After 5 years in the making, Ann Arbor native Harlin Newcomb, 35, will be celebrating the release of his freshman studio album, “Ground Zero,” Jan. 25 at The Blind Pig, located at 208 S. First St. in downtown Ann Arbor. Doors open at 9:30 p.m. and cover is $7 for 21 and up and $10 for 18-20. Newcomb and local rappers Nickie P., Bedroxx and Tru Klassick will be performing, along with DJ Chill Will from Tampa, Fla.
After grabbing a cup of coffee at The Ugly Mug Café on West Cross Street on a chilly September night, Newcomb made his way to a private recording studio in the historic district area of downtown Ypsilanti. Anxious body language suggested nervous energy, which he acknowledged happens when he’s going into the studio to record music.
Newcomb called his producer Steffen Gelletly to say he had arrived and to gain access to Vox Box recording studio, which Gelletly owns and runs. The studio lacks a street address, which Gelletly said he prefers.
“The studio is not open to the public,” Gelletly said. “I don’t want to work with amateurs, only people of high quality.”
Performing under the stage name Duke Newcomb, a play on his last name and the popular video game from the 90s, he has been working his hip-hop craft on Ann Arbor stages at clubs like The Blind Pig and the Elks Lodge.
At 6 feet and 210 pounds, Newcomb was an imposing figure dressed in a black T-shirt, black Kangol hat, blue jeans and black turtle shell Adidas tennis shoes. He wore silver rings with black inset stones on both pinkie fingers. Newcomb shaves his head regularly and wears a thin beard; his light skin color reflects African-American and European heritages.
Newcomb said he likes working with Gelletly because of his respect for the hip-hop genre.
“I’ve done a lot of recordings with people who aren’t necessarily into hip-hop, you know. And that’s one good thing about Steffen G., he loves the music and knows what to do with it,” Newcomb said.
For example, Newcomb said instead of picking the best recording of the verse for the track “Masculine,” he and Gelletly decided to overlay all of the takes on top of each other.
“It just sounds nasty,” he said. “It’s like verbal assault man. Sonically it’s just really cool.”
Gelletly, pale complected with a buzz cut and a six-inch goatee, was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, sagging black Dickies and ratty running shoes.
Waiting for Gelletly to finish preparations for recording, Newcomb sat on a four-gallon paint pail fidgeting with his hands to dispel excess energy.
Newcomb said the self-released project was repeatedly delayed because of issues such as running out of money for studio time, two original recordings for songs slated to be on the album were never found and had to be abandoned, and his financial backer eventually had to drop out of the project—leaving Newcomb to cover the manufacturing costs.
But overall, Newcomb said it was a learning experience and that he’s pleased with the album.
“One of the best compliments I got was, ‘This doesn’t sound like anybody else,’” Newcomb said. “And it doesn’t. It’s 100 percent me … it’s 100 percent authentic. Even when I’m just talking shit, it’s from the heart.”
Newcomb said his grandmother gave him the best advice he ever received about show business, but her candidness surprised him.
“I was talking to my grandma and told her I was doing shows and stuff like that, and she was like, ‘That’s great. But when you’re on stage performing, you leave that humble shit at home. When you get off stage, go ahead go be humble again.’ Shocked the hell out of me,” Newcomb said.
Vox Box is a roughly 10 foot by 12 foot recording studio complete with sound booth, and a larger band rehearsal room with a drum kit, toy piano, organ, reel-to-reel recorder and a couch with a burgundy fuzzy throw cover. A much larger unfinished basement, which is mostly empty space, contains the only bathroom in the studio.
The sound booth is a small triangular room, roughly 5 feet by 3 feet, closed off from the studio by a sliding glass door and simply contains a microphone and stand and a hanging lamp. The booth’s walls are sound-shielded with ribbed black foam.
Most of the interior walls at Vox Box had colorful graffiti on them, including a mural of a bluebird and a landscape of trees covering an entire wall.
Two black faux leather rolling office chairs and a four-gallon pail of paint were what the studio had to offer for seating. A vacuum cleaner in the corner of the room doubled as a coatrack, and a half-empty case of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sat on the only table in the room. Bare fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling illuminated the studio with a harsh light. Random tools and cables were strewn about.
Gelletly’s desk, one of the few pieces of furniture in the studio, was piled high with computer monitors, speakers and soundboard equipment. A sound rack sat next to the desk, complete with turntables for recording vinyl samples.
On the floor in the band rehearsal room, which is also the studio’s designated smoking area, the words, “Get to work,” were ingrained in the gray spotted carpet from dirt being trapped in the gluey residue left behind from the tape—long since removed—that formed the words.
