Domino is an incredible music producer with the hip-hop collective Hieroglyphics from Oakland, California. The group's large following was created mainly with extraordinary live shows and can also be attributed to their unique sound which is continuously evolving. In The Career Cookbook interview Domino explains how he creates beats, the importance of listening to all types of music, and what skills you need to succeed as a producer.
CCB: When did you realize your interest in working in music and how did that translate to being a producer?
D: I was into music and then I got into hip-hop and I was rapping. When I was rapping I had a partner that was making the beats. I found out about sampling and got interested. Between us I was the one who had a job so I had saved up hella money to buy a sampler. I bought a Casio FZ-10M. I think this was like ‘89 or ‘90 and that was one of the top samplers. I got more into making music, sampling, and making beats then I did before. But I always had a love for music.
CCB: What appeals to you about music?
D: I can go on and on about that. I guess to sum it up it’s an expression of an individual’s mind and soul at that moment in time. You can get such a strong feel from music, it’s timeless.
CCB: How were you as an MC?
D: I probably was OK, but once I got down with the Hieroglyphics I realized they were on a whole other level. I think my beat making was way more ahead of my rhyming. Now that I have perspective and listen to it now, I think I sound like hella people. I think my beats were ready to be out there where my rhymes weren’t.
CCB: How did you learn about beat making originally?
D: I had a friend of mine Jason Mountain. He had like a one second, two second sampler and used to make stuff on there. Put stuff on 45s. We used to just kind of create and then when I got the new sampler we were both learning it together.
CCB: What kind of equipment do you create with now?
D: Mainly I work on an MPC-2000. It ends up going down on Pro-Tools, but all my basic production is off the MPC.
CCB: What is your process for creating a beat, a song? Are there any routines that go into that?
D: There’s not one routine. Generally I’ll listen to records and get inspired one way or another. It will be something that inspires me and that will be the basis of the beat. Every once in awhile I’ll start with a drum and then build things around it. The meat or the foundation will start with a little groove. Then I’ll do some basic drums on there and start adding stuff and sometimes it will morph into something else. Usually at the end I’ll tighten the drums.
CCB: Is there a music making process for the Hieroglyphics? Does that start with a beat or does someone already come in with lyrics?
D: Most of the time the beats are made independent of the rhymes. Every once in awhile on a record something will be made right there and they’ll put stuff on. Sometimes when we are doing certain records the meat of the album will be prior beats that were made before we got into the studio. Cats will listen to them and say, “Hey, I like this,” and write to it.
CCB: How do you go about finding samples? Does that have to do with what you are listening to at the time?
D: Yeah, I have all kinds of records and I buy records. I’m always listening to stuff. It depends how creative you are. There are an unlimited amount of resources when you have a lot of records. Particularly if you bought them over a long period because things that I liked in 1990 I may not like now as far as sample-wise. Stuff that I didn’t like I may like now. Always listen to music and looking for something to inspire. Then I have a lot of records that are like the meat and potatoes records. I have good hits and good open stuff I can pull from if I need to.
CCB: What do you need to make it as a producer, apart from having a good ear for music?
D: That’s a good question. A lot of it is luck. If you are talking about making it, it depends. You have to define making it. Is making it being successful financially or commercially successful or having a CD in the store? I think everyone’s degree of making it is different.
Let’s just say to get to the point where you are making beats that go beyond your bedroom I think it’s going to take someone just as talented of a rapper as you. (Laughs) It’s very hard for a beat guy to come up on his own. You have to have someone talented over it. Another thing is being different, trying to be unique. That’s how you stand out. There are so many people making beats that you have to be able to differentiate yourself from someone. Try not to follow trends. Do what is you. Everyone is an individual. Everyone has something that is unique about them. Allow that to shine through. Music is one half of the song, you know. Don’t get me wrong, some cats are so good that they don’t need a rapper on it. For the most part to get noticed I’d say a talented vocalist or rapper over it and also originality and work ethic.
CCB: Do you have any advice for people interested in becoming a producer? How they can get their name out there?
D: Play your stuff for everybody. You kind of have to be a people person and the funny thing is that most people aren’t. Most musicians generally aren’t because cats are in the studio all day. (Laughs) I happen to be one. But a lot of people, especially a lot of DJs are kind of nerdy in a way. You are sitting at home practicing your craft all day. You aren’t going out that much. You have to be able to get in people’s faces and let people hear it. If you are a singer you are going to have to sing. You can’t be afraid of rejection. You have to get out there to have people hear your stuff. Also use rejection as motivation. Rejection is one person’s opinion. Probably 99.9% of the people that are successful out there have a story of rejection. Initial rejection, I mean. Use what people say as motivation, don’t get discouraged.
