Legendary engineer Jimmy Douglass on his role in constructing Jodeci’s The Show, the After Party, the Hotel on album’s 20th anniversary
By the mid-1990s, Donald “Devante Swing” DeGrate, Jr., Dalvin “Mr. Dalvin” DeGrate, Cedric “K-Ci” Hailey, and Joel “Jojo” Hailey—collectively known as Jodeci—had established themselves as the dominant male R&B quartet on the planet. After the releases of their multi-platinum smashes Forever My Lady (1991) and Diary of a Mad Band (1993), the group redefined the standards for successful, viable R&B artists by standing out from their contemporaries in musical approach and aesthetics. As numerous R&B groups began to emerge, Jodeci raised the stakes with their third album and it allowed them to reach another level of superstardom. On July 18, 1995, The Show, the After Party, the Hotel was released by Uptown/MCA Records, and it became their third consecutive hit recording. The album spawned three singles: “Freek’n You,” “Love U 4 Life,” and “Get on Up.” For the album’s twentieth anniversary, we spoke with legendary engineer Jimmy Douglass about his role in constructing this timeless album.
How did you become involved in the making of this album?
Well, it was really a roundabout situation. There was a studio located in Rochester, New York called Dajhelon. There was this guy named Lamar Mitchell, who used to be with Bernie Worrell back in the day playing keyboards. We became very, very close. He ended up being a part of Jodeci, somehow. When they were touring after the release of Diary of a Mad Band, he was one of the people they took on the road with them. He became part of their whole package. So there was that connection, but I still didn’t know them. The drummer in the band, Reggie Young, lived in Rochester, New York. This is a long story, but it’ll all make sense eventually. In Rochester, New York, at that time, studios were flourishing, but it was hard to get into a large studio. Reggie Young knew a guy in Rochester whose parents built a great studio for him. It was this three room operation with a big board. It was great. They were trying to figure out how to get some of the New York City business. Hip hop was starting to become the best thing as opposed to rock and roll. Rochester was six hours away from New York City by car. The owner of the studio had an artist that was signed to MCA Records. He also had a bunch of people that wanted to come from New York City who wanted to record there, but he didn’t have any urban engineers located in Rochester at that time. The owner asked Reggie, “Do you know anyone who would be willing to do engineering work here?” Lamar said to Reggie, “There is this guy I know.”
So I took a trip up there one weekend, and he brought up three groups and there was nobody else up there except for me. It was a holiday too. It was the weekend that Kurt Cobain died, actually. I remember it so well because I had the TV on and there was no sound. I kept on seeing the same bite over and over again. There were five producers in the studio, and they just tag teamed me to death for three days. I thought it would be a situation where we would record and the group would be done. But no. They brought in these producers, and after one set was done, the next one would come in. This is what happened that whole weekend. I also mixed a record for him for his artist. So I did all of these things, and I barely slept the entire time. He came back to me blown away, and I was blown away at myself because I did so many things. After that, I went back home and that’s the end of that story.
A few months later, he called me and said, “Hey, I have this gig coming up to my studio. It’s going to be about a six month gig. It’s going to be Jodeci, and they need an engineer. They’re going to rent the whole place out. Devante is also going to do some producing for Whitney [Houston] and a lot of different acts. I’d love for you to come and be their guy.” I replied, “Sure. I’ll come.” This is how I got invited to party. It was from the studio owner and not the group. So what Devante did was he made a deal with the studio to do Jodeci and all of his productions—because there were three rooms available—the studio owner basically gave them a six-month fee. We came in and locked ourselves down for six months. In that six months, we worked on Jodeci’s album and all the producers and other side projects that Devante had going on. In Studio A, Dalvin was working on his record. We were doing so many things. Downstairs, K-Ci and Jojo were working on The Show, the After Party, the Hotel. This is how crazy it was back then. The house had twenty-one people there that were all talented: Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Magoo, Playa, Tweet, Ginuwine, Sugah, and when we made that album there, we found and met Stevie J. We brought him into the fold. So that is what was going on in that house. It was a boiling hot pot of talent there. It was just incredible.
In that six month period of recording this album, how much work was completed overall?
Between doing Sugah’s and Missy’s group, Sista’s album, it was a busy time. Timbaland was there making beats every day. He was making beats for Jodeci and K-Ci & Jojo. He was just making stuff every day. First of all, those six months turned into a year. They didn’t get the album done in six months. It almost turned into a year-in-a-half, actually. Devante was a mad man. He couldn’t just close the door. That is what he did. He was very particular about what he did. He wouldn’t let anything go through the cracks, unless he was truly satisfied with it. So a whole year passed by. I remember Suge Knight coming up there. We had all kinds of visitors while we were making this record. Mike Tyson came up there and took everybody to dinner. When Mike came to visit, Devante showed him the whole set up, the production crew, and the talent that was there. He loved it so much. He just fell in love with the whole thing. Afterward, he said, “I want to take everyone to dinner.” [laughs] Rochester is a very small town; it’s like a small college town. So how are you going to suddenly take twenty people to dinner? He rode in a limousine from New York City up to Rochester. He offered to give $1000 to every person who would give up their seat in the restaurant, so we could all eat together. [laughs] It was that kind of party when making this record. It was so crazy, but ridiculously amazing.
One of the things that was interesting about it for me was amongst this talented camp of young people coming up, Devante, who was viewed as a God because of what he had accomplished, was regarded as the hot hand. Record companies were sending him stuff every day to get him to do anything on a record. At the time, Timbaland was 19, Static Major was 17 or 18, and they were all young people that didn’t have the knowledge of the music business. He was amazingly talented, so they were soaking up the talent, but they were also soaking up what he represented. One of the functions I had was keeping them focused. It just became this way because I was a little older than everyone else in the house. I had a whole career before I went up to Rochester. I worked with Aretha Franklin, Donny Hathaway, Foreigner, Genesis, and Phil Collins, so to me, Devante was a great talent, but the rest of the allure I couldn’t buy because it didn’t have anything to do with making records. It had to do with another part of our culture. He was an amazingly talented human being. I couldn’t buy into the rest, so that’s who I was to all of them. We were making great fucking music. As history would tell us, we were making music that didn’t exist yet. Therein lies the love and the amazement of the whole thing. I would try to steer everybody to keep their heads level and to keep working, instead of believing that they would become superstars which happened anyway. [laughs] What I was trying to tell them was, if you didn’t work, becoming a superstar wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t about becoming a superstar; it was really about self-gratification and getting the music out of your soul and having the world hear what you felt inside. That’s what I was trying to get across to them. This was kind of my role during the making of the record. [laughs]
When you began working with the group on this album, can you describe your first studio interaction with them?
It was a different kind of experience for me because machines had come into the art of making music. The drum machines as well as other machines. The one thing about this album that was different and interesting was that house, Dajhelon Studios, had this Neve VR console upstairs in the big room which is what I excelled on. Timbaland and I ended up using that room, specifically. They had a room downstairs that was in the basement. The big room upstairs had tall ceilings, the Neve VR, big speakers, and there was some fan noise in there. I think, Devante, brought in his own stage monitors. They sat right in our faces, along with some other subs he had in there. It was so fucking loud in there. It was ridiculous. On the back table is where he would set up and Timbaland would set up there sometimes, too. Everyone was fighting for studio time. There was also a guy named Darryl Pearson up there. There were three to four producers vying for studio time. Devante and Jodeci, obviously, had the first pick. It would be so crowded upstairs. Devante and I talked a lot before we began making this record. He had so many keyboards. He collected so many keyboards. I’ve never seen that many before in one setting.
There was this studio downstairs that you could walk to the back of and there was this door, and when you opened it, there was a recording booth, and it led to a hallway and then across from the hallway, there was a second big room for whatever. Then across the hallway, there was the control room. The control room had an Amek board. I didn’t really like the Amek board that much. What happened was Devante ended up loving that studio because he could sleep down there and outside the studio itself and the control room was there. In the other room, he put all of his keyboards. When you walked in there, you would’ve thought you were in a music store. He had lines from that keyboard room to the studio. So he took over the studio downstairs in the basement and that became his love. Upstairs, it was Timbaland, Missy, Ginuwine, me, and everyone else doing stuff all the time. Then, he would come upstairs and bring Jodeci’s music. Most of the time, Jodeci would record their vocals upstairs, but sometimes, they would record the vocals downstairs with Devante. There was a second studio, one flight downstairs before the basement, where Static and them would be, but it didn’t have as much equipment in it. Everybody was working every day. That place was on fire.
It was me and another engineer that Devante brought from Baltimore. I can’t remember his name, but his name is on the record. This guy wanted really badly to stick with Devante, but I would listen to what Devante had to say. He would say that he wanted to spend two weeks on a mix, and I would tell him that I didn’t want to spend two weeks on a mix. He was very discerning about what he wanted. He would hear certain things and he would stew over it until it died. This album is very detail oriented. We spent a long time working on these songs.
You’ve worked with many legendary acts over the course of your distinguished career. What was it like recording Jodeci’s vocals and the methodology behind mixing and engineering them for this album?
K-Ci and Jojo, as singers, were ridiculously prolific, in terms of what they did in that house and how strong their voices were and how practiced they were together. It wasn’t even an issue with what they were singing. They were in and out of the booth pretty quickly because they had been singing together since they were kids. Their art and their craft was tight. Their skills were so honed. It was a pleasure hearing them sing. Devante had them downstairs working on “Love U 4 Life” for a couple of days just to get all their vocals down. There are a lot of vocals on that record. This song I didn’t do. I remember them working on this specific song. People always like to say, “I wish I could’ve been there when you recorded a song.” I tell them honestly that it wasn’t that deep. We were just working. History made the song what it is. We didn’t. We were just doing our work. I tell people that you are back there then. You’re here now. If you do what you’re supposed to do now, then history will decide how dope this period was, not you. If you lived back then, you would’ve enjoyed it, but there was no way you could’ve known what it was going to become.
What was the studio atmosphere like during the recording of this album?
Another thing that Devante did was he made it an open competition for the writers to be put on this album. It was the one thing he did all the time. He would write songs and say, “That ain’t nothing, man! Come here, Static! Show him! Show him!” He would pit people against each other for the right to get on songs. This is how he made them strong. On one hand, it made me a little uncomfortable, but on the other hand, it made all of those people stronger, because if you were weak, you couldn’t be up there. There was no place for weak collaborators. No place at all. He demanded that and that’s the one thing he demanded from everybody. He said, “If you’re going to be here, you got to have some talent and show it. You have to beat me out every day. I’m writing this song. Can you do a better job?” This is how he would treat everything. Sometimes, he would write a song in the back of the studio or sitting down at the microphone. Sometimes, he would have the lyrics written out before he arrived at the studio. It was such a random process and it varied. There was no method, but the only person who had a method was Missy Elliott.
She would throw everybody out of the room, so she could write her stuff. She couldn’t be bothered with all of the hullabaloo. If one of the artists were writing out loud, Devante would put his two scents in. Missy said, “I can’t deal with all of that. I have to finish my stuff first before you start talking to me.” She would demand that people get out, and she would sit there and write. Timbaland, on the other hand, would write and start doing stuff. He would say, “Give me a track.” He would run out and get on the mic and start creating stuff from out of his head. Devante told me the track for “Love U 4 Life” was an old gospel song.
Another room in the studio had mini-Moogs and synthesizers and they would experiment with bass sounds. Oh, I never finished explaining one thing that the studio that I’ve never seen anywhere else. So I would look through the glass and see another decent size room to record in. Behind that room, there was another glass with a huge, basketball court-sized room. It was set up to be able to record a session in a reasonably sized room, but if you happened to have a string section or a choir and wanted a big, open sound, there was another room behind it that was wide open. There was a grand piano in there. This is where they would meet and practice and do everything. It was incredible. This place was special. Someone would be doing vocals in the middle of the room and you could see people behind you in the other room and the sound would stop them, or they would be in there chillin’ or playing the piano. I remember Devante played “Love U 4 Life” a couple of times on that grand piano, and I was freaking out because his piano skills are just stupid. His chops are incredible. There was a girl named Virginia there and her voice was ridiculous. It was so strong and full of gospel. We had some talent there that was just unbelievable. It was an incredible time in my life. I arrived there in September 1994 and left with Timbaland in March 1996.
What was the studio routine for Jodeci during the making of the record?
Well, there wasn’t a set routine, other than them recording in the basement. There are two things about the basement: There were a lot of people in this studio. They had everyone housed off site in a place where they would be sharing living arrangements. Timbaland never left the studio. There was a little room next to the office downstairs in the basement. He took a room behind there and put his clothes in there and a cot. That’s where Tim lived for close to two years. There are references to Da Bassment Cru in some of Tim and Magoo’s early music. Devante was staying there, too. This is why they called it Da Bassment Cru. Devante had a place to go to but he never left, too. When he would wake up, he would get a hold of Gary Yost, another engineer, and get Gary to do stuff with him at any time of the day. Gary and I lived one block away from the studio in a Holiday Inn. We were only one block away at any given time they would call us. There weren’t any set studio hours. Things would begin when people felt like doing things. The only set hours were for the studio upstairs where I was working out of. We had to create a make shift schedule. The great thing about Tim was he would sit there all day, while everyone was doing stuff, and he would have his ASR-10 with him walking around the place making beats. He would wait until everyone was leaving, and he would come upstairs and say to me, “Oh, where are you going?” I’d reply, “I’m getting ready to go home. What do you mean where am I going. I’m going home. I’m tired.” He’d say, “Oh.” I’d reply, “What is it?” He’d say, “Oh. I just wanted to put this beat down.” I’d say, “OK, Tim. Let’s do it.” And the next thing I know, it’s already tomorrow. [laughs] It was the routine we had. He could hear the vibrations through the floor when everything was starting to calm down. Like clockwork, he would just show up in his little bear slippers. He just wanted to create music, period. Devante was the same way. He would fall asleep during the middle of the day, then he would wake up at two or three in the morning saying that he wanted to start recording. He’d ask, “Where’s Gary?” That’s how we rolled.
What was some of the recording and engineering equipment you used?
This studio didn’t have two twenty-four track machines. We were still in the days of analog. So they had a twenty-four track machine upstairs in the big room and another one downstairs where Devante was working. But they didn’t have two in the same room, so we could have our tracks and vocals. So what they had was a forty-eight track digital recording machine. Now, what we wanted was the sound of analog, so all of those beats could sound ridiculous—to give them that analog, ugly, kill you sound—but we needed more tracks for the vocals. What I did was I logged up the forty-eight digital machine with a twenty-four track analog machine to make those sounds, vocals, and mixes on the digital side. The other thing that was weird about it was when you usually have two analog tapes, they run about fifteen minutes a piece. So when you have three songs on an analog tape, it’s slaved, and it’s on the other tape machine, so they run succinct together. When you write them out, it would be master and slave. You could see it from a mile away. There’s reel one and reel one’s slave, so they go together. This way all three songs go together. With the digital one, it recorded about eight songs. So what I had were the first three analog songs, and then, my next three analog songs were on reel two, which were now on reel one with the digital. By the time there were like two-hundred songs, there was no pairing involved, if that makes sense. Keeping track of this was the hardest part of this gig. Believe it or not. There wasn’t a librarian. It was like, “Keep track of it, dude!” [laughs]
Did you get any sleep at all?
I didn’t sleep much. I used to run a lot. I would get up and run. I’d get three or four hours of sleep, and I would be good to go.
Let’s go in-depth on some of the songs from the album.
On “Freek’n You,” Devante started this song upstairs and making those grooves took no time at all. He put it away and came back to it a couple of days later. He started laying down ideas for the first layers of vocals. K-Ci and Jojo did their bits to it, then the song was kind of done. Afterward, he took the song downstairs and it took him another two to three months to finish the song. He worked on this song day after day with Gary, until he had enough stuff that we started mixing it. We mixed the first layer a couple of times, but he was dissatisfied, so he took it back downstairs, and they spent another two weeks mixing the song. He was a perfectionist.
“Love U 4 Life” took even longer than “Freek’n You,” but I wasn’t directly involved with that one. I knew it was going to be a massive undertaking. I didn’t avoid working on it. It just didn’t naturally fall into my lap, while I was working on all of the other records I was doing. We did about 200 records in the same time that Devante did thirty records for Jodeci and another singer named Virginia. This was within a year-in-a-half. I went all in with this song, though. There were a numerous amount of vocal passes done. There are notes on this record that I’ve never heard before. That’s why it sounds so, amazing. The way those two boys could sing was crazy. Devante’s and Dalvin’s vocals are layered in there, too. K-Ci and Jojo did most of the grunt work on this one, though.
“Get on Up” was done quicker than the others. This song was produced by Mr. Dalvin. It was more effortless. He produced the track, and we were able to put the vocals down on it with a few embellishments. It wasn’t one of the songs we sat and labored on.
“Good Luv” was one of Devante’s pets. He really loved this song. We spent of a lot time doing different takes and getting different leads on it. When he spent a lot of time on a record, he ended up moving away from me and going to Gary because he wanted to sit and work on it for however long. He would always notice that I would be appealing to him to keep it simple and move forward. That’s what I knew in life. Having made enough records during my career, I knew sometimes it needed that superhuman effort, but most times, simplicity would do.
The “Fallin’” interlude was done on the grand piano upstairs in the studio. That grand piano sounded amazing. All of the songs on the album were done in this studio. You can hear the influences from this album in Missy and Tim’s work and vice-versa. All of these talented kids were influencing Devante, too. Tim was in there producing these crazy beats and finding samples he’s never seen. There was a real synergy there. They all worked very hard and it showed on this album. It was a competitive camp with love.
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