Dissecting Kanye West's Good Life Beat
Good Life was the third single from Kanye’s third offering, 2007’s Graduation, and shows us a more synthpop-based approach to hip-hop than his previous albums, and the song went on to win Best Rap Song at the 2008 Grammys. Good Life features the vocals of T-Pain, and production by Kanye, DJ Toomp, Timbaland and Mike Dean. DJ Toomp is known for working with T.I., and he also collaborated with Kanye on the Graduation songs Can't Tell Me Nothing and Big Brother, being a big influence on the sound of the album. Good Life combines layers of synths with a prominent sample from Michael Jackson’s P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing). If you haven’t already then check out my other Kanye articles on Good Morning and Saint Pablo. There is actually a video from the studio of Kanye working on the song, still in its early stages, which you can watch below to get an idea of the layers involved in the beat.
Pretty Young Sample
The song started life with Kanye’s sample of P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing), a classic Michael Jackson song from the blockbuster album Thriller. Pretty Young Thing is notable for being one of Jackson's most uptempo songs. Here’s the original sample, where it appears in the outro of P.Y.T. The part sampled for Good Life is towards the end, and features Jackson's pitch-shifted vocals, creating a 'chipmunk' sound that Kanye was fond of creating on his debut album The College Dropout. P.Y.T. has also been sampled, covered, and referenced by a several other artists.
Jackson's P.Y.T. is a monster track, full of catchy hooks, an incredible vocal performance, and a super-polished production. The song is a funky disco track and features several synth part, such as an E-mu Emulator I sampling Jackson's voice for the pad, customized Minimoogs for the bassline, and a Roland Jupiter-6 doubled with a Prophet-5 for the pitch-bend chorus synth lick. You can read more about the synths on Jackson's signature songs in this fantastic KeyboardMag article.
The chipmunk vocals are unusual for the era it was recorded, and the pitch-shift disguises what Jackson is singing. Questlove posted a video on Instagram of himself in the studio along with Root’s guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas and keyboard player James Poyser listening to the multitrack stems of P.Y.T. pitched down, so the chipmunk vocal track sounds like how it would've before being repitched. Questlove commented:
The beautiful moment of music discovery. Always thought MJ was saying "I know I wan-na-do-et" on PYT. @stevemandel reminded us we can decode anything with the right technology. So we de tuned his high pitch octave. And then @kirklloyd @jamespoyser & I [lost] our minds (btw the adlibs AFTER the album fade? Jesus MJ was the penultimate saaanger.
127bpm is clearly too fast to rap over, so the track needs to be slowed down. Two classic approaches to bringing a track down to hip-hop tempo are the old-school way of slowing it down as you would a record player and letting the pitch drop with the tempo, which gives you a detuned lo-fi sound. The second approach is to chop the sample into slices and play the slices back at a slower tempo, so they retain their original pitch. Kanye is a master of the second approach, and he does this on his Ensoniq ASR-10 keyboard, something that I covered in my last article on Deconstructing Kanye West’s Good Morning Beat. Here's what the track sounds like slowed down the old-school way; it has a cool Yellow House / Mac Demarco vibe to it!
He was just playing with the sample itself. We started in the ASR’s looping it, so I said we should take it up to the original, but keep the same tempo so I timestretched it in the Roland Fantom. Took the sample from the ASR, put it into the Fantom, timestretched it, then put it back into my ASR and chopped it up and put my drums around it. And we kept on going and built up from there, he got that going to the breakdown and back and forth with it and, boom, a masterpiece. - DJ Toomp
Although West and Toomp used a combination of the ASR-10 and the Roland Fantom, we can use modern DAWs for the chopping sampling techniques, and Ableton Live is perfect for both time-stretching and chopping. Use the warp function to take the P.Y.T. sample from 126BPM to 85BPM, and also lower the key a semitone. The tuning of P.Y.T. isn’t perfect, as many of the songs on Thriller were sped up after recording, so you may need to mess around with the tuning cents later on to get the sample perfectly in tune with the synthesizers we’ll add later. For the chopping, right-click the sample and choose “Slice to new MIDI track“. It automatically cuts the track into slices and you can rearrange them on the piano roll. Check out the chopped up sample, it's much cleaner than Kanye's because Ableton Live is so powerful at warping samples.
