Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo On Producing Philly's Hip-Hop

Photos courtesy of Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo.

Alongside his twin brother Phil, Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo has enjoyed a 40-year-plus career as a producer, engineer, and record executive. In the 1970s, the Nicolo brothers learned the ropes of engineering by recording local bands and singer-songwriters in a small studio they built in the attic of their parents’ small, suburban Pennsylvania home.

By the 1980s, the brothers had moved to Philadelphia, built their homebase—Studio 4—and began working on landmark records by Marley Marl’s Juice Crew and Philly’s first generation of rap stars like Schoolly D, Steady B, Cool C, and Three Times Dope.

In the late '80s, the Nicolo Brothers and Schoolly D’s manager, Chris Schwartz, co-founded Ruffhouse Records records, a label venture that would produce smash hits by Kris Kross, Cypress Hill, The Fugees, and Lauryn Hill on the way to selling north of 130 million records worldwide.

Today, the Nicolo brothers have made a return of sorts to their suburban roots. Phil still works out of Studio 4, now located in the Conshohocken suburb of Philadelphia, and Joe mans Joe’s Garage, a studio he built in the backyard of his Audubon home. We met up with Joe and spoke to him about everything from producing and engineering a boatload of classic rap records to making music with Kevin Bacon.

Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo in the studio with Chris "Mac Daddy" Kelly and Chris "Daddy Mac" Smith of Kris Kross.

For starters, I don't know if I've heard much about your background before music. Could you tell me a little bit about where you grew up?

I grew up in Wayne, Pennsylvania. The only thing that's known near Wayne is the Devon Horse Show, an annual horse show and county fair that dates back to the 1890s. My dad was a butcher, my mom was a seamstress, and we lived in a postage-stamp-sized house in this affluent neighborhood. My twin brother Phil and I got our first tape recorder when we were in third grade, and by eighth grade we were actually recording people.

When you and Phil were recording people, are we talking about garage bands? People coming to the house where you had a tape recorder setup—that sort of thing?

Our parents let us build a studio in their attic. We built a control room with a window, mic inputs and an air conditioner in the walls. It was a TEAC 3340 4-track machine—two TEAC model 2 mixers strapped together with a Tapco EQ and a Sansui Reverb. That was the original setup.

Once you moved to Philly and opened the original Studio 4, where were you located?

It was at 3rd and Callowhill—I guess the neighborhood is called Northern Liberties now. We're talking around 1980. 3rd and Callowhill was rough. The original Studio 4 is still there, I know the Disco Biscuits had it for a while. Jazzy Jeff used our B Room for a while. I've lost touch with exactly who is in there now, but it's still there.

Did you just take the gear from your parents' attic and plop it into the 3rd and Callowhill space? What was the gear setup for the original Studio 4?

After the attic, we started a studio on the outskirts called Half Track, in Radner. I was working for Stereo Discounters, which sold audio equipment. I could get stuff at half list price, then we would use it, sell it for more than we paid for it, and buy the next thing. We went from the 4-track to an 8-track—the TEAC 80-8—and moved up to a Tangent console. Then we jumped up to a 16-track, a one-inch Scully tape recorder with DBX on it.

One of our engineers was Obie O'Brien, now the head tech for John Bon Jovi. One of Obie’s best friends was Tony Bongiovi, who was one of the owners of The Power Station in New York. Right. We would go to New York, sleep on the floor of Tony's penthouse and watch the guys at The Power Station do their thing. We're talking David Bowie's Scary Monsters…, Bruce Springsteen's "The River", all those records that were being done there. It was Tony who taught us how to engineer with subtractive EQ and how important mic pres were to the signal chain. Not only that—Tony designed The Power Station and was nice enough to come down and design Studio 4 for us. All we had to do was pay for the cost of his travel, so that made the difference.

