Karl J. Geisler...
ALAN DOUGLAS: HENDRIX PRODUCER UNDER FIRE
by Michael Davis
c. BAM Magazine Aug 25 95
Well, it looks like Jimi Hendrix fans won't have Alan Douglas to kick
around any longer. Just a few weeks after BAM talked to the producer at
length about his experiences with such musical revolutionaries as Hendrix,
Duke Ellington, and the Last Poets., he agreed to return all of Jimi's
property, including master tapes, to the late rock star's father, Al
Hendrix, as part of an out of court settlement of a long-pending lawsuit.
Four ongoing projects of Hendrix material - a double live CD, a book with
the working title of A Room Full Of Mirrors, a documentary, and a
soundtrack album to the documentary - will be completed in the next few
months and released some time next year. What comes out after that will be
up to Al Hendrix and his advisers.
Douglas' 20-year stewardship of Jimi's recorded legacy has certainly been a
stormy one. Going by the dictum that, " Anything that Jimi recorded that he
didn't release himself could have been changed," Douglas overdubbed or
remixed many of the studio tracks he released. Examples of both approaches
can be found on this year's controversial Voodoo Soup, which has garnered
both praise and damnation in equal helpings. On the other hand, the now out
of print Nine To The Universe album proved that there were still Hendrix
gems to be found in the reels of studio jams.
Once he got his first taste of the music industry in the late 50s by
selling his debut pop production to Roulette Records, Douglas rose rapidly
in the industry, thanks to his savvy, his musical knowledge, and his
hustle. By 1962, he was heading United Artists' jazz line, and during the
following decade, produced landmark sessions for Duke Ellington, Eric
Dolphy, and John McLaughlin on UA and other labels. But the first time he
heard Jimi Hendrix, he knew music was moving into a new realm and went with
Douglas also acted quickly the first time he saw the Last Poets, becoming
their producer of their classic recordings. The Last Poets and This Is
Madness established the Harlem-based street poets who predated politically
conscious hip-hop by over a decade. Since the Last Poets are touring behind
their Bill Laswell produced Holy Terror album at the moment, it's perhaps
apt to start with them.
* * *
HOW DID YOU BECOME THE FIRST ONE TO RECORD THE LAST POETS?
I heard a snatch of material on television one night, and it stopped me
short. It was on PBS, so I called the station, and I got an address and a
telephone number. I called the next day and got a very hostile voice on the
phone. I told them who I was and that I had heard a little bit of their
material on television the night before, and I would like to talk to them
about making records. So he said, "Well, if you want to hear it, man, you
gotta come up here, and you have to be alone." Real hostile shit! So I
said, "Where's up here?" and he made a date with me at 137th Street and
Lennox Avenue. So, I went up there, and it was a schoolyard with two old,
funky basketball courts with rims and no nets. I looked over at one of the
courts, and there was a whole bunch of black guys - must have been 25 of
them - standing there. I got out of the car and walked over, thinking,
"This is either suicide or a great sign." As I got there, the crowd kind of
separated, and these four guys were left. There were three rappers and a
conga player standing underneath a basket. They pointed at the foul line
and said, "You stand there," and they did the material that ended up on the
first album with me. So I said, "Come to the studio with me right now, and
we'll record this. If you like the tape, we'll do a deal; if you don't like
it, you take the tape with you." They thought that was reasonable. They all
jumped in my car, and we went down to a friend of mine's studio on 66th
Street, and we recorded the whole thing in one afternoon. They liked it. I
got whatever money together I could - $1,000 or something - and we did a
deal. I put the record out, and the rest is history.
The, one of them ended up in the joint, so I did the next record, This Is
Madness, with just two of them. I had to use more recording techniques on
the second one because we had less power from the group itself.
(Get it here: The 2CD re-release of The Last Poets and This Is Madness
by Light in the Attic Records)
YEAH, BUT THE PRODUCTION WORKED, "O.D." PROBABLY BEING THE BEST KNOWN EXAMPLE.
Yeah, it worked because of the material. They were all good rappers, but
those first two albums contain the most interesting material. The only
other album I did with one of them, Jalal, was one called The Hustlers
...WHICH HAS A REP FOR BEING A BRIDGE BETWEEN THE LAST POETS AND HIP-HOP.
Right, because that was gangsta rap from an objective, rather than a
subjective, point of view. The Hustlers Convention was, essentially, a
toast, which was the original art form that rap came from. The Poets came
out of the old black prison tradition of jail toasts. Jalal wrote that
whole thing from pieces of things he'd been hearing for years. We also did
more stuff, like the toast about the famous hooker, Doriella Du Fontaine,
with Jimi. I was recording Jimi one day and Jalal walked in. I had him do
it for Buddy [Miles], and Buddy got all involved with it and started
playing with him. Jimi came in and said, "Wait for me," and he jumped in on
it. They improvised 13 minutes straight; it was beautiful.
HOW DID A JAZZ PRODUCER HOOK UP WITH HENDRIX?
When I went to United Artists to start a jazz label, recording the great
jazz artists was my goal. I was in the studio with Art Blakey, Duke
Ellington, Charlie Mingus, and Eric Dolphy. Working with the masters. Then
I heard Jimi Hendrix on the radio one day. I immediately ran to the record
store, bought Are You Experienced?, and listened to that. He just blew
everybody away. I found myself with Miles Davis one night, sitting up in
the lighting booth at the Fillmore, listening to him. I found myself with
other jazz artists who couldn't quite figure out what he was doing or where
he came from. Although you could never categorize him as a jazz artist, he
incorporated jazz, because he was probably the best improviser I ever
heard, and that's what jazz is basically all about. I mean, he himself
said, "I can't stand somebody playing 'How High The Moon' for half an
hour," so he never considered himself a jazz player. But the jazz players
sure did. Look at his stuff with Larry Young. Miles Davis and John
McLaughlin had tremendous admiration for him, and I felt he was the one who
incorporated all the musical influences that went down in the last hundred
years into his own music. There was Robert Johnson, and there was Muddy
Waters, and there was John Coltrane, and Thelonious Monk, and Charlie
PLUS THE AIRPLANE NOISES!
He could listen to a truck go by and say, "Hey, that sounds good."
WELL, HE COULD INCORPORATE THAT INTO HIS MUSIC.
Exactly. Right now, I'm mixing what I'm calling On The Road, which is a
double live album of what I consider to be his best live performances. I
was listening to "Machine Gun" from the Berkeley concert yesterday, and it
still amazes me. And that was 1970, when he was supposed to be burned out.
WAS THERE EVER A DEFINITIVE STUDIO VERSION OF "MACHINE GUN"?
There's a version, but I wouldn't call it definitive or I would have used
it on Voodoo Soup. "Machine Gun" was one of those songs where Jimi could
get his ya-yas out on stage. If he was angry that day, it would sound even
better, and he would react to the audience a lot. But, in the studio, it
was too efficient; his solos didn't get off like they did live.
YOU SAID THAT YOU'RE DOING THESE REISSUES PRIMARILY FOR A YOUNGER CROWD.
WAS THERE A SPECIFIC MIXING STRATEGY THAT YOU DIRECTED TO THAT END?
My constantly being quoted about the younger crowd has been a little
overblown. As Jimi said, "It's younger MINDS," I don't care if someone is
50 years old, they ought to be able to relate to what's available today and
not hang onto this nostalgia about what used to be. So, there are major
changes in the mixes, because the technology has gone through major
changes. We have technology today that can take out pops and hiss and all
that normal machine and tape noise.
SO YOU CAN HEAR AL THE INSTRUMENTS MORE CLEARLY.
That's what it's all about, man. Can you get to the musician's fingers? Can
you get to his strings?, whatever it is that's making the music?
THE MIXES ON VOODOO SOUP SEEM TO BE MORE DOWN THE MIDDLE THAN THE ORIGINAL ONES.
It's a question of balance. Mixing is subject to the way something was
recorded, and there's stuff leaking into all these tracks. Something might
be on one side because that's the way we can minimize the leakage on
something else. But there are no rules. You just sit down and listen and do
the best thing you can to get the best sound you can. The focus is on Jimi,
but, by the same token, if the drums don't sound good, then it makes Jimi
sound not so good.
I HAVE TO CONGRATULATE YOU ON THAT BECAUSE, FOR THE MOST PART, YOU'VE
IMPROVED THE WAY THE DRUM TRACKS SOUND.
It's not a question of what's better or what's worse; it's a question of
how you do things. Eddie Kramer and Mitch Mitchell and those guys were in a
different mode back then; there were different musical values, and so on.
That was still the psychedelic era, and Jimi was supposed to be one of
those guys, so they got more - I hate to even use the word but that's how
everybody relates to it - psychedelic sounds, more slapback, more moving
from side to side.
THERE ISN'T MUCH OF THAT AT ALL ON VOODOO SOUP; IT'S MORE SOLID.
For me, the music is straight ahead. If it's happening, you don't need any
of that. But, in those days, it was making people feel better about the
music. I don't think you can compare the two, I really don't. You just have
to evaluate something from the way you hear it now, not what used to be.
That seems to be the problem with the purists and the collectors. If I
wanted to direct myself to them, I could be throwing records out on the
street every minute. They don't care, they want to hear Jimi's mistakes,
and, if I could put one of his old socks in there, I'd sell even more.
I KEEP WONDERING WHEN SOMEBODY'S GONNA PUT OUT A BOOTLEG OF HIM TAKING A LEAK.
If someone has a tape of that, it's probably one of their prized
possessions. I just can't address that.
YOU HAVE TO UNDERSTAND, FOR SOME OF THESE PEOPLE, IT'S LIKE A RELIGIOUS
THING. IT'S LIKE YOU'VE REMIXED THE BIBLE!
Well, look what Christianity did to the Old Testament, man. And now they're
YEAH, BUT NOBODY KNOWS WHO REMIXED THE BIBLE. YOUR NAME IS ON THIS THING.
Well, in 10 years time, they'll forget me, too.
* * *