Legendary Producer Patrick Adams Has Priceless Advice for Aspiring Artists

The iconic soul, disco and hip-hop producer talks negotiating deals, working with Eric B. & Rakim, and Kanye stealing his grooves.

Patrick Adams. Red Bull Content Pool

Before the 32 gold and platinum records, Patrick Adams was just a Harlem kid who read the music trades, showing up regularly at theaters like The Alhambra and The Apollo, where his buddy nudged him to go sit in on piano during a rehearsal one day, kicking off his lifetime career as an arranger, engineer and producer of countless disco, soul and hip-hop classics.

“So, on a particular week, say, the Motown Revue was coming in and you might have Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and Smokey Robinson and The Four Tops,” Adams told Red Bull in 2013 of his first serious immersion in music at The Apollo. “It was such a joy to sit in the middle of that orchestra during rehearsal…I got a great education and then hearing those arrangements from inside the orchestra, that is priceless. You cannot get a better education.”

A year after that, Adams was arranging music, creating a dialogue between all the genres his productions have come through.

You can hear soul in his disco mixes, you can hear disco’s bounce in his Eric B. & Rakim engineering, and the connections become apparent when considering Adams’ tremendous sense of personal agency over every decision that elevated his career to the next level. His brief stint as a vice president of A&R for NY-based Perception/Today Records in 1970 led to his discovery of Black Ivory, for instance, but it also taught him he had little interest in being purely on the business end of things.

Last night Red Bull gave Adams the homecoming legacy show he deserved at his beloved Alhambra Theater, featuring Adams playing alongside some of the greatest underrated disco and soul artists of his career, including Donna McGhee, Leroy Burgess, Fonda Rae and Christine Wiltshire.

A few weeks prior, the Observer caught up with Adams to learn what advice he has for young artists negotiating deals, what’s changed in an era of digital streams and sample culture, and how he produced the iconic golden era hip-hop recordings of Eric B. & Rakim.

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How does it feel to be looking back at your eclectic career and shaping your own legacy for this show?

Interestingly enough, I am discovering things about myself that I forgot! [Laughs] But it is a personal pleasure to be allowed to participate in telling the story, you know?

What are you rediscovering?

Well actually, two nights ago somebody posted a song on YouTube that I had done string and horn arrangements on 30 years ago. I had totally forgotten that I was involved with this particular record, the album by The Softones. They recorded for [producers] Hugo & Luigi at Acvo, at Embassy Records, I believe. R&B sort of like The Stylistics.

The other thing is that a lot of the records I worked on were not commercially available over the last 20 years, like the Salsoul Orchestra Christmas album. I’m not gonna do any Christmas songs at the show, but that album, The Main Ingredient I Only Have Eyes For You album, had not been on the market. Edie Kendricks, an album called Something More had not been available. Matter of fact, Donna McGhee, who is gonna be at the concert, her album was just re-released. Patrick Albums Presents Phreak on Atlantic, which contains the song “Weekend,” that album had been re-released, too. So there’s a lot of that happening.

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It’s amazing how your brain works, being able to jump to all these periods with such lucidity and clarity. You’ve said before that you maybe went to the disco once because you were a record dude, because you were in the studio the whole time. Your brain might not work as well if you partied so much.

Well the “disco demolition” thing, I did not experience it in real time. When it happened, in 1979, I was totally unaware of it. However, I know my income dropped from quite a substantial income to zero overnight. And when I did find out what had happened, I was dismayed.

Socially, politically, what it meant in this country that a group of people could deny another group of people working because of their personal attitudes, likes and dislikes is really messed up. The same thing’s happening to rap right now, and a lot of people don’t recognize it. I don’t want to be ultra-political about it, but it is true that the way corporate structure has come to the fore in the entertainment industry, you have a handful of people deciding who is exposed, who is not exposed, and the saddest thing for me is that I don’t see a pathway for a new artist the way there was in the past.

When I was 17 years old, the group I was in, The Sparks, was able to go to WBLS, WLIB, WWRL in New York, actually sit with the music director or program director and play something. You had a genius like Frankie Crocker, who programmed BLS, and if Frankie Crocker liked the record, he played it. He didn’t need an O.K. from corporate headquarters somewhere else, in another part of the country, who may have had all kinds of political and financial entanglements deciding. It also seems that in the last 10 to 15 years, payola is alive and well.

