For D’Angelo fans, Christmas came early last week: The singer unexpectedly released Black Messiah, his first full-length since 2000. One of the many things that sets the album apart is its sound: dense and deep, full of intricate details, somehow welcoming and warm and vicious all at once.
To find out more about the unique sonics, Billboard spoke with one of D’Angelo’s engineers, Russell Elevado — who also helped the singer put out his last release, Voodoo. Elevado talked about the first time he met D’Angelo, the unique nature of their creative relationship, and how he makes “crazy sounds.”
How and when did you first get into engineering?
I was always interested in sound from an early age — in my early teens I started looking at who was the engineer and who was the producer and always tweaking everyone’s stereos at their houses and in their cars. Straight after high school I went right into engineering school in New York. I started interning six months into school, before I even graduated. This was back in 1986. As soon as I got my feet wet, I realized this is where I want to be. I don’t want to be in the front. I want to be the guy behind the scenes.
It’s great to have that realization so early.
I know. I was really meant to do this. I really was.
How would you describe the role of an engineer?
I’m the man responsible for making everything sound as good as possible, whatever that may be. I definitely find there’s a new definition of an engineer these days, but I’m going to talk about the way I was brought up: old school. My role as an engineer is to make sure the artist is comfortable and that I can give them the best sound as humanly possible.
How did you first meet D’Angelo?
He was being managed by a guy named Kedar Massenburg when he was working on Brown Sugar. I was mixing a project for Angie Stone — at the time she had a group called Vertical Hold. Kedar was managing that band as well. He liked the stuff that he was hearing, so he was like, “Hey, man, I want to introduce you to D’Angelo, they’re looking for another enginner.” Bob Power had initially started the album, and I guess there was some artistic disagreements, so they were looking for somebody else. [Massenburg] played me the demos and I was like, “Yes! Definitely want to work with this guy.” That’s how we met, and I think we were really meant to meet.
We were actually talking about Voodoo as I started mixing his songs [for Brown Sugar]. I heard a little bit more raw version of him than how the songs that were already mixed had sounded. That’s when we started talking about all the ’60s and ’70s influences — Led Zeppelin and Hendrix and Funkadelic.
So Voodoo vs. Black Messiah: Voodoo is famous for a lot of the songs coming out of jams. Questlove has talked about how “Chicken Grease” stems from a Curtis Mayfield song like “Mother’s Son.” Is that the same sort of approach that was taken on the new record?
Not really. Much later on, he did start to want to jam with other musicians. A lot of it at the beginning was him bringing demos in that he had worked on at home and wanted to recreate and do over in the studio and see how far that went. Even from the initial recordings straight after Voodoo in 2001, it was a lot of him solo in the studio. He’d jump on the drums, then he’d jump on the guitar, then the bass. Me and D’Angelo haven ‘t talked about this actually, but to me, it felt like he wanted to do something that was more him and less collaborative, just to see where he can go with it, where he’s not always feeding off other musicians. I think that’s one of the big differences, a lot of these songs were conceived without any jamming. Though songs like “Another Life” and “Till It’s Done (Tutu),” those were born out of jams for sure.
A lot of it would be just the three of us, D’Angelo, myself and Ben [Kane, who also worked as an enginner on Black Messiah]. My role has always been: just getting some crazy sounds. D’Angelo’s told me that he considers me the George Martin of the project. [George Martin played an instrumental role in the sound of the Beatles.] We feed off each other. There’s something always special when me and D’Angelo get together. It’s different from any time I’ve worked with anybody else.
Now that he’s made this move toward playing more guitar himself, was a lot of this music started on the guitar?
Yeah. Songs were developing differently because he was writing on the guitar vs. the keyboard. He would approach songwriting or coming up with a groove in a different way because he wasn’t sitting behind a keyboard.
How about the strings on this album? There’s some strings on Brown Sugar, but it’s been a long time since he’s worked with string sections — what was the thinking behind that?
We’ve talked about that. [D’Angelo’s] mentioned, “Hey, man, we haven’t really done any strings, we should put some cool strings.” He’s not a big fan of lush, lush strings, but he does like stuff that Motown’s done of course, and somebody like the Beatles, and Clare Fischer — he’s a big fan of the stuff that Clare Fischer did with Prince. He definitely wanted to include that element. It’s something that he hasn’t really done on any album, so it was something unique that we could do.
A lot of acts are inspired by the same funk and soul that inspires you and D’Angelo, but very few albums come out sounding like Black Messiah. What allows you guys to get your unique sound?
