Featured image courtesy of Tyler Nicolo (pictured right w/ Kenny Greene + Moosh and Twist)
When it comes to the local hip-hop and rap community, there are few people who have the background and experience like producer Tyler Nicolo. From the late 80s through the 90s, Tyler watched his father, Joe “The Butcher” Nicolo build up Philadelphia’s hip-hop scene with Ruffhouse Records, a record label that brought us records from The Fugees, Kris Kross, the classic The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Cypress Hill, Wyclef and many more. Tyler has gone on to forge his own reputation as one of Philly’s premiere hip-hop/rap producers, working with such luminaries as Wu Tang Clan’s GZA, Philly’s own Moosh & Twist, Big K.R.I.T, and many more. In August, rising Philly artist Kenny Greene released his latest mixtape, Chameleon, which featured much of Tyler’s brilliant production work. With the knowledge gained watching his father build one of the landmark Rap labels combined with his prolific producing career, Tyler is unquestionably one of the most important contributors to Philadelphia’s rap community. I sat down with Tyler to talk about his career in the music industry, whether or not Eminem would have demolished Drake in a Rap Battle, recording Chameleon with Kenny Greene, and much more!
ROP: How did you first get involved in the music industry?
Tyler Nicolo: Well the music business is a family thing, you know. My Dad, Joe Nicolo, had a decent amount of success in the 90’s with Ruffhouse Records and his brother Grammy-winner Phil Nicolo currently owns and runs Studio 4. My Mom’s brother was general manager of Ruffhouse Records as well, so, from the beginning, I was just immersed in it. I was really, really lucky in that respect. Anyone else would have had to work countless hours to get to where I started. It was just a blessing.
ROP: What made you decide to pursue production instead of the business side?
TN: I was always interested in producing music. When I was three or four years old, I remember my dad bringing his MPC-60 Drum Machine home. I had been begging him to bring it home, he wanted to teach me and, at the time, he was producing for an artist named Schoolly D out of Philadelphia. Joe introduced me to Rap records when I was three, but my mom wasn’t too thrilled with the language. My Dad didn’t care, though, and he let me listen to it. For as long as I can remember, I was listening to Rap records, studying the production side and learning how beats were made.
ROP: That’s an unusual experience for most people; that is, your Dad showing you Rap records versus Classic Rock bands. Do you feel that was a fairly unique experience?
TN: To me, it’s totally normal but, to my friends and people I meet, they just think it’s kind of different. I don’t know anybody who, when they were 3 years old in 1986, had a white suburban Dad feeding them as many Rap records as they could get. So from that respect, I guess that’s kind of a rare thing.
ROP: Would you ever have debates about your favorite Rap music. Did you ever mutually disagree on some artists?
TN: There’s not too much. We grew up in this thing together, because rap music is so new. When it was new to me, these records weren’t 20 years old. These were brand new records from a brand new genre. So, both him and me, although we were on different pages, were experiencing the Rap culture at the same time. If I had to say, Joe is more into the old school. He definitely has a lot more respect for the older Rappers from the 80s and 90s, but I can’t really say that because it’s not like Joe doesn’t enjoy what’s going on now because he does. He just prefers some of the older stuff.
ROP: You’ve worked with GZA from Wu Tang, Jermaine Dupri, Big K.R.I.T., Moosh & Twist, and many more. What’s a project you’re particularly fond of?
TN: The first gig I had was when I mixed a GZA album. He did an album with DJ Muggs called Grand Masters. Joe and I were working on that record together and it was the first “real project” I worked on. After that, the first project that was sort of spearheaded by me was with Brandon Hines. We put together an album before Jermaine Dupri came on board. We had a handful of songs, maybe 10 or so, Joe had a good relationship with Jermaine because of their work together with Kris Kross. So we put together some of these songs, partnered up with Jermaine Dupri, finished up the album, and then Brandon ended up signing with Epic Records. LA Reid heard the project and signed Brandon to Epic.
ROP: Were you always working in Philly or did you find the business leading you elsewhere at times?
TN: I was born and raised outside Philadelphia in the King of Prussia area, so I’ve been here my whole life. I’ve worked on a couple projects where I spent some time in New York, in LA, the UK, and some time Atlanta for extended periods of time, months at a time in some cases. But I always came back to Philly, I never lived in any other city. My family is here, my friends are here, and I find that to be very important. Not that I would always have to stay here, but I’m still trying to build up my reputation. I’m still trying to cultivate everything that I can in Philly.
ROP: When it comes to a studio space, do you work from your own setup at home or do you have a studio nearby you can go to?
