Artist Spotlight, Pro Tips

Raz Mesinai on ‘Score Design’ and the Underground Producers Alliance

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Raz Mesinai is a renaissance man for the digital age. A musician, producer, composer, label owner, performer, comic-book artist, and teacher, Raz has a curriculum vitae as wide-ranging and varied as the music he writes. Originally a member of illbient/ambient outfit Sub Dub, Raz has since created soundtracks for the likes of Ridley Scott, worked on scores with Hans Zimmer, Angelo Badalamenti, and Clint Mansell, runs his own audio production school, and continues to write and release music. We caught up with Raz, who is now also a Pond5 Select Music artist, to learn more about how his eclectic career and works current and past.


 

Coming of age in the New York underground

Raz grew up in New York City and started releasing music in 1989 under a plethora of pseudonyms, including Psyche Co., PsyCo., Xon, Bedouin, and MultiVox, selling his cassettes from a shoe box. They varied in genre, ranging from hard, noisy hip-hop/dub/reggae instrumentals, to ambient drone, to acid, techno, and gabber house. “I ended up creating many names because more people bought the tape if there were a bunch of artists they didn’t know,” Raz says. “As opposed to now, when people buy a comp of artists they do know and already have.”

Eventually, his tapes led him to producers and DJs in the underground scene, where he began performing in clubs. He’d go on to form Sub Dub with John Ward, spearheading the “illbient” scene in New York City — a genre that combined elements of hip-hop (where the slang term “ill” originates) and ambient music (hence the portmanteau, “illbient”). For years, he released solo music under the name Badawi, which incorporated elements of Middle Eastern, Sufi, Magam, and Tagsim music.

Raz pioneered the “illbient” genre alongside John Ward in his duo Sub Dub

In terms of early influences, Raz was exposed to b-boy culture and hip-hop music at a young age. “My work is influenced more by the early hip-hop, b-boy scene growing up in NYC, and then dub, Chicago acid house, contemporary music, and soundtracks were overall always an influence,” he says. “But I feel closer to an anthropologist than a musician.” Today, Raz has nearly 250 albums written of finished and unfinished material.
 

Venturing into film scoring

Raz got his start in scoring when his Badawi record The Heretic of Ether was used as a temp track for Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001). Raz’s music was discovered in an LA record store and film studios began approaching him directly. “People use music for films because the music fits,” he says. “There’s no other reason.”

Sony Pictures agreed to a deal where they’d license Raz’s songs, while composer Hans Zimmer incorporated elements of The Heretic of Ether into the Black Hawk Down score. Raz dubbed this process “score design,” and began regularly working on scores that composers couldn’t conceptualize or produce themselves. Raz’s score-design work has since been used in Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, Black Swan, and The Wrestler, and recently in Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet.

“Tall King Dub” was incorporated into the soundtrack for Black Hawk Down

“I conceptualize scores that are not calling for the traditional musical score that composers and musicians are used to,” Raz says. “It’s similar to sound design, where you create the atmosphere and develop sounds, hopefully from scratch, to implement the overall atmosphere and concept of the film.”

For example, in A Late Quartet, a cellist played by Christopher Walken performs Beethoven’s “Opus 131.” How do you go about scoring a film centered around such iconic music? Raz was hired to design the first score, from which elements were then incorporated into Angelo Badalementi’s final score.
 

On mentorship and teaching young musicians

Raz, alongside legendary producers Scott Harding (Wu Tang Clan, Medeski), Hprizm (Anti Pop), and Randall Dunn, started the Underground Producers Alliance, a program that teaches audio-production courses to students. He’s also taught audio production at Dubspot, UCSD, and the New School.

“UPA is by far the most honest and effective music-production school there is, because we make records every day,” Raz says. Courses vary from beginner classes on Ableton Live and lessons on arrangement, mixing, and mastering to history courses on New York’s underground club scene. These lessons are personalized and sometimes even taught one-on-one. “Classes are super hands0on and done in our own personal studios, which really is the best place to learn, instead of a cold classroom with consistent tech issues,” he explains.

“The Unspeakable” was originally commissioned as score-design work for Hellraiser 6 (1999)

The Underground Producers Alliance also provides mentors to aspiring musicians in an industry that’s often discouraging and laborious. “Sometimes my students have issues that interfere with their musical process and creativity,” Raz says. “I like to be, to the best of my ability, a helping hand to them, because to be a musician comes with a slew of other problems, including sometimes mental-health issues, poverty, and narcissism.”

Raz’s own mentor, Juma Sultan, also teaches at UPA today. “He met me when I was 14 years old, during a rough time in my life,” explains Raz. “My mother asked him to straighten me out, which he did to the best of his abilities.” Young music producers also often need that extra push when stuck in the creative process. “The production tells you what you need to do,” Raz advises. “It guides you through the process. People don’t get that and stress out. Some of the best producers I know understand that and they can remain calm under pressure. Something eventually will happen.”
 

Creative process and advice to aspiring producers

Raz stresses the importance of creating a workflow to maximize your creativity. He sees musical styles as systems that can be broken down into individual processes. “Sitting down and making music only works if you have a system together,” he says. “I see J. Dilla as such a person. He mastered his system — the MPC, the record player, the art of crate digging — and developed his own workflow. I’m guessing he spent hours optimizing his studio to work with his style and developing a strong library of material he collected himself. This is workflow. It’s work first, party later.”


Check out some of Raz’s music in the Pond5 library

In addition to optimizing workflow, he tells artists not to be afraid of mistakes in creating. “I don’t believe in mistakes in sound,” he says. “I collect them and have hard drives full of mistakes, and they are amazing.” One real mistake artists make, however, is getting too comfortable with doing what’s easy. “The mistake comes in when they think they’re done learning — that having the set of tools, presets, etcetera, will keep you going throughout life. I believe true artistry, the hand of someone making something from scratch with unique materials, is lacking from music.”

To sum up, he says, “You need to harness what you’re doing, hone it into a method, a system, really own it. I have my ways of keeping the ideas flowing. There is always more that can be done.”

Check out more of Raz Mesinai’s music at Discogs and stay tuned for more inside looks at artists from Pond5’s Select Music collection.