Interview by Anthony Gordon
Edited by Stephen Fortner
For the past 25 years, Che Pope has been the secret weapon behind the most timeless hits in hip-hop and R&B. The Boston-born producer combines a virtuoso’s musical ears with sonic savvy on par with the world’s top recording engineers. An early protégé of Wycelf Jean and Dr. Dre, he has crafted beats, melodies, and soundscapes for Aretha Franklin and Lauryn Hill on one hand, and Kanye West and Busta Rhymes on the other — which leaves us needing a third hand for his extensive film scoring work with cinema legends like Hans Zimmer.
Antares’ Anthony Gordon sat down with Che to discuss his career, insights on success, and his use of Auto-Tune both as a problem-solving utility and a means of deep creative expression.
Tell us about your formative musical influences and some early experiments.
I started with a little Tascam four-track cassette machine, mostly doing instrumentals. A lot of hip-hop, but other stuff, too. I come from Boston, so I was into rock and punk, too. I went to a predominately Black college [Hampton University in Virginia] but my freshman roommate was a Deadhead from Indiana. So, both rap and the Grateful Dead blasted from our dorm room. I was also into Led Zeppelin. I was just trying to get what was in my head onto tape. Between 1990 and ’91, my sophomore year, I got good enough that I talked the head of the music department into letting me use the school studio whenever it wasn’t occupied.
Were you mostly making beats, or original melodies?
Both. At the school studio and my friend’s place, there were a lot of keyboards. There were Roland D-50s, Yamaha DX7s, and on a four-track, you make a pattern based on how your drum machine works — loops of four, eight, or 16 bars to put your songs together. It wasn’t really until I started with Teddy Riley in ’93 that I got song structure drilled into my head. I credit him with that.
That was your first professional gig?
Yes, for a year. I didn’t make any placements in that year, but I learned a lot. Then, I moved to New York. My first formal placement under my own name was on Wyclef Jean’s solo album Carnival. That was in ’96 or ’97, right after the Fugees album.
You famously produced The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
From scratch, in her mother’s attic! Before her, we worked on Aretha Franklin’s A Rose Is a Rose. That’s how we got the gig. Clive Davis was the first to give Lauryn and Wyclef some real opportunities. We got Carlos Santana to play on the song “To Zion.” Lauryn could hear exactly what she wanted in her head very keenly but didn’t produce in terms of touching the machines. Kind of like a Rick Rubin. She was like, “I like three things: Wu Tang, soul music, and reggae. Let’s go!”
You also worked with P. Diddy at the height of his popularity. Being young and surrounded by the party aspect of the industry in L.A., how did you stay focused?
This is being 100 percent honest. I had a friend who was hugely influential on my music but was also a drug dealer. At one point — and this is while I was still signed with Teddy Riley — I went to his house to get some of my equipment in his garage. We were in the car, leaving his house to get lunch. Let’s say his world imploded, and I was implicated just by being in the car. I had to go on probation. I had to go home to Boston. It was very humbling. My house arrest let me work at [Boston music store] E.U. Wurlitzer.
Later, when I got to New York and started with Wyclef, this experience had given me the epitome of focus. I had never sold drugs but I saw the racism in the court system firsthand. The prosecutor in Virginia told me he knew I was innocent, but he still had his “rocket docket,” and by that he meant his high conviction rate. He made me take a deal. Afterwards, I didn’t take things for granted anymore. I treasured my time in the studio and I treasured my long-term girlfriend — which helped, and we’ve now been married 20 years. So, I emerged from all that with a laser focus.
How did that laser focus help your career?
Preparation plus opportunity equals success. I started having record after successful record. Carnival led to a remix of “No, No, No” for Destiny’s Child. It blew up. Then I did all the stuff with Lauryn, leading to her album. We weren’t going in there thinking, “We need to make a hit record.” So, I would say the focus was on enjoying what we were doing and making what Lauryn wanted to hear real, and the success came from that.
In the early 2000s, did you focus more on hip-hop or vocal records?
I was really doing all vocalists. I hadn’t done any rap until Dr. Dre. I had scored a couple of movies and worked with Hans Zimmer, some licensing and sync stuff. There were some hip-hop instrumentals but most of it was vocals. Dre was my return to hip-hop. It was like going back to college. Dre was such a professor. He was already a master of the mixing desk.
How do you approach cutting vocals with a rapper versus a singer?
Remember that, back then, these were big-budget studios. You were always on the clock. On Miseducation, I was often in there for 24 hours. I really got to learn the best ways to use different mics, preamps, compressors, and such. So, when I got to Dre I had that vocabulary. Dre had a very specific vocal chain that he always wanted people to use. He used the Sony C800 mic, which is what we mainly recorded Lauryn Hill with. He was a Neve [preamp] and Tube-Tech [compressor] kind of guy. To this day, that’s the vocal chain I use. I got to sit on Dre’s shoulder and listen to every word. I hung on every detail of what he did in a mix. That was my process.
What’s it like giving vocal direction to a superstar like Mary J. Blige or Aretha Franklin?
Aretha was amazing, and I think my experience with Lauryn helped. With Aretha it was really about translating the vibe we were looking for. Her and Whitney Houston were both very technically skilled. Mary, on the other hand, was all about vibe. We’d have to tune her a bit, and that was in the early days of tuning. We used some of the Electro-Harmonix stuff. So, I’d say where Aretha and Whitney needed coaching on the swagger, Mary had all that but needed a little more technical direction.
Do those kinds of characteristics pop out at you the first day in the studio?
That’s where having a trained ear goes a long way. I can immediately assess someone when they open their mouth. Anyone can be pitchy but after they warm up, are they still pitchy? Then, some singers may not be pitchy but their intonation leans flat or sharp. I would say in the first 20 or 30 minutes, I know if I’m working with a singer-singer or someone who is more about vibe. In the latter case, I’m going to maximize the swagger, keep them in a comfort zone, and try to get an amazing tone out of them. If they’re a technical singer, I’m going to push them a little harder because I know I can.
You’re still working with newer artists like The Weeknd, with new sounds. How have you managed to stay so relevant?
Because I’m older, I’ve known a lot of other producers who aren’t as relevant or active as they once were. Maybe I’m not as relevant as I once was. What I am is still in the loop of hip-hop and pop culture. Pharrell likes to say he’s a grown-ass teenager, and I keep a teenager state of mind. It’s easy to tune out when new music comes along that may not resonate with you right away. If you stay open-minded and keep consuming it, though, you won’t sound forced. If it sounds like you’re trying too hard, you’ve already lost. That was one of the first things Dr. Dre taught me.
How did you first encounter Auto-Tune and get it into your workflow?
The first person to introduce me to it was Dave Pensado. Dre’s engineer, Mauricio Iragorri, also used it in very clever ways. So did an engineer friend named Warren Riker. This was before that “T-Pain” Auto-Tune sound got popular. We’d been using it more subtly — not as an audible effect — and it was great. Prior to Auto-Tune, it was challenging tuning vocals. We were getting the job done but it was cumbersome. Mauricio was really clever. We’d use some tuning devices meant for guitar. We’d use samplers and get creative. We weren’t experimenting on purpose; we were trying to find solutions to a problem. When we discovered Auto-Tune, it was like, “This is the solution.”
So, previously, you were cobbling together technology to solve tuning issues?
Yeah, when you could get that from one product, it was like, “Whoa!” Sort of like when anyone first used Pro Tools after coming up on tape. Because I had worked with Hans Zimmer, I was technologically savvy because, of course, he had this huge studio with racks of samplers and synths and computers. I was heavily into Logic at that point, and when I went to Dre, he was still on the Akai MPC. We integrated it with Logic, and I was able to pull up my plug-ins and VST instruments in Logic. I brought [pioneering software sampler] GigaStudio with me, too. Everyone there wanted to duplicate my rig. So, we found all these solutions to our problems, with Auto-Tune high on the list.
Do you remember the first record you used it on?
Probably Busta Rhymes. We did “The Game” when I first got to Dre. Also Eminem, though I don’t recall exactly which record. This was probably 2005 or ’06.
How much did you use Auto-Tune going forward once you discovered it?
It became such a go-to. It got popular with T-Pain and all that. I never really caught that wave. I never worked with too many vocalists who wanted that effect full-on. Then rappers got into cadences and making things sound more sing-songy. All of a sudden I could make these rappers sound more melodic. They’d come back 30 minutes later and say, “F***, that’s me?” “Yeah, that’s you.”
What was the most surprising thing about using it at that time?
How much we used it on rappers without them knowing it. Because we didn’t radically change their tone. Even when people were hating on T-Pain and Jay-Z put out that song “Death to Auto-Tune,” I’d tell rappers, “Yeah, we’ve been Auto-Tuning you for years” and they’d be like, “Really?”
Did any rappers knowingly welcome it?
From the time we started using it with Dre, Kanye West was always a big fan of Auto-Tune. He full-on embraced its potential. From stretching the limits of what the effect could do to experimenting with tunings, Kanye took it to another level. A brilliant young lady named Laura Escudé ran his Auto-Tune and playback at live shows, which were wonderful to see. I had used it as a utility, but Kanye used it as an instrument.
Do you use its MIDI aspects as well?
I still just run stuff through it and record. But I do use analog synths that have issues with tuning. There, I can overuse the effect and get cool new things happening. It was Kanye that made me realize that anything goes.
On one hand, a casual listener can’t hear it but the vocals sit better in the mix, the transients are smoothed out, and it sounds more pro. The other extreme is artists like T-Pain or Daft Punk. Then in the last few years, artists have split the difference. It’s an instrument but not a robot.
It’s such a standard now that even the kids know the Auto-Tune settings they want, and they’ll tell the me or the engineer — or set it themselves. Many of them even have their own preset vocal template.
Do you track vocalists with Auto-Tune in their cue mix, to build confidence?
A lot of singers insist on singing with it. But I prefer to do it afterwards, because I like to get the best performance I can get naturally. I’m also very strategic about how I tune. I may not use it on the entire vocal, things of that nature. At the end of the day, I’m working with that artist and I’ll try to compromise.
What version of Auto-Tune do you use? Pro? EFX+?
It depends. If we’re just cranking out ideas in session, I’ll use EFX for instant gratification. A lot of rappers prefer EFX as well. When I’m working with melodic vocals and a singer, say, Christina Aguilera, it’s always Pro, although she doesn’t need much of it!
How can young producers learn to use Auto-Tune from a technical point of view, but also develop the same kind of judicious approach you have?
I think it would behoove them to do so because it strengthens you as a producer even if some producers find engineering tedious. Even if you do have a great engineer, you need that skill set in order to communicate with them. They can’t read your mind. When I’ve assumed that in the past, I haven’t been happy with the results. Or, if you’re a musician and understand some theory, you should use that to maximize the use of the software. Expanding your comfort zone makes you more creative, which leads to better records.
On that note, what’s your best advice for someone who looks at you and says, “That’s the guy I want to be” ?
Don’t go in there thinking, “I have to make a hit.” Maybe it’s because I used to dig on old vinyl and study those records, but I’ve always thought of great songs more as artifacts than hits — something that’s still here after an artist is gone. It’s an opportunity to leave something behind for people to discover. When I’m old and my grandkids discover it, or after I’m gone, I want to have made something that stays out of the gray area. Maybe people will love it, maybe they’ll hate it, but stay out of the in-between. That’s like a lukewarm latté. So, don’t try to make a hit. Just try to make good music.