Pretty Young Beat
The drumbeat is classic Kanye, and as seen in the studio video, comes from his Akai MPC 2000XL. The MPCs have a characteristic sound they impart into samples loaded onto it, which sounds crunchy and is associated with a lot of the hip-hop beats that were made on the MPC's. Digital samplers found in DAWs lack this crunch, however, we can emulate it with bitcrushers. Either load up your DAWs bitcrusher and turn down the bit-depth to 12 bits, or use a specialized plugin like D16's Decimort 2, which has a preset specifically emulating the MPC.
Pretty Young Synth
“The making of 'Good Life' started off with Ye playing with a Michael Jackson sample, 'PYT.' All of a sudden he was like, 'Yo, I always wanted to do something with this…I want to hear it in a different key.' So we just started playing with the sample and he sent it over to me. Because we were in the same room, he just transferred the sounds over to my keyboard and I started playing with it, then he started singing the melody and started putting the bassline with it. It was crazy. We just started playing with the sample and once we got it in the right key we wanted, that’s when he started singing the melody and I started adding more to the beat. We then had a few players to come in with the synthesizers and the shit was crazy.” - DJ Toomp
The biggest addition to the beat is a synth part that doubles the musical content of the P.Y.T. sample and makes it sound much more polished and poppy. The main synth hook was played by DJ Toomp, and in the studio video he appears to be playing it on a Roland Fantom S88 keyboard. The Fantom is a super-powerful workstation keyboard that included an onboard PCM synth engine, and I'd guess that Toomp was playing one of the preset brass synth sounds. Mosts synths come with standard brass presets, and Arturia Mini-V, traditionally a Minimoog emulation, has a great factory brass patch called Saturn 8, which can be used for fat hip-hop brass. After loading the patch, make sure to turn glide off to disable the sliding effect between notes. Listen to it here:
Good Life also a has a piano track playing bass, it's a little buried in the main hook but can be heard clearly in the stripped-down verse around the 1:53 mark. Piano for bass is a classic Kanye trick, especially on his first 3 albums. It likely came from Toomp's Roland Fantom, but any fake-piano sound will do. Don't worry about realness, and instead compress it to keep the different notes consistent in volume to provide some consistent low-end. Here's Arturia Piano V2's piano sound:
Lastly, here's the full hook using all the recreated elements: sample, brass, piano-bass and drum beat.
Pretty Young Moogs
There are plenty more elements introduced as the song progressed, including some Minimoog licks provided by Mike Dean, a longtime West collaborator and a true synthhead. The extra elements are introduced gradually as the song progresses, to keep things getting stale and to add a sense of development. In the bridge, a dirty Minimoog bass is added, actually from the same synth as Pretty Young Thing, one of kings of bass synths. The patch setting is a classic, and can be found in Arturia Mini V as the patch Model-D. Run the track through some overdrive to add some bite to the bass, and some grit in the mid frequencies.
There is also a squelchy lead sound that is undoubtably a Minimoog too, again likely played by Mike Dean. To program the squelch sound, raise the filter emphasis knob to around the 6 mark, and amount of contour to 7, with a filter decay time of less than 300ms and a sustain of 0. This triggers the filter to quickly close when a note is played, with the filter emphasis' resonance creating a quick sweep effect. Most synths can create this sound, however the Moog's legendary ladder filter makes these patches sound huge. Download the patch here.
Pretty Good Life
In addition to the synth elements, the song also contains real strings, with Violin, Viola and Cello being credited to six performers in the song credits. The song is a production tour-de-force that uses the P.Y.T. sample as a springboard to explore many different sides of hip-hop. If you want to take a closer listen to the production, be sure to check out the instrumental version of the song in the playlist at the top of the article, you can really clearly hear the slice in the sample when it's not as obscured behind the vocals! Thanks for reading and be sure to subscribe below to be the first updated on new articles!