I’m doing pretty good, man. I’m kind of in the thick of things, working really hard. I have a ton of projects on my hands so I’m hanging in there. I’m trying to juggle everything but I’m doing good. I’m trying to hang in there.
You just finished producing Charon Don’s Art of Life album. Are you happy with how the project came out?
Yeah. Yeah, I am. It’s really been a great project. It’s been in the making for two years. I think it turned out really well. I think initially, coming off of our last independent, amateurish album, we wanted to do something bigger and more professional and something that we could get out there on a national level. We wanted to bring a classic hip-hop, fun-type record. Throughout both of our experiences throughout the years, this album started becoming more of a conscious, political record. I’m really happy with how it came out and it’s really good to be at the end of it where we can let the people hear it. I’m definitely really excited.
What was the recording process like for Art of Life?
It was definitely an interesting experience. I own a studio out here in Pittsburgh and I’m constantly recording people all of the time. We were on a regular schedule and I would give him beats, he would write to them and record them. Then I would change a couple of things and he would change a couple of things. As time went on, he got busy and I got busy and we had all of these kind of gaps in between when we did songs. I would pass him a disc in January and we wouldn’t be ready to record until March.
We’re both at the point in our music careers where we have an idea of what we want to make and what we want to sound like. When you’re just making music because you like to make it or because it’s fun, sometimes you don’t have an actual image of how you want it to be so you just go for the gusto. But when you have an aim and an actual goal, sometimes it’s harder to get there because there’s no room for error and you have to get it right where you want it. I’m a perfectionist and so is he. We wanted to make sure that we had the right elements, the right ideas and the right sound to make sure that we could accomplish what we wanted to with this record. On our first record we actually had more features. We had more feature songs than solo songs with just him and me. On this one, we really wanted to show the people what we sounded like together.
In one phase, we might record a couple of times a week and in another phase we might record a couple of times a month. It was definitely different from your average routine of an artist coming together with a producer to record an album.
You have a lot of different sounds and styles on Art of Life. How important was it to you and Charon to have that versatility in the production?
It was very important to us to have that. We wanted to just make a classic album. We wanted to take it back to Gang Starr with one DJ and one MC. You don’t have to over-think or anything. It’s just good, classic hip-hop. I think that with all of the stuff going on in the music industry and the over-marketing of it and the different genres coming out of the music, things kind of changed on us so we kind of had to change with them. I feel like that coupled with the fact that we only do a project every couple of years, I felt like if we did this we had to give our fans and the people and the fans we wanted to reach a taste of everything because it may be two more years before we drop our next project. We wanted to show them that this was us.
With my production, I produce rock music, metal music, hip-hop primarily and I also do pop music. I’ve done soundtracks for video games and I have the ear for different types of music. With Charon and his rhymes and with the both of us experiencing things on a daily basis, you just come up with different material. I just tried to match his different moods with different styles of music for him to rap and perform on. We just wanted to make sure that we touched on everything and had the club banger and a conscious record and a fun record and something that was from the heart. We wanted to give you a taste of everything.
And the title is Art of Life. This is what we do just like everybody else does. The album is titled Art of Life. When you see a painting, it’s not one color. It can be, but usually it’s different colors and they’re showing different angles and different ideas. It’s the same with this album. One song might be red, one song might be blue and one song might be black. This is the picture of life.
I heard a lot of different versions of “Up In Here” before you guys got to the final version. How many different phases did “Up In Here” go through before you guys were all satisfied with it?
Yeah. That was a crazy one. Of course “Up In Here” is the lead single. What we were really trying to do was coming up with a tight song that didn’t stray too far from what our sound was but could grab those extra ears from the fans that might not want to give us a chance because they didn’t want to hear something that’s “underground” or whatever you want to call it.
I did the track at I.D. Labs and gave it to Charon and we knew that it was going to be a classic. We knew that Charon was going to kill it. After getting some criticism, we redid some parts of it. We threw some sprinkles on it and wanted to see how hot we could make it. It was already hot, but could this be hotter? So DJ Truth worked on getting some features and he had already done some work with Lil’ Scrappy and I had done some stuff for him before too, so he contacted him. And from there he had a hookup with Rah Digga and he got Rah Digga down on the track.
