Mixer Profile: Duro and the Art of Balance — from Jay-Z to Fabolous and Professor Green

CHELSEA, MANHATTAN: The right piece of fatherly advice can last a lifetime.

On a clear day, Duro can hear for miles. Photo credit: Johnny Beckett

Just ask Ken “Duro” Ifill, who got some priceless guidance growing up in the bustling multi-culti neighborhood of Queens Village, New York. “My dad told me: ‘Whatever you do, be the best,’” says Duro, scanning New York City’s skyline from the terrace of Jungle City Studios. “He said, ‘If you want to be a garbage man, fine. But you should plan on owning the sanitation company.’”

True to form, young Duro was listening – very carefully.

Flash forward to 2011, and his name is synonymous with success. As a mixer and engineer he’s 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…the list just goes on and on. GRAMMY Award wins for the massive Jay-Z and Alicia Keys hit “Empire State of Mind”, and his work with Erykah Badu, Will Smith, Jay-Z, Ashanti, Usher, back up his value – 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’s ear-grabbing new collection At Your Inconvenience. But before he reached his state of in-demand grace, the unassuming Duro had to get inspired – REALLY inspired. That event unfolded with his first listening of 1991’s landmark The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest.

Powerful Progress

“The reason why I wanted to be a mixer was because of Bob Power and The Low End Theory,” Duro confirms. “It’s the first album I heard with a clear difference sonically. I heard it and I said, ‘Why is the bass so big?’ 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.

High ideals from "The Low End."

“When 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’d put it in the CD player, hit ‘repeat,’ and while I was mixing my record, I’d A/B between his record and my record to get the kicks sounding the way I wanted, and the snares.

“I 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, ‘I love his stuff, but I want my records to sound more aggressive, less jazzy, a little harder knocking.’ I began to prefer bigger kicks, and bigger snares.”

The grand, multifaceted elements he balances in “Empire State of Mind” are a different dimension from the intimately spare, raw sound that he supported with his mix work on Erykah Badu’s entrancing 1997 hit record Baduizm – a personal evolution he readily acknowledges.

“As 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,” says Duro. “My change has been to gradually pay more attention to the details, and then identify what needs to be changed in the details – how to make things sit together, and have all of the social elements live together in the sound spectrum.

“Every song is different because there are different elements. I’ll hear something and say, ‘That should be the focus of the record,’ and I build it from there. Put another way, I’ll say, ‘This song would be great if… And I attack the ‘if.’”

In touch with the music. (Photo credit: Johnny Beckett)

Listening Inward

A Duro mix has a way of falling effortlessly into place – for both the artist and listener. On a cinematic album like Fabolous’s 2009 Loso’s Way, the separation between each element, dirty or clean, unfolds naturally between the speakers. The result is a direct translation of the artist’s vision straight to the eardrum, via an intuitive, tuned-in approach to mixing that Duro can more easily demonstrate than explain.

“I try not to think too much when I’m mixing,” he reveals. “If something feels good, it’s right. It’s 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’t 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.”

Working strictly by feel, Duro keeps extraneous hardware and software out of the signal path – an efficient approach that brings him straight to the sound. “On my mixes, there’s only about three or four plugins that I use,” he says. “A lot of times I don’t use EQ, and I’m not using a lot of compression either. It’s about balance – moving levels up and down, panning left and right. If you’re working with a good producer, then he picked the sounds he wanted for a reason, and so it’s about putting the pieces in a puzzle together coherently.”

Fresh off applying his touch to the dark acoustics of Professor Green’s Inconvenience, Duro sees how the mixer’s identity shows up in each work, even as it’s performed in the service of each clients’ unique artistry.

“I think I have a sound — there are pieces of me on everything that I work on,” he says. “But there are also certain things I won’t do. A lot of times people want to squash their records with brick-wall limiting. I won’t do that, even if it means I’m not doing a project. I don’t think that people who do that sell out, but it’s not what I’m going to do. I’m not going to do anything and everything.”

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.

“I think my mixes are dynamic, warm and organic,” says Duro. “If I do use compression, it will come from a tape machine – it’s 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…maybe you need more amplification in your stereo.”

Hear some of Duro’s latest work in Professor Green’s UK #1 single “Read All About It” (featuring the emerging singer Emeli Sande):

Duro: CEO

An established hitmaker on the label side with the proven success of Fabolous, Duro doesn’t simply define his role in terms of selling records. Just as important is taking up the task of artist development – 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. “We want to do the same thing with them as we did with Fabolous and DJ Clue – give them careers, not just one single and done,” he explains. “A part of that is artist development, which major labels now don’t 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.

“But I always felt that these young people are putting their lives in your hands. It’s no different from a child – one traumatic situation in their life can seriously affect them. You’re dealing with people’s 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’t always work out, and it’s hard to be up on stage one day and then the next day you’re back on your block.

“That’s 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.”

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.

According to Duro, Jungle City's Studio A shows NYC's fresh direction.

“Sometimes you need things to crumble in order for them to get better,” he observes. “I thought several years ago that there were a lot of speculators in the business – 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’re speculating on something else.

“I 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’t 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 – there are fewer pretenders to sift through.”

For Duro, Ann Mincieli’s Jungle City Studios demonstrates this survival-of-the-fittest traction in action, with its tuned-in facilities serving as his preferred mix HQ. “Since they’ve opened, this is my home base,” Duro states. “I think that the environment they’ve created is very pro-artist, pro-creativity. It’s well designed, and the vibe just feels right.

“A lot of people thought Jungle City was a bold undertaking, but it was needed. We need studio owners like Ann who don’t 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’s 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.”

Achieving Balance

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’ll steer to the next level of his career with feel – no overthinking it.

“I’m going to start experimenting with other quote-unquote ‘genres’ of music,” he says. “The elements of hip hop and R&B – there are other influences in those genres, and vice versa, working with each other. I don’t necessarily have a blueprint. I just want to continue to work on great records.”

– David Weiss