Photo Credit: Jared Fullerton
A Conversation with Young Guru
Mike Ragogna: How are you doing, oh Young Guru?
Young Guru: I'm doing pretty great, how are you?
MR: I'm good, thanks.
YG: I appreciate you having me.
MR: Hey, it's an honor, definitely. So there's some news about you and a certain thing called the Grammys regarding a certain program that was created to prepare college students interested in pursuing a career in the music industry. Can you go into that for a second, just to bringing us up to date?
YG: Yes, what I'm doing is with Grammy University, and what I love about it is it's an extension of what the Grammys do. A lot of people think the Grammys are just this one time a year thing, but it actually goes on all year. It's an extension of one of the things that I like to do, which is actually teaching students, so when I got involved with the Grammys, there wasn't a lot of urban representation at the Grammys. A lot of time people complain and say, "How did this person win?" Well you really can't complain when it's a voting system. If you're not voting, you're not involved, and, to me, you can't complain. So my thing was to actually get involved with the Grammys, and when I did, there was this great thing with Grammy University. I thought that I fit in well with that. So for me, it's more of a thing of actually teaching students and preparing people that want to go into the music business so that they can understand it's more than just an award and it's more than just something you strive for once a year. It's something that, when you put your talent to use, you learn all the ins and outs of the music business. So that's something we stress with Grammy University, that there are so many things in terms of jobs and ways of getting income, especially in the shrinking music business. These are all the things that stress the students as well as the normal things of learning how to create music and produce music. Besides just learning chords and learning notes and things like that, it's now going into the area where there's also business involved because so much music now is being delivered from an independent standpoint. So it's a great thing.
MR: Can you describe the Era Of The Engineer tour element? How's it going to function?
YG: First, I'll explain what the Era Of The Engineer means and then I'll explain how it functions. We, at a certain point, understood that there were a lot of behind-the-scenes people who weren't getting a lot of light, or should I say there were people we wanted to highlight. We felt as though people can look towards something other than just being artists. There's a lot of things and a lot of jobs behind the scenes that bring the kids a lot more stability than being just an artist and also allowing people who may not necessarily be artistically inclined to get into the music business and see avenues as to where they can work and have a position inside of it. The way that it's going to run, there's going to be a whole list of things; there are going to be seminars, workshops, and the workshops are the part that I love to concentrate on because it's hands-on. It's students actually sitting in and learning how to conduct themselves inside of a recording session, the different ways that you can deliver a record, different formats, what format may sound best on the internet because you have so many different compression ratios that go into delivering music on an internet basis... But it's more for the students to see how you actually run a session or produce a record.
MR: You're no stranger to teaching, considering you gave African history classes at a community center when you were a kid.
YG: Yeah, when I was very young. It's always been in my nature. The majority of the women in my family are teachers and I have a lot of experience in learning styles. That's one of the biggest things my mother used to stress about teaching was that every child has a different learning style; sometimes, the educational system is designed just for one type of student, so for me, it's better to analyze children. Some children are visual learners, some children you can just give them the assignment and they'll go and read it and comprehend it on their own, some children are repetitive learners; you have to tell it them ten times before they actually understand it. This doesn't have anything to do with the person's intelligence level, it just has to do with how they learn. Once a teacher can understand that there are so many varied ways that children learn, you start to understand that you need to vary the way that you are preparing a student.
MR: Right. You know what's beautiful about this is that you, right from the beginning, understood the concept of giving back and contributing to your community. By the way, let's bring out the fact that you've been Grammy-nominated for your participation in various projects.
YG: Yes, it's just a great appreciation that someone else appreciates your work. To me, that's really what the Grammy is, like another notch in your belt. It's almost like someone graduating from a doctorate program and you get to put that "PhD" at the end of your name, or if you graduate as a lawyer, you get to put that "Esquire" at the end of your name. So when you win that Grammy, you get to put "Grammy Award-Winning" on your name. It's a huge compliment to have your peers and people from your industry recognize the work that you do.
MR: Nice. Can we talk about your interaction with your peers, for instance you've worked with Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna--
YG: One of my biggest things is my work with Jay-Z that has sort of catapulted me to a place where people actually recognize the work that I do. But there's plenty of people I work with, and the Beyoncé stuff obviously came through Jay-Z; Rihanna was also through Jay-Z. It's something where we had set up a record label that would allow us to sign artists and to deal with artists, and we went through a whole face of the Rock-A-Fella thing, and then Jay-Z decided to become an independent artist--which is a huge statement in and of itself--so he decided to create Roc Nation, which is the company that we deal with now.
MR: Right. When you look back at a lot of the acts and a lot of the interaction, the creativity that went on during some of these recording sessions, you've obviously learned as much as they've learned. This had to have been a creative process for everybody, just learning how to do their art better. With this knowledge that you're taking with you from your years of experience in the studio, do you find that, sure, you can teach what you know to a student, but the scene is always changing, and there's even more stuff to be staying on top of?
YG: Yes. When I went to school for engineering, my teachers actually taught theory over application, and I think that's one of the biggest things, so that no matter what the scene changes to, no matter what piece of equipment is made, if you understand the concept of what you're doing, you can then apply that to anything else. I think that's one of the biggest things. Instead of just teaching me how to use this particular equalizer or compressor, they taught me what the basis of an equalizer was and what its job is and the basis of the compressor and the basis of the limiter and the signal flow of a mixing board is more important than, "Hey, this is how you use this one." So if I just learned one, I would have to learn each one of them, but now that you know signal flow, you can apply that to a Neumann SSL or to a plugin inside of a computer. I think that's one of the biggest things. And then, two, the other thing that I try to give is a background in terms of where we were mentally in making some of these records. I think that's one of the biggest things in terms of breaking down this façade that people just walk into the studio and make these records. It doesn't work that way. I think that really learning the background information to some of my favorite artists or even artists that came before me, learning the background stories that went on when Parliament-Funkadelic made a record, or the background story that went on that created all of these great jazz records or rock 'n' roll or any of that will help immensely because it's really about expression. As an engineer, your job is to capture the best performance about some type of expression. If you're making music, it should really be some type of emotional thing that you're trying to get across to someone else, some conduct, or something that is really going to touch someone's soul. So I think that one of the biggest things is to not just make music because, "Hey, I want to be famous," but to really have something to say. That's when you connect with people. And the thing that I mean about knowing where someone was mentally--were they upset, were they dealing with some type of love lost, were they dealing with trying to be an artist and not really being successful and how do you live until you get to the point where you are successful--all of these things are just as important to me as teaching someone how to mic a drum set. Those things are so important to so many different people in terms of learning how to really express yourself so that other people can understand and appreciate your expression.
MR: Right, that's beautifully said. You touched on something that's really interesting. Are there things that have happened in some of the sessions that you've participated in where you knew history was being made?
YG: Yes and no. You never know how certain records are going to be received by the people. I'm surprised a lot about what people like and don't like, but you do kind of have a feeling like, "Hey, I love this one, this one is special, I hope that people enjoy this one." And when you get experience, you can kind of judge the playing field as to what is the best way to put that music out. So when I'm making a record, you do get that buzz, you get a feeling that this is something incredible. When we made the very first blueprint for Jay-Z, we basically recorded the majority of that album in a weekend because the feeling was so good that you didn't want to leave the studio. We were kicking out records left and right. We didn't start until about three o'clock on a Friday, and by that Monday, we had basically seven to nine records done that appear on the album in that way. So you get into that vibe and when you get into it, you sort of go, "We have to capture the magic now," because you're never guaranteed that magic is going to be there the next day. That's the thing that I'm stressing. There is no one formula to walk in and go, "This is how you make a hit record," otherwise anyone could do it, or an artist who has made a hit record before sometimes can't do it again. The magic just doesn't come back into the room. I think one of the greatest statements, I think Quincy Jones said it or someone before him, is you prepare as much as possible but then you crack the door and leave a little space for God to come in. What that means is that you prepare as much as possible, you learn how to play an instrument, you practice that instrument as much as possible, but that still doesn't guarantee that you're going to make that hit record. What you have to do is just make the best expression that you can and then give that out to the people and see how they respond to it. It's something where you kind of learn over the years that this may be the best representation for me at this given time. But there's another quote that I love, it's by a guy who did a lot of production for The Fugees, Salaam Remi, and he said that it's very easy to make a song or to make a beat or something of that nature, but the hard part is to give the right beat to the right artist at the right time. All three of those things have to be equal in order to have a hit record. You could have an amazing musical bed but give that to the wrong artist or you can have the right artist with the right music at the wrong time. It's sort of luck, but it's also preparation, where you're preparing for that day when you do get lucky.
