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Don Was, Hip-Hop & Metadata: Inside The New Orleans Studio Summit
For the past four years, between the two weekends of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Recording Academy Memphis Chapter and the Producers & Engineers Wing have teamed to present the Studio Summit at Esplanade Studios in the Big Easy. A keynote conversation with Don Was, GRAMMY-winning producer and president of Blue Note Records, headlined this year's event, held May 1.
"We love coming here," said Jon Hornyak, Senior Executive Director for the Memphis Chapter. "We are very much a regional chapter, including Louisiana, St. Louis, west Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas."
The Studio Summit also featured panels with GRAMMY-winning producers and engineers. The day's panels wrapped with a tribute to Cosimo Matassa, a 2007 Recording Academy Trustees Award recipient. The late Matassa engineered hundreds of R&B and rock and roll classics at his New Orleans studios.
Music writer Alison Fensterstock interviewed Was in the former Presbyterian church sanctuary that's now Esplanade Studios' Studio A. Was spoke about his formative years in Detroit; producing the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan; and being music director for tribute shows, the latest of which is Exile On Bourbon St., a Rolling Stones tribute with Ryan Adams taking place May 5 in New Orleans.
"It's a trip," Was said about producing artists he idolized when he was a kid in Detroit. "I produced Bob Dylan in 1989 when I probably wasn't prepared to do it. I'd do a better job now."
During sessions for his 1990 Under The Red Sky album, Dylan told his guest session player, George Harrison, to play a solo with no preparation. Afterward, Was remembered, "The voice in my head said, 'Bob's not paying you to be a fan.' So, I said, 'That was good, but we should try another one.' George was like, 'Thank you.' Bob was testing me. I have to forget that they're my heroes and tell the truth — but be diplomatic."
Despite working with the Rolling Stones for 25 years, Was still finds them awe-inspiring.
"Every session there's a moment when I look at who's in the room and get a little dizzy," he said about working with Mick Jagger & Co. on albums such as their 1994 GRAMMY-winning LP, Voodoo Lounge. "But it's a thrill to be in a room with your heroes and see how the greats do it."
But even the greats may not know how they do it.
"I asked Bob, 'How come you can write 'Gates Of Eden' and I can't?'" Was recalled. "Bob said, 'I didn't really write it. I remember holding the pencil, moving my hand over the page, but I don't know where it came from.' Everyone who's really great — Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Wayne Shorter, Bob, Keith Richards — they'll all kind of tell you the same thing."
The Detroit of Was' youth was much like New Orleans, he said. "It's a music city, especially in the 1960s. People from all over came to work in the auto factories. They brought their cultures with them. A lot of the music that came out of Detroit in that time reflects that."
Detroit's working-class grit influenced its music, too. "If you want to know about Detroit, listen to John Lee Hooker," Was said. "He exemplifies the rawness and the honesty of the people in the city."
The Studio Summit's panels included What's The Deal With Metadata? Maureen Droney, Managing Director of the Recording Academy P&E Wing, and Gebre Waddell, CEO and co-founder of Soundways Inc., a Memphis-based software company, participated in the metadata panel with moderator Bill Wilson, digital programming and industry relations consultant with the New Jersey-based Music Business Association.
The long quest to give proper credit to producers, engineers, artists, and songwriters in the digital music era dominated the metadata discussion. Before digital music distribution, credits routinely appeared in CD booklets, but no credits have accompanied the digital releases that dominated music sales today.
"My theory is that producers and engineers experience things that are going wrong first," Droney said. "They were among the first to be hurt by credits going away because that's how they got work. It's a lot harder to get work when no one knows what you've done."
In turn, absent credits also affect royalty streams. Memphis Chapter President Waddell spoke about the software his company — which operates with the motto "Serve The Music" — has developed to connect credits to digital music files.
Memphis-based engineer/ producer Jeff Powell (Afghan Whigs, St. Paul & The Broken Bones) moderated the summit's Developing Your Craft panel, which featured GRAMMY-winning Memphis engineer/producer and Chapter Vice President Matt Ross-Spang (Margo Price, Jason Isbell), and New Orleans-based engineer Emily Eck (Ani DiFranco, PJ Morton, Arcade Fire). The trio discussed pathways to becoming an engineer, the value of assistant engineers and the late nights that can be necessary to get the job done.
"You have to accept that you're giving up your hobbies for this gig," Ross-Spang said.
Engineer/producer Carl Nappa (Nelly, *NSync) moderated Hip-Hop Production Today, which featured panelists Jimmy Douglass, a Miami-based GRAMMY-winning engineer/producer (Timbaland, Jay-Z, Duran Duran), and Nesby Phips, a New Orleans producer and rapper (Wiz Khalifa, Lil Wayne). The discussion included Douglass' mid-career transition from rock and funk to hip-hop and the possible demise of the demo.
Photo: Erika Goldring/WireImage.com
"I recommend all hip-hop producers and artists don't get married to that first take if they're actually trying to optimize what that song sounds like," Phips said.
The Cosimo Matassa Family Tree panel included Robert Parker, a saxophonist who worked frequently as a session player at Matassa's studio before scoring his 1965 hit, "Barefootin.'" Also participating were Matassa's longtime engineer, Roberta Grace; GRAMMY-winning New Orleans engineer and producer Chris Finney (Dr. John, Harry Connick Jr.); and moderator Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos, founder of the Ponderosa Stomp music festival and conference.
How did Matassa — who helmed classics such as Fats Domino's "The Fat Man" and Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" — attain his golden touch? It was all in the ears, according to Grace. "He knew every microphone, what it would do, and what every instrument needed."
"He stressed that it's really not about us," added Finney, who was an aspiring engineer in his teens when he met Matassa. "It's about the musicians and creating an environment where they're able to express themselves and perform at the best of their ability. Our job is to stay out of the way."
(John Wirt writes about music, film and other arts and entertainment topics in Louisiana. He's also the author of the New Orleans music biography Huey "Piano" Smith And The Rocking Pneumonia Blues.)