Contact with Capricorn Nine: the Sounds and Story of Steb Sly

Steve Sim has been making electronic music since the 1980s. Better known as Steb Sly, Sim is a seventh generation Nova Scotian who has honed a divergent skill set along a storied journey. Sly’s eclectic repertoire includes breakdancing and beatmaking in the 1980s, cutting techno records in the 1990s, scoring high profile video games like Mass Effect in the 2000s, to presently hosting a wealth of live stream sessions and continuing to take on new projects in the 2010s.

Steb Sly’s musical course has sustained over thirty years of history and spans the east and west coasts of Canada. Rooted in pioneering moments of Nova Scotian hip-hop, Sly’s trail has also laid tread to the original burgeoning rave scene of Montréal, and scouted new territory in scoring and sound design during his time on Canada’s west coast.

Steb Sly’s resume in video game audio production is particularly impressive with credits on such monumental games as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic for Xbox and Mass Effect for Xbox360, just to name a few.

Still passionately creative and ambitiously active, Sly currently takes post in Lunenberg, Nova Scotia from his attic studio Mothership: Capricorn Nine.

We first came into contact with Steb Sly following our piece on Halifax hip-hop duo, and Sly’s former crew mates, Mod’rn World Thang. We knew right away that the work of Steb Sly is as unique as it is fundamentally important to the history of Canadian electronic music and hip hop. It was a story that had to be told.

The following correspondence took place in the summer of 2017.

Steb Sly, 1993

When did you first take interest in music? What was the first music that caught your attention as a kid?

As a young kid, it was through movies and TV. I was a sci-fi kid and was only 8 when Star Wars came out. So the soundtracks to Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, the disco tune “It’s Love” on that soundtrack, and the classically bad TV show “The Starlost”. I also played my 45 of “Theme from SWAT” so many times on my Mickey Mouse record player that I wore it out.

Eventually I discovered my Mom’s record collection with the Rolling Stones, Beatles, “To Stir With Love” (by LuLu) and Led Zeppelin. My Dad was more into country and pop radio, so I got my love of disco from him. But it was definitely the synths in sci-fi that hooked me. I’m pretty sure the first album I bought with my own money was the Star Wars soundtrack. It wasn’t until I moved back to Halifax in 1981 that I discovered hip-hop. My friends were all into breakdancing, and I loved the sound of classics like “Clear” (Cybotron), “Planet Rock” (Afrika Bambaataa & the Soulsonic Force), “Scorpio” (Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five) and other synth/drum machine driven music. I’m still a huge fan of 80s sounding electro.

That makes total sense, it is like it went full circle with your soundtrack work.

Tell me about Halifax in 1981, what were kids listening to? Was hip-hop and breakdancing more of a niche interest amongst your friends?

1981; hip-hop was pretty niche even though it felt like everyone was breaking. Breaking was a bit of a fad, but a bunch of us took it seriously. I had a crew that used to dance 3-4 times a week in the ballet/dance room at Dalhousie University. We would sneak in with a boom box and just dance until we got kicked out. Even when we got kicked out, we knew of a decommissioned squash court we could sneak into and use. All my friends were into hip-hop and electro, but radio still ruled so everyone else in junior high was just into radio music of the moment. I do remember the defining moment when I knew that electro and hip-hop became “my music”, though. There was a dude named Brad Armitage in Westmount Junior High that had the baddest, biggest boom box at school. He showed up one day in 1982 playing “Planet Rock” – it blew me away. From then on, all my spare money went into buying hip-hop and electro music.

When did you first become aware of local hip-hop or electro?

Hmm, that’s tricky. There really wasn’t any from my perception. By about 1985, New Beginning was starting to do some shows. I recall a high school show back then, but from 1981-1984/1985 it was just me and my buddies trying to figure out how to scratch on flea market turntables and cheap radio shack mixers. Jorun (DJ Jorun Bombay) became the vinyl master, I became the beatbox/drum machine master. Jorun, JROC (Down By Law / Mod’rn World Thang) and myself had a jam session in the basement of a guy named Danny Brine. Danny was one of the best breakers in the city, and he was one of the first guys to own a “Dr. Rhythm” drum machine. He also had a bassline synth called a Roland MC-202. I remember him playing me the bassline to Shannon’s Let The Music Play he had programmed on it and it was like a giant light bulb went off. We could make our own beats and basslines!

