Six hours into our studio session, out of patience, I turned to the crew of teenagers sitting behind me drinking cheap Remy Martin:
“Yo, we’re trying to work here. Mac is not focusing, and it’s because of you!”
It was 2AM, and we had accomplished nothing. My client, a 19-year-old rapper who called himself Mac Flyy, stood in the booth at the mic, changing his flow on every take, wanting to show off in front of his friends. I hated that he brought his posse with him for support, I should have sent them away before we even started. This was my show to run as a producer, they were just supposed to sit quietly and listen. One of the kids especially, Tyrone, wouldn’t shut up. At every take he’d loudly hype up his guy, creating more disruption than encouragement. I had rolled my eyes several times at the recording engineer sitting next to me, but with his headphones on, he only caught half of the show out here. I had tried ignoring them, then reasoning with them but when Tyrone started smoking their second joint before the smoke from the first one even cleared, it hit me they thought this was a concert. How naïve of me. Mac not taking my directions was a waste of time for the both of us.
I spoke into the mic to the wet room:
“Mac, this isn’t working. Your lyrics are all over the place. I don’t mind if you switch them up for each chorus, but as they are right now, it’s incoherent.”
“I think he forgot why he’s here.” The recording engineer mumbled, crossing his arms on his chest and leaning back and his chair. I couldn’t blame him for tapping out. I pressed the mic button again.
“Can you stick to one version and take it through the whole song? If we don’t have a base, we can’t improve.”
Mac nodded enthusiastically. I rolled the tape for him again and sighed.
“I don’t even know if he gets it.” My comment was meant for the engineer but the crew behind me picked it up:
“Or maybe it’s you, Allustrious T. Maybe you’re a whack producer.”
The engineer and I looked at each other in mild shock. I turned my chair around. The confidence in his statement and his arrogant facial expression awoke the tigress in me.
“Do you mind?”
“You don’t know what you’re doing. Your shit’s never gonna make a real rap song.”
Oh no he didn’t.
“Well, go ahead Tyrone, come at me with all of it! You think you can tell me anything I haven’t heard before? I’m a girl, I’m not from the hood, I don’t know hip hop, all that! Go on!”
Awkward silence. White people in hip hop were widely accepted now, artists and producers alike. The industry had a long history of mixed winning teams, Black artist, White producer: Rick Rubin and Jay Z, Mike Dean and Kanye West, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, Plato and Kaden. Most sound engineers were white males, always had been. And they did a fine job. But women producers? Women engineers? Nah. Women can’t be in charge of the booth, per the patriarchal narrative. Even after people heard my music, decided they loved it and hired me, once they met me in the flesh, I had to do the sales pitch all over again, it was exhausting. Mac didn’t give a shit what I looked like, but his manager, a man in his forties, tried to pair me with a male co-producer as if I needed to be babysat. When I declined the job altogether, Mac had to step in and demand his manager let me work alone.
The booze and the joints had considerably slowed down Tyrone’s ability to hold up an argument, so he would probably have backed down if I left it there, but my claws were out.
“I don’t think you understand just how small the window is for Mac to maybe, perhaps, get noticed. The industry isn’t playing, I’m not playing, and him clowning around for you is ruining everything. So, if you want your boy to succeed, y’all gonna shut the fuck up and let us work!”
Tyrone jumped from the couch and headed straight to me so fast I couldn’t even get up from my chair:
“You don’t tell me to shut the fuck up! Who do you think you are?”
A couple of the other kids were on their feet a second after Tyrone and I thought hell was about to break lose, but a girl and a guy grabbed his arm and shoulder:
“Ty! Ty, calm down! Come on, chill!”
Tyrone backed away from me with defiant eyes.
“Come on, she’s kinda right.” One of the girls said softly to him. There was a thoughtful pause while we all composed ourselves.
“Bitch.” Tyrone hissed in my back.
I turned my chair back around again slowly and casually replied:
“That’s right. I’m the bitch who runs this booth. Who are you?”
My aggressive bluff swept past them unnoticed, and the room thankfully calmed down. But inside my bomber jacket, my armpits dripped sweat and I had to hold on to the control board to hide my shaky hands. I got lightheaded thinking if they hadn’t stopped Tyrone, this could have turned into a beatdown and if they decided all to join in, I could have been laying in a pool of blood before Mac made it out of the recording booth. I wouldn’t even had had time to blink. My hand rested on the backpack pocket where I kept the knife I always carried with me. After everything I’d been through, just knowing it was there comforted me.
