Hip-Hop Hippies

They might be moguls: Meet Mike Landau and Brad Goldenberg, the minds behind Phat Buddha Productions

In addition to Murphy Lee, Nelly, Lil Jon, Lil Wayne, J-Kwon, Fantasia, Ja Rule, the Black Eyed Peas, Ebony Eyez, Chingy and Jurassic 5 have availed themselves of Phat Buddha's services. A motley assortment of rock, bluegrass, polka and world-music groups also frequents the facilities, but hip-hop and rap comprise 80 percent of the company's bread and butter.

Of the dozen-plus studios that dot the St. Louis landscape, only a handful offer the full scope of commercial recording services. Of the ones that do, not all are focused on musicians; Smith Lee Productions in Maplewood, for example, specializes in corporate recording needs, while Clayton Studios pays the bills with radio ads. Jupiter Studios, an expansive former apartment seven floors above downtown Washington Avenue, qualifies as Phat Buddha's closest rival. Story of the Year recorded here, as have Nelly and Murphy Lee. It's not surprising, then, that the competition merits a mention in "The Phat Buddha Song":

Don't be coming in here with that shit that's bogus

Chief audio engineer Nate Hershey describes his bosses as "a bunch of Deadheads gone wrong — or gone right, rather."
Jennifer Silverberg
Chief audio engineer Nate Hershey describes his bosses as "a bunch of Deadheads gone wrong — or gone right, rather."

Take that shit to Jupiter — that's how they eat

Keepin' it so St. Louis, Phat Buddha's in the street

Jupiter owner Jim Callahan takes it as a compliment. Callahan, a pro who bounced from home studio to home studio for years before upgrading to Washington Avenue four years ago, says he's got no beef with the Buddhists. "I don't think of anybody as competition," he says. "There's two and a half million people in St. Louis, and there are different kinds of people who have different [recording] needs. I see the guys at Phat Buddha as just cool guys like me who want to make music for a living. I think any time you build more synergy, it's good for everybody."

Increased synergy may ultimately be what keeps the industry alive. In St. Louis and around the globe, countless home studios have sprung up where musicians can use DIY computer technology to create recordings in closets and basements for a fraction of the cost of professional studio time.

"If you count basement studios, there are hundreds of studios in St. Louis," Callahan points out. "If you count home studios — just a guy who happens to be a musician, who has a tape recorder, who has a microphone, who records his own stuff — there would be thousands and thousands."

"Who has home equipment? That'd be everybody and they momma," seconds John "Static" Barbour, who sells keyboards and software at Guitar Center in Crestwood. "Or they at least have access to it."

A multi-instrumentalist and beat producer in his own right, Barbour says the bare essentials for "a nice sound" run about $2,000, and a semblance of a commercial studio can be re-created for ten grand or so — not including monitors, soundproofing, microphones, instruments or cables. But it's not about how much you spend. "If you know what you're doing, you can produce the exact sound," says Barbour. "It's about knowing how to use it all properly."

And commercial studios aren't about to go the way of the eight-track just yet. "We're always going to need them because people want to blow up," Barbour says. "And when they blow up, they want to be at the big studio and have it all. They want someone to come in and work for them and pay them compliments and tell them everything sounds great."

Or as Landau puts it: "We like people to be able to have fun, you know what I'm sayin'?"

Studio A, the Dhyana Room, goes for about $85 per hour, $30 more than Studio B.

The state-of-the-art Samsung monitor high on the center wall, which has been flashing images of spiral galaxies, the surface of Jupiter and other spacey scenery, snaps into work mode as track lights blaze to life overhead and a half-dozen sonic doodads begin to whirr. A pair of ATC-300A speakers, custom-built in Great Britain and previously used to mix Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings soundtracks, start humming. And Big Beautiful, a massive 1984 SSL 6040 E/G analog board that in a former life helped to craft hits for U2, Whitney Houston, Madonna and, yes, Hanson awakens. (Landau and Goldenberg always wanted an SSL. But while the manufacturer is considered tops in terms of durability and easy maintenance, the price tag is commensurate with the reputation: Phat Buddha's SSL set the partners back a cool quarter-million.)

Murphy Lee tosses his backpack and nacho-cheese snack mix on a table and hollers for someone to help him adjust Big Beautiful. "I don't know 'bout these computers, I just do the raps," he jokes, then heads to the vocal booth to warm up.

"Yo, yo, check check cheeeeeeccck, this is how we churrck it," he croons, causing Beautiful's green and orange gauges to jump. The booth's spartan accoutrements — an Oriental rug, a high-backed wooden barstool, a Brauner VMA microphone — are secondary to its sonic appointments: walls a foot thick, constructed of drywall, noise-reducing soundboard and fiberboard, overlaid with fabric. Yet so clear is Lee's piped-in voice that every sigh, every smack of his mouth, is audible.

With the new album, scheduled for a June 13 release, nearing completion, Lee has booked the afternoon to tinker with the second verse of a jam called "My Nite."

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