Return to the 36 Chambers

Carlos Bess, engineer for the mightily seminal Wu-Tang Clan, along with genius producer and counterculture film score darling RZA, managed to do what other engineers only murmured about: make music that was immediate and immediately dangerous sound exactly so.
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“When I was at The Shack we dealt with gangstas all the time. There was one session I did, five days straight at gunpoint. They wanted to get it finished and they said ‘if you try to leave, we’ll shoot you.’ They were on a budget.”

A conversation with Carlos Bess can often read like a screenplay. The Manhattan native grew up around the corner from a patch of concrete dubbed Rock Steady Park, on West 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, in the 1980s. It’s a place where spray can graffiti is as common on buildings as vinyl siding is in the suburbs. It’s also a place where career decisions were made at a time when those from around the way had few stark choices. “You could break dance, you could rap, you could DJ, you could tag, or you could run drugs.”

Instead, Bess became one of the few to come out of that culture and sit behind a recording console for most of his adult life, to stunning effect: for the Wu-Tang Clan on Enter The Wu-Tang:36 Chambers and Wu-Tang Forever, their individual spin-off projects (RZA’s The World According To and Ghostface Killah’s Supreme Clientele and Shaolin’s Finest), the late Big Punisher’s Capital Punishment, Bahamadia’s Kollage, Cella Dwellas’ Realms ‘n’ Reality, the Gravediggaz’s Pick, the Sickle & The Shovel, and Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt.) Then there is the ongoing series of drum beat records, the Funky Drummer break LPs, as well as a series of CDs containing RZA and Wu-Tang tracks broken out and unmixed. It’s a serious body of work compiled under circumstances that no academy has in its curriculum. Just as well, since one audio engineering school in Manhattan refused Bess entry because he didn’t have a high school diploma. Twenty-five million records later, he can still smile about it.

In fact, Bess was lured out of high school early by . . . the drum machine. “I started playing drums at 13 in school; I wanted to become a DJ but my parents couldn’t afford to get me any equipment,” he recalls. “I loved the drum machine to the point that I dropped out of high school just to go to the music stores. It got to where we were doing demos for the sales department. And the guy there dug it ‘cause we would be showing him what the boxes could do. I got real good on the Roland RX-15. So they let us hang out all day. I learned like 40 machines in a year. But then they got a new manager and he kicked us out. So I went over to Alex’s [Music] and he let me hang out.”

The Education of Carlos Bess

His first recording session was at the venerable Regent Sound, where the studio’s by then-ancient MCI console seemed like an alien technology to Bess. “All I had been seeing up to that time were guys with PortaStudios in their houses,” he says. “This was like the real thing to me.” The engineer at Regent, Richard Fairbanks, answered Bess’ eager questions patiently. By the end of the session, Bess knew what he wanted to do.

“Everyone was like a rapper or wanted to be a producer,” he says. “No one from the streets wanted to be an engineer. I was kind of different like that.”

In 1991, Bess hooked up with Tkae, a producer who was about to open a small studio on West 129th Street in Harlem called The Shack, and Calvin “Trouble” Jones, another producer/mentor. That gave him regular exposure to a larger array of technology than he had been getting doing freelance programming sessions. “It was the first time I ever messed with an Akai sampler or the E-mu SP-1200,” he remembers. “Tkae taught me the patch bay, he taught me microphone placement and recording techniques, and he taught me how to deal with clients. He taught me how to troubleshoot and not let the client know you were in big trouble if something was going wrong. He was real strict with me, and I used to hate how he would ride me. Tkae was ghetto — he would be screaming at you to get your stuff right. But I love him for that now, man. He taught me good. And when it came time to wire the new studio for Wu-Tang, I went to him to help me.” Firehouse Studio, in midtown Manhattan, was like graduate school, and it was where he first met the Wu-Tang.

You see all of these studios were part of a parallel universe in which all but the largest-budget hip-hop and rap records were made. As Bess’ career progressed in the early and mid-1990s, he would cross this invisible boundary, like Ralph Ellison with a soldering iron. “When I first started learning the SSL and going to other studios, it was complicated trying to get respect out of the studios,” he says. “It was like, ‘He’s Hispanic — keep an eye on him or we’ll be missing some mics.’ One studio made me wait for hours in the lobby — they didn’t know I was there to engineer a session. It was hard for me at the beginning ‘cause all the engineers were white and had so-called ‘degrees’ in engineering. There was no room for a kid like me at that time so I had to fight all the time for credit and respect from whites and the brothers who at the time thought Hispanic engineers only knew how to EQ a conga.”

One of the few mainstream Manhattan studios Bess would become comfortable in was the now-defunct Unique Recording, which was also a favorite of Chris Parker (aka KRS-1), and he would pass through places like Avatar and Sony Music Studios. But the place that seemed most like home to him as his career progressed was the Wu-Tang’s 36 Chambers studio on the west side of Manhattan. There, the ability to get the track done fast, a life-saving skill in his early days, now became a trademark as the Clan’s often nebulous and fluid membership would line up like flights over O’Hare waiting to grab the mic. “I found a [signal chain] combination that worked and I set it the same for everyone,” says Bess, referring to a Neumann U-67 or U-87 into a Neve 1031 mic pre and an LA-2A compressor. “In those sessions, there was no time to get a level on everyone. Someone would just walk up and grab the microphone and start to rap over the track. I made sure that the input to the LA-2A was light on the gain reduction and I would never overload the input. If I needed to raise level I would do it on the return channel on the console or add some dbx compression. But we would still get lots of distortion on the tracks. There was just no way to completely eliminate that when you had so many people doing vocals on the fly like that. Plus, they like their headphones really, really loud, so I had to tape them up pretty good to minimize the leakage from them into the microphone. And they’d want to listen back on the main monitors really loud even while other parts were being recorded, so if the studio isolation wasn’t great, you’d get that kind of delayed ‘flutter’ on the tracks, too. But that was OK, because it wasn’t about making perfect records; it was about making sure the vibe was intact.”

