Lisa Vazquez is a producer, vocalist, emcee, and multi-instrumentalist originally from Oregon. Over the last few years, she’s toured extensively, participated in beat battles, and produced a YouTube series called Flip It Fridays. Most recently, she put out a beat battle tape called Hit Like a Girl. She recently took the time to talk to us about all of this and more.
Photo by Meleah Shavon Photography
Scratched Vinyl: Let’s start with the basics – I tend to think of you as a producer, but you wear several hats. What was your first instrument? What was your entryway?
Lisa Vazquez: Basically, when I first started out playing music, it was drums. My first first instrument was a saxophone that my parents got me at a yard sale, but I failed miserably immediately. But I was always a fan of Sheila E., I looked up to her and just drumming in general. I was really drawn to it. I got a drum kit pretty young, then also took on hand percussion and stuff. Kinda did that for several years, both playing in bands and self-study to be a better percussionist. And that kinda led the way – side by side, I always had this love for hip hop. I didn’t know how to break into as much – there wasn’t so much hip hop going on in Oregon when I was first starting out with music. I found a way, and eventually got into playing in hip hop groups. I did back up vocals and percussion. I played congas for quite a while in a couple of different hip hop groups that had horns and several vocalists. I was one of the vocalists. But it wasn’t until I decided to go to school for audio engineering that I finally got into production.
I wanted to find a way to create my own sound without having to rely on a band. The band thing was great, but as anyone who’s been in a band knows, it can be a lot of logistical issues and drama, and that makes it really hard to create when you want to create. I wanted to just keep my own momentum going – that’s what spearheaded me to learn production. So I went to school for audio engineering…got my degree in that, [then] started a very rudimentary home studio. I skipped over a bunch of stuff – I dabble on a bunch of instruments, so I had a short stint as a singer-songwriter, which is where I learned to play guitar. I play keys, but I wouldn’t say I’m a keyboard player. I do just enough to help me with my production. Electric bass – same thing. I dabble on a bunch of instruments, and I do vocals as well. I sang before I rapped, so I’m more comfortable singing, but it’s all about putting time in. The more I put time in to working on my lyricism, the better I’m getting at that. When I started working on the production stuff, I started working on that aspect. Definitely come a long way, but there’s always lots more work to put in there.
That basically brings us up to now – once I got an MPC, the MPC1000, seven or eight years ago, worked on that for a while, and that was great, but then I got an MPC Live, and that took things to the next level. As great as the MPC1000 is, the operating system is clunky at best. It made it so much easier to have a computer integrated into the stand alone machine. So know I even give lessons on it. It’s definitely the centerpiece of my live show and everything. That’s how it all began.
SV: Can you talk us through the difference between your preferred studio set up and your live set up?
Lisa Vazquez: In studio production, I definitely have a lot more gear. I’ve really taken to having analog synths, several of those, and controllers – mostly the MPC Live, but I have a few other ones, keyboard ones and other pad controllers, guitars, bass, and microphones for my own vocals, or I’ll have artists come in and lay some vocals down. And tons of records! I sample a lot, and they come from records. I’d say a lot of the time, that’s how I start my beats, then I’ll layer over them with live instrumentation and vocals – give it more of an organic feel. I kind of look at the sampling of the record like whoever laid down that sample in the first place, I’m inviting them – I’m transcending all space and time and they’re in the studio laying down a sample, and then I can just manipulate it. I look for melodic sounds, instrumental sounds that are rare. Sometimes I’ll sample from soul records and stuff, but for the most part I’m trying to find unique instruments that I don’t know how to play or wouldn’t be able to play myself. Something that sounds different and unique and sparks an idea.
For the live set up, I pare everything down to the MPC Live, and then I use a TC-Helicon VoiceLive Touch looper and loop my vocals. It’s also a vocal processor, so I can add some effects to my voice or whatever. Then I’ll make the beat live, then add some vocals, and then just rap and sing over that. Very pared down for the live show.
SV: Getting further into your record sampling, you’ve developed a YouTube series called Flip It Fridays. How did you start doing that series, inviting people into the process?
