For “Studios Sessions,” we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.
Aubry “Big Juice” Delaine knows everything there is to know about Nicki Minaj’s sound. As her primary recording engineer for the last five years, he knows what she wants before the rapper even requests it. Juice practically knows almost everything about Nicki’s artistry, except for when we’re getting new music.
“I really can’t tell you what’s going on with new music because I don’t know. I found out about her retirement the same way everyone else did. She spoke to me afterward,” he told REVOLT TV.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Juice details the work that went into fixing Nicki’s “MotorSport” verse, making dozens of versions of “Anaconda,” and how Nicki’s fame changed how she recorded.
What was your first session with Nicki like?
I was working with Ester Dean as her engineer. The first time I ever worked with or met Nicki was for her song ‘Super Bass.’ Ester and Nicki wrote ‘Super Bass’ together around 2011. Nicki had her own engineer at the time, But, anytime she and Ester would collab, Nicki would want me to come in and engineer the song. I worked with her off and on. Fast forward to 2014 with The Pinkprint and that’s when I got the opportunity to work with Nicki full-time. Ester was going to film Pitch Perfect 2 at the time, I think. Nicki was looking for a new engineer and Ester was like, ‘You should hire Juice. Y’all already work together.’ The first session we worked on was the ‘Danny Glover’ freestyle.
Do you notice a difference in her recording when she’s in album mode versus when she’s working on a remix?
She approaches it the same believes it or not. The main difference between album Nicki and remix Nicki is she has more fun when she does remixes, features and stuff like that because she’s not thinking about, ‘OK, how are we going to roll this out single-wise? What am I going to do for the video? How is this going to fit into my album?’ When she in remix/feature mode, she’s only thinking, ‘I’m going to kill this verse and keep it moving.’ It’s more fun and instantaneous.
One thing about Nicki is she’s very thorough and meticulous. She’s not just going to record a verse and just send it out. She’s going to pick through it with a fine-tooth comb. She switches up lyrics. She’s always going to be making it better. For example, when she did the remix to DaBaby’s ‘Suge,’ she was in and out. From writing, recording, and fixing it took maybe an hour tops. She wrote it in 10-15 minutes, recorded it in 10-15 minutes, and I probably spent 20 minutes fixing the vocals on it. She listened through it and loved it.
Speaking of DaBaby, Nicki appeared on ‘iPhone’ from KIRK.
She sat with that for days...and weeks. She recorded it, lived with it, came back to make changes, and then lived with it some more. She really took her time to make sure it was the best verse possible. She really, really loved the song. I don’t know when he reached out to her. But, we recorded it about two weeks before the album came out — maybe three weeks tops.
What are recording and engineering presets you make sure to have ready for Nicki?
I have the same template since I first started working with her. Actually, it’s like a modified version of the template I would use with Ester. Basically, I only have one plug-in for my recording template for Nicki. It’s a DigiDesign stock Pro Tools channel strip. I try to use the most basic plugins with low latency. When I started working with Nicki, we’d bounce around from studio to studio. We’d be in New York, then in Atlanta, Miami, and L.A. I used to try to keep it to where no matter what studio I go in, they’ll have these plugins. So, no matter where we record, she’ll have the same sound.
As far as mixing her vocals, I use the same approach. I mainly have a specific De-Esser I use. I use EQs. I take out the higher and lower mids because she doesn’t like her voice to be piercing. She’s really big on how the mix of her vocals are. She doesn’t want it too thin. She wants it warm, thick and crisp. Sometimes, it’s a challenge because most of the time when you want a vocal to cut through, you just boost the mid-range. Depending on the sound of her voice, that may sound piercing or harsh. So, you have to be careful.
What’s an example of how meticulous Nicki is in the studio?
‘Anaconda’ had 27 different versions, if I’m not mistaken. It had 15 versions before she had some other producers come in. At first, it was the same sample and the same sound. Then she brought in Da Internz to come in and add drums to it, and that made it perfect. Before Da Internz came into the picture, there were about 15 different versions. We already sent it in for mixing and mastering. After that, we added 12 more versions. A lot of it wasn’t major changes. She’s so meticulous about her vocals and her voice she'll be like, ‘I need you to turn this word up a little bit. Make sure you can understand every word I’m saying.’ She’s big on that and making sure you can hear every syllable.
She’s a perfectionist. She doesn’t spend a lot of time recording. It takes her a couple of takes and she’ll get it. But, she wants it perfect. It’ll sound perfect and she’ll still be like, ‘I have to say it differently.’ She'll change up her tone and experiment. She’ll go through that over and over and over again.
What’s a typical session with her like?
We’ll sometimes have candles. But, it’s more about the lights. She has a pink neon Nicki sign. She has pink lights hanging in the booth and all around us in the studio. She’ll have the lights dimmed all the way low, so we get in a vibe. She’ll come in and we’ll have Bluetooth speakers set up in the studio, so she can just play from her phone to the speakers. Once she’s ready, I’ll load up the beat and we’ll get to work.
In December, her Pinkprint album turns five. My favorite song from that is ‘Four Door Aventador.’ How did it come together?
We recorded that about a month after I started working with her. She got that from a producer/artist named Parker [Ighile]. He sent her that beat and she just went crazy on it. It’s raw. From a technical standpoint, I mixed the song. But, she didn’t like the full multitrack mix of the beat and all of that stuff. She liked the two-track better. She didn’t want to mix her vocals. She was like, ‘I don’t know what it was, but the original version we recorded is perfect.’ As an engineer, I’m like, ‘Ugh. I know I can make it sound better.’
What was it like for you to start working on two collaborations with her and Beyoncé?
That was crazy. We were in the studio with Beyonce earlier in 2014 doing the ‘Flawless (Remix).’ When we did ‘Feeling Myself,’ Nicki heard it and was crazy about the beat. Hit-Boy did the beat. She loved the beat, but she wanted a breakdown in the beat. It just so happened Hit-Boy was in the same studio in Burbank [that] we were in when she was finishing up ‘Feeling Myself.’ That was around November 2014. It was right before we had to turn in the album. It was crunch time. Hit-Boy, on the spot, added those hard 808 drums in the middle of the song.
We sent it over to Beyoncé. I think at the time she only had reference vocals on the hook for her part. We sent all the files to Beyoncé and her engineer Stuart White. He ended up mixing the song. When they sent it back, that’s when Beyonce put her sauce on it and all of her extra vocals. We listened to that and knew that song was out of here.
Nicki has been open about how she was having relationship issues during the making of this album. Did you see those emotions show in any session?
To be honest with you, not really. When she’s in the studio, she’s about business. She doesn’t bring too much of the personal into the studio. I could tell her overall mood was different when she was recording a song like ‘Bed of Lies’ or ‘I Lied.’ Her overall mood was different. It didn’t feel like she was going through a lot...
Does she ever tell you the stories behind the songs?
She doesn’t really tell about the story behind the song. The first song on The Pinkprint was ‘All Things Go.’ She was kind of opening up. That’s when I first figured out about engagement-type stuff, and how she was going to have a kid or whatnot. That was personal.
What is the most memorable session from The Pinkprint?
There were a couple. I remember when [Lil] Wayne came and dropped his verse off for ‘Truffle Butter.’ He was in the studio next door. He came, played it, and we were all in the studio going crazy. Wayne just shook his head, did a salute sign and walked out (laughs). I remember when we did ‘Only’ and got the Chris Brown vocals back for that. She was jumping up and screaming, ‘This is a fucking hit.’
What were those Queen sessions like?
For the Queen sessions, it was a lot more, ‘Oh, I got this shit.’ I was prepared. I knew what needed to be done. We did most of that in Miami. She went to Miami for a couple of days for a club appearance and all of a sudden she was like, ‘We’re living in Miami now (laughs).’ I was supposed to be down there for three days and I ended up staying down there for a year and a half. At first, I was staying at hotel rooms and the label takes care of all of that. I was like, ‘Look, I know how much these hotels cost. Just get me an apartment.’ A hotel in Miami was about $300 a day, so $9,000 per month. I found an apartment that was $2,000 a month. They put me up in there and we were working at The Hit Factory. It was dope. We did some great music down there.
How was the making of that album different from the making of The Pinkprint?
Doing The Pinkprint was more business. She’ll be in the studio at 9:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m. or 8:00 p.m. After The Pinkprint, her stock rose so much to where we [had] to get in the studio when we can — where we were in Miami finishing up Queen and she knew she had two weeks free to record. So, we spent the entire two weeks in the studio. We’d be in the studio three or four days straight at a time. It became harder for her to record because she had to get security and car service. It was more hectic. She would drive to the studio herself for The Pinkprint. Now, she can’t do that anymore like she used to. Now, she has a home studio, so she doesn’t have to worry about any of that. I’ll go over to her house when she wants to record, and she’ll just come over and record in the back guest house.
We started recording at her home by the end of Queen. It took a lot for her to go to the studio. The studio was probably an hour away. She had to get security, wardrobe, and makeup. It took a lot of money... By the time she gets the studio, she may not be in that vibe anymore. Sometimes, she’ll get to the studio and we won’t start working until three or four hours later, so she can get back in her vibe.
She’s addressed the controversy over the making of ‘MotorSport,’ but I want to get it from the engineer side. What was the headache with making that?
There weren’t any headaches for me (laughs). For me, it was just being in the studio recording. When I first heard it, it was just Quavo on the song. She was like, ‘Yeah, I’ll get on it.’ I remember her saying after she heard it, ‘That shit’s hard. That's the shit.’ She did ‘MotorSport’ and everybody else jumped on it. People try to write their own narrative, but she had a singing part in ‘MotorSport’ that she didn’t feel was hard enough. She felt, ‘Ahh, I can just rap some bars at that part.’ She took the singing part out and put the rap part in, and that was pretty much it. Then, some lines had to be changed.
Yeah, her line ‘If Cardi’s the QB, I’m Nick Lombardi’ is what caused some issues.
From an engineer standpoint, all I had to do was replace one line. But, it was a time crunch for everybody else. At the time, they were trying to put this song out, [but] she was traveling. We originally recorded the verse in Miami, but we were in New York at the time and they were like, ‘We have to get this line changed.’ I think we had to book a session just to go do that.
Was there ever a sense that she was going to record a diss to Cardi?
What? Hell no (laughs). There was no indication from her to make a diss track about Cardi.
When was the last time you two were in the studio?
When she did her retirement, she took a break from a lot of stuff. I really can’t tell you what’s going on with new music because I don’t know. I found out about her retirement the same way everyone else did. She spoke to me afterward. We had features to finish up. We went from being in the studio every day to now I’m working on other projects.