Key Tracks: Young Guru on Jay-Z feat. Kanye West and Rihanna’s “Run This Town”
The two hip hop artists on everyone's lips this week: Kanye West and Jay-Z. ‘Ye just released a daring full-length, Yeezus, that features production credits from three Red Bull Music Academy alumni – Hudson Mohawke, Lunice and Evian Christ – while Hov announced that his 12th studio album is on the way soon. Given their continued dominance, we thought it a great time to take a look back at a portion of Young Guru’s 2011 lecture at the Academy where he describes the duo’s working process on “Run This Town.”
I am Jay-Z’s personal engineer, but my job encompasses so much more than that. I say I’m in charge of the sound of Jay-Z, basically, engineering-wise, mixing on certain records. I’m the guy who’s holding all of his music, so his whole career sits on hard drives in safes in my house. I basically take care of everything he needs music-wise. Engineering is just a part of it. Whatever he needs music-wise is what I contribute to. I’ve been doing that basically for him since 1999. It’s an incredible experience.
Jay-Z’s a very vibey artist, if you wanna put it that way, and it makes my life a little difficult. Nothing is ever super-planned out. I never get a phone call: “OK, we’re gonna start a session at 5 PM today.” It doesn’t work like that. He just vibes and goes in the studio whenever he wants to. That’s one of the pluses of owning your own studio.
We had started on “Run This Town” and he wasn’t really catching a vibe. That’s another of the problems I have with Jay and Kanye being such huge artists: When I try to record in New York, there’s so many people who stop by the studio and they have so many side businesses, it’s hard to get them to concentrate sometimes. So, specifically, when I try to work with him and Kanye it ends up being like ten extra people in the studio. It’s a cool vibe, but it’s totally distracting from making music. One of the guys who works for Kanye, Don C, pulled me to the side and he was like, “Yo Guru, if you want to get these guys to work you need to come with us to Hawaii. You need to bring the whole thing to Hawaii so we can really focus and nobody will stop by.”
Kanye has a set place he works in Hawaii, so we invited Timbaland down as well. We just went away for a week-and-a-half, strictly to get away and work on music. We didn’t have any distractions. We’d wake up in the morning, go play basketball, eat breakfast, then get to the business of making music.
I’m not really concerned with album sales at this point. It’s about adding onto a legacy of music.
We had a pow-wow meeting to say where we are going with this record. A lot of times people don’t get focused, or they just start making music without being focused as to what the artist wants, what the producers want to do. So we had this big pow-wow/argument/meeting, if you want to call it that, the discussion about where the record is going, where hip hop is going and where we need to go. I hate the little gimmicky hip hop. I’m a traditionalist, purist, but I’m not against the new forms of the music. I just don’t like the people who are just doing things to get a little quick hit. That was where the song “D.O.A.” initially came from, ‘cause if you remember at that time Autotune was everywhere in music. So it was getting to the point where it’s like I wanna throw up, ‘cause everyone’s using Autotune, Autotune, Autotune and it’s getting on my nerves.
That happens in hip hop every four or five years. There’ll be a new style that'll come in and people will automatically gravitate towards it and copy it. But then the person that breaks out of that mould becomes the next style. We’ve seen it over and over again. So the result of that conversation was, “We’re gonna smash everything that’s out there right now and totally take hip hop in a different direction.” Which I think is our responsibility. We’re in the position where we can afford to do that. I’m not really concerned with album sales at this point. It’s about adding onto a legacy of music.
“Run This Town” has a quick loop which is from a library record, the guitar part. There’s a classic drum break underneath it, then Kanye started to layer synths on top. I was mixing the song, and Jay was looking at me, “I still don’t feel like it’s army enough.” That was the word he was using. Sometimes as an engineer or a producer, you have to take layman’s terms and translate them into musical terms. He kept saying, “I want it to feel like an army is marching down the street.” So I had this little sound that Just Blaze, another great producer we’ve worked with over the years, had put in a Memphis Bleek record. I remember it being the stomp sound, so I called Blaze and said, “I’m gonna steal this sound.” He was, “Yeah, cool, I don’t care.” I layered it under the kick to give it that extra [makes crunching noise], so instead of the kick hitting “boom,” it was a [makes crunching noise] sound that adds to the kick, the march of the record.
We want to show off sometimes as producers, but what you have to remember is it’s all about what comes out of the speakers.
This wasn’t a super complicated mix. It was those elements, Jay’s raps, Kanye’s raps and Rihanna singing. We have all these tools at our disposal and we want to show off sometimes as producers and engineers, but what you have to remember is it’s all about what comes out of the speakers. The audience doesn’t know anything about the technical side of making the record. All they know is what they feel. As producers and engineers you have to remember that; it’s about forgetting what you already know for the feel of the record.
This record was almost all the way there in the rough stages so I didn’t want to add a whole bunch of effects that take away from it. It’s really supposed to feel like this army marching down the street, because it’s called “Run This Town” and it’s us taking over this town. I mixed it on an SSL, my normal stuff. I love API preamps, I love API EQs, 550 A’s, 550 B’s. Those, EQed with distressors, is probably my kick-and-snare combination for the past ten years, ‘cause I can kind of dial in the harmonics on a distressor. I want my drums to outdo everyone. That’s really my calling card: I wanna out-knock everyone on the drum tip.