Lisa Vazquez: I had the idea maybe three or four years ago. Like you said, I wanted to invite people into the process, because for me…I want to connect with people, and to invite them into the process makes you more human, just like all of the idiosyncrasies of creating, because a lot of times, with the way that artists put out work, it’s just fast forward to this super polished performance or song, and you don’t really see how it got there, so there’s a disconnect there. With Flip It Fridays, I like it, and I feel like other people like it because it’s like a tutorial, but it really lets you see – because I fumble with…I don’t like about half the beats I make in the videos. But I think anybody who’s creative knows that a lot of what you create behind closed doors is not necessarily what you want to share. By sharing that, it gives people confidence to create more, because you are going to create a lot of failures – not failures, but things you don’t like. That’s part of the process. You’re only going to get better by keep making it. Make ten things you don’t like until you make one thing that you do. I’m definitely going to continue to do those. I have a bunch of them filmed – video editing is one thing that I’ve learned I can do, but it takes me a really long time. That’s been kind of my hold up. With everything going on, the video editing takes a back seat, but my mantra of late is to not over think. I’ll rewatch clips twenty times to make a five minute video, taking all day.
SV: Video editing is a real skill. There’s a reason why it’s people’s jobs.
Lisa Vazquez: Absolutely. I’m at the point where I have to pick and choose – if I want to be way into that world, cool, but I might have to put a few other things on pause. So I’ll do the best I can with them, but I’m not going to go too crazy with it, with all the transitions. It’s a lot. I could go on and on – anyone who is a video editor right now is like, “Yep! I know exactly what you’re talking about.”
SV: Now you just released a new project called Hit Like a Girl. Can you tell us what the inspiration behind this project was, and what the title means to you?
Lisa Vazquez: I’ve been working on a more full-length album for quite a while – again, circling back to the overthinking thing, I was having a hard time grouping things together in a fluid piece, all put together. But I had all of these battle beats from different beat battles that I’d been a part of over the last couple of years. And I thought, “Huh! Those all work well together, they’re polished, they’re ready to go!” I horde a lot of music, so I don’t release a lot. The last thing I released was October in 2017 before this one. So it was like, I just need to rip the band aid off and go for it. These beats were really representative to me of being – like a girl in a hip hop space, in a production space, is more of a rarity these days. Also just trying to break gender stereotypes around, like aggression is usually tied to male energy. So the whole concept of “Hit like a girl,” and battling, kind of has more of the male connotation to it, that I’m trying to flip the script. “Hit like a girl” – you don’t have to stay in any kind of lane, you can just do what feels right. We are often muted in all sort of ways in society, it’s conditioned us to be quieter, more shy, we don’t really stand up for ourselves – all these things. In a sense, just trying to make it more empowering for women, just to stand up in any fashion. Not necessarily just in music, just in their lives. Just stand up and have a voice. Not live in fear – I could go on a tangent with that, too. I’ve been thinking about how in order to be strong, you have to be comfortable with fear. ‘Cause everybody has fear surrounding a lot of aspects of their life, but to move forward with a lot things, you just have to move forward with the fear.
SV: How did you get into the specific lane of the beat battles?
Lisa Vazquez: That was kind of random, because I joined a couple of online beat battles before the Goldie Awards, and nothing really happened. I think I had done a little bit of a local thing before, but nothing really stands out. I saw the Goldie Awards battle, which A-Track puts on, or did put on – I hope it continues in the future! But it’s really interesting, because before he created that battle, there wasn’t a huge platform, necessarily, for producers. There’s also a deejay battle. That’s something that’s usually a separate world, which is something that I appreciate that he’s bringing them together, because the scratch deejay world and the producer world are closely aligned, but they’re also very much different worlds. So I thought that was interesting. So when I was researching what to bring to the battle, I was looking at scratch deejays to help me fine tune this idea of ways to produce, also. Anyway, when I got chosen as one of the finalist for the Goldie Awards, that spearheaded – all of sudden I started doing a lot of battles after that. It allowed me to meet a bunch of top producers that I’m still friends with. It also opened up a lot of doors and opportunities, collaborations and stuff. It definitely was a turning point in my career. To be able do a high profile gig like that, with such humble and talented artists.
SV: Because you mentioned it, could you estimate what percentage of the participants are women when you’re doing a battle like this?
