Tony Dofat is a world-renowned, Grammy-nominated producer, global DJ, audio engineer, music professor and author of four books about the business of music. He was one of the original hitmen, from the legendary squad of producers inside Bad Boy Records, working alongside Sean “Diddy” Combs and artists like Mary J. Blige.
Also known as the godfather of the remix, Tony is best known for his work on Mary’s “You Remind Me” and the insanely popular rework of that track. He was also nominated for a Grammy for his work with his longtime friend and collaborator Heavy D, on his reggae album, Vibes. He’s also worked with a range of artists including Will Smith, Tina Turner and the Notorious BIG. We caught up with Tony to learn the art of the game and the difference between making music back-in-the-day and now.
This is an edited version of the interview, for the full interview, listen to our podcast below.
Melodics Magazine: So how do you compare your background of learning to read and write music with today’s producers who are just laying everything down on computers?
Tony Dofat: Reading and writing music is definitely helpful because it helps you understand and speak the language and speak to fellow musicians or someone else who’s musically inclined. It’s great to have the terminology and understand how to count measures and what an E or A scale is.
Now I’m teaching students the essentials and why it’s important to learn and understand theory. You don’t have to become an educator or have a Master’s in music to make records, but you have to learn the fundamentals.
MM: If I walked into your classroom today what would be one of the first things I’d learn?
TD: Before you start making songs you have to understand what genre you’re working in, so I teach music genre and what makes genres different. Like the differences in why this is called funk and why this is called disco and why this is jazz. This knowledge will help you determine the type of artist you want to be.
Then I explain how one genre led to another—how funk birthed hip-hop and then how that turned into the remix. Then we talk about the timing of each genre.
Some students think theory is boring, but I try to keep it interesting and choose songs that are relevant—that everyone is listening to—and I point out different beats and rhythms of structure. I teach them the difference between a beat and a rhythm. A lot of people don’t know the difference. These are the essential things that a producer really needs to understand and that will help your career drastically.
MM: At the time you came up, early hip-hop music production used live studio bands, right?
TD: From my era, growing up, everything was live. Everything was acoustic. There were no drum machines. There were no computers. We didn’t even have internet. So it was all acoustic and analog music— the most they had was maybe a four-track and an eight-track and you would have to get the performance just right.
So, there were a lot of mistakes but those mistakes are what make the songs what they are and what made people like the songs. That’s one of the things that I really love about older music—you had one shot to get it right. That’s the same method I applied to my records when I first started. When you listen to all of Mary’s early records there were mistakes in every song and even vocally and we just let it go out and people loved it.
MM: What kind of tools did you use back then?
TD: Just one keyboard and one drum machine. The Korg M1 was a standard, the Triton, the Roland D 550 or the D 50 and the Akai MPC 60 or the MPC62. And then there’s an MPC3000, or the MPC2000 or MPC2000XL and the E-MU SP1200. I’ve owned all of those machines, but right now I just own two MPC2000XLs. I don’t use them, but If a client asks for that particular sound, I still have my sound cards built on those ready to go.
MM: What’s the importance of samples in hip-hop production?
TD: A lot of people used to get on us about sampling, but hip-hop is based on sampling. Hip-hop is based on the DJ playing someone else’s records. If we didn’t play it then it would just be funk. We make it hip hop because we take the best parts of the song—the break—to make people act the fool. We take that and we loop it.
MM: What are you looking for in a sample when you remix a song like Mary J. Blige’s, “You Remind Me?”
TD: Great musicians who made funk only had a little break that was maybe a minute-and-a-half. With the creativity of hip-hop, we turned that one little break into another full song. Our little secret back in the 90s for finding the right songs was to look at people’s reactions when you play music. If they’re not acting crazy then you’re not doing a good job.
It’s all based on two-and-four bar loops and just keep looping it back. Once you have that skeleton it’s gonna be hot and everyone will love it. If you just keep adding elements that don’t fit, you’re gonna mess it up and end up overproducing. That’s why the biggest hit records are the ones that are simple and contain the least amount of instrumentation.
MM: Has your sound changed over the years?
TD: My ear is the same. I can use today’s technology, but I won’t let it hurt my sound. It’s hard for people starting out today because they have no knowledge of the past. They haven’t developed a sound yet-they have a sound that’s given to them. In my era, we had to make our sound. In my masterclasses, I teach students how to develop their own sound kits and not rely on downloaded sound kits.
As a producer, your sound is your identity. If you have the same sound kit as everyone in the room then you’re not differentiating yourself. I sculpted my own sounds. Yeah, I sampled but that process is different. A lot of new producers are talented, but they can reach higher if they just stop being lazy.
MM: Overall, how has production changed over the years, like triplets are big now?
TD: I think music has been the same for the past 10 years. The only thing that changed are songs and artists. I think if a producer today played a track from 10 years ago it would still sell. The tracks are pretty similar and the sound has been recycled from 10 years ago. Possibly the only things that change are a pattern, but the triplet high hats have been going on for six or seven years.
We didn’t really use a lot of 808s or low frequencies like 50 or 60 Hz, but today a lot more of that is being used. They use a different layering, but it’s still pretty much the same style.
MM: You’re also a sound engineer. Is that an important skill for a producer to learn?
TD: It’s very beneficial for a producer to learn frequencies, learn dynamic processing, and learn everything about the tonality of a sound because it’ll make your job a lot easier when you’re sculpting and creating sounds. I learned just from working with some of the greatest engineers, but they couldn’t give me the sound that I was still looking for.
I was looking for a specific sound, so I had to learn software from all of the consoles and I had to learn every button on the console to operate it myself.
MM: I want you to solve a debate for us—MPC vs. MIDI keyboard with drum pads.
TD: There are some differences because with MIDI there is a delay, it’s minimal but there is latency. The feel of the pad is also different and having everything self-contained in the MPC is a lot easier. You can just click on a pad and develop a tune in just a matter of seconds and you don’t have to learn all of these VST plugins. You can edit it, and truncate the beginning and the decay at the end. You can do all of that instantly and add filters and just program your beat right in the machine as opposed to using your controller and your software.
Essentially it does the same thing and software like Ableton does make it easier because you can automatically cut your loops and sounds. But would you rather rely on a computer to do it or would you want to do it by ear? That’s the difference because every producer has their own style of truncating sounds.