Table of Contents
Chapter 1 - The Early Years
Chapter 2 - Uhuru Sasa (Freedom Now)
Chapter 3 - An Engineer is Born
Chapter 4 - Watch Out, Akili’s in the Studio!
Chapter 5 - A Dream Come True
Chapter 6 - Hip Hop, The Untold Story
Chapter 7 - Have Ears, Will Travel
Chapter 8 - Making History
Chapter 9 - I Want To Stop, But I Can’t
Chapter 10 - Def Jam ’87
Chapter 11 - Touring in Europe
Chapter 12 - Back in the Lab
Chapter 13 - Georgia on my Mind
Chapter 14 - Divine Intervention
Chapter 15 - Giving Back
Chapter 16 - Faith Works
Chapter 17 - Tragedy Strikes
Chapter 18 - Reason, Season, or Lifetime
Music was a big part of my home life. My Godfather Bobby Donaldson (RIP), was a professional drummer and my father was an audiophile and had a large collection of
jazz albums and a state-of-the-art
stereo.He was always soldering and adding a piece of equipment to his system and I always helped him;I guess this was my introduction to the world of audio. I remember he brought me
a drum set when I was about 10. He got it from the Freeport Pawn Shop on Church Street. I’ll never forget; they were a metallic blue Ludwig
set consisting of a snare drum, one mounted
tom,two cymbals, a floor tom and a bass drum with an old school cowbell and woodblock mounted on top. I never liked taking formal lessons so I would teach myself by playing
along with the latest records on the radio like Woolly Bully or Cool Jerk in my basement with a 5x3 speaker
cabinet blasting music that you could hear a
block away. I also would go into Harlem and
see shows at the Apollo and study drummers who performed with acts like James Brown and The Jackson 5 long before they became the idols
they are today. At the age of 13, I joined a
band call The Downbeats; they nicknamed
me “Funky Walk”and we were pretty good. We played songs like I Feel Good by James Brown, Tighten Up by Archie Bell andThe Drells and
Color Me Father by The Winstons.
Still uncertain about my future, one night I decided to go to the East where, on the weekends, it was transformed into a night club. They served food and punch but it was a BYOBB (bring your own brown bag) establishment, customers had to bring their own liquor. The location was very unique; it was in the middle of the hood, do or die Bed Stuy (Bedford Styvesant Brooklyn), but that didn’t seem to bother the customers. The place was packed every Friday and Saturday night. At the East, the very best contemporary and traditional jazz artists would perform. We’re talking artist like McCoy Tyner, Betty Carter, Rashaan Roland Kirk, Pharoah Saunders, Sun Ra, Yusef Lateef, Stanley Turrentine, and many more. The most unique thing about this club was the NO WHITE PEOPLE ALLOWED policy. The year was 1973 and how they got away with this I don’t know because white people wanted to come. In fact, some artists did not want to perform at the East because of this mandate. Later, I found out
that no one challenged the rule, because if
they had, they would have won.
On Claver Place, the atmosphere was
electrifying and sometimes the performers
would play until six in the morning. So I was checking out the show; my friends Maliki and Imari were sound engineers at the club and
they controlled the volume of the instruments and the vocals and blended them on a mixing board. I decided that night that this was what I wanted to do! So Maliki took me under his wing and
started to teach me the business. I would
set up microphones and learn proper placement. I was taught which microphone sounded best with certain instruments, and
how to operate the mixing console. I watched the guys while they were doing the shows and eventually started mixing shows myself.
