Spotlight on Music/Sound/Radio: Symphony in B-Ball Major

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There was a time when Jeff Elmassian, the founder of Santa Monica's Endless Noise, toured Europe and Asia as the principal clarinetist of the Viklarbo Chamber Ensemble and taught master classes at USC and Loyola Marymount University. But you can call him Beatmaster Jeff, now that he's getting mad props for supplying the aural flava behind the hip-hoppest spot of the year, Nike's "Freestyle."

For the Cannes judges and those who've been living under a rock, the "Freestyle" commercials hypnotically capture the quintessential cool of b-ball with nothing more than one man, a ball, great editing and a killer soundtrack. Against a stark black backdrop, NBA players and streetballers dance and groove with the basketball - dribbling, spinning, and passing it to each other from frame to frame. They're accompanied only by a driving, rhythmic track that sounds like a hybrid of court sounds and intense beats. Not coincidentally, the idea behind the music was that it be as non-"instrumental" as possible. The 34-year-old Elmassian, a Grammy winner for his songwriting on Columbia Pictures' Elmo in Grouchland, of all things, says the instructions from Wieden creative director Hal Curtis specified that the music should be inspired by Afrika Bambaata's classic club tune "Planet Rock," but it couldn't use any traditional musical instruments - only sounds captured on the basketball court. Bambaata created some original tracks for the commercial and Elmassian then replaced the beats with basketball noise, abetted by new rhythms finessed throughout production and post.

The tight weave of sound and image required Elmassian's close collaboration with the Wieden team, director Paul Hunter, choreographer Savion Glover, and Rock, Paper, Scissors editor Adam Pertofsky. At the outset, Elmassian had 24 hours to come up with an initial track that would be used during the shoot. Then "I got comments from Glover regarding the choreography, changing the rhythms. And I also got a request from Paul to isolate each rhythm so that each player could be isolated individually." He adds that what happened on the set turned into a free-for-all: "They started shooting a lot of the stuff, as the name states, `freestyle.' We didn't really know what we had until we got into editing."

At first, the music was supposed to build beat upon beat as more players were incorporated into the visuals, but the whole process eventually took a different course. "It became clear that even though it started out with this initial beat, it wasn't going to work to just keep adding beats on top of that," Elmassian points out. "By the time you added two or three people onto it, it just became noise. At that point, Adam just started editing certain things to the track as he felt they worked. We were defining and refining the process as we went along."

At the outset, Elmassian pulled sounds from his existing library - a basketball on wood or concrete, the ball hitting a player's hands, and sneakers squeaking. "As we got into the editing process, the specific sounds for this project started to become more evident," he recalls. At one point, Wieden creatives asked him for a sound that could take the place of a high hat. "There was nothing that we really had that would represent that, but they absolutely didn't want a real high hat. A couple times I tried to effect musical sounds and bring them in, and they just weren't having any of that. Anytime anything sounded remotely like an actual instrument, it was immediately shot down," he laughs. Ultimately, he achieved the sound he wanted by knocking his knuckles against the parquet floor.

Where music is concerned, having to keep his eye on the ball is nothing new to Elmassian. He also created the tune for another memorable Nike spot that showcased the skills of Tiger Woods. In it, the young pro sheds new light on his own virtuosity by bouncing a golf ball atop his club like a hackysack. He's accompanied by Elmassian's bouncy, space-age lounge tune, which feels like modern-day interpretation of a Sinatra backing track. Here too, the music is paced perfectly with the ball's movement. Elmassian, however, doesn't attribute the synchronicity to his own talent. "As a musician, I have to tell you, there was no speeding up or slowing down. Tiger Woods had no reference. He was just doing his tricks. Normally, when I do something like this, you have to worry about the references. There's one spot where I slow the tempo down just a little, but other than that, it was exactly how it was shot. He never strayed from tempo."

Elmassian is next set to tackle more "Freestyle"-inspired work, but this time with completely different sports. The success of the original spot, which was so popular that it ran on MTV as a video, has prompted Nike to extend the campaign to soccer and skateboarding. Shooting just wrapped in Rome via Wieden & Kennedy in Amsterdam.

"It's not quite as scary as the first one, because at least now we know that it worked for basketball," he says. "There was a real process and technique that we developed that I know we're going to be able to apply, but the sounds for soccer and skateboarding are of course completely different. Basketball has an obvious hip-hop flavor. Clearly, there's a lot of interconnections between basketball culture and hip-hop culture. But when you move to soccer and skateboarding, they don't translate in the same way. You don't usually associate European soccer stars with hip-hop culture. Now it's just a matter of trying to refine the technique." For soccer, Elmassian says he's mulling over some Latin flavors, and for skateboarding he'll probably work with ska or punk. "It's very important to know what these guys listen to," he says. With "Freestyle" under his belt, Elmassian views the creative constraints of aural authenticity as oddly liberating. "It'll be a wonderful problem," he laughs.

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