In The Lab with Sean C & LV
Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
New York City-based production duo Sean C & LV have been in the game for years. Check their discography, and you’ll find that they’re behind a lot of your favorite records in some way or another. Yup, Sean C has co-production credit on Jay Z’s Reasonable Doubt single “Can’t Knock the Hustle,” and A&R credits on classic Loud Records releases like Mobb Deep’s Hell on Earth and Big Pun’s Capital Punishment (him and LV also did Pun’s anthemic single “100%”). Sean C & LV also produced a large chunk of tracks on Hov’s American Gangster album too thanks to their alignment with Puff Daddy and Hitmen affiliation, including the smash “Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…),” as well as bangers for everyone from The Clipse to Ghostface Killah.
Earlier this week, Sean C & LV released their Loud Dreams Vol. 1 compilation, which features a ridiculous lineup of veteran and next generation artists—most of whom they’ve worked with in the past—including Busta Rhymes, Raekwon, Jadakiss, Styles P, Bun B, Pusha T, Fabolous, A$AP Ferg, Asher Roth, Dom Kennedy, Remy Banks, Big K.R.I.T., and many more. And of course, the beats are nothing but heat rocks. So to find out how they put this project together, and also explore their deep industry history, we got on the horn with Sean C & LV last week for our latest In The Lab feature to examine what goes on behind the scenes when this dynamic duo is hard at work. Let’s get it.
Sean C: Our set-up really hasn’t changed much. We use two MPCs. We keep one turntable right next to each other. I use Ableton sometimes. And musicians, for the most part. We got our boy Joe Harley who plays keys for us, Shajuan is a drummer, and our boy Shawn Krac also played drums on the album as well.
Daddy’s House/Red Bull Studios
LV: [Daddy’s House, which is our home base, is] everything. It’s the vibe. It’s the creative control. We can really be creative in here, because no one’s really on your back. And you’ve got the best of both worlds, because it has three rooms. One room is the A room, that’s when you’ve moved up in society. And you have the B room, which is kind of hood, and sometimes, you gotta go back to the hood if the hood never done nothing to you. Then you got the MIDI [room], where you gotta pay your dues. It’s a small room. You gotta go in there, and bust your motherfuckin’ ass. That’s why I love [Daddy’s House] so much. You get the best of everything.
Sean C: We did the album in Red Bull Studios. That studio is incredible, as far as the vibe in there. Chris Tabron is the engineer who mixed and recorded some of the records. We had some records started, and some we started from scratch, and we finished up everything in Red Bull Studios.
Sean C: I don’t really like to be in the overnight sessions. I like to get to the studio by one o’clock [in the afternoon], and be outta there one o’clock [at night] at the latest. Grown man hours.
LV: I like to keep it [where I work in the studio, and I’m off when I’m at home]. A lot of things start at home though. I’m pretty sure it’s the same with Sean, where we start with the idea at home and then come to the studio and [develop it together].
Sean C: We kind of start by going through records, for the most part. Or we might start with a melody or an idea that came into our head. He may play some samples, and I may add on something to them. Every day is different. It depends on the mindstate we’re at, or what we’re trying to do, or who we’re working with. For the album, it was just free creativity. I might be in the room going through things on the MP, and L might be like, “Yo, that’s crazy right there. We should change the drums.” It’s collaborative effort.
LV: It’s starts off different, but at the end of the day, it’s always the same results. Sean might listen to records one day, and I may come in out of nowhere and start doing drums. It all depends on what the vibe is when you walk in this bitch.
Sean C: And a lot of times, the drummer in the booth might be practicing, and we’ll be like, “Yo, play those four bars again. Let’s record that.” My man Dave Eggar might come through and play strings. We try to keep a bunch of different musicians around, so we can always have that real sound.
LV: Sometimes it sounds like samples, but it’s not. The idea may have started from a record, though. Or, we never sampled it, but [we listened to a record and said], “We should do something like this.” It’s inspiration. We started making beats from sampling. But after you get around musicians, you want to do it yourself. We’ll get inspired by the sample, and try to do it over, or our interpolation of it. Sometimes, the sample is so crazy, it’s like, “Do that shit, right there.”