Speed was the enabler of vibe. “That’s the secret with those records — don’t listen back to every take, trust your sense of what the vibe was when it went down, don’t get comfortable in the seat because shit’s going to change any minute, don’t get meticulous over one track. If it gets done fast, it’s gonna work. Even the mixes would get done in a few hours. The only time we ever waited around was when they were writing lyrics.”

Wu-Tang’s 1997 Forever double-disc LP took the notion of the assembly line a step further. RZA was working from a temporary crib in the Oakwood Apartments in L.A. on a setup of three ADATs and a slew of keyboard modules that Bess had assembled there for him. “Each stereo output of the modules would go into the inputs of the ADATs and the output of that would go to a Mackie mixer,” he explains. “It was a little strange — he had to arm the tracks and hit ‘record’ to monitor. But the thing was he wanted to record every idea, every sound.” In another room, Bess would set up a drum kit and record himself playing beats to a two-inch deck running Ampex 499, then mixed down to a DAT, some of which would become loops for RZA to combine with his own beats, others would become the backbone of new songs. To complicate matters, the Wu-Tang’s near-paranoiac concern with having beats stolen resulted in Bess and another engineer having to take what would eventually become 80 reels of two-inch tape back to his hotel every night for safekeeping. “The bags we were carrying them in were ripping at the seams,” he says.

Distortion that the engineer has no control over would come from other cultural imperatives. “Two-tracking” refers to the fact that many sessions now start with the beats and other basic track components created by a sort of sub-producer, sent to the artist for lyrics, and which often wind up as the tracks for the record. “They come in with a CD that I’ll transfer to Pro Tools and just go right to vocals,” says Bess. “It started off as the [demo] but they often become the final, and I can’t do anything about any [artifacts] that are already on the CDs. You just deal with them.”

Not that it was always much different when the tracks were done live. “RZA was harsh with the EQs, man,” Bess remembers of Wu-Tang sessions. “He would walk in and just turn it radically. Then I would slowly bring it back to some place that had some of that edge he was looking for, but still worked in the track. That approach was OK with the SSL G series consoles, but when you got to a J, the EQs were way too sensitive. I’d really have to sneak it back.”

And the machismo that so much a part of Bess’ learning experience never completely went away. It was part of the culture of rap, and he probably spent as much time proving himself over and over again as he did actually engineering sessions. “RZA or [producer /artist] David Banner would walk into the control room with an MP-4000 and plug it in and tell me to throw it up on the monitors really loud,” he says. “Blaring loud, the drums are pounding on your chest and they don’t stop. My reaction is, I live with it. They expect me to flinch and turn it down but I don’t. But they’re not giving me a hard time, really. I’m not taking nearly the heat I was 10 or even five years ago.”

Interestingly, Wu-Tang member Ghostface was often more meticulous, if not articulate. For his solo effort, Supreme Clientele, in 2000, he would take beats and complete tracks done by a variety of producers. “Ghost would spend a week writing and working on the songs, then we would do like 15 takes and he would have me do a comp of the best lines from each one. For the tracks, he would tell me to make it ‘chunky’ — that was his key word. To do that, since they weren’t my tracks, and there was no MIDI time code to lock new instruments to on the tape, I would take the kick, for instance, and split the signal into three or four other return channels. On one, I’d get it to close real tight with a gate and take out all the low end and add some low mids, so it sounded like someone knocking on a door. Another track was the opposite: Add a lot of low end and take off all the high end and pass it through a sub. This way, I could create layers to the sound as though I had other samples to work with.”

Wu-Tang never formally dissolved, and Bess’ work compiling RZA’s multitracks is entering its fourth volume. But the death of member Ol’ Dirty Bastard from a heart attack in late 2004 cast a pall on the group’s future. Bess remembers him as the rap equivalent of John Belushi. “He had an act of being wild and crazy and doing outrageous things” — ODB, as he was called in family newspapers, strode onto the podium uninvited during the 2002 Grammy Awards, interrupting a speech by Shawn Colvin, and violated a term of parole in California by wearing body armor in public — “but he was actually, the kindest, nicest of them all. He would say kind things to me when it was nuts in the studio. He would ask me how come I was so quiet in the studio, and I would tell him that it was my job to listen, and let out a big laugh. He respected that.”

Future Perfect

Carlos Bess has gone through some changes. The work kept coming, but the loss of his mother, whom he credits as a major inspiration in his life and career, in 2000, and then the trauma of the 9/11 attacks a year later, compelled him to take some time off. He and his family moved to Buffalo, NY, where they continue to work on Majestic 12, a group comprised of he and his wife, Paulisa Moorman (the “12” comes from Bess’ early ‘hood handle, “C-12,” after the AKG microphone). He travels to Manhattan half the year, producing and engineering from a studio/office he keeps at Integrated Studios, a multimedia facility on Manhattan’s TriBeCa neighborhood. Artists he’s worked with recently include the Last Poets and Xavier Naidoo, a German pop artist that RZA had introduced him to and who had a huge global hit with a remake of “Cherchez La Femme” in a duet with Ghostface called “Cherchez La Ghost,” which reached number three on Billboard’s charts, and which Bess produced. He’s also working on a restoration project for the Aleems Brothers’ classic ‘80s R&B label, NIA Records. He also continues to work on the Funky Drummer series of albums, and beats from those recordings have found their way into over 20,000 records and television commercial spots.

“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” says Bess.