Studio Sessions | Meek Mill trusts Anthony Cruz to create music magic
Meek Mill’s engineer talks the making of ‘Championships,’ Meek getting readjusted to recording after prison and more.
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.
Anthony Cruz never filmed a single video for Meek Mill. But, he’s made his most memorable movies. At its visceral best, Meek’s sledgehammer voice can leave clear imprints of Audemars Piguets and hood traumas on your mind. For more than five years, it’s been up to Cruz to help those imprints leave a lasting impression.
“Years ago, he told me, ‘Make the movie when I’m not here. Whatever you feel you can add to this record, do it,” Cruz told REVOLT TV. “Effects, drop outs, stutters , whatever to make the actual record stand out. Bring your sauce to it.’”
For this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Cruz talks Meek getting readjusted to recording after prison, billionaire spectators during the Championships recordings, and the power naps that help him and Meek do 24-hour studio sessions.
What is the setup for Meek in the studio?
Our job as engineers is to make sure the vibe is right. Just on a technical side, we work out whatever kinks before they even show up to the door. We’re always the first ones there, super early, even if we know they called the start time at 5, and we know they’re not going to show up until 10 o’clock or whatever. I pride myself for being on point.
I test for any issues in terms of buzzing, noise in the mic, or making sure the sound is right. Knowing what their listening preferences are, making sure everything is tuned with the speakers. All the plugins we need have to be loaded up. If they don’t have them at the studio, if we happen to have a copy, get them loaded up on a computer. In terms of vibe, Meek likes to have drinks around, maybe some hookah. Just get them in that comfort level where they feel ready to make some hits.
You’ve been working with Meek since the Dreamchasers 3 mixtape back in 2013. What were those early years like with Meek?
When we first got together and we were running around, I wasn’t necessarily used to being around a certain level of people that I idolized and looked up to coming up as a fan of music. We’re at a private party at Puff [Daddy]’s crib in Miami in between recording. Puff’s got personal chefs and everything, and I’m at this table feeling like I didn’t belong there. I remember just thanking Meek, and telling him, ‘I appreciate this.’ He told me, ‘It comes with the hustle.’
You’ve been a part of so many sessions for classic Meek records. What’s one that really sticks out?
I have a favorite session for every project. One of my favorite sessions was when — God rest the dead –[Lil] Snupe passed. I remember Meek coming in the studio for the Snupe dedication record he did on DC3 that Boi-1da had produced (‘Lil Nigga Snupe’). He came in with the beat and he was spitting the whole idea to people. He grabbed the aux and was playing the beat and rapping the whole record, and everybody’s mouths dropped. The passion in his voice and how it came across. That session will never leave my mind. It was such a powerful moment for him to get that message across for somebody he really believed in. [Snupe] had a hell of future ahead of him that got stopped so short at a young age over nothing, really.
That passion is what has been Meek’s trademark for so long and why I feel like since he came home from prison in April 2018, he’s been hot. How soon after he came home did y’all hit the studio?
It took a few weeks of him getting back out, and of course he needed time with his family. He was also speaking out on these injustices that we deal with in society that he’s working to change. Once he was kind of getting his message across, we got to a point where it was time to plan out how we were going to attack this record. I don’t know exactly how long. But, it took about a few weeks for us to jump in and get back at it. We’ve been at it ever since.
I remember when Meek was talking with Angie Martinez for Tidal’s ‘One on One’ series about two weeks after he was released from prison. He said he had to get used to not being in prison and being free. There was an adjustment period. Were there things he had to get back in the groove of to record in the studio?
Once we get back into a project after he gets locked up — or things like that — it totally ruins his creativity because he’s so stressed out [that] he can’t write when he’s in jail. He doesn’t come up with concepts. For Meek, it blocks him up. It’s a total shutdown, creatively. So, when he comes home, by the time he comes and gets in the studio, he has to get his rhythm back. It took a few sessions. But, once he got in the mode, there was no turning back. He recorded a good bit of records.
Once he got back into the groove of things, what were some of the songs that just came flowing out of him the quickest?
