Music is My Life: Episode 003b
Prince Charles Alexander on Transitioning to Bad Boy Records
In PT II of this podcast from Berklee Online, Prince Charles Alexander shares how he walked away from fame (but not fortune) and how Nile Rodgers helped set him on a path that would have him working hand-in-hand with Diddy, engineering iconic albums from Notorious B.I.G., Mary J Blige, and more. We also learn what led him to teach Vocal Production, Critical Listening 1, and Music Production Analysis for Berklee Online! Listen now or read the transcript below:
Prince Charles Alexander: I was like, whoa—the high just wore off and I’m standing on a stage in front of 30,000 people. So, what is that movie where the guys go to Las Vegas? You know? They wake up the next day and there’s a tiger in the apartment.
Oh, The Hangover.
It was like The Hangover. It’s like, whoa, where am I and what am I doing here? So the fact I wasn’t making a lot of money led me to these part time jobs. One of the part time jobs was as a telemarketer.
“Hello. My name is Charles Alexander. I’m with the National Survey Research Group and we’d like to—.” So here I am, touring Germany, tractor trailers following me around. I’m this big star and this artist, and everybody’s taking pictures of me and all this kind of stuff. I come home, my money lasts for three to six months, and then I had to go do one of these part time jobs.
This is just a cycle. A vicious cycle that was going around, and around, and around.
So now, you talk about the clothes that you wore. Are they just like in a certain part of your closet?
Yeah. I actually do.
Glittery clothes and then—
And then white shirts. Right. I actually do have the stuff hanging up.I’ve got the hats and the bands.
Do you still have it all?
I actually do. I can’t even fit in that stuff anymore.
That’s hilarious. You wear it at the reunion shows?
No, no. I couldn’t fit any of that, man. I can’t get into it at all. I can’t even get my arm in that stuff.
All right. So you’re doing these jobs and they are—
So I’m doing a job. And I’m sitting there like—you know, when I first took the job, I was like, this is easy. I just got to work four hours and get some, you know, $80 or whatever. I remember coming in, and the first time I did a double shift. And I was like, oh, this is cool. [SNAPS FINGERS] I’m making some money and I’m helping myself out.
Then, after about a couple of months, I go into the office and maybe get some coffee. I’m sitting down and I’m making phone call after phone call after phone call after phone call.
Do these people know your other life?
Some do and some don’t. Yes, some do and have seen my videos, because I have videos out, and some don’t. So I’m making phone call after phone call after phone call, and I’m kind of exhausted one day. I’m sitting there and I look at the clock, I had literally been at the place for five minutes.
I’m like, OK, there has got to be a way for me to make $10 an hour doing something with music. There has to be a way. You’ve got this Brandeis degree, you’re an intelligent human being, you’ve got to be able to figure this out.
So day after day, once again, I’m projecting, there’s got to be a way. I’m deconstructing, what is it that I want to do? As I’m deconstructing what I want to do, I’m asking people, some are calling around. I called Nile Rodgers.
Oh, cool. So you did at least form enough of a friendship you can call him.
So I called Nile Rodgers, 10 PM. He answered the phone. He talked to me. I was like, this is great, just checking in. The next time I call Nile, maybe a couple of weeks later, it’s like 12 noon. Nile picks up the phone and answers. And this is not a cell phone. These are phones. I’m like, OK, this is cool. I call Nile at 2 AM, I call Nile at 8 AM.
And where is he living at this time?
In the studio. Every time I called him, he was in the studio.
Wow. So you had a studio or number or did he have a huge cell phone?No, I had the studio number or the number he gave me was the studio number, but I didn’t even realize it. Every time I was calling Nile, he was in the studio.
So I’m calling Nile at 2 AM, 8 AM, 10 PM, 4 PM, 6 PM. He’s always in the studio. So one day, I’m thinking to myself, OK, let’s deconstruct this. If the end goal is to be as successful as Nile, and Nile is always in the studio, how can you always be in the studio? If we can solve this, then we can get out of this boring $10 an hour telemarketing thing and be in the studio making $10 an hour. I didn’t know how to solve it.
Then one day, I’m flipping and flipping and flipping and flipping, and I see a guy at a console. I go, whoa—because I’m looking at the Village Voice—what is this guy doing sitting at a console? Now, mind you, I don’t know if it existed before, but this is like the first generation of audio programs starting to advertise. I’m looking at this guy sitting at a console, and I’m like, oh snap, what is that? And then I realized there’s a program where they teach you how to do audio engineering. I’m thinking to myself, audio engineering? That’s the thing that actually, as a producer, I have to interact with engineers. They know how you push the buttons. I don’t. My ability to be a better producer is at the mercy of how good the engineer is.
So what if I learned engineering? Hm. That would make me a better producer, and it would put me in the room with other producers so I could steal their tricks. I’m like, why didn’t I think of this a long time ago? So I went to that program. And life is fortuitous when you create your luck. I went to that program. I had no money. They had a financial aid program, but you couldn’t get financial aid if you had a college degree. I had a college degree. I went to the financial aid woman. I said, “Please let me come into this program. This is all I do. This is all I ever wanted to do. There’s nobody who wants this more.”
Can you give her a record and just be like, “It’s me, look!”