CCB: How did you actually get your name out there?
D: It was a little luck. I was making tracks and I used to rent a room at the back of a record store that specialized in funk and soul records and I happened to meet a guy from New York named Dante Ross who worked at Elektra Records. We forged a friendship and he connected me with Del and the rest of the Hieroglyphics. Del wasn’t even out yet. It was before that. He had just signed him. I hooked up with them and they liked what I was doing and vice versa. We ended up working together.
CCB: Can you describe the Hiero sound?
D: I think progressive is one way I would describe our sound. I think that every stage of our career if you listen to the records, whether you like them or not, you can definitely say that they are different than anything else that is out there. Everything has influences but I don’t think you can listen to the stuff that we do and say that sounds like blah, blah, blah. You may hate it, but you can’t say it sounds like something else. I think that progressive and original is the Hiero sound.
CCB: How did you all decide on the name Hieroglyphics, and on the “third eye vision” logo?
D: I think Del got it from somebody or somebody else was using it and didn’t want to use it anymore. Del liked it so he grabbed it. They were already established. Most of those guys went to high school, elementary with each other. I hooked up with them before they came out but they already had something going on.
CCB: And what does the third eye symbol stand for?
D: Third eye vision is basically the mind’s eye, all seeing.
CCB: How did you come up with your name Domino?
D: Actually that was given to me. Basically because my name is Damian and it was like whatever, D with those nicknames. So, Dirty D, Devious D, Dangerous D. My friend was like you should be Domino D. I was like, eh. I didn’t really like it, but he kept calling me it. Then I’m in high school and everybody would be, hey Domino. Domino D. I just had to accept it. Once everyone calls you it kind of pulls you. (Laughs) Then I just got rid of the D and it’s just Domino.
CCB: What portion of the year do you spend touring?
D: Generally we tour about twice a year. So I’d say we tour about three to four months a year.
CCB: Hieroglyphics have been able to build up a large following without signing with a major record label. Has then been accomplished through touring?
D: I think it’s through the touring and being different and unique. I think people like us because we are not like everyone else and so that makes them want to champion us.
CCB: How do you go about promoting yourselves? Is it through the touring and putting on good shows?
D: Touring and internet, those are the main ways. We do send out 12 inches and placing ads and having publicity. I think the touring is a big part of it.
CCB: I don’t know how it is out in California, but do you get any radio play out there?
D: No, we don’t get any radio play. Not on mainstream radio.
CCB: From the start has it always been Hieros’ aim to stay independent and have control of the music you create?
D: We were initially signed to a major so we weren’t always indie. But, I think once we got indie it was the way to go because of the control and the ownership. If something came down the line that made sense sure we’d be down to check it out. I think we want to stay independent because it gives us the most control. Let’s put it like this. There is nothing worse than being on a major label and not being a priority and just being on a major label. People don’t realize that there are twice as many groups that get signed that don’t come out than come out. If you throw in the amount of groups that do come out and aren’t a priority… They would have to say a lot of the right things to us before we would ever sign a deal, a major deal.
CCB: When you were with a major label is that kind of what happened and why you aren’t with one anymore?
D: You know a little bit of that. I think we had different visions musically, particularly Souls of Mischief and Del too. They wanted a certain sound out of us and we wanted a more true sound. They wanted a more commercial sound out of us.
CCB: What’s the differentiation between Hiero and Souls of Mischief?
D: Basically Hieroglyphics is for lack of a better term the parent group which consists of Del, Souls of Mischief, Casual, and Pep Love. Everyone was solo first from the crew Hieroglyphics. Only in ’98 did we decide to do a Hieroglyphics record. Initially Hieroglyphics was the crew, but it wasn’t a group necessarily. I’m Souls of Mischief from the Hiero crew. I’m Domino from the Hiero crew. When we went indie we decided to do a whole Hiero album, and all came together as one group. That’s kind of the difference.
CCB: When you tell people that you are a producer what surprises them about your job?
D: I think most people who don’t know me think yeah, yeah whatever. I think most people don’t think that means anything really, unless they have heard of somebody. They don’t realize what a producer is. Most average people know the artists; they don’t know the people behind the scenes.
CCB: If you had to explain to them what you do, what would you say?
D: I would say that I am the person that makes sure that everything is put together to make a song. Like a movie director. Sometimes I’ll make the tracks, but sometimes I won’t. Basically put all the elements together to make the best final product.
CCB: If you weren’t making music what would you be doing?
