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.
Jimmy Douglass has been an accomplished engineer for more than 40 years, who’s helped Timbaland, Aretha Franklin, Slave, JAY-Z, Aaliyah, Ginuwine and a Hall of Fame list of others do more than just make great music.
“I actually got the deal for Ginuwine. I took ‘Pony’ to Sony and was also taking Timbaland’s work around because no one had ever heard of him,” Douglass told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the Grammy award-winning engineer discusses Missy Elliott working on Aaliyah’s “4 Page Letter,” why Ginuwine’s “Pony” was never fully mixed, and how record labels have contaminated the music-making process. Read below.
You worked extensively on Ginuwine’s first album, ‘Ginuwine...The Bachelor.’ What was your working relationship like with the young star in 1996?
I had been with Ginuwine for two years up until that point. I was hanging with him in Rochester with Timbaland. We were just making demos. Missy [Elliott] and Static [Major] was up there with us. We were a melting house and Ginuwine was part of it. He was out there trying to be his own entity. I think he had a deal with Elektra, but nothing really happened. We worked together all of the time and laughed, laughed, and laughed.
The most iconic song of Ginuwine’s career, to me, is “Pony.”
“Pony” was recorded up in Rochester. We had “Pony” ready for about a year. Actually, the “Pony” you listen to is a rough mix from that session that night. We didn’t get a chance to mix it again.
Did you all know it was going to be big after that session?
It’s interesting that you’re asking that. At that time, Timbaland was on fire for two years. He was making tracks like that every day. The stuff were going nowhere. We cut about 300 songs in two years. He had Missy, Static, and Playa writing stuff over it. For “Pony,” Tim had done the crazy beat, Static started writing, and Ginuwine went, “I have to have this, Static.” That night, we went downstairs and did it. Then, we put it away because it was just another demo.
What was your role in those sessions?
I was the main engineer. We were using tape, so you needed a guy who could f**king keep up. I had to keep track of where the tapes were. We were locking a digital 48-track with an analog 24-track. I was using the analog tracks for Tim’s tracks in order to get that fire, and I was using the digital ones for all the vocals. You had to lock them together. We had so much stuff going on that you needed someone who knew what the hell they were doing.
Those sessions became Ginuwine’s debut album.
Timbaland and I left Rochester, but Ginuwine didn’t. I actually got the deal for Ginuwine. I took “Pony” to Sony and was also taking Timbaland’s work around because no one had ever heard of him. Now, we’re back in the world, and people asked me what I had been doing for the last two years. I would say, “Yo, you don’t even know. I’ve been doing some s**t the world ain’t really heard yet.” And they would go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Then, Ginuwine, Timbaland, and I went to this place in Ithaca, NY for a month and started recording. Tim would do beats and Ginuwine would write on it or they would write together. I even wrote on some of it. We worked until it was completed. We worked really hard to get the songs we needed.
How did that process differ from making Ginuwine’s second album, 100% Ginuwine?
On the second album, Static came back. He wasn’t with us in Ithaca when we were making the first album. He helped the heavy lifting of the writing and changed the whole concept. Aaliyah was also on the record.
You started your career at Atlantic Records as a tape copier. That job is pretty much antiquated now. What did that sort of job mean to the music industry?
They had a studio before they moved out to Rockefeller Plaza and in the back, they had a studio. They had three studios. I got my gig when I was in high school. Everything is on a hard drive now, so imagine if you had to copy everything from hard drives to discs. So, your drive would be to copy all the hard drives in the house because it had to be sent somewhere. To take you back, these kids have no idea how f**king hard this used to be. Here’s how it worked: You had to master the record, which meant putting it from tape to the vinyl. Let’s say Aretha Franklin sold two million records. Here in the United States, they’d cut the masters for the plants that pressed the records to put on trucks to send all across the country.
Other countries wanted some of the action, too, but Atlantic has only cut one master. So, when the guy was cutting the vinyl, he ran a tape on the side that was recording the EQ and everything he’s doing. Now, he has a master tape that’s a copy of the mastered vinyl. So, they take those copies and send them to England, Italy, Germany, and they use his tape to cut the vinyl. There were eight or nine countries that Atlantic had to do this for and my job was to copy every record they put out eight or nine times, whether they sold or not. That was how Atlantic Records was doing business.
You worked with The Internet on their best album Ego Death. How’d you link with them? How did you mesh with their creative process?
I linked with The Internet through their A&R person who saw me in action working on the Pharrell GIRL album and was like, “You’d be great to mix that record with them.” I met them in L.A. Syd and Matt [Martians] is unbelievable and they’re such warm people. They’re so zany. Syd’s a pretty good engineer. She does the recording for them a lot of times. When she sent the stuff, I listened and was like, “This is pretty cool and pretty close. I’ll just put a little sauce on it, but not go far away from what you started.” They had a vision and I just gave it more dynamics.
You also made history working with JAY-Z on 4:44, which was the most personal of his albums. Did he give you a disclaimer on what you were going to hear?
I’ve known JAY-Z from the days of “N**ga What, N**ga Who.” I know JAY-Z. It wasn’t like he was bringing someone he didn’t know in. We knew each other. There was no disclaimer. He didn’t need to have one because he knew me. So, he was just like, “Here’s the s**t. What do you think?”
What was his input on the mixing?
He wasn’t around all of the time, but he was around enough. He came back around to see what was up. For me, I went in there thinking, “You have to prove yourself. It’s a big moment.” I’m listening to this thinking, “Oh, I have to make a difference” meanwhile, listen to what he’s talking about. It’s real sensitive s**t. I went in there trying to make everything go BOOM! BAM! BOOM! BOOM! He just came in real simple and said, “But, the bass doesn’t sound like it’s part of the record.” I was like, “Oops.” That was my direction from then on.
As you mentioned earlier, you worked closely with Aaliyah. Are there any special memories you have about working on a song of hers?
I have an interesting story about the making of “4 Page Letter.” I remember when Missy was singing the song, I got chills. She writes and does it right there. Missy doesn’t let anyone in the studio when she’s doing vocals. She’s always been that way. She won’t let anyone in, but the engineer. That’s a unique experience. We did “4 Page Letter” up in Ithaca and my daughter was getting ready to interview at Cornell University to go to college. I told her, “Hey, I’m in Ithaca. I can see you when you finish your interview.” We’re in the studio and Missy was cool with her. She’s sitting in the control room and Missy says, “Go ahead Jimmy, run the tape.” I didn’t tell my daughter to leave, so she sat there as Missy did the whole song in the studio. That’s never happened before or since.
How has working on music changed for you over the years?
In my earlier days, I was so invested in what I was making. It was like, “Oh my god, this record is going to change the world.” I’m not saying I make them less that way, but there’s so much going on now and the process is different — even down to how the record companies push you to get the records out. Back in the day, when we made records, the record companies never heard anything until we were finished. They were so happy to get it, they didn’t say, “Go back and change this and do that.” The problem today is before you even finish the first idea of the beat, five people have heard it and are like, “That’s pretty cool. Why don’t you do this to it?” They don’t let the record just be. The process is so contaminated now that I’m not as proud of it anymore. Now, [labels] be talking about so much different stuff that it’s distracting.