Rarely has a music fan like myself been blessed with the genuine friendship and kindness – and unparalleled access – to an artist of the stature of legendary sound engineer Hopeton Brown, better known as “Scientist.” Watching Scientist at work recording, mixing, dubbing – whether in the studio, during a sound check, or at a live show – is completely mesmerizing, educational, and even at times, inspirational; Scientist’s professionalism, incredible focus, attention to detail, efficiency, and commitment to producing the very best sounding music, no matter the situation, is unmatched.
For this segment of our interview, Scientist and I got together on July 31 at a Thai restaurant in Los Angeles – the same place we first met at the end of last year. Although we could have easily talked for hours, it ended up being closer to forty-five minutes because Scientist was pressed for time; he had to go run the sound check for his and Hempress Sativa’s phenomenal show at the Dub Club later that evening.
What follows is a transcription of “Round 3” of my multi-part interview of Scientist. It has been modified only slightly for clarity and space considerations.
Q: Greetings Scientist, great to see you again!
Scientist: Great to see you too, Stephen.
Q: Scientist, at the end of last year, the first time we ever met, you called legendary singer, producer, sound engineer, and your close friend, Pat Kelly, on the phone in Jamaica. We were talking and all of a sudden you picked up the phone – as we were talking about King Tubby and the relationships between the sound engineers that worked for Tubby – and you called Pat. You handed me the phone briefly, and I was so nervous and also excited to be speaking with Pat Kelly! [But] he was so cool and down to earth [when we talked on the phone.] Sadly, of course, I’m reminding you of this because Pat died about two weeks ago following complications from kidney disease. So I wanted to start [our] discussion today by offering my condolences; I know Pat was a good friend of yours, that you knew [each other] for a [very] long time. Do you remember how you first met Pat Kelly?
Scientist: Yes, the first place I met Pat Kelly was [at] King Tubby’s studio. He used to do a lot of mixing with Bunny Lee. I had the keys to the studio, so I used to stay until the time that Pat and Bunny Lee [left].
Q: Roughly how old were you when you met Pat?
Scientist: About seventeen.
Q: Did you become friends right away, or did it take some time for the friendship to develop?
Scientist: I would say I became friends with him right away.
Q: Was there something [where] you could tell you guys were of the same mind and were going to be friends? Was there something between you, or just the understanding of the music? Or what was it?
Scientist: Well, let me say it this way, most people they feel threatened of their job. Pat – I didn’t get that energy from him. Because Pat would mix the “A” sides for Bunny Lee, and then Pat would allow me to mix the dub sides. And you know, it went on for weeks and months and he never [felt] threatened. If I tried to [do] the same thing with somebody else, they want to do it all because they [would] feel threatened.
Q: Was Pat [working] with Tubby before you?
Q: For how much longer was Pat [working] with Tubby before you [started working there]?
Scientist: At least a couple of years. [But] [h]e wasn’t “working there” at the time; [he] used to come there to do work for Bunny Lee.
Q: Oh I see. Okay.
Scientist: And then I would record Pat Kelly and some of the Bunny Lee [tracks].
Q: What albums or songs, if any, did you and Pat collaborate on together if you know?
Scientist: The list is long. The artists [included] Ken Boothe, Alton Ellis, Delroy Wilson, Johnny Clarke, and [many other] artists.
Q: So you guys would be in the studio engineering together on those artists’ records, mixing together?
Scientist: Yes. At Tubby’s. And then when Pat Kelly would come with Bunny Lee to Channel One studio, I would do the recording and Pat used to be there as a singer. Being around Pat Kelly, I never felt negative energy from him. Everybody else, they [felt] that their job was threatened [by my presence in the studio]. Not with [Pat].
Q: When it comes to music, what do you think Pat Kelly will be most remembered for?
Scientist: Well he [had] a unique voice. The man did him thing. And one of the unfair thing[s] that I spoke to [Pat Kelly’s] wife, Jackie, about yesterday [is], you have all these producers who are sitting around like vultures. When I look on[, for example,] Ebay, all of sudden a Pat Kelly record is [selling for] over one hundred dollars; it’s [exploitation].
Q: Do you think there’ll be a way for Pat Kelly’s wife, if everyone is going to be making money off of Pat’s [incredible] legacy, for his wife to make some money, too?
Scientist: Well what I told her to do is, get each and every copy [of the music comprising Pat’s discography], put them out, and re-release them. And when the [record companies and other entities] come to you and say they have a contract, you remind them that you can’t have a contract with a dead person. When the person dies, the contract also dies. And then if they try to bother her about money, it’s the wife legally who has power of attorney; they have to satisfy all the back-royalties.
Q: Scientist, you’ve started to [speak about] this [already but], putting music aside, what kind of man was Pat Kelly?
Scientist: A good person. Decent person. No bad-minded business [about him]. Not jealous. Humble. Quiet. [Could] be very deadly if he [wanted to be]. Because a lot of people don’t know that he was a martial arts expert.
Q: I didn’t know that, wow. He did karate and stuff?
Scientist: Yeah. Black belt.
Q: Wow. Cool.
Scientist: But I’ve seen people get up into his face, and he just laughed it off –
Q: [He was a] cool cucumber?
Scientist: Very cool.
Q: Before switching topics, is there anything else you wanted to say about Pat Kelly – as a man, or about his music career?
Scientist: Um, what I see happening with all these wicked people, it’s like they get extended life. And a person like Pat Kelly who [was] just so humble. So mild, so well composed –
Q: [Dies] too young?
Scientist: Yeah and leaves all these fuc*ing a**holes around.
Q: Makes you wonder why?
Scientist: Well, hear the conclusion. I hope that there is something better than this messed up planet we live on named earth.
Q: On a happier note, what brings us together today, to move on from the somberness of Pat’s passing, is the promise of a very joyful evening: You’re perform[ing] tonight at the Dub Club in L.A. with Hempress Sativa. Before getting into some of the details concerning tonight’s show, and your work with Hempress Sativa on her debut album, and [then] on her dub album, how did the connection between you[rself] and Hempress happen – how did you first link up?
Scientist: Her husband and I became good friends.
Q: This is Chris “Conquering Lion”?
Q: And how did you become good friends with him?
Scientist: He asked me to come and mix some [songs] for [Hempress Sativa]. And I’m a very good judge of character. He explained to me, “we’re not really a record company,” and I acknowledged that both [he and Hempress Sativa] are just starting out [in the music business]. So I just did it for them.
Q: Given your undisputed status as a legendary sound engineer, you have the luxury of picking and choosing who it is you work with. What was it about Hempress Sativa as a singer, artist, and person that made you want to work with her?
Scientist: Well I know her father real good. And I don’t know if you know that album I sent you, “Jamaica, Jamaica” [with] Brigadier Jerry?
Scientist: That’s [Hempress Sativa’s] father playing drums on that album.
Q: Oh I didn’t realize that at all, I’m so happy you told me.
Scientist: Ilawi –
Q: They call him [Albert] “Ilawi Malawi” [Johnson]?
Q: And he was the primary selector for the “Jah Love” sound system that Brigadier Jerry [would perform on]?
Scientist: Yeah. Every Friday evening, they would come, and I would cut dub plates. And then I recorded that album that he played drums on, “Jamaica, Jamaica.”
Q: What do you think of Hempress Sativa’s potential as a singer as her career continues?
Scientist: She has a very good potential. She’s speaking the truth through her lyrics even though some people might take offense. But as Bob [Marley] says, “Who the cap fit, let them wear it.” Because here’s what, music, and like with someone like Bob Marley and reggae, it helped to open up a lot of people’s eyes. And it helped to overturn some of the injustices.
Q: Truth and rights?
Q: Respect. It’s often been observed that the reggae music business is particularly tough for female artists. Do you have any thoughts about this, and what do you think Hempress Sativa needs to focus on, or to try to improve [on], to really break it big in music?
