Pulling Strings Part 4 – Roger Swan [Interview]
Vancouver, B.C. – For someone who’s had a hand in creating most of Canadian hip-hop’s musical landscape, Roger Swan is pretty down to earth. Mr. Tall Dark and Handsome is also very cordial; he exudes a confidence that comes with a job well done, but drops names in a matter-of-fact way that precludes a large ego. K-Os, Kardinal, Rascalz, Swollen Members – our successors owe much of their own success to Swan.
Swan operates intuitively, on a scale both musical and personal: he knows how to bring out the feeling in that hook, the sound on that beat, the artist in that MC. He’s not a storyteller though, and is much more concrete than most artists. Instead he has a plan, a keen ear and a renowned studio that can still take a floppy disc.
Roger Swan is a true classic, and HipHopCanada’s Amalia Judith and Scott Alexander got to visit the mastermind at the legendary Mushroom Studios, where we chatted about divas, direction, and the early years of a hip-hop scene that should never have been.
“Hip-hop in Canada shouldn’t really happen, know what I mean…but that’s the beauty of it and all of us did that and we’re proving a lot of people wrong and I think that’s dope.”
HipHopCanada: In this Pulling Strings series, everyone so far has mentioned you. Why is that?
Roger Swan: Cause we all came up together. The entire core of the hip-hop community in Vancouver specifically – but all the way to Toronto as well – all kind of happened in a small nucleus in Vancouver with me and what is now Swollen Members and Rascalz and what used to be What The Hell and Show N Tell and stuff. A lot of stuff branched out of there, those are the roots, from there Kemo started doing things and everyone else started doing things but I think it all started in my parents’ basement.
HipHopCanada: What were your own beginnings like in that come-up?
Roger Swan: Well I used to play in a bunch of bands playing drums. I was doing cover songs with certain bands and I bought samplers and sequencers and stuff so we could play shows all the time. I also wrote graffiti so and and my buddy Eugenio, who’s Kemo’s older brother, we used to hang out a lot. Kemo started doing DJ stuff and playing with samplers and keyboards, and Red1 and all those guys all started rapping and no one knew where to go. I was the only guy with sequencers and samplers and the knowledge of how to use them, so they’d bring the records to me and we’d sample them and put it all together and make demos galore and eventually certain people got signed and one thing led to another and we started coming to the studios. And more people started getting budgets, and everything kind of mushroomed from there. I think Flip Out was one of the first guys to get a deal.
From those successes we ended up developing K-Os and I’ve worked with him ever since, and Kardinal, and from all of that blowing up it’s just the networks that build. Features get made and you end up working with guys like Barrington Levy or Beatnuts, or all of a sudden Busta Rhymes is in the picture or Everlast or Dilated Peoples so it’s kind of a branch from there. It was the springboard, and I’ve pretty much worked with anybody hip-hop in Canada now, and it’s because of that rep that we build back then. I’ve never actively advertised, I’m kinda not that guy. I’m always in here, or at home till six in the morning editing on my laptop.
HipHopCanada: What, specifically, did you contribute to that early movement?
Roger Swan: Initially I was the sole producer cause nobody else really knew how to produce, engineer or sample or anything like that, so I was kind of running all the drum machines and computers. Flip Out and Kemo were in more DJ kind of roles and they’d bring samples to me and I’d mix them up and loop them and make some of the songs that we put out. Eventually they started getting more hands on, I basically taught them how to use all the gear and one thing led to another and I guess I was the main guy and then everyone started producing after that.
HipHopCanada: Any scandalous memories that stick with you?
Roger Swan: Some of the funniest things are out of this old studio Bullfrog, and they were all just fresh out of high school, so green and so young and had so much energy. Holy crap, we lived pretty vicariously through rock and roll and our perception of what studios were back then, and the whole thing of bringing girls in just having parties in the studios and living the life. I recall that Doors movie, and they have a scene that happens in the vocal booth..I’m gonna leave it at that.
HipHopCanada: One of your most prominent successes was with the Rascalz…how’d you get that sound?
