Young Guru: Hip-Hop’s Most Influential Man

MIX MASTER | Young Guru helped design a music curriculum at USC and speaks at companies like Pandora and BitTorrent. (PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRENT HUMPHREYS FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE)
MIX MASTER | Young Guru helped design a music curriculum at USC and speaks at companies like Pandora and BitTorrent. (PHOTOGRAPHY BY BRENT HUMPHREYS FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE)

Hip-hop’s most trusted sound engineer—he’s worked with Jay-Z for the past 16 years—is lending his talents to Silicon Valley and the next generation of sound innovators

On a cool, rainy afternoon in Austin, Texas, Young Guru—Jay-Z’s personal sound engineer for the past 16 years—was giving a master class on recording and mixing techniques at Dub Academy, a music school and studio east of downtown. Lanky and lithe, the former high school basketball star radiated a quiet authority at the front of the room, befitting his nickname. While his disquisition ranged from best practices for setting sound levels to navigating life on the road, the audience—which included everyone from gee-whiz interns to producer Mannie Fresh, who mentored Lil Wayne—hung on his every word.

That’s because Young Guru, 41, is the most famous and successful engineer in the history of hip-hop, the man in charge of soundboard operations for many of his generation’s legendary recordings. He was on the ground floor of both Sean Combs’s Bad Boy Records and Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records. He recorded Eminem and 50 Cent early in their careers. You name them, he’s been in the studio with them: Beyoncé, Drake, Rick Ross, Rihanna, Snoop Dogg. “He asks producer questions, which lead us to talking about engineering,” says Ernest Dion Wilson, aka No I.D., who produces for Kanye West and Jay-Z and is known as the godfather of Chicago hip-hop. “I ask him engineering questions, and we end up talking about production. There are not too many people with whom I trust that conversation.” It’s a sentiment echoed by the dozens of artists he’s worked with. “He invigorates me,” says the rapper Common, who was nominated for a Grammy this year for his album Nobody’s Smiling, which Young Guru mixed. “When I get around him, I feel like we can accomplish things, because he has that type of energy.”

Young Guru is not just a sought-after authority in the music industry—in recent years he’s become equally in demand in Silicon Valley, where his innate grasp of the relationship between engineering and art is a valuable commodity. He’s an artist-in-residence at USC, where he teaches students about music technology and music history, and is a frequent guest speaker at colleges (NYU and MIT among them), tech conferences and companies such as BitTorrent and Pandora. In 2013, he partnered with Hewlett-Packard and the Recording Academy’s Grammy U program to create an educational tour called “Era of the Engineer.” At 13 cities across the country, he spoke to students about what audio engineers do, explaining the influence and innovations of famous practitioners like Tom Dowd, who pioneered multitrack recording, and Tony Maserati, who helped invent the sound of New York hip-hop and R&B.

While artists and producers tend to think about the creation of a song on a macro level, engineers operate on a micro scale, using precise metrics to smooth out or blow up any sonic detail within the overall sweep of a song, much as a baker deploys exact pinches of spices and ingredients to achieve a desired taste. Using preamps, compressors, faders and, of course, a highly discriminating set of ears, an expert sound engineer like Young Guru layers the various elements of a track, an alchemical process that can utterly transform the music’s atmosphere.

“That’s the gangsta thing about the computer,” says Young Guru. “When computerized music appeared, other engineers were thinking that it didn’t sound right. And it didn’t at first. It sounded clunky and janky. But I thought it was incredible. Before it, you needed four guys on the mix. Now you can just write it.”

With a client—like Jay-Z—whom Young Guru has worked with so long, he can almost anticipate what the artist wants. When Jay-Z thought the track “Run This Town” didn’t sound “army” enough, Young Guru found a stomp-like sound and layered it under the kick drum to create the effect of a troop marching down the street. Other times his touch is lighter: On “Empire State of Mind,” Young Guru applied his knowledge of grunge bands like Nirvana—which tend to have a wide dynamic range—to descend into the scaled-down beginning of the song’s second verse without losing the energy of the first.

“He’s expanded the idea of what an engineer can be,” says Patrick Gillespie, an administrator at Cornell University, where Young Guru judges an annual design competition sponsored by Intel. “Engineers are no longer sitting in the back room. They’re out front, creating things, showing the world what can be done.”

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SOURCE: The Wall Street Journal
Neal Pollack

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