Jay-Z’s ‘4:44′ Engineer Jimmy Douglass Breaks Down Mixing Process of Hov’s Most Personal Album
4:44 might be JAY-Z's most personal album to date, but that's not just because of the subject matter. Listening to the LP over the last couple weeks, it's clear Hov sounds like he's talking to you in close quarters; the way the album is mixed makes it feel like an intimate, one-on-one experience. It's better geared for headphones than it is for subwoofers (though it passes the whip test with flying colors too).
It's the first time Jay's ever made an entire album with only one producer, and No I.D.'s warm production style leans more toward the soft, subtle side. But veteran engineer Jimmy Douglass, who mixed the entire album at United Recording Studios in L.A. under the pressure of a deadline, also played a vital role in how the finished product sounds.
The legendary Douglass got his start at Atlantic Records, where he got a job copying tapes and doing miscellaneous studio tasks thanks to a friend. Douglass, who grew up in Long Island, N.Y., was in high school at the time, but he quickly fell in love with the job, so he'd work at the studio both before and after class. He attended Fordham College, but the studio was right across the street, so he'd spend most of his time in the lab as he got deeper into recording and engineering. One thing led to another, and he'd eventually go on to work with a laundry list of iconic artists—Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, Hall & Oates, Rolling Stones. He even engineered the session for Donny Hathaway's "Someday We'll All Be Free," the same song sampled on the last 4:44 track, "Legacy."
Douglass learned a lot from DeVante Swing and Timbaland while they were recording Jodeci's classic 1995 album The Show, the After Party, the Hotel ("all we did was make records, every day, day and night"), and his relationship with Timbo led to him mixing "Big Pimpin" for Hov in 1999. Jay and Douglass soon developed their own rapport, and the engineer would go on to mix records like "Jigga What?" "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" and "Encore."
XXL spoke to Douglass over the phone about his approach to mixing 4:44, why it sounds the way it does and what the thought process behind certain quirks in the audio was.
XXL: Before we get into specific songs on 4:44, give us a general summary of how you approached mixing the entire album.
Jimmy Douglass: Well, there's [JAY-Z's main engineer Young Guru] and Jay, who’ve had a relationship forever, and I’m thinking ‘Wow, this is interesting.’ But they were working [on] this record for so long together and it was so personal and so different, after a while I think sometimes all of us, as mixers or whatever, we get to the place—and No I.D. was involved as well—where we kinda maybe start to see more for the record or… I don’t know, I can’t describe what it is.
I know that one of the things that happened to me when I first started mixing the day that I came, Jay walked in and said a few comments about the way I was mixing. I was mixing it to be "THE GREATEST THING YOU EVER HEARD IN YOUR LIFE," and he was like, ‘Dude, it’s kinda unraveling a little bit here. It doesn’t really remind me of what it felt like.’ And I was like ‘Oh, it’s that record.’ And I think that’s what they brought me in for, to have somebody who had the ability to let it be the record, and let it breathe and make it better without actually changing it. Because most mixers, that’s their first inclination, ‘I’m gonna’ walk in and change this and make this great.’
Most of the album, the mix of the vocals, it feels very raw. It feels intimate. A lot of people online were talking about how it feels like Jay is talking to you in a very close space. Was that a conscious decision?
If you actually listen to the content of the record and what he’s talking about—with all due respect to rap and stuff like that—he’s really basically having a conversation with everybody. He’s passing some pearls of wisdom down and he’s really talking to you as opposed to, you know—and of course he’s always gonna’ be the badass rapper, which is what he is—but it’s more like he talking to you. Like ‘Yo, let me break it down to you quietly here,’ with words instead of ‘I’m the baddest motha-.’ You know, instead of that, he's doing it with words. And that requires a little intimacy. And also, the subjects he’s talking about, that’s pretty freakin’ intimate. You talkin’ about your mama, you’re telling stories about your family and things like that. That’s pretty freakin’ straight up.
Nelson George mentioned on Twitter one particular thing he noticed about the album is there’s really no bombast. The beats are not huge, there’s nothing "club-ready," so to speak. Nothing, production-wise, takes away from Jay’s vocals.
Right. The message. So imagine if you have this really, really clever beat banging away while he’s trying to talk about this serious shit. Do they match? I think that was brilliant production on him and No I.D.’s part to be able to do that. Those beats and those tracks brought out those emotions in him. Actually, it was in an interview where No I.D. talked about that very thing. But I always kept thinking about that, and when I was doing it I kept going, "If you made it too crazy you would miss it."
There’s a part on “Caught Their Eyes” where he’s talking about sitting down with Prince and Jay’s going at Prince’s lawyers for the whole Tidal fiasco. And it’s very obvious that Jay switches mics for a bar or two...
The eyes. The color of the eyes. That was done because he wanted to say… he said, "they only see green," which is like a contrast to the whole thing he was talking about. That, to me, was what that was, and I kinda helped it to stick out like that.
Jay's vocals on the title track "4:44" also seem toned down a bit.
Oh, that’s on “I Apologize,” right? Yeah in my head when I kept mixing that, I kept calling it “I Apologize.” It is “4:44.” In my head, it was like an apology, dude. You don’t yell apologies, you know, you come somber, and you come in peace. That was my feeling about that. So to have it be as much of that as possible yet poke it through so you can, once again, hear the message.
He sounds muted on the "Smile" hook too, another intimate record where he's talking about bad times turning to good memories.
That’s one that was done at a different time. So it did sound a little different and it was just a matter of how much to poke it through. That was the biggest issue for me. Do you make it like a big hook? "Hey! Smile!" Or do you make it like "...smile.’ I mean, these are all choices that one has, you know? I picked one or the other and everybody was cool with the way it sat. And I had to raise it actually, now I’m remembering that the first pass was even lower and they were like "Nah, nah, you gotta’ bring it up some more than that, bro."
Mixing is a lot more important than people realize, but it doesn't always necessitate an engineer going in and making something new out of the record, like you said.
Well that's part of my mixing style. Working with Timbaland I found this out a lot. We would start from a session or whatever and we would do stuff, and the stuff I did, whatever I contributed, would be enough to open up and widen it up, but it always looked like the original picture. And the few times they would send stuff out to have other people mix it, they would go nuts and just change the whole picture, and it’s like, that’s not what it is. If I can label my own self from what I’ve heard people say about me, that’s one of the things that I [specialize in].
It comes from the whole lineage of Atlantic Records. I was doing jazz records, I was doing R&B records, I’m doing rock n’ roll records. I’m doing all these different kind of records, and in doing so, you don’t have the time to spend all this time to make them amazing; they are amazing because of the people that are playing the shit. The people that are playing the shit, when they know what the fuck they’re doing and it’s really good, your work is really minimized. You just have to basically show the interpretation of what they're trying to say, you don’t have to change it. And that’s the style I came from, and I’ve been blessed to work with a lot of high quality artists, if you will. And Jay is a perfect example of that. He’ll light up any track. And No I.D.’s tracks, like you said, they’re real simple, but the way he chops the hook, it’s kinda like that. So you just have to sit there and make sure you don’t get in the way and you enhance it, and they can give it the dimension, give it depth and give it a special place to be, but you don’t wanna’ go sitting in there and just turn into my show [laughs].
What is it about No I.D.’s beats that posed a unique challenge to you for mixing them? There's a good amount of live instrumentation on the album.
There’s a lot of live instrumentation on the album sprinkled throughout here and there, but what’s interesting is the way that we kinda hid it inside of the tapestry. And that’s why I said day one, when Jay was like, "Dude, the kick is like, disconnected from the music," and I was like, "Ooh, so we’re not making that record today," where the kick is just BOOM [laughs]. Then he said, "No man, the guitar is too loud," and I’m thinking, "But it’s the reggae." Matter of fact on the Marley record I’m like, "But it’s fuckin’ reggae." I listened really clearly and I listened to the thing and I was like, "Wait a minute. The guitar’s in there, but it’s just under there." It’s not your typical reggae guitar, you know what I mean? So everything that was layered in there was kinda layered in little trinkets to give it dimension, as opposed to take over the landscape.
What was the most difficult thing about mixing the album?
The most difficult thing was actually getting it done for delivery on time. And it really wasn’t that difficult because… I mean it was difficult because their first release was a Tidal release and it had a certain date on it, and you have to have the record in 24 hours before so they can code it and set it up and do all the things they have to do. And I’m still on the phone with the mastering engineer whose mastering the record that I still have on the board that I’m mixing.
The last song that we ended up mixing was the one with Beyoncé on it, "Family Feud." That was wonderful, beautiful. It came out really great, her on there is amazing. That was the last one and that was the one that came to me a little bit on the late side, and I’ve still got it on the board, still mixing it while the mastering engineer’s sending the other stuff that he did for approval earlier in the day, or should say earlier in the night. That’s how we were doing it, down to the last minute. We didn’t get the stuff ready ’til about maybe 12 hours before.
The way Beyoncé’s part is structured on "Family Feud" is almost like a call-and-response with Jay. She just belts it out. Talk about mixing that part.
Mixing that stuff was really, really great. I mean, what’s there not to like? She does what she does like she does it. So it’s kinda easy just to lay her in there and decide where and how she goes. A little touch of EQ, a little reverb, a little whatever. That was that same example I was telling you before. There’s not much to really do. They do all the work for you.
When you finished mixing the album and you played it for Jay, what did he say?
We didn't do it like that. We were still mixing the album while we’re sending delivery. So we had Guru running down to Jay’s place bringing mixes to approve. They just had the kids, too, so [Jay] had a lot on the plate. He had so much going on, and the new place they’re in and all this other stuff. You had me finishing it up, trying to get it to mastering, and Guru running down to Jay to play it for him to make sure it was approved. So it wasn’t like we were all in one place like "Oh, here it is." This was one of those modern dispersed sessions.
Here’s the thing. If you don’t have a deadline or whatever, then this can go on for a while. ’Cause he’ll get to hear them when he does and then the time goes by and you’re stale and blah, blah, blah. This was like, you don’t have that time, so he has to take them down there, he has to go give his comments, make sure that it’s there, do the recalls [and] he’ll go again. So that’s part of why I was there, too, ’cause Guru, he was running back and forth like a crazy person. So just to sit at the desk and actually do that alone, it welcomed another brain because they all had been going through it for a while. Guru ended up being that guy that was pulling everything together.
What was your favorite part of mixing the album?
I just enjoyed every day doing the album. You know what’s interesting to me about that album? And this is just my take while I was doing it. I was talking about the "boom boom boom" and "Yo, that shit is tight" and all that stuff. While I was doing it I go, "You know what? This is deeper than all that." And it starts to grow mostly on you in a certain way as you keep listening to it. The Marley one ["Bam"] I did first actually, and that had the most rhythm in it. And I’m thinking "Oh, this is gonna be that sound." That’s why I was trying to "boom bam boom" out and it’s like, no no, calm down.
I did "4:44" next, I believe, for the first go-round. And I listened and then I heard "Kill Jay Z," and then I thought, "Wow, this is interesting that a man like him, who's survived this long in any industry and being the reigning king in terms of that, and having the access to wealth and everything that he has... it’s almost like an apology to something in his life that’s really important. I was impressed by that, very impressed. He has a platform to use any way you want, and you’re choosing it to turn around and look at your mate and say, "Hey dude, this is all for you."
And another impression I had was, the thing that’s interesting about this particular record to me out all of the records I’ve done is he’s telling facts, he’s telling stories. Well, eventually, he would have a biography, wouldn’t he? Like everybody else, you tell those things, right? Cleverness—he did it inside of a rap record. I mean, it’s not a complete biography, but it’s certainly an introspective look.
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