Photo credit: David Morrison
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Mark Batson grew up in the Bushwick Houses in Brooklyn, back when New York was sitting at like 1600 murders a year and hip-hop was being conceived. When he and his siblings practiced classical piano, dudes would line up in the hallway to listen.
After studying at Howard he toured, playing with Soul II Soul, alternative rock bands, the BluWave Bandits, and in Kelis’ band — which is how he met Pharrell and was inspired to get serious about making records.
He’s produced and written songs with Dr. Dre, Alicia Keys, Anthony Hamilton, Eminem, India.Arie, the Dave Matthews Band, Teyana Taylor — Mark Batson is not pressed about genre.
Already this year, he’s had work at the top of iTunes’ rap, rock and R&B charts.
You’ll hear in his voice how passionate he is about making music, which is really transferring energy and conjuring emotions.
Get in there.
ALI SHAHEED MUHAMMAD: Man, I don't know where to begin. I'll start –
FRANNIE KELLEY: I know where to begin.
MARK BATSON: Where should I start from?
FRANNIE: Like way way back.
MARK BATSON: Ah, man. I just, you know – I worked with Bob Power early, and sonically I just remember the sounds of your guys' albums and the way the mixes with the bass and every – the way he used the EQs and everything with you guys for the bass. That was the first thing that kind of like turned me on.
ALI: When you say early, how early were you working with Bob? Just to give a point of reference.
MARK BATSON: I'm trying to think. It's before D'Angelo.
ALI: Oh man.
MARK BATSON: I remember when Bob first started working with D'Angelo and was like, "I got this kid, and I just gave him a wah-wah pedal."
ALI: That was like '91, '92.
MARK BATSON: We're talking like then. We're talking like then. He was like, "I just gave this kid a wah-wah pedal and check out" – and he had to play me, you know, like "Brown Sugar" and records like that, so it was a long time ago. I just thought that, for hip-hop-wise, at that time, it was something about his mixes that carried the depth of the bass, and it's interesting kind of three-dimensional mixes that he did. He used these Massenburg EQs –
ALI: Mhmm. GML.
MARK BATSON: – and I think he mastered that on the Low End Theory. I think that is the epitome of that particular sound, and working with you guys. And not just for you know – again, seeing you guys perform as a kid. Y'all probably was very young, then, when I'm first seeing y'all performing at shows. And I had a group that was signed at Polydor called Get Set V.O.P. We opened up for y'all. This is – you probably don't remember this, but it was at one of those kind of convention-y kind of things. You know –
ALI: Like CMJ or New Music Seminar?
MARK BATSON: Something like that. Something like that. And I took some dope pictures with y'all.
MARK BATSON: And I gotta dig them up.
ALI: That's crazy.
MARK BATSON: Yeah. I was just a big fan of – for me, being a jazz pianist first and a rapper – and sonically, I just didn't – I think I was wrapped up in myself then, and I didn't understand sonics or anything about it. When you guys made your records, it kind of defined what it was that I was trying to do that I was not able to do, that I was not capable of doing sonically, that I just didn't understand. Mix-wise, I just didn't understand how to combine jazz and hip-hop seamlessly and not make it – I never liked records like when you hear two different art forms, but the people don't respect the other art form.
MARK BATSON: So when you see people and they be like, "OK, we going to make this record; it's going to be jazz and hip-hop." It will usually be like hip-hop guys will do their part and the jazz guys will do their part, and I don't think it was a lot of respect coming from either side.
And I think you guys' records were the first records that the respect was mutual of the sound, you know, for whether it be – y'all was listening to, whether it be Gil-Scott Heron, I could hear. Anyway, when I hear the samples and the use of it, I just hear the respect, musically, from you guys of both cultures. And that, to me, was the first time. Guru I think was attempting to do it when he made Jazzmatazz, but I still don't hear the respect of both –
FRANNIE: You think Donald Byrd didn't fuck with him really?
MARK BATSON: I don't hear the respect in Jazzmatazz from both people. I don't hear that collaboration respectfully from both people. I just don't hear it. And the first time I hear it is in you guys' records.
ALI: Wow. That's a nice introduction.
MARK BATSON: The birth of hip-hop for me was the rejection of '80s radio. Like W – back in the day, we only had AM radio, and then you had this sort of '80s sound. This is interesting for me now because now that the '80s sound has come back, that we already rejected that, like a long time ago. It was already rejected. We rejected that, and the rejection of that was to take the turntables, go outside, plug them into the lamppost, and to play drum breaks and jazz records, free jazz records that had drum breaks.
ALI: Funk records and all –
MARK BATSON: That was a rejection of that whole – like, "Nah nah nah nah. That's not the music we want to listen to." And so from that came WBAI, and then you had Mr. Magic, the Supreme Team. That radio was kind of born from that, but actually –
MARK BATSON: This was way before Chuck D. This is the world famous Supreme Team Show.
ALI: Oh, Supreme Team. Oh, you talking like '81.
MARK BATSON: I just got a preview early of the tape era of hip-hop. Cold Crush Brothers. Romantic Fantastic 5. I grew up with that. A whole different sonic scene. When I grew up, where I lived in the projects, before –
ALI: Where you grow up?
MARK BATSON: In Bushwick Projects in Brooklyn. Bushwick?
ALI: No. I'm just trying not to whistle on microphone, but I'm like –
MARK BATSON: This was back in the day when New York had like 1600 murders a year.
