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.
For more than 20 years, producer Che Pope has helped Destiny’s Child expand its sound, worked on Lauryn Hill’s best album, helped a frustrated Teyana Taylor channel her energy into two projects, and was instrumental in Kanye West growing his G.O.O.D. Music label. Unsurprisingly, it’s his time with the iconoclastic West that yields some of his most impressive memories.
“He had an outdoor dome in Africa. It was a clear dome outside in Uganda as a studio. That was probably the illest studio I’ve ever been a part of,” Pope told REVOLT. “That was for Yandhi. I didn’t hear any of the Yandhi stuff on Jesus Is King.”
Now, the acclaimed producer wants to pass his music industry knowledge on to others through his HiStudios Original podcast “Q&A w/ Che.” In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the former head of G.O.O.D. Music explains Taylor’s frustrations with K.T.S.E., why West probably won’t put out his Yandhi album, and why engineers should unionize.
How did the idea for the HiStudios Original podcast ‘Q&A W/ Che Pope’ come about?
I had the idea for two years. I started lecturing all over the world five or six years ago, and at the end of the lectures, we’d have this Q&A section. When I first started lecturing, all the questions were Kanye-related. But then, I noticed the questions started turning into, ‘how do I start my own label?’ They started to become more industry questions. That’s where the idea came from. On social media, people would hit me up all the time about being their mentor and I felt like this is a way to do all those things.
You once said that working on The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was a learning process. What did you learn?
There’s this assumption when artists say, ‘Oh, I was taken advantage of,’ or, ‘Someone beat me for my royalties and publishing.’ It’s your fault, first and foremost, because you weren’t more prepared. There was really bad business going on with the Lauryn album. But, I blame myself more than I blame anyone else. If I had been properly prepared and had a team, there’s no way anyone would’ve taken anything from me. These kids these days can make music in their bedroom, upload it and before you know it, they’re blowing up and making good money. So, they really have to properly educate themselves.
Creatively, what were those sessions like? That’s her biggest album.
Making the album was amazing. It was a journey. Lauryn was pregnant for a lot of the album and if you listen to the content on the album, it was a very emotional place she was going to. What was great about it was we weren’t worried about the expectations of making a hit. We went in every day and tried to make dope shit. The experience of making the album is something l don’t think I’ve experienced similar in the last 20 years.
Around that time, you also worked on Destiny’s Child ‘No, No, No (Part 2).’ What do you remember about their dedication in the studio?
Wyclef [Jean] came to me and said, ‘There’s this new group that they want us to do a remix for, but they don’t really have a budget.’ He plays me this song and it’s a ballad. I’m like, ‘I think the group and their vocals are dope, but this is a ballad.’ I said, ‘If we mess with it, we have to be able to do a whole new song.’ They were open to that when we met with them. I liked how they were so open-minded. We had a portable DAT player that we used to play all the tracks from. We played random beats I made and I could really see their agility. Telling a new artist, ‘Hey, let’s do a whole new song’ usually isn’t received well (laughs). They were 15 and 16 at the time. The only one who may have been a little apprehensive was the dad (Matthew Knowles). At the same time, Wyclef was coming off his run with The Fugees.
Twenty years later, you worked with Teyana Taylor on K.T.S.E. How extensively did you work on that?
I’ve been with Teyana since day one at G.O.O.D. Music. On her first project, VII, I was hand-in-hand with her. She’s like my baby sister. Even though VII didn’t have that massive success, it was the first finished project someone was able to do with her. She’s been labeled difficult, challenging and all of those things. But, that’s what music is about. That doesn’t mean you don’t work with that artist. That means you find a middle ground because it’s great to have an artist that’s challenging. VII laid the groundwork for the next project and K.T.S.E. was a lot stronger because of it. On VII, we had no Kanye. On K.T.S.E. we had Kanye production. Sonically, I love the music on K.T.S.E. I think it’s one of the stronger projects. Those seven songs are really fucking up other people’s whole projects.
She wasn’t pleased with the final product. What were some changes you all made to the project?
Well, that comes with working with Kanye West. That’s what she signed up for. We actually got into [it] the day the album came out. We had a famous meeting that will always go down in history. She flipped the table and that was the day her album came out. Kanye is always going to be the wildcard. That’s just his thing. If you do a song with Kanye, he may change it at the last minute. He may come back with lasers on it or whatever. That was one of the issues. He put lasers on one of her songs (laughs).
What was your journey like with him?
The biggest thing I take away from my seven years with Kanye was the unknown. We were walking into the unknown every time. He said being bipolar is his superpower and I truly think that it is. I think his confidence is part of his brilliance and because of that, he’s not scared to experiment and try things. He’s a fascinating individual.
What are some fascinating studio setups he’s had?
He had an outdoor dome in Africa. It was a clear dome outside in Uganda as a studio. That was probably the illest studio I’ve ever been a part of. That was for Yandhi. I didn’t hear any of the Yandhi stuff on Jesus Is King.
How would you describe the sound of Yandhi? Is it actually going to come out?
His thing now is he doesn’t make secular music. Unless he redoes all the lyrics, I don’t see Yandhi coming out. If you’re talking about gospel music, gospel music can sound like anything. But, I think there are certain messages in the lyrics of gospel music. So, he’d have to rework all of his vocals. As [Yandhi] stands, I don’t think he’ll put it out as is.
You’ve been engineering for more than 20 years. What’s the biggest difference between the creative process in 1999 and 2020?
It’s completely different. I was fortunate to come up in such a creative era where everyone fought to sound different. Right now, a lot of people are fighting to sound alike. There are creative artists coming in that are changing it. It’s sad that two of the great young innovators — XXXtentacion and Juice Wrld — passed away. They were voices that were really expanding what the genre was doing musically. Nowadays, you can hear different tracks and not know who produced it because they tend to sound alike (laughs). When I came up, you knew what a Timbaland track was, you knew what a Swizz Beatz track was.
I’ve also spoke with engineers about the possibility of unionizing the engineering field. What do you think of that?
I think that would be a brilliant idea because I think it’s very hard to make a living. When you’re hot, you’re hot; and when you’re not, you’re not. That’s just what happens. That doesn’t mean that person is done. You need some sort of protection because right now. For instance, you could do business with a record label and the payment terms are net-60, but they may pay you four months later. You don’t really have a recourse for that. You can’t really sue a major label. They’re a massive corporation with many lawyers and you wouldn’t win anyway. There needs to be some regulation for that whether it’s legislation or a union. I think a union is the best thing because the music industry is ever-evolving. So, if you unionize, you could be agile. If you have legislation, that’s going to protect for a certain period of time and the music industry’s evolution could make it outdated.