I probably did. Come to find out, the woman had terminal brain cancer. She knew that she was going to expire within weeks. She felt for me and gave me the financial aid I needed to get into that program. Her benevolence changed my life.
Yeah, wow. It’s amazing she was working at that stage, too.
You need things like that in your life.
You need those moments of luck. It happened to me again. So I got in that program. I mastered that program.
So what year are we talking here?
We’re talking ‘86.
So while I was in that program, I interned at some of the studios that I had produced in, and one studio in particular called Intergalactic Recording, which is where they did “Planet Rock.” So I was interning there.
Have you walked away from a deal?
This is how you walk away from a deal in 1986. This is how a deal ends in 1986. Your A&R man, who you used to talk to every day, you then talk to every two weeks, then the assistant says he’ll be back to you.
Oh no. That old trick.
“He’ll get back to you. He’s busy. He’ll be back to you.” Two months, four months, six months, a year, a year and a half.
I think my deal is over.
But now it’s all available on Spotify and stuff.
That’s because of the efforts of my manager, Tony Rose. Tony Rose has been very diligent with keeping the Prince Charles brand alive.
Because it’s one of the things that he was most proud of. He does have great facility with understanding what this business is, so he’s really, really put all the pieces together so that that’s available on Spotify. It’s on Tidal, also. Spotify, Tidal, YouTube. All that stuff is out there. So that was very fortunate.
And like I said, when I got the Center for Media Arts skill set while I was there, I was interning at these studios. As soon as I finished, I got into a studio called Sound Ideas on 46th Street. They had a SSL console upstairs and a Neve console downstairs. Those are still the two dominant large format consoles in the marketplace. So I was literally learning the most modern consoles immediately after I got out of the Center for Media Arts. And I dropped the Prince title for a couple of years just because I wanted to really, really get in and learn this stuff.
So I did a lot of Latin music. Jon Fausty, who’s like the king of Latin engineering, was actually my mentor, and that was his home studio, Sound Ideas. So I learned how to record acoustic bass and horns and all of that kind of stuff under the tutelage of Jon Fausty. So my engineering chops are really pristine for real for real chops. I mean, he used to take the module out of the console and fix it, and he was trying to teach me how. I’m like, I don’t want to learn how to do that stuff. I’ve been in touch with Jon lately. He’s an awesome guy, too.
So now, you’re doing this for a few years and did you see a clear path to the Bad Boy stuff? Not necessarily that because you couldn’t have seen that, but did you see a clear path for a long career in this?
I had to do a little bit of self-therapy on myself. Why wasn’t I succeeding as a funk artist entrepreneur? One of the reasons is because of the success of hip-hop. Hip-hop blew funk out of the water. Literally, every funk artist in 1985 lost their deal because of the success of “Walk This Way.”
“Walk This Way” came out and it was like, look, it’s over. If you thought this was a fad, it’s not a fad anymore. This is the thing that every record company wants at it’s label instead of funk. We don’t get to have funk and hip-hop.
Did you try to pretend like, “No, no, no. Listen, I rap.”
No because I was too much of a musician and I looked down on hip-hop at that time.
Oh, did you?
I thought hip-hop was a joke and a fiasco as a musician and it was having success, but that’s not who I was. I was Prince. I was Rick James. We’re going to come out here and we’re going to funk you up, you know? I was Parliament-Funkadelic. We were going to do our funk thing. I hadn’t put together this idea that rap was the next extension of what we were doing. It hadn’t coalesced for me yet.
Yeah, it seems like the only person that did work out for was George Clinton because he was the one who was sampled so much.
Yeah, he and James Brown.
You listen even to like some of those Prince records where he raps, and it’s like, no, that’s not what you’re good at.
Oh, I know. “Housequake.” Yeah, “Housequake” is definitely a mistake. Please don’t do that. Please don’t do that.
Now, were you rubbing shoulders with those guys, too? Like with Prince?
Well, Prince saw me play, but we didn’t talk. I saw Prince twice in my life. We didn’t really speak, but he knew who I was because I went to First Avenue. Yeah, I went to First Avenue and played. If you came to First Avenue, believe me, Prince knew you were there. So he was in the audience. I saw him. He was standing right in front of me. He saw me pick out the Lyricon and he waited for me to come to the mic and sing. Then once he realized that I wasn’t a threat to him, he was like, all right, I’m out. He was like, this cat can’t sing, so I’m out. And I was like, come back! Come back!
But you could rap better than he could.
I could rap better than him, definitely. And I could play the Lyricon, which he couldn’t do.
So then you’re doing the engineering apprenticeships, what are your first big breaks?
So I did get a big tour to go play with a French group for some reason. Les Rita Mitsouko out of France called me up and they wanted me, the marquee artist Prince Charles, to tour with them. I was like, wow, this is kind of cool and I did that thing. It pulled me away from the studio and I made a vow in 1987—’87, ‘88? It was 87. I made a vow on that tour to not tour again. I was going to become a studio rat.
