Subject: Interview with Hex Hector

Being Hex Hector: Can A Piece of Hardware Change Your Life? It Can if it's a Grammy for Remixer of the Year. Dj TImes Sits Down With Hex Hector and Finds His Award-Winning Remix Secrets

Byline: By Dave Gadbois and Brian O' Connor
Published: June 2001 by DJ Times Magazine

New York City – The call came at about 5:00 in the afternoon on a Wednesday in February from his old friend, Austrian DJ/producer Peter Rauhofer.

Insert Arnold Schwarzenegger accent here: “Hex, you have won it!”

On the other end of the phone, Hex Hector, knowing full well Rauhofer’s reputation for pranks, was skeptical. “Oh really,” he said, hesitant.

Continue Schwarzenegger accent: “Yes, Hex, I am serious.”

“I thought Maurice Joshua was going to get it,” he replied, still not believing his fellow remixer.

Schwarzenegger: “Hex, it is true. They just announced it.”

Hex Hector hung up the phone, returned to the mixing board in his Manhattan recording studio, still not buying the news that Rauhofer had just told him: that Hector had just won the Grammy for Remixer of the Year, the fourth winner in the short history of the award, besting Deep Dish, Maurice Joshua, Richard “Humpty” Vission and, well, Rauhofer; and joining the ranks of Frankie Knuckles, David Morales and, well, Rauhofer. Believing that he had no chance at winning, and thinking Joshua’s high-profile remixes of Destiny’s Child and ’N Sync had earned him shoo-in status, Hector didn’t even attend the awards ceremony at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, opting to remain in New York and work on his studio tan.

But when his phone began ringing, and wouldn’t stop, Hector knew for sure that Rauhofer was serious. The congratulatory calls came in, each one validating 21 years worth of work, of a thousand nights DJing that didn’t end until sunrise, a thousand lugged crates of records, miles of cut tape, mega-gigabytes worth of stored data in his G4.

With the news, Hector, in some sense, and maybe only to himself, had arrived. So he did what any sensible 35-year-old would do after hearing such life-and-career affirming news. He called his mother.

“I told you so,” she screamed at the top of her lungs.

Hex Hector is a son of Puerto Rico via New York City, born in the East Village to immigrant parents and raised in Washington Heights, within earshot of the boogie-down Bronx. As a 14-year-old, Hector emulated DJ Charlie Chase—the Puerto Rican answer to Grandmaster Flash—and formed with eight of his DJ/MC friends the Little Man Crew. It was 1979, and hip-hop records didn’t exist, so, using a battery-operated Radio Shack mixer and Technics SLB-1 belt-drive turntables, they’d cut up “Walk This Way,” “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now” and “Good Times” at vacated-apartment parties.

Today, the former members of LMC either work straight jobs, have families, are serving time in prison or they’re dead. The only one who thought of DJing as a potential life choice, who at the age of 15 scored an after-hours gig on 149th Street’s Viva Disco, who became the toast of the downtown Manhattan DJing set at Nell’s and Irving Plaza, who began remixing under the tutelage of C + C Music Factory’s Robert Clivilles, and who eventually reached the apex of the remix craft on February 21, 2001, when Peter Rauhofer delivered the news of the Grammy, was Hex Hector.

It had been a long climb, eight years, in fact, since he first teamed with his short-marriage Spike Productions partner Darren Friedman and remixed Patti LaBelle’s “The Right Kind of Lover.” The pivotal remix, of course, the club anthem that was supported by Junior Vasquez, Jonathan Peters and Frankie Knuckles at his former Twilo residency, was Pulse’s “The Lover That You Are,” the one that Hector remixed with Ernie Lake and Bobby Guy of (later) Soul Solution. Its radio-friendly and club-accessible stamp was consistent with much of the music Hector was spinning at his residency at Club USA, the mainstream, mid-town New York City nightspot.

That sound caught the ear of Arista’s A&R rep Hosh Gurelli, who in 1994 hired Hector, Lake and Guy to remix Toni Braxton’s “Un-break My Heart,” which became an enormous crossover hit. From there, Hector broke off on his own, eventually scoring big with Deborah Cox’s “Things Just Ain’t the Same” and making him an A-List remixer.

Flash forward five years, 150 remixes, a new partnership with programmer Mac Quayle, a shiny Grammy sitting on a shelf in his studio. Where does Hex Hector go now?

“I think the demand for him will increase even further,” says David Jurman, senior director of dance music at Columbia Records, which last year benefited from Hector’s remix of Lara Fabian’s “I Will Love Again.” “I particularly see foreign labels increasingly wanting to hire him because of his well-deserved Grammy award.”

But can a Grammy really change things? We sat with Hex to find out.

DJ Times: What was your first move from being a DJ to opening up your studio?

Hex Hector: When I started, I didn’t actually have my own studio. It was more of hustling in the streets trying to get work. Just pulling up my bootstraps and saying, “Hey, this is where I want to go, I know that this DJ thing is only going to take me so far.” I knew the next logical progression would be production. When I started, I had no idea what the hell I was doing or how I was going to do it. Fortunately, a good friend of mine, Robert Clivilles, from C + C Music Factory, had been coming out to a lot of the parties I had been doing during the time he’d really hit it big with C + C Music Factory and he invited me down to try and do a mix on this Lisa Lisa record that he was mixing. So I’m like, “Sure. I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, but if I want to learn this thing I should go and give it a shot.” So I went down to the session and he had a programmer there, Alec Friedman and a keyboard player, Fred McFarland, and we just went in there and did this mix. I had this idea about what I wanted it to sound like and I just asked the guys to do what I wanted them to do. I was feeling out ideas and coming up with concepts to see if my ideas actually worked. I’d probably say they didn’t, because they were just OK. Her record was just OK and I don’t even know if it was ever released, but it was an interesting learning experience.

DJ Times: How long had you been DJing before you decided to progress to the next level?

Hector: I started DJing in 1979. I was 14. My first studio thing started out as editing, doing tons of edits at home and creating these remixes of records that were out at the time. This was around ’86 or ’87. I actually got played by some big DJs at the time—Louie Vega and Ron Ricardo. I got some sort of mastermix of Eric B.’s “Paid In Full.” I was just using eccentric sorts of records that weren’t heard at the clubs and mixing them with the club vibes at the time and doing all these crazy multi-edits and making it sound like a whole new thing. A lot of it got bootlegged.

DJ Times: Did you use a 4-track or were you cutting tape?

Hector: I was cutting tape. Straight-up 2-track techniques—reel-to-reel, ¼-inch. People used to tell me that I was nuts because I didn’t know that people were already on ½-inch and stuff like that. But I was doing ¼-inch and people would be like, “I could never do that.” I ran into a big editor at the time and he was like, “How the hell do you do that? It’s like editing spaghetti.” That’s how I kind of got the first bug of studio editing at the time and studio work and how it was going down. But there was a long lapse between that and my first actual full-on studio gig with remixing and stuff. That transition took another six years before I actually went into the studio and tried to do something from scratch.

DJ Times: How many remixes have you done?

Hector: At this point, I’d estimate around 150-175.

DJ Times: Of that, how many were not pegs?

Hector: I was very fortunate. Unlike a lot of people who are trying to break into the business, I got in from a different angle. Remixers typically do underground tracks and put them out on indie labels and then get noticed that way by major labels. Me, on the other hand, I was in for the record pool and at the time, this guy, Darren Friedman, who was director of the pool, had lots of friends and contacts in A&R and stuff through his position. So he had an opportunity to do a record, which was “The Right Kind of Lover” by Patti LaBelle. His good friend Bobby Shaw was A&R on the project and said, “Hey if you want to do it, you should get yourself someone who knows their way around the studio.” And at that point I had done a couple of records—that Lisa Lisa and a Suzanne Vega, all for C + C, for very little money, almost free. So I guess that was me cutting my teeth. So he hadn’t done anything before, and he knew I had, so we got together and that was how Spike Productions was born. He was my actual first remix partner.

DJ Times: Congratulations on your Grammy win. Do you still do spec mixes?

Hector: I actually just did one, right before the Grammy, about a month or two before that. It was a Tamia record, “Stranger In My House.” I was driving home one day, after seeing my girlfriend, and this song, this ballad, comes on the radio, and I was like, “Holy shit. This is the freakin’ jam!” I knew the voice right away because I had done one of her records before. So I called up the label and they were like, “Well, we’re not really planning to do anything with it, but give it a shot.” That’s it. Done. Next thing you know I see a double pack — Thunderpuss and Maurice Joshua. I guess through my initiative they kind of went for it. I don’t think they thought the single had potential. I heard something in it. I heard a quality.

DJ Times: Because the remixer Grammy is still new, are the labels giving you the respect that a Grammy deserves? Are you still the bastard child of the industry?

Hector: I think it’s not too early to know. The funny thing is, that before the Grammy I was ridiculously busy, no shortage of work. The Grammy certainly did something to make things more possible. I’m already starting to see the effects of it, since offers came in almost the day after. I need three of me.

DJ Times: I’ve heard rumors that some producer/remixers have used surrogates and then put their own name in it, just because they’re so busy. What in you makes you not do that?

Hector: I have to have my stamp on it. I have two teams of people that I work with now. I have a full-time partner, Mac Quayle and another full-time partner, Dezrok, who I do projects with almost simultaneously. I split myself between those two guys on a constant basis. I’m able to get high output and meet some of the demands that these record companies put on me. I don’t really do everything, despite popular opinion. I do a lot but I don’t do everything. It’s impossible.

DJ Times: So with “Stranger In My House,” you heard it and you asked your manager to follow up on it?

Hector: No, I called direct. A guy over there, his name is Merlin Bobb, at Elektra. I had just done a Natalie Cole for them, so I was familiar with the label. So they sent a DAT with the vocals on it—the lead vocal, which is just one main singer on one side and the backgrounds on the other. They have to be dry. There can’t be no reverb or anything or echo or delay because eventually you’re going to time-stretch these things and if there’s anything it’ll affect the quality of the vocal.

DJ Times: When you say parts, you mean individual percussion, basslines?

Hector: No, just the vocal parts. I say parts because it’s not actually an a cappella. It’s vocals separated from each other. Again, if it’s a full a cappella, you won’t be able to mix it properly, you’ll just get what they’ve done at the studio.

DJ Times: Do these vocals come in mono or stereo?

Hector: The lead vocal is usually in mono because it’s just one voice. The backgrounds are stereo.

DJ Times: And you are a Mac user?

Hector: Total Mac junkie. I like how easy they are to use and the savvy of them and the speed and the power. We do a lot of computer-intensive programs. I have a G4.

DJ Times: The a cappella now is loaded into the program. What did you load this particular program into?

Hector: Well, this one was done in Logic.

DJ Times: What’s your next move?

Hector: Once we determine what the tempo of the original song is, then we determine what tempo we want to take it to. That one was a half speed, so the original tempo was something like 60 BPM. We bumped it up to 65.

DJ Times: What’s a half-speed?

Hector: Basically, the vocal is playing at half the speed of what the track is playing at. For example, if you get a vocal that’s 60 BPMs, then we program the drums at 120 BPM. So this particular project went from 60 to 65 and then we took it to 130. A lot of the ballads that work as dance records are normally done at half-speed. What you’re hearing is actually in its ballad form, a slow sort of half-speed thing—but when you get the drums going double-time it sounds natural. It doesn’t feel like it was a ballad. So we find our master tempo and we time-compress the vocal. With this one we used Logic, because it wasn’t a far jump, just five more BPMs, so using Logic is fine for that. When we need to do bigger jumps, Steinberg’s got a program called TimeFactory and they handle bigger jumps a lot better. It takes a lot longer though. When you’re doing five BPMs faster, it takes about 5-10 minutes to time-compress it.

DJ Times: Do you time-stretch the vocal and then the chords separately? Or do you put it all together and then time-stretch it?

Hector: It’s all done separately. They’re both separate entities. They have to be because…you could technically do them together, but I always request them separate for sonic and fidelity reasons, because you want to give the backgrounds and the leads their own attention. They’re two different parts completely, so they’re going to require different EQs and reverb settings and delay settings.

DJ Times: Now we’ve time-compressed and it’s at the tempo that you want. What’s the next step?

Hector: The next step is coming up with percussion and rhythm and getting the drums up. Getting the groove going. I go for different sources for drums. I never use stock drum sounds or drums that come pre-programmed in synthesizers or with the modules. They just don’t do it for me, they’re very...what they are, and that’s how they sound. I like to tweak our drums as best we can.