Scientist: (Laughing) Well, damn. It’s not just only music. Because right here in the United States, you have women and men doing the exact same job and [they’re] not [getting] paid the same. And when it comes to a woman, especially to have any part in the music business, it’s like carrying tuna to a shark tank.
Q: I have a few specific questions concerning your dub album with Hempress Sativa, your process when dubbing, and [the] choices you made, but first, before teaming up on the dub album, you were involved in the mixing of Hempress’s debut 2017 album, “Unconquerebel,” true?
Q: Did you mix that entire debut album, or just some of the tracks?
Scientist: [There are] [a]bout two tracks on it I didn’t mix. But the bulk of the album, yes.
Q: Before getting into your dub album with Hempress Sativa, which I think was released about six months on the heels of [her] debut album, could you talk briefly about your process for mixing the tracks on [Hempress’s] debut album? Was your process for mixing tracks on Hempress Sativa’s debut album the same as you use for any artist you work with? [Another way of asking this is,] does your style, your way of mixing an album ever change depending on the artist you’re working with?
Scientist: Well you were in the studio with me when I was recording Sly and Robbie [earlier this year].
Q: (Smiling) Yes.
Scientist: The first, most important part of it is the recording, not the mixing. That is where a lot of people get sidetracked. The dub? That’s just the performance. It’s like if someone asked you to paint a lovely scenery, but the canvas that your gonna paint on is dirty.
Q: Which is why you’ve always emphasized when we’ve been together, and I’m sure at the sound check later today I’ll see, how important it is that the microphones and [all the technological equipment] is capturing the sound as perfectly as it can. Because it’s the recording that will last forever.
Scientist: Well, yeah, the recording is what defines and highlights everything else.
Q: Because after that you’ll be manipulating the recording, so the recording is the original thing, the artwork that’s created in the studio by the artists that you will then, you, as the dubber, or mixer, later, will manipulate?
Scientist: Well it’s easier. [Because] [f]ixing while you’re mixing only uses up a bunch of studio time. The better the recording, the better the mix. And the better the sound. You want the kick drum to be as fat as it can be. Look [at] it this way. If somebody in Africa finds a diamond, that diamond is worthless until it gets polished. So you have to polish the diamond to bring out the brilliance. But a lot of people believe you [can] record sloppy and just dub. No. The first thing, like what you witnessed there with Sly and Robbie, the recording process has to be right first.
Q: I listened closely to Hempress Sativa’s debut album and compared those tracks to the ones on the dub album, and as a result, I have a few questions that may help shed some light and demystify what your process is when you’re dubbing a song. [Because] when I’m in the studio watching you, sometimes some of the things that you’re doing go way over my head. I can see you with the instruments, but I don’t really know what you’re doing. I know it sounds good to my ears. So this is why I want to ask you a few questions about the sounds I’m hearing [when you dub an album]. One thing that drew my attention about “Revolution Dub,” the dub for the first track on Unconquerebel (called “Revolution”), is a crank-like percussion sound. And I want to play it for you (playing “Revolution Dub”). You hear that sound?
Q: This same cranking percussion sound is heard only at the very beginning of the non-dub version of the song, but you can hear it used throughout in the dub version. What is that instrument that’s making that cranking sound?
Scientist: That scraping sound, it’s a percussion [instrument]; [it’s called a] güiro.
Q: Is the use of that cranking percussion-type instrument a common technique [to use] when dubbing?
Scientist: No, that’s just a percussion sound that the musicians choose to play.
Q: But you chose as the dubber, to bring that cranking sound in [more to the song; to highlight it].
Scientist: When you’re doing dub, you use certain instruments to capture the person listening. And then, if you notice, it disappears out of the music. So you lead them on a different journey.
Q: Whenever I’m [listening] to your music I go out to space.
Q: But what I’m trying to understand is, how is it as the guy that created this dub (“Revolution Dub” by Hempress Sativa), [how did you think], you know what, I’m gonna add more of that cran[king] [percussion] sound. How did that come to you? Is it just intuitive?