Was it a bad tour or was it just—
No, it was great. It was a great tour, but the money once again felt like ‘this will last for six months money’ and I was like, OK, we’re trying to break this cycle. So the only way to break the cycle is to break this touring thing and become a studio rat and see how that plays out. So I made a vow to myself and I came back, I got into the studio, and I knew that there weren’t that many Black engineers. So OK, I’ll use that as a positive. So what’s the advantage of being a Black engineer? You know Black music. You know the history of Black music probably better than a rock ‘n’ roll engineer who’s going to engineer Black music. So we’ll sell that to Black artists. No Black artist was even jumping at that. There’s a real twisted psychology, but I think that Black artists like having White engineers because it makes them feel like they know the music. You know the technology, and you can’t tell me anything about my music, and I don’t need to tell you anything about your technology.
Now, a Black engineer gets in the room and it’s like, oh, he knows the music and he knows the technology. Hm.
So is it intimidating?
Where’s my power at? I think so.
I really, really believe that. Well, maybe it’s changed a little bit now because there’s a lot of Pro Tools jockeys now. But in those days, who knew how to align the machine? Who knew how to run the large console automation? It sure wasn’t the producer.
So knowing that I wanted to be this Black engineer offering my services to Black producers, I had to know where the Black producers were. They were at HUSH Productions. HUSH Productions, where Freddie Jackson and Melba Moore was, and so I eventually formed a relationship with them.
You did some stuff with Luther, too, right?
Yeah, but then there was this fledgling company coming up called Uptown Records. Uptown Records had all the young acts, Mary J. Blige and Father MC and all this cool stuff. So all the Melba Moore and Freddie Jackson stuff was starting to feel like old people stuff, and I finally weaseled my way into that. I was like, but those young kids are doing something cool over there. How do I get connected with that?
Heavy D was part of that?
Yeah, Heavy D was part of that. There’s another little fortuitous thing about this guy that wanted to manage me who knew who I had been as an artist and he knew I was an engineer.
I didn’t know engineers had managers.
I had two.
Wow. I thought it was just like, yes, I’m an engineer. That’s what I do.
I didn’t know that.
It gets pretty big, especially in New York. So this guy wanted to manage me and I was like, look, just find me some work. I already had a deal with a manager. So one day, he calls me up and says, hey, I’m at Uptown Records and I’m the production coordinator. I’m like, production coordinators hire engineers, right? He said, yeah. So he actually helped me start working with Uptown Records to make the transition from HUSH Productions to Uptown. And mind you, no contracts. All this stuff with HUSH Productions, you get called—
It was really hush.
Yeah, really. It’s like, independent contractor. Well, we need you for a day. Shh, don’t tell anybody. So I made the transition from HUSH to Uptown. That guy called me, I came to work. He worked in the music industry for two more weeks and left the business.
Wow. What does he do now?
He was selling cars last I heard.
He left the business. So those two weeks that he was at Uptown Records were the two weeks that he got me in the door, and that was the beginning of my career. Another fortuitous thing.
So simultaneously— well actually, just before that, I had been pulled out of a studio by a guy named Kashif who just passed. Kashif and Paul Laurence were my early mentors when I was in the studio. So I’m like, I want to be a Black engineer. I want to have Black clientele and here comes this guy with all this gear in the studio. Come to find out he’s a Black producer. His name is Paul Laurence, and he’s got like millions of dollars worth of gear. I’m like, are you kidding me? Black producers have millions of dollars worth of gear? And the guy is in my studio? Oh, I want to work with him. I couldn’t because there was another engineer in front of me because I had gone on tour.
So then when that guy dropped off, he was like, I’m tired of this R&B stuff. I want to go do some rock ‘n’ roll. So boom, I moved up. I’m in the room with Paul Laurence. Then, Paul Laurence had a friend named Kashif. After I worked with Paul for a couple of months, Kashif said, “I’m looking for a guy to work with me at my home studio.” Kashif pulls me out. I’m working for $800 a week. I’m like, man, I’m rich. $800 a week?
Then we actually pick up and we go to LA, and I’m working like 80 hours a week, so I’m working for $10 an hour. So I finally realized my dream of $10 an hour. People work 40-hour weeks, so obviously I’m working twice as long as the average human. I’m working 16 hours a day.
Do you have a family at this point?
So they’re picking up and moving with you?
No. We were together for three years, from ‘89 to ‘92 and the Kashif thing was around ‘89, ’90. So right as I’m starting to blow up, all of this—You’re becoming this big audio engineer—is really pulling me away from the home, and it actually fractured my marriage. Then the fracturing of the marriage allowed me to then really go, OK, since I’m not married, I’m just available. And that became what I needed in order to really blow up.
So when Kashif got called, that’s when the call with that guy happened and I started working with Uptown. I started working with a group called Jodeci and we had a big platinum record. Then on Jodeci’s second record, they wanted to go to another studio. So a friend of mine named Jimmy Douglass had come to my sessions while I was working with Jodeci. He said, “I just can’t find any work in New York right now, so I’m going up to this place in Rochester. So if anybody is interested and wants to work outside of Manhattan, send them to Rochester.” So Jodeci started to have a big meeting about wanting to work somewhere else. I said, “Go to Rochester.”
So Jimmy Douglass hooks up with Jodeci in Rochester. In the Jodeci camp was a junior producer and a junior vocal group called Sista. Sista had a singer in it called Missy Elliott and one of the junior producers was Tim Mosley, and that became Missy and Timbaland. They actually were formed in Rochester. Jimmy became Timbaland’s engineer for the next 15 years. I’m like, damn it, I should’ve done that!
