Interview: Anton Pukshansky
Anton Pukshansky might seem like an odd fit in a truly American art form like Hip Hop. As a Russian immigrant and classicly trained musician he has worked closely with artists like Large Professor, Organized Konfusion, Boogie Down Productions, Nas, Superlover C & Casanova Rud, Akinyele, Canada’s finest Maestro Fresh Wes and many others.
Anton was born in 1964 in Leningrad, now known as St. Petersburg. His father was a hobby pianist and Anton grew up to the sounds of the 40’s and 50’s Big Band. When the young Anton, who began playing piano at age 6 at the Leningrad Conservatory of Music, first heard the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Deep Purple and later Jimi Hendrix through a friend’s older brother, (who was smuggling records like these into the Soviet Union), his interest in music was changed forever.
He came to the US with his family in 1979 at the age of 15 and shortly after picked up the guitar. Later, when a high school friend built a recording studio, it gave Anton a chance to experiment with engineering. Along the way, Anton picked up the bass and in 1985, he self-released his first record, an Electro-Funk project by the name of Intellectrics. In 1989, Anton got job at Power Play Studios in Queens, NY. Some of the first albums he worked on was by Eric B & Rakim, Main Source and Kool G Rap & DJ Polo.
Nowadays people often refer to that period in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s as the Golden Age of Hip Hop. Did that period feel special looking back?
Hip-Hop was a relatively new art form and it felt like there was a whole new wave of music being created. Power Play felt like the center of that particular universe. Everybody came through there. I felt like we were breaking new ground. It was very exciting. It felt like we were all involved in creating this new art form, defining it and pushing its boundaries.
You first met Large Professor at Power Play while he was still very young. Wasn’t he actually still in high school at the time?
Oh, yeah. He was coming in after school with his SP-1200. We spent a lot time in the studio teaching each other and both learning as we went. He was teaching me about Hip Hop and I was teaching him about recording, production, EQ’ing and compression. I was amazed by his ability to hear something, grab it and match it to something else, change tempos, change pitch and with no form of musical training whatsoever, turn it all into a cohesive musical piece.
There were technical limitations: With the SP-1200 you could only sample 2.5 seconds per pad so a lot times Paul (aka Large Professor) was trying to create two bar loops that were longer than that. That’s where his artistry would blow me away. He would literally chop up the loop to several pads and sequence them together to make them sound like a seamless loop. The whole sampling idea was completely new to me but it didn’t stay new for very long. I got very good on the SP-1200. There was also another early sampler that Power Play owned. It was by a French company called Publison. The machine was called the Publison Infernal Machine and you could sample in stereo for as long as 10 seconds. Then you could trigger it via the click (track). I started showing vast producers that they didn’t have to chop it all up in the SP-1200. You couldn’t save it (on the Publison) because there was no disc drive. You would sample it, get it tuned up and then record it. It opened up a new way of doing things.
Do you remember any records that the Publison sampler was used on?
It was definitely used on Main Source (‘s “Breaking Atoms”), it was definitely used on “Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em” and it was definitely used on “Wanted: Dead Or Alive”. Most of that stuff was SP-1200 and when the Publison was used it would be used in conjunction with the SP-1200. Shortly after that Akai came out with the S-900 (sampler) and everybody ran out and bought one. Before the S-900, the Publison was the only way to sample in stereo and the only way you could get a sample longer than 2.5 seconds.
How was Large Professor to work with?
Large Professor is a perfectionist. Always has been. He would re-work and re-work and re-work the tracks until he was happy. Sometimes he would drive me nuts because it would sound perfectly good to me. We would mix a track, he would re-work it and we would have to mix it again. That was kind of tough for me because I like to work fast. I like to keep a flow going. It wasn’t really tension, it certainly wasn’t personal tension but definitely a little bit of me pushing like “Come on, come on. Let’s get it done” and Paul was like “No, no, no. I got to work on this”. There was a lot of that.
One of the songs you produced with Large Professor is ”Streets Of New York” for Kool G Rap & DJ Polo. Please tell me how that beat came about.
Large Professor had a drum beat and this one guitar loop. That’s all he had. He was like, “I need a change, I need a change”, a different musical part, and he couldn’t find it. He turned to me and said, “You want to play something?” I said, “Sure”. I figured out the key of the song from the guitar loop and I came up with a piano groove. Paul was like, you know, “That’s perfect”. Then we did the bass. OK, it needs something else. I said, “Look, there’s a line (in the lyrics) that says ‘blind man plays the sax’, why don’t I get a sax sound on the keyboard and play a sax solo”. He said, “Yeah, man! Do that.” It always cracks me up because if you see the video then there’s this older black dude playing the sax and I know it’s me playing it on a keyboard.
What about Kool G Rap?
You know, Kool G Rap is my second favourite MC of all time because nobody can tear up a fast beat like Kool G Rap. He’s a great writer too and he has this ability to just spit words out, with a lisp, 100 words a minute, and you can still understand what he was saying. He had great pockets, a great rhythmic feel. There’s some MC’s that just write to the music and he’s one of them. There were a lot of punch ins (while recording vocals) with Kool G Rap because there were so many words. It was with Kool G Rap that I really learned how to punch in vocals because a lot of times there’s no spaces. It’s all words. I would have to find the tiniest spaces to get in and not ruin the previous line. Punching in KRS 1 (on a song) is a piece of pie because there’s spaces everywhere but with Kool G Rap it’s just words, words, words. There’s no breath. That’s really where I got my punch-in job together. I got really good at it really quickly because the pressure was on.
As in there was a deadline coming up?
No, more like don’t fuck up because Kool G Rap is in the booth and his posse of 20 motherfuckers are sitting there in the control room and you don’t want to fuck up. I never felt physically threatened but it was definitely like there’s no room for mistakes.
What were Kool G Rap sessions like in general?
One thing I remember about Kool G Rap sessions is that they always started at night. Most sessions did but Kool G Rap sessions in particular always started at night. The first thing that would happen was that Kool G Rap and his crew would roll in with dinner. It was almost always shrimp scampi. They would roll in with shrimp scampi for everyone, which is funny because today, I’m allergic to shrimp. I can’t eat it. It was an allergy that I developed later in life but I always wondered if all the shrimp that I ate during Kool G Rap sessions contributed to it.
(Also) everybody was smoking weed. Everybody had really shitty weed but I had like amazing green hydroponic grown weed. A couple of times (when) I would break out my weed that would be the end of the session because they had never smoked anything like that. They would light up a blunt with this nasty brown Mexican dirt weed and I was like, “Put that shit out. Here, smoke this”. Next thing you know, I’m like, “Oh, my God!” Kool G Rap is asleep on the couch and Large Professor got headphones on and is listening to records.
You played bass on Main Source’s “Snake Eyes”, “Watch Roger Do His Thing”, “Looking At The Front Door” and bass and keyboard on the “Peace Is Not The Word To Play” remix. What was your working relationship with Large Professor like if, say, he needed a bassline?
I would just pick up the bass and sit there right next to him and work it out. I would come up with something right on the spot. Once we had something that everybody liked, usually it was very quick, a few minutes, I would get the feel right and start recording. Most of the time we would just find the best couple of bars, sample and loop them but with (Organized Konfusion’s) “Fudge Pudge” there’s no looping. It’s just me playing piano all the way through. Also a lot of times Large Professor would be playing a record that he really wanted to sample but he would say, “I can’t sample it because there’s all this other stuff going on that I don’t want.” I would listen to the record, learn the bass line and play that. With “Snake Eyes” he had a sample with a bass line that he couldn’t really bring out. He just asked me to play something that was similar to what was in the sample.
You come from a Rock background but you had encountered Hip Hop before Power Play, working on demos for Stetsasonic and Nice & Smooth. What did you actually make of it?
I wasn’t really paying it any attention. It really clicked for me (after I began working) with Large Professor. That’s when I realized that the musical foundation of Hip Hop was all the music that I loved. Large Professor turned me onto a lot of music that I had never heard that I love to this day like the Skull Snaps record. It’s one of my favourite records of all time. (He also put me up on groups like) Funk Inc, Young Holt Unlimited, some Isaac Hayes records and the first Meters record which I had never heard up until then. It became a huge influence on my life.
Some of the artists you worked with had also worked with the late producer Paul C. Did the two of you ever meet?
I never actually met Paul C but I have heard so many stories from Large Professor, Superlover C & Casanova Rud and Organized Konfusion because they all worked with him. I probably still have a couple of SP-1200 discs with his name on it. I don’t even know if those discs work.
Can you talk about your work with Nas and Large Professor?
