Gospel royalty Mario Winans brings R&B flavor to church
Whether making girl-done-me-wrong R&B funk, street poetry fit for Sunday service or a bass-thunkin' backbeat for Janet Jackson's next sexy escapade, Mario Winans frequently changes up his message, but his methodology in the studio is second nature. Although Winans was recently a breakout hit artist on MTV and VH1, his esteemed career behind the mixing board predates his center-stage momentum as lead man on Hurt No More, the chart-breaking album released on P. Diddy's Bad Boy imprint this year.
Clearly, it is Winans' time to shine, with a cadre of songs exposing the tenor voice of a man going through hard times with his lady. Beyond delivering pleading vocals, Winans is also at the helm of production on every track, drawing from his work with artists such as Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige and Lil' Kim.
The album's content veers off a course that one might expect from a member of gospel's most famous family. His mother is vocalist Vicki Winans, and he was raised by his stepfather, Marvin, tying him to an elite group of Grammy-winning gospel stars including BeBe and CeCe Winans. He has worked closely with family members, including composing beats for his mother on the sanctified single “Shake Yourself Loose.”
Although Winans' hip-hop pursuits are distinctly secular, many of his sounds contain the dramatic cues of a contemporary gospel hit — from the orchestral drama of “I Don't Wanna Know” to the backing vocal harmonies and praiselike keyboard tones on “How I Made It,” achieved with favorite pieces such as the Roland Juno-106. He has eight keyboards at his fingertips in a studio filled with gear, including his custom-made Akai MPC3000s. “My MPC3000s are tricked-out,” he says. “The Roland Yellow City is black and yellow, and then there's the blue Mario Winans. I couldn't live without the MPC3000 and the Roland JP-8000. I used to play the MPC3000 in church. It started to pull young people into the services.”
Winans launched his hip-hop recording career a week after graduating from Walled Lake Western, a suburban Detroit high school, and heading south to work with Dallas Austin in Atlanta. His first album stagnated on the Motown label, but his career was catapulted when he teamed up with P. Diddy's production squad.
He applies his studio experience to his production standards when sampling artists such as DeBarge, The Commodores and Enya. “I know it's a good song by making sure I use the same element that the tones of the sample are blended in,” Winans says. When working with collaborators, he employs security checks to test quality control. “I have three different rooms that are part of the process of my mix studio and creating rooms,” he says. “Your beat has to make it past all three rooms. It starts in the vibe room then goes into the creating room and the mix room and then the mastering room [the fourth room outside of Winans' studio]. Sprinkles are added in the second and third rooms — that's the studio term for flavor.”
Winans embraces new technology in programming; he uses Digidesign Pro Tools and plans to learn how to use Emagic Logic from Teddy Riley. But you won't find Winans going digital from beginning to end. “I sing in digital, and I transfer it back to analog tapes to keep the quality and warmth of the sound,” he says. “Sometimes, we mix the two together.”
Despite his breakthrough as a solo artist, Winans still bears down in the studio for Toni Braxton, J.Lo and Noreaga, to name a few. He's also preparing to introduce his first artist, Lil' Eddie.
“I listen to the radio, and I know what I hear is not new; it's already out and done,” Winans says. “I go in the studio and attack the track and say something different by maybe using the loudest sound in the keyboard. Then, I just flip it.”