When you are name dropped on one of the most iconic Hip Hop albums of the 80’s, it can forever change your career. Elai Tubo was given a shout out by Eric B & Rakim on their 1987 song ”Paid In Full” for his engineering skills. Something he is remembered for even to this day.
Elai Tubo came up as a DJ in the Queens club scene and later hosted a show on WBLS. Eventually Tubo got into the production side of the music business and worked with some of the most important people in Hip Hop from Run DMC, Eric B & Rakim to Jay-Z and LL Cool J.
How did you get into DJ’ing?
In my second year at Queens College I ran into a guy named Jet Procter. He used to give a lot of parties at the school. He had a couple of dance contests and stuff like that. Jet went on to manage a club called Casablanca. He wasn’t actually the owner of the club itself. He just had one night at the club. What I did was I would come down to Casablanca every Tuesday afternoon. I would get there at 7 o’clock and I would just practice on the turntables. Eventually, I got good enough to play while people were there and later I became a resident DJ.
When it was time to move on, Jet purchased the club that became known as the Renaissance. As a matter of fact, The Renaissance is the same club that Tom Browne mentions in his song ”Funkin’ For Jamaica”. The Renaissance was a very unique club in the sense that it was in Queens and one of the first of its type. At that time there wasn’t a central club, like a big upscale club, that black people could go to. Jet later gave The Renaissance a facelift and changed the name to Tiffany’s. The club was located of Hillside Avenue coming down Parson Boulevard in Queens. One day a bulldozer came down the hill, lost its breaks and went through the club. At that point Jet moved to LA and he actually opened up a club out there. Recently, he opened up a supper club in Atlanta called Jazz Café ATL.
The Renaissance also became a real central hub for a lot of talented people. Everybody from Luci Martin from Chic, Audrey Wheeler from Unlimited Touch, Ray and Burton Reid from Crown Heights Affair, Lonnie (Ferguson) from Machine, Kurtis Blow and Russell Simmons would come through the club.
Were you ever involved in record pools as a DJ?
The Renaissance was in Queens, which meant it didn’t have the reputation Studio 54 and the Paradise Garage in Manhattan had. Those clubs had DJ’s that were in record pools. They had records that we couldn’t get copies of. The DJ’s that were playing commercial R ‘n B in smaller clubs including myself had tried to get into the established pools like For The Record or IDRC but there was a waiting list or they didn’t think you were known enough to become a member. So we would go to the promotion department at record labels to get our promo records. That could take a full day.
Around that time we found out that there was a guy named Dennis Franklin that was starting a record pool which happened to be predominately for black and Puerto Rican DJ’s. That’s also when I met Kevin Woodley who was a DJ that later did A ’n R for Atlantic Records. He was known as Sugar Daddy and he did a couple of records like a version of ”Another One Bites The Dust”. Anyways, we went to 125th Street to join Dennis Franklin’s record pool called Disco Den. Being a member of record pool made our job a lot easier since we would automatically get advance copies with exclusive mixes and stuff like that.
Eventually, The Disco Den developed some policies that got their members really upset and caused many of them to leave. Bobby Davis and Al Pazaro left The Disco Den and started Sure Record Pool. John Morales of M & M Production, Kevin Woodley and myself left and started Real Record Pool and Promotions with Gene Sitirius as the director.
We had the cream of the crop like John Morales and Herb Powers who was also mastering engineer at Frankford & Wayne Mastering Labs along with hot up-and-coming DJ’s from all 5 boroughs. We started off with 25 DJ’s and they would get 25 records each. We had a certain amount of reporting DJ’s. We would analyze all the feedback from our members and pass it on to the labels, which had provided us with promo records. We would give actual feedback and not just take the records. As a member of our pool you had to list your top-25 tracks every week. By becoming what we called a reporting DJ you made a move up in the hierarchy and became really important because the record labels found out that the records black and Puerto Rican DJ’s were playing was what eventually was being broken on the radio. That helped us develop strong relationships with the labels.
Prior to this interview you told me about a DJ convention where all the record pools came together. Can you talk about that?
We all got together one year. All the record pools. It was a DJ unity conference. It had to do deal with the state of the music business and how DJ’s were affecting the music industry. At that time the DJ was starting to come into prominence. The labels realized that the DJ actually was the pulse of the streets. The radio stations wanted to know what we were playing so they could be the first to put the tunes in rotation. If you were a reporting DJ you would call 92 WKTU or WBLS and give them your 15-20 favourite records. At that time you actually had program directors that would listen to what DJ’s were playing. So it was a totally different way the music flowed. The DJ’s needed the labels to get the records before anybody else. The labels needed the DJ’s to break the records because the radio stations were paying attention to what was going on the clubs. Compared to today, there were a very different synergy where the DJ’s, the labels and radios were depending on each other.
What was the difference between reporting to a radio and reporting to a label through a record pool?
The radios just wanted your top-20 or whatever while the labels were looking for actual feedback on the songs. The labels were interested in knowing which mix worked, what the crowd reaction was and so on.
You eventually ended up becoming a DJ with the famed New York radio station WBLS yourself. How did that come about?
Sergio Munzabai and John Morales were some of the DJ’s who used to be on WBLS. They did what was called the ”half-hour dance mix party”. It was a program that was on every day at noon and again at 7 PM. Sergio and John got so popular from doing that show that they were offered to mix records. After a while they didn’t have time to do the radio show any more. They put the word out that they were looking for new DJ’s to take over. I submitted a tape. It was pretty professional because I was already really into tape editing, delays and stuff like that. They gave me the slot on WBLS and after that I became a regular contributor to the ”half-hour dance mix party” which was really cool. That was just before getting really involved in Power Play Studio.
When Russell Simmons (pre-Def Jam Records) came to the Renaissance, to promote Kurtis Blow’s ”Christmas Rappin’ and later on Run DMC’s ”Sucker MC’s”, I put those two records in my half-hour mix. Normally WBLS didn’t want that rap stuff played on their station during the day. You had Mr. Magic that was doing ”Rap Attack” but that was at midnight. Other than that it was only Sugarhill Gang’s ”Rappers Delight” that was in rotation. Eventually, I couldn’t do radio at WBLS, being a club DJ and work at the studio. I choose to focus on the engineering and production.
What was the first record you were involved in production wise?
The first record I was involved with was actually Vaughn Mason’s ”Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll”. The story about ”Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” is that I had a good friend called Vin Zee. He was a roller skater. He actually later got a deal with Emergency Records with a song called “Funky Bebop”. Anyways, Vin Zee was the guy who was supposed to be the artist behind ”Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” but him and Vaughn had a little falling out and Vaughn decided to give it a try himself. That was the first record I mixed. I put the break in and changed the sound of the drums.
How did you make the transition from a DJ with an interest in music production to becoming an engineer?
Artists were coming to the Renaissance club where I was DJ’ing and they wanted me to come to the studio to help them mix their records. At one point I had been at Power Play Studios five times in about two weeks with five different artists. Tony Arfie, who was the owner of Power Play, noticed it and asked if I wanted to be an engineer. Fantastic! I had already looked into audio engineering school but that cost $6000 a year, which I didn’t have. I actually worked at Power Play for two years for free while I was still DJ’ing. I was learning how to be an engineer. It was a really exciting time.
How did you first get in contact with Run DMC whom you ended up working with on their first two albums?
When I was DJ’ing at The Renaissance, Russell Simmons would come by with Kurtis Blow, like I mentioned earlier. Russell didn’t have his record label Def Jam yet. He had a management company (called Rush Management). At that time Russell’s brother Run was known as Son of Kurtis Blow. Russell and I hit it off. Kurtis Blow was going on the road. I went along as a roadie. Later, I got promoted to stage manager and eventually I became the road manager. Davy DMX was the DJ for Kurtis Blow. Larry Smith, who produced Whodini, was the bass player. The guy who played keyboard on Eric B & Rakim’s ”Move The Crowd” happened to be Rakim’s cousin and was also a part of the band. Kurtis Blow went out (on the road) with a full band. My involvement helped me develop a relationship with Russell. When Russell started to work with Run DMC he wanted to bring a DJ in to mix the record to get that club feel. He invited me to come to Greene Street Recording. They had an engineer named Rod Hui. He was really a phenomenal engineer. We went to work and both Run and DMC were in the studio the day we mixed ”It’s Like That” and recorded and mixed ”Sucker MC’s”. Russell was always a visionary and that first Run DMC record totally changed the sound of Hip-Hop.
I ended up working with Run DMC on their first two albums. Their second album was called King of Rock. That was the title song. I did another mix of ”King Of Rock” that came out so hot that they decided to turn it into a different track and call it ”Rock The House”. Both those songs are on the Kings Of Rock album.
You worked along with engineers at Power Play Studios like Vaughn Mason, Julian Hercile, D-Square and Ivan ”Doc” Rodriguez but I really want to ask you about the legendary Patrick Adams who has been involved in so many classics yet he’s not very well known. What can you tell me about him?
When I came in at Power Play, Patrick Adams was already established as a producer and engineer. He was a genius who made his first million in the music business at 19, and I was a DJ who used to play his songs in my sets. I thought it was great to work with my idol. You could put him by himself in a studio and he would have a track ready with strings and everything in an hour. What a lot of people don’t know is that he produced R ’n B with groups like Black Ivory but he was also the engineer for Eric B & Rakim and so many many others.
What could you learn from somebody like Patrick Adams?
Patrick was really a creator. He would learn manuals for equipment inside and out. The technical part supported his creativity. He might take some white noise from the board and put it behind a snare drum and create a whole new sound out of it. Patrick would do things that would be outside of the box. He had so many creative things going on, yet he was a humble man too. When I first met Patrick he had already lost all his money. He was on the verge of building up his career again. I was able to watch him develop and adapt to the new technology. I also want to add that older guys like Patrick Adams and Greg Carmichael (aka Red Greg) taught me a lot about contracts, negotiating and publishing and all that stuff. Greg Carmichael, by the way, is actually Stokely Carmichael of the Black Panthers cousin.
Not too many engineers are known by name but thanks to Eric B & Rakim your name rings bells with many Hip Hop fans. What was it like to work on an all-time classic like Eric B & Rakim’s first album “Paid In Full”?
What happened with the ”Paid In Full” album was that Eric & Ra had missed a couple of deadlines and because of that the record label said that they couldn’t put out the album on the scheduled date. The single was already out. It was called ”My Melody”. Patrick Adams worked and worked on finishing the album. The night before they had to turn it in to the record company, Patrick was too exhausted to continue any longer. He asked if I could help him with this project. He said, ”We got three songs we need to finish. We need to record vocals on two tracks, you need to add some keyboard and mix all three songs”.
Eric & Ra had booked the studio for the whole night. Everybody was doing what they had to do at break neck speed. Eric had done the scratching. I had recorded the keyboard to ”Move the Crowd”. We had finished the music for ”Paid In Full” and then I asked them what was next. Rakim told me that he needed to write something. In my mind I was like, “What?! What?! You need to write something?” He sat down in front of the piano in the recording room. I am just sitting there and meanwhile I can’t do anything until he’s ready. All I know is that I have to finish these songs so they can take the tape to their label 10 the next morning. All of a sudden Rakim gets up and walk over to the microphone. I said ”Are you ready?” He goes ”Cool”. I kick the track on and he goes ”Thinking of a master plan, but there’s nothing but sweat inside my hand”. I am listening along to the lyrical content and he says, ”So I dig deeper still coming up with lint”. Then he stopped. I am like ”What happened?” He looked at me and said, ”I got to write some more” (Laughs). He walks back to the piano and starts writing again. The whole song was done in two sections but his flow was so perfect. Everything was one take!
My cousin was hanging with us in the studio during the session. He was known as Takoda back then. Rakim wasn’t sure if he should write some more besides the verse we had just recorded. My cousin was deep into Hip-Hop and he was blown away. He said, ”It’s perfect!” The track was only 2 minutes and something. I said, “This is real short for song. What are we going to do?” Eric said, ”I’ll tell you what. Let’s roll the tape”. Eric and Ra started talking and while we were recording they said ”Yo, well check this out, yo Elai, turn the bass down and let the beat keep on rocking. What happened to peace? Peace!” And that’s basically how we ended the song.
After that Eric and Ra was burnt out. They went outside on the couch and crashed. I mixed the three songs we needed to finish. I made a cassette for them, woke them up and they headed to the label. Next thing I know ”Paid In Full” is the title track for the album. At that time I had no idea that having my name on that record was going to be a signature that was going to give me credibility the rest of my life.
Do you have any other stories to add from your work with Eric B & Rakim?
There was actually a really interesting situation that happened back then that I need to tell you about. After the first Eric B & Rakim album came out they started working on the second. I think at that time they were also trying to figure out which direction they wanted to go in. Ra might have wanted more of a street flavour and Eric was a little more commercial. We did some tracks and I thought that there were a couple of them that were really incredible. People were so hungry for the new Eric B & Rakim album and there was an intern, an assistant… He went into the studio and made a cassette tape of the tracks. It eventually leaked to the radio and that caused a big stink. Later they (Eric and Rakim) found out who copied it and they kicked his monkey ass. They really did.
Like I said earlier, many people wouldn’t know who engineered their favourite albums. What is the work relationship between producer and engineer from your point of view?
The engineers are the real unsung heroes of Hip-Hop if you ask me. Back then some guy might just come to the studio with a record and ask me to loop it. As an engineer, and I add producer here, I would go into my library of sounds and pick a kick drum I would add to the track. I would find a snare, add a hi-hat and do all kinds of stuff with EQ and filters. A lot of guys who called themselves producers didn’t know how to do that stuff. The engineer and the producer was almost one and the same person. Engineers hardly ever got their deserved credit.
You mentioned your library of sounds. What did your library consist of?
My library was made of records and floppy discs. Later it became mostly floppy’s. You had to be quick back then. Sometimes if you had gotten a real unique sound from messing with a sample in a session you would record it back to your disc. That way you would really fast have strong library of different sounds.
I think there was a closer relationship between DJ’ing and production back then. If you were a producer back then you had to have a record collection. When the Ultimate Breaks and Beats series started to come out they more or less became standard production tools. A lot of people would bring them to the studio and you would sample straight off those albums.
Biz Markie was sued by British musician Gilbert O’Sullivan for using an uncleared sample on his album ”I Need A Haircut” in the early 1990’s. How did that affect the production of Hip-Hop music from your point of view?
Biz Markie, Juice Crew and Marley Marl were all working out of Power Play. When Biz got sued and it was in Billboard, we were all asking ourselves what to do next. Releasing records with samples without permission was exactly what we were doing. Once Biz got sued it was a whole new day. From that point on you had to figure out what you could use while not getting sued. Sometimes you would have people that would come in and recreate the sample with live instruments. Some would try to disguise it by changing the EQ’s and taking all the highs out. Sometimes you would have it really low in the mix. Sometimes you would try to reverse the sample to make it less obvious.
Actually, I also think that it made us better businessmen because there were record labels that wouldn’t touch a track with too many samples. We learned about sample clearances and other legal aspects of the music business. If you didn’t clear a sample we learned that you could have a hit record and still make no money.
In 1984, Elai Tubo was asked to scratch on Tyrone Brunson’s song “Fresh”. Tubo agreed and when the video was shot none other than Ice-T stepped into to mimick Tubo’s zigga-zigga skills.