Catching up with Will Yip, the Philadelphia music scene’s secret weapon
“Lauryn Hill is more punk than anyone I know, she doesn’t give a fuck more than anyone I know.”
Will Yip made this statement many of us have probably thought. But Will Yip, unlike us, knows it is true because Will Yip knows Lauryn Hill and we do not. When he was 22, and working alongside Grammy Award-winning producer Phil Nicolo, he helped Hill find a house in New Jersey to build a studio in, and then he helped her build the studio in that house, and then he helped her record in it. He toured the world with her, too. He played drums in her band — this college kid played Fugees songs onstage with Hill. So if anyone knows Hill’s true punk rock status, it is Will Yip.
“It was the only time I was star struck,” he says about meeting Hill for the first time. “Even meeting Jay Z and Beyonce, I wasn’t star struck, but Lauryn is different. She’s very intimidating. When she walks into a room, something special happens.”
Maybe you’ve never heard of Will Yip. He is a behind-the-scenes force of the Philadelphia music scene, a secret weapon. He is a studio engineer and producer who has worked with Philly-area bands including the Wonder Years, Circa Survive, Title Fight, Nothing, Paint It Black, Blacklisted, Balance & Composure, Tigers Jaw and Modern Baseball.
He has made a name for himself, very quickly, by working with bands from this very specific rock and pop punk scene, but he has also worked with State Property’s Beanie Sigel, Citizen, Keane, King Sunny Ade, Pianos Become the Teeth and Polar Bear Club.
And Lauryn Hill, of course.
Yip does it all at Studio 4, a recording studio on a sleepy side street in Conshohocken, about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia. There is now a bar above the studio but that bar used to be where Ruffhouse Records was based. Since 1989, Ruffhouse has released albums by DMX, Kriss Kross, Cypress Hill, Nas, Wyclef Jean, Fugees and, again, Ms. Lauryn Hill. It was co-founded by Joe and Phil Nicolo, together known as “the Butcher Brothers,” because their father was a butcher. While Joe ran the label upstairs, Phil operated the studio downstairs.
As Yip gives me the Studio 4 tour, I gawk at the dozens of gold and silver and platinum records hanging on the walls. Aerosmith, Bob Dylan, Boyz II Men, Billy Joel, John Lennon, Santana, the Police, Nine Inch Nails, Anthrax, Depeche Mode, Pete Yorn, the one-and-only Amy Grant. These are only some of the projects the Butcher Brothers put their hands on. One of the big draws of the studio is the board, an extremely rare Neeve 8048, which Yip calls “the big brother” of the 8028 that inspired Dave Grohl’s recent Sound City documentary.
“Everything that comes through this board sounds so fucking good,” says Yip. “There’s something very earthy and unique about it. It touches the soul.”
Literally millions of souls have been touched by the music made at Studio 4 and Will Yip is partly responsible for that. It was less than a decade ago that he started operating on the Neeve 8048 with Phil Nicolo at Studio 4 — today, Yip owns half of it, the board, the studio, everything. This legacy is Yip’s to carry on, into the great wide open, a young producer and engineer with a clue, a vision, a dream made real from sweat and ambition and a deep desire to craft a sound of his own.
Yip’s parents fled China just before the Communist revolution. They swam to Hong Kong and made their way to America, settling in the Bronx. In 1987, Will was born in Brooklyn and his family stayed in New York City for less than a year before moving to Philadelphia.
“It was tough,” he says about his parents’ move to the U.S. “When I think about it, it’s hard not to tear up. My mom and dad were very educated in China, but when they came here, they didn’t speak English. They got jobs in Chinatown, my dad waited tables and my mom worked at a sweatshop. But my dad, who’s just like me, took initiative and ended up buying and running a restaurant, Ocean City, which is one of the biggest restaurants in Chinatown today.”