Roger Swan: When I did the first Rascalz record that went gold, I was building my own studio at the time and we were in the midst of building the control room so we actually took the mixing board and put it in the live room while we were doing all the walls and shit. So we had speakers and stuff in the live room but it sounded kind of weird because it’s the live room and it’s not meant for mixing and shit so I ended up doing the bulk of the album mixing in the headphones. k-os always wants me to wear my headphones now, he’s like, “dude that’s why it sounds so fucking classic,” cause everyone lives in headphones, they’re on the bus, walking around with iPods on, so it’s always been about headphones and he thinks one of the key, magical parts of that album was that it was done that way. The depth and the dimension, get in the headphones, smoke some weed, everything comes alive.
HipHopCanada: “Northern Touch” must be something you’re proud of…
Roger Swan: “Northern Touch” was probably the most epic collaboration in Canada ever, in my opinion, and it hasn’t been beat to this day. I challenge anyone to do so. That song’s still amazing for me. Just the obviousness of it, you knew it was heat right away. And it went gold.
“I think hip-hop is kinda like punk rock. It’s against the grain, against the foundation of things…they both have teeth and they’re aggressive. I dig that.”
HipHopCanada: Do you still play in bands?
Roger Swan: It’s funny cause I do play drums every now and then, I’ll be working with a band – not necessarily hip-hop, just whatever, a rock band or something – and I’ll be producing them and we’ll be working in rehearsals and getting ideas and stuff, and sometimes to convey ideas I’ll sit down and actually play the part for them to show them what I mean.
HipHopCanada: What‘s the process you go through for producing tracks?
Roger Swan: It’s weird because it’s a super grey area where sometimes I get hired as an engineer or mixer, but once they send a track to me it’s very evident that it needs a lot more help than just mixing or engineering. So they’ll come with a 2-bar loop and that’s it, and some dude from LA or wherever is called the producer but he basically made the beat, he’s a beatmaker, and I don’t call that producing. And I’ll be in the studio coaching vocals and getting real takes out of people and real performances and I’ll be trying to get the heart out of the track to turn it into a real entity and not just a loop. And then you get back to the music after you clean up the vocals up and you’re left with this bare-bones track and sometimes it’s cool to just have a basic loop going but sometimes you want to do more to it, you wanna add parts, build a bridge or break shit down. That’s the kind of production I do, super grey area.
HipHopCanada: Do you get fair credit for all that work?
Roger Swan: Nope. It’s exactly how I just said where some kid made a beat in Ableton or whatever they use and then they’re nowhere to be seen for the rest of the production of the song. Like they made a loop, I wouldn’t even call it an instrumental cause they don’t even know how long the song’s gonna be at that point. People come in the studio and I just can’t leave well enough alone, I feel like I’ve got the insight and the skills required so I jump on it. There’s limited time in a session, limited budgets, and after the smoke clears they’re gone and I’m working on the next session already.
HipHopCanada: What excites you when artists come into the studio?
Roger Swan: I wanna see people keeping the dream alive. Hip-hop in Canada..it shouldn’t really happen, know what I mean? But it is happening, that’s the beauty of it and all of us did that and we’re proving a lot of people wrong and I think that’s dope.
HipHopCanada: What are you working on right now?
Roger Swan: I’m working on a death metal band right now, hard-core metal. It’s dope because I think hip-hop is kinda like punk rock. It’s against the grain, against the foundation of things and they have a lot of similarities. They both have teeth and they’re aggressive…I dig that. Some people like to stay genre specific, I don’t. Even though I’ve done a shit-load of urban, I’m kinda known as that guy.
HipHopCanada: What’s the history of Mushroom Studios?
Roger Swan: This history’s deep man, this place has been around since the sixties, its one of the foremost utmost studios in the country. Led Zeppelin recorded here, Heart recorded here, it’s got wicked history. A longstanding business partner of mine Rob Darch owns it. He’s also the owner of Hipposonic, I’ve pretty much been calling Hipposonic home for ten-plus years and this is my mainstay. It’s my second home, third home.
HipHopCanada: Are you living the rock star life or are you settled down?
