MTSU got a brief but impressive look at the power and expertise behind the throne Saturday when Grammy-nominated audio engineer Young Guru spent two-plus hours offering career — and life — advice to an enthusiastic audience.
Young Guru, who’s engineered records for Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Ghostface Killah, T.I., Mariah Carey and Drake as one of the minds behind Roc-A-Fella Records and Def Jam Recordings, also has been a DJ since childhood and was tour DJ for Jay-Z and West’s “Watch The Throne” world tour.
He was winding up a monthlong 13-city “Era of the Engineer” tour, sponsored by Grammy U, with his visit to MTSU.
Guru, whose given name is Gimel Keaton, told a standing-room-only crowd in the College of Education Building that people skills are just as important as specialized training to create a successful music industry career.
“An engineer’s job is to draw the best performance out of the person,” said the man called “The Sound of New York.”
“Being an engineer is psychology as well as knowing all the technology. If all you know is technology, you will not be successful. The biggest part of the job is figuring out the artist and what he or she needs to do with the record. What makes great engineers is figuring people out.”
Guru, 39, told the crowd, which included MTSU recording industry and music majors as well as visitors already in the business, that his childhood love for music and how things worked played a critical role in his life choices.
“A lot of places I started DJing were fire halls and school auditoriums, back when I was in seventh grade,” he recalled, explaining that he hauled all the equipment needed then — turntables, speakers, microphones, amplifiers, lights and more, including five or six crates of vinyl records — to each show in his Delaware hometown.
“My first entrance into engineering was figuring out how to set up those systems. I was 12 years old and had no money, so I had to figure out how to build one from scratch. Learning to solder speaker systems was the way I learned all of this.”
His parents encouraged him to follow his dreams, Guru said, so he set aside dozens of basketball scholarship options and chose Howard University to continue his education. He also DJed clubs around Washington, D.C., and met the people who were building rap and hip-hop into an industry, including Chucky Thompson, a producer who was to become one of his mentors.
Guru became tour DJ for rapper Nonchalant, which convinced him to expand his music engineering education with a six-month course at Omega Recording Studios in Rockville, Md.
“They had everything available that I could need,” he said. “They were very influential for me, in no small part because of the very small classes. You got a lot of attention and a lot of training there. I was the guy always begging for extra time in the studio.”
Feeling “stagnant” after years in Washington, Guru relocated to New York “ready to attack the industry” and began making connections with musicians and recording studios. Thompson helped establish Guru in the city, where he began working with rapper Derrick Angeletti and soon decided to work independently.
Guru was recording sessions with rapper Memphis Bleek, who was then signed to Roc-A-Fella Records, in 1999 when Jay-Z checked in on one of his label signees.
“Jay-Z watched us and then said, ‘I like the way you work. What are you doing the next couple of weeks?’” Guru recalled. “I said, ‘What do you THINK I’m doing, man?’ It was very simple, just a ‘hey, come to work for me.’”
That simple exchange has turned into a 14-year business and artistic partnership, leading to multi-million-selling records, multiple award nominations, deep respect within the music industry and the opportunity to share his knowledge with students around the world.
Last year, he launched the Young Guru Scholarship Fund at the School of Audio Engineering in Cape Town, South Africa, to offer more learning opportunities. He also created this spring’s “Era of the Engineer” lecture series with Grammy U, the college networking arm of The Recording Academy, to emphasize the importance of audio engineers in the record-making process.
This July and August he’ll be back on the road with Jay-Z to join Justin Timberlake for the artists’ “Legends of Summer” tour.
MTSU recording industry professor Melissa Wald worked with alumna Ashley Lamb Ernst, regional manager of chapter operations for the Nashville chapter of The Recording Academy, to bring Guru to campus.
“When music was analog, you had to master the equipment,” he told the audience. “Now we have a bunch of plug-ins and programs and everyone knows a little bit about a lot of stuff. …
“We’ve figured out that clicking on a mouse is not the way to make music. The future is how human users interface with that music and in finding new and interesting ways of making music.
“I’ve never used Auto-Tune in my life,” he continued, eliciting loud applause with his remark about the controversial pitch-adjusting processor.
“You take away who that person (being recorded) is. I just tell ’em to sing it again, 16 times.”
Guru had earlier joked about watching the instructional DVD for the digital audio workstation ProTools in the store and taking notes to tell clients he was a “certified ProTools engineer.”
“It’s weird to talk about this like it was ancient history, but that’s how fast the industry changes,” he said. “I listen to a lot of music and I live life. The key to longevity is being honest about what you are.
“Engineering, for me, is problem-solving. Physics is everything. It’s my hobby — the very foundation of how this and everything else works. If you open up your mind to understanding physics, you can open up your mind to understanding all kinds of music.”
— Gina E. Fann (firstname.lastname@example.org)