Scientist: Here’s another the thing about dub. You have to also know the music. Like when you noticed I was working with [keyboardist] [Michael] Hyde in the studio, when I was working on [those tracks for] Sublime, you have to know the music. Your ears have to be musically trained to know when the musicians are playing incorrect chords. So that’s the first thing, you have to also know the music. It’s not [like] you’re gonna dub [successfully] [without] any sense of what the musicians sound like; you don’t know anything about music.
Q: That cranking sound – the reason why it [came] to my attention [is] I realized that that was [an element] of the song, the dub version, [that makes it] kind of addictive.
Scientist: That’s what tells you. It’s how you feature it. You have to feature it at a certain spot so it’s not clashing with the other instruments. You use it – okay, the first time I smoked weed; most people smoke weed – they always trying to get back the same high, right? So it’s like the hook is the stuff that gets you started. Like the appetizer. You’re gonna have a meal, so you want something to build your appetite. So you use that to build an appetite, and after the person’s taste buds gets [warmed] up, then you give them the main-course meal.
Q: You only hear the güiro in the very beginning of the [non-dub] version of the song “Revolution.”
Scientist: Dub is like writing music; it’s a new musical composition.
Q: In the dub version of Hempress Sativa’s song “Skin Teeth,” modeled off of the Horace Andy classic, most of the lyrics are dropped out, and then, there is another percussion-type sound which seems to be reverberated throughout the track, or maybe echoing. Can you identify that sound for me? (Playing song.)
Scientist: That’s just adding delay on the guitar. [You] get “echo one” to chase “echo two.”
Q: Ok, pause for a second.
Scientist: And that’s not a percussion sound, that’s a keyboard sound. It’s a piano. Part of the rhythm section.
Q: And you said something about “echo one” chasing “echo two?”
Scientist: The reason it sounds like that is because you get echo one to chase echo two. You know, like something running after something [else].
Q: [I’m] imagin[ing] a Pac-Man.
Scientist: Yeah. You have musical hieroglyphics. In musical hieroglyphics, that’s a “dog chasing the cat.”
Q: [And] is that sound or sound effect [being used there in the track]?
Scientist: [That’s a] [s]ound effect. And the reason why it came out like that is because echo one was chasing echo two; in musical hieroglyphics, the dog [was] chasing the cat. So if I [said] to [King] Tubby, “I’m gonna make the dog chase the cat, a lot of people would be like “What the hell is he talking about?”
Q: But [King Tubby] would know?
Scientist: He would know. Because we developed certain language [to communicate with one another in the studio]. If I say[, for example,] “The angel’s wings fly over the cliff,” he’d know what I [was] talking about. If I say, “Hey, how about the high-hat chase the woodpecker –”
Q: By the way, is that a common dubbing technique – to do that with that sound? To use that [echo one chasing echo two] sound? Because again, when I listened to it [closely], I was trying to figure out what was it in the song where, suddenly, I [felt like I had journeyed] to space. So that [is] one of those times.
Scientist: Here’s what, as I said before, we have all been programmed. I didn’t choose it, it chose me. And fortunately for me, I’m the only person who has certain knowledge [about dub and sound engineering generally]. People [have] tried to do it for twenty years, tried to figure it out . . . . (shrugging).
Q: I also want to ask about your killer dub of [Hempress Sativa’s] massive track “Wah Da Da Deng,” which you call the “Boom Dub.” To me, this might be the most wicked cut on the dub album. That dub is almost entirely instrumental. You dropped out all of the lyrics in that song except for (1) a [short] intro “In comes the unconquerable, your highness, Hempress Sativa, the lyrical machine. When the lioness roars, no dog barks”; and (2) one [short] verse which you hear with about 50 seconds left in the song: “Hempress Sativa pan di mic, and a-go rip it up again.” It’s just a wicked dub. Out of all the lyrics that you could have chosen from the original song to splice into the dub version, how and why did you decide on [using those small snippets from the original song]?
