Luke Moderwell

The Lacy Principle

One of my favorite artists, Steve Lacy, recently put out a new record. As I gave the album a listen, I couldn't help but remember a video clip I had seen a few years ago that forever endeared Lacy's music to me.

In The Bare Maximum, a TED-talk that the then 18 year-old producer gave back in 2017, he tells the story of how he desperately wanted a MacBook Pro for Christmas so he could make music like his idols did. Year after year, he would hope for the laptop but it never showed up. Eventually he received an iPod and, armed with a guitar and entry-level music software called Garageband, Lacy started producing his own music.

To cut the story very short, the iPod-created demos ended up in the hands of a band called The Internet. The group loved what they heard and invited Lacy to join and produce a few tracks on their album Ego Death which went on to be nominated for a Grammy. Today, Steve Lacy has produced for people like J.Cole, Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, and Vampire Weekend to name a few. So what have I learned from a teenage producer from Compton? Enter what I call the Lacy Principle.

The Lacy Principle says that one should never put tools before talent. Said another way, spend time creating using whatever means you have at your disposal; the simpler the better. As a designer and musician, two groups that are notorious for their love of expensive gear, I know all too well how easy it is to fall into the trap of tools. In the past, I've made two mistakes in this area: 1) conflating skill/talent/craft with complex/expensive gear or 2) using my lack of said tools as an excuse as to why I can't do or achieve something.

The first mistake is a simple one to make. Even Lacy himself mentioned that he only wanted a Mac because other creative people he respected had them. I remember early on in my design days seeing a lot of flashy designs on Dribbble. After made using a prototyping tool called Pixate (now defunct) which at the time had just been acquired by a little company called Google. After weeks of coveting and ignoring the tools I already had at hand, I convinced my boss at the small agency I worked at to buy a license for the software. Looking back it's painfully clear that Pixate didn't improve my prototyping or design skills. What it did instead was help me churn out flashy pieces of design-garbage with more "pizazz". Often times fancy tooling can backfire and expose the user's lack of taste/experience (think suburban teen driving a Porsche). It's better to focus on your art and craft instead - it will pay dividends later on when you eventually make it to the big leagues.

Another great example of someone who certainly didn't make excuses for lack of resources is Christopher Nolan. His first film, the highly underrated noir Following, is gripping cinema despite having any luxuries like A-list actors, exotic locations, or even lighting equipment. Nolan filmed almost exclusively at friend's homes, hired non-professional actors with day jobs, and shot only around 15 minutes of footage on Saturdays to get the right natural lighting. The lack of fluff allowed Nolan to focus on the elements that matter (story, suspense) without wasting time on costly non-essentials.

So where should we go from here? If, like me, you make things for a living, consider working simpler to perfect your craft before giving in to the allure of more powerful tools. By using basic mediums like paper or Garageband, you can focus on the raw idea and pure creativity without getting distracted by the bells and whistles of complex tooling. When I reflect on the art of people like Steve Lacy and Christopher Nolan, I'm inspired and thankful they share their talent with the world. Here's to doing more with less.