I’m from Miami, and EDM was huge since I was a little kid. But because audiences have been declining at these big blowout EDM festivals, there’s been talk of the genre maybe going the way of disco.

Personally, as a human being, I’ve never understood why anyone would pay 25, 30, 50 dollars to go stand in a cow pasture in the middle of nowhere and watch a guy play records. And you’re not even sure he’s playing the records! For all we know, he’s got the mix pre-programmed on a memory stick. What hurts me, as a human being again, when I think about how he’s playing a record that I made 30, 40 years ago, he’s getting paid who knows how much.

Understandably, it’s a business thing: the kid draws crowds, the crowds bring money, so we’re paying him this much money. Yeah, meanwhile, I’m sitting at home getting a dollar for every 6,000 streams from the streaming services compared to back in the day, when if someone downloaded one of my songs or purchased the CD, I was getting nine cents. And there’s a big difference.

“[I]n a corporation, you can do anything you want as long as you’re right.”

I will tell you without giving actual figures that my royalties as a songwriter, as a publisher, are about 20 percent of what they used to be. And it’s not a function of time.

Some of my songs like “In The Bush” or “Touch Me (All Night Long)” or “I’m Caught Up (In a One Night Love Affair)”, those songs are constantly being streamed and played. We can go on and on. I’ve got 400 to 500 songs recorded over the last 40 years, and those revenue streams have declined significantly in the last two years.

This sounds like a conversation about how artists are often being called “content creators” now. New platforms separate a creative person from their own work. You told me a story about being at The Alhambra watching a Bill Haley movie when Chubby Checker came in to do “The Twist.” You told me about sitting in on rehearsals at The Apollo, and learning about rhythm from Smokey Robinson’s guitarist, Marv. As a New Yorker, I wonder how many places that musical conversations like that still happen in.

I’m sure they do, but I go back to, what do you do after that?

Where does that music live?

Yeah! If you were to sit down with Sly Stone, and Sly Stone showed you his thought process of how he came up with “Dance To The Music,” or if you sat at Stevie Wonder‘s elbow for a year and became prolifically attune to his process…what do you do with it?

You go from seeing your music have so much worth and value to seeing it all converted into ones and zeroes, you’re saying?

Yeah, and it affects everybody. A guy who used to work at an auto plant making 40, 50 dollars an hour is now greeting people at Wal Mart. That’s the culture, it’s the time.

Well you had this interesting period in the ’90s, too, when a lot of your disco hits were getting anthologized on those party mix CDs that people would buy at stores like Party City, and I reckon you have a much deeper, slow-burn history of the decline of the music industry than most people because you saw the beginning of that culture. You said from your years as a VP that you were never a business dude, and didn’t pride yourself on being one, but I reckon you had to have some sort of acumen just to make sure people weren’t screwing you over.

The interesting thing is, I’ve always been one to try to study something before I jump into it. Even before I started pounding the pavement when I was 17, I was reading Billboard every week, so when I finally did get into dealing with record companies, between that and what I just call common sense…let me give you a great example.

In 1977, I was approached by Cory Robins, who at the time, had just become the East Coast manager for MCA Universal publishing. They were trying to bring in more R&B writers, and he was authorized to make me an offer. That morning, I had received a publishing check from one album I had done, and what he was offering me was less than i got for this one album that had just been out!

So I said to him, “I really wanna make the deal,” but I wanted a figure that was five times what he was offering me. He looked at me like I was crazy, said, “I can’t do that!”

And I then started doing what I do with all people in positions like that—I said, “why not?” Either you’re gonna sit there being a gatekeeper, just do what they tell you to do and eventually get fired anyway, or take charge of the situation. I don’t even remember where the statement came from, but I quoted The Peter Principle—that in a corporation, you will rise to the level of your incompetence.

The other side of that coin is, in a corporation, you can do anything you want as long as you’re right.

“I would tell any young artist right now to be careful of the deals you make. I’ve always tried to tell people that if you make these deals where they can just charge things against your account like videos…O.K., we’re gonna spend a million dollars on your video, and you’re paying for that? You will never see any royalties.”

Bottom lines and all that.

Exactly! So if you go in the studio and spend $200,000 over a period of time, cut 10 records, and eight of them are hits, no one is going to chew you out or hate you for what you did. If you sit in your office and never make any records, or make one or two records that are flops, you’re out the door!

