Mark Drew and Lyle Harrison, the upstart production team known as The Millennials, are talking about using Lego bricks to build something unique in Houston. The duo calls Studio B of SugarHill Recording Studios home, where they're far too busy to literally be playing with toys. But, the analogy works because the foundation of what they're attempting to construct seems to be clicking easily into place just months into their venture.
"I used to have a bunch, where I would just build cities," says Drew of the multi-colored building blocks.
"It's ironic because I used to do the same thing," Harrison interjects.
"I allude that to production," Drew continues. "It all starts with one sound, or one block, if you will. And you build until you have an entire infrastructure. "
What they're trying to build is a specific Houston sound, something new but identifiable, the way chopped and screwed music emerged here in the 1990s. They feel they're making progress thanks to their respective backgrounds and the shared goal of creating a Houston music legacy. Drew might have the higher profile of the two, as a busy hip-hop artist with an avid following. Tonight, he and tourmate MIEARS will do a DJ set at MKT Bar before a quartet of shows across southeast Texas and Louisiana.
Harrison also has a music project, called Copaesthetic, after mastering multiple instruments over 20 years of playing. They met at a SoBe LASH show in January, bonded over music and basketball; by March the two had joined forces and, they say, became the first artists ever to rent Studio B on a long-term basis. Since then, they've spent most of their waking moments — and even some sleeping ones — in the historic building.
The reason is simple, Drew says.
"I don't want to do something where it sounds like every other trap beat or hip-hop beat. [Lyle] brings something I haven't seen or heard before, something like real composing, to those beats," he explains. "Even when they sound simple, there's a lot of stuff going on in those beats."
"The goal is to do really any kind of music and, whatever we do, to bring that quality and sound we're developing," adds Harrison.
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This might all sound very ambitious, but the team has been handed the keys to space in SugarHill. That alone should hint at their pedigree. For background, Drew grew up on the north side of Houston in a house that wasn't especially musical. He wasn't allowed to listen to rap until he was seven years old, he says. But, he wrote a Mother's Day poem for his mom and it was so well-received he kept experimenting with rhymes and expanding his knowledge by listening to Jay-Z albums. Once he was out of high school, Drew decided to study production at Houston Community College just to spend time in studios working on his music. One of his instructors was SugarHill's Chris Longwood.
Harrison is a self-taught musician from Deer Park whose mother was the church pianist. By the time he was six, he was noodling on the piano and later learned drums, bass, vocals and guitar, the instrument at which he may be most proficient. He estimates he's taught thousands of students music lessons and has parlayed all his musical knowledge and a growing interest in engineering into this production gig.
"It's been an entire-life thing for me," says Harrison, recalling some days when he'd spend 14 hours or more practicing. "I feel like I hear music in a very particular, very certain way."
Drew says they dubbed themselves The Millennials because they were both born in 1990 and because they want to give the term itself a more positive connotation.
"We came up in the 1990s with technology kind of developed," Harrison says. "We see all these cool technological things around us, but we also came from a time right before that kind of popped, so we bring a much more traditional flair [to music]."
Their musical sensibilities owe a lot to producers like Max Martin and Kanye West. Like those men, they want to work in different musical genres and in projects they don't front.
"As cool as it is having projects of our own, it'd be really cool having a sound of our own," Harrison says. "That's more timeless and transcends just being an individual artist."
Drew says the formula is pretty simple. They'll start with a 16- or 32-bar loop and add drum patterns and unique sounds to it, then sequence the track so that "it just sounds gorgeous all the way through."
Harrison says acts they work with get the benefit of Drew's traditional studio engineering experience and his own off-beat, home-studio approach. To date, the team has worked with SoBe LASH, Erva Carter, Rich Andruws, FlygerWoods, Hamond, Genesis Blu and Drew's longtime musical confidant, Guilla.
And it is work, Lego analogies aside. They spend hours on the job, sometimes crashing on a cot they keep in the office or upon the 1970s-era sofa in Studio B.
"My cousin came through here, he has no background in music, he just came by to hang out. It was his first time to ever be in a studio. Afterwards he told me, 'Hey man, this is boring,'" says Drew. "He said, 'I respect the art form, but I'm never coming back.' When it gets to this part, we really nerd out. Some mixes take like five or six hours; we're just sitting in front of computers and it gets real tedious."
They say they work hard because their goals are lofty. They want to create musical Web episodes from the space. They see a day when they tap into Houston's vast pool of musical talent to bring session players into the mix. For the moment, they want musicians to know that they can help with a very specific dilemma facing lots of independent artists.
"Sometimes, you're so talented as a singer — I just want you to be a singer and to free up time for you to be a singer," Harrison says. "Instead of, 'I want to be a singer but in order for me to shine I need a set of lyrics over a set of harmonies over a rhythm and a great melody behind it.' That's a lot to ask of one person."
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They want to help, not only to break artists but to create a sound for the city, the way it was done at Motown or Muscle Shoals. It's something owed to and long overdue at SugarHill, they said.
"I love the history of SugarHill, it's amazing, it's beautiful. But I love talking about the future, too, like what's gonna happen in ten years or 15 years based off the things we're doing today. I think that's important," Harrison says.
Drew looks around and peers into recording booths where Destiny's Child once held court.
"Years from now, instead of people saying, 'Oh, yo, Beyonce was here,' we want them to get goosebumps because of the stuff that we made here to contribute to this historical spot," he says.