Words by Jesse Serwer
Photos by Martei Korley
The credits for A Tribe Called Quest’s We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service are extensive. With names like Kanye West, Elton John and Jack White involved with one of our favorite albums of 2016, you might miss the name Dave Kennedy, who mixed the sixth and final album from the iconic New York rap crew, along with Blair Wells and Q-Tip.
We didn’t. Kennedy, also known to us as David Kennedy, or Dawit Kennedy, has been a mainstay in studios in New York and Jamaica since the 1980s, having worked on projects as varied Keith Richards’ Talk is Cheap, Brand Nubian’s All For One and Shinehead’s Sidewalk University, as well as A Tribe Called Quest’s last previous album, 1998’s The Love Movement. Though his background is primarily as an engineer, he’s also produced tracks for Patra and Mos Def. (Check his full discography here).
Born in New York City and raised primarily in Jamaica, Kennedy began his career as an engineer at Byron Lee’s Dynamic Sounds in Kingston, after graduating from NYC’s Institute for Audio Research. His career in recording has never been typical. It was a chance encounter with Bob Marley, and subsequent time spent around the late legend in Miami, that encouraged him on his career path. In his younger days, Kennedy even moonlighted as a model — one of the first in that profession to sport a head of dreadlocks. More recently, Kennedy returned to Jamaica to set up his own recording facility, Cedar Hill.
On the morning of the release of We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service in November (and three days after the surprising results of the U.S. election), I spoke with Kennedy about working on Tribe’s swan song; the album’s timely message; his experiences working with Bob Marley, Keith Richards and Puff Daddy; and the deception of digital technology.
LargeUp: This album seems to refer directly to the present moment in a way that seems uncanny. I wonder if there was a thought when this album was being made that we should put this out the Friday after the elections.
Dave Kennedy: It had me tearing up this morning, understanding it. Had things turned out politically different, I don’t think it would have rung as true. There is a science behind the 11/11 [release date]. I never really heard the whole album until yesterday. To be honest, lyrics are the last thing I listen to when I work. I approach my job technically. I leave the creativity to the producers. But I listen in, and watch what’s going on. [As far as the message] We’d talk about stuff, and which things needed to be addressed and we’d watch the political landscape unfold, and the bets were on as to who was winning, but I don’t think they had any of this in mind. I’m sure what they wrote lyrically was relevant for the day and I guess it’s timeless because it will be relevant today and probably tomorrow. Everybody involved – you hear it from Busta, you hear it from Consequence — felt this was the most important thing to happen for hip-hop. Getting these minds back together, it was like a nuclear reaction.
LU: It’s been a while since I felt like I had to listen to an album the minute it dropped, and then listen back. But I had to with this one. I mean, I hardly listen to albums, period, anymore. How did you get the call to be on this project?
DK: I had moved back to New York for a while. I reached out to some old heads, because I was getting stir crazy, and I reached out to [Q-Tip friend and collaborator] Gary Harris. Gary put me in touch with Q-Tip, and Tip was like, “You gotta come through.” I go over to his place [in New Jersey] and he’s got the whole studio set up, all pistons firing and he said, “I need your help,” and I said, “I’m down for whatever.” He had so many people helping him, I didn’t really understand where I fit in. I said, “ When you’re ready for me, call me.” He called me to help do the mixes, and the rest is history.
LU: Were you recording the sessions or just called in for the mixing?
DK: I left New York in May, so I was in and out some of the production sessions, but once I left in May, I said call me when you’re ready to mix and I’ll come back and do it. Blair Wells his co- producer handled most of the tracking, and he and I handled the mixes when it came time to push it out.
LU: With The Love Movement, you had done all of the engineering, right?
DK: I did all of the tracking and mixing on The Love Movement.
LU: How were these sessions and working on this project different? I imagine quite a lot.
