Breaking Down Putty Boy Strut - Flying Lotus



 

Flying Lotus is, and always has been one of my favourite artists. I still remember the first time I heard his album Cosmogramma and fell in love with the weird, beautiful and ridiculous sounds he conjures up. His album When The Quiet Comes is no exception. One of the most well known and probably one of my favourite tracks on the album is Putty Boy Strut, an incredible tune that somehow brings together elements of experimental electronic, IDM, jazz, and funk. Since hearing Flying Lotus I've always wanted to produce music along a similar line, but even just trying to create a similar beat with the same flow and laid back nature is difficult. While I break down this song I'll also be reflecting on my creative process when it comes to writing music and how I can incorporate some of Flying Lotus' techniques into my own production.

 

Structure



Intro #1 - The song starts with a clap hitting every beat in a 4/4 time signature accompanied by a squeaky vocal chop playing a disjointed melody in the key of C#. This melody is the motif for the majority of this song.


Verse #1 - Intro #1 builds into verse #1 with a reverse cymbal and introduces a new melody. The clap in verse #1 stays on every beat in 4/4 but is now accompanied by a short crash cymbal on every 2nd and 4th beat, a slightly swung closed hi-hat hitting 8th notes, and a kick drum that follows a similar pattern to the new melody. This section of the song is still introducing us to the general idea of the track so we haven't really got a proper bass line to follow yet, however after the 8th and 16th bar of this verse there is what I would call a "tease" of a bass line, only coming in for a couple of notes to signify the end of an 8 bar section.


Verse #2 - Continuing on with the newly introduced elements of verse #1 but with the squeaky melody of intro #1 over the top. The crash cymbal still hits on every 2nd and 4th beat but is significantly louder, and is followed by another cymbal on the 1st and 3rd beat in the 2nd and 3rd 4 bar sections of the verse.


Verse 2 Part 2 - After verse #2 the song strips back to a similar structure to verse #2, but is broken up by a short sub bass at almost random intervals.


Pre-Chorus - The pre-chorus is similar to verse #1 but still contains the sub bass introduced in verse#2, part 2 for the first 4 bars.


Chorus/Bridge - We are finally welcomed to chorus with a bass guitar lick that almost seems to trickle down and completely changes up the melody into what almost feels like an improvisational section for the bass guitar and vocal chop. The drums in this section fit neatly into the 4/4 time signature and follow a similar pattern to that of verse #2, taking short breaks at the end of the first 8 bar section to add some variation.


Post-Chorus - As the pre-chorus subsides we move into what I would call the "post-chorus", which acts like a kind of cool down from the chorus with some nice piano chords accompanying the motif, before exploding into a build section with a kick hitting every 8th note, a repeating line of the vocal chop and bass solo.


Verse #3 - Everything circles back around in the last verse with 8 bars of the original structure from the intro but with a sub kick similar to that of verse #2.


Outro - The outro changes up completely, with a blooming orchestral section featuring a soft vocal to introduce and what I can only assume is a sample of Flying Lotus' aunts' harp (as he frequently samples his aunts' work) followed by some strings and keys to finalise the track.


Geez that was a lot to go through. Over all the structure isn't too complicated, it just uses the same elements throughout but with slight variation. The most important part of this track is the motif, which is reprised throughout the song and helps to define important sections of the track. I think I should take the idea of using a motif or main melodic theme in my own music, as I usually spend most of my time on the beat and the structure rather than the actual musicality.

 

Instrumentation


We've already been over the drums in terms of instrumentation but just to clarify, the main part of the drums is the clap which follows every beat in a 4/4 signature, then a nice punchy kick that sits underneath. The biggest variation in the beat is definitely the different hats and cymbals used throughout, they change quite frequently throughout and occupy the space where a snare or clap might be used in a typical 4/4 beat (the 2nd and 3rd beats in a bar). The other most important piece of instrumentation in this track is the vocal cut used for the motif, as far as I can tell it's just a non-particular vocal that's pitched and chopped to fit the melody. I've tried to do some research into what the sample is of exactly and how it was manipulated but I wasn't able to come across anything specific, I would say it's some kind of sampler, most likely in the box. Personally I use the generic FL studio sampler and just write MIDI for the sample to follow. The problem with this though is that the sample doesn't just pitch bend with the MIDI, it time stretches so the sample is quicker or longer depending on how high or low on the keyboard it plays. Other than the vocal chop the other most prominent instruments are the bass lines, one of which is a subtle sub line under some of the verses and the other is the bass guitar used in the chorus played by none other than long time FlyLo collaborator Thundercat. As I mentioned earlier, I think the orchestral section in the outro is a sample from some kind of jazz outfit, purely speculating I would say it's mostly from one of his auntie's (Alice Coltrane) songs.


