Bob Power on 'The Low End Theory's' Signature Sound
By Alec Banks
With a name like Bob Power, it's as if the universe was already planning for the aforementioned legend to have a legendary recording career. While most look to those standing in front of the microphone, or behind the boards in a production capacity as the vital cogs in the machine, the simply truth is that classic Hip-Hop albums can't become classics without those engineering the sessions.
Bob Power engineered The Low End Theory which is currently enjoying its 30th year in existence. But what exactly is the low end, and how did his own experience, relationship with Q-Tip, and experimentation lead to what we now all know and love? To truly understand, one has to understand his formative years.
Power grew up in Westchester, NY, did his undergraduate studies in St. Louis, and ultimately got his masters in jazz music in San Francisco.
"My education was important because it steeped me in the vocabulary of traditional music," he says. "It's analogous to reading a book and understanding it and enjoying it, and being able to diagram the sentence.
Like so many nurtured close to New York City, Power ultimately returned to the Big Apple in search of his own musical path. He admits he had a desire to be just like jazz guitarist, Tal Farlow.
"Tal Farlow was weird," Power admits. "He was a sign painter from New Jersey, and ended up in the late '50s through the' 60s being — to me and to guitarists — a real innovator in certain ways. Had a very unique harmonic approach, and always did what you [never] expected. But it was super beautiful and super good. He never got really widely recognized."
Power says there was an 8-10 year period where he had aims of a being a jazz musician for a living before he "got smart." He eventually found work producing television jingles in New York City at Caliope Studios.
It was one of the least expensive studios in town," he says. "Calliope was very different. And anytime you want to find what new music is bubbling up under the scene, go to the cheapest studio in town because that's the only place people can afford to work.
On one occasion, the engineer for his sessions went on vacation, and the owner asked Power if he wanted to fill in.
It was one of those things where I really didn't know enough to do it, but I was like, 'Okay. I can do that,'" he says. Because [during] all my recording, I was fascinated by the process, and I was always asking the engineers a lot of questions about what they were doing."
One of his early interactions with Hip-Hop came in the form of Tommy Boy-signees, Stetsasonic, who ultimately formed/contributed to notable acts like Gravediggaz and De La Soul.
I was fascinated by [Hip-Hop]," he says. "And in part, I was also fascinated by the technical challenges of doing it in those days. the way of constructing music that they were doing, especially with sampling, was fairly new to me. And the things we had to do technically to make that work at that primitive point were new to them. So it was a process of mutual education. And it was fascinating."
Power relied on his formal training where his sonics fit a soul music mold. He says he discovered very quickly that Hip-Hop engineering relied on producing a deeper sound reverberating near the dance clubs near Union Square.
"The low end was a totally new frontier," he says.
"If you look at the history of soul music and recordings, the sonics changed radically over time. So it was more just a musical sensibility about how the hierarchy of the musical elements should be. And fortunately for me, the drums were always driving the track, and that worked really well with Hip-Hop.