I’ve been doing this style for a long time. One of the secrets — and it’s not really a secret — is that I still use tape. And I mix out of the box. This is a good thing for people to understand. Most mixers — at least 85 percent of the big-name mixers — are mixing in the box, or sort of a hybrid. In the box means they’re staying inside the computer. They’re only coming out of two channels, as if you were coming out of a stereo, to mix the song. Whereas I could be using tape, or when I use pro-tools, I’m using it more like a multi-track recorder, like a tape machine. I’m not using it for the processing or effects. I’m using all the effects outboard, all with old vintage gear — the stuff that Jimi would use or the Beatles would use. I’ve got a huge collection; I’ve been collecting for years. If I’m in the digital domain, using pro-tools as a multi-track, I’m putting out all of the tracks on separate outputs — I could have up to 80 tracks coming out of pro-tools. Someone mixing in the box, they’d only have two.
In the U.S., Pro Tools was the revolution. Right after Voodoo, the digital revolution came as far as Pro Tools really infiltrating the recording. [It] made everything cheap, and then people started doing stuff in their bedrooms and that started to kill the studio business. And then by 2004, [Pro Tools] was the standard. When everybody was embracing all of that stuff, I just stayed doing my analog thing. I tried [Pro Tools] — I couldn’t get the sound that I could normally get with digital. I just stuck to my guns, and it wasn’t easy at first. A lot of people were turned off by the fact that we had to get budget for tape. But I never embraced Pro Tools at all. There’s only a few of us who prefer analog and still kind of do it the old-school way. And that’s a huge part of the sound.
Is it hard since you’re an analog guy to have the songs compressed to MP3s? Is that a tragic moment for you?
It is. Even down to the CDs, because I’m mixing in such a high fidelity. They’ve always got to take it down from 24 bits to 16, and that conversion alone takes the quality down. To hear that and then reference it back to my original mix is definitely a letdown. But I’ve learned to get used to it. For this one, I didn’t want to see the quality suffer as much as I have had to put up with in the past, so I was very meticulous that the end product would capture most of the original mixes.
Are there a lot of fully finished songs that didn’t end up on the album?
I wouldn’t say fully finished. There were a few that were pretty close that didn’t make it on. Then there were a ton of sketches that were done.
So what’s next for you?
I’m taking this bit of holiday season off for sure, up until the new year. I’m producing a group called the Dragons of Zynth, a bunch of Brooklyn dudes playing rock and soul. I’m just so happy that the album is done. I’m trying to let it all sink in — it’s been a saga, and it hasn’t always been easy. I don’t know if a lot of people can relate to doing a project that’s been on and off for this long.
I really want to finish some of those songs that haven’t been done. Also Pino [Palladino, who played bass on much of Voodoo and Black Messiah] is gonna be working on a solo album too. That’s going to be something in the future which should be amazing.
How did D’Angelo connect with Pino? I know that Questlove once said Pino is one of the few bassists who can reproduce the sound of James Jamerson from Motown, but before Voodoo, had Pino worked much outside of rock?
He hadn’t done anything that was that funky. His first band was Paul Young, he did all the classics [sings “Every Time You Go Away”]. That’s Pino. That was his first band, and he traded that signature sound. He did the whole late ’80s, early ’90s, big pop-rock guys — Elton John, Tears for Fears, Don Henley. That Don Henley stuff was huge!
D’Angelo was invited to play on B.B. King‘s album of duets [Deuces Wild, from 1997]. B.B.’s house band was Pino, Steve Jordan, just a bunch of fucking famous people. D’Angelo came in, and we were waiting for B.B. King. They were jamming on some old soul covers. D’Angelo can play that stuff in his sleep. The band was just like, “who the hell is this guy?” He’s virtually unknown at this point — we had just started working on Voodoo. But D kept looking at Pino like, “who the fuck is this guy?” Cause [Pino]’s playing Jamerson note for note. [Pino] introduced himself, and in my head, I’m like, oh shit! This is Pino? I had no idea he could play funky soul shit. And that was it. D was like, “yo, it’s great to meet you.” And Pino was like, “hey man, I’m a big fan” — he loved Brown Sugar. We were meant to meet. 2 months later, he was at Electric Lady jamming with us.
Is there a favorite D’Angelo moment you have from the Black Messiah sessions?
There’s been a lot of moments, as you can imagine. One of the ones that sticks out is the sessions we did when he wrote “Another Life” and “Till It’s Done.” “Another Life,” when that song came about, it was pretty magical. It was literally out of thin air. It was conceived, the way it’s arranged, in one evening. Then they did another take of it the following day. But there’ve been a lot of magical moments.