The St. Lunatics Fringe

Producer Jason "Jay E" Epperson crafts the beats that make Nelly fans swoon. So how come you've never heard of him?

"I hear you blowing over there, Oliver," Eigner shouts out to Sain, glancing back from his post at the soundboard. "Sounds great, man!"

When they're ready, Sain closes himself off in the sound booth. While the track plays in his headphones, he nails his solo in a single take. Outside, everyone erupts into spontaneous applause. "Beautiful," Eigner says into the microphone. "You can come back in, Mr. Sain."

They play the track back for him. "If you hear some good riffs," Epperson says, "let me know and we'll pull them out."

Jennifer Silverberg
A consummate record geek, Epperson proudly displays some of his favorite album art in the hallway that leads to his basement studio.
Jennifer Silverberg
A consummate record geek, Epperson proudly displays some of his favorite album art in the hallway that leads to his basement studio.

Sain listens, his rheumy eyes half-closed. "All this stuff is so musical," he says, smiling. "I hope that's a good thing."

When he's not upstairs relaxing with his family, Epperson spends most of his time making beats in his basement. It's not a huge space, but it's outfitted with state-of-the-art recording equipment. Almost the entire back wall is devoted to various keyboards: samplers, vintage organs, analog synths. In one corner is a stand holding several guitars, including a baby sitar, and a snazzy set of Danelectro effects pedals. In another corner is a drum kit. Between the drum kit and the sound booth is an entire wall of LPs, a few of which have been pulled off the shelves and stacked on the floor: O.V. Wright's Nucleus of Soul, the Ohio Players' First Impressions, Oliver Sain's Main Man, Idris Muhammad's Power of Soul. Yaghnam has a small preproduction studio of his own, but on this day he has come to Epperson's basement to rap on an original track.

An affable Palestinian-American with a quick smile and a slight stutter, Yaghnam was born in Denver and moved to Milwaukee when he was eight. When he turned fourteen, he started to hang with a bad crowd, so his Muslim parents moved the entire family to Jerusalem. A couple of years later, in January of 1995, the family moved again, to North County, where Yaghnam finished high school. He met Epperson around the time of the Country Grammar sessions, and they've been working together ever since.

The beat they're working on today -- a clattery, futuristic uptempo track -- is a personal project, not meant for any of the Lunatics. "Basically you could say it's a party track, but it's definitely, like, a show song," Yaghnam explains. "I'm doing verses for each of us: Eight bars will be about me, eight bars about Jason, eight bars about Koko and eight bars about City Spud."

The two producers sit at the soundboard, staring intently at the flat-screen monitor and editing the various tracks in Pro Tools. A half-eaten plate of eggs darkens and congeals on the table behind them, near a photo of a newborn Jaysha's tiny fist encircling Epperson's index finger. Epperson's wearing baggy sweatpants, tube socks and a vintage San Antonio Spurs basketball jersey -- number 44, after the great George "Iceman" Gervin. (The St. Lunatics advised him on the purchase.). He's also sporting some serious bling: a gigantic diamond-and-platinum pendant with the mirror-image double Bs of the Basement Beats logo.

Yaghnam closes himself off in the booth and spits his rhymes into the mic: "Put your thumbs up, throw your fists together."

"Do it again," Epperson says immediately.

Yaghnam repeats the phrase.

"You want me to put that delay on it?" Epperson asks. They tinker with the tiny segment obsessively, playing it over and over again, backing up, layering echo effects. Yaghnam wants to add another track beneath the mix, a falsetto tikitikitikitiki part that he thinks might sound cool.

Epperson mutters to himself and then says to Yaghnam, "I'm gonna put an effect on that, 'cause it just sounds fucked up. You don't know how gay you sound, dawg."

Epperson's record dealer, a sweet-faced nineteen-year-old Olivette kid named Jason Koenig, sits patiently in one of the half-dozen leather executive chairs that surround the recording equipment. Earlier in the afternoon, he brought over a load of old vinyl, which Epperson rifled through, eventually nabbing a rare LP by '70s-soul great Ann Peebles. Koenig makes his living buying record collections and selling them to vinyl junkies such as Epperson, but he also does a little DJing on the side, under the name DJ Clockwork. Too young to get into the clubs, he's content to play the occasional house party or scratch on his friends' beats.

Like Koenig, Epperson started out as a vinyl fetishist. It was the love of DJing, in turn, that got him into producing. "I'd find weird breaks, drums and stuff, and I'd take the DAT and keep on looping that, then throw in a sample of some weird guitar. Then I just said, 'Well, if that's producing, I'm gonna be a producer, because I love that.'"

When Yaghnam finishes rapping the verses he's written so far, he ducks out of the booth. Epperson plucks a Hamster Breaks breakbeats album from his wall of records and drops it on a turntable. One finger on the mixer, one on the vinyl, he demonstrates the kind of scratch he wants for the track, then steps back and lets Koenig take over.

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