No one can question Bob Power’s pedigree as a composer, producer, and engineer, whose fingerprints are all over some of the most iconic R&B, soul and hip hop classics of the past 30 years. Power started out studying music at Webster College in St. Louis, before devouring courses in music theory, composition, and conducting, and gaining his Masters in jazz in San Francisco. Scoring for TV and writing jingles for adverts supplemented his jazz gigs, but it was when he was asked to sit in and engineer the session for Stetsasonic at Calliope Studios in New York that proved the real breakthrough. It was quickly revealed that Power had a unique gift for translating the ideas of young rappers and aspiring producers into heavy hertz and sizzling frequencies, and he went on to work with A Tribe Called Quest, the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul, and Black Sheep, before taking charge of a production suite at Sony Music Studios in New York.
Power eventually went on to work with the cream of the ’90s soul, rap, and R&B nexus, including D’Angelo, Angie Stone, Common, The Roots and Erykah Badu, notably with the latter’s first single “On & On” and her double Grammy-winning Baduizm album. As well as his inestimable impact on hip hop and R&B, Power has also worked with such notable artists as Pat Metheny, Miles Davis, David Byrne, Me’Shell N’degéocello, and Chaka Khan. In this edited and condensed excerpt from his recent interview with RBMA Radio, Power speaks with Chairman Mao about some of his career highlights.
What did you study in college?
I studied classical composition. That was kind of a mistake. I played hard rock guitar in high school. I was very influenced by that, and when I had to declare a major I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew what I didn’t want to do. So when I saw music, I was like, “Oh okay.” It was great though. Ultimately I studied contemporary classical composition and everything that came before. I got the best education I could have ever had in music theory and composition, which helped inform everything else. It’s just a language. It’s kind of like saying I cook Italian food and I lived in Italy for four years. Because you speak the language, because you are around that, it doesn’t matter if you are doing exactly the same thing. You become steeped in the language of it – and the consciousness as well. That was a big deal.
What was your ambition, though?
My ambition in college like everybody else was to be rich and famous. I wanted everybody to say, “Oh, isn’t he wonderful? Doesn’t he do that well?” Yeah, my ambition was just to have a life in music one way or another. At that point it seemed like you either became a pop star or you were nothing. At a very simple level, my ambition was to continue to play music and enjoy myself. I played. I didn’t get into engineering for other people until the mid-’80s.
I never really had the urge to study engineering from a technical point of view. Everything was about music to me then. Which it actually kind of still is. I think a lot of music engineering programs that teach you physics and electronics first are so ridiculous. It’s all about the music – and how you capture that. It’s not what the voltage is doing. You will learn about the voltage after a while, but that’s not the important thing.
Chicago blues were a major influence?
My major influence was blues and R&B. When I think of certain people, any guitar player who says they weren’t influenced by Albert King they didn’t do enough listening or doesn’t really know what’s going on. Mike Bloomfield was a seminal blues figure in the ’60s in New York. He was a big influence on me too. Roy Buchanan. Harvey Mandel. A lot of people don’t know these guys. They were sort of guitar heroes of the late ’60s and the early ’70s that didn’t make it through the popular filter to really sustain it till an hour ago. If you ask musicians – guitar players especially – they know who those people are.
Before you got back to New York, you did a bit of time in San Francisco.
I was in San Francisco from 1975 through 1982, and ended up getting my Masters in Jazz while I was there. Got a break, started scoring television. Basically, three or four months a year I would score these television shows for the whole season, and that subsidized my jazz career for about seven or eight years. I ate, slept, drank jazz. That’s pretty much what I did in San Francisco.
When I was 30, I realized I had to move to either New York or L.A. I had some Emmy nominations for my music, but when I came to New York I pretty much started clawing my way up from the bottom again. I started doing club dates, was producing vanity records for people, doing session work as a guitarist when I could find it, and working my way into industrials and jingles.
I had some Emmy nominations for my music, but when I came to New York I pretty much started clawing my way up from the bottom again.