LV: I’m looking at a stack of records right here. [I’ll get records from] my grandmother’s house, my mother’s house, anywhere. My grandmother’s gospel collection is stupid. All vinyl. Everything from Reverend James Cleveland. And I mean everything. I’m pretty sure she went on tour with Reverend James Cleveland. Mahalia Jackson. Everybody. All that. And my mother has Teddy Pendergrass and Al Green records. If you have records at your house, I’ma be like, “Yo, what you doing with those records?”
Sean C: We go digging [in the stores] too.
LV: You will catch us everywhere.
Sean C: There use to be a spot on City Island. Me, L, [Buckwild], [Lord] Finesse, a bunch of us used to go out there.
LV: A lot of the stores are closing now, but we built relationships with certain buyers and record sellers. My man Gene Brown, he got fire! He’s a record seller. You just gotta make it work. It always [starts with records]. That’s the DJ in us. It will always stay that way.
Sean C: I’ve done a little digital digging, but I haven’t done it in a long, long time. A lot of the younger producers under us do that, and they’ll send us a link to a Blogspot or something, but for the most part, we’re in the records. But really, you can sample from anywhere. I’ll be watching movies or TV, and be like, “Oh shit, I need that right there.” Usually, if you come to our sessions, we’ll always have mad DVDs playing while we’re working. Anything from Paid in Full to [a] Stax [Records documentary], or you may see us watching a Jimi Hendrix documentary. Lately we’ve been watching the N.W.A home DVD. It’s like a home movie that they did for Niggaz4Life. It’s got them in the studio making the record, all the uncut videos, the pool parties. All that type of stuff is usually playing on the screen while we’re working.
Working with Musicians
LV: There’s really no English communication. A lot of people say I have DJ hands, because I talk a lot with my hands.
Sean C: Most of the time, if the sample is in the record, we’re gonna add something different. So we’re not saying, “Replay this.” It may start with a skeleton, and then we’ll sit with Joe, and he’ll start playing something, and we’ll be like, “No, no, no,” or, “Yes, yes, yes,” or, “Change that note.” That’s kind of the vibe of how we do it.
LV: The MPC is my instrument. And I play classical piano, drums, and bass, all in my head. [Laughs.]
Sean C: I learned the keys a little bit.
LV: I’ll play something, and Sean will be like, “That’s not the right key.” And I’ll be [impressed] like, “Whoooo!”
Sean C: [Laughs.]
LV: Water, alcohol, and juice [are our essentials in the studio]. Some days, Sean might be behind the blender mixing up some smoothies, with some rum and some sorbet. It’s a party.
Sean C: The vibe depends on the day, and what we’re trying to get done. If we’re working with an artist, we’re not gonna have it too crowded. But if it’s a regular day, and we’re just working on music, some of our young producers will be there, like our man Sal Dali, and Marvino Beatz. And some days, our boys will come through that are just our people. Like my man Brown, funny as hell, he’ll have everyone in the studio laughing.
Sean C: The concept of the album was to put established artists with newer artists. Some are more established than others, and some [of the newer artists] you may have heard of and you may not have heard of. When it came to the newer artists, it was people that we were either working with or people that we thought were dope and were already doing their thing. And the established artists were people we had done records for in the past that we really liked.
It happened organically with a lot of the stuff. Bun was in the studio when Remy Banks was there. Bun came through, he stayed for a couple days, and was like, “Whatever y’all give me, I’ll get on. I already know it’s gonna be hot.” We’d play him a couple things, and he’d be like, “Want me to get on that?” And five minutes later, he’s walking in the booth, in there knocking it out.
We tried to get people in the room together as much as possible. Especially when you’re doing compilations, it’s very difficult to get everyone there at the same time. But when you do that, you get to produce the record. That was one of the main goals with this project—to produce people, [and work with the artists on their vocals which doesn’t happen much anymore]. Even with Bun, at the end of his verse on “Where’s Your Leader,” I was like, “It needs something at the end, like a period.” And he was like, “I got it, I got it. How’s this? ‘Trill.’” [Laughs.] But little things like that.
