From Abbey Road to Wyoming: What makes a legendary studio run?
Kanye West has spent most of 2018 holed up in a studio at Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the beautiful countryside retreat providing sanctuary to Kanye akin to David Bowie’s Berlin years.
These sessions have resulted in five new West-produced albums, which have varied wildly in quality, with Pusha-T’s Daytona sounding like the spiritual successor to Raekwon’s coke rap masterpiece Only Built for Cuban Linx and Kanye West’s own Ye feeling like a rushed mess. Arguably, Kanye and Kid Cudi’s collaborative project Kids See Ghosts and Nas’s Nasir sit somewhere in the middle. The fifth and final record, KTSE by RnB star Teyana Taylor, will be released today (22 June).
According to Pusha-T, West’s decision to migrate to Wyoming has given the producer a place to recover from his well-publicised mental health struggles while lending his music a greater sense of introspection. “The studio has a very rehab type of feel,” Pusha told GQ. “Secluded, away, super laser focused on the music. Clean living. Disconnected from everybody except those who are about the art. I was just focused on health [when I was there].”
We’ve taken a look back at five legendary studios, which set the escapist blueprint for Kanye’s Wyoming sessions. Each serves as proof that the atmosphere of a studio can have a profound impact on the creative direction of a record.
Few studios are as synonymous with an artist as Abbey Road’s Studio 2 and The Beatles, with the St John’s Wood-based studio’s four-track REDD mixing console recording the lion’s share of the fab four’s music.
With its 24-foot-high ceilings, parquet floor and unique Georgian features, Abbey Road has an elegant atmosphere. But the secret behind its legendary run between 1965 and 1973, which resulted in masterpieces such as Sgt Pepper, Dark Side of the Moon and Fela’s London Scene, is built around the studio’s absolute commitment to experimentation.
As the studio moved away from working with singles-driven pop artists such as Cliff Richard in the 1950s and over to prioritising the creation of concept LPs with The Beatles in the 1960s, a more experimental approach was undertaken. This included synchronising tape machines to create the chaotic orchestral sound on A Day in the Life, the guitar feedback on I Feel Fine, the artificial double tracking on Eleanor Rigby, and one of the first uses of direct input to boost Paul McCartney’s bass on Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
If Abbey Road recognised creativity, it was prepared to give it space to experiment by not charging the likes of The Beatles and Pink Floyd for studio time. “On my very first day recording at Abbey Road, John [Lennon] said he wanted his voice to sound like the Dalai Lama singing on a mountain top 24 miles away from the studio,” recalled engineer Geoff Emerick in an interview.
“Through the controller window I saw the revolving speaker from the Hammond organ which was called a Leslie speaker and I thought if we can put John’s voice through the speaker that will give the effect. John loved it and that won him over. Anything The Beatles wanted, we found a way to create it.”
With hefty studio fees for masterpiece Electric Ladyland nearly bankrupting Jimi Hendrix, the guitar god decided to build his own $100,000 studio in Greenwich Village, New York City. Opening on 26 August, 1970, the Electric Ladyland studio was built specifically to the tastes of Hendrix, with psychedelic space-themed art on the walls and curved windows combining to create a groovy atmosphere.
Aside from keeping the costs down, this studio should have been the place where Hendrix recorded music at the peak of his powers. Sadly, by 18 September, 1970, he would be dead. However, the spirit of Hendrix lived on at Electric Ladyland, with the studio’s unique atmosphere inspiring the creation of classic albums such as Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy, David Bowie’s Young Americans and Weezer’s Pinkerton.
Arguably, the studio’s peak of creativity came in the late 1990s, when the likes of J Dilla, Raphael Saadiq and D’Angelo sat behind the boards, helping create experimental, distinctly black opuses such as Electric Circus, Things Fall Apart and Voodoo. Erykah Badu, who was a vocalist during these sessions, believes this legendary run was inspired by the spirit of Hendrix himself.
“I like Electric Lady. They don’t have all the best equipment in the world, but it’s just the vibe of it. You can feel the spirit of what was happening there in the 60s and 70s,” she told Rolling Stone. “There’s this cat there, his name is Jimi, that they claim is the spirit of Jimi Hendrix and if he likes the music he’ll come in the studio. If he doesn’t, he’ll come in and then leave. Sometimes he stayed, sometimes he left. Those songs didn’t make the album.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, there were few labels prepared to take a gamble on conceptual black music. Yet with William Bell’s Bound to Happen, Isaac Hayes’ Buttered Soul, Booker T & the M.G.’s Green Onions, Mavis Staples’ Only for the Lonely and Otis Redding’s Otis Blue each recorded at the Stax Recording Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, it’s clear this was one label prepared to do things differently.
Stax’s music was darker sonically than the airier, hook-driven songs coming out of Detroit’s Motown. According to William Bell, who was the label’s first major singer-songwriter success story, the studio succeeded as it was rooted in working class showmanship. He believes this gave Stax’s records a down-to-earth sound. “Motown were more polished and groomed,” he told The Independent, “and we were just basically blue-collar type music for the people. Our music was blacker and had more emotional truth.”
Another thing that set this studio (which was located on Memphis’s E McLemore Avenue) apart from its rivals was its imbalance. Having formerly been a movie theatre, the studio inherited a raked floor. This created an audible acoustic anomaly on Stax recordings, resulting in a deep sound. Every Stax record contains these strange acoustics, with the studio’s quirky character easy to recognise as soon as the needle drops on an Isaac Hayes LP.
Although it had a short run between 1968 to 1981, the music created at Soho’s Trident Studios is still making waves. Part of the London studio’s appeal to artists was its commitment to creativity. While Abbey Road was overly technical, with engineers forced to wear white lab coats, Trident Studios encouraged the smog of weed smoke and the presence of admirers, just so long as it resulted in good music.
The Beatles were drawn to Trident during The White Album sessions, with its eight track recording deck superior to the four track at Abbey Road. This allowed them to add more layers to songs such as Hey Jude and Long, Long, Long. The Beatles’ involvement created a buzz, resulting in artists such as Queen (Queen, Queen II), David Bowie (Hunky Dory, Ziggy Stardust), Lou Reed (Transformer) and Elton John (Goodbye Yellow Brick Road) also recording their own masterpieces at Trident.
The studio famously contained a handmade Bechstein grand piano, which musicians have repeatedly called the greatest rock’n’roll piano ever. The Trident piano was notoriously difficult to play because of its stiff hammers, but you can hear its beautiful sound on classic songs such as Elton John’s Bennie and the Jets. The studio’s infamous echo chamber, meanwhile, was located in the men’s toilets.
Unfortunately, Trident closed its doors in 1981 due to financial difficulties and was later sold on.
A basement-come-studio, which belonged to producer Rico Wade, who was part of rap production collective Organised Noize, The Dungeon gave birth to the likes of Goodie Mob and Outkast.
The damp basement’s red clay dirt floors, creaky stairs and second hand equipment were the backdrop for Outkast’s debut record Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. It also birthed Goodie Mob’s Soul Food, another LP which brought southern hip-hop into the mainstream.
“The Dungeon was just a crawl space with a bench that held a stack of blankets,” Cee-Lo Brown told GQ. “Everybody would grab a blanket and sleep. Me, Big, Dre, everybody. There’d be at least 12 or 13 of us down there eating, sleeping and making music.”
The fact Outkast went from the darkness of the dungeon – located in the humble Lakewood Heights neighbourhood – to the bright lights of global superstardom remains one of rap’s greatest success stories. This small crawl space forced Andre 3000 and Big Boi to work together in close proximity, resulting in a brotherhood that created a raw sound as well as one of the greatest rap collectives of all time in the Dungeon Family.
The camaraderie of The Dungeon was captured best in Big Boi’s verse on Playa’s Ball, where he raps: “Don’t need no ham hocks, don’t play me like I’m smoking rocks / I got the munchies, we got the Mary Jane in the Dungeon / Just to let you niggas know in 93, that’s how we coming.” Sure, Outkast would go onto record in better studios, but it was The Dungeon where they had the most fun.
This damp basement birthed Southern rap as we know it.