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Young Guru, Hip-Hop’s Tech-Forward Innovator, Shares His Concerns with AI
In an interview with Okayplayer, Young Guru expands on his comments about Timbaland’s AI ventures and the tough ethical questions that unfettered advancement in AI brings to the music industry.
The tale of man versus machine is older than the first minimum wage law. A century before American folk hero John Henry beat the first steam drill in a contest to tunnel through a mountain and collapsed on the spot, tales circulated of an English textile factory worker named Ned Ludd who’d taken a hammer to company machinery. Ludd’s name was evoked again last month, alongside a trending conversation about artificial intelligence, between the man who engineered JAY-Z’s 4:44 and the man who produced “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”
In response to an announcement from Timbaland that he would be releasing an AI-assisted program that would allow young MCs to rap with the voices of late legends, Young Guru posted on his Instagram story, “@Timbaland I love you my brother. You know I do. But this ain’t it!!! This is dangerous and at a basic level, it’s corny!! I will be on the side of the Luddites.”
In addition to being the personal sound engineer of JAY-Z’s music empire for the last two-and-a-half decades, Young Guru, legal name Gimel Keaton, boasts a resume that has placed his opinion in high demand in Silicon Valley and university classrooms as often as recording studios. Perhaps the country’s foremost expert on the relationship between art and technology in the audio industry, Keaton has been a frequent guest speaker at New York University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has designed curriculum and lectured as an artist in residence at Southern California University, and more recently at Long Island University's Roc Nation School of Music, Sports & Entertainment.
In a 2015 article in The Wall Street Journal that called Keaton “the most influential man in hip-hop you’ve never heard of,” decorated peer and Chicago MC Common said of Keaton, “Sometimes technology doesn’t get to the core energy of a project, but he knows how to manipulate it where you feel like you’re getting something authentic and organic. He uses technology at its highest level.”
After building a career around innovating with tech in the music industry, Keaton is pumping the breaks on artificial intelligence.
The Luddite movement of the early industrial revolution referenced by Keaton and inspired by the fictional Ned Ludd, is often mistaken as being “anti-technology,” but as Keaton stressed in an interview with Okayplayer last week, it’s not the technology, but how it’s used. That the worker doesn’t rejoice in progression that makes their job easier, is cause for evaluating just how unequally the benefits of progression have been historically spread.
While Timbaland’s AI venture is good-spirited and focused on legitimizing routes to using a cat that is very much out of the bag, it still raises ethical questions about art and uncertain futures that have no easy answers. We posed some of those questions to Young Guru and spoke with the tech-forward engineer about his AI reservations.
The interview below has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
How was your career in music a natural bridge with the tech industry?
Young Guru: Everything that we do as engineers is technical. From the very beginning, I was building my own systems. Growing up in that time of hip-hop where you brought the speakers, the amps, the mics, the lights, the turntables, the records, everything, just to do a party. That was a technical aspect.
And then obviously, being blessed enough to be in that generation that was still brought up recording on tape, and to watch it sort of change and morph. Studio Vision Pro was the first time I saw someone record audio into a computer, and I was just like, ‘This is amazing. This is going to change the industry.’
Now that we're completely in the computer for recording, we have to update so much and be on top of all the different formats and all the different things that come out.
Do you remember the first time you saw AI being used in the music industry?
Pitch correction is a form of AI. It’s analyzing audio, seeing what the pitch of that audio is, and suggesting where that should go. Then we started having things like what iZotope does. It’s being fed information from previous songs considered a good mix, and then giving you a replication that will get you close.
Even when pitch correction and autotune were coming out, there were conversations about it not being real art or being a cheaper, faster way to get there.
It’s allowing people who can’t sing to sound like they can sing, to put them in tune. It’s an opinionated thing. [Are] you cheapening the art? If someone sat and trained to do this particular thing for years and years and years, and then someone else just steps in and picks it up, it takes away from the art form.
People who have an expertise are able to use AI as a supplement to that expertise. But I worry about generations that are coming along who are using the AI shortcut without the expertise, using AI as a substitute rather than a supplement.
If I’m going to run a Fortune 500 business, I’m going to have my accountants use calculators. But we’re also not giving a first-grader a calculator. We want them to know how to add and subtract. If we use the tool as a supplement, that can help us, but you do need that foundation because, eventually, it will get lost.
Your most recent comments on AI expressed distaste for the AI voice modulation that’s being used to create music. What were your initial thoughts about that Timbaland and AI Biggie song?
That Timbaland, Biggie thing was nowhere near my first time hearing this coming. Back [around] 2014/2015, I was speaking at MIT, and there was a program where they were feeding a massive computer as much jazz music as they could find. The whole history of jazz. When you stop and think about it, it seems like we’ve had recorded music for a long time, but we really haven’t.
The purpose was that, in the end, you could say, "Now make me a new composition. I want it to be 20 percent [Thelonious] Monk. I want it to be 30 percent John Coltrane…" I was like, "woah, this is amazing from a technical standpoint." But that’s like if you buy a chord pack online, right? They’re just static chords. I can teach you chords in a day. But the feeling that a human being puts into it is what’s different. I’m not going to press on the piano evenly with all my fingers all the time. The velocity of where I’m hitting is going to be different every time as my fingers are moving.
We have now allowed music to sort of be on a grid. You're human, so you're not going to be perfect, [but] now computerized music is just on a grid, and it's perfectly static, which makes it a little bit more robotic.
When I first saw the JAY-Z [AI song], not only is it not his expression, it’s dangerous because of the fact that people will accept something that is lesser just to have it. People were joking about, "Hey, now I can have the JAY-Z feature that I’ve always wanted," but you’re not going to write the way that he writes and he’s not writing the way that he wrote in ‘96.
When you take Big’s voice and you have him saying things that he would have never said, or it's your interpretation or some other writer’s interpretation of what you think Big would have said, this kind of violates him and his legacy. How do you think his daughter felt? How do you think CJ felt hearing their dad’s voice? How do you think Faith feels? How do you think Big’s mom feels? They’re not getting paid from any of these things that are being put out.
I think about those things when I hear the Timbaland thing, and the reason that I said something to Tim, number one, is because me and Tim have worked together and we have a relationship and that’s why I started in love. I was like, “Tim, I love you, but this is dangerous because of who you are. If you set the precedent that this is okay, then every other kid is going to feel like oh, well Tim did it.”
Photo by Momodu Mansaray/Getty Images for Roc Nation
Ownership in music is an age-old problem in hip-hop, and AI is making that problem even worse because it’s no longer ownership of what already exists but ownership of what could possibly exist.
Are we going to be so stuck in what has already been created that we don't create anything new?
Every single day, somebody shaves time off of running the 40-yard dash. We can never run it in 0.0 seconds, that's impossible. But every day somebody gets up and tries to get faster and faster. That is the human element. We're always trying to get better. If we lose that thing, we lose part of being human.
Musically, if we're only looking towards the past and feeding computers things from the past, where's the new thing? Where's the action? Where's the new instrument that gets created? I've often said a lot that the piano in and of itself is a preset. It's a set group of notes. When did we stop inventing new instruments? I can't play Indian music on a piano, because there's notes in between the keys. We've just found a bunch of ways to deal with one thing, we need to create new things.
I'm also thinking about labor impact. That's why I loved your mention of the Luddites. It speaks to how this issue with AI isn't a completely new one. In 1859, this major art critic called photography, ‘art's most mortal enemy.’ Now, that sounds ridiculous. So how do we know that we're not just being, "old man yells at cloud?"
I am very much a tech-forward person. But it’s not the technology, it’s how the technology is used. That’s the main thing.
It's not saying don't use it, it's already here. As a tech person, there's no way you could stop it. It's already here. It's like trying to say, I'm gonna take crack back. It already exists, you can't take it back, but we can figure out what the best things are for the technology. We should have enough wisdom to see where we've been already and to see the dangers and what can be done to set up for them.
In 2015, you were quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying, “When computerized music appeared, other engineers were thinking it didn’t sound right. And it didn’t at first, but I thought it was incredible.” You mentioned how computerized music would allow one engineer to do the work of several. Do you think this generation’s Young Guru is looking at AI music and thinking the same thing?
There has to be. I haven’t sat down and listened to a bunch of it yet, but obviously, there’s gonna be some kid out there that’s gonna use a plug-in and create music without even tapping on pads. There’s Chat GPT now inside of computer programs that are music programs. So that person is going to be like, "Give me a bassline like this, trap-style drums, I want the synth to move like this." They’re going to produce that way, not even touching a MIDI keyboard, or any of those things.
But do you think that’s a gimmick? Or do you think that person can have the same level of cultural impact that someone like yourself has had?
Yeah, they’re definitely going to have the same level of cultural impact because the listener cares about the song, they don’t care about how the song was created.
All they do is listen to what comes out of those two speakers. It’s the same way for me as a person that's not super into fashion, I'm just a consumer. If a kid from FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) is talking about the inner workings of fashion, they've studied it, they talk about how to cut the pants and all that. I don't know about that. I don't care about that. I walk into a store. These pants look nice to me, I pick them up. Do they fit? Great. I'm out. I'm the consumer.
There's going to be plenty of kids coming out that aren't trained in music, and to a certain degree, that's hip-hop. When hip-hop first came out, ‘Oh, this isn't music. They're not musicians. They're not playing instruments. They're ripping off other people's music. They're just cutting and pasting.’ Well, you wouldn't have [Andy] Warhol if there wasn't cutting and pasting of art.
Warhol is a good example because he used to just send instructions to the printers. They would put the thing together, and he’d be like, "This is an Andy Warhol work," and it’s like, ok, who’s the artist in this situation? Same thing with AI; you’re just giving instructions and it’s producing the thing.
It depends. It goes to the same thing as when people look at someone and be like, oh, you produced the record but you didn’t play any instruments. In some places that’s common, like with an orchestra. If you look at the latest interview from Rick Rubin where they’re like, "Do you play any instrument? No? Well, what do you do?" "I produce. I get paid to give my opinion."
When it comes to hip-hop [and sampling], once mainstream people found out what was going on, they said, "You have to pay me. So let’s come to some legal terms." What I’m saying is that we need some legal way to do that with the voice.
The second part of your old statement in the WSJ is, from the labor perspective, that anytime technology advances, it’s going to eliminate some jobs and bring some new jobs. There’s a classism critique of the reaction to AI, that we're only worried about automation taking jobs now because it's finally coming for creative jobs. There's the idea that to have a creative job is a privilege in the first place. So the people who have the privilege to work in creative fields weren’t worried about automation until now because machines couldn’t replace creative workers.
Yes, it’s a blessing to be a creative and to be paid for your creativity. I think creators were worried about automation prior to this. I just think it’s more direct now.
Me, as an engineer, everyone couldn’t necessarily do my job in 1995/’96. You had to have an engineer to go in the studio and record music. Now, it’s to the point where most artists can record themselves. A lot of people go online and they figure out how to mix themselves.
The latest incarnation of this allows the average person to move me out of the way. The same way that during COVID, I wanted to do some video stuff so I went outside, shot some video, and ok, I’m gonna go to the Adobe website, I go on YouTube University. I’m not a video editor, but I took away someone’s job that is a video editor.
Now, if someone comes up with a concept for a movie or television show, I can go into Chat GPT and it writes it for me. This is what the writer’s strike is about.
I think that, for the most part, individual creators will feel pressured to use AI in order to keep up, but they're going to be considering those ethical implications. These major corporations are just looking to cut their bottom line and they're not hampered by those ethical limitations. Do you feel like we're going to be left behind?
Ethics versus the dollar. But, if the person across the street got a gun then I gotta get a gun. It’s that simple.
Even the corporation itself, they have an ethical thing to the shareholders. It’s tough. If I’m in advertising, I’m going to edit the photo because the art of photography is not what I’m selling. I’m selling the product. It’s a tough, tough ethical question.
But I’m scared to not be figuring it out. I don’t want it to be five years from now and I can’t get a job because I didn’t want to touch the stuff.
Does it become a thing of I'm a writer, and I could use this to help me write faster and edit it? Versus, this thing is just completely writing my whole book or my whole article. I guess then we become glorified editors more than actual writers.
I don’t necessarily want to be the computer tech guy, right? But I have to because of my job. I bought the new [Apple] M2 and all the plug-in companies aren’t up to speed. I just want to mix records, I don’t want to be this computer programmer but I have to be. Because if you don’t, you will be that company that’s forcing their accountants to do everything by hand.
Part of me is also worried that by trying to figure it out, I'm feeding into the thing that's going to take my job.
You’re already feeding into it. And that’s another thing we didn’t touch on. If it’s only people who work in the tech world, which is a lot of white, Indian, and Asian men, if it's only that perspective then you'll miss a lot of things in the basic program. Then we hit this point of what we call locking code. So there'll be a point where you've built a system and there's so much stuff on top, that now I can't change this thing on the bottom. That's like saying, right now, we're going to eliminate Windows. You know how much of the business world is built on Windows? It’s too much risk. So now we’re locked into this.
That really highlights the importance, on the cusp of this really becoming integrated into everything, on starting things out right. Because you can’t change them in the future without crashing a bunch of shit. So what should we be doing right now?
As of right now, [copyrighting the voice] is what I see as the main thing. I’m not anti-technology. And for that reason, I would like to see us have the maturity to look at all of where we’ve gone before and the questions that we raised. That’s why I’m raising these questions, because it’s a dangerous space to go into if you go into it blind. We should have the maturity to see and ask these questions, or at least address the questions that we’ve been asking for years and years.
Brandon is a young writer from Illinois. His love of storytelling draws him to hip hop and journalism.
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