Building an Empire: Up-and-Coming Local Hip-Hop Producer Finds New Home at Ante Up Audio

A few years back, Ante Up Studios was the hot place to record. Bands came from near and far to use the analog board there and guys like Dave Matthews would swing by to get a little studio work done when he was in town. The studio, which paired state-of-the-art equipment with vintage gear, also hosted numerous concerts in its 2,800-square-foot Graphite Lounge, a concert space that had a lighting rig that could blow your eyeballs out.

Ante Up recently hit hard times and most of the vintage gear is now gone; the hallways are littered with speakers and old Macintosh computers. But the place on West 36th Street is coming back to life. Local producer Brian Empire has set up shop in a small room near the back and is starting to make some noise.

One recent afternoon, he took from a break from working on a beat with his friend and co-worker, the local producer Vikadin, to talk about what he hopes to accomplish now that he's at Ante Up; the 24-year-old spoke about how an alliance with local rapper Machine Gun Kelly has helped open doors to what looks to be a very promising career.

Empire, who grew up in Strongsville, originally thought he'd play the saxophone, which he picked up while still in middle school. His parents accused him of not practicing enough but he still made first chair while in symphonic band. But at one point in high school, he traded in his sax for an electric guitar. And he's never looked back.

"I started playing guitar and would jam in my room trying to learn Nirvana and Metallica and Guns N' Roses," he says. "I started writing my own riffs. I did that type of thing and played in a couple of local bands."

While he was still working as an intern at the locally based Lava Room Recording, he joined Salt the Wound, the last of the aforementioned "local bands." They asked Empire to join after they reformed, and since he had set up a studio inside Lava Room Recording, he was able to produce the album he played on too.

"My friends were in the band and I toured with them and did tech and roadied," he says. "They needed a guitar player and I figured I could do that and produce their record. I did that and produced their album Kill the Crown."

He started working with more bands in the wake of the release but began drifting away from the hard rock and metal.

"It wasn't exactly what I wanted to do," he says. "I was also doing hip-hop behind the scenes and I ended up working more in the hip-hop scene and getting into that fairly quickly."

Around that time, he met Machine Gun Kelly when he was working on his mixtape Lace Up. Empire sat in on a session that MGK did at Lava Room and did a bit of engineering on the ballad "Been Through It All."

"That relationship grew over time," he says of his connection with MGK. "They would call me when they needed a studio to come to for a big session. It was like calling a friend up."

Through MGK, he started getting more work. He produced a few songs that R&B singer Keyshia Cole recorded at her basement studio in the Westlake home where she lives with Cavs star Daniel Gibson. Then, when Young Jeezy wanted to collaborate with MGK, he recruited Empire to cut the song.

"That was a really cool session," he says. "He came into the studio after midnight and wrote the song on the spot."

Empire also produced most of the tracks on Black Flag, the well-received MGK mixtape that came out earlier this year. Recently, Empire started playing guitar in Machine Gun Kelly's band. He also produced Tech N9ne/Kendrick Lamar's "Fragile," a sparse, Portishead-like tune with a jazzy riff over which Tech N9ne and Lamar rap. And he's wrapping up production on the debut from local 17-year-old rapper Ezzy. While he says he doesn't have a particular sound or aesthetic, Empire says his diverse musical background has helped him find steady work and co-exist in very different musical worlds.

"I want to get more involved in the production side of things," he says. "I just really enjoy writing music. In the next couple of years, I want to be working side by side with different artists on their records. I grew up listening to Blink-182 and Van Halen. I also listened to Beastie Boys. I was listening to a whole bunch of stuff. I really like writing melodies. I was always writing songs with bands and now I'm doing that but just in a different manner."

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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