Nas was this young kid who would just come in at Power Play and hang around. He was really very quiet and would sort of just be in the background. Large Professor and I did Nas’ demo, three or four songs. Somewhere in my garage there’s a box of DAT-tapes and one of them is the mixes from Nas’ demo tape. I don’t think he would ever consent it to being released because his voice sounds like he’s 12.
Anyways, we did Nas’ demo and nothing happened. He didn’t get signed off that demo. What happened was that around 1990 or ’91 I had met (a producer named) T-Ray. We were working on MC Serch’s solo album at Chung King (Studios) and we needed one more MC for “Back To The Grill Again”. T-Ray and I were like, “Why don’t you get Nas?” We called up Nas, he came down and he dropped a verse. Everybody was like, “Oh, my God! This kid is incredible” and that day Todd, (aka) T-Ray, called up Faith Newman, who was at Columbia (Records) at the time, and that’s how Nas got signed. Large Professor is the guy who’s really responsible for discovering Nas as a talent and T-Ray is responsible for getting him signed.
When we were working with Nas on his demo, he was this really quiet kid who wouldn’t say much and then he would get on the mic and, you know, spit fire. Working with Nas on his first album, all of sudden it was a complete change. He was partying a lot and he went everywhere with a big posse. It was just amazing how he went from this quiet kind of nerdy kid to a Rap star. It literally happened over night.
But “Back To The Grill Again” wasn’t Nas’ first appearance on record. Nas was also on Main Source’s “Live At The Barbeque”, right?
Yes, he was but he didn’t get signed off of that (song). We did “Live At The Barbeque” at 4 o’clock in the morning. That was a crazy session. I had been working for days straight because we were trying to finish up the album with deadlines and everything. At 1 o’clock everybody came over to do vocals. Nas took about ten minutes. Literally, he came in, he dropped his verse and he was done. All the time was taken getting Joe Fatal’s verse. He couldn’t quite get it down. It took a while. That’s also how I met Akinyele who I ended up working with as well (on among other projects his debut album “Vagina Diner”).
When you were playing bass or keys on top of programmed beats was it to hide samples for clearance purposes or was it to add something to the original sample?
It was almost always to add something. It was very rarely to hide anything but a lot times I would replay something because the sample couldn’t be used so it would be like, “Learn this bass line and change a couple of notes so we don’t get sued”. I mean, I did a lot of that for Biz Markie because he got sued for that record (where he sampled the British singer Gilbert O’Sullivan). Literally, after that record got pulled off the shelves, I starting getting a lot of calls from (Biz Markie’s cousin and DJ) Cool V to come out to their studio in New Jersey and play. They were terrified of using samples.
Biz Markie is also a friend. A good story about Biz is that when Kool G Rap’s album “Wanted: Dead Or Alive” came out, Kool G Rap got a show headlining the Apollo (Theater in Harlem). He wanted me to mix the show. I’m like, “Sure, cool. I will go mix a live show for you.” Mixing a Hip Hop show live is pretty simple. There’s a stereo track for the music and a vocal mic. We show up at the Apollo, we do a sound check and everything’s good. The crowd piles in and it turns out that I’m doing the whole show and not just Kool G Rap. It was like Masta Ace, MC Shan and Kool G Rap. I’m standing in the booth, which is floor level. I’m getting a really really hostile vibe. I’m one of only two white people in the whole place. I’m starting to get really nervous because people are starting to roll up to the booth and just staring at me. I’m also not used to it because in the studio the colour of my skin never really mattered. All of a sudden, out of the blue, comes Biz Markie, and he’s a huge guy, pushes through the crowd, walks into the booth and gives me a huge hug. After that everything was cool because he put the Biz Markie stamp of approval on me.
Can you talk about your group “Sample This!” which released a self-titled album on Elektra Records in 1993?
Sure, in a way, I also have Large Professor to thank for some of that. What happened was I had a friend named Curtis Watts who was a drummer, and I got him a job as an intern at Power Play. Since we were both there we started making music after hours when all the clients had left. I started writing some tunes, well, they were more grooves than songs. Large Professor was working with Traedonya, this young singer who came out of X-Clan. We were listening back to our tunes and she happened to be in the studio and she poked her head in and she said, “What is this? Can I sing on it?” I made her a cassette (of the instrumental tracks) and she came back the week after with lyrics for all the songs.
I was sitting at Elektra in Dante Ross’ office. We had known each other for a long time and I played him the songs with Traedonya singing on it. He turns to me and said, “So you want to make a record?” I played it to him to just get his thoughts but I was like, “Yeah, I want to make a record!” and next thing I know lawyers are involved and we’re negotiating a deal.