It was almost a year ago, my first recording session with an artist in person. Up until then, I had sold my beats online, faceless. Artists would record their vocals, send me the audio file to fine tune, but we never met. I could be anonymous, no real name, no gender, no location. I purposely avoided meeting but soon enough, the self-sabotaging became apparent. None of my songs so far garnered more than 10,000 streams, which definitely didn’t pay the bills. My ambition wanted one hundred million streams, and I profoundly believed I was talented enough. I couldn’t go back to my old, trapped, corporate life, I’d worked too hard to leave it. Whatever it took to become a successful hip hop producer, even though I looked all wrong for the part, I got on a plane to London with a stomach full of paranoid butterflies.
I paid for my own ticket, accommodation and showed up to the studio two hours early. I knew my way around a digital audio workstation with my eyes closed, but I asked the studio engineer who would assist me with mixing and mastering the track to walk me through the analog version that I was properly seeing for the first time. Just because I was a novice in this career didn’t mean I had to appear unprepared in front of my artist.
I was ready. I felt like I belonged here. The audio engineer stepped out for a cigarette while we waited. Blazin Dayze, the 22-year-old English rapper on today’s roster pranced into the studio with two guys, so loud I heard them coming down the hall. They stopped in their tracks when they came in.
“Aye fam, pre this chick at the console! What are you doin’ here babe, you with the producer?”
“No, I am the producer.”
“What do you mean? You’re assisting Allustrious T?”
“I am Allustrious T.” I smiled. “I need no assistance. Well, the recording engineer of course, he’ll be back in a minute.”
I kind of enjoyed their surprised faces and figured the shock would act as a fun ice breaker.
“Are you joking?” He asked with a thick North London accent. “You’re Allustrious T, the producer? You’re supposed to be a bloke.”
He suspiciously looked me up and down.
“Am I? Where’d you hear that?” I added, my face glowing like I was playing the best prank ever. Blazin Dayze was not amused: “Ok, what’s going on?”
“What’s the big deal?” They glared at me. “You’ve heard my shit; you know I’m good. Let’s get to work?”
He ignored my comment: “Where’s your team? Who produces with you?”
“I’m a one woman show.” His resistance was growing, and my earlier blissful state started to plummet. Where the hell was the audio engineer? As much as it irked me, now would be a great time for some male backup.
“Come on, get real.”
If they didn’t relax fast, trying to get anything productive out of this session would be pointless. I threw my hands up in a ‘what’s it gonna be?’ gesture.
“Not gonna happen. I’m not gonna work with a chick. Dafuq you know about producing music?”
“Seriously?” I was so tightly wound these days, it took next to nothing for me to snap. I stood up.
“What are you, the poster boy for male chauvinism? Are you that much of a rapper cliché? If you know so much, why don’t you produce it yourself?”
“Watch how you talk to me, bitch.”
He took three steps forward, his square jaw stopping four inches from mine. Prank time over. His friends would follow his lead with one glance. Too late.
“I know more about music than the three of you combined!”
In a second, my vision blurred, I lost my balance and knocked into the console before falling to the floor. He punched me in the face. He kicked me in the stomach a couple of times, and I heard, muffled:
“Know your place, little girl.”
And they walked out. Just like that. I lay on the floor curled in a ball, scared of moving. Once my brain registered the beating stopped, I sat up with a moan. Blood on my head somewhere. Tears ran down my cheeks just as the audio engineer walked back into the room, in complete disbelief as he put two and two together. He rushed to help me off the floor and cleaned up and once I calmed down, walked me back to my airBnB. He was nice to me, almost as shocked as I. He asked if I was going to be ok and I nodded, playing the tough cookie part perfectly. I sat on a kitchen chair the rest of the evening in tears, feeling so fucking alone I wanted to die. I had given up so much for this dream, worked so hard, finally taking chances and this is what I got? Attacked? I felt humiliated and angry. Angry because I knew Krav Maga, I knew how to defend myself. But last time I got attacked, I had tools nearby, like that kitchen knife. Some days I still heard the metallic clink as the sticky blade hit the tile. I had known what to do then, to fight for my life. So why did I freeze today?
The bruises healed, but the fear remained. I never reported the incident, I just buried it deep inside, and I didn’t dare step into a studio with an artist again for over four months. I learned two things though: I’d have to fucking chill and always prepare for the worst. Since that day, I always carried a knife, not with intent to use it, but because it made me feel safer.
“What’s going on!?”
Mac ran out of the wet room to check the commotion. The interruption snatched me out of my fog. I blinked a couple of times. The engineer saw I seemed to blank so he stepped in, holding his arms out:
“We’re fine. We got a little excited but we’re good.” He looked at the group and then at me back and forth. “We’re good, right?”
