Urban hip hop fuels the New York recording industry. This month we profile a pair of recordists who have had considerable success in this area of the business.
Producer/engineer Bob Power, whose credits include production and mixing work on Erykah Badu's double Platinum debut LP Baduizm (the 1998 Grammy winner for Best R&B Album and Best R&B Female Vocal), started out as a guitarist in Westchester, New York. He got a Masters in music from the University of San Francisco and spent six years working as a television underscore composer in the Bay Area before returning to New York. By 1984 he was producing and engineering out of Calliope Studio. "I got into engineering when a staff engineer at Calliope went on vacation for a couple of weeks and the owner asked if I wanted to fill in for him," Power says. "A couple of weeks turned into, well, now!"
"I got involved in hip hop through the Calliope gig," he continues. "The first hip hop record I worked on was the first Stetsasonic record-the single was 'My Rhyme.' This was right at the end of the first wave of hip hop and the beginning of the second, back in the mid-'80s. At that time, rap and hip hop were even more specific to New York than they are today."
"Hip hop rules in New York," Power adds. "Of course, it's a huge factor in other markets as well, but in terms of billable studio hours, hip hop dominates New York more than anywhere else. L.A. is a rock city, and Nashville is Nashville, but if you want to be a successful engineer and producer in this town you have to understand this genre."
Rapper KRS-1 once told me that "race is always an issue," and I felt I had to put the question to Power directly: Has color been an impediment to you in your work as an urban music producer/mixer? "I played in black bands my whole life," Power replies. "My work as a white person in the hip hop field has been a great object lesson: We often let ourselves get confronted by what we think is going to happen-in the studio, on the street, wherever-instead of seeing people as human beings. Guess what? When those studio doors close, everyone has the same goal-to make the best record, the strongest artistic statement, they possibly can. I'm competent as a producer and mixer, and the people I've worked with have always tried to take advantage of my talents, as they should. Ultimately, my job is to make people's hopes, dreams and vision come to fruition in the most expressive way possible. I've never had problems in the studio based on race."
Power currently operates out of a project studio space he rents at Sony Music Studios on W. 54th St. and also does some consulting for Sony on sonics, procedures and personnel issues.In his space, Power tracks either to a bank of DA-88s or to hard disk, using Logic Audio. "I love Logic!" he says. "It lets you work on either a very simple or complex level-sometimes both ways at once-plus its time feel is the best, since it has a 960 pulse per quarter note resolution. I'm also a big fan of all the affordable digital consoles. I own an 02R because they were the first on the scene, and it was a ground-breaking piece of gear. It's not a Capricorn, but I'm not sure if a Capricorn is worth a half-a-million dollars more.
"All my pre-production work is done here," Power continues, "and I take the sequences, hard drives (if used for recording), and digital tape directly to the room we'll be finishing in and drop to 2-inch tape. I prefer to take my entire rig wherever we'll be working, rather than drop in my place. The work method of combining analog and digital is critical to me. The thing about analog is that it sounds great when you first drop, but after thousands of playbacks, the snap crackle and pop is gone. Therefore, it's important to integrate digital recording into the process and save wear and tear on the tape. For me, that means using Logic for lots of the tracking. By the way, I have 64 tracks of Pro Tools Mix Plus in my room, with Apogee AD8000 converters. The sound is great-I use Logic as the front end to Pro Tools.
"I've got lots of other toys," Power adds. "I'm a vintage analog freak, and I know how to twist the knobs. Plus I'm a player, so I can get inside the music and people tend to be interested in my approach to the art. I'm involved these days with lots of different kinds of music, but the thread is the same as it always was-the desire to make good music with good people."
I caught up with engineer/producer/artist Prince Charles Alexander the day after he tracked Elton John's piano playing on the SSL Axiom-MT at Quad Recording. (Alexander mixed Mary J. Blige's re-arrangement of John's "Bennie and the Jets"-titled "Deep Inside"-and the superstar was happy to make a guest appearance on the track.) A jazz sax player, Alexander dreamt of becoming the next Grover Washington as a kid while growing up in the Boston area-at least until he saw Isaac Hayes in concert. "That show knocked me out," Alexander says, "his showmanship, the theatricality of the whole enterprise. I realized I wanted to add some of that commercial appeal to my work."
After graduating from Brandeis University with a degree in political science Alexander concentrated on building a popular base for Prince Charles and the City Beat Band, the group that he had developed while in school. "Eventually, I put out three albums with my group on the Virgin label, which did quite well in Europe. In the early '80s, rap and funk were duking it out for market share. My group was a funk group. Remember when 'Walk This Way' came out in 1985, the collaboration between Run DMC and Aerosmith? That was the side that sealed the victory for rap.
"So there I was," Alexander continues, "sitting at the desk where I was doing a little part time telemarketing, realizing that I had a major recording company deal slipping through my fingertips. My career was in jeopardy. What was I going to do? I saw an ad for the Center for the Media Arts, and I checked it out. I learned the craft of engineering there."
After training, Alexander took the obligatory interning jobs, and he found that his career as a recording artist helped move his engineering career along. "I used a lot of the contacts I'd gained as a producer for my band," he says. "After coming back from one more lengthy European tour in '87, I made a decision to just engineer for a while. That was the beginning of a 12-year spurt of activity that's taken me through today.
"To be a successful hip hop engineer you have to understand the artists and their environment," Alexander says. "I'd say that L.A. is more funk-driven; New York is based more on R&B and pop. New York hip hop is based off of the dancing and singing groups of the '80s. The track we're working on now with Mary is a good example. It traces back to Puffy's remake of Sting's 'Every Breath You Take.' Now we've arrived at the blue-eyed souling of hip hop-Eminem is the artist. The white populous has moved from being the listeners of hip hop and are now participating in its creation as artists. Is there a segregationist impulse within the black community that resists this incursion? I think so, fair or not. We don't tend to own banks, or the trucking industry, so there's a desire to hang onto the part we do own-the creative part."
Ark Angel Music is the name of Alexander's midtown project studio. It's currently based around a Mackie 32*8 console, but Alexander plans on replacing it with a Mackie Digital 8-bus in the near future. "As far as speakers go, I'm an NS-10 guy," he says. "I also operate with a core hip hop setup, which includes a multi-ADAT rig, Korg Trinity and Roland 1080 sound devices, and an Akai MPC 3000."
He's had some success in Europe with artists he's developed (writing material with a team of producers, recording them at his studio and shopping them around), but Alexander practices and plays every day and sometimes yearns to get back into the artist seat. Continuing to build his career as a recordist, though, is a goal that looms large for him. "It's interesting that you're pairing me with Bob Power in this article," he says, "because he's indirectly a mentor of mine! Bob's gone through the engineering thing and is now building a production company from that success. I'm watching him to see what his moves are, and I'm learning from his work. It's helping me become a better producer."