The Chemistry Behind Alan “The Alchemist” Maman
Unanimously hailed across the hip-hop landscape as one of the best to ever do it, Alan Maman has made a large impression on hip-hop during his career as The Alchemist.
Regularly overlooked are how deep his roots travel, embedded in collaborations with a long list of hip-hop’s greats.
A humble figurehead of hip-hop production, he has always remained in the shadows, crafting potent classics quietly in his dimly-lit studio while keeping to himself.
Dapped by the man himself at 3:43AM KST, October 30, 2020.
Thank you for the all beats, Al.
The Mudfoot Era
It was the early 90's — height of the Golden Age. The West Coast had G-funk and gangsta rap roaring, while the East Coast was consumed by boom bap. The hip-hop genre was constantly being refined and reinvented constantly, while the culture maintained a rebellious stigma within media.
During this time, Maman, a Beverly Hills native, would start to carve a path for himself. Never Hollywood-esque (aside from hosting his high school’s cable television show in 1992), he would align himself heavily with hip-hop culture, creating a duo in 1991 with local friend Scott Caan, calling themselves The Whooliganz. Scott would go by Mad Skillz, while Maman’s moniker of choice was Mudfoot.
B-Real of Cypress Hill recognized Maman freestyling at a house party, extending a hand in Maman’s career efforts, offering The Whooliganz entry into his friend DJ Muggs’ art collective, The Soul Assassins. He was thoroughly impressed by the rhymes.
This dude [Maman] had bar work [able to spit nice] at 13, maybe 14.
Wildly successful at the time with a self-titled double-platinum group album Cypress Hill, B-Real saw genuine potential, via his good friend and notorious music dot-connector behind the scenes, Amanda Demme. Maman quickly accepted, and the duo was suddenly embarking on a nationwide tour alongside the Soul Assassins.
They weren’t just affiliated; they were friends.
By proxy through networking, The Whooliganz landed a record deal with Tom Silverman at Tommy Boy Records, despite being shelved and dropped due to lackluster airplay of their debut album, Make Way for the W. Caan decided to follow his father’s footsteps in acting, while Maman would gravitate towards DJ Muggs’ work for Funkdoobiest and inquire about crafting beats.
It was the mid-90’s, and Maman was putting in long hours learning the ropes of how to produce. Nearly 30 years after the fact, he reflects with B-Real on the rise to fame and honing his craft:
I always say, you gotta put your 10,000 hours of work in. You gotta master your craft, but it’s gonna be one unforeseen scenario of timing that’s going to line up, and that’s going to be the real thing to take you there. You still need to put your 10,000 hours of work in. That’s all those years, [of] what I did. Then, it was unforeseen scenarios, which are really based on timing.
He recollects taking B-Real’s GMC Typhoon in ’94 to the airport before Woodstock, picking up a young and still relatively unknown Busta Rhymes.
Maman eventually found himself at a crossroads in life, and only one thing was certain: Mudfoot had to go; it was a reminder of an era gone by.
It’s speculated that after resonating heavily with Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, he adopted the book’s name as his alias, finding many parallels with the book’s protagonist, Santiago. Others say it was from his name being Alan and him playing the role as some sort of beat chemist, combining the two words to land on Alchemist.
The new millennium was on the horizon, and The Alchemist had refined his production skills to a high degree in a timespan that raised the eyebrows of those around him.
The Cusp of Making It
The Alchemist was brewing heat at a degree few could match. He was mentored primarily by DJ Muggs early on, and absorbed the drum master knowledge as best he could.
DJ Lethal, a mutual of both, took Al to a local Guitar Center and pointed out the ASR-10. At first, Al was more invested in purchasing a Roland SP-404, but Lethal went on and told him to invest in the Ensoniq ASR-10, stating it was similar to the rest, except it had keyboards.
The young upcoming producer obliged, and from that day forward, developed his style around the ASR-10 as an instrumental part of his production artillery (no pun intended).
His first credit with a big name on it would come in the form of a remix called Tequila Sunrise featuring Fat Joe, the Bronx boss.
That was a big deal for me.
This would serve as the entry point for a slew of remixes that would be released over the next couple of years leading up to the new millennium. Within that time, Al would continue to pick and choose inspiration from a wide variety of interactions and connections he had maintained and created within the industry.
Childhood friend of Al and fellow artist extraordinaire Michael Perretta, better known to most as Evidence of Dilated Peoples, was one individual that opened doors in his career.
In 1997, the world would hear the first contribution to Dilated Peoples from The Alchemist in the form of Third Degree. It was Al’s first step with Evidence in music, formally credited, and would act as a stepping stone for a large amount of other collaborations and remixes down the road. Containing a very laid back and simple beat, we can see differences in the style Alch brought to the table back then, heavily influenced by more old school acts from the late 80's.
A year later, he’d hop back into the studio with Evidence and do work on The Main Event, which he co-produced with Evidence. Not technically a member of Dilated Peoples, Alchemist was still reppin’ Soul Assassins. On the vinyl itself, he is credited as Alchemist for Soul Assassins and it denotes that he was represented by ASCAP. Dilated Peoples would go on to be signed by Capitol Records, and release this song through them two years later in 2000.
Keep in mind this was exactly the same time Madlib was coming up with Tha Alkaholiks [Tha Liks] which Dilated Peoples had an affiliation with. The man behind Quasimoto himself speaks a bit on the experience of The Liks and what it was like living through those times in a rare French interview:
The underground smash album Likwidation, their third body of work by ’97, was already making waves in the West Coast for its more breakbeat and OG sound, harnessing what was considered to be among the most “wide and fat beats” EQ’d up to that point in time; a feat perhaps only matched by Dilla a few years later.
Coming back to The Platform, Tha Alkaholiks would end up featuring on a track titled Right On produced by Toledo, Ohio native Eric “E-Swift” Brooks.
The Alchemist would go on to craft 5 beats for this album, becoming an established go-to for the Los Angeles crew led by childhood friend Evidence, and putting him on the radar of Madlib and The Liks early.
College was on the horizon, and it was time to pack the bags. New York was the next stop.
Lost In New York
Al made the decision to move to New York for college, which meant he would need to fly back and forth, across the country, to make things work on the music side of things. He needed to devise a plan where he was able to balance priorities in life while maintaining a high and positive reputation within the hip-hop scene. Otherwise, he would likely fall short.
A key figure who often goes unsung was the late Bigga B. He was a producer and A&R, who was closely affiliated with DJ Muggs and the Soul Assassins clique, Xzibit’s come up, and the deep underground of West Coast hip-hop. A master curator, many acts coming up in the mid-to-late 90’s owe much of their put-ons to Bigga B.
Before passing, Bigga B would link DJ Muggs with Queensbridge hip-hop group Infamous Mobb, close affiliates of Mobb Deep, consisting of Havoc and the late Prodigy. A tribute written by Eddie Huang for the New York Times details how much P cherished those close to him.
At the turn of the millennium, Mobb Deep was on a streak few in hip-hop could follow. Although active for nearly a decade at that point, they saw immense success with their second studio album, The Infamous, continuing their rise to fame with Hell on Earth.
This was all good news for the Beverly Hills native, as it opened more opportunities up for connecting, both for business and friendship on the other coast. As he focused more on remixes and came into his own while producing beats, he became more lost. A young kid attending college in New York, trying to make it as anyone else would, yet he had no real plan or direction. DJ Muggs was no longer by his side all day, and he was on his own.
After linking with Infamous Mobb and building strong bonds, he continued making beats. He linked up with DJ Premier and his crew as well. In a 2015 interview, DJ Premier recalls a studio session where the four of them hung out to finish up some beats, following Canibus rejecting a track.
And J. Dilla was there at the session.
Al was in the loop with the Dilla stage, so he could lamp with us and smoke for a lil’ bit.
We just hung out. I knew him for a long time as well.
Wandering the streets of Queens, New York aimlessly searching for light at the end of the tunnel or perhaps something more tangible to grab onto for his future, Al was torn when it came to what he needed to do to keep the dream alive.
It would be none other than Mobb Deep that would find him and take him under their wing.
Prodigy initially thought he was a fed until he laid beats down on the pad. In his 2011 autobiography My Infamous Life: The Autobiography of Mobb Deep’s Prodigy, P exclaims:
When Alchemist came around with those dope beats and I saw how serious he was about his career, I embraced him like a brother.
He was like a gift from the heavens.
That white boy’s got a lot of soul.
We made up nicknames for him like White Chocolate, the White Vulture, and the Rare White Bird.
In a rare interview with Pop Killer, Al appears visibly emotional while explaining how Havoc and Prodigy turned his life around:
They [Mobb Deep] just found me. I was lost, you know what I mean?
Walking the streets of Queens, just lost at the time. Walking arounds Queensbridge, in different alleyways, trying to find myself.
Mobb Deep took me in, they polished my style up, and I learned. I just learned, I sat back and learned.
That’s the first step — absorb.
That meeting took place in 1999, over two decades ago. The same year that The Realest beat would drop, according to Prodigy:
Must have been ’99 at the Soundtrack Studio in Manhattan…
First tour, Family Values…
Mobb Deep quickly recognized the young producer’s ability, and granted him access to produce on their upcoming album already in production, Murda Muzik. He joined them on their 1999 tour, Family Values.
When asked by Prodigy in a very rare Rap City episode with Mobb Deep on the tour about Murda Muzik the movie, Alchemist said the following:
It’s Mobb Deep. If you know them, it’s their life. It’s how they live, like taking a piece of their life, and putting it into movie form.
If you know the records, it’s like a visual. Everything they speak on, you see it.
It’s the realness, you know?
He produced two tracks for the album, but he struck gold with The Realest, utilizing a soul sample via the 1974 classic Born To Lose You. The track would go on to be a standout, and subsequently propel Al near the top tier of names to watch in New York production.
It was now 2000; a 22-year-old Alan Maman, within the span of a half decade, had pivoted successfully from a startup rapping duo alongside Scott Caan, into a full-fledged hip-hop producer, now working on beats for the scene’s elite.
Striking jackpot, he was known on the West Coast via Dilated Peoples, making shockwaves there, while also making a name for himself at the very top of New York rap as (at the time) an outsider. He was consistently making remixes, and producing for Prodigy on top of Mobb Deep.
He kept a low profile and seemingly intentionally anonymous aesthetic to his presence, feeding into the buzz and mystery all around.
Who was this kid in his early 20’s, and where did he come from?
The New Millennium
Al was now coming into his own. He was establishing a brand and playing into the Alchemist aesthetic. One of the very first projects he ever dropped was entitled The Chemistry Files, an instrumental piece which would showcase some of, assumingly what he thought to be, his most potent work. The 12-inch 33⅓ RPM vinyl was printed military green.
It had both new and old beats, along with a unique Remarks column which described what type of beat it was, in Al’s own words. This could very well be considered the origin of his production journey, and his very first body of work crafted by himself, opposed to a remix or feature.
Acting more as a point of reference and portfolio piece than something that could be marketed, he focused on continuous output.
With some luck on his side, exactly 1 year later to the day, he would appear in The Source, seemingly as an outlier, in a full two-page spread of the best producers in hip-hop.
He wasn’t considered up-and-coming anymore. He was at an elite level.
2001: A Hip-Hop Odyssey
Perhaps the most important year in Al’s career; one that would solidify his namesake and position among the largest names in hip-hop producers at that time.
By now, he was in with all the top New York names, but he was still fiending to make his portfolio more impressive. Flying back and forth endlessly between the coasts to maintain both relationships and output, it was difficult to find a balance between Cypress Hill and Dilated Peoples in Los Angeles, while Mobb Deep remained in New York.
Things started coming together in late 2000 however, and Al was rummaging through beats and samples, attempting to make magic happen. He would end up releasing two songs the next year which would define him through the early 00’s; undisputed classics, which have stood the test of time nearly two decades later.
At this same time, we need to remember that hip-hop was expanding and spreading faster than anyone had anticipated.
The classic names who we often take for granted today were in their primes.
We Gon’ Make It
The release of We Gon’ Make It (stylized as We Gonna Make It) did not come without controversy. Accused by Ras Kass’ crew for double-dealing after a verbal agreement in late ’99, Al fired back claiming it was his legal team’s fault. Since then, the two have made up their beef. In 2006, Al was featured on a track with Ras Kass on his Revenge of the Spit mixtape.
In retrospect, perhaps the ordeal was a blessing in disguise. New York heavyweight Jadakiss was working on an album set to release in the latter half of 2001 titled Kiss tha Game Goodbye, a massive release that would include hip-hop’s largest names as features: Pharrell, Nas, Snoop Dogg, The Lox, Styles P, Swizz Beatz, Nate Dogg, DMX, among others.
Zoned in to his studio, The Alchemist would put together a beat and send it around his network; many showed interest, and it only made its way to Jadakiss after being passed on by both Nas and Jay Z by way of Nashawn Jones, Nas’ friend from QB who went by Millenium Thug.
It would be the first time Al would collaborate with Ruff Ryders. Still one of Jadakiss’ largest hits, We Gon’ Make It went on to be the lead-off single, resulting in first-week sales for the album passing 200,000 copies.
The album itself, despite its star-studded lineup on paper, would never make a massive impact on the game; overshadowed in part by In Search Of… by N*E*R*D a day prior, and The Blueprint by Jay Z hype, which would drop a month later and kick off the infamous Nas vs. Jay Z beef with Takeover, a track produced by a then-unknown talent who went by the name of Kanye West.
The Alchemist-produced single would be the highlight of the album, and would cement itself as a hip-hop classic, even today. Even though the album didn’t hit like Jadakiss may have hoped, Al was a known name now; if not by association, then by radio play.
Dilated Peoples — Worst Comes to Worst
A month had gone by since the release of Jadakiss’ album, and Al was back in the hot seat producing beats left and right. Following Dilated Peoples’ debut album The Platform which Alchemist produced just short of half a dozen tracks for, the group was set for success when they put together the initial tracks and feature lineup for their follow-up, Expansion Team.
A movement in and of itself as a work of art, the album acted as a statement against the current trends in the hip-hop scene, straying away from gangsta rap and aligning more closely to traditional conscious. Alchemist speaks on how the sound of Dilated Peoples was influenced heavily by East Coast vibes:
That’s why, Dilated Peoples when you really listen to it? We were trying to be like Gang Starr.
On the best day, we could be half of how dope they [Gang Starr] are.
[DJ] Premier? Man. Evidence will tell you, I made fake Premier beats for YEARS. [laughs]
Although Al loved all hip-hop without question, the old school traditional sound is where he shined the brightest. He would sit in the studio while Gang Starr produced their magnum opus, Moment of Truth, back in 1998.
Being in charge of producing Expansion Team’s lead single, while being mentored by Havoc, Al tapped into one of Mobb Deep’s biggest hits thus far which had just dropped a few months prior — Survival of the Fittest — for the main sample.
Somehow managing to find balance between the hard-hitting drums of Havoc’s beat and the sultry elegance of Barry Harris and Al Cohn’s Skylark, Al was able to craft magic that would appeal to both hardcore hip-hop heads as well as more casual radio listeners.
He had struck gold yet again by blending elegant mid-70’s jazz with gritty OG boom bap. To top it all off, the late Guru, legendary MC, would hop on the track as a guest feature:
Gifted Unlimited with Dilated Peoples
Babu, Evidence, Iriscience
And a shout out to my man Alchemist on the trizzack
The result? Still, to this very day, Dilated Peoples’ most successful song.
Released October 23rd, its presence would grace hip-hop two days prior to Al’s 24th birthday.
1st Infantry and Hold You Down
When people hear the name The Alchemist, the usual go-to song is Hold You Down. Hypnotic and simple, the beat is familiar to anyone who has ever listened to hip-hop. Whether you know who Al is or not, chances are you’ve heard the beat. Somewhere, in some place, at some time.
2004 would be Al’s return to the pen and pad, as he had been on a production wave for over a half-decade with almost no verses laid down. He was hungry to try his hand at rhyming again, and putting together a cohesive project with his newfound knowledge of hip-hop behind the curtain.
You can see him crafting beats in this video.
Initially, he got into production to get his name out there. Over time, he ended up sticking with it. After producing consistently for three years after an explosive 2001, he was ready to grip the mic once again. His production credits included hip-hop’s best.
In a post dedicated to P’s passing, Alch said the following:
One thing alot of people don’t know about P was how funny he was. His sense of humor was as creative as his rhymes, and when we weren’t making music, most of the time we were laughing. He used to always cut on me about this one Moschino shirt i had with the matching hat that looked like it had mad actual matches all over it lol.
This was during a phase where i wasn’t sure if i was Puerto Rican or not . At this point in the night he had already taken down a whole wonton soup cup of Incredible Hulk, had a pen lodged in his durag and we were on our way to the Copacabana where Nore was performing for the afterparty of the PR Day parade.
P always believed we were the best.
He wasn’t trying to convince himself or anyone else, he really felt that way. And somehow It made everyone else around him feel the same way . If you were around back then you remember. Not a day goes by that i don’t think about my brother. i promise to make him proud .
Love to Havoc, Black, Twin, Kiki , Tasia, Tshaka , Noyd, Gotti,Chinky, God, Nitty and the entire Mobb family.
Happy birthday Albert Johnson aka The Don P aka king Prodigy “EVERY DAY OF MY LIFE SINCE 11–2–74”
So it was set, and Al went to work on crafting his own rap album. The lead single would be called Hold You Down and would get Prodigy to spit the opening verse. Below, rare footage of the two chopping it up, sometime between 2003 and 2004:
There are two versions of the music video for this lead-off single: one mixed in with movie clips featuring Prodigy in the hood spitting, the other is a more “consumer friendly” version which aired on music channels such as VH1 and MTV:
Directed by old friend Estevan Oriol, this song was the combination of many things, which led to its success. During the height of “chipmunk” production, it sampled Al Kooper’s The Landlord theme, sped up to be in line with current production trends. Crafted delicately with what was close to a decade of production experience at this point in time, the beat was both catchy and appealing to anyone. A wide audience was both strategic and smart, as it broadened exposure for the now well-known producer.
This was also among the first instances where Al was breaking out of his shell, per se; previously very anonymous and hidden behind closed doors, no one really knew who The Alchemist was. Many believed he was a black producer out of QB, or otherwise, as he states himself when reflecting on that span of about half a decade leading up to the release of 1st Infantry.
When you can match a face to the name, you start to get in touch with the identity of who and how I am.
It’s all about the music to me. Hold Me Down [sic] was instrumental to putting me out there.
The album acted as a reflection of his career up to that point in time, with rhymes dating back and being saved since ‘99.
A long list of guests would make their appearance on the album, which would subsequently drop on June 29th and have favorable reviews across the board. Nas, Prodigy, The Game, Mobb Deep, Dilated Peoples, Twin, everyone on the album who featured were people he had touched previously and linked up with.
He also credits his brother Neil Maman on the album, for production and management, although he says his brother Neil “doesn’t understand music on a technical level” thus implying he was credited for longevity’s sake regarding rights.
In a 2004 interview with Rap Reviews, Al states the following:
I think being able to just express myself — because I’m not rhyming on all of these beats — I still have to express to how I feel.
Even if I play some stuff on the keyboard, I keep to my formula.
I don’t really know how to play, but I’ll play stuff and I’ll sample what I play and chop it up like it was a record.
So I still keep my same formulas in how I do what I do.
That formula he mentions, may change from record to record, but there’s something in it that makes people bob their head back and forth, letting them know who’s there.
Not the tag nor signature loops, but the feeling you get when you hear an Alchemist beat. It’s singular, and rivals that of DJ Premier, Madlib, Pete Rock, and others’ styles where you know it will be a treat. Calculated and controlled.
He liked to share the magic when he could, too:
Alan Maman now had a decade under his belt when it came to the rap game; his debut solo album had dropped, and the new year was approaching.
A perfectionist at times, Al contemplated what would push his career along further. There was no other option than to go straight to the top.
So, he did just that.
Becoming Eminem’s DJ
Following the release of his debut solo album, Al linked up with Eminem, the largest name in hip-hop at that time, arguably all-time depending on who (or where) you ask.
Contrary to popular belief of Eminem magically “discovering” Al out of the blue, the two had been aware of each other since 1999. Al was managed by Goliath Management and Paul Rosenberg throughout the early 00’s, so he was naturally associated with the entire Shady camp.
In 2005, Em invited Al to DJ for him on the Anger Management 3 tour; from that tour forward, Al became his go-to in-house DJ. Note that that didn’t mean producer; up until 2020 with the Step Dad track, Em had never used an Alchemist-produced beat on one of his studio albums.
With one of the largest tours in the world came fame and notoriety, including Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who was riding off hit after radio hit, merely two years after being signed to Shady Records via Em. On top of building genuine friendship, this screamed business opportunity for Alch; his network was overflowing, and he was all for it.
During the tour, Eminem’s tour bus crashed; Al suffered serious injuries, but all in all, everyone involved was treated appropriately and recovered.
Among those injured was Eminem’s DJ Alan Maman, also know [sic] as Alchemist; the 27-year-old from New York City was listed in good condition Thursday.
Over the next few years, Alchemist’s output was consistent, but did not pop like it did prior. His priorities were with Eminem, and that was a double-edged sword.
How would Al manage to balance his personal endeavors while catering to Em as his DJ?
Volume of Work
An observation you’ll notice while digging through The Alchemist’s discography is the sheer volume of work he’s created. Hundreds upon hundreds of credits, perhaps going past a thousand if you include compilations and songs we don’t know he helped out with, or ones which are uncredited.
It would be nearly impossible to break down or inspect each body of work he’s produced in a piece like this. This is why we’ve focused mainly on larger projects, as his library of beat tapes exceeds dozens.
Perhaps it would take a lengthy book with direct insight to adequately do a proper deep dive.
Following the 2005 Anger Management 3 tour, Al continued with the beats and the seed was planted in his mind to follow up his debut solo album. As he got to work on the concept, Al would collaborate constantly within his network to keep output high.
Chemical Files with DJ mello dropped in 2005 before the year was over, a compilation of already-released tracks mixed into a tape. No Days Off dropped a few months later in 2006, designed by D-Day and mixed by Al himself; another quick joint with great features on paper.
During this era, we saw a collaboration with Linkin Park, a return to remix a Cypress Hill song, among several other beats. This also was the time when Al started work on Return of the Mac with Prodigy, a collaboration album which would be hailed across hip-hop as a return to form for the Mobb Deep legend.
An on-point performance by the man behind the beats, who at this point was becoming a household name in rap. Smooth like butter. He would also collaborate with Prodigy and Nina Sky once again, for a track called Key to the City:
2009 saw the release of The Alchemist’s second studio album, Chemical Warfare. Playing on the military theme of the first album, this album would act as a futuristic vision of that concept. The lineup for this album was just as strong, if not stronger than the first, at least on paper.
Featuring Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Fabolous, Talib Kweli, Blu, Kid Cudi, Pusha, Jada, Kool G, and others along with a bonus track with Madlib’s brother Oh No, it was clear that Al was taking rap very seriously and teetered on the idea of production versus rhyming constantly. Here, we see Al speak on Em lobbing him a verse:
Although he was good at raps, he outdid himself on the beats. He may have been a rapper before a producer, but many viewed him more as a producer who tried his hand at rap.
At this point, Alan Maman was nearly 15 years into his career. He could now be considered a household name in the hip-hop scene, albeit contrary to some reviewers, and put himself out there enough to the point where he was becoming recognized. Although his raps would not gain the same exposure as his beats, he was still in the zone when it came to anything he touched.
Revered and respected by the elite, he was in a good place, but needed some spark. Songs would drop, for example Lose Your Life in 2008 with Snoop Dogg, but they would more or less be flash in the pans or flavor of the month type joints.
He would strive for more full-length collaborations in the coming years, and focus on the idea of sticking with a single artist and producing an entire body of work with them.
Heavily inspired by his 2007 release Return of the Mac with Prodigy and 2009’s The Antidote with Fashawn, Al would elect to continue this trend going into 2010 and beyond.
He was after reverence, not fame.
It was early 2010 when Alchemist threw around the idea of forming a group, for real, with Madlib’s younger brother and studio regular Oh No, someone introduced to him by Evidence.
The duo would elect to be deemed as Gangrene and would eventually release a collaboration project called Gutter Water following a short EP titled Sawblade, just a few weeks prior. Perhaps one of the more strangely titled bodies of work Al has under his belt — albeit my favorite title to a project of his — the aesthetic of the project followed suit.
