Def Jef is a Hip-Hop legend. He released two classic albums. He then got heavily into producing and has done some classic songs and remixes with artists such as Bo$, Nas, 2Pac, Snoop, Shaq and tons more. He is respected in the game and we had the pleasure of talking with him to see what he is working on now!
It's hard to say if it was "fair" or not. It was a standard deal that most new artists would get. I had an attorney negotiate it so I am sure he would not have advised me to sign an "un-fair" contract. I will say this...I do feel that I was treated fairly during the years that I was with the label. When label owner Mike Ross signed me I was pretty much given creative freedom to do whatever I wanted to do. It was a new label that had Tone Loc and Young MC signed but neither had enjoyed mega success as of yet. I was doing my thing and wasn't complaining. I was just trying to rep my label/family and Hip Hop. The "fair" part to me, even in retrospect, was that I was given an opportunity. Its hard to put a price on that and I remain grateful to Mike Ross and Matt Dike to this day. It could have been the worst contract in the world and I probably would have still signed it just for the opportunity to make and release music. There are no excuses now for getting caught in less than favorable deals because there is so much information available .
When you did the song " We're All In The Same Gang", how did the recording session go? I imagine everyone in a studio with Dre and they all knock a verse out. Did everyone do their verse separately at different times and in different studios? Dre was at the mix board and clearly in charge. We (the artists) were coming in doing our verses then hanging out afterwards. Some of the Northern Cali artists weren't there but most of the Southern Cali artists were. You might get a different account of events from different people but to the best of my recollection, it was all love. It was at a studio in South Central LA. I remember Shock G doing his verse and leaving openings for Humpty's voice. Then leaving the studio and coming back dressed in full Humpty regalia, going in the booth putting the headphones on and asking to hear what Shock G did and then filling in the gaps with his (Humpty's) rhyme. He was being dead ass serious about it. He wouldn't respond if you addressed him as Shock G if he was in Humpty mode, I thought it was genius. I remember Dre recording my verse and saying it was dope but too long, so I edited a few bars and he re-recorded it, took a few mins, done deal. It was recorded on 2 inch tape so I am sure it was challenging to record that song with that many artists and music changes but back then Dre was the man, he was one of the 1st producers that I saw actually recording the vocal and not having the engineer do it. I definitely took notes.
What made you decide to move into production more after your second album? Although I produced a great deal of my first and 2nd album I was still pretty green and still learning. The term "producer" is used very loosely nowadays. It takes years of experience to become a producer. It's not just about making a track it's the total involvement start to finish. I used the money that I was making to purchase my own equipment and really caught the production bug. Having been a DJ, it felt like a natural progression. I loved rhyming as I'd done since growing up in Harlem and the Bronx before Hip Hop went worldwide but making music/tracks really caught my interest. Finding a hot loop was like finding gold to me. Back then no one made 100 tracks and put them on a CD you would go to the studio with the records you wanted to sample even down to the drums and make the track right there, something about that spontaneous energy I liked. I also remember not being in love with being on the road and living out of my suitcase. Once I discovered the studio, that was my comfort zone.
What type of equipment were you using back in the day like say when you did the song "Deeper" by Boss compared to the equipment you do now? I made "Deeper" with the SP-1200 for the drums and also to trigger the samples in the AKAI S-950. I am pretty much all software based now. I fought it for a long time. Only because when I attempted to use software, I couldn't get my sound to translate. I designed custom sounds that were released with the Akai MPC 1000, 2500 and 500 and loved the MPC's especially the 4000. I was a behemoth on those machines but once I figured out how to translate my hardware beat making techniques to software, I was hooked. I learned Logic, Ableton Live, my man K-Def got me up to speed on Cubase, I rock Reason/Record, The Beat Thang Virtual, Melodyne, Recycle... all that sh*t, I love technology. Dont f*ck it up tho, I will still hop on a drum machine and "go in."
What is common now for a producer to make money on a track? Do most get an initial fee only or do most get a fee plus publishing? There are so many variables to the game now, it's whatever you can make happen for yourself while you are trying to get a foot in the door. Some get publishing and if you don't understand what publishing in the music business means, just think "ownership". Those 2 words are interchangeable. Some producers get an advance payment and writer residuals which translates to, you will get paid your fair share when the song sells or gets "placed" but you have no ownership. I say shoot for the moon but at the end take what you can get, that is, of course, while you are trying to establish yourself.
Are you a plug-ins type of guy, or do you still like actual hardware units when recording? I am currently software based. I really enjoy the immediacy of jumping on a piece of hardware and rocking out but the possibilities are endless when you incorporate software. Hardware still sounds amazing to me but not always as convenient.
Do you generally mix your own songs when you do a track for someone or do you send it out? What about mastering? With software and the computer age, you are somewhat forced to become an engineer. But I greatly respect what engineers and producers that have engineering skills can accomplish. I am way more into composing than I am with the technical aspects of engineering. If I have to I can bang it out but its always great to have have an engineer. A really good one, I might add.
Have you done any tracks for any artists that just never was released for whatever reason? Yes, don't we all. (joke) A few years ago I went into the studio with Mary J Blige and did about 7 songs none of which were used. One of the songs titled "Its Alright" was released on a Mobb Deep album. I was compensated, but received no credit or royalty. It was a lot of bullshit and politics surrounding those songs. It's the nature of the game, it happens but you just have to keep it moving and turn the negative energy into positive energy and rock out.
What have you been working on lately? Aside from making tracks, which I still enjoy 20 years in, I've been doing lots of music and themes songs for television shows which I've done my entire music career dating back to the late 80's, most notably my production company is responsible for creating the theme song for Disney/ABC's "That's So Raven" and most recently myself and my writing and producing partner James Joiner III produced and composed the theme song for a sitcom titled "The Game" which originally aired on the CW Network and was recently picked up by BET.
Finally, what is your opinion as a producer as far as the music being released these days? Is it a good thing we have all these sub genres of Hip-Hop or will it kill it because some of the sub genres are a very simplified version of Hip-Hop? There is lots of great music being generated today as well alot of hot garbage. For the most part lots of the music that gets the most airplay lacks real emotion. The sub genres don't really concern me because good music transcends genre. The titles and sub genres are somewhat of a road map to help you decide what you want to hear because there is so much music currently out. That's my personal opinion, that being said, I think it's cool that the playing field is even. I like the fact that software and equipment is affordable and accessible to those that seek a career in music or just want to do music as a hobby. I think that everyone should have access and opportunity, how far you take it is up to you.