Scientist: The punchline[s]. That’s what’s gonna resonate in people’s head[s].
Q: In Round 2 of our continuing interview, I asked how much time you spent listening to an artist’s work like with Hempress Sativa, in order to dub their music or mix it. And I think a lot of people were surprised though when they read [in our] “Round 2” interview when you said you didn’t really listen ahead of time to what an artist has done before coming to work with you. That you don’t need to go and listen [to all their work]. [I know I was.] I would envision you really having to sit there and focus, and listen to Hempress Sativa’s song like “Wah Da Da Deng” a whole heap of times before you could decide [how to mix it – and make choices like what lyrics to use, and which to drop out, when making a dub.] But when we met last time, you said, this just isn’t the case. Can you possibly say just a bit more how, when dubbing, you make the great artistic and creative choices you do – like you did for “Wah Da Da Deng” – about what lyrics to retain in a dub, and maybe accentuate/highlight?
Scientist: You have to anticipate what the musician is going to do next. And then when you’re setting up the console, and we’re mixing the “A” side and getting the song ready, you have to start to memorize the song at that time. You have to have photographic memory. Once I hear a song one time, I remember every part [of the song] forever. [Now,] [f]irst, before you mix any song, you have to get the levels right. You have to get the correct tone. And then, after [learning] the [entire] song, you have to anticipate what the musicians are going to play next. Like when I listen to [legendary] [drummer] Sly [Dunbar] play, I know where he’s gonna play every roll. I know what [he’s] gonna do before he does it. You have musical anticipation where certain things play in codes.
Q: There are many questions I still have about your dubbing techniques, and your style of dubbing, mixing, and recording – which many have tried to imitate – but time militates that we move on, for now, and maybe, when we do the next part of this interview, we can revisit this topic. Okay?
Q: I say time is of the essence because, of course, after a fairly lengthy hiatus from the Dub Club in Los Angeles, you’ll be back in the house tonight to do the live mixing for Hempress Sativa’s scheduled show. Do you remember what show it was you last mixed at the Dub Club?
Scientist: Michael Prophet’s last show there [on October 4, 2017].
Q: How come it’s been such a long time since you’ve done a show at the Dub Club?
Scientist: Well I don’t like to wear out my welcome.
Q: But Scientist, your face [would be] on the “Mount Rushmore of Dub” if they had one. So you’re welcome every single time you walk into the Dub Club. How could that not be?
Scientist: Well if you eat the same thing every day that’s delicious, after a while it doesn’t taste good anymore. If you keep smoking the same weed every day, after a while –
Q: You have to switch up the strain? (laughing)
Scientist: (Laughing) Yeah.
Q: Makes a lot of sense. Scientist, what are some of the challenges of mixing a live show at the Dub Club?
Scientist: Having the proper sound system. Getting people to break out of their orthodox way of how they want to do [things].
Q: Tonight, when you are in the sound booth during Hempress Sativa’s show, can you describe a bit what you’ll be doing with the controls? And how does mixing a live show and what you’re doing with the control board differ than when you’re mixing in a studio?
Scientist: Ok I want to give you an analogy. One is swimming into a swimming pool, and one is swimming in the Atlantic Ocean with twenty-foot waves. Because the studio is a controlled environment; [a] live [show] is uncontrolled.
Q: Now we have to wrap this interview up so you can get to the sound check, so: Can you talk a bit about the importance of the sound check and, as an engineer, can you describe how the sound check is done?
Scientist: Well, yeah. The first thing is that the biggest enemy is the guitar amplifiers. Because the standard way that the guitar amplifier gets set up fools the [sound] engineer. And this is why you can see the biggest, [most famous] artists onstage [at shows] playing stuff, and you can’t hear it. Because the monitor and the guitar amplifier is giving the engineer a false perspective of what the music really is.
Q: Scientist, thanks so much for this time and special window into your work. I wish you tremendous success with tonight’s show!
Scientist: Thank you.
Please check back in a few months for the next installment of my continuing interview of Scientist.