In 1978, I was offered a job at Music Farm Recording Studio, located on West 55th Street in New York City. It was a family owned business; the proprietors were the Benantys. Charlie, the son, controlled the daily operations of the studio, while Jack (RIP), Charlie’s father, had an office in the building and ran an international music licensing business. Mrs. Benanty would bring us lunch that she prepared at home everyday. This was some of the best Italian food I ever tasted. When I was offered the job, I remember Charlie telling me, “We have a lot of black clients, but no black personnel so hiring you will be a good idea.” In the 70s, African-American audio engineers were scarce; you could literally count the number of black engineers (on the road or in the studio) on one hand. The industry was dominated by white males and females were non-existent. In the 26 years that I spent in the business, I don’t remember seeing more than four females. (What’s up Rosa?) As an African-American engineer, or any profession at that time, if you were black, you were constantly being tested and had to prove yourself. Sound companies thought you were the artist’s cousin or friend and you were never looked at as an engineer. Thanks to the efforts of myself, Gregg Mann, Edison Sainsbury, and Jimmy Douglass to name a few, the perception of black engineers has changed today; I hope the attitude has changed as well. When I was working with Jimmy Castor, I was making $75 a show but I left the road to sweep floors and run errands for $75 a week. I was motivated by the opportunity to work in a recording studio. I was like the third wheel behind Eddie Youngblood, the Chief Engineer, and his assistant, Peter Robbins. Working with Eddie was great and I learned so much. He started engineering in 1968 and had a vast amount of knowledge that he didn’t mind sharing. He was just like me, more hands on then technical; we didn’t necessarily go by the rules but experimented with sound and different techniques. He had a lot of stories about the artists he’d worked with and the changes he’d seen in the industry over the past 10 years. One of the biggest songs that he recorded wasUp on the Roof by the Drifters.
Recording was different in those days; you didn’t have some of the equipment producers’ use today. There were no computers, digital reverbs, samplers, drum machines, or automation. Synthesizers were just starting to surface. The studios were equipped with drums, guitar and bass amps, a Hammond b3 organ, xylophones, and a grand piano; this was all you had to create a song. There were still 1” and 16-track tapes going around and we would have to change the heads on our multitrack in order to do the sessions. (A multitrack is the format music was recorded on; it could be in a 16, 24 or 32-track formation each track representing an instrument or vocals.) Because we didn’t have a digital reverb, we had little tricks that were used for effects like echo, where we’d put a tape to record on a 2-track tape machine and put it in the playback mode using a vari-speed unit to control the speed of the delay and feed that signal back to the board. We also used to have live reverb chambers. These are created by feeding a signal into an empty room (tiled or sheetrock) somewhere in the building and then a microphone is used to send the signal back to the board. Editing was done manually using a razor blade. (Editing is a process where you take one part of the song and place it in another part of the song). One of the most popular edits of the day was the one to shorten the length of a record for radio play. Songs would be about 5 or 6 minutes or longer in length and we had to shorten them to about 3½ minutes so they could be played on the radio. So we would take out choruses or make the tag or ending shorter. Some of the artists recording at Music Farm at the time were Cameo, Brass Construction, Lloyd Price, and Otis Blackwell (RIP). Otis wrote Don’t Be Cruel, All Shook Up, and Return to Sender for Elvis Presley, Great Balls of Fire for Jerry Lee Lewis and Handy Man for James Taylor. This is when Cameo got their first Gold Record, a plaque representing the sale of 500,000 records, when their song Find My Way was featured on theThank God It’s Friday soundtrack. Larry Blackmon, whom we all know as the cup wearing front man for the group, was also the drummer and producer. Their vocalist, Wayne Copper (who later passed away), sang falsetto which gave the group a sound that has never been duplicated since his death and can only be heard in their earlier work from the 70s on albums like Ugly Egoand Secret Omen, both on Chocolate City records.
During the disco craze we worked 15 – 20 hours a day. I was now assisting Peter and Eddie and found myself sleeping in the studio on those days when a session ended at 5 a.m. and another one started at 10 a.m. It would have taken me three hours to get home and back so I would just crash on the couch. When I first started working at Music Farm, a lot of weed was being smoked in the sessions; we would do three or four sessions a day and each artist would bring his own stash. Marijuana and I did not get along; it made me paranoid and forgetful, inhibiting me from doing my job. Later marijuana was replaced with cocaine and I found cocaine, as well as other drugs like ecstasy and uppers, very easy to get along with. I had no problems with these drugs interfering with my work, or so I thought. I found myself snorting cocaine for pleasure and to keep me awake. In fact, I continued to use cocaine for the next 20 years of my life and overdosed twice.
I got an opportunity, in 1975, to go on the road with jazz artist Lonnie Liston Smith who was performing at the East one night and
mentioned he was looking for a sound man to travel with him, so I volunteered. QJ told me I wasn’t really seasoned enough, but just like my going to Newark, that didn’t stop me except this time I had better results. I just wanted to get
out there and see for myself if I was ready, so I took the gig.
It was December, 1975 when I met a young
lady by the name of Deborah (Debbie)
Robinson. I met her at a Kwanza party
that my friend Adeyemi was having. She
was beautiful. She stood about 5’9, slim
figure, and a beautiful full head of natural
hair. She was a goddess and when I saw
her, I said, “This is someone I have to meet.”
