"Can I call you back, I'm just in the middle of a remix," Princess Superstar says into her cell phone, a second before she rolls her eyes and starts cracking up. "I mean, an interview for Remix. Anyway, let me call you back!"
New York's reigning royalty of rhyme slams her cell shut and apologizes. But juggling roles and blurring lines has been her MO for years, and the better she gets, the blurrier those barriers seem to become. A master rapper who happens to be a white girl who spent her formative years on a farm, Superstar's songwriting persona has morphed yet again with a serious immersion in the DJ booth. The result of this professional and personal haze is her fifth album, My Machine (!K7, 2005), which she recorded during a period of three years in London, New York, Brazil, Costa Rica, New Jersey, Berlin and Mexico.
If you want to know the personal fascination that keeps Princess Superstar (aka Concetta Kirschner) ticking, look no futher than the second half of her stage name. Borne out of her newfound mobile-production skillsrunning Ableton Live on an Apple Mac G4 iBook while globe-hopping to DJ sets armed with four Technics SL-1200 turntablesMy Machine is a near-80-minute concept album (set in the year 2080) that relentlessly explores the phenomenon of famehers, especially. "Celebrity is a peculiar thing that I think everyone is obsessed with to the point of absurdity," reflects Superstar, who was admitted to the high-IQ club Mensa while recording the album. "It's also interesting for me personally. In certain places, I'm very famous, and in certain places, I'm not. It seems odd that people would put you on a pedestal just for making music. Of course, I want to be famous and have everyone listen to my music, but it seems like such an odd thing in this day and age, when everyone's constantly watching you. I don't want that at all, so it's a very conflicting feeling inside. I suppose part of that's in my record."
Whether My Machine will add to her fame or be the first stage in its gradual decline remains to be seen, but if there's any justice, it will be the former. With longtime hip-hop and rock studio innovator and executive Arthur Baker (Afrika Bambaataa, New Order, Jeff Beck)as well as additional producers Jacques Lu Cont, Junior Sanchez, Armand Van Helden and Todd TerrySuperstar had a sharp studio team backing up her amazing, seemingly nonstop word stream. The 25-track collection hears her playing off extra-punchy beats, synths and samples that nearly leap out of the stereo with an added degree of excitement. "I like to call it 'new-wave hip-hop,' she says of the resulting signature style. "I got these well-known producers to do something different. Todd Terry is making me a hip-hop beat; Armand is making me a faux-heavy-metal-type beat.
"Although I haven't yet, I want to work with Missy Elliott," Superstar continues. "She's the one that I most feel a kindred spirit to in that she produces, writes and does everything herself a lot, too, and she takes chances in hip-hop, but I think she and I could make something amazing together."
PRINCESS IN THE LAB
Although Superstar is well-known for the facinating patterns she can create with her mouth on a mic and her hands on a set of turntables, she has quietly become increasingly adept with her recording skills. Back in 1994, she made her first demo tape on a 4-tracksampling, playing guitar and keyboards and rhyming. It was that guerrilla production that led to her first four full-length albums: Strictly Platinum (Fifth Beetle, 1996); CEO (Big Rich Major, 1997); Last of the Great 20th Century Composers (Corrupt, 2000); and Princess Superstar Is (Rapster, 2002), featuring her biggest "hit" yet, 'Bad Babysitter."
While she farms out the higher-end album work to her producer colleagues, Superstar is equipped like never before to create ace preproduction and other sounds in her New York apartrnent, employing Digidesign Pro Tools LE 6, a Mackie 1402-VLZ Pro mixer, a Yamaha Motif, a Fender Telecaster, a Neumann U 87 and Yamaha NS10M monitors. "I've been making my own music ever since I started, and I'm definitely learning more," she says. "What's really amazing Is that when you learn a new program, it actually enhances your creativity. If you have more tools, you can do more things. Previously, I was working on [Sony] Acid, and if I didn't have Live, I don't really know how I would make music right now.'
Superstar's explorations with Live, combined with Pro Tools and an Mbox, have gotten her going on a series of happy accidents. "What I love about Live is changing the parameters of a sample," she explains. "Sometimes, you get stuff you would never have set out to do. My favorite thing to do is take samples of stuff I like, then set the parameters in weird ways so that it would obscure the sample and mess it up."
The power of Live led to her next revelation: By dropping the DAW onto her iMac and plugging in a pair of headphones, her hectic road schedule could be a nonstop recording session. "I travel so much DJing, and now my favorite thing is to work on stuff on the road," Superstar says. "I can be in the hotel room, and I can work. It's too hectic at my house; everyone wants something from me. But in the hotel, nobody can bother me. I just feel so productive all the time. What I really love doing is sending AIFF files through IM. It's like a whole new from when I first started.
"For some work I did for My Machine, I would take everything I did over to Junior Sanchez's studio, where he had a Neve board, and he would make it sound better," she continues. "But most of the stuff, after I assembled the pieces, I took to London where I finished it off with Arthur Baker."
