Meet Ken Lewis: Hip-Hop’s Max Martin

By | 3 months ago
We sit down with a man working behind the scenes with the biggest artists in the world.
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“Can you tell me about the sample recreation process?” I ask Ken Lewis on the phone last week. “I didn’t know that was a thing.”

“I didn’t know it was a thing either until Kanye asked me to do it.”

The New York-based producer wears a lot of hats. His Twitter profile boasts: “Producer / Songwriter / Musician / Mixer | for Kanye, Jay Z, Eminem, Drake, Bruno Mars, FUN., J Cole, Usher, John Legend and more.” Lewis also has major credits as a sound engineer, arranger, studio musician, vocalist, and, of course, a sample recreator. Throughout his roughly 20 years in the music business, Ken has credits on 16 GRAMMY awards out of 50 nominations, and has worked on 82 Gold and Platinum-certified albums and singles, and 60 No. 1 hits, so far.

Of his many projects, sample recreation is Ken’s least favorite. It involves listening to the same two bars of music thousands of times over the course of a few days. When an artist uses a sample, he needs to clear two things: first, the publishing rights (who wrote it), and second, the master’s use (who owns the original work, which is normally the record company). Artists typically buy the publishing rights, but to save money from also buying the master’s use, his record label will hire someone like Ken to reproduce the sample. The idea is to recreate the sound exactly so that the listener thinks he or she is hearing the original. “It’s the most tedious, difficult, boring, mind-numbing work that I get called to do,” Ken says. But as tends to be the case, he is able to see the bright side: “I get credits on a lot of major records that way.” What’s more, Ken likes that his work involves variety, explaining that he would get bored if he exclusively worked in one area or one genre. However, his heart is in production.

As a producer, Lewis is one half of Katalyst with Brent Kolatalo, who shared a childhood guitar teacher with Ken growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Brent came to work with Ken in New York after his fourth semester at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, which Ken also attended. As Brent was preparing to return at the end of the summer, Ken told him to stay in New York and make records with him, assuring Brent he would learn more that way than at school. Brent took Ken’s suggestion to drop out of Berklee, and that fall, Kanye called upon them to work on The College Dropout. The running joke is that Brent dropped out of college to work on The College Dropout.

Ken describes Berklee as a “double-edged sword” for someone who wants to make pop and urban records. While it was “incredible to be surrounded by 1,500 amazing musicians,” school taught him a rigid rubric for music-making: “I had to spend years deprogramming myself from certain rules of music.” For example, Ken explains that a great pop song can have just two or three chords, while Berklee taught that a song must be musically complex—with four or five chords and minor sevens and sharp nines.

At the same time, however, a lot of what he learned at Berklee, Ken still uses today. For example, his classical training has helped him achieve his status as rappers’ go-to guy to add musical elements to hip-hop tracks—such as choir, live strings, and horn selections. On Kanye’s GRAMMY-winning “All of the Lights,” which Ken sites as his favorite track he’s worked on, he is credited with brass and woodwinds, horn arrangements, and vocals. “From the moment I started working on that record,” he tells me, “I just thought it was magic.”

Despite the fact that his discography is primarily concentrated in hip-hop, Ken insists he doesn’t have a preferred genre (he recently worked with Ingrid Michaelson and Lady Gaga, and dreams of producing for Adele). He attributes his ability to work effectively in various genres to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours algorithm—the notion that achieving expertise is primarily a matter of practicing effectively for roughly 10,000 hours. Ken performed the calculations, and even with a conservative estimate, he has spent 70,000 hours mastering music. He tells me that he has worked 7 days a week since he began freelancing in 1995 after leaving a major Manhattan studio. His schedule typically involves waking at 12 or 1pm and working until around 2am.

“That must make it hard to have a social life,” I say.

“What’s that?” He laughs. “I’ve heard rumors of such a thing, but I haven’t experienced it.”

Ken says he makes time to spend with his wife each day, but maintaining regular friendships is nearly impossible. If one thing is clear from our conversation, it’s that making it in this business takes an incredible amount of hard work. While he can’t deny that luck is often at play—being in the right place at the right time, “catching a Drake single”—he also stresses that “anyone who has gotten to my place in the music industry has worked their ass off.”

In addition to his work for other artists, Ken also has two online music schools. AudioSchoolOnline teaches mixing, recording, and producing to the next wave of aspiring engineers and producers. Lewis refers to his first music school, MusicSchoolOnline.com, as “a behemoth of a site,” elaborating that it contains over 700 tutorials. MSO teaches instruments—guitar, drums, piano, bass, voice—and music theory to anyone who wants to learn. Lewis is happy to be contributing to the next generation of music and recording and has a strong vision of how he wants both schools to grow in the future.

I ask Ken where he wants to be in five years.

“I wanna fuckin’ be Max Martin. For real.”

I tell him this doesn’t seem unattainable.

We can hear Ken’s work on the upcoming Lady Gaga and OneRepublic albums, and Ingrid Michaelson’s current radio single, “Still the One.”

***

By Anna Dorn. Follow her on Twitter.

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