She was a film student at York College in NYC, and a preacher’s kid; her father had a church in Bed Stuy. We started talking and found out we had a lot in common; we were into the arts and trying to pursue our careers. We were Funkateers and loved Parliament Funkadelic. This was one of George Clinton’s groups that recorded hits like Flashlight, One Nation Under a Groove, and Up on the Down Stroke. They had a spectacular show and were famous for a spaceship called the Mothership that used to
land on stage and George would exit amid a
cloud of smoke. We started dating and
traveling together and I showed her some of
the cities that I had visited. We also started experimenting with drugs, mostly
hallucinogenic’s like acid, ecstasy, angel dust,
and THC. I drove a cab uptown for a company called “Day & Night”, servicing the Harlem and Bronx areas. This is where I learned about
these drugs - driving cats to cop dust on 123rd and 7th Avenue or to get some blotter (acid) on Lexington Avenue and 124th Street. I wanted to try these drugs myself to see what all the hype was about. I remember one weekend we took a trip to Boston and when we got to the hotel, Debbie took the elevator to the 3rd floor while I checked in; this was a method we developed so we would not have to pay for double occupancy. I would get the key, then meet Debbie and we would go to our room.
This was not the only crazy thing we used
to do, we also used to go to restaurants,
have a few drinks and dinner and forget
to pay the check. This happened many
times without us getting caught. Well,
we got to our room with a beautiful view overlooking a lake on Boyston Street. I had copped some stamps on 124th Street to bring
on the trip. Now these weren’t your regular postal stamps; this was acid which you licked
the back of to get high. Well, we both had a stamp and sat around for about an hour but didn’t feel anything, so we split another one. Why did we do that??!! I went on one of the wildest trips I had ever experienced.
Everything on Debbie’s body looked
swiveled up; her breast looked like prunes.
I was tripping like I was doing sound at a Parliament Funkadelic concert. I forget
what Debbie was tripping about but we
rode it to the end and that was the last
time I did acid. I don’t like taking drugs
that I cannot control and acid is one of
those drugs. You can control how much
cocaine you put up your nose, but when
it comes to acid, that’s it--you can’t stop
the high until the trip is over.
My next gig was with Gil Scott Heron (RIP)
and Brian Jackson. My brother-in-law, Charlie Saunders was a percussionist with Gil’s
original midnight band and he recommended
me for the gig. Gil was a singer, poet, lyricist, and author he was one of the first to popularize poetry on record, what is now called spoken word, and he had a major deal with Arista records where he recorded most of his albums. His big hits are The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, on the Flying Dutchman label, and The Bottle, on Strata East Records. Brian played keyboards and he composed and arranged the music for the act. Gil’s songs were very
political; he played mostly colleges and clubs.
I think this gig is where I
first got introduced to cocaine because it was being used a lot among some of the members
of the group. I remember one time we were all
listening to a recording I did of a show and Gil mentioned to the drummer that the tempo was too fast. His response was, “Man, I did too
much cocaine.” Gil was truly a professional when it came to his performance. When you
do a show there is a contract drawn and one of the elements of this contract is called a “rider”
it contains what the artist needs in order to perform, the requirements desired in the dressing room and on stage. Gil used to always tell me, if the promoter does not have
everything we need, to let him know because
he would not do the show. I was fired from
this gig by Brian who said I was not consistent.
I didn’t know what he meant until years later.
I would get these road gigs by going to clubs
and backstage at concerts during sound checks,
I would introduce myself to the artist and ask if they needed an audio engineer or knew anyone else who did. I would just walk backstage in my bellbottom jeans with flower designs on the knees, looking like a musician so no one would stop me ‘cause I looked liked I belonged. As a result of doing this I was able to meet and talk
to some great musicians. Some of them I didn’t get an opportunity to work with but they were very influential in my life, giving me a sense of belonging and acceptance. They gave me advice and I enjoyed just kicking it and joking around with them; musicians like Stanley Clark, Taj Mahal, Johnny Guitar Watson (RIP), and Teddy Pendergrass (RIP) to name a few. I remember Teddy actually taking me to his dressing room and talking to me about the business, telling
me I was going about finding work the right
way and that my aggressive approach will pay off. He said most cats wouldn’t be as bold to walk backstage and talk to the artist about a job
while they were working. This was about the time when Teddy’s first solo album was released. That was a moment I will never forget because he did not have to do that, but he was one of the few genuine people in this business.
