Stayin' Alive

Jan 1, 2000 12:00 PM, Dan Daley

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Many recording artists make the newspapers for record and concert reviews and personality profiles. A few go on and make the gossip and celebrity columns as well, for their marriages, divorces, affairs and the occasional punch-out with the doorman or a drunk autograph hound. But Wu-Tang Clan, whose Platinum record sales have made them modern rap legends, also manage to make the front pages on an alarmingly regular basis. Russell Jones-a.k.a. ol' Dirty Bastard-is one of the core Wu-Tang rappers (the group has nine main members, including producer RZA, but the Clan's numbers are nebulous and can include posse members), and he is a rapper with a serious rap sheet. There have been assaults, shootings (he's been shot twice!), numerous arrests and assorted controversies that have, unfortunately, taken away some of the limelight from Wu-Tang's combustible music.

Studio owners in New York City know Wu-Tang. Several have indicated that they no longer take bookings from the group. That was a significant contributing factor to the group's decision to set up their own studio on West 37th Street in Manhattan, named 36 Chambers after one of their records. It's located in two of the rooms that once operated as Skyline Studios, which closed three years ago, and it's fitted with New York's only Amek 9098 console.

"I won't say that that stuff didn't happen," says Carlos Bess, Wu-Tang's engineer since their first album, and he acknowledges that the number of studios available to the group in New York was dwindling. "But a lot of studio owners just don't know how to handle them. They don't know how to handle rappers in general."

Bess is 29 and was brought up on Manhattan's upper West Side, coming of age as an engineer around the same time that hip hop did. His was not the trendy world of the pricey hangouts along West End Avenue, or of the exclusive Dakota coop on West 72nd Street and Central Park West. Still as ominous as ever, not even an exterior sandblasting can wash away connotations of Rosemary's Baby or John Lennon's murder. Bess' world was more like the one over on West 99th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, in the city park that the homeboys have called Rock Steady Park for two generations. When Bess was barely an adolescent, he remembers that he had to stay within a couple of blocks of his home on West 84th Street. "Go a block or two off that and you get your ass kicked, you know what I'm saying?" he recalls. "You remember the [gang] movie The Warriors? It wasn't as crazy as that, but it was guys from the Bronx and Brooklyn and Queens and it was about territory. There was a lot of warring for territory in those days. That's how people established themselves within the groups. By warring."

According to Bess, though, in the late '70s and early '80s, break dancing, rapping and graffiti tagging became outlets for aggression and competition between crews. Soon, graffiti-covered subway trains were synonymous with New York City itself, hot-shot break-dancers could be found wowing each other and passersby on street corners around town, and rap itself developed subcultures in which a war of words symbolized the turf that used to be the focus of violence. Rap was a good metaphor for violence, but as gangsta and other forms of rap ascended, life began to imitate art. The violence from which rap sprang could not be left completely behind.

Bess watched the goings-on in the park. He became enthralled by the DJs who were creating a new art form, scratching out remixes on the spot. He begged his father for a turntable and other equipment. But when he was 11, his parents divorced and the DJ dream died with that separation. Then, in junior high, Bess discovered a latent talent for rhythm. "Everyone used to be banging on decks and tables and on the walls in school," he says. "So after a while I picked up the drums, and I was good at it."

Bess auditioned for the High School of Music & Art, but didn't make it. The system instead put him in a school that was crowded and didn't nurture his sort of talent, so Bess started cutting classes and hanging on West 48th Street-Manhattan's own Music Row-where Manny's, Sam Ash and other music stores had windows filled with wonder for budding players. "Me and a friend from school would go down there every day, 9 a.m., show up and check out the gear," Bess says. "The drum machines. It got to where we were doing demos for the sales department. And the guy there dug it 'cause we would be showing him what the boxes could do. I got real good on the Roland RX-15. So they let us hang out all day. I learned like 40 machines in a year. But then they got a new manager, and he kicked us out. So I went over to Alex's [Music], and he let me hang out."

In 1986, Chicago's house music movement started making a dent in New York's urban music psyche. Bess and his own crew-DJ Choco and DJ I/Que-were deep in it. "There was so much new music coming out," he says. "There was Latin hip hop, which was like a real ballady kind of hip hop that they used to play on Hot 97 when it was on 103." urban radio was establishing loose borders for the hip hop culture, and in a boom-box world, you were what you listened to.

As the music became more machine-oriented, Bess' command of the drum machine started getting him calls for programming sessions. His first recording session was at the venerable Regent Sound, where the studio's by-then-ancient MCI console seemed like an alien technology to Bess. "All I had been seeing up to that time was guys with PortaStudios in their houses," he says. "This was like the real thing to me." The engineer at Regent, Richard Fairbanks, answered Bess' eager questions patiently. By the end of the session, Bess knew what he wanted to do.

"Everyone was like a rapper or wanted to be a producer," he says. "No one from the streets wanted to be an engineer. I was kind of different like that."

In 1991, Bess hooked up with Tkae, a producer who was about to open a small studio on West 129th Street in Harlem called The Shack. That gave Bess regular exposure to a larger array of technology than he had been getting doing freelance programming sessions. "It was the first time I ever messed with an Akai sampler or the E-mu SP 1200," he remembers. "Tkae taught me the patchbay. He taught me microphone placement and recording techniques and how to deal with clients. He taught me how to troubleshoot and not let the client know you were in big trouble if something was going wrong. He was real strict with me, and I used to hate how he would ride me. But I love him for that now, man. He taught me good. And when it came time to wire the new studio for Wu-Tang, I went to him to help me."

The experience at The Shack also taught him that engineering rap records was not going to be an automatic ticket out of the ghetto. "When I was at The Shack, we dealt with gangstas and drug runners all the time," Bess says. "There was one session I did five days straight at gunpoint. They wanted to get it finished, and they said, 'If you try to leave, we'll shoot you.' Tkae said, 'Let these guys go home and take a shower at least.' But they said, 'No way.' I finished that session as fast as I could, but it still took five days."

The Shack was forced to close in 1993 when it lost its lease. But as that happened, Firehouse, a studio that specialized in rap and recorded MC Lyte and others, moved from its Brooklyn location to Manhattan, and Bess applied there for a staff position. The owner, Yoram Vanzan, knew Bess as a programmer and was impressed with his speed during sessions. At Firehouse, his education continued. "Tkae was ghetto-he would be screaming at you to get your shit right," Bess says. "Yoram was more like an instructor."

It was at Firehouse that Bess first met the nine members of Wu-Tang Clan, who were based in Staten Island. Their first single, "Protect Ya Neck," had been released the year before and was a hit. "I didn't know them, but I had seen their marks all over. They used to put up stickers in all the studios they had worked in," he remembers. He was put on the mix session for their first LP, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), when the previous engineer called in sick-a scenario that runs as a common thread throughout the history of engineering. The speed he had developed at The Shack and as a programmer-Bess says Tkae had helped him create "macros in my head," dozens of small but crucial shortcuts that sped sessions along-earned him the respect of producer RZA and Wu-Tang. But it took some time to gain their trust: "We didn't quite click at first. They had the reputation for being dangerous. And they were like brothers and I was an outsider. But they liked my work attitude. They had never been with an engineer who could go 12 or 14 hours straight." RZA was also taken with an experimental street-beats drum record that Bess had been toiling on for three years-he made the beats sound like they were sampled from other records, but they were actually recorded from scratch and thus sounded cleaner when used on loops for rap records.

All of that experience became critical in working with Wu-Tang. For starters, like many rap groups, the Clan is more than its nine core members. "They call it the Wu-Fam," he says. "Even I don't know all of them. But you have to respect everyone in the studio because they're Wu-Fam. At this point, I don't even know how many records I've done with all of them."

Working in the studio with Wu-Tang has its own rhythm, too. RZA works at home on Ensoniq ASR10 and Akai MC3000 sequencers and various drum machines. Then he brings the loops into the studio, and Bess transfers them to the 2-inch tape format, using Quantegy 499. "Everything has to be loud," Bess says. "I'm always hitting the tape hard, so it has to be able to take hits."

Most of the distortion on the tracks-and there is plenty on Wu-Tang records-is the equivalent of collateral damage, not necessarily intentional but considered part of the process of creating the song and the sound. "Things get real intense during these sessions," Bess says. "And if something sounds good, then it is good. Don't matter if it's distorted. You don't worry about the technical stuff. There are clients I have that are concerned with that stuff, though personally I hate dealing with it. You go with what sounds good."

The same goes for edits. The track "Impossible" on Wu-Tang Forever has a seemingly random track edit just before the close. "It was spontaneous," says Bess. "You make it, it works, you keep going."

Bess dumps sequenced music tracks from the first analog multitrack to two tracks of a slave deck, freeing up 21 tracks (after timecode) for vocals, which take up the bulk of the in-studio work. He sets up a single microphone-usually a Neumann u67 or u87 running through a Neve 1083 mic preamp and a Tube-Tech LA-2A compressor-and each vocalist uses that mic.

Songs are often written spontaneously, with group members creating lyrics to the tracks as the session goes along. There's no way to know which members or guests will end up on which tracks. on "Triumph," for example, Bess had to find ways to fit in ten rappers. Initially, RZA's music tracks are usually between six and seven minutes long, and are edited down after the vocals are complete. Bess will occasionally fly in vocal parts using a sampler, but the bulk of the vocals are recorded in sequence. Everyone likes to do at least two passes, and Bess is under strict instructions not to erase anything. To compensate, he does the equivalent of stem mixes as he goes along. often, by the end of a session, the track is virtually mixed.

In the course of a Wu-Tang session, Bess is managing people as much as he is music. The noise level in the control room can get pretty high-and it's often not coming from the speakers. If he has to concentrate, perhaps doing a vocal comp, he avoids confrontation; instead, he gets people involved. "If you turn around and tell people to be quiet, you'll get your head knocked off," he says matter-of-factly. "What you gotta do is say, 'Yo, check out what I'm doing here,' and they gather around you, and you talk them through it as you do your stuff. Even with the posse members. That's the biggest mistake that engineers make in working with rappers: trying to take charge from them. You can get your work done, but you can't do it in an aggressive way."

Bess also says that whatever the problems that the members of the group have to deal with in the outside world, those problems are not brought into the studio. "We were doing Wu-Tang Forever when Biggie Smalls got shot," he recalls. "No one mentioned a word about it in the studio. Everyone stays focused in there."

Bess' apprenticeship as an engineer was a course of study that is becoming harder to follow as the technology becomes more diverse and sophisticated. Though he applied to one of New York's leading recording schools, he was turned down because he lacked a high school diploma. But the irony is not lost on Bess that he now has credits on records-for Big Punisher, Jay-Z and DeLite as well as Wu-Tang-that have sold 21 million units cumulatively. And in the course of his street-wise curriculum, he has learned to deflect conflict.

I tell him that he could just as easily have been a successful social worker. He laughs and says, "I never thought of it that way. But I guess I could be. The music still comes from that same place that we all come from."






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