Roger Swan: I have a daughter, its really cool cause I don’t push anything on her but I see the influence that I have, and that music has on her and arts in general, and it’s pretty endearing to see it transcend through the generations. I think one of the reasons I chose this side of the glass is so I don’t have to be that performer all the time, although I can be. I think that’s why I relate with the artists, because I was a performer and I understand how to get takes out of people, how to find the essence of a song, the character of a song.
HipHopCanada: Is that an intuitive thing or more technical?
Roger Swan: Oh it’s super intuitive, and sometimes it’s just experience, you know what I mean? Sometimes just doing it enough you know where to take things but most of the time it’s a feeling and a vision, that’s what I mean about getting a two-bar loop and seeing a whole song out of it; but it’s all in your head and actually achieving that and once you’re finally done and it is what you saw it’s pretty cool.
HipHopCanada: How do you deal with artists?
Roger Swan: That’s the hardest part cause they’re all different but there’s a lot of similarities. I know a lot of people couldn’t handle it. It’s not normal. Dealing with people who don’t really come alive till ten at night and then it’s four in the morning and you’re tired but you know that they’re on fire and you just have to sacrifice…cause that’s what it’s about, you’re there to get the song. Biting your tongue sometimes and sometimes not.
HipHopCanada: Who stands out as a real diva?
Roger Swan: When I think about divas K-Os really comes to mind. He’s a special case cause he doesn’t sacrifice any integrity whatsoever for anybody or anything. We’ve had symphony orchestras come in here where it costs thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars to have the symphony come in and all the people that come with that and have them record on three songs and by the time you mix it and everything else you might’ve spent twice as much on three songs as you would on some peoples’ whole albums, or two or three albums, and then he’ll be like, “I don’t like it, I’m not using it.” And you’re like, “fuck are you kidding?” and it’s the most brilliant shit you’ve ever heard. Diva stuff too, where most people wouldn’t dream of that, once they’ve spent that money they wanna use it and it’s gotta be put to use somehow and he’s just saying no. And certain labels and stuff telling him to do things a certain way and he just says “absolutely not” and look who wins in the end. Another cool thing about K-Os is that he told EMI that he will not do any videos that were VideoFact or anything. Like “why the fuck should I when we’re making enough money to pay for our own. So why not save that money for lesser artists that need it?” I think that’s so fucking cool.
HipHopCanada: Alternately, who’s really easy to work with?
Roger Swan: Probably Rascalz, Red, to tell you the truth. He’s the perfect combination of professionalism meets artist, he’s just really well balanced all around. And he’s got lots of experience. Me and him, eye to eye every time.
HipHopCanada: You’re obviously integrated with hip-hop’s history but what about this new crop of musicians?
Roger Swan: Things fell apart a little but when everybody figured out that they could sort of mix on their own…except, they really can’t. It’s taken about five years for people to figure this out and they’re coming back to me and asking me to mix their shit. But the problem is budgets have shrunk so much and there’s no more album sales. We kind of got in it during the heyday when almost every album we made would sell 10-50 thousand copies and when you’re talking indie that’s a really good profit and it’s a good showing. That doesn’t exist anymore so everyone’s pinching everywhere and they’ve all got shitty mics and shitty recording techniques and record in really bad places and don’t get good takes and then they send it all to me over the internet and ask if I can mix it and fix it.
“Unless you got the aptitude to use all the gear just don’t bother, just come in the studio. A lot of people wanna be hands on and I can’t argue that but just suck it up and hire me.”
There’s lots of good stuff but it just needs to find that direction again. I miss the old days. There’s way more groups but the quality of the music isn’t as good. And there’s way too many shows now so it’s all apathy, there’s no more excitement and there’s no more fucking support from things like MuchMusic where they used to play our shit to death. I’ll prop you guys at HipHopCanada up, cause that’s what’s needed and so much more.
HipHopCanada: So who’s my next interview gonna be with?
Roger Swan: Red1 of the Rascalz.
Interview conducted by Amalia Judith for HipHopCanada
Photography by Scott Alexander for HipHopCanada
Pulling Strings Archive
Don’t forget to check out the previous entries in the Pulling Strings series including: