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When news broke in late June that powerhouse label Republic was appointing a new senior vice president of A&R, it was the type of story that usually only appeals to music biz lifers. But it didn't take long before a particular subset of hip-hop fans took notice as well.
Ken “Duro” Ifill is a name familiar to anyone who’s looked at album credits or listened to a mixtape anytime between the mid-1990s and today. He has mixed and engineered countless albums from everyone from Black Star to Fat Joe to JAY-Z to DMX to Queen Latifah to Will Smith—and that's just in 1998. (You can check his VERY extensive resume here or at his website). He is also a lifelong friend and business partner of DJ Clue who helped Clue run Desert Storm Records, the label that launched Fabolous to stardom. Duro also, as you'll see, played a major role in Clue’s prominence in the mixtape game.
To find out how he went from late-night studio sessions and Clue tapes to, as his frequent client JAY-Z once put it, the record company “offices-es,” I called Duro. Our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and length, is below.
When did you first realize that being a mixing engineer was a job?
I would say The Low End Theory. That was the first album that I heard that sounded completely different than anything else that had come before, as far as hip-hop, and I was really curious as to why. I read the credits. I was talking to different people, and they're like, “The engineer.” And then I just started asking questions. This was obviously pre the internet, so it was gathering information from random sources and people about what the engineer did and the involvement in the process. I was intrigued by it.
At what point did you start working in studios?
I started my first internship in March of ’93. I started from the bottom, no pun intended. Cleaning bathrooms, running errands, just doing whatever I could around the studio, and being present so I could learn as much as possible.
What was the first thing you mixed?
’94 was my first mix credit. It was actually Gravediggaz.
That's a hell of a place to start!
Yeah. For me, that was all about being present. As an intern, I was on the schedule one day a week, and I used to just go every day. Like I said, I was just trying to learn as much as possible and just looking for an opportunity.
With the Gravediggaz, by that time I was an assistant engineer, and I happened to be assigned to their session. I remember the session was on a Friday, and I think it started maybe 5, but typical rapper schedule—they’re about four hours late. So it might have been 9 once everyone showed up, and they had realized at that point that they hadn’t booked an engineer for the session. And I was in with them for the next three days. They were like, “Hey, can you do it?” I said, “Sure, I can do it.” We recorded about four or five songs that weekend, and we actually mixed them at the same time right after recording them. [I] was just thrown right into the fire.
The following year, 1995, you have a ton of credits. What really kicked things into high gear?
Working with [Gravediggaz members] Prince Paul and RZA, who were already legends, made studio management really respect that I was able to handle the session. They were impressed, and they just started throwing me on sessions as a recording engineer, and people starting liking me. I was young, like the artists, had [a] similar background, similar interests, so I started building really good relationships with the artists and producers.
When does working with DJ Clue come into the mix?
Well, Clue and I have been doing music and having different random businesses together since we were 13.
What was the first one?
We grew up in Queens, right near the Belmont race track. On the off-season, when they weren't racing, there was a huge flea market in that parking lot. We would go at 6 in the morning and help different vendors set up their stands and get money, and then go back in the evening and help people break down. They’d pay us whatever—15, 20, 30 bucks, depending on who the vendor was. And we’d use that money to go to the studio.
I assume he was making mixtapes pretty early on, and you were helping?
At that time, I was making beats and he was a rapper.
What was his rap name?
MC Drama. By that time, we were getting more involved. We had just started high school, and then he took on a partner. They had a DJ in their crew, and so they used to go to the DJ’s house to rehearse. And that's where Clue fell in love with the turntables.
At what point did he start becoming the DJ Clue we think of today?
We started making tapes probably junior year in high school. In our area, there was the big shopping area called Jamaica Avenue, and the tapes were him and the DJ from his group, Extreme. They used to call them “Clue Tapes,” because it was like a mystery. Extreme just was not that involved, and Clue was running around. He was the person that all the vendors would see.
So even though his name was MC Drama, they assumed he was Clue.
Right. Exactly. And that just became a thing.
How did rappers get to know who you were and start giving you freestyles?
It just came through networking as the tapes started spreading through New York. But around 18, right after high school, I was interested in production and more of the technical stuff, and the mixtapes was more of his passion. He started focusing on that, and I started pursuing the music business and studio thing on my own.
I saw your credits, and in the late ’90s you were mixing for AZ, Will Smith, and pretty much everyone in between—scores of albums a year. What was a typical day like for you back then?
Wow. Studio, studio, more studio. I spent a lot of time sleeping in the studio. Sometimes I'd be mixing two or three records in the same day. I’d split the console, and I might have one song on the left, one song on the right. I might have another song going in another studio.
This is all before Pro Tools, where you could just switch things around easily. It was just madness all the time. Constantly just going, going, going. Eighteen- to 20-hour days was a normal thing.
I spent a lot of time sleeping in the studio. eighteen- to 20-hour days was a normal thing.
Tell me about starting Desert Storm Records, with Fabolous as the cornerstone.
Production was my first passion. Being in the studio as an engineer gave me an ability to be around producers that I would never otherwise have access to—to learn their tricks, see how they work, how they craft their music, how they direct artists, all those sorts of things. As I learned that stuff, and I evolved and started working on bigger projects, I started being around people who were much more successful, from the artists to the managers and label people. That's how I learned the business side of things.
Previous to that, there’s lots of artists that were broken through [Clue’s] mixtapes, from JAY-Z to Mase. There’s tons of artists that came through Clue’s mixtapes and got deals. I said, “Listen, this is what we need to do. You need to set up a production company and start developing artists, because these artists are getting deals from your tapes. So the next artist that comes through that we think is something, we need to snatch him up and do a deal and have some control and build something for ourselves.” The next artist that came through after we had that conversation was Fab.
Why do you think that Desert Storm never quite took off in the way that you guys were hoping?
We were young. I think we were focused on other things. The label thing was something that we did, but I don’t think we were as passionate about it as I was at the time about mixing and creating records and just working on a whole bunch of different stuff. And Clue, at the time, being on MTV and being on the radio and touring the world.
It was a great learning experience. We were fortunate that we did some great joint venture deals. Besides all that, we helped build what I feel is a legend. Not many artists can say that they've been around and relevant for as long as Fab has been.
Senior vice president is a pretty big title to jump into. Were you working at Republic at all before this job?
I came in as a consultant. It was kind of like the dating stage before we jumped all the way in.
When did that start? What were you doing for them?
That started August of last year. It was similar to what I'm doing now—helping artists in the studio, helping them with creative direction and execution. The same with some of the younger A&R staff. Just sharing my experience in communicating with artists, communicating with producers and engineers throughout the creative process, to get the best out of everyone.
Did Republic approach you first? Did you approach them?
I’ve had offers and conversations about working with labels for many years. I don’t consider myself a label person. I always view myself as a creator first, as a studio guy. I felt weird about being at a label. Monte [Lipman, Republic Records CEO] reached out and we talked, and I got to get closer with the staff. The way the company is run and the freedom that they give me to be a creative and to then have the resources to take the art and get it to as many people as possible is what made me want to be here.
On a day-to-day level, what does your job look like?
It’s going through projects, seeing where they’re at, seeing how we can make them better. Figure out combinations of artists with producers and writers, help get features, leveraging relationships. It’s all the things that I've been doing with Fab and even for people that I’ve helped with projects that are just friends.
If we’re mixing a record, I know how to speak to a mixer because that's what I did. Sometimes artists can be stubborn or sometimes they look at A&R guys as company guys and not necessarily creators. I’m a lot of times able to have conversations and push them in a way that usually people from a label couldn't push them.
Is it different mixing for JAY than for anyone else?
I think Jay is, in my experience, probably the easiest person to mix for. He usually has very little comments, at least for me.
He's great to work with. He always makes incredible music. I went on that Hard Knock Life Tour. That was pretty incredible, seeing the crowd reaction to songs that we had recorded and mixed [Ed. note: Duro mixed three songs from JAY-Z’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life sessions: “Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem),” “Can I Get A…,” and “People’s Court”], seeing 20,000 people knowing them word for word and hearing how big the record sounded in the arena compared to records that other people might have mixed.
When you first heard “Hard Knock Life,” did you know that was the song that would launch JAY-Z into real stardom?
No, not at the time. You’re in a moment. You don’t realize that you could be making history. When we made records then, we just made records that we thought were dope. We didn’t think about how it’s gonna perform on radio. It was just all about what we thought was cool. That was it. We wanted to sell albums, so we just wanted to make dope bodies of work. We didn't necessarily think about things being huge hits.
We just passed the 20th anniversary of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. You mixed one of Ms. Hill’s relatively few guest performances, on a Poor Righteous Teachers record. What do you remember about that?
It’s crazy. I remember that day like it was yesterday, because we were working out of Platinum Island, in the MIDI room, which was what people would consider a production room now. It was a very basic room.
I had been working on that project with those guys for some time. That was before The Score. I think “Nappy Heads (Remix)” was out at that time. I remember everyone laid down their verses. When Lauryn got in the booth, she was just—no disrespect to the rest of the crew, but she was just so much better than everyone. She did her verse in like two takes, didn't even punch. She was phenomenal, but she was quiet, too. She just really just sat there, wrote her rhyme, and then when it was her turn, she got in the booth and it was magic.
when lauryn got in the booth, she was just so much better than everyone.
I’ve seen mixers be all kinds of ways about having the artist in the room while they're mixing. Where do you come down on that?
My biggest lesson is when I mixed The Roots album Illadelph Halflife. I mixed half of that album and Bob Power mixed the other half. I remember going into Bob's sessions and it being super quiet. When I was mixing, it was always, like, 10 people in the room and noisy. At that point, I wasn't even asking them to be quiet, because I just wasn't that established. I think, at that time, I might have been 21, maybe 22. I remember on the credits, it said, mixed by Ken Duro, and then in quotations, “with 20 people playing cards and drinking beer”—some random thing like that. [Ed. note: Duro is credited as “Kenny ‘Yknow, Guys, Unlike That Other Mixer Guy, You Can Talk All You Want!’ Eifle.”]
After that, I was like, never again. I get it when people have crews in the room. I always tell artists, “Hey, listen: If you need to have 20 people in the room, drinking, smoking, or whatever, and that's what you need to be creative and create your vibe, to make your art, I respect that. But this is my time to be creative and do what I do, so I actually need there to be no one in the room with me.” I'll call people in the room as I need them or if I need opinions, but I prefer to be alone.
Which artists have been the most picky in the mixing stage?
I wouldn’t say picky. I would just say particular and knowing what they want, and actually able to articulate it and hear it, is Redman. He really knows what he wants to hear. He's very on it.
What is your overall goal for your new job at Republic?
I just want to help cultivate the next big stars, people that are gonna be legendary and really push the bar forward with urban music, hip hop, [and] R&B. I want to be a part of finding that, cultivating it, and pushing artists past their comfort zones, to make the best shit possible.