On His Own Terms

In the late '80s and early '90s, rap music and hip-hop culture were slowly working their way into the fabric of mainstream America. With acts like Jazzy
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In the late '80s and early '90s, rap music and hip-hop culture were slowly working their way into the fabric of mainstream America. With acts like Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince and Kid 'N Play reaching Platinum record sales, and movies like House Party hitting the theaters, hip-hop experienced a growth spurt unlike that of any genre since the explosion of rock 'n' roll in the '50s.

In 1989, a 16-year-old rapper from Harlem appeared on the scene with an album aptly titled Kwamé, the Boy Genius (Atlantic, 1989). His rapid ascension was not surprising considering his enviable musical pedigree: he grew up on the New York Jazz scene, hung out with family friend Stevie Wonder, and received his first drum set from the great Lionel Hampton.

Kwamé, the Boy Genius featured an innovative and positive brand of rap, and, uncharacteristically for the genre, he recorded it with a band (A New Beginning). Although his music was critically acclaimed and popular with urban teens, Kwamé became disenchanted with the gritty gangsta- style direction that rap was taking. When Atlantic tried to push him to join the trend, he wasn't interested. “I wasn't that kind of guy,” he says. “I was the type of guy that used to wear suits and talk about girls. Everything was smooth, everything was real musical. And gangsta rap just wasn't my thing.” After recording three albums for Atlantic, Kwamé left the label at the age of 21.

In 1995, he made one more solo CD, Incognito, on the indie label Wrap/Ichiban, but that was the end of his career as a recording artist. He continued to perform occasionally, but his focus had turned to production. He already had experience from producing his own albums, and had learned a lot from musical mentors such as Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor (who produced Salt-N-Pepa), Dr. Dre, and Teddy Riley. “As an artist, I was already producing myself,” Kwamé recalls. “But I had to learn how to fully produce for other people and take myself out of the picture.”

During the years that followed, Kwamé was slowly and relentlessly building up his production chops and his reputation as a producer. He began by producing indie demos and working on some soundtracks, most notably for the Emmy-nominated HBO special Dancing in September. Still, it was a challenge to get back to the upper echelons of the music business. “It was a hard road, because a lot of people just knew me as that old-school artist and didn't take me too seriously as a current or future producer.”

When a mutual friend introduced me to Kwamé back in 2002, he was in what could be called a professional chrysalis; he was locked in his apartment in Harlem banging out track after track, developing the sound that has become his signature today. That sound has netted him producer gigs in both hip-hop and pop with a host of major recording artists including Will Smith, 50 Cent, and Christina Aguilera. So when an opportunity arose to sit down with him for EM, I jumped at the chance.

When you were a 16-year-old rapper, were you thinking about becoming a producer?

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Kwamé at his console with Pro Tools running on the laptop behind him. He says that Pro Tools has had a huge impact on the production of hip-hop music

I didn't know what a producer was. I just knew that I had music in me, lyrics that I wanted to say, and topics that I wanted to speak about. So I had to do what I had to do to get it done. I wanted to make a record, but I didn't want to go out looking for someone else's beats or songs.

How did you get interested in producing?

To me, being an artist and a producer goes hand in hand. I never knew there was a difference. Back then, my idols were Prince and Stevie Wonder. When I read the back of one of their albums, it would say “written, composed, arranged, performed, and produced” by Prince or Stevie Wonder. So I thought if that's what they did, that's what I would have to do.

You produced your first demos. What was that experience like?

In the beginning, I worked with whatever I had. I didn't have any drum machines or anything like that, so I worked with a lot of acoustic instruments. I had a piano, a drum set, and a Casio keyboard that I got when I was 14. That was before I knew there was a 4-track [Tascam] Portastudio. I didn't know what a recording studio was or where to find one. I had to be creative, so I would play the beat on the drums onto a tape, and then I would take a smaller tape player and play back the tape with the drums while I played the piano over the drums onto the other tape. That was two tracks, so then I wanted some synthesized sounds and I would do the same onto the other tape, adding my scratches. Then I wrote my rhymes, and I would have my record. I didn't know any other way.

When you began working with Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor, did he teach you the art of hip-hop production?

When I started to work with Hurby, I sat back and watched him make these beats and write these rhymes, but that isn't how I learned to use the equipment. When he went on tour, me and Hurby's little brother broke into his room and took all of his equipment, learned how to use it, then put it all back before got home from the tour. So that's how I learned about the equipment. I still didn't know much about how to use it, so when I went to the studio, I would tell the engineer to sample a piece of this and a piece of that and then let me play it back. I knew what I wanted, because I had it all in my head. As I was playing it, I learned how to use the E-mu SP1200 and the E-mu Emulator.

