Much of Andrew Dawson's work may be behind the scenes, but his final product is always in the forefront. He may garner more attention from co-producing and engineering Kanye West's unanimously-praised My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but after checking the rest of the Minneapolis, Minnesota native's resume—he also worked on projects for Common, Destiny's Child, Coldplay, and a gang of others—then it's no surprise that he would knock this one out of the park as well.
In an extensive interview with HipHopDX Producer's Corner, Dawson talks about the playground of talent he has worked with for Kanye's recent material, the understated value of studio engineers, and upcoming work with the likes of P.O.S. and Death Cab for Cutie.
HipHopDX: You've engineered every Kanye West album, including College Dropout.
Andrew Dawson: Absolutely. I was the main mixer on Late Registration and Graduation as well. I did at least more than half of both those albums as far as mixing. But I engineered every song on every album. We got started at least halfway through [The] College Dropout.
He was doing his producer sessions and College Dropout drop, and he'd gone through seven or eight engineers in a month. Just firing them because they weren't up to his standards. It can happen, you can go through a bad batch. He went through seven or eight dudes, and my name was next on the list. I came into the session, and didn't get fired, and we stuck together ever since. [Laughs] It was never an official induction into the camp, and no ceremonies, but I haven't gotten fired seven years later, so I guess that's a good thing.
DX: After going through so many engineers, what do you think made him stick with you?
Andrew Dawson: He told me a couple times, when we first started working together, is listening to what he wants. He may have a particular way or particular sound that he wants to hear. A lot of engineers or mixers think they know better, and they've got the mentality that says, “You don't know what you're doing.” Especially because this was before Kanye was Kanye. He had done some stuff as a producer, but he wasn't an artist. People were thinking “Who's this guy?” and I could see the mentality of not taking him seriously. But if he wanted to do something, I would try anything that he was looking for sonically. If he wanted something done, I'd say, “Cool, let's try it that way.” A lot of people would say, “Let's try it my way, not that way.” And I can understand that frustrating the hell out of him, because if he had something he wants to do and people aren't willing to help him get the style or the sound he wants, then to the curb you go. [Laughs] I just listen to what he wants, and the vibe he's going for. I've always been good at reading the mood and atmosphere of clients, and what people are expecting. It's almost as much as psychology as it is the technicality of being able to work with everybody.
DX: That actually brings to light some things I wanted to talk about. A lot of people don't understand how important an engineer really is.
Andrew Dawson: Especially in the last three to four years. I'm not saying with 'Ye, but other friends I have that work with producers. I've seen sessions where the engineer essentially puts together the whole song. The producer comes up with the cool beat or the cool snare sound or the cool kick sound, but as far as getting arrangement or transition right, and things that are really important to the song, I've seen the producer be lax on it and the engineer picks up a lot of the slack in certain places. A lot of the time you'll see an engineer with a camp, because they know how the camp likes to work, and how the sound likes to go. It's a super key thing nowadays where the line is blurred between engineer and producer, because you've got a lot of producers who are beat-makers, and then you've got the overall producers who put people together in rooms. A Rick Rubin isn't going to sit down and program out a drum beat. Rick Rubin is awesome because he knows how to get the best out of each person, and he knows how to motivate people. He's not going to sit there and program an [Akai] MPC. He can do that, but he's not going to, and he realizes there are other people that are better at doing that. And these days, there are a lot of engineers called into that role. You get a producer who oversees a project, and you get certain engineers that are hip who know what they're doing, and have a musical ear. Some guys don't, but when you do, you tend to be a little more in demand than others.
That's been a key for me. I have that producer's ear, I have a musical background, I know how to put a song together, and I know how to arrange it. I'm not just worried about getting the best signal in the Pro Tools; I'll worry about the actual song too.
DX: With that being said, how much more does the leak of an unfinished song annoy you more as an engineer than it may upset the actual artist?
Andrew Dawson: Oh man. I get super pissed when unreleased versions of songs come out, because I'm one of the guys that will work on a song over and over again, and have trouble putting it down. Usually, the leaks are a five-minute rough mix, and the levels are wack, and the vocals are off, and the blends are off. And your name's on the album at the end, and if they're not listening to the album version, then your name is still a representation of your work.
And a lot of record labels look at engineers with a suspicious eye when a song leaks. I have to explain to labels that we're going to be the last one to leak a song. We're the ones that carry the hard drives around a lot of the time, but if someone forwards the email to somebody else, that's how it happens. If you don't want it to leak, don't give anyone an email of anything. I heard a story about some intern who was walking by a record label exec's desk, grabbed a CD off his desk, threw it on his laptop, and minutes later, his shit was entirely leaked. … And I don't understand how a fan of the artist would like to leak his shit. You'd think a hater would leak it, but strangely enough, the fans end up leaking it most of the time.
DX: As an engineer and producer, you said that you don't just make technical parts of the music. But you do a lot of organizing people in a room. A lot of the newer Kanye songs—especially the G.O.O.D. Friday songs, and “All of The Lights—have a real collaborative spirit to them. Many collaborations in Hip Hop are all about trying to outshine the other emcee on the song, but a song like “All of The Lights” has a real orchestral feel to it just because so many people are doing so many different things. But all of these songs have so many big names; how do you keep that collaborative spirit at all times, and how do you check egos?
Andrew Dawson: I don't really have the ego issue. I don't care whether it's [Lil] Wayne, [Jay-Z], Fergie, or Elton John on the song. It's just whoever comes with the best. The cool thing about working with 'Ye is that he'll hear a part; a [The-Dream] part, a John Legend part, just a little tiny snippet of it. He'll say, “Take that little part of the hook, or take that little 'hoo-rah.'” Meanwhile, John Legend will have probably laid an entire hook. The cool thing about working with Ye is that he hears that really well. It's really about what works best.
Songs like “All of The Lights” were worked on for a good period of time. When we first had it, nobody was on it. Then a few more people got on it, then a few more people got on it. So at the end we have all of this material, and we're like, “Okay, how best do we piece this together?” And with that, I've got to give credit to 'Ye. He can just hear what's going to work well, and he'll put it together in a great fashion. He's got a great ear for arrangement. … Even for a song that's not “All of The Lights,” you'll have three or four different versions of hooks, and at the end of the day, we'll say, “Rihanna killed this part, and we'll blend Elton John in with her.” We'll do a lot of experimentation, but there's definitely more material there that didn't make the cutting block.
DX: As a fan of different musicians, I can imagine it'd be like a playground to work with so much stuff at once. How fun is it to put that stuff together?
Andrew Dawson: It's really cool. That's the creative and technical part, is where you can go, “This will work here, this won't work there.” You've also got to hear it in your head ahead of time and then try it, so there's some trial and error, but it's fun to take all the pieces to gel it into something that makes sense from start to finish. Take the best of what each person has to offer, and you can't lose. It's like Jimi Hendrix playing guitar, John Bonham on the drums. It's like putting together your own all-star team, featuring the talents of each person.
DX: Another interesting thing recently was the Complex photo of Kanye walking by the studio rules: “No Tweeting,” “Don't tell anything about what goes on here,” etc. Have you had any situations where you have to put your foot down on people that don't follow the rules?
Andrew Dawson: I almost wish when [Nabil Elderkin] took those pictures.... A couple weeks later, I actually made the wall and I was kind of proud of it. Another rule went up that I was responsible for creating. I bought this beat up old speed boat, but it was fun as shit to take it out in the Pacific Ocean. He put up a rule the next day after I bought it, that said, “No used boats.” It was a goof, because he had heard that I got it back to the dock, and I couldn't get the thing started. So it was a joke, “Andrew's boat is going to sink in the marina because he can't get it started.” It was all in good fun to me.
But to me, you get some people who come with the artist, who are part of the crew, who just don't get common sense. To me, all of that is common sense. But after a certain point, you're like, “Seriously? You're going to talk about songs I want to keep close to the vest, just so you can get five more Twitter followers?” To me, all those rules are common sense. Everybody should read those and get a laugh out of it, because that makes sense and they're kind of funny. But it's common sense. You're invited to be a part of this special process out here; hold it to the vest for a few months, it's not that hard. … I also liked the “No Tweeting” sign with the Twitter sign with a cross through it, that's my personal favorite.
DX: Over all these Kanye albums, you've worked with Kanye, Mike Dean, Jon Brion—
Andrew Dawson: Nas, Game. I did a month with Game. We locked in the Sony studios in New York for Doctor's Advocate, we did about 90 percent of that album in that month. To me, that's a classic album. Worked with John Legend a bunch, Destiny's Child, some Pop stuff. Definitely have been working on some good stuff lately.
DX: Can you think of specific things you've learned from all of these people? I sort of see you like a Voltron of different people.
Andrew Dawson: I love the Transformer/Voltron analogy, that's pretty good. If I don't take something out of each and every session from each artist I work with, I don't think I'm doing my job. As an engineer and especially as a producer, you have to pick up on the vibe and mentality of each person you're working with. For me, the cool thing is that when I was coming up and learning the engineering/mixing thing, I got to Voltron, so to speak, a lot of the top mixing cats, some of who I compete with now. I assisted Bob Power, who mixed all the A Tribe Called Quest albums and produced on them. I assisted Tony Mazerati, and Dexter Simmons, who did Outkast's Speakerboxxx/Love Below. I got to take a little piece from each one of those guys as working as their assistants, and it's the same thing with each artist. I pick up a piece or a trick of how someone likes to record something, how they arrange a song, how they like to stack vocals, or how they approach production. If I don't pick up something from everybody, I'm not doing my job right.
DX: You've been doing it for a long time. But from what you're saying, I'd imagine it would take a lot of confidence to be able to work with certain people, and contribute something different from what they already have. What kind of mindset do you go in with when you're working with all these legendary names, where you contribute—which is why they have you there—while still listening to what they have to say?
Andrew Dawson: That's something I kind of learned early. All these great people come up with an idea or an arrangement, and I'll try it out. As long as I have a good rapport and I'm cool with an artist, I'll try it out. But under the intention where, “I'm going to play you this version, and it's going to sound different.” Especially when I go to mix a song, I'll try one or two things that I think the song needs and I'll change it up a bit. But I'll have this disclaimer: “This is your baby, your name is on the album and your picture is on the front. If you really don't like it, I'll take it off; but this is what I hear.” I've never been afraid to do that. I've told Elton John, “Yeah, that wasn't a good vocal take. Do that one again.” [Laughs] And I remember the assistant in the room gasped, but [Elton] was like, “Okay, no problem.” The people I've worked with are really awesome, and I've never had any problems with anyone I've worked with. I can't really complain, and I'm not a dick about it—I just say it like we're having a conversation. At the end of the day, if it's something they really want to hear, then I'll put it back. We're all trying to make it sound better, and if I get to put my two cents in and you dig it, cool. If not, I'll put it back the way it was.
DX: I saw on your site that you worked with Aretha Franklin, also. What was that like?
Andrew Dawson: I didn't work with her a whole lot, it was probably over the span of three or four days. She came in to cut some vocals. She was working with a couple of guys, and one of them was Devo Springsteen, who is one of Kanye's cousins. I remember coming in, it was so funny. First time she stepped in the booth, she caught me off-guard so bad. She was talking so quiet in the mic, “I need my headphones way up, I need my mic way up.” Then the track comes in, and she just belts it out, and totally surprises everyone. She was killing it! I'm like, “You do not need your mic turned up.” [Laughs] And there I learned, with Aretha, she'll want her headphones turned up, but don't turn her mic up. She was really nice, really cool.
DX: Anyone else that had really memorable studio sessions?
Andrew Dawson: Working with The Game for a month was awesome. A lot of artists have perceptions; he was just getting out of the G-Unit crew at that point, he had just thrown his chain back in the crowd at that Hot 97 show. But he was the coolest dude, super professional. He would work all the time, and it was quality work. If people were BS'ing around the studio, he'd say, “Get out. Go in the lounge, go watch TV, or go eat dinner. I'm here to work on this.” I loved that. A lot of the time, sessions turn into hangout time and we're burning the clock. I'm not about that; I'm there to do something. Granted, you need time to sit down and hang out too, but if you do it all day, it's a little counterproductive.
Also, working on John Legend's album, all of Kanye's albums, Common's albums. I did pretty much all the engineering on Finding Forever and Be, and some of the mixing on Finding Forever. Hearing his verses for the first time on those as he's delivering them. He doesn't write anything down, and his verses are insanely deep, with triple entendres. I remember recording them for the first time, and I get the first level. Then we record the next take for the second level, and the third level. I remember with each take, I was hearing something new. People also talk about on [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy] how 'Ye brought his musicality up, but to me, he totally brought his lyricism up on this one as well. The lyrics on “Gorgeous” are so deep to me. You have to sit there with the words and read over them or listen to the song three times in a row to get the double and triple entendres in that one. When he laid “Gorgeous,” I was like, “Oh crap.” That was early on in the project, and I'm like, “Okay, he's definitely stepped his lyrical game up on this project.” That's one of the hair-raising kind of moments. And you're the first person there to hear it? As a fan, it's a really cool place to be.