A take on what was considered cinematic rap within the New York hip-hop scene, the insight of street storytelling and an approach which Nas claims is a large part of his rhyme-writing process, it was a sect that was slowly fading in favor of more accessible sounds.
This project in and of itself was a complete 180 for Alchemist, and a slight shift for Oh No. Tom Breihan throws down some knowledge speaking on this:
Alchemist is probably still best-known for crafting gutpunch street-rap anthems for guys like Mobb Deep and Jadakiss, but his early-decade aesthetic is almost entirely gone from Gutter Water.
It was this clash of styles, despite having a very similar approach to hip-hop as a whole, that would meld so perfectly. Although Pitchfork threw it a 6.7, it was loved by all fans on both sides, and would cement Gangrene in the annals of hip-hop as yet another duo that could successfully make magic happen.
Perhaps the title acts an allusion to that cinematic fragment of rap being slowly lost through decay of real hip-hop or something to that effect.
They would go on and collaborate for five more albums before taking a hiatus in 2015.
Following respectable success with Gangrene, Al continued to collaborate with artists who he considered to be both inspiring and friends; one thing he is staunch about is only collaborating if both sides agree.
That came in the form of 2011’s Covert Coup, a mixtape with Curren$y which Al reflects on as being one of his favorite projects to work on. The aesthetic with the collaboration albums up until this point in Al’s career were in line with his studio albums; post-apocalyptic and grim, seemingly out on the ends of society attempting to survive and weave through the obstacles that had come before them.
Pseudo-conceptual in a way, it was a new direction for both artists, which resulted in a solid project overall. Although it did not make a massive splash, it turned heads of fans and made them further appreciate the work.
This would also be one of the very first times Freddie Gibbs worked with Alchemist on a project that was released, featuring on the track Scottie Pippen, planting the seed for future collaborations down the road. Note that Al and Gibbs crossed paths as early as 2003:
People don’t know that me and Freddie go back to 2003 or 2004. We was making music a long time ago. Nothing ever came out. It’s funny how we just reconnected.
The Action Bronson Era
Al always had his ear to the streets; always trying to keep himself on top of what was hot, and what was burgeoning. Music itself is dynamic, and hip-hop as both a culture and genre is one of the best examples of this.
In around 2010, he would find himself listening to Action Bronson, a then up-and-coming chef-turned-rapper out of Flushing, Queens. Eventually, they would befriend each other, and Alch was now part of Bronson’s clique alongside Big Body and Meyhem Lauren.
A 2012 project titled Rare Chandeliers would be the result of their initial music collaboration, with many more to come following, which we’ll touch on later.
For more of a backstory on how Al linking with Bronson helped him come out of his shell, on top of the Beverly Hills native playing a critical role in the Queens rapper’s career, refer to my piece, published in sync with the release of Only For Dolphins.
The Vortex of Russian Roulette
I’d be more than willing to die on the hill that Russian Roulette is one of the best conceptual albums ever made, perhaps only rivaled by A Grand Don’t Come For Free by Mike Skinner. Criminally slept on, the themes and approach to this cinematic masterpiece of music resulted in waves of influence still seen today.
It was the sonorous ayahuasca trip that sent The Alchemist into a vortex that he never came out of, in the best way possible. If you were to nail down a point in time where Al changed his entire sound and approach to music, this would trump even his style switch during Gutter Water. Al himself admits he still hasn’t come back:
8 years ago. I was pulled into the vortex u see on the cover and i haven’t been back since.
The bars on the album were not the best in the game, nor were the beats the most radio friendly or hard that he had produced. That didn’t matter nor was it the focal point of this body of work, despite being smacked by critics across the hip-hop landscape for these type of points. It seemed as though no one saw the bigger picture of what was happening here.
A tried and true producer, a now-heavyweight of the rap game, was producing what would turn out to be more akin to an audible painting than a hip-hop album, any way you sliced the cake. Consisting of 30 tracks, it was a magnificent example of how Al could craft something in a cohesive manner, have it not be a traditional hip-hop album in any sense, and still knock it out of the park.
The samples are heavily Russian-influenced. Completely different than his usual style of nitty gritty boom bap, or hard-hitting street vibes, Al continued to expand on what Oh No had been so accustomed to via his older brother Madlib: crate digging. It was apparent on this project more than any other that Al dug deep for these obscure, strange, psychedelic samples that tested the listener’s ear.
He speaks on the creation:
It wasn’t made like an album — it is more a project of audio art. I just threw it together and really spent time out hoping it will be a project you play from beginning to end. I even envisioned parts of it like a fake movie to inspire me.
Whether it was a Russian mafia film being sampled, some old niche jazz of a bygone era, or something more familiar, it worked. Seemingly able to control the obscurity and find the perfect balance, it made the listener ponder as much as it made them sit there in awe while listening.
Was it an instrumental tape? For a few tracks maybe, but then it’d turn into a rap album.
So was it a rap album? Not quite if you were a purist; it was filled with interludes and sample-heavy asides, much like we observe in Dilla’s early work.
How about a sonic gallery, was that too pretentious? Perhaps, but it was leaning more heavily towards art than a traditional music album, wasn’t it?
So what was it exactly? Whatever you wanted it to be.
A dynamic, ever-shifting piece of artwork. He was, finally, comfortable with his ability and it showed.
I definitely felt that with this project it was like throwing the dice and I am not worried anymore.
It was much more than just another release from a producer who had now given two decades of his life to the rap game; it was a testament to how far he could push experimentation boundaries within his skillset.
Synths can be heard throughout the entire project; no longer do we hear the signature loops. Beats carried the dark and sinister vibe from Mobb Deep’s aesthetic, but in a different way. Seemingly a culmination of his style blended into a specific Russian post-apocalyptic aesthetic, it was all about a fever dream of sounds filing into a line with style.
A cult classic, it would act as a figurative light switch in his production. Following this project’s release in July of 2012, Al’s output would be different. Collaborations would be tighter, more bold in risks the sounds took, and overall as a consensus be received as better projects. Although consistent throughout his entire career, he would one-up even his own self, and shock the hip-hop scene with project after project considered to be of high marks or even classics among fans and producers alike.