So early local hip-hop and electro was just us kids messing around. Jorun always had his pulse on “The Square” (Uniacke Square) as he lived right by it. He was in that part of the scene deeper than me. It was in “The Pubs” (Westwood Park) in Halifax where I learned about beats and synths. So different housing projects in different parts of the city. Us “Pubs Kids” would sometimes go to “The Square” for breaking battles, but the scenes evolved separately.

JROC, I met in grade 10 – we were writing graffiti tags on desks at Queen Elizabeth High School and met that way.

So Down by Law seems like it evolved as sort of a collective. When did that come together? How did these basement jam sessions evolve into Down By Law?

I recall the first time we decided that we wanted to form a group called Down By Law. At that point, I had no idea what the expression even meant. There was a few of us at Glennie B’s house in the basement, trying to figure out how a mixer and turntable work. I’m pretty sure it was Jo (Jorun), Patti (JROC), Glen, Fizz (Findlay from Universal Soul) and myself. Patti (JROC) was the one who suggested it. It wasn’t long after MC Shan had released Down By Law and Patti (JROC) was really into that album. We did figure out how to scratch, and we learned how to make “pause tapes” at that time too. The crew was ever-shifting and evolving. I never performed live with them, but only because by the summer of 1988 I was living in Banff, Alberta. I eventually returned to Halifax in 1992 until 1995.

Though you never performed live with Down By Law, what was your role with the group? Because knowing that Jorun and JROC went on to form the DJ/MC duo Mod’rn World Thang, I’m curious what the additional roles were that comprised Down By Law. 

I was a scratch DJ back then, Jo and I were the original pair. But I became more interested in drum machines, samplers and synths. So I was one of the first guys back then to have the Dr Rhythm drum machine and eventually a little Casio sampler. So my role expanded more into making beats, but at a very primitive level as we had no way to multitrack record back then. It was all through a DJ mixer and straight to tape. We do have 1 or 2 recordings from back then. Jo is the keeper of that stuff. I didn’t get serious about making beats until I moved back to Halifax in 1992 after a couple years raving in Montreal. So from 88-92, I was in Banff and Montreal. Got bit by the Rave scene and decided I wanted to start getting serious about making music. Down By Law kept evolving from the 2 DJ, 2 MC format while I was gone. Jo and Patti got real serious about music so they kept expanding the group with more neighbourhood guys like Fizz and VooDoo and Tack who became Universal Soul.

So I read that you introduced DJ Jorun to digital sampling in the 80s? Is that true? 

I’m pretty sure that Jo’s first experience with a sampler was when I bought a cheap Radio Shack sampler, a rebranded Casio. I remember a jam session at Danny Brines’ house in the Pubs where we recorded someone saying “DJ” and we re-triggered it over a Dr Rhythm beat, and Jo plus myself scratching up “Jay” and “Rock” from Run DMC’s “King of Rock“. JROC loved this, of course!

You mentioned getting “bit by the rave scene” while living in Banff and Montreal between 1988 and 1992. What did those scenes look like at the time, and what drew you to them?

The initial catalyst was definitely in Halifax. CKDU radio was a lifeline for any of us that did not get into mainstream music at the time. John McMaster used to host a show on Sunday’s called “The In Sound From Way Out” and he intro’d me to the sound of European electronic music and Acid House. He was one of the first people in Halifax that was spreading the “Rave” sound. I used to tape his show off the radio all the time. When I moved to Banff in 1988, I brought those tapes with me and would get my DJ pal to play them at the Works Nightclub in the Banff Springs Hotel, essentially the staff bar. o we were “Raving” in Banff to this stuff. Eventually I moved to Montréal in 1991. There I got to experience famous parties like Rave New World, Solstice and H20. H20 was notorious as the first big Rave part to get busted by the Montréal Police. I’m in this picture somewhere!

