In an era where, for better or worse, anyone with a laptop, a microphone and a decent Internet connection can christen themselves an emcee, it takes a lot to make a name for yourself as an engineer. Dr. Dre may have turned it into a multimillion-dollar hustle, but aside from Bob Power and a few others, being an audiophile is hardly a surefire way to become a household name within Hip Hop. But Gimel “Young Guru” Keaton has become synonymous with Jay-Z’s “one-take” recording sessions while mixing and mastering some of Hip Hop’s most high profile projects.
In addition to serving as a Roc-a-fella A&R and Jay’s touring deejay, Young Guru has mixed the 8 Mile soundtrack and Drake’s Thank Me Later as well as T.I.’s King and T.I. vs. Tip, to name just a few. While sharing what he’s learned from the likes of Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen engineer Bob Clearmountain, Young Guru explains why expanding his skill set into producing and lecturing has more to do with practicing what he preaches than collecting accolades.
DX: How’s your experience at A3C been so far?
Young Guru: It’s been good. I love the conference, man. I love seeing the new talent, and I love seeing all the guys come down and basically bring whatever they bring to the table all over the place. I’m one of them guys that love to see the new artists [and] try to predict who’s gonna be the next guy, or find that new producer that is gonna be the guy. So, that’s really why I’m here.
DX: Well who’s the last guy that you predicted becoming the next big thing.
Young Guru: Uh…probably Kendrick [Lamar].
DX: You called that?
Young Guru: Yeah, I definitely called that early. Before that, 9th Wonder. I knew about Wale before he was, you know, Wale. So it was just like, I just like seeing—it’s not like I got the magic wand or like a crystal ball it’s just like—I like seeing artists and I’m like, “Oh it’s something special about him. I think he’s gonna be big.”
DX: Well, you have perspective. You’ve got, what 15, 20 years in what you’re doing?
Young Guru: Yeah, I’ve been doing this for a long time. So seeing guys at the start of it is a great thing, and seeing them develop and grow into these great artists…
DX: One thing that we find interesting is how active you’ve been the last couple of years.
Young Guru: It’s really a result of me trying to show people that you gotta have your hands in more than one pot. And especially with the way the industry was going, in terms of before. I was so locked up in the studio that I don’t think people knew that I knew how to do things. People didn’t know that I wanted to teach classes or give lectures and things like that. But with the industry shrinking, it’s just like, okay, you gotta go tap other revenues and other sources. And not everything is for money. A lot of it is for fun. Me getting back into my like heavy deejaying was like, “Okay now I have the time to really do that.” Another one of my loves is just teaching. So a lot of times I do that just out of the love of wanting to spread the information and wanting the culture to grow. You start to see a lot more movement. It’s like I’d rather show you than keep telling you, so that’s what you see in terms of me just being all over the place. It’s like I’m really trying to show people what it is instead of just yapping all the time.
DX: I don’t know if people really understand what engineering is. I think the role and the term is so common that I question whether or not people know the difference.
Young Guru: Well, in the general sense, engineers are people that design things or that fix problems. And then when you talk about musical engineers, it’s the person that’s responsible for knowing how to work all the equipment. We record or mix a record and then deliver that record in whatever format that the record company—or if it’s no record company—whatever format the person wants. So that’s really what it is. Inside of that you have so many expertise that you need to master in terms of sound, equipment [and] electronics. But, it’s to record, mix and then deliver an album and all the things that come with it.
DX: What was the challenge going from the analog era to the digital era?
Young Guru: There’s pluses and minuses of both. It’s way more convenience in the digital era. But in the analog era, a lot more decisions were made. So in this digital era, people are e-mailing each other records back and forth, and they’re not always in the same room. Record companies are like, “Hey, well can you do this or that, and just send it to me?” Whereas before when we were on tape, everybody, from the A&R to the artist to the engineer, everybody was in the room. You made all the decisions together in that one room versus me sending it to the A&R, him making some comments, and me sending it to the artist, them making [comments] and then the record company comes in. If everybody was all in the same room, you could do things a lot faster. The digital era is supposed to speed us up, but it actually made it to where people got lazy. Before, when everybody was in the same room huddled over some tape, it was like, “We gotta make the decision now.” When you’re analog, it’s a lot easier to say to someone, “Oh, I want you to go back in and work on that record.” When they know you can just pull it up on your laptop anywhere in the world, they might have really wanted the snare [drum] up, but they’ll send you back in to do a whole recall and pull tape up. So, there’s pluses and minuses of both, you know? There’s a huge convenience of being able to work on stuff in my hotel room.
DX: Everybody’s heard it the phrase, “You crazy for this one, Guru!” Your work with Jay-Z is well documented. My favorite project that I just learned not too long ago that you engineered was The Chittlin Circuit 1.5 for Little Brother.
Young Guru: Yeah, one of the great things was that I ended up getting a beat on there. That was just one of my things, it was like, “I wanna do a beat for Little Brother.” I loved the group so much that I just wanted to do something that Phonte and Pooh rhymed on. So, The Chittlin Circuit 1.5 was just fun, man. The first album just caught my ear, and then being able to work on the second album and just being around them…I just think they’re great emcees. And 9th Wonder is an incredible producer.
DX: So broadly speaking, so you’ve got ten of eleven [of] Jay-Z’s albums. You got Little Brother, and you’ve worked with Beyonce, Rihanna and pretty much everybody most people that have ever heard of that makes music in the Hip Hop and R&B arena. Is Young Guru the greatest Hip Hop engineer of all time?
Young Guru: Nah, I can’t say that. Hopefully I’ve added on, and I’ve added on my flavor. But it’s too many people to try to take that title, and it’s not really about titles. If somebody wants to say that then, you know, that’s their opinion. And I thank you, but it’s people that I look towards that are even my peers. You know you got [Ken] “Duro” [Ifill] out there, that has done a lot of work, Brian Stanley…it’s just a whole bunch of people that consistently work on good Hip Hop music and know what they’re doing. I don’t think it should be about titles. It should just be about adding on to the culture, and if you’ve done something that is important to the culture. At a certain point, and this is not to downplay stuff, but at a certain point, how many Grammys can you win? You know, those are achievements, and we love those. But when you die, people are gonna look at your body of work, and that’s what I want people to do. Look at the body of work that I’ve done, study it, learn from it, just appreciate it if that’s what you do, you know what I mean? That’s the whole thing for me.
DX: Who’s your favorite engineer?
Young Guru: Of all time? Bob Clearmountain, and then Tony Maserati after him. Tony Maserati was real instrumental in helping me personally. He was the guy that I sat in sessions with just like a fly on the wall and absorbed all of his information. And then when I got cool enough with him to start asking questions. For Bob to go from like “Born In The USA,” just records like that, is incredible. To know that that guy had this indirect influence on my whole career…