Benjamin Thomas’ growth as an engineer is documented in the songs we love from artists like Lil Uzi Vert, Jazmine Sullivan, and Meek Mill. He’s worked everywhere from recording Grammy-nominated verses in a hotel room to the private sanctum of artists’ homes.
“[Jazmine Sullivan and I] never worked in the studio together. It’s always been at her house. So, they were always very intimate sessions,” Thomas told REVOLT. “We had late night sessions and her mom would always offer to drive me back home. It was a 45-minute drive.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the Grammy Award-nominated engineer discusses helping Meek Mill’s engineer Anthony Cruz finish Expensive Pain, working on a Heaux Tales standout, and recording anywhere and everywhere with Lil Uzi Vert. Read below!
I saw you working with Brian McKnight years ago. Was that the first major artist you worked with in the studio?
Yes, I think. It could’ve been either him or Ty Dolla $ign. They both happened around the same time. At had just got finished interning at a studio in Philly for a producer named Anthony Bell, who produced “Golden” by Jill Scott and “In Love With Another Man” by Jazmine Sullivan, along with bunch of bunch of records for Vivian Green, Musiq Soulchild, and a lot of Philly R&B artists. Brian flew into Philly early for a show and came to the studio. We did an eight-hour session. I was recording drums, a little bit of vocals, guitar and bass on his album called Genesis. He was incredibly nice. I had just turned 21 and his manager told me, “You did a really good job today,” and handed me $150. He said, “Go buy yourself some alcohol.” This was in March 2017. Actually, I probably met Jazmine [Sullivan] first.
What did you notice about his creative process?
He was very hands-on. The records were already done. We were just doing the drums, bass and guitars on a couple of songs. He’s very talented as a singer, but also as a piano player, so he was very hands-on in the live room directing the musicians. When you’re used to just working with your friends to being in a room with a seasoned artist, it’s really cool. My mom has been my biggest supporter of my career. She let me turn her basement into a studio when I was in high school. So, it was cool working with someone she knew (laughs).
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Moving on to your work with Jazmine. Was her “Insecure” collaboration with Bryson Tiller the first song you two worked on?
Yes. Anthony Bell has known Jazmine since young, and in 2016 he told me, “She doesn’t want to come to the studio. She feels a little bit more creative at home.” He was like, “I brought her an iMac, an interface, microphone, and Yamaha speakers. Can you go to her house, set it up and show her how to record herself using Logic?” I went to her house, set up the equipment, and I started to show her how to record herself. I felt she wanted to write and sing. She’s the best singer I ever heard. I was super young and said, “Hey, if you don’t want to record yourself, just give me a call and I’ll come back anytime.” I was in school, interning with Ant, and interning in finance at a wealth management company as an analyst (laughs). I didn’t hear from her for two or three weeks, and one day she texted me. From then, we ended up working together for 3 ½ years.
How did you two develop your chemistry?
It was really based on her trusting me. I remember when we first started working, she would ask me what I thought about a take she did. I think she’s the best singer of our generation. The fact she was asking me what I thought about her take, I was uncomfortable. But, her trusting me, helped build my confidence. In the later parts of our working relationships, I’d be very willing to offer my feedback. It’s very vulnerable to sing and open yourself up on a song. You want the people around you to feel comfortable giving you feedback.
What were some songs you two worked on over those 3 ½ years?
We did the “Insecure” song and I worked on some songs from her newest project. My biggest contribution would be to this song called “Lost One,” which we recorded a couple of years ago. It was always one of my favorites, but I didn’t think anything was going to come from it. It was released as a single before her project and then ended up on her project.
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What on “Lost One” would you say you influenced?
On “Lost One,” there are some delays on parts of her vocals which I added. Those were in the original demo. I’ve always try to be a creative engineer.
What’s your most memorable session with her?
We’ve never worked in the studio together. It’s always been at her house. So, they were always very intimate sessions. One of the highlights is when the producer Key Wayne came to work with us. I looked up to him from his work with Big Sean, but I didn’t know that’s who it was. We were just hanging out. I didn’t realize who it was until he asked me to get a beat off his laptop and saw his name. I was like, “Oh my gosh.” He was an incredibly nice guy. He was willing to listen to my beats. They were terrible (laughs). I remember spending a bunch of time with her at her house. We had late night sessions and her mom would always offer to drive me back home. It was a 45-minute drive. I spent a lot of time with her mom, as well.
You also have a close relationship with Meek Mill’s engineer, and Studio Sessions alum, Anthony Cruz.
Yes. We have the same entertainment attorney. That’s how we originally connected. Cruz has a bunch of producers signed to him and his business partner. They did a writing camp in Philly, and I engineered the writing camp. He wasn’t really there for much of the camp. But, I found out after that he was watching me from afar. They put me in this position as a test to see what my skills were at the time. From there, we built our working relationship to the point where in late 2019 going into 2020, I’d take the train from Philly to New York to assist Cruz. We co-mixed a Meek Mill and NLE Choppa record together. So, I’d come to New York, be in a little side room while him and Meek worked on things, and I’d keep his files organized. I’d also try to spice of the songs. Right before COVID in March 2020, the Dreamchasers team invited me to the Bahamas for a writing camp. That’s when Vory and I locked in, and recorded the records for his project.
Even though I’m working with Lil Uzi Vert, Cruz and I have a great relationship. He reached out to me towards the ending of the Expensive Pain album. He was like, “Bro, I need your help getting this album turned in.” Even though Uzi and I have sessions every day from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m., I’d go across the hall to work with Cruz and James Royo to finish Meek’s album. I did all the mix assistant work. I did the clean edits. I turned in the instrumentals, acapellas, and stems. I’d do that, catch a little bit of sleep and then go back to working with Uzi.
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You recently spoke at Cruz’s Music Education workshop. Given how far you’ve come, how was it imparting wisdom to up-and-coming producers and engineers?
It was great. With the workshop, he’s really committed to giving back. I came in to speak on the recording process, but not just from a technical standpoint. I wrote up a take home guide with ProTool shortcuts and all my resources, but I also spoke about the mindset of being an engineer. The three things I feel every tracking engineer needs is professionalism, preparation, and experience. It doesn’t have to be the experience of working with a bunch of big name artists. It’s the experience of having done a diverse range of sessions, so if something comes up, it’s not foreign to you because you’ve seen them before.
The engineering community is tight-knit but largely invisible to the general public. What is the importance of Cruz’s workshop?
With engineering, there’s an opportunity gap, especially for engineers of color. Think about production. If you want to make a beat, all you need is FL Studio, a laptop, and drum samples you can download off the internet to make a beat. It’s easy to enter that. If you want to record a song with someone well, you need a microphone, an interface, headphones, and software that’s more expensive. If you want to really learn, you have to intern at a studio, which means you have to have access. That’s why we see so many engineers aren’t of color. Having these workshops, it can help introduce people to that. There was someone at Cruz’s Music Education workshop who was 16 and reminded me of myself when I was 16. I think it’s really important to have these workshops to expose these career opportunities to young people of color.
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Back to your work with artists. How did you connect with Uzi?
Back to my attorney Jason. He also represents the Working on Dying collective. That’s F1lthy, Oogie Mane, Brandon Finessin, FaxOnly and a few others who work with Uzi. Us having the same lawyer and the music community in Philly being small, I always had a relationship with those guys. Two or three weeks into the quarantine around the end of March 2020, I got a call from Oogie Mane asking if I would come to his house and record Uzi. At first, I was hesitant. But, a gentle push from Jason assured me this was an opportunity I should jump on. I assumed it’d be a fill in for a day or two, but now we’re almost two years in.
What was that first session like with Uzi?
I had been a big fan of his music, so I was familiar with his sound. I had done some reading. There had been some articles online about the recording and mixing of his music. I tried to come in and not have any lapse between his previous working situation and me. I tried to create a template that would give him the sound he was used to. He’s incredibly easy to work with. It was easy from the beginning. We had the same speed of working and recording cadence. When we were doing the first song we recorded together, I remember he was recording a part and I felt like I was listening to an unreleased Uzi song that leaked.
You started working with Uzi after he dropped his last album, Eternal Atake. What is his creative process for the new music?
The lights are always on. He is one of the nicest artists I’ve met. I’ve heard horror stories of people working with artists on his level and being screamed at. He’s never yelled at me. It’s a working relationship full of respect. It’s been easy. We vibe off each other creatively. He communicates what he wants and I decipher it. We both enjoy sonic creativity, which is not seen as much in hip hop. We experiment with different phasers, delays, and reverbs. The vibe in the studio is always high energy and fun. Recently, we’ve had a Playstation 2 in the studio. We’ve been playing throwback video games. I definitely lost pretty bad in Madden ‘06 to one of the producers. But, I did hand out some L’s in NBA Live 2007 (laughs). Uzi is very good at video games. I remember there was some point where he beat me by 40 in NBA 2K21. That wasn’t a fun day (laughs).
Is Uzi working on a new album?
We’re always working on music. We record music almost every single day. We’ve recorded in studios, apartments, hotels, houses, everywhere. I have a travel setup I bring with me. Something very important to me is giving a “pop” sonic level to hip hop. I believe in high quality sounds and recordings. No matter where we are, I want to sonic quality of his records to be the same. His feature on Justin Bieber’s album was recorded in a hotel room.
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What do you having coming up in 2022?
Continuing to work on new records. I’m really excited to build my brand and release content in the form of online courses and videos. I’m the only person in my family who doesn’t work in education, so teaching runs in my family (laughs). I want to share what I’ve learned. If I don’t share it, then what am I going to do with it? Die with it? That’s not cool.