DK: Wow. The big difference is digital technology. We had digital back then but it was limited to drum machines and samplers. Pro Tools was just coming in. So it was basically an analog effort. We had tape running, we mixed through the console, we used what outboard was there. We didn’t have plug-ins and all those wonderful tools. The introduction of digital changed the game for everything. [Q-Tip’s] process now is never ending, because you can keep changing right down to the last minute, which was essentially what was going on. It really was quite a long process to actually stop producing. While we were mixing, we were still doing over vocals, changing drum kicks, changing snares and timing. All these things were still going on. If it didn’t feel right, it wasn’t right. That was a luxury that digital afforded us, but I think it loses a lot in terms of audio. I didn’t really like how The Love Movement sounded. I think this was one sounds and feels a lot better. I’m sure the production and the headspaces were totally different. In terms of the audio, this is a better-sounding album.
LU: What didn’t you like about the sound on The Love Movement?
DK: I don’t think we mixed it in the right room. We mixed it in the room we tracked in. The board we tracked it on was a great tracking board but the room wasn’t suited for a mix. It was a Sony room at the time. The mix kind of came out “bright.”
LU: One thing that’s been talked about with this album is that all of the collaborators were working together in the same room, as opposed to working through e-mail, like so much music today. On the engineering and the sound side of things, what came from that approach?
DK: Wow, it’s evident on the tracks. I remember working [with artists] years ago. The tape would loop back, rewind, play again, and these guys would sit down, pen and paper in hand, and write for hours. I would just sit there and watch the tape spin, try and do something else, keep myself occupied, and wait for them to come with their stuff. [Tribe has] a different type of focus. They have this back-and-forth energy that they feed off of, and it keeps them razor sharp. One can say something and they all say, “This is dope,” and the next one says something that makes them go “Wow, that was doper than my shit, so I gotta go do my shit back.” They will keep re-honing it and re-honing it. Sometimes, they go home and come back and someone says I gotta spit my verse over now. And this goes on and on.
LU: One of the great things about A Tribe Called Quest’s music is the looseness. Being a little off the grid. I was curious going into this album if they would do the subtle things that set them apart musically. Like the drum sounds you only hear once, or change mid-song. Sometimes, artists that have been away for a while, when they come back, they forget those little things that make all the difference. But I hear that on this record…
DK: This is what probably made my job easy. Tip would sit down and make his own kicks, his own drums – whether he sampled them, took them off a store-bought program or put the mic on the drum and created them himself — and he would sit down and edit it, filter it, EQ it, and program it in, and then he would turn it over to us. Our instinct is to take that and try and make it better. And, in doing so, we would end up destroying it. We had to learn to take a hands-off approach. With regards to his programming, it is a style, it is a feel. These guys are so in tune with the creation of music and the history of music, and they’re approach to timing is heavily influenced by jazz. It is not straight 4/4 time, commercial pop music. It’s a serious swing feel that, in my estimation, J Dilla perfected.
Tip has found a formula that he understands very well. He has a count that is different. Your one is not where his one is. The apparent bending of rules is not really a bending of rules. It is being extra resourceful, and expanding the rules. You gotta give these guys credit on that because it makes the music alive. It takes you to… people talk about the Tribe feel. You worried whether they would have that feel. I live in that world. I don’t listen to anything else but the Tribe feel. You have a couple cats who have locked into it and who understand it, and it’s gone underground. These guys have lifted it back up again and represented the genre. But it’s out there.
I’m not gonna tell you what it is that they do to create it, but anybody can do it. I had to teach myself how to do it in order to understand it. It helps me as a producer, it helps me as an engineer, it is something that I personally enjoy, I feed off of it. Once I understood [that approach], I went to Jamaica with it, and I tried to teach Jamaicans about it and they were like “Nah, we want it straightforward.” It’s a swing feel. It’s real knowledge of music. You can look at music in terms of quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, these guys are looking at music in 64th notes, 64th triplets. They are looking at it that closely. They can hear the difference, and they understand the importance of how it makes you feel.
