Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1099

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Ken Lewis: Producing the goods

Ken Lewis
Ken Lewis

It is a known fact that producers are the at times the unsung engines behind some of our favourite music. They are like the workforce in some steam ship, shovelling coal and allowing the ship to get to where it needs to be. Keeping with that simile occasionally some of those shovelling coal come to the top of the deck and gain recognition think; Quincy Jones, Dr Dre, Timbaland and others who have made their mark and become just as influential as the artists that sing or rap on their tracks.

Ken Lewis may not necessarily ever come to the top of that deck but the seven time Grammy award winning producer has every right if he wanted to. His CV is a rich tapestry of some of the biggest artists and it just keeps on growing: Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Usher, Mary J. Blige are the tip of a massive iceberg of work.

So I was lucky enough to get some time out with Ken to chat all that is music and he proved to be a most interesting guy.

How are you doing Ken?

Thanks for reaching out to me for an interview, I really appreciate it. Sometimes I forget that most people have no clue who I am or that they have heard tons of my work.

Where and how did this love affair with music begin?

I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio.  When I was 8 years old I began begging my parents for a guitar. When I kept on begging, they caught on that I was serious and I was not going to stop asking. That Christmas they bought me my first guitar and the music all started there.  My mother was an amateur musician and songwriter as well and I'm sure that had an early influence on me.

Who were your inspirations musically growing up?

Well, I'd say my friends were.  A lot of my friends played in bands and I would get a lot of my musical influence from the songs they would play live. Also my brother is ten years older than me and I used to steel his records and 8 tracks all the time. I listened to all kinds of rock growing up no urban influences at that time. From my brother I found artists like Elton John, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and Neil Young, and from my friends it was more like 38 Special, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest. The first record I ever bought in 6th grade was ACDC "Back in Black" but early on I also loved bands like Journey and all of the early MTV stuff was a HUGE influence.

When did the whole affair with âurbanâ music for want of a better word come about?

My musical education in urban music really began when I got to NYC in 1993 and began engineering at Soundtrack Recording Studios.   It was all Hip-Hop and R&B clients at that studio and I learned the genre flying by the seat of my pants from the clients I worked with.  Early on that would have been people like Puffy, DJ Muggs DJ Muggs interview (from Cyprus Hill) and engineers like Tony Masrerati and Troy Hightower.  I kind of started in one of the golden eras of Hip-Hop in a place where EVERY artist came through to work-Biggie made his first album there.  Then later at soundtrack I had the immensely good fortune to do some engineering for rock producers Butch Vig and Mike Stone, both legends on bands like Foreigner and Soul Asylum.  I was really lucky but also working 80 to 100 hour weeks without a break ever-I earned it.

What was the defining moment that made you realise that you could make a career of music?

A rep from Berkley College of Music came to my High School when I was a junior and told us all about the school-it was instant-thatâs where I wanted to go and I did. My parents bought me a 4 track tape recorder for my 16th birthday and I have tons of shoe boxes FULL of recordings I made.  Everything from original songs to covers, anything I could think to record. I was obsessed.  So, I went to Berkley for their "Music Production and Engineering" major.  While there I was heavily influenced to come to NYC by Jonny "Most" Davis and Dante Gioia, and a year after I graduated I packed my life into a truck and moved to New York City and started at the bottom rung and climbed.

You worked with Kanye West before he was a global star what was it about him that you think turned him into a global star aside from the music of course?

The first time I was ever in a studio with Kanye, he called me up to do music for him for a song he was producing for Memphis Bleek.  We were at Quad Studio A in NYC.  I was at the console with my guitar, and Kanye was in the back of the room with two friends most of the time.  He was rapping NON-STOP-he would not STFU.  I had no idea he wanted to be an artist but I started listening to his lyrics and his flow and it INSTANTLY connected with me.  I was totally blown away.  I thought "this guy is an artist and either he's going to sell ten million records or ten records.  Either everybody is going to connect with this like I am right now or nobody is".   It was just SO different, so fresh, so lyrically creative.   A lot of what he spit that night I heard later on the College Dropout, thatâs how much it stuck with me from one listen.

He was turned down by a few people I heard.

The irony and Lesson on the music industry is that EVERYBODY turned down Kanye when he was looking for a record deal, I mean EVERYBODY, except Dame Dash. So, itâs a lesson to you up and coming artists believe in yourself and what you are doing and just expect to hear the word "no" a lot, or to be completely ignored.  Just because somebody in the industry does not like what you do, it does not at all minimise what you do. Listen to what people have to say, then extract what connects with you and keep it moving.  Let the hate and bad attitudes just fall away.

And indeed are their common characteristics that you see in the way that the successful people in the music industry operate?

The biggest common characteristics are usually an insane drive and work ethic. Real talent of course, communication skills really help and never waiting for an opportunity to come to you, go get it and donât ever expect it to come your way.

How has the music industry changed since you came into it and indeed has it changed of for the better or worse?

Really good question, you got me thinking. Well, technology has been a huge change. Computers were just beginning to be used when I started but everything was recorded on analogue tape in big studios mostly - the home studio practically did not exist.  This has been a double edged sword because technology has allowed access to recording for the masses but the art of engineering is becoming lost, and the art of mixing even more of a challenge though the tools are so much easier to use nowadays. â¨â¨Music has become much more globalised, for instance I mix for a lot of the very big Asian artists like Rain, SS501, 2AM and BoA.  So much of my work is done via internet and I mix for independent artists all over the globe.

Many artists are going the independent route is that the way that the industry is going now?

Well, itâs tough out there, you are still competing with billion dollar corporations to get your music to break through the noise but it happens all the time now. People can make amazing songs in their own studios, shoot incredibly high quality videos with relatively inexpensive gear.  Check out my friends in the rap group "Upper Echelon" they do it all themselves from building their website, writing, producing all of the music, shooting their own videos and they look and sound completely major label product. Itâs a ton of work and you got to learn to wear a lot of hats as an indie artist,  but you know, the pay-off can be huge, however,  if you are not making music first and foremost because you love to do it,  you are doing it for all the wrong reasons.

What are you up to in terms of projects for the end of this year and 2012?

Well, the new Drake album just dropped and I arranged music and choir for a song called "Lord Knows" that Just Blaze produced.  I wrote and produced the first single for the new G-Unit / G-Note female pop artist Lea, the song is called "November Skies" and they just serviced the video.  Lea has an incredible voice, look for her to break through in 2012, hopefully with my single. I've got singles coming out with new artists next year on Def Jam, Republic/UNI and possibly Jive. My production partner, Brent Kolatalo and I are always grinding writing new songs, producing music and producing artists.  2012 is going to be a big, big year. This year has been crazy with "Watch The Throne,"  Rick Ross,  Drake,  Maybach Music,  Lea - next week the 2012 Grammy Nominations get announced, so we'll see if I am going back to the big show next year.  I was nominated this year for Album of the Year for Eminem, and was a part of 2 more nominations this year, 23 so far in my career.

â¨Are there any UK artists you would work with?

Not many, but I would love to. I am starting to tap that market a bit again, I used to do more over there,  but I think you have to really spend a lot of time and energy if you want to be in that market and the US market is pretty all consuming right now but hey UK artists, GET AT ME!

â¨Who is on your general wish list of artists to work with?

Check Drake off the list, Rihanna would be a dream but honestly, anybody else at this point is all icing on the cake.   I've been so lucky to work with so many great artists.  My biggest goals now are more writing and produce more and more. Itâs starting to happen in a bigger way but I really believe in setting big goals and then working my ass off to attain them and I truly believe me and Brent could be the next Dr Luke, or JR Rotem or Red One.  The industry is just beginning to wake up to what we're creating, expect a big breakthrough in 2012, I will make it happen.

â¨Who do you think is an artist that is most promising?

Ariana Grande is going to be a mega star, mark my words.

Any parting words Ken?

Check out my production/mixing website and I just launched my latest passion I've found a huge gap in the ability of aspiring producers and engineers to find excellent well taught knowledge on how real records are really made from someone who you might really want to learn from.  So I have spent the last year and a half building this online school and so far the feedback from users has been incredibly positive.  There's no enrolment, no commitments, just find the Lesson that interests you, spend a few bucks and start learning. bI'm really proud of it and I will keep growing it bigger every week.  Check it out!!
Words Semper Azeez-Harris

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