James McKinney is a happy man with an infectious smile and a passion for all aspects of music production. He is a true multi-hyphenate, working as songwriter, arranger, producer, performer, label owner and industry advocate through his position as Trustee of the local chapter of the Recording Academy and co-chair of the P&E Wing. He has performed for three U.S. presidents and played onstage with Stevie Wonder, Kenny Burrell and many others. But he is most proud of his current production work with indie artists such as Wayna and Kokayi (2009 Grammy Nomination for Best Urban Alternative Performance), and Carolyn Malachi (2011 Grammy Nomination for Best Urban Alternative Performance), for which he co-wrote, played on and produced. New releases coming out this year include Carolyn Malachi, Chuck Brown and Wale, to name a few.
So I understand you were working with Chuck Brown when he passed, and now you are working with him posthumously.
Yes, I was really blessed to work with Chuck on his last recording, and this whole posthumous album I am now doing is a great honor for me and hopefully a treasure for his home city, Washington, D.C. We had a really good chemistry in the studio—happy, having fun and grooving! He sounded great on the Sony C800G, getting all of the depth and growl in his 76-year-old voice. I actually ran his Strat straight from his wah-wah pedal into the new SSL AWS 924 and got a perfect recording in one take. I am so impressed with Chuck and all of the wisdom in his musicality coming from his 76 years of life and performing. This is an important record for me being a 20-year transplant to D.C. from Florida. You can’t come from D.C. and not be influenced by Chuck Brown and Go Go Music!
You are a writer, player, arranger, producer, engineer—sometimes all at once. How does any one skill set influence the others?
I think they all complement each other well, although the technical perfectionist side of engineering can sometimes get in the way of creative flow. It all really comes down to the music and the feeling.
I love the process of having a song concept and banging it out with the artist in the studio. I am playing keyboards while programming a beat, singing with the artist and tracking a scratch vocal simultaneously! Sixteen bars of a groove in Logic Pro in 10 to 15 minutes, “That sounds nice! Let me set up the mic,” then it is the CharterOak SA538 from the Focusrite Red 8 or the silky Manley Reference Cardioid straight into the Apogee Ensemble (due for an upgrade to the Symphony I/O), no compression, because I’m crazy like that and like a good signal with some headroom. I took George Massenburg literally when he said, “Engineers have become lazy; move the fader when recording!”
The musician and the engineer. Do your left brain and right brain always work together? Or do you find time for each?
I think I am mostly right brain/right brain, again about the feeling and vibe, but I try to set up a clean chain in advance for everything so the creativity can just flow. If it needs to be dirty, I can do that later in the process. The music is the most important thing, and in my process, I want the mix engineer to understand music and to mix musically. One of the best mixing engineers I ever worked with was Scotty Beats, who passed away in 2006. He was the only mixer I knew who would close his eyes to find the Q and frequency when EQ’ing a track or moving a fader, and the results were always so exact, but also so musical! It is all about the music.
You work at home in preproduction, and in studios all over town. What is your production process, and who do you work with?
Again, I am so blessed! I work at studios all across the country. Locally, I do most of my work at Night Flight Studios with Kevin Jackson Jr. as an engineer, and Kevin Jackson Sr. as my mix engineer. I also frequent Blue House Studios with engineer/owner Jeff Gruber, and I am one of the lucky few who gets to work in the elusive Yoko K.’s private studio with her. I have also done some great recordings recently at Omega Studios, Bias Studios, XM/Sirius Radio Studios and even at the Art Institute of Washington with engineering students there.
Nationally, I work a lot in New York at Eusonia Studios with my business partner Scott Jacoby. In L.A., I frequent producer DJ Khalil’s personal studio as well as producer Salaam Remi’s personal studio.
You are also very active on the P&E Wing with advocacy and leadership. Where is our recording industry right now, and what do you see changing over the next five years?
Greater awareness and availability of high-quality audio for digital consumption and awareness for consumers; more availability of credits for producers and other music creators in digital delivery such as with iTunes sales and Amazon music sales; and a continued support on issues like the Performance Rights Bill on Capitol Hill. I am so proud to be part of the Grammys, an organization that advocates for music-makers’ rights, and the P&E Wing, which drives those efforts and continues to raise the bar for the standards of the recording arts as well as listening standards for the consumer.