Scott “Supe” Stallone is probably mostly well-known as the engineer/producer of Philadelphia’s super hiphop crew Jedi Mind Tricks/Army Of The Pharaohs. He’s been responsible for the sounding for the classics like “Servants In Heaven, Kings In Hell” or “Ritual Of Battle” among others. But his works offer more aspects than that. In this interview we talked about how to work with Vinnie Paz or Stoupe and what is like to make a classic album…[hr]
Lets kick off with some basic questions… how you started it and became part of the music scene, especially in hiphop?
I was always obsessed with music and I was fortunate to have musical instruments around, especially the piano. My parents had a huge record collection. I used to dig in their collection and listen to everything from The Beatles to Roy Ayres, Bob Marley, Prince… I moved to Boston and started playing in bands and deejaying at the UMASS radio station. Eventually, I wound up getting a project signed to Quest/Warner Bros. called Ruff Nexx Sound System. I gave up on school because, of course, I was going to be a rock star. Ha! Being signed to a major label was such a valuable experience. I had been making music, including that first record, on whatever little equipment I owned, keyboards, guitars, drum machines. Then all of a sudden I was in Philadelphia at Ruff House/ Studio4 mixing with Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo, surrounded by the very
same equipment that he had used for Cypress Hill, The Fugees, Schooly D! Joe and I became fast friends and he actually gave me the original MPC60 that was used on all those early records. I was mad young but I soaked up every bit of information I could.
When did you decide to being an engineer and what inspired you to do this?
Throughout my experience beat-making and producing demos for the bands I was playing in, I realized how much I enjoyed the process of recording. I was always experimenting with whatever I had at my disposal, getting to know each piece of gear inside and out. I wanted music to “sound” cool even as we were making it so everyone could stay inspired. But each time I wound up in a “proper” studio to make a “real record” I always came away underwhelmed. I remember thinking that I could do a better job than whatever engineer we were thrown together with. It may not have been true at the time! But I swore to myself that I would make it true someday because I felt music more than any engineer I had ever worked with.
How you learned the skills for this profession and who are the peoples on this field you take as an influence?
I learned through the experience of doing it, firsthand… no schooling or interning. I let my knowledge of music and my growing knowledge of equipment and techniques guide me. I would have my DJ friends play my demos for me in the club before it opened to compare it to my favorite sounding records at the time. Then I would make adjustments and try to figure out what was right and what was wrong. My influences are many but the one at the top of the list for hip hop is Bob Powers. He has made some of the best sounding Hip Hop records of all time! He helped make “dirty” records somehow sound “hi-fi”.
In the hiphop world, your most well-known works are the collaborations on the Jedi Mind Tricks and Army Of The Pharaohs albums as the engineer. How the situation with them came together?
I met Vinnie through Planet and Crypt from Outerspace. When I moved to Philadelphia, OS were some of the first artists I worked with. I had been invited to move into a new studio complex by Joe Nicolo and Chris Schwartz (owners of Ruff House Records and Studio4) just outside of the city. I built a small control room and separate live room in their building. I remember thinking that this whole Philly crew of MCs were the best new artists I had ever heard. Vin and I had some mutual friends from Boston. He brought me a promo copy of Heavenly Divine when he came to hang out at a one of those early sessions. Eventually, I moved my studio to a new location in the Manayunk section of Philly that was an old converted mill. I had Outerspace, Bahamadia, E.S.T. and members of the whole QD family come through. Vin had been to New York to make the follow up to Violent By Design but felt that Jedi Mind Tricks should come back to Philly because of how much this city affects their whole perspective. He asked me if I could engineer Legacy of Blood and I jumped at the opportunity. We’ve done more than 5 solid years of work since then, including all the side projects, features and “JMT Presents” series and there are many more projects to come.
How the working-method looks like with Vinnie Paz, Stoupe and the team during the creation of a new album?
