Amidst a crowded Times Square sit these pockets of creation. Down the street, at West Forty-Fourth Street and Eighth Avenue, is Puff Daddy’s recording studio, Daddy’s House. Right behind it is Platinum Recording Studios, owned by Wyclef Jean and Jerry Wonda of the Fugees. But today’s destination is Quad Studios. It’s situated next to a pizzeria and a strip club, yet it’s infamously known for the attempted hit on Tupac Shakur’s life. To an ordinary pedestrian, the entrance to Quad looks like an apartment building, with only glass doors and a buzzer separating an outsider from an insider.
While it’s a newly remodeled building, the entrance is unkempt and the cannabis waft rolls out of the elevators, forcing you to capitulate to the energy of the space. Stepping off the elevator and into the lobby of Quad is the equivalent of stepping onto platform 9 ¾. The place has its own heartbeat: a partially abused pool table sits in the front, a healthy fish tank lines the far wall, and the entire lobby is complemented by an assistant/ attendee who sits at the desk 24-7.
The artist is late––which isn’t unusual, since his studio was booked for a ten-hour session, courtesy of Epic Records. There are roughly three recording studios at Quad; one seems to be in the middle of some kind of renovation with plastic lining the door. In 2011, the entire space went through a giant renovation, upgrading the equipment and interior design of a studio that proved to be critical in the 1990s. Tupac was shot near the entrance to the building and reportedly bled out onto the floor above, which is no longer accessible.
The studio’s walls archive its history, displaying dozens of hit records that left their cultural stamps––from Toni Braxton’s “Unbreak My Heart” to the “Space Jam” soundtrack.
To kill some time, I sit on the couch facing the elevators, waiting for the artist to arrive, and chat with the lobby attendant. He is about five-foot-nine with a chubby, stocky frame. He is hunching over his elbows on the makeshift desk, allowing me to see his premature balding. Even with his furrowed brows and red eyes, I can tell through his smudged glasses that he’s about twenty-six or twenty-seven years old.
“How long have you been here?”
“Since like, 7:00 a.m. We’re here 24-7, mostly waiting for the artists to come.”
“When do you get to leave?”
“Whenever the artist leaves. Sometimes they’re early nights, but mostly late nights. Then I come back the next day and do it all over again.”
“Why do you do it?”
“I love it. I love seeing these songs that make it to radio being recorded right in front me… seeing the process. Crazy shit just happens. I want to eventually be on the soundboard, working with the songs directly.”
The artist walks in, swarmed by his manager and four friends. He acknowledges my presence with a brief nod and ushers me into the room he’s recording in. He doesn’t check in with the attendant; he seems to record in the same studio every visit, perhaps an obsessive compulsion.
The artist opens his computer and starts checking a few e-mails while everyone sits idly, waiting for some kind of direction from him. The engineer who was previously mixing a track has turned off the soundboard, waiting for the artist to load his beats.
With the phone to his left ear, he starts to pace. Flailing his right arm, the artist yells, “NO! I
need bigger budget for the stylist. That’s not how I want the video to be. BRO. I don’t care. Do what you need to do.”
*Puts down phone*
“Yo, this is why I only fucks with the n**** ’Ye. Like, he gets it. FUCK. I don’t want this to be some basic-ass shit.”
The artist sits pensively, flipping through images on his Instagram as his manager categorizes the beats for the engineer. The room is relatively quiet; his friends are probably afraid he’ll spaz on someone because of his earlier temper tantrum. His friend hands him a blunt and he eases into his chair, inhaling deeply. Puffs of smoke tumble from his nose and mouth, giving him a smoke mustache that lingers in the room. He’s ready to record.
The only light in the room is glaring from the computer screens, which momentarily reveals the face of the engineer. His eyes are blue, and it looks like his strawberry-blond beard is well past its five o’clock shadow. His eyes take longer to blink when he stares at the screen. The second- hand smoke is probably getting to him, but I imagine it’s because he is envisioning the song in his head: He internalizes the layout on the screen, hearing the track on his own temporal plane.
The artist goes back and forth from the sound booth to the sound board, purposefully keeping the lights off because, this way, “The music just feels better.”
The artist walks over to his friend, who is leaning against the wall with his arms behind his back. The friend smaller than the artist, resembling a 10-year-old schoolboy, yet he seems to make the artist inferior, vulnerable to the words that the artist bequeaths to his friend. He mumbles lyrics in the boy’s ear, slightly loud enough so the rest of the room could make out some formations of the words. The artist isn’t looking for self-validation, but rather encouragement for the conviction in his lyrics.
“Purple drank . . . burning a roof, waking up asleep . . .”
The engineer has the track on loop, tuning it to the artist’s fancy. It sounds like a demonic seance erupting from the speakers, aliens kick-boxing bass in our eardrums as the 808s simultaneously syncopate our cardiac rhythm.
They’re jumping on the soundboard and the table, morphing into something similar to the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. It’s destructive––yet contagious.
The manager walks back in the room and with a huge sigh says, “FUCK. They didn’t clear the sample.” He is referring to an older song that was sampled in the artist’s beat. If they release the song without clearing the sample, they could be facing copyright infringement.
“Are you serious? Let’s just release the record for free then. Can we do that?”
“I mean, she didn’t like her verse anyway. Let’s just scrap the record. Did you finalize the track listing? You need to name Chop’s song.”
“Ah . . . I don’t know . . . give me five minutes.”
The sounds of revving cars and artificial fighting grunts of Grand Theft Auto 5 come faintly from the adjacent room filled with four or five people. The window in the room faces Times Square,which is still infested with cars and tourists. Yet for the first time, it seems so small and underwhelming in contrast to the murky beats that inevitably reach every nook and cranny of the building.
“Why are the fries like this?” the artist laughs, gesturing to the white plate that elegantly displays McDonald’s French fries and burger on a metal tray.
As he hands the tray back to the attendant, the artist says, “Bro, put them back in the bag. I like my fries at the bottom of the bag.” His friends chime in laughing and mimic “bottom of the bag.”
Time passes too fast. Exhaustion causes us to stare at things for so long that we’re not sure if we exist anymore. The artist moves swiftly as he steps over napping friends on the ground or in a chair, working diligently with the engineer who has been so attentive this whole session.
A phone call breaks the trance of the artist’s manager. He had been drifting in and out of consciousness, yet was able to order an Uber.
“Yo, the Uber’s here.”
And just like that, reality snaps back into focus. The room is disheveled and at the mercy of the attendant who will clean it up after we leave. Red Solo cups are toppled over, and empty alcohol bottles garnish the floor around the over-flowing trashcan filled with half-eaten McDonalds. The sun begins to peek through the small window, kissing the room with a sense of tranquility. The night somehow absorbs into the walls and soon, the only recollection it ever happened will be laced under the many layers of the artist’s recordings––the slight slur of a word because the artist’s friend made him laugh; the original chorus for track 3; and the sound of the beat “before 2:00 a.m.”
The artist leaves satisfied, unsure of the historical extent the song will reach (radio spins, Billboard charts, or total downloads). He will soon return to Quad, but in a few hours, the space that doesn’t fear time will embrace another artist who also hopes to live up to the plaques lined on the walls.