Studio Sessions | Engineer Randy Urbanski witnessed The-Dream “become” Mariah Carey to pen hits for her
The veteran engineer discusses what it was like to watch The-Dream and Tricky Stewart make classics, Migos’ selflessness when recording and more. Read up!
Randy Urbanski never skipped a day of the grind and went from being an assistant engineer for Grammy Award-winning engineers Jaycen Joshua and Dave Pensado to becoming a Grammy Award-winning engineer himself for his work on Kanye West’s Jesus Is King. Before the Grammy came, he was already a part of greatness.
“Mariah [Carey] is regarded as one of the most classic singers of all time in pop music, and here’s The-Dream. This dude was living that Atlanta life and everything, and I remember being so blown away by him writing for her. He literally tapped in. He was her,” Urbanski told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the veteran engineer discussed what it was like to watch The-Dream and Tricky Stewart make classics, Migos’ selflessness when recording, and working with the artists we’ll all be talking about next year.
Who was the first major hip hop/R&B artist you worked with in the studio?
The studio I really came up at had two or three really big mix engineers in it already. So, every day there were artists there. Once I finally got the actual assistant engineer job with Jaycen Joshua — who at the time was partnered with Dave Pensado — on my first day I went in as an official engineer, Dave was mixing Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ in his room. Jaycen was in his room with Mary J Blige, working on the final mixes to her album Growing Pains. The demo Dave was referencing for the Rihanna record was Britney Spear’s version of the song. Britney had cut the record and passed, and then Rihanna was trying to break out of her dancehall thing and do more contemporary R&B. She cut the record, and the rest was history.
So who would you say was the first major artist you directly worked with in the studio?
I guess when I went full-time with Tricky Stewart and The-Dream. That was the heyday. That was Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream. That was Beyonce’s I Am Sasha Fierce with ‘Single Ladies.’ I was with Tricky and Dream working with Kuk Harrell, a really big vocal producer and Tricky’s cousin. They’re all one team. I dove in with them at that point, and I was cutting Katy Perry. I cut Ciara’s entire Basic Instinct album.
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What was Ciara’s creative process in the studio?
She’s dope. The-Dream was writing a lot of this stuff, and Tricky was producing it. When she’d come in, she was basically catching a vibe, seeing how the production was going and seeing what she loves. She would just go back and forth, and The-Dream would write out the whole record to her standards. The-Dream is a beast. He can literally tap in and become Mariah [Carey] and write her album. We would cut the records with Ciara and get the whole rough mix and everything. Then, they’d final produce it. It was fun. Ciara was bubbly. She was nice and just happy to do it. I had been with a lot of artists, but that was one of the first I actually sat with to record for about two months.
You’re all over The-Dream’s Love Vs. Money album, which is, to me, his magnum opus. The best song was ‘Fancy.’ How did that song come about?
That song gave me goosebumps. They were really in their zone at that time right there. We were all staying in Malibu. They got this big house, and the whole basement was a recording studio. That album was a tide turner. It made the Grammys create the Contemporary R&B category, which we won the next year with ‘Single Ladies.’ But that song, in particular, I’ll never forget. We pretty much had the tracklisting down. We knew the main roots of the songs that were all on it; they were mainly done. But, that one was probably half the length that it was up until near the end of our stay. I just remember smoke in the air. I remember Patròn. I remember a feeling amongst everyone that we knew what we had. That day, Tricky started with these subs, and it was that whole outro where everything dies out, and it just went from there. It was definitely a feeling of the moment late into the record. It just became this huge, beautiful thing. Dave and Jay were mixing a lot of records, but it was one of those moments where you could tell Dave knew. He hunkered in that back room on his own for quite a while. That mix that he did on that record is fantastic.
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What did you learn from working with The-Dream and Tricky?
I have so much love for Tricky because even with my experience at the time and the records I’ve worked on with Dave and Jay, I was still green. There was so much of a learning curve. I went from working on mixing final records with Jay to now I was with The-Dream writing, starting from a melody and a sub. So, it was very much brand new. I was watching how songs are written in the pop world. I learned how to actually make a record. I learned how to make hit records with those two.
What’s the most impressive feat you’ve seen The-Dream accomplish in the studio?
The most impressive thing is the entire album E=MC2. As a team, we all did that. Mariah is regarded as one of the most classic singers of all time in pop music, and here’s The-Dream. This dude was living that Atlanta life and everything, and I remember being so blown away by him writing for her. He literally tapped in. He was her. He wasn’t the greatest high note singer, but he would write melodies and sing these songs for her. The real amazing point was sitting there watching The-Dream with my mouth on the floor in shock. Not to say other writers can’t write for these people, but at that time, writers wrote what they did and what they knew. I’ve worked with every writer in the game. To see him physically become a female who has whatever octave range and write these songs was incredible.
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Who’s a newer artist you’ve worked with that you love working with?
I’ll bring up one. I love Ari Lennox. She’s starting to really do her thing through Dreamville. I remember I took a session over through Paramount Recording [Studios], who I work with a lot, and it was just supposed to be this one-night thing. She needed to finish a song or whatever. I’ll be honest. Even at the time, I didn’t know who she was. This was about four or five years ago. She was a new signee to Cole. It was around the time of Creed II, and “Shea Butter Baby” was in the movie. I didn’t know who she was and then realized she was crazy talented. So I went in and started doing my thing, and she and her team were loving it, and they ended up booking the studio for another week because Cole was in the other room in Paramount with his engineer Mez. I recut about nine records, and it was just fun. She was a bit timid and I’m like, ‘Yo, you’re singing about having gas after eating a burrito, laying in bed with your boy. There’s no shame’ (laughs). After that, I had the exact same experience with EarthGang, where I did one day with them, and that turned into me recutting, cutting and rough mixing the entire Mirrorland album. They loved the sound of what we were doing.
Speaking of working at Paramount Recording Studios, what were you doing in the studio with KD?
The thing about Paramount is the engineers that run through there are all freelance. So, you never know what will happen there, to be honest. You’ll take a session, and Young Thug might pull up to do a feature or something. It’s one of those major facilities that labels are booking. A lot of top rappers and producers love the building. This was a long time ago, but KD might have been being low-key. I think maybe Justin Timberlake was in the back. I honestly can’t remember.
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You work with a diverse group of artists. For example, you can work with an Ari Lennox and then work with an OG like Krayzie Bone.
Shout out to Steve Lobel. He hit me up and my guy Avedon, the producer who had just moved from Amsterdam and had never done any hip hop in his life. So, he and I locked in, and we did an entire Bone Thugs record. You have no idea what they meant to me growing up.
You were also in the studio with Migos back in 2017 when they made ‘Body’ with Sean Paul. What did you notice about how they worked before fame?
How fast and connected they were. They brought the best out of each other. They were on this new wave that no one had fully jumped on yet. They had no egos. Quavo might tell Takeoff, ‘No, no, no, no, deliver it like this.’ At any other rap session I’ve worked, unless it’s the homeboy of the rapper, ain’t no one telling a rapper how to deliver his rap. But, with those guys, it was a collaborative thing.
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What have you been working on lately?
I chief engineered Jesus Is King, and then there was a lot of in-and-out work through the DONDA stuff. I’ve been working on a new project with 070 Shake. Whenever this drops, 070 has potential for Best New Artist. It really is one of those album. It is insanity. She’s crazy. So, that’s been dope because it’s enjoyable. I’ve started a publishing/distro company with some of my partners. So, I have a lot of the work I’ve been doing that has been more just direct ownership, involvement, development, working with writers and a lot of stuff like that. I’m of a lucky sort now where I finally get a balance. My girl Kova is over there with Tommy Brown, who does Ariana Grande production and everything. So, I’m more tapped in with a lot of the people you’re gonna know next year.
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