We caught up with Che Pope, known as one of the most influential figures in contemporary US rap and hip hop music. He’s an integral part of Kayne West’s Yeezy sound and G.O.O.D Music label collective and he has recently produced hits for A$AP Rocky, Christina Aguilera and The Weeknd. His work dates back to the early ‘90s when he was deeply involved in the production of Lauryn Hill’s iconic “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”, and Che was working as head of A&R at Warner Bros, producing alongside Dr. Dre at Aftermath Records on albums from Eminem and 50 Cent. As if that wasn’t enough, Che Pope was also a former collaborator with the legendary film composer Hans Zimmer and his Remote Control Team.
AskAudio: Hello Che! Let’s start at the beginning: Was there any particular event or artist or project that you can point to as the proverbial breakthrough or something that put you on the map?
Che Pope: Well, I would say - even though I didn’t get any placements with them - my first year with Teddy Riley. That’s where I learned what it means to be a professional, seeing someone who made a living doing this. That’s the difference between being an amateur and really seeing what a professional is and having that understanding of it. Before that I just made music. It was great because I had that innocence of not understanding the business aspect of it. So, there’s a purity in that creation because you just create literally from the heart, but it was a whole different thing spending a year watching a professional.
AA: There’s definitely the craft side of music and then the business side of it. Before you were with Teddy, would you say that your musical chops and your production chops were pretty well baked and you just had to learn the business end?
Che Pope: My production skills had to be good or Teddy wouldn’t have let me in the door. So, I think I was getting good, but up to that point I was just picking up all the random knowledge that you get when you read a magazine, sit in on somebody else’s session, or go to the music store - basically just as much information as I could pull together on my own. I wouldn’t say that I had any professional experience.
Then when I started to work with Teddy, it was like: “No, this needs to sound like this”. If I was using this compressor, he was like: “you could use that compressor, but this compressor is better and this is why”, “Use this on a vocal, use this on guitar.” So, I started learning and got a better understanding of production. That definitely took it to another level. When I moved to New York to start with Wyclef, I felt like I had a superpower so to speak, because I had all this information from Teddy. And even though Wyclef already had success with the Fugees, he was still a relatively new producer. And the same with Jerry, with whom he did everything, they were relatively new producers. So I came in with a lot, and probably knew a lot more about production than they did. When I started working with them, it was great because I knew my way around the studio and that really enhanced my production abilities.
AA: This was in the ‘90s?
Che Pope: Yes. I worked with Teddy around ‘95 and with Wyclef in ‘96 through ‘97.
AA: And back then of course, production methods were a little different than they are today, so were you mainly working on hardware?
Che Pope: Yeah. SP1200s, MPC’s, tape, Neve and SSL boards. If I was using an SSL I was still using Neve pres. I just got married to Neve pres. I used to work at Chung King in New York a lot because they had the Neve Musgrave boards. I just started developing this relationship with my drums, my MPC and a Neve - sort of a signal chain. I would say the only difference is that I had a lot more analog gear available to me then.
AA: Starting out in the hardware world and then jumping to today where we have a lot of plug-ins and emulations, do you work mostly inside the box or do you use a combination of software and hardware that you would have used back then?
Che Pope: Well, there’s “pre-Universal Audio”, and then there is “post-Universal Audio”. So, “pre-Universal Audio”, my primary tool in terms of the plug-in world was Waves. And although Waves are good, I wasn’t a huge fan. I also don’t love Pro Tools. I only use Pro Tools when cutting vocals, and obviously we still mix on Pro Tools. But I prefer DAWs, so I’m more of a Logic guy, or Cubase, or Live. Mostly Logic, though. Logic has a certain coloration to it that I like. Pro Tools is that it’s a little bit more transparent, whereas Logic has a certain darker complexion to me.
But I would say pre-Universal Audio, I was running stuff through a lot more external boxes. My normal weapons would probably be LA2A’s and 1176’s. We do have a Fairchild, which I would use here and there. Obviously Neve, Tube Tech and all the usual sort of things. I guess one of my cheat go-tos would be a Dangerous Summing Mixer. But then one day I got turned on to the first UAD Apollo. And then I discovered Console, and using this stuff, sort of getting the power back. That gave me even more power on my laptop because now I am able to use these plug-ins and I was A/B’ing the stuff and it sounded amazing - and I had the real thing available. And so I’m like, “Woah!”. That changed the game for me and I just went Apollo crazy. Even before I worked with the company I started buying all this Apollo stuff and buying all the plug-ins. By the time I had the endorsement, and they were giving me everything, I already had everything!
AA: That makes your setup very portable. You mentioned before you would work in certain studios for certain gear but now you can bring it all with you.
Che Pope: It does, and I do. And I do a lot of stuff internationally and around, and even more so the way Kanye works these days, he likes going to remote locations like Wyoming and Utah, and I can’t bring my whole studio. I have all these toys in my studio. UAD still allows me to run the stuff through a Shadow Hills compressor. And for no reason, you know, just because I can! And I think we’re in a place of production exploration, so the fact that I can be creative with the engineering as well it makes it just that much more powerful.
AA: Does this blur the line between the composition part and the production part or do you see them still as two separate processes?
Che Pope: They’re two separate processes, but to me, if you’re not a producer who’s exploring these things, you’re really limiting yourself. Not to say you can’t still make amazing music. I know some people who are great musicians and they’re talented but they’re not great tweakers, so they don’t even worry about it. And they can come up with some amazing stuff. But, you are limiting yourself because so many things come out of just the exotic exploration.
You’re just trying stuff and literally now you have a whole new sound and a whole new palette that you didn’t even know existed, until you did that. I’m cool with Bootsy Collins, and if you go back with these guys and you’re talking to these old engineers, like Bruce Swedien and Quincy (Jones), part of them making and getting the sounds was that exploration. It wasn’t just “Okay, cool, we got this guitar player in here”, but “what if we run him through this and run him through that, or record that in the bathroom…”. And if you're not doing that, to me, it’s just too ordinary.
AA: That brings up an interesting question: as a producer who works with a lot of different artists, how do you balance capturing their sound or a sound they are already known for and coming up with new and fresh things to help their sound evolve?
Che Pope: Well, being a producer, you’ve got to be part psychologist. An artist wants a producer as a security blanket. They want the producer to be like: “Everything’s gonna be okay”. That’s always going to be part of it. You have to reassure them but at the same time let them know “Hey, we’re gonna jump off. We’re literally going to skydive off this rock. But it’s going to be okay!” I am more interested in the artists that are willing to try to go there, because we can always come back and be safe. Christina Aguilera is a perfect example of that. When I started with Christina Aguilera, she was already known for her style. She was really in a very sensitive place. She wanted to be an artist that stands for something, and although she’s known as a great vocalist, she was still a pop artist.
And she didn’t have a position yet, like a strong feminist position or a voice that she wanted. Now, as a mother coming back into it, she wanted these things, she wanted to stand for something. So, it started with conversation first. Really getting her to trust me, and then explore. And once we explored, she was still a little out of her comfort zone, but eventually I got her to a point where she felt comfortable. Part of the way of doing that was that on her record, we had the classic piano-vocal tracks, a couple of almost happy pop songs, and, I think, as long as she felt like she had some of those things, some of her staples, then she could be comfortable exploring on three or four tracks.
AA: For you as a composer, where does your creative process start? Do you like to start with beats? Do you like to start with melody?
Che Pope: It really depends on the artist. For instance, I’ve been working with a boy band in China, and on that one I tend to start with a concept. Because it’s a boy pop band, even though it’s in China, we still write songs in English and I still approach it as if it’s NSYNC. A lot of the songs, we start with a concept that goes into a lyric melody. And then from the lyric melody, we’ll build chords around it. A lot of the hip-hop stuff is definitely track-driven first, so I’ll start with either sounds that I have - a lot of the time I’ve chopped some interesting samples to begin something with - or I’ll have some drum sounds that are new or original or new drum machines. I probably have every drum machine that’s out or available or known to man! So, it starts a lot of the time with the drums or the sounds. From there we can orchestrate accordingly. For Rap, I can work a little more melody-backwards. A lot of the time, if I’ve got the foundation good in a rap song, I can try ten melodies and it’ll work. And we can find the magic one. Whereas on the other side of the table, when it’s song first, I’m really trying to block in the melody first.
AA: And what is the mix between using sample-based composition versus recording live players? Do you do both?
Che Pope: I do both. If I do live, I always mess with it. And some of the session musicians I work with will probably be mad at that. I play a lot of stuff, too, but I always change it. So what is played live usually never stays the same. There’s still a lot of manipulation going on there. My studio is full of instruments so I love creating with real instruments, though.
AA: We saw the UAD Challenge that you did with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. That was a live jazz session. Can you tell us a bit about that challenge?
Che Pope: The biggest challenge was that it was a live recording and in Preservation Hall. Even if I was doing the same in a studio, even if I was recording the band live, I can isolate what I want, I really have control over the bleed, the instruments. But in a live venue, especially in Preservation Hall, you don’t have any control over it. I had the bass player play between the drums and the Leslie but then I was always losing the bass. So, you have a lot of challenges in terms of location. And Preservation Hall is pretty small. The sound is great because it was originally built in the 1700’s so you have this old wood, which sounded amazing. But the proximity of so many players of brass, and reeds - you try to separate them and they’re also doing vocals. It was very challenging in terms of mic placement and things of that nature.
AA: And what were some of the emulations you used on that to try to capture that vintage sound?
Che Pope: Well, we were true. We were true to everything, meaning I used the mics that would have been available in the ‘60s, I used all the old compressors that would have been available, Pultecs. It was pretty simple, ribbon mics, and 47’s. Pretty straight forward technology, meaning in terms of a simple set up. Obviously, in the ‘60s you wouldn’t have had 12 mics on a drum kit or something. You had one in front of the kit and maybe something on the kick. So I was very true. I actually spoke to Bootsy, I spoke to a lot of older engineers. I was very true to what would have been done in the ‘60s and I just tried to stay there, so I used a lot of tape emulation. I used the UAD Ampex ATR-102 Mastering Tape Recorder Plug-In on the final mix and the UAD Studer A800 Tape Plug-In across the entire thing. Fairchilds.
AA: In software emulation?
Che Pope: Yes. I made it a 610 console across the board so basically you could think of us having like we had a 610 desk there with us. Meaning when I recorded in, we recorded through all 610’s. So that way it was like having a 610 board. I could have just came to the Apollo 3’s, they’re great too, but I wanted what I wanted.
AA: To switch gears a bit: one thing I was curious about was the jump from R&B and hip-hop to film scoring? Can you talk about how that came about?
Che Pope: At the time I lived in New York and I had an opportunity to score the movie Whiteboyz, which was a hilarious movie. Danny Hoch was the star, it was great. And I had no idea what I was doing. Like, none. Literally none whatsoever. I love movies, I still love movies, to this day I watch tons and tons of movies. I used to collect - which I still do - soundtracks on vinyl. I mean scores, not soundtracks. So I had this fascination with it and I got an opportunity to score a movie and just did it.
After that, I did more research and reached out to composers and I ended up showing up on Hans Zimmer’s doorstep. And at that time I had the Grammy for Lauryn [The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill] so I think that helped me get in the door. And then once I got in the door, he gave me an opportunity. I didn’t go over there to be a classical film composer, I still did what I do, but I was able to do it more in a film and television role. I did additional production. For example, they’d give me a piece of film score and I’d make it cool. Probably very similar to what Junkie XL was doing. He still does what he does. And obviously his sound works really well with film anyway but it’s not a far cry from what he did in music.
AA: Was the process different? The production process? Timelines, those kinds of things?
Che Pope: You have to incorporate film scoring techniques in terms of the pace of a scene, In film scoring, you’re at the scene of the picture, versus with a song, where you can pick a tempo and stay at that tempo. Unless you’re dealing with something with a little more sophistication, there are not even many tempo changes in contemporary pop music. In a scene, there could be several tempo changes within it several times. You have to evolve as a musician. You have to understand that this part has to go into three-four and then come back to four-four and then I need to go double time, and how to approach a scene. I don’t think it’s fair to a music editor to just make a piece of music and give it to him and say “chop that to picture.” You have to be able to be given a scene and hand it back as a score.
AA: Do you incorporate iPads and other mobile tech into your composition and production process?
Che Pope: I use everything. I’m definitely a nerd in that regard. I have an iPad Pro with synths and various things on it. I work with ROLI, so I use the ROLI controllers and stuff. I love being creative. I might use an Omnichord one day and a bongo, and the next day I’m using the Korg drum machine, the little mini one, to the Teenage Engineering little calculator looking synths stuff like that. I have all that stuff.
AA: What are you working on currently, or what’s coming up next?
Che Pope: We just released a record, and we are putting out 5 albums in 5 weeks, so it started with Pusha T, and then Kanye, and today is Kanye/Kid Cudi. And then next week this rapper Nas and the following week the artist Teyana Taylor. Most of these I’m working on in an executive capacity. On Kanye’s records, I did production on a song, and then on Nas’ record I’m probably going to do a production or two. But with a lot of these my role is one of an executive of the label.
AA: What do you tell people that are starting out? If you could rewind and give yourself advice, what would you say to people that are trying to break in to the industry these days?
Che Pope: Well, I have these three main things that I think are so important. The number one thing is work ethic. Work ethic and learning. ‘Cause you have to know your craft. You know, I use the drug deal analogy: if you want to be Pablo Escobar, you got to learn the ropes to be Pablo Escobar. It’s always the same thing, it doesn’t change whether you’re a doctor or a musician. Why would you come into the music business and not have your tools sharpened? And you don’t ever stop learning. There is a young man - he works with someone else that I also work with - but I had an opportunity to sign him first, and I chose not to sign him because he wasn’t interested in learning more. He knew stuff, but when he wasn’t interested in learning more, I’m like, I have no interest in working with you. I’m 48 years old and I’m still learning, I’m taking violin lessons right now. You have to just stay hungry.
AA: So, work ethic, curiosity, and…?
Che Pope: Networking. A lot of laptop and closet producers are introverts, you know? And if you don’t network, you’ve got to have someone who’s networking for you. Networking and relationships are so important to building a career in the business. So I would say, networking. I would say the biggest mistake I ever made was I did not utilize publicity. And you have to have someone shout your victories from a mountain top. That is so important. Hanz Zimmer is not the most talented composer, but in our world he is legendary, he’s this massive entity and that’s part of being able to publicize every victory. Pharrell is an example of that. Not the best producer - not to say he’s not good, because he is good - but as big as he is, he’s part of the marketing and publicity that’s attached to it.
Che Pope website: https://twitter.com/CheGOODMUSIC
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