Take a second to scan the liner notes of those early Ruff Ryders albums, and a name that’ll come up more than most is 43-times-platinum engineer Rich Keller. He had to show and prove in the studio to become the label’s in-house engineer and when he did, he got to see artists like DMX in ways most people never did.
“He’d always take his shirt off, and his dog tags would fly around. I asked him, ‘Can you please take the tags off?’ He said, ‘F**k you; the tags stay on,’” Keller told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Ruff Ryders’ longtime engineer explains how he adapted to DMX’s nocturnal recording schedule, Eve’s considerate creative process, and how he started working with Ruff Ryders before the label blew up.
What was your first session with Ruff Ryders? How did you become a part of the family?
This A&R at Atlantic Records by the name of Amelia Moore. I happened to help produce a track for Roberta Flack. Amelia was the A&R for that. Apparently, Chivon [Dean] from Ruff Ryders knew her. I knew Duro had already done a few mixes for DMX — “Get At Me Dog” and “Stop Being Greedy.” Darrin [Dean] was like, “Well, he’s over there, and he’s got his own people. I want my own engineer. I want a Ruff Ryders engineer.” I guess he put the word out and Amelia said, “Hey, Rich, there’s this group. Go meet Dee; I’ll tell them about you.” I went to Quad [Recording Studios] for a 10 o’clock night session to mix a record to see if they wanted to work with me and vice versa.
I went there and, of course, there’s a bunch of guys there. Of course, X is nowhere to be seen. I didn’t see X for weeks. Swizz wasn’t part of the flow yet. That came later. The two main producers were [Dame] Grease and PK. “How’s It Goin’ Down” was the first record I mixed. The studio had the main speakers with limiters so that you couldn’t bump them. So, we were like, “F**k this place,” and I got us in Sony in the A room at about one in the morning by waking people up. They were impressed by that. We finally mixed the record around four or five in the morning. After that, Dee said, “Rich, you good? You’re a Ruff Ryder?” I said, “Yeah, I’m a Ruff Ryder.” That was it.
When you started recording DMX, what was the typical session like for his first two albums?
I recorded very little of the first album. I think I only did “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem” and maybe a few at the very end. DMX was in and out when I met him. He was out if the mic wasn’t on when he came in. He may grab some food really quickly or wait for the weed delivery. We’d make the A&R empty their ATM limit for the day to buy all the weed we could get (laughs). The chemistry between X and I developed right away for the second album. Actually, the first session was full of crowds of people, and he saw that I was running the studio. It was my f**king studio. I’d tell them, “Shut the f**k up right now; I’m working. The lounge is over there.” I took control. X understood I ran the studio right away. X also gave me a few lessons within the first three minutes of us being together. One of them was to make sure the headphones sounded great right away. Another was to not stop the tape until he said to pull it. He would come out of the booth after recording, listen back to it, and say, “That sounds good. OK, do your s**t, bro. I’m out.” I’ve seen him in sessions with other people, and he’d throw the headphones and say, “Get the f**k out of here; you aren’t ready.” I was always ready.
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DMX was such a raw talent. What were some effects or techniques you introduced X to?
I got two things to say about that one. He’d always take his shirt off, and his dog tags would fly around. I asked him, “Can you please take the tags off?” He said, “F**k you; the tags stay on.” The other thing was with his doubles sometimes. He’d come in afterward and listen to what he recorded and have all his doubles. One day I asked him, “Do you mind if I tighten you up on some of these doubles, so they’re not one behind the other? You were a little off.” He would say, “Oh yeah, just that. You can fix those. Otherwise, don’t touch my s**t. I want it just like that.” The producers would be the ones that would be like, “Put the echo on that word.”
How quickly did he record music with you?
He was never in the booth more than 20 minutes maximum. He didn’t want to f**k around with it.
What were some of your favorite sessions with DMX?
