Dre Skull in Kingston
Dre Skull details what life in the studio is like for a producer.
Dre Skull went down to Kingston, Jamaica, to record with some of Jamaica's biggest dancehall artists. He wrote about his time there and then sent it to us.
The first night in Kingston I went to link with Popcaan at producer Anju Blaxxx's own UIM Studios. As I waited for Popcaan to arrive, I talked with Anju Blaxxx and his business partner Wayne Lexxx about the Jamaican music business. They were giving me advice on working dancehall releases within Kingston, and I was giving them advice on building up their releases internationally. I stayed at the studio until about 2 AM, but Popcaan never showed up, so I went back to my hotel and worked for a few more hours.
The next morning I got a call at 8 AM saying Popcaan was up and ready to work. It was about noon by the time we linked up at Anju Blaxxx's studio. I played him the first riddim, "Loudspeaker Riddim," and he was ready to go and jumped in the vocal booth straightaway.
"Loudspeaker Riddim" is an uptempo 120bpm track with a strong percussive emphasis. I had already voiced Natalie Storm on it prior to this trip. She did a braggadocios song called “Rock The Runway” that I had lived with for quite a while, so it gave me certain expectations about where a vocalist might go with the track. Popcaan quickly exposed the limits of those expectations recording an epic, heartfelt song about the struggles of ghetto youth called "The System." Ultimately, one of my favorite parts of being a producer is getting surprised by what the vocalist brings to a track.
After that song was done, we hung out a bit in the back yard. I should note that UIM Studios is essentially a very professional studio built inside an otherwise mostly empty house. Behind the house is a little backyard patio. Popcaan had a bit of a crew with him by that point in the day, and people were hanging out, listening to the radio and rolling weed. After some downtime, I played him the second riddim, a minimal 99bpm dancehall thing, and he jumped back in the booth and knocked out another song. By the end of that session, it was getting late in the day and I burned him a CDR with a few extra riddims that he could play in the car and vibe to, until our planned meetup the following day.
It was basically dinnertime, so I grabbed a veggie patty from a patty shop and then hit Big Yard studios to voice Suku from Ward 21. I've worked at Big Yard many times since my first trip to Kingston, and it's one of my favorite studios. When I walked into the control room, Suku was in the middle of some work, sitting in the engineer's chair mixing a track. He was using the studio’s massive monitors and subwoofers and had the speakers turned up louder than I've ever heard any control room speakers turned up. It was the first time I've ever felt the need to use ear plugs in a studio. I watched him mix for about 20 minutes as he wrapped up the track.
Once he was done, I loaded up the riddim I had in mind for him—the minimal 99 bpm riddim Popcaan had voiced—and another engineer,
Kamal—who I've worked with before—came by and got Pro Tools ready for tracking. Suku went into the booth and just started knocking it out straightaway. One of the things I really appreciate when working with Anju Blaxxx or Kamal in the engineer's chair is that they really engage with the vocalist and listen very closely and aren't afraid to tell them to redo a section or to change the delivery of a specific line. I weigh in myself but this kind of input can be incredibly helpful, because my ears can be so used to the riddim without vocals that it really helps to have some fresh ears helping out. Suku is also an amazing engineer himself, so at one point he ran back from the vocal booth into the control room and started mixing his own vocals and applying some effects that he had in mind.
After literally only one hour the song was written and recorded. Quick work and great song. Ready to leave Big Yard, my friend Shanz took me over to Mojito Mondays to catch some music and link with a bunch of people. Mojito Mondays in Kingston is a big outdoor night that Supa Hype puts on, and it always seems like the who's who of dancehall is there. I said hello to a bunch of folks, big producers, vocalists, and dancehall nightlife people. Supa Hype was kind enough to shout me out over the system. A couple young dudes were doing dances on the pavement. Some old dudes were walking around selling weed on the branch. Driving away I saw Popcaan pulling up in a car with a bunch of people.
The next day I made plans to link up with Beenie Man for a session in the evening. Meanwhile I got a text that Popcaan had voiced a big song on one of the riddims I left with him on the CDR. I had been assuming that we would record some of those when we met up again, but he heard the riddim in his car and jumped right back in the booth and recorded. I stopped back through UIM Studios and heard the track, "Get Gyal Easy." There was a young woman in the studio who was adamant that this was a big track.
Next stop was Supa Hype's 007 Studios to link and see about recording with Gyptian. I ended up arriving after Gyptian had left, so I just hung out in the yard at the studios for a few hours with Fras Twinz. In the end, Gyptian came back, but by that time I needed to go. We linked for a second in the parking lot, and he recognized me from my flight down from New York- it turned out we had been on the same flight. I played him "Loudspeaker Riddim" over my phone, which he liked and wanted to record on, so we decided to try to meet up late that night.
From there I grabbed dinner and headed to Beenie Man's studio. When I got there, an up and comer in Beenie's camp, Cee Gee, was in the booth and Beenie Man, Kantana and a few other people were just hanging out in the control room. Once Cee Gee wrapped up his session, I gave the engineer Hugh, aka Darealnoze, a USB stick with "Loudspeaker Riddim," and Beenie Man had him turn it up so he could feel it. Beenie had been relatively reserved when I arrived, but hearing the track he was starting to vibe and pace around the room a bit. Pretty soon after, he jumped in the booth and started putting down rough ideas. I described the structure of the track in terms of how I pictured it when I made it, and he recorded the chorus in two parts and then proceeded to record the verses and eventually the outro. He would record a number of bars and then step out of the booth and vibe to what he had done before going back into the booth. Piece by piece, the track emerged.
We had planned to record two tracks, so after the first track was wrapped, I gave Beenie Man two riddims to choose from and we loaded them up for him to listen. One was the track Popcaan recorded for “Get Gyal Easy” and the other was the minimal 99 bpm track that both Popcaan and Suku had recorded on. Unexpectedly, Beenie told me he didn't want to choose and that I should make the decision. He had not yet listened to either one and he left the room for a bit. While he was gone both riddims were played loudly for everyone in the control room, and everyone weighed in. People liked both of the tracks, but after some back and forth the minimal 99bpm riddim won out as the one he should voice. Beenie came back in and, hearing the track, started getting more animated. I had kind of wanted him on this one, 'cause it has a bit of a throwback feel, and I thought it might bring out some classic Beenie Man. It did. By the time he had recorded a song on it, he was moving around the room with some real energy almost like he was working a stage show. Everyone in the control room was energized, and I felt like we had captured something special. More people started showing up to the studio, as there were more sessions scheduled that night. (I heard later that Beenie Man schedules his recording sessions for two days a week, so on those days his schedule is often quite full). The Darealnoze played both of the new tracks for everyone who had arrived, and people were feeling the tracks.
I called a taxi. Driving through Kingston at 2 AM I listening to the radio and Beenie Man came on. The streets were largely empty. I texted to see if I could meet up with Gyptian, but he was a few hours outside of Kingston. It was a no go. The music in the taxi was loud.
- Vice Blog