Probably like two. He really took his time to perfect this album. So, he would go back to records and tweak them. On Championships, he knocked out ‘Trauma’ really quickly. He did the two verses, the hook. Then, two weeks later, he knocked out the third verse. ‘Oodles N Noodles Babies,’ he knocked that out in one session. If you listen to that record; the cadence, the tone, the speed of how he rapped; that was in one session. If I were to go through all the backup sessions and look at the timestamps, those sessions were probably no more than two hours, maybe. He did ‘Respect The Game’ fairly quickly, as well.
With all this new attention comes a new crowd that wants to be around Meek. Who were some celebrities or noteworthy people who were in the studio during the making of Championships?
Of course, [Philadelphia 76ers co-owner] Michael Rubin would check in on him to see how the album was coming along. Robert Kraft came in for one session. Robinson Cano came in to vibe one day.
Wait, Robert Kraft was in the studio with Meek listening to some of the hardest gangster rap music of 2018 before the rest of us?
(Laughs) Yeah, he was there for a session. He came through one time. That was crazy.
Was he giving his input on the music?
With Meek, he’s adamant about making people from that other side of life understand what it is to come up from the bottom and deal with the things he’s dealt with in the ghettos of America. Helping them understand the mind frame of what could make somebody think this way, or convey their life this way. He’s very passionate about explaining himself.
How much of Championships was recorded before prison as opposed to after?
We had a lot of records. But, the Championships album that the fans got was recorded after he was released. There’s more. There’s even more in the hard drive.
Roughly, how many songs would you say Meek recorded for Championships album?
There were well over 100 records. That’s including some that were recorded right before he went [to prison]. A lot of those records will probably never see the light of day.
Out of those roughly 100 songs, were there any collaborations that you wish would come out or you think fans will love?
He has some stuff that’ll eventually come out. He has some stuff with [Lil] Durk, and him and Swizz [Beatz] got in together. It was stuff that was just a timing thing. Swizz had his album, so he was moving around, doing his thing. But, they’re definitely going to get back in. Him and Durk vibe really well. There’s a few records in the tuck.
What’s the longest session were you in the studio for, for Championships?
He had so much to deal with. In the interim, he was filming a movie that he’s discussed, doing a lot of press and promotion. We weren’t necessarily in these crazy lockout sessions. But, of course, we had our classic 12 to 14-hour sessions pretty consistently. But, compared to what I’m used to with him, this recording process was a breeze. I’m used to 24 hours to over 30 hours straight of us going in and fine tuning, especially towards the end of a project. But, this particular project, with him having so much to balance and record at the same time, we didn’t have those lengthy sessions.
Ok, take us into those 30-hour sessions. How do you stay focused that long?
It’s a rollercoaster because, of course, you’re human. So, you’re exhausted, aggravated, and ready to wrap the session up. But, what keeps me motivated is when we get to a point where I feel like we’re kind of dwindling and getting tired, I replay certain songs and playing them to a level where it’s an adrenaline rush. Meek has this thing that if he’s kind of stuck, he’ll go back and play what he has to get us excited again.
Also, the driving force is we have a point to prove. I feel like with every project, we are all on the same page of that underdog mind frame. That’s what made Championships such an amazing project. People didn’t know what to expect. But, at the same time, we’ve never been embraced at that level. That energy of Meek is really a top dog, and he’s never really embraced in that way. I feel like he was really driven and that’s why you got Championships.
The human body is still the human body. So, there had to have been times y’all were sleeping in the studio.
There’s cat naps, but we’re never down for hours at a time. It would be an hour or two. I remember a session for Dreams Worth More Than Money, we were at the crunch time and really needed to polish it up to turn it in. I’m asleep behind the boards, and Meek’s taking a nap on the couch. It’s quick power naps and we’ll get right back at it.
This really speaks to how close the artist and the engineer are when making a project. That’s part of what made the death of Future’s engineer, Seth Firkins, in 2017 so heartbreaking to the music community. Did that have any effect on you or the engineering community at all?