What was your first purchase as an artist?

When I got the money from my first album, my first purchase was some leather jackets, a phat rope chain, a shearling coat, and a Volkswagen Rabbit convertible.

I mean musically speaking.

Nothing, because my experience was that I was going in the studio and I needed three weeks to make an album. Then I'd go on tour. I didn't think that I needed to do anything other than that to be an artist. I would make money, spend it, and when it got low, I would just go in and say “give me my budget to go back into the studio.”

Three weeks — that's a quick turnaround.

Yeah, but that's how it was done. There were more classic hip-hop albums then than there are now.

When was your “ah-ha” moment, when you discovered the potential in being a full-time producer?

I was on tour with Dr. Dre and Teddy Riley, the two biggest producers at the time. Dr. Dre had an Akai 12-track on the bus, so I would sit with Dre and he would make beats every day. I didn't even know that a 12-track existed. Then I wanted to get equipment — forget the girls and the cars.

Did you get some gear then?

I went to the music store as soon as I got home.

What did you get?

I bought an Akai MPC, a 4-track, a Korg M1, two JBL monitors and a microphone. Then I was good. I would buy instruments now and then because I would play a lot of stuff live on stage. I was still living at home so I put my stuff in the basement.

What was your first gig as an outside producer?

During the second album, I had a singer in my group named Tasha Lambert, who got a deal on Atlantic. I was in the process of making my album in the studio, and I was making Tasha's album at home.

How did you balance your new-found passion as a producer against your career as an artist?

I would bring my gear on the road, and I would invite everybody that I was on tour with up to my room to make a record. Instead of running around with groupies, I would try to make a record. I would also get girls that way: “Y'all want to come see the studio?”

What prompted you to leave your career as a rapper behind and go into production full-time?

I was forced into that way of life; the way of rap that I was used to was gone. Everything was gangstered out. I call it the “grimy '90s” — everything turned into grit, griminess, and all the things that I was the total antithesis of.

So you didn't get dropped by Atlantic? You left the label?

That's 100 percent of it. Because if I would have stayed, they would have killed me. Me putting in braids and wearing gangster clothes — it would have killed me. It was like, “I'm cool. I'd rather kill myself than let you guys kill me.”

What did you do to get people to see you as a producer and not just as a rapper?

When it came to producing, I didn't discriminate. I would work with everyone from that kid down the block to somebody with a deal. I figured the more beats that I had out there, the more records I would be able to get on.

What platforms do you use to record?

I am definitely a [Digidesign] Pro Tools person, because Pro Tools is 100 percent studio friendly. I record my Pro Tools files, put the files in my iPod, go to the studio, dump the iPod in before mixing, and there is the record. That is that. I was very reluctant to do the Pro Tools thing; I was old school. I was forced to do Pro Tools. I was tired of my ADATs breaking down and my 16-track breaking down.

How has Pro Tools affected the production of rap music?

Pro Tools has changed the production game 150 percent. You can put a track together much faster than before. I do everything at home and do only the mix in a big studio. It used to take three days to mix a record, and now it can take as little as four hours. It has also changed the way you interact with the artist. Now an artist will come into the studio and do their hook first, and then they will say, “okay, fly it.” They are so used to just flying the hook [copying it into the other parts of the song] that they come in expecting to have to record it only one time. People also bring in a 2-track mix, and they know that the producer or engineer can cut it up to arrange the record anyway that they want. When something is messed up or if the vocalist sings off-key, the common response has become “You can fix it in Pro Tools,” In the school that I am from, you could never do that.

Do you think that people get lazy working that way?

Not lazy, but people are definitely spoiled because of Pro Tools; I'm spoiled because of Pro Tools. The most that we would do back in the day is to sample the hook and play it in on the beat. I'm from the time when you didn't even have automation. Everyone had to stand at the board and say “Punch it in” and “Punch it out.”

Do you ever press to do it the old way?

Sometimes I want to do things the hard way. I say, “Don't cheat, don't cheat yourself.”

Do you do anything in Pro Tools to try to capture the sonic character of those early rap records?

I don't care about capturing that sound — I did that already. When I was making records in '89, I was trying to make the records I am making now. I like clear, big dramatic music. Whether it's hip-hop, pop, or R&B, I just like big dramatic, orchestrated music. Sometimes that's a gift' sometimes it's a curse.

What do you mean?

So many records today are sparse: “kick, snare, kick, snare.” I get so bored making records like that. It could be the perfect beat, like the “whisper beat” from the Ying Yang Twins [from the song “Wait” on USA (United States of Atlanta), TVT, 2005]. I love that record, but if I had produced it I would have put a whole bunch of music on top of it. Sometimes I go overboard, so I have to check and balance myself.

