Focused is a Toronto-based rapper who delivers ‘90s style lo-fi rap with instrumental depth that adds a jazzy, free-flowing dynamic to his tunes. A veteran of the rap scene with a first-hand perspective on how technology has shaped the music industry over the last twenty years, Focused recently released his Bad Meat Lp, the follow-up to his 2011 release Free2Choose. In this exclusive feature, we are happy to have Focused join us to chronicle his journeys in the music scene over the last two decades.
My Experience Making Music Through the Technological Revolution From 1998-2018:
The year was 1998 and I was heading to college in North Bay to start a course in television & radio broadcasting. I became fascinated with video cameras and TV production in high school when I found a Betacam in 1994. In my second year of college, one of the classes in the television & radio program focused on radio production. Each week we were given an assignment to either make a commercial or edit an existing commercial for radio. 1999 was the end of the analog era and the beginning of the digital revolution.
Assignments for the radio class were produced in a small radio booth. The equipment in the radio booth consisted of carts (8 tracks), a bulk eraser, a computer, a microphone, a pod panel and the very first digital editing program called Acid. We also learned to splice and edit reels, and how to edit on the reel to reel. However, these practices would soon be obsolete in the coming digital years. We were also introduced to the first video editing program called Adobe Premiere , which, compared to today’s digital video standards, was pretty garbage. It would take forever to render anything, let alone finish a project.
Check out Focused’s recent single “Cool Cats”.
Just as I started this program in 1998, I met a young tall scrawny red-headed dude by the name of Ben Stortini. Ben and I became instant friends due to our shared love for rap and hip-hop music; my love for New York hip-hop and his love for what would be called dirty south rap. Ben had his pulse on the hip-hop world, introducing me to the likes of Master P and Cash Money Records, which would later produce Lil Wayne. Ben was so into hip-hop that he desperately wanted to be an MC.
One month into the semester and Ben and I were partying our brains out at the school pubs and school residence. One night while partying in the school residence, Ben pulled out a cassette and popped it in the player at a house party. There was a slick young voice on the tape rapping like a smooth Snoop Dogg in his prime. I asked Ben who the rapper on the tape was, and Ben replied that it was he. I was so blown away that Ben made this track on his own. I asked him how he made the track.
This is how he did it with the gear available through our radio class: First, Ben would find a four bar part in a song that had no vocals on. He would load the song into a computer and upload it to the digital program Acid. Then he would loop that beat on the Acid program and dump it onto a cart (8 track). The cart would fit about 1 min of track. He would then take that one-minute loop and repeat it on Acid and voilà, a four-minute instrumental for background. Ben would then bring his lyrics he wrote and record his vocals on the Acid program with a radio DJ mic. He would then edit and shape the song on Acid, format into a .wav file and then dump it onto a zip disk and then on a zip drive, and after all that you have a quality track in digital form. We could then burn a CD from the computer.
Now we just needed a name for Ben. First it was Slim Dawg… Bad choice. Then it was State of the Art… Then I thought of the name Poetikal… fucking genius, right?
After college, Ben and I moved back to Toronto and started making music from scratch. I was living in a big old house that my friend Burke owned in Aurora. I had a big room and a side sunroom that we turned into a studio. We had a vocal booth that I made out of skid and plywood. To get us started, we bought a CD from Steve’s Music Store in Toronto. The double CD had licensed beat loops and the other CD had bass and guitar loops. We put loops together in Acid pro and made our own instrumentals. We also had a DJ mixer that I stole from a nightclub called Whiskey Saigon in Toronto where I worked as a bar back. The club was going under and the employees where stripping the place clean. So I thought I would join in the fun and steal a mixer.
Poetikal had a neighbor that made custom computers. We got him to install a M-Audio internal sound card into the computer. The device was very temperamental, but with all this mis-matched equipment, we managed to create our very first CD, which we called Silent Music.
After Silent Music, it was time to make another album. We started working with a producer that had a pretty pro studio. We would choose the beats we wanted and pay for it. We were in another studio mastering this album called Baby Blues when we discovered that the producer we were buying the beats from didn’t clear any of the samples he was using. We decided that the risk of getting sued was too real, so we dropped the album and moved on to new things. A year later, Poetikal and I had a ton of new songs. We had two small keyboards that had amazing bass sounds that we used quite often. We made our beats and played keyboard over it. We also started incorporating live musicians into our recording. We made a song called “Make It Happen” with a live acoustic guitar and live saxophone.
Fast forward to 2008, I had a girlfriend that allowed me to use Garage Band on her mac book pro. This would be the last Poetikal album, which we titled KISUM, which is MUSIK backwards. At this time, pre amps and external cards where much more user-friendly. We rented a pre amp, mini Korg keyboard and a good-quality condenser mic. We made an album in about two months using Garage Band. Operating Garage Band was a breeze for us because of our grassroots experience with Acid. Out of this album, Focused was officially a solo Rapper and featured on three Poetikal tracks. Back in college, Ben came up with the name Focused for me. A nickname is only cool if your friends give it to you.
Unfortunately Poetikal came to an end. After 10 years of grinding, Ben and I parted ways musically.
Here’s Focused rapping around the globe with “Grind Sublime”.
Having all this digital and analog experience, I decided to go back to the basics for my first solo album. My little brother Eli just turned 15 and was an up-and-coming drummer. He was like animal from The Muppets. I took him to Naturally Digital Studios in Brampton and let him loose on the drums. I met Dave Vanderploog, the owner of Naturally Digital Studios, while working on the set of Canadian Idol. We were having a staff jam at the studio when we got talking about music production. I needed a place to get Poetikal’s last album, KISUM, mastered. Mastering was Dave’s specialty. Dave gave Ben and I a great deal, and did a great job on the mastering. So naturally, I was ready to make an album from scratch at Dave’s. My brother and Dave laid down all the drums in about three different sessions. Then we spent weeks editing all the drums.
