Hip-Hop Hippies

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

Phat Buddha

When it's Mike Landau's turn at the mic, he steps up to the Brauner and lets loose a booming growl. "Ladies and gentlemens, welcome to the Phat Buddha Mixtape Volume One: Buddha's Delight!"

"Volume One!" echoes Brad Goldenberg. "Buddha's Delight!"

"This shit is the hottest of the hot!" Landau again, all gruff inflections and effusive hand gestures. "Hit me up: 314-231-3930!"

Landau and Goldenberg may look like white boys playing tough, but tonight's session at Phat Buddha Productions, the downtown St. Louis recording facility they co-own, is about business. They're finally finishing the intro tracks for a mixtape they've been chipping away at for six months. The CD is a marketing ploy, a demo of their studio prowess that's to be handed out free of charge to potential clients.

"Unless, you know, some suckers offer to pay for it," Landau cracks.

Might be worth paying for at that. There are some bangers on this 75-minute, 30-track compilation, every bit of it created on the premises at 19th and Locust Streets. Now Landau and Goldenberg need only to insert a few intros, shout-outs and skits to tie together cuts from the likes of Potzee, Da Camp, Ali, Spaide R.I.P.P.E.R., Stevie Stone, Missy Elliot and Murphy Lee. But although they planned to start at nine o'clock on this winter evening, by the time things are up and running it's nearly 10:30. What's more, Goldenberg has slept a grand total of fourteen hours in the past three nights, and the Crown-and-Cokes he's throwing back aren't improving his focus any.

"Brad, rule Number 1: No sounding gay," Landau instructs.

Typical in-studio banter for partners who've known one another since high school, where they bonded over a shared passion for jam bands during Landau's sophomore year at Ladue. At age 31, Landau's football-player physique, buzz-cut hair and jovial grin don't exactly scream "hip-hop impresario"; in build and demeanor he more closely resembles the serene Buddha that adorns his black "Rub My Belly for Good Luck" T-shirt. Two years older than Landau, Goldenberg sports thick dark hair and a neat goatee. He pipes up less frequently than his voluble partner, but when he does his words spill forth louder, quicker and with more resolve.

For a guy Landau describes as "the only Jewish Buddhist you'll ever run across," Goldenberg seems decidedly the more high-strung of the pair. As a teen he lived for jam bands in general and the Grateful Dead in particular. After graduation he left St. Louis for sunny Santa Barbara, a phase during which he followed the Dead across the nation and earned a degree in recording arts from Full Sail, a creative-media college in Orlando, Florida. Then came a series of sound-production jobs. By the time his friend Landau earned his own degree from Full Sail, Goldenberg was ironing out a business plan for a combination Web company/recording studio.

Landau's love of music was forged in University City, where he spent his early adolescence "hangin' out and makin' beats" with junior-high hip-hoppers in buddy Lev Berlak's bedroom. Berlak became one of St. Louis' first hip-hop producers, working with Montell Jordan, Too $hort and the Digital Underground before moving to Oakland in 1991 to open a studio and collaborate with greats including the late Tupac Shakur.

These days Landau lives in a Rock Hill ranch home with his wife of seven years, Anne, whom he met at the Hi-Pointe when he offered her a pair of earplugs. They have a five-year-old daughter, Ashley, and a two-year-old son, Mike Jr.

Fatherhood would seem to be the farthest thing from his mind right now, as his blaccent fills the studio air to the strains of "The Phat Buddha Song."

No time to waste in this quick-ass game

Muthafuckas getting famous, can't even define fame

It could be you, you or you who's next

Make a tight-ass demo and fly out West

Or take a trip East, it's all the same beast

Sick and tired of being hungry at the muthafuckin' feast

The dude can bark out a mean rhyme scheme when he's in the proper frame of mind. The lyrics aim to lure starry-eyed rappers to sign up for lucrative studio time, but they ring true for Landau and Goldenberg. Though the two are by no means starved for business, their minds are more flush with ambition than their bank accounts are filled with funds. Fly Moves, their artist-management endeavor, is shopping client demos to major labels. The partners dream of opening satellite studios in New York, LA and Miami, plus a restaurant/club venue in St. Louis to capitalize on downtown's rejuvenation and expand it westward into Phat Buddha's still-rough-around-the-edges neighborhood. Most of all, they want Phat Buddha to be known as St. Louis' top recording destination. As in the hip-hop game, flaunting those intentions helps sell the image.

Of course, certain stereotypes are associated with rap and hip-hop artists: Drug use comes to mind, and a predilection for violence. Unlike recording studios that traffic mainly in radio and commercial work, where such baggage isn't eagerly welcomed aboard, Phat Buddha has cultivated a reputation as a forward-thinking studio with laid-back charm.

"We haven't tapped the corporate thing too heavily," offers Goldenberg, then explains his reasoning: "I think the corporate will scare the rappers away and the rappers will scare the corporate away."

Makes sense, in the abstract at least. But beyond declaring time and time again that their studio "caters to" these musicians, Landau and Goldenberg shy away from discussing specifics. They're "open-minded." They make their clients "feel comfortable." That's about all you'll get out of either of them — even in the silence between takes in a darkened vocal booth where the sole illumination emanates from the glowing ends of what might be but probably aren't cigarettes.

They're businessmen, after all, and a little mystique makes the product more desirable.

On this night work wraps at about 1 a.m. Emerging from the booth, Goldenberg runs his hands blearily through his hair. "I dunno," he mutters, agitated. "I didn't like it. We need to do it again."

"Naw, I'm not doing it again," Landau grouches, shrugging on his brown leather coat and heading for the door, the rest of the night-side entourage close behind. The bickering spills into the parking lot, then ebbs as car doors slam. But the evening is by no means over. Engines turn over, bass is cranked and a small thumping convoy rolls down the empty city streets, in search of a nightcap.

A ProTools-equipped Mac hooked up to a Digidesign Control 24 soundboard feeds six thudding speakers powered by something like eight hephastillion gigabooms per decivolt. In other words, if it were any louder it'd blast the paint clean off the radioactive-carrot-hued walls. And slunk deep in a saggy purple couch, his thumbs flying across the buttons of a Sidekick, is rapper Murphy Lee.

Heads bobbing in unison to the bowel-rattling bass, Lee and Nathan Hershey, Phat Buddha's chief audio engineer, are attempting to track down publishing rights to the "Tequila" song — or as Lee refers to it, "that Pee-wee Herman shit" — which is sampled in the background of a new track called "Get Busy." Was the ditty written by Stan Getz? George Vince? George Vincent? Paul Reubens?

Welcome to Phat Buddha's Dharma Room, a.k.a. Studio B.

Perhaps appropriately, this building was once home to a company that produced breathalyzers and urine-analysis kits. Brown and gray dominate the exterior color scheme. Bars fortify the windows, and the entries are equipped with state-of-the-art electronic locks. Gateway Homeless Services lies up the road, and aid recipients occasionally gather outside to comb through the studio's trash. Hershey says his car has been broken into ten times.

Though the studio has been up and running for six years, it remains a work in progress. An unfinished upstairs hallway that exudes a pungent eau de spackle leads to a shadowy cavern of a room crammed with remodeling must-haves. Among the ongoing projects chez Buddha: transforming a room behind Studio B into a work space for beat producers and creating a "euphony lounge" where, according to Landau, recording artists and staffers alike will be able to "kick back and chill out."

"Phat Buddha" is a moniker Landau carried with him from about age eighteen. "I've always been on a pretty heavy spiritual kick, and incorporating the name made sense," he explains. Likewise for the company's tagline, Entertainment Enlightenment. "I want it to be a very relaxed, serene, comfortable environment," Landau says, "but also one in which you're going to learn about yourself and what you're trying to be. I mean, the whole point of recording is to create the very best fictionalized version of yourself you can."

Make no mistake: Landau's also heavy into being a businessman, and he pushes his product with the polished amiability of a star car salesman. Instead of four wheels and trunk space, Phat Buddha sells the idea of Benzes and bling — and music-biz savvy. "We want to offer more education," Landau says earnestly. "We're real honest with people: We tell them that this is how you want to get better, and you're wastin' your money on that!"

Seconds Goldenberg: "There's people who come in and don't even know how to go through the recording process. We'll lay it out for you if you want to pay us for consulting. We'll lay out a whole business plan on how you need to go to market."

Landau again: "Most artists just come in here and think they're going to record something and be famous. We make it very clear that it's just one component of their career. This is ultimately a business, you know what I'm sayin'? And they need to have a real understanding of that."

Music-industry trends dictate that an artist, once signed to a major label, relinquishes final say on where and with whom he will record. In Murphy Lee's case, Universal Records is fronting thousands to record the follow-up to 2003's Murphy's Law at Phat Buddha.

"I do prefer artists to record in a place that I know," says Universal exec Bruce Carbone. "But if I trust someone in the equation — the artist, the writer, the producer — then I feel comfortable with it. An artist like Murphy Lee has earned the right, based on who he is and where he comes from, to sort of pick his path."

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

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."

Whurr I get my coats when it's nippy?

Why I wurr my clothes like a St. Louis hippie?

Regardless you know that I'm smokin' blue 'dro

If you ain't got nothin' on nothin', then what are you fo'?

The process is inexorable, characterized by knob-twiddling, incremental adjustments — and take after take after take after take.

But then, it takes time to get some things right.

Landau and Goldenberg launched Third Eye Media in July 1998 out of Goldenberg's Creve Coeur basement. The recording division didn't do much at first, but the Web-design segment (since renamed Content Executive Inc.) grew to five people in six months and pulled in more than six figures in its first year. Soon they were forced out of the house for legal reasons. "There were like fifteen people parking there every day, partying there every day, and the neighbors didn't like it," Goldenberg recalls.

Today the Locust Street compound contains the recording studio, the Web-hosting and -management division and the partners' artist-management company (Fly Moves Productions), not to mention sundry entertainment-oriented projects on the side. As CEO, Goldenberg handles the finances, while president Landau's duties are "more the entertainment side." Populating the offices are fifteen full-time employees including Hershey and night engineers Ross Vanderslice and Chris Robinson, who run the Buddha boards from 6 p.m. to the crack of dawn.

Says Hershey of his bosses: "This company is run by a bunch of Phishheads — a bunch of Deadheads gone wrong." He quickly corrects himself. "Or gone right, rather."

True, before (and to a lesser degree, since) incorporating Phat Buddha, Landau and Goldenberg spent countless driving hours and concert dollars attending shows and festivals. The consensus zenith occurred December 31, 1999, when Phish staged a blowout New Year's Eve jam on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation in the Florida Everglades. Having journeyed 1,200 miles from their hometown, the business partners rang in the millennium with 100,000 fellow Phans.

Says Landau: "It was the pinnacle of Phish's career."

Goldenberg: "All our friends rented four RVs, and we had packed them full of water and everything to survive the Y2K explosions."

"Definitely the best show ever," Landau puts in.

"The highlight of our touring lives!" concludes Goldenberg.

Only six weeks earlier, they'd moved into their Phat new digs. Goldenberg's father, a local developer, purchased the fixer-upper, and with loans totaling about $1 million, the partners traded their Hacky Sacks for hip-hop tracks.

Now, after laying down eight separate tracks of harmonies and vocal effects ("Haha!" "Whuuut?" "Whoo!") for "My Nite," Murphy Lee and Hershey agree to call it a day. Start to finish, it has taken four hours to elevate Verse Two to album-ready status.

"Yeah, Nate Dog hooks your tape clean on up!" exclaims Lee, pleased with the booming playback.

Landau's sitting on one of the twin double beds in the tenth-floor room he and Goldenberg are sharing in the House of Blues hotel in Chicago, watching Scarface while his business partner fidgets. They've got no tickets for tonight's St. Lunatics performance, and no VIP passes. They do, however, have faith that their outside-looking-in predicament will somehow right itself.

That, and a fifth apiece of Grey Goose vodka and Crown Royal Scotch.

And voilà: a knock at the door.

Enter a guy in camouflage pants sporting a silver Derrty necklace — and Lunatics tix. After clasping right hands and thumping shoulders with Landau, he says it might be possible to gain VIP access by entering the venue with Murphy Lee, via a tunnel.

"He's either the tour manager or the stage manager," Landau explains after the visitor accepts gratitude in the form of a Ziploc of bud and retreats. "But he's definitely going to hook us up now.

"Great movie," he adds, returning his attention to Tony Montana, who just now is chomping on a cigar as he lounges in his lavish sunken bathtub. "Getting power is easier than keeping it."

Another knock announces a visit from Murphy Lee. On tour now for nearly a month, he just flew in from some San Francisco "TV shit" and is glad to see some hometown faces. He rolls a joint on the room-service menu and the three pass it around.

Hours later Landau and Goldenberg are as dapper as they ever get in jeans and sweaters, standing among the two dozen rappers, crew members and assorted hangers-on in the lobby beside — of all things — a six-foot Buddha statue. Landau is on a shoulder-thumping spree. Goldenberg, eyes bloodshot, compulsively checks his watch. Finally a yellow-shirted security cohort appears to lead the way down a flight of stairs, into the promised tunnel, through a kitchen, up a freight elevator and into a back hallway. The group emerges on the third-level landing of House of Blues just as the lights go down. The 1,300-capacity crowd commences to shriek, and Landau and Goldenberg go off in search of drink.

When the lights come back up at 11:30, Murphy Lee's "Dat Bullshit," recently recorded at Phat Buddha, explodes from the sound system. A tipsy Goldenberg raps along, Crown-and-Coke in his left hand, his right jabbing the air.

You see the keys (you see the keys!)

You see the car (you see the car!)

You see the house (you see the house!)

Na-na-na-na-na-now das dat bullshit!

The trappings of wealth and fame may be bullshit, but they're what aspiring hip-hop artists are after. Like a luxe hotel, Phat Buddha offers instant gratification in the form of full-service indulgence. Of course, far-reaching success is a trickier prospect — but few in the music business seem to want their success delivered in incremental doses.

Eight years after its inception, Goldenberg projects the business he and Landau birthed in a basement will bring in $350,000 in revenue in 2006. The company's Web division is expected to draw an additional half-million.

Those figures correlate nicely to the Chrysler 300 and the BMW 325, both new, in the Phat Buddha parking lot. Yet Goldenberg still rents his home from his parents, just as his dad rents the Phat Buddha property to the partners for a few thousand a month. On top of that, Goldenberg estimates it'll take ten years for the business to pay off the loans that got it started.

Chuckles Landau: "People think we're making millions of dollars."

"Or that we're worth millions of dollars," Goldenberg interjects. "But I'm in debt a million dollars. We're in deep! Seven figures invested. Over seven figures! Our chips are definitely in."

So they're more than a few years away from the Fortune 500, but running Phat Buddha does have its perks. As "Dat Bullshit" winds down, Goldenberg and Landau belly up to the VIP bar. Armed with fresh cocktails, they ride the couches with Clear Channel execs in a smaller, posher VIP nook, again under the gaze of Buddha figures mounted high on the walls. When they adjourn to the after-after-afterparty, they're the only white faces in the smoky, crammed hotel room.

The next morning they're on the road by eleven. Landau wants to be back at Phat Buddha when up-and-coming rapper Penelope arrives for her scheduled session, and Goldenberg needs to process the payroll by four o'clock. They make it home just in time.

Like Scarface, they've got the power. Now they just need to figure out how to keep it.

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