So when they left, the A&R guy for Jodeci came and asked me if I would work on his acts. That A&R guy was Puffy. Puffy was a fan of my work with Jodeci and that began a relationship that lasted for about 10 years.
Now, the whole time when you’re working with these acts, are you realizing that you were in the presence of great talent? Or are you just kind of like, just doing my job. Doing my job.
I was just doing my job. If they sold records, they sold records. If they didn’t sell records, they didn’t sell records. [GASPS] They were selling records. They were selling lots of records. I was like, what the heck?
Yeah, yeah. So if I was with Puffy for 10 years, the first two years—because he formed Bad Boy in ‘92—by ‘94, Biggie came out. Around ‘95, Puffy turned to me and said, “I’m rich.” I’m like, “I know you’re rich.” He’s like, “No, no, no, you don’t understand. I’m so rich I’ll never not be rich.” I was like, whoa.
And did you say, can I have some?
Well, yeah. I’m thinking to myself, well, so can I have it like a $203,000 a year contract? He’s like, we’ll talk about it. I was never able to lock him down to that. But I tried. I tried.
So yeah, I’m in the studio with them and not really thinking that they’re all one thing or another thing. But, I did realize that they were selling records and they could afford to pay me a couple of thousand dollars a day to work on these records because nobody could run the large format console. And you get a producer in me, also, because I had learned vocal production by working with Kashif. I had learned song construction and music by being an artist. So all these things came into play as I’m sitting behind that console.
So was there anybody that you did engineer that really with their talent, blew you away?
At Bad Boy?
I mean, I produced Mary J. Blige doing “I’m Goin’ Down” which was a remake of a Rose Royce composition from 1972. I was impressed that Mary could sing it all the way through, and that was the take that actually lives on the record.
That was a one-take?
That one take. We actually did two more passes, and there were a couple of edits at the back end. But 95 percent of that performance is one take. That was impressive to me, especially because Mary’s early work, she was flat. I was like, well, that doesn’t impress me because you can’t sing in tune like Whitney Houston. So I wasn’t really blown away by any of what she was doing. And the rappers—look, if you’re rapping and you get to a word or a phrase and I don’t understand the phrase, my brain is trying to catch up. As I’m trying to figure out, what did he just say, I just miss the next two lines, and now I’m lost. So I’m sitting there mixing and recording syllables.
So to me, they’re just syllables. That they’re meaning something and connecting and becoming words and sentences is lost on me because I’m making sure that the syllable is not lost. I’m making sure that the kick drum is defined, the snare is defined, the hi-hat’s are defined, and the syllable of your word does not get lost on top of all this other stuff. So I’m just managing data. That’s all it is to me. And then one day, my assistant engineer turned around to me and said, “Are you listening to this guy?” I was like, no, not really. He said, “You should pay attention to what he’s saying.” I’m like, OK. OK, all right. I will.
So on the drive home, I put in the “Warning” by the Notorious B.I.G.
“Who the heck is this paging me at 5:46 in the morning? Crack of dawn and now I’m yawning. Wipe the cold out my eye, see who’s this paging me and why. It’s my brother Pop from the barber shop. Told me about the intricate plot. Our brothers wanna stick me like flypaper, neighbor. Hold on, [HUMMING] the caper. Remember them brothers—”
I was like, oh, this dude is like Shakespeare.
OK, I get it.
But you didn’t get it when you were there?
No, because I hated rap. Rap took our jobs. Rap came and said, look, let’s get into a fight, and just sucker punched us. And we didn’t have any work. We lost all our deals. I hated rap. Rap was like the goofy little kid brother who could beat your butt.
So did you ever come around?
Biggie was the one who brought you around?
Biggie was the beginning of the turn-around. Then my love for Puffy’s entrepreneurial skills sealed the deal. So ‘92 is when I began. Around ‘96 is when I was like, you know, this is Black music. I don’t care how it’s made. I don’t care who they’re stealing from. I don’t care whether they’re seen as prolific or not. This is Fats Waller. This is Little Richard. This is the new thing. So I started to believe in 1996.
And then other people coming through that you were working with. You worked with Aretha, right?
I worked with Aretha. I worked with Patti LaBelle. I worked with Luther. I worked with Donnie McClurkin. Donnie was independent of Bad Boy, Luther was independent of Bad Boy, but Patti LaBelle came in. Aretha was independent of Bad Boy, but Patti LaBelle came in to work on a Bad Boy project, which was really weird because Puffy had her like, don’t scream, Patti. I’m like, but that’s what Patti does!
You can’t tell her what to do.
And so we actually had her singing “Lady Marmalade” to a 4/4 beat without screaming, and it was horrible. It was horrible. He sucked all the life out of Patti.
So no, that wasn’t that one with everybody?
No, that was a different one. I had the one where Patti did it, and it was weird. I don’t even think it ever came out. I actually ran into the European A&R guy that had put up the money for that record, and we had a conversation about it. He said, “Yeah, that was bad.”
It’s so funny that people can throw a lot of money at something and just somebody will just say, that’s not quite right.
