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.
When Last Train To Paris dropped on December 14, 2010; the world heard Diddy’s first collaboration with Drake, the first time Rick Ross and Notorious B.I.G. were on a Diddy record together, and the most singing the hip hop hitmaker ever done on one single album. What the album’s engineer Matt Testa heard was two years of non-stop recording sessions, Diddy asking T-Pain for his blessing to use autotune, and a bit of worry over Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak.
“Around that time, Kanye’s ‘Love Lockdown’ came out and I remember Puff saying, “Fuck! This dude is going to take my sound. That’s what I’m going for. I want that vibe,’” Tapas revealed to REVOLT.
In this special 10-year anniversary interview of the project, Testa breaks down the moment Diddy first named his Dirty Money group, the boundaries Puff pushed, and the possibility of a follow up album. Read below!
How early on in The Last Train To Paris process were you involved?
I was involved before it started. I started working in the studio in New York — Daddy’s House — in 2006 while he was finishing up Press Play. I started there for the last three or four months of him finishing Press Play as an assistant engineer/engineer to help him get to the last couple of months. I stayed on as an engineer after that. We started Last Train To Paris in 2008. It was one of those things where he wanted it to be soulful and futuristic, but he always wanted to be in an R&B [space]. Nothing against him, but he was never the best vocalist when it came to that. We found a way, with a couple of people and ideas, to make it work. I remember I got a text at four in the morning one time. It was me, Dawn [Richard], and Kalenna [Harper] in the text, and Puff said, “I found the name to our group. It’s Diddy — Dirty Money.”
Which session sticks out to you?
I remember we were in Miami at Puff’s house and Drake’s first album had just come out. He came down to Miami with 40 for three or four days to just vibe. The record we did (“Loving You No More”), we didn’t even do there. We went to Toronto to do that. It was different. One thing Puff likes to do is get to know people. He doesn’t really write, but he can express himself to someone that can write for him and a lot of the connections he has with the writers is spent with having personal time with them, and showing them who he really is and his vulnerabilities so they can bring the best out of the record.
How did the sound of that time influence the album?
At that time, T-Pain was heavy on the autotune and was running up the charts. Puff played it off as a joke, but was serious when he told T-Pain, “I want your permission to use autotune.” T-Pain was like, “Yeah, whatever. It’s not mine, you can use it (laughs).” He ended up giving Pain a royalty point on the album and [the agreement] was written on a napkin. Pain definitely got that point because I spoke to him recently (laughs). I also remember that one of the first records we ever cut was “Strobe Lights” and it had that dope synth in it with a low texture, autotune heavy vocals. Around that time, Kanye’s “Love Lockdown” came out and I remember Puff saying, “Fuck! This dude is going to take my sound. That’s what I’m going for. I want that vibe.” But, Kanye went a little left [with 808s & Heartbreak] and we kept it really soulful.
Who were some collaborators on the album people might not know of?
What a lot of people don’t know is JAY-Z wrote “Coming Home.” JAY doesn’t write. He had something and either he didn’t make it to the studio or something, but it never got laid down or something happened to it, and had to do a second go-around on it. Also, the first melody of before it goes into the verse for “Coming Home,” which goes “Back where I belong, never felt so strong” was written by J. Cole. Cole has an entire song to “Coming Home” that nobody’s ever heard. J. Cole recorded a whole version of “Coming Home,” but that part was all that we kept. We got two completely different versions of it. We got one part from Cole and one part from Hov. That was one of the last records we worked on. We were coming down to the wire with that one. It was presented to us through Jimmy Iovine of Interscope and then we ran with it.
What was the ambiance in the studio for this album?
I almost got fired so many times, and not because I fucked up a session, lost a take, or deleted something. I almost got fired a bunch of times because I may have forgotten a light or the lights weren’t a certain color or vibe. The most important thing in every single one of our sessions was the lights. Hands down. I carried more lights than equipment. They were all connected, so I had to bring cables to connect them all together. If they were flashing, they were flashing on the beat.
Puff’s a conglomerate, so how did he balance working his businesses with recording?
Oh, he would always be multi-tasking. There would always be times where there would be one person in one room where he would meet with them about Ciroc during the early Ciroc days. He was heavy trying to get Ciroc off the ground. His kids were also still young, so he had a lot to balance in life. Sometimes, he would give us direction in the morning and we’d be working the majority of the day with him stopping in to do this and stopping in to do that.
He also lives a lavish life. Did that ever affect the making of the album?
We flew to Ibiza in 2010. I brought boatloads of equipment and set up a studio in the house he was renting. Then, he said, “We’re getting on a yacht. Give me something so I can work on the yacht.” So, I set it up on the yacht and he doesn’t do anything. We listened to music, but he didn’t do anything. We were out there for about a week, I left, and then he went on a yacht for about a week, which was good because all of my shit got caught in customs for almost six days. I traveled halfway around the world chasing him around and nothing got done (laughs).
Did any people of note who came through the studio to listen to the music?
Yeah. Kevin Hart came a couple of times and was a big fan of the process.
This album sounded as if it was trying to push the envelope sonically. What did Puff push you to do in order to achieve that?
So, “Shades” with Lil Wayne, Justin Timberlake, and Bilal probably has 250 tracks of background vocals on it. Back then, that was very difficult to do, so we’d do it pieces. James Fauntleroy wrote the song and we had his background. Then, Justin Timberlake did his background vocals. Then, Puff did his vocals. Then, Puff was like, “Guess who I have coming tonight? Bilal!” Bilal did a shit ton of background vocals and ad-libs. We had to use two computers and run two different sessions in a Jam Sync where we had half the backgrounds on and half the backgrounds on another. I worked on those background vocals for four days.
What was a typical session like?
We worked on that album from Summer 2008 until winter 2010. On an average day, we’d have Dawn and Kalenna at the house writing and doing vocals. We always had multiple rooms going with people always producing, writing, and bringing music in every day. We’d have Mario Winans in one, James Fauntleroy in another one, Danja in another room, and Puff had his own room for himself to go over stuff. It was hectic. A lot of the songs were worked on over extended periods of time. They’re always a work in progress. Puff never settled and always wants to try things. Eighty percent of the time, we wouldn’t use it and he’ll be like, “Send it to such and such, and see what they’ll do with it.” Sometimes we may one little bit this person did and one little bit that person did, tie them all together, and next thing you know, there’s four or five producers on the record.
How open was Diddy to instruction and outside opinions?
He’s very open to it. A lot of times, he’ll have the writer in the room with him to get through certain performances. We’ve even brought in vocal coaches like Kuk Harrell. We’ve had Rihanna and [Justin] Bieber come in, too. He was singing and had never really done that before, so a lot of it was experimental. We were playing with autotune and other pitch correction software, which only certain people were using back then. He wouldn’t do a lot of vocals. Very rarely did we go back and redo a vocal session. He did record “Change” five times with Tricky [Stewart] and The-Dream because it’s such a vulnerable record, that’s different for him.
“Hello Good Morning” is one of the defining songs from that album. When did you all know it would be a single?
That was done by Rico Love and Danja. Rico cut the record at Daddy’s House and that was when Rico was in his prime knocking out records in an hour. At the time, with the records we had, we were trying to stay on course for a summer 2010 release. We felt that was the strongest record at the time.
Have you and Diddy been working on a follow up?
Yeah, it’s actually going to happen soon. He’s working on something special right now. He’s doing it for the legacy of music — for the legacy of R&B and soul music. I don’t know if it’s going to be more him as an artist. I can definitely say it’s going to be him as a producer. It’s going to bring a lot of love and soul to R&B. He’s just getting off the ground with it now. When he gets something done, I’m sure you guys will be the first to know.