How do you do that?

I try to think outside of my box. I think of the artist as the last instrument on the track. I try to make a beat that is less than 100 percent satisfying to my ear, but becoming 100 percent satisfying when the artist is added on top. I make the whole thing, throw all the music in, but then I start to pull things out. When the artist gets on top, it gives me better perspective. Once I mix a record down for mass consumption, I pull things out anyway, so it's better if I do that earlier.

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FIG. 1: Kwamé''s collection of hardware synth modules includes [from top to -bottom] a Korg M1-R, an E-mu Orbit, an E-mu Audity 2000, an E-mu Planet Earth, an E-mu Proteus 2000, and an E-mu Turbo Phatt; a Studio Electronics ATC-1; a Korg Triton Rack, a Roland Super JV-1080, and a Studio Electronics SE-1.

Do you have any secrets for getting a project rolling?

I don't have any secret techniques. What really gets me rolling is the sounds [see Fig. 1]. Different sounds spawn different beats. I can hear a clang or a sound around the house; go sample it; and then fill it in with drums, bass, and keys. Sometimes I will randomly go through the E-mu Turbo Phatt [sound module] until I hear a sound that interests me, and then I build a whole track around it.

But you don't have a routine?

It is never “get on the MPC, then the Turbo Phatt.” It is never that way for me. If I make a beat that way, it never comes out right. If somebody says, “Make a beat” and I start tapping away, it may come out cool but will never be never right.

Do you use a lot of loops?

Some. When I sample, I look for noises. Most people look for loops, but I look for noises. Most tracks that I do begin that way. I made a track when I was listening to Etta James — a song called “Stop the Wedding.” I liked the way that she said the words “wait” and “stop.” So I sampled them and built a whole track around them — just because I liked the way she said those words.

How do you keep fresh creatively?

I try to go to the clubs. Sometimes I hear a beat that will make me want to go home and create one that gives me the same feelings as the one I heard in the club. I don't want to copy that beat; I just want one that gives you the same feelings. It is all an emotional thing, an emotional-sonic thing.

What is the one piece of gear that you must have wherever you go?

Tube Tech compressors for my kicks and snares. Got to have them.

You have worked with 50 Cent, Christina Aguilera, Mary J. Blige, the Pussycat Dolls, and Will Smith. Do you do anything different or special to adjust for each artist?

No, I try to treat everyone the same. The good thing about a great artist is that they know what they want and they can come in and do their thing on the record.

When you work with the pop megastars, do they have any special requests of you?

No. The only thing is that the bigger the artist the earlier you need to be at the studio, even if they aren't there and you are waiting. You need to be there. The bigger the artist the more on point they are. Christina Aguilera and LL Cool J are superprofessional. Christina sings her songs word for word until they're right. LL goes in a room and locks the door when he is writing his rhymes until he gets what he wants. Jay Z and 50 Cent do things differently, but they are both superfocused.

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FIG. 2: Kwamé''s studio setup has come a long way since his early days of using two stereo tape recorders. In his new facility he''s got a full-blown Pro Tools rig, a pair of Mackie 8-bus mixers, a vocal booth, and plenty more.

Your studio in New Jersey [see Fig. 2] is quite different from your setup in Harlem. Did you have any special considerations when building it?

Not really. I just wanted a booth. I was just happy not to have to ask someone to step into a closet or the bathroom to record. I had someone who designs and builds studios come in and work with me.

What are some of the tricks you learned in commercial studios that you've been able to bring to your personal setup?

One thing I learned was more practical than technical: I learned time management. I learned little techniques to minimize the time in the studio.

What else?

The second most important thing I learned is the value of having your own facility. I began working in the big studio because I didn't know any better. That's where I learned the nuts and bolts of producing, which I brought back home with me. But I can be more creative when I am not under the clock. Artists blow their entire budgets in the big studios, when they can get the meat of the work done at home. They want to go to a big studio just to write.

You sound as though you know from firsthand experience.

Yeah, I used to take a half-done track into the studio and work on it there. But now I do everything at home and do just the mix in a big studio.

Do you feel as though artists respond differently to working in a big studio than they do to working in your facility?

Unfortunately, some do. Some people don't take the studio seriously unless you have all this stuff. They think that if you have racks of stuff, then you've got a real studio. You got a vocal booth, you got a real studio.”

Do the major artists you work with ever record in your studio?

Some do, but sometimes I like to work on their turf. A lot of the bigger artists have studios in their homes.