I will tell everybody and anybody, in order for there to be success at Bad Boy— for every record that was a hit, there were 25 that didn’t hit and I worked on those other 25 as well as the hits. That’s why I know what I’m talking about. It’s for real.
And then Destiny’s Child?
That was one of the junior guys at Jodeci, Chad Elliott, who had a contact. He had a rapper that he was managing called Rufus Blaq. Rufus had written a composition, and then Chad was shopping this stuff around, and it got on Beyoncé’s desk. Beyoncé was interested, and she wrote some lyrics to it. So the whole team, me, Rufus, and Chad, were commissioned to actually finish the song. So we recorded her, and I mixed it, and it came out, and that was “Jumpin’, Jumpin’” and I think it went to number two on the charts. That was like a phenomena and this was before Beyoncé was Beyoncé. This was just Destiny’s Child.
That group was one of three groups that I worked on that year. So I worked on Destiny’s Child, I worked on another group called 80-something, which was the area code for the city they were from. I think Tiny was in that group. So there were these three girl groups, and none of them were any better than the other, to me. Any one of them had a chance to win. The fact that Destiny’s Child became the phenomenon that they became, and that Beyoncé became this icon that she’s become is really interesting to me.
And I worked on Usher, also, when he was 15 and his voice was breaking. I was like, oh god, why is LA spending money on this kid? This kid can’t sing. I remember thinking that in the studio and Usher’s gone on to become an icon. He has a foundation and he’s giving back to kids. I’m really, really proud of the work he’s done. The last time I saw him was in a hotel in LA, and he’s like, “Yo homie.” And I’m like, yo homie? What are you—what the hell is wrong with you?
Really? We don’t talk like that.
We don’t talk like that. Yeah. It’s like, what is up with you? That’s the last time I saw him. I am looking forward to having conversations with some of the people that I worked with now that I’ve become an elder statesman in our industry and prove that I became the elder statesman independent of them. I’m looking forward to having some of those conversations. Unfortunately, some of them I will never be able to have, like the one with Prince. I’ll never be able to have that one now.
I did speak with Kashif before he passed away. I was in Hawaii, and I texted him and he texted me back, because he lived in Hawaii and he had left. I was like, why did you leave Hawaii? I was like, was it, like, too boring for you? And he was like, yeah, you got it. I was like, I get it because our minds are like on fire most of the time and Hawaii is so laid back. I’m like, this is cool for a week or two, maybe even a month. But I don’t see how I could live here for an extended period of time.
It’s an island.
It’s a rock in the middle of the water.
Not even close to LA.
It’s a few hours.
I love Hawaii, but it’s a rock. It’s a rock.
So now, when did the Berklee thing happen?
I came to Berklee in 2000 at the invitation of Carl Beatty. This was another funny story. Somewhere in 1988 or ‘89—I don’t know when Carl came here. I was working with one of the HUSH engineers. I was his assistant. And he told me that his mentor, Carl Beatty, was this fantastic Black engineer that I should pay attention to. So one day, we were walking outside to get some air and we bumped into Carl Beatty.
I’m like, well, this is cool. I’m actually meeting Carl. Carl said, “I’m leaving New York.” If you know Carl, you know that he probably said it just like that. And I’m like, “Leaving New York? Why would you want to leave New York? New York is the center of the universe.” He said, “I’m going to Boston to work at Berklee.” I’m like, “What? I’m from Boston. I ran out of that place. I know Berklee. And you want to leave New York and go back to Boston and Berklee?” He said, “Yeah.” And so we walked and talked and talked about other things, and that was the end of that conversation. I was like, that’s a weird thing. Why would anybody want to do that?
So in 2000, he called me up and invited me to come down to speak to the kids about my career in engineering and all that kind of stuff. I was like, oh, that’s interesting. And I am looking for options. I do have a college degree. Maybe there will be a time when I might need to do this. So I came and I talked to the kids and I ran the SSL and stuff and made the SSL do flips, and everyone was really impressed with me. I’m like, oh OK, whatever. This is what we do in New York. So I went home.
Then boom, 2001. 9/11 happened. My international clients from Japan didn’t want to come to New York, my French clients didn’t want to come to New York. I went from a six-figure salary or a six-figure income to a five-figure income like, boom. So that year, I was like, whoa. I was shook. Then for the next three years, I struggled to get my footing back. So from 2001 to 2004, because I had a studio in Manhattan. It started in my apartment and then I went from a quad to giant to platinum island. I would always have a room like Michael Brauer is doing currently. I was doing the same thing as Michael Brauer back then.
So from 2001 to 2004, I was struggling to get my footing back. Then Pro Tools had descended upon us in 2001. It began in earnest in ‘99, and by 2001, it was like, hey, look, you remember that stuff that we used to rent, that thing called Pro Tools? Now it’s in the studio.
Did you learn your lesson from not taking to hip-hop right away? Were you like we’ve got to do this?
Oh yeah. Yeah that whole thing with hip-hop, about not catching it and not being up with it, definitely has been a part of my thing going forward.
It’s funny, though, because you caught it with the synthesis, like with quitting horn and doing synthesizers. But hip-hop, you just thought it would go away.