But yeah, we were just trying to make a hot record even hotter. We wanted to really try to make it hot and get it out to the masses. The beat was hot and after hearing Charon’s verse, I definitely felt that the beat needed to move a little more. So I changed it up to make it into more of an anthem record. And then once I heard Lil’ Scrappy and Rah Digga’s verses, I added some more instruments in there and just tried to make an anthem. It was a process. I think it’s always a process if you really try and put the time into it. It’s easy to make a hot song, but you have to sit back and say, “Can I make this hotter? Is there anything I can do to make this record hotter?” I attribute this song to the chemistry Charon and I have where we don’t really rush things. I went back in and I flipped it some more and we got Rah Digga and Lil’ Scrappy on the verses. It was a long process but it was definitely worth it.
What’s it like working with your partner E. Dan at I.D. Labs?
E. Dan is great. I met him in ’99 when he was in a group called Strict Flow. He was the resident DJ and producer. Me and Charon came onto the scene in ’99 and 2000. We were very young and very immature and just wanted to start swimming in the craft. At the time, they were the premier hip-hop group in the city (Pittsburgh). We did shows together and just kind of met there. Then we did an East Coast tour. And me being a DJ, producer and gearhead, me and E. Dan hit it of and we got to talk about the industry and problems that we had with recording and the problems of Pittsburgh not having an actual recording studio and how we had rock and metal guys mixing our records and they didn’t even know what hip-hop was supposed to sound like. He had equipment and I had equipment and we teamed up and opened up a straight hip-hop studio to see what could happen. We opened up the studio and four years later, we’re still here and doing good. We’re the premier hip-hop studio in the city and we can do other genres like reggae now. It’s good having a partner because there are days when I’m down and he’s hot and I can feed off of him or I’m hot and he’s down and he can feed off of me. It’s good to have a partner to get criticism off of. It’s a great thing to have this production team and have someone on the same level and the same skills. It’s fun.
You’re also doing a lot of work with Wiz Khalifa. What’s going on with him today?
It’s been really great working with Wiz. It’s been a learning process and a growing process and I think the learning process is what I appreciate the most. Wiz came to the studio as an intern one summer. I met him through his uncle, who is a friend of mine. He had a mixtape and it was very good. He was doing the intern thing, cleaning up and running errands. We were noticing his level of growth and his level of charisma, cadence and swagger. I think E. Dan was actually the first one to notice that and he was the first one to say, “I think we should make some joints for him and start grooming him.” We were showing him how to write hooks and all that. He knew a lot but we were polishing him and taking him to the next level. We let him perform with Charon and before we knew it, the whole thing transpired. We found him a manager and he got signed to Rostrum and they pushed him and he signed a deal with Warner recently. It’s been wonderful. It’s been great to see something go from a seed to blossoming into a plant and seeing how far it can go. It’s been great. We’re working on his project now and getting his album ready. I’m DJing for him too so we’re doing shows all over the country. Between Charon and Wiz and all my other projects, I’m definitely staying busy.
Are there enough outlets in Pittsburgh to get your name out there as a producer?
I think the quick answer to that would be that I definitely have to go outside. I still would have to say that you don’t want to alienate anyone in Pittsburgh either. You want to do both if you can. I feel like here as in any city, you want to be one of the best producers in your city and you want your city and your peers to support you and recognize you as someone with talent and skills. But in Pittsburgh, it kind of gets tricky. I feel like it’s a city that borrows a lot from certain cities as far as trends. A lot of people come over here from the West Coast but we’re still relatively behind. Me and E. Dan are the premier producers here. We’ve been working for years here. We’ve had I.D. Labs for four years here. We’ve been working but it’s hard to get out of the bubble that we’re in. We’re trying to show that we have something to offer on a national level. You have to do work in Pittsburgh but you can’t just be happy with that. You have to get out and I think that not getting out has been the downfall of previous producers that came from Pittsburgh. There are other producers here who get a little recognition and they’re happy with that and they stay here, but they have trouble getting work because A&Rs and execs don’t look at Pittsburgh as a prime place for talent. But we’ve managed to become the prime producers here and we’ve gotten artists out of here like Wiz and we’ve produced with some national acts. We’ve been lucky enough to do both so it’s definitely been fun.
You worked with Black Rob awhile ago. What was that like?
It was fun, man. It kind of happened early on in our careers and we got lucky with our situation. There were a couple of local artists who got a chance to work with Black Rob and they asked us to do the music for it. It was fun to get recognition from outside of Pittsburgh and to have other people say that we did good work. We did it and the song came out good, but unfortunately it was a local record. It got on a few mixtapes. But it didn’t get too far outside of the city but it was just sharpening us, getting us ready for the big league and the big time.
How would you describe your evolution as a producer?
Well, everyone does it differently. I started out with DJing and from DJing I started doing parties and doing blends. From blends, I’m sure a lot of DJs can say this too, but when you make a hot blend, you realize that you made a tight track. So that whole process led me into doing it myself. So I bought a sampler and a cheap beat machine and started messing around with that. I kept on stepping up and everything just kind of went from there. I got to making beats with computer software programs, like the early ones in the early 2000s. And then after that, I kind of went back in the hardware once I found out what everyone else was using and once I heard how they could achieve different sounds. Looking at the background I’ve had from all of that, I kind of got the taste for everything. And then I picked up the piano and bass. I’m kind of at a point in my career where I’m doing everything. I think as a producer it’s important that you don’t limit yourself. I can go into Pro Tools, chop up a sample, do the drums in the MPC, go to my keyboard and go drop some live bass on it or drop some hi-hats or something. I can call a buddy in and have him play some type of live instrument on it. There are all kinds of stuff that I can do. I’m working on a video game now. I had to call in a string quartet to help me with that. I can make music for any situation. I like to use anything I can get my hands on.
But I’m a huge Pro Tools fan and I’m a huge MPC fan. And then I have the Motif and the Phantom and just stuff of that nature.
What’s the next move for DJ Huggy?
Right now I’m getting ready to promote Art of Life. I’m really trying to give it the support it deserves and let the people hear it and see what they think about it. Wiz just finished shooting a video and that should be out soon. I’m also just finishing this video game score. I also have some work with a couple of independent artists and I’m doing some more work on a national level. I’m just producing, producing, producing.
Are we going to see you do more work with Chief Kamachi and the Juju Mob?
I think so. They’re all kind of just taking a hiatus right now and enjoying the fruits of their labor. I think that when the dust settles we’ll come together and do another album. It’s always fun working with them.
How are you gauging the success of Art of Life?
I don’t get into record sales too much. Of course everyone would love to sell a lot of records and make money off of that, but I really just want to hear the people’s reactions and hear what they think. The reactions that we’ve been getting so far have been absolutely mind-blowing. It’s just really crazy. I would gauge the success of the album by the people’s reactions and knowing that the people got a chance to hear the record. We’re not worried about selling a bunch of records. We want to get it out to where people can get their hands on it and take a listen and actually judge it for themselves.
What advice would you offer to up-and-coming producers?
Some of the most important advice I would give today comes from my experience from teaching a class to young producers. I try to give them new ideas and techniques. I’m not going to blame anyone, but it seems like a lot of young producers are missing the general idea of producing. I see so much of them just wanting the fame and seeing the materialistic stuff on TV that they forget why they’re producing. You’re supposed to be producing because you love to create. I’m not knocking Fruity Loops, but the program is so easy and it’s so easy now to become a beatmaker, not a producer, and to start doing beats and get them on people’s records that it kind of takes away from the learning process and paying your dues. And on top of that, I just think that it makes everyone lazy. From the classes that I teach, everyone wants it to be very easy. In the mid-‘90s I was trying to figure out why a record sounded the way it did and how a producer got this drum and how he got it to sound the way he did. There was no program that would tell you that. You had to really do your research and look in the liner notes and study the tutorials and find out how they were doing this thing. There was nobody to tell you this. You had to really hunt down that information and today it’s so easy to find that information. You don’t see that hunt anymore. You don’t see the kids with that ambition and that drive and finding out how other producers are getting things to sound the way they do. Producers are very lazy today.
My advice would be to really do your homework. Don’t take your hobby for granted. If this is something that you really enjoy and want to do, really learn your craft and learn the different aspects of it. You might not want to be an MC and you might not want to record songs, but as a producer you should know what goes into a song and how to record the song. I would really tell these young producers today to really dive into your craft and understand your craft. You never know what type of situation you will be in. If you get called in by a big label to do a project and you don’t know basic music theory and terminology, you can get stuck. I definitely tell people to do their homework.
What do you want to say to everybody?
Thank you if you have supported Handsdown. If you haven’t, please go and check out the record. It’s a wonderful record. It’s beautiful. It came from two cats who love this game and love this music and try to stay true to it no matter what goes on in it. Just try to look out for us. We’re doing bigger things. And yeah, thanks for the support from everybody that’s been down and keep an eye out for Handsdown.