Rich Keller on working with hip-hop royalty and the power of Augspurger Monitors

For more than 30 years, New Jersey-based engineer Rich Keller has been shaping the sound of hip-hop as we know it, applying his signature touch to many of the genre’s defining records. Headliner joins him for a chat about his storied career and why he always relies on Augspurger® Monitors.

“I can take it all the way back to one moment,” a smiling Rich Keller says as he recalls the moment music came into his life and set him on a path he continues to tread to this day. “It was Elvis. It was the late ‘60s and it was the comeback special. I was about five years old, and I was so inspired by him and the whole thing.”

Joining us from his home in New Jersey via Zoom, it is immediately evident that Rich Keller is going to make for excellent company. Having worked with a towering line-up of superstars from the world of hip-hop and beyond, he’s used to sharing stories and insights about the stars he’s worked with and the records he’s shaped. He does so with a smile and gusto that makes it feel like he's telling them for the first time.

Among those he has worked with include DMX, Swizz Beatz, De La Soul, PDiddy, Ruff Ryders, Nas, Miles Davis, Alicia Keys, Lil Wayne, Mariah Carey, Method Man, Snoop Dogg, Rick Ross, Ja Rule and many others. But even when describing his formative years, the natural storyteller in him shines through.

“After seeing Elvis I wanted to play guitar,” he continues. “I got into second grade and an accordion teacher came to the school and I had a free lesson. From then on it was just a ride. I started that at seven, by nine I was playing guitar, then I hit junior high and they put a trombone in my hand. In eighth grade I was getting into big band jazz and started playing bass.”

In the mid ‘80s, it was with bass that he made the first significant strides in his musical career. As a jobbing bassist, he was earning a living playing parties and weddings across the city. In his spare time, he was also dabbling with electronic music, specifically with his Roland TR707 and Fostex eight-track.

“I ended up meeting a guy who asked me to be an engineer for Pete Nice’s (3rd Bass) solo record,” says Keller, explaining his entry to the world of engineering. “The producers for that record were The Beatnuts who were coming up at the time. From there we became friends and The Beatnuts asked if I’d come with them to be their engineer. We went to Chung King Studios to finish their first EP, and from there they started remixing everybody. And I wound up meeting all those artists they were mixing.

“I never planned on becoming an engineer,” he continues. “I was in my 20s, doing alright playing bass. But the engineering started and I had an aptitude for it. I understood what artists were looking for, and I learned from the hip hop producers that there were no rules. And they knew I could play a lot of instruments, I could mix, produce vocals. You end up being indispensable.”

Given his eclectic musical background, how did he become so tightly intertwined with hip hop?

“I’ve thought about that,” he says before a pause. “Had I chosen the path of, ‘Hey, I want to be a music engineer’, it would have been different. But I learned on the job, so someone would be like, ‘Yo, make the kick harder, dog!’. Those were my instructions, so it was like, spin the knob! I had no formal training, I just did what I could to get the sound I needed.

“Had I specifically chosen to become an engineer I wouldn’t have made it, as there were already guys doing that thing in the rock world. With hip hop I was coming in with a new style of music and I was a new engineer that never told the producers, ‘no’. Some of them had been paired with old school engineers who would tell them they can't do certain things. I never told them no. And I never said no to any job, even if it was at the expense of my own sanity.”

To this day, he remembers the first big job that established him as an engineer of note amongst the hip hop scene.

“It was Method Man’s Bring The Pain,” he says. “I mixed that song, it was a platinum single. “It was one of those middle of the night calls. The manager of Chung King called me - RZA had been through a few engineers, it wasn’t working. He said, ‘Rich, this Wu Tang group is here, they want an engineer, you want to come in and try this mix?’. You never say no, so I show up, RZA shows me around and left me to work. He and Wu Tang were in the other room holding court, lights down, candles, it was Wu Tang central! An hour later I said come in, and he went through it, looking over what I did. He’s a pretty quiet guy. Then he goes to the kick drum – and I remember this so clearly, it was on the Neve VR60 – he took the frequency and dipped it to 60 and put the gain all the way up to the clip. I was like, ‘Damn, the speakers are popping!’. He says, ‘That’s how it’s supposed to be’. I said, ‘Close your eyes’, and I dialed it back just so that the speakers weren’t folding.

Augspurger Monitors give you the sound and feeling of the club or the stadium. Rich Keller

“In an hour we were done. He says, ‘How much do you charge?’. I said $1,000 a mix is my rate. He says, ‘Nah man, you were here for an hour. I’ll give you $400’. I said, ‘That’s it?’ And he wrote me the check and said, ‘Yep’. That was the last time I worked with RZA, on one of his biggest records.”

Before long, Keller was fielding midnight calls on a regular basis, becoming one of the go-to engineers of the era. As for what it was that set him apart from his peers, he highlights what he believes became known as something of a signature Keller style.

“The feedback I’ve always gotten is on the vocals and the bottom,” he says. “It’s like cooking. Everything has to culminate at the right moment, then you have to not overcook it. You have to instinctively know when to keep moving. I respond to the emotional content of the vocals and I try to ride it like a wave.”

Crucial in establishing that signature sound are the Augspurger® Monitors he has long been an advocate of. There is scarcely a defining hip hop record from the past three decades that hasn’t been influenced by these systems, such is their propensity for conjuring, as Keller puts it, a “godlike” mix of super low, potent bass, and ultra clear mids and highs.

“I was not a speaker-holic in the early ‘90s, but I remember the first room I went in with Augpsurger speakers was Sony Studio A and they had the 415 and dual 18 subs and that was great,” he says of his first experience. “By the late ‘90s they were in all the main rooms. Everywhere. With Augpsurgers it's really simple. The clarity of the mids and the highs and the power of the low end is just beautiful. It gives you that sound and feeling of being in the club or the stadium. And you could count on them. I have a pair of Solo 8s with the 12-inch subs on the bottom in my room and I love them, for the same reasons I did then.”

While Augspurger® Monitors are used on all manner of styles and genres of music, Keller believes that there is something intrinsic within the speakers that lends themselves perfectly to hip hop and rap.

“It’s really to do with the bottom,” he elaborates. “When I hear other speakers they have limiters and they crap out. They just don’t have the clarity. Augspurgers are clean, they have tons of headroom – I never have to crank it all the way up to get the volume I need – and you can get there easily.”

Before we part ways, Headliner asks if there are any notable moments or experiences that standout as being especially pivotal or memorable from his career so far. Fully aware that to even scratch the surface of this question he’d need an extra few days to work through the extensive catalogue of tales and stories at his disposal he points to one that exemplifies the essence of what he delivered so much success.

“OK,” he says with a glint in his eye. “I get a call at midnight from Sony asking if I can go over to Puffy’s house as he needs some help on a session. I get there and he’s all dressed up and goes, ‘Here’s the mix, here’s my assistants, you're supposed to be the best, so show me what you got’. So he leaves and goes to the club, and I quickly realise his board doesn’t work. The EQs are all funky, it’s just decaying. So I say, let’s move this down to Chiung King – he expects me to do my job, I need a place I can work. So I took the reels and the assistants say, ‘He’s not gonna like this!’. I don’t give a shit, he asks me to do my job so I’m gonna take control and make shit happen.

“I get there and at 4.30am doors swing open and in he comes with all his security and goes, Who the F**K do you think you are, moving my session?’. I said, ‘your board is fu**ed up, no wonder it sounds like shit’. He goes, ‘You’re digging a big hole, playboy’. I’m like, ‘Why you calling me playboy?’. He’s like, ‘Well, sir’, and I go, ‘Why sir? My name is Rich!’. We’re having this ego battle and he can see I’m a little bit older than him and he says, ‘I’m calling you sir because I respect my elders’. So I say, ‘Why don’t you call me sir playboy then?’ and everybody laughs and he says, ‘OK Rich, you’re gonna stand up to me no matter what, so let me hear what you got’.”

And did he like the outcome?

“He really liked the track,” he laughs. “And I spent the next five years working with him.”