TN: Yeah, I have my own studio. I mostly work in Protools in a small production studio at my house. Eventually I want to open my own studio, but I do like having a studio at home. I’ll probably never live without a studio at home.
ROP: Did you ever get any formal education in production?
TN: I finished my studies at Cabrini College where I majored in communications and english. I picked Cabrini because it was local, but they also offered the best Pro Audio courses that I could find in the area. We took classes at Sigma [Sounds] when that was still around, so that’s where I took courses for engineering, production, MIDI, I took every single music course that I could in college. I did have formal training, but growing up with my dad, that was a hundred times more valuable.
ROP: Do you try to blend those two experiences or do you find yourself leaning on the instinct that came from those early impressions?
TN: As a matter of fact, I surprisingly implement a fair amount of techniques that I learned formally. I would say it’s about 80% what I learned growing up versus 20% of what I learned formally. I definitely took stuff from that, working in a completely different studio with different people, learning different techniques, but definitely a positive experience.
ROP: As a producer, do you find your role in the studio depends on the artist you’re working with?
TN: I think every producer would know that, from one project to another, you might be wearing totally different hats. One project will be purely recording vocals and I won’t have any say in the songwriting, I won’t have a hand in the production, they hire me just to record and that’s it. Other people, I’m writing the music, making the beats, with a heavy hand in how the song is written and its arrangement. With Moosh & Twist, sometimes we’ll go to the studio to just listen to music and won’t even record anything in preparation for a session the next day or talk about any kind of marketing plan we might have. In this day and age, you gotta be able to wear a lot of different hats or you’re gonna drown because you’re not going to get a lot of help most of the time.
ROP: You’ve mentioned to me before that, in your opinion, no other rapper matches the raw talent behind the mic that Eminem does. With that whole alleged beef between him and Drake earlier in the summer, who do you think would win if there had been a rap battle?
TN: I have the utmost confidence that if they were to have had a rap battle, which I don’t think they would actually have, Eminem would win pretty handily. I got mad respect for Drake though. He’s one of my favorites.
ROP: I came across a quote from Tupac where he said that he (Tupac) felt that he was a natural born leader because he “knew how to bow down to authority if it’s authority I respect.” I’ve seen this with Danny Brown who admitted that all he ever wanted was approval from Nas. Do you think that this hierarchy is something that affects rappers or is always on their minds?
TN: From what I’ve seen, that affects rappers a lot. Every rapper that I’ve ever worked with is always looking at who’s on the come up, who is passing them in popularity, what they’re doing to pass them, the hierarchy is still very much alive and kicking for sure. I think now more than ever, because now you can see my twitter followers versus your twitter followers, I can see my Instagram likes versus your Instagram likes. Back then, in 1994, A Tribe Called Quest couldn’t physically see the followers Wu Tang was getting. Obviously, there were album sales and going platinum, but, at that level, you don’t really care anymore. Now it’s so competitive because you can physically see it.
ROP: When I spoke with Kenny and you back in January, it seemed like you were fairly close to finishing the record. Last month, Kenny Dropped Chameleon, so I was curious to hear your take on how that project evolved in the time we last spoke about it. The
TN: There was definitely some unexpected shit. We made a whole album with eight or nine songs that were mixed, mastered…and we trashed it. We trashed all nine songs, except one. We kept one song that looks like it’s going to be his next single. All those other songs we trashed because it really was the first batch of songs that we had worked on together. So after we were done, we both felt that Kenny was on his way to being a better lyricist, understanding his voice more in the studio, and were getting into more of a flow. When we were working on the songs that actually came out [on Chameleon], we thought, “Wow, these songs are so much better than the other ones. I think we just should chalk up these other songs as our practice/getting to know each other phase.” I’m really glad we decided not to release those songs because, when I go back and listen to them, I just know that they’re not as good as the songs we put out.
ROP: In your home studio, what is your favorite tool (i.e. instrument, gear, plug-in, etc)?
TN: I guess, right now, it’s my microphone that I have been putting all my vocals on. It’s a Sony C-500 that’s from either the late 70s-early 80s, but the capsule inside, after so many years, had failed. I sent it out to a friend of mine and he called me back saying “I can fix it, but I have to order the part because I don’t have the capsule that fits inside. But I do have a Neumann capsule that I can retrofit to the C-500. If it doesn’t work, I won’t charge anything.” And I said, “Yeah, if that’s all you got, try it out!” He calls me back a couple days later and says, “I put the Neumann capsule in your Sony microphone and this is honestly one of the best sounding microphones I’ve ever heard.” There was something in the combination of the Sony electronics and the Neumann capsule that makes it work together in such a rich way.
Be sure to check out Kenny Greene’s new mixtape Chameleon, available now on Soundcloud!