By 1993, I was back in Halifax.

Had the Halifax scene changed much in your time away?

Oh man, did it ever! It basically went from people making things in basements to performing on stage. It was wild to see, but do kind of regret not seeing Down By Law open up for Public Enemy at the Dartmouth Sportsplex. I started to buy some “real” gear and eventually set up a basement studio in my brother’s house in Spryfield. I also started helping to mix and record live rap shows. The “Steve” in this clip that Jorun is referring to is me.

So after doing sound at some shows, when did you start to get some traction with your own material? What was the lead up to those first records you released?

The lead up to me finally releasing some of my own material was really watching Jorun and my other buds doing it. By 1992, I was back in Halifax full time and landed a sales and technician job at the only pro tools dealer in Halifax.  Kurt’s Keyboards became the epicentre for anyone that wanted to incorporate sampling and other digital toys into their equipment setup. There I began to meet a lot of talented people to collab with. Notably, I became good friends with keyboard player and percussionist Sheldon Smith. Sheldon eventually went on to play in Jamie Sparks’ band. Up to that point, I had only released a few hand made cassettes of my music that went to my friends. Sheldon and I began an R&B project with a singer named Jenny Kwak. Eventually we released 2 songs on a compilation CD out of Deep Nine Recording on Agricola St in Halifax. Jorun and Flexxman had a couple songs on the compilation too!

This Side Up was a pivotal moment in my music life, it showed me that I could do self-made releases and sell them. But by July 1995, I became frustrated by the in-fighting going on amongst the scenes. There seemed to be a battle brewing between the band that signed with MurdeRecords and everyone else in town. I only saw small town politics, so I bummed a lift to Vancouver to start over, intent on signing a deal out there.

I’m not sure if you “signed a deal” per se, but I know that you were putting out some 12″ singles on a variety of labels by the late 90s. How did all that come into fruition?

I moved to Vancouver in July 1995, determined to “sign a deal”. By 1997, I was heavily involved in the local electronic music scene there and I was going out to clubs and parties every night of the week. So the constant exposure to new techno and to other producers kept me determined. Plus I also started to meet music friends online via the, very popular then, site. I actually started to earn money with my own music on that site. Eventually a little label in Perth, Australia, heard my stuff and we put to a 10″, 2 track EP (Do You Remember? / Believe) on the Red Ember Records label.

By that time, I had formed a small music collective with several talented friends, and we rented space in the heart of the Yaletown club district. There was 8 of us all sharing a rehearsal space that we recorded in and called it “The Gold Mine”.

What was your introduction to scoring and sound design in the video game world?

Eventually, we teamed up with a Game Audio Director named Paul Ruskay, and took over The Goldmine space while building a new, purpose built, game and film audio studio in the same space. We basically doubled our size, and then rented out The Goldmine side of the studio to bands for rehearsals. “Studio X” is the name of the space, and it is still a working studio in Yaletown run by Paul Ruskay. Studio X really became a nice music hub in Vancouver. There was times when the studio was being used 24 hours a day. We became quite busy with video games like Homeworld, Midtown Madness, Microsoft Flight Sim, NHL 2K and many others.

We were all freelancers, so we all had side projects on the go too. My room became the control room for recording the SNFU record In the Meantime and in Between Time. The drummer in SNFU at the time was my (studio) room mate Sean Stubbs. Everyone should know Sean, his credit list is huge, an absolute pioneer in the Vancouver underground. So I got to know the band pretty well. Rob Johnson was the bass player, who is also the rapper called Freshbread, cus he’s baked daily. So we decided to do a full Freshbread album. We had some drum help from Sean, but the whole album was sampled and programmed by me. Josh Wong was the in-house vocalist and our “studio hype guy” at Studio X, so we pulled him in to write the songs with us. We were basically a weed-centric Canadian Beastie Boys vibe. We eventually signed the album to Bif Naked’s Her Royal Majesty’s Records with a distribution deal with Warner. So we toured the west coast a bit with bands like Bif Naked, Jellystone, Swollen Members.