Does their entourage ever interfere with the work flow?

When I am working out of my home, I limit the number of people in the studio.

Now that you are so used to working at home, do you feel less comfortable somewhere else?

I prefer to work here, but I can rock anywhere, whether there are 100 people in the room or one. I do have one diva thing: if I go to an outside studio, all of the gear that I have in my house must be in that studio and be set up in the same way. I need to have all of my keyboards, even if I am only using one on that record — I must have all ten. I got to have that — and some Buffalo wings.

What do you feel are the common elements of rap and other forms of popular music?

Repetition and simplicity. If you can sing the record back and beatbox the beat, then you have a good radio record, whether it's pop or rap. For example, with the record that I did for Will Smith, “Switch,” all you have do hear is that beat pattern and you know it's that record.

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FIG. 3: Kwamé''s production helped propel the hit song “On Fire,” on the Lloyd Banks CD, The Hunger for More.

Does that way of working become redundant?

Sometimes I hate making records that way, and then other times I know that's what will work. It is hard because in the pop world everybody wants the same record. I made “On Fire,” [by Lloyd Banks, see Fig. 3], and then everybody wanted a record like that. I made “Switch,” and even those who don't listen to Will Smith wanted a record like it.

If everyone is asking you to re-create your past hits, how do you stay fresh and creative?

You have to have a sense of self as a producer, and you can't chase past hits. A lot of producers are great at duplicating their records, but I am not one of them. That's a great skill to have.

With all the technology at their disposal, do you think producers today don't need as much talent as when you were coming up?

No, a producer from the '70s might say that about me, and a producer from the '50s might say the same thing about him. Just because things were harder to do doesn't make them better. I am all for change and progress as long it doesn't take away from the music. I'm not one to judge what the people who follow me do with their music, because someone can say the same thing about me.

What are you working on now?

I'm producing a group called Jane Doe that is based out of Washington D.C., and I am working on a score for a Touchstone film that's called Music High. It's based on the Baltimore School of the Arts and stars [J Records recording artist] Mario, who plays a young producer. I definitely want to work on more films.

Can you predict where your career is going?

No, I just take things one artist at a time.

Lorne Hammond is a consultant to the entertainment media industry, a music producer, a music publisher, and a program manager with VH1's Save the Music Foundation.


Songs produced for CDs

Pussycat Dolls, “Bite the Dust” from PCD (Interscope, 2005)

Will Smith, “Switch” from Lost and Found (Overbrook/Interscope, 2005)

Tweet, “Turn Da Lights Off,” “We Don't Need No Water” from It's Me Again (Atlantic, 2005)

Lloyd Banks, “On Fire” from The Hunger for More (G-Unit/Interscope, 2004)

JoJo, “Breezy” from JoJo (Blackground/Universal, 2004)

Mary J Blige, “L.O.V.E.” from No More Drama (MCA, 2002)

Dru Hill, “No Doubt” from Dru World Order (Def Soul/Def Jam, 2002)

LL Cool J, “10 Million Stars” and “Throw Ya L's Up” from 10 (Def Jam, 2002)

Songs produced for film and television soundtracks and scores

Lloyd Banks, “On Fire,” and Chingy, “Relax” from Fantastic Four — the Album (Wind-up/20th Century Fox, 2005)

Nick Cannon, “Scared of You” from Drumline soundtrack (Jive/20th Century Fox, 2003)

“Crazy,” “If I Can't Have You” from Dancing in September (HBO Films, 2001)

Upcoming releases for Christina Aguilera, Brasco, Joe Budden, Chingy, Janet Jackson, Juvenile, and Red Café

In all forms of popular music, the producer is typically the overseer of the project; he or she guides the act, shapes the sounds, and coaxes the best performances. In hip-hop, producers have an additional responsibility: to compose and program the instrumental tracks (aka “beats”), which the artists then rap over.

“When I submit records to artists,” says Kwamé, “I pretty much do 85 percent of the whole record. I write the hooks and the choruses; I even give ideas about how the rapper should rap on the record, and then the rapper will fill in the blanks.” Although he points out that only elite producers usually have that level of involvement, hip-hop producers in general have a bigger compositional role than do their rock, pop, or country counterparts.

Another difference is that hip-hop producers often don't produce an artist's entire CD, but instead work on only one or two songs. The artists choose different producers for different songs to add variety to the CD as a whole. “Between the artists and the record label, they'll seek certain producers for certain sounds,” Kwamé explains. “If a rapper wants a grimy record [song] he or she will go to a producer that's more conducive to that. If they want a different sound, they'll go to a producer that's more conducive to that.”