LU: Now, you are a Jamaican with a lot of experience mixing and making reggae and dancehall. Did you bring any of that sense of sound to this project?
DK: I’m not gonna lie to you, I didn’t really have free range to mix. Other clients would just send me stuff and say, “Do your thing, call us in the morning.” [Q-Tip] was very particular about his levels and how he wanted them to sound. I closely followed his direction on placement and tones and levels. You could say he had a big hand in mixing it, just as much as we did.
LU: On The Love Movement, Phife was really showing his dancehall influence. There’s tracks on this album like “Solid Wall of Sound” that have that feel…
DK: I think there is more of the West Indian identity on this album than any other previous [Tribe] album. Phife brought it on the previous works. You definitely knew that Phife was a West Indian. You can hear Tip reveal it, and you know Busta’s up to his neck in it. A couple of tracks have some reggae samples. “Whateva Will Be” I think is a reggae original, the sample in the background, and “Black Spasmodic” is a definite nod to reggae heads.
LU: I hear the influence all over the album. You’ve been going back and forth between Jamaica and the States your whole life. You’ve seen many different eras in both places. How has that impacted how you mix records?
DK: I was born in the States, in New York, and my father was a jazz aficionado. I was actually weaned on the Beatles. My sister was an intense Beatles fan, she had every Beatles record, and she would listen to it every day for three hours. I know every Beatles song. And next thing I’m buying Jackson 5 records, this is my era now. This is in Jamaica now. I am buying Sly Stone records. I am trying to understand Parliament Funkadelic. Then I started to get into the local music. Granted, the local music is always there — it’s a part of the culture. But I started to realize who Sly and Robbie were, and notice that Channel One studio was different than Studio One. And the dream of me becoming a recording engineer was born. My father didn’t encourage me to pursue that. He was an architect, and wanted me to be a structural engineer and build houses with him. He said, “Any fool can turn a knob.” I was like, “Then I’m gonna be the best fool I can be.”
I realized I had to educate myself, and I ended up in New York at the Institute of Audio Research. All this time, I was strictly reggae. During that time, the engineer was becoming the artist. Through dub mixes, they had free range and they were very creative, and that was a heavy inspiration for me. When it came down to recording , I never really crossed genre until Keith Richards. I was the engineer for Talk Is Cheap, Keith’s first solo album. I don’t know if it was because of my natural ability or good schooling but that launched my career. To this day, it is a learning process.
Even working with Tribe on this last album was a learning process. The latest lesson that I’ve learned is that digital truly sucks. It has taken us so far from where we want to be. Even with these guys, I had to reign them in a bit. They were in the project 24/7, [for] months and months on end. I was away, so I would come with a fresh ear and mind. And a different perspective. I said, “You can’t make it as bright as The Love Movement.” I found this digital thing is too harsh. Lo-fi rules for me right now. To try and get back to how music sounded on the busted-up cassette tape that barely had life left in it. That is where our sound is. That is what hip-hop was born on. This new digital thing, the ability to do this and have this outstanding head room and use this effect and create that, all that is extra. You don’t need it. Digital is an illusion. It’s not real, and it’s not feeding people. We tried to keep this album as analog as possible. We weren’t able to keep it 100%, because it’s released in a digital format. But in the production, we put things to tape. We took things off of tape. We kept it as live as possible. I think it translates.
LU: Before you went to IAR, did you get any experience in the Jamaican studios?
DK: As soon as I graduated from IAR, I went back to Jamaica. I walked into Dynamic Sounds and dropped my certificate on the table and said, “I alone in the country have one of these.” [Laughs]. They were like OK, no problem, we’re just gonna hire you and abuse you like we abuse the rest of them since you’re so willing to be abused. Come on down! I barely knew anything. The first thing I worked on was Black Uhuru’s Anthem, which was the first Grammy-winning reggae album. I didn’t get credit for it, but I know my work’s on it. So that was encouraging for me. I pretty much educated myself at Dynamic Sounds for about a year and a half, and then I freelanced. And then I got tired of not making any real money due to the Jamaican economy tanking at the time. And I got on a plane and came back [to New York]. And I walked into the Keith Richards situation.
LU: What was your experience working with Bob Marley, exactly?
DK: I was in school at the University of Miami. My roommate was Desi Smith, who had a soccer scholarship with Miami-Dade. Desi said, “Bob is in Miami, we have to find Bob.” I was like “Weh yuh ah go find Bob?” He’s like, “He lives over in this neighborhood, let’s go.” So we get in the car, and sure enough, who do we run into but Bob Marley. And he says, “Yo Desi, come to the house.” Next thing you know, we’re eating food with Bob Marley.
LU: Ha. Where was he? Mowing the lawn?
DK: No, he was in the car, driving. And Desi said, “Look, there he is.” I’m like, “Yuh lie.” So we drive down this car, beep, stop the car. Sure enough Bob Marley’s in the front seat. Bob said, “Desi, it’s good to see you, you and your friends can come into the house and ting.” We’re just budding musicians. I’m a bass player, and my bredrin is a guitarist, and we have our little garage band. We’re totally excited to be under the tutelage of Bob. We’re jamming with Bob, smoking weed with Bob, eating food, playing soccer. We were honorary Wailers for a while. That experience was of course a blessing, and he inspired me to pursue [music]. I told Bob, I’ll follow you back to Jamaica, just to learn this engineering thing. He said, “You’re in America, bwoy, everything you need is right here.” After that, I made plans to go to New York and enroll in the Institute of Audio Research. The day I shipped out of Florida was the day he died.
LU: What did you get to do with him?
DK: We had the pleasure of watching him write songs, working with him as he fleshed them out. I knew him personally for I guess the last two to three years of his life. You might have heard of the Bedroom Tapes recordings. We were part of that atmosphere, jamming and writing. Granted, a lot of it was done when we were gone. But I’ve heard tapes where I can tell that’s us in the background, groaning, trying to sing along. [Laughs]. We had that experience.
LU: How did that encourage you forward?
DK: It was reinforcing. We were young Rastas at the time, we were swept up in the culture. That was galvanizing. If we have the endorsement of this man, there is nothing we cyan do. And that’s how it unfolded. Keith Richards looked at me and said “You’re a Jamaican? Come sit down, and finish this one.” No questions asked. He didn’t know my history, he just accepted me. I said Q-Tip, why am I here? He said cause you’re like fam, I like you. Q-Tip was not aware of my professional background. I had to be schooling Q-Tip on the work I had done, ‘after’ we started working together. It’s kind of a mystical energy to me. George Clinton is the same. I call him ‘Uncle’.
LU: You’ve done some production of your own. When did you start creating your own music?
DK: After watching these guys create music, and helping them to create it, and sometimes taking creative control of a project to see it through because maybe they can’t finish it. I realized maybe I could do this myself. I’ve always considered myself having some kind of musical ability. I would buy the gear they had. I got a S-900 sampler, and I’d be home practicing how to do stuff. Even up to the point, where you talk about this feel of the Tribe music, I’d bring tracks to Tip. He’d like it, he’d laugh, he’d smile and say, “Yeah, this needs help with the drums.” And I’d look at him like what’s wrong with the drums?
Now I look back and I laugh cause now I know what’s wrong with the drums. I figured out how to put that swing feel on it. At the time, I knew there was a difference but I didn’t realize what the difference was. Shortly after that, that whole genre died out. The bills from sampling were just too much for a lot of people to bear. You kind of moved away from that creative sound, making something new out of something old. I just stuck to it, and plowed on. I took it to Jamaica.
You have cats in Jamaica who want to do hip-hop. And I’d say you have to get your head out of that box and put it in this box. They’d determine they can’t do it and they’d push on their way. Hopefully one day they may realize also that you can look at things a little more intensely and get more out of it. I’ve always been that sort of a producer. I produce more or less for myself. I have a few projects out there that I have in the works.
LU: You worked on projects for Bad Boy Records early on…
DK: I did Biggie’s first album, didn’t get credit for that. I shot myself in the foot by walking out of the session. I did a lot of Uptown’s stuff, and from that I did a lot with Bad Boy.
LU: Why did you walk out of the session?
DK: [Laughs] Let’s say me and the producer had creative differences, and I was suffering from a case of big head-itis. I was like obviously you don’t need me, why don’t you work with the assistant and finish it off. So I stepped out. That was Easy Mo Bee. We laugh about that now. Puffy took it as “OK, you don’t want to be on the session, I guess you don’t want to be on the album.” Most of those mixes you see credited to Puffy were probably my mixes.
LU: I understand at this same time you were working as a model? I heard you might have been the first to have dreadlocks in major ad campaigns?
DK: There were a couple of cats before me but people acknowledge my effort. I got involved with the New York fashion editorial scene for a little while. It got me into the clubs free, it gave me downtown props, so to speak. It re-educated me. You asked me earlier how do I go back and forth between the different cultures. It actually balanced me, because prior to that I was probably a hardcore Jamaican citizen. I was in Washington Square Park smoking weed, going to the Reggae Lounge. And when I started modeling, I started experiencing so-called New York nightlife.
At the same time, I was still trying to get into studios. Music was my thing. I was only using this modeling thing as leverage. Thing is all the clients I was working with were not interested in fashion, and didn’t know that part of my life existed at all. they’d walk into a mall and see a big poster of me with a leather jacket on, and then see me in session and ask “Was that you?” I was being managed by Bethann Hardison. Next thing I know Bethann is fielding all these calls from these guys saying, “We want to be managed by you and yadda yadda.” I wasn’t aware of what I had going on. I was just like, “I’m a Rasta in Babylon, doing whatever I can to get through and survive.”
LU: Were you in any ads that people at the time were recognizing as significant?
DK: Nobody was willing to invest in the dread on that level. One thing that really did stand out was I did a New York Times Style Edition, and I ended up on the cover. I used to live in a building full of Hasidic Jews on the Upper West Side. They never talked to me before. All the sudden they were like, [affects Hasidic Jewish accent] “Is this you, wow, how is this you, you did good.” I was a celebrity in my building now, all of the sudden I was acceptable. I’m trying to find a copy of it now so I can show my daughter the crazy stuff I used to do. Yeah, that was a period in my life.
LU: You produced “Umi Says” for Mos Def…
DK: I got into a lawsuit over that track. Mos is a brilliant individual. But maybe he shouldn’t produce himself. I, in essence, held everything together. I didn’t write the music, I didn’t write rhymes, I took what they did, and I had to fix certain things they were ignoring. I was happy with it because they were paying me well. I started by suggesting the organ part. I essentially looped up and corrected stuff they played. He sat down and played drums, and I had to loop the drums and set them up properly. He ended up taking back producer credit from a lot of people. I only have credit on the album, I don’t have credit in the bank, so to speak. I got credit on the album because it was too late for Mos Def to change the print on the album. Once “Umi Says” was accepted, and Nike bought it out, because Jordan [supposedly] fell in love with it and wanted it in his commercial, that’s when Mos saw the value and just took everything for himself. And to be honest, I probably am to blame for that, too. To this day, I don’t really know much about the business of publishing. I think that album is a great album, [and] that song is the glue that held the whole album together. I remember the night we mixed it saying Damn, it all comes together with this song. He was appreciative of the effort and results thereof.
LU: What inspired you to go back to Jamaica and set up shop there?