Crates of albums were scattered around the rehearsal room and contained artists such as Duran Duran, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Blondie, The Rolling Stones and rare LP oddities like “Sitar Beats: Indian Style Heavy Funk” and campy 1960s Batman episodes recorded on vinyl.
The two wisecracked about making experimental sounds from banging on a salad bowl, or tossing one of the empty beer kegs sitting in the studio’s basement down a flight of stairs.
While discussing the album, Newcomb said the track “Nothing” stood out to him in particular because of the emotions it evoked in him.
“I really delved into some deep personal shit on that track,” he said. “I didn’t even know how much it affected me until I started recording it, and I started getting choked up.”
Newcomb said the track’s lyrics describe true events from his life, including losing his mother to cancer in 2001, but that it’s about the journey life took him on, not self-pity:
“I was three/My first memory—pops hit mom, mom decided to flee/Grabbed up my brother and sister and me, headed out in a blizzard toward sanctuary/We posted up in the shelter, but ironically I didn’t feel safe at all, pops was nowhere to be seen/He went from protector to antagonist/ Can’t imagine the strength it took my mom when she said, ‘I’m not having this.’
“First brush stroke on my blank canvas, wish I could shake it up just like a Etch A Sketch/Now I can sit back and tell you about all my trauma, like separation from my siblings, or how cancer took my mama/As well as everything in-between, but life is but a dream and I’m trying to live the rest of this one lucid/Control has been elusive/The search for my soul inconclusive at best/I feel so stressed.”
The track features samples of Ben E. King’s 1963 version of “I (Who Have Nothing),” and has a deep resonating bass with soft melodic flutes sprinkled throughout.
Gelletly finally told Newcomb he was ready to start recording. Newcomb took off his Kangol hat and stepped into the sound booth, where he put on headphones so he could hear himself during the recording. The plan was to lay vocals for as many tracks as time and energy would allow.
Gelletly flipped a switch so he could speak to Newcomb in the sound booth.
“I’m gonna bring you back to the beginning,” Gelletly said. “Just give me a couple of takes, so I can dial you in a little bit better. And here we go.”
Newcomb chose to work on the album’s title track first; Gelletly had not heard the beat before that recording session.
Gelletly bobbed his head.
“It’s got a ‘Kill Bill’ sort of feel to it,” he said.
While recording, Newcomb worked from memory regardless of the blistering pace of his rap flow and the fact the material was new to him. He stood fairly stiff moving only his hands at first.
After Gelletly leveled out the sounds, Newcomb started to loosen up.
“Getting amped up,” Newcomb said as he stepped to the mic.
He straightened his slightly sagging pants and then squared off to the microphone like it was an adversary. At that point his body language became much more aggressive, like he was taunting the microphone.
Gelletly occasionally stopped the beat and offered advice or made requests throughout the session, gently guiding Newcomb.
Newcomb occasionally got tongue tied and flubbed a verse, blaming it on himself for not having a third lung for extra breaths needed for the multitude of lyrics he packs into songs.
“Ahhhh man, let’s go again. I got it, it’s just like, it’s always weird hearing it [a new track] in your ears through the headphones for the first time,” he said.
By the fifth take on “Ground Zero,” Newcomb was in full swing and thoroughly animated. His arms and hands bounced and swayed to the beat, like a rap preacher at a pulpit in the house of hip-hop. At another point, Newcomb’s arms dangled straight out with just his hands bouncing, like he was playing an invisible piano.
Next, they worked on a track Newcomb tentatively named “Million Dollar Dream.” The beat sounded like something Bone Thugs-N-Harmony might have used back in the ’90s, with a deep and slow growling bass.
After a couple of hours, Newcomb stepped out of the sound booth and wiped sweat from his forehead. The foam sound insulation along with the sliding glass door being closed makes the booth a sweatbox.
The two mulled around the rehearsal room smoking cigarettes, talking and looking through crates of albums. After about 15 minutes, they gleaned instruction from the words in the tape residue on the carpet and returned to work.
The evening’s last track was “Don’t Get Me Started,” which felt and sounded similar to an old school Ice Cube track with heavy bass, guitars and horns.
Finishing up the last of the vocals, Gelletly wanted to sample some odd stuff for the “Intro” track on the album, which originally was to be an instrumental. He pulled out an astrological album read by Sydney Omarr about Leo, Newcomb’s sign. The two giggled and cracked jokes until they found and agreed on samples to use.
They talked over remaining postproduction work on the album and reviewed the condition of previous tracks they had done.
Gelletly and Newcomb interact like playful but professional old friends. They constantly joked through the four-hour recording session.
Afterward, they met at Sidetrack Bar and Grill in Ypsilanti’s Depot Town to unwind and get some food and drinks before calling it a night.