Hip-Hop’s Unseen Architect

Engineer Scotty Hard helped create the sound of New York on classics from De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, and Ultramagnetic MCs


In 2015, I was talking to the Brooklyn rapper Ka about his critically celebrated album Days With Dr. Len Yo when his usually hushed and measured voice turned giddy. That’s because the subject had turned to working with the engineer Scotty Hard. “Come on, that’s the legend right there!” Ka exclaimed. “I don’t know if a lot of people know — but the fact he accepted the project let me know I had something special on my hands.”

Any hip-hop fan who spent the early Nineties devouring liner notes and studying album credits will react the same way to the mention of Scotty Hard. A native of Vancouver, British Columbia, who decamped to New York City in the late Eighties after he heard the beckoning wail of Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause,” Scotty became the unseen architect of a hip-hop sound, notching up engineering and behind-the-boards credits for classic releases from De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan, and Ultramagnetic MCs. When you hear a texture that’s gritty yet loose, experimental but still brimming with a low end and drums that cause speakers to rattle, and enhanced by eerie rhythmic guitar lines, it’s a Scotty Hard mixdown. A new retrospective, The Science of Sesh, seeks to codify his legend with unreleased productions and remixes spanning 1993 to 2016. (Prince Paul and Dan the Automator are among the DJs slated for a June 8 release party at Max Fish.) The collection is rooted in rap but also takes in Scotty’s forays with the jazz unit Medeski, Martin & Wood, Brazilian band Boi Brasileiro De Itaquitinga, and singer-songwriter Emily Wells.

Speaking from his apartment in downtown Brooklyn, the 53-year-old recalled his initiation into the New York City hip-hop world: He scored a gig at Chung King Studios, where his first job was to work on a record by the W.I.S.E. Guyz, before settling into a spot at Calliope Studios. “I started doing the midnight shift with different random hip-hop people and I got to develop my skills,” Scotty said. “Then I got to work with some more interesting people, like Afrika from the Jungle Brothers and Prince Paul, who was doing De La Soul Is Dead.” When an engineer called Mike Teelucksingh failed to show up for some sessions on that album, Scotty stepped in and forged a relationship with Prince Paul that endures to this day.

Another Native Tongues connection led to the birth of Scotty Hard’s own group, New Kingdom. Q-Tip had brought four high school friends calling themselves the Four Wisemen to a session at Calliope. “Tip sat on the floor for the first few hours making sure everything was cool, then he took off,” recalls Scotty. He adds the group “weren’t very good,” but he bonded with one of their acquaintances — a “spaced-out stoned guy” named Jason Furlow, who told him about a project he was plotting with Sebastian Laws, a vocalist Scotty remembers meeting as “this guy with a really busted Afro wearing a long trench coat, dark glasses, and Doc Martens up to the knees.” It wasn’t a typical hip-hop look at the time — and the two New Kingdom albums that followed (1993’s Heavy Load and 1996’s Paradise Don’t Come Cheap) blazed a similarly individual trail based around a dusty sonic patina that was fond of incorporating reverse reverb. At times, New Kingdom resonated like a psychedelic Wu-Tang. “It was something nobody really understood,” admits Scotty now.

New Kingdom’s sound failed to trouble the mainstream, but the albums helped establish the cult of Scotty Hard in hip-hop circles. It wouldn’t be long before Scotty received a call to work on the Wu-Tang Clan’s second album, 1997’s Wu-Tang Forever. Recalling the first session, Scotty says, “RZA was telling me, ‘Look, man, this is how I want it — the vocals have to be really loud, man, and I don’t want to tell you again how to do it.’ I told him that when the vocals are clipping the power amps, they’re loud enough!”

Looking back on those studio days with RZA, Scotty remembers debating the smooth and super-clean sound quality of Dr. Dre’s synth-infused G-funk opus The Chronic with the leader of the Wu. “RZA kept being like, ‘What, you don’t like those EQs? You don’t think it’s good?’ I told him it’s a little too slick for me. But that’s who I am — I’m not a pop Svengali, and I’m comfortable with it. Just the other day, someone called me about working with this female pop singer, but I told them it’s not what I do — my tastes always tend to be a little left of center.”