Filed under: Features,Interviews,Non-Rapper Dudes,Not Your Average,Video Clips
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
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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