There was a lot of pressure on Yip and his brother to study in order to get high-paying, respectable, square jobs so they did not have to go through what their parents did. But Yip was drawn to music. His big brother, like all the best big brothers do, turned him onto the good stuff, like Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Nirvana’s In Utero. His parents wanted him to play the violin, but instead he started playing alto saxophone in middle school. Then he saw a drum kit, instantly fell in love with the thing and he started playing drums. His parents hoped it was just a childish phase — it was not.
Yip started a few bands, one of which was named Nimbus, a pretty good name for a first band as far as names for first bands go. He bought a 4-track Tascam and started recording demo cassettes. One of his bands wanted to make a CD, so they replied to an ad in a newspaper and ended up hauling their gear to Ground Control, a small studio in a row home in Northeast Philly. That was the moment everything changed, when something clicked inside Yip that has stayed clicked and clicking ever since.
“It was just a humble and simple studio in some guy’s house, but I immediately fell in love with it,” recalls Yip. “There’s something magical that happens when you walk into a studio. I can’t explain it. It was so cool, I just fell in love.”
Soon after, Yip, then in 8th grade, gave the Ground Control boss a call and asked if he could start helping out at the studio, answering phones, taking out the trash, scoring hoagies for the bands, whatever. It was perfect timing, because Ground Control was about to move into a bigger space and Yip was offered the job of managing the rehearsal rooms, namely setting up times for bands to come in to practice. His first job ever was at a studio, where he had his mind permanently blown by local hardcore bands like Blacklisted and pop punk groups like Little League.
This led to Yip spending all his money on recording equipment and starting his own studio in his parents’ basement. He asked Blacklisted if they wanted to make a demo down there, they said “Yes” and they loved Yip’s sound. He opened the basement door to more bands, charging $8 an hour at first and eventually $20 an hour. He estimates that he recorded about 60 bands in his parents’ house, including Kill Verona and an early project of soon-to-be Philly music scene mover-and-shaker Perry Shall.
Yip applied to study music business at Temple University, specifically, he says, so he could meet Studio 4’s Phil Nicolo, the legendary producer everyone was talking about. Before that relationship blossomed, though, he worked at another Philly studio, INDRE, where his talent and drive were instantly recognized and he was asked to record live sound for My Morning Jacket, Arctic Monkeys, Starting Line, the Fray and many others at local venues the Electric Factory and the TLA.
And Yip finally got to take a class at Temple with Phil Nicolo. “Phil’s the best guy; he has the best aura,” Yip says of his mentor. “He’s 60, but he’s like a 20-year-old. He’s the coolest person I’ve ever met. Like everything else, I took initiative and asked him if I could start helping at Studio 4. He said, ‘Just stop by, man.’ So one day I went and stood there for hours watching him work.”
About a month later, Nicolo asked Yip to help him record the English rock band Keane’s cover of Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Then Yip took over one of the rooms at Studio 4 and began recording bands on his own, late at night, after Nicolo’s projects had wrapped up for the day. His first big success, in 2009, was Blacklisted’s No One Deserves to Be Here More Than Me.
Then came Lauryn Hill.
The Butcher Brothers had worked with Hill before; the Fugees albums and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill were released by Ruffhouse. When Hill asked Nicolo to help her build a studio in a house in New Jersey — she loved Studio 4 but did not want to commute everyday — he asked Yip to be his right hand man for the project. Yip and Nicolo went from house to house setting up gear to see how the different spaces sounded. One day, Hill saw Yip play drums in a potential studio house and she told him he should come play with her sometime. Eventually, Hill asked Nicolo and Yip to do sound on her world tour and for Yip to also play drums in her band. It was around this time that Yip’s parents started to think that maybe it was not such a bad idea for their son to love music so much.
Yip had the time of his life, playing for tens of thousands of people in venues around the world, from Rwanda to New Zealand. He loved it, but not more than he loved the solitude and joy of working in the studio. He had to get back behind his beloved Neeve 8048, so he timidly approached Hill and told her he had to leave the band and leave the tour and it turns out she was fine with that. In 2011, he worked his last show at the L.A. Rising festival, where after Hill’s set, Rage Against the Machine played their last show ever.
“I was over touring, I told Lauryn that and she respected it,” he says. “She understood. I love the directing role, being the guy who puts all the pieces together. I love songwriting, I love playing drums, but I hate playing shows and touring. I had to get back in the studio. My true love is helping bands shape a sound.”
“Will is able to offer a recording environment and experience that most of us had only dreamed of,” says the Wonder Years’ Nick Steinborn. “We’ve always had great bands here, but Will is only making those bands better; the sound he gets with the Neve and that room has definitely made an impact on our scene sonically. People are making a conscious effort to make records that sound real and huge because of the bar Will has set and continues to set.”
Since Yip returned home to Studio 4, he’s been working with tons of bands from the Philadelphia area. Just like The Wonder Years, they all love making records with him.
“Will has a good track record and a great work ethic,” says Ned Russin of Title Fight, which made their last two albums, for SideOneDummy and Epitaph, with Yip. “He works in one of the greatest sounding rooms I have had the fortune of being in and works on one of the greatest boards in the world. Will’s biggest attribute is his ability to get different sounds for every record that he does, which shows his talent for approaching every record with a unique mentality. “
In 2013, when Yip was producing New Jersey punks Man Overboard’s Heart Attack album, the band told Yip they never wanted him to leave Studio 4 because they wanted to record there for the rest of their lives. And they wanted this so badly they offered to help Yip buy Studio 4 and the Neve 8048. This is not exactly how it all went down, but the gears started moving in Yip’s head. He ran the idea past Nicolo, who said, “Nobody but you could take over this studio,” which is the best blessing one could possibly ask for.
Yip, to raise money, released a compilation of unreleased songs by bands he had worked with over the years. Titled Off the Board: A Studio 4 Family, it featured songs by Circa Survive, Title Fight, Citizen, Daylight, Balance & Composure and 13 others. It was a huge success and it helped him start a multi-year payment plan with Nicolo. So now Yip has gone from taking out the trash at Studio 4 to owning half of it.
He also recently started his own label, Memory Music, which will focus on bands and projects he has worked on at Studio 4. The first release was an acoustic album by Tigers Jaw, whose 2014 album, Charmer, Yip also produced.
“Will has such a great ear for tones and melody,” say Ben Walsh of Tigers Jaw. “He acts as sort of an additional band member, being super respectful of the band’s history and aesthetic, but bringing solid ideas to the table for discussion. Will started out in this area, playing in bands and interning at studios, so he knows where we are coming from because he lived it himself.”
Yip clearly loves working with these numerous Philly-area artists and he has arguably helped elevate the scene and helped many of these bands make the best albums of their lives.
“Philly is great because kids show up, and so many of these bands grow organically, playing shows and releasing albums without big label support,” says Yip. “I believe in every band I’ve worked with, and they believe in me too. I have to believe in the music, first. I don’t need the money; money’s not a thing anymore. But for me to spend six weeks with a band, and eat lunch with them everyday, and be around a band everyday, I have to truly love what they’re doing. I’d rather work with a young band nobody knows because I love their music.”
This is how he has built his reputation so far, and his inbox is steadily crammed with requests to book studio time. But he fears he will be pigeonholed as a local producer who is only interested in rock music. He doesn’t see himself this way, and he hopes to soon branch out and start working with more hip-hop and R&B artists and further the sound Ruffhouse and Studio 4 specialized in back in the day.
He also has a new music project of his own. He is not ready to unveil the name of his collaborator, other than that it is a good friend who has worked with him in the studio before. They have recorded several songs already and we will likely be hearing more about it all very soon. When he played it for a friend, he called it “punk rock Kanye.”
“It’s killing me that I can’t share the songs yet,” Yip says. I try to get Yip to tell me who the mysterious collaborator is, but his lips are sealed.
Who knows, maybe it’s Lauryn Hill.