Because I was a musician and I had to purge myself of the musician mentality. The musician mentality groomed in me that you had to know your modes and your chord structures and all that kind of stuff. I really, really had to do self-reflection and self-analysis in order to let that go. Puffy, he was one of the people that really helped me with that because I saw how successful he was in this industry, and he doesn’t know how to spell any chords. He doesn’t know anything about music, he can’t sing anything, he can’t turn anything on and he’s got ASCAP Writer of the Year awards and all this kinds of Grammys and stuff. So I’m like, OK, I’m going to let this go. I’m going to let the musician thing go.
So Pro Tools comes out, and do you take right to it?
Or do you fight it for a little bit?
No, you had to if you were going to be an engineer. We got the analog thing here, but this other thing is here. So in ‘99, I went to Atlanta with Puffy. There were three engineers and a couple of assistants. Three engineers and I think six assistants, five assistant engineers. So Paul Logus was one of the engineers. He owned Pro Tools. Tony Maserati was one of the engineers. He had an older version of Pro Tools. I was one of the engineers. I didn’t own Pro Tools. They were going to rent it for me because they just liked my work.
So we went down there because we had this whole big meeting. Then we went down to Atlanta and I’m like, OK, I guess it’s time for me to learn Pro Tools because I don’t know how to use it at all. So I got one of the assistants to come and explain it to me. It took me about three hours to learn Pro Tools. Literally, you have to learn it in three hours. It took me about three days to get good on it and it took me about three weeks before I felt like I had mastery of it. In three months, it was like, OK, been doing this all my life because if you don’t do this, you’re not going to work. Period. There was no choice.
So as I’m learning Pro Tools, though, the whole being an engineer thing is under attack by this very DAW. So by 2004, I shut my studio down.
I started working with Puffy in ‘92. By 2002, I had really become exhausted. When we first started working, Puffy was sitting next to me at the console, and we were making decisions and choices. Ten years later, by 2002, there was some 22-year-old assistant to the assistant of the assistant of Puffy sitting next to me, telling me, as he got it from the assistant to the assistant to the assistant of Puffy, to turn the hi-hat down.
And I was like, not feeling this. There’s got to be a way out. And plus, I couldn’t negotiate the $250,000 a year contract. He was just dodging me and dodging me. And I saw how he was treating people. And gradually, one after another, all the people that were around him in 1992 were getting cut off. It was like a Stalin purge, literally one after another. And I’m like, OK, he hasn’t said anything stupid to me yet. And if he does, I’m going to punch the crap out of him. But I see how he’s treating everybody around me and I’m feeling really uncomfortable. He’s going to come for me any minute. And he never did. He got kind of close. He said something to me like, oh, you think I won’t come for you, huh? I was like, yeah, I think you won’t come for me. That was kind of it.
He got jacked towards the end of that run, too, when he was doing his own solo thing.
Oh yeah. I’m one of the people that helped him do that and all that. He was jacked, but I was jacked back then, too, because we’re about the same size. So I’m like, believe me, I’m ready for you, Puffy.
So literally, the phone had been ringing every month for 10 years. Every week, every Monday for 10 years, my phone was ringing. We need you this week. We need you this week. We need you this week. Then maybe there’d be a week here or a week there, but literally, Bad Boy was calling me for 10 years. So in 2004, when I shut my studio down, Bad Boy was calling me. I said I was busy. I wasn’t busy.
In order for me to make a change, just like I did with the “I’m going to get off the stage in order for me to make a change” first of all, engineering just wasn’t doing it for me because the money and the prestige and then the credits were starting to get less and less and less because of the digital proliferation. Now everybody’s got these WAV files and there’s no credits for engineers. So how are you going to get work if people don’t know that you’re engineering on a part and I saw that. I was like, look, I’m a producer. I’m more than an engineer. I’m a producer. So you want to give me work as a producer, fine. You want to call me in as an engineer, I’m busy.
So I shot pool for two years. I studied at Amsterdam Billiards with some of the pros and learned my vectors and draw and follow and all that kind of stuff.
What did your mom say about that?
I don’t think my mom knew.
That’s one of those things that are like, “I can’t imagine, OK, honey, if you know what you’re doing.”
I didn’t tell her because I had enough money at that point because my relationship with Bad Boy was pretty prolific.
What on earth made you want to shoot pool?
There were pool rooms in every studio that I went to. I was naturally good at it just like I was naturally good at the clarinet. So I was like, OK, if I’m naturally good, how do I get better? You get better by learning from pros, so I found the pros. I was hooked. As soon as I walked in the pool hall, I was hooked. It’s not that smokey cigar kind of, let’s gamble thing. There’s leagues and tournaments. I’m still in a league here in Boston.
So yeah, I spent two years. A lot of people don’t know this. I’m probably divulging my secrets, but yeah, I was taught by the pros. Like the number one, number two, number three, number four, number five guys in the world are the guys that taught me.
Would you hustle?
No, I don’t hustle. I’ve only played in tournaments.
Alright. So it’s not like, oh, I’ll try this.
Once you see me shoot, you’ll be like, oh this guy can shoot. It’s obvious. It’s really obvious, so I can’t even hide it.
So you did that for two years, and then—
So I did that for two years.
Was Berklee in the periphery?
