Blakroc: Interview with Joel Hamilton – Blakroc Co-Producer / Engineer

Joel Hamilton co-produced the new Blakroc album with Dan Auerbach and Pat Carney of The Black Keys. For those familiar with the Blakroc webisodes you’ll catch glimpses of Joel, but for the most part he’s a guiding hand in the shadows at his Studio G recording studio in Brooklyn, New York, USA.

Joel was uniquely positioned to see the creation of, and influence one of, the most anticipated hip hop albums of the year.

The Black Keys Fan Lounge recently caught up with Joel to ask him about the recording process, working with The Black Keys and other artists, and his insights into this hip hop meets rock collaboration which is released 27 November 2009.

You can also listen to Joel talk about the hidden Blakroc album track here.

Joel with his beloved analogue recording equipment at Studio G:

joel hamilton at studio g

Is there an aspect to the album that you would like to bring to people’s attention from your perspective or they might not necessarily be thinking about when they listen to this record?

Well, that Dan and Pat are incredibly talented, they brought a ton to this record. What’s amazing is as big as The Black Keys are getting and as well as they are doing, they are in an interesting back seat position because of the nature of the guests they got on.

The people Damon (Dash) brought to the table, the fact that RZA is on a track people are focusing on that, if Mos Def is on a track people are focusing on that. I’d really say the way this stuff feels, not just musically, but just the excitement that’s built into it and the sense of adventure is Mos Def responding to The Black Keys spirit of adventure. So (the guest artists) became a part of it only after Damon invited them to hear what The Black Keys had already done.

It’s not the other way around. What you’re hearing when Mos Def opens his mouth is his enthusiasm for what The Black Keys have already played.

How did the album come to be recorded at your studio, Studio G?

The Black Keys and I had a bunch of people in common. I had worked with things they had known about and vice versa. It kinda came to be that way. We had a meeting to see if it was going to be mutually flattering and, you know, and we ended up hanging out for a minute and figuring out pretty quickly we would be happy to work together, that we shared an aesthetic sense.

I know you are a big fan of analogue recording. Tell us about that love you share with Dan, in particular.

I’m not as crazy about it as Dan is [laughs] like I use Pro Tools where as Dan would prefer to record to mono on quarter inch tape or something. I’ll use more than one microphone [laughs].

Your Studio G console is a Neve console, and the ‘Keys have just recorded their new album at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, so I was thinking the ‘Keys wanted to use Studio G because it was a similar type set up?

They [The Black Keys] ended up renting some stuff to use at Muscle Shoals. The orginal console at Muscle Shoals was not a Neve, it was this crazy Phillips thing, that place is a piece of history. So Dan and Pat brought in some rental gear to use there that was like tube and they really got old school about it and they wanted to use the room there – so much history has been made in that room.

So, the Neve doesn’t hurt but for sure after meeting we knew no matter where we were working – because we did record some of the Blakroc stuff at another studio on the Lower East Side when my place was busy – it would work.

As we worked on it, the three of us became a really solid thing.

Do you think the analogue recording show through in the final recording?

I think going into it all three of us wanted something that didn’t sound like the current state of hip hop in the world. (We wanted) something like the raw power of hip hop records, something that almost sounds ‘garagey’ but with the biggest MCs on it. Just because it is Mos Def on it, doesn’t mean it has to sound like one of his records or just because it is RZA it doesn’t have to sound like one of his records. It should sound like The Black Keys but with those people.

It had to stay true to Dan and Pat’s aesthetic, which is more raw and more analogue, cause otherwise we would’ve just used an MPC and basically made Dr Dre sounding tracks and had fun with it but it would have had nothing to do with The Black Keys.

Studio G is a relatively small recording studio, do you think that environment enhanced the recording?

For sure, because there’s nowhere to hide. I mean, that place specifically Tony (Maimone) and I have it like a clubhouse but with all the gear of any major studio. To be honest, we also have a really good deal on the rent also [laughs] so we haven’t moved out. We’ve outgrown it 10 times in 10 years but we keep it because we have such a good vibe in there. You go in and you feel like you are at your friends apartment,  if your friend had a 2 inch tape machine and Neumann microphones and a Neve console.  And then there’s books and a little kitchen.

You can see from the videos it’s really chill, you don’t feel like the emphasis is on the gear there like you would at some studios.  It’s not like there’s a spotlight on the tape machine, there’s more of an emphasis on the people and the work being done. That’s a huge semantic shift in a workplace where you are supposed to be creative.

I think it’s at the end of the 2nd video which has Mos Def, he says “Oh y’all are doing it like this?!” You know, and he’s “dam this is perfect”. We weren’t in some 6 million square foot place uptown, we’re in some gritty spot in Brooklyn making gritty sounds. It felt more real, more garagey that way, and like I say we were using top of the line equipment and our brains were in the garage even though we were using top notch stuff.

In terms of the collaborative aspect and your engineering of the album, did that create any special challenges? Normally the band and the artists would have plenty of time to rehearse whereas here MCs just had to perform on the fly.

Same thing with Dan and Pat though where they would come in and get into something and I would re-evaluate some mic choice or whatever. It was almost like there was four different set ups rolling at the same time so if you muted the really fucked up distorted microphone you would get the more r ‘n’ b sounding microphone, Stax sounding stuff, and then if you muted those as well you would get the clean almost modern rock sounding drums but it was all happening at once.

The analogy I kept using was that with these people that were coming in, it was like a school bus doing a jump over a canyon and we needed cameras on every side to capture that and then we would choose after the fact what the best way to tell the story was going to be. Like, what’s the best way to show that event in? You would choose afterwards like you were making a movie about it and so we did the exact same thing we just had multiple sounds available and then mixing became a deconstructive process.

Even what we submitted to some of the other mix engineers that we had as producers, we had come in to do other mixes, this guy Tchad Blake mixed a bunch of the record – he’s pretty incredible…

The name rings a bell. What’s he worked on?

Everything from Soul Coughing to Pearl Jam to Sheryl Crow.

You mentioned the cameras there, from a recording aspect do you think that created a performance during recording?

There was always alot of people in the studio as well. I mean, like when you watch the (video) with RZA in it it’s like RZA performed like the control room was a show. He lit that room up. It wasn’t just about punching in and trying to get a take, he really kicked ass. Just him flying at us with microphone and Blackberry in hand, that was the stance. He had to rock the people in the room for it to come across that way on tape.

I think Jonah (Schwartz) who did all the filming is really, really good at being at the right place at the right time and never in the way.

It was more about the people being there than the camera. But it definitely helped, we were aware of it but it was definitely just part of the energy in the room. There was alot of energy with moving quickly with that type of person in the room but we knew we were there to do something good.

You’ve produced lots of records, Dan and Pat have produced, and then you have someone like RZA who’s a bit of a studio whizz in there. Did that create extra pressure on you, did that enhance the experience? Or did one person have the overall say or control?

Everyone had enough experience to know when somebody was on a roll and pursuing some vision for the song, that the other people were smart enough to step to the side just for that instant to see where pursuing that left us. If you felt strongly there was another direction we could go you could start moving with intent toward your goal and the other four guys would move a bit out of the way as well or whoever seemed to have the best vision at any given moment, or the strongest vision at any given moment, would grab the wheel and the others were smart enough to him go.

It definitely was a recipe that could have lead to insane amounts of power struggle [laughs] but magically because of the energy and the nature of the process being really fast there was no time to argue.

In terms of the speed of production, Dan and Pat have always recorded fast, you had 11 days to record. tell me about that.

Dan and Pat had an aesthetic in mind and Dan and Pat would play through a bunch of stuff and then I would figure out which section I would loop because I had the perspective of sitting there while they were playing it rather than having any emotional attachment to any given moment. While you are playing it sometimes there is a part that feels good and it didn’t sound as good as the part that didn’t feel good. So I would choose just based on what I was hearing coming out of the speakers rather than how it felt. I would wind up with some basic loop and then Dan and Pat would over dub to that or we would keep the entire performance because they just held down a groove with an A and B section.

There’s a song called ‘On The Vista’ with Mose Def, that one’s straight through there’s no loops in that one, it’s just Dan and Pat playing. As opposed to something like ‘Coochie’ with Ludacris and ODB, that’s totally based on loops because the original was based on loops and we had to lock the orginal acapella to what they were playing. We had to work on it more like a traditional hip hop track and with varying degrees with all the songs.

But it’s always Dan and Pat playing and then anything we looped was like how RZA would loop it which is not even quantised, raw, almost like a tape loop, really rough. Sometimes it feels jumpy back to the one and loops in a crazy way and that gave the vibe for us which was crucial so it can’t feel like a R Kelly song or something [laughs].

So, the ‘Keys would lay down some tracks, the MC would contribute, and then feel good about it and move on. I know on ‘Aint Nothing Like You’ a synth was later added to an early cut, is that how it went?

It was pretty much record in an incredible frenzy, like a fire drill kind of pace, and then end up with sixteen elements that could possibly be the melody depending on how you presented it. So what you’re hearing when you hear a synth that’s not in one of the earlier permutations, because it had already been tracked we may have pulled it down in the first rough mixes that Jonah cut (video) to deciding the guitar would be the melody and the way the synth worked with the voice was something Tchad (Blake) or me or Dan figured out that worked really well with the melody.

It’s been remarked in the past that Pat has a natural loping hip hop drumming style on The Black Keys’ mid-tempo tracks, what’s your take on that?

He’s got this constant falling over itself type feel that’s impossible to program. I think the guys responded to that. A lot of these guys are chatting over tracks for a living, they respond to really small shifts in feel if the snare drum is a little bit late or the kick drum is a little bit early, those are the subtleties that make a beat what it is.

How it comes out of the speakers is why somebody’s programming is more sought after than others because they cut the samples differently and there’s a cerain feel that’s loose or organic. Pat is an incredibly organic drummer.

Were there tracks that you were like, er, that’s just not working and had to discard so it wouldn’t sound like a bad Limp Bizkit track?

Yes, would be the simple answer. It’s what to do about it at that point. Meaning, the only clear cut, I think Dan and Pat would agree with this or we would laugh at each other [laughs], what we did have going on was a very specific set of parameters like “this track should be bass heavy with really distorted this” or whatever in my mind. They would just play and I would cast a vote with a certain timbre, meaning if Pat had come in and I had distorted the crap out of his drums and they sounded like (John) Bonham,  like sort of explosion like drums, that would inform the next move so let’s put in a more guitar heavy thing that’s more Jimmy Page instead of like a wurlitzer keyboard that would be more like a  mellow, jazzier vibe. It’s sort of one move would beget that next.

So, if you advance some sort of aesthetic footprint all of a sudden that would give Dan some inspiration like “wow, yeah, the drums are so raw on this one, how about a piano sound” but we’ll fuck it up with a distortion box. So we were really bouncing off each other.

Was there a moment in the recording that just blew you away?

As one of the three producers in the room, I was definitely responsible for knowing when I got the chills, like that’s the one (take) we have to keep. Because we did three (takes) before this and didn’t get the chills and then this one for some reason just kicked my ass. You can’t control situation but you can at least learn to recognise it when it’s happening.

When Mos was standing next to me at the console rocking backwards and forwards for like 40 minutes solid while we looped the track and I could hear him mumbling under his breath and then he goes “Aight, aight” and goes and starts singing the hook for ‘Aint Nothing Like You’. We were all flabbergasted, our jaws were on the floor, this guy is like incredible.

I would say when RZA said my name at the beginning of this track “Oh man Joel” and then he goes into his first verse and it’s like I thought something was wrong and fucked up and I turned around in time to just see him rock the control room. Everybody on the couch, everybody standing around, felt it in the room at that point. He’s doing it like that while there’s people like Billy Danze, Pharoah Monch and all these guys are around and that hadn’t happened for a long time.

All these guys were referencing how there hadn’t been that much comraderie on a hip hop record in many years. It felt like back in the good old days when everyone would be all over each others records and there were a lot of collaborative efforts going on in the early 90s in particular.

Having to morph the way that we were working around to suit this new superpower that would walk in the room was just incredible. They would be sitting around for like an hour before they got in to the booth and then as soon as they stepped up to the mic it was like “Oh wow that’s why this guy is famous” because he pushes something down the wires that makes eveyone smile.


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