Also, because of my Hip Hop connections half the time we would have rappers come up and guest with us (when we were performing live). We were playing at Tramps one night and Havoc and Prodigy (of Mobb Deep) showed up. They came up on stage, grabbed the microphones and rapped for half an hour. I was always encouraging that.
You only released that one album. What happened?
The record sold somewhere between 70.000 – 80.000 copies, which for me was huge because I knew it wasn’t radio music but for Elektra it wasn’t a hit. They wouldn’t give us the budget for the second album and they also wouldn’t drop us. We sued Elektra and essentially we won. It was settled out of court. They gave us the budget they owed for the second album, which was a part of the deal and they also gave us our masters back. While Sample This! was a great personal achievement it was hurting my engineering and production career because I wasn’t always available to do sessions. You call somebody once, you call somebody twice and if they’re not available you call somebody else. That’s just how it is.
You mentioned earlier that Kool G Rap is your second favourite rapper. Who’s your favourite?
It’s Rakim. Absolutely! Some of my first sessions as an engineer (at Power Play) was Eric B & Rakim. When I was working with them it wasn’t Eric B & Rakim. It was either Eric B or Rakim. You would never see them in the same room except if they were on stage. They never did get along but by then I don’t think they could stand the sight of each other. They would book weeks and weeks and weeks of studio time and not show up. Rakim just wasn’t around. He just wouldn’t show up. Eric was around but sometimes even he wasn’t around. They wouldn’t show up but Large Professor would come in and we would work on what eventually became Main Source (‘s “Breaking Atoms” album). Also, at the same time we were doing Kool G Rap & DJ Polo’s “Wanted: Dead Or Alive”. That was really my first project where I did everything from start to finish. I tracked everything, I mixed the album, I played on it and I co-produced “Streets Of New York” with Large Professor and I produced “The Polo Club”, the DJ cut on the album. I went freelance after those three records were finished but continued to do a lot of work at Power Play.
When it came time to do vocals Rakim would show up at 10 or 11 at night. He would hang out for a few minutes, smoke a joint and go into the booth and knock out his vocals in one take. Every time! He’s one of the most prepared people, I have ever come across in Hip Hop. He had his lyrics completely down. He would come in knowing exactly what he wanted to do and an hour later he would be gone like he never came except for these great vocals.
Now, the Eric B & Rakim album, many, many people worked on that one. We worked on that record for like a year. They also went out to California and did some work out here but most of the production was handled by Large Professor. He created most of the tracks. (One day) I got a call from Eric B, “I need you to come in and mix the record.” I was like, “What record?” “The album. We got a mastering session tomorrow.” I mixed “Let The Rhythm Hit ‘Em” in one day. We started around noon and I think I finished mixing around 6 o’clock the next morning. It was a very long day. It was just one long mixing session. Eric B was present for most of it. Rakim was not anywhere to be seen.
Do you mind talking about Grand Puba whom you worked with on his hit “360° (What Goes Around Comes Around)”?
He was famous for not showing up. I did a lot of Sample This! on Grand Puba’s time. He would call me, “Yo, do whatever you want. I’m not going to be there today.” OK, Sample This! session. There was a lot of that. Like I said, the Main Source album was started on Eric B’s time. Grand Puba didn’t have a car and he lived up in Mount Vernon so the record company got him a car service. The idea was, pick him up in the morning, take him to the studio and pick him up (after the session) and take him home. Well, the car would come and Grand Puba would be like, “I gotta go to Brooklyn to see this girl” and he would keep the car. Then he was like, “Oh, man. I gotta go see the weed man” or see his other girl. Once in a while he would actually make it to the studio but most of the time he would just use the car as his private chauffeur. This went on for weeks and months. In fact, that meeting I told you about with Dante Ross was about Grand Puba and what are we going to do about this guy.
One night he shows up at the studio and he comes in with one record. He said, “Yo, loop up this drum beat”. No problem, I bring the SP-1200 out and loop it up. He’s like, “Yeah, yeah. I like that. It needs something”. I don’t have any records but my bass was right there. “Put a bassline down.” He starts humming to me. He has a great voice and a great feel but he can’t sing or hum. I got the rhythm but no pitch information whatsoever. He’s like, “Fuck with that. I’m gonna break out.” So I fucked with it and I came up with a bassline. It’s almost like an early ‘60’s Soul record if you listen to it. I recorded it, that bassline I looped up, and then I started building on top of that with guitar tracks and a little organ. A couple of days later he comes back and he’s like, “Yo, that bassline is dope but the rest of the shit I don’t need it”. I’m like, “Oh, man. I pretty much did a whole arrangement here” but he was like, “Nah, man.” He went in and did the vocals to just the drums and bass. That was the record. It’s really very very simple. There’s no change and there’s no chorus. The chorus is really just (his DJ) Alamo mixing in that record live. There’s no loop. I’m a big fan of simple and Grand Puba was right about what worked best for the song, which is funny because I wanted to do this whole big production.
Supposedly, I don’t know if this is true or not but I have been told that just Grand Puba’s car bill for that record was 100 grand, not to mention the incredible amount of studio time that he booked, paid for and never used but the record did so well that it didn’t matter.
You were heavily involved with Organized Konfusion’s debut album from 1991. Can you talk about that?
They came into Power Play and they didn’t have an engineer and somebody recommended me. I met with the guys and it was one of those things where we just completely hit it off on a personal and on a musical level. We just became instant friends. This was like my favourite shit ever because lyrically they were talking about stuff no other rappers were talking about. The referenced Marvel comics and shit like that. They were really cosmic and I was really into that. They were very adventurous which is the kind of stuff that I love. It was just a really good hang. I remember those sessions as the best vibe ever. All around just a fantastic experience.
Also, that’s how OC got discovered. He was a part of their posse and he’s on “Fudge Pudge”. It was kind of like another Nas situation where somebody gets discovered by being on somebody else’s record. They had a whole posse called the Organisms. A lot of times when there’s a posse present in the studio it’s counterproductive and it actually makes the work slower and more difficult. In their case, their whole posse was super creative so it really helped the album along. As it happens, I ended up working on the OC solo record “Word… Life”.
What did you do on OC’s album?
I’m did engineering and mixing. (The OC album) was kind of an extension of the Organized Konfusion album. It didn’t sound anything like it but some of the same crew was involved.
You are credited on the Organized Konfusion album as Adam Ant Anton. Was it some inside joke by Prince Po and Pharaohe Monch involving Adam & The Ants or what’s the story?
They had nicknames for everybody. That’s just how they were, very playful people. There’s an interlude on that record called “Jiminez Criqueta”. They were signed to Hollywood Records. The A&R, I can’t remember his name, was this little tiny black dude and he would come and hang out at a lot at the sessions. They would be really annoyed with him because he was really annoying. He kind of just killed a lot of the creativity and the vibe. He was tiny, he had glasses and a small voice. One night after he left and we all got high, they were like, “Yo, he’s Jiminy Cricket” and that became his name. They couldn’t call the interlude Jiminy Cricket because they didn’t want him to know so it became “Jiminez Criqueta“.
When I was working with G Rap and the deadly weed came out, they would end up incapacitated but with Organized Konfusion the deadly weed would come out and we would all get super creative. They were like, “Anton, make sure you bring that.” I would say that the record would come out the same way whether there was weed (involved) or not but it certainly helped. They were super creative people to begin with so it’s not like you needed it to be there. It definitely made a couple of sessions really fun though.
What did you actually do on the first Organized Konfusion album?
I feel I had more imprint on that record than most. I engineered the whole album (along with Chris Conway), played bass and piano on “Fudge Pudge”, mixed the album, did production work on “Open Your Eyes”, wrote and produced the “Jimenez Criqueta” interlude, wrote and played the remix of “Who Stole My Last Piece Of Chicken”. Everything about that record, the way it sounds, is pretty much due to the fact that I was involved with it. If you listen to that record it’s a lot spacier than most Hip Hop records are. It has a lot more air, space and atmosphere in it and that has to do with the way it was recorded and mixed. There’s a lot more reverb and a lot of different sounds on that album than you wouldn’t expect to hear on a Hip Hop record. You know, by that time they were this convention of the Hip Hop way of doing things. They weren’t afraid to break those rules and I was pushing to break them because I thought that this could be a really unique record. And to this day I think it’s really unique record. If I had to pick one Hip Hop album, that I’m most proud of having been involved with, it would be between that and the Main Source album. I can’t pick one because I love them both.
Anton left New York and moved to California in 1999 where he continues to work as a musician and producer / engineer. There will be a new Sample This! Album coming out in Spring 2013 with Traedonya on vocals.
Special thanks to Jesper Jensen.