Hit-Boy, Young Guru Reveal Their Music-Making Magic

The two engineer-producers, whose credits include will.i.Am and Britney Spears' "Scream & Shout" and Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Niggas in Paris," respectively, shared their insight as part of Grammy U's "Era of the Engineer" educational tour.
Deston Bennett
Young Guru

It was a chance meeting with Black Eyed Peas' will.i.am in the bathroom outside a rented recording studio that landed Hit-Boy his latest hit, the "Scream & Shout" remix featuring Britney Spears, Diddy, Lil Wayne and Waka Flocka Flame. It's the latest smash to the 25-year-old producer and rapper's already impressive resume, following Jay-Z and Kanye West's "Niggas in Paris," for which he won a Grammy this year, as well as Kendrick Lamar's "Backseat Freestyle" and A$AP Rocky's "Goldie," among other records.

"That's the good thing about studios in L.A.," he told an intimate class of a dozen college students Friday as part of the Recording Academy's Grammy U program. "You never know who you're going to run into."

But for the rest of the music-making hopefuls who don't happen to be peeing next to multi-platinum producers and performers, Hit-Boy and recording engineer Young Guru offered some helpful professional tips, insight and motivation. "Who you know will get you in the door," said Guru, Jay-Z's go-to studio engineer and the session's seasoned professor. "But what you know will keep you there."

It was the fourth stop of Guru's 13-city "Era of the Engineer" educational tour, which he said was in reaction to diminishing appreciation of the studio engineer, whose role has become increasingly marginalized with the advent of home recording and the reality of reduced project budgets.

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"New York City used to be this incredible place where you could just go from studio to studio to studio," Guru recalled to Hit-Boy, his guest for the lecture, and the rest of the room. "That's not there anymore. … We need to have those places where you pass on the information."

Among the students' curiosities: One asked about how to handle a band's drug use in the studio. Guru answered candidly, saying that type of activity is to be expected but that he opts to remove himself if he feels uncomfortable, "because that's just not a good working environment for you to be in."

Another asked about getting sound levels in mixing up to "professional quality." Guru shook his head and called today's loudness wars one of the most damaging things that has happened to music. "This is super important," he said, "Don't compare your regular mix to this mastered album. There's a lot more that the mastering engineer is doing."

Q&A aside, the majority of the session was dedicated to mixing a track by New York City rappers Ratking, who are signed to XL records. Maneuvering through varying genre elements, from electronic dance music to hip-hop with his computer editing software (conveniently displayed on overhead television screens), Guru worked through dozens of recorded tracks, focusing first on the track's drums and then giving "clarity" to the rest of the components.

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"The way I was taught and the way I still think about it, is to picture an orchestra," he explained. "Everything in an orchestra, and especially how it's spread out across the stage, is placed there for a very specific reason."

Later, when a piece of equipment started to buzz with feedback, Guru turned it into an educational tool. "This is a good thing," he said. "Because in the middle of a session, stuff like that happens, and you have to quickly figure out what the problem is."

Flipping some switches, he solved it in no time, cracking, "That's engineering problem-solving," to the room's laughter. Further explaining his process, Guru continued: "What you do in those situations, is you eliminate everything. You go through your mind and you go through signal flow and you start to eliminate what the possibilities are … That's a prime example of what makes somebody better than the other person. In two minutes we figured out what the problem is and we make a decision."

Hit-Boy's method relied more on vibe. Deconstructing his "Goldie" track for Harlem rapper A$AP Rocky, he said, "I don't have a specific way of making a record, it's just all off of feel." Although the mix of heavy bass and a seemingly uncharacteristic flute carrying the melody had its purpose. "I just try to find sounds that don't normally go together and put them together into something people haven't really heard," he said. "I just want to be as fresh as possible all the time."

Afterwards, Guru acknowledged that the Friday session was more technical than most of the lectures on the tour. But his M.O. remains the same: "Giving away information and teaching people, I've been doing that for a long time," he said. "It's like, your mechanic can tell you what's wrong with your car, but the more you know about a car, the better conversation you can have with a mechanic."

Although he deferred to Guru mostly through the session, Hit-Boy seemed energized as well. "It's dope," he added. "It's just like being out on the streets, I can be shopping and kids come up to me, like, 'Man, your music inspires me so much.' I think that's amazing. It's what I really do it for. Because I come from nowhere -- I come from the Inland Empire, there's not a lot of people who make it out of there -- but I want to show people it doesn't matter where you come from or what your background is. When you put your all into the art, you'll get it back."

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