"With all due respect to Babe Ruth, Pelé, and Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali was the greatest athlete of the twentieth century. The Champ passed away late Friday night in Arizona at the age of seventy-four due to respiratory complications. Esquire has a trove of memorable Ali pieces—he was manna from heaven for writers—beginning with Tom Wolfe's 1963 Esquire debut, "The Marvelous Mouth," published when the fighter still went by the name Cassius Clay. At 21 he was already fully aware of himself as a show-business creation, and Wolfe predicted a fascinating career for him in "boxing or show business or folk symbolism or whatever it is that he now is really involved in,'" Esquire Classic writer and curator Alex Belth wrote within a touching June 4th Muhammad Ali piece published following the three-time World Heavyweight champ's untimely death. Belth's Muhammad Ali: The Greatest of Them All was accompanied by a similarly-titled, Funk-laden "Tribute to The Greatest" mix assembled by Belth himself and long-time collaborator and self-described programmer/musician/editor/producer Alan "illchemist" Friedman. Soon after hearing Alex Belth & illcehmist's sprawling 4-minute Ali mix, I reached out to @EsquireClassic for a list of contained samples for a Muhammad Ali-centric piece I was writing at the time, went on a relaxing vacation to Amish country, and now, we're here... and I proudly present to you, an all-bases-covered interview with the very masterminds behind said mix, Alex Belth & Alan "illchemist" Friedman!!!
The Witzard Editor-In-Chief
I. How did you two gentlemen first meet and decide to collectively start recording your unique brand of film dialogue-sampling "Hip-Hop" mixes as Alex Belth (or Al Dente) and illchemist?
Alan Friedman: We met through mutual friends, found that we had similar interests in music and baseball (which are two of only a few things I have serious interest in in the first place), and didn’t think of collaborating on a piece until about two years into our friendship. I had been quite busy in the record-making world and towards 2000, I wanted to devote more time to working on new kinds of projects, so Borough to Borough grew out of that.
Alex Belth: First time I went to hang out at Alan's place was like getting a golden ticket to Wonka's chocolate factory—LP’s, 45’s, CD’s, cassettes galore. We made a mixtape, if you can believe it. Which soon morphed into mix cds. I was working as an assistant film editor at the time and at the end of the summer in 2000, I thought to make a more ambitious mix with Alan. Now, he used to make these great annual holiday mixes that he'd give out at the end of the year and that was roughly my idea when I first showed up with a bunch of records to work on this project. Once I realized our schedules allowed for us to really spend some time on it, I decided this was my chance to make the dream mix I'd always wanted to make, but didn't have the technical chops to pull off. Alan is a wizard, so it was like having Steph Curry show you how to shoot jump shots. We spent more than four months in the studio, over the course of [a four-month span] putting Borough to Borough together.
II. What's your typical recording process for a mix like, let's just say for example, your recent Esquire Classic "Tribute to The Greatest?" How did you fellas manage to create and upload your Muhammad Ali mix so quickly after his untimely passing?
Friedman: We had done some pieces together for Esquire over the past year; a couple which saw the light of day, a couple that didn't. We worked on the Ali piece last year as there were a couple of times that his health was failing, and we thought it important to do a very respectful audio tribute. It started out much shorter, and we added more content to it, as we gladly had more time. We've been happy with the response.
Belth: We decided to put something together for Ali last year. As a contributor to SI.com, I'd been assigned to write obituaries for George Steinbrenner and Yogi Berra long before they'd passed away just so they could have something on file. I was aware of wanting to do something similar for Ali, a figure both Alan and I revered. We spent close to a month putting it together. The way we [began was] that I combed through audio clips we may have on vinyl and then I listened to hours of Ali interviews on YouTube.
I'd send Alan a YouTube clip with instructions to pull a specific portion of dialogue. And this is how we begin the process; I feed Alan clips and out of that comes an idea for the structure. We didn't have any plans going into this, so the fact that we made it into a chronology of his career—both in terms of the sound bites and the backing music—just happened naturally. That's crucial to our process. We don't try to steer the thing. We might start it with a specific idea, but once we start working on it, it takes on a life of its own and we honor that. What we arrive at is something that's not Alan and not me, but a true collaboration that should sound seamless to the listener.
III. Would you care to briefly explain your professional and personal relationships with the film, Hip-Hop, music production, print journalism industries, and the like, Alex & Alan?
Friedman: My background has been exclusively audio-based for my whole career. Starting in the music industry as programmer/musician/editor/producer, then becoming a sound and music designer at a post facility inside of a major ad agency.
Belth: I worked in film editing during my twenties—for filmmakers like Ken Burns, Woody Allen, and The Coen Brothers—and got into journalism in my thirties, first as one of the Yankee-based fan blogs, later as a contributor to SI.com, author of a biography of Curt Flood, and editor of two literary sports anthologies. Eventually, I turned to curation, particularly preserving classic journalism, at my blog, Bronx Banter, The Stacks, a blog I run for Gawker, a weekly re-print column at The Daily Beast, and finally, as editor of Esquire Classic.
IV. Your collective discography currently includes Borough to Borough (The Full 2000 Mixtape), Another Fine Mess, "Tribute to The Greatest," and a number of abridged mixes; what do you have in store next for your trusty beat-loving fans like myself?
