Kirk Anthony: What sparked your interest in the “background aspects” of the music industry (producing, songwriting, & entrepreneurialism)?
Ebonie Smith: It is very hard for me to divorce production and artistry. I have always equated producing and songwriting with performance. The idea of being able to be the “entire band” was what originally attracted me to music production. I’ve always wanted to play all the instruments simultaneously. Music production presents a tool that allows me to do this—as silly as it sounds. Additionally, I enjoy being in complete control of my creative process as an artist and musician. The idea of “being produced” feels very constraining. I don’t want to give the impression that I am averse to being directed. However, my songs are often personal and specific to my lived experience. It is sometimes difficult to have someone else accurately articulate musical ideas that are so close to me. For example, no one else could have possibly produced “Secret Love” on my latest album. That record in my heart translated, a true musical manifestation of what I was feeling at the time.
KA: How would you describe your production style?
ES: My production style is a combination of what the artist asks for and what I know works. I work with artists in all genres, and I try to tailor the sound and production experience to them specifically. I add my “Ebonie-ness” in there and Voilà! I don’t confine myself to genres. Fortunately, I have training in a number of different styles (i.e. jazz, hip hop, classical, r & b, rock), and I can use these forms as reference points. However, I would never describe myself as a “hip hop producer” or anything like that. But if a quick, concise definition is what you want, I have been calling my production style “Urban Zing” these days. I define that as a little urban soul mixed with a dash of musical deviance, eccentrics and asymmetrical irregularity.
KA: What has allowed you to work with such a diverse group of artists ranging from aspiring hip-hop artists, artisans at the Classical Theatre of Harlem, to Le Black Roots?
ES: I have been very blessed to have wonderful opportunities placed along my path. I never predicted that I would live in Cameroon and work with the Black Roots. I never planned to intern for the Classical Theatre of Harlem. These opportunities simply presented themselves, and I had the good sense to take advantage of them. Also, having an open mind about the positions in which I have been placed has been a tremendous asset to me. I faithfully believe that any job can be used as a stepping-stone to something you really want to do.
KA: How has working on music projects involving different entities like the Classical Theatre Of Harlem, Damon Dash Music Group, & BET helped with your production career?
ES: These projects were my first glimpse into the “behind-the-scenes” reality of commercialized music. I learned that there is no wrong or right when producing music, but in television and film there are people out there who would have one believe that. It is simply not the case. Nevertheless, in this realm, music is usually produced for a particular purpose and is less “open for interpretation.” This experience taught me how to color inside the lines as a producer, which was great training for the time.
KA: I noticed from viewing your discography on your website, eboniesmith.com, that you have done the musical score for a play, The Vagina Monologues, and a documentary, Owning The Oasis; how helpful was your music producing background in allowing you to score these projects? How easy or difficult was it for you to segue from music producing to scoring the play & documentary?
ES: The transition was the other way around actually. I didn’t get into producing records for artists until after the scoring projects. I found scoring fairly intuitive. I would look at a sequence of the play or film and try to translate in musical terms how the piece made me feel.
KA: What initiated your social consciousness & activism in regards to the music industry?
ES: I have always known that I wanted to tell the truth. Activism and social consciousness is about telling the truth and exposing lies. I like to believe that my music does this both literally and metaphorically. Music is a device that I use to be real with people and translate their experiences into trustworthy interpretations of what is true. Some embellishments for artistic flare. All truth.
KA: What is your opinion of the women’s current standing and position in the hip-hop industry?
ES: I would like to see more diversity in the more commercial realm. However, there are a number of great women out there. Genesis Be, Kalae All Day, Shin-B, Queen Kash, etc., these are all women with serious bars who need to be heard by larger audiences. I am optimistic for the future. There are a number of women bubbling on the underground.
KA: With your organization of/involvement with many programs that help with the exposure and development of other artists/producers, how do you balance your involvement in such activities with your own aspiring producer/artist career?
ES: Balance is always a constant concern. I try my best to prioritize and take it one project at a time. If the project is not one that is centered on my development as an artist, I have to just take the backseat and give my attention to the objectives of the project in question. That can sometimes be a challenge, but I manage.
KA: Your bio mentions your work as a research assistant for the Creating Music Research Project and your completion of your master’s degree in music technology. How does this advanced education help you in your production when it seems like other producers learn their craft by trial & error, or by apprenticing under other producers?
ES: Getting an advanced education did not teach me how to be a record producer. No degree can teach you that. Being a record producer is about learning how to listen to people and developing your ear. I learned from trial and error and apprenticeship just like everyone else. The advanced education just keeps me ahead of the game in the sense that it taught me about the next generation of musical practices, the future of the music business and the technological landscape that will serve as its launching pad. I learned about the Internet and how to use online audio technologies to my advantage as a producer. I took classes with students who were designing the next generation of electronic instruments and online distribution sites. My graduate studies taught me how to be more than just another producer clinging to an MPC and spending all my money at beat battles vying for sample libraries and a critique from some A&R who won’t have his/her job in six months. It taught me how to research and write. It taught me how to be a student of my craft, math, science, and new technologies in music.
KA: What’s your opinion of the quality of popular/mainstream hip-hop today?
ES: Well, I think that we have to first clarify what defines “popular/mainstream hip-hop.” Do we mean recordings produced/published by one of the four major recording companies? Do we mean hip hop that is represented on the Billboard pop charts? Do we mean hip hop music that is in regular rotation on commercial radio and in popular dance clubs? If this is the standard that determine what is “popular/mainstream” or not, this is my response: I believe that the content quality of any musical form is a direct reflection of the principle financer’s motivations and intentions. If the funder—who in this case is usually a major recording label—is largely concerned with producing art as a means of capitalizing on the merchandizing of popular or trendy ideas, the content quality of the music will generally be modified to serve that end one way or another. Since many recording companies have expanded their commercial objectives to include capitalizing on the commercialization of consumer product brands, hip hop content has become the soundtrack for mass consumerism domestically and abroad. Whether it’s being used to sell more drinks in the club, to push Vitamin Water in a G-Unit song, or promote a new smart phone, popular/mainstream hip hop content is being used by labels to capitalize on product branding and the exploitation of pop culture commodities. This comes largely in response to low album sales; labels are trying to compensate for low profit margins. Some say this diminishes the quality of content. I agree. Good or Bad? I don’t judge it. It’s just business.
KA: In your current position as an arts program coordinator & executive manager of the Harlem Children’s Zone, you get to work with young people. What sense do you get as to what is their mindset about hip-hop music & culture?
ES: Hip Hop is everything for my students. It is the core of their creative palette. Everything for them must filter through hip hop. It is their reference point. I utilize it as a device to help impart wisdom, character development, and knowledge. It has been a very effective tool for Lyrics Lounge, a music business and performance arts club that I started for at risk teens at Harlem Children’s Zone (lyricslounge.wordpress.com).
KA: Given your various facets of the music industry you have your fingers in, how important do you feel it is for those within the music business to become multi-faceted within it?
ES: It is essential for longevity in the music business—or any business for that matter. The wider your skill-set, the more creative options you afford yourself. I write songs, edit audio, mix, engineer (track), produce, make beats, play instruments and design new musical interfaces. Additionally, I can cook, swim, write research papers, draw, send an email, and design websites. The truth is that being multi-faceted is not something limited to one’s career field of choice. Being multi-faceted is a lifestyle decision that should be reflected in all areas of one’s life. I can’t tell you how much learning how to cook has done for my music career.
KA: What would be your advice to women or young ladies who may be contemplating a career in production or engineering?
ES: Listen to yourself. Have your own sound. Although it is important to have mentors and to apprentice, you must define your own sound. Identify that thing that makes you different from everyone else, and make that your competitive advantage over your peers. No matter what be yourself!