Young Guru

 

Young Guru: Teaching More Than Just Beats

‭Meet the engineer behind so many familiar songs.

By Dan Gentile

03/7/2018

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“I’ve been going to SXSW since back when Interactive wasn’t even a thing. You just walked down the street and saw new bands,” says Gimel Androus Keaton, aka Young Guru. Best known as Jay Z’s go-to recording engineer, he will speak this year at SXSW about the intersection of technology, music and education.

At 44 years old, he has grown out of the first half of his stage name and stepped into the second. He received the nickname “Young Guru” during high school when teaching an African history course to other students. By that point he had already been DJing for several years but hadn’t settled on a moniker — Young Guru stuck. He continued DJing while studying engineering at Howard University, then had his first big break in 1992 while DJing for female rapper Nonchalant as the opening act for the Fugees “Ready or Not” Tour. From there, he started to spend more time in studios but felt there was a void to be filled. “At that time as I was going into studios, the engineers didn’t really respect hip hop. It wasn’t even a genre at that point,” he says.

His journey into hip hop production began with two weapons of choice: the classic Em-U SP1200 drum machine and the Akai 950 sampler, which allowed him to edit and truncate funk drum breaks. It helped that he already had musical training, which he credits to his mother for always keeping an instrument in his hands (trumpet, piano, and drums). Enrolling in an audio engineering school completed his skill set, and Young Guru began working professionally: “The biggest piece of advice I ever got was ‘vibe over money’. If the vibe isn’t right, there’s no amount of money that should make you do it, because you’re hurting your brand. The money will come.”

Young Guru at the controls.

Young Guru at the controls.

 

Young Guru trained during the days of analog equipment, but even though most of today’s gear is digital his approach to teaching young engineers hasn’t changed. He appreciates the old-school approach of producers like Adrian Younge but doesn’t bemoan the digital revolution and disagrees that it’s ruining a generation.

“I don’t think kids have short attention spans, it’s that the vehicles in which they express themselves have limited them to 30 second clips,” he says. “If someone becomes interested in something, they’ll spend a Saturday on YouTube and learn as much as they can in a year of college.”

‘If the vibe isn’t right, there’s no amount of money that should make you do it, because you’re hurting your brand. The money will come.”

That style of self-learning resonates with a younger generation, but it doesn’t always equal success in traditional classroom environments. “These young people make music in their bedrooms,” he explains. “They’re already engineers… they just don’t know what skill they’re using.”

That is an easy line of logic to accept from someone with two Grammys and Jay Z’s cell number, but it can be hard for traditional employers to see the connections between music apps like Garageband and electrical engineering. That is where Young Guru’s new project, Sleeping Giants, comes in. A partnership between brand consultant agency The Marketing Arm and youth empowerment entreprise Era of the Engineer, the new initiative hopes to serve as a bridge between companies and urban youth to encourage the type of talent incubation typically only seen in the world of athletics.

 

“I can go to MIT and get the greatest mind that’s there, but the NBA doesn’t wait until a kid is in college to identify him,” Young Guru says. “They identify him in junior high school, then groom him. If companies took a vested interest in kids, there’d be a direct funnel and you’d have a better and more diverse workforce.”

Although his work with Sleeping Giants will be the focus of his SXSW appearance, it’s impossible not to mention Young Guru’s relationship with Jay Z, and their partnership dates back to the Blueprint era in the early 2000s. What’s the most fun thing about working with Jay Z? Young Guru says that it’s having a direct line without industry middle men. When pressed for a less professional answer, he diplomatically drew comparisons to working with younger artists.

“Jay Z is a human being who knows what he wants to talk about and who he is,” says Young Guru. “Sometimes young artists are talented but don’t know who they are. They know they can sing really well but don’t know what they want to sing about. Your job is to guide their talent.”

Young Guru will be a Featured Speaker in the Music Culture & Stories track, on Tuesday, March 13, at 11am in Room 12AB at the Austin Convention Center.

See schedule.sxsw.com or the SXSW GO app for more details.

Also, take a look back at this session from 2015: Building the Beat: A Conversation with Music’s Most Influential Producers, featuring Mannie Fresh, KLC, Young Guru, and Just Blaze. Moderated by Peter Rosenberg.

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