Friedman: There are beat/sound collage sketches that, for some reason, didn't fit with the final versions of the long-form mixes. Those would always work as jumping off points for future projects. Or there could be an idea, which comes from current events that we’d do an audio piece about.
Belth: Oh, we've got endless ideas. So many secrets. Muh hu ha ha ha.
V. I read during your 2013 Borough to Borough Deadspin article, Alex that "Alan... re-programmed the drum pattern on a Jurassic 5 record because there was no place on the instrumental where the drums were in the clear;" I'm curious as to which Jurassic 5 track was sampled and re-programmed and where about it appears within Borough to Borough?
Friedman: It was a matter of taking drum hits that were in the clear, and replacing the ones that had music over them, while matching the original pattern. We did a similar thing with [Quasimoto's] "Microphone Mathematics."
Belth: So, the Jurassic  song was from the Quality Control LP—"Jurass Finish First." The thing that Alan did, now that I've listened to it again, was take the string melody/riff that comes in at 29 seconds into the track and then repeats again through the song, but is never in the clear; meaning it's never just paired off with the drum track alone. It always appears with a vocal over it. So Alan, re-created the string line to fit over a straight drum track. Either way, it was great fun because he got to screw around with one of our favorite Tex Avery cartoons and mix in some [Alkaho]liks and [A] Tribe [Called Quest], too.
VI. How much of an influence find sample collage-style albums like Beastie Boys & The Dust Brothers's Paul's Boutique, DJ Shadow & Cut Chemist's Brainfreeze, or even Girl Talk's early 2000's masterpiece, Night Ripper, ultimately have on your own hour-long sample collage albums, Borough to Borough and Another Fine Mess?
Friedman: All of the above, plus Steinski's records. I first worked with him in 1988, and completely related to the stuff he did. At the time we did Borough to Borough in 2000, I'm not sure we knew of Girl Talk yet, so in fairness, that wouldn't have been an influence, but I certainly paid attention to it as I got more interested in mash-ups in general.
Belth: I wasn't a fan of the Beasties' first record when it came out but, Paul's Boutique turned me onto them. [De La Soul producer] Prince Paul was a major influence for sure, but Steinski is really the model for what we do. Alan worked with Steinski in the early 90's and introduced me to him and it was the combination of funky records and funny clips that Stein and his partner Double Dee introduced to the world that I found really inspiring.
VII. I'm curious to hear, Alex Belth & illchemist: what were a few of your personal favorite vocal-assisted Hip-Hop albums of let's just say, the past 6-8 months?
Belth: Does Strictly Business by EPMD count? Man, the truth is, I'm so out of-the-loop, I haven't heard much new Hip-Hop in a long while. You tell me, what are we missing?
VIII. As a quasi-follow up to my last question: if sky-high recording fees and feature costs were universally abolished, who would likely be a few of your dream collaborations—any particular sharp-tongued emcees, silky smooth singers, talented musicians, bands, etc. you would love to work with?
Friedman: These days, I’m interested in collaborating with visual artists and animators, where I can use my music production work in tandem with sound design. Any kind of audio collage, musical or otherwise, that can be purposed with visuals is something that could be exciting.
Belth: Well, Prince Paul for one. Biz [Markie], Sarah Silverman, Kid Koala, Madlib, Patton Oswalt, Sadat X, and Mel Brooks.
IX. I believe I read that while recording Borough to Borough (2000), you guys would record together at Alan's home studio and after each session, a rough mix would be burned onto a CD-R to take home and critique before your next session. Is this a process you still actively use? I'm a fan of CD's, LP's, tapes, etc. too, but why exactly did you willingly choose to use such an antiquated technology, rather than simply just emailing mp3's back and forth to each other?
Friedman: We did the 2000 project that way. We post files now. Better, faster, easier. Mercifully.
Belth: Interestingly, when we started on Another Fine Mess, we figured we would be able to do it so much faster because we didn't need to be in the studio together—in fact, we didn't spend one second in the studio together on this one. So, we shared everything through Dropbox, email, etc. But we ended up spending just as much time on it, about four months, as we did back in 2000.
I think the difference is that 16 years ago, we spent so much more time constructing it. Now, the technology made the production part so much faster. But we spent more time listening to it, living with it. That's always been an essential part of our process. Alan will arrive at a draft with a piece—a song, a skit, whatever—and then I'll play it on my iPhone for a few days. I've got to live with it—because that's what you do with music, right?—and I make notes—oh, we need to add something here; let's take away something there. Then, I give him the notes, he makes the changes, and we push on.
X. Now, do either of you have any projects—either musical or non-musical—currently nearing release that you would like to elaborate on in this space, in closing, Alex & Alan?
Friedman: Along with the usual array of industrial work, I've had more chances to work with local musicians (based in the Maplewood/South Orange area) whether as an editor, which is my favorite part of the process, supervising basic tracks that then get handed off to someone else, or mixing. It's a mixed bag of ways of working these days. Digital workstations of all shapes and sizes have made the production process more fragmented and compartmentalized. I like to focus in on an area that I think an artist doesn't have covered, so I can help move the ball forward. It's a "whatever it takes" kind of approach, that keeps things interesting from project to project. And I'm always "sketching" some kind of audio collage/mix, whether with Alex, or for my own “TooMuchInformation” series.
Belth: I'm happily engaged with the curation work I do for Esquire Classic and The Stacks, which keeps me stimulated and busy.