LV: Another thing is that me and Sean, we live in reality. So it’s like, “We might not be able to get that person.” Or [even if we could get them, it’s like], “This person won’t sound good on that.” So it was like, “Pusha would sound good on this. Who else do we know? Ferg. Oooh, that’s ill.” So it was our relationships, and being realistic about certain situations. It’s a lot to deal with getting a bunch of different artists and their schedules [in sync].
Sean C: With the Pusha and Ferg record, Pusha had already done his verses, and it was like, “I think Ferg would be dope on this, because he got that wild, crazy, zany kind of shit.” And I didn’t know of any record that they had done together. The other thing is, if you weren’t in the room, we always let them know who was gonna be on what record. We wouldn’t put someone on the record without telling the people [already on there]. And we’d go to their sessions if they couldn’t make it to ours. We tried to be as hands on as possible.
LV: Mixing [gave us the most headaches]. I wouldn’t say coming up with the music and creating is the easy part, but that’s the most natural. Like, “This is what we do.” But mixing was the most challenging. I probably got some more grey hairs on my beard just from mixing. Sometimes you get vocals, and they sound horrible but you just try to make it work. Or the “Burn it Down” song, that beat was done so long ago, and it’s so unorthodox, so I forgot how the session was, and it had like 75 different tempos. So you’re trying to fly in a chorus, and it’s like, “What the hell?!?”
Sean C: Finalizing it was definitely the headache. And also, when we were going through all the beats, and we’d be like, “Oh, we should use this,” and then you have to find the file. And then it’s like, “Oh, that was on that drive that crashed! We don’t even have the multi!” But then the beat is still so crazy that it was just like, “You know what? We’re just gonna use this two-track, and beef it up.”
Also, at the end of the day, it’s your album, [not the artist’s album]. When it’s their album, you might tell them to do something or try something different, and in the end, they won’t do it, and you’ll be like, “I tried to tell them.” But when it’s yours, it’s like, “You got no excuses, dog.” [Laughs.]
Working with Rappers
Sean C: You have to figure out how to get to each artist. You can’t work with everyone the same. Some people don’t like to be told, “You can say that better. Change that line.” That’s a sensitive thing, but we go that far into it. But you have to know that you have that type of relationship with them. It all depends on the artist, but for the most part, everyone on the record, we had a great relationship with.
I’ll bring up Bun again, because he’s on three songs. I was like, “What if you change that line?” And he was like, “Aiight. You got a couple more of those.” [Laughs.] “I’ll change it, but you’re only getting two more.” [Laughs.] But somebody like Bun is super easy to work with. He’s professional and fast, and we come from a similar school. Same thing with Fab. He was just like, “Y’all like it?”
It wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, but I was surprised at how Ferg arranged his vocals, paying attention to every ad-lib. He didn’t just go in the booth and come out.
LV: We had our coats on [getting ready to leave], and he was like, “Wait, did I say ‘that’ instead of ‘that?’ I gotta do it over.”
Sean C: I was like, “I thought you meant to say that.” He was way more meticulous than I thought he would be. His music has a lot of energy, and it sounds like it just comes spur of the moment, but he’s really planning it out. And I think that’s really dope. And to us, he was like, “Y’all really care about the music. Most of these dudes that I’m getting beats from, they’re not into it as much as y’all are.” But it’s probably a thing where he just wasn’t used to seeing it. That’s how we make records.
LV: “Bus Stop” actually started a long time ago. We were in Miami celebrating Puff’s birthday, and Puff had a party in his house, and Busta was there. Me and Sean didn’t have a record for him yet, but were like, “We got a record, and we want you to rhyme like this!” And he was like, “Word?!” And we actually ended up doing “Throw Da Water On ‘Em” after we came back. But for this, we played him the beat, and were like, “We want that flow that we were talking to you about six years ago for this!” And we have a great relationship with him, from working on music, and just him being our man. But that song “Bus Stop,” I feel good about it, because it was a few different Busta styles.
[When he comes in the studio], he’s a professional. “It’s game time, nigga. I’m here to write rhymes.”
“Can’t Knock the Hustle”
Sean C: [Me and Knobody who co-produced the record] got paid in a shoebox full of singles. [Laughs.] Dame probably gave it to us. I can’t remember how much we got paid, but we had to sit there and count out the singles. It was a few thousand dollars in all singles. The money came from various places I’m sure. [Laughs.]
We recorded the song at D&D [Studios]. Before that, I remember asking Dame, “Is he gonna use the beat?” And he was like, “Yeah, he definitely wants the joint. He’s writing to it.” But I never actually saw him write, so I don’t know if he actually wrote the rhymes, or if it’s the same as it is now, where he just comes up with it in his head. He came into D&D, and he knocked it out, but I don’t remember seeing a paper.
That session was the same day that they got the Roc-A-Fella logo, with the champagne bottle and the R in the record. They were like, “This is the logo for the label.” And me and Dame were snappin’ back and forth and shit at the session, too.
Mary J. [Blige] came in the day we mixed the record. This girl Veronica who used to be signed to Jellybean’s label H.O.L.A. sung the reference, and they were like, “Man, you crazy? We’re putting Mary on this song.” So Mary came in the day we mixed the record, at Platinum Island, downtown on Broadway. I remember Jay did the clean version [that day too], and I was like, “Yo, you could say this line better,” or something like that. I don’t remember what line it was. He was like, “Play it back.” And then he said, “Nah, you’re wildin’.” [Laughs.]
I met Biggie one time at Club Envy. He told me he loved “Can’t Knock the Hustle.” He was like, “Yo, that’s my joint! We gotta get in [the studio together].” But I never got to get in with him. But me and L did something on the Duets album.
Hell on Earth
Sean C: That was my first [A&R assistant] credit, under Matty C and Schott Free. When I first came in to Loud, that was the first project I worked on. I was at all the sessions, and watching Havoc make beats was dope. He would have a stack of loose records with no covers. No jackets, no sleeves, nothing, all scratched up. That’s why all the songs have that crackle in them, and they sound real gritty. And they were a lot of classical records with strings, which is why the album sounds so dark. He’d put the records on while the drums were playing, and that would be his formula. Sometimes, the drums can [guide] the melody of the sample. He’d make the beat, and then go to sleep. [Laughs.]
I knew the MP, so sometimes me and Havoc would talk back and forth about the 3000, and different techniques. But I was really just a guy there advising a little bit, but also learning the A&R vibe, and what to do. I ain’t gonna act like I didn’t go pick up reels and bring them to the studio and all that.
The way Loud was, the artists had a lot of creative control. The thing I really learned from Matty and their technique of A&Ring was, “Don’t tell them what to do. Just create the situation that you want them to be in. Like, if you want them to do some shit with Large Professor, don’t say, ‘Here’s some Large Professor beats. Do this, and do that.’ Just put them in the room with Large Professor.” So I took that, and the techniques I learned A&Ring for Bad Boy, and put them all together.
Sean C: That was the album they kind of gave to me, and I had more of a lead, with [Fat] Joe. And of course, Matty and Schott were the bosses, but I built a good relationship with Pun. I’d be playing him beats in the listening room, or at his crib, and he’d be sitting there falling asleep, and you’d think he’s sleeping, but he’s [actually listening to every beat].
LV: That’s what happened with the “100%” beat. He was actually sleeping, and then he lifted his hand up and gave a signal with his fingers like, “That’s it!” But he was still sleeping, he didn’t wake up. I’ll never forget that.
Sean C: With “Still Not a Player,” he was always like, “Yo, I know what I want to do for the remix, I just need to hear the beat.” He had all the parts already made up in his head. He was like, “I wanna get Joe, and have him be like, ‘I don’t wanna be a player no more.’” That was one thing with Pun. He’d have the whole song made in his head already. He didn’t have to hear the beat to make it up. He would just need to find the right beat to fit it. He’d have the hook and the bridge, and like the first eight bars, and then write the rest of the rhymes once he got the beat, like, “That’s the easy part.”
I was fortunate to be around talented guys. So with Pun, it was pretty easy. It would just be having conversations to see where his head was at, and then try to [match him up with the right people]. He was so prepared. But I remember one time, I was like, “You should say that verse over.” And he was like, “My $100,000 watch says I don’t need to say that verse over.” [Laughs.]
“Won on Won”
LV: Isn’t that your favorite beat, Sean?
Sean C: That’s my favorite beat I ever did. I did that on the 950, and it was done for Smif-n-Wessun for their [sophomore] album. But at the same time, I was at Loud, and had gotten the Soul in the Hole project. And they wanted a Smif-n-Wessun record, so I said, “Well I got this joint, let’s put this on there.”
Recording that record was incredible. It was at D&D back in the day. I laid the beat, and they were in the booth together. Like, how the song sounds with them going back and forth is how it was being performed live in the booth. I was like, “Y’all not gonna go in one at a time?” They were like, “Nah, we do it together.” They had two mics, facing each other, and it was like they were playing off each other, “Wanna walk like, wanna talk like us.” I wish I had that on tape. It was crazy.
LV: I was always around. But I was still DJing at that time, I didn’t know anything [about making beats]. And I was like, “Yo this beat is fuckin’ stupid! What the fuck is that shit?!” There’s certain beats that I love that always make me say that. If you take my two copies of that record now, it sounds like a bunch of static, because when it came out, I would always just want to cut that record.
Sean C: The sample is very, very chopped up. Some people know what it is, but you wouldn’t recognize it. It’s a very small part of a record, and it doesn’t go like that at all. A couple people have come to me and been like, “I know what that sample is.” And I’d be like, “Word?!?” “100%” is chopped similar to “Won on Won” too.
The one thing I was mad about was that for the instrumental, the engineer left one of my snares out in the pass, that’s why we never put it out.
LV: Puff called us, he was on the phone on his yacht. He’s like, “I need y’all to send me every beat y’all did.” You get used to it after a while, because he says the most random shit. But you’re still like, “What are you talking about, ‘every beat?’’’ He’s like, “Yeah, every beat.” Then he says, “Jay’s doing an album, quietly. And he wants us to do it.” Now, I haven’t been producing for very, very long, and everything is still pretty new, so I’m like, “Aiight, Jay Z’s doing an album, he wants us to do it. Yeah, whatever.” But he was like, “Just go.”
Me and Sean went to the record store every fucking day. And we came in, and we were on fire. Like when Lebron had that 61 point game the other night and he couldn’t miss? That’s how it was with every record we were putting on. We were in the zone.
So then, we’re in the MIDI room, and Puff comes back, like, “Okay, so we’re doing the album. Shit, I might as well call this nigga right now.” Ten minutes later, this nigga Jay walks in the room. I look at Sean like, “Oh shit! This nigga Jay Z’s right here!” For me, that was my first time meeting Jay Z, so I was stuck. Then he sat down, and was like, “Play me some beats!” I thought he was gonna be there for ten minutes, that nigga wound up staying for three hours. And that’s how it started. It was perfect timing. We had the music that he was looking for. He picked a bunch that day, and left with like four or five beats.
We were already three records in, doing what we do [before we even knew what the concept for the album was]. Then it was like, “Oh, you’re doing a soundtrack for the movie?” And we saw the movie, and it was like, “Oh, let’s go.”
“Sweet” [was the first song he did]. That’s when I knew it was real. It was the first beat we played him, too. Then, like two days later, we’re in the studio, and again, Jay walks in, and he’s in the MIDI room with us. I respect that, because like I said, that shit is the hood. It’s a small room. And he’s in there fuckin’ with us. We were doing “Rich & Black” [for Raekwon and Nas] at the time. The song wasn’t even done yet, we were just doing the beat. And Jay’s bopping to it, and then he’s like, “Yo, come in here for a minute.” We walk in the other room, and all I hear is, “Sweeeet.” I look at Sean like, “Ooooooohhhh shit. This shit is about to get real.” Then he played “No Hook,” and I was like, “Oh my God.”
“Roc Boys (And the Winner Is…)” Sample
LV: Weren’t we talking about that record with [DJ Premier] yesterday?
Sean C: Yeah, we were telling that story to Primo yesterday. That was from that digging expedition, going every day and buying records. I went one day and pulled out that 45 [of the Menahan Street Band’s “Make the Road by Walking”], and was like, “Yo, this is crazy.” We took it to the studio that same day. I didn’t know it was a new record. I thought it was just a reissue of something that I didn’t know. The record was crisp and clean, but I didn’t know it was some white dudes from Brooklyn that made the record. I remember D. Dot was like, “That’s crazy!”
LV: I got to the studio before you that day. And I remember, you came in, real casual, and put that on that record. I turned around like, “Yo, what the fuck is we doing here?!?” It was so crazy because when Sean chopped it up, I didn’t have to look for the drums. They were already in the machine. It was meant to happen.
Sean C: When you go digging, sometimes you find a gem or two. But when we were doing American Gangster, every record we were finding was crazy. And during that same digging time, I found the “Don’t Touch Me” sample [for Busta Rhymes].
LV: I remember with “Pray,” Big City [Records] had that shit on the wall. And I was looking at that shit for a long time. And that day, it was the first record I grabbed. And I put that shit on, and I screamed, like, “Oh shit!!!!” Like, frantic. And I walked out the store. That’s the only record I bought that day. Sean probably came a few minutes after me, but I was already gone. Straight to the studio.
Diddy’s Role during American Gangster
LV: Whether he was in basketball shorts or a suit, he was in the studio every day. Like, in there, like, “What are we doing? We need to add horns right here.” Like, producing, and arranging. [Being around him is when I] realized the difference between a beatmaker and a producer. He showed me there’s a big difference. Like, I never knew you could put live horns on shit. He’d be like, “Nah nigga, we need to put some live horns on that.” He’s the mastermind.
Sean C: One thing I can say about Puff is you learn work ethic [being around him], and multi-tasking. He’s got a million things going on, but he’s definitely in the studio with ideas, like, “That’s dope, but let’s change this though. Add this.” Coming in with melodies. It’s not the thing where people say, “Puff don’t do shit. Everyone else does the beats.” He definitely does.
LV: There’s a part at the end of “American Dreamin’” where Mario Winans is playing the drums. And he was like, “Nah, we need to take that out.” For a week, every day, he’d be like, “Y’all not gonna take that out? I’m gonna let y’all keep that one, but don’t think I wasn’t hearing that shit.” He knows what’s going on.
He’s in there with you. I feel like if he had the time in his day to actually be the programmer behind the machine, he would.
Sean C: The Ghostface records were pretty easy. We’ve been in the room with him before, but for most of the songs, he’d just pick the beats and send us the vocals back. The one thing about Ghost is however he hears the beat, that’s how he likes it. So if you do anything to the beat afterwards, he won’t like it.
The song “Stapleton Sex,” that’s one of my favorite joints we did. That was originally a sample, but [we had it replayed]. He was in love with the original version, but we had to change it, because Def Jam couldn’t find the publishers [of the record we sampled to clear it]. It was some obscure 45 that I found. I felt like we got it really, really close. Like, people who heard the original wouldn’t even know. But he was kind of upset, like, “This shit don’t sound the same, yo.” But he’s always great at doing those nasty songs. Like that, and “Wildflower,” those are like some of my favorite Ghostface moments.
Sean C: The whole Loud Dreams thing was a chance for us to usher in new artists. So we’re gonna work with the kid Al-Doe next, and we’re doing a project with Rockie Evans from CharlieRED. And we’re doing some stuff with Puff again as well, but I can’t let too much out about that. And then, we already started working on [Loud Dreams] Vol. 2, which hopefully will come out before the end of the year. So if we do these things twice a year, then they’ll be another new artist to springboard off of it. That’s the goal. That’s the reason we’re doing these Loud Dreams shits.
Previously: In The Lab with Harry Fraud | In The Lab with RATKING | In The Lab with The Alchemist and Evidence (Step Brothers) | In The Lab with Thelonious Martin | In The Lab with Troy Ave | In The Lab with Marco Polo | In The Lab with Black Milk | In The Lab with Oddisee | In The Lab with Pete Rock | In The Lab with Party Supplies | In The Lab with Mac Miller | In The Lab with Roc Marciano