“I Left With Nothing”: Eddie James, Tru Criminal Records, and The Making of AK Skills’ “East Ta West”
Long before his production earned him placements in HBO’s hit show Entourage, Syracuse native Eddie James developed a love of music at a young age while listening to his parent’s jazz records. “Jazz was always flowing through my house,” he says. “So I had an appreciation for guys like Cal Tjader, Bobby Hutcherson, Bob James, and Charles Mingus.”
Not content to merely listen, Eddie first tested the waters of a music career as an aspiring young DJ in the early 1980s. “I’ve been a DJ since I was 11 years old. I was the youngest DJ in my neighborhood,” he tells me.
Although DJing satisfied his early desire to be a part of the hip-hop culture emerging around him, it wasn’t long before songs like Grandmaster Flash’s “Flash to the Beat” piqued his curiosity about producing his own records. After discovering that Flash employed a Mattel Synsonics drum machine, Eddie begged his mom to buy him one of his own for a full year before she finally relented.
First starting with simple drum beats and pause-tapes, Eddie continued to evolve his production skills over the years. “You go from different phases of production, from having a drum machine to tracking cassette tapes through a line in your mixer,” he says. “My real first sampling started with my cousin Seth Marcel, who was actually an MC.”
“I’ve been a DJ since I was 11 years old. I was the youngest DJ in my neighborhood.”
As his his high school years came to a close, Eddie decided to play division one college football at Syracuse University. Despite a busy schedule he always found time to keep his passion alive by making beats with a Digitech 8000 foot pedal sampler and an Alesis drum machine. “I was 20 years old, a sophomore in college. I had a lot going on in my life,” he remembers. “But my love of music man, I just got it in when I could.”
More than merely get it in when he could, Eddie’s group Channel 3 found themselves working with a Def Jam artist who had two gold albums to his credit while they were still enrolled at Syracuse. “From 90 to 93 we signed a little management deal with Pete Nice from 3rd Bass,” Eddie says. “I was balancing division one football and going back and forth to the city.”
Though the management deal didn’t provide much in terms of actual releases, Eddie looks back on the time with Pete Nice as a valuable learning experience. He sat in on several sessions with producer Sam Sever, who ended up mentoring the young producer and showing him different tricks of the trade. “He had an MPC60. He was the first one who showed us how to use it.”
“I realized I couldn’t make it being four hours away from the city. I left. And I left with nothing.”
After Channel 3’s deal with Nice fizzled out, Eddie’s group took a trip to San Francisco’s Gavin Convention in 1993 and caught the interest of a small label in the process. Thinking that some better equipment could enhance their sound, the label owner bought them an MPC60 to help bring their career to the next level.
With a new sampler in hand, it wasn’t long before Eddie reassessed his prospects of breaking into the industry while still living in Syracuse. He decided he needed to relocate after graduating if he wanted a legitimate shot at being a producer. “I realized I couldn’t make it being four hours away from the city,” he says. “I left. And I left with nothing.”
When Eddie left Syracuse, he left the MPC60 behind for his Channel 3 groupmates and picked up an SP-1200 as a replacement. Although the sampler seemed less than ideal at first, his dissatisfaction with the “dirtier” sound of the 1200 made him pick up and AKAI S-950. Using the two samplers together in tandem proved a powerful combination. “The 950 was the next best thing to having the cleanness of the MP and it had the long samples,” he says. “It introduced me to really filtering sample, which I had to do manually on the MPC. With the 950 you can just sample however long, filter it, and do your drums with the 1200.”
“I had a lot going on in my life. But my love of music man, I just got it in when I could.”
As Eddie fleshed out his new setup and adjusted to his new surroundings, his college friends Alex Groothius and Lee “Skill” Resnick formed the label Tru Criminal Records. Serving as an in-house producer of sorts, he found himself collaborating on multiple songs with one of the label’s promising young artists AK Skills. Eddie was immediately struck by AK’s unique personality and his impeccable talent on the mic. “He was just always in performer mode,” Eddie recalls. “He used to speak in riddles basically. I thought of Nasty Nas when I heard him at first. It was all in the cadence. It was a Queens thing. He was a gifted MC — he had everything.”
During one of their initial sessions Eddie played AK some of his earliest beats that he made with the 950 and 1200. One of the tracks ended up becoming AK’s “East Ta West” — arguably Tru Criminal’s biggest record. “I remember playing beats for AK and he was like, ‘That’s the one right there,’” says Eddie.
Before they could record to the beat, there was one slight problem — Eddie had already promised his instrumental to another group. “Back in the day, you were so hungry to get on,” he explains. “I remember doing that beat originally for this group called Complete Unit, they were from Syracuse and good friends of mine. I gave them the beat but, you know, when you’re giving someone a beat and they pay you like $200, they don’t own that shit. I felt that way, they knew. So I was like, ‘I didn’t sign no paperwork, fuck it.’”
“It was all in the cadence. It was a Queens thing. He was a gifted MC — he had everything.”
Despite both artists eventually recording songs to the instrumental, there were no hard feelings on either side. When asked what he remembers most about the recording session for “East Ta West”, Eddie recalls “the thick blunt spoke,” with a laugh. “We recorded that record, I believe, at Unique Recording Studios, which was in the heart of Times Square. I just remember that session being really electric. I knew the record was gonna do alright, underground wise. I knew, just the way the sample fell.”
And despite the smoke-filled studio, Eddie remembers AK being all business once it was time to record. “AK was a consummate professional,” he says. “He never had a problem with takes. He knew his raps. He came in, and I’m telling you, this record was done verse-wise within an hour.”
The decision to let AK go in over the same beat as Complete Unit proved to be the right one and Eddie’s confidence in his collaborator was soon validated. Pete Rock — who used the same sample source as “East Ta West” on an INI record — started playing the two songs back to back on his Future Flavas radio show. And if that wasn’t validation enough, Beatminerz member DJ Evil Dee used the song to round out his portion of the classic 5 Deadly Venoms mixtape.
The co-sign of legends like Evil Dee and Pete Rock was very flattering, but it wasn’t a complete surprise — it more of a confirmation that Eddie’s label had some seriously unique talent. “AK was really gifted,” he says. “I knew that Lee and Skill were really on to something with Tru Criminal.”
“You never know who you’re touching with your music. But in hindsight, the appreciation is really gratifying.”
Despite only existing on mixtapes, vinyl, and YouTube rips, “East Ta West” and Eddie’s other productions from this time continue to live on in surprising ways. Through an MySpace interaction with Just Blaze several years ago he learned that Just was a fan of “East Ta West” and some other cuts from the Tru Criminal catalog. “That was the first time I actually thought, ‘OK, what we did back then was really special,’” he says.
After producing for the likes of CSI, Entorague, MTV Cribs, and the Oprah Winfrey Show , as well as continued stints DJing, Eddie is considering uploading some of the Tru Criminal back-catalog on digital distribution. Whether or not this happens, he remains grateful that his music continues to affect people from all over. “You never know who you’re touching with your music,” he says. “But in hindsight, the appreciation is really gratifying.”