It’s shortly after 5:00 p.m., and nearly two dozen recording engineers, producers and A&Rs are crowded into Studio A at EMPIRE’s recording studios in San Francisco, where Grammy-winning mix engineer Jaycen Joshua is in command of the center console. Joshua — who has been in the studio with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Future, Ariana Grande to Luis Fonsi, Justin Bieber to BTS, and won Grammys for his work with Beyoncé and Mary J. Blige, among others — is holding a masterclass for EMPIRE’s studio staff. Currently, he’s walking them through the ProTools plugin he’s created, called the God Particle, that will allow them to tap into some of the secrets he’s developed over the past 20 years honing his craft.
EMPIRE’s Africa Writing Camp: Fireboy DML, Asake & Olamide Get Together in the Bay
“People fail to realize that we’re artists,” he says, to fervent nods around the room, while explaining why the nuance of being an engineer is so important. “We paint like a producer paints. You want to make the colors of a painting as vibrant as possible.”
His audience is rapt, peppering him with questions and interruptions — none more eager than EMPIRE’s founder/CEO Ghazi, himself a longtime former recording engineer, who made sure to rearrange the day’s schedule so he could sit in with his staff. Ghazi flew Joshua up specially for this African writing camp EMPIRE is hosting for its top Nigerian talents Fireboy DML, Asake and Olamide, and had Joshua himself tune Studio A to his specifications, resulting in what Joshua calls “the second greatest sounding room in the world — next to mine.” (“I’ll take that,” Ghazi laughs. “It’s like being Kobe to Jordan.”)
The masterclass, frankly, seems like it’s being conducted in a different language, given the shorthand in which engineers communicate about compressors, limiters, microphones, ambient noise and the shape and quality of a particular snare drum sound wave compared to another. It’s like a PhD-level class, and each of the engineers will get access to the God Particle plugin in order to enhance their own mixes, as well — a plugin that is so successful (Joshua refers to it as his “cheat code”) that he’s sold over 100,000 copies of it in less than a year, with another coming out soon that caters specifically to drums. And it lines up with a mantra that Ghazi uses often: one about finding the sweet spot “where science meets creativity” — essentially, finding the place where technology can meet up with the inherent creativity of an artist and enhance the work of everyone.
The masterclass wraps after about an hour, and it’s time for individual sessions to get back on track. When we got to the studio at 4:00 p.m., Olamide was eating in the dining room, though he soon would go back to his hotel, and the energy of the place is much brighter than the subdued day before — with a big crew of songwriters, engineers and EMPIRE staffers in and out of the rooms. Terrace Martin is in Studio A, adding keys to an Olamide record; Fireboy is in vocal training for an upcoming tour, a process that involves trampolines and yoga; and the kitchen, after a day of Tupac, is back to blasting Kevin Gates again. Just before the masterclass, Kenny Hamilton, who manages EMPIRE artist Rotimi, is playing new music for EMPIRE vp of A&R Tina Davis and regional head of West Africa Mobolaji Kareem, discussing plans for possible features for a forthcoming album.
Later, around 6:45, Asake comes through the studio with Olamide’s brother and DJ Enimoney, headphones around his neck, talking about plans for the next few days. His engineer and producer Magicsticks is coming in from Nigeria tomorrow — “he really gets me,” Asake explains — and the plan is to finish a bunch of records that are in various stages of mixing before he starts to work on anything new. He wants to bring in a chorus, between four and six singers, to help get an anthemic feel, and songwriter Rex Life Raj is employed to reach out to his network of contacts to help get the right people in the building. Then Asake heads outside — after living all his life in Nigeria, he says, he enjoys the cold of San Francisco in the late winter.
It’s outside, sitting around the electric fire pit, that I find Asake again about an hour later, in a meeting with Bolaji, Ghazi, EMPIRE COO Nima Etminan and a slew of others about a music video he plans to shoot. (Dinner was again a mix of Nigerian food, and while it was delicious, I finally came face to face with the rumored pepper sauce from the night before — just as spicy as dreaded.) There are several video shoots planned for the coming days, and the conversation around the dinner table ranges from studio etiquette — specifically, what to do about the “couch producers,” a term for the random person laying down on the couch in the studio while a record is made who nonetheless demands five percent of the record — to the brilliance of a melody like “Baby Shark.”
But in each studio there’s more work underway — Joshua mixing in Studio A, Fireboy locked away in a closed session in Studio B, interviews happening in Studio C and more plotting out in the back yard around the fire pit. By 10:45, Asake had left, Olamide had long been back at his hotel and much of the EMPIRE staff had filtered out towards home. But Fireboy remained, locked in the studio, cooking up his next big record. The crew has less than a week now in the States, and there’s still plenty to do — and a lot for which to prepare.
This is the third installment of Billboard‘s series on EMPIRE’s Africa writing camp. Find the first installment here and the second here.
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