Nobody thinks about coming to Pittsburgh to make a hit record.
Hey, that’s their loss.
For planet-spanning rappers Wiz Khalifa and Mac Miller, it was at a cozy little music studio in an industrial section of upper Lawrenceville where they found the sounds that would put them on top of the music world.
ID Labs Productions doesn’t look like much on the outside. It has no sign on the door. Boards cover the windows — courtesy of some knuckleheads who decided to shoot out the glass with a BB gun. It’s just another anonymous unmarked building in an area full of them.
Step inside, though, and you’re more or less in Eric “E.” Dan’s living room, surrounded by his record collection. Conspicuously absent are platinum records, expensive booze on ice, or a restive entourage of bodyguards. Instead, the colors are warm, the lights are low. Cigarette smoke curls through the air. Posters and framed records of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Fela Kuti gaze down from the walls, as if lending their tacit approval.
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“It’s sort of an unassuming building — almost looks like a boarded-up, vacant place,” says Benjy Grinberg, president of Rostrum Records, the Pittsburgh-based independent label that took Wiz and Mac worldwide. “Behind those walls is a very home-like environment for the artists where they feel very comfortable. Basically, it’s our musical home. It’s really the creative hub of Rostrum Records in a lot of ways.”
“It’s been everything,” says Mac Miller. “ID Labs is the whole reason I’m doing what I’m doing now.”
Dan gave Wiz and Mac introductions to recording as very young teenagers — back in the days when they were better-known as Cameron Thomaz and Malcolm McCormick — and they’ve continued using ID Labs even after becoming superstars.
“I tried to take him (Wiz) under my wing in a musical sense, and taught him everything I knew,” Dan says. “He’s got enough talent that he would have figured it out on his own. But hopefully, I sped up the process somewhat.”
Wiz Khalifa’s last album, “Rolling Papers,” hit No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard 200 charts, and has sold more than 500,000 copies so far, driven by the smash single “Black and Yellow.”
Wiz spent several months at ID Labs last summer, assembling six songs that would later appear on the album alongside songs with brand-name producers like StarGate (Ne-Yo, Beyonce) and Jim Jonsin (Eminem, T.I., Usher). He will wrap up his national tour on Saturday in Pittsburgh at Trib Total Media Amphitheatre at Station Square.
“In a meeting with Atlantic (Records), he said he really wanted to go home and work with his guys,” Dan says. “The pressure got to be a bit much. He wanted to go where he was comfortable, and make music that he wanted to get out.”
Fame and fortune have their downsides, of course. Wiz mostly spends time in L.A. these days — his popularity in Pittsburgh has made recording at ID Labs exceedingly difficult.
“It was just getting to the point where it was ridiculous,” Dan says. “There were some girls who were hanging around outside. … I don’t think it would be possible (for him to record here) now. He can’t walk down the street (in Pittsburgh).”
Of course, now Wiz has his own recording studio, on a bus. The ID Labs crew now comes to him.
“That’s when he said he felt like he really made it,” Dan says. “When he got the studio bus.”
ID Labs has been here since 2004, nearly an eternity in the music business. Dan opened the studio after his hip-hop group, Strict Flow — which briefly went national in 2003, opening for 50 Cent, Ja Rule and others — stalled out. Along with collaborators like producer Big Jerm, and others who have come and gone, Dan doled out his hard-won expertise to just about any kid who knocked on the door.
The vast majority had ambitions that far outpaced their skills. Then, 16-year-old Wiz Khalifa stepped through the door.
“His maturity level for his art was amazing at that age,” Dan says.
Dan offered Wiz a job answering phones and sweeping floors in exchange for extended studio time.
“I don’t think he did the sweeping-the-floor bit for for more than a week or two,” Dan says.
A contact in New York City, Squirrel Hill native Benjy Grinberg, was starting a record label, Rostrum Records. Demos were sent his way, and suddenly, Wiz had a record contract — albeit with a tiny, unknown new label.
“Wiz had had this amazing raw talent, and he’s just such a likable, charismatic kid,” says Grinberg. “I met him when he was 16-17, in high school. He made a couple songs that I thought were really promising, but he sort of had this ‘X Factor’ — he could be a star.”
Although quite different musically, 19-year-old Mac Miller’s origins as a rapper follow a similar trajectory. This time, though, he had the path Wiz Khalifa blazed to follow.
“He (was) probably 15 when he started,” Dan says. “He had been coming for awhile. I don’t feel like I paid him a ton of attention. He started working with (ID Labs producer) Big Jerm. It hit me that ‘Wow, this kid’s got a lot of music in him.’
“Things happened amazingly fast. The affiliation with Wiz — every day it gets a little bigger.”
Mac’s hip-hop persona — as laidback guy intent on enjoying life — is a little different than the young man who puts in long hours at ID Labs. That man is a dedicated workaholic, a multi-instrumentalist who just bought his own drum kit, a student of hip-hop who knows its history at least as well as its present.
“I usually wake up around 2 or 3, and have breakfast or whatever meal there is, and head right down there — and stay there until 7 in the morning,” says Mac.
“On top of that being my place of work, it’s my favorite place to be. That’s probably why I end up working so much. Even if I don’t have anything planned to do, I’ll go down there to just sit — and usually, I’ll end up working on something,” he says.
Dan recently organized Mac’s hard drive and found evidence of his work ethic.
“He has about 300 songs kicking around in there,” Dan says. “I usually check out at about three in the morning, and he’s still here.”
Mac typically has two approaches — working on a beat from scratch with Dan and/or Big Jerm, or just listening to beats that have already been made, until one sparks his interest. Often, he’ll start recording very quickly.
“I like to begin able to record it right after I write it, you know?” Mac says. “Because you’re never as excited about a verse as when you first write it.”
There isn’t really a specific sound associated with ID Labs, but there is something distinctive about the music made there.
“It depends on the artist,” Grinberg says. “Mac has a different sound than Wiz, and they have different sounds than other people who’ve recorded there. But there’s a certain quality and a certain warmth that comes from that building — and from E. and the team that works there. It’s not your typical rap music or R&B music. It’s our own spin.”
Dan thinks some of the best tracks recorded at ID Labs include “This Plane” and “The Race” from Wiz Khalifa’s “Rolling Papers,” and Mac Miller’s “Best Day Ever.” Right now, Mac is working on a new album titled “Blue Slide Park” — a reference to the playground in Frick Park, known to every Squirrel Hill kid.
“He’s really centered around the idea of keeping this fun,” Dan says. He uses ‘playground’ as an adjective — ‘Let’s keep it playground,’ or ‘Make it more playground.'”
Dan, who plays guitar, bass and keyboards, is trying to assemble a live horn section for a track or two on “Blue Slide Park.”
Although the bulk of their money comes from recording, ID Labs also sells professionally-produced beats to aspiring rappers worldwide online. At idlabsbeats.com, one can check out and “lease” beats for prices ranging from $25 to $90.
“It lets younger kids without a budget get some great instrumentals,” Dan says.
Although the music industry has struggled badly in recent years, this little corner of it has somehow managed to thrive. Leaving Pittsburgh may no longer be necessary.
“It matters less now,” Dan says. “There’s so many ways to market yourself and get your music out there. I’ve been lucky. I wondered if I’d have to go to New York or L.A. It’s so much more intense there. For us to be here and not have the whole world in our face, and still be in the city. I don’t ever plan on leaving.”