DJ Times: Is there a foundation drum kit that you use? Like a modified 808 or 909?

Hector: I don’t use any drum machines for my drums, they’re all completely sampled. Nothing is stock. I’ve used things from 808 or 909 drums that I’ve sampled or other machines that I’ve sampled. Usually we load up the Akai S-6000 and we sample CDs, and I’ll use old records that I’ve done, we’ve re-sampled and used in different ways. There’s tons of sources for percussion stuff. I don’t like to limit myself with my kits. I don’t even like to use the word “kit” when I come up with drums and stuff. A lot of times we do live stuff. We’ll have percussionists come in and do things. There’s tons of ways to come up with drums. But I find drums sound best when you sample them and you get to tweak them and come up with your own sound. That to me is the way to do it. I don’t really use programs like Acid because to me it’s too simple, you load in your loops and then they get right on. I like the challenge of tuning my loops and running them through filters and things and giving them these eerie effects and pairing up two or three kicks to give a dramatic in-your-face kick. To me the sampler works best.

DJ Times: When we hear a Hex Hector production, we’re going to be hearing different percussion and not signature percussion. For example, Armand Van Helden, every time you hear him, you know that it’s an Armand song. With you, you take it differently so there’s not going to be a signature for you or...

Hector: Well, I think I have a somewhat signature Hex sound—certainly when it comes to certain styles. I tend to be all over the place with my mixes but I think there’s somewhat of a significant Hex sound. I don’t tend to go for the same drum sounds and keyboard sounds. But there’s definitely a sound there. There has to be. It’s who you are, so you have to have a definitive way that you do things. For me, I need to vary the palette as much as I can and try to keep things interesting for me, because I work so much. I like to try and mix it up and get as many sources as possible.

DJ Times: Now that we have the percussion built, where do we go next? At that point do you structure your song?

Hector: The song pretty much is how it is. Before, I actually missed a step because before the drums go in and we time-stretch, we sort of line the vocal up how the song is originally, [the record company’s] arrangement. Once that’s lined up to a click drum or just a simple drum check, then we stretch it. We usually dictate the arrangement by what’s given to us, which is usually a radio mix. Just the song. Once the drums are in and the vocals are laid out over the top of the drums, then the next part is laying down the keys and the bass rhythm and stuff.

DJ Times: Is that when you do your bassline?

Hector: Not always, mostly though. But sometimes there’s a keyboard idea that I hear and we’ll lay that down. Sometimes the bass goes in first because obviously it’s part of the groove and goes with the drums. I’m not totally locked into starting with a bass, though a lot of times it does start that way.

DJ Times: Do you use stock synth sounds? Do you layer your own synths?

Hector: The thing is that the synths that I use for basses, they’re tweakable. The Supernova has lots of front-panel buttons so you can take a stock Supernova sound and tweak it to your heart’s desire until you get something completely different. That or Nord and the Virus are great bass sources. They all have lots of twiddley knobs so you can shape and do what you need to do with your sound.

DJ Times: Are there modules that you use for your leads? Have you found any that you like?

Hector: There’s no one definitive piece. There are a couple of things. Those very modules that I just mentioned can also double as leads. I find that the Roland JP880 is a great lead sounding synth module, also because you can take their stocks and tweak them as well. I don’t really like coming up with lead sounds and then just using the factory presets. That never happens. We tend to just really tweak all of the sounds that we use.

DJ Times: Are there any vintage pieces in your collection?

Hector: There’s a couple. We’ve got a Roland MKS50, which is somewhat vintage. We had a Yamaha DX7 that we’ve been using. Of course the Juno 106, which is a standard vintage keyboard. That’s about it. I think a lot of the newer keyboards that are out now can really emulate some of those old analog sounds, though they’ll never do it quite the same, they’re very close.

DJ Times: Now that we have our percussion, our bassline and our leads all put together, what’s the next step?

Hector: Once the percussion and the bass is in, then it starts to get a could go anywhere. It doesn’t necessarily come up with a lead or rhythm part. We might have an idea for pads to kind of smooth out the rhythm, depending on the kind of song we’re doing. If it’s a little more edgy or trancey we might try to get something a little more percolating or something. And after a sort of signature sound is established, then we start going for all the little niceties. The icing on the cake. Keyboard effects, sound effects that are used to make it sound a little more interesting. Rolls that connect the parts together because vocals are set up to be verse, pre-chorus to chorus. So you have to have little things to bridge those gaps and feel the sections. So all of the little things go in once you have the body of the song, which is the main vocal part. We like to do it that way—you don’t really lay out an arrangement just then. We work on the song in its original form and get the body to sound pretty close to what it’ll sound like on the record and then that’s when the arrangement begins.

DJ Times: One thing I noticed about this particular mix is that there’s multi-builds in it. You don’t just build up to a break and then up to a peak and then come back down. It’s a wave. There’s ups and there’s downs...What gave you that feeling? I notice more and more of your mixes are starting to sound like that.

Hector: That’s always been my thing. We spend more time on the arrangement than anything else, really. I mean, coming up with sounds and things like that, that’s relatively quick in comparison to mixing and arranging. That’s the real time consumer right there. Taking you on a journey, it’s like when I DJ. I like doing the peaks and valleys in a constant wavelength. I enjoy bringing a crowd up and down. Throw ’em a curveball. Play them something that they wouldn’t normally expect, like a downtempo record. That’s how the philosophy of the arrangement comes in to play. That’s how I do my DJ sets—build the crowd. So I try and do that with every mix that I do, I try to take them on a mini-journey. So what you’re hearing on record is my life and times as a DJ. How the crowd inflates and influences me. That’s how I do these things.

DJ Times: When you sit down and arrange these things, are you trying to play to a specific crowd or are you just doing what your feel is? Are you trying to market that to somebody?

Hector: I can’t think of records in those terms, as far as marketing to a specific crowd. I’ve had a lot of success with radio with the work that I’ve done, but that’s also the songs that I get more than anything else. I just do what feels right. I’m really into feeling out what the song is doing, what it’s doing to us, as people, as humans, what’s affecting our psyche. That sort of dictates how the sound of this record is going to be. With my work, you can see that it’s all over the place. I’ve done trance, I’ve done circuit gay house records, I’ve done commercial radio records, I’ve done underground funky UK filter track kind of sounds. I’ve done classic garage type of records. It’s all over the place and that’s what keeps me interested in doing what I do. It’s because I like to experiment and do different things. With me, the sky’s the limit. I’m not opposed to anything.

DJ Times: We’ve laid down everything and we’ve built the structure of the song and the combination of the song and we’ve added the icing on top of the cake. What’s the next step?

Hector: Arrangement. Putting it together and creating an intro. Sticking it into grooves between verses and choruses. Coming up with a break and an outro. All that isn’t in there yet. Right now when we develop a song it’s all about the song, coming up with the sections of the verses. Coming up with the sense of the chorus, coming up with the bridges. The next step is coming up with an intro, making it cohesive and bringing it to that journey that I was talking about earlier. Making it so that it sucks you in. Some of my intros are very DJ-friendly, so I lead off with a kick-drum. Some of them are not, some are these minute and a half, ambient intros. I can’t explain why that happens, it’s just what I experience in a song. That’s the real magic, that’s where it all happens, at the arrangement phase. That’s where all the bells and whistles get thrown in.

DJ Times: Now it’s complete, but not mastered.

Hector: After the arrangement, it’s time for a mix, taking the song and EQing all of the individual parts and making sure that the vocal is loud enough in certain sections and doing all of the levels and making sure that keyboards aren’t stepping all over the vocals or vice versa. Just making it sound as great as possible before it goes to mastering.

DJ Times: People tend to have the most difficulty with this stuff. What things do you do to better educate yourself about levels?

Hector: That’s a real challenging step. That’s something that I don’t really get into myself. I don’t enjoy mixing, I don’t enjoy the process of it. I think the guys that do it are geniuses. I don’t know how they do it, but they do and they’re really great at it.

DJ Times: The people who do the final mixdown...Do you use anything to bump that up, like a program or something?

Hector: Yeah. Once the final mix is done and we get the levels that we like and the mix is done, we run it through a TC Electronics Finalizer. That just sort of brings the levels up and gives it that extra punch that’s needed before it goes into “official mastering.”