Over all the instrumentation is complicated musically, but there aren't a lot of elements happening at once. Aside from the outro, there are the drums, the vocal chop, the bass guitar and the occasional sub bass. That's it. In terms of my own production I think I'd want to focus more on having a minimal list of instruments just lots.


 

Sonic Quality


Every element of this track is quite minimal; as I mentioned earlier, there aren't a bunch of things happening at once, the instrumentation is carefully placed where it needs to be with no real "filler" sounds. This is pretty present in the mix too as the claps sit nice and tight over the top of the vocal chop in the intro and first few verses and when the kick drum finally enters it seems to punch in just a little louder than the claps. The frequency graph below is taken from the intro of the song where only the claps and vocal chops are present and as we can see, they both take up a majority of the frequency spectrum, however I have outlined the most resonant and prominent frequencies, which is most notable in the vocal chop as it almost dances through particular resonant frequencies. As this section is so minimal, we can clearly hear each sound even though they both take up similar frequency ranges. The simplicity of the arrangement means that everything is audible without certain frequencies being taken from one to accommodate for that other.

This is relevant again in the first verse where the kick and subtle sub bass line comes in. The frequency graph below shows the vocal chop hitting very particular resonant frequencies in a lower register allowing it to sort of come through almost like a bassline. The kick pumping through mostly at around 100Hz, which moves it away from the muddy frequencies around 10-50Hz giving it that punchy tone while also leaving room for that sub bass lay underneath.

As the track progresses the lower and higher vocal chops are brought in together and suddenly the reason for their tight resonant frequencies is clear, as they can now move around in their own space uninterrupted by one another. The bass and claps stay around where they are and some very minimal hats and cymbals are brought in, which occupy only a small part of the higher end of the frequency spectrum.

I don't believe there is much change to the EQ of all of these elements throughout the track except for in the chorus where the vocal chops are moved back in the mix to accommodate for a wider bass guitar sound. Thundercat's kind of signature sound is almost that of a "lead bass guitar" meaning it's not used as just a groove, but more as a feature. Taking the vocals back a bit allows for the bass to come through, although the two do kind of muddle together somewhat intentionally during this section as it is a contrast to the stripped back and really quite open mix in the rest of the song.


As for the stereo field, the vocals slightly pan between the left and right all the way throughout the song, which I was only able to spot after using a stereo analyser, however I think it definitely contributes to the off kilter vibe of the track. Something interesting that I also notice was that the kick and clap seem to spread apart slightly more than other elements. Perhaps this plays back into the idea that these elements don't need to be EQed in an accommodating way because they are also separated in the stereo field. It also explains why the kick is so wonderfully present without being too loud.

The image on the left shows the kick spreading the stereo field slight out to the left and right as well as the vocal chop in the centre straying slightly to the right. The centre image is the vocal chop on it's own for comparison. The image on the left is a vocal chop hitting at the same time as a clap, as we can see the vocal chop is now straying slightly to the left and the clap is slightly spreading through the stereo field. After watching this stereo analyser for a while I've noticed that the vocal sways back and forth on every beat.


I love the subtleties in this mix, the way the vocal fits neatly into it's own little pocket on every note and the fact that the track is so minimal just some slight panning can remove the percussion from the rest of the elements. Very clever, and obviously very meticulously produced.

 

This track doesn't take itself too seriously, and it's simple elements and minimal production techniques allow the clever and almost witty writing to shine through. I really like the way the track doesn't over complicate itself and in doing so, shows it's intricate bare elements. I think taking on some of the production techniques used in this track can really help me refine my own music and even assist with my mixing skills.