 So that period from 97-00 was a lot of me writing music while getting paid for big game audio jobs. Really fun time. I started to send out CD-R demos to musicians that I like in hopes of a referral to a label or a deal. My first EP made it to the ears of Morgan Geist in Brooklyn. He loved it, and sent it off to Dan Curtin in Cleveland. Dan signed it to his label Metamorphic and my Journey EP made it to wax. I still send Dan and Morgan my tunes from time to time. 

I stayed in Vancouver until May 2001, and then moved to a farm in rural Alberta where I worked as a farm-hand while developing my Steb Sly tunes and game audio clients on my own. I put out a few more songs on labels like Nutone/Nettwerk, itiswhatitis, 240 Volts (Swayzak) and a remix of my “Mind Dreams” on Playhouse via Roger 23.

Eventually by Feb 2003, I made my way to a full time job at BioWare in Edmonton. I spent 6 years there as a senior sound designer, and was the Audio Lead on Mass Effect. At BioWare I worked on Neverwinter Nights (2 expansion packs), Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Mass Effect, Dragon Age and Sonic Chronicles. I was there until March 2009 and decided I needed a break from the high stress, AAA game world. So I went to work on a golf course for a couple summers.

What does the process of scoring a video game look like? Is it generally a collaborative process, or is it more along the lines of presenting options for a “yay or nay” from the production company?

It depends on the type of game and the budget. Small indie games with just a couple people working on it will generally give the audio person free reign. Big AAA games are pretty much always a collaboration between the audio person or team and game writers, designers and producers. Mass Effect, for example, had 4 composers and 5 sound designers by the time the project wrapped up. Initially, the foundation for the audio in Mass Effect was laid down by Casey Hudson, Jack Wall, Sam Hulick and myself. We were all on the same page for the music to be more electronic in the foundation with the orchestral score playing a lesser role. More Blade Runner, less Star Wars. Contrast that to my work on the iPhone game “Catch the Princess”. I was allowed to do what I wanted, so long as it fit the visuals and gameplay I was working with. A team of one: me. The actual process is one of submitting the music to the “decision maker”. Usually a director or an executive producer, and they get the ultimate yay/nay in the end.

Photo by John McCarthy

Outside of sound design, you’ve been very active these days with live video streaming. What appeals to you about the platform and going “Live from Capricorn Nine”?

I guess what I love the most about streaming these days is that I can finally realize something I’ve been asking for my entire “internet life”. I have friends all over the globe, and I’ve always wanted to let someone hear what I was working on, live and in that moment. The evolution will be real time live jamming, but right now it’s pretty cool to broadcast instantly. Even if it’s just to a friend that is 5000 kms away. Plus now I can project my video collection at the same time while I’m live. Good times!

So, after breakdancing, beatmaking, game scoring, sound designing, live streaming… what is next for Steb Sly? Any upcoming projects you can let us in on? Anything you’ve always wanted to do that you haven’t yet done?

I’m always keeping busy with music, that’s for sure. I have fun hosting “beat retreats” here in Lunenburg where I get my pals from the city to come here for a night or two and work on music. Here’s the funny thing, despite knowing Jorun my entire “music life”, we really haven’t released music together. That is changing with the beat retreats. We’re working on mashup projects with our friends that cross the genres of funk, electronic, cumbia, hip-hop and rock. One day we’ll unveil them, but for now the work is top secret. For my personal projects, I’m working on an entirely sample based record for myself. I’m ONLY sampling Canadian music and artists from my growing CanCon vinyl collection. “MAPL” logo for the win! I never had the chance to make a lot of sample based music due to the cost of clearing samples. So I’m hoping my approach to “sample local” will make it easier to get sample clearance. I’m digging into music on vinyl from Nova Scotia in a big way. Stay tuned!
Steb Sly on Bandcamp
Steb Sly on Soundcloud

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