Industrials are corporate communication shows. Large companies used to put a tremendous amount of money into events for corporate communications. Less so now because of the economy, but back then a company would send their sales affiliates to Hawaii for a week and they’d have these custom stage shows – it’s like Radio City on steroids – with a customized cover of a current pop song with their company name in the title. So I was doing industrials, and working my way into the jingle world. By the late ’80s and early ’90s that was going real well for me. I was doing a lot of big national stuff: Mercedes, AT&T, BMW.
Is that how you wound up working at Calliope Studios?
Actually, no. Calliope is funny. It was’86 or ’87 or maybe a little bit later. I was producing music and I was working overnight at the studios because it was the cheapest time. One morning it was time for me to leave and the guy who owned the place said, “Oh by the way, Bob, this other Bob, is going away for couple of weeks. Do you want to fill in?” Very quickly I said, “Uh, uh, yeah, I can do that. I know how to do that.” That was the beginning of my commercial engineering career. De La Soul and Tribe Called Quest were some of the first people I remember coming through there and meeting.
A bunch of these groups you worked with were in a very exciting time in their careers. Did you have to unlearn things in terms of your formal training to accommodate this new music?
Yeah, I did to a certain degree partly because I was learning was the “right way” to do things from an engineering standpoint. But if I had “known what I was doing,” I probably would have been one of the many, many people who say, “Oh, that’s not the way we do things,” or, “That shit’s not music.” Those guys are selling insurance now. I was learning so much at the same time that when people said, “Well, we want to do this.” I’d say, “How do you want to do it?” They’d say, “What do you mean? We just want to do it.” It was creative problem solving for me, and it coincided with a great time of growth in understanding and learning about engineering. I started to think of as engineering as creative problem solving rather than something that was supposed to be in a particular way because of a canon that had been established by somebody else.
Going into Low End Theory, was there a pre-stated sonic mission that you were aware of?
It was very clear. It was the name itself. The bass and bottom was so important to the hip hop ethic. Both the name itself as well as Tip and Ali pushing me towards certain things sonically… Yeah, it was pretty clear that Low End Theory, this record at least sonically a lot of it is going to be about the bottom.
There are a bunch of reasons why that record was so different than anything else. One thing was that technology had finally caught up to people’s visions. Tip and Ali both had this uncanny way of hearing music, where they can hear a bunch of different records, get an idea of different samples to use from those different records and not just hear them in their original context but also hear in their mind’s ear what they will sound like when combined.
You could synchronize things, so even if your sampler didn’t have enough memory to lay down all the samples you wanted to, you could lay down a few of them on tape tracks. Run the tape back, synchronize it, lay down a few more, lay down a few more. Instead of having the same little piece of sample play over and over again, you could actually build elaborate musical constructions. That’s why, to me, the work around that time was so genre-bending.
Was this mission different with Midnight Marauders?
Yes, Tip was very specific and told me that he didn’t want to clean it up. He wanted it to be gritty. On Low End Theory I took a lot of care to clean things up. For example, if there was a sample that was meant to be there primarily for the flute part, I would do everything I could to get rid of the parts in the music other than that flute part. Same thing with surface noise from the record or kicks and little clicks and pops.
Now I love them, because they’re flavor. But at the time I thought it would be best if those musical elements that were intended to be recombined were as pure as they could be, because then we would really get the idea of what the construction was without any of the chatter from either noise from the record or other musical parts that weren’t necessarily salient to what the combination was supposed to be. When Midnight Marauders started, Tip and Ali were very specific with me. They said, “Don’t clean it up, we want this record to be street-style and gritty.”
You’ve had a few cameos in songs over the years. Can you talk a bit about the one on “I Am I Be” by De La Soul?
Yeah. “I Am I Be” is an incredible piece of work. When I listen to it now I realize it was the first time in hip hop I heard an overt confessional about what this person was on the inside. Of course De La – and particularly Pos – have always been ahead of the curve on that one.
When they explained how they wanted the intro to be, I realized we didn’t enough tracks to put all these voices on. I spent about a day-and-a-half in a sequencer and with the sampler taking all the little vocal snippets and placing them both in time – as far as when they happened – but also in space – in terms of how far away they were from you. But it was too much for one load on the sampler, so I actually had to do it in several passes.
I was like, “I am Bob and I’d be really tired of doing this shit because I’ve been doing it for a couple of days.”
I had gotten this whole thing together, and I was playing the track and there was a drum program playing from the computer as well. But I left it on the wrong page on the sampler. The multi-samples that I had painstakingly done for four or five hours with different note values saw the drum information coming off the sequencer and changed all the note assignments that I had taken several hours to do. One never forgets those kind of things. So I said, “Guys you’ve got to let me do one.” Everyone was so honest about where they were and who they were at the time on that song. They said, “I am, and I’d be this right now.” I was like, “I am Bob and I’d be really tired of doing this shit because I’ve been doing it for a couple of days.” It’s not that deep a story, but it was kind of funny.
What were your impressions of Jay Dee? This is a guy whom in death is revered probably way more than he was when he was alive.
You were around when he was producing for all these different guys, and when he came into the mix with Tribe as well. What were observations of him in the studio?
He was such a quiet guy that I kind of didn’t know what to make of him. He was very nice, but he was very, very quiet. I was glad hear Ahmir [Questlove] talking about him recently in a RBMA interview. He was talking about the first time he heard a Jay Dee beat at a gig somewhere, all fucked up and herky jerky. Amir was like, “What is that? God, it’s all messed ... wait a minute. That’s really incredible.” The same thing happened to me. The first time I heard Jay Dee’s shit I was like, “Okay, I get it, but I don’t feel it.” Then, very quickly, you start to feel it. For many people Jay Dee changed the way they feel funk. Of course years down the line you say, “Yeah, that’s super funky.” It takes you a while to catch up to it. [Thelonious] Monk actually was exactly the same for me. I liked it, but then one day I heard it in a different way and I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that.”
One of the brilliant things about Jay Dee which a lot of people could learn from is that the sounds he chose worked together timbrely as well as musically. Mixing his stuff, the way he pre-divided stuff into different frequency areas was perfect.
What do you recall about the process of working on it with D’Angelo and Brown Sugar?
It was long. You know what, I love Mike, I do. I think we feel the same about each other. It was hard. He’s such a visionary and had a very specific vision and – with high standards – it’s not the easiest thing in the world to pull off. I will say everything you hear on any D’Angelo record is because D’Angelo is D’Angelo. It’s not because somebody else did something special. Most of what comes out of his mouth, mind and fingers just appears there. I’m pretty sure that D never did things because he tried to want to sound a certain way, at least in my experience. That’s just who he is and what comes out. That’s always the mark of a really special artist.
I consider my path in the art of making records as having actually worked out much better than my wildest dreams.
Can you talk a little bit about Erykah Badu’s “On and On”?
I say this a lot, but the things that I’ve been involved with that people really like are that way because those artists are great artists. James Taylor could record a great record on an answering machine. It wouldn’t make any difference. It’d still be great, because he’s great. “On and On” was chasing the demo. The demo was really, really great, but it just didn’t sound like a record. By themselves, they weren’t muscular or substantial enough to make into what I felt would be a great record. A lot of it was taking it around the block a few times, only to end up in exactly the same place where you started. It’s not about clean either. It’s about having enough impact sonically to actually make you nod a little bit. I know a lot of great singers, but I don’t know a lot of artists. Erykah is certainly an artist and way beyond just the musical realm.
How does it feel to have had a hand in a lot of important recordings?
I don’t complain a lot anymore. The fact that I’ve been able to participate in a lot of seminal recordings is just another wonderful thing that has come my way in my life. I live in New York. I have a home that’s really nice. I get to the country. I have a dog I love. I have people around me that I love. I get to do things that I’m passionate about. I have almost every piece of gear I ever wanted. I consider my path in the art of making records as having actually worked out much better than my wildest dreams.