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Music February, 21 2013

An Interview with Young Guru – Technology, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Electronica & More

Gimel Androus Keaton (born February 24, 1974), better known by his stage name Young Guru, is an American audio engineer, record producer, and DJ. Revered as “The Sound of New York,” Young Guru possesses over a decade of experience in sound engineering, production, and A&R for Roc-A-Fella Records and Def Jam Recordings.

Most recognized for shaping some of the biggest talent in Hip Hop, Young Guru has mixed 10 of Jay-Z‘s 11 albums.

You spoke at Google Canada in January regarding science and art, and how the two come together in both music and technology. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Google has certain themes every Friday, the theme that week was science, technology and art. It’s at a point now where all three are merging, the technology itself is an art, speaking from an engineering stand point; e.g. the concept of how beautiful an iPad is and the amount of things that you could do with it.

The technologies we have, some of them are better than what we’ve imagined on Star Trek. Those type of things, as an engineering feat, are amazing. Also, what these technologies do in terms of power, what they give to the user and to the artist in terms of creative power is just incredible.

The speech was about the ways our technologies are affecting our art.

I’ve noticed you’re quite active on Instagram. You’ve taken a liking towards photography, is there a future in that for you e.g. film and/or directing?

For right now, it’s just a hobby. I respect the art of filmmaking, there are certain aspects of it that I could get into. I’m not really into the script writing aspect, I’m more of a fan of great writers, the same way that I’m a fan of great MC’s.

My thing would have to be like a Director of Photography/Producer. I don’t want to write scripts, I’d want to actually be behind the camera. For me photography is just a different expression, a different way of looking at the world.

In the past you’ve mentioned how the digital age has affected your career in both positive and negative ways, would you say that we’ve gotten to the point where the pluses outweigh the minuses?

Yeah, I think the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses. And you’ve got to remember that we’re still babies at this, to a certain degree. Computers will always get faster and smaller, and the technology that we have is going to get even better. What you could do with these programs now is just amazing, imagine thirty years from now.

The amount of things that you could do with the computer processing power nowadays is just incredible. And all of it is running on my Mac Mini, which I could fit in my bag! My hardware nowadays is just my MPC Renaissance, my studio used to be filled with so much stuff and now all of it just sits here turned off…

The only negative, I will say, is the human interaction; we need more of that back. I would like to see more bands — even more rappers and R&B singers — be in the same room with the person that’s creating the music, at the same time; instead of just emailing things.

To have everyone in the same room creates a vibe, you actually vibe off of each other; ideas and records are built that way.

That’s the only negative part.

How has technology changed the music industry today?

I use this example of a circle. The album used to be the thing that everything was centered around, the album was in the middle of the circle. Everything you did was to support the album, you went on tour — you literally called it “tour-support” — to support the album, it was to go out and play for people so that they would go into the store and purchase the album. Everything was based around the album.

The album is no longer in the middle of the circle. The artist themselves have to start thinking that they’re in the middle. Even DJ’s, engineers, all of that, you have to think of yourself as being in the middle of the circle.

So no, you’re not going to have the run that a Timbaland, or a Just Blaze, or a Kanye, or a Pharrell or somebody like that, had. But, there are so many more avenues now. If you’re sitting at home and you’re making beats — let’s be realistic — you may make a name for yourself by putting your stuff online, but imagine how much money you could make if you sell ten beats in a week, at $200-300 a pop, on Beatport or something like that…my point is, there are so many more avenues nowadays but people aren’t really using them the right way.

You’ve got to use all of these avenues to help monetize everything.

You have an obvious interest in teaching, what made you fall in love with that portion of your career?

That’s one of my big things now, I actually love teaching. I like to look at a student and explain a concept, and to see that moment where the “Oh! I get it!” thing comes to their face, that’s a great feeling.

You have to speak in a language that the student can understand. If you truly understand a concept you could explain it to a baby.

On Twitter you’ve been mentioning TDE/Kendrick Lamar a lot, what’s that about?

I’m from that era where you congratulate, and you recognize. When somebody like Kendrick comes along…for a long time I was riding with him, I ride with him and I ride with Ab-Soul and I ride with Ali. I love the whole concept of Ali basically doing the same thing that I was doing for Jay-Z, for Kendrick.

I’m just glad that there’s a new crop of guys that know what they’re doing and have a respect for the music and approach it with a certain reverence.

Just Blaze and Baauer released an EDM record fairly recently, “Higher.” What are your thoughts on Just Blaze and the whole EDM scene?

I’ve said this a million times, Just Blaze is a chameleon. He’s so good that he could do anything. You could put him in a rock and roll session and he could make a rock record; it doesn’t matter.

First of all, he’s from Patterson, New Jersey. We’ve always had house music as one of our major forms of black expression; people love house music. You’ll go to parties and see thugs dancing to house music. But it’s our form of it, it’s not that “Jersey Shore” fist-pump music; its soulful. But, we grew up on all forms of house music.

Just knows house music. It’s nothing for him to look at the scene and adapt to what’s going on right now and make great music. It allows you to stretch your mind when you’re not making a hip-hop record all the time.

EDM music is the biggest form of music in the world. The EDM audience is so much bigger than hip-hop, that’s why people gravitate towards it.

Let’s talk a little bit a bout your Aiaiai headphone collaboration.

I’m super excited about that. Aiaiai is a dope company, number one. I wanted to make a great reference headphone for the millions of kids producing music in their bedrooms. It’s the exact opposite of the other headphones that are in the marketplace right now, which add an EQ or some type of DSP — digital signal processor — that makes everything coming through the headphone sound great. My headphones are specifically like having studio speakers on your ears, they’re supposed to give you an accurate representation of your music so you can mix.

Me being an engineer, I didn’t want to come in and just slap my name on something. I actually went to Copenhagen and sat down with Aiaiai, went through a million drivers, went back and forth on material and colors, all the way down to the box; all of those details were very specific.

I want to stress that this is a piece of studio gear, it’s about the sonic of it and the headphone itself; not me putting my face on a box.

Regarding Kendrick Lamar’s album good kid m.a.a.d. city, do you consider it a “classic?”

Yes, it’s absolutely a classic. It captured a moment in time.

Is Jay Electronica’s Act II: Patents of Nobility going to be a classic?

In my eyes, yes.

I’d rather just show people, I’d rather have people listen to it with a clear mind. I don’t want to hype it, because I don’t need to hype it. I want people to listen to it as a “fresh thing” and not have any type of expectation.

That’s the only thing I want to stress about it. It’s a body of work, people should have an open mind.

The Young Guru Foundation, let’s talk about that.

The foundation started from work I was doing with SAE. I started doing an Associate Professorship at SAE, just so that I could teach. SAE has campuses across the world, when I went to South Africa we came up with this idea to give away a scholarship to someone that’s interested in audio but wouldn’t be able to afford an education at SAE. That was the start.

Then, we started the foundation in order to run the scholarship through it, and it just grew legs; it was a great thing. A lot of people came to me with some great ideas.

So now I have an annual scholarship in South Africa — I’m actually going back in February to give it away — and the foundation, which will be doing a bunch of things throughout the year. You know, people think you have to be super rich, you don’t have to be rich, you just have to organize it. The foundation is in place in order to mobilize the ideas that me and my team come up with.

What are your plans for 2013?

Personally, the headphones are big for me this year. I’m definitely going to complete the book this year too. I’m doing an engineering book, taking you all the way from sound concepts to application. The ending chapters will be genre specific to computer music, or loop-based music, so it includes hip-hop, it includes EDM and things like that.

It’s an interactive book. So not only will you get a book but if you buy the electronic version on iTunes you’ll get videos of me actually miking a drum kit, etc. It’s a lot more tangible when you get to hear audio, versus just discussing it.

Production, super heavy. In the past I had so many different systems, and now this Renaissance has centralized my whole studio. It’s the center-piece, that and the Mac Mini. I plan on putting music out there just because, and not necessarily doing it for the dollar. I’ve taken the past year or so to say “Yeah, Guru does DJ.” Now it’s time for me to do the same thing with production, on a bigger scale.

2013, what do you think it’ll sound like? Who will shape the overall sound of music and who do you think will be the biggest players?

I think it’ll be a complete turn around from where we are now. There’s a new generation of kids that want to do something that has never been done before. I like certain things that I hear online, but it’s getting to the point that it’s so over-saturated.

Now it’s TDE time. MMG is moving up into the space that Young Money had on lock, in previous years. It’s time for TDE to take over the space where people love you the most: not to the point where you’re commercially blown, but everybody knows who you are. They have a story developing, so I think they’re going to have a big year.

The West Coast needed something that defined the post g-funk era, now they have that. Every artist before Kendrick Lamar, to a certain degree, was still hanging on to that g-funk. The same way the East Coast needs it, the East Coast needs a new sound that’s not the “down south” 2 Chainz sound; the East Coast doesn’t have that.

When they have it, that person can stand on the stage at The Source awards and be like “We did it Brooklyn.” You need that, that’s what Notorious Big did when the West Coast sound was dominating.

Musically, I think it’s going to be a continued mash-up of a bunch of different things. You’re going to have so many forms of music coming together that it’s going to be more eclectic, and more eclectic, and more eclectic, and something fresh and new will eventually come out of it.

More information about The Young Guru Foundation:

The Young Guru Foundation is celebrating 2013 by giving lucky fans the chance to win a professional recording mix session with Jay-Z’s go-to sound maven and legendary engineer and producer Young Guru.

Music and entertainment fans that make a qualifying donation to The Young Guru Foundation will be entered in a special contest for the opportunity to have their record engineered by Young Guru.

Qualifying donations can be submitted at www.djyoungguru.com/younggurufoundation now through February 28, 2013 at 11:59pm EST. Every $10 donation qualifies the donor for a chance to win the grand prize and more. Eligible fans must also follow @Young_Guru and @YoungGuruFDTN, as well as submit a tweet that describes why they are excited for the New Year.

The Grand Prize winner will be notified on March 5th, 2013. For a complete list of available prizes and rules, please visit www.djyoungguru.com/younggurufoundation.

“The Young Guru Foundation seeks to shape a brighter future for communities by providing financial support through theYoung Guru Scholarship to students pursuing careers in Communications, Audio Engineering, Music Education and Music Business.”

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