There were two sessions where I went from the studio to the hospital to watch my babies be born. One was for “Where The Hood At?” The other one was “X Gon’ Give It To Ya.” Those songs were the good times when everybody would just come by and pay homage. JAY[-Z] would come by. Lyor [Cohen] and the execs would come by. Other artists would come by to say what’s up? Then Swizz started becoming a star. He turned into a celebrity producer pretty quickly and started hanging with everyone. We’d run down to Puff [Daddy]’s studio to say hi to him. JAY and X were together once at Battery Studios in Studio A, and they were battling. I remember this session because there were about 75 people in the live room at the time. It was about 10 p.m. on 27th street. I was in the room doing my s**t, but I saw it was going bananas out there. I saw people start to stand on the piano. There was a Steinway piano, man. This back door they had was a steel door, and people couldn’t get into the live room, so they were kicking it. They bent the door. The studio manager called me and said, “Bro, your people are destroying this studio!” (laughs).
You were all over the Ruff Ryders in the ’90s and 2000s. What was the creative process like with Eve in the studio?
We flew to LA together. Dee, X, and The LOX took an evening flight, and they put us on the 7:30 a.m. flight. It was the engineers and this girl Eve. They told me, “Yo, I’m sending this girl Eve. Just keep her with you. She’s with us. She’s the new girl.” We got to be buddies on the flight, hanging out. Creatively, she spent a lot of time writing and considering. She was a very, very considerate person. She still is a very considerate person. That means she has wonderful manners. She’s a real person. She’s also very considerate about everything. She worked on her craft and honed her craft a lot. She wanted to be good at it. She would show her lyrics to X, [Jada]kiss, and the guys just to get feedback. Then, they would be amazed when she was in there spitting, like, “Yo, she can spit.” Ruff Ryders was a family.
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Switching gears a little, I’d love to know what food they ordered in the studio back then.
Jerk chicken with rice and peas (laughs). Chicken fettuccine with white alfredo sauce. Island Spice was the joint. I don’t know if it’s still open.
What were the typical recording hours during those days?
We didn’t start cooking up until sunrise. Sometimes, it would start in the early evening. It was usually booked in the afternoon, around three or four. Someone would show up around seven or eight, give me a tape, or Swizz would drop a disc off. I’d get started, lay the beat, blah, blah, blah. I got it ready, and X got in later. X would show up at three or four in the morning. There were times X showed up at seven in the morning. I remember we waited all night, decided to walk outside, and then X pulled up saying, “Oh, you ready?” It was 7 o’clock in the morning. We all went back in, started everything up, and continued working.
One of the biggest projects you worked on was The Biggie Duets album. What was working on that like?
The vibe was “Don’t f**k it up” (laughs). But, honestly, the machine was so well-oiled at that point with the flow at the studio. It was set up like a factory. Everybody had their station. I had my chair, and five or six producers were spread across the four rooms. Then, the TV show started at 10, so they would be there. So, you needed to be done setting up by blah, blah, blah. Also, you weren’t supposed to smoke in the studio, man. We had to wait six hours to smoke cigarettes. People would come in an hour before Puff and spray it down.
Wait, your work somewhat revolved around them filming the MTV show “Making the Band”?
Yeah, I was in it. I was in seasons one and two. I’m the guy in the studio. Every time they go into the studio, that’s me.
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Last question: Did you and DMX ever have personal conversations in the studio?
A little bit. He would say, “Hey, Rich, man, good to see you, dawg. Yo, you got fat” (laughs). One time I handed him my guitar. He asked, “What are you doing there?” I said, “I’m just playing some of my guitars, waiting for y’all a**es to show up.” I was playing the bass. I handed him my bass, it was plugged in, and he started playing it. I showed him how to hit some notes. He said, “This is cool.” He handed it back to me and said, “I’ll do that again sometime.” But, as far as the studio, Earl was in and out. He didn’t like hanging out at the studio. He came in, did whatever little mental prep he did, and usually went to the booth. It was understood the mic had to be ready. The headphones had to be dope and ready to go. The track had to be ready to go.
He’s going to walk in and spit that s**t five times down. He may say, “Let me do the third verse again really quick.” One time I said punch in and he said, “What?” I would tell him, “You only f**ked up at the very end.” He’ll say, “I don’t give a f**k, start again.” That was the last time we had that conversation.