DJ Times: From receiving the initial DAT to sending the DAT out, how long does full production take you?

Hector: It varies. We used to work ridiculous hours and when we were doing that, a year and half ago, it would take us about a day or two to do a mix. From soup to nuts. That was working 12- to 16-hour days, though, on average. Now we’re trying to take a little more reasonable pace and trying to figure out that there is more than just making deadlines. So we take a little longer now. Right now the average is about four days. We’ve doubled the time it took us before. It’s still relatively quick. I think four days is pretty reasonable.

DJ Times: When the label comes to you, do they give you a deadline? How real is that deadline?

Hector: There’s always a deadline with record companies and it’s always yesterday. That’s the rule of thumb. “Hex, we got this mix, but we need it yesterday.” So I say OK, and they get it when they get it. Most of the time they’re pretty happy with it. I’ve never run into a time when I was late with a project and it was detrimental.

DJ Times: Everybody says that they don’t do it, and record companies say they hate it, but nonetheless, the best bootleggers seem to get work from higher level record labels, so it seems to be the unspoken rule that if you put out a bootleg that’s unbelievable, you’re going to be working for a record label the next week. What’s your feeling about that?

Hector: Yeah, at the end of the day, yes, that happens. If someone did a bootleg and it was something that the labels didn’t think of and they’re like, “Duh. We should’ve done that...” then they’re going to go to the source and say they did a great job and that it was a great record. A lot of it is more like an eye-opener more than anything else. Some of it doesn’t always come out as bootlegs. They’re done on commissions or done because someone has heard something on an album and they thought it would make a great mix and they’ll go out and do it and give it to a couple of DJs and create a buzz, though never fully intending on putting out bootlegs. That’s another way to break into the business.

DJ Times: Because you’re wearing two hats, a producer and a DJ, do you think there’s something wrong with a kid who doesn’t have all of the contacts you might, or access to music you might, who downloads something on Napster that a person who went to a convention would get anyway if he was on a list? I’m not talking about a non-working person, I’m talking about someone who’s working two or three nights in a club and is helping promote the records himself. Do you make a split? Is Napster then bad or good?

Hector: I’ll get a lot of flak for this, but Napster has been a good thing for me. It’s helped me in several ways. There are times when I needed specific records to get vibes from. I did this record for Enrique Iglesias called “Sad Eyes” and I had this idea for it, a real sexy kind of deep brooding vocal and I had this idea so I was thinking of a Chris Isaak lick in “Wicked Games” but I didn’t have the record so I went to Napster and got “Wicked Games” and I was able to cop the vibe from this slide guitar thing.

DJ Times: What is your biggest mistake you’ve made with your studio?

Hector: With regards to the studio, the mistake was getting involved in the rat race, meaning the equipment upgrade nightmare, like I’m a junkie. I gotta have the latest of the latest and know what’s going on all of the time. I got to find out about all of the latest gear.

DJ Times: If I were a beginning remixer, what would you suggest for me to do? What would be my next step?

Hector: I think school is a waste of time and money, sitting there learning theory. As a beginner, go out and buy some basic gear for relatively little money—you can get an Akai MPC2000, it’s great, a sequencer and a drum machine, everything you need to build a record. Learn one piece really well. The Akai teaches you the basics of sequencing, sampling and MIDI, the three basics of how to make a good track the rest is all up to you. At the end of the day it’s you that makes the record, not the equipment.

DJ Times: OK, you’ve won the Grammy…now what?

Hector: I’m preparing myself for the onslaught that’s already happened. Before the Grammy, I was no slouch, I was busy as hell. But since then it’s become more apparent that stuff’s gone crazy and they want stuff done. Stuff for people that had never called, stuff for some people that hadn’t called in a long time.

DJ Times: Can it make a difference in terms of money for you?

Hector: Money-wise it can make a difference. I’m not sure that’s exactly what I want to do, because I get complaints that I’m already too expensive as it is. I’m comfortable with what’s going on right now financially, but the Grammy will allow me to get a bit more picky, because of the amount of work that’s coming in. But I’m more interested in doing great work, rather than milking a quick Grammy buck.

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