One may think that the hardest part of genre-trampling musician Ken Lewis’ job is scrambling to meet Kanye West deadlines, but he says one of the really difficult tasks of his career is explaining what he does to newcomers. “When you meet someone new, they ask, ‘What do you do?’” he says. “How do you quickly explain that you do everything, and that you do everything well?” The 20-year music veteran has garnered Grammy Awards and platinum-selling records for his songwriting, mixing and producing in an assortment of genres—he’s served Hip Hop royalty like Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z, has lent his help to R&B legends such as Mary J. Blige and Aretha Franklin, has a gospel Grammy with CeCe Winans, and even catapulted to Pop greatness with mixing for Danity Kane. Below, read about his musical roller-coaster rides with ‘Ye, possibly lost sessions with Shyne post-incarceration, and why he ranks his latest record as a higher personal achievement than College Dropout.
Producing For Jay-Z & Kanye West’s Watch The Throne
HipHopDX: What have you been working on lately?
Ken Lewis: I worked on seven songs on [Jay-Z & Kanye West’s] Watch The Throne. I did additional production on four of those songs, horn-arranging, a little bit of vocals, and a ton of different instrumentation. Now the latest, I’m doing some work with G-Unit [Records] for their new artist Lea Quezada. I have a single coming out with Lea next month called “November Skies,” I think they’re shooting a video for it now. I think those would be the two latest. We’re supposed to have a single coming out with Jackie Chain on Motown [Records], not sure when that’s supposed to drop. We’ve been placing songs left and right. We’ve been working with Vita Chambers on Republic [Records], Jenna Andrews on Island Def Jam [Records], I was just writing with her yesterday. I know we’ve got a couple other placements up in there that are not coming to my brain. We’re always in production/writing mode.
DX: Your site said you had over 20 years of experience. How did you get into music before you got to where you are now?
Ken Lewis: At eight years old, I started begging my parents for a guitar. Two years later, when I was still begging, I think they realized I was serious. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 10, I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, graduated there and came to New York City and started assisting in a studio. I worked my way up to engineer, and a couple years later I went freelance. I’ve been freelance ever since. Just putting one foot in front of the other. Building my career day by day and credit by credit, and here I am.
DX: who have you looked up to, as far as producers and mixers?
Ken Lewis: Producers, I’ve learned a ton from Just Blaze and Kanye West. Those are the first two that come to mind, as guys I’ve done a ton with over the last couple of years. I wouldn’t call them mentors, but when you work with someone that many times for that long, who’s that good at what they do, a lot of that rubs off on you. Mixers, I think Manny Marroquin is definitely one of the top of my list. Tony Mazarati and Dave Pensato, they’re three of the best serving.
DX: What is it about those names that you like the most?
Ken Lewis: Hearing a great song and knowing that it was put together well. I think there’s a lot of esoteric stuff that my ears hear just because I’ve been mixing records for 20 years that guide me to their stuff. It always sounds really musical, and it feels like the mix supports the song and doesn’t get in the way of it, which is what I try to do. I feel they’re a few of the best at it.
DX: What kind of things have rubbed off on you from these people?
Ken Lewis: With Just Blaze, I’ve seen him take songs that when I first heard them, it thought they were mediocre. He has this incredible ability to transform things, and bring the best out of an artist and out of a song. He seems to be able to elevate his game above almost anybody I’ve seen. I think Kanye’s the same way. The thing I like about Kanye, he doesn’t play an instrument, but he’s very, very musical. He’s probably one of the most gifted producers on earth; but I think contrary to what his personality is of having a big ego, he’s smart and humble enough to bring in some of the other best producers and musicians, whoever’s best at what they do, to work on his own albums, when he’s definitely got the production ability to do it all himself. Instead, he goes out and gets guys like, Just, Swizz Beatz, Jon Brion, me, and the who’s-who of really talented people in this industry to help him put his albums together. I think every album he’s made is a classic album, so I think that reflects in the work. I’ve seen the go, and he uses it to fuel himself, his drive and his persona, but he always seems to do what he thinks is very best for the music, whatever that means. Compared to 80 or 90% of other Hip Hop producers, that’s a pretty impressive trait.
Nine Years Working With Kanye West With Very Little Studio Time Together
DX: What are some pros and cons of working with ‘Ye? What’s the most fun to do with him, and what’s the worst to deal with?
Ken Lewis: Usually, I don’t work in the same room with him. He’ll call me up, ask me what he needs, and let me do my work at my studio. Most of what I do for Kanye involves me creating music in one way or another, and all of my tools to create music the best way are at my own studio.