Lisa Vazquez: In that one, there was one other female producer. She was from Mexico. We still keep in contact. Shout out to Kariie Love, she performs under the name Mawik. There were a few in the deejay battle, about twenty five percent…so about twenty five percent [overall]. That’s one thing that was cool, A-Track definitely tried to represent a diverse community, partly doing that by making it a worldwide competition, so you’ve got people from all over the world, and there’s different age groups as well. The youngest deejay was fifteen, or something like that. [A-Track] comes from a background, he was the youngest deejay to win the DNC championship…he was really, really young when he started battling. So he likes to try encourage that as well, not be ageist or sexist in that aspect. It’s a very male-dominated field, but they’re trying to change that. I think a lot of it is…there are a lot of females out there doing stuff, but they’re not really in the forefront. And maybe they don’t feel comfortable, or they just aren’t invited as much to events, but we’re out here!
SV: As I’m thinking about it, it feels like it’s a double-edged thing, where on the one hand, girls aren’t expected or encouraged to pick up and fiddle with gear the ways boys are, but also it’s not a visible medium the way that being an emcee is. “We need more women on the mic!” “Okay, now we can see that there are more women on the mic.” It’s not as easy to figure out how many women producers are out there. You have to do some digging and look at the liner notes to find out.
Lisa Vazquez: It’s interesting, because I’m in that world, so I probably know more than many people do. For example, I was on a compilation…it was almost two years ago now, with Sadiva, she live in Australia, she put together this second edition of a compilation called Women of the World, and it’s fifty female producers from around the world…and I’ve met so many female producers doing shows across the country, and also just the online community. I try to stay really connected with the producer communities all over.
Especially since COVID, there’s a friend of mine named Elliot Gann, he runs an organization called Today’s Future Sound, and he does a global beat cypher once a week now. There’ll be anywhere from 30-50 producers, every Saturday, sharing beat flips from a sample pack he puts out. I connect with a bunch of people through that – there’s been a bunch of females that I’ve connected with through that. If I had a gun to my head, I could probably list a hundred different producers, just off the top. There’s quite a few. And there are emerging more. I’m sure people have noticed all the stereotypes are being broken down and female being in the forefront and having their voices are way more encouraged. But it’s definitely something that’s becoming more prevalent, and in the next several years, it’s going to continue to grow.
SV: Getting back to the actual project, when you’re getting ready for a beat battle, what’s the general philosophy you have to bring into it? Obviously it’s a different scenario than if you’re just producing a song for yourself or another artist.
Lisa Vazquez: Yeah. I’ve never thought of this analogy before, but it’s almost like having a fireworks display. You wanna pack as much excitement and punch into as short of a time as possible. That’s not necessarily at all how I thought about production before. I was usually just like, “Let’s make the drum tracks slap, now let’s work on a good melody…” Just basic stuff like that. That all changed. I took a page out of the scratch deejay’s book. You know, a lot of them are constantly switching up the beat, adding in vocal stabs, scratching obviously, all these wow factor kind of things. What this does is keep the audience or the listener constantly guessing. It makes it exciting, it makes it interesting. So when you think of a beat battle beat, that’s how I think of it. How can I take the listener on a journey and keep them excited? With these, they’re all about one minute long, because that’s a typical time limit for a beat battle beat. Sometimes it’ll be longer, but that’s pretty typical. It was a huge thing to me, because when you’re in bands, your songs are like three to five minutes, maybe longer, and then one minute, I was like, “Oh my God!” But then when you start to do it, there are so many different things you can throw into something in one minute. Someone like RJD2, who I’m a huge fan of, he’s amazing at that, because not only is he a deejay and have all of those skills, he can transition from one beat to the next pretty seamlessly…like on the album Deadringer, there are a bunch of songs where within the one beat, there are like five different beats, pretty much. It doesn’t seem that way because of the way he transitions them. In a beat battle sense, that’s the mindset.
SV: One particular moment that got me when I was listening to it was when you threw in the sample from The Room. I imagine when that movie came out, you must have had a bunch of people quoting that to you.
Lisa Vazquez: Well, shoot, when did that movie come out originally? I think, it’s a cult classic, but a lot of people didn’t really until The Disaster Artist came out…so a lot of people discovered it, or re-discovered it because of that. But yeah, when I picked that – this was for the Goldie Awards that I made the beat for, and I was trying to find samples that had my name in it. It was one of the first things that came to mind. And then there was Lisa Simpson – I tried to find a sample that worked, but it didn’t happen. But that one was perfect, and the people who get it are going to love it. When it comes to the beat battle tactics, [you need to] wow the audience, and something like that, nostalgic things, are always a good move, in that sense. I also learned, and I’m always continuing to learn, that those things that I use for beat battles, I can use for regular beats. I might have a little bit of a different approach, and not use them as frequently. I am going to make a version of this album that’s like an extended version, so the songs will be more drawn out and more for easy listening – I guess that’s one way to put it. But make each section longer so you can vibe on it longer, without it switching up every ten seconds. I’m just trying to have fun with it. And with the scratch deejay world, I would recommend anybody who’s a producer, if they aren’t already, get familiar with some top scratch deejays, like A-Trak or DJ Kraze…The skill set that they have will help you so much in production, if you aren’t already a deejay as well.
