Genius of Dub: Exclusive Q+A with Engineer Steven Stanley

October 19, 2011

Words and Interview by Sherman Escoffery

Considered one of the best audio engineers in the Caribbean by many artists and producers, Steven Stanley has recorded, mixed and sometimes produced for acts including Black Uhuru, The B-52’s, Grace Jones, Shabba Ranks, Gwen Guthrie and Sean Paul, to name a few.

From a studio in Nassau, Bahamas called Compass Point—where he was an integral part of the internationally influential house production band Compass Point All Stars as well as the genre-blurring Tom Tom Club—Steven was central to a movement that had a tremendous, yet under-appreciated, impact on pop music in the 80’s and beyond. Working as a musician, co-producer and audio engineer on the Tom Tom Club’s self-titled debut album, they gave the world “Genius Of Love,” a heavily sampled songs that ended up being the foundation of “Fantasy,” the mega-hit by Mariah Carey, as well as “Return of the Mack” by Mark Morrison.

Returning to Jamaica in the mid-80s, Stanley worked as the chief engineer at Anchor Studio beside producers Gussie Clark, Handel Tucker and Mikey Bennett, all of whom altered the direction of reggae music while launching artists like Maxi Priest, Shabba Ranks, and JC Lodge onto the international music stage. Now in his early 50’s, Steven Stanley still considers himself just an audio engineer who plays a little keyboard and does a little production. Always seemingly at play behind a mixing board, with intermittent bursts of hyperactivity, Stanley does like to do things his way. He will literally walk out of a recording session upon the entry of any negative vibes that he cannot control and has been known to ask producers to leave the studio while he is mixing if they don’t bring the right energy to the room. We spoke to Steven about how he got his start as an audio engineer, working with the Talking Heads, and his approach to mixing a song, among other things.

LargeUp: Tell us about yourself…

Steven Stanley: I am first of seven children for my father Fred Stanley –who was a singer during the 50’s known as the man with the golden voice. I went to Kingston Technical High School and learned sound engineering at Aquarius Recording in Half Way Tree in 1975.

LU: Who was your mentor?

SS: At that time it was the owner, Lloyd Chin Loy, and his brother, Herman Chin Loy. They were looking for an apprentice to train as an engineer from Kingston Technical High School directly, and I got picked. When I went to the studio, I never had it as a music thing: I just wanted a job to get some money because my mother and father were not working. When my teacher came and told me about working in a studio, I was thinking photography. When I got to Aquarius and Mr. Chin-Loy came and greeted me, he said he wanted an apprentice for studio work. I didn’t know what that was so he carried me into the studio and showed me the console. I fell in love right away with the board, a lot of lights and stuff. I didn’t know what it was but I liked it. When I went there, there was nobody else based there. When they were doing sessions, they called engineers from outside like Buddy Davidson, Karl Peterson, and Errol Ross, so I kind of learned a little bit from all of them including producers Willie Lindo, Boris Gardner, Clive Hunt, and Mikey Chung—the veteran.

LU: So how long were you an apprentice at Aquarius?

SS: From September to about July. I started the September before I left school and I left school in June/July, and Mr. Chin-Loy took me on as a full engineer after working and mixing Beres Hammond’s Soul Reggae album.

LU: Do you play any instruments?

SS: I fool around the keyboard a little, like on the Tom Tom Club “Genius of Love.” I played keyboard on that song you know. Do you know that song?

LU: Well, during the 80’s and 90’s, that was one of the most sampled songs in hip hop. The funny thing is, most people don’t know the name of the song, but just sound the phrase or say Mariah Carey and Old Dirty Bastard and they know exactly what you are talking about right away. When and how was that song done?

SS: That was 1981 at Compass Point in the Bahamas. I always say it was them that discovered me. I was working for Chris Blackwell at the time. I was about 21,  22 and they were about 10 years older than me. I was always in the studio experimenting on the keyboard when there was no work going on. Anyway, Chris Frantz and his wife Tina Weymouth, who were the drum and the bass player from Talking Heads, were always coming through and saying, “what is that you are playing?” and I told them I was just messing around. One day Chris said, “Steven we should do an experiment and record together, I will play drums, you play keyboard and my wife will play bass and we will get Lee “Scratch” Perry to produce it.” But Lee Perry never showed up so we went and did it by ourselves.

LU: Let’s talk a little bit more about Compass Point. You did so much work there. We are talking about the B-52’s – who else did you do work for there?

SS: Like Grace Jones “Pull Up To The Bumper,” Invisible Man’s Band, their chart song was “All Night Thing.” There was a group called The Earons who did a song called “Land of Hunger “ and Ian Dury from London – a lot of other people, too many people to remember.

LU: Grace Jones, was that the whole Nightclubbing album?

SS: No, I actually did a remix on “Pull Up To The Bumper” because it was actually Alex Sadkin. My memory is not so good anymore but all I can remember is “Pull up to [The] Bumper,” “Cry Now, Laugh Later,” “Nipple To the Bottle”—the Living My Life album.

LU: Let’s talk about the Black Uhuru album, Anthem. That was the first album to win a Grammy Award in the reggae category.

SS: We used to mix the other albums like Red and Chill Out. They used to record at Channel One in Kingston Jamaica with Sly and Robbie, and then Chris Blackwell would take it out to Compass Point for me, Sly, and Robbie to mix it. But, we notice that every time when it came to the vocal, the vocals weren’t recorded properly, so we had to put the background in a lot of echo so it doesn’t sound that distinctive. Every time the singers saw me they use to say: “Why you have so much reverb on the voices man?” They were always complaining, but it didn’t sound perfect to us, so we had to do something. Chris Blackwell then decided to record everything at Compass Point; we decided to do the whole project from scratch, and that is how Anthem came about; Sly and Robbie, me, and the other guys, we recorded everything at Compass Point, except “Solidarity.”

LU: There was a sound to that particular album. It almost had a rock feel to it instead of the usual hardcore Black Uhuru drum and bass. Did you guys do anything extra to that album that you never did on the previous albums?

SS: Well it wasn’t me alone; it was also Sly, Robbie and Mr. Blackwell who had a lot to do with it. They chose what musician to play on it. Chris brought in a guitarist called Darryl Thompson, who played a little rock and R&B; I just co-produced and engineer up the sound so that it sounded good but there was a mastermind behind all of this, which was Mr. Blackwell. He decided who to call and when, but you have to interview Mr. Blackwell for that side of the story.

LU: You worked on The B-52’s Gold selling album Wild Planet and produced “Whammy” as well?

SS: I never worked on Wild Planet but Chris Blackwell gave me three songs from that album and three songs from the album Rock Lobster, for me and a Canadian DJ name Daniel Coulombe to remix and do a EP called Party Mix. That caused Wild Planet to sell an additional 250,000, that took it to gold status. So that is how I got a gold plaque for that album.

LU: Let’s talk about the period between 1990 and 1995—Shabba Ranks, Maxi Priest, that whole Gussie Clarke era.

SS: Gussie Clarke is another mastermind like Chris Blackwell—he knows all the right people to call. He heard of me as a top sound engineer. He had a lot of ideas as a producer and knew if he called me he would get all the right sounds, so Gussie called me to work at his studio. Music Works-Anchor, on Slipe Road. He came up with the “Rumours” rhythm with Danny Brownie and the rest of the musicians. By that time I was the head engineer there so I made sure all the sounds were perfect and I did a little co-production and also ran a lot of the sessions when Gussie wasn’t there.

LU: Do you view music separate like, “Ok I am working on a reggae song, it’s going to have this sound, I’m working on a punk rock song it’s going to have this sound, I’m working on a rock song”? Or, is music just music to you?

SS: Music is just music. Whenever I get a song, I just deal with instruments—I let the instruments talk to me at that moment, so if I put up a guitar and it sounds ok, I leave it and put it in a room by itself in the song. I’ll put it in a stereo space, then I’ll panel to the left, put it back in your face, and I cannot tell you how I do that, I have to do that on the spot. It’s like a gift I have. When I get each song, I just mix it for the moment. If you ask me to mix back that same song another time it probably would not sound the same. I just do it spontaneously. I don’t go in and say, “This is a rock song.” Because usually if it is a rock song, the instruments will tell you what it is.

LU: So you just bring an addition to what the musicians play?

SS: Right, I enhance the instruments, make sure it feels good to the soul. To me, my soul is right between my chest like my solar plexus; there’s always a good feeling there when it sounds good to me.

LU: What was your favorite session or your favorite artist to have worked with throughout your career?

SS: There is no one special but at the top of my mind I would have to say Tom Tom Club. It was like a phenomenon the way things click together. But there is a lot of good people I have worked with over the years: Beres Hammond, producers Willie Lindo, Clive Hunt… Boris Gardiner I learned a lot of things from. There were some nice sessions. Nowadays it’s Etana, Steely and Clevie. [Wyclef “Steely” Johnson has since passed away]

SE: Is there any artist that you wish you could work with?

SS: Well is only one person I was always wishing to work with and he is gone, Michael Jackson. I always felt that before Michael Jackson went, he should have come to Jamaica and let Sly and Robbie Play the drum and bass. We get some nice guitar players for the different songs like Mikey Chung, and just mix up the thing and then me engineer, and we come with a sound and combine everything and see what the world thinks. But it’s too late now.

LU: Describe the chemistry between say a you and a Sly and Robbie, a Clive Hunt, a Handel Tucker.

SS: You see when I am working, I become the head of the vibes, so if I walk in a studio and the vibes is dead I always vibes it up; somehow I always come up with a joke or something to lighten up everybody’s sprits. Whether it’s a Clive Hunt, a Sly and Robbie, they can tell you that when I step in a room that I am the life of the party. If it doesn’t begin with some life of the party thing, I don’t do the work. If any bad vibes in the studio, I will not work, no matter how much the money.

LU: What about a Steely?

SS: Steely is a person like me that is spontaneous. him just come in a room and lively up the room, talk about thre hours worth of jokes and then he does five minutes worth of work and it’s amazing. That is Steely. He is spontaneous; he just comes up with ideas like a flash in the pan, Blup! And it’s ready. Strange, he was like a phenomenon.

SE: Tell me about Sean Paul and Sasha “I’m Still in Love”…

SS: Steely and Clevie recorded and produced that song, but they decided they wanted me to mix it to give it a different sound. So they brought it to my studio. I have been working with Steely and Clevie for years before that, I met Steely at Tuff Gong after I came back from Nassau in about 1986. Steely saw me coming into the studio with a lot of instruments. I had to carry them because I was going to do some production by myself to put them to 24 tracks by midi recording. When he saw me doing my thing by myself, he was amazed. From then he started calling me to mix songs for them, so working on that one song was not anything new.

LU: For someone considering a career in sound engineering, do you have anything to tell them, and what should they listen to, as far as sounds?

SS: You have to have patience and be humble. Try to learn as much as possible by listening instead of talking too much. I know what I do, I listen a lot of the oldies like the Nat King Cole, Tom Jones, Engelbert Humperdinck, Matt Monro, [singing] “Yesterday all my troubles seem so far away;” hear the real instrument and the quality of the tone — perfect tuning. The Bert Bacharach, Dionne Warwick, if [you] listen [to] those songs you hear arrangement, sound quality, everything. The group called Bread, hear how the guitar must sound — clean and nice; I make sure that when I am working everything must be clean, even if it’s dirty, it should be clean, because you know that in rock music you have a lot of dirty sounds in it, but you should still hear that dirt cleanly. Technically I think you need an electronic knack, the knack to work with electronic equipment.

LU: How do you feel about the sounds coming out of Jamaica?

SS: Things kind of change because everything is so easy to play. You can just pull down Fruity Loops. Everybody have their little talent, everyone wants the world to hear them, so you have a lot of experimenting going on. But probably they need a little more variations in style. Try to get more melodies involved and different kind of sounds instead of the one sound going all the time. Try to the mix up the sounds. Everything is just one thing like just pram pram pram, too much emphasis on that one pram pram pram, in most of them that I hear. Some of them sound good like “Split Personality” rhythm. Lots of little rhythm I like how they sound, but I am not knocking anything, because everyone has their way of doing things.