Two months later, I brought in my friend Kal to the studio to lay down some bass. I met Kal back in 2002; he was a key part in Poetikal’s songs, recording bass and guitar. He was also the first bandmate to play live with us. Kal lives and breathes metal and rock ’n roll. Kal introduced me to bands like System of a Down, Tool, and Lamb of God. He could easily be the spawn of Metallica. Kal laid down tons of awesome bass lick ideas. One particular bass line that Kal made sent a shiver through to my soul.
For almost a year, Dave and I edited the drums and bass until we had a few ideas laid out. Then we got this guy named Andrew Frost, who my sister was dating at the time, to record guitar on a few tracks. So, now we had a bunch of ideas for songs. I then brought in my friend John Hunter from the band Medallions. Along with Kal’s killer baseline, John laid down some groovy, almost reggae-style guitar. Now all the instrumentals were laid down, and all I needed were lyrics.
A week later I attended the chaos that was the Toronto G20 (June 2010). After that event took place, I immediately wrote what would become my first solo track titled “Piece of Paradise”. After that, the ideas started to flow naturally through my every-day experiences. One day I was sitting on a delayed subway; in Toronto many people have committed suicide by jumping on the tracks. During this delay I wrote a song called “Escape”. Then I went on a three-week trip to Italy and visited the small village that my great grandfather came from. It was an eye-opening trip and I had just turned 30. Near the end of this trip I wrote a ton of songs. Coming back from Italy, I was ready to finish the album. I had another two sessions with Andrew, during which we banged out six songs.
I wanted Poetikal to be a big part in my first solo album. He sang on two hooks for “I Did It” and “Slur the Wurld”, which we chopped and screwed the hook; Poetikal’s idea. We played keyboard and had a freestyle session that ended up being a 20-minute song at the end of the album. The album, Free 2 Choose took a long time to finish, but I was extremely proud of my first solo album because I made it from scratch with some really talented musicians.
Now that my first album was complete, it was time to get into the Toronto music scene. I started going to open mics and sharing my songs from Free 2 Choose. It wasn’t too long before I got the itch to start recording again. But not before I went back to Europe. This time I went for one month travelling to Amsterdam, Paris, Toulouse, Nice, and Munich and back to Italy. The next summer I did the same thing. I found open mics to play in Amsterdam and Paris. I stayed at a hostel in Brugge, Belgium. This is the only hostel I’ve ever stayed at, and it was magnificent. I met people from all around the world, including two young guys from Montreal, named Martin and Dave.
It was an ugly rainy day in Brugge and I stayed at the hostel and drank a bottle of wine and ate some food. I went outside to smoke with Martin and Dave. Martin showed me a beat program on his phone; he was making high quality .wav beats while travelling. When I got home, I contacted Martin and asked him if he could let me hear some beats he made. I checked about 40 beats that he had made. I liked about 10 to 15 beats, but only one stood out in particular. The beat reminded me of an old New York style track, like something out of Illmatic. I bought this track off him, and got amped up to start recording over it.
I felt I still had to prove myself as a real MC, so I really wanted to put emphasis on rapping for this album. At the same time, I still wanted real musicians to play on top of these instrumentals. A friend of my grandfather, named Olie had a grandson named Rory. Rory was majoring in saxophone at the University of Toronto, and taught saxophone all around Europe. I loved the idea of live sax over an old school New York hip-hop beat. When I went to see him play live, I knew I needed him on Martin’s track. I brought him to Dave’s, and he laid down seven full takes. After that, Dave and I edited the sax and Martin’s beat together, which amounted to two tracks.
Check out this little “Piece of Paradise”, it’s pretty dope.
I wanted this album to be different from Free 2 Choose; I wanted to incorporate all my producing history into one album. I made tons of beats with my good buddy Anthony Regan. Anthony is an incredible musician who made a few epics beats for Ben and I for KISUM. I had about 20 beats from Anthony. I also made friends with a producer named Aston who I played shinny with every Thursday. Aston had a studio in the city, and a ton of amazing beats that I loved; I ended up buying two.
Even with all the amazing input I had from this roster of talent, I still wasn’t ready to release, because I wanted at least one track that was 100% made by me. So I bought an Aki driver and used it with Logic Pro and got myself re-familiarized with audio editing. I made a bunch of beats and really liked four of them. So, with some of my own beats, and all the inputs from Martin, Anthony, and Ashton, I was ready to write, and to work towards the completion of this album.
In 2016 I did a lot of traveling. I had another massive trip around Europe in which I got to see David Gilmour in Vienna. And in October, I went to Barbados for a week by myself. I wrote a ton of songs in Europe and the rest in Barbados. I was now set to record my vocals, and finish my second album, The Bad Meat LP. While I was in Europe, I had one song ready (“Grind Sublime”), so I was able to perform it in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Prague and Barbados. All in all, the Bad Meat LP took me 5 years to complete, but it allowed me to culminate all my experiences since 1999 into one album.
Although the technology now available has made recording easier and faster, I still feel you can’t rush creativity. It comes when it comes. I am grateful to have developed my music career throughout this transition in technology, so that I can appreciate both the old and new. In my opinion, and from my experiences, it doesn’t matter what technology is available; music develops from drive and vision.
My name is Focused and I am rapper from the digital era.