Critics largely missed the mark when it came to this album, comparing it to his past work and the work existing within the hip-hop space at that time, when its main purpose was to experiment, not compete. This should have been evident by the large array of cinema samples and brooding ambience throughout. Some even saying it was difficult to appreciate — sorely mistaken if you’re a head.
The same year as this dropped, we would see work with multiple big names in the game. Dave East, Meyhem Lauren, Domo and Hodgy from Odd Future, Prodigy, ScHoolboy Q, Gangrene with Oh No, among many others.
An EP titled Yacht Rock which would subsequently be released the following year for free on Bandcamp. The sequel, Yacht Rock 2, would end up dropping 6 years later in 2019.
No longer was it a question of hip-hop critics whether or not his projects would be good or flop; it was more a question of how good they would be.
Alchemist was on fire, but what onlookers were unaware of was, he was just getting started.
Contribution to hip-hop is a large part of why The Alchemist has a status few have reached when it comes to respect and others knowing how much work he puts in. A long lineage of elite level output is also a key variable in that equation.
By 2013, Al was cruising. He worked with his good friend Mac Miller on the late rapper’s second album Watching Movies with the Sound Off. The result would be a crowd favorite: Red Dot Music. The theme of psychedelic tones meshed well, as all three artists involved — Action Bronson, Mac Miller, and Al — had a track record of weaving such into their music in the past.
At this same time, we saw Odd Future take off alongside artists like Joey Bada$$; Al had credits in both camps, including Earl Sweatshirt’s debut album Doris. However, the contribution was a song titled Uncle Al and a quick ode to the potent concoctions Al had crafted over the years:
Killing who you sinning first, verse wintergreen spit it, show ’em that I meant it
Ho, I’m rolling with my niggas, find a gold and call the chemist
Perhaps Al’s personal favorite project however, was with none other than one of his mentors, Prodigy of Mobb Deep, titled Albert Einstein. Their second collaboration together in album form, it would be a return to form for Prodigy, and a cataclysm of sound coming from Al.
One theme within any Alchemist project is the idea of it playing out in a cinematic fashion, and that holds true here as well; perhaps one of his strongest examples, beyond Russian Roulette.
The album was well-received and reviewed by the usual critics, high marks all around. Nothing much to analyze or break down with the project that already hasn’t been by critics. It remains a lesser-known gem to those who go back in time and dig around a bit.
Al had one more thing up his sleeve for 2013, perhaps the largest reach his career ever had up to that point: the soundtrack for what would become the largest video game release in history: Grand Theft Auto V.
He was the maestro alongside Oh No, for the game’s score. 2014 was on the horizon.
Step Brothers, a duo consisting of Al and his longtime friend Evidence, would finally release their long-awaited project, teased all the way back in 2009. The name comes from a realization they had, according to Rhymesayers:
When Dilated Peoples had its 2001, Alchemist-produced song “Live On Stage” licensed in the 2008 film Step Brothers movie starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, Dilated Peoples member Evidence and the Alchemist had a realization.
Features were plentiful and included artists who they’d worked with in the past; named after a bar on Dark Shades, Lord Steppington would receive nods from the critics. Although selling only a few thousand copies first-week, it remains a favorite of fans who followed Al and Evidence throughout their careers.
This was a want album, not a need album, as Evidence explains in a 2013 Fuse interview leading into its 2014 release:
It’s not an album we need to do; It’s an album we want to do, so if we want to do it, it needs to be right.
It’s stemming from a lot of our solo experiences and taking it back to a trio.
Even today, this is strictly the motive which Al still stays true to; he isn’t after certain collaborations, he lets them happen naturally at their own will, if both parties are interested in doing it. Another reason why every release sounds genuinely well-made and naturally cohesive.
Closer to the Present
The work output was nothing different: top-notch, frequent, and consistent as hell. 2015 saw Al work with several familiar faces in the form of Blu, Fashawn, Big Twins, Oh No for another Gangrene release and follow-up to GTA V’s score, as well as 50 Cent and Joey, but no single song made it as big as Terry, a track off Bronson’s Mr. Wonderful.
Although it was not a chart-topping smash, it was instantly a cult-classic within hip-hop, with people on the day of release searching left and right for the sample cut. How was he able to switch up his style so often? A question to this day, which is still only answered with some handwaving. A real alchemist, a wizard, maybe an alien.
Following a solid 2015 came an even stronger 2016; year after year, Al was improving both in skill set and output quality. He made an entire series of limited vinyls, collaborated with the burgeoning FLYGOD which established a connection to the Griselda camp, a collaboration project with Havoc, and perhaps the most interesting thing was that he was now a staple part of Action Bronson’s hit series Fuck, That’s Delicious on top of other Viceland titles which he appeared on.
The world had never seen The Alchemist in situations like this, laid back and relaxed with friends who you could tell genuinely cared for him. In a way tough love at times, they would poke fun at each other, but through it all, it was evident that Al was opening up and becoming comfortable with exposing a more vulnerable side of himself.
As fans continued to watch the series over the next several years, they would at times become more interested in this close bond the four guys shared on the show more so than the music.
It humanized the figures and names which we had only seen on song titles and CD sleeve credits, a point which I feel is often dismissed when taking into consideration this group of artists specifically; it led the way and carved out a niche, leading by action (no pun intended) how successful such shows could be in the new age of media consumption.
On top of that, it allowed newcomers coming from other places outside of hip-hop to check out the artists, Al especially.
The Passing of Prodigy
Throughout 2017, Al remained somewhat quiet and kept a low profile. His dear friend Prodigy passed in June; it was clear that it hurt him bad; understandably so.
Prodigy had helped Al from the very beginning of when he landed in New York to make a name for himself, for two decades, up until his sudden passing. An outpouring of well wishes and support ensued, but he continued to do what he knew P would tell him to do: keep making beats.
We saw a Mach Hommy collab, two tracks for Kendrick, an MF DOOM track for an Adult Swim promotion, and a few other projects including a unique French-only sample tape titled Paris, L.A., Bruxelles. The Paris mixtape was the result of a Red Bull pitch, pulling in upcoming and established French producers, artists, and creatives to work with Al on a cohesive body of work.
He kept it to Bandcamp, “officially” released January 2018, but previously available through Red Bull several months prior.
last year i linked up with Redbull France.
They brought me out to Paris for a week, paid for my records, and let me craft beats in their studio.
(I ended up moving the equipment to my hotel room due to smoking restrictions )
Al’s fan base was growing faster than ever. The bodies of work he was putting out were hard to go unnoticed, and he was doing it more consistently than almost anyone else out there.
In essence, everyone wanted more. He heard them loud and clear, and 2018 would be the year in which he would let that be known.
No Days Off in 2018
One of the most prolific years in his career came in 2018. If you know hip-hop, you know about The Alchemist’s output during this time; every single project, no misses, was hard as hell.
The final part in Evidence’s The Weathermen series, Weather or Not had a handful of tracks with Al on the beats; features from Slug, Catero, Mach Hommy, Styles P, Rapsody, Khrysis, and more; that was just one project to start the year off.
Next up would be Lunch Meat, a fully-produced and mixed project from Al that would feature familiar New York names: Benny, Roc, Gunn, Conway, Bronson. It was released on streaming platforms including Bandcamp, with a very limited 100-issue vinyl print.
Al’s sound was conscious with Evidence, and more traditional. Then, with Lunch Meat EP, it was more sinister and gritty. It was evident that he could switch on command to cater to whoever he was collaborating with, or if he was seeking a certain aesthetic. True to form and name, he had become somewhat of a literal beat alchemist, able to easily control the result with his two decades of production experience.
He’d jump back to collaborating with Gunn and Conway on Budz:
Then again just a few weeks later on Supreme Blientele, an ode to the classic Ghostface album, Supreme Clientele. The second studio album from Westside Gunn, it was an unreal release on paper.
9th, Fraud, Statik, Roc, Pete Rock, Daringer, and of course Al himself handled the production. Although not a huge splash, the features list made it welcomed amongst hip-hop.
Following that, we saw a few loosies including more Craft Singles releases via Bandcamp for the crate diggers out there, some more work with Benny and Gunn, a solid small EP called Bread which dropped on Bandcamp along with yet another very limited vinyl pressing, but nothing in 2018 came close to the masterpiece that was Fetti.
One of his career standout projects, Fetti served as the peak of Al’s work in 2018. Widely considered one of the best albums in hip-hop of the year, it showed just how far the artists involved had come. Curren$y since the Covert Coup days, Gibbs since his mixtape days, and Al since he took the leap of faith and got taken in by Mobb Deep.
Coming in at just under 24 minutes, the 9 tracks are packed front to back with hard-hitting bars and production that accents it perfectly. The chemistry between all three artists was obvious, which only added to the quality of the tape.
A bit different than past projects, Alchemist was in the spotlight for this project. A rare occurrence as the producer, he had built up such a reputation that he was on-par and just as hyped as those spitting bars over the beats. He was in a class of his own, acting as a conductor for an orchestra of hip-hop, waving his baton to enhance each and every second.
This would widen listeners’ eyes and ears as they looked on towards what else he had planned in the coming year. The Alchemist would deliver once again in 2020, creating an equivalently good body of work titled Alfredo playing more into the Italian theme, and getting even higher marks all-around, this time around just Gibbs and Al on the project. More on that soon.
Along with a Nas beat, Paak beat, working with Benny and Gunn again, contributing to Earl’s new album, and an entire project with Bronson called Lamb Over Rice (covered at length in the Bronson piece I wrote), and an EP with Boldy James to close out the year, he made Yacht Rock 2.
Featuring his Fuck, That’s Delicious friends, the tape’s core aesthetic was cruising on the high seas, in a yacht, accented by Big Body’s street poetry. Only Al could pull this off. He had mastered different aesthetics and style switches to a degree that was hard compare.
2020 was around the corner.
Now a veteran of the game, some would say an OG, Alan Maman was 42 years of age. Shocking to many, his output of projects in 2020 would arguably be his strongest year yet, with no misses or filler. Consistent in every aspect from merch to rollout to aesthetics and presence, it would be the year of panic and disaster where The Alchemist would shine the brightest.
He would kick off 2020 in January, by producing Stepdad for Eminem’s Music to Be Murdered By album, one of the first ever Alchemist-produced beats on an Eminem studio album. Previously, he had only done composition and production on compilation tapes aside from DJing for Em.
He would follow this up with an underground smash, a collaboration top to bottom with Boldy James titled The Price Of Tea In China, an artistic take and delicate aesthetic touching on what sort of merchant work each artist has dipped their toes into.
Vince Staples, Benny The Butcher, Gibbs, as well as Evidence made appearances on the tape. Hailed early on in the year as one of the strongest releases thus far, it received full treatment when it came to limited vinyl pressings and merch to boot.
Followed up with a track for Roc on Marcilago titled Saw and another for Jay Electronica called The Neverending Story featuring Jay Z, it was barely March and Al’s output was causing jaws to drop. It wouldn’t be until he linked up with Conway for LULU however, that’d make people lose their minds.
The Art of LULU
One thing Al kept close to his heart at all times was the concrete jungle of New York City; with that, upcoming and established artists that made his eyes get big. One of those artists was Conway the Machine. Having a keen ear to the streets at all times, there was no trend that went unnoticed.
Griselda was one of the hottest acts in New York, and their product proved it. They were turning heads more than almost anyone in the game, and their bars were raw as hell. Brother of Westside Gunn and cousin of Benny The Butcher, Conway made a mark over the last near-decade as having one of the sharpest pens in New York; not an easy achievement by any means.
Recorded over several months, the album was all about bar after bar telling the story of the life Conway had lived. The cover especially, was particularly interesting and overlooked. A great white shark portrayed off the coast of South Africa, a famous photograph shot by Brandon Cole, sent a clear message. Al and Conway were taking no prisoners with this release, and heading straight for the top.
Below, you can see four photographs which were taken on the same day as the cover for the album; little is known about the backstory of the actual photographs, but variations can be seen below with additional information for context. It is believed that it is a great white shark, RFID-tagged, off the Western coast of South Africa.
I have reached out to Brandon Cole for comment, but have not received any response.
This would be one of the first full-fledged projects ever where Conway did not enlist his Griselda family to lob a bar. Intentional, as Conway’s style is very calculated, perhaps it was a showing of what he was capable of on Alchemist beats.
Overall, the project was hailed as one of the best releases of 2020 so far, alongside Al’s previous project, The Price Of Tea In China with Boldy James. It was only a single month after his previous project had dropped, and despite the world falling apart around us with COVID-19’s impact, The Alchemist was coming out on top with two of the best albums in hip-hop.
It wasn’t even April yet.
In an interview with Rob Markman for Genius, Al comments on Conway’s music and the project as a whole, as well as how he chooses who to work with:
I’m a fan first. I’m a fan of battle rap, I’m a fan of words. … I always keep my ear open, tuned in.
The minute we [him and Conway] linked, it worked.
When Al continued to expand on the work ethic of Griselda, and how they recorded Griselda Ghost in a single 24-hour span, he went to confirm with Conway that was indeed accurate, exclaiming:
When they told me that, I said, ‘yo, get the fuck outta here, man,’ you know what I’m saying?
The quality didn’t sound like a microwaved meal. It sounded like they were putting their whole life into these records.
After producing two tracks for the widely-dapped Pray For Paris project by Gunn, he would drop arguably the most praised album of the year thus far and a follow-up to his 2018 project Fetti, titled Alfredo with Freddie Gibbs.
Released mid-2020, it would come over 15 years since the two first crossed paths, roughly a year before Al released his solo debut studio album. This album had nailed down the mobster, post-noir, gangster, eerie aesthetic blending past albums of both artists seamlessly into one another’s chemistry.
It was the audio embodiment of walking into an old italian ristorante with a tuxedo on. The listener was transported to another plane while listening to this project.
A fun collaboration and one that hip-hop heads had wanted to see for many years, it appeased the fans plenty. On top of that, a large drop of merchandise appropriately themed after classic Italian diners and stereotypical pizza delivery services further enthused onlookers.
Receiving very high marks, Alfredo would be a project for the ages, conjuring praise from critics from around the world. There was no question that both Gibbs and Al had cemented spots at the top of hip-hop, both in quality of work and respect.
The idea of this one-and-one collaborative process Alchemist had preached from early on had paid off heavily. He was no longer making songs people simply liked or bobbed their head to, he was generating some of the best music in hip-hop, period.
Following Lamb Over Rice with Bronson, the two linked back up this year to do a track entitled Sergio for the Queens, New York native’s newest album, Only For Dolphins.
Most recently, he contributed a few tracks to Gunn’s newest project, Who Made the Sunshine, and took no time off to get to work on his upcoming project, The Food Villain.
The Food Villain
Chris Grosso, co-founder of Munchies and Viceland, knighted Al with the nickname due to his notoriously funny personality of being a very picky eater throughout the Fuck, That’s Delicious episodes which he’d star in.
Despite experiencing multiple flavor breakthroughs, over time he had become an extremely villainous food critic when roaming with the usual crew around the world to taste test some of the finest food available, especially expensive cheese. Al also has been rumored to moonlight as a sommelier.
Initially believed to be a collaboration between the long-time producer and the most mysterious man in music, MF DOOM, it was revealed that this was not so. Especially since following the release of LULU, Alchemist would hop onto Instagram Live and tease several tracks. One of which made waves throughout hip-hop, a remix of Action Bronson’s 2015 song Terry with an opening MF DOOM verse, as well as his previous DOOMSAYERS collaboration.
A food-centric album, even reminiscent of DOOM’s early concepts, it’s a fun album that once again perfects a niche aesthetic. Both Body and Bronson make an appearance on the spacy album, featuring otherworldly synths and samples. Bronson, after all, was the individual who pushed Al to appear on the show and break out of his shell.
The dialogue shown in the pics below is sampled on Flavor Break-Thrus.
The album is filled throughout with samples of the crew speaking and cuts from old films, feeding into the evil villain archetype. Action Bronson clips, especially:
He’s just a villainous person.
The Alchemist is the most pickiest, tasteless human being when it comes to food.
He’ll eat things from 3 days ago with no regard for his own body!
It’s a hilarious example of how a simple idea can turn into a full-fledged project. With a hint of genius production, it turns into an actually-good album. Everyone knows the clips are in good faith from those closest to him.
Although well-executed and crisp from front to back as usual, it begs the question: does Al really hate cheese this much, or was he speaking from a hypothetical point of view? Say it ain’t so.
More interesting than the music itself was the message it carried as a whole: this was an ode to the experiences he’s had around the world thus far traveling with the crew on the shows he had starred in. It wasn’t just a creative take on good-hearted jokes with friends, it was a painting of appreciation.
It was the friendships he made along the way, evident that the whole process touched him as an artist and as a person.
2020 was showing this new very humanizing side of Al we had seldom seen before, and we all want to see more of it going forward.
Today is his birthday. Now 43 years of age, Alan Maman reflects on his time within the hip-hop scene. One of the most prolific producers to ever grace the pads and decks, he continues to strive for further continuing his legacy as one of the best to ever do it.
Without question he has become more humbled over the years. He has made a name for himself on top of his art, as one of the most genuinely appreciative individuals within the hip-hop space. From top to bottom, figureheads and fans alike respect him all the same.
The Beverly Hills native is not after fame or fortune; he has stayed true to his words, and has continued to craft masterpieces within hip-hop for the sake of reverence, curating sounds carefully to make them timeless upon release.
Whether it was his unparalleled ability to make 2-bar loops sound identical to drums, his micro-chopping rivaling that of Dilla, or his beats making even the most snarky hip-hop connoisseur bob their head with glee, Maman had now, without question, cemented his spot among the best in hip-hop, dead or alive.
His ability to upkeep both quality and quantity, while never sacrificing one for the other, is seen only with perhaps Madlib’s catalogue.
Remaining humble by turning down a battle with the Beat Konducta himself, he laughs, making sure to pay homage:
Madlib would absolutely destroy me. Are you crazy?
Madlib is like my idol, that’s my brother too.
He’s on another planet of his own, he’s his own genre.
It was this profound respect Maman had with everyone in the game throughout his near 30-year career which acted as muscle tissue, which he continues to uphold, that further ingrains him in the annals of hip-hop history.
For most of us, 2021 is right around the corner.
For The Alchemist, there’s still plenty of time left.
This piece was originally published on my website, October 25th, 2020.
Enjoy this piece? Check out Nujabes’ biography: