Service industries have historically been breeding grounds for artists. The list of musicians that toiled over sneaker sales and steak temperatures almost stretches as long as the lines of consumers hip-checking to save pennies on Black Friday. In the archetypal come-up, the threat of ceaseless mundanity forces artists to seek refuge in a creative field. For Jeff Jackson, the engineer responsible for Brent Faiyaz’s solo debut,Sonder Son, engineering is an artistic application of the same humility and dignity it takes to meet others’ desires.
“Engineering is ultimately about what the artist wants,” Jeff tells me over coffee. “It’s about customer service. If you do something and an artist isn’t feeling it, you start over. If they get a mix from left field, they aren’t gonna want to work with you anymore. You have to take what they have and enhance it.”
This concern for his clients and the quality they receive has been a theme since Jeff’s youth. Jeff is a product of Chicago’s Classick Studios, one of the seminal incubators for the city’s contemporary music scene. The studio has played a role in the developments of Chance the Rapper, Noname, Smino, Saba, Cam O’bi, and countless others. After Chris Classick, the studio’s founder, convinced Jeff to transfer to Chicago’s Columbia College in the summer of 2010, he became their first intern. He was followed shortly by Elton "L10MixedIt" Chueng.
“A foundation,” he says. “That’s what I built there. I learned how to feel out the room and my role, [and] when to make suggestions. If you don’t play your role correctly, you fuck up the vibe. If you overstep the role of the producer, you messed up his vibe and that trickles to everyone in the room.” His eyes widen a bit as he recollects, implying he can still feel the awkward sting of learning his place. “It was a good lesson to learn. I’m glad it happened then and not later on in my career because I’m very mindful of that now.”
When describing the early days of Classick Studios, Jeff lists the predictable images of a collective in its budding years: confusing a.m. for p.m., sleeping where you can find space, defining days by phosphorous screens of tracks and plug-ins. At the time, he was working closely with artists Chuck L.I. and Dave Coresh, both of whom were gaining buzz in Chicago. He’s also a prime source for glimpses into the early careers of now-celebrated Chicago rappers. He recalls Noname inviting him to YouMedia sessions at a local library between classes, a program which provided the infrastructure for some modern Chicago rappers to germinate. That’s where he would meet people like Chance the Rapper, who he says handed him a physical mixtape that predated Chance’s #10Day release.
Jackson (right) in the studio with Brent Faiyaz. Photo by Mark Peaced.
Jeff’s interest in sound and his pursuit of its highest quality didn’t begin with Classick Studios, though. “I don’t even remember my parents playing music in the house much as a kid,” he says. “I discovered it on my own. I’ve been fooling around with music since 7th grade, recording myself on tapes and all that.” While he admits it hasn’t aged well, his first music obsession was Usher’s “Nice & Slow.” The clarity of the guitar strums entranced him and he wanted to emulate that quality with his own limited equipment.
“At the time,” he begins, “They had the explicit, radio, and instrumental version on the tapes. I had one boombox to play the instrumental and another to record me singing the song. It bothered me that my version had all the crackles in it. I wanted to figure out how to get the quality I heard on the radio, so I went digital.” There his potential was still stifled by subpar tools. The Windows recording application he used would only capture sixty-second chunks. “When I discovered overdub, it was over,” he laughs. “Then I got into effects, delays, reverbs, all that. I would use my sister’s Barbie microphone to put delays in my songs.”
Perhaps it’s this propensity towards innovation that’s fueled Jackson’s movement through the music industry, though his personality certainly has an effect on you. He’s reserved by default, but willing to share once he’s comfortable. His face resets to a smile after every question, showing his happiness for the opportunity to talk about his career.
“It’s hard man, really hard,” he says in response to a question about patience and engineering, “But I’ve always had that mentality that, if I want something, I’m going to get it. It’s just a matter of ‘when.’ That’s always kept me grounded. Being an engineer, you will fall short of your goals. I want a song to sound like ‘this’ or ‘that’ and I fall short of it. Then you wake up the next morning and do the same thing again. I feel like that’s the artist life though—you always fall short of whatever intentions you set, but you wake up the next day and go again. Keep going, wake up, keep going, wake up, keep going.”
Jeff’s mentality would eventually take him away from Chicago in 2013. He wanted to expand his opportunities and moved to Los Angeles, hoping to find an assistantship at a major studio and expand his client base. He did both.
Once he touched down in Los Angeles, and after stretching the truth about his car situation, he secured an internship at Larrabee Studios, working under the esteemed Manny Marroquin. Manny has been a treasure in the mixing world since the '90s and, more recently, worked on the majority of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Rihanna’s Anti, and Miguel’s Wildheart. Jeff was present for all those sessions and talked about the pressures and benefits of working under Manny. “It was great,” he admits, “But very intense. There’s a lot of work coming in and out. You have to set up a lot of sessions, make sure he’s working on the right session. If he’s not, and he sat down to work on the wrong vocals, it’s not good because you wasted his time. And that time is precious for someone of his level.”
Manny’s client diversity played a chief role in Jeff’s sculpting at Larrabee. While he worked closely with hip-hop and R&B, he also assisted mixes for TV soundtracks, singer-songwriters, and pop-chart heavyweights. “You take away what a record should sound like,” he continues. “You see the subtle differences from point A to point B and why they matter. Working across genres, you pick up important notes. Of course, every song is different, but for hip-hop, drums should be hitting. But, when we did the John Mayer stuff, it was warm and cozy. I didn’t have to reference that on big speakers or focus heavily on the bottom end because it’s not getting played in a club.”
Despite the toll of a six- to seven-day workweek, Jeff would pick up freelance work when he could. His connections would eventually put him in contact with Brent Faiyaz. “I met him through producer Paperboy Fabe,” he explains. “Fabe, and others in his circle, knew Brent’s manager. So when it came time to do his first EP, a couple people in that circle suggested me. I ended up mixing his first project,A.M. Paradox, and then hit his manager about the Sonder project. They’d already had it mixed when I reached out, but he said they needed an engineer to record and mix Sonder Son in the Dominican Republic last May. At the time, I was still working at Larrabee, but was already leaving in March, so it was perfect.”
The effect of ‘place’ on music varies with each project, so I asked Jeff to describe how the island affected the creation of Sonder Son: “The song 'First World Problemz,' for example, Brent actually told me he couldn’t have written that in L.A. We recorded that towards the end of the stay there. The electricity kept going out the whole trip, but not for long. This day though, like two days before we had to leave, the electricity went out and didn’t come on until 8 p.m. We had another small place as a backup and he cranked 'First World Problems' out while we were on a power hiatus.” On that track, Brent finds joy in keeping eviction notices away and declares himself ‘golden’ for this basic feat of survival. It’s a reminder that infrastructure doesn’t care about album schedules. Being in a position to make music, period, is a better lot than most.
Recording Sonder Son brought Jeff back into the album-making process, much like his early days at Classick Studios. “We did much of the heavy lifting out in the Dominican Republic. I can’t stress how beautiful it was. We had maybe five or six producers there, me, Brent, his team. It was like making music with family, for real. Family just working. Everyone had their own little station and I had mine to record Brent, another producer is working on a separate track three feet from me. Everyone starting songs from ground zero.”
As Jeff talks about his time there, you can see how the trip revitalized his passion for mixing. He was grateful for his time under Manny, but this recent change of pace injected his workflow with inspiration. “Usually as a mixer, you get songs when they’re ‘finished.’ To see the inspiration and environment that shaped the music...” he says before pausing as if he’s now recognizing the weight of his experience. He stares at his dwindling latte with an empty depth that comes during dramatic retellings in the mind’s eye. “When I listen to the record now,” he continues, “I can clearly imagine what we were doing when we recorded those vocals. To have everyone in one place is special because you can create from instinct. You don’t have to work out logistics and change plans and all that bullshit. We’re all in the room.”
Jeff Jackson had a watershed moment in creating Sonder Son. It validated his years of interning, which can sometimes feel like a perpetual endeavor that only serves others, and primed him for the freelance world. Whether it’s been Barbie microphones or power outages, Jeff has, in his own words, “kept going.” He even dropped this nugget of his professional philosophy during the recordings of Sonder Son: He’s the voice of the interludes admonishing Brent to “keep playing, motherfucker.” It was a playful way for him to encourage Faiyaz’ songwriting during the sessions, but also the purest distillation of how he became a working engineer.
Those three words define him better than every single line written here.