Producer's Corner: E. Dan & Big Jerm (I.D. Labs)
The longtime production team for Wiz Khalifa and now Mac Miller speak about having a studio in the right place at the right time, and how hardworking artists who connect with fans make the difference.
Pittsburgh studio, ID Labs is controlled by the production and engineering double act of E. Dan and Big Jerm, their names are synonymous with the Western Pennsylvania Hip Hop scene. Playing fundamental roles in the emergence of Wiz Khalifa and possibly the most highly anticipated artist on the Hip Hop wire right now, Mac Miller, E. Dan and Big Jerm are about working from the ground up.
As producers go, their discography might not boast the names that their cohorts’ display but their hands on experience, creative powers and just all round industry acumen put them on a different level. Considered the go-to guys in Pittsburgh, the city which up until Wiz had yet to conceive a number one selling Hip Hop act, this duo have taken the highs with the lows, all in their stride.
Proud of their brethren and gratified with their accomplishments thus far, Mac is fishing for a potential #1 debut later this week with Blue Slide Park. Yet there is no ego prevalent when talking to these guys. They continue to focus on the future and their hopes of working from the ground up, just like they did with Wiz and Mac, with burgeoning acts from beyond state lines.
Constantly learning and embracing technology, they touch on their beginnings in this interview, how to make the best out of a bad situation and just what they are on the look out for when talent comes knocking.
HipHopDX: How did you guys get together?
E. Dan: Well, I.D. Labs is a studio I set up in about 2004, [Big] Jerm, I guess came on board about four years ago and started working with me as an engineer. Since then we have just been producing and working on projects together.
DX: The recession has effected so many studios, has it hindered you guys in any way?
E. Dan: Well we are a small place, it's not a full on Hit Factory kind of place and also we’re in Pittsburgh, so we have pretty low overheads and there’s not a whole lot of options in terms of studios around here and we tend to do pretty good work and word travelled fast early on and we’ve just managed to stay busy.
I think a lot of studios our size have been the ones that have escaped going under. These huge facilities with all these overheads and with the industry being the way it is now – the budgets aren’t there and these places just can’t support themselves. Where as for smaller production facilities like this, it’s a little bit easier and everything is scaled down and it is easier to work with the budgets there.
Obviously beyond that, we’ve just had some great luck with the artists that come through here, that have taken us beyond Pittsburgh and made it the bigger thing and that’s been a big deal as far as us continuing to do this and for us to get bigger and bigger, and for us to make a living.
E. Dan And Big Jerm Explains How Wiz Khalifa's I.D. Labs Crossed Paths
DX: When you are talking about artists, I assume you mean Wiz Khalifa...
E. Dan: Well, him being the first one and Mac Miller more recently. But you know Wiz [Khalifa] was just recording a mixtape at one point and sort of stumbled in here and we started developing more of a relationship with him as producers. He went from being a client to being someone we were working directly with and it's a relationship we’ve kept together.
DX: A lot of the producers I have interviewed over the years do prefer working with an artist and getting to know them, as opposed to just sending beats out etc., as it equates to better music. Is that how it has been for you?
E. Dan: Yeah I think you create a better relationship and it's a lot better to work with somebody in the studio on a project as opposed to sending stuff out to people. You approach things differently and especially if it is someone who you work with over a period of years, you develop a sound, you develop a similar ear to that person for what you are going for. I think there’s just more of a comfort level when you are working. For me it’s just the more creative way to do things.
DX: Was it important for you guys as a collective to develop a "Pittsburgh sound"? Was that the intention?
E. Dan: I think that just sort of happened. Jerm has a style, I have a style and when we come together it’s almost like a third kind of style or sound. It’s something that has evolved and nothing that we were really conscious of, but I think being where we are it’s not a hot spot for any particular sound or at least it wasn't and it’s allowed us to do our own thing.
Big Jerm: I think the geography where Pittsburgh is located is like New York, the South and the West Coast, we just don’t have to follow anyone’s sound, we just bring all those influences together.
DX: Do you think it is important for producers to keep a clear head when creating music, not to be heavily influenced by other so-called "sounds," when creating your own sound so to speak?
E. Dan: I think it sort of is. I don't thing it's anything we contemplate while we are making new stuff but I don’t think there are any boundaries for us. I think part of that too, as far as Mac and Wiz, is having worked with these guys for so long, when they were at the very beginning of them being artists, there’s just not a lot of rules and you can just basically sit down and do whatever we feel and not feel that we have to do something specific or hit a specific mark. We can just do whatever comes out and it’s fine.
I.D. Labs Speaks About Their Role In Pittsburgh Hip Hop Community
DX: Are you now the go-to guys to get Pittsburgh/Philly acts on the map?
E. Dan: Locally? Sure, people are banging the door down a bit which is understandable as this is the first movement of Hip Hop to get out of the city. There’s certainly a whole load of hard work and talent, but also timing played a big part of everything coming together. But of course everyone around town thinks this is the place they have to go to.
DX: How hard is it to figure out just what the next big thing is going to be?
E. Dan: That’s kind of hard as I think Wiz and Mac were almost happy accidents that they came here. I mean, since the time we opened we were always the go to place to go for Hip Hop in the city because there just wasn’t that many places here geared towards that. Wiz had some success early on which is probably what led Mac and everyone else here, but as far as what’s next, it’s hard to say.
We have so many projects going on and so much stuff we are doing it is hard to stay completely in tune with all the artists that are here and what they are doing. Occasionally someone will grab our attention.
DX: How do you find talent and I guess what would be the best way of getting on the radar of E Dan and Big Jerm?
E. Dan: Hmm I don’t know, probably at this point for us, if they were in the city and we saw the beginnings of them making their own movement and creating their own buzz, because it is so different to what it was five – six years ago. These guys have to create their own buzz and it you’re not chances are there’s not going to be a whole lot of legs to what you are doing because it’s so easy to put yourself out there and if people catch on to it, they catch on to it. At this point, personally, we’re looking beyond just Pittsburgh and continuing to work with brand new artists, just not necessarily from here.
DX: Before you opened ID Labs what were you doing?
E. Dan: I was in a Hip Hop group [Strict Flow] based out of Pittsburgh for a number of years which is sort of what led me to getting into the studio stuff as I was producing for that group and working at different studios around town. We weren’t really getting what we wanted and eventually I started getting some gear together. I had deejayed around town a lot and pretty much had a nice basement studio for a while and then decided to make it official. I got a building and started things.
Big Jerm: I started making beats in my bedroom and that was around the time I was graduating high school and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. So I went to audio engineering school in New York. I never really wanted to be a recording engineer but it just kind of happened. I met E through the production thing and found I could do that too and from there I met Wiz and Mac.
DX: Touching on education, do you think it’s necessary for kids to be educated?
Big Jerm: I think for what we do it’s not that important. Just from going to school in New York and meeting people I learned a lot outside of the music stuff about myself. I think it’s good for that. I think the first couple of weeks of actually working in the studio I learned more than the year I was in school. They can tell you stuff but it doesn’t really matter until you put it to use.
E. Dan: Me and Jerm are like opposite backgrounds, where he went to school and I never did and I think either way is a good approach. I just think most importantly is putting yourself out there and really committing yourself to doing it. For some people doing it through school is just a way they are more comfortable really. But you can do it either way in this business but nothing replaces hands on experience. It’s about having the commitment.
DX: Do you guys still find you are constantly learning?
E. Dan: Absolutely, I don’t think that process ever ends.
Big Jerm: Yeah and that's what I like about it, it keeps you from getting bored, there’s always something new to learn or a new way to do stuff.
DX: Technology has charged ahead over the last ten years. From a production standpoint what have the biggest advancements been for you guys?
E. Dan: I don't think this place would have been able to exist without the way technology has gone. I wouldn't have been able to afford the equipment you had to use 15 years ago and it’s got so affordable to have decent gear. But its definitely opened the doors pretty wide for people to get into it. Jerm uses FL Studio for most of his stuff.
Big Jerm: Straight on the laptop and I can do whatever I need to do anywhere.
DX: Do you think that had to happen, producers being able to work absolutely anywhere?
E. Dan: I don’t think it had to but it changed the game a little bit, I wouldn’t say totally. I don’t really have a mobile set-up as far as the way I do things and the way I work. I’m older than Jerm and started before him time wise and I’m sort of used to hardware and big pieces of gear. I’ve tried working off a laptop but it just doesn’t work for me, it doesn’t feel real. For Jerm, it works perfectly. I don't think it’s something you have to have the ability to do but it certainly helps nowadays. There’s no budgets that exist, especially for newer and mid level producers where you are going to go to another town to work with an artist where you say you need a dozen pieces of equipment in the studio. That’s not going to happen and they expect you at this point to turn up with a laptop and be ready to go.
Big Jerm: I feel if technology wasn’t how it is I probably wouldn’t have even got into this as I fell into it when someone showed me FL Studio. It wasn’t accessible to me and it wasn’t like I was going to go out and buy an MPC back then. I didn’t really know what that was at that point. So technology was a huge thing for me.
DX: What producers have been instrumental in your careers?
E. Dan: I would say we probably have a lot of the same influences. But I’ve been a fan of Hip Hop for 25 years so I love the classic guys like [DJ Premier] and Pete Rock. I really love guys like Pharrell and Organized Noize, a cool organic sound which at the same time is futuristic and different. But all the people you’d expect I guess.
Big Jerm: My influences are Pete Rock and Kanye [West]. I like [Danja Handz] too, it just depends what I am into.
DX: Touching on the Warner situation, when Wiz was signed there, how did that turn of events affect you as a unit as Wiz dipped out for a minute but came back stronger than ever?
E. Dan: Yeah at the time we thought "this is it," but then the harsh reality of what it means to get signed came crashing down. Warner [Brothers Records] definitely dropped the ball with him but he may not have been ready at that time and regardless of whether or not they did what they should have done with him, it took that situation and took that situation of going away for him to really start to find his path and his overall style. I think it was important for him to do that away from being signed to a major label. To me that's what he did, he realized at that point that regardless of if he was signed or not, he had to do that on his own and create it himself and his buzz. Between Twitter and YouTube. He almost single-handedly pulled himself out of where he was at and created a buzz for himself. That was what it took, that situation and going away.
DX: How influential were you during that time?
E. Dan: We continued to work and put projects together, but it certainly wasn’t me telling him to jump on Twitter. For our part, I don’t think it changed a whole lot, it was always the same process whether it had been stuff for Warner Brothers of just mixtape stuff. It's as nice getting the label checks when they were there, but then they weren’t. We always believed in it too, even when that situation faded away we were all still a part of it, none of us just felt like it was the end of the road. It was just that that way wasn’t the way we needed to be going, but we all stuck with it as a unit.
DX: Are you involved in the High School project he is working on with Snoop?
E. Dan: We have a track on it and Jerm did a fair amount of the recording on it with Wiz.
DX: Does he come back to Pittsburgh a lot or is he more Cali-based now?
E. Dan: Not a lot, occasionally and as we get to working on new stuff hopefully he’ll come back some more. Just to nail him down in one place for any period of time is kind of difficult at this point. We just fall along with his schedule as best we can and go to where he is, more often than not.
DX: What’s going on with Mac right now?
E. Dan: [Releasing Blue Slide Park independently through Rostrum Records is] all a bit of a big experiment, so it’s exciting to see what will happen because he has such a huge buzz right now. I think the idea is to see how far this album will go without having a major label involved.
I.D. Labs Speaks About Producing The Bulk Of Mac Miller's Blue Slide Park
DX: Do you think it's the best way to do things these days?
E. Dan: It is "a way" to do things, but I think people are still just figuring things out. I do think things have changed so much in the last five-10 years, every day it's a new reality for people and every day people are doing things differently. If it works, then yes it is the way to do things; if it doesn’t, well people are going to say there is a need for these huge companies to be involved.
DX: It is tough out there
E. Dan: It is and Mac’s project has already been successful enough without a major. It’s just a case of what’s your definition of a successful artist or project. It remains to be seen if he can become a full mainstream artist without that major being involved. He doesn't need to as he can still be successful and make great money independently, he already is. If you sign with a major you open yourself up to bigger resources and other things can happen which is what happened with Wiz, but at the same time you have to be able to create that buzz on your own and make it about you. It’s all so transparent these days, people have to genuinely connect with you as an artist or it just doesn't work.
Big Jerm: -- Connect with you as a person as well not just as an artist.
E. Dan: Constantly, we have kids telling us to listen to something which they think we will hear something we like in and turn them into the next Mac. We did our part, we were there and helped out, but it happened because people were able to connect with these guys and they worked hard when they needed to work hard. It wasn’t us saying they were good and we started working with them and then the clouds parted and we rode off into the sunset. That’s a lot of kid’s perception.
DX: What do you think encourages that perception?
E. Dan: These people aren’t even aware of what it takes to get a project out that sounds good and has good songs. It’s a lot more work than people think, even with all the info at your fingertips these days. There’s a lot of work involved in being an entertainer and pulling that off until you are making a living off it. It’s not simple. It takes a team, a lot of different people to believe in you. People ignore that shit and think if they’re going to be a superstar on their own. It’s not just about impressing just one person and it taking off.
I mean there’s people looking at Mac and thinking he’s got [thousand upon thousands of] pre-orders and thinking that's nothing, but for what we are doing that's huge. I don't think a lot of kids are aware of what the real numbers involved at this point are. If you can give 1k of something away you’re doing something right.
DX: People give away music so freely these days, do you think that has had a knock on effect to people making money these days?
E. Dan: I think for producers it has. If they have any success at all they can go out and do shows and sell t-shirts and make money and a lot of the times it's off music they did with a producer who’s seeing nothing.
DX: You get people hitting you up for free beats?
Big Jerm: Every day
E. Dan: I think producers have to get smart and learn to make money in other ways. I think a lot of these Soundclick guys – they are generating money to do what they are doing.
Big Jerm: Back to technology, it’s so easy for kids to make beats these days – it’s just so saturated which is a big part of it too.
E. Dan: I think everyone in the industry has had to multitask too as you can’t make a decent living just doing one thing in the industry – those days are over. We do well because we run a studio, we mix and we produce records. You take any one of those things out of the equation, we aren’t doing as well as we are.