D: I was going to school to be a sports journalist. At that stage I was doing music but I didn’t really know about putting out records.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
D: Getting inspired sometimes. Whenever you are creative it doesn’t come all the time. Sometimes you can’t pick and chose when you are creative.
CCB: What is the most rewarding part of your job? Is it doing something that you enjoy?
D: Probably on the surface it is. I think deep down the most rewarding part is seeing the response people have to the music that you make. People coming up to you, people emailing you, fans. “Hey, man I grew up listening to you!” Or you inspire me. Those are the things that mean a lot to me. I think being able to do what you love is obviously such a great thing. I think ultimately one of the great things about music is that if you are able and lucky enough to do it and make a record that people like your legacy is set in a way. Music is there and after you die somebody is going to remember your song and they can pull out the CD and listen to it. We made a mark and we have a legacy that will be there forever. As long as people are listening to music someone is going to remember us. To me that’s all I ever wanted to do and I think we have accomplished that. It’s just a matter of keeping it going as long as we can.
CCB: Why do you think that you have been able to succeed at making beats?
D: Probably because I’ve been listening to music all my life. Different types of music and being able to pull from all that music that is in my head. I think you have to be open minded to listen to all types of music to really be a good producer. I feel that if you just listen to what you make and listen to rap or whatever you are making at that time, as soon as music changes you are gone. I think if you listen to all music, all genres, and all eras it’s almost like taking a test with tons of resources right there, resources from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s. Imagine taking a test and you only had the current news. You have the newspaper in front of you. Your study guide being an encyclopedia instead of a newspaper.
CCB: What are you pulling from? You’ll take samples from whatever you are listening to?
D: I don’t even mean just what I sample. Ultimately the more music you hear the more different things you can put together that sound good.
CCB: What are you listening to then?
D: Most of the music I listen to is jazz, soul, and funk from different eras but mainly ‘70’s and ‘80s and ‘60’s. I have over six thousand songs on my ipod and I always listen to it on random. It’s on my desk right now. At the moment that I paused it and got on the phone with you Aretha Franklin was on. The song before that was The Dramatics. The song before that was Rick James. Public Enemy, D.O.C., Funkadelic, Lonnie Liston Smith. This is more kind of down the same vibe but sometimes it will be The Beatles, Massive Attack, to War, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder, Blondie, Led Zeppelin. I listen to everything.
CCB: What do you think of the current state of hip-hop?
D: The fact is that all the corporations control the same radio stations, all the video shows are run by Viacom. They play the same thing. Nothing is encouraging people to be creative and original. Anything different doesn’t get played. Here and there stuff will slide through. The only way to be successful is to look like this person, sound like this person. That’s not hip-hop. I think there is good music out there, but the state of hip-hop as far as what most people get to hear is uninspiring because it doesn’t say be different. Hip-hop when it first took off you could go on a tour bill and it’d be like NWA, Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Public Enemy, Big Daddy Kane, Queen Latifah, A Tribe Called Quest, and they are all different. Now when you listen to the radio it’s the same stuff, all talking about the same thing. It’s easy to be mad at people who are young, but cats can only like what they see. How are they going to know what they are not getting? It’s unfortunate but that’s what it is. There is only a select few people that have diverse music tastes that are able to get through that.
CCB: It’s strange because it’s the biggest it’s ever been but most of it’s the same. So, what is it going to take to make it different?
D: It’s going to take someone to break through and make that change. Kanye kind of did it a little bit but no one followed. Everyone is going to follow the trend so it’s going to take someone really big doing something different. It’s going to take not just them but a bunch of people who are kind of in that vane to make it a movement before it changes. One of the things though, like you said the music is as big as it’s ever been, what it has done is allowed people to have careers and make money and sell records who aren’t on the radio. Back in the day when hip-hop started there were only a few records that were out and were successful. There wasn’t a fledgling underground because hip-hop was underground as a whole. Because it’s so big you can have a group like Hieroglyphics or Blackalicious or whomever who doesn’t really get radio play but who is able to tour and sell enough records to where they can be successful. That’s because the music is so big. You have a bunch of kids who are into the emo-rap. You have the kids who are into the to the left rock rap. You have people who listen to the mainstream stuff and those who listen to the real underground gangster stuff that is only in different neighborhoods. All that stuff has its own scene because the music is so big.
CCB: Are you working on anything at the moment?
D: Just some tracks, nothing in particular. We are probably going to start the new Souls of Mischief record soon.
CCB: What can we expect from you in the future?
D: Hopefully more good songs and an album that is my own that has mainly my production and different guests on it.
*Check out Domino and the Hieroglyphics on their official web site: hieroglyphics.com