We recently caught up with legendary producer Mark Batson for an interview on Instagram Live. During our conversation, we touched on his early work with Anthony Hamilton, Joe, India Arie and Alicia Keys, becoming an in house producer for Dr. Dre, and his positive and motivating debut album “I Want To See You Shining”.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What was your first placement as a producer?
Mark Batson: I made a lot of independent alternative Jazz records. My brother and myself had a group on Polydor Records called Get Set VOP. It was a rap group with live instruments. I did a live album with Arrested Development. I did an album with Sandra St. Victor. I got hooked up with my man Ron Lawrence who was one of the Hitmen. He put me with Carl Thomas. We made a record called “Cold Cold World”. That was my first record I ever heard play on the radio.
YouKnowIGotSoul: You did some early work with Anthony Hamilton as well, with “Comin From Where I’m From” and “Charlene”. What do you remember about working with him early on.
Mark Batson: He was signed to Atlantic, and they were having some problems about which direction to go with him. At that time he was in between deals. I just liked him a lot. He’s just a good friend of mine, he’s an incredible barber, he’d come through and trim you up! He became a good friend. He hung around my studio by Madison Square Garden and cut records. We came up with “Comin From Where I’m From”, “Charlene”, and “Since I’ve Seent You”. It was a different direction than Atlantic wanted him to go in, and then he went to Jermaine Dupri and Michael Mauldin, and they took the whole sound of what Anthony Hamilton became over to their label, and we just built from there. We just had a lot of records we created together. We had a record “Can’t Let Go” which was also one of the most successful. And “Charlene” became his signature song.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What do you remember about creating some of those songs with him?
Mark Batson: When we did “Charlene”, it was a zone. Me and Anthony would have a bottle of vodka or something, it was 3 in the morning. We just catch the vibe and somewhere in there a song comes out. With myself and Anthony, it’s never been a work thing. With Anthony it’s more like you hang out, come through the studio late night and stay up for a while. Somewhere in between having drinks and talking about life, out comes a song. That’s how we found those songs. “Comin From Where I’m From”, there is a part of that song that’s a part of his real life. His reality he can always capture people into. These are things that affected his real life. The struggles, that’s real life for him. We found that zone. One of the most impactful things, when I first made the record, those were the demos. My mind was thinking we needed horns. But Jermaine said to leave it raw. At that time “The Blueprint” was out, and the drums on “The Blueprint” was the sound I was going for on that. But the most impactful thing to me was the video. It was so emotional for me when he played it for me. To see the story of him come to life. Sometimes with artists, people can’t capture it. So he captured the essence of who he is with that song, and he’s been able to build on it from that point on.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your work with Joe around that time as well. You worked on his “Better Days” album. You were on “Let’s Stay Home Tonight”.
Mark Batson: Joe at the time was managed by Kedar Massenberg and I was doing a lot of work with him. Joe had these records, but what they’d do for me is to have me come in and put finishing touches on things to bring out the best parts. With him, it was about creating string parts. Joe brings the street joints, but has a lushness to it. Luxury street joints. We went in and crafted beautiful strings and arrangements. Just vibing with him to put the finishing touches.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about working on India Arie’s debut album on the song “Brown Skin”.
Mark Batson: She’s one of the most unbelievable artists in the world. I always talk about when I first met her, when I went to the studio to record her, it was an insane sensation that when she opens up her mouth to sing, I felt it in my back! She has a fantastic sounding voice. She was signed to Motown when I met her. A similar situation to Anthony, the label had a problem finding her sound. They had some really great songs. I talked to Kedar and her A&R and they asked me to look at what she was working on. We went in the studio and cut “Brown Skin”, then it catapulted into a bunch of songs that we wrote and created. In that is one of my favorite productions I’ve ever done, which is “Strength, Courage, and Wisdom”. It’s one of the most important and emotionally connected songs for me. It was all about finding that lane she was in. It’s about featuring their voice front and center and then building elements that compliment that, rather than huge productions over them. It’s just magic to hear her voice.
YouKnowIGotSoul: What is it like coming into the studio with an artist for the first time? Are you taking feedback from them? Are they trusting your process?
Mark Batson: When you first come in the studio, it’s awkward! As artistic people, we have a lot of social anxiety! It’s about finding that comfort level. For myself on the outside, especially working with India, Anthony Hamilton. When I first came in the industry, I came in with a full head of steam. I was trying to build something and it didn’t happen for my group. So when I see other artists trying to find their way, it makes me twice as empathetic to make sure it comes to life. I put my personal emotions away and focus on what I can do to help amplify this person’s dreams. But it is an awkward experience at first! Sometimes with bigger entertainers it can get even more awkward! You are dealing with stars. After you settle in after a couple days of recording, it starts to become more comfortable. Most of the people I worked with, we became great friends.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Talk about your work with Alicia Keys. You did a bunch of songs on her “As I Am” album including “Go Ahead” and “Superwoman”.
