Anton Pukshansky on His Work With Rakim, Nas & More | Engineering Hip-Hop

Nas (2005). Scott Gries, Getty Images for Universal Music.

Anton Pukshansky

Observant fans of 80s and 90s hip hop know the name Anton Pukshansky. On a number occasions, his name has popped up in the liner notes and credits for many of the genre’s most beloved albums. A versatile mixing and recording engineer, Pukshansky worked out of the legendary Power Play Studios in Queens, New York, lending his talents to certified rap classics like Eric B. & Rakim’s Let The Rhythm Hit 'Em, Main Source’s Breaking Atoms, Nas’ Illmatic and more.

In addition to his engineering skills, Pukshansky is also a classically-trained pianist and a guitarist with wide-ranging taste. Mirroring the eclectic sampling practices of the producers that he was working with, Pukshansky poured his love of funk, soul, classic rock, and jazz into some of the best rap records of the era.

We spoke with him about his life, his approach to engineering and got an idea of what it was like to work on some of the best rap music ever made.

Kool G Rap & DJ Polo's 1990 single "Streets of New York", co-produced by Anton Pukshansky.

For starters, I'm very curious about your background in music. You're a conservatory trained musician, but how did you get into engineering?

I grew up in Soviet Russia in what is now St. Petersburg, what was then Leningrad. My dad's a musician, a piano player. He actually graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory of Music and didn't choose it as a profession—he went and became a naval engineer. But he always played music as a side gig. He started me on piano lessons when I was 5 or 6, and then at 7, he enrolled me in the Leningrad Conservatory music school as a piano major. And I did that from age 7 until age 15. At 15, we moved to the U.S. I went to high school in New York, and one of my friends was really into recording. He had a 4-track reel to reel and he started putting together a home studio in his house. I was always technologically inclined as we started figuring out how to do this recording thing.

How did you go from the home studio set up to working in a professional studio?

A few years later, I was in a band and one of my band members had a friend who owned a professional 24-track recording studio. And he said, "Hey, he'd let us do our demo tape for free." I was all full of vinegar, young and self-confident. And I said, if you get the studio time for free, I'll engineer. And as we were doing that, the owner of the studio offered me a job. He had just lost his house engineer, and he offered me a job. And I said, absolutely. He said, “Do you know how to do all this?” And I said, "Absolutely." Lying through my teeth!

Had no idea.

I had some idea but I wasn't a professional. And for the next two years while I worked there, I learned on the job. I didn't have a teacher. There was no internet, so I just had the equipment in front of me and some books. The place had a couch and a shower. So a lot of times I would do a session during the day and then stay all night trying to learn everything, sleep at the studio, wake up, take a shower, do the next session.

What studio was this? How’d you end up at Power Play?

The studio wasn't very well known. It was a place called Zounds. The studio went out of business because the owner had a pretty severe drug problem—whatever money the studio was making was going into his drug habit. The next morning I opened up the Village Voice—I don't know if you remember, but in the back there used to be a page where all the recording studios were advertised. I said, "I'm just gonna go down the list and call every studio and ask if they were hiring." The first place I called was Power Play Studios and the owner Tony Arfi picked up. I told him, "Blah, blah, blah, my name is Anton. I'm an engineer looking for a position." He said, "Well, when can you come down?" I said, "Now." That day I came down, met Tony, and he's like, "Well, look, I don't know you from Adam, and you told me you don't know the SSL console, so I'm gonna start you as an assistant. And, you know, if things go well in a few months, you'll be engineering." And that's kind of how it happened.

Were you just tracking at that point?

The first project I was put on as an assistant was Bunny Wailer from Bob Marley and The Wailers. I made friends with Bunny and the band and the engineer, but then the engineer got sick with viral pneumonia or something nasty, and Bunny said, "Well, you engineer." One day Bunny noticed that I had a guitar with me, and he's like, "You play?" I'm like, "Yeah, that's my guitar." And he is like, "Well, we need a guitar player—lay down some tracks on our album." So, not only did I end up engineering, I ended up playing guitar on the album.

Wow. And this was around 1988?

1989 to be exact. And from there, they started putting me on engineering sessions. One of the first things they put me on was Eric B. and Rakim. No other engineer at Power Play would take the session because there were a lot of no-shows—they weren't the most diligent recording artists and there was a lot of partying in the studio. Their posse was always hanging out. Some days they just wouldn't show up. I think I took over from Elai Tubo, who took over from Patrick Adams. While doing the Eric B. and Rakim sessions, I met Large Professor who was doing beats for them at that time. He was 16 and was still in high school and we totally just hit it off.

What was it about him that attracted you to him? What made you think “Oh, I like this guy”?

He was a real student of music—not music theory, but music history. He turned me on to so much great funk and soul music that I never knew about. He taught me about hip hop and about sampling and about funk music history. And I taught him about the studio. Yeah. We kinda learned together and learned from each other.

Were you showing him how to mix on the board, that sort of thing?

Yeah, how to record, you know, how to get things on tape. And he taught me the EMU SP-1200.

I was listening to an interview where you said that you would help Large Professor tune samples. I'm very curious about that process. How were you tuning samples and what were you using to do it?

I was just trying to make sure everything made sense musically. I would make sure that it wasn't in the same key, at least it was a related key. Paul was young but he had a really really good ear, so he could hear what I was doing.

But with the actual process of tuning samples, are you taking things from a record and pitching things down on the turntable? How does that work?

Yup, pitching things down, pitching things up just to relate to the other samples so that things wouldn't clash. Breaking Atoms was how I really learned my chops as an engineer and a Mixer. That was my grad school. We also did Kool G Rap & DJ Polo's Wanted: Dead Or Alive beforehand, so by that time I felt fully comfortable in the studio. That was the record where I felt like I was fully contributing to the process.

And on a lot of those records, you were playing Instruments as well. How did that sort of thing happen?

Like Kool G. Rap’s “Streets in New York”, Paul came in and he had a drum beat and he had a guitar loop, but it didn't sound like a finished record. So, Paul was like “I need a bassline here.” And I was like, "I'll play one." They liked what I did, and then they were like, "I need a switch from the guitar loop." And then I said, “Well, let me try this piano thing that I'm hearing.”

Was that generally how it went? A producer would have an idea for a beat that felt like it needed instrumentation to flesh it out?

That’s exactly how it went. I could hear a bassline here, or I could hear a piano track here, or whatever it was. And people were very open about it. Like, "Okay, go ahead. Try it."

Organized Konfusion's 1991 single "Fudge Pudge" features a piano performance from Anton Pukshansky.

Could you tell me about working on that first Organized Konfusion record?

Yeah, that was pretty much right after Breaking Atoms. It's been a long time so I don't remember the timeline exactly. Some of it may have been at the same time. They came in and we really hit it off. Monch and Poetry and myself and O.C. and their whole crew, we really hit it off. They were hardcore hip hop, but at the same time they were really into comic books and superheroes—they were really open to ideas and adventurous. There wasn't really anybody truly producing that record. It was supposed to be a guy from Hollywood Records, but really they were kind of doing it themselves.

Were you helping out? I know you played on that record, but were you helping out with the production stuff as well?

I wouldn't say that I produced that record, that would not be fair. But I definitely contributed on all levels. Production, engineering, the technical stuff.mBy then, thanks to Paul, I knew the SP-1200 inside and out. So, they'd come in with records and I'd turn that into a beat. Again, totally, copying what Paul did. Literally absorbing his technique and then, and then applying it to their record.

That record is so interesting to me. I was a kid when it came out, but I remember hearing it and it blew me away. There's funky samples, there's some jazz, there's that choral singing on “Open Your Eyes”. It's all over the place.

That's the thing about that record. There wasn't a producer guiding it. It went in all kinds of directions.

Did y'all have the sense that you were making something that was unique compared to the other stuff that was out on the market?

You know, I didn't really know enough to make that call, but it felt like I was doing something pretty unique. To this day, Monch is one of my favorite voices in hip-hop and I'm not just talking about skills on the mic. His voice had so much authority, which is how I feel about Rakim—he's an innovator and a legend and all of that. But I think a big part of what Rakim brought is just his voice. Again, it had so much authority. When you heard him, you believed him.

Right, You could feel the spirit behind him.

Exactly. And the same thing with Monch. Poetry is a great rapper and a really inventive lyricist, but he doesn't quite have that weight to his voice.But I thought it was a really great contrast because Monch would be all like, you know, laying down the law from the top of the mountain and then Poetry would come in and he'd be more funny and more playful. So, I felt like it was a really cool contrast between the two.

I wanted to ask you, what kind of gear were you using for signal processing while you were at Power Play?

Sure. So, Power Play had three studios and two of them had an SSL console. The other one was an old M MCI console. Of course, everything was taped because there was no digital back then. The tape machines were Sony's and as far as signal processing, Tony had invested in a lot of really high quality gear. So we had a rack of eight Neve mic preamps and EQs like the Neve 1073a. Everything that I thought was important would go through the Neves.

And we had Tube Tech CL 1B compressors which is still my favorite compressor ever made. We had this one thing that nobody else had at the time. It was a French piece of gear called the Publison Infernal MachineI M90. It wasna multi effects unit, but it had a stereo sampler that would sample in stereo for 20 seconds. And then you could trigger it with an audio trigger, like a click or a hi hat. At the time there were no stereo samples. Everything was done on that SP-1200, which was all mono and two and a half seconds per pad. So anytime anybody needed to have a longer loop, we'd bring out the Publiso and it was like a secret weapon. It was a giant pain to work because it had a tiny little screen that didn't really tell you very much. It was kind of like working in the dark, you know, it wasn't like now where you can see the waveform and trim it. You had to do all the trimming and editing by ear.

I'd imagine it was a bitch to edit in a machine like that.

It was a massive pain to edit and you couldn't save it. It was like once you got it the way you wanted it, you laid it down to tape and then it was gone. There was no disk drive, there's nothing, it was just internal memory. Power Play had the standard Lexicon delays and reverbs, AMS RMX16 and DMX, delay and reverb. Like I said, it was a big variety of gear and it was all really high quality gear. Yeah. And then, eventually the studio bought an SP-1200 and the Akai MPC-60 for people to use during sessions. And it had some keyboards. It had a Korg M-1 and a Roland D-50. I used both of those a lot during the sessions.

What were you playing on “Fudge Pudge?”

That's a real piano. That's the studio's Yamaha Grand Piano.

I wanted to ask you about Nas and Large Professor. Did Nas start showing up to the studio around the time y'all were working on Breaking Atoms?

Yes. He was this young, shy little kid who would sit in the corner. And then at some point, I don't remember exactly when, but I think it was either during or shortly after Breaking Atoms sessions, Paul did a three-song demo for a three-song demo for Nas that I was involved with. This is at Power Play during off hours. And then the next time I saw Nas was I was at Chung King doing the MC Search solo album. He had a posse cut called “Back to The Grill” and T-Ray got Nas on it—that was how he got signed to Columbia. He came down and kicked this incredible verse and Search was like, "How does this kid not have a deal?" Search was good friends with Faith Newman at Columbia and made the connection and next thing you know Nas was working on his first album.

"Halftime" by Nas, produced by Large Professor and engineered by Anton Pukshansky.

Once he got his deal with Columbia, did you track and mix those Large Professor songs on Illmatic?

I did Illmatic and I also did a bunch of other sessions with Nas. So what happened was, you know, Columbia was Sony, right? Sony had a big studio complex on West 54th but Sony had found that they couldn't get their own artists to work in their studio because the vibe was so sterile. It didn't feel like a creative environment. It was very corporate. So they came to me and they said, we want to put together a hip-hop room. They built their room in the basement of the building. Now it was their "hip-hop" room.

Right. And what kinda equipment did y’all put in that room?

I basically just recreated Power Play’s C room down there. SSL console, big Auspurger speakers. It wasn't anything particularly different. I did a bunch of sessions with Nas there with different producers. L.E.S. in particular.

Could you walk me through your approach to a mix a around that time?

Yeah, absolutely. I actually learned this from a salsa engineer who did like all the classic salsa records like Tito Puente and Celia Cruz: he told me the only thing that should move the needles on the master meters is the bass. Which didn't exactly apply to hip-hop—in that context it's the drums and the bass. My goal was to basically make sure that the bottom end would shake the walls without smearing or obscuring the vocals or whatever else was going on. It was a lot to squeeze every drop of energy out of the kick drum and the snare and the bass.

That was your philosophy?

Yeah. I mean, that was hip-hop—you needed to be able to drive down the street with your car blowing up from the low end. But also, remember this is vinyl still. I mean, it was mostly CDs at this point, but people are still pressing vinyl with every release, so you have to make sure that the bass is contained to the point where it doesn't make the needle jump off the groove. There's a lot of finessing and making sure that the bass was really present but not so outta control that it would ruin the experience of playing it. So, there's a lot of compression, a lot of level control.

Okay, and does EQ also play any role in that objective?

Absolutely. You wanna accentuate the frequencies. You know, you wanna accentuate 100 Hz on the kick drum. And this is nineties hip hop, so there were a lot of 808s in there, and the kick was around 60 Hz. So you wanted to push that, but again, after you pushed this frequency, you needed to compress them to control the energy so that it wouldn't blow up the speakers. It was like this dance between, making the 808 louder, making the bass louder, making the kick louder, but not so loud that it was unusable.

When did you leave Power Play?

I never really actually left Power Play—so what happened was after about a year and a half of me working there as a staff engineer, I had gotten enough clients that I wasn't working for Power Play. I was working for the clients directly, but still at Power Play. And then when the clients either couldn't get into Power Play or wanted to go to another studio, I'd go with them. There was no date where I said, "I'm leaving Power Play". For as long as I was in New York and Power Play was open, I was still doing sessions there just not as a staff engineer.

Yeah. And then later you went to LA, correct? How did that happen?

T-Ray and I became a team kind of organically over time. He called me for all of his sessions and then we became really good friends. We had a good thing going as a team and literally out of the blue he decided that he was gonna move to LA. T-Ray was a big chunk of my work. So, for a while there, I was still living in New York, but flying out to LA every couple of months to make a record and I spent a lot of time in hotel rooms. At some point I was just like, I guess I'm moving. So that was 1999. And by then we weren't really doing a lot of hip-hop. We were doing a lot of rock music. I got kinda disappointed and disillusioned with hip hop around the mid-nineties. When it became the "puffy, shiny suit" era.

I wanted to work on other music and T-Ray felt the same way. He started looking to produce rock albums and we did a bunch. We did a really great album by a Santa Barbara band called Snot. I don't know how to describe them—they were punk, they were metal, they got lumped into the whole '90s nu-metal thing. But they really weren't. They had a very unique sound. And for a while we were doing these records up in a residential studio in Massachusetts called the Longview Farm. It was in the middle of nowhere in central Massachusetts, and they had a 19th century barn that they converted into a recording studio and living accommodations.

What kind of stuff did you work on while you were in LA?

Well, this is kind of ironic: as I was saying, I got burnt out on what hip hop was becoming and as soon as I moved to LA, I get connected with all the LA hip hop heads that grew up on the records that I made 10 years before.So, I was working with like Dilated Peoples and Jurassic Five and The Beat Junkies. LA Backpacker kids who grew up worshiping early '90s New York hip hop. It was kind of like deja vu. I was back doing what I was doing 10 years ago.

Were you working mostly in a tracking and mixing capacity?

The same thing. Tracking, mixing, playing bass. Playing keys sometimes. I played bass on the first Dilated album, The Platform. I played bass guitar on Jurassic 5’s first album. I wasn't doing anything different. It was just on a different coast with different people.

When did you go to Austin?

Austin was 2014. I had an old friend in LA who was going back and forth between Austin and LA and he built the studio in Austin, a really killer studio. He asked me to partner with him in the studio and that was what moved me to Austin. It was a very cool situation. The studio was on my friend's property just outside of Austin on like seven acres. We had two like 1950s Spartan campers that my partner Jimmy converted into artist accommodations so people could come and stay. We had a really great live room and an API console. It was good place to work—it was 15 minutes from my house, so very convenient.

You’re speaking in the past tense. What happened with that studio?

Well, COVID killed it—my parents got to the point where they really needed help. First, my wife and I tried to move them to Austin with us. That didn't work out. My parents just weren't cooperative. So, we said "Well, if they can't come to us, we have to come to them," and here I am. I set up my mix room here because even when we had the studio in Austin, I still mixed at home. We would track at the studio and then I'd take the files home and do the mixing at home. Most of my work these days is people sending me files to mix.

I'm in the middle of a mix for a guy named Ty Curtis, a blues-rock singer-songwriter out of Portland, Oregon. Maybe five years back, we did his album at our studio in Austin. And he reached out to me and he's like, "You know, I'm gonna track and put out another record. Will you do it for us?" I said absolutely because I really like the guy and I like his music. It was a good vibe. They tracked it in a studio in Portland, Oregon and sent me files and I'm just about done mixing the album.

Nice. What are you using to mix now?

I'm working in Reaper. I still have Pro Tools on my machine, but mostly for transfers. I don't particularly like working in Pro Tools I have an SSL 12 interface andUAD Satellite I have some outboard gear. I have a pair of Neve 1073s. I've got a DBX 160 compressor, which I mostly use when people want to come over here and do vocal overdubs. Other than that, I mix pretty much entirely in the box. I've said this forever and it's still true. It's not the gear, it's the ear.

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