The Impact of the Era of the Hip-Hop Engineer - DJBooth

"It Ain't Them Speakers": The Impact of the Era of the Engineer

From Alex Tumay to Mike Dean, the best in the business are pulling back the curtain.
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It’s Day 4 of my cross-country trip and I feel for touring artists. This is my first time consistently traveling day-after-day and I’m getting a taste of the bittersweet road life. The landscape earns its grandeur, but at the cost of your energy.

There are benefits to eight to 10-hour days of driving, though. Last week's influx of new music couldn’t bury me in the desert of exclusion we visit when we fall behind in our listening. Older jams were in rotation too, and for once I felt I was toeing the line between yin and yang, old head and new school, even if it wasn’t of much significance.

I’m not breaking any seals noting that hip-hop has changed in the last two decades. Lil Yachty doesn’t have to know the history of this art to make it, but I certainly must if I want to write about it. We could discuss production specifics, flow trends, genre shifts, or anything else rap Twitter likes to argue about, but this week I was struck by the change in sound presentation.

It’s beyond normative to say moving trucks don’t have the same audio quality as Jack White’s tube amps, but that has been my sound wave medium over the course of my trip. As the cycle of old, high school era mix tapes and the bangers of today continued, I could hear the change in sonics regardless of my shitty car speakers. Songs of the 2000s sounded flat and stale compared the thump of a Maaly Raw bassline or the electricity of a Wheezy synth.

Thankfully, a good friend was kind enough to accompany me on this trip. He turned to me on the second day and said, recognizing the difference in sound, “These speakers are trash.” I initially agreed. After sitting with that thought for a bit, I altered my opinion and said, “It ain’t them speakers, it’s the mixing.”     

Engineers have been gaining attention in publications largely due to their active presence on social media, a product of the natural tendency to share the fruits of your labor with others. Alex Tumay, a collaborator of Young Thug, Metro Boomin, 21 Savage and more, has been leading the charge for a few years now, growing his Twitter presence substantially. I interviewed L10MixedIt, the engineer behind the breakout projects of Chance The Rapper, Smino and Noname. Future’s engineer, Seth Firkins, continues to highlight different aspects of Hendrix 2.0’s artistry. Sean Paine kept Gucci Mane as prolific behind bars as he is in the free world. I could keep going, and even talk about incredible mastering engineers, but you probably already have your ear to the ground and it would take too long to list all the engineers pushing music forward.

It’s motivating to watch oft-overlooked people succeed—plus they feed my craving for song minutia by pointing out their contributions. We once didn’t have the ability to see snippets of instrumentals and Pro Tools screenshots or hear what the people crafting and finalizing every sound felt about their work. Now, they can pull back the curtain hiding sonic chemistry and the audience can react by pressing the impression of shapes on a reactive screen.

That’s the role you assume as an artist, though. You give people access to your feelings, thoughts, and interpretations of existence without getting the same in return. These expressions don’t have to be straightforward, or even conscious. In fact, an unconscious, natural disposition towards expression might be a uniting factor between artists like Chauvet, Fleetwood Mac, Salvador Dali and Lil B.

Apart from documentaries, which often air long after the music is released, and interviews, which depend more on the interviewer to be a success, engineers like Prince Charles, Young Guru and Mike Dean had no way for people to access their creative process. Documentaries and conversations can be intimate, but they’ll never have the accessibility and frequency of social media. Unlike food, seeing our music prepared is enjoyable.

It’s obvious that superior mixing can change your feelings toward a body of music. In my long hours of driving, I didn’t want to hear old rips from DatPiff and LiveMixtapes, in which the mixing was an afterthought. I wanted to hear “Family Don’t Matter,” “Glass Flows” and “Keep Quiet." 

I don’t have any technical knowledge of engineering, but my ears work okay. In all of the above songs and many others, I can distinguish between sounds, hear where they place the emphasis, and clearly understand the vocals. ‘Clearly understand’ here means I’m catching the vocal content thrown my way. There are many steps to “understanding” the linguistic tricks of today’s artists, but none of them work if the message is marred beyond recognition.  

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I was initially drawn to “new school” trap music by the engineering. Prior to 2014, I was planting my rigid old head flag in a pile of dust to the tune of Pete Rock instrumentals (no hate to Rock). I didn’t give much thought as to why I could tolerate Monster, the Slime Season series, Rich Gang and DS2 when I’d fallen out of love with the subgenre in years prior. Trap had become stale for some time, and a shift in the way its final products were delivered highlighted the true artistry behind the facade of recycled motifs. The vocals were pitched in this particular manner for a reason, and there was a purpose behind that synth line becoming louder halfway through the track.

I was shocked at my ignorance to the importance of engineering before then. People like L10 and Alex asserting their presence opened the door for me to engage with the mixers and masterers of yesterday and retroactively show my appreciation. We don’t often consider the impact our tweets and Instagram stories can have. In my case, they’re mostly just sharing the work I’ve done in the hopes that someone new will care or I’ll get validation from my friends and family. Maybe engineers share morsels of the creative process for the same reason, but regardless, they're able to accomplish more. They open the mind to the possibility of art manifesting in unfamiliar forms, ones that are ugly, intimate, horrifying and humbling. I don’t have to fuck with your music, but I can respect the hell out of your engineer.

OGs like Mike Dean and Young Guru have been getting props for decades now, just listen to old JAY-Z music or most Houston rap from the 90s and you’re likely to hear a shout out. We’re in a different time now, though. Engineers don’t have to rely on a rapper incorporating their work into his bars, as wonderful as that might be. They can provide the commentary on their own work, show the building blocks that led to their structures of sound, and play with fans’ interpretations.

This may be a unique occasion in music history, even artistic. It’s the equivalent of Homer writing the footnotes for the Iliad, Monet giving us a key to his color schemes, or having someone announce the purpose of interpretive dance moves as they’re performed. The book isn’t closed on interpretation, and engineers leave plenty of room for differences of opinion, but we get access to a previously unknown aspect of creation.  

I have one more day of driving and it might cause me to direct choice expletives at a few dozen cars. It could also be the day I discover the work of other engineers, ones waiting patiently behind the curtain to show the value of their work.  

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