1980 turned out to be a very special year,
not only was myfirst daughter born, I also
met Larry Smith. Little did Iknow that
meeting would change my life. Larry was a
Hip Hop/Rap producer, a genre of music
virtually unheardof at the time. He was
also a great bass player whose sound
was so unique that artists continue to
sample it today. I liketo refer to Larry
as the ”architect of hip hop.” He had already
co-written and performed on Kurtis Blow’s
Christmas Rappin’and the Breaks when we
met, so I was honored when he asked
me to engineer some projects for him.
The first project wasJimmy Spicer’s
Dollar Bill, for Spring Records and then we
recorded Love Bug Starski’s You Gotta Believe,
for FeverRecords. Recording hip-hop was
different from the sessionsI had been doing.
Larry usually used live drums for his
recordings but this was the era that introduced
the drummachine. Most of the sessions were
done with either theDMX or Linn drum which
were two of the first units on themarket.
The sessions were very simple: drums, bass guitar, synthesizer, rhythm guitar, background vocals, and a rapper-- that was it. The songs
a were usually recorded and mixed in one night.
Larry’s big break as a producer was the recording of Run DMC’s self-titled debut album on Profile Records. This was a ground-breaking project for hip hop and the music industry as a whole. It was basically drums and rap and it helped establish the hip hop sound. Larry, along with the engineer on this project, Rod Hui, were the first in hip hop to put a reverb effect on the drums during this recording. This created a signature sound in the early days of rap. Larry’s partner, Russell Simmons, had a spec deal with Green Street Recording Studios and that’s why I did not engineer this record; they chose to use their own engineers. (A spec deal is an agreement between a producer or artist and the recording studio in which the studio lets you record with the understanding that they will be compensated when the project is completed or sold to a record company.) A few songs from this project, It’s Like That and Sucker M.C.’s, were two of Run DMC’s biggest hits. Another song, Rock Box, was the first time hip hop and rock-n-roll were fused together on a record. The second album that he produced for the group was called King of Rock, a little more melodic and with more instrumentation, including bass and electric guitars and keyboards. On this project Larry kept the rock and hip hop fusion theme going with songs like Rock the House and the title song King of Rock. Larry’s production on these albums helped Run DMC to become one of the biggest groups in hip hop history. This group was also one of the first hip hop artists to have their videos played on MTV.
Through my relationship with Larry I met many
people; one such person is Russel Simmons
one such person is Russell Simmons.Russell was a promoter, manager, and producer at the time.
an extraordinary cat with so much energy and determination it was a thrill to be around him. Russell and Larry had formed Rush Groove Productions and some of the earlier sessions I did with Larry were done under this brand. These two first met in the studio during the recording of Christmas Rappin; Russell
was Kurtis Blows’ manager. Under the name of Rush Groove Productions, Russell handled the business duties of the company and Larry handled the production. But Russell could not be limited; he was involved in the sessions as well.
Russell was and still is an innovator. If I could
say one word to describe his contribution to hip
hop it would be ‘mainstream.’ That’s where he
took it.In 1981, Russell moved into his first office
at 1133 Broadway, at the corner of 26th Street.
It was a small space; no more than three people
could fit in the room at one time. It was inside
the offices of Kurtis Blow’s producers, Robert
and JB Moore. At this time, Larry and Kurtis
assembled the first hip hop band. The members
included: Trevor Gale on Drums, Kenny Keys
and Ron Griffin on keyboards, Larry Smith bass,
Davy DMX, Bobby Gas guitars, and Eddie Colon
(RIP) on percussion. The band was named
Orange Krush, a name derived from their orange
road cases they used to carry their equipment in.
Their first tour with Kurtis was a logistical nightmare.
They hired me to be the sound engineer and stage
manager. We toured major venues and hip hop
clubs that had never booked a live band. We had
to bring in sound companies or rent additional
equipment, like mixing boards or microphones,
to supplement whatever they didn’t have in the
club. It was during this tour that Larry gave me
the nickname ”Turn the Horns On.” He said,
’’Every time you mix a show, the sound is so
clear and the mix is so tight; it’s like we have
horns,” But we didn’t.
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