Last Word with KC Porter, Part 1
KC Porter is a multi Grammy-winning producer who made a name for himself producing Ricky Martin. He has worked on Spanish language versions for hit artists like Michael Jackson, Boyz II Men, and Toni Braxton. He also produced Carlos Santana’s Supernatural. We’ll cover Ricky and Santana next issue.
JMC Academy hosted an exclusive masterclass tour with Grammy-winning producer KC Porter in October, 2017. We interviewed KC to provide you with a taster of the wealth of insights he has to offer producers, engineers and musicians of all stripes. Find out more about JMC Academy’s wealth of audio and music business courses at jmcacademy.edu.au
My father was an arranger all his life, he’d played since he was a kid. He would arrange jingles and TV shows like Lassie here in Hollywood. My mother also worked for the I Love Lucy show. They were entertainment parents. My dad had his own studio at home and was always in there. I grew up in that studio. I didn’t know any different.
When I was seven, my parents took me, my brother and sister down to Guatemala. I lived my really important years between seven and 17 down there.
My dad was very taken by the Baha’i faith, whose principal belief is in the oneness of humanity and religion. They just decided to go somewhere they could help share that.
My life changed forever. I remember a hippy guy who lived next door to us would get into his old truck and play old Santana. My sister’s boyfriend used to play me Earth, Wind & Fire records, I remember a song called Brazilian Rhyme. It was really cool, but it didn’t have much Brazilian to it. My favourite song was Serpentine Fire, and I met Maurice White a bunch of years back before he passed. I asked him about that song, I said, ‘That song is insane. What were you guys thinking?’ He just looked at me and said, ‘It’s a tango, man!’ It keeps the groove going throughout the track, so you don’t feel like it has the stops, but it still has the tango syncopation throughout.
My parents are from California, I have no Spanish or Latin blood at all. I just grew up there and spent my formative years there. I feel like a Latino inside, my humour is Latino, and my American wife doesn’t get it.
When I came back to the US, I wanted to make music. I learnt more about rhythms and different musical styles when I came back to the US. Guatemala did have its own music, but it was more folkloric marimba music, kind of like my father’s job; straight ragtime. My dad found marimba music, swung it up, and made a bunch of records with all the classic marimba songs in Guatemala. His band was a big hit. He’ll be 93 in November, and though he doesn’t play with them anymore, his band is still really popular in Guatemala.
What got my foot in the door in the US was making records with Latin artists, but with an LA sound. It was groundbreaking because people from Latin America were sending out their songs to be produced in other countries like Spain or Mexico. No one was really making any records in the US, because there weren’t any producers doing it.
Then I started doing Spanish language versions for artists like Janet Jackson, and one thing led to another and I was producing the biggest Latin artists as well as artists like Bon Jovi, Brian McKnight, Boyz II Men and Michael Jackson. Everyone wanted to do stuff in Spanish.
I would make a mockup of the song in Spanish and give it to them beforehand so they could learn the song. Then when they came to the studio they’d have a little bit of an idea. We’d still go line by line, syllable by syllable and work at it. It’s a lot of work.
Because Spanish was my second language, I understood how to convey it to an American learning Spanish. I know the techniques to get the words right.
I remember Boyz II Men showed up in the studio, and I asked them if they had learnt it, and they said, ‘No man, we didn’t even get to hear it yet.’ Sometimes we’d get artists who had some Latino blood. Toni Braxton did such a good job that it became a big hit in a lot of Latin territories, even topping charts in Spain. Boyz II Men had big hits in Latin America, and their R&B style had a big influence on Latin pop. Now you listen to Latin pop and it has an R&B sensibility.
I think people in the US didn’t realise the potential for sales of Latin music. I remember when José Feliciano and Vikki Carr were the staples of Latin music and any time the Grammys came around they were always winning. It was like, ‘wait a minute, there’s a lot more out there then just those guys.’
If you could break Mexico with a Latin hit, that was great. South America was a little more in their world, so was Spain. In the beginning it was connected, but it wasn’t like it is now. Back then, you had to send physical records. Whatever the DJ wanted to play, they had to find it.
If you sounded Latin, yet made an American pop record, why couldn’t you reach multiple audiences?
The guy who plugged me into A&M records started the Latin division with A&M’s founder, Herb Alpert. Herb had vision and was always looking for the next thing. This guy came along and said, ‘Let’s start a Latin division,’ and started it off by signing a band called Maná, which became big throughout Latin America. Much later on, I ended up producing their big single on Santana’s Supernatural and it won Record of the Year at the Latin Grammys. It was interesting how it came full circle years later.
I’m surprised by Despacito, because it’s in Spanish and it’s a global phenomenon. I think having Bieber on there made a difference. It goes to show that people don’t care, a record can be fresh. Everything’s a shot in the dark, you put your soul and energy into it and hope for the best.
In a world of borders and wall-building, we’re trying to break down that mentality with music that unites.