‘In those days, being an audio engineer, I felt like I was a magician. I felt like I was doing things that nobody understood or could make sense of’

Working with Puff Daddy and Bad Boy Entertainment for close to a decade, Prince Charles Alexander has worked with some of the world’s most iconic artists, from The Notorious B.I.G. to Mary J. Blige. Here, he tells Murray Stassen about coming to terms with the rise of hip hop on his journey to become one of world’s most renowned audio professionals and educators today…

In 1979, funk musician and recent college graduate Charles Alexander released the debut EP by Prince Charles & The City Beat Band, In The Street, co-produced by New Kids On The Block producer Maurice Starr.

He’d go on to sign with Virgin Records and tour Europe with the City Beat Band, supporting the likes of Duran Duran and releasing a total of three albums, Gang War (1979), Stone Killers (1981) and Combat Zone (1983).

“I’m from Boston,” he explains . “ But, I [thought], Maybe somebody in England will pick up on the fact that my name is Prince Charles and that’ll do really good stuff for my music.

“Two years later, Virgin Records picked up my independent project,” he continues. “They gave me money for a second and third album and basically my career [took off].”

A musician in the traditional sense of the word, Prince Charles Alexander took music lessons from a young age (he attended Boston Latin, the first public school in the United States), which would lay the foundations of his long and distinguished career in music.

“I was trying to be a well rounded kid,” he remembers. “They didn’t have a piano or guitar. At those times in those schools, it was like big band stuff, so I took up the clarinet and the clarinet eventually led me to the saxophone, which eventually led me to the flute.”

When he graduated from high school he realised that he wanted to be a professional musician having “toured the local clubs since he was 15”, but decided to go to college for four years. It wasn’t long after that however, that he put out the first City Beat Band record, with the Lyricon being his instrument of choice during that phase of his career.

The multi-instrumentalist says that he also used to play bass and guitar lines and even started “to experiment with playing drum beats using the Lyricon as the controller”, but when hip hop began to dominate the airwaves, he changed his focus to make the most of the new genre.

“Once that door was open I started to realise that music production was starting to move away from pure arrangement and into music sequencing,” he recalls.

He says that a “really powerful moment for him” came in 1985 when Run-DMC’s Walk This Way was released.

“Walk This Way was so successful that record companies knew that hip hop was no longer an underground art form, so Kool & The Gang lost their deal, Commodores lost their deal. I mean it was like armageddon for funk acts.

“The handwriting was on the wall. I felt it was critical enough for me to try to show up my production ability. For me, the answer was to learn audio engineering and that began a whole other part of my career in the audio industry.”

A Professor in Music Production and Engineering at Berklee College of Music, Alexander boasts numerous Grammy awards and nominations and many credits on multi-platinum albums by some of the world’s top recording artists. Here, he takes AMI back to the start of an audio career that coincided with the birth and rise of hip hop…

We’ve read that you hated Rapper’s Delight when it came out, which I find interesting because later on you would work with an artist [The Notorious B.I.G.] who would also sample a Nile Rodgers production on Mo’ Money Mo Problems…

[Laughs] Exactly. Well, it wasn’t music, you know? It was something different and it wasn’t even an original composition that the guys were rapping over. So rapping was like defamation. It’s like, you basically learn some lines and you just rap, you don’t have to be a great singer.

My journey as an audio engineer helped me to interact with rappers and beat makers. I was trying to help them make better and better records and my journey through hip hop as an engineer helped me as a producer to understand the value of hip hop as a tool for communication between generations.

It probably took me until 1995 (I started engineering around 1986) until I really understood the value of hip hop with audiences, but with that said, as a small business entrepreneur with Prince Charles & The City Beat Band, I rapped on the first, second and third albums, because it was obvious that something was going on.

I didn’t really know what it was, but I knew I had to address it. I knew I had to be present in it even though I didn’t like it. On my first record there’s a song called Tight Jeans – a rap record. My second record is called Don’t Fake The Funk, which is a rap record.

For me, it was definitely a journey that I first came to as a musician going, Where’s the harmony and where’s the melody and where’s the originality? I had to evolve to understand that there is a creative process and once I understood that, then I was able to dissect the process and now I teach and I give that creative process of what hip hop is back to another generation.

When you first started to work as an engineer in the studio with hip hop artists, how were you approaching those sessions initially? Was it very much from an engineering perspective, or from a technical perspective?

In order for me to understand which drum machine to use and what a MIDI and loop sequencer was, I had to buy as much gear as possible in order to really understand it.

That helped me, owning it and using it myself. The second part of it is that I didn’t have to look very far from where the funk in the music was because it was related to funk, it was related to soul and so I understood where the funk in the music was.

I just thought everyone was stealing and once I got over that notion, it was really just a concept of being able to make people dance and make people feel good about their night out. It was really easy for me to use the machines and live in that world.

It wasn’t that I just dealt with it as an engineer. I dealt with it as somebody who wanted to make anybody’s creative thoughts a tangible thought that could resonate with their audiences.

And as time went on, my ability to do that was received well by a lot of people that I worked with.

I got a call from Puffy (Sean Combs) and then I worked with him for 10 years and he basically came up with these ideas and I learned a lot from him, because Puffy is not a musician as I understand a conventional musician to be and he’s not a technologist as I understand a technologist to be, but he is somebody that is totally dialled in and thinks about what audiences are looking for out of their entertainment products.

In my career and in my life, working with Puffy was probably one of the most valuable experiences for me to both understand hip hop and to understand the role of music and audio in the lives of the average person. That was just really huge and what I understood was that a lot of musicians get stuck in our own ways.

We think that our musical thought and our musical idea is paramount and it may have been in the ‘60s or ‘70s, but it changed in the digital era. I marked the beginning of the digital era around 1980, which is when the first programmable drum machines show up on the market like the Linn LM-1 and the Roland TR-808 and from 1980 on, it’s like, it’s just been an accelerating acceptance of digital ideas and digital technologies, so you go through MIDI, you go through sequencing, you go through sampling, you get into the DAW becoming an instrument itself.

You then get into autotune and Melodyne. Hip hop has done really creative things with all of these things when you really think about it. Rock and roll and funk and singer songwriters kind of flirted with this stuff, but didn’t invest in it the way hip hop did. Once I saw hip hop doing that, it really was clear to me that hip hop had a huge value for me as an engineer, so I just kept digging in and digging in. The more I helped another person have a successful record, the more I understood about what it is that my skill set was bringing to the craft of hip hop music making.

What was it like on those sessions for the Notorious B.I.G’.s debut album Ready To Die?

Bad Boy Records had a studio called Daddy’s House and Daddy’s House, just like Bad Boy Records, was very efficiently run. It was a round the clock shop. There really was something going on almost 24 hours a day every day. I was with Puffy when it first began in about 1990. Me and Tony Mars were the very first two engineers.

It was 1992 that I think he got the investment and in 1994 things started to become clear that Flava In Ya Ear was blowing up. It was clear that we had a hit on our hands and it became clear that Puffy was onto something and if he could do it again, Bad Boy might be around for a little while.

So it got easier for me to come in at about 10am and then go home at about 2am. So 12,14, 16 hours was a short day, 20 hours was a long day and this was like Monday through Friday for me and then you know, begrudgingly you might do a Saturday and it went on like this for 10 years, literally for 10 years.

In those (Notorious B.I.G.) sessions specifically, somebody would come in with a track, I would lock it up, because there was analogue tape.

You would do individual outputs sometimes because the outputs were so clean that you would prefer to take the track one by one coming out of the stereo out, because there was a little bit more grunge on the stereo and these are some considerations that we had to have when we looked at the track coming out of stereo and then say, well if I individualise this, will it still sound as authentic?

So these were some of the considerations you had to think about. And then once the track was down, you know, the vocalist would come in.

Let’s say if we’re doing Notorious B.I.G., he would sit in the back and on the first album, had reems and reems of paper, books of lyrics all over the place. The second album, he didn’t have any of that, he just came in and I guess he had memorised it at home and he just walked in and just started rhyming off the top of his head.

But on the first album, he’d go in with a paper. He had a music stand and he’d rhyme and you’d tell him, Don’t move off axis from the microphone, we need you right on axis. After he got that, that’s how he rhymed all the time. There was no bopping of the head or anything like that.

What I was listening for was clarity, articulation, no distortion, making sure that there was good high end present and enough low end but not over clean, not masking the low end. I remember one of my assistants, a 15-year-old kid, says, Are you listening to what he’s saying? And I said, No, not really, because I’m just listening to all the things that I just told you about.

He said, This guy is incredible. I was like, Yeah sure, everybody’s hot that we’re working with. He said, No, no, no. This guy is awesome and he put on the track, Warning that we had been working on maybe a few days earlier.

I’m driving home listening to this song and when he got to the point [in the song] that says, There’s gonna be a lot of slow singing and flower bringing/if my burglar alarm starts ringing,” I started thinking about that lyric, like, wow that’s kind of poetic, you know?

That’s when I started to really understand that there was a craft and a magic going on that I didn’t hear in Rapper’s Delight. As a musician I was so resistant at that time. So around the time I was listening to Biggie I was like, I get it, I totally get it. This is folk music. This is the folk music of America in the 1990s and from then on, I was kind of really changed in terms of how I saw hip hop and saw my relationship to hip hop, Puffy’s relationship to hip hop and Biggie’s relationship to hip hop.

So it was like that day after day. We’d be in with Biggie for three, four, five days, then Craig Mack would come in, then 112 would come in then Mary [J. Blige] would come in, Faith Evans would come in.

It just went on and on and so, honestly, a lot of it is a blur, but the blur is, you got a track, we’ve got somebody that’s creative, are they in time, are they in pitch? If they’re not in pitch, is there enough emotion there to give us the thing that we’re trying to convey to our audiences? It was just a proving ground for some of the best of R’n’B ideas and hip hop ideas that were coming together almost every day.

What recording technology was in Daddy’s House?

There was a Neve VR in Studio A and an SSL G in Studio B. I think the tape machines were a Studer A820 and periodically when we upgraded, I think we went to the 827 or we might have [brought] in a digital machine, a Sony PCM-3324 once the digital age starts coming in. Then around the late ‘90s you start getting Pro Tools and things like that.

Outboard gear was interesting. You had the normal cast of characters, DBX 160s – this is before the age of the destressor, so you would have DBX 160X compressors or DBX160A compressor/limiters. Teletronix LA-2As for vocals, and Pultec of course, Pultec EQP-1A, 1B and and 1C.

I believe that the 1A is tube, the 1C is transistor and the B is hybrid tube and transistor. Focusrite mic pre EQs, Universal Audio 1176s [were also used].

This was the standard gear in the Hit Factory and in Sony and that’s how I came up. I came up with this as a template. If you had a studio, you had to have 1176s, LA2As, you had to have Focusrite, GMLEQ, so when the studio was put together, Puffy asked me, Tony Maserati and Troy Germano what to put in the studio and he had all the toys that he needed. Whatever we didn’t have we would rent from one of the rental companies that were in New York and there were like four or five of them at the time and we could have anything under the sun. If it was a new or experimental piece, we would rent it to see what it did.

This generation of recording engineers, if they’re not in the studio, they just don’t know what they’re missing because, the acceleration back then, I mean it’s fast now but the new toys then and the advent of something new like once every week was stunning and it was all hardware.

It wasn’t like, Oh let me load the software. We actually had to go buy it or rent it, look at it, figure out how to get aux out patched in. It was amazing and honestly, the new generation of toys. I just don’t feel like I’m bewildered. I don’t feel like there’s magic any more. Which is not to say it’s a bad thing, it’s not, but in those days being an audio engineer, I felt like I was a magician. I felt like I was doing things that nobody understood and nobody could make sense of, but just listen to this, doesn’t this sound good?

It’s been democratised. That’s probably a good thing, but there was a huge value in the individual roles of the engineer, of the producer who didn’t know the technology but had great ideas, of the artist who didn’t know what the producer was talking about or what the engineer was talking about but gave us great performances. There was something incredible about that and something magical about that.

On that note, anyone can be a bedroom producer now. What are your views about that?

I have a philosophy that the music of the day should resonate with the audience of the day and if a bedroom producer is creating music that resonates with the audience today, it’s similar to how I had to come to terms with hip hop.

There’s this idea of what creativity is and who creativity connects with doesn’t go backwards. So my philosophy is, if it can resonate with a large population, I want to know how it’s being done and where the connection is, the lyrics, the music, I want to know that because if I don’t like it, I want to know what it is about it that I don’t like.

What happened to me was my journey through the multi-million dollar studios. I wanted to be a producer and understand more about audio. It led me to a point where I realised that the technology is supposed to be as transparent as possible and what’s really going on in here is a creative artist being able to connect with an audience.

The technology is not the thing that’s connecting with the audience, the conglomeration of ideas that are coming from the creative person is what’s connecting with the audience and you can do that with an iPhone, an iPad, with Garageband, with Ableton Live, with Pro Tools so forth and so on and you can do it at analogue pace and with vinyl ,so at the end of the day, getting hung up about which plugin to use is not interesting to me.

What I did was, I went on a journey to get as much of the technology as transparent as possible, because the idea of connecting with human beings is more important to me than the idea of me interfacing with my technology.