So in that two years, I’m like, OK, there are people that have come to this point in their careers. What do they do? Coaches of sports teams, musicians who get to a certain point in life. I started to find this theme in all of them—academia. Coaches coaching at a college team, a musician doing some type of a residency at a college. Only, OK, so how do I do that? How do I marry all of that stuff with a college? And I was like, oh, there’s audio programs now. They didn’t exist when I was a kid, but they exist now. They were all over the place. Berklee has one, NYU has one, Fordham has one. So which are the ones in New York, primarily? Then there’s Berklee. I had been here in 2000, so I was like, OK, Berklee’s cool, but I want to be in New York.
Now, what was your thought of Berklee when you were growing up? Were you aware of it?
I was at Berklee as much as I was at Brandeis.
Oh, wow. I didn’t know that.
I was hanging out in the rooms and the practice rooms. I was never enrolled there, but I was learning and playing there. I played with Kevin Eubanks, Tommy Campbell, Wayne Pedzwater, Gerry Etkins, Ralph Moore in various bands. If you know any of those names, those guys are geniuses. Mike Stern. I played Lyricon bass with Mike Stern at 55 Grand Street in New York for months. Jocko used to sit in the audience and watch me play. My tongue would be bleeding after every performance.
[SINGING BASS RHYTHMS]
And you know how Mike plays. So I’m like the bass player for Mike Stern. And that was thrilling, but yeah, my tongue was cut for life from that.
Sorry, I interrupted.
No, there’s a lot of angles here. There’s a lot of angles. So I sent resumes out to all these different places and didn’t hear anything from anybody. It was kind of like, oh Jesus. Right at about the time my money was running out, I’m thinking, OK, what are we going to do? Are we going to go try to produce a record? Are we going to leave the music industry? What the heck are we going to do?
So it was about 18 months from when I sent the resumes out, Jason King, who’s in the Soundbreaking documentary, the thing that’s on television right now. Look for the name Jason King. So Jason King is the assistant director of the Clive Davis Program. He called me up and said, “We’re really interested in your profile. Come in and take a look.” So I went, did my thing, taught a class and he’s like, we love you. So they gave me a contract for September in 2005.
Then in October or late October, early November, they gave me my schedule for the spring, and I wasn’t on the schedule. I was like, excuse me? Is there a mistake? I thought I had a job.
Welcome to the world of adjunct instructors. That’s what I was. I didn’t even know what an adjunct instructor was. I swear to God. I’m working at this school and getting my badge and getting my little paycheck and I’m like, I’m not going to be here in the spring? What the heck? I thought I had a gig!
So there was another place called the Institute of Audio Research in New York, which was a lot like the Center for Media Arts, the place that I went to. The curriculum is like an eight-month intensive thing. So I said, “Please, I need a job. I need a gig.” They were paying $35 an hour. So I went and pleaded with them. I pleaded with the guy that was running the program to give me a job. He said, “OK, teach a class and let me see.” He said, “Teach this Audio 101 class about sound waves.” I was like, sure.
When I went home, I was like, what the heck? Sound waves? What the? I’ve got to teach it? Oh man. So I went to one of the books, like the Audio Engineering Handbook. Then I went to class. The audio sound wave moves through air.
You were a hit.
He hated it so much. I was freaked out. I was like, look, I really need this job. Please give me another chance. He said, “Just relax. Just be you. You don’t have to get up there and do the by-the-book thing.” Once he said that, I was like, OK, you mean I can just stand in front of the kids and tell them my story? He said, “Just do that. That’s teaching.” Because he gave me a second chance, I went and told them the story I’m telling you now—an abridged version. He liked that teaching. I was like, well, thanks. I can do that with my eyes closed.
But I still did have to teach the audio stuff, so I’m reading books. All the things I had been doing for the last 20 years. I’m like, what was I actually doing again? Oh, that was the frequency I was dialing in? Hm, OK. So I’m getting myself up to speed. Then Carl calls in 2006, early 2006, and says, “I’m getting ready to transition from faculty to administration.” He says, “I’m going to leave a job open for a candidate.”
My mom was there, I’m from Boston. It was a full-time job, so I wasn’t going to have to keep re-upping my adjunct status or trying to figure out what my schedule was going to be at IAR from one semester to the next. It was a full-time position. So I was like, OK. I’ll check it out. How much are they paying? He said he didn’t know and that it’s negotiable. I was like, OK, we’ll check it out. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I mean, can’t lose anything from trying.
So I went and did it and auditioned and blew everybody away with the SSL and was like, OK, I’m good. I know my stuff. I might be a little weak on some of the audio technology things, but I can probably make it up because of my wizardry on all this other crap.
But honestly, I wasn’t confident that I was what Berklee was looking for. I was confident in the fact that I was a wizard, but I wasn’t confident in the fact that I could actually speak the Berklee language, even though I’m from Boston. So there was an extensive search, from what I hear. I don’t know, 30, 40, 50, 60 people, whatever, and I ended up getting the job.