I learned to take advantage of things. So I told Corey I wanted X amount of dollars, five times what he offered me. This was over lunch, and by the time I got back to my office and he went back to his office, he called me back to tell me they went for it. So we made our initial deal.

There is a clause in almost any contract that has a royalty accounting, where the primary business is allowed to hold a reserve against future payments. Now, in the beginning of the record industry that made a lot of sense because they might ship 100,000 albums, pay the artist on 100,000 albums, then four months later only 20,000 of those albums sold and the rest were returned by distributors, then the record company is behind. So record companies were sticking this clause in that said they were allowed to retain a reasonable reserve.

Only problem is, the word “reasonable” is not a legal term. I mean, what’s “reasonable” and to whom? So one of the things I learned very early is to not allow words like “reasonable” without defining them.

So we would say, “O.K., you can hold a 10 percent, 20 percent reserve that I can work off over the next two royalty periods,” something like that. But the situation currently is that XYZ giant corporation would come to me now and say, “Patrick, we want to give you a label distribution deal or sign you to our label, but we want half of your publishing, we want half of any profit on your live performances, we want, we want, we want.” Then I ask why.

What are they giving me? I would tell any young artist right now to be careful of the deals you make. I’ve always tried to tell people that if you make these deals where they can just charge things against your account like videos…O.K., we’re gonna spend a million dollars on your video, and you’re paying for that? You will never see any royalties.

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They wont charge you, but they’ll recoup until they collect it all.

Yeah, and how long is that gonna take?

Does that same sense of agency explain your approach to making a record?

Well alright, how do you make a record? My recipe begins with a foundation based on a song, a melody and a lyric. I was tickled, the disco museum in Seattle wrote online about “I’m Caught Up (In a One Night Love Affair)” and said it would have been a great R&B record anyway, and that’s the way I feel about songs.

If you start with a great song that has an attractive melody, a lyric that tells a story people can relate to, you’re way ahead of the game. If you start with a beat, which in reality is not much different than anything anybody else could contrive with Fruity Loops or other computer software, you’re just one of a million people making noise. And I don’t care how good it makes you feel—question is, why would anyone else wanna listen to this?

True, there’s an emotional hook do those old Black Ivory recordings like “Don’t Turn Around”. It’s not even a song that relies on rhythm so much as the swell that follows the lyrics.

And I, as a musical arranger, try to put that into every record I do. Simple formulas.

You start with a great song, and as far as the record goes, you try to catch people’s attention. Outside of disco, of course, because with disco you had these long intros so the guy could mix it into another record, but the classic form of making a record to me is you try and catch people’s attention in the first 10, 15 seconds, make a statement about what it’s really about. Maybe a touch of the chorus just to say, “This song is about ugly dogs,” no offense to dog lovers. [Laughs] Then you settle on into a verse, and start to tell a story—”I saw a dog…”

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Is that what attracted you to Eric B. & Rakim as lyricists?

I was at the time working at Power Play Studios. As usual, I didn’t really know what was happening in the outside world.

You mean the cultural implications weren’t on your mind so much as the project itself?

Right. So here come Eric B. & Rakim into the studio, they’re looking for a producer. I had gone from being the prince of soft soul music to the uncrowned king of disco, and I actually had an experience at that time, because I was working with Marly Marl, and someone in Marly Marl’s camp said, “Fuck Patrick Adams. He’s a disco producer, he can’t make rap records.”

And that was a challenge.

Yeah. Here we go again! So I said, “I’m not gonna take a prominent front row in this rap thing, I’m just gonna make the records.”

I told Eric B. & Rakim, “I’ll help you produce the records, but you guys take the blame or the credit.” [Laughs]

And I will tell you, it only took two seconds to recognize the extreme talent that Rakim had, not only as a performer, but as a writer. George Carlin would always talk about orgasm taste or orgasm hearing…put yourself in a situation where you’re sitting in a recording studio, one o’clock in the morning, and Rakim for the first time is recording a new lyric. You’re being assaulted with these amazing, amazing rhymes. I would just sit there and say, “wow.”

“At the time, when people made rap records, they were just grabbing samples from different places and throwing them together. A lot of the times those samples, those parts from different records, were not in relevant keys. It actually hurt my ears.”