For sure, that was a major blow. I don’t know the exact reason, or if it was work-related. Whatever the case, Seth was a great guy. I only met him maybe once or twice. He was such a good guy. We had communications just from Meek and Future working together. When he died, I saw a picture posted. I’m not used to one of my engineering peers passing and having an untimely death like that. So, when I saw his picture posted on Instagram, I thought they were showing him respect about his hard work.
So, I hit him on a text to congratulate him, not reading or paying attention to the news. Once I realized what was going on, I went in and texted, ‘I don’t know if anyone has his phone, I just want to sincerely apologize.’ Whoever was using his phone was like, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s all good.’ I was just like, ‘My condolences.’ That was a big blow to the engineering community. Future, to this day, speaks about Seth and his contribution to his career. That was an eye-opener.
What are some technical preferences you have to take into account when recording Meek?
With Meek, he raps so fast, his ear is sensitive to delay issues. So, when you record in Pro Tools and other DAW [digital audio workstations], having the buffer size set at a lower number helps with delay, and delay compensation problems.
For Championships, which songs did he record in the studio with the artist?
For ‘Tic Tac Toe,’ Kodak (Black) recorded with us in New York on the spot. Melii recorded her verse on the spot (‘With The Shits (W.T.S)’). What’s crazy is, with Melii, the part where you hear the female backup in the hook, she was initially just going to mess around with that and add to that record with having the female perspective. But, she ended up writing the whole verse. She was like, ‘I want to try this.’ Meek said, ‘OK, go do it.’ Fabolous was in the studio when we did ‘Uptown Vibes.’
Was any of Championships recorded outside of a traditional studio?
The majority of it was recorded in major studios. One in particular in Atlanta and one here in New York. We did record some in L.A. at a home setup. ’24/7′ started at a home set up and we had Ella Mai record at a studio in New York.
What’s your stance on traditional studios versus DIY home setups?
I don’t have a problem with DIY. The majority of DC4 was recorded in an apartment. ‘Litty,’ ‘Froze,’ we started on ‘You Know.’ A lot of those records, the ideas started in an apartment setup.
Who would you say Meek has the best chemistry recording with?
That’s tough. Him and [Young] Thug have a really good vibe. When they’re in the studio together, they can record like three or four records, easily, just getting ideas across. They work really well together. I’ll say this, Meek brings out a side of the artist, when he does work live with them in the studio, he brings out a side of them. For example, hearing Future on ‘These Scars.’ That’s not a record you’d hear Future on. But, he has such a respect for Meek. At his heart, Meek’s a lyricist, so they got to bring a certain level to the studio when they do record with him. He brings out a more lyrical and stronger verse from artists he works with.
OK, you said Meek and Thug can do three or four songs in one night. When artists say they do that, are they talking about full songs or ideas?
It depends. The foundation of Dreams Worth More Than Money, Meek literally recorded four to five full records in a session in Miami with [DJ] Khaled. He laid ‘Stand Up.’ There were records that didn’t make it that he laid in that session, too, now that I think about it. He did his verse for the ‘They Don’t Love You No More’ record (on DJ Khaled’s I Changed A Lot album). ‘All Eyes On You’ was already done, was reintroduced, and I think he recut his verses. But, the majority of the time, it is like you said, two or three full ideas. There would be a hook idea on one, or a verse idea on another one. But, in particular years, if he was in that vibe, he could knock out full records.
**Before I let you go, I have to commend you on the sequencing of Championships. The first five songs are un-skippable and really set this album up.
When we get down to track list, it’s really a team effort. We bring out the dry erase board, and we go back and forth about what makes sense with sequencing the record. That’s why Meek’s intros are so fire. He takes so much time in perfecting the first record the audience is going to hear out the gate to captivate them. Then, how do you maintain that energy throughout? You want it to be a rollercoaster ride. You want to have your ups and downs. If you notice, it’s weaved in a way where we take them up. Then, we take them through some real things. Then, we give a lighthearted record. Then, we take you to the club. Then, we come back to some rap. Then, we take you to some fun, and then, we go back real. We don’t want to make it too serious. I think it can affect an album, if it isn’t sequenced the right way.
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