CHELSEA, MANHATTAN: The right piece of fatherly advice can last a lifetime.
Just ask Ken ‚ÄúDuro‚ÄĚ Ifill, who got some priceless guidance growing up in the bustling multi-culti neighborhood of Queens Village, New York. ‚ÄúMy dad told me: ‚ÄėWhatever you do, be the best,‚Äô‚ÄĚ says Duro, scanning New York City’s skyline from the terrace of Jungle City Studios. ‚ÄúHe said, ‚ÄėIf you want to be a garbage man, fine. But you should plan on owning the sanitation company.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
True to form, young Duro was listening ‚Äď very carefully.
Flash forward to 2011, and his name is synonymous with success. As a mixer and engineer he‚Äôs worked in service of a client list that any audio professional would envy, including Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Diddy, Alicia Keys, Nas, Ja Rule, Ashanti, The Backstreet Boys, Ruff Ryders‚Ä¶the list just goes on and on. GRAMMY Award wins for the massive Jay-Z and Alicia Keys hit ‚ÄúEmpire State of Mind‚ÄĚ, and his work with Erykah Badu, Will Smith, Jay-Z, Ashanti, Usher, back up his value ‚Äď built up from a discography that now spans two decades.
On the executive side, Duro has shown equal endurance. As the CEO of Desert Storm Records, he and his partners Skane Dolla and DJ Clue have been responsible for exposing extreme talent like Fabolous to the masses, with more on the way from recent signings like Dose and 1st String.
The final quarter of 2011 has, not surprisingly, proven busy for him, evidenced by the recent releases of the Duro-mixed Jay Sean mixtape The Mistress, and rapper Professor Green‚Äôs ear-grabbing new collection At Your Inconvenience. But before he reached his state of in-demand grace, the unassuming Duro had to get inspired ‚Äď REALLY inspired. That event unfolded with his first listening of 1991‚Äôs landmark The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest.
‚ÄúThe reason why I wanted to be a mixer was because of Bob Power and The Low End Theory,‚ÄĚ Duro confirms. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs the first album I heard with a clear difference sonically. I heard it and I said, ‚ÄėWhy is the bass so big?‚Äô It had an acoustic sound to it, but it was still hip hop. So I started to dig in and try to find out exactly why it sounded like that.
‚ÄúWhen I actually started mixing records, for any record I was working on I would find a song that Bob Power mixed that was similar: I‚Äôd put it in the CD player, hit ‚Äėrepeat,‚Äô and while I was mixing my record, I‚Äôd A/B between his record and my record to get the kicks sounding the way I wanted, and the snares.
‚ÄúI was like most artists, who start off emulating someone, and then grow into their own. Eventually, I stopped using his mixes as a reference. I thought, ‚ÄėI love his stuff, but I want my records to sound more aggressive, less jazzy, a little harder knocking.‚Äô I began to prefer bigger kicks, and bigger snares.‚ÄĚ
The grand, multifaceted elements he balances in ‚ÄúEmpire State of Mind‚ÄĚ are a different dimension from the intimately spare, raw sound that he supported with his mix work on Erykah Badu‚Äôs entrancing 1997 hit record Baduizm ‚Äď a personal evolution he readily acknowledges.
‚ÄúAs I got better, and my ears became more trained, I started listening more to not just one big stroke of the brush, but all the finer details as well,‚ÄĚ says Duro. ‚ÄúMy change has been to gradually pay more attention to the details, and then identify what needs to be changed in the details ‚Äď how to make things sit together, and have all of the social elements live together in the sound spectrum.
‚ÄúEvery song is different because there are different elements. I‚Äôll hear something and say, ‚ÄėThat should be the focus of the record,‚Äô and I build it from there. Put another way, I‚Äôll say, ‚ÄėThis song would be great if‚Ä¶ And I attack the ‚Äėif.‚Äô‚ÄĚ
A Duro mix has a way of falling effortlessly into place ‚Äď for both the artist and listener. On a cinematic album like Fabolous‚Äôs 2009 Loso‚Äôs Way, the separation between each element, dirty or clean, unfolds naturally between the speakers. The result is a direct translation of the artist‚Äôs vision straight to the eardrum, via an intuitive, tuned-in approach to mixing that Duro can more easily demonstrate than explain.
‚ÄúI try not to think too much when I‚Äôm mixing,‚ÄĚ he reveals. ‚ÄúIf something feels good, it‚Äôs right. It‚Äôs that simple. If I mix a song today, it will sound one way. If I mix it tomorrow, how I feel then, or even the weather could affect it. I don‚Äôt look at knobs, and mixing is not a technical process for me. I view it as the last creative process in the making of the record.‚ÄĚ
Working strictly by feel, Duro keeps extraneous hardware and software out of the signal path ‚Äď an efficient approach that brings him straight to the sound. ‚ÄúOn my mixes, there‚Äôs only about three or four plugins that I use,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúA lot of times I don‚Äôt use EQ, and I‚Äôm not using a lot of compression either. It‚Äôs about balance ‚Äď moving levels up and down, panning left and right. If you‚Äôre working with a good producer, then he picked the sounds he wanted for a reason, and so it‚Äôs about putting the pieces in a puzzle together coherently.‚ÄĚ
Fresh off applying his touch to the dark acoustics of Professor Green‚Äôs Inconvenience, Duro sees how the mixer‚Äôs identity shows up in each work, even as it‚Äôs performed in the service of each clients‚Äô unique artistry.
‚ÄúI think I have a sound — there are pieces of me on everything that I work on,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúBut there are also certain things I won‚Äôt do. A lot of times people want to squash their records with brick-wall limiting. I won‚Äôt do that, even if it means I‚Äôm not doing a project. I don‚Äôt think that people who do that sell out, but it‚Äôs not what I‚Äôm going to do. I‚Äôm not going to do anything and everything.‚ÄĚ
Like Jay-Z and Picasso, Duro sees the mixer as an artist in their own right, sporting a clear signature that comes with their territory. When pressed, he can identify those differentiating factors about himself.
‚ÄúI think my mixes are dynamic, warm and organic,‚ÄĚ says Duro. ‚ÄúIf I do use compression, it will come from a tape machine ‚Äď it‚Äôs not going to come from an L2. I believe in leaving a lot of headroom. If you want it louder, I leave space for the mastering engineer to do his piece. And if you still want it louder‚Ä¶maybe you need more amplification in your stereo.‚ÄĚ
Hear some of Duro’s latest work in Professor Green’s UK #1 single “Read All About It” (featuring the emerging singer Emeli Sande):
An established hitmaker on the label side with the proven success of Fabolous, Duro doesn‚Äôt simply define his role in terms of selling records. Just as important is taking up the task of artist development ‚Äď a task long ago abandoned by what remains of the established record companies.
For Desert Storm artists like 1st String and Dose, Duro and his partners try to keep track of their big-picture responsibilities. ‚ÄúWe want to do the same thing with them as we did with Fabolous and DJ Clue ‚Äď give them careers, not just one single and done,‚ÄĚ he explains. ‚ÄúA part of that is artist development, which major labels now don‚Äôt have the time or desire to do. The label system has become more and more corporate, more hands-off, and less connected to the artist. They really have no problems with putting you on the shelf, or just dropping you.
‚ÄúBut I always felt that these young people are putting their lives in your hands. It‚Äôs no different from a child ‚Äď one traumatic situation in their life can seriously affect them. You‚Äôre dealing with people‚Äôs sense of pride: You sign an artist, they feel great, they tell all their friends, and people expect big things from them. But it doesn‚Äôt always work out, and it‚Äôs hard to be up on stage one day and then the next day you‚Äôre back on your block.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs why my partners and I want to work with people that we genuinely like. We have to feel good together, because you want to feel good about helping someone take their art, and life in general, to the next level.‚ÄĚ
The Empire State of Mind
While the fast-shifting state of the music industry presents plenty of challenges for all involved, the Queens-borne Duro sees NYC slowly re-emerging as a land of opportunity.
‚ÄúSometimes you need things to crumble in order for them to get better,‚ÄĚ he observes. ‚ÄúI thought several years ago that there were a lot of speculators in the business ‚Äď they were there to make money and not interested in the music at all. When the business went flat, all those people left, and now they‚Äôre speculating on something else.
‚ÄúI think the people who remained — the ones who really love music — are still here. I only want to work with the best of the best, and that doesn‚Äôt necessarily mean the most successful. The best means the most talented. I think the opportunity is here now: There may be less work, but the competition has been thinned ‚Äď there are fewer pretenders to sift through.‚ÄĚ
For Duro, Ann Mincieli‚Äôs Jungle City Studios demonstrates this survival-of-the-fittest traction in action, with its tuned-in facilities serving as his preferred mix HQ. ‚ÄúSince they‚Äôve opened, this is my home base,‚ÄĚ Duro states. ‚ÄúI think that the environment they‚Äôve created is very pro-artist, pro-creativity. It‚Äôs well designed, and the vibe just feels right.
‚ÄúA lot of people thought Jungle City was a bold undertaking, but it was needed. We need studio owners like Ann who don‚Äôt have the baggage of an older business model, older gear, and debt from years ago. People have fresh energy, and now is a great time to come in (to the studio business). There‚Äôs a lot of great technology, the gear is more affordable, and if you have the right staff and the right environment, you can be very successful.‚ÄĚ
Duro speaks with the quiet air of confidence that accompanies having nothing to prove. Platinum track record established, the priorities for this hit mixer are to keep driving and diversifying. And just like his mixes, he‚Äôll steer to the next level of his career with feel ‚Äď no overthinking it.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm going to start experimenting with other quote-unquote ‚Äėgenres‚Äô of music,‚ÄĚ he says. ‚ÄúThe elements of hip hop and R&B ‚Äď there are other influences in those genres, and vice versa, working with each other. I don‚Äôt necessarily have a blueprint. I just want to continue to work on great records.‚ÄĚ
– David Weiss