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Remembering The Musical Genius Of Master Engineer Bruce Swedien

Bruce Swedien

Photo: John Parra/WireImage

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Remembering The Musical Genius Of Master Engineer Bruce Swedien

GRAMMY.com looks back on the career of Swedien, a five-time GRAMMY-winning engineer who shaped iconic albums from Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones

GRAMMYs/Dec 9, 2020 - 06:11 am

When Bruce Swedien was mixing the Michael Jackson tour de force "Billie Jean," he and the pop star were agonizing over the most granular details of the recording. "I adored Michael, he was the greatest," Swedien once recalled. "He'd say, 'Bruce, that was perfect but let's try one more.' This was mix 80, [but] I said no problem." 

By the time Swedien and Jackson were on the 91st mix of the track, the song's producer and frequent Swedien collaborator, Quincy Jones, walked in the studio and implored the two to go back and listen to their initial cuts. "So we played [the second mix we worked on] and it blew it all away. I mean that was the most badass mix and that's what [was released]. Mix two."

It's a story that not only exemplifies Swedien's attention to detail, but also his innate natural talent that earned him legendary status among the titans of the music industry. 

"He was without question the best engineer in the business," Jones wrote in an Instagram post upon learning of Swedien's death last month (Nov. 16). "For more than 70 years I wouldn't even think about going into a recording session unless I knew Bruce was behind the board." 

This combination of respect and pedigree earned Swedien 12 career GRAMMY nominations, including five GRAMMY wins for engineering for his work on Thriller, Bad and Dangerous, all for Jackson. He also earned two additional engineering GRAMMYs for his work on Jones' albums, Q's Jook Joint and Back On The Block.

"Bruce Swedien's masterful work behind the board helped create iconic music with renowned artists," Harvey Mason jr., Chair & Interim President/CEO of the Recording Academy, said of the celerated engineer in a statement. "His imaginative approach helped shape the sound of pop music, and he was one of the most revered engineers in our industry. We have lost a remarkable talent, but I'm thankful for the music Bruce gave us."

Hailing from Minnesota, Swedien was born to classically trained musician parents; he became enamored with music after his father gave him a rudimentary disc recorder. By 21, Swedien was an engineer for RCA Victor. After honing his craft with jazz icons like Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton, he released his first musical firework from his generation-spanning discography in 1962 with "Big Girls Don't Cry," the seminal Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons hit. With its high falsetto and kinetic drumming, it rocketed to No. 1 and earned the group its first GRAMMY nomination. At the time, Swedien, then 28, was working in-house at Universal Music in Chicago. He later fondly remembered the appearance of "four scruffy-looking guys from New Jersey who headed straight to the vocal booth. It was a great session."

In addition to a zigzagging career, which saw the prolific engineer collaborating with everyone from jazz greats like Ellington and Sarah Vaughn, rock gods like Mick Jagger, divas like Barbara Streisand and contemporary stars like Jennifer Lopez, it was his creative partnership, and close friendship, with Quincy Jones that would define Swedien's career. First meeting in the late-'70s while collaborating on the music for the classic film, The Wiz, the two also crafted hits for the likes of George Benson, including his own GRAMMY-winning song, "Give Me The Night," as well as the gargantuan charity single, "We Are The World." 

But it was the dream team of Swedien, Jones, Michael Jackson and songwriter Rod Temperton that helped change the face of pop and turn the former Jackson 5 member into a bonafide superstar. 

"[Along with Temperton], we reached heights that we could have never imagined & made history together," Jones, on Instagram, recalled of the partnership, which resulted in Thriller, the best-selling album in music history. "I have always said it's no accident that more than four decades later no matter where I go in the world, in every club, like clockwork at the witching hour you hear 'Billie Jean,' 'Beat It,' 'Wanna Be Starting Something,' and 'Thriller.' That was the sonic genius of Bruce Swedien and to this day I can hear artists trying to replicate him."

In tangent with his ace ear, Swedien was also deft in the technology of production, helping revolutionize new techniques of engineering and evolving the craft. While working on Thriller, he developed a technique to record the tracks in analogue first in pairs, subsequently creating stereophonic recordings. "Digital recording was available and we were all quite impressed with its clarity," he said in 2018. "But if you start the music in digital you can never go back to analogue and it won't sound as good."

His thirst for innovation also forced him to think outside the box, like building a special drum platform and a cover for the bass drum, complete with an integral piece of wood to give the percussion on "Billie Jean" a distinctive sound. When recording Jackson's vocals, he had the pop star stand a few inches from the microphone, then step back even farther for another cut, then another, with Jackson physically moving his mouth along the microphone; once layered, they all created a unique depth. "Here's what I think it really boils down to," Swedien once explained, offering valuable insight into a master at work. "The importance of any musical sound lies not in any inherent acoustical value, but what it signifies in the soul of the listener." 

His friend Quincy Jones summed up Swedien's loss on both a personal and creative level. "I am absolutely devastated to learn the news that we lost my dear brother-in-arms," he wrote in the Instagram post. "I'm going to miss your presence every single day 'Svensk', but I will cherish every moment we shared together laughin', lovin', livin', & givin'."

Michael Jackson's "Thriller": For The Record

Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images

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Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on smallbiz.live. The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

Ivan Barias On Silence As Complicity, Holding Major Labels Accountable & How To Be A Non-Black Latinx Ally

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.