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Steve Ett

Licensed to Ill’s inner liner notes credit Steve Ett as the album’s head engineer, and if you are a fan of the Def Jam golden era you have likely seen his name credited repeatedly along side of Rick Rubin’s. From 1985 to 1986, Rubin learned to engineer by watching Ett work the boards. Prior to having been hired by Rick Rubin, Steve Ett spent a decade working on Steely Dan and Ricky Lee Jones albums while fine tuning his craft. In addition to being a studio engineer, Ett is also a talented drummer. Steve’s duel abilities turned to be key elements in Def Jam’s first records. Rubin’s early successes like LL Cool J’s album Radio were fueled by minimalist songs that consisted primarily of a hard-hitting vocal track and room shaking beats.

In a November 4th 1986 Village Voice feature on Rick Rubin, Steve Ett said the following about working on Def Jam recordings at his Chung King studio in New York. “Rick knows right away when something doesn’t sound right. If I play him a tape, within the first thirty seconds, he’ll love it or hate it. Maybe he’ll help write the beat. Or if someone has a rap written and a particular lyric doesn’t work, Rick will come up with a different way of saying what they wanted to say. But mostly he lets the artist have his own way.” Reports say that Rubin and Ett spent almost a year on Licensed to Ill, which at the time was unheard of. Due to small budgets, prior hip-hop albums were processed quickly to keep expensive studio rental fees down. However when it came to Licensed to Ill each piece was assembled with painstaking precision.

Village Voice writer Barry Walters articulately described the process. “The Beastie song that Rubin is working on now, “It’s the New Style,” is one of the few without a chanted chorus, but the song has peaks and breaks of tension created by the way Rubin and Ett work the mixing board. Each of the board’s 24 tracks contains a separately recorded percussion element, which repeats a phase a dozens of times. Rubin and Ett press buttons to make each cowbell, high hat, snare, and bass drum track pop in and out at the precise moment. The mixing board itself acts as a polymorphic drum set, which allows an enormous about of freedom to alter a song.” The overwhelming commercial success of Def Jam’s 1986 release Licensed to Ill was the ultimate pay off for all of those late nights they spent in the studio, often finishing around three in the morning.

From Biohazard to Mary J. Blige, Steve Ett continued to engineer throughout the 1990s. However the one Rubin- Ett project that Beastie fans are dying to hear, Def Jam’s White House album (1989) still remains in limbo somewhere between myth and reality. Rumored to have constructed from unreleased material left over from the Licensed to Ill sessions, the White House album (if it does exist in any kind of finished form) would have provided serious sales competition to Paul’s Boutique had they been released simultaneously. Yet due to litigation, Capitol Records and the Beastie Boys were able to block Def Jam from releasing the White House LP. Therefore, this last collaboration between Rubin and Ett has continued to escalate into something of an urban legend.

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