There have been occasions…one time, he called me before the 2005 Grammy Awards. He asks me, “Ken, what are you doing today?” I say, “Whatever you want me to be doing.” [Laughs] That’s pretty much my stock answer whenever he calls. He says, “Come to New York. I need you to make an interlude for my Grammy performance, live.“ I’m like, “Okay.” So I literally brought my entire studio to Sony Music Studios, I think the only thing I used at Sony was their chair. Kanye comes in, and he’s like, “After ‘Jesus Walks,’ it’s going to be me up in silhouette, and then I want this big, cinematic, sweeping orchestral thing. Then there’s going to go into a car crash, I’m going to die, and the angels are going to take me away into a gospel song. I need you to do the big, sweeping orchestral thing.” I’m like, “Sure, I can do that, no problem.” He doesn’t say, “Do you know how to make the big, sweeping orchestral thing?” He just says, “This is what you’re doing.” This is Kanye, I’ll find a way to do this on an amazing level. He hums me a basic melody, and that’s it. It was a 10-minute meeting, he comes in, gives me this animated rundown of what he wants, hums a basic melody, and says, “Go.” He never came back to the studio. Fourteen hours later, I was finished creating the orchestral interlude, and a week later, I was sitting at the Staples Center on the floor at the Grammy Awards, watching Kanye perform “Jesus Walks” into my interlude.
You never know what a day is going to be like with Kanye. I think on of the craziest things about what I do with him and for him, is it’s never the same thing. Sometimes I’ll do sample recreations for him, because I’m pretty much the go-to guy for that—I hate doing them, but I’m good at them. It’s tedious, grueling work, but somebody’s got to do it, and I seem to be the best. I did the horn arrangements on “All Of The Lights” . Again, he gives me this really basic melody, he calls me up and he’s like, “Ken, I need you to do a horn section on this. Here’s the melody, I just need you to blow it up into this big,” whatever he was telling me he wanted it to sound like. That was extent of the conversation: five minutes. I went, brought in my horn section, did the whole thing here, sent it back to him and he loved it. That’s what made the record. But he didn’t ask me before he hired me, “Hey, do you know how to arrange horns?” [Laughs] You might think that would be the first question, but he never asks me. I guess I’ve come through for him in so many crazy roles over the past few years, he pretty much figures, “Ken will figure out how to do it, so we’ll send it to him.” It’s a pretty good position to be in. I seem to be not be one of his inner circle guys, but I work on every one of his albums, and he knows whatever he asks me to do, I’ll get it done in a great way—I hope.
DX: How was working on Watch The Throne? That album had a lot of mystique around it.
Ken Lewis: I’ve never seen so much protocol over an album or files in my career, and I’ve seen some pretty steep security protocol. That was impressive and frustrating at the same time, but I understood exactly why they were doing it: to prevent leaks, and it worked. Most of what I did on Watch The Throne was out of my own studio. I was in the Mercer [Hotel] a couple times, and at another studio one time doing a horn arrangement. But I usually get called in near the end of his records, and it’s a frantic two or three-week sprint to the finish line. Watch The Throne was no different at all. I would finish up creating music for one song, and I would think I’d be done. Then they’d call me back as soon as they got that, and be like, “Okay, next song. I need you to do vocals on ‘Lift Off’ .” Finished that. After the album was supposed to be finished and turned in, way after the deadline, they call me up, like, “Kanye wants you to put horn sections on “New Day.” You need it done and delivered by 7PM.” I look at my watch, and it’s noon. And I had to had it hand-delivered, to the Mercer, by 7PM. So at the same time, I’m calling all my horn players and I ended up doing the horns at my favorite tracking studio in Manhattan, Madpan. It’s centrally located, so if figured it’d be faster for me to go to the horn players than for them to come to me. I was in the studio by 3PM, I had already been working up the horn arrangement at my own studio and on the drive to the studio. I had all my ideas locked in by about 4PM. Great horn players, we cut for about two hours and they left. I put the whole arrangement together and polished it from 6 to 6:30, threw it on my thumb drive, took a cab to the Mercer, and walked in about 10 minutes after 7PM with a finished horn arrangement for “New Day.” Then I collapsed.
Just Blaze always finds a way to elevate a song, and Kanye’s the same way. Everyone else that that song was done, everyone else wanted the album to be done. But even though Kanye was past his deadline and fearing pushing the release date back, he’s like, “Nope, this is not perfect yet. I need a horn section on this. How do I get a horn section? Call Ken.” I’ve got to give crazy respect to producers like that, who can listen to a song that everyone else thinks is finished, then have the ear and vision to say, “No. This is really close, but it still needs a horn section.” Then have the connections and reach already in place to get it delivered in seven hours. You’ve got to hand it to him, he’s a genius.
DX: Can you think of a specific song with Just Blaze that elevated the way you were talking about?
Ken Lewis: “Throwback” was like that, by Usher on the [Confessions] album. I got the call from Justin, and he’s like, “I need you do mix this song with Usher, but I need you to cut vocals with him first.” An hour later, I’m at Justin’s studio—this is when he had Baseline [Studios]. Usher’s already there, and I set up my mic. I worked with Usher on his first [self-titled] album, but I hadn’t worked with him since. Meeting with Usher was super cool, one of my favorite guys to work with. We ended up cutting a bunch of vocals on “Throwback” and then mixing it, and it really just felt okay. Eight hours into the mix, Justin is like, “Get me my turntable, an MPC, a keyboard, and Ken, go get your guitar. Let’s turn this thing around.” Twenty hours later, the arrangement of the song and how he put the samples together had completely changed. Some of the vocals had changed, I put down a couple guitars, Justin reworked a lot of the music. What you hear is the finished version of “Throwback.” If it wouldn’t have been an Usher song, I wouldn’t have been excited about it when I walked through the door. … Justin has this way of never giving up on something until it’s amazing. I don’t know how he does it, but I strive to do the same thing when I produce.
DX: How would you describe your own production style?
Ken Lewis: My site is IProduceMusic.com for good reason, because I don’t consider myself a Hip Hop producer, or a Pop producer – I’m a producer. If I’m producing a Rock band, I take that set of tools and that approach. If I’m producing a Hip Hop track, it’ll sound like Hip Hop. If I produce Pop, it’ll sound like Pop. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of guys who have as much range of different styles that we can do. I just try to figure out what song I’m working on, or what song I’m trying to create, and make that the very best it can be in whatever genre we’re going for. I think working in so many different genres helps a lot in bringing production to whatever I’m doing in any genre. One of the reasons Kanye started using me as a musician nine years ago is because I know how to make Rap records and I know how to produce Rock records, and he needed someone that knew how to do both. My whole career, I’ve been floating between genres. I produced a Rock record that’s out right now on Warner [Brothers Records], a band called Miggs. Lindsay Lohan is in the single’s video right now, which is crazy. I’m also on Watch The Throne, and I’ve got a Pop production with Vita Chambers, Lea Quezada, I mixed “Down On Me” for Jerimih and 50 [Cent]. I mix a lot of genres. That’s probably what makes it so fun.
DX: How did you get to the point of working on so many genres, especially all at once instead of a different genre per year?
Ken Lewis: I think it’s just experience. I’ve literally been making records seven days a week, 48 weeks a year, for 20 years straight. And most of those days are very long days. The average person is working four or six hours in the studio, maybe five days a week. Then in one week’s time, I’ve already doubled the amount of time I’ve spent in the studio. So in a year, I’ve spent twice as much time in the studio as they have. In that time, I just try to be a sponge. I think there’s a natural musicality that I already have, and it’s like being a professional athlete or something like that. If you practice your craft every day, you’re going to get better and better at it. My mission with my career has been to be a good producer, but not necessarily in one genre. To be a great songwriter, but not necessarily in one genre. To be a great mixer, but not necessarily in one genre. To be able to do any of those things on any record, any time I want. So far, so good. I think it keeps everything really fun and really enjoyable, but at the same time, it’s prevented me from being one of the biggest in one genre. But as long as I’m happy, I’m cool with that.
DX: With so many accolades and collaborations with big names, what are your goals now?
Ken Lewis: My biggest goals right now are in songwriting and production. I have a nice songwriting resume, and I’m really good at it; and I have a nice production resume, and I’m really good at it. But I want my producer and writing resume to look more like my mixing resume. I’ve got two platinum albums as a producer, and a bunch more I probably should have had some sort of production credit on—but you know, that’s the business—and two platinum records and Grammy nominations as a writer. I want a whole lot more in that lane. I’ve been working consistently. My mission was do co-writing with some of the best songwriters in the world. Just like I’ve learned so much from Justin and Kanye, I’m already a good writer, but writing with people on that level forces you to either bring you’re a game and elevate what you do beyond where you were that morning, or give up. So that’s it. Just try to work with the best people in the world, and try to keep myself in that category.
DX: On your site, you say that you work with a lot of analog and digital instruments. Break down the pros and cons in each of those for the readers.
Ken Lewis: These are the differences, from what my ears tell me. I grew up in this industry working on big 12-foot long consoles. That was my daily thing. I always thought analog sounded great, but I was excited when digital started coming around, because of the editing, speed and flexibility—things digital gives you that analog doesn’t. But one thing that digital has been very slow to catch up on is the sound. There was a time around 2000 and 2001, that I went completely in the box [digital] to start mixing. I did that for a few years, unless a major calls, and I do that on big consoles. I never felt like I could mix as well in the box as I could on a big desk, and I was probably one of the earliest, busiest in the box mixers. There was a time where I had maybe done as many as anyone on the planet. I was getting good mixes, and I got two Grammys for songs I had mixed in the box, but I know I could’ve mixed those better on a console. So in 2007, I put myself in the biggest debt of my life, and bought an SSL console. Now, I’m mixing with the best of the analog world, and the best of the digital world. There’s a precision and flexibility in the speed that digital has that analog will never have, but there’s a realness in character that analog has that digital just isn’t quite there yet. I try to find the very best of what both of them do and marry the technologies together, and that’s how I make records.
Reports That Def Jam Records No Longer Is Working With Shyne
DX: You worked on Shyne’s album Godfather Buried Alive, and you were also mixing all of his upcoming album, right?
Ken Lewis: Well, I mixed 18 songs for the upcoming album and produced two, but he got dropped from Def Jam [Records], and I haven’t heard from him since.
DX: I didn’t even realize he had been dropped from Def Jam—
Ken Lewis: Yeah, that may not be common knowledge. [Laughs] That might get me in trouble. His release date was splattered as May 17 all over the world, but the day came and went, and I never heard from Shyne again. I don’t really know what happened to him, I just know that as far as I’m concerned, I’m not a part of that record anymore.
DX: What was it like working with him? He seems like a really perplexing guy in terms of where he was before and where he is now? How did he come across?
Ken Lewis: As he told me, he didn’t want to be the same guy that was locked up. He’s like, “I don’t want to put my mother through that again, I don’t to go back to that old guy.” It was a conscious decision for him to change his vocal style and his flow. A lot of people didn’t get it and wanted him to go back to the old Shyne, but he had enough belief and integrity in himself to say, “As far I’m concerned, I’m rapping for the people in streets and in prison, I don’t give a fuck what the critics think.” So love him or hate him, you’ve got to respect him for knowing who the audience he’s trying to reach is, and speaking directly to them and sticking to it and not trying to mold himself to whatever the flavor of the day is.
DX: How do you like the records you guys did?
Ken Lewis: The record I did with him was crazy! It was called, I think we were going to change it to “Sinner,” but it had a few different names. That song, I loved it. He verses were these really deep, introspective reflections on himself, his life and his faith. That’s why I think he shines the most—no pun intended—when he’s talking about the shit that’s really the most personal to him. He talks about supermodels and all that shit, and that’s cool, I’m sure he gets some hot chicks. But when he talks about what he’s been through, on a real personal level and you feel it and you connect, that’s the really powerful stuff. When he first got out of jail, I think he needed some time to find his footing, and his records got better and better over time. Then we stopped making the album, and I don’t know what’s happened since.
DX: If you were to rank your top five songs that you’ve mixed or produced, from bottom to five, what would they be?
Ken Lewis: It would be easier to mix and match albums and songs. [Kanye West’s] College Dropout would definitely be on that list. I’m a writer, musician, vocalist and arranger on that album in different capacities, and I think that’s one of the most classic albums of all time. My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy has to make that list, and I’m on that as well as a writer, arranger, musician, and vocalist. I think “Damage” from Danity Kane would have to make that list, Jeremih’s “Down On Me.“
The song that I did with Lea Quezada, “November Skies” that’s out next month, might be my number one. Me and my production partner Brent Kolatalo did all of the music, and I wrote 100% of the top line. When you’re pitching songs as a songwriter, trying to get an artist to fall in love with your songs, you always want the “Oh my god” response. You want someone to hear what you did and say, “Oh my god, I must do that.” I brought the song to Dre McKenzie, the A&R for G-Unit, and got the “Oh my God” response. He sent it to Lea, and said Lea lost her mind over it and loved it. Lea has one of the best voices I’ve ever worked with, girl is amazing. Six days later, she’s at my studio cutting the record, and she absolutely sung the hell out of it. This is a record that, the range is epic. When you hear it, you’re going to be like, “Holy shit.” It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, I think Lea is a super dope artist, she sang the top of it, and I wrote 100 percent of the top line. There are all these elements about it that are very near and dear to my heart that would put it high on the list, if not on top of the list. That’s the direction I’m going in my career right now: I want to write songs that connect with people the way that song connected with Lea, and hopefully, the way that Leah’s version of that song connects with the world. That’s my mission right now.
UPDATE: Yesterday (October 24) Ken Lewis provided HipHopDX the following statement, as a retraction of comments made to DX earlier this month. “I made a terrible error during my interview with you and said i thought Shyne had been dropped from Def Jam [Records]. This is false. Shyne and Def Jam still have an active partnership. Def Jam still distributes Shyne’s imprint, Gangland Records, and apparently I produced the lead off single called “Supreme” (which I just found out and am quite happy about, the song is great)…that shows you how disconnected I’ve been since leaving the project. The single drops in December 2011, with the album to follow in the spring of 2012. Please print this as accurate, it was completely my mistake to assume Shyne had been dropped because I hadn’t heard anything about the project or my production in several months. I meant no disrespect to Shyne and its been an honor to be a part of another one of his albums (this makes three). Thank you and my apologies for the mistake, I haven’t been sleeping much, staying on my grind.”