When we moved to Center City we got our first 24-track machine, which was the 3M M70. It's the blue one, we got it from Electric Ladyland and we had to sit and wait. We were waiting for Hall & Oates to finish that night on that machine so we could bring it back to Philly. (laughs) Then, things really started to progress: we went from a Tangent, to a Neo Tech Series Three console. At that point, the record company started taking off and we flipped to a full blown, 8078 Neve with two 800 multi-tracks. We built a B room and a mixing room with an SSL and a GE computer. It was the first SSL E that was delivered to The Record Plant and that console still sits in the B room at Studio 4 in Conshohocken with the Record Plant sticker. When we talked to SSL’s people, they said it's the oldest SSL in the world today that's still operational.

Once you had Studio 4 rolling, how did you start working on these classic Philly rap records that were coming out in the mid 80s?

Phil was doing the rock stuff—The Hooters, which was a big band out of Philly; Tommy Conwell; Robert Hazard. I was doing the rap and R&B stuff: the leftovers of Philly International, Harris Baker, Young Fat Larry's Band and that kind of stuff. I was working on the real early records with the Pop Art label, which was Marley Marl and Roxanne Shante. Then, it was Steady B, Cool C, Three Times Dope, Jazzy Jeff And The Fresh Prince. Even though I was a 34-year old white guy from the suburbs, I knew what was good. I knew that the important thing for me at that point was the people who would say, “You know what? I'm not a big fan of rap music, but I like Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince”.

Schoolly D's 1986 single "P.S.K. (What Does It Mean?)", considered one of the first gangsta rap records ever made.

What was it like working with Schoolly D?

My partner in Ruffhouse, Chris Schwartz, was managing Schoolly. I had already started working with Lawrence and Dana Goodman at Pop Art on Biz Markie and Roxanne and Shante—we're talking '84, '85, the early Pop Art records even before Steady B. I really got such a schooling from them as to what the grime and the feel of what a real rap record was.

With Schoolly, we would just smoke some blunts and just look at each other and go, “How do we go left with this?” And it was like, "Let's just put reverb on the entire Roland TR-909 drum machine." I was in a band at the time, and we had an E-MU Drumulator and the drummer in the band had a chip put in so you could flip the switch and it went to Latin percussion as opposed to drums. We came up with the drum beat for the song “Saturday Night” and then Schoolly, he flipped the switch back and forth: chorus, verse, chorus, verse, just like that. Happy accident.

A lot of those records were very minimal—there's usually a drum machine for the rhythmic base. On Schoolly D's Saturday Night album, it sounds like Code Money is just scratching in sections of records—Sly & The Family Stone, Jackson Five, that sort of thing. How did you approach mixing something that was that bare bones?

It is the epitome of less is more, and it was in the creation process. By the time Code put the parts in, there was no cutting it to the grid. He would have to go and cut each one in correctly, which took time, but he was excellent at it.

I interviewed Chris Swartz a couple years ago, and we were talking about those Schoolly records. What do you remember from those sessions? I'm very curious about that big reverb sound you got on those records.

Those records were very much live performances—the 909 drum machine and Code in the control room. With "Gucci Time", DJs have said to me that the countdown isn't timed right and the reason why is because we were doing it by hand. The reverb is an EMT 140 plate which I still own.

In 1988, you put out an instrumental hip-hop record called Butchers Beats And Breaks. Can you talk about that album but also talk to me about what you were using to make that record?

I was approached by Atlantic to do a "beats and breaks" record. I was hoping either DJs would use it in the clubs, or a radio station would use it in the middle of breaks, or for people who wanted to rap. Some of the stuff was more simple than others: there's Led Zeppelin and Clash samples in there. The players were Andy “Funky Drummer” Kravitz, Doug Rigsby, and J Davidson on saxophone. That was in the days where I mixed everything on the Neve analog board, and I was using the MPC60 drum machine. What I used with Schoolly was a BEL BD80 digital sampler—it was a digital delay unit, but you could sample for two seconds. It would hold the sample, and then you could trigger the sample with an audio signal going into the unit. It really transformed what you were able to do with samples because it was the first thing that you could use to replace the drum machine sound with actual kicks and snares. I started cutting James Brown kicks and snares for both Schoolly and the Goodmans, and I had a whole reel of sounds that we could then use. The palette just came alive.

With a lot of those Ruff House records, were folks like Muggs from Cypress Hill or Jermaine Dupri bringing you rough, stripped down versions of songs that you were beefing up and mixing? How did those records end up becoming what they were?

It was kind of all the above, especially like the first two Cypress Hill records. I would go out to LA and we would track at Image Recording, and then we would bring the stuff back to Philly and finish it. Same with Jermaine—he would cut the basics and then he would come to Philly and we would finish it.

With Kris Kross, it was gonna be an EP—you know, little boys in the hood. The focus was like, "What chance does a 12-year-old kid have growing up in this environment?" I think it was David Kahn who was head of A&R who said, "Let's turn this into an album and let's come up with a couple of more songs." The two we came up with were "Jump" and "Warm It Up", the two big songs. I guess my influence was on those songs because if you listen to the multitrack of that, there's a little Three Times Dope and Schoolly D in there. It's gotta be like six loops all just making this cacophony of stuff.

The 1992 Kris Kross single "Jump" was written and produced by Jermaine Dupri and Joe "The Butcher" Nicolo.

Thinking about Kris Kross and some of those early Cypress Hill records, there were so many different sounds and loops happening at once. How do you approach a mix like that on something that's so busy musically?

Everything is leveling and EQ. You've got so much going on and you basically build it like baking a cake with flour and milk, you know. I need that top end shit. I gotta roll out the bottom because it's taking up too much bottom space. It's just a matter of balancing it all out so that it's a block of coolness. To this day, man, I will load up six, seven loops and I will still build up that cacophony, the same way it's just trial and error. “Bring up that other jawn. Nah, get rid of that. Bring that. Yeah. That's the one”. I do that lovingly because that's what it's about, man. You gotta feel it.

I wanted to ask you about the studio space that you have now at your house. Give me a rundown of some of the gear that you're using these days and talk about some of the stuff that you're working on that you’re excited about.

My brother still mixes through the SSL, but I have become a total "in-the-box" head, because I've got people hitting me back three times a day on the little things they need fixed. The most important things are my Neve mic pres, my Germanium, and of course my cassette machine, which I run shit through. I have an LA-3A limiter which is getting fixed. I actually have a 16-input Studer console, one of the quietest ever made.

The Sony C-500 microphone is the holy grail for me, but I've had issues with it. Time and time again, I had to replace the capsule. So I went to the great German genius, Otto Speilbach, whatever his name is, and he said, “I don't have a Sony 500 capsule, but I can retrofit a Neumann U87 capsule in it, so you'll have an 87 capsule with Sony Electronics.” I have had shootouts with this microphone. I owned a Telefunken ELA M 251E and a Fairchild 670, 67s, 47s, 49s, all those, but this mic is fucking unbelievable. I cut vocals, I cut acoustic guitar, I cut electric guitar, I cut whatever with this microphone.

All with that mic?

All with this mic. I've spent a lot of the past year or two producing Kevin Bacon and his brother Michael. I've started a foundation called The Sound Mind Network with Tony Luke Jr., founder of the famous Philly cheesesteak franchise Tony Luke’s, and I'm putting together a compilation for the foundation. We're trying to change the way the world looks at drug addiction, mental health, and suicide, and we're doing it through music and the arts. I was able to go back to a bunch of my friends and say, let's either cut something new or let me reimagine a song that we did. I got Billy Joel, Cindy Lauper, Taj Mahal, Sophie B. Hawkins, Joan Osborne, G. Love and Special Sauce, the Bacon Brothers and then some new acts.

I just finished a song with the Bacon Brothers called, “Philly Thing”. You're not gonna believe the cameos that are in this video, but all proceeds go to this organization Rock to the Future. They basically give inner city kids instruments and the ability to record and practice music. This might sound cliche, but I'd much rather a kid grab a guitar than grab a gun. You can inspire them to try to become a tech consultant, but if you can inspire them to become a rap star or a rock star, they may not become it, but it gives them something to live and strive for.

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