I wasn’t married yet, I married my wife in 2007. I’m like, I got this job! I’m at Berklee. We’re in New York, and I’m going to go to Boston. I know you are my fiancee, but—. So I came back to Boston and my mom got sick six months after I got here, and then she passed 18 months after I was here. So once again, that fortuitous luck. I don’t even know what I would have done if I was in New York and my mom was ill with cancer. What would that have been like? So I was here. I was here with her and went through all the chemo and all the radiation, getting the tank so she could breathe oxygen and all that kind of stuff. So it was the right time, right place and really, really worked out for me.
So as I came into the Berklee curriculum and I read and read—and if you look at my desk, I’ve got every audio book known to man there. So I shored up the information that I needed to communicate with this demographic. In shoring up that information, just like when I had learned Pro Tools, I got to a point where it’s like, oh, so if you can do this and do this, then that’s the outcome. I had those same kinds of things that happened when I got on faculty here and teaching is the best way to learn. So in teaching the students here, then my knowledge of what I had been doing for 25 years exploded and I remembered mixes, the EQ settings on mixes and compression ratios and mixes. That’s why that worked. So it made a lot of sense.
Now I’m at the point where all of that has coalesced and I know exactly, with pinpoint accuracy, what I’m doing with the audio profession. I love to share it with everybody because I never thought I would teach. I never thought I wanted to teach. I never was interested in teaching. It was always plan Z. Somehow, my life led me to plan Z. I went through A through Y, and we were at plan Z. Plan Z has been one of the most enriching of all of the careers in all the lives that I’ve led. So far, it’s been one of the most enriching.
I miss standing in front of 30,000 people yelling and screaming my name, but there are TEDx talks.
You can do the Massive Open Online Course.
I’ve got that, too.
So there’s a million right there.
I have a MOOC. I think I might have two MOOCs. I teach online courses.
You just don’t see them. They see you.
Yeah, so it’s interesting. I’m spreading my brand around the planet, and I love it. It’s a little bit less stressful than the gigging.
So when I did my reunion thing in February—
Yeah, where was that?
It was in California with a bunch of, they looked like gangbangers, but they were really just guys that love funk music. If I show you a picture, you’d be like, damn. Really? But they were sweethearts. While I was on that stage, it was an intoxicating whiff of what could have been had this thing—but you know, like Cameo has a residence right now in Las Vegas, and maybe I would have been an artist with a residence in Vegas. But I think there’s still something missing in that life. There’s a “This is all that I can do with my life,” and I don’t feel like that. I feel like a complete human being. I feel like I achieved the Renaissance man’s status that I was looking for when I was a kid.
Yeah. I mean, you think about when I listen to those records that you guys put out, I think about who the contemporaries were. Cameo is one, perhaps like Grandmaster and Melly Mel, what are they doing now?
So reinvention is important.
I’m at the tip of yet another explosion in my life and I don’t know that I would be at the tip of another explosion if I hadn’t gone on this path and pursued academia.
Now, tell me, you’ve engineered and produced a number of people. You’ve played with a number of people. Now, in this option Z, where do the students come in? Are you learning from them? What are you getting from the students?
At Berklee, it’s different because Berklee helps students to understand the historical trajectory of music. So most of the environment here is very much like I was when I was 20 to 27, rejecting popular culture in favor of a purer sense of musicianship. Not all, but I think the majority of music students probably across our spectrum are still listening to the powerful information that was created in the ‘50s, 1958 with John Coltrane, in the ‘60s from Miles’ arc from the ‘40s into the ‘60s. So John Coltrane, Miles Davis, a lot of the modern stuff that goes all the way up into Snarky Puppy and things like that, which is really funny because a lot of people that love Snarky Puppy don’t realize how influential Tower of Power was. So that kind of blows my mind.
So at Berklee, I don’t feel like the kids are dragging me along. I feel like I’m dragging them along because I listen to Lil Uzi Vert and Baby DRAM, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj and Drake and all of that stuff, Maroon 5. I listen to all the stuff at the top of the charts because that thing inside me from when I was a kid that listened to Kool & the Gang is now listening to Lil Uzi Vert. Lil Uzi Vert is Kool & the Gang. So it seems to me like the young kids who—obviously Lil Uzi Vert’s not as talented as Kool & the Gang. So the musician is looking at them like they’re a joke. And they are a joke, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not relevant.
So because of what I went through, I do understand the relevance of Lil Uzi Vert and them. I get it and it took me a whole lifetime of purging myself of the musical mentality so that I could get it. So what is that related to? It’s probably related to a business mentality. It’s related to understanding an audience well enough to be able to communicate with an audience using these artists and this music.
So since that was the last piece of my puzzle, which I have been an entrepreneur my whole career, but I wanted to really, really shore it up. I went back in 2012 to get my master’s degree in music entrepreneurship and I graduated in 2014, 35 years after I got my bachelor’s degree, with a music entrepreneurial degree. It was fun.
Where’d you do that?
Northeastern. So it was fun. Some of the things I learned are that music is worth zero in our modern economy. Streaming is the new platform, especially if you’re a professor from Sweden that wants to tell me that Spotify is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’m like, excuse me, I differ with that opinion. But yeah, the three tiers of it were creativity, technology, and business. The creativity was the first part of my life. The technology was the second part of my musical journey, and then the business is the third part of it. So I’m trying to show a generation of musical people that our instrument is not the be-all-and-end-all of who we are as human beings and our ability to connect to people.