A rare poster of John King and the Cats advertising a show in Lower Manhattan during the late seventies.
Dubbed the Abbey Road of Hip-Hop, Chung King Studios is probably more responsible for the global popularization of New York Hip-Hop than any other institution in the city. And with names like the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, ODB, and Nas under its belt, it also served as a hotbed of innovation that helped define the sound of an era. That’s why it’s a wonder that the studio has not garnered the level of visibility it deserves.
That’s not to say that that the studio has gone totally unheralded. Its new location is still a widely sought-after facility that continues to host the likes of Jay Z and Beyonce. But considering that it was where classics like Illmatic and Raising Hell were born, it would be impossible to gain a complete understanding of the history of hip hop without first understanding the history of Chung King Studios and the work of founder/engineer/creative mastermind John King.
The catalyst for Chung King Studios began in 1979 when John King started his own record label, Secret Society Records, an enterprise that the studio’s website purports to have cost under $2000 to create. Before getting behind the control board though, King began by trying his own hand at playing music. He brought his group John King & the Cats to New York in 1973. By the end the decade, he had recorded a single (a rare copy of which could be seen here) and was playing such seminal New Wave clubs as CBGBs. But his disinterest in touring led him to transform Secret Society Records into a full-time operation. As he puts it: “The problem is is I started touring, and I don’t like touring. I was a studio rat since I was eight years old.”
The studio’s original location was on top of an old Chinese restaurant on Varick Street. Legendary rock/hip hop producer Rick Rubin famously renamed the studio Chung King’s House of Metal in honor of the restaurant below it and by 1986, the studio was officially christened Chung King Studios. It’s no surprise that Secret Society Records was established the same year that the Sugar Hill Gang recorded “Rapper’s Delight,” the first commercially successful rap song of all time. It’s especially interesting because by the mid to late ’80s, Chung King would eventually take the success of Sugar Hill Gang’s early forays into hip hop to more astronomical heights.
Chung King studios has produced records that have sold more than 300 million units worldwide, generating a whopping total of $4.5 billion. John King told FUSE TV that he feels one of the tracks that is most representative of his work at Chung King Studios is the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right To Party,” saying “That was definitely our best combination of our hip hop stuff, the Beastie Boys’ sense of humor, some guitars…”
At the time, King was working simultaneously on many other seminal records with LL Cool J and Run DMC, often mixing and matching the same innovative techniques for sessions with each artist. In his interview with Frank 151, he said “Russel [Simmons] and I were working on all three at the same time so we were taking bits from different groups.” He also said that he was even one of the first people to utilize an early sampling method, which entailed literally “wrapping tape around a mic stand.” This type of creative ingenuity, coupled with his willingness to work with artists playing a style of music which had not yet been embraced (or understood) by other engineers/producers in the field were the keys to his success.
King is no stranger to weird or unorthodox experiences in the studio. In an interview with Frank 151, he talks about an experience working with ODB when they “might have been snorting something” on one of their marathon studio sessions. LL Cool J was supposed to contribute to the session that night but was late. So in a drug-induced rage, ODB pulled LL’s record from the wall and allegedly pissed on it. King claims that he still has the record at home, piss and all.
The sound that he worked to create has since become a world-wide cultural phenomenon. But even though he originally embraced rap music by likening it to an extension of “the talking blues,” he did not expect the genre to dominate the charts as it would by the late-eighties. As he put it: “I expected hip-hop to be a cult item and then, it just kept getting bigger and bigger.” In addition, he sees the gangster rap mentality, which he claims to have been created in LA, as one of the genre’s biggest setbacks. “Shame on you LA,” he says, “They sent it back to New York and it became gangster rap. All of a sudden rap was everything it was meant not to be.”
The studio’s original location closed down in 2010 following financial troubles related to the birth of illegal downloading in the early 21st century. Even though King could have easily retired with the legacy he had built, Chung King Studios reopened in a new location on 36 West 37th Street in 2010. The studio shows no signs of slowing down and according to the Chung King website, they receive 20 requests per week for their services. In an interview with Sonic Scoop, King talks about his reasons for continuing his business: “So I had a lovely vacation. I had a lovely time. And then the call of the wild sounded – I had to come back. Only this time, I wanted something more manageable.”