We recently caught up with our friend producer Ivan Barias for an interview. During our conversation, we discussed his history with DJ Jazzy Jeff’s A Touch of Jazz, linking up with Carvin Haggins, his work on Musiq Soulchild’s debut album “Aijuswanaseing”, his work at The Recording Academy, and more.
Ivan Barias: Here’s the thing. When I was in Atlantic City, my interest was never really towards music. I was always into sports. I fancied myself to be a ballplayer which probably wasn’t the best idea, I sucked! *Laughs* One of the places where I used to play basketball at was a rec center. I met Darren Henson who was a producer at a mall we used to work at. I worked at clothing store, he worked at another shop. I knew he rapped and he was always into hip hop, and I was a hip hop fan. This was the early 90’s like 91, I really got this strong interest in wanting to be a rapper. I started writing and recording demos. Up until that time, my idea of wanting to be in the music industry was me being an artist. I had run with this crew and they gave me beats, and then it got to the point where I started dabbling and having hand me down gear. This little Casio SK1 sampler that typically has 24 keys. I started messing around and making beats and I got good. The guys who used to give me beats started asking me for beats! Fast forward to me playing at the rec and running into Darren Henson again there, I found out he was in a crew, he connected and stayed in touch. Then sometime around 1995, we reconnected again and we started hanging out, I would come over his house to look at some records. We would always talk about beats and stuff like that. We went on a trip to New York, a record digging trip, and started talking about putting together a beat tape. I knew he knew Jazzy Jeff. So I said we should put together a beat tape and go up to Philly and play it for Jeff. We finally decided to do that and went up one Friday night in ’95. It was probably the most important transition point in my life as a music creator. When I went up to A Touch of Jazz that day, they had all of these amazing musicians playing all of the instruments in the style that I would only hear on records I wanted to sample. At that point I knew I had to be there. We played Jeff the beat tape, it was hip hop beats, staggered between Darren and mine. Jeff heard it and said we should come back next week. It became a tradition he’d invite us every Friday night. Every time we would get off work, we worked at the casino at that time, come to Philly and stay until like 4 in the morning and drive back to Atlantic City and sleep an hour and go back to work. We did that for about 3 or 4 years. In the beginning, Jeff would just invite us every Friday, and then eventually said we could come whenever wanted without an invite. So then we just became a part of A Touch of Jazz. There were about 16 people there at that time and then it got scaled back. It was a camp made up not only of producers, but you were songwriters, artists, musicians. Little by little, people started moving away and doing their own thing. The 6 that remained were the 6 that were concentrated as the A Touch of Jazz brand and worked on all the albums. So I was just coming up on my days off when I was not working, until I got let go at the Tropicana Casino where I was working in Atlantic City. In about 1999, that was the year I was pretty much this is it, I had to go at it hard. That was the year where we worked on Jill Scott, Musiq and met Floetry and a lot of amazing music.
YouKnowIGotSoul: We know Carvin and Ivan as a production team over the years. How did you end up forming a partnership with him?
Ivan Barias: The thing that was cool about Carvin was he was a songwriter. He could also do beats, he had one of the dopest beats on Jill Scott’s debut album, which is the “Honey Molasses”. His interest was never to be a producer, he always wanted to be a songwriter. I had beats, and a lot of people weren’t writing to my music. We connected. He couldn’t get beats, I couldn’t get songwriters, so it was like a mutually beneficial connection at first. His hip hop aesthetic was towards having these hard beats with samples and wanting to write hip hop leaning r&b songs. So with my sound, I aligned with what he was trying to do. It just became a natural thing. It wasn’t even a thing about teaming up. We were just constantly working together. Eventually when we all went out separate ways, him and I had worked so much, and we had a chemistry to the point it made sense. We wanted to keep it going and make it official.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was the environment like at A Touch of Jazz.
Ivan Barias: It was one of those things that is really hard to quantify into words. At that time when you’re living through it, you have no concept of what you’re doing in terms of shifting the narrative and changing the way records are being made. As far as camps and how we worked, no one taught us that way, it was different. A lot of it came from being competitive and us being family oriented and collaborative. I could be working on a track and Vidal or Dre or Keith Pelzer will walk in. They were the musicians at the time before I actually developed skills and started being able to play. If I had a beat playing, and Keith would walk in, he’d say it’s crazy. So I’d ask him to do a bass line on it. I could be walking into another room and Andre Harris might be working on a track. He’s got some chords, and next thing you know I’m doing drums on it. It was a really penalty free way of making records. You’re not really aligning yourself with the music industry ethos. It really wasn’t a thing with us. We weren’t thinking of the economic aspect of doing it. It was more so let’s help each other. It was a good measuring stick for all of us. If someone did something dope and got a placement, we’d all cheer for them, and celebrate, and know we had to level up. It was a great environment where we boost each other and lean other each other and learn. It was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of.
YouKnowIGotSoul: The freedom of creation you guys were able to have sounds epic.
Ivan Barias: Let me backtrack because I don’t want to misrepresent A Touch of Jazz being the ground zero of music creation. We saw what Mr. Gordy did with Motown. We knew what was going on with Stax. We knew what was going on with Philadelphia International with that era with the Philadelphia Sound. All of that stuff predated me, I wasn’t even born when a lot of those records were being made and a lot of those great artists were launched. There was a communal aspect to that those records being made in that era that influenced the way A Touch of Jazz operated. It was a different type of energy. Jeff never came at us in a way that was tyrannical. It was in a way that he gave us all the opportunity. He gave us the keys to the studio and the equipment, he wasn’t going to tell us what to do, but he’d tell us what hours we could work in the studio! We all had access to the studio and equipment. I sure as hell blew a lot a lot of tweeters and woofers! I never knew how much they cost and where the money to repair them came from. I was fortunate to have access to what he provided us with. I’m still forever grateful, it was a great opportunity.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was your first impression of meeting Musiq Soulchild?
Ivan Barias: When he first came around, I just thought he was super dope because he had this dope vibe about him. Of course he was an R&B/Soul singer, he was trying to become also an artist like Stevie, Donny, and following on what D’Angelo had done. He was an extension of that lineage. What attracted me to him was, his ability to really understand hip hop. The way he approached music, he had this hip hop energy about what he was doing. It didn’t feel like regular R&B/Soul music. I identify with hip hop culture so much. I always felt like the music needed a sense of urgency. I think he aligned with that. Us collaborating really tapped into that lane of being able to make these records that align with things that hip hop fans could gravitate towards and not feel like it’s too soft for me. I think between him and Carvin and I, we had this interesting energy. We had a common admiration for a lot of the same music. He loved J Dilla, I loved Dilla. That’s someone that I had the honor and pleasure of meeting and hanging out and going on a beat digging trip. Talking about records with him. I was really drawn to that culture of rap music, like The Ummah, A Tribe Called Quest and that jazzy hip hop sound I always loved. I think with him having such a passion for that sound made it easier to make the records we made. They were coming from a place where it felt fun. Probably what made me feel like R&B music at that time wasn’t for me. I felt like R&B was so advanced in terms of the approach and how you have to have a different mindset when you’re in a studio working on those projects. The sessions I was used to being a part of with hip hop stuff was different. That’s what was so unique about Musiq. He disproved the myth of what an R&B artist should be. It was totally re-calibrated from what we worked on. Even to this day you can still feel his influence. The hip hop influence of soul music we were able to inject into those early records. It resonated and helped advance the genre in a way it couldn’t have if it didn’t have that element.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You had a big hand in the creation of Musiq’s debut album “Aijuswanaseing”. Talk about the creation of his first single “Just Friends (Sunny)”.
Ivan Barias: That is a special record. To me it’s the seminal record for that evolution of Neo-Soul. Even to this day there are so many artists, writers, and producers who come to me and reference that record. It really makes the story of it even greater. I remember that beat trip that I mentioned, we went to Pittsburgh. It was myself, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Kenny Dope, Darren Henson, and Dilla. We all took a trip to Pittsburgh in 98. We started in Philly one day, and by the time we got back two days later, we had gone all the way to Pittsburgh and back. We hit all of these record shops. During that trip, Kenny Dope had already knew the type of sound I was partial towards. He said he knew I’d like this type of sound, check out this label, it was called Muse. They had a lot of dope, jazzy, funky, soulful grooves. The type that I liked to sample. He passed me a Pat Martino live album. When we got back to Philly a couple of days later, I went through the stash and put it on. I knew the record from Bobby Hebb, it was called “Sunny”. I always liked that groove. Put it on, I thought it was dope. Sampled it, loaded it down, looped it up. At that time I was still rapping and trying to be an artist. I got the beat playing, and here walks in Vidal and hears it. He thought it was dope and added a bass line and played a little keyboard embellishment on top of it. I’m looping it up and Musiq walks in. Hears me working on it, and he thought it was dope. I had this little weird little thing, a few little lyrics. He heard it and started singing those lyrics and embellishing a bit. And then he disappeared. I think I made him a tape of that beat and a couple of other things and then he disappeared for like a year! He went to Atlanta to visit his family and moved down there. He already had recorded quite a few songs with Carvin. Then a year later he comes back, and I remember this was around Thanksgiving. We were in the studio, and asked if I still had that beat. I pulled it up and him and Carvin finished writing it. It became that song. That record has so many different stories attached to it for how long it took. Darren had said we should start it with a beat box! Musiq was in the studio beat boxing while Keith recorded it. He was the engineer for the vocal session. As we were figuring out what was going on, we were doing technical stuff, and Musiq is beatboxing in the booth! Just playing around. Darren said it was dope, and told us we should start the record like that! So when Musiq went and put it in there, it kind faded in and you hear it start with the record. It became the most recognizable intro to a record of ours. It just set the tone for the life of that record that it would eventually live. It was just different. That sample was really off too, the way I caught it too make it loop perfectly, I had to program the drums in a way it didn’t feel sloppy against the sample. You had this groove where the kick was kind of on but the snare was rushed. Then the hi hat was really laid back. It kind of helped enhance the sound which was kind of this little interesting bounce it had. Definitely was some Dilla-esque moments and influence in it. Dilla had given me and Darren some of his beat tapes at the time. Me and Darren were still in a group at the time trying to rap to some of the beats. Then it became part of this production aspect of mine. It was unlike anything we had in R&B at the time.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You also produced the song “Poparatzi” on that album as well.
Ivan Barias: That’s another one where I just found a sample and thought it was crazy. I was working on it and for no particular reason, just for the catalog. I remember working on it and Andre Harris walked in. That was A Touch of Jazz, anyone would walk in at any moment and just add to it. He came in and added these strings under the sample and it just made it so epic. It was a dope sample to begin with, but it injected this other energy to it. We also had another record we did during that session called “Stop Playin” which ended up on his second album “JusLisen”. It had a similar vibe. Dre and I used to work on a lot of music together. Those were two records we worked on together for Musiq indirectly. I just had these tracks and he came in and added to them. Musiq always loved that sound. “Poparatzi” was another one production wise that didn’t feel conventional the way the drums hit. It was a different your typical groove. It was something a little bit different and it worked for what they were doing. It’s funny you say the title isn’t in the lyrics. They didn’t even spell the word right! It was a clever way of saying “picture me while I’m sitting here down and out”. It’s one of those deep cuts on an album that sometimes early on people didn’t get, but over time it became a fan favorite.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about helping to create the bonus track “Ingredients of Love” with Angie Stone.
Ivan Barias: Produced that one as well. That was inspired by A Tribe Called Quest song on “Midnight Marauders” album. It was a replay, Frank Romano played the guitar over. It was a really dope record. I got a record with Marsha doing that song first! She was doing a song for Bilal, and it was super dope, I have to dig it up. Marsha did a really dope song to that for Bilal. I don’t think Bilal heard it. I remember about a year later we were in the studio with Angie and I played that beat and Carvin and Musiq heard it and thought it was a dope beat for that song. We just ended up doing it with Angie.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What do you remember about the rest of your time at A Touch of Jazz working with artists like Jill Scott and Floetry.
Ivan Barias: They fit right in. I think we had a really interesting culture at A Touch of Jazz, very family oriented, we always joke and hung out together. Whether we were going to South Street or L.A. or anywhere else. We always had this clique, very insular culture. They fit right in. Jill was super cool, she was one of the best things that happened to A Touch of Jazz, because up until that time, a lot of the artists that would come through that major labels would send down, we really couldn’t control the sound. We’d work on a bunch of records and then they’d just take one record. We felt like we were doing amazing music on all of these artists and at the end of the day you can’t control it. When Jill came in, she contributed immensely to that sound. Without her, I don’t think we have that sound that became so associated with not only A Touch of Jazz but Philly. I think what she did for a lot of us that were working at A Touch of Jazz was give us the platform to create those songs. It was a mutual labor that allowed those songs to be special. She definitely had a unique approach because she was also a poet and actress. Her energy was not so consolidated into this R&B thing. That’s the funny thing about it, all three of the artists, Jill, Musiq, and Floetry, were not R&B artists! They definitely had soul influence, but Jill was a poet at first. Musiq was a beatboxing, rapping, singer. Floetry you had Marsha who is dope as a singer, then The Floacist who was a poet and a rapper, who also liked hip hop beats, and they were from London. They were inflicted by a lot of Jamaican music. All of these different things to add to the dynamic that really showed you that R&B was not the root of A Touch of Jazz. That’s what makes it unique. You look at the name A Touch of Jazz, which was a play on Jazzy Jeff’s name, Jazz is everything. It’s the root and the seed for a lot of the indigenous art forms that came out in America. All of the music you heard was really a part of the DNA of jazz music as it evolved over the years in our culture. That’s what made those artists so unique and so special. They really fit in, they fit in with the culture, and they gave it as much as they received as far as the jokes and all of that. It was really a family atmosphere. Nothing too out of the ordinary other than to say they never really had that separation between artists and producers, and never made us feel like they were better. We were all building something together and it became something special towards the end.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was it like leaving A Touch of Jazz and stepping out on your own.
Ivan Barias: I think at that time the reason we all left, it’s no secret, the economic aspect played a huge role. It might have been a bit of tension at that time, but something that over the years has become non existent, considering the relationship and friendship I have with Jazzy Jeff. At that time I felt like when we all left, it was something that I felt was bound to happen. I wish it would have maintained, but the trajectory we were going towards, it lent itself towards us having to go out and do things on our own and grow as business men and creators and contributors of the culture. I think that it was one thing I felt Jeff always facilitated to a lot of the people he mentored. I looked at his studio and production company as an incubator of sorts. James Poyser and Vikter Duplaix and Eric Roberson and Raheem DeVaughn came out of that camp. When you really look at a lot of the artists and producers and songwriters that grow and evolve, that’s one thing I would say that Jeff is, a facilitator and he teaches you a lot and it’s up to you to learn it. Eventually people have to grow and do things that will further their mission and keep the trajectory going upwards. That’s what it was. As much as it was a bit of tension and people try to play it up into a major beef.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about the exciting things you’re doing with The Recording Academy for The Grammy’s, as well as any recent production you’ve done.
Ivan Barias: I got involved with The Recording Academy back in 2007. I was participating in the awards process and then eventually I became a governor a couple of years later for the Philadelphia chapter in about 2009. Then in 2012, I ran for chapter president which I served for 3 years, and then I kept being involved. Doing my work there, I helped implement some changes to the awards process. The category that you referred to that was changed. We had some restructuring done a few years ago, and a category called Contemporary R&B Album was condensed into R&B Album, which created this gridlock between traditional legacy based R&B vs the more modern aesthetic of R&B production. It ended up in this hodge podge to where you had Chris Brown going up against Ledisi and Chaka Khan. It actually resulted in Chris Brown being nominated one year and winning. So I knew we had a problem. We had Frank Ocean, Miguel, The Weeknd, all of these artists coming out doing this evolved version of R&B music. You can’t penalize them and put them in this category with other R&B artists who are more traditional in keeping the spirit of R&B alive. I wrote and submitted a proposal to create a new category and at that time I came up with the name and it was Urban Contemporary and it encompassed all of the derivatives that contributed to the progressive version of R&B music. It was the first year that it was a category and Frank Ocean won it for “Channel Orange”. It was cool, but people asked why we used Urban. So eventually 2 or 3 years later I started having to defend the term Urban. People were taking shots, my name was being thrown out there with it being racist. We did it in the spirit of preserving the integrity of both categories and making sure R&B was not diluted. So I said we had to change the name, and it took about 4 years! It pre-dates the stuff we’ve been dealing with since the death of George Floyd. Long before we decided to get rid of Urban. We wrote proposal and had dialogue. Had so many signatories from the community. We proposed we rename it to Best Progressive R&B Album, keeping the definition intact. A way to future proof the category. So what’s been happening created this noise and it became so polarizing it pitted people against each other with respect to black music at the record label structure. Should we keep urban? If you do away with urban, that means you are getting rid of black music and pull it into other departments. We got caught in all of the noise. By the time we announced it, and we had passed it long before that, but we couldn’t announce it because early June is the normal time for that. By the time we were set to announce it, we had a lot of the protests going on, and the academy felt we shouldn’t take away from that energy, by announcing something so self serving. We punted to June 10th, and by that time, Republic had announced what they had announced. We did a couple of panels and events to get people to understand that this was not done as a way to hijack the momentum. It was done to really future proof our processes and our categories and make them more inclusive. Getting rid of the word is more the responsibility of the record label structure, how we did it was more for academic purposes. Hopefully it will prove to be the right decision over time. I also currently chair the producers and engineers wing at the academy, which is one of the committees that represents producers and songwriters. Out of the 12,000 voting members, 7,000 are producers and songwriters. We lobby congress within the Recording Academy advocacy structure. We try to advocate for the rights of all music creators. I’ve been to DC lobbying so many times to get them to pass legislation, as well as locally in Philly.
Also creatively I’m still very active. I’m currently working with a band out of Brooklyn called Phony Ppl. We currently have a single performing pretty good at radio called “Messin Around” featuring Meg Thee Stallion on it. Currently trying to finish up their album. They are an R&B/Soul/Funk with Hip-Hop elements, so it’s right up my alley. Got a song coming out on Ledisi’s upcoming album. I’m very active and Zoom life is the life. I spend so much time working with people by Zoom and they can hear what I’m working on. Just being as active and involved as I can be given the current circumstances