Mark Batson: First let me say that the album has one of my favorite songs I’ve ever worked on, which is “I Need You”. I think the lyrics of it are perfectly written, I like when the song has a rubix cube quality, different parts come together to make the message come into one thing. Working with Alicia Keys, this is a massive personality, a superstar, and she goes into the studios and tears songs down! It was a great opportunity for me to be in the studio with Alicia Keys. She had asked me to play a piano part for her. So I did, and I’m giving Alicia Keys piano lessons in my house on the phone! My friends are there and they are going nuts! It’s crazy. At that particular record, I think a bunch of elements came together at the same time with the creative process. The personnel involved, Marsha Ambrosius did some lyrics, Harold Lilly, Kerry, and the whole crew. It seemed like a lot of great things came together at the same time. Songwriting wise, production wise. And I think “No One” was one of the biggest songs she did. As a collective I think we found something that worked for all of us creating. I think all of us in our lives were going through a transition period. Inside of that, we all bonded and came together to make that body of work. I’m a huge fan of albums and body’s of work. I think albums define artists more than singles do. I’m hoping that we can find a way to get back to body’s of work being presented rather than the single culture created by streaming. I miss everybody having to make a complete album.
YouKnowIGotSoul: How did you become handpicked by Dr. Dre to join his label as an in house producer?
Mark Batson: I was working a lot with Che Pope who was another heroic producer, did a lot of Lauryn Hill’s “Miseducation” album and ended up running Kanye’s company. He was working with Dre. At that time a lot of my output was R&B records. He brought me over to the studio and I worked with Dre for two days and he told me I couldn’t leave. It was because of flexibility. Dre might want to create an R&B record one day, he might want to create a classical record with hip hop. He might want to have something with Jazz. His musical taste is vast. Somebody like me was perfect, I could bounce around to different styles. With Dre, you might have to make hundreds of records with him before somebody hears one. You gotta have the discipline and mental wherewithal. You can’t be afraid to do 10 songs and they don’t come out. You have to do 50 records to get there. When you listen to Dre, you end up with an album that’s impeccable. If he’s producing your album, that means you cut records to find the finest points. In order to be on that team, it takes a discipline and a love of music. His sound system is probably the loudest sound system in the United States. Some people can’t take the sound, but I grew up with block parties and huge stereo systems. I love being in studio with him and the sound is vibrating my chest and we crank out song after song. I just came at the right time and blessed to work with Eminem, The Game, 50 Cent. It was a great time. If I had to label Dre, he’s the top producer in the world that ever lived.
YouKnowIGotSoul: Let’s talk about your recently released debut album “I Want to See You Shining”. What led you to release this album after all this time?
Mark Batson: It started with the pandemic. I’ve never been a front man type of person. There was a lot of fear and anxiety in the culture. We are watching social injustice repeatedly and repeatedly, like Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, then I didn’t feel empowered, I felt I was struggling against mighty forces. The records I was listening to were not feeding me back. Something was not connecting with me. I had to say, let me write something to feed myself. The first rejection of all the negative forces was a poem I wrote called “I Am”. I’m talking to myself in the mirror. Then it turned into more songs, I’m writing these poems for myself. I sent them to my sister, and my partner, and Justin Hunt, and Bishop Lamont. Everybody who heard them was excited. They were living with it. I have a comfort zone, make my beats, do my thing. I wasn’t trying to be an artist. It just became the friends around me telling me to come out of my comfort zone and present this to people. They challenged me to put it out. They stayed on me. So I tried to figure out how to do this. I put them all together and did a rough mix of it. Then I found a marketing person and they put together a team. We started to present the music to people and so many people loved it. They even got the music to therapists. A mental health charity called The AAKOMA project, for African American youth, got wind of it, and I thought this was an ideal vehicle for me to do something for this charity as well. We put the album out, it’s been getting incredible response. It’s a new age hip hop album, it’s never been done before. We took all of the sales and gave that all away to the charity. We wanted to help the kids facing mental health problems. I can’t imagine what it’s like being 12 or 13 going through that, school was hard enough! This album was the best thing I could do as an elder statesmen in the hip hop community, and to write a book, called “I Want To See You Shining”, about what to do when you’re under mental stress.