Interview : Sound engineer Ben Kane and the making-of D’Angelo’s “Black Messiah”
Sound engineer and dedicated funkateer Ben Kane tells Funk★U about the making-of Black Messiah, D’Angelo latest album, studio brotherhood and the current state of the music industry. “Let the art speak !”.
Funk★U : How do you feel, a month after the release of Black Messiah ?
Ben Kane : I’m feeling great. It has been a long journey working on this album, so it feels wonderful to finally be able to share this music and for it to have received such a positive response.
Who are you exactly Ben? What’s your professional career before working with Russell Elevado and D’Angelo ?
I’m an engineer/mixer and producer on a constant quest to make inspiring music and to keep creating new sounds that make people feel something.
I started working with Russell and also with D’Angelo pretty early in my career. I started as an intern at Electric Lady Studios back in 2003. I was 19 years old at the time. I soon became a house engineer for the studio and engineered for many amazing artists there. In those days, I also became Elevado’s main assistant while at the studio as well as the engineer for his production work including the album Circles by Krystle Warren who is now actually based in France as some Funk★U readers may be familiar. I met D’Angelo very early on at my time at Electric Lady and worked with him a good number of times before delving very deeply into this project around 2008.
Who are your favourite musicians and the “must have” in your record collection?
I’m definitely a funk/soul head at my core, so artists like Sly Stone and Stevie Wonder and Shuggie Otis and Herbie Hancock get listened to a lot from my record collection (and I’m happy to tell that to a magazine called Funk★U !). But I listen to everything from jazz to folk to rock. Usually, I gravitate towards artists whose music seems to come from a soulful place regardless of genre.
Is it true that Black Messiah has been entirely recorded in analog ?
Yes. Everything that you hear on Black Messiah has hit analog tape and was mixed through tape and analog gear without the use of any plug-ins. Some things we would work with through ProTools for an edit or to preserve our tapes, but in the end, analog ruled on this record.
Can you tell us exactly who was behind each instrument, on each track of the album?
I think I have divulged that information via my twitter actually ! Check out my “12 days of D’angelo” posts from right after Black Messiah dropped. My twitter name is @kanevibrations. I wanted all of the unbelievable musicians that we worked with to be recognized for their outstanding work on this project.
How was the atmosphere in the studio with Russel Elevado and the team?
Well, the core creative team for the most part on a day-to-day basis is D’Angelo and either Russ, myself or often the both of us. Then the other musicians come into our sessions as needed. It’s a nice, positive atmosphere in the studio. We’re really a group of brothers at this point, and we have a lot of fun creating and listening to music whenever we’re together.
Is there something which particularly surprised you during the recording of Black Messiah ?
Oh man, it’s a funny thing, because even when you’re around these incredible geniuses every day, you still get surprised by how good they are. Even when I know what someone like Pino Palladino or Roy Hargrove or Sharkey is capable of, it still blows me away the first time I hear one of their interpretations of these songs. You learn to expect the unexpected in the best possible way.
What did you answer to the critics, in particular those on the lack of understading some lyrics ?
I think D’Angelo’s vocal style has been consistent across his career. I think people have gotten used to these cookie-cutter R&B artists that always deliver a very bright clear sound with clear lyrics. You can understand every word they say, but they aren’t really saying anything (at least nothing artful or moving most of the time). And I can’t blame all of those artists as many of them don’t even write their own songs or lyrics. But that’s part of the problem. Some of that is specific to the perceived genre. No one criticizes Radiohead because you can’t understand every word that Thom Yorke sings. The artist has to perform in a voice that is true to him or herself and D’ is certainly doing that.
For Black Messiah, you may have to sit down with the lyric booklet (which is available online) to understand every word, but you are rewarded with lyrics that are meaningful and that come from a personal place. (Let me also commend Kendra Foster who co-wrote the lyrics for many of these songs with D’Angelo and Q-Tip who co-wrote the lyrics for “Sugah Daddy”). You might not understand every word in your first listen, but that’s the point. Hopefully this is music that can draw people in and give them something to keep listening to and keep finding more meaning and enjoyment in for a very long time.
Do you think Black Messiah is as groundbreaking as Voodoo ?
I think so. That said, time will tell. I think the term groundbreaking is often used after the fact and is determined by how other musicians react to something through their own art. I really hope that others can rise to the challenge. And that doesn’t mean copying the sound. I think if there is one thing that defines D’Angelo as an artist, it is that he paves his own creative path and is true to his own art instead of reacting to music-industry trends or making music based on industry assessments. I think that soulful approach will always create groundbreaking music and I hope that more artists embrace that path.
What do you think about the current state of the music industry ?
I feel a crisis. But it’s not just the music industry, it’s the whole world. In my mind, I don’t separate the crisis that is facing our planet and our food supplies and our poor and our marginalized populations from the crisis that faces our musical artists.
I think the industry is in an interesting point. We are finally at a place where artists have the power to break free of the corporate record-label reigns that have often been holding their art back. Yet the democratization of music over the last decade hasn’t necessarily resulted in a system where musicians get paid fairly for their art (and musicians still need to eat)! At the end of the day, I think that music can become part of its own solution to this global crisis as it has in the past. Let the art speak of and to the problems (as D’Angelo did on some of the material on this album), and then maybe it will inspire the listeners to help fight a system that among other things does not value art as it should.
What are your projects for this new year ?
I am currently in the studio finishing off mixes for a new album from Emily King and I’m also mixing some songs for Christian Gregory out of the UK.
I am also super excited for the release of the Chris Dave and the Drumhedz album that I mixed and engineered over this past year or so. That should be out quite soon as well. And that’s only the beginning !
Interview : Jim Zelechowski
Ben Kane portrait : Photo : Azikiwe Mohammed