Alchemist and Oh No talk Grand Theft Auto

The downside of the exquisite world-building that goes into games like Grand Theft Auto V is that reality is not perfect.

To achieve accuracy, game designers have to take a warts-and-all approach to IRL. For example, free reign of a game’s immersive universe is awesome but also means sometimes you have to schlep across town to reach the next mission. You may find yourself idly checking Instagram while you drive, just like in real life.

Five games into the saga, Rockstar’s influence and GTA’s cultural capital has allowed the designers to basically reimagine radio in an idealized world where Flying Lotus and Pam Grier craft the playlists instead of corporate program directors. But even this has its limitations: GTA’s wide audience means a need to cater to a bunch of disparate demographics, and thus loosely structure all the radio stations into something cohesive and consistent. In the closest thing this generation has ever experienced to the ‘Walk This Way’ video, great musical minds sit tantalizingly close to collaborations, separated by only a thin wall or a flick of the dial.

And so The Alchemist & Oh No Present Welcome to Los Santos is the inevitable release of that tension. The guy from Future Islands sings a hook for Gangrene and Earl Sweatshirt; Freddie Gibbs brings DMX vibes to a Popcaan track; Al and Oh meet Sal from Liquid Liquid and Sinkane on a rock jam from TV On the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe.

But Welcome is more than just Rockstar playing dream date with their cool friends. All the music on the album comes from the leftovers from the (very extensive) GTA V soundtrack: an ambitious, cross-continental collaboration between The Alchemist, Oh No, session wizard Woody Jackson, and the late German synth genius Edgar Froese of Tangerine Dream. With Welcome out now (coinciding with the Windows re-release of GTA V), I spoke to Alchemist and Oh No about making the soundtrack and how the process begat the album.

Welcome to Los Santos grew out of the fact that you made so much extra music while scoring GTA V that you had enough for a whole new album. How did that happen?

Alchemist: The music we were making was for outside the car, beds of music for the missions. It was based on a stem system, there’s 8 stems in each bed. And there’s an automation that according to the way you play, the faders would fade up and down… one would have strings, one would have bass. according to how you move, something happens, other things fade up and down. Like you would get a different mix every time you play.

It was like a cycle of variations on a theme…

Alchemist: Yeah and it needed a lot of layers because when it plays, not all 8 would ever be up at the same time.

Oh No: We were literally making multiple sets of drums so if something was kicking off while you were driving, it would get extra crazy. Or there could be no drums at all.

Right so you had like 8 versions of the same song.

Alchemist: And that was just for the ones that got approved! It was hard because we didn’t get to see much footage. If anything we would get to see stills. Working with Rockstar was like Fort Knox! They had their own servers and everything, it was all very top secret. We would fly out to LA and get to see stuff in person.

Oh No: Literally there was over 100 different compositions. They weren’t even just beats. They were just compositions.

Alchemist: So we were doing so much work, we were putting stuff aside like “we can find something for this,” but then we’d work on another one… we just had a bulk of music. That’s how we got to the Los Santos project. Because of the spillover.

“It’s always easy to make some crazy John Carpenter-sounding shit.”
Alchemist

How did you approach the music for the game?

Oh No: I would watch different clips from GTA 4 just to get the idea of the tone that I wanted to set, then I just started going in and making a bunch of tracks and different sounds and stuff. As soon as they would hear ones they would like they would keep elaborating on it.

Alchemist: At first they said they wanted a funk feel so we were just making some real hard keyboard shit, some nighttime shit. When making beats with no samples, it’s always easy to make some crazy John Carpenter-sounding shit to me. Some of those got used, some were just too dark and too evil.

Oh No: We were doing all these darker themes, shoot-em-up music. They were like it’s fun too, we gotta put some fun into it so then we started listening to different funk references.

Alchemist: So we sent [Woody Jackson] some old funk and soul records and they made batches of shit that was just inspired by that. Woody has a network of crazy musicians and a studio, so they assembled a band, they worked for a week or two on their own. They went to two-inch tape and everything. I heard it and was like “well here’s your score, what do you want from us?” It was already separated. They were like “no we want you guys to do what you do with this.” As I understood that more, like ok boom, we chopped it up and made our style of beats.

When those got approved, we brought the musicians back and a lot of them played on top of the shit. It tripped a lot of them out because they remembered playing and seeing what we did to them… we pitched some up, blending one with another. And then they came in and played more stuff on top. We’d send shit to Edgar in Germany, he’d layer stuff on and send it back. Nothing stopped! We just kept building.

Oh No: I would play something at the crib and be like let me take this to Woody Jackson and have his musicians replay it way better than I could ever play it. Then I bring that back home and start chopping it up, add more layers of keys over it… it just got more layers and more layers. We’d send that out to Edgar from Tangerine Dream, he would send it back and I’d chop it up. It was like taking all these puzzle pieces and making the ill picture that wasn’t even supposed to be made.

“I’m not trained, I’m just kinda raw”
Oh No

Was this your first time working so closely with musicians?

Oh No: Definitely one of the first times. I worked with a few cats, like G. Koop I’d done a few things with… but on this kind of scale for this kind of score and this kind of thing, definitely first time for that. I felt like… man you guys are on a whole other level. I come from sampling and stuff like that. When I do do keyboards or drums or guitar, I’m not trained, I’m just kinda raw.

Alchemist: I’d done a lot of work with musicians over the years but this was interesting because we got to work with so many dope people and learn how to integrate their shit with ours. Once they figure out what you’re going for, they’re all so musically talented they can just grab a guitar or piano and get busy.

But I also realized when you sit around all these years with records, I realized it gave us a discipline that’s crazy with our ears. If I want to make something, I go through records, I have to dig and listen until I find that thing that sounds like what I want. A guy who’s nice at music, you look at their eyes, they’re searching for melodies or whatever, they’re doing some other shit. Sometimes they’re not even there. They’re playing something amazing and don’t even realize it.

So you sit there – its just like listening to a record. Like “yo stop that was it! that little part…” Sometimes they don’t even know what it is! You gotta play it back so they can hear what they were doing.

Do you have musical training? Do you know the lingo or are you just saying “yo do this”?

Alchemist: It frustrates me that I don’t! I end up humming shit and they’re like “oh you mean G# to the F” and that frustrates me. I know music, I don’t know the names of it. I feel like if I went to school it would go quick – I would be like “oh that’s the name of that thing.”

How did you go about forming the leftovers into Welcome to Los Santos?

Alchemist: They were revamping the game for the PC re-release so they were like “do an album!” They didn’t want everyone rapping about the game or anything. Rockstar was really interested in blending the genres. A lot of these artists I wouldn’t have known how to reach, even being fans of them.

Oh No: I was definitely pushing for people like E-40 and gibbs and MC Eiht and all that. Phantogram. I’m the one that said let’s put Phantogram on there.

You’ve been crafting a specific sound as Gangrene for the last few years. Was it refreshing to have the freedom to experiment a little more?

Alchemist: Yeah we have a Gangrene album ready that’s coming out right after this project. And that’s… that. It’s staying in that lane. But this was a chance to showcase the production skill. As an artist, you can move around, but you gotta have a brand they can trust. As a producer, it’s the opposite. You do get to be versatile. This was dope as a challenge for me and Oh, then we get to follow it up with Gangrene which is just gutter.

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