Just now, Black Messiah producer and engineer Ben Kane unveiled a Kickstarter campaign to bring the fruits of a decade-plus of grueling dedication and dream-building in the D’Angelo camp to its logical next step: his own studio, Electric Garden. A journey that’s taken him across the continental US of A and back again reaches a moment of sheer reflection, where Kane can ruminate on the copious intermediary phases that have characterized that journey from coast-to-coast, from studio hand to full on collaborator and two-time Grammy-winning producer.
Luckily for us all, Kane has shared some of those very moments with us, rolling out on a weekly basis. To start, his harrowing account of the creation of Black Messiah back-country funk BKA “The Door,” which is available for your reading pleasure down below. You can contribute to Electric Garden’s Kickstarter campaign by following this link and enter for your chance to win some unfathomably dope prizes, including studio merch, time and yes, even extremely rare test-pressings of some of Black Messiah’s standout selections. So without further adieu, here’s Ben Kane’s secret history of D’Angelo’s “The Door,” from his mouth to your mind. Be sure to check back next week for another untold tale of Black Messiah.
“The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubborn persistent illusion.” – Einstein
I originally met D’Angelo as a 19 year-old intern at Electric Lady Studios in 2003. “Benny the kid” he would call me, and that I was. By the time Black Messiah was finished, I was a 31 years old and had engineered his album. During those 11 years, I embarked on a journey with D’ through numerous cities, dozens of studios, and through space and time itself. A recording is a document that can be tied to a specific moment, but inspiration and expression are not constrained to this world, and with someone like D’angelo, who is so connected to the higher spirit, the sense of a recording as a linear collection of moments in time is even more blurred. My job as an engineer is often just grasping at these spirits; capturing the feelings that musicians pull from the ether as a near-permanent sound on a thin piece of magnetic analog tape. Fans of D’angelo are used to hearing about his unique interpretation of time, both within his music and his process. This brief musical chronology in three parts seeks to paint a small picture of the wormhole that was my experience helping to craft Black Messiah.
In 2007, after D’ had signed to J Records, Russell Elevado asked me to move out to San Francisco from New York with him to set up a studio and assist him on the completion of D’Angelo’s forthcoming album. (I had assisted and eventually engineered for Russ at Electric Lady for almost five years and had developed a good rapport with D’ over my time at the studio). Of course, I was thrilled to keep working with both of them and I quickly agreed to the idea.
A couple months later, with about five pallets of gear already headed to the Bay from NYC, everything I owned in the world and all of Russ’s most fragile gear packed snuggly into our Chevy Suburban, we took off for the West Coast to the place we would soon call Hydra Studios SF. D’ made his entrance a few months later than anticipated, arriving unexpectedly in the dark of night, the smoke of a celebratory lit cigar wafting through the no-longer “smoke-free” studio. He greeted us with about 1,000 welcoming hugs and handshakes, and we were on our way. I was beyond thrilled to be working on what I knew would become a masterpiece.
Though we had about 50 tapes of new D’Angelo music in our vault and a backlog of at least 20 (of what I considered to be) mind-blowingly brilliant tracks already well on the road to completion, D’ was more interested in writing some new songs, and working on new ideas. Less than a month later, a bumble bee snuck into Russ’s helmet while he rode around the North Bay on his motorcycle, leaving him bedridden with several broken ribs. I was, quite suddenly, thrust into the position of engineer and, for the most part, sole studio collaborator, a position that I had no idea I would hold for the better part of the next three years, while Russ worked elsewhere.
With me and D’ left to record alone, accompanied by generous amounts of strong Bay-Area bud, new music was happening. On one day in particular, D’ had been walking around whistling. Though it was a bit unusual, it wasn’t uncommon for him to sing to himself, so I didn’t think too much of it. The studio had a room originally designed for recording sound effects for film, with floorboards laid over deep cavities originally filled with sand that would create a nice low boom when you stepped on them. D’ stomped on the floor a couple times and then yelled into the control room: “Ben, mic up this floor and hit record.” About 5 hours of stomping, clapping, whistling and singing later, The Door was complete.