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WEEKLY NEWSLETTER September 5, 2016 by L. Swift and Jeff McQ


Recording Connection apprentices Dion and Devon Johnson: two brothers team up to launch their own studio!

Dion Johnson, mentor Joe Delfino, and Devon Johnson at Miller Street Studios

Dion Johnson, mentor Joe Delfino, and Devon Johnson
at Miller Street Studios

Some things run in the family. For brothers Dion and Devon Johnson of Chicago, IL, music had always been part of their lives.   “Probably my first time creating a rap I was probably like six, seven years old,” says Dion. “As I got older around like 12 or 13 I knew that’s what I wanted to do…I want to create music.”   Devon shared his brother’s musical passions but took a slightly different path. “I started playing the guitar when I was about 12 years old,” he says. “I went to Chicago High School for the Arts where I studied classical guitar.”   Coming of age presented a dilemma for both brothers when it came to taking their music to the next level. “I knew I wanted to pursue music,” says Devon. “I just didn’t know how to go about doing it. And I always knew that college probably wasn’t the right thing for me because I hated school and I didn’t want to be in debt with student loans at 17 years old, just starting out.”   Meanwhile, Dion says he got “distracted” with “adult” responsibilities that kept him out of music for a while. “I went off and tried to make money,” he says, “and tried other jobs and tried other careers, but it was just—I was miserable. So I decided to get back into music to do something that I love.”   Then Dion found an answer that both brothers could get excited about.   “One day Dion just called me out of the blue,” says Devon. “He said that he heard about this program called Recording Connection. And he was telling me about the different programs, audio engineering and producing, and as he was telling me this, I knew for a fact that I was going to do it. There was not a doubt in my mind.”   The brothers enrolled together and were placed as apprentices with mentor Joe Delfino at Miller Street Studios in Chicago. From the moment they walked into the studio for the first time, the brothers were hooked.   “I was excited,” says Devon, “because as soon as I walked into the control room, after seeing all the different things, I was eager to learn what everything was and how it worked and Joe came off as a really nice guy and it turned out to be true. He’s really a nice guy…I was definitely going to do it. I was definitely going to do it at Miller Street.”   Dion agrees. “Working with Joe has been really, really great because he is very patient…and any questions that we have to ask him or anything, whether it’s related to music or not, he gives us the best answers.”   Besides learning the gear and the ins and outs of recording and mixing, Devon says he’s been particularly impressed with the way his mentor works with clients. “Joe’s really patient with artists,” he says. “He never loses his cool…he’s always focused on the music and getting the artist what they want, no matter who comes in there. It’s the same for everyone…I learned a lot from watching him.”   As the pair finish up their apprenticeship, they’re finalizing plans to open their own studio. An endeavor in which each of them is going to play a particular role. “I’m more focused on the engineering part and the business part,” says Dion. “When I look at my brother Devon, I would say he’s really into creating beats and he’s also into the engineering, while me myself, I’m like more business…We currently have a space for our own studio. We’re working on it now…going to open up maybe November or December.”   For the moment, however, Dion and Devon are taking full advantage of apprenticing at Miller Street, picking up all that they can in preparation for their new career.   “I think the program is great,” says Dion. “I’m excited every day I go to class. And it’s guaranteed that I will learn something every time I go.”   Devon agrees. “It was one of the best decisions that I ever made in my life so far. It’s all been great.”   
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RRFC INTERVIEW: Grammy-winning Recording Connection mentor “Commissioner” Gordon Williams

   A true industry veteran, “Commissioner” Gordon Williams is a seven-time Grammy-winning producer/engineer with a 30-year history in the music business. Starting as a live DJ in the Bronx, Gordon went on to extended stints at Motown and Sony Music, working with a long line of music legends, including Quincy Jones, Lauryn Hill, the Fugees, the late Amy Winehouse, and rapper KRS-One (who gave “Commissioner Gordon” his nickname).   It also turns out that Gordon has a deep and abiding passion for education, particularly when it comes to training up new producers and engineers. His company, Lalabela, currently operates out of the prestigious Manhattan Center, a state-of-the-art multi-media facility featuring multiple recording studios (including the famed “Log Cabin Studio”), a film scoring stage, the 4000-seat Hammerstein Ballroom, and TV/film production facilities—all of which provide a wealth of opportunities for Gordon’s apprentices to gain a wide range of industry experience while making valuable connections. And now, coming “full circle,” Gordon recently returned to his DJ roots with his current music project White Tiger Society, whose debut album releases next month.   Our co-writer Jeff McQ recently visited Commissioner Gordon at the Manhattan Center for an in-person interview, during which Gordon shared a bit of his backstory, his personal passion for education, tips for studio etiquette and some serious common-sense advice for staying focused on the craft of making music.   
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“Commissioner” Gordon Williams

“Commissioner” Gordon Williams

RRFC: So can you tell us a little bit about your own journey, and how you wound up sitting in this role as a producer and engineer?   “Commissioner” Gordon Williams: I started out as a DJ. I grew up in the Bronx, at the time when hip-hop was a neighborhood phenomenon, not on radio or on records. It was in the park, you know, and that was my first exposure to, I would say, live sound…from the first time I heard the sound system, you know, I loved it…two turntables turned into a 4-track and turned into an 8-track, eventually a 16-track in my bedroom and that turned into a record deal by the time I was 16 on an independent label…We had a hit record, and that record got me a deal with Motown, as a producer and a remixer, and that was really…now you’re talking about early…late 80s when that happened. We had some success at Motown, had the first rapper signed to Motown…that led me to Quincy Jones…which turned into my own record deal with Sony and meeting Tommy Mottola, and then at Sony is pretty much where most of the things that I’m known for happened, whether that’s the Fugees and Lauryn Hill, whether that’s Will Smith or that’s 50 Cent…I basically grew up at Sony.   RRFC: How did you become passionate about education and training up others?   CGW: KRS-One was known for what you would call conscious rap, and he developed a style for “edutainment”…during the times when I was with KRS, [he] was known for doing lectures at schools, so we would do the show and invariably end up at either a high school or a college maybe the next day, with him speaking to kids. And I would be the one going with him because I would set the mics and stuff, and that turned into, you know, me now starting to interact in that way with young people. And that kind of organically would create question and answer things and me having this kind of rapport working with young people, which now spilled into the recording studio… The reason now I agreed to do this with the Recording Connection was that when I saw what your business model was, you know…that’s the first thing that struck me. Trying to make it affordable, thinking about mentors, thinking about practical ways to get young people involved because honestly, you know, all of us…most of us that came up…no one really went to school for this, you know? Our school was the School of Hard Knocks.   RRFC: When you’re thinking of taking someone on as an apprentice, what qualities to do you look for? If a student comes in to interview with you, what makes you decide, “This is a student I can train”?   CGW: Focus. Realistic conversation in the sense of, you know, where are you in your life, and what do you want out of a career in music?…Commitment. You know, are you on time for your meeting? And then do you follow up? Am I calling you or are you calling me?… Okay, say I take them as a student. Some people feel like as soon as they get in, that they’re “in.” And to me, I’m still vetting you, like in isn’t “in” just because we started…You get what you give. Do you want someone to say, “Hey, come and meet me at the show after. Come help me carry equipment and come in the club.” Because that’s really what this is about…Yes, we’re going to take the class and you’re going to be here for class, but this is a happening thing. We’re putting out music, we’re going on tours, there’s artists coming in… Having the drive to want to be great at your instrument, or your craft, or your ‘thing,’ I think it takes a certain breed of young person for that…that’s kind of more of what I’m looking for.   RRFC: Regarding being in the studio, let’s talk about studio etiquette. If you take on an apprentice, what are some common sense dos and don’ts for apprentices you invite into your sessions?   CGW: No one teaches you about vibe. What’s the vibe of a session? Like what does it feel like to work with a famous person? What does pressure feel like? What does the energy of a room feel like? All of these things are just as important as “what does a compressor do?”…A lot of times it’s more important because if you say the wrong thing, no one’s going to get to know what’s in your head. They’re just going to say, “Don’t come back.” You know? You’re here to listen, you’re not here to talk, because you haven’t gained that privilege yet, and you have to know that going in because that could be a writing session with an artist now, and they’re trying to figure something out. [If] you’re an assistant saying, “Well, you know, well I think you should put that in the song,” that’s the fastest way to get yourself fired out of a session because that’s not your place. You speak when you’re spoken to, but you also have to know when to maybe offer help. So if you see, for example, you see somebody looking for a pad to write something and they’re looking around, and then you run and you go get it and say, “Hey, here you go,” and you sit back down– Now that’s something, because you’re paying attention to your environment and you inserted yourself without inserting yourself, so now that person will remember you because you did that. That’s the person that later on would say, “Hey Gordon, where’s that kid that you had last week? Bring him back around, I like him.” But now, if you’re trying to take a selfie in the middle of a session because it’s your favorite rapper, you can’t do that just because you’re in the room. You haven’t arrived yet.   RRFC: What do you feel like up and coming producers and engineers should be most focused on in this new music industry environment?   CGW: I think first and foremost, music. Don’t let the music get lost in the technology. If you’re in the music business, don’t take music out of the business just because maybe the business wants to dictate things. Because right now a lot of the things that the business is dictating, they’re based on fear. They’re based on fear and trying to figure it out…Last week it was, you know, it was Instagram, then it was Snapchat. What’s it going to be next? If you’re chasing that, then you’re not spending any time writing songs. If you’re not spending any time working on your scales, working on your craft, I think that’s Number One.   Number Two is, yes, be aware of what’s going on and the changing environment. Do be aware of it and try to stay abreast of it.   And Number Three, I would say, is focus…You know, it’s funny, like I’m finding myself going back to very basic things that I thought were not really the thing…Like, what made an artist great? They rehearsed. They practiced their craft….If you’re looking to be the producer, then you need to be able to recognize a great artist, and you need to be able to help bring out those pieces in that artist. If you’re looking to be an engineer, it’s still about your ears no matter if you’ve got 5,000 plug-ins…you’ve got to know how to use your ear. Do you understand what’s a good acoustic environment? Have you spent time listening to music? Have you spent time listening to different types of music? Have you spent time listening to different engineers? Do you read about them? Do you go into the history of the music? Do you know who Tom Dowd is? Do you know who Jimmy Douglass is? Do you know these guys? Do you know what music they’ve done?…Look at the people who are great in the craft, not just who’s on the charts.   
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A Day in the Life of Our Students

Anthony Zaccardi

Film Connection mentor Adam Lebenstein
and student Anthony Zaccardi

Film Connection student Anthony Zaccardi (New York, NY), who has set his sights on becoming a DP in the film industry, was nevertheless more than happy to work as talent for an upcoming national commercial—playing a strip of bacon! Speaking on his experience, Anthony says, “They had a hat and headphones on the bacon to advertise the Tums logo so I always had to stand up straight while acting and the eye hole was way too small plus there was a whole lot of sweat, LOL. It was fun though. What I hope to do after I graduate is to become a cameraman, after what I have seen in the first half of the program I’ve learned that I very much enjoy setting up the shoot, whatever it might be, and setting up the cameras and what you put specifically in the scene. [Long term goal] Director of Cinematography is the job for me.”    jordan-rodgers Recording Connection student Jordan Rodgers (Houston, TX) and engineer Matt O’Neil are having a great time working together at Studio 713. That’s right, Jordan recently landed work at 713 while she’s completing the program! “It feels great sitting in sessions and getting the real experience. And I remember one day Matt had to step out of a session for a little bit to help another client. I actually got to help run the board and it was a gospel group that night. That felt great. You know like you can’t get more hands-on than that.”   
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