MR: What do you think of the state of Hip Hop these days? What's caught your attention?
YG: I like that it's certain what the young guys are doing. We went through a big period where we had so much success in the eighties and the nineties with a certain type of hip hop and then it starts to grow and it starts to move and change, but people don't really understand where it's going. Then we have this crop of new guys who are coming out now basically showing reverence to the old school, but they're also being new. I don't want an eighteen-year-old to sound exactly how a forty-year-old sounds. So if Jay-Z makes a record, we understand that he's a forty-plus person. From his end, we're showing what you can do as a mature adult with a music that's sort of been a young man's game for so long. With the new guys coming out, I really like what Kendrick Lamar is doing and a lot of those guys who are now showing us what it's like be a twenty-something kid in 2013. Their drum lines are very reminiscent of old school Hip Hop, but the music that they're putting on top of that draws from so many different places, and now we have some twenty to thirty years of experience of Hip Hop music. They can draw from so many different places and still have it represent the culture. I really love what Kendrick Lamar is doing, and there's a whole crew that he has called TDE. They have a bunch of great teens who are all very different but very true to what they're doing.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
YG: For new artists, I would say number one is to study the landscape. It used to be before that, you'd say, "I'm going to sit at home and I'm going to make a bunch of music and then I'm going to take that music to someone and get a deal." I don't know if that's particularly the correct way for everyone in 2013 where you can exist as an independent artist and you can make a great living and make a great salary and bring enough attention to yourself where if you do decide to go to a record label, you can then bring some type of value, where that record label is going to have to respect what you do. If I go to a record label and I just say, "Hey, I'm just anybody and I have some music," that's one thing, but you're going to sign as one of the flex bands. But if you come to a label with a million Twitter followers, or let's not even make it that dramatic; if you come to the label and say, "I have a hundred thousand Twitter followers, and this many people on Facebook, and this many hits on YouTube," they have to start respecting that. So the independence that artists can enjoy now is much different than before. The power is there. They can shoot their own videos, they can set up tours, and what hip hop is now seeing is what rock 'n' roll had set up for so long. You'll see hip hop guys now tour for two or three years before they decide if they can put out an album, which I think is the better way.
MR: What advice was given to you that you feel like was the most important that you've ever gotten?
YG: Oh, wow, that's a great question. I think from Tony Maserati, who is one of my mentors, got great experience with Bob Clearmountain, who I call an O.G. when it comes to making music. He's done everyone from The Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin--the list goes on and on with him. Tony Maserati is a direct student of his, and Tony Maserati taught me. So the thing he taught me was to go out and create my own sound. You can go out and create a sound like someone else, but that person will always be above you because you're copying their sound. Whoever comes in and creates their own sound creates what we call their own lane, and then people have to come to you for that sound. I think that's the biggest thing to concentrate on, to make yourself unique, where you have your own sound.
MR: Beautifully said. I have to ask you because of your tight association with him, how do you think Jazy-Z is going to go down in history?
YG: I think he's going to be respected first as one of the greatest MCs we ever had. We have, basically, a top three. We have Notorious B.I.G. we have Tupac, and we have Jay-Z--and then Eminem will creep in there every once in a while in people's arguments on who's the greatest ever. But I think he will be regarded as the greatest MC ever. What Jay did was to extend himself beyond just music, so without a shadow of a doubt, he is the best businessman to ever be involved in hip hop. He was able to take himself from the projects of New York City in Brooklyn to now owning and creating a stadium less than two miles from where he grew up in poverty. It's a big statement. To own his own clubs and clothing brands and liquor brands and all these things, he's showing people how to expand yourself beyond music. So without a shadow of a doubt, I think he will go down as the greatest man ever in hip hop.
MR: Now, you have this interesting tour with Tony Royster, Jr. across Australia. Can you go into that?
YG: Tony Royster, Jr. played with me--and let me say this first, he is a child prodigy. He could exist on his own as one of the greatest drummers I've ever seen in my generation, and I beg to say, any generation. He is an incredible drummer. He has been drumming almost since birth. It seems like he came out of the womb with sticks in his hand. What he did was he'd come on just to see what we'd do in rehearsal. A lot of our rehearsals are not necessarily playing Jay-Z songs. We go in and we just have a great time playing music, so it's sort of the idea of taking what we do in our rehearsals and showcasing the idea to the world. This will be a tour that we're starting in Australia, but will be something that goes around the world, and it's a showcase of Tony on the drums, myself on the turntables. We want to show what can be done with a mixture of prerecorded and live music, so it's me playing prerecorded tracks but also scratching and doing a lot of turntablism live and also Tony playing the drums. It's a great mashup of what we actually do in our rehearsals.
MR: We covered a lot of territory, but what's next on your horizon to conquer?
YG: Oh man, there are so many things. I'm so appreciative of my life. One, I have a book coming, which will be an engineering book almost from a textbook standpoint. But the key to my book is that I feel like in every other genre of music...if you take rock 'n' roll, there are great books that explain how rock 'n' roll is recorded, or if you take jazz music, there are great books that explain how jazz is recorded. I don't feel as though that's been done yet for hip hop music or any type of music that is really based off of samples and computer-based music, so my book will concentrate a lot on that. There will be the basics in terms of mic check and things of that nature, but in the later chapters of the book, I'm really going to concentrate on, "What are the specific scenes that have never been talked about in hip hop music," in terms of sampling from records, the vibe and the clarity that comes, or how we achieve that clarity basing our music off of prerecorded music or what we consider to even be creative, because a lot of times, people outside of our culture will look in and say, "Hey, you're stealing someone else's music!" But we say, "Hey, this takes some talent to be able to make a collage of music from five different sources and have them all be key." Things of that nature will all be in this book that I'm explaining. It will also be an interactive book because of the time that we live in. So there's one thing for me to explain to you, but sound is one of the hardest things to try to describe. It's a lot easier if you buy this book on iTunes or something like that where with each chapter, there will be popup videos that will explain what each chapter is about. You will actually see me mic-ing a drum kit. Not only will you see it, you will get to hear the difference when I move it three feet away, when I move it so it's one foot away. You will get to actually sonically hear the difference, which I think is a great teaching tool. It's utilizing the 2013 technology that we have in order to teach better. I think that's one of the greatest things about this book being interactive.
I also have a pair of headphones coming out from a company called AIAIAI which is based out of Copenhagen. When I was approached with this, I said, "Oh, headphones, everyone does headphones. What can I do to make this different?" I'm actually doing a pair of studio headphones so that other people who do headphones will do everything they can to make the music sound better. Because people are listening to MP3s and they're trying to enhance the music as much as possible, mine are the exact opposite. When you mix records, you don't want any enhancement. You want your sound source to be as flat as possible so that it translates into every single area, whether it's in the club, whether it's on the radio, whether it's in someone's home stereo system. When you mix a record, you want your environment to be flat, so my headphones will be just that. It will be the same thing as taking the studio and putting it in a pair of headphones, so that all the students who are sitting in their bedrooms or their basements that are not in an environment that has been tuned to mix records can now at least have some type of professional reference and put on these headphones and mix their records and then go out to the world with a better product than they would have had before.
MR: All the best with everything and definitely come back and give us an update on whatever you're working on next.
YG: Thank you so much and I thank you for your time.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
Young Guru Borrows a Beat:
Young Guru Talks Piracy:
Young Guru Capitalizes on Free: