Rollo & Grady Interview // Leon Michels of El Michels Affair

Rollo & Grady Interview // Leon Michels of El Michels Affair

Leon Michels (pronounced Michaels) is the co-founder of Truth & Soul Records and front man for the El Michels Affair. A renowned saxophonist, Michels’ horn line on Menahan Street Band’s song “Make The Road By Walking” was lifted by Jay-Z for “Roc Boys,” the lead single from his Grammy-winning album American Gangster. Michels is also a talented producer, recording with Lee Fields, Amy Winehouse, Iggy Pop and Adele.

In 2005, Toyota’s Scion division asked El Michels Affair to accompany Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan for a promotional tour. Michels found that the group’s ‘cinematic soul’ sound was consistent with the moods of RZA’s soundscapes on the classic Wu-Tang releases. The tour was such as success that the band recorded two smash 7” singles featuring instrumental reinterpretations of the Wu-Tang classic songs “C.R.E.A.M.” and “Bring Da Ruckus.” Combined, the singles sold over 7,000 units worldwide. This success led to a contract with indie hip-hop label Fat Beats Records to record an entire album of Wu-Tang Clan interpolations entitled Enter The 37th Chamber.

Rollo & Grady Interview // Leon Michels of El Michels Affair

R&G: When you released Enter The 37th Chamber, did you expect this type of buzz?

Michels: Kind of, because the 45 of “C.R.E.A.M.” was such an unexpected hit. It’s the bestselling record we’ve ever had. It’s funny because I was a little scared about how it was going to be taken, because Wu-Tang fans are so nuts about Wu-Tang, and also live hip-hop is – for me at least – such a touchy thing. I don’t really like a lot of hip-hop. We just approached it like it wasn’t going to be hip-hop – this was going to be some soul shit, basically.

R&G: Did you feel any pressure recording the album to stay true to RZA and Wu-Tang beats?

Michels: Not really, because those beats are incredible and the best part about the songs is just the general vibe of the tracks – the real gritty, kind of lo-fi shit. RZA’s production is very noticeable. Then you have the Wu-Tang – they add a whole other thing to it. We ended up adding horn lines, strings and trying to flip them so that they were their own little compositions, inspired by Wu-Tang. But we weren’t just going to play the loop for 3 ½ minutes.

Did you receive any feedback from RZA?

Michels: He came to the studio once, because at the time, we were renting half of our studio to a hip-hop label, and he was doing the Afro Samurai record next door. He listened to some tracks and told us that he liked it.

R&G: When you guys toured with Raekwon and Wu-Tang, was it difficult to incorporate or sync your sound with his MC style in the beginning when you were doing the live shows?

Michels: The one thing that I think worked about doing Wu-Tang’s music for El Michels Affair is that the whole aesthetic of Wu-Tang’s records is kind of dark and moody and cinematic. That’s exactly the type of shit that we record. That sort of vibe is what we go for on our records – with strings and gritty drum sounds, so it was pretty easy for us to incorporate our sound with Raekwon in a live setting. Doing Wu-Tang fit El Michels Affair way better than, say, De La Soul, or something like that.

R&G: Were you a fan of Wu-Tang before you went on tour, or did you have to get into their albums to really know how to play with them?

Michels: I had to go back. I remember when they came out. When that first record dropped, I was probably 12 or something like that. I remember seeing that “C.R.E.A.M.” video and thinking it was the coolest shit I’ve ever heard. I listened to them in high school, but I hadn’t heard their records for five or six years until that came along. I had to revisit all of their records. Going back and picking through the tracks and learning them gave me a whole other respect for the music.

R&G: What are you the proudest of? Your horn line used in Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys,” Ghostface Killah’s sampling of “Musings To Myself,” on “Shakey Dog Starring Lolita,” or “Walk On By” used in the Sopranos?

That’s tough. You can narrow that down to the Sopranos and Jay-Z. It was always kind of a dream to get on Ghostface’s record because Ghostface is one of my favorites right now, but just the fact that the Jay-Z record was so big was pretty exciting for us, because hearing that shit everywhere you went coming out of cars, we just never expected something like that when we were recording that song in Tommy’s [Brenneck of Menahan Street Band] bedroom, on an 8-track.

Rollo & Grady Interview // Leon Michels of El Michels Affair

MP3: El Michels Affair – C.R.E.A.M. [Wu-Tang Clan Cover]
MP3: Menahan Street Band – Make The Road By Walking
MP3: The Mighty Imperials – Ride Shank’s Mare*
MP3: Lee Fields & The Expressions – Honey Dove**
*Michels first band.
**Truth & Soul produced Lee Fields most recent album My World. “Honey Dove” sounds like Otis Redding singing over Galactic’s song “Church.”


El Michel's Affair – Enter the 37th Chamber (iTunes)
Lee Fields & The Expressions – My World (iTunes)
Menahan Street Band – Make the Road By Walking (iTunes)

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