Stoupe will usually present rough instrumentals first. He’ll bring them in as a Pro Tools session with the main part of the beat looped for a few minutes. It’s usually very rough, but even in those early stages it’s easy to hear how sick the beat will be. Stoupe uses Pro Tools like a painter uses a sketch pad or color palette. There’s no grid, no sync, no timecode. At the end of the time line, way after the beat, he’ll throw up the rest of the sounds and chops he plans to use. The raw samples and drums are always there even if they’re not in the rough version of the beat yet. This is so he can keep everything in one place. Eventually he goes back to his MPC2000 and incorporates the remaining elements. Vin will listen loud to the roughs and talk about his first impressions and where he wants to go lyrically. He’s so good at picking beats. Without even thinking about it, he fills in the open slots that will make it a true JMT record, choosing beats that will be political topics, personal stories, hard-body stuff, etc. Even if the room is filled with people and the session turns into a party Vin knows how to keep the focus to make it a complete record. If there’s a need for additional instruments I may play whatever I hear and run it by Stoupe and Vin. I get a certain amount of leeway in this respect because we’ve been working together for so long. If there are featured vocals or musicians we may get them in the studio or I may just receive the files.
To me, “Ritual Of Battle” of AOTP is some of the best-sounding hiphop record for my ears, ever. Explain a bit the experience when you did that one…
The second AOTP record was a chance to pickup from where the first one, “The Torture Papers” left off. We all knew the follow-up would have to really knock because the first one attracted so much attention. (By the way, the third AOTP is mixed and ready for release… and it’s the best of the series!) Vin put out the word and received hundreds of incredible beats from all over the world. He then chose who he thought would be the best MC’s for each beat, if it should be a battle type joint or if it should be a concept, with a hook, etc. We recorded most of it at my studio, except for some of the features. Then, since we do much of the vocal recording, quickly, to 2-track references, I’ll go back into the sessions, pull up the multi-track files that come in from the different producers, slide the mutitrack around so that each section has the part of the beat that fits best under the verse vocals, hooks, bridges, intros and outros, etc. I do this alone because I have to determine what the target session is going to be. In other words, if the vocals were done at 24bit/ 44.1 but the multitrack instrumental was sent as a 16 bit session and the featured vocals from other studios are 24bit@48k, or (the worst) mp3’s, then it’s my job to get them all together in one session. Juggling all those elements is the Mission-Impossible part of the process, pulling stuff from everywhere and throwing them into place like Tom Cruise, only not as cool…but with a much better soundtrack! Then it’s time to mix. I’ll get all the sounds to knock and make the beat really bang, then I’ll bring the vocals in. When it’s starts to sound like a mix I do my drops and automation, etc. I always try to make the instrumental sound as if it was made specifically for each MCs verse. I tried to do that with the way I mixed God’s Fury for OS. I want to make every word count.
Introduce a little bit your own studio, when you started to build it, how it looks like, what you use there…
Since October 2004 I’ve been in my new studio in South Philadelphia. I have a couple of rooms. The A-room is a huge space with three iso boothes off the main live room and a separate control room with racks of outboard pre’s, and eq’s. I use this mostly for live projects and acoustic instruments. Drums sound amazing in this room! The B-room is where I do vocals, overdubs, programming, and mixing. There I have a control room and an iso boothe. Both rooms have Pro Tools systems for Mac and my B-room has all the really serious stuff I like to use including a TDM HD3 Accel system, Logic, Reason, tons of apps and plug-ins, synths, guitars, vinyl etc.
Whats your opinion on the analog vs. digital question, advantages, disadvantages, time, quality, sound etc.?
For Hip Hop, digital recording is the only way to go. Not to say that analog is not good but there are compatibility concerns, budget and time constraints that digital audio workstations can accommodate better than an analog-only studio can. I get stuff from everywhere, all over the world, recorded in all level of studios. I have to be able to incorporate these files quickly and with the least amount of conversion and transfer hassles. I mix in Pro Tools now. I started with analog, dedicated hardware consoles, knobs and patch bays. I know what analog sounds like. But I’m never going back. I’ll just apply the methods that I’ve learned to make digital sound great.
Basically, whats the process for you to approach a new project? Do you spend a lot of time studying the artist and the vision?
If it’s an artist that I’ve never worked with before and I’m not familiar with then, yes, definitely. I’ll listen briefly to what they’ve done in the past. But usually they’ve come to me because they want to go further creatively than they have before, or because they’ve never quite achieved what they wanted to from the studio experience. So talking about their goals and listening to roughs can be way more valuable. Even when I’m really familiar with an artist it always helps if they can verbalize their intentions. As well as I know Reef the Lost Cause, for example, when it came time to mix his project “A Vicious Cycle”, it was great to be able to call Reef and producer Eyego in the middle of the mix to ask them how hard they wanted the drums to knock. Turns out, like I thought, they wanted the samples and the story lines to be the main focus. This was a big change from the next record I mixed for Reef and the production team Guns & Butter called “Fight Music”( due out soon on Enemy Soil). That record thumps because that was the way the whole thing was conceived.
Outside of hiphop, what kind of music, which bands you like and are you working with musicians from other styles as well?
I like so many types of music. I know people always say that but I really mean it. I like some really extreme stuff like the hardcore band Terror. I got a chance to work with them for a remix I produced of JMT’s “Heavy Metal Kings”. I like bands that are post-punk and progressive with cool parts and lots of dynamics like Chiodos. I just had Craig Owens, their singer, here to sing some parts for his side project on Equal Vision called Isles & Glaciers. I’m a Beatle-esque-pop fan too because, after drums and a strong rhythm section, melody and harmony are king. I like soul, not just the “neo-” kind, but really old stuff. I have some good friends who are serious record collectors and I still dig because nothing else sounds as good as something like Young Holt Unlimited on vinyl. I love Dance Hall reggae , Santogold, Metric, The Shins, Portishead,
Queens of the Stone Age… the list goes on….
You are active as a producer as well, for example the joint with Outerspace called “American Me”. Tell me something about that…
“American Me” was a beat I gave to Planet to play for another MC. I thought it might be too melodic for Outerspace. Needless to say, it never made it to it’s intended destination. I didn’t realize it at first but it made perfect sense to give it to OS because the main sample is from a record I got from Planet’s father! He was a radio DJ back in the day, a true O.G., and he’s got a basement full of vinyl. I grabbed a couple crates from him one day and I found this gem. I worked it up and played some extra synth parts, etc. I love the lyrics because they turned it into this political statement about what it means to grow up in this country and maintain and be proud of their Latin heritage. That completed the circle: Plan’s pops had this incredible short-run independent record from Puerto Rico that he used to spin back in the 1970’s. His son becomes an artist, the record changes hands, I flipped the sample, and the beat came right back to the place it started, updated for the next generation. Incredible.
What are the current and future projects you are working at the moment?
I just Co-Wrote and Co-Produced a record with Stoupe. The name of the project is Dutch. It’s a collaboration between the two of us and Liz Fullerton who has appeared on a few JMT songs. She’s a folk artist at heart but her haunting vocals lend themselves perfectly to this dark, down-tempo and grimey backdrop we created. I played most of the instruments on the record and Stoupe did some of the most ridiculous drum programming I’ve ever heard. The record will most likely be released in late ’09, early 2010. I’m very pleased with this one. I also just produced a smart-pop guitar-band from Philadelphia called Victory In Numbers. They’re starting to tour soon in advance of the release. There’s a power-soul band I’ve produced two records for called The Blue Method. They are incredible musicians and writers and true students of all-things-soulful. I’m working with a band called DNA who are friends with the guys from All Time Low. They’re kind of Postal Service meets Motion City Soundtrack. I just mixed a record for a band called Gina and the Little Invisibles, Allen Douches is mastering. It’s a creepy, Bjork-ish, piano and electronics kind-of project. Really cool. I’m working on new records for Demoz, King Magnetic, Wise Intelligent, Jus Allah, etc. and, of course, I’m about 2/3rds of the way through Vinnie Paz’s solo record. It’s so good. He’s got some high profile features and producers but it’s Vin’s work that is so impressive. It’s the strongest I’ve ever heard him, hands down.
Whats your ultimate “mission” and goal you want to achieve in your carreer?
I want to be able to make better music, every day. There are no two projects alike which keeps things extremely interesting but that helps me stay creative and get better at what I do. I want to learn everything there is to learn, musically, technically… It’s impossible, obviously, but that just means I’ll always have a goal to reach for. Really, I’d just like to be respected by my peers. I don’t want fame and I don’t need a $2million super-car. I just want the people that I respect to recognize similar qualities in my work… And, it would be great to continue making a living. Is that too much to ask?