“If you are interested in stories with happy endings you would be better off reading some other book” - Lemony Snicket
Space is necessary for artistic creation. The space for rap artists is the studio—where creative expression is recorded, where poets bleed their ink, where preachers give their sermons, and where lives are immortalized. Studios are holy temples, festival grounds, but they are also home to unfortunate tragedies.
For all the beauty that manifests from these tiny rooms, grim events also strike without warning. Bad things can happen at any time, any place, any moment, but it’s especially sad when tragic events take place where art is born.
J. Cole named his studio the Sheltuh, a fitting title for a space meant to be a creative workplace and safe haven for him and his Dreamville artists. The studio is a house strategically located in the woods of suburbia; no surprise that a rich neighborhood in North Carolina was selected for their getaway sanctuary. The Sheltuh was a secret, unknown to anyone that isn't associated with Cole but has been immortalized by “Neighbors”—a song that is based on a true story. Cole's own nosey neighbors truly assumed he and his company were selling drugs from the home. Elite, a producer who has been aligned with Cole for years, toldComplex how the Sheltuh was raided during the making of 4 Your Eyez Only.
One call suggesting that drugs were being sold sent the police running into the home like they were trying to seize Pablo Escobar. No drugs were found and no arrests were made, but the racial profiling aspect of the story is beyond saddening. Too many black faces, the scent of marijuana, the obsessive paranoia that they must be doing wrong—they must be selling drugs. J. Cole went double Platinum with no features, has rubbed elbows with the president and has been a positive role model for dreamers worldwide, but none of that matters when you’re black in America. A wise man once said, “Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe.”
While Cole’s raid is a reflection on ancient racial issues in America, he was able to come out of the situation only needing to replace the door they kicked in. By comparison, Juelz Santana was hit hard when his New Jersey studio was raided by police in 2011. He was arrested on drugs and weapon charges but never stood trial for them. During the raid, police seized everything, including hard drives containing music. Not just Juelz’ solo music, but songs that also featured Lil Wayne. Over 100 songs were lost, and at least 20 of them featured his I Can’t Feel My Face partner. While the game was missing Juelz, he was missing the hard drive with all the music he made. Another big blow: Juelz had a friend drop dead in the studio—how are you suppose to create when shrouded in misfortune?
The brilliant RZA had a plan for Wu-Tang’s future, a domination over the music industry, and it would be done mostly from one central location—the 36 Chambers Studio. He modeled his company after Motown and Stax Records—two companies that produced a particular sound and did so from their own studios. He built 36 Chambers to give him a place to record and produce the sounds of Wu. Between 1992 and 1995, Method Man (Tical was actually recorded in various studios while the group was on tour), Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Raekwon and GZA all had albums with beats by RZA, which were recorded mostly at the studio. All of Wu-Tang's music was there, but sadly, two floods would ruin what they created. They rebuilt after the first flood, but the second was the bullet in the studio's heart.
In an interview with DJBooth, Raekwon confessed that over 500 beats and countless songs were lost. It’s a known fact Inspectah Deck lost his entire debut album. This is early, sample-heavy RZA—there’s no telling what gold was drowned in that water.
"Stax had what? A sound. Motown had what? A sound. Every song was recorded where? At Motown. At Stax. My idea was that every song would be recorded at this place, and I gave it the most obvious name it could have: 36 Chambers. Because that’s exactly what it was: the thirty-sixth chamber of my studies – the place I brought my wisdom to the world." - RZA, 'The Tao of Wu'
While flooding ruined what could’ve made history, a fire burned down actual history in the form of a hip-hop landmark in 2002. Sugar Hill Studio, the home where The Sugarhill Gang recorded “Rapper’s Delight” in 1979, slowly and sadly burned to the ground in the dead of night. It was like a piece of history; a studio directly connected to the birth of hip-hop as we know it. The New York Times reported that Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Spoonie Gee and Sequence and The Crash Crew all used the studio to record their early breakout singles. It's heartbreaking to know that an artifact of an era no longer stands for our eyes to witness. You can rebuild a studio, but it’s more than the building, it's what was made in the recording booth. History is important to the culture, and sadly, what would be a historical landmark fell due to a natural disaster.
Tupac was a workaholic. The reason why he was able to build up a mountain of music before his untimely passing was his tireless approach to recording. He was a true studio rat, but in the place he spent the most time, he also almost took his last breath. The ‘94 shooting at Quad Recording Studio in Manhattan was the flame that birthed Tupac’s explosive tirade against Biggie and Diddy and was eventually what kicked off the East Coast vs. West Coast beef. Remove that one shooting from history, and hip-hop changes forever.
YG, another West Coast gangster rapper cut from the Pac lineage knows how it feels to be shot at the studio—he perfectly articulates the trauma, paranoia, and anxiety on the song “Who Shot Me?” When your assailant is unknown and invades a space that’s meant to be like a second home, it does something to your mind.
There’s no tragedy like the loss of life, and sadly quite a few have been taken inside of studios. Last year, Bankroll Fresh was buried after being murdered in a shootout at Street Execs Studios. It was a hard hit to the city, and a harder hit to his loved ones. When you think about an artist who is on the cusp of breaking out, and to lose his life on the heels of something big, it’s heavy to think what could’ve been.
Before Bankroll, there was an artist from South Atlanta that went by Slim Dunkin who sadly met a similar fate. Slim, just like Bankroll, was already building a buzz in the city. He was signed to Brick Squad, and many saw him following Waka’s footsteps to stardom. Just when the ball was in motion, his life was cut short, supposedly over a piece of candy. In the grand scheme of hip-hop, the studio murder that hit the hardest was Jam Master Jay. A legendary talent, a little bit older than Bankroll or Slim, but still put in the ground too soon.
During a conversation with Cam Kirk, a photographer famous for capturing rising stars, after the death of Bankroll, I remember he told me:
"To me, the studio is the one getaway place for these artists. It’s a safety zone for so many. A place to get out the hood, get away from whatever they’re in. Regardless of the instances that have occurred at studios, when you compare it to how many times studios are occupied, they’re like one-in-a-million. It’s equivalent to being in a car crash. Bankroll went a million times, and the one time he has an incident, they want to talk about violence at rap studios."
Rap studios are like everywhere else in the world, good and bad can transpire at all hours. It’s important that no matter what unfortunate events occur, we remember these studios remain temples where magic is made, despite any tragedies that have occurred.
By Yoh, aka Yohmony Snicket aka @Yoh31.
Photo Credit: Ryan Orange