ALI: I was like, "Oh." Yeah. I'm like –
MARK BATSON: New York is down to like 300 murders. We had 1600 murders in a year. This was a different time with gangs – you know, the gangs – you had The Dirty Ones. You had the Tomahawks. You had the – my uncle was the warlord of the Jolly Stompers in Brooklyn.
MARK BATSON: So I grew up with that kind of environment, so where we lived in the projects, where I lived, on Saturdays, drummers from all different neighborhoods used to come and set up their drums and play in a circle. And they had drum circles in the projects. So you had Latin drummers playing with African drummers with Jamaican dudes. Every culture would come and set up their drums. And that went to eventually, hip-hop was born from that. That sound of those drummers was replaced by drum breaks or records electronically.
So that evolution of sound, I kind of saw it out of my window. The birth of hip-hop being this drum, a way of us to come together and have a drum connection, like on some African Congo Square-kind of thing, like in New Orleans where all the people who – kidnapped Africans would come and they were allowed to play drums together. That kind of still permeated our culture, and that was the birth of hip-hop. And then at one point, then the DJs plugged in and then they mostly just played the drum breaks.
ALI: So you're in the center of this at the age of 12 –
MARK BATSON: Thirteen. Yeah. Twelve, 13.
ALI: Twelve, 13. What does that do? At the birth of a genre and the birth of culture really just unfolding, what does that do? You're in the middle of it. How did that become a fabric of your life?
MARK BATSON: It's always a great inspiration, because it's not "what" for me for music a lot of times, it's why. And so when I make records or I make records with people, it's never been like, "You know what? We need to go get this money. We need to get this cash. Let's make something just for – let's make" – it's always been about that feeling and that vibe and re-creating whatever that energy was. That's what music means to me, more than just a business. And that's, I think, the thread that weaves together the records I've done, is that it's all based on just pure emotion and feel, which is what I experienced seeing the music – seeing hip-hop being born.
I remember I saw – I'm very very young, and my brother and sister were older. They had Summer Youth jobs in Harlem. So then when they used to get their checks, people used to come and hand out those flyers on line for the block parties and where the block parties and everything would be at. And then I remember seeing Jazzy Jay in the park mixing.
MARK BATSON: And then he would use a lot of times the drum break from – for his intro was – what's that? "Apache."
FRANNIE: Oh yeah.
MARK BATSON: So I remember distinctly hearing the sound, and it's – Jazzy Jay was on the turntables. And somebody was like, "Jazzy Jay is number one." Then they played the beat. "Every other DJ is your son. Bambaataa, what do you say, when you down with the man called Jazzy Jay?" So Bambaataa was like the other dude.
So to think about it like the head of the Zulu Nation was the other guy compared to the Imperial Master Jazzy Jay. Like, that thing. And the feeling of those drums late at night with the great DJs and the big sound systems and all that, I think from that I just get the vibe of why I make music. It's to recreate some of those feelings. And that's what it was when I went to work with Dre.
I remember one time I was with Dre, and they had another keyboard player who came to work. So somebody had said to the guy, said, "When you play keyboards, what do you see?" And he said, "I see like fields with people and fields of grass and clouds and blue visions." And somebody said, "What do you see?" And I said, "I see motherfuckers under the train on Marcy Avenue when it's late." That feeling when it's late, you know what I'm saying? You walking back from Skate City or wherever, and that feeling of like that kind of tension, that edge, that's what I feel and that's what – when I connected with Dre musically, that's why we connected so well. Because that's – his beat making comes from that same vibe, that same vision.
When I was really young, in my projects, I had piano lessons, from very very young. My father, he was an opera singer during the '70s, which you can't get a lot of work at that in the '70s, so he worked at the post office by day. And then I saw my father in community opera, you know, going to these operas and all that, going to the place called the Henry Street Settlement House. They had it in Manhattan. And so me myself and my brother and sisters, we had to practice piano, an hour a day.
MARK BATSON: In the projects. So while I would practice, as I got older – and kids from my neighborhood, they knew we was up there practicing. All of the like, I mean, serious – this was a different time of thuggishness in New York. This is like not before "everybody had a gun" time. This was still in the "007 knife fight" – you know what I'm saying? This was that era. And a lot of dudes would come up to my floor to smoke weed and listen to us play classical piano.
MARK BATSON: And practice. And so like if I – when I went to dump the garbage or whatever, it'd be like dudes standing in the hall –
ALI: Was that just – well, you lived there so you probably were accustomed to it, but just what does that feel like at a young age? You come outside and you see that.
MARK BATSON: I think that's when I knew of the universal aspect of music, that people who grew up in the projects could understand Beethoven and Brahms, just like – can appreciate music if presented in a way, that that was universal, to me. That if there was a jazz concert going on in my house, people would've came and listened to that.
It was just music. And it wasn't like, "Well, only this type of people like this type of music. Only this type of people like this type of music." It was just music across the board, and it's a universal language that anybody can relate to if presented to them in a way that they can understand.
FRANNIE: So how did you get from New York to L.A. then?
MARK BATSON: I was in New York. I was making records. I had a couple hit records. For a long time, I toured, and I toured with bands. And I –
FRANNIE: Like who?
MARK BATSON: I played with Caron Wheeler for Soul II Soul. So I played Soul II Soul songs. I played in a lot of alternative rock bands. The best band I ever played in was a band called The Blue Wave Bandits with a guy called Jean-Paul Bourelly. It's something special. He was like special special guitarist. And it's interesting cause his daughter, Bibi Bourelly –
FRANNIE: Oh shut up.
