Arts and craftsmen

The pool guy's out back, a borrowed Lucky Strike dangling from his lips as he vacuums leaves out of the crystal-clear water. He comes once every few days to clean this beautiful pool that sits beneath a brick-wall cliff and an arrogantly blue sky, but the owners of the pool never use it, nor do most of the guests who visit this home, perched on an immaculate residential hill in Silverlake, a burgeoning artist community just east of Hollywood.

That's because the owners of the home--Mike Simpson and John King, best known as the Dust Brothers--do not live in it. It's simply their place of business--part office, part recording studio, part refuge for their friends in the Silverlake music community who like to drop by and listen to old '70s funk records or to record. These days it also acts as one of the offices for the Brothers' new Nickel Bag Records label, which recently released Sukia's dense, brilliant, post-disco Contacto Espacial con el Tercer Sexo. (In cozy Silverlake fashion, Mitchell Frank will manage the label; he helped start it during the 1994 South by Southwest music conference in Austin.)

When Simpson and King moved into the house a few years ago, it was in pristine condition. Now it shows the cracks and holes of neglect and late-night recording sessions; mud is tracked across the used-to-be-white carpet. A few gold and platinum records hang on the wall. In the studio--actually a small room filled with mixing boards, computers, and shelves and shelves of well-worn LPs--King is waiting for his partner to arrive, tweaking the remix of White Zombie's faithful cover of "I'm Your Boogie Man" for the upcoming Crow 2 soundtrack. He has several versions in the computer--where he edits everything--and they roll by one after the other, each a little funkier, a little darker than the one before.

"It still sounds pretty much like the original," King says, typing into his Macintosh. "We just made it sound a little more like the Dust Brothers." As he explains the difference between remixing other artists' work and recording their own music--the difference between fixing someone else's car and building your own from scratch--the phone rings. It's James Lavelle, the eternally 21-year-old owner of London's Mo'Wax label, calling to discuss plans for a Dust Brothers single release--the first under their own name. For years, the two have lent their name, their sound, and so much of their music to other people (the Beastie Boys, Tone-Loc, Biz Markie, Boo Yaa T.R.I.B.E., and now friend and Silverlake neighbor Beck [Hansen] for his new Odelay), but every time they've planned their own album, they've been stymied.

Someone will hire them for a production job (Odelay alone took two years, on and off, while Beck did Lollapalooza and then Europe), or they'll be called in to remix Bomb the Bass, EMF, They Might Be Giants, or White Zombie. They're all bands the Brothers insist they like: They won't whore out for just anyone (but White freaking Zombie?).

King and Simpson have been partners almost from the moment they met at Pitzer College's radio station in 1983. They aren't simply producers; they do more than make tangible the sounds floating inside an artist's head or clean up mistakes. Using turntables, musicians, and old records as their instruments, they're as indispensable to a project as the artists whose records they produce. On the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique and Beck's Odelay the pair receives songwriting credit for every track.

"They came into the studio and heard these songs we had been working on and asked us to send them a tape," Simpson says of their hooking up with the Beasties. "We sent them a tape with six or seven songs, and those songs essentially became songs on Paul's Boutique. But then there were other songs we did collaborations on, and with Beck it was a total collaboration. We had beats and grooves and things all stored on our computer and tons of resources in our record collection, but those songs were written with Beck."

For years, the Dust Brothers have anonymously been behind some of hip-hop's definitive moments--Tone Loc's Loc'ed After Dark, Young MC's Stone Cold Rhymin', Def Jef's Just a Poet with Soul. Throughout the mid- to late '80s, the Brothers created the Delicious Vinyl sound, taking archival funk grooves and pasting them into pop songs; where other rap artists were content to take one groove and ride it from start to finish, the Brothers took seconds of pleasure from dozens of songs and created their own collage.

To them, the montage was a big laugh: Let's see how much music we can cram into three minutes before the seams start to burst. Every record they've ever worked on, whether by Beck or even Vince Neil (how's that for a sense of humor?), sounds like one large, deep belly laugh. This is, after all, one hell of a way to make a living--listening to your favorite old records all day long, cutting them up, then pasting them back together and calling it art.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky