Rick Clifford Interview

I2G had the extreme honor to interview one of the greatest engineers in my humble opinion in the music industry, Rick Clifford. Whether working with Pharcyde, Gloria Gaynor, 2pac, Tha Dogg Pound and many others, Rick’s magic touch on the boards is legendary. He discusses his start in the music biz, working with 2pac and other artists on Death Row and so much more so enjoy this classic sit down with one of the best to ever do it.

I2G:
Alright, we’re here with Rick Clifford. How’s it going, man?

Rick Clifford:
Ah, good.

I2G:
Alright. For those who are unfamiliar with you in the music industry, tell me a little about how you got your start in music and maybe who are some of your favorite artists or musical influences coming up?

Rick Clifford:
Well Uncle Rick, as everybody called me. When I was at Death Row, I was the oldest one up there. I was 45. But, I got my start in the ’70s at The Total Experience Studio. Back in the ’70s, The Total Experience was probably the number one black studio to go to. People came to it from all over the country. The Total Experience ended up signing, who was it, the Gap Band and all those people.

But that’s where I got my start and I went from there to Freddie Perren. That’s where we did I Will Survive, Reunited, and all that stuff. I Will Survive, we got a Grammy in 1980 for Best Recording of a Mix Record. It was nominated for Song of the Year, but didn’t get it. Also, they put I Will Survive in the Library of Congress last year. We helped culturally change American with that song. I was real proud of that.

And then from there, I worked at a studio called Conway, which was a rock and roll studio. And I worked with all the big rock acts there which definitely helped me with going to Death Row. Before Death Row, I met Suge Knight up at Michael Jackson’s house when I was the Chief Engineer for his Hayvenhurst Studio up there. And my daily supervisor was Joe Jackson.

Up there and he was managing artists so he brought a guy named RBX and this was like late ’80s, maybe? We put RBX, they said, hey man, you’re putting these rappers on these R&B records, so that’s the rapper they got to put on R&B records.

And then from there, I worked with the Pharcyde, two or three albums. And then after the Pharcyde, I also worked with people like Brian Austin Green. And from there, I was coming out of the Pharcyde sessions in the wee hours of morning, they played me Murder Was The Case. Like everybody else, I went nuts when I heard it. Because we’re in Skip Sailor’s studio with the big $120,000 monitors, first time I heard Murder Was The Case.

So then one morning they say, Rick, the engineer that worked on Murder Was The Case, was walking down the driveway. So I ran out and immediately met Keston Wright and told him, “Man, you’re one of the best engineers”. Actually he told me I was crazy. He said nobody gave him a compliment before. So we exchanged numbers and he called me about two weeks later, three weeks later and said they’re looking for engineers over at Death Row.

I2G:
Oh wow.

Rick Clifford:
So I went over there, did an interview with Kevin Lewis, Amanda Lewis’ son, who was over the R&B Department, Studio Manager. In the interview he said, “Are you ready to work today?” And I said yes. He said so, if I put you on reception right now where you gotta cut vocals with Michelle and Nate Dogg and Dre’s coming in the mix, you could handle this? And I’m like, no problem.

Of course, I was jumpin’ up and down inside. (laughing) Because my whole thing is I was up there in age and I actually wanted to go to Death Row and learn their sound from Dre. So when he told me you’re gonna be working, man I was like whoa. But you know me, you know how we do. It’s okay and then I went in with the door closed. Next thing I know, I started mixing the Dogg Pound album with Dre. Then after that I did Tupac stuff.

That’s how I got up in Death Row. That’s what you needed to know?

I2G:
Um, I’m interested in everything. I mean that’s an incredible start and that was coming into my next question which you actually answered, kinda the transition from rock and R&B into Death Row, which had some R&B, as well. But, mainly as the hip hop label, but then working with Dre and working with Death Row, you know, what was that experience like for you? But, you kinda delved into that.

Rick Clifford:
Well, what happened was, they had a meaning. They were upset. They didn’t have a lot of black engineers beside Keston and also they were looking for engineers that could record more than drum machines. So because of my background, you know, back in the day, you know man, we had to cut. When you did a living session, back in the day, you had to cut live drums, two guitars, a piano, an electric piano, a clarinet, two percussionists, bass player. And then the lead singer would be somewhere one guy would lead out. But you had to record all this stuff at once. You know there wasn’t no drum machine.

That particular art, even if you go to school, you know I went to LA City College. I took Basic Electronics, Computer Science. I was the second one at USC that got a major in Recording. The first guy was a guy named Dan Weinman who started 360 Systems. They make synthesizers and stuff. But, you know from going to school, knowing all that it’d still take you about a good five years just to learn the art of recording drums and live instruments. In them days, after that you have to do all the instruments over them. So all of a sudden, you might have to record 25 to 30 frames. Horns section could be like six to ten horns. You know you had to know how to do all that stuff so. The way God worked it, by the time I got to Death Row, I loved their sound. I knew enough where okay, all you have to do is just help them enhance their sound, so.

It was odd, the first day I got there, Daz pointed out to Dre that I was using a cork. And I’m like, what’s wrong with that? And he goes, dude, ain’t nobody use this gear up in here. I’m like, they don’t use this gear? And I’m like, dude, you know I’m from Conway. This toolkit cost like $2,000. You know some of this gear in here cost like three, four, you guys are saying. Nah, we’ve never, they’ve never used it. So …

I2G:
Oh wow.

Rick Clifford:
As a matter of fact, Dre asked me, what do you have on the bass? And I said the toolkit. I said, take it off? He goes, no, leave it on there and somebody copy the settings. So, you know, so when we roll together, we had the Fireside were incredible to work with when the four of them were together. They loved to experiment with sound, so we started.

I’ve always had this thing for 3D, you know making sound sound like it’s 3D, so I actually found a device called gypsum space lighting. Starting using it on Fireside. I would invite the specializing people down there. I got to Death Row, they called me up and they said, Rick we gave all the big engineers an endorsement on the space lighting but we forgot that you didn’t give somebody one that does hip hop, so they sent me two space lightings. One that cost like $7,000 and another one that cost about $4,000.

So I brought that in and then the other thing I found out and I couldn’t believe this. They paid $75,000 a month for the studio and they paid $25,000 a month for rhythms. So once I found that out, I’m like, okay. From coming like from Conway and those big rock studios and stuff, I said okay, I can set this up like you know how we do the big rock and roll. So I went in there, especially when Tupac came in there. I rented like all the great lead amps and then you do the old trick where you come out of the gear. Wherever you’re recording from, you go into the means or whatever and you come out of that. You bypass the console and cut and see then.

And that’s what gives it that sound like it’s up in your face.

I2G:
Ok.

Rick Clifford:
The reason I’m telling you this is because this was taught to me and you know, it needs to be handed down to the kids.

I2G:
Absolutely, absolutely. Now what’s with that transition once Dre had left Death Row and then you’re transitioning more into Snoop Dogg, Tupac. Dre seems like, and I’ve been in a few studio sessions, but I don’t know Dre personally, as a producer. Dre seems more hands on, kind of the visionary who knows where he wants music to go. Being an engineer, from that transition from Dre to Tupac or even Dre himself, how open or hands on was he, maybe critic the things that you may have heard? You have a different perspective or different ear from listening to it.

Rick Clifford:
Well, once again, don’t forget, I can from the world where at some point, you know, like the guy I worked for that did I Will Survive and all that, Freddie Perren. This cat wrote and produced 12 number one hits. Don’t forget he did, what’d they write A-B-C, I Want You Back, for the Jacksons. He did All That Miracle, Love Machine and all that. He had two or three songs on Saturday Night Fever album. So, I was used to, at some point, those type of producers, always jump on the board.

Even when I went to the big rock studios, a lot of those producers would let the engineer do his thing to a certain point and they gonna jump on the board. And then the Fireside was like that. You know, I never mind, ’cause I’m always interested. I almost encourage a producer to get on the board for a second. Just to kinda get an idea what this person’s hearing and try and help them get their own identifiable sound.

One thing about Dre, Dre’s gonna come in. He’s gonna sit at the door and then there’s that Dr. Dre sound. Dre was gracious and would let me do the effects, all the effects by the way, on California Love, were instead of running them into the board, they were ran into the gypsum space lighting. So all the echo and stuff like that kinda has this 3D effect on.

I2G:
Yeah, that song was ahead of its time definitely when it first came out.

Rick Clifford:
Yeah, yeah. And then don’t forget, probably the biggest enemies in the business is people’s ego. Right, I’m more like a person that enjoys working with people. Some engineers come in and don’t want nobody to touch the board. If the producer wants to get on the board, they get all upset. My attitude is I’m an engineer, that’s what I trained for, but I don’t write and all that stuff. Without people like Dre and them, I’d basically be sitting at an empty studio.

Bad too, Bad get on the board. Bad man, also DJ Quik. Quik and Dre. Whew!

I learned from them a lot. You know what I mean? I went up there to learn. That’s what I love about this business. You never stop learning.

I asked Dre one day about the infamous Dr. Dre hip hop sound. He looked at me, guess what he told me? He said what hip hop sound? I was trying to make the sound like Earth, Wind & Fire and Quincy Jones and stuff. He said just ’cause I use drum machines and mini mode, it sounds like that. But he said, that’s the sound I like.

I2G:
Wow.

Rick Clifford:
The only thing probably missing nowadays is a lot of the quality that a lot of producers demanded, especially in the mid ’90s. You know what I mean? All those records had a certain quality to them.

I2G:
Do you have any fond memories or favorite studio session in working with Tupac? And did you see the All Eyez On Me movie, as well?

Rick Clifford:
Um. I didn’t see the All Eyez On Me movie. I’m for it, though. All that negative stuff about it, I thought it was terrible. Hopefully, they’ll make three or four Tupac movies. There’s nothing wrong with that.

I was just blessed to work on All Eyez On Me. I got a call one night from Kevin Lewis, the Studio Manager. Rick, you gotta come down here. Man, well, Tupac’s outta jail. I’m like, right. No, no, Rick, you gotta come down here.

I don’t know what happened, but he didn’t like the way a certain engineer cut his vocals. He’d been up here screaming, so when I got down there, I actually got … When I first met Tupac on pre-production interview, and then he said, how do you … He said, number one, I want a R&B hip hop sound, you know. So then, you know, I knew I got him. I said, oh I’m perfect for this ’cause I come from an R&B school. You know I worked with the Pharcyde and people like that.

Then he said, how do you intend to record my album? I said I got to rent some gear. He said, there’s not enough gear here? I said, no, not for what we need to do. I said, then I’m going to spend about two hours or so setting everything up, testing it. Then I’m gonna put it out in the live house and then all we need to do is run. We actually put All Eyez On Me down in 14 days.

I2G:
Wow.

Rick Clifford:
Well part of the reason for it was number one, I used to argue with the record companies always wanted to use a tube microphone on the hip hop artist. You know when I was at Conway, man we worked with Patti LaBelle, Barbara Streisand, people like that. So my idea was why not take this same technique and that’s actually what I did with Tupac.

I found out Frank Sinatra used Tube U47 with a led printer. So I rented a Tube U47 with a led printer. Ran it through some old compressors and stuff. Pac went out there. I was always told to hit record. I pretty much knew what the settings were so when he went out there, I hit record. And after, I said, man you want to hear that back? He said, you recorded that? I said, yeah.

He came in. I’m like, yeah, that’s it. Man only one Pac. As soon as Johnny J would break something out of his machine or Bas would send something over, Pac would write the whole thing in five minutes.

I2G:
That’s incredible.

Rick Clifford:
Then he’d get on the mic and like one take everything.

So, it’s real important to make sure the sounds great. And then I come from that school. There’s two schools …Ah, we’ll fix it in the mix or record it like it’s the mix. So that’s what I did. I came from that school where I’m gonna print this like we’re mixing. So when they can hear everything clear. The vocal sounds great. I think the creativity is better for the artist.

I2G:
Absolutely, absolutely. Now, as far as, now are you still working on any mix tapes or albums or with any other artists?

Rick Clifford:
Yeah, I’m working a lot of mix tapes. I’m working on albums. I worked with Meech Wells. And Meech Wells produced the masterpiece, the Godfather, maybe.

I2G:
He did a lot on Tha Last Meal for Snoop along with Dre.

Rick Clifford:
Yeah, that’s the album I meant to say.

I2G:
Yessir.

Rick Clifford:
Yeah, so I’ve been on Meech now. You know I’m old, so, you know Meech is the son of Mary Wells.

I2G:
Yes.

Rick Clifford:
So, I used to work his mother and I met Meech when he was probably like 14, or so. And then don’t forget his dad, Cecil Wells, he had the biggest R&B group in Europe for the long time, Womack & Womack. And that was Bobby Womack, so.

So then his son got about 22 or so. His son does the beats, Meech does the keyboard, so it’s been a special like Smooth, Kokane, Kiya Kiya. We just dropped a mix tape on Kiya Kiya about a month ago or so. And we might just keep him busy. We’ve been offered a lot of pro projects. African projects. You know just to do stuff, you know ’cause it’s an art form, so. You know just to do something different.

And then a lot of times, people now don’t wanna go to a map with an engineer. So they’ll send me stuff to map, at least two or three times a week.

I2G:
Ok. Last question for you, what is your favorite album of all time that listening to or that you are currently listening to. Maybe something that you haven’t worked on personally, but you listen to from another artist or producer that you feel is the best mix and master of all time. And just maybe how you listen to a album. Do you listen to the lyrics first or the beat? From being an engineer, I’m sure you probably catch different horns or beats or vocals. You might listen to it a little bit differently.

Rick Clifford:
I gotta say. Still one of my favorite sounding albums is probably Tha Dogg Pound- Dogg Food.

I2G:
That’s awesome. That was classic. That’s one of my all time favorite albums.

Rick Clifford:
Man, we got all kind of awards. I had to put this ladder up in the hallway. 3M sent us a letter, remember we used tape back in them days. All that stuff was at least two or three 24 tracks. But they sent us this letter of excellence and I fell on the ground ’cause it said, Dear Dat Nigga Daz and I’ve been in the business a long time, an old black man. I’m like damn, they bowed down. They actually printed Dear Dat Nigga Daz.

I2G:
(Laughing)

Rick Clifford:
So they bowed down. Oh wait a minute! It gets better, Dre had this custom speaker system up in there, that he had to desktop to build with the cabdriver sitting on these giant sub woofers. So people was like, aw man, that’s it.

You know, Jay came up in there with six guys in boots. Measured stuff and all that. Then the next, you know, all the studios in town started getting these sub woofers on the floor sitting in front of the gospel.

But, yeah, I was blessed to work with Dre. Watch Dre mix. He threw down on California Love. That was the first time, also, I could get him to walk out the studio. Usually he’ll like mix for four to six hours and leave and come back to us. I convinced him it was a Friday. Let’s leave the studio locked out. What cha doing tomorrow, okay we’ll come down and work all day tomorrow. So we were able to do the single version and the California Love remix version on Friday and Saturday.

I2G:
Did you have a favorite from the two? The album version or the remix version?

Rick Clifford:
It’s just something about this song, the remix version on me. You know? But, it sounds great. I was up in the master lab in Portland and everybody keep telling me this guys play California Love, so. The guy finally met you and he going. He’s like I’m gonna put measurements on this and it’s still something in the sound that I can’t figure out. And that’s when I told him I’d do it. You have to put spacing right.

I’ll send you some pictures of it.

I2G:
Ok.

Rick Clifford:
It’s weird. It’s eight knobs with two on the set. If you take the knobs and you take one of the knobs and pan it all the way down, it’ll give the appearance that the sounds behind you in a two speaker system.

So, when I first started using it, at first, Dre didn’t hear it. Then Daz was sitting there and goes, man I hear that stuff all behind my head. Then Dre all of a sudden, tapped a certain spot and he did California Love he did definitely with the spatial lights on.

I2G:
Ok.

    

(Desper Spatializer used by Rick Clifford for mixing & mastering)

Rick Clifford:
And that all comes from the science of psychoacoustics. The outer ear hears one sound, but the brain is complex so it hears all this other stuff, so. A lot of that stuff, there might have been like six different sets going on. But in the track, you just hear like it’s vocal. If you saw vocal or you saw the keyboard, you might hear the keyboard auto cat. But, in the track, it sounds like a really great keyboard. And that’s what we call the science of psychoacoustics.

I2G:
Did you also do work with Tupac on the Makaveli album?

Rick Clifford:
Yeah, just a little bit. Yeah, yeah. Just a little bit. The actual sound of Makaveli comes from the guy named Kurt Kobane MP3. That’s the way Hail Mary and stuff sounded coming out of MP3.

I2G:
Yeah, that had a more of a haunting, kinda different. More of a haunting sound, so it went kinda

Rick Clifford:
Well, yeah, don’t forget. Don’t forget he told me he wanted All Eyez On Me to be a R&B hip hop sounding album. People could dance to it and stuff.

He did Makaveli just like, man, I can do anything I want. Just go for audio, you know. And then Kurt Cobain was the program there. I think he was the youngest, but you know, he got up on the dubs, quick and sounds and stuff. Another guy, dub engineer who worked on it, Lance Pierre, and Tommy D.

I2G:
Ok.

Rick Clifford:
So, I was the Chief Engineer on Death Row. So Kevin Lewis and I were trying to figure out what engineers to put on what projects, also.

I2G:
Ok. I just want to thank you for the time. I can consider All Eyez On Me as probably one of my top three favorite albums of all time. I think that’s the quintessential main stream hip hop album. That to me was the blueprint.

Rick Clifford:
Well, yeah.

I2G:
I think with no All Eyez On Me, there’s no Life After Death by Biggie.

Rick Clifford:
And, yeah, don’t forget. I tell people this, man, the hip hop that sound. I’ll tell them like Death Row, that stuff had a certain quality to it. So, nobody believe me, until the Outkast came out, that’s another one of my favorite albums with The Way You Move Me and all that.

I2G:
Yep.

Rick Clifford:
That and All Eyez On Me gotta be up there. And don’t forget, both of those albums were double albums. But, I know people that never owned one hip hop album in their life and the bought the Outkast I LiKe The Way You Move Me album. Yep.

I2G:
I have friends that don’t listen to hip hop and they own All Eyez On Me, so those two albums

Rick Clifford:
Yeah. Both those albums you don’t need to compare. Time was spent on recording it and making sure it was mixed right.

And then on the mixing, Quik probably did the bulk of All Eyez On Me. I was on one side putting it down, Quik was on the other side. Dave and a few other guys worked on it, but Quik was like the main guy.

I2G:
Ok, I’ll give you one last quick question. In maybe working difference than working with Quik and working with Dre. I notice when listen to DJ … To me he’s one of the most stepped on and underrated producers of all time. That’s cold. Everybody says Dre. Very few people say Quik after …

Rick Clifford:
No, no. Here’s the big difference. Dre come in and he knows what he wanna hear that Dre found. He’s like the Quincy Jones of hip hop.

I2G:
That’s the title I gave him here.

Rick Clifford:
He a bad man. Now Quik … Quik come in, he’s the monster mixing and stuff, but his level of the actual audio art is like talking to one of my old engineering buddies that, you know like where I work now, I work out of Barking Doctor studios. My friend Mick Guzauski owns it. They’ll make good to Daft Punk, Get Lucky. We still work with Pharell outta there. We’re mixing, what’re we mixing up there now? What’s that girl’s name Jenelle Monae?

I2G:
Oh yeah. Ok.

Rick Clifford:
But, Mick’s like one of those engineers he’s 5,000. He does everything from Pilot to Dre to Snoop, but talking of Quik. Quik has the same level of understanding the queues and exactly what they do. You know, you know, you know. It’s like, that’s the difference.

I2G:
Ok. Alright.

Rick Clifford:
Dre knows exactly what he wants to hear. He knows it is intuitive, you know what I mean. So Quick is good as. I used to make jokes and tell people, you know you lucky Dre ain’t declared himself a mixer ’cause he would’ve hogged up all the work.

I2G:
I can definitely see that. I can definitely see that with Dre. Well, again, I appreciate the time and appreciate the interview. I think we could do a six part interview to just talk about the music industry. So always been working and interviewing artists. I think it’s always good to get the producers and now especially the engineer side on how music is made and how it’s mixed and mastered. Definitely it’s a definite honor to talk with you and share some time with you on something you work on.

Check out one of the groups that Rick is currently working with, Blue Flamez, and their video, Rez Life

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  1. I 2G, God bless you and thank you for the piece you did on my Brother Rick. Many people in the industry really love him because he humble, never a name dropper, and as real as one can get. You got maybe 10% of who and what Rick ha done! Ask Him about other artist he’s worked with. Love to see a book about him and his journey through the music industry.

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