Executive Action

In the music industry, production is a fascinating area. The job description has not evolved that much since the early days. The tools change, but you still need to be parts musician, engineer, diplomat, psychiatrist, best friend, mother, father, nursemaid, babysitter, sounding board, whipping post, gopher, drug dealer, rehab sponsor, dinner partner, and whatever whim comes to an artist’s mind. And that’s on a good day!! Then you have to balance all this with what the record label side wants and expects. Release dates, promotional opportunities, deadlines met, studio time, musician costs, engineers, instrument rentals, equipment rentals, hotels, per diems transportation…BUDGET!! A BUDGET for their PRODUCT! And all you really wanted to do was make some fucking music! It’s a wonder any music gets made at all sometimes.

As a producer, some records you have to battle to have made and some just come together on both ends magically. Usually the artists you’re trying to develop and maybe take to another level are the ones you get the most label resistance from. Everyone wants to invest in a solid seller, and not so much in potentials. Two such artists that I had personally worked with that illustrate this point were MC Breed and Trudy Lynn.

MC Breed (Eric) was a rap artist out of Detroit who had built a name for himself as a solo artist (“Ain’t No Future In Yo Frontin’”) as well as his later collaborative projects with varying people, including Tupac Shakur and a song in an Oliver Stone film. He sold a lot of records for the label, and in terms of rap, he was relatively well known. Let me clarify that in the early and mid nineties, rap was not as commercially accepted as it is now, so the masses and media had not yet assigned the “hip-hop” moniker. All of it was called rap and anyone who did it was a rapper. For years, the term rap carried negative connotations before it suddenly became a sub culture of our society. OK, history lesson over…back on track…

Almost without exception, if Breed asked the label for studio time, he got it. If he asked for money, he got it as well. Hell, he even asked for a house once and guess what? Yep, he got it!

I liked Eric. When he wasn’t busy posturing for his posse he was a fairly down to earth guy who had decent instincts. Unfortunately, he didn’t always trust them and thus started listening to the wrong people. There were a lot of members in his posse, and whenever I would see them all at the studio with him, they had their hands in his pocket the whole session. I think he knew he needed to keep an eye on his money but hell; he was doing a CD called “Big Baller” so maybe he felt he needed to walk the walk.

When Breed would book time at the studio you almost dreaded it. Mainly you knew you were going to have a full house and our place was not that big and it was hard to keep up with so many people. And yes, you did have to somewhat keep up with them all. Imagine inviting a friend and their date over to your house and an additional 35 people arrive as well; same kinda thing. Also, though Breed would book the studio, he would just as often not show up keeping an engineer sitting, waiting there for hours on the off chance he would show. Most times he would get derailed at Magic City or some other local strip club and that would be that. It was usually a better than 50/50 shot he would not show. Bottom line is, he sold records and the label tolerated this even if it meant keeping other artists out of the studio in the hopes he would show. We still billed his time out, as I had to pay at least an engineer whether he showed or not so if he said he was coming at 7pm the meter was turned on unless he called ahead. This applied to any of the artists, not just Eric. We were doing a LOT of records back then and usually ran sessions from 10am until 4am. So we didn’t have a lot of time to sit idle.

Trudy Lynn was a blues and soul powerhouse out of Houston, TX. This woman could just flat out SANG! She had control, versatility and a great work ethic in the studio. In the early days when her career was first starting to take off, she would open for a lot of artists passing through Houston including Ike & Tina Turner. Over time, she became well known in the Houston music scene and was branching out playing clubs in other parts of the country.

Trudy found her way to the record label via BB Coleman. BB was a bluesman (with a name like BB you’re kinda pre-destined) who had been kicking around for some time and was constantly traveling the states and playing every blues club available. Because of his extensive touring, BB was to supply the label with a wealth of Blues talent. However, to me, Trudy was his shining star.

To my great fortune, after BB’s initial straight ahead blues record on her, Trudy was turned over to me to produce. The 1st record I did on her I co-produced with fellow musician/producer Bryan Cole. We tried to maintain the blues foundation as BB had established, but we also wanted to add a little of that Denise LaSalle type of funky soulful blues as well hopefully introducing her to a wider audience.

After that 1st record, I took sole production responsibilities. I should note that almost every record that came out of the studio for almost 10 years had a piece of each of us in it no matter what our official involvement. Bryan would search material for me, play drums or just offer his advice. I would play keys, arrange, or throw in my two cents worth on his productions.. Our chief engineer, Jimmy O’Neill would play guitar for anyone or clean up any part of a song that needed taking care of. Edd would offer ideas for recording or follow up and tweak a mix with fresh ears or lay down a percussion part if needed. For the most part the entire staff (4) was involved with each other’s production.

After having done about 3 or 4 records on Trudy and having had toured Europe and Japan with her as her pianist, Ichiban could see the impact she was having on her audiences. The audiences were aware of certain songs on the records and would sing along, or immediate applause would break out from recognition of an opening riff. John (president of Ichiban and often tour manager) and I thought that maybe she was due for a greatest hits type record. Neither of us wanted to repackage her previous records, so after some consideration of the material, we came up with the idea of recording a greatest hits “live in the studio.” Typically live records don’t sell as well but this was just a bit different, so the label agreed and we were underway with planning.

It’s difficult enough planning a schedule and a budget for an album, but as this was to be performed in the studio, and we only had the weekend to do this, each detail had to be worked out in advance. Musicians had to be booked, flights for those coming from out of state, hotels, per diems, arrangements, transportation, etc…everything! The budget was set and our fearless leader John approved it all before dashing off to Europe on some business. We would be recording no less than 14 people in our tiny studio 2 keyboardists, 2 guitarists, drummer, bass player, 3 background singers, the Muscle Shoals horns (4) and Trudy! On top of that we would have 2 engineers to make sure it all went down on multi-formats (multi-track, 2-track, DAT) without a hitch. (No there was no Pro Tools as yet) This was shaping up to be a huge undertaking and I was hoping beyond hope the studio would be large enough. The entire building was needed to accommodate everyone. We had the Muscle Shoals Horns in the kitchen, guitar amps in the bathroom, background singers in the front reception, and the rhythm section and Trudy packed into the main room with Trudy somewhat isolated.. Jimmy had even rigged a video camera and a monitor for the horns to see cues while we tracked.

A few days before the session was to take place the 4 us at the studio pitched in to start setting things up. As you can imagine there were a LOT of mic lines and everything needed to be checked as to ensure a smooth session. There are enough things that can go wrong on any session, so with this one being so large and only having the weekend to record, it was imperative we went the extra mile in preparation.

Well it’s Friday afternoon and we are about 24 hours from making a record. It’s all getting pretty exciting now. This will certainly be THE largest session we’ve done at one time. All mics and headphones were in place, line checks had been done, and musicians confirmed… we were ready!

Right before we are heading out the door, the VP of Ichiban, Nina (John’s wife) calls and asks me what is going on in the studio over the weekend? I’m excited and go on about how we are cutting Trudy’s record and we have all these musicians and…Huh? Excuse me? You want what? By this time Bryan, Jimmy and Edd are looking at me puzzled. I hang up the phone in disbelief. She had just told me (and I do mean told) that MC Breed wanted to come to the studio this weekend both Saturday and Sunday. I explained how I could give him any days starting Monday but she was not having any of it. I kept trying to tell her we had this scheduled for weeks now. Hotels, per diems, musician fees, etc had all been laid out. Nina’s response? I will point out here that Nina is from Finland and has an accent. However when anyone at Ichiban or the studio imitated her, it was with what can only be described as an Arnold in Terminator accent. “Breed sells records, Trudy is just a blues singer.” “But what about the reservations and all the money, and…” I counter. “I could care less, Breed booked the studio. Cancel Trudy’s session!”

I was stunned to say the least. John had approved this record and she was just blowing it off. Someone suggested that I contact John and just go over her head. As appealing as that sounded, I saw that causing many more problems in the long run for all of us. I thought about calling Eric, but needed to think this through a bit more first. If I had told him what was happening, he would surely have said he was coming without a doubt, then not show up, just so he could wield his power.

This was a serious dilemma. We had already invested a lot of time into prepping this session. If it were to be cancelled, it had to be done almost right away. As we were talking and trying to think of any way to switch things, Jimmy very casually said, “Yeah, knowing Breed, he probably won’t even show up.” DING! We all had the exact same thought simultaneously. Breed had a hard enough time coming in during the week; we couldn’t imagine him much less showing up to work a weekend. We all agreed that the session would go on. I think we were so sure of him not coming; we didn’t even have a contingency plan in the event he did show.

Well Saturday high noon rolls around and of course we are all wondering, if Breed was going to show at all. The musicians started filing in with their personal gear, the Muscle Shoals horns arrived on schedule, the drums were set and tuned, Trudy was there and ready to go, the background singers…well they were on the way. Everything was in place. Bryan, Jimmy, Edd and myself were all brimming with nervous excitement. Aside from the 4 of us, we had not told anyone of what was going on.

By the time everyone was set up and we had a bit of a live sound check, an hour or so had passed and no sign of Breed as yet. Perfect! Just as we were only a few minutes from rolling tape, the phone rings. I took the call in the midi suite where it was relatively quiet just in case it was Eric or someone else we didn’t want to know what we were up to. It of course was Nina. She wanted to speak to Breed. I told her we had been waiting for a couple of hours so far and no sign of him. She told me to wait, and that he would be there, but experience had taught us better. There was no way he was coming on a late Saturday afternoon. No way! And we were done answering the phones.

Our hunch paid off for us. We recorded the entire record that afternoon and into the early evening. Everyone was on and a smoother session no one could have asked for. All the musicians and engineers worked their asses off and the atmosphere was just relaxed and party-like.

The entire recording was done in about an 8-hour session, and the best part of it? Since Nina was so adamant as to cancel Trudy and allot the time to Breed, as studio manager, I made an executive decision and charged the entire session back to Breed!! Trudy’s account was not charged a dime for anything except the mix and some clean up, which took maybe 20 or so hours of studio time. Jimmy and Edd had done such a great job engineering that there were only some minor levels to iron out and I think we may have cleaned up a few parts on the 24- track. Most likely some of my Hammond parts. One of the most expensive blues records we had ever done was brought in for about the cost of a demo! And the record proved to be a success for Trudy and her fans in Europe.

Breed eventually finished Big Baller and it did great! Nina never questioned the cost of all these musicians on a rap record and I think John was pleased that Trudy’s record was brought in well under budget. It was years later, after John and Nina split up, when I told John about what had happened that weekend. He had no idea but I think was amused by it all on some levels. Of course Eric never knew and it was at least a couple of years after before I even told the others at the studio. And until if and when she reads this, Trudy to this day has no idea what happened!