When I was in my late teens I made an album with some friends. I made most of the beats, recorded most of the songs, and mixed a lot of it.
There was one song, in particular, that stood out above the rest. It was built around a Teddy Pendergrass sample, a record which I hadn’t grabbed intentionally — one night, I was just cycling through vinyl, searching for interesting sounds.
At the time, I didn’t know a lot about music theory. I didn’t really even know how to play. I couldn’t tell the key of C from the key of Z.
I just sat there and tinkered with stuff, using my ears. If it sounded good, then I thought, well, it must be good. And if it wasn’t good, who cared anyway. I wasn’t doing it for any specific reason; I was doing it because it was fun.
So, we recorded the song over the beat made with the Teddy Pendergrass sample, and the artist on the track wanted someone to come in and sing a chorus. He had an old Liberian song that he wanted to incorporate.
I called a friend. And he came in, recorded the chorus, singing it in the key of the original song, the one we used for inspiration. The key he sang it in was wrong for the beat; it sounded, to me, like two things that didn’t go together.
I remember asking him to sing it in the right key, but the right key wasn’t really working. It wasn’t that it was bad; it was that, when it was in the right key, it became a lot less interesting.
Now I had to acknowledge there was a certain quality to the song. It had an energy that, even with two pieces that didn’t quite fit together, was fairly dynamic. The mistake is what made the song worth listening to.
We kept that mistake, the wrong key, but, another thing happened; when recording of the chorus, I let the program run. People who do recording know this — before you begin, you bring the song back a few beats, like a count in.
Most times, the artist is quiet during that count in, but that day we were all joking in the studio (i.e. my bedroom), and I recorded us laughing. When blended with the music, it sounded almost like a refrain, someone singing a part they hadn’t actually sung.
It was a fairly beautiful mistake, but a mistake nonetheless, and when I went to mix the song, I did what many producers/engineers do — I cleaned up the vocals. There must have been 30 tracks used for the chorus alone. And I knew that the laughter wasn’t intentional.
So, I deleted it.
Now, about a week later, after the song was mixed, I played it for the artist. I watched his face as the chorus got closer, and after the song was finished, he seemed pleased. But then he said — hey, what happened to that little part right before the chorus, where it kind of sounded like a rejoiceful moment?
I said, oh man, that laughter, I took that out. And he said, why? And I said, because it wasn’t what you’re saying it was. It was us laughing. It was a mistake. And he said, yeah — but it sounded good!
He wanted to know if I could put the laughter back, but by then the laughter was gone, deleted from my computer like so many unused files that, back in the days before 2 terabyte hard drives, was taking up too much space.
I have made many songs since then, but I often come back to this one. Whenever I hear it, I think about that laughter, and how much better the song would have been with it in there. It’s not a bad song. It’s actually a really good one. But that small thing added so much. And I took it out, because I couldn’t leave well enough alone, because I thought it was a mistake.
What I didn’t realize then was that the mistake was a functional part of the art itself, that it was a happy accident leading to something beautiful, and that sometimes, when this happens unintentionally, you just have to leave things alone.