to New York. I was kind of just making music,” he says, almost doing so in verbal bullet-points: “I was already versed in all of that shit. Premier was my idol. Muggs was my teacher. I had so much shit that once I got out there I really felt anointed. I’d walk through the streets with headphones on listening to Large Professor’s ‘The Mad Scientist.’ Walking the streets of New York like, ‘Ah, yeah, it’s on. I’m immersed in it now. I’m here now. This is the sound. Stretch and them, they’re playing that shit, on those nights. I know Stretch now ’cause of Mighty Mi. I did a beat for High and Mighty, they’re playing my shit on Stretch and Bobitto. OK. I know Premier, that’s my big homie.’ Even before I met Mobb, I felt I was there for a good reason.”
Dante Ross was around during Alchemist’s NYC days. He remembers that he was initially put onto Alchemist a few years before when Everlast or Muggs told him they were down with “a white kid who sounds like a teenage Grand Puba.” Ross lived a few blocks from Alchemist during the New York days and would refer to Al’s crib as ‘the post office’ because of its proximity to the postal depot. He would go over to Al’s place to chill, make beats, and pick up weed, and he now considers Alchemist a hero. “Al’s a hero ’cause Al does everything on his own terms. Al never played the game, the game comes to Al,” Dante says, in reference to a tweet from 2014. Dante admires Al’s stubbornness and unshakeable determination to do things his own way, which is another key to how he’s able to move through the music industry.
“He is definitely someone who could get put in a backpack bag, but somehow it’s Al’s bag and it’s not a backpack bag. It’s his own thing, and it works for him,” Dante says. “He hasn’t changed what he does that much, he pretty much just does what Al does. It’s been pretty consistent and brand on, and it’s because of that brand, the whole world came back to Al. He was pistol-hot in the early ’00s, but rap went another wave and Al rode the wave out and look at him now, he’s in the middle of all this cool shit.”
It’s evident that Alchemist has achieved staying power because of his incredible talent and the fact that he’s learned from some of the best. Jeff Weiss likens Al coming up under Muggs and Premier as “the equivalent of learning to smoke weed from Willie Nelson and Tommy Chong.”
Al never chased the trends. As he puts it: “I’m real stubborn anyways, so I’m going to make the type of shit I like, and if me trusting my handle with things I like means success because other people like it too, I’m gonna just stick to that.”
All of the above traits — following your gut, refusing to sell out, and patiently waiting for a time to shine are also all core tenets of Hip-Hop. Since the day he discovered and dove into Hip-Hop, Al has also lived by its codes. Through that he’s gained acceptance, honed his skills, and become a mainstay.
Alchemist works at an extremely efficient pace. Rakaa says, “He doesn’t give you an opportunity to hate.”
“His organizational skills are huge,” Evidence says. “A lot of greats that I’ve seen in the game aren’t the most organized, and because of it, they can suffer. Everything’s documented. All his records are always clean. He’s got a list. He’s got a system. He’s got an idea and he sees it through, overly driven. The organizational skill is crazy with him. And I think in this modern day, how he’s really killing shit.”
This branding and organization are key elements of Al’s success. He has been in the music industry since he was a teenager, and he’s made keen observations. “I was always business minded, not just creative,” he says. “Even as a kid, I always had a hustle mentality to make moves and do stuff. I was aware of the music industry, but it was never what governed me. And you could see that’s how I moved in my career. I didn’t make moves based on money.”
Al’s biggest motivation seems to have always been his name recognition, but not in a self-serving way. It was more about the props, the respect, the contributions to Hip-Hop, and being hailed for it — having his name synonymous with something dope. Rakaa may put it best: “He understood that before there was a plaque on the wall, a platinum symbol next to your name on Billboard, or your bank account reflected all that, everything was just a beat. You had to make that batch that connected with people. I think he goes into every session that he does, whatever song he’s going into, with the goal of maximizing the potential energy of the situation, whatever that is. If it boosts record sales and grabs a plaque that makes him create some more wall space, that’s cool, and if it’s a situation where it’s just more respect in the underground, then that’s cool, too. I think that’s what it is.”
Alchemist dealt with enough labels and artists during the course of his career to start to understand the mechanics. Just as he took the car apart to develop his own production style, he did the same when releasing projects and creating product. Admiring the taste of labels like Stones Throw and Curtom as well as series such as Madlib’s Medicine Show, Al decided it was time to expand the name and expand the brand. The result is ALC Laboratories, the label through which he releases his instrumental projects, limited vinyl, and collaborative albums.
“I had my own deal,” he says. “Before that I was doing beats for Dilated, it was on Capitol. I worked with Mobb Deep through Loud. I had experiences as a producer with a lot of different labels, and overall it made me realize what it was and it wasn’t, ’til later in my career where I started realizing, ‘What do I have now? What’s left?’ OK, I worked with all these artists, I made beats for everyone, I got down with a bunch of people because all those years I was trying to make beats for different people and I looked at my name, Alchemist, as my reputation and my brand. I looked at it like, ‘Alright, it doesn’t matter where it is.’ If it’s on this album on this label or with this artist on that label, it never really mattered to me as long as I did my type of beat, and it was how I wanted it to be. It represented me.”
Alchemist unlocked key doors on how to function as a producer that produces more than just beats. Inspired by his own collector tendencies — he references a rare Billy Ripken card in which Ripken’s bat was caught with the phrase “fuck face” on it — Al now releases the type of music and collectible items that he would want as a fan, and he finally has nobody that has to keep up with him. He can release music whenever and however he wants. “It comes down to being able to control my career a little more, and put out music when I want to put it out through my own label, and being able to control the flow. I work at the same rate I’ve always worked. It’s not like I started working harder.”
Curren$y performs in New Orleans. / Photo by Erika Goldring/Getty Images
Alchemist says it was working with Curren$y on the blog-era classic Covert Coup that gave him this push to release music regularly and think of multiple revenue channels. Legend has it that label politics were severely slowing down the release of Covert Coup until Curren$y suggested they release it themselves online. “He convinced me to put it out, and I was so shook ’cause I didn’t know how to do that,” Alchemist recounts, almost laughing at the situation. “Curren$y said, ‘Nah, we’re gonna put it out [for free] and I’ll let you eat off the merch, ’cause I got a good thing going with the merch with Diamond Supply. We’ll do a capsule.’ And I’m like, ‘Put an album out for free and just sell merch?’ I couldn’t wrap my brain around it. And then we did it, he convinced me, which was the greatest thing ever because he pushed me into that world of just putting out music and coming up with inventive ways to get bread off of it. It did very well, and it opened me up to a whole new world of kids who were like, ‘Who is he?’ I didn’t realize how his network was at the time. That was the first one where I felt like, ‘Oh, OK, I could do it.’ ”
“I didn’t think Alchemist would even fuck with me,” Curren$y says when asked about Covert Coup. “Things were just bubbling. I’m underground ’til I die, but I was under-under at that point. But he knew who I was, and I wasn’t expecting for him to just open doors like that.”
That’s the possibly final major element of Alchemist’s success — other than the fact that he is otherworldly talented. As Chicago DJ, producer, and organizer of pretty much every Alchemist Chicago performance since 2007, Rude One says, “He’s a scientist, dude. You know, a lot of that shit might just sound like a loop to you, but it’s not. You got to unearth that and be like, ‘Wait a minute. He did what?’ ”
“His stuff manages to be sample heavy and funky but also have a big sound,” says Peter Rosenberg. “He’s just really, really good.”
Not to mention how good his beats are, or that Premier calls him an amazing digger, or that Dante Ross says Alchemist is the biggest tech junkie he knows beyond Just Blaze, or that Evidence and Rakaa both keep telling him to rap more. He has those intangibles. That’s the gist of it.
When all is said and done, Alchemist is a good person. He’s fun to be around, and he makes artists feel comfortable. Take Evidence’s description of a typical studio session at Al’s place: “He’s got the wine popping, he’s got the weed flowing, he’s an amazing host. When he’s tired, he goes to sleep without telling anybody, and that’s everyone’s cue to get the fuck out. Very selfless and looking out for people.”
And Al is never high on his own supply. Although he may be from Hollywood, he’s never gone Hollywood.
“His personality kind of unlocks you. You’re able to perhaps touch on things you wouldn’t have lyrically because you’re not worried about who you’re around,” says Curren$y. “Everybody who you respect, respects Alchemist. So you walk into that situation a certain way. You’re honestly just honored that he’s fucking with you, and you don’t want to waste his time.”
The importance of time is a recurring theme for him. “Somebody’s making a beat right now,” he says as we wrap up a near-hour-long conversation. “This whole hour, somebody made a life-changing beat. We had a great conversation, but somebody just changed their life in this hour, it could’ve been me and you. This interview could change our lives.”
Action Bronson / Photo by Xavi Torrent/Redferns
Presently, Alchemist does his music making from his home studio, referred to as “rap camp” by Action Bronson, Freddie Gibbs, and other frequent visitors. Evidence says that the vibe has always been the same whether the studio was a one-bedroom apartment in New York City or his parents’ house back in the day. The current iteration is meant to loosen everyone up and create a space for innovation, taking influence from his early days with Soul Assassins, even earlier days with QD3, and his appreciation of the Beastie Boys.
“I was a big fan of the Beastie Boys, and the studio they had in LA was infamous,” Al says. “I never had a chance to go there, but that experience that they had stuck in my mind forever. Hearing about the studio they had, which had an indoor basketball court, it had a half-pipe, it had a studio. That was what inspired me to do what I do these days. There’s so many elements that go into making music. It’s not work. We work hard as fuck, but this ain’t work.”
Alchemist makes working hard look easy. This mix of pure skills, a deep passion for Hip-Hop, and a personality that is calming yet demanding of respect has enabled him to create great records. What is Al’s take on his best skills? “I think all that leads to another road,” he says, “which you could sum it all and say, I’m out of my goddamn mind.”
* Banner Image: The Alchemist onstage Los Angeles, California. / Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images