Chris Conway has worked as an engineer for the last twenty years on between 500 and 1000 albums according to his own estimation. His resume includes names like The Beatnuts, Eminem, Kool G Rap & DJ Polo, DITC, Kanye West, Common, Ludacris and many many others.
Chris, who was nicknamed “the Conman” by the late rapper Big L, grew up in Adirondack Mountains, upstate New York and began playing drums at the age of four. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Suny Purchase in Westchester and made the move to New York City when he was 22. Since then Chris has left his touch on too many Rock, Pop, R ‘n B and Rap releases to mention.
What type of projects are you currently working on?
I’m just finishing an album up with R.A. The Rugged Man. He’s been coming (here at No Mystery studio) for about 5 months. It’s been a great experience working with him. His rhymes are so fast and there’s so much in them lyrically. He’ll spend hours doing one verse just because he wants to try it different ways. It’s been a really intense experience. It’s exhausting (because) it’s not just mixing. We’ll be here recording vocals and he’ll look at me and he’ll ask me “What do you think?” If I don’t have an answer he’ll get pissed. I have to focus. It’s been a really intense experience but his album is coming out amazing!
One of the biggest selling projects you have ever worked on also happens to be a Rap album. What was your experience working with Eminem on his multi-platinum “Marshall Mathers” LP?
He was really great to work with. His work ethic was top-notch. We worked like 17 hours a day for two weeks straight. When (Eminem’s manager) Paul Rosenberg called me about doing the project I had just become familiar with the song (“Guilty Conscience”) Shady had done with Dr. Dre. I was really inspired by his style and vocal technique. I asked Paul if I could rent some microphones because there were certain types of mics that they didn’t have a Chung King, the studio I was working at (during that time). Paul said, “Yeah, get whatever you want, whatever you need”. They had a pretty good budget for the Marshall Mathers LP. I ended up renting like 12 mics, all different things, vintage tube mics, and ribbon mics, rare stuff that you couldn’t necessarily get anywhere else. I set them all up in the vocal booth. The first day we had Em go in and just move from microphone to microphone and just try different things. At the end of the session we had narrowed it down to a couple of mics that we liked. I was like “Which ones do you want to keep?” Em’s response was “Keep them all” so that’s exactly what we did. We ended up using everything. We used different mics for different songs.
The reason we kept all the microphones was that maybe three or four days later Em would come back to a song (where we had already recorded the lyrics) not for performance purposes but because he changed the lyrics or something. That meant that we had to do a punch-in for one bar (and to make it sound like the rest of the song we would have to use the same mic)
Marshall always knew which microphone we used for a certain song. We had all the mics left in the vocal booth for the entire time and he would go straight to the right mic. He had a great microphone technique too. He would do certain things like (blocking a nostril slightly with a finger) for a hook or certain things like that. He could hear if he was a millimeter off. He would hear that difference. Most of the time with artists I would have to tell them “Let’s try that again. The tone’s off.” Em would pick it up himself. Within a couple of takes he would match the sound perfectly.
With his vocals Em would sit and really get his rhyme together before he would even get on the microphone. We might do a couple of bars to warm up his voice and for the sound level but then he would nail it in one take.
What else can you remember from Eminem’s Marshall Mathers sessions?
I remember he wrote “Stan” in the studio. He came up with the first two verses. It was just him and me in the room. He was asking me “What else could a fan say to an artist?” I told him that I thought that he covered it all but I asked him why he didn’t write the third verse from his own perspective back to the fan. I had a big imprint on Stan in the sense that I guided him in that direction. I think that’s one of the parts of the song that really made a big impact and really gave the song direction.
After finishing up the verses Em was trying to come up with a hook. While he was writing the hook I was just sitting there playing around with the board. The beat consisted of a kick (drum), snare, hi-hat and the Dido loop. I cross-patched the Dido loop into two other channels and I used the EQ to filter out all the vocals and all the high-ends so you just had a bass track. During the verses I cut the Dido loop and just left the filtered version in and after the verse was over, I dropped in the Dido loop with the vocals. He looked at me and said, “That’s the hook.” We just knew looking at each other that he didn’t have to write a hook.
Before we go further can you tell how you ended up becoming one of the go-to Hip Hop engineers?
I had been touring around with an Irish folk singer named Barbara Gogan who was in a New Wave band named the Passions. We went into the studio to do some recordings and I saw what the engineers and the producers were doing. Right away, I knew what I wanted to do.
I actually have a Bachelor of Fine Arts in music performance and going through school I never realized how creative and how much input the engineers and the producers had on the artist’ final product. When I saw what was going on (in the studio), I got an internship at Power Play Studios (located in Queens, NY). I think that was in 1988. I was an intern for about six months and then I was put into assisting. I was assisting for about a year but I never went to audio engineer school. I learned from interning, assisting and having a passion for the technology.
Some of the first stuff you did was with Showbiz & AG. You did work on their classic ‘Soul Clap’ EP from 1991. How did that come about?
I was assisting for KRS 1 and Boogie Down Productions (at Power Play) and the engineer at the time was coming in later and later because they had the whole summer of 12 hours lock-out booked. Kris (aka KRS 1) would show up at 5 or 6 in the afternoon. I had to be there at noon every day to make sure everything was set up for the session. One day Kris showed up at noon, right on time. The engineer wasn’t there and Kris got really upset, and said to me, “Mix the song.” So I mixed the song for him and when the engineer showed up at 4, it was done. It was I believe “You Must Learn” from the (Ghetto Music: The) “Blueprint” (Of Hip Hop) album or the title song, “The Blueprint”. One of those songs. I didn’t get credit because I was young and because there were politics involved. Everybody around the studio and the people who were hanging out at that time knew about it. Showbiz heard the mix and he wanted to work with me based on that.
From working with Showbiz I got (the chance) to work with Fat Joe. That was a great record for me to do. “Flow Joe” was also the first song I did that I later heard while I was walking down the street and it was pumping out of every Jeep. That was a really powerful feeling. It was great. I don’t think it sold that much, but the on-air success was what really got me to the point where I could pay the bills just engineering. I was working constantly after that.
Besides Showbiz & AG and Fat Joe you also worked with Lord Finesse, OC, Diamond D and the rest of the DITC crew on many other projects over quite a long period of time. What did you take away from working with these guys?
You actually develop a sense of family. You know, those guys are like family. At the point we stopped working together it was just the natural progression of things. I was going off doing other things and they were going off doing other things. I learned in those sessions that with certain artists you want to take the sounds that the producer has and not do too much to them. You want to keep the kick drum sound the same EQ as it is and just make it bigger. In certain scenarios, an engineer might be inclined to gate out a lot of the noise on the drums if it’s a 12 Bit sample and make a really nice and clean sound but then if you take the gates off and just let it breathe sometimes it actually sounds better.
You came up as an engineer in the early 90’s when the MPC-60 and the SP-1200 sampler were really starting to come to prominence. Can you talk about the gear that was used at that time?
SP-1200 was actually the first drum machine I learned to program. In the early days, engineers like Ivan “Doc” Rodriguez, Patrick Adams, Elai Tubo and myself, when artists and even producers came in, they would basically come with their crate of records and we would do the programming. We would sample the stuff. In the beginning, for the first couple of years, they didn’t know how to do the drum machines. I think with a lot of the Showbiz & AG stuff, Showbiz had a vision of what he wanted. He would say, “Grab this kick”. He would grab a snare from somewhere else, get the main sample and I would sample it and loop it up. He was really attentive and he stood over my shoulder. Everything I was doing on the MPC-60, he was watching what I was doing. I was kind of teaching him the technical aspects of how the drum machines worked. A lot of these kids were fast learners. They would learn the stuff themselves and they would go and buy their own MPC-60 or their own 1200 and later on they would come in with the beat already done. Then we would just lay it down on tape.
What can you tell me about the late Big L? You worked on his debut album “Lifestylez Ov Da Poor & Dangerous”, recording and engineering it.
He was fun to work with because he had a great sense of humour. He was young so a lot of times it was sardonic. I remember times when Showbiz, Diamond D and Lord Finesse, in those sessions, wanted to beat the crap out of him. He would not stop. He was relentless, relentless with the wise cracks. He was really gifted with the gab. He would basically just ‘troll’, to use today’s internet terms, everybody with his sarcasm and sardonic behaviour. He was a real wise ass. I don’t mean that in a bad way. He was funny.
I really liked the sound of Big L’s voice. He could have said just about anything but he had such a good flow and sound. His delivery was clear. Hip Hop has gone in a direction where people become characters and are not real. Jay-Z has a certain character that he throws out there but you get a sense that it’s still Jay-Z. Big L was like that. His raps and the sound of his voice stretched his personality without making him caricature. It was still him.
Some of the BIG L tracks were pretty hardcore. Did that affect the vibe in the studio?
We spent so much time in the studio and sometimes it was really serious and sometimes it was funny. My memories are all the good ones. There were moments where I thought Showbiz was going to knock him out. (Laughs) And they were very serious moments. Showbiz is a great guy but you definitely don’t want to piss him off.
You mentioned prior to this interview that you considered some of the other engineers at Power Play Studios your mentors. Do you have any stories about the legendary Patrick Adams who also was an engineer there?
Patrick Adams is a genius. When you’re a musician and you’re learning all these technical aspects you go through periods where you’re completely focussed on just that. Working with Patrick reminded me never to forget the musicality because it was all about how things felt.
As music has evolved, there has always been this battle between live and programmed. Especially, in today’s pop market everything is programmed and done that way. Patrick would play stuff live (on top of programmed beats) and it would have this emotion to it. I remember this one particular time where he looked at me and said, “Now, this is when the magic happens”. It was real magic. I learned how to be a magician from Patrick Adams.
I was wondering if from an engineer’s perspective, is it limiting to work with samples and drum machines?
That’s an interesting question because whenever they give the Grammy Awards for the technical side of things they always give it to some Classical engineer who recorded some great orchestra in a perfect recording environment with the best microphones and the best musicians who have million dollar violins. It’s the same shit every year. They have never even considered giving a tech award or a Grammy Award to an engineer who’s doing Hip Hop because they’re basically snobs about that stuff. However, working with samples is actually a lot more difficult because taking something that’s really grimy and gritty from an old record and trying to filter it and EQ it in a way that makes it palatable to the ear is a lot harder than recording a great violin, with a great microphone in a great room. It’s like the sound is already there.
I am a Classical trained musician and it has always upset me when peers of mine in that aspect of my life didn’t see the huge potential and the art in the rhythm, the flow and the poetry (of Rap). It’s actually more complex than a melody. Singing records are great too and singing a melody is a wonderful thing but just because an artist doesn’t sing doesn’t mean that it’s not equally powerful.