DX: You said while working on Kanye's album that you had to put a lot of other stuff on hold. What else are you working on?
Andrew Dawson: I'm producing an album for P.O.S. on Rhymesayers [Entertainment]. Him and I go back to being high school acquaintances, because we were both from Minneapolis. The producer he works with a lot, Lazerbeak, was just a year or two behind me. We recorded stuff together in high school, so it's sort of a full circle sort of thing. And I have a connection with almost everybody on Rhymesayers on some level. Sims, I remember as “little Andy Sims” because he was my little brother's skateboarding friend in the third grade. [Laughs] I caught up with him at this show at the Roxie in L.A. a couple months ago, and it was cool hanging out with him and talking with him again. But [P.O.S.] and I are set to go, and I'm producing and overseeing the album. We're going to be doing that at my spot in L.A., hopefully starting in mid-January, in a couple weeks. Common's got some new stuff in the works; I can't really say, but the fans are going to be happy.
DX: It's crazy to hear you working with Destiny's Child or Kanye one minute, then working with P.O.S. Is it difficult to switch from one to the other?
Andrew Dawson: I was just doing some [songs similar to the work you hear from] Death Cab For Cutie, Owl City last week. The tracks came out absolutely killer, I can't wait to shop them around and play them for some people. They came out, seriously, like Alternative Rock radio hits, all day long. I've been good at doing the chameleon thing. I took classical piano lessons as a kid until I went to college. Then in college, I went to a Jazz and Modern Rock school. I went to Berklee College of Music on a scholarship from my piano playing, and I got into Jazz there, and I got into Progressive Rock. But I've always been a fan of Hip Hop. I was nine or 10 when [Dr. Dre's] The Chronic came out, and I remember sneaking out to buy it, because my parents wouldn't have really approved. My friend's dad was cool, so I had him get me a copy. I've always been a A Tribe Called Quest fan, those albums are crazy. Everybody's a A Tribe Called Quest fan, so that's not groundbreaking, but those are awesome albums. They're undeniables.
It's never been that hard for me to switch from style to style. A lot of producers or engineers listen to a current style and make an exact copy of it, or a version of it with a different melody or different harmony, but the same drum pattern or the same arrangement. Whenever I try to do that, it always ends up as complete garbage. It sounds like that artist or that movement, but worse. I remember I started doing really well as an engineer and a mixer when I said, “Fuck it, I'ma do what I think sounds good. If people like it they like it, and if they don't, they don't.”
DX: Anyone on your bucket list you haven't worked with yet?
Andrew Dawson: I've been a P.O.S. fan for a long time, so I'm super stoked to work with him. I really would love to do some work with 50 [Cent]. I've always been a big 50 fan. I remember him stopping by the studio when 'Ye was working years back, and he's a really nice guy. I'm impressed by his professionalism, and he's a really smart dude; he doesn't get where he is without being smart. I'd love to work with Alicia [Keys], I've always been a fan of her's. She's got a voice like...man, she's incredibly talented. I've actually worked with her on a few small things years back, but I'd like to work on something deeper. I've always been a huge fan of Tool and Nine Inch Nails, to take it to an Alternative Rock things. I love their sounds, and to me, the holy grail of Rock records, sonically, is Tool's drum sounds and Nine Inch Nails' synthesizer sounds. If I could make some sort of mesh of those two, that would be the holy grail of projects for that world too.
DX: Anything you'd like to talk about that I may have missed?
Andrew Dawson: Actually, one thing I've been...getting asked more and more to do, by record labels in the past three or four years. I don't know if there's a term to them, but I call them “save mixes.” The label approaches me and knows I'm a mix engineer that has producer chops and can put a song together. They have a song that they like like 90% of the way there, or even 75% of the way there. The lyrics are good, the idea's good, the hook's good. But it may be not all the way there; needs a different arrangement, needs a drum pattern...have them re-sing a verse. They'll give me a pretty big up-front fee, and say, “You're going to be the 'mixer' on this project,” to not step on any producer toes. They're hiring me to reproduce the album so to speak, almost like a remix, but it's the official legit version they're going to put out. That way, the producer still gets the credit, and I touch it as the mixer, so to say. I've been getting approached to do that a lot more, and I think it's really fun. I'm just more in the vein where, “All right, I'm doing that a good amount. Time to get my name out there a little bit more.”