It all started at the 40/40 Club and Roc the Mic Studios.
For Anthony Cruz, working two jobs to fulfill his passion was a path he didn’t mind walking for a significant amount of time. While working as an audio/video technician at Jay-Z’s New York City-based sports bar’s 10-year anniversary in 2013, Cruz received a call from a studio manager named TT to collaborate with Meek Mill as an engineer that same night. The Break It Down Entertainment captain was eager to say yes to the opportunity and after receiving the go-ahead from Roc Nation’s COO Desiree Perez, Cruz dropped everything and headed to the studio still dressed in a suit and tie.
“I have all of these Philly cats looking at me like I’m a strange kid, like, ‘Who is this weird looking kid with the suit on in the studio?’” Cruz says. This was around the time when Meek was fine-tuning his Dreamchasers 3 project. Despite his prim and proper look, Cruz left a lasting impression that garnered moments of growth with Meek and in present time, moments of triumph.
Through Meek’s ups and downs, Cruz has witnessed how the “Trauma” artist manifested his life stories behind the mic. A most recent notice of the Philadelphia native’s new demeanor occurred during the recording process for Championships (Atlantic Records/Maybach Music Group). Nearly three weeks after Meek’s late April 2018 prison release (and after wrapping up a string of press events to amplify his mission to reform the criminal justice system), it was back to business behind the boards for Cruz.
But they needed another set of skilled hands to guide the album. Cruz decided to place a call to Young Guru, one of music’s most accomplished audio engineers. The Delaware native refined his aptitude over the years to introduce a new way of listening to music by working with Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Rapsody, Beyonce, De La Soul and more. Knowing his expertise first hand since working under his wing during his Roc the Mic days, Cruz told the famed record producer that he and Meek needed a veteran in the music industry to provide sonic direction. Guru excitedly entered the studio about a month before the album’s release date (Nov. 30), working with Meek and his team to whittle down the laundry list of songs in Meek’s arsenal. Then, it was time to make music magic and present what Guru and Cruz have referred to as Meek’s comeback album.
As the “frontline of the recording process,” Cruz, Guru, and a talented pack of engineers mixed and mastered Championships from Atlanta’s Astro Recording Studios to New York City’s Jungle City Studios. They toiled all the way up until the album’s arrival on streaming services. Production by Nikolas Papamitrou, Don Cannon, Tay Keith, Wheezy, Hit-Boy, Hitmaka, and many more added depth to Meek’s melodic canvas.
To discuss background on some of the album’s standout records like Jay-Z’s intricate verse on “What’s Free,” Meek’s return to form after the wrath of detractors, and the controversy on the use of samples, Cruz and Guru share their recollections in VIBE’s latest Views From The Studio.
What was your experience like working with Guru?
Anthony Cruz: Guru and I met each other when I was this young intern at Roc the Mic Studios that would go make runs for him, grab his coffee, to being able to make a phone call and say “Hey we want you involved in this project that I’m working on.” It was such an amazing pay it forward moment for all the impact that he’s had on my career as an up and coming engineer. He’s got a lot of respect but he’s still relatively unappreciated overall in the game and doesn’t get the type of recognition he deserves. It was such a powerful moment for me to be able to call him, and the timing of him getting right off the tour with Hov and Beyonce. Initially, I reeled him in like, “Meek wants a beat that sounds like an old Shyne record.” He said, “I’m going to be home in a couple of days.” and Meek had conversations like, “we need that veteran energy.” Me, Meek and our A&R Dallas [Martin] were like, “if it’s cool with you guys let’s get Guru to mix the record.” They approved it and Guru came through immediately and was all the way onboard and excited about it.
In all of your years as an engineer, you’ve witnessed a lot throughout your career, but there seemed to be a different level of excitement behind Meek’s album. How would you describe that feeling as compared to when you’ve worked with other prominent artists?
Young Guru: The feeling of excitement came from the fact that it’s one of the biggest comeback albums for him. Coming out of jail, getting back into the public eye with the social reform was great and people love that. At a certain point, people were saying, “Where’s the music?” For him to deliver, but not only just deliver but deliver at this level is an incredible thing to see. It’s the excitement of somebody that went through real trials and tribulations. The album is perfectly titled Championships.
On a few of the songs, like the “Intro,” there’s a lot of instrumentation that blares through. How’d you assist in making sure all of those elements were felt without drowning out Meek’s voice?
Cruz: In particular with the “Intro,” we have an in-house producer signed to Dreamchasers named Nikolas Papamitrou. Meek had this vision of flipping this Phil Collins sample. He always loved [“In The Air Tonight”] since he first heard the record in Paid In Full. It was something that was always near and dear to him. It was time for him to incorporate that record and we made it on the spot. Nik flipped the sample and Meek was able to tell him in terms of arrangements things that he was looking for with the build-up and the breakdown of the beat. Then we took it a step further and got Andrew Meoray involved on co-production to add live guitar, pads, and other live elements to make it even bigger. With the album in general, one of the things we were excited about was Meek’s willingness for us to do post-production. Normally we take the record as it is and just hand it in. It turns out amazing but there’s always in the back of your mind you want to take it to another level. For instance, when we got Guru involved, him and Dallas were adamant about if we were going to get any post-production involved. We got Rance of 1500 or Nothing from California to jump in and work on a few records to liven them up more like “Trauma” in particular. He worked on “Respect The Game,” “Championships” and “Cold Hearted II” and while that’s not a lot of the records because it is 19 songs, those songs that were touched in that way added to the overall body of work and made it bigger. That was amazing.
“Championships” stands out for a number of reasons. How’d you help make that song feel as if it’s cutting through the speakers? The instrumental has a crisp sound overall from the horns…it reminds me of those ‘90s drama films like Juice, Lean On Me, that type of vibe. How’d you make sure the sound hit the listener more than the lyrics itself?
Cruz: This song, in particular, we did struggle in terms of trying to get it to a level of quality where it would cut through. It’s one of the main reasons we got Guru involved because the core of the album was a soulful, classic Roc-A-Fella feel. These are right up his alley. He went in and we got Rance of 1500 or Nothing to do some post-production stuff. Guru added his sauce and elevated the record. Me and him together getting the vocal to a certain level to be able to cut through a certain way and painting the sample to where it wouldn’t scream so much in certain parts and clash with Meek. That was one that we spent a lot of time on trying to perfect and get to a level that it would impact the way that I believe that it has.
Guru: The song was in one place when I came in and more than just mixing the song was trying to add on music. We’re making decisions on, “Do we need to get certain people to play on these songs to enhance them?” Doing overdubs and things of that nature, the drops and figuring out effects that would bring the album to another level. Sonically, it was just me trying to add on as much as I could to enhance the records. That’s what you hear the growth in and the difference. The sonics are going to get better because the tools have gotten so much better, and the amount of plugins we have available. I’m constantly studying new plugins and figuring out which ones I can apply to my process. I think Meek’s album is a culmination of the things I’ve been trying to implement for the past year or two.
Even though the lyrics help to convey a certain message, the samples have been discussed just as much. How do you think the samples help to promote Meek’s messages on these albums?
Cruz: By the way, it didn’t happen on purpose, it wasn’t something we set out to do (Laughs). We weren’t like, “Let’s flip everybody’s classic and see how it will come out.” It just happened to naturally come across: [Don] Cannon gave us “Trauma,” Streetrunner came in and introduced the idea for “What’s Free,” Papamitrou was like, “I flipped this Hov ‘Dead Presidents’ sample” with Beat Menace, and we got “Respect The Game,” “24/7” came through and Amnija wrote this incredible hook. These were undeniable moments throughout the recording process and I believe it challenged Meek. In the back of his mind, he’s very smart. He didn’t have to communicate these things but you can tell his approach in terms of attacking these records elevated him lyrically. I remember when Guru first heard “Respect The Game.” He was floored. He couldn’t believe some of the things Meek was saying and getting across. That’s not an easy beat to tackle. I think while there is this controversy, he held his ground and showed you that he’s an elite lyricist in the game.
What made you stop in your tracks when you heard that song?
Guru: I liked the way he flipped it. It’s an original Lonnie Liston Smith sample, obviously something that’s been huge for Jay’s career, a staple in Jay’s career. The way that they updated it especially with the drums, just gives it a new flavor. I’m with that and I’m with his ideas of what he was saying on there in terms of respect the game. What he’s talking about is monumental. He’s trying to teach people that are actually in the game all of these life lessons he’s learned. I like to use the term Young OG. He’s getting to that point now where he’s still young but he’s got enough experience where he can talk OG status from putting out albums, from being locked up, dealing with street stuff, everything. He’s speaking from experience.
Some people felt there were too many familiar samples. I know you said that wasn’t a conscious decision, and even Guru tweeted about it. What’s your take on that sentiment?
Cruz: I believe what Guru said. This is hip-hop. People weren’t bashing Jay when he was flipping certain records or Nas or any other guys. I believe at the age that we are at, these particular records he sampled are 20-plus years old. Carrying on the tradition of hip-hop, why wouldn’t we introduce these classics? My most important thing is us having those records on there, if he was trash on the record or if he had weak lyrics I could understand people complaining, but he held his own and nobody has complained about lyrics or anything he’s said. It’s just the sonic piece, which is super confusing to me from so-called hip-hop fans.
Guru: I just don’t think we should ever get into a space where sampling is considered taboo in hip-hop. I’m of that era where people sampled. It’s good if you find a creative way to flip certain samples that have been used before. There are these rules that we used to have of not touching samples that had been done before, but if you do them in new creative ways, then I think you can re-introduce the music the same way that 70s music was re-introduced to us through hip-hop.
[The samples] gave him the right musical bed to talk about what he wanted to talk about. It also gave him the right field. He’s straddling both of those eras of being still relevant now but also coming from an era where you have to really spit. It gives him a perfect balance sonically.
Are we really at the point where we as a culture are having discussion about why a HipHop artist would sample? Really? Think about that for a second.
— Young Guru (@Young_Guru) December 1, 2018
Another record that utilizes a sample is “What’s Free.” Walk me through its process. That’s one of the most talked about songs on the album.
Cruz: It was recorded early on in the process. Streetrunner introduced this idea and Meek fell in love with it. It’s near and dear to his situation and things that he’s been through. I remember Rick Ross coming through to the session and falling in love with the record as well. They were going back and forth. Meek and Ross hadn’t vibed in a while with everything going on with Meek’s legal situation. He liked the record for Ross and initially was going to let him use it. As we were further along in the recording process, we realized on both ends, on the MMG side and in-house, it would fit way better on our project so Ross was like use this record and we put the play together for Jay.
Guru: Like he normally does in the 11th hour, Jay decided to get on the beat. I was supposed to be flying to South Africa the day that he called me to say he wanted to do it. I just pushed my flight back because I was going there for Global Citizens to do the show with him and Beyonce. Basically, we went in and did that verse. You get creative in terms of trying to do drops, trying to do interesting things with the beat and with the sample. And it’s being careful and being respectful. It’s one of the classic Biggie songs so you want to do it justice, but you also want to give it a new twist. I think it was a great verse, a great time, and the right placement of the verse for the topic of what Meek has been preaching and advocating with criminal justice reform. Just the title and concept of being free, I think all of them came at it from a different perspective but were very poignant in the way they expressed their vision of what’s free.
“One of the main reasons we got Guru involved because the core of the album was a soulful, classic Roc-A-Fella feel.” ~ Anthony Cruz
Cruz: Meek and Jay had a private conversation and Jay was like, “This is the one.” He made it very clear, “I have a long verse for you” and Meek had zero problems with that. I think he held his own with his 24 bars. He got a lot across. Ross did an amazing job. With having Guru involved he was very adamant about once we figured out which record was for Jay, he wanted to do his part as well to nudge him like, “I’m going to be the one to pull up and record you whenever you’re ready.” It was Thanksgiving weekend when I got the call from Guru that he was ready to go. He gave me one bar of the verse, those first bars “In the land of the free where blacks enslaved,” and he left it at that. I was like, “C’mon is that all you’re going to give me?” He said, “Don’t tell Meek but I’m locking down this date to go record him.” He pushed back his trip to go to rehearsals to catch up with Jay in L.A, and he said as soon as he landed he was ready. He went straight from the airport to Jay’s crib to record the verse. This whole time he’s telling me to keep it low with Meek but I couldn’t help it. I was telling Meek everything as we go and I said, “Keep it low because Guru didn’t want me to tell you yet. He wanted to make sure everything was solid.” We were both equally excited because we’re very big Jay-Z fans. I remember us all hearing the record together. We were all on a conference call. Nobody breaks down a Hov verse better than Guru. He gave us bar for bar, he would pause it, break down what he was saying, keep going, pause it, break it down, so we were all on this conference call losing our mind dissecting this verse. It was an incredible process.
You’ve seen Jay-Z zone in for a lot of memorable verses. Where do you think this one came from, and what inspired such a verse like this?
Guru: Jay pulls from real life. Wherever his inspiration comes from, it’s whatever he’s living life. I’m just as amazed as everyone else. I get to hear it first, yes, but I’m just as amazed when I’m sitting there recording it like how does this person come up with this? Or, how does he continue to do this after so many years? I definitely rank this verse high in his list of guest verses. I don’t think he’s ever given someone 44 bars before.
It is a long verse in terms of what hip-hop fans are used to hearing nowadays.
Guru: Right, but it’s not that type of song where you have to worry about…we’re not making a formulaic club song or the girl song, this is obviously a song where everybody gets to rap. You don’t have to be trapped into doing 16 bar verses or 12 bar verses. That’s the freedom again, another way of expressing freedom.
The one and only time I will do this. “Look at my hair free, carefree, N***as ain’t near free.” Care Free and Nair are hair products!!! Man it’s too much to get. I’ll let you all figure out the rest lol
— Young Guru (@Young_Guru) December 1, 2018
I’m sure people weren’t expecting Jay-Z to take to Twitter to clear the confusion about a lyric on the album.
Guru: In my opinion, it wasn’t confusion, it was just people going for click bait because that line is very obvious with what he said. He reinforced that with his tweet. But you don’t want that line to get misinterpreted and I think the line itself, to me, I don’t see how there’s any way that it can be taken as a diss. It’s literally saying don’t separate us.
And another major collaboration on there is of course “Going Bad” with Drake. Walk me through that one.
Cruz: Meek and Drake, like he mentioned in his interviews, had been communicating and mending their situation organically and natural outside of music and just having this genuine relationship again. It just so happens that Meek was the one actively working on an album once they got to a place of being back comfortable with each other. They had ideas of having different records. I remember we sent him an idea and he was so tied up on tour. He said, “Let me just finish this tour. There’s so much on me right now. Once I’m done, I got you.” That’s where “Going Bad” came up. Meek played his idea and that’s when Drake went in and did the hook. It all came together really clutch right towards the end of the process.
Even thinking back on their history, it seemed as if people turned their backs on Meek when he and Drake had issues. Being that you’ve been in his corner during that period and even before, what was his mindset like at that time?
Cruz: Meek came up in a ruthless Philly environment where he had to constantly defend himself. Him coming up as a battle rapper I believe strengthened him to another level. At the time of all the naysayers and everybody dogging him, he was successful. He still had money, was still living the life. So for him coming from nothing and being from this lower income society, it’s like, “I’m still winning as far as I’m concerned.” We as a team never faltered, we never looked at it as dramatic as everybody was making it out to be. You can’t kill us with memes, you can’t kill us with fake spam accounts or whatever it was that were coming through. It was all confidence on our end and Meek rapped his way through it. He was determined to prove himself through his music. I think he stood his ground and he’s gotten to this level where I’m amazed at how everything came together and how he came to the idea to name this album, Championships. That’s how it feels for everybody involved. For Meek, especially, he’s a champion, a hood legend, he came from nothing, he’s overcome so much in this industry, in his personal life with his legal troubles. I really am proud of him for getting to this level and going through all the things that he’s been through.
You’ve been on the frontline to witness Jay-Z and Nas resolve their issues. Did you ever think Meek and Drake would resolve their rift?
Guru: Yeah, and again it’s rap, it’s sport. No one is physically attacking anyone else. In this sport of rap when you have a battle and the battle is over, the two people that were battling can respect each other. I never thought it was beyond the point that they couldn’t talk to each other again.
How has Meek’s previous imprisonment affected his music? Is there a different spirit in the booth?
Cruz: There was a frustration of still having a looming legal battle. I think there was him being extremely grateful for the support and everybody backing him up to get him out this situation to be able to get this message across and get this album out. There was a lot of mixed emotions but overall he’s so happy and grateful. He feels like a winner, a champion and it came across really well on this record.
He’s getting to that point now where he’s still young but he’s got enough experience where he can talk OG status. ~ Guru
Discuss the emotional songs on the album, like “Trauma.” What type of tone do you think Meek had while in the studio when he recorded songs like that?
Cruz: He got the beat from Cannon. That one, in particular, was introduced to him separately. He has a history with that Mobb Deep “Get Away” sample. He did that as a younger teen with a group named Bloodhoundz that he used to run with in Philly, so he had this history and memories of the record. But being able to channel the aggression and frustration that he was dealing with in his situation and so eloquently destroy that record, but at the same time get across a message, I thought was amazing. There was definitely an energy that he had where he’s adamant about getting his point across. He was very zoned out that day and that moment and trying to get this idea across the way that he did.
Looking at Meek’s intros specifically, the “Dreams and Nightmares” intro which feels as if it’s still new, do you think that intro stands supreme above the rest? What made it special?
Cruz: There are certain things in terms of hip-hop history that are undeniable and that are very hard to compare to others. With Meek’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” I believe that it’s such a moment in history that he doesn’t even make it a point to try to top it. That’s just a moment in history that he can never repeat. I had no involvement in “Dreams and Nightmares,” so shout out to Beat Bully and Finis “KY” White who engineered that record, but I do believe that’s still his strongest intro. It’s had an impact on sports culture and music history, but not to say he hasn’t had amazing intros like this Phil Collins intro we had for the Championships album.
Dreams and Nightmares Intro really one of the best rap moments of our generation…
— Drizzy (@Drake) April 30, 2014
The song “Uptown Vibes” has parts where the beat pulls down. It reminds me of a house party where all you can hear is the bass or the drums are that loud. Walk me through the engineering process for that song?
Cruz: It was Papamitrou that brought this idea to the table and Meek was really excited about it because he’s been on this Spanish wave. Even right before he went in, he was up on Bad Bunny and he’s been hanging around a lot of Spanish girls, so this was an exciting opportunity for him to flip that sample that had that feeling to it. Once we laid down the initial idea, Nik and I went in and worked on arrangements. Once we got Anuel AA on the record, we added that dembow area, that reggaeton breakdown to make it even more of that Spanish vibe.
Yeah, I was going to mention the reggaeton breakdown as well. What was it like working with these melodies? As listeners, we’re probably not used to hearing Meek Mill on those types of beats.
Cruz: As a Latino, I was excited for us to present this idea to Meek, for him to embrace it and say I’m willing to put this on my record because like you said, it’s so left from what we’re used to from him. For him to embrace it and say I’ll allow that to be on there because I do appreciate the culture and I love Spanish music, was amazing.
What was the greatest challenge engineering this album?
Guru: I don’t know if it was a huge challenge, I just think it was more about trying to find a good balance. That’s the big challenge for someone of Meek’s stature that comes from Philly, that comes from that era of being a spitter where we naturally watched him grow, and his whole maturation you can follow on YouTube. In terms of him having to find that balance of doing all types of records and servicing all types of people, I think that’s the biggest challenge.
Since Meek has promoted this balance beam of dreams and nightmares, have his dreams been realized on or through this project?
Cruz: He’s at an amazing place now. He’s endured a lot, and we’re really just getting started. He appreciates this moment but trust me when I tell you, once he settles down, he’s going to be ready to go right back in and continue to work and speak out on these issues that he’s passionate about—with justice reform and getting his voice heard on these platforms that we’re not used to seeing him on—which is amazing. I don’t think he’s going to get comfortable, per se, but I do think he’s in a dream state as of now.