MARK BATSON: – wrote "Bitch Better Have My Money."
FRANNIE: That's funny. She wrote like three songs on that Rihanna album.
MARK BATSON: So his daughter came to my house the other day. I was like, "Your father was a great inspiration to me." He was like a Hendrix-level type guitarist. And I played a lot of different alternative jazz, where my first record that I ever made was a piano trio with myself, my brother, and a pianist named Geri Allen. We got –
FRANNIE: The Geri Allen?
MARK BATSON: The Geri Allen, the pianist. We played a piano trio. We got hired by the Jimi Hendrix estate to play Jimi Hendrix songs in a triad.
MARK BATSON: On piano. So that was my first album that I ever made. But I was touring more, and then I met Pharrell, when I was touring. I was doing Kelis's tour. And I was just inspired by Pharrell to make records.
Cause Pharrell was this – there was nobody like him. And Pharrell, at that time – and Pharrell is one of the people, he's timeless, because he captures the music from a youthful perspective. He could be 10, 12. He could find that zone. He could write that record and feel the – sometime I don't see that when I'm making records. He could write that record that 13-year-olds are like, "Whoa." 10-year-olds are like, "Wow." Like "Happy." That's like – who could write that? Who could write and produce a record like that except for Pharrell. At any age, he's just timeless.
And I remember I used to hang with him, and I was like, "You know what? Let me start making more records." Cause I used to see him and Rob Walker, they was buying like $50,000 watches on tour, you know? So I was like, "You know what? Maybe let me start making some more records. Maybe it could be a better business. And let me just dip my creativity into that. Let me let my creativity lead in that way. Maybe it'll be a better business." And then I met India Arie, right at that time.
FRANNIE: So now we're talking mid-'90s?
MARK BATSON: That's 2000.
MARK BATSON: Late '90s. I made some records, but I was never serious about it. I was more serious about playing music, going and performing and just playing music. And I just got tired of like the road, banging around on the road and not being the – it's easy to bang around on the road when you're the headliner, you know? When you in the – you know what I'm saying?
MARK BATSON: You got your bus. You have your own bus or whatever those things are.
ALI: Your own bus, your own room.
MARK BATSON: Right. Exactly. You got your room. But I was really banging around on the road, and it was a better living.
And I met India around that time.
MARK BATSON: When she was making that decision that she wanted to seriously – and we just found some kind of zone creatively that I felt like I didn't have to sacrifice anything about myself and how I felt emotionally about music. That that was the first project that I got to – that I could pour myself into and not feel like I was sacrificing anything of myself and still do great.
And after that I did – I did Seal's record. I did a – we got nominated for Album Of The Year on the first record I was really seriously did. And then we start – I worked with Seal after that. And I was here, going back and forth. And then Che Pope, who I knew since he was the president of Warner Brothers, he was working with Dre, and then he said, "Yo, come up and meet Dre." And then I sat with Dre, and Dre was like, "Don't leave." And then that was that.
FRANNIE: Dre's always making people relocate.
MARK BATSON: He was like, "Don't leave." And I was like, "Alright." And then that was that. And I worked with Dre for ten years after that.
FRANNIE: I was going to tell a story about how you tune your speakers to –
MARK BATSON: "Xxplosive."
FRANNIE: It's "Xxplosive," right?
ALI: And "Get You Some" when I'm in the club, man.
MARK BATSON: Yo, that record. I like that one too -
ALI: Yo, I don't know what you were thinking about, but the frequencies – when you talk about speaking with Bob and just admiring, I'm like –
MARK BATSON: That is those three parts.
ALI: Those –
MARK BATSON: The day that we made that, it was the culmination of a long trip of making beats. We was making beats for Jay-Z's album. We was doing a lot of stuff. And then we had – we went out. We did a lot.
You know, when we worked with Dre in Hawaii, it was crazy, man. Dre would put us – we had – it's this place called Kahala, which is in Diamond Head. It's a beautiful hotel. Private beach, all that. We had the top suites on the floor. He would get us all laced out, and then we had parties up there all the time. We was acting pretty wild. Me and Che and a couple friends.
And I remember that day we came in and I was hanging with all these kind of like Indonesian chicks that lived there, beautiful girls, and it was on that vibe. And I came in the studio and said – and then Che was like, "Play me something." They had the beat was coming up, and then Che was like, "Yo, play how you feeling about that vibe we was in last night." And then I played the (sings piano part).
ALI: So it was just a fun night in Hawaii? That's what that was?
MARK BATSON: That's what that was.
ALI: That's what you were thinking about?
MARK BATSON: That was the vibe.
ALI: Cause I listen to that song, I just go – I go somewhere, and I'm just like, "What the?"
MARK BATSON: That thing is that – and it's like – it's that Dre mix. Dre, he know how to put – he knows how to put a lot of stuff – like frequency-wise, it's huge for the vocal to be heard. You would think theoretically if the kick drum was that big, the vocal would be hidden there. The way he balanced the sound, the genius level of his mixing, that's why I wrote an article about him.
When I went to see Straight Outta Compton – then after the Straight Outta Compton was over, then they had a lot of press that was like, "OK. The real story from Straight Outta Compton that was missed, not in Straight Outta Compton, was these – Dre did this thing bad in his life and that thing bad in his life." And then I wrote this article for HipHopDX, and I was like, "This is the thing missing from Straight Outta Compton."
And the thing missing from Straight Outta Compton that you don't see, is you never really get to see the level of genius, technically, that he is sonically in mixing. So you might see him cutting a little vocal, or he had a little keyboard line that people caught on to. But if you really saw the strenuous activity of the diligence of him creating that sound or obsessively getting the kicks, snare, and bass to sound like that with the vocal, that nobody else could touch that sound. That thing that he does, mix-wise.
And the reason why is because he's the mixer, and most people who make their records have mixers. Most producers go and they get Manny Marroquin and – there's a list of ten names. Once you finish a record you go to him. But he mixes that himself. He's on the console doing all the engineering, matching frequencies, getting the bass to sound – he's actually doing the technical part of it, which is I think what separates him from the average producer.
Sometimes like – I can't mix records sonically. Technically, I just don't – I rather just go and give it – "Hey, Phil Tan, just make this sound good." Hey, I'll come down. I'll say, "Maybe the bass should be like this, and this should be like this, and this should be like this." But overall, to be on the console mixing it, that's a whole 'nother level.
ALI: Yeah, it's something that I've been doing a lot, like just focus on – and it is a lot of work, and it's a lot of dedication. It's a lot of listening in. And it's a challenge to – I mean, not to really geek out to the people who are listening, but just to tackle the frequencies of hip-hop –
MARK BATSON: Yeah.
ALI: – the amount of low-end that comes through the bass. And you have several bass challenges from the bass guitar to maybe the bass synth, bass notes in the low-end frequencies from your keyboard, and then the kick drum, and then just a basic acoustic kick drum that has a low-end frequency and then if you add an electronic kick drum like the 808, which is really a foundation of hip-hop, those are a lot of things. And it's like being in a laboratory, no different than a scientist who's just trying to figure it out.
MARK BATSON: It's math. At that point, it's math and science.
ALI: Yeah. And then, as you're saying, to make it so that the vocals have a place. It's not an easy thing to do. And especially if you're also the producer and a writer and – it's just carrying and wearing all these hats. Yeah, so, Dre's drums have always just fascinated me, and – but that "Get You Some?"
MARK BATSON: Cheers. That's my favorite. I sat with Alicia one day; she was like, "What's your favorite joint that you ever?" And I – that.
ALI: The snare has a snap on it that like – I don't know if it's like a reverb. It's like a short – just like everything, it just speaks very well. It translates well on that. And then of course, you know Bus, and Tip and Marsha add to the situation.
MARK BATSON: Bus, Tip. Marsha added to it. Oooh!
ALI: Can you go into – you spoke about working with different people in different genres. So you have Seal. You have India Arie. You have a Busta and a Dre. Do you see any challenges in going across genres like that?
MARK BATSON: First, my piano training does help me. What I listen to all my life and listening to a wide variety of music, my piano training helps me to adapt to a lot of different environments. But at the end of the day, it's that thing I was telling you about: seeing young, you know, 14- and 19-year-olds in my hallway listening to classical music, seeing guys with durags, gold teeth, strapped, listening to Beethoven and Brahms. And I'm coming out the house and they like, "Yo!"
That ideal to me is applicable to music in general. So I think that music is a universal language, and I think it is the same language in some respects if you can find your place in it. And I kind of hear them like the same thing. I do it different. It could sound – like if I make a record with Seal, it's going to sound totally different than a record with Jay-Z. But it is kind of the same thing. If you respect all of it, if you respect what the other person does culturally, if you respect the culture, it becomes just music.
ALI: How important do you think it is to be able to play an instrument? Cause I'm sure the experience of working with India is different.
MARK BATSON: I think playing an instrument is evolving. The idea of it. I think for me it's great. Because, you know, I sit down; I play chords. I sit at the piano and write songs with India. Or she might have an idea, like "Strength, Courage & Wisdom." Which is one of my favorite India Arie songs. So she's playing the song on guitar, and then I just play all those keyboards, the bass sounds and all that, to make it into this kind of Stevie Wonder-ish thing that it is.
And so I think being a pianist first and musician is a blessing to be able to adapt. It helps me be able to adapt. But I think in the future the idea of musicianship is evolving, where you going to find great musicians in the future who never played an instrument before, who just know how to put together sounds and make some great –
MARK BATSON: – right – who make great musical presentations. And it's going to come to a point, probably in the near future, where you'll be able to sit in the room and put your melodies down, hum a couple of melodies, tell the computer how you want to orchestrate it, and if that's the case, then you got your Ali Shaheed symphony for 80 pieces. You'll be able to write that without having to touch any notes. That point is coming now.
ALI: Yeah, I was just about to say we're pretty much – I do some of that sometimes when I'm feeling lazy, or I feel like I can't for some reason get my fingers to play these things. So I'll sing it into Logic and then just turn it into a Midi notes. And then I'm like, "Ah, there we go. Now I have a point of reference of just something that seemed complex and it's not that complex."
MARK BATSON: When I first saw Ableton, I was blown away.
MARK BATSON: When somebody came and they played – they had the Ableton, and they did the drums, and then they did the bass, and the computer just read all that and they matched the sounds back up and they created just – I think that musicianship, like education and making records on a whole, recordings, is not as elitist as it used to be. Cause I came up in a time when it was elitist. Same with you. Where you had to have the two-inch tape, you know what I mean?
MARK BATSON: It used to be $250 a tape, which had three songs on it. So if you was going to make a record, you needed somebody to back you for the studio time, the tape machines. Just that alone was elitist.
Where I'm hearing kids now that have Ableton coming with these house recordings, these things that they did in their mother's basement just sitting around in the headset, that sonically, musically, and all that are extremely fantastic. Fantastic music. Like one kid in the room singing by his self and layering the sounds and doing everything. That it is possible now for one person to be able to do – make incredible kinds of music.
FRANNIE: Do everything except mix.
MARK BATSON: No. They can mix. I've heard mixes, out-of-laptop mixes, that sound great, that sound fantastic, that sound, like, better than – it's evolving.
Again, for – when I came up with Dre or in the case of the mixers that work with you guys or Bob Powers or any of the mixers, they had to have a room, a SSL console or some facsimile thereof, the speakers. You had to spend like $1200 a day to get your4 Tony Maserati or whatever. Everything was very expensive. You could have now somebody studying – recalling their mix, studying their mix, developing their mix in their house for three weeks without spending any money.
So it's really the time is making it less elitist because I could work on a record now, and it could be six months later and I could pop the record back just where it was at that point, start working on fine-tuning it and all that. And if you're in the business of studying frequencies you will find very soon some masters coming from that, who're going to start delivering you records that they did, you know, sitting in the restaurant that will blow your mind.
ALI: Who have you worked with – I'm going to have to put the disclaimer: besides Dr. Dre – that has given you the greatest challenge in terms of working, but also inspired you the most?
MARK BATSON: I think each artist comes with their own set of challenges. I've had challenges making records with every situation. Every record has its set of challenges. There's been some variable.
ALI: Like for an example?
MARK BATSON: Without putting nobody on blast.
ALI: Nah. Without putting anyone on blast. Of course. Of course. We don't want to do that.
MARK BATSON: Sensitivities. I think India Arie is a very sensitive person.
MARK BATSON: So you have to wait for her. Sometimes – sometimes, when I'm writing songs, I'm like, "Let's go get it! Let's go get it!" We come in the studio. "Alright. Get the kick drum. Let's go." That's not what's going to happen with her. You have to be patient. You have to wait. For her, it was –
When we made our first album, it was a lot of candles. It was a lot of prayer. At that time, my church was Electric Lady. That room was like a church to me. It had a lot of spirituality. And I got lucky in that room. I think spiritually I had to really calm down to make India Arie's record. I think that is the challenge of not just going in and knocking out a song every single day. But it's always well worth it.
ALI: Cause it sounds like what you're talking about is in it more just not being an exercise, but that then just having more of a human bonding chemistry sort of a thing.
MARK BATSON: All of the records that – when you find – if you get to that thing, I think that's what happens. That's what makes it something special, when you bypass the superficial part of it and you get to the why of it and not just the what. Like, "Oh, we need to write some hits." It's just, I don't think like that. I don't think like, "We gon' go in. I'ma get – I'ma do this beat. We gon' get top-line writer so-and-so, and we just going to write the song. And then we gon' present it to so-and-so." I don't even think like that.
When I think about making music, I think about sitting with the artist, finding out what their zone is, where they are, what do they want to say in their lives at that particular time. What's going on in their lives at that particular time. So there's a therapy that's linked to every probably record that I've ever made. There's a therapeutic process that's linked to that.
Each time it's a growth. I remember we had – it was Eminem. And Eminem had, you know, had some rough experiences where he had overdosed. He was coming back from that. And I remember I was with Che, and we came to the studio and he was like, "Every time I used to write songs I was high off this or that or this or that. And creatively I don't really know where to find that zone." And then Che was like, "Well, you know what, man? I just had a beer with breakfast, so I can't help you with that." He said, "I can't help you with it. I just had a beer with my breakfast, man."
ALI: That's real honest.
MARK BATSON: "So I can't even help you with it."
So we sat with him, and we sat with him. And I think he had a breakthrough. Creatively, he had a breakthrough at some point. And it was a therapeutic process, that we sat with him for a long time until he just had a breakthrough. And then I think from that breakthrough, he wrote that song "I'm Not Afraid." And I think that was the end of that trying to find creatively where he would be without taking pills and doing whatever the stuff that he used to do.
FRANNIE: Cause you've worked with a lot of really prominent people.
MARK BATSON: Yes.
FRANNIE: And both before and after they've hit, like, stratospheric heights of fame and whatever. What is it like watching somebody go through that?
MARK BATSON: I love to see success. I love to see when my friends become successful. Or I love to see – my favorite thing ever to see is to go to a concert and then to hear the audience singing all the words.
MARK BATSON: Or like when you – and I know when you talking when you DJ and then you drop –
MARK BATSON: – and everybody says – and you like – but when you think about it when the song – when you made it –
MARK BATSON: – you vibed with it. And you vibe with it. But all of sudden you on stage and you doing the drop and everybody knows the words. That's my favorite thing to see, is to follow a record, recording, from a room somewhere and then now standing in front of thousands of people and watch them emotionally connect in that kind of way to it.
FRANNIE: Do you feel like ownership of that or a witness of that or –
MARK BATSON: I feel like, whatever I felt, that now I get to share those feelings with everybody else. Whatever emotional thing that happened that made that come out at that particular time, now I get to share that with a lot of people.
FRANNIE: Cause so much of what happens in the studio never comes out.
MARK BATSON: A lot of records don't come out. A lot of records will never been seen or heard. And that's another thing that's come with the luxury of time. I'm constantly seeing people now, and it's like, I say, "How many records you cut for your album?" And they like, "160." 160? I'm thinking like, again, when I made records. Started making records. Think about the tape of 160 records, you know what I mean? You got three takes, four takes. 160 songs would be some odd 300 two-inch tapes.
ALI: That's someone's entire career.
MARK BATSON: Yeah.
ALI: Like, Pink Floyd or something like that.
MARK BATSON: But I hear it now. I hear people saying, "I cut 100 songs. I cut 120 songs. 150 songs." And I'm like, "Wow. That's a lot of songs." And sometimes when I hear these albums they have been cutting that many songs for, I listen to the album and I don't hear more than somebody went in the room and cut 13 songs and bounced.
FRANNIE: Yeah, I don't get that.
MARK BATSON: And just put their heart out on the line. Like a Janis Joplin record is like, "OK, we got seven songs, and we gon' have to put that out cause that's what we got." You know, Jimi Hendrix records were – you got seven, eight songs on that, and it sounds – and you vibe with it, and you had an experience.
I think with digital technology. It sometimes makes people over-record, and then lose the bare, brutal emotion that people really connect to. I think that's a big problem with albums right now, is that the album sound like a lot of songs were recorded in search of hits.
ALI: What do you do to inspire the people you working with to get to that place?
MARK BATSON: Everybody, it's a different inspiration. Like I remember once when Grace Potter – I had Grace Potter, and she was doing "Paris." She had a song called "Tiny Light." And then the guitar solo, they needed to really jam this guitar solo at the end, and I needed it to feel a certain way.
So I knew this girl who – she was a bellydancer that used to dance with a big python. So the band was in the room, and I had the band just chilling in the room. And then the girl came in. She had a box next to her. And then she started dancing to her thing. "A bellydancer, a snake charmer." And then she took a big snake out the box and started dancing with it. Everybody in the room was like, "Oh!"
Kerry was there too. You should ask Kay. He was there. Kay was there.
This big snake came out. Everybody in the room was like, "What the?" And the girl was real sexy and everything. It was – it took it to a rock star level. It's like, "Yo, you really on something right now." And then they went back in and cut that, and they made a video of them performing and they have the guitarist – everything just worked. And that, the inspiration to say, "I want something edgy right now. I can't explain what edgy is at this point. Let me show you something real edgy right now, and then let's see what happens after that."
So different times it's been different things. I think with Anthony Hamilton, he's like a old friend drinking buddy. So we're just sitting around and we talk and talk shit and everything, and then it turns into what that thing is. But I think everybody else – everyone has a different source of inspiration, whether it be – some people it's prayer. Some people it's dancing. Some people it's a certain kind of food that they need to eat.
I remember when I recorded with, the first time, with Jessica Simpson.
FRANNIE: Her shoe line is definitely the most important thing about Jessica Simpson.
MARK BATSON: They get money off of that. She was like, "I can't sing until I have a chicken-fried steak." I was like, "A chicken-fried steak?"
MARK BATSON: What is a chicken-fried steak? I didn't even know what that was. She was like, "I need a chicken-fried steak." So we ordered her a chicken-fried steak, and then she sang the vocal.
MARK BATSON: Everybody is different. Everybody – and I just try to find whatever that lane is that they're in, and rock with them.
FRANNIE: So you didn't really answer my question about what it's like to be next to somebody who goes through this arc of being regular, like, able to walk down the street, and then just not.
MARK BATSON: Fame is a tricky thing. Some people manage it really well, and other people think it's the worst thing that ever happened to them.
MARK BATSON: So it's really again down to the individual. Some people can handle it. Some people, it's fun for them. Other people, it's not really as fun. I don't think it's as fun for Eminem. I just don't think he could really go anywhere without being mobbed. Anywhere. Without being mobbed. With Dre it's like, "Yeah, let's go the club." Some people can handle it in a good way. Other people are overwhelmed by it. Fame, it seems like it's something that everybody wants, but once people have it, maybe everybody doesn't want it as much.
I went out with Alicia Keys to a club in New York, I think last summer or something. So Swizz was DJing and then Alicia came in, and then it seemed like 200 phones came out at the same time. And I'm saying like people had them phones, like, close. Everybody's a reporter now. Everybody's a reporter. They want to capture the moment, and they want to capture it in video and record it. And it could be a little overwhelming.
People like Alicia can handle fame. Like, she was just built for it, built for it like with the people, going to – she got a hospital in Africa. She's literally with the people. She's just one of those people that's very sociable, will go to the movies. "Yeah, let's go the movies. What's up? Let's go to this show. Let's go to Carnegie Hall tonight. Let's go. Herbie Hancock's playing. Let's go."
Other people are like, "I'm not going outside right now. It's too intense. I don't want anybody to talk to – I just need my quiet time. I don't want anybody to talk to me. Don't take any pictures of me. I don't want any pictures taken." I think maybe Kanye, he don't – he doesn't care for reporters and people taking pictures of him, because he feels like they want to capture him in a bad light. Because – or to try to tamper with his ego, which is what he's constantly – what people think is him being egotistical is just literally his affirmations.
MARK BATSON: Like Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali hypnotized himself to be able to fight like that. That's self-hypnosis. So when Kanye's like, "I'm the best. I'm the best at this." He's hypnotizing himself and affirming that he can achieve these things, which when you look at how he grew up or where he grew up at in Chicago, what are his friends doing? What are the people he grew up doing?
You know, I just read this article that was like – it made it me bristle that they said that 47% of black males between the age of 20 and 24 are not working at a job and not in school. So if you're not working and you're not in school, what are you doing? And it's 47%? I don't know if that number is accurate, but it was some kind of report that was put out into news. And I'm thinking, "47%? Half of the people in your city between 20-25 guys, males, are just doing what? Wandering the streets? Selling drugs? Or what are you doing?" Like, I don't know.
So for him to be from an environment like that, his self-affirmations have to be strong. For a long time, I think, as black men, we have been bombarded with negative imagery. So we grew up with positively affirming ourselves with African history, Egyptian history, with writers like George James and Dr. Yosef Ben-Jochannan and Dr. John Henrik Clarke and Frances Cress Welsing. They re-iterated or confirmed a pride in us. Which is the same for what the 5% Nation did, which is you see all these rappers that really made the game what it is, that all were a part of an organization that said, "I am God."
ALI: So how do you then personally deal with the fame of producing and writing for so many people? How do you deal with that?
MARK BATSON: I feel like I'm more behind the scenes. I could use more fame, you know what I mean? It's good for me. Fame is good. It gets you good dinners. You go in people's house; they give you the best wine. Break out the bottle on you.
Now for you, you a face, so you got to – when you go outside people like, "There he go right there!"
ALI: It's not that serious. It really isn't.
MARK BATSON: Or do you get the, "I know you from somewhere."
ALI: Yeah. A lot of people think they went to school – we went to the same school.
MARK BATSON: "Did you go to school with me? Don't you know my sister?"
ALI: "Yo, what high school you went to?" I'm like, "Nah, I didn't go there." They're like, "C'mon. Stop playing." I'm like –
MARK BATSON: How long do you let it ride that out, before you're –
ALI: It just depends on my mood in the moment. It's like, I think the older I get I just cut to the chase like, "Hey, you seen me here," and they're like, "Oh." But before I used to – because I'm just modest about it, and I'm just like – and plus I don't want to just be like, "Yeah, you saw me maybe." So, yeah. It's different.
But New York, growing up in New York, people see celebrities all the time. It's no big deal. And being out in – in Los Angeles, it's a little bit different, you know, but I just stay grounded, man. I'm same thing, behind the scenes, low-key person, and I enjoy my life that way.
MARK BATSON: In L.A., I have found that it's easier to dip into the cut of your zone and get with your peoples and get –
MARK BATSON: I worked a lot with Alicia over the last year and a half, with Alicia Keys. And so I had apartments in New York. And I remember when they first said, "We going to get you an apartment on 42nd and 11th." But when they first said it, I was like, "42nd and 11th?" But then we went down there, and it was like these Silver Suite Towers. Have you seen that thing?
MARK BATSON: It was beautiful, like courtyard off – it was beautiful. Brand new buildings. Beautiful. All that. But what I did like about it, which I miss from New York, is just walking outside in this – if I walk outside of my area now, it's just coyotes out there, you know what I'm saying? Man, I don't want to go – even when I walk outside by myself, I ain't running around. They might try to shoot me for that.
ALI: With the head up. Yeah, I feel you.
MARK BATSON: They think I'm a bear or something and try to blast me. So I just don't even go outside like over there. But I'm going to get a place. We're trying to figure it out from a company, get me a little place somewhere where I could still be around people and then still come back to my house and do my little things and work up there.
FRANNIE: I guess to be clear, to clarify, when I ask about fame – or when I ask about people who are just big in some way, I guess I'm kind of talking about being around exceptional people, and again, this is complicated because both of you are exceptional people as well. But like, people are not all the same. People don't all have the same amount of potential. I wonder about navigating that, and watching other people navigate that.
MARK BATSON: There are people that you will see – I think you get into this kind of zone. I think I started with it younger as a fan of Carlos Castenada. And you look at people, and you look at them with a different kind of vision. It's like, you kind of looking at people, and everybody is this spiritual, luminous, egg kind of light.
FRANNIE: OK. Yeah.
MARK BATSON: And you could see certain people that light is shining and glowing. Other people, it's pretty dull. And some people, it's just like bright to – like, "Oh. What is that?" And you see people that's that spiritual – and there are some people who have this fantastic light. I remember when I first heard India Arie sing. When she opened up her mouth, I had goosebumps on my back, sitting at the console. Her voice is some kind of magical, oakwood, ebony, mahogany, thousand-year-old roots in the ground, some other thing coming out. It's just beautiful. And I was like, "That's something special."
So some people just have that special thing. But I think everybody has the potential for that. It's just: is that light encouraged? Or is that person strong enough to affirm and make theirs brighter? I think everybody has the potential to be great at something. Everybody has the potential.
MARK BATSON: It's, do they have whatever that next thing is to fight through everything that tries to – it's so many things coming at people to make them dull or distractions. Can they fight through that? But there are really special people. And I'm blessed to work with people that – like old souls or some spiritual kind of – like Seal is like that. And when I think about him, I think of those Olmec heads. You know what I mean? Those –
FRANNIE: Mhmm. Yeah yeah.
MARK BATSON: I think of him like that. Like some kind of spiritual, gargantuan thing. He looks different from anybody else that I've ever seen before. And his spirit is that huge. I've seen him going through dark times where that was challenged. And then I will sit with him and pray with him during those times. And the culmination of those prayers is that – songs like "Love's Divine," which is a huge song that we had, that kind of restarted his career when he had went through a challenging time.
But he has a gargantuan, giant spiritual energy that comes from certain people, and I feel like it's my job as an artist or a teacher – I mean, I have a – I come from a family of teachers. My mom worked in the school. My sister has her Master's degree in math and teaches math, and my brother was a teacher. My sister's been a teacher for 25 years. And I feel like in some respects I am a teacher in some way of sitting with artists and trying to find – help them find their greatest part of themselves and to not be afraid to let that – to show that, and let people see that and what's happened – let people experience that. Cause it can be scary to expose yourself.
FRANNIE: Yeah. I just wanted to go back a little bit on Anthony. If you could tell a little bit of how – what was happening when you first started working with him and how that – it was all sort of a surprise.
MARK BATSON: Yeah. Anthony – when I first started working with him, Anthony had a deal with Atlantic or something, and things didn't work with – really not working out.
FRANNIE: So he had come up to New York.
MARK BATSON: He was in New York.
FRANNIE: In like – I'ma get this wrong. I have no idea what year.
ALI: Ninety-seven? Ninety-eight?
FRANNIE: I feel like it was even earlier. Like it was '95, '96.
MARK BATSON: I can't remember. I think it's in there.
FRANNIE: And it was a – I thought it was a Bad Boy deal.
MARK BATSON: It was after Bad Boy that I saw him. It was more Atlantic. He had that song with the Nappy Roots that was out. And –
FRANNIE: OK. So he had written – he was writing with Puffy, basically.
MARK BATSON: Yes.
FRANNIE: And then that fell apart.
MARK BATSON: That fell apart, and then he had a deal at Atlantic. And they had songs – you know, sometimes the record companies will sign artists, but they don't understand them. So when they do what they do, they'll say, "I don't understand that." So Anthony was in the middle of like nowhere with that, and so we used to just hang out and write songs. There was no deal or nothing like that.
FRANNIE: And then he goes on tour with D'Angelo?
MARK BATSON: I think so.
ALI: Yeah, it was like '98 – I mean, '99, 2000?
MARK BATSON: Man, Anthony on the Voodoo tour was –
FRANNIE: So he's like starting to brew, and then he meets Mark. And he's like, "Oh, I think we've got something here." But he's like, "But I can't not" –
MARK BATSON: He did the tour with D'Angelo, and then Jermaine. He went to sing at a place. He had nothing going on. He went to sing at some function, and he sung "Comin' From Where I'm From." And Michael and all them pulled him to the side like, "Yo, what's up?" And the rest is history.
So then Michael and all of them went to Atlantic, and I don't know what arrangements they made for him to get out of – to go from Atlantic to be on So So Def or whatever that was. And then they – at that point, they already had these songs that we recorded, which was the real him. But the record company before, they didn't – you know, they didn't understand what to do with the real him. They wanted something else.
And the real him just worked. "Comin' From Where I'm From," it popped off so ill that, before the record was even played on the radio, 50 Cent had made his own version of the song. And I remember being in New York and on Hot 97 50 Cent was saying, "Coming from where I'm from." Whenever he goes out, people just start screaming sometimes "Charlene" in the middle of his show. And then Anthony says, "My name is not Charlene," and then everybody starts to laugh.
FRANNIE: And then you and I met when he was in studio in Nashville.
MARK BATSON: We went to cut a lot in Nashville, cause – they put me and Anthony in Nashville because me and Anthony can't record in L.A. or New York. We don't get too much done. We just have fun. And when – they was like, "Y'all need to go some place neutral." So we went down to Nashville –
FRANNIE: You went to the bachelor party capital of America.
MARK BATSON: We went there. But it was great, though, because we hooked up there; I recorded some records with him with Vince Gill. I'm a big, huge fan of Vince Gill. And I went to – got to go to Vince Gill's house and play – he played guitar and songs and kind of hung out, which I think was fantastic. It's another guy named Big Al Anderson, who's like a legendary Nashville songwriter and guitarist. And he would come to the studio.
The education that I got when I was there was invaluable, with great musicians teaching me other things about other great musicians. Big Al would come and just start playing me songs and different artists.
MARK BATSON: And it was a lot of inspiration. He's a great great musician.
FRANNIE: Yeah. Are you in the studio all the time?
MARK BATSON: Not all the time. Not all the time. I live in the studio, so.
MARK BATSON: I mean, I live – I have two studios where I live at, but I don't record all the time. But I go through periods where I'm recording every day. And sometimes the stuff'll work, and sometimes it's just – I'll be working on records, and then some days I'm just creating songs, with no particular focus in mind. Just, "Let me go create some things."
And I have a friend who has a water company, Alpina Water, and so I talked to him. I said, "Listen. I want to do an album for your water company, just some spiritual dance kind of thing." So sometime, in my free time, I just go start working on the songs for that.
Or I have another character that I have. It's called the Rooster Incorporated, which is like this puppet character that I use for fun and do fun stuff with. And it's like some TV guys who want to help me develop that into something. And so I'll go and start making some hip-hops songs for that.
I just like to create and make beautiful things, and hopefully they turn into – some of them turn into things that people hear and people really enjoy.
FRANNIE: That's amazing.
MARK BATSON: Yup.
FRANNIE: Thank you for taking all this time.
MARK BATSON: That was good! I had fun. That was good.
MARK BATSON: Talking that shit.
ALI: This is great, man. Thank you.
FRANNIE: Yeah. Thank you.
MARK BATSON: Thank you. Thank you so much.