DK: I was lulled into thinking I would be able to afford to build a studio in Jamaica. Since everything had gone digital, I wouldn’t have to invest in tape machines, and expensive electrical overhead that most major studios are faced with. I couldn’t imagine going to Jamaica with my skills and experience and building a studio there and not surviving. Little did I know that everybody in Jamaica now was buying their own laptop and quite happily recording in their bedroom or bathroom, and making big hits. With simple Pro Tools, LE systems. My experiences and my work history was of no importance to them. I brought nothing to the table in their eyes. As a matter of fact, they thought they had to re-educate me.
LU: Is your studio in Jamaica still active? What was some of the music you got to work on and do in Jamaica?
DK: I have cats who come in and utilize it and, on occasion, I fly down and do something. I wish I could get there more often. One of the first productions I did down there was “Keep On,” for Cezar. To me it was a simple knockoff reggae track but Patrick Moxey ended up taking the record and turning it into dance club fuckery. The fact that I came in and got that one off, it stands for something. They weren’t trying to play the type of music I wanted to produce in Jamaica. If you don’t follow no formula, it’s not valid. This is the problem with Jamaican music. It’s like a recipe. It has to have this much salt, and this much pepper. If it don’t have that, then it’s not real. It have to have this sound or nothing. You have to play it that way. I got tired of that shit. I said y’all sounding exactly the same. Music has to be real. The only reason why these mash ups work and all this shit is happening is we brought a real music source once upon a time. Lee “Scratch” Perry – people forever laud this man because of that, because he was an original. Where are our originals? [Today’s producers] are not approaching it as music, they’re approaching it for what it is: digital noise.
LU: What is Ronin Tafari?
DK: Ronin Tafari was a group that I put together in Jamaica. I believe that Jamaica has some of the best, [most] talented musicians in the world but they, the Jamaican musicians, don’t really realize it. Going back to this Tribe feel, and my interpretation of it, I gathered some talented cats together. Not reggae standard bearers, but cats who play on the fringe rock bands that exist in Kingston. I tried to do an instrumental album. I didn’t want to have my name associated with it. I felt a lot of people, once they see my name, would go “Oh it’s gonna be some different music” or “We cyan understand it.” I wanted to approach it like Gorillaz. I was gonna have them animated. I started getting into the story of this guy, Ronin Tafari, and it evolved into a comic. It got too big for me so it’s sitting there languishing. I didn’t really get the input from the rest of the guys I wanted. I wanted it to be a collaborative effort but I got “Tell us what you want, and we’ll play it for you and you produce it.” That was frustrating, and not necessarily what I wanted. But we have two singles out on iTunes.
LU: What is the story you came up with for the project?
DK: It’s one of those apocalyptic stories set in the not-too-distant future of an imaginary place not too different from Jamaica. It has a multi-dimensional time-traveling theme, they go between dimensions due to a tear in some kind of fabric. It’s got that kind of madness.
LU: Do you have any wisdom that would be helpful for engineers coming up right now?
DK: The greatest epiphany to hit me in the last three years is: Digital is evil. The best piece of advice I can give to any young producer is: Don’t stay in the box. Because the tools have now become limitless, you have to create limits. I used to mix totally in the box, and was adamant that the product could stand up to anything. Whenever I come out of the box, I never regret it. You can’t be deluded into thinking that what you are hearing is real with regard to digital.
Before you mix, play each individual track out through a speaker, and put a microphone in front of it — you can play with the distance of the microphone and speaker — and re-record it. Get some air in there, get some real mechanical motion of a signal moving a speaker, creating airwaves that the microphone hears and picks up that then goes back into your computer. It will sound 10 times better. Even that little simple process of putting real life into it, rather than assimilation, will sound much better.
Read. Learn what the other guys did. What equipment did they use, and why? Why was that equipment that was great back then still in demand today? You have Neve mic preamps that sell for $7000 each, and you can pick up something for $500. What is the difference between a $500 and a $7000 mic pre? Is it really gonna make it sound that much better? You gotta find out. There’s a lot of variables but don’t limit yourself and don’t believe that if you buy a plug-in that’s gonna be the answer.