Friday, January 13, 2017

The LargeUp Interview: In the Mix with Engineer David Kennedy

Originally post at
Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley
The credits for A Tribe Called Quest’s We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service are extensive. With names like Kanye West, Elton John and Jack White involved with one of our favorite albums of 2016, you might miss the name Dave Kennedy, who mixed the sixth and final album from the iconic New York rap crew, along with Blair Wells and Q-Tip.
We didn’t. Kennedy, also known to us as David Kennedy, or Dawit Kennedy, has been a mainstay in studios in New York and Jamaica since the 1980s, having worked on projects as varied Keith Richards’ Talk is Cheap, Brand Nubian’s All For One and Shinehead’s Sidewalk University, as well as A Tribe Called Quest’s last previous album, 1998’s The Love Movement. Though his background is primarily as an engineer, he’s also produced tracks for Patra and Mos Def. (Check his full discography here).
Born in New York City and raised primarily in Jamaica, Kennedy began his career as an engineer at Byron Lee’s Dynamic Sounds in Kingston, after graduating from NYC’s Institute for Audio Research. His career in recording has never been typical. It was a chance encounter with Bob Marley, and subsequent time spent around the late legend in Miami, that encouraged him on his career path. In his younger days, Kennedy even moonlighted as a model — one of the first in that profession to sport a head of dreadlocks. More recently, Kennedy returned to Jamaica to set up his own recording facility, Cedar Hill.
On the morning of the release of We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service in November (and three days after the surprising results of the U.S. election), I spoke with Kennedy about working on Tribe’s swan song; the album’s timely message; his experiences working with Bob Marley, Keith Richards and Puff Daddy; and the deception of digital technology.
LargeUp: This album seems to refer directly to the present moment in a way that seems uncanny. I wonder if there was a thought when this album was being made that we should put this out the Friday after the elections.
Dave Kennedy: It had me tearing up this morning, understanding it. Had things turned out politically different, I don’t think it would have rung as true. There is a science behind the 11/11 [release date]. I never really heard the whole album until yesterday. To be honest, lyrics are the last thing I listen to when I work. I approach my job technically. I leave the creativity to the producers. But I listen in, and watch what’s going on. [As far as the message] We’d talk about stuff, and which things needed to be addressed and we’d watch the political landscape unfold, and the bets were on as to who was winning, but I don’t think they had any of this in mind. I’m sure what they wrote lyrically was relevant for the day and I guess it’s timeless because it will be relevant today and probably tomorrow. Everybody involved – you hear it from Busta, you hear it from Consequence — felt this was the most important thing to happen for hip-hop. Getting these minds back together, it was like a nuclear reaction.
LU: It’s been a while since I felt like I had to listen to an album the minute it dropped, and then listen back. But I had to with this one. I mean, I hardly listen to albums, period, anymore. How did you get the call to be on this project?
DK: I had moved back to New York for a while. I reached out to some old heads, because I was getting stir crazy, and I reached out to [Q-Tip friend and collaborator] Gary Harris. Gary put me in touch with Q-Tip, and Tip was like, “You gotta come through.” I go over to his place [in New Jersey] and he’s got the whole studio set up, all pistons firing and he said, “I need your help,” and I said, “I’m down for whatever.” He had so many people helping him, I didn’t really understand where I fit in. I said, “ When you’re ready for me, call me.” He called me to help do the mixes, and the rest is history.
LU: Were you recording the sessions or just called in for the mixing?
DK: I left New York in May, so I was in and out some of the production sessions, but once I left in May, I said call me when you’re ready to mix and I’ll come back and do it. Blair Wells his co- producer handled most of the tracking, and he and I handled the mixes when it came time to push it out.
LU: With The Love Movement, you had done all of the engineering, right?
DK: I did all of the tracking and mixing on The Love Movement.
LU: How were these sessions and working on this project different? I imagine quite a lot.
DK: Wow. The big difference is digital technology. We had digital back then but it was limited to drum machines and samplers. Pro Tools was just coming in. So it was basically an analog effort. We had tape running, we mixed through the console, we used what outboard was there. We didn’t have plug-ins and all those wonderful tools. The introduction of digital changed the game for everything. [Q-Tip’s] process now is never ending, because you can keep changing right down to the last minute, which was essentially what was going on. It really was quite a long process to actually stop producing. While we were mixing, we were still doing over vocals, changing drum kicks, changing snares and timing. All these things were still going on. If it didn’t feel right, it wasn’t right. That was a luxury that digital afforded us, but I think it loses a lot in terms of audio. I didn’t really like how The Love Movement sounded. I think this was one sounds and feels a lot better. I’m sure the production and the headspaces were totally different. In terms of the audio, this is a better-sounding album.
LU: What didn’t you like about the sound on The Love Movement?
DK: I don’t think we mixed it in the right room. We mixed it in the room we tracked in. The board we tracked it on was a great tracking board but the room wasn’t suited for a mix. It was a Sony room at the time. The mix kind of came out “bright.”
LU: One thing that’s been talked about with this album is that all of the collaborators were working together in the same room, as opposed to working through e-mail, like so much music today. On the engineering and the sound side of things, what came from that approach?
DK: Wow, it’s evident on the tracks. I remember working [with artists] years ago. The tape would loop back, rewind, play again, and these guys would sit down, pen and paper in hand, and write for hours. I would just sit there and watch the tape spin, try and do something else, keep myself occupied, and wait for them to come with their stuff. [Tribe has] a different type of focus. They have this back-and-forth energy that they feed off of, and it keeps them razor sharp. One can say something and they all say, “This is dope,” and the next one says something that makes them go “Wow, that was doper than my shit, so I gotta go do my shit back.” They will keep re-honing it and re-honing it. Sometimes, they go home and come back and someone says I gotta spit my verse over now. And this goes on and on.