Now, one of the things I’m very proud of, and it means nothing to anyone else in the world, is that I read an interview with Paul McCartney somewhere around 1987, and they asked him what he was listening to at the time. He said, “I really like Eric B. & Rakim,” and that blew me away.

But I also understood why he liked them. At the time, when people made rap records, they were just grabbing samples from different places and throwing them together. A lot of the times those samples, those parts from different records, were not in relevant keys. It actually hurt my ears.

A lot of non-musical people don’t realize that a beat has a key to it.

But then to also make sure that, if you’re using a bass loop or playing a bass line, that you’re playing it so the whole thing is musical. If the bass is playing in the key of C and the horn is playing in the key of D, that just hurts the ear. It hurts the body!

So I tried to bring a musicality to what we did, and I think that’s one of the reasons why people were attracted to those albums, aside from the tremendous talent that Rakim showed. It was an environment where he could shine, because you weren’t fighting through this dissonant music to understand what he was doing. It all flowed.

And then sound-wise, once again, McCartney was listening to himself, in a sense. One of the things I grew up listening to was The Beatles, and even today, those records sound so good.

Well they were studio cats like you after what, ’66? They decided to put all their creativity into making perfect records that would last forever.

Yeah, that’s what records are! I feel sorry for people who grew up listening to .MP3 files. If someone wants to really experience music and what it could sound like, they should seek out some of those direct-to-disc recordings, like the Thelma Houston album, I think it’s Ready To Roll.

What they did was, they set up the whole orchestra in the studio, background singers, everybody, and they rehearsed the songs until they were perfect. Then, instead of recording to a multi-track that would later be mixed then mastered from a mixtape, they recorded directly from the console, into the master. So as they were recording, the vinyl that would later press the vinyl was being carved out in real time, as they were recording. So you lost nothing in the translation. When you do the process the other way, every time you re-record something, you do a mix or a transfer, you lose something.

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Room noise, overtones get lost in the compression.

And that’s the other thing. I’m really happy that Power Point Studios became the in studio in the late ’80s, early ’90s, because any time an engineer would figure something out, we would tell each other. Little secret I learned from Tony Bongiovi, using light compression at the recording stage, we used to do that with everything. So we had maybe a B-class studio sounding like a world class studio because the sounds that were coming out sounded so much larger than life.

You’re saying you compressed with discretion early on instead of all over the place at the end?

Yeah, and that was another thing about the Paid in Full album. When you listen to the album carefully, in the stereo image, there’s a 22 millisecond delay on the right side reflecting things from the left and a 22 millisecond delay on the left reflecting things from the right.

Like I said, because I grew up with live musicians for most of my youth, when we come to the rap era and you take a drum sample out of a machine and it sounds horrible, to my ears, they sound horrible because they were often over-compressed, flat, and that’s not the way drums really sound. So I decided I would use a slight room delay on the drums. I’m telling you, listen to Paid in Full and it sounds huge.

Patrick Adams, center, surrounded by admirers and acolytes last night at Red Bull Music Academy’s celebration of Adams’ music. Red Bull Content Pool

Less than 10 years after, your music pops up on Raekwon’s record.

I had no personal involvement. I’ve been blessed because I catch at least one sample a year, like last year Mac Miller did a song called “Brand Name,” sampled one of my songs. Before that was Mariah Carey, “You Don’t Know What To Do” sampled “Caught Up,” year before that it was Nas.

You’re on God’s Son, too.

I’m on God’s Son. “Revolutionary Warfare” sampled “We Made It” by Black Ivory. Matter of fact, Black Ivory’s been sampled about 30, 40 times.

Thank God for some honest people, but there have been people who’ve sampled some of my things, and if you’re really, really good at snatching pieces of stuff, the originator might never recognize what you nabbed. So there’s been situations, like to this day, Nas, with “Daughters,” I can’t still figure out exactly what he sampled to this day.

But the fact that he was nominated for four Grammys, I accept that, I’m happy. Thing is, I knew about that record three, four months before it was released because Nas is an honorable person. Nas and his people sought out commissions, et cetera. Meanwhile, there’s been other records where I’m sitting at home and suddenly hear something and say, “Wait a minute…”

Did Kanye hit you up about that Kay-Gees sample?

No! And there’s going to be some repercussions from that shortly.

Legendary Producer Patrick Adams Has Priceless Advice for Aspiring Artists