We all nodded in embarrassment. I regained my composure:
“Look, it’s late, I doubt we’ll get anything good tonight. Let’s wrap and we’ll start fresh tomorrow.”
With nowhere to look, Tyrone and the crew hesitantly started picking up their belongings.
“Ah T, come on!” As Mac Flyy was about to convince me to keep going, it hit me:
“Actually, Mac, can you stay a sec? Let’s have a chat. Alone.”
After they left, I explained his crew and his attitude had really pissed me off, not only the inappropriate comments, but he and they had shown up two hours late.
“Do you want to be a rapper for real? Be successful?”
He looked like a teenager being reprimanded by a teacher, eyebrows raised, eyeballs round and mouth gaping.
“For starters, if you have a meeting at six, you show up at ten to six. You’re not big enough to make people wait. You got studio time, there are a hundred kids out there with ten times your commitment that don’t. So, you better get yourself a work ethic or I’m out.” I sighed.
“Think about your sympathetic vibrations.”
“Sympathetic Vibrations. Like, striking a cymbal on a drum set: the second cymbal picks up the movement in the air from the first one without touching it, and ‘cause they’re close together it will begin to vibrate sympathetically, a faint but unmistakable sound. As an up-and-coming artist, you have to look out for the good vibrations… and the bad ones.”
“I don’t get it. Am I giving off bad vibrations?”
I shook my head.
“You have to figure this out for yourself and for the sake of your career, I hope you do soon.”
I really needed this to work. I needed Mac Flyy to write some great lyrics. I was desperate to release some music so I could get paid. Sure, two years ago, events had given me no choice but to quit my cushy job but starting over meant I could go after my dream and an opportunity like that wouldn’t knock twice, although the grind was really wearing me down. Two years of drought. Being constantly in the studio didn’t guarantee a hit song, even if we created phenomenal work, artists and producers were a dime a dozen, and music platforms dictated the terms. Unless you accumulated tens of millions of streams, you were just a struggling artist. I was 35 with no career, my savings were running out along with my steam. I had two months to get a song on the radio or I’d have to start packing groceries at the corner store. The worst part was, I had done everything I was supposed to: I had moved countries to start fresh, zero distractions, left all my friends behind, I spent 12 to 14 hours every day perfecting my craft, pumping new beats online, reaching out to artists. 200% focus still wasn’t enough.
I moaned. My anger was getting the better of me again. This kid looked to me for guidance, not to get slated. He was lost because he was 19, what was my excuse? I indicated a chair for him to sit.
“Look, I believe you are very talented, which is why I’m here. If you want to rap about hoes, weed and diamonds, I can’t stop you, but that’s been done to death man. The most powerful material will always be the truth. Even if it’s hard and it hurts. I know rappers love to show off… but music that stands the test of time means something.” I indicated the poster on the wall. “Take inspiration from the King of Brooklyn, the Notorious B.I.G.”
“He talks a lot about the struggle.” Mac ventured.
“Yeah. It wasn’t about money and hoes in the beginning, it really was about getting out of the hood simply for a chance at a better life. Not getting killed before turning 25.”
“But he had all the fame and money in the world, and he still got shot. At 24.”
“That’s right. And what made him such a great rapper? He was an amazing storyteller. He described his life so articulately that it spoke to everyone in a similar situation. Biggie was way before your time but if you listen to his lyrics today, thirty years later, feels like nothing’s changed. Do you want to make a quick hit, or do you want to start a legacy?”
We sat quietly for a moment.
“Ok but I don’t wanna do just serious music. I’m a happy person most of the time.”
“Serious music doesn’t have to be sad! The point is to make any type of music seriously, even the fun stuff. Biggie did Party and Bullshit and that’s all the song is about, but again, he describes the moment so well that it feels you’re right there with him. You know, people like him, Jay-Z, Nas, they’re the reason that people like me hear about what it’s like to be Black in America. I’m not even from this country, but it feels like they’ve shown it to me. And I’m not gonna pretend I know what your life is like, but no one can tell your story better than you. My gut tells me your story is important. And my gut is never wrong.”
“My mum says the same thing.” He chuckled.
From his face, I wondered if I was getting through to him.
“One other thing, Biggie and Tupac, they were super young, but their rap is wise way beyond their years. They deliver with incredible maturity. Same with Aaliyah, she made music at 17 where she sounded like she was a grown woman! If people forget how old you are when they hear you, that’s how legends are made.”
“How do I know if I can do that?”
“You won’t until you give it your best shot.” We contemplated that for a moment and motioned to pick up our bags, calling it a night. “Just stay focused Mac.”
Maybe I should start with taking my own advice.