SV: Normally, this would be the part of the interview where I’d ask you about touring, shows, and stuff like that. Obviously we can’t do that. You did mention that you are participating in some online beat forums and stuff like that. Are there any other things that people can check out online, where they can keep track of what you’re doing?
Lisa Vazquez: Yeah, definitely. I do have a couple of other events that I’ll be continuing to do. I’m sure people have seen some of the online festivals that are happening. I have one, it’s at the end of the month with Fake Four. It’s on the 29th of this month, it’s an all-female lineup. The headliner is Akua Naru. I don’t know if people are familiar with her, but she’s an amazing vocalist, and she works with a live band sometimes. I don’t know if they’ll be performing this time, but she’s really incredible. I’m on another collab album – I get asked all the time to be part of these all-female things, which I’m not mad about – but it’s cool for people to discover other female artists that they might not be familiar with. Anyway, it’s a collab album that’s going to come out on vinyl with the Dedicate label. Georgia Anne Muldrow is one of the other artists on it. It’s going to be total of ten artists from around the world, and not just hip hop…some more electronic stuff probably, and other styles. I’m excited about that.
And then teaching, I’ve been working with the Producer Dojo, which is Ill Gates, the EDM producer – super, super awesome guy, he started the Producer Dojo several years ago, and just has a bunch of other producers who are on his roster and if you sign up for his varying levels of subscription, you can get one-on-one lessons with any one of the sensei’s of your choice (I’m one of those). Then you can get track feedback, a bajillion tutorials, and free downloads that he has. It’s pretty insane the amount of information he has on there. I barely scratched the surface, because I don’t know how many hours of stuff there is. And like I said, super nice guy, extremely knowledgeable. And he approaches music – because he’s a psychology major, I believe, or philosophy? – one of the brain things. But he approaches music in terms of how we absorb it as humans, which is a really interesting way to think about it. He can really break it down so you can absorb it, no matter what genre you’re in. Kind of how I was describing before with the beat battles, you want to keep things exciting and interesting, so he’ll write things down about visuals and how we process information, and I think that helps you break boundaries with the way to process – to not always think about it in technical terms. ‘Cause people can get held up with that stuff a lot, and it’s really not necessary when it comes to the creative process. You can literally make a bomb track with a spoon and your voice. You could! Creativity doesn’t have boundaries like that. I highly recommend it, and not just because I’m part of it. He has memberships that start at a dollar, so you can really get a lot of bang for your buck there, without having to commit much of anything. And he also gives away a lot of free stuff, too.
SV: So you’re keeping yourself busy during this time.
Lisa Vazquez: Definitely. And I have a lot of side projects, as well. All more so on the back end of production, like I’m putting together some sample packs. I’m definitely still working on releasing more music. I’m planning on releasing a couple of singles before I put my next album out – it’s called Nocturnal Sun. But the Bandcamp Fridays, I’m shooting for those as my release dates. I think that’s kind of perfect, and I work well if I have a solid deadline. I’m just gonna pick a track I like, and not overthink it. Especially with everything else going on in the world, me over obsessing over little details with music is not the move right now. I’m kind of like, “I want this stuff to be out in the world, I want people to be inspired by it.” So I want it to be out there, not just on my MPC or my computer. It’s ridiculous.
SV: I’ll leave you with the question I ask everyone – if there were three artists that you could work with that you haven’t before, who would that be?
Lisa Vazquez: Okay, Snoh Aalegra is one. She’s been a huge inspiration for me vocally, and I discovered her about five years ago or so, and in that time, she’s kind of blown up and I think she’s an incredible vocalist. She’s definitely on my list. I mean…since I mentioned RJD2, he’s incredible. I’d love to work with him in some fashion. Dang, another one? It’s so tough! I know there’s some emcees I’d love to work with…Sa-Roc.
For more information, visit: http://www.lisavazquez.com/