SUPERSTAR MEETS LEGEND
A prolific engineer and producer who first made hip-hop waves in the early '80s with his tape-editing and beat-making experiments, the Boston-bred, London-based Baker has been busy but working largely under the radar for the past several years, making him an unexpected choice by Superstar to take her career to the next level. "I really wanted to work with Arthur because he was essentially the creator of the sound I was going for on this record, which is melding hip-hop with new wave," she says. "I wasn't afraid that it would be old or anything like that, because Arthur has been working on some amazing remixes, and I just knew we would be an explosive combination together.
"Futhermore, what I really wanted was someone who had the ear of being in the studio for 30 years. I was right to choose that, because, for example, I'd be cutting my vocals in his studio, and it would seem like Arthur was on e-mail or something, and I'd say, 'Why isn't he paying attention?' Then, he'd look up, say, 'Change this; do that,' and 20 minutes later, I'd be done with my vocal track. That's unheard of for me. I'll cut my vocals 50 times with other producers, and they'd want to kill me. But Arthur, he just knew his shit so intently that it blew my mind."
The MC and Baker's paths first crossed in 2002, when Superstar's DJs Are Not Rockstars tour took her to some of the London parties where Baker was spinning. After that, a collaboration in the studio was only a matter of time. "Anyone who's seen her DJ will know that what she's created on My Machine is reflective of the wide variety of genres she spins," Baker says. "Lyrically and as a performer, she's amazing. She's a great actress and mimic. In the record, she creates these characters and personalities, and when you listen back, it's like it's different people, which is great."
Baker captured Superstar's versatile, present-sounding vocals using a Neumann U 87A mic going into an SPL Channel One preamp/compressor/EQ, leading into Apple Logic via the effects return on Baker's TL Audio M3 8-channel valve console. Throughout the album, Superstar's vocals play off of drum tracks that shine with an extra degree of clarity and punch. "Most of the drums were treated using standard Logic plug-inschannel EQ, compressor, gate," Baker says. "Then, they were fed to a bus out with [Logic Pro plug-in] Multipressor over the group. I mixed the whole album through the TLA desk, using the eight channels as four stereo pairs, with the drums being one of these pairs. Usually, I'd crank up the gain on the desk preamp until it went red and apply some EQ. The TLA M3 has a really great EQ. I think it really makes a difference having a bit of analog mixed in with all the digital, because it makes things sound more natural and less brittle."
Baker was able to get really creative with effects on the mind-bending track "The Happy." "I used the Native Instruments Guitar Rig on the two tones in the track to get them moving around and to phase the lead vocal," he says. "There are also several instances of tape delay and stereo delay on the voice. as well as manipulating the sends, feedback and return levels at different points of the song. I also wrote in a lot of pans on the Logic automation."
DJ AIDS THE SONGWRITER
Besides connecting her to the right producer, Superstar's growing DJ career also aided her in fostering a deeper connection to her writing abilities. "Being a DJ completely helped my songwriting," she confirms. "When I was making music beforeand I know this sounds crazybut because I wasn't one to go to the clubs, I would never write with the idea that my songs were going to be played in clubs. I just wet out to make really cool music. Now, from DJing, I've gotten a chance to see what people respond to immediately. People can be dancing to the same track in NYC and Moscow, and I thought, 1 want to do that.' It's exactly what's great about being a DJ: You can move people. There's a connection."
Even though My Machine is a space-age fantasy set 75 years from now, Superstar still favors vinyl when she DJs. "I'm old-school about that," she admits. "Even though I'm a new DJ, I love vinyl. I would never play an all-CD or all-MP3 set. It makes a real difference to me when you put your needle on the record. The kick is different."
Anyone listening to the extreme creativity of tracks like the punky "I Like It a Lot," the sobering silliness of "Quitting Smoking Song," the trippy wash of "The Happy" or the bizarre lessons of "The Classroom" (on which a telepathy teacher intercepts insulting thoughts about her) would be amazed to hear that the album almost never happened, as Superstar grappled with a yearlong case of writer's block. "I couldn't write anything," she recalls. "In fact, I started hating music. I think it's because I had some success with 'Bad Babysitter' and maybe I felt that pressure, even though it was in my own brain, because no one from !K7 was saying, 'Hey, make a hit!' So I pulled out this dusty old script and said, 'This has been in my heart to do for a long time. I'll do something amazing from my heart.'"
For those who may not have the outline for a concept album already lying around, Superstar offers advice for breaking out of writer's block. "Here's the Superstar Easy IO-Point Plan," she says with a laugh. "Most of all, I think writer's block is hatred of what you're writing or producing, and that's really deep. This will sound really corny, but you have to be willing to suck. I'll write the most embarrassing, horrible lyrics, then go back and take exactly one rhyme out of that song and use it in a new song. You have to be willing, in other words, to write a whole lot of shit and not beat yourself up for it."
Beyond that, Superstar points out that artists have to go to work every day and stay there. With discipline and a great work ethic, a breakthrough is bound to arrive. "During that time, I said, I'll work from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. everyday on stuff, and that's final," she says. I don't care if you stare at your computer blinking, but that's what you're doing. I've found that I've written some amazing songs in that period. It's universal, whether you're just sitting in your basement apartment or you're on top of the world."
- David Weiss