Mixing NYC's Underground With Scott "Scotty Hard" Harding | Engineering Hip-Hop

Scott Harding—aka Scotty Hard—is a veteran producer and engineer who has spent over 30 years at the cutting edge of New York underground music. Born in Vancouver, Harding was drawn to New York in the late '80s, entranced by the potent mixture of punk, hip hop and free jazz that permeated the city at the time. He began working at the legendary Calliope Studios on 37th and 8th, and later Chung King a few blocks away.

After racking up experience working on many celebrated rap records throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Harding produced two unheralded classics by NYC rap duo, New Kingdom. With their trippy, pitched-down samples and hazy, druggy atmosphere, Heavy Load and Paradise Don’t Come Cheap are now acknowledged as forward-thinking forebearers of psychedelic hip hop.

Today, Harding works out of his studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, recording and mixing a variety of projects that range from collaborations between Rodrigo Brandão and the Sun Ra Arkestra to the latest releases from Brownsville rap laureate, KA. We spoke with Harding about his history, the gear that he’s used throughout the years, and his unique approach to capturing and shaping sound.

You're originally from Vancouver, but you came to New York in 1988. Did you initially come to New York to be an engineer and work on records?

Yeah—I just sort of got the bug, you know? I had started recording in Vancouver and was always just playing in bands. As I always say to people, there's always one guy in the band that knows which end of the mic goes into the cable and you end up being that guy—the next thing you know, you're recording something.

The first thing I ever recorded was for a band I was in. We were making a record and the producer said, “Oh, we need like an ambient instrumental thing for the end of the record”. And the leader of the band’s like, “Oh, Scott has this idea. I’ll call him up.” I'm like, "Okay. Yeah, I got this idea, let's do it." He goes; “So, I'm not recording it. You are.” I guess I'd sat there while we were doing all the guitar overdubs long enough asking enough stupid questions—that's kind of how that started. I basically just started listening to hip-hop and thought, "Well, this is a moment."

Most of the music that really influenced me came from New York, from no wave music to hip-hop, loft jazz, James Chance and DNA—all that kind of stuff influenced me. all those, no wave bands and stuff as well. It was January of 1989 that I moved here.

What was it like when you got there? What did you start off getting into?

I started working at Chung King—the House of Metal. The first session I ever did was for Tone Loc—he came into the room with a full-length mink coat to do a voiceover for his 1-900 number.

Oh snap, I remember that.

It was the “Wild Thing” track—I had to take the instrumental and edit it onto 2-inch tape, which I had never done. I had edited a little bit, but the producers were like “Oh, we can just chop off the first eight bars of the song.” And I'm like, “Oh yeah, sure, no, I do that all the time.” But I had never done it before.

Back then it wasn't very much money, but, my original connection was some people at Calliope Studios but Chung King just needed somebody right away.I started working there and then they found out that I was from Canada and decided not to pay me. Once those guys dismissed me, I went up and started working at Calliope more—that's where I made my bones. I met Prince Paul and Ultramagnetic MC’s and did the Lifers Group record and all that kind of early hip hop—Black Sheep, Brand Nubian, Jungle Brothers, De La Soul…

I didn't know that you worked on De La Soul Is Dead. That was done at Calliope, right?

Yep, all those records were done at Calliope. That's when I met Paul. It was funny cuz I was listening to this podcast with Questlove. And he was like, “Did they pick Bob Power to work with you?” Back then, they didn't pick anybody—you just went to Calliope and you'd sort of get whatever engineer.

Bob became Q-Tip’s engineer and I just started doing all of Prince Paul's stuff—we did this record called Resident Alien. I think I did one or two days on the De La record because Paul's frend Mike Teelucksingh never showed up for work, so they called me in. Paul even says to this day, "If it weren't for Mike not showing up who knows what would've happened," but we remained close friends and still work together. 30 years, it's hard to believe.

Were you primarily recording at that time, tracking vocal stuff for these hip-hop records? Or were you mixing?

No. You were doing everything mostly—half the time you'd be making beats. It's not like today where people bring a Pro Tools file or even 20 years ago when someone would bring an MPC—nobody had anything. People would just walk in with three records and a couple of ideas and you had to execute them, so you did it all. We just sampled everything and looped it and lined everything up on 2-inch tape. A lot of the time you're just recording one or two loops at a time because they just had an Akai S-900 and you only had nine seconds of sample time.

Were you laying down drum patterns on a lot of this stuff too?

Yup, on an E-mu SP-12 that I still own. Calliope went out of business and I bought that SP-12. I should have got into that Christie's auction where they were selling all that hip-hop memorabilia. Done By The Forces of Nature, Three Feet High And Rising, A Tribe Called Quest—all those were done on that drum machine.

What kind of board were you mixing on during the Calliope days? What kind of stuff were you using for signal processing?

Very little. The original console was a 24-track Sound Workshop board. Dan The Automator has a console made by the same company, but his was a little bit smaller than the big one they had at Calliope. They had two—one with automation and one without—and it was just 2-inch tape, the E-mu SP-12, the S-900, an AKG 414 mic and maybe a DBX 160 compressor. There were a pair of Neve compressors in the big room, but they never seemed to work very well. So it was almost nothing, really. It was so minimal back then—you would just lay loops down, and all the arrangement was done in the mix by muting things.

Eric Sadler told me one time that with the Public Enemy stuff, they would actually erase things rather than do all the muting and stuff in the mix—they would actually be creating the mix as they went. They would even go so far as to cut the tape right on the downbeat of the chorus—put a piece of leader in there and then erase the track up until it hit that leader, so that they would have a real clean in and out, then they’d put the tape back together. The other reason they did that is that they would have a track with four or five different things going on—

—like physically editing out an arrangement onto tape?

Yeah, the only reason why they would edit it was so that they wouldn't erase it.

How long were you working at Calliope?

Three or four years. I met New Kingdom there. They were just randomly coming in for a session and then I started working with them, basically becoming part of the group. I produced their record and I mixed that at Greene Street. I started moving out of Calliope when I started doing production for them.

I'm curious about those two New Kingdom records since you brought them up. I remember when they came out, but I was a little too young to be really into them. It doesn't sound like anything else, much less that their peers were doing at the time. What was the response to those records back then?

A lot of confusion. It wasn't hip-hop enough for the hip-hop people and it wasn't rock enough for the rock people. I remember the A&R guy for our label in Canada said, “Oh man, I pulled the cassette tape out of the R&B A&R guy's garbage can and basically told him off saying this record's brilliant.” We had a pretty good response in England. The label was kind of based out there, but England was also a bit less stratified. Hip-hop culture is American culture and in England it was just music, so people dug it, but here it was just way too weird for the mainstream.

Sonically, was there a particular philosophy or approach to those New Kingdom records? They’re so heavy sounding…

Everything was slowed down, as thick as possible and as not shiny and glossy as possible, dirty, dirty. As weird as I could get away with, trying to be unconventional, trying to do something different. When we were doing the first record, Cypress Hill came out and we were like, “Oh yeah, this is dope.” The Beastie Boys started doing stuff that was kind of similar and like that. So, we weren't really the only ones out there, but they should have marketed it more to the skateboarding kids and stuff like that. Hip-hop was only just crossing into that culture. It was the beginning of that back then in the early nineties.

Photo courtesy of Scott Harding

Yeah. They would've still been pioneers or like outliers in a way, if y'all would have leaned into the skate punk audience…

Yeah. All the rock rap stuff that came out like Judgment Night and all that stuff just seemed so lame—the rock guys didn't really understand how to make hip-hop records and the hip-hop guys were just doing it for the money. They didn't really have much knowledge of much rock music. When we went to make the second record, everyone was like, “Well, what's the new record gonna sound like?” I'm like, "Well, I don't know, but definitely not like the first one."

It was a definite idea to make the second one different and move forward. I played a lot more guitar on the record. I played guitar live with the band—we had a drummer, we had a percussionist, we had a DJ. We were playing all these little rock clubs and stuff and the turntables were never loud enough. I was like, "Let's just rent a big giant bass amp rig and run the turntables through that." It was a pretty monstrous sound.

For the production on those New Kingdom records, what were you using?

The same stuff at Calliope—we had an S-900 that I bought from Paul and we drove all the way out to Long Island and got it. Then we went to the Bronx to the record store where TR-Love (Ultramagnetic) lived and I bought all the breakbeat records that they had there. I'm like, "Okay, we got everything we need." A little tiny Alesis drum machine and a Tascam Portastudio—and that was it for the first record. When they sent us to England and we worked there, I would've used an AKAI S-1000 for that stuff, but still mostly sampling everything in mono. And then the second record I bought an AKAI S-950 and I bought the SP12. So that was mostly just the 950 and SP12. And then right near the end of the record, I think I bought my very first laptop and it had Studio Vision software.

At that point I knew how to use most of the software programs. They were all just basically sequencers on computers. With a lot of the early hip-hop stuff, you're just using one-shot mode on the S-900, just the blip from a drum pad would trigger the loop. By the second record we were getting elaborate. We rented a 60-inch gong. It was so big. It wouldn't fit anywhere else. They must have had it in the reception of Carroll Music, I rented a pair of timpani drums too. We were all set to do the overdubs at Sorcerer Studios in Soho and the gong was so big it wouldn't go through the door—we had to put it in the freight elevator and take it down to the bigger studio.

We did a lot of the tracking for both of those records at a little place, it was just called GLC Studios, which was way down on Christopher Street by the West Side Highway—Paul and I also did a lot of tracking for the Gravediggaz and other stuff there. They had an AKAI MPC 60 and a S-1000 and we graduated to having a Neumann U87 microphone. Apparently their board used to be Donald Fagen's—an old Harrison console, which is actually a pretty cool console. I did quite a bit of work on that.

I did all my mixing at this place called Greene Street. They had a huge AMEC 2500, a very rare console that had George Massenburg automation built in. That was an amazing sounding console with total recall. It was kind of like their answer to the SSL.

I'm curious about Gravediggaz as well as RZA and Wu Tang. How did you get into that whole orbit of meeting those guys and working with them?

Through Prince Paul and the Gravediggaz. Of course I knew him from working at Calliope and then Resident Alien, and then we did the Justin Warfield record (1993’s My Field Trip To Planet 9) together. We did all kinds of stuff together—we did a Cypress Hill remix (“Latn Lingo, The Prince Paul Mix"). I was always his go-to engineer.

He brought Gravediggaz to Gee Street, which is where New Kingdom was. I was surprised that they signed with them, but I'd already heard the demos. Paul had played them for me, the original six tracks or eight tracks that were on the demo that he did on his eight track. He brought the eight-track in and we just transferred all that stuff—“1-900 Suicide” and “Constant Elevation” and a couple other ones. That was the meat of that first record (Gravediggaz’s 6 Feet Deep. I think one of the ones that was on the demo was called “Pass The Shovel”, but that one never even actually made it on the album.

RZA just liked what I did and then started calling me to do stuff. I think the first thing I did outside of Gravediggaz for them was the “Can It All Be So Simple" remix—I just remember being in the studio all night, waiting for people to show up, that was sort of a common thing with Wu Tang. Then RZA asked me to go out to L.A. They were so far behind on Wu-Tang Forever that they asked me and Carlos Bess—the guy who had recorded the first record—to go out to LA and he rented Ray Parker Jr.'s studio. It was called Ameraycan Studios ad it had two identical rooms. It was a big lounge and then on either side of the lounge there was an identical SSL room.

I started out mixing the Gravediggaz record (1997’s The Pick, The Sickle And The Shovel), which I hadn't recorded at all. Paul had very little to do with that record. Most of it was produced by RZA and his camp, but he wanted me to mix it. Carlos had Wu-Tang Clan’s “Triumph” up the whole week on, in the other studio, just sitting around, waiting for people, and all the guys dribbled in from New York. RZA wanted them all in LA because he didn't want them to get caught up and just have the focus. Each of those guys would show up with six guys. So, you know, the couch got full quickly.

At that point you're bringing in different people, different attitudes and energies. You're dissipating the focus by bringing in all these different cats.

They had already done all their solo records and stuff. I think a bunch of stuff from Dirt’s record (Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s Return To The 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version) got leaked. So RZA was really paranoid and he refused to let the tapes go into the vault at the studio. The guy's like, “I have a temperature controlled vault, it's got a lock on it. I don't trust anybody." So Carlos and I had to take the tapes back to the hotel every night, 16 reels of 2-inch tape. You know how big those two inch boxes are? It's the size of a record, but two and a half inches thick. I'm like, "You really think throwing those into the trunk of a cab every night, going back to Toluca Hills is a better idea than leaving it here?" But he insisted.

One time when we were getting them someone was driving us home. We put the tapes in (mastering engineer) UE Nastasi's car and we got out and we all went back to the spot and crashed. Then, we showed up the next day and no one can find him—he's got all the reels in the back.

I'm pretty sure the first time I remember I saw your name back in the day though Wordsound Records.

My first solo record. That was the first label that I actually started putting my own music on.

Could you just talk a little bit about that scene—Crooklyn Dub Consortium and all of that dark experimental stuff that was coming out of New York at the time?

There was sort of a scene—whether you wanna call it "illbient" or dark dub or whatever. llbient was a thing that was going around. The Wordsound scene revolved around this guy (writer/producer and Wordsound label owner) Skiz Fernando—who was also known as Spectre and the Ill Saint—and he put out beats and stuff. I met him when I was doing Vernon Reed's record with Prince Paul and Teo Macero and he came to the studio.We started talking and then he would call me and say, “Oh, you live like three blocks from me. let's make a track together.” It would just be us collaborating on something—the other half of the time it would be like, “Scotty, I can't get my sampler to trigger, get over here.” I'd go over there and I'd fix the thing. We became really good friends and would ask me for tracks.

It was just Skiz curating a lot of these things like the Subterranean Hitz compilations. I got my boy Djinji Brown on one of those—Sensational was around and all these different people. He'd just get tracks from everybody and then put a record together. Then he asked me to do my own record and I did that and a bunch of collaborations with him. Dubadelic—that would've been Skiz and me on four tracks and then Skiz and somebody else and Tony Maimone (bassist with Pere Ubu and They Might Be Giants). He’d collaborate with a bunch of different people. He was always really into dub and he got a tiny bit of seed money back in the day from Bill Laswell. Bill was sort of like the godfather of WordSound in a way, just sort of overlooking stuff and Skiz checking in with him. I ended up buying my console off of Bill about 20 years ago, which is what I have in my studio now.

S you brought up your studio, could you talk a little bit about some of the gear that you're working with presently?

I have a Neve 8014 broadcast series console with original BAE 1066 mic preamps and the 2254 compressors. It's kind of like a hybrid digital/analog set up—I use the console to mix and I don't really mix in the box.

We've got a two-inch MCI 16 track machine that we inherited from Medeski, Martin and Wood when they took their studio apart. I made two of the three records I produced for them on that tape machine. I have a big Pro Tools system—56 ins and outs—and I use a lot of analog compressors. Vintage Tridents; the Universal Audio 1176LN; Teletronix LA-2, LA-3, LA-4, LA-22. Some Geoff Daking stuff, mic pres, EQs, and a couple of his compressors.

Are you using a lot of outboard reverbs and stuff like that?

Yeah. I've got a vintage tube EMT 140 plate reverb—that's mounted in my live room. I've got a Demeter spring reverb and I have a Lexicon 300 digital reverb, but almost 80% of everything I do is just with that plate. Everyone's just like, "Oh my God, what did you put on my voice? It sounds amazing. The plate's on everything—just like the way they used to do records back in the day.

What kind of like mics and monitors are you using?

I use passive ProAc Studio 100 speakers with a BGW 500 amp. I don't have a huge mic collection, but I use a lot of ribbon mics and I got a couple of tube mics like a U47 clone. I don't use a lot of condenser mics really, mainly because I didn't have a lot of money for those, but also because they sound warmer and there's too much brightness in music. Same thing with the speakers—they have a very analog kind of sound to them. They're not really hyped up in the high end, like that really bright digital kind of sound. Some of them can be good if you tweak them, but I just have a very analog kind of approach to everything which kind of bites me in the ass a lot of the time when people want recalls.

Could you walk me through a typical mix of yours?

Usually if somebody sends me a song to mix, I'll open it up on my Pro Tools system or convert it—sometimes they just send audio files, and I’ll make a ProTool session out of it. I double-check that I got everything, I'll listen to the rough mix maybe once or twice just to make sure everything's there, and I basically start with the foundation. If it's a conventional song, like a hip-hop song or a rock song, I’ll start with the drums—I sort of build it up and get them sitting where I see them or the direction. By then, I'll have listened to the song and been familiar with the band—if it's a record I'm producing and I'll want to use a different drum sound.

I don't like to mix an album and just have it be the same. IThe only time I ever got mentioned in the New York Times was when they reviewed the Sex Mob record. I guess the guy interviewed Steven Bernstein and he’s like, “He uses a different reverb on every song.” Like it was some revelation, you know? Back in the day I'd be like, "Okay, pull the patch bay and then re-patch. Now I'm just too old and lazy to do that, but I will.

Anyway, I'll kind of look at stuff and organize it on my laptop or on my iMac, and then take it to the studio, load it into my computer there and assign separate tracks for everything. I've got a 32-channel console and a 16-channel Neve Portico sub mixer—if it's a big mix, I'll put all the effects on that 16-channel with two stereo outputs.

I'll use an output for reverbs and an output for delays and bring that back on four channels of the console. Then I'll have 28 channels to bring things up separately. I'll patch as many compressors as I think I might need into the inserts of some of the interfaces so that I can access analog compressors as if they were plugins. Then I'll basically start toning instruments and getting the balance and vibe right.

I was doing this weird free jazz poetry thing the other day—Marshall Allen was on it and like half of the (Sun Ra) Arkestra, this record called Outros Espaço by my boy Rodrigo Brandão from Brazil. I was going to Brazil a lot before my accident, so I continue to do a lot of work with Brazilian people. The first couple of songs were these wild free jazz kind of things with acoustic bass and drums and saxophone. It was for this art installation, so I was going for a very dry and dead sound, whereas the record with Marshall was really spacy and weird.

Then I came to a different ensemble—which was percussion and sampler and saxophone and trumpet—and it was all kind of abstract. And I thought, “Well, let me go for a different vocal sound on this”. So I went for a far different vocal sound and used the Eventide H3000 Ultra-Harmonizer to give me this really weird sort of speedway delay kind of vibe. That starts to change the tone of something in terms of how you're approaching a certain instrument—particularly the voice. Since most music is vocally led, you just try to get a direction from that and create a unique atmosphere for that particular song.

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