Non-Rapper Dudes Series – Mario Rodriguez Interview, Part 1
Wednesday November 24th 2010,
Filed under: Features,Interviews,Non-Rapper Dudes,Not Your Average,Video Clips
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With a career in the music industry spanning over 30 years, Mario ‘Not Rude’ Rodriguez has worked on a lot of records as an engineer and mixer. Amongst his hip-hop projects, he’s been involved with records from Mobb Deep, LL Cool J, Biggie Smalls and Public Enemy to name a few. For the first part of our discussion, Mario gives a little background to how he got started and his thoughts about music.

Robbie: You’ve lead quite a varied career so far, in terms of who you’ve worked with.

Mario Rodriguez: I’ve been around for a long time, so I’ve survived by being a little bit of a chameleon.

Do you prefer any particular style of music though?

If I can be really candid – I’m a bit of a whore, and I will turn wherever I can feed myself. In a business like this, if you do one thing you get stereo-typed very easily, and I don’t particularly like that. I like to have a variety of types of work. My musical taste is incredible eclectic – if you looked at my record collection you would probably call a shrink or have me committed. The gammut of music that’s in my collection is so extensive, so expansive, that you think that, ‘He must be out of his mind!’ If I’m working a project, I will not to listen to any other music. I don’t like to be thinking about somebody else while I do work.

Did you have any formal training?

I come from the era where there were really no formal schools for audio. Most engineers from my generation are either electronics engineers or musicians. It’s funny, ‘cos the great majority of engineers that I know are frustrated drummers like myself! I did a training course for something called the Recording Institute of America. We’re talking around 1977. It was a hands-on training course, it was a real ratty studio and they had an 8-track machine, and like a lot of studios have done now that the industry is weak, they turned to training. Whoever the chief engineer is will give you the training course. I did a couple, but it’s more like a guide. It gives you the bug but it doesn’t necessarily give you a hell of a lot of real-world training. It just shows you what happens with the equipment and what it does, so it’s more of a guide to see if this is what you really want to do or not. I got the bug and I dug it, so knock on doors, find a job at a recording studio as a messenger and work my way up.

So it’s a case of developing your ear as you go?

It helps to be young when you get started so you can allow yourself to be trained, and if you’re lucky hook-up with the right people. I was very, very lucky – I came out of a studio called Skyline in New York, that doesn’t exists anymore, unfortunately. That place was the second or third studio in New York to have the SSL console, and I can say that the SSL basically made my career. I learned it well, and there were very, very few people in New York City that knew the board, and it was becoming very popular. I actually trained a lot of engineers that were big at the time because they didn’t know the console. I would run the console for them and train them as we went, so they’d learn the console from me and I’d learn even more by training them.

What was your first solo engineering session?

Around 1981, 82. Kevin Eubanks was doing an album, I was a very green assistant engineer and the chief engineer of the studio was incredibly sick – he had the flu – and he had to leave in the middle of the session. Nobody else available and he said, ‘You can do it’. I had done little things here and there, but to make a long story short I blew it and erased a solo I should have never erased. The beginning of an illustrious career! [laughs] It was devastating to me – I was working with major artists – Wynton Marsalis and Branford Marsalis were the players on the session. Branford was playing the flute, and the flute is the solo that I wiped. But Branford was like, ‘Don’t worry about it, dude. I’ll go in there and do a better solo! Relax!’ That was killing me though. Back then, you only got one chance to screw-up. Yes. we had multi-track and we could re-do it, but it’s not the same as now when we have the possibility of recovering anything we do. I think it makes the process suffer a little bit, ‘cos people know that they have the chance and the spontaneity kind of goes away.

That’s interesting. The same could be said about digital samplers that now have unlimited sample time – it can make producers lazy.

At the beginnnings of digital, when samplers were first becoming popular, just the fact that background singers and session musicians would come into a session and instead of playing the parts the way they used to, now they would just play it once and say, ‘OK, I’m done! You can just sample it and fly it in. Bye!’ That’s another thing that made the process a little stale, because suddenly we stopped having the possibility of having variety in the process of for example having this little thing in one chorus that the other one didn’t have, that made it special. That life that music used to have became homogenized. It’s like the performance part of it just went away.

What are some of the early hip-hop projects you did? Was the Grandmaster Flash They Said It Couldn’t Be Done the first?

That was probably my introduction to hip-hop was on that album. I recorded a couple of things, I was mainly an assisatnt engineer throughout that project. That wasn’t my introduction to mixing yet. Mixing, I started doing dance stuff.

I have a record from 1988 by a group called Life ‘N Def [‘Gangster Boogie’ on Invasion Records] that has you listed as the engineer. Does that ring any bells?

You expect me to remember all the way back then? Dude, I don’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning! The first time I went to France I was interviewed by Groove Magazine, and the gentleman who was interviewing me asked me a question about the sound the sound that I got on a snare drum on the second beat of the third bar of a certain song! Even now, I don’t remember. I’m the type of person that doesn’t like to repeat himself or take notes about what I’ve done. One of the things I miss about the old days is sometimes things would happen that spontaneously that possibly could not ever be recreated ever again because they done in a particular acoustic space that doesn’t exist anymore. Now everything can be recreated a hundred thousand times, which becomes part of the conveyor belt way of making music, where people start repeating themselves and doing everything again and again. Whatever sound I had on that snare on that day, I wiped it from memory and just moved on. But it’s very fun that you’re asking me about this particular record. I do remember the record but I don’t remember the session. The Invasion connection came from my girlfriend who happened to be working there at the time.

Did you ever step into a programming or production role?

No. I’ve never made myself a programmer. I’ve always tried to maintain my identity as an engineer – mixer, more than anything else. What I like to do best is actually mix records. The recording process – when it was an acoustical medium – was something that I enjoyed thoroughly also, and whenever I record something I think about the mix as I’m recording. The term ‘producer’ has so many definitions in the music industry throughout history that I was credited as producer or co-producer of many records because of that, because I participated in the production of the record in such a way that I was given credit as that, even though I didn’t ask for it and wasn’t hired as such.

Mobb Deep’s Hell On Earth was an incredible record. What can you tell me about that project?

I’m very proud of that record, mainly because it’s the only record in my career where the producer felt comfortable to let me do whatever I wanted. I pretty much created every sound on that record. Havoc is a magnificent producer, and he came up with some awesome beats. I was able to – with his choice of samples – create some fairly unique sounds for the time. I worked very hard on that record, trying to make everything be new and unique. I did a lot of heavy processing on all the samples and every single component that went onto the record, and with the mixes I was given complete creative freedom to do whatever I needed to do to make the record strike. I don’t put a signature ‘Mario Rodriguez’ sound on anything that I do. I basically sit-down and listen to what I’m doing, and allow the music to pretty much talk to me and tell me what it needs and where I should go. I kind of go into auto-pilot and allow it to tell me what it needs, how it needs it, and why. It’s really not up to me – music has a life of it’s own, and music has an intelligence of it’s own. It can actually communicate to me and tell me that over here I need to do this and need to do that. On that record, I was able to very freely accomplish that and very freely do all those things without anybody else getting involved. Sound-wise, that record is 100% me.


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17 Comments so far
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Another good one. Thanks for that.

Comment by Antonio 11.24.10 @

incredible content! I think fans of these classic records would benefit a great deal by listening to guys like Mario discuss creating the final product. You are right of course Hell on Earth IS an incredible sounding album and Havoc cant take all the credit. Sound engineers are important. More of this please. Props on the site. You got the best interviews.

Comment by jason 11.24.10 @

Robbie– where you have ‘gamma’ I bet Mario said ‘gamut’

Otherwise, great idea.

If you can, I’d like to know what Mario thinks of the ‘loudness’ wars on digital music, tho’ that’s often the fault of mastering engineers, not the people who record it.

More people complain of this– rightfully– in dynamic rock music than hip-hop (or modern r&b, which sucks anyway) but sonically, I’m ** NOT ** impressed with most modern albums.

How the fuck could Raekwon, for example, not have done a better job on “OB4CL2”? Etc.

Thanks for any insight, Mario.

Comment by Saratoga N. Blake 11.24.10 @

@Saratoga N. Blake That’s what I thought at first, but after playing it back ten times it sounded like ‘gamma’. Doesn’t make any sense though so I changed it back. We discuss more technical stuff in the second part as well.

Comment by Robbie 11.24.10 @

Great interview. HoE is one of my fav albums. It was dope reading how much Mario was involved in creating that sound. Nice to see these dudes get some shine!

Comment by Catchnwrek 11.24.10 @

Sound engineers are on a whole ‘nother musical level. The worst is when an album clearly needed a better sound engineer and would have been dope if it was mixed better and the sound had a nice thump from any type of speakers. For example Scaramanga or Sir Menelik’s album the Enstein Rosen Bridge had some great beats, but some of em sounded like shit because they were all treble or sounded like they were recorded in a cave or some shit. Its good to read more about the technical guys in the background that are responsible for the sound of the music we listen to. You won’t see shit like this on any other site.

Comment by gstatty 11.25.10 @

Hey guys, thanks for the comments, nice to know some people care about the guys behind the glass. SNB, I agree with you about the loudness wars, it’s truly a drag to hear everyone using a maximizer without any regard to the sound quality of the record. That said, the fault usually falls in the idea that music is about competition about trying to be “better” than everyone else, just like the question posed to women … bigger better? I will ask, “is louder better”?damn, do I really want to go there?
ANYWAY, dynamic range is something that has been left behind, now it’s all about maximum level, being heard louder than the rest, and forgetting that music is about sensibility, about reaching into peoples souls and creating a feeling, a memory. Now all that’s being conveyed is : BUY MY RECORD IT’S THE LOUDEST. Considering the quality of music being recorded today, maybe all that is left to be competitive is being loudest, it certainly isn’t the quality of the music or the substance of the message.

Comment by Mario 11.25.10 @

WORD… the loudness wars make it hard to enjoy a record… the intensity ppl get from it isnt in the song itself.. its the inner ear going ape shit over the downpour of hail in the form of frequencies its receiving. this was a great read tho. i dont feel like an “old head” that dosent believe in the “louder is better” factor.

Comment by DIRTYKICS 11.25.10 @

Great read. Hell on Earth is a modern classic and (arguably) the Mobb’s creative apex. The minimalistic low-fi nature of the album is amazing when placed against the “shiny suit” rappers of the same period….. “Apostles Warning!”

Comment by JakeBiz 11.26.10 @


Comment by CHAZE. 11.26.10 @

Brilliant insight and interview as usual. It would be great if you can interview somebody like Steve Ett of Chung King.

Comment by Geen 11.26.10 @

wow, this guy worked on juicy – notorious BIG

Comment by BR 11.26.10 @

Great read, another winner for Unkut!
Bring back dynamic range!

Comment by pr2 11.28.10 @

Always thought HELL ON EARTH was so crisp and clear compared to other cassettes LOL!! Now i know why ..

Comment by setrule 12.02.10 @

JB, there is nothing lo-fi about ‘Hell on Earth’. It’s incredibly clear and crisp sounding, despite the ummm… obscure sounding samples. And the drums, man. The drums hit so hard.

It’s great reading something like this about that album. I’ve always felt that was the Mobb’s best album, despite the impact ‘The Infamous’ and ist admittedly more memorable standout tracks had.

Thank you, Mario Rodriguez!

Comment by Rood 12.08.10 @

Haha, yeah basically what setrule said.

Comment by Rood 12.08.10 @

Ive been following Mario since 1997, he was resposible for the mixing in the famous french record “Si dieu veut” By Fonky Family, personally that record was to me the most amazing mix/cohesivness id ever heard in Hip-Hop-along with Hell on earth around the same time period too.. The use of panning,ambience,etc. you could play that record through clock speakers and still have perfect clarity. This was an awesome read for me. Cheers Rob & Mario

Comment by Dontez43 08.19.13 @

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