For 34 minutes, we got to pick the brain of Che Pope, one of the most accomplished producers and teachers in the game.
He opens up about everything from his seminal work to advice for young producers who want not just technical proficiency, but to be better artists, smarter entrepreneurs, and wiser people.
We learn about both the technical brushstrokes of how he uses tools like Auto-Tune for vocal bonsai, and the mindset and passion that have carried him through banner projects with Eminem, Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Christina Aguilera, and countless others — all during his continued ascendance from production legend to industry shaper and entrepreneur.
He has GRAMMYS on the shelf, but it’s his North Star of seeking “timeless artifacts” in sound that make him shine still.
This is what production greatness sounds like, whole-hearted and fine-tuned.
ANTHONY GORDON: Thanks for coming out to join us here at the Auto-Tune booth. Today we’re here with a most honored guest — I would say he’s most known for this record or that record, but there’s too many of ‘em. There’s too many, not just great records: Classic. Timeless.
CHE POPE: Appreciate that.
ANTHONY GORDON: “We’ll be listening to forever” kind of records. I mean, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, very high among those seminal albums…
CHE POPE: That’s what I wanted to be known by. I didn’t want to…I don’t care if anyone knows me. Just know the music.
ANTHONY GORDON: You’ll be hearing that at weddings. Funerals. Forever. One of the fascinating things about Che Pope is not only is he a great maker of music, but an executive in the business and A&R man and generally just considered to be a very kind and gentlemanly figure in this business. Tremendous respect and love to Mr. Che Pope. Please give him a round of applause.
CHE POPE: Thank you. Nice to be here. It’s been a couple of years. Nice to be back.
ANTHONY GORDON: The community aspect is really what’s wonderful about it.
CHE POPE: Yeah. I like getting out of the studio.
ANTHONY GORDON: Let’s kick it off with early-career stuff. In the beginning and over the years, you’ve gotten some really big breaks from the heaviest people: Teddy Riley, Lauryn Hill, Hans Zimmer, Dr. Dre — the top of everybody. Big breaks are great, but you don’t keep getting them unless there’s a reason for it. What’s the reason that you keep getting those breaks?
CHE POPE: I think the number one thing is preparation, right? Meaning that you really have to work at mastering your craft, whatever it is you wanna do. I speak to a lot of young people, and the one thing I always tell them…they always tell me, “How do I get in the door? How do I get on? How do I get in the game?”
The number one piece of advice I always give is, “Master your craft.” Because then when the opportunity presents itself…because networking is the next aspect. Master your craft, be good at whatever it is you’re doing — if you’re songwriting; if you’re a producer and you make beats, learn how to play keys, learn how to engineer; if you’re an engineer, learn how to play keys so you understand tuning and things of that nature.
That way, when opportunity presents itself, you’re ready and you’re more than prepared. And I’m just living proof of it. There was no YouTube when I was coming up. There’s just so much more information to empower yourself with and make yourself bulletproof, whatever it is you do. I meet engineers that are like, “Hey, I do graphic design.” To me, the next generation is almost more talented because there’s more information out there, the ones who choose to really go get it.
Image Source | Credit: Daniel Lavian
ANTHONY GORDON: How lucky they are, too. I’m so jealous of you younger people.
CHE POPE: Oh, yeah. We just had to figure it out.
ANTHONY GORDON: You get Mix Magazine or something and hope they write an article about compression…
CHE POPE: Exactly. I was definitely a music store kid. I’ve told the story many times. I didn’t have any equipment. I went to high school near Berklee College of Music, there was a music store called E.U. Wurlitzer — shout out to E.U. Wurlitzer — because that birthed me, that birthed…Jeff Bhasker came through there. But the music store let me hang out, let me learn the equipment and play with it. So shout out to music stores. Be curious.
ANTHONY GORDON: Shout out to Jim’s House of Guitars. Basically they watched me when my parents weren’t around. So up until the early 2000s, you worked primarily on a lot of vocal albums. Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Aretha Franklin, Destiny’s Child, Mary. And then you shifted gears a little bit later. But before we get to that, I’m curious: As a producer, how do you give direction on a vocal take to Aretha Franklin?
CHE POPE: Well, fortunately, Lauryn wrote the song, and Aretha, just being respectful of the songwriter…she’s a purist as well, right? She’s just like, I trust you. And I think because she trusted Lauryn with the vocal and melody, Lauryn is the one who really gave her direction.
In terms of me working with so many vocalists — as a producer, when you’re coming up and learning, you work with acapellas, especially back then. So the way I created tracks…it’s very solitary, the way I started. And then Teddy helped shape me in other ways, but he really taught me the difference between a beat and a track and a song.
So I think that’s why I was so much more interested in working with vocalists to begin with, over rapping. Then I started working in more and more rap, but I definitely was more interested in working with singers because of the melody and…where could I take the track on a journey, you know?
ANTHONY GORDON: Are you a big lyrics guy? Do you think about the journey that’s being told, the story of the lyric? Are you more interested in the structures of songwriting and how that works musically?
CHE POPE: Yeah, I was. Growing up my hero was Curtis Mayfield, and I felt like he was one of the gods of songwriting and…obviously I studied Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson. So he’s great, and John Lennon — obviously, this is a fight between who do you like, Paul or John. I was a John guy and then I met Paul because we worked with him on Kanye, it was a funny thing.
I think that the storytelling aspect of songwriting…I feel like that’s one of the things that’s a lost art right now. So many get on the mic and just go in the booth and they just hum. And there’s nothing wrong with that, because you get melodies and so on and so forth. But just the craft of that, of the songwriting process and really laying an idea, living with it, coming back, studying it. That’s one of the things I’m trying to champion.
ANTHONY GORDON: It’s funny, that does still exist and it’s completely prevalent in country music. Country music is still 100% about the song, the storytelling, all that stuff. That’s not necessarily my cup of tea, but I do have tremendous respect for the craft.
CHE POPE: I have my different singers that I like in country music. Dolly Parton is one of my favorite all-time songwriters. She wrote a song about a breeze, and it was amazing. Obviously, “Ghetto Superstar,” “Islands in the Stream.” So that’s how these places, these songs, that I took from or sampled from, they came from me studying these songwriters.
ANTHONY GORDON: By the way, Curtis Mayfield is maybe my favorite.
CHE POPE: That’s definitely one of mine. I tuned my guitar in F sharp minor because I wasn’t a guitar player, I didn’t know anything about it. And I saw that he did that. So I did that.
ANTHONY GORDON: I can talk for 30 minutes just about Curtis Mayfield’s guitar style. But I don’t think that’s what we’re here for. So I’m interested: After you go through this period where you’re working with all these incredible singers, especially the most notable female singers of the last 40 years…
CHE POPE: Couple of ‘em.
ANTHONY GORDON: Yeah, a couple of ‘em. After that period, you seemed to move into your hip hop period. Where you were doing Eminem…
CHE POPE: I connected with Dre. So I moved to L.A. to work with Hans Zimmer. I had scored two movies and knew absolutely nothing about movie scoring. So I showed up at Hans’ door. He let me in. That was great for a year and a half, two years, then Hans and his business partner had a huge falling out and lawsuits and all that. I was starting to itch for the music industry again.
I was doing a lot of commercials and additional songs and movies and different things. I think the itch for making music drove me back. And I met Dre and within three weeks, I was on his personal production team. And that’s in the heyday of Em and 50 and The Game. We dove in headfirst. I think the first thing I worked on was Game. No, 50.
ANTHONY GORDON: Approaching a hip hop record versus a vocal album: Do you approach the recording process of it completely differently?
CHE POPE: I would say it depends on the artist, because all of them are different. For instance, someone like Eminem really likes to go off by himself, be isolated with the track. So we approach the track…when we’re making music every day, especially in the Dre process. What I liked about working with Dre, it was like, “Don’t forget it’s Dre,” but at the end of the day, there’s no rules.
So I didn’t have to sit there every day trying to make a Dre track. We made a dope track and it was like, “All right, then we’ll make it through a Dre lens.” So with Dre, we made really dope music, and then the artists would come in and they have 100 tracks to pick from. And then the different artists required different things. So with certain artists, Dre would be more hands on. We’d be working with directly — Busta, 50, Em — Em would go off on his own. The other guys wanted Dre and wanted us involved in the songwriting and that was great, the collaboration process. But Em was a genius. You give off a track, come back with three records in however long…he’d come back with three records and you’d be like, “What the fuck?”
ANTHONY GORDON: How do you inspire confidence in a singer? It seems like you’ve worked with the ballin’-est singers ever who probably are showing up with some confidence. I don’t think Aretha Franklin is coming in with the cold sweats…
CHE POPE: Most. I want to shout out this young lady who I worked with recently named Ama Lou. When I met her, she had one song that she had just put out on the internet with her skateboarding in pajamas. And I found her and did her EP and it helped get her a deal at Interscope. I think what I look for is people who already have an identity, who have a sense of self. So maybe that’s confidence. But also to me, it’s that they have a perspective. Don’t come to me as your producer to tell you who you should be. I need you to know that before we start. You tell me that. So that’s what I look for.
ANTHONY GORDON: When they’re actually in the studio singing…it’s such a vulnerable position. More than any other instrument, the human voice, especially if it’s your own song. You’re going to be judged on it, and if you’re successful, you’re going to be judged on a global scale. You’re going to get all the props, but also all the haters. So when somebody’s in the studio at that level — the highest level of the business — do you get that vibe from any of them? Do they have that kind of vulnerability or do you think they kind of just worked it out?
CHE POPE: I would say the majority of them have worked it out, but everyone’s vulnerable, right? Everyone, depending on what they’re going through in their career…sometimes you might be working with a singer who had a lot of success and then they declined. So they’re trying to get back. For instance, I worked with Christina Aguilera, who has unbelievable confidence in her vocals. But she already had tremendous success and was trying to…”I want to get back there.” So there was vulnerability, but in different ways, not in her vocal ability. It’s like, “Is this song for me or this is this melody for me?” So vulnerability showed itself in different ways.
Singing, especially, is still such an intimate and personal thing. As a singer, they’re going to always go through confidence issues. They’re going to have good days where they’re killin’ it, they’re going to have bad days where they’re not hitting the notes, so on and so forth. Part of being a producer is being many, many things: being a cheerleader, being a psychologist, being a supporter…I’ve seen producers who break singers down, and that’s never been my style. I’m more someone who’s, “Hey, we can hit it tomorrow. I don’t want you in here stressing out. This should be an enjoyable experience.” That’s always been my approach.
ANTHONY GORDON: So when you’re doing tracks, are you shooting for the best? Do you want the best possible performance, the most emotional performance, or do you want the pitch-perfect performance?
CHE POPE: No, I want the emotional performance. I want the magic. I want the artifact. I want the thing that’s going to be timeless. We can figure some things out, but I want the magic because that’s the take, right? That’s the one. And that might not always be pitch-perfect, but it has the feeling, it has the emotion. And if you think of the best singers, some of the best singers are not the most technically profound. They’re the ones that convey that emotion. They’re the ones that the crowd feels, they feel that and the crowd is like, “Ohhh.” It’s not always pitch-perfect. It’s the emotion. That’s what it’s always been for me.
ANTHONY GORDON: Do you track with Auto-Tune on?
CHE POPE: I would say the modern version of the music business, you have a lot of artists that are very Auto-Tune-savvy. So not only do they track with Auto-Tune, they know their settings. I actually prefer to use it post. I prefer…let’s just go for it. Let’s get it right. Let’s get a little confident and then let me do it. Unless we’re using Auto-Tune as an effect. That’s different.
But if we’re using it just on some tuning, let’s get it down. But this is the modern music industry. These singers are accomplished. They’re in the studio all the time. It’s funny: many of them know their entire signal change. They have everything, down to their Auto-Tune setting.
ANTHONY GORDON: I’ve heard from producers that have singers come in and try to sing as if Auto-Tune is on. Like with their voice, kind of faking…he’s like, “No, don’t worry about it. We have it.” It’s interesting: When you use it as a creative effect, because obviously the two big moves of Auto-Tune people know about…natural-sounding pitch correction, maybe a little bit of sheen on top…then the iconic sound that’s become this cultural landmark. Do you put it on during tracking when you’re using it as a creative effect?
CHE POPE: I do. I use it. And that’s one of the things I was excited to talk about because of plugins, or anything for that matter. But plugins especially, I think as tools to explore and to create. So I use it on all kinds of shit. Like when I got a sample off a record and I sped it up or something, the pitch is off. So I tune it. I’ll tune 808s, because I might have affected an 808 in a way that it’s going out of tune.
I could sit there and try to put it in a sampler and microtune it, but sometimes I can just Auto-Tune it, and I’ll create a whole new different sound with it. It’s such a tool of exploration, I just hope more people don’t just get stuck into using it on a vocal or this way or that way. There are so many other applications for it.
Many people don’t know about tuning drums, which is definitely a hip hop thing…a lot of people who make hip hop or even EDM sometimes are not necessarily musicians, but they might be really great at making a beat or programming. So they’re not necessarily musicians, so they don’t know about tuning. And this is where Auto-Tune can really help you, save you, do magical things for you, and really make a record where your tuning was all over the place and now all of a sudden, things are making sense.
ANTHONY GORDON: And there’s still so many ways to break it that people haven’t discovered. Like, the whole “Cher effect.” It wasn’t designed for that, they just dimed it and…something happens. That’s always been my favorite thing about plugins — using them the way they’re not designed to ‘cause in good fun, that’s like a different instrument entirely.
CHE POPE: I love especially on EFX+ where you guys put the presets. Now because you can go to a ??? preset or someone else’s preset — you can actually see what they edited. And from that, it’s almost like a blueprint of making your own edit, making your own custom settings.
ANTHONY GORDON: Are you mostly using EFX+?
CHE POPE: Just for immediate gratification. It also depends on the artist. If I’m working with someone up here, I’m using Auto-Tune Pro. If I’m working for immediate gratification, getting it done, EFX. If I’m working with certain artists who know their settings, it’s usually Pro. So I jump around.
CHE POPE: Everything. It’s a staple. I don’t think I have a track, honestly…it would be probably hard to find a track where I don’t have it there on something.
ANTHONY GORDON: How did you discover it? What was your initial reaction when you heard it?
CHE POPE: I came up in the day of tape — syncing with SMPTE and sampling a hook to fly it. Back then you use Eventide and harmonizers and different things to do some pitch correction. So it was like [CLOUDS PARTING]. I think things come along and that’s why…Pro Tools are tough, right? Pro Tools came along. It’s an industry standard because it came along and it was like [CLOUDS PARTING]. Auto-Tune was the same way.
There are many things that tune things, right? Many different companies. But why is Auto-Tune the standard? There are certain things that just become the standard.
ANTHONY GORDON: Why do you think it is the standard?
CHE POPE: You have artists who popularized it, like Cher and T.I. That’s one thing. But I think the versatility, because you can use it to an extreme and you can also use just it as a tool, exactly what it was intended for. Hopefully more and more people keep discovering that it’s so much more than that, too. It’s a very powerful effect when applied in different manners.
ANTHONY GORDON: Going to ask you about some more industry stuff. I think we covered Auto-Tune. Speaking of which, if you guys want to try one free month of Auto-Tune Unlimited, which is our complete suite of vocal production software, you can grab one of those cards and we’ll wrap it up here. I want to ask you about creative choices and work choices. You famously don’t do a lot of records — you’ve done a lot of timeless classics, but then nothing else that year. Some years there are a couple records years with all the good ones. Why is that?
CHE POPE: I’ve always been quality over quantity. I always approach my career as artifacts. I never really sought to make a hit record, but I did want to make an artifact, something that could be here when I’m 90 or something that I could put on and be proud of. That’s always been my approach and my thought process. It’s not that I don’t make a lot of records in my own world, but as far as actually what comes out, that’s very, very selective. And I’m very specific. And that’s just because I learned quality over quantity. And don’t get me wrong, I know we’re in the quantity game now, but that’s still just not my process.
ANTHONY GORDON: So are you turning down massive records all the time?
CHE POPE: At this stage, I’m just really select. I make it really hard to even get me to work. That’s just intentional. I have my own company and I have some artists of mine that I work with. But as far as in the industry, it’s very select people that I work with. I just did a record with Red Fiaz, amazing artist, I love him to death. I’ll pick my spots.
ANTHONY GORDON: So talking with your own company; you’re talking about G.O.O.D. Music?
CHE POPE: No, I have a company called WRKSHP that I got funded in a pandemic. My partner is Dan Gilbert, who’s the founder of Quicken Loans and the owner of the Cleveland Cavs — based in Detroit…headquarters in Detroit. A music-based lifestyle company.
ANTHONY GORDON: So tell us about what the company is up to.
CHE POPE: Well, we’ve got about ten artists that we’re in the process of finishing up the paperwork. The first one is FR€$H, formerly known as Short Dawg. Many people know him because he used to be affiliated with Young Money. But I have 10 amazing artists I’m working with. It’s been a journey, funding a company in a pandemic. And also switching gears from being a music producer and even an executive to being an entrepreneur and a founder — it’s been a different journey and process. So I’m loving every minute.
ANTHONY GORDON: Do you take a break of just completely kicking ass at every part of the industry you’re working in?
CHE POPE: To me, the journey is to stay curious, to stay learning, to stay tuned, and I give that piece of advice to everyone I know. I don’t even know what I would do if I didn’t start every day being curious, you know what I mean?
ANTHONY GORDON: So at your company now you’re the founder. Are you also doing the A&R?
CHE POPE: I have two really talented A&Rs. I’m also a studio executive, so I’m able to see so many talented artists. I get so much talent coming at me. The biggest thing is to make a decision on who to work with, because there’s so much talent out there.
ANTHONY GORDON: So how do you make that decision? What are you looking for when you have to pick between two incredible talents?
CHE POPE: The team. We have a team of about eight employees and we work together to make those decisions. Ultimately, I might make the final decision. Let’s say it’s narrowed down to five artists, and then we meet with the artists. Then it becomes the character of the person. Not only just the talent, but what’s this person, how’s this human?
ANTHONY GORDON: A lot of times artists may not realize it, but once you sign that record contract, you just went into business with this person. And I’ve always said that, with a background of being in bands, even a local little rock band is like starting a small business with your four least responsible friends. There’s no drummer I’ve ever played with where I’m like, “I’m going to start a company with him.” As an artist, would you sign him to a label? It’s the same thing. You guys are taking it seriously. Anybody who hears this, like a young artist, definitely be mindful of and respect that relationship, because the character counts, reliability, all that kind of stuff, that professionalism.
CHE POPE: Because it is a business. Majors sit back right now and they wait for people to have success and then they pick who’s already poppin’. We have a company that we’re working with emerging talent and talent and just getting going and stuff like that, so the investment is that much more risky. So that way, the character of the person and the human in sync with the talent is so important.
ANTHONY GORDON: So why is it that you take that approach that’s quite different than the other labels, where they’re going after somebody who’s already built an audience?
CHE POPE: Because the need is there. It shouldn’t be someone that has amazing talent — but maybe they’re not amazing at TikTok — they don’t get the shot because they don’t know how to promote themselves to someone over here. I still believe in the music industry in terms of investing in talent, that’s the way it started. Now, obviously, I understand the major labels and market share and they’re playing a different game, but I can go back to being a purist — let me try to find these artists here and get them to a point. If they want to go the major route, let’s go the major route. Some artists may want to stay independent, but our job is to help elevate them.
ANTHONY GORDON: So how do you find artists who aren’t out there self-promoting? Are people still sending tapes?
CHE POPE: Every which way. A lot of word of mouth. I have one A&R who…I don’t even know how she does it. She’s just special. She’s a DJ and she loves to play music people haven’t heard before. She has a way of combing through SoundCloud…she’s amazing. I have some secret weapons and I’ve been doing it a long time, so a lot of relationships, and I still think you have to be connected. Relationships are still the biggest thing. I’m connected in every city. I may get a call from Cleveland, Ohio: “I got this young lady from Cleveland. You need to know about it.” That network, for sure.
ANTHONY GORDON: Well, I think we have time for a couple of questions from the audience. Anybody got a question for Che Pope?
AUDIENCE #1: You’ve been a part of amazing talents in the past. When you’re creating that moment as it’s happening, do you ever know if it’s going to be as big as it’s going to be?
CHE POPE: I mean, now I know. You have a good idea when you’ve got something special, It was like that when we created Mercy. I know what that was. I found a kid in Arizona who was just doing mixtapes at that time. I heard the beat, I knew what it could be. So I took that beat with me and I knew I needed to get the right situation for it. And I knew if I did that I could make it a moment. Seven months later, it became Mercy.
I heard it. It was just a kid who made his own, we had a mixtape beat. You could feel it. I knew it. We put the elements together; if I built up the production, if I added some more stuff to it, if I got the right combination of artists on it…matter of fact, even before Kanye ever got on the record, I told Kanye, “I’m gonna make this record so hot that you’re gonna to have to get on it.”
AUDIENCE #2: I was wondering about preparing your personal projects. What do you think is missing? What do you think that we can do to make our music be more promoted and last a little bit longer?
CHE POPE: It’s really up to your creativity and innovation, especially if your resources are limited. But you’re not limited on the creativity of your ideas. So you really just have to try to think outside the box, whatever that may be. I saw something recently that was really interesting: Someone had a flatbed and they would drive it along, performing on a flatbed, near an event where they knew certain celebrities were going to be. It was like, “Whoa, what’s that?” Budgets are limited, but creativity is not limited.
There’s more information for you guys, but it is still difficult, because more information, more access, means more traffic. So if there’s a traffic jam on the 405, how do you get into that fast lane, and that is challenging. Even as a founder of a new company, that is one thing we have to figure out, it’s like solving that Rubik’s Cube. But first and foremost is having amazing products. And then great marketing ideas and being creative and being innovative.
AUDIENCE #3: So you started WRKSHP during the pandemic. I’m sure there was a bit of virtual sessions. So I’m curious, now that the world is opening back up, how much are you utilizing the virtual session aspect if someone records their own vocals. They send it to you, or is it always in person?
CHE POPE: I don’t know that we’re doing virtual sessions as much as we are sending stuff back and forth. As a company, we’re all over the place. I live in L.A. and I move back and forth to Detroit. I have artists all over the place: some in the Detroit area and around, but I have artists in L.A., I have an artist in Houston, an artist in Columbus, Ohio. Everybody is kind of independent. They have their own work situation that they have, and then we have a collaboration situation.
So it’s a little bit of sending stuff back and forth. But the virtual session was tough for me during the pandemic. I did some virtual sessions for myself, and it was challenging. We did a camp one day because I also do some K-Pop. So we did this K-Pop. It was just weird to me.
ANTHONY GORDON: I think we have time for one more. Don’t miss your opportunity with one of the greatest record producers of all time.
AUDIENCE #4: When you’re producing or when you’re listening to whatever your artists have created, is there something that you’re listening for where you know, “OK, let’s build on this.” Is there something specific that you have in mind?
CHE POPE: I truly am. I just met with one of my artists yesterday, and we went through 40 records. He’s good at what he does, so all 40 records are good to some extent, but what are the moments? What are the unique moments? What are the standouts? What is the one that you put on, when I press play, it doesn’t sound like everything else?
It could be all different elements, meaning it could be, oh, this? This is the hook. Maybe this isn’t the track, but this is the hook. So, cool, scrap everything. Take the hook, let’s find a better record for them. This could be the beat, but he’s got one record where it’s amazing, but the hook ain’t it. I scrapped the hook, and it’s tough sometimes, you’re talking with someone about their art. So I try to build a relationship with my artist so we can have these conversations without me being able to hurt their feelings or something. Because I need to be able to talk to them that way so that we can try to make the best possible. My job is to help them make the best possible music that they’re capable of making, and using my experience to help.
ANTHONY GORDON: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to come and visit us.
CHE POPE: Thank you, this was fun.
ANTHONY GORDON: It was such a pleasure. Once again, with those cards over there (pointing to table), you get a free month of Auto-Tune Unlimited, and use it on every track.
CHE POPE: If you try it out, there’s a lot of different cool stuff in there, things to experiment with.
You may have missed the chance to see Che Pope talk, but you can still make your bid at greatness: