Pioneering Recording Studio and Its Owner Helped Give Hip Hop/Rap Music New Dimension
Chung King Studios is quite possibly the most important commercial recording studio in rap’s history. Indeed, before D&D or Unique, or any other top flight New York City recording facility, it was the Mighty Chung King that mostly paved the way for rap music’s commercial studio potential. Yet today, very little has been written about the Chung King story and the man behind it. So to help preserve the significance Chung King, of one hip hop’/rap’s flagship commercial recording spots, I interviewed its creator, John King, and wrote a piece about it. Check this out…
It’s 1979. Sugar Hill Records owner, Sylvia Robinson, records a make-shift trio of unknown rappers she dubs, the Sugar Hill Gang. The song they recorded in that afternoon studio session was “Rapper’s Delight,” a song that would go on to become the first mainstream hit record—and the second commercially recorded rap song (by mere months)—in hip hop/rap music history.
Meanwhile, in that very same year, musician/engineer, John King starts his own label, Secret Society Records. Within a short time, King morphs his label into Chung King House of Metal (later simply Chung King Studios), an upstart recording studio in New York City’s Chinatown.
If Sylvia Robinson’s fateful Sugar Hill Gang recording session opened the door for hip hop/rap music, then what took place early on inside of Chung King Studios, specifically, the collaboration that took place between John King, Steve Ett, and Def Jam records, blew the door off. And if Sylvia Robinson gets the credit for first realizing the commercial viability hip hop-rap music, then perhaps John King should get the credit for first realizing rap’s commercial recording studio potential.
In the beginning, John King’s tiny, cramped, one-room conclave was a mainstay for local rock and punk acts. But after he hooked up with Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, the brainstorms behind Def Jam Records, everything changed. Affectionately dubbed the “Chung King House of Metal” by Rubin (a nod to the old Chinese restaurant that stood below the Secret Society Records headquarters, King officially changed the name of his company in 1986), the graffiti-walled high-energy spot was the de facto musical home for Def Jam Records in its humble beginnings.
In the 1980s, Chung King Studios was where artists like LL Cool J, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, and Run-DMC cooked up the sounds that would propel rap music and hip hop culture on to the main stage of America, in a way that was aggressive and overpowering, not to mention lucrative for the studio’s founder. Thus, by the mid 90s, the demands of success and the need for expansion prompted King to relocate his establishment from its Chinatown digs to its present day location on Varick Street in New York’s chic-hip Soho neighborhood. Building off of it’s pioneering position as hip hop/rap’s music first powerful commercial recording studio, in the 90s, Chung King quickly became one of the most (if not the most) sought after recording studios for both the elite and rawest street artists of hip hop/rap music.
Gold Room, Chung King Studios (Photo credit: Amir Said)
More than a decade later, Chung King Stands as one of New York City’s most infamous recording studios. The multimillion dollar facility, which boasts no less than five state of the art rooms, is one of the world’s premiere recording facilities. And the spot still remains as one of hip hop/rap music’s most celebrated recording homes.
But even with the Manhattan space of a large scale corporate law firm, the eclectic clientele list of industry darlings and burgeoning indies, and a technology arsenal that of a mini NASA, the heart beat of the original small, cramped space still echoes throughout the new spot. And there’s no one more responsible for that then the studio’s creator and owner, John King.
Genius and music have always been linked together. But what’s unique about the eclectic genius of John King is the fact that it comes coupled with a forward-thinking cultural sensitivity. From the beginning, King had an affinity for good music. In the mid 1980s, the major record labels’ wholesale stance on rap music (and hip hop culture in general) was dismissive and disrespectful, to say the least. But king, a musician and entrepreneur who championed indie fervor as well as quality music, found rap to be fresh and magnetic, sincere and powerful. In fact, he saw at that time what the majors could not, would not see: That hip hop/rap was a musical and cultural revolution that would never be turned back.
As with most geniuses, there is a non-stop motor of energy. John King is no different in this regard. When we got together to discuss everything from the history of Chung King Studios to the future of the global music industry, he was buzzing with excitement over future endeavors and his recent leveraging of New York’s collapsed music scene. Candid and swift with his words and thoughts, King’s excitement was pure and reassuring. And I found his understanding of the early blue print of beatmaking to be exceptional. Below is the first part of our discussion.
John King: I was there when the first LL record was made… I was working with a group of people the other day, and they were like, ‘hey, John, where do you think it’s going?’ And I said, ‘it’s going everywhere it’s ever been.’ It’s going to hip hop. It’s going to have some rock in it. It’s gonna have some funk music in it. It’s gonna have some reggae in it.
BeatTips: Yeah, the initial eclectic mix that hip hop has always been.
John King: The thing is… it’s also songs. Straight hip hop… I went back to listen to Raising Hell [Run-DMC] the other day, cuz I worked on that record like everyday, you know, for like 5 months.
BeatTips: As a producer or engineer?
John King: I was just owner of the studio at that point in time, but I was the one in there like, ‘come on, let’s turn up the bass drum… let’s use this sound; let’s use that sound.’ Rick Rubin was working with Steve (Ett) and I on the beats and doing this and putting together the ideas and everything else. And at that point in time I was kind of an engineer/ producer.
So I was getting the sound. The reason that we did it in the first place is because I wanted a more heavy bottomed beat on top of rap music. Rap at that point was an 808, boom tish boom, boom… I was just somewhat determined. When I started doing what I was doing, basically chasing away all the music… cuz New York City is… you know, now, it’s just all about money, now, I mean, damn! What happened to New York? I don’t wanna move to another place just to have a studio. I spent 7, 8 years of my life building this joint… I built this place by hand, myself.
BeatTips: Talk to me about the time before you started your record label, Secret Society Records.
John King: You know what it is, I had a studio in my bedroom when I was 8 years old. I had a Roberts Crossfield tape recorder. And I was like overdubbing and making sounds… I’d skip school and go see Jimmy Hendrix at Manny’s [Manny’s Music Store], cuz I knew they were coming to do a record signing, so I’d skip school and come in and see ‘em. I saw the English invasion and the whole Motown thing when I was a kid, and I never wanted to do anything else, but fly jets.
BeatTips: What about your parents, did you come from a musical background?
John King: My father was a musician in Nashville when he was a kid. And I was always in the basement creating projects, when everybody else was doing their homework, I was out building big projects. So my father, he was a great man, he looked at me and said, “John, I don’t think you’re going to be a school kid. You’re working at like five times the speed of all the other kids. You’re creating things, I don’t even know what they are.” Every time the car didn’t work I’d be like, “Dad, let me take a look at it.” Then he try it and it would turn over and he be like, “Get out of here. He’s 9!” I mean I just loved stuff. I loved cars, I loved electronics. I had the whole house wired so my t.v. would shut off if my parents came down the hallway. I’d be watching T.V. with these little headphones, and I’m supposed to be asleep because it’s a school night, right. And so they walked down the hallway and this relay would click and it would turn off my T.V., then I’d pretend like I was asleep. I mean I was going to the junk bucket and finding parts and things, and building stuff. And I got bored with that. Right now, technical is not as exciting to me as it use to be when I was younger. Now, I like being a full blown John Hammond/Barry Gordy. That’s what’s going to make me proud of my life, when I finally reach that point, where I’m doing lots of different kinds of music, and I’m allowing new artists to flourish. That’s the part that’s going to make me proud… You know there’s really two kinds of artists right now: really successful and nobody else. That’s not right. That’s not right! I wanna undo the undo, and put it back the way it was back when I was a kid.
BeatTips: What was going on in your life in those years leading up to ’79, when you first opened up your studio?
John King: Those were the early days of the thing. That was like the inception of all this stuff. It was exciting, it was new. It was a different sound because it was a different sound!
BeatTips: But did you have that vision… Did you know what you wanted to do? Like around that time, and even before in the early 80s, did you have an idea of what you wanted to do with your record company, as it morphed into what it was: Chung King?
John King: Yeah, I pretty much always had a forward vision. Now, what I’m doing is going to a full blown record label. I’m going full blown Chung King Records. I’m going to do a multiple of things. It’s going to be at tiered level. See what happened was, all these record companies got to a point where only certain artists could be put out. I want to put out the rest of the artists. You don’t have to spend a million dollars on artists to do what they’re doing. You know, it’s crazy, the Temptations wouldn’t get signed today! It takes a Barry Gordy… Give me the songs, give me the performers, give me this, give me that, give me a lot of different stuff going on, and let me put out a lot of different stuff. Throw things against the wall and see what sticks.
You know, you gotta give people a chance. Cuz the thing is that… you know, New York City is not doing a good job of keeping the arts here. It’s so expensive to be here. It’s ridiculous. The landlords are a pain in the ass. Nobody will let… Nobody says this shit but there’s a certain amount of, I call it “music prejudicism”, going on with the landlords in New York City. They don’t want studios anywhere near them. I like the music world. And unless I plan on moving to LA and being an LA music person, I’m sticking with New York. I’m sticking with what we did originally. I’m kind of going back to the roots.
BeatTips: How did the relationship with Def Jam and Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons come about?
John King: It was actually Russell [Simmons] and I. It wasn’t Rick Rubin so much. Russell and I got together on the stuff early on, and I was working it for him for the right price. You know, Russell’s a good promoter. He knew when somebody knew what they were doing, for the right price. Price was important, we didn’t have a lot of money back then. And then Sony came along and then everything just blew from there… I don’t even remember much from those years… We were that busy. It’s not that I was drunk or high, I was just busy. I was fun… the thing is if you’re really good at what you do, you don’t notice it, cuz you’re busy doing it. You know like somebody says, “Did you go to the party last night?” And I’m like, “What party?” I don’t know… I was busy…
BeatTips: Even though nowadays you can do everything at home, what is it about the mystique of a studio of Chung King’s stature…
John King: It’s also… there’s certain things that you do at homes… It’s the same thing as having a home office. You find yourself staring at the refrigerator. You know, you turn the T.V. on and stuff. I mean, it’s a different thing. When you’re in a studio like this, it’s not just the equipment. It’s just this, it’s not just that… but you do notice a difference when you’re dealing with high-tech equipment. When you got real high-tech professionals working the equipment. When there is no noise; when you need a certain sound. And the keyboard’s 25 feet away from you and you can bring it in. There’s a certain magic. And with a lot of the new artists that are doing stuff, just because they’re new doesn’t mean they’re not sharp, you know. All these guys that are top-notch, you know like, Timbaland, they were new artists at one point in time… You gotta give ‘em a chance, you gotta bring ‘em up. You can’t have the same artists… America’s famous for having the same artists for 50 years. And that’s bullshit! And what’s happened now is it’s gotten worse. Because there’s only like two or three little funnels that people are feeding through.
BeatTips: Speak to me about this: how did you approach attracting both rockers and rappers at the same time.
John King: The thing is…the truth of the matter is, you know, first we took a track off of a rock album. I just took the drum beat and Steve Ett and I put it all around the room on mic stands, and put clips, you know, and it was just tape (2” tape). There was a Studer machine in one end of the room, and we had the tape wrapped all the way around the room, so we had about a 30 second loop. And we looped the thing, then we played to it. [Editor’s note: What John King describes here is clearly an early form of sampling!]
BeatTips: This was live drum hits?
John King: Then we put some cymbals, and then I got my DMX drum machine… I mean I was the drummer… This was back when Heavy D’s first record; this was back when you know The Beastie Boys, you know, License To ILL… boomp – pap-bb-boomp boomp… That was those two fingers [pointing to his fingers].
BeatTips: Give me a grand picture of the studio back then, describe the size.
John King: It was smaller, it was simpler, it was a single room facility over on Centre Street. It was a little more private. There wasn’t a front desk or anything. It was just me and… Well, there wasn’t any staff. It was me and then I had an assistant… Back then, we didn’t even have assistants. It was me, then I had another engineer working with me.
BeatTips: So when did you make the move from the old spot to what we know now?
John King: Well, we worked that spot for a long time. And then uh, 14 years ago, we moved in here.
BeatTips: You were mainly responsible for most of the acoustic design right?
John King: Oh, I designed and built every stitch of it.
BeatTips: What in particular made Chung so suitable for hip hop/rap?
John King: It’s not just suitable for hip hop. It’s suitable for everything. But the thing about it is that you have to be able to… first of all, you have to be able to accommodate a lot of people in the control room, that’s one big thing. All of the control rooms were a lot smaller. There’s more people on hip hop sessions. And because there’s more people involved there’s more people grooving to it. And it’s more of a groove oriented thing. Therefore, you got your “thermometers” all over the room. You know when it’s working. And like this room (Gold room) was built for me. And then once I finished it, I never got in it again because it was booked solid for 7 years.
And 9/11 really got in the way of the music business. It was just… I mean the major labels were crunching… Everybody was crunching after that. I worked my ass off, and I did real estate deals to keep this place open. Otherwise I would’ve been open. Cuz… I don’t know if you remember the business back then, but you know, all of your clients were $400 cash clients, some dudes on the corner, you know…