Five-times Grammy nominated, multi-platinum mixer, writer and producer Jean-Marie Horvat has worked with some of the biggest names in music, from Destiny’s Child and Beyoncé, to Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and The Weeknd. Headliner joins him for a chat about his journey from growing up in the projects of New York to garnering a glittering studio career, as well as the pivotal role Augspurger®Monitors have played in shaping his craft…
We’re barely five minutes into our Zoom call when it becomes clear that it would take not hours or days, but weeks to fully dissect the life and career of Jean-Marie Horvat. Impressive as his CV may be, it barely scrapes the veneer of the story that lies beneath. If any mixer’s life story warrants a feature length screenplay, it’s his.
For the past 30 years he has been applying his signature touch to a vast array of definitive records for the likes of, in addition the names mentioned above, Jessie J, Chris Brown, Ty Dolla $ign, J Lo, Rae Sremmurd, Robin Thicke, and more. Yet, despite his reputation as one of the most sought-after mixers of hip-hop and R&B, his roots lie very much in rock. This, he informs us before we dig into his career in earnest, is something he is relishing returning to at present.
“Recently I’ve been going back to where I started,” he says. “I went on to work in hip-hop and R&B for most of my career, but I love doing indie stuff. I’ve been getting back into rock because I didn’t like where hip-hop is heading – more the trap stuff – because everything sounds redundant. I’m a musician first and a technician last, so I’ve been revisiting how I got involved in music – that was the bedroom and the house for me. Everybody says you have to be in a controlled environment, but chaos is the greatest recipe of an amazing song. The imperfections make it perfect.
“I’ve been doing a lot of Coco Jones stuff and I’ve been working with a new kid called London Cheshire with [producer] Barry Hankerson. And I’ve been doing some other rock projects I can’t talk about just yet.”
From second one of our time together – a couple of hours that feel like minutes – Horvat’s natural skills as a raconteur are immediately apparent. His rich New York accent and the cadence of his speech make him an engaging and entertaining storyteller, while the candid and colourful language he employs in conversation is frequently hilarious. As he goes on to explain, many of the most pivotal moments of his career have been the result of a series of happy accidents or a flat-out refusal to follow the established order. So, when did his life in music first begin?
“I can tell you right now,” he interjects mid-question. “I was six or seven and I was watching Sesame Street and Stevie Wonder came on and did Superstition. And seeing KISS for the first time. I remember seeing them, and Toto, and my brother was a major contributor to my musical taste. I remember him bringing home KISS’s Alive for me. And I started delving into his music and got into Steely Dan and the Eagles.
“Then what got me into playing guitar was Ace Frehley. My brother bought me an acoustic guitar and I was just mimicking him at the start. And going to record stores and being a fanboy is what got me into music at the start.
“But I also grew up in the projects, so the streets were another form of education for me. I was listening to a lot of R&B and soul, and that combination is what led me to work with Teddy Riley.”
A lot of people go by rules… I broke every goddamn one of them.
During those formative teenage years, Horvat could hardly have predicted that he would soon be working alongside one of the most influential producers of the era. As well as co-founding and fronting the band Blackstreet, Riley is also credited with creating new jack swing, a genre of music blending hip-hop, soul and R&B. With Riley, Horvat would go on to achieve major success with some of the biggest artists on the planet, among them, Michael Jackson and his 1991 album Dangerous.
However, with his parents eager for their young son to, “get a real job”, a career of any kind in music wasn’t on the cards. Still, with no thought for anything else, a course at the legendary Institute of Audio Research allowed him to open doors that would soon set in motion several sliding doors moments that would shape the rest of his life.
“I was doing a lot of odd jobs, and to pay for college I became an investigator for Hudson County, so I was a cop first,” he recalls. “But after a while I just didn’t want to do it no more, and I told my guitar teacher and he said why don’t I become a producer? So, I went to school at the Institute of Audio Research.
“I also took an internship at Sigma Sound Studios, and I remember I was wearing this Hawaiian shirt, and the lady hiring said, I’m hiring you just because of that shirt! I got hired that day and she asked if I could work that night, I said yes. That was 1990. I was doing the phones and on my first night I met Ziggy Marley, then Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero – the legendary duo that did Appetite for Destruction and Master of Puppets. Then Raquel Welch comes in… after that I never got starstruck again!”
Not content with merely answering the phones and keen to get to grips with the studio environment first-hand, after a couple of weeks Horvat decided to take matters into his own hands.
“I was very boisterous and anyone who knows me knows I don’t give a rat’s ass about anything, I just love to live,” he says with glee. “I’d heard about this guy called Tony Maserati [producer and engineer, Mary J. Blige, Notorious B.I.G] who would become my mentor, and one day I said, ‘if his name is Tony Maserati then I’m Johnny Ferrari…’ not knowing that he was right down the way. He was like, ‘hey, you’re really funny!’ He took a liking to me. In October that year he didn’t like his assistant so he took me in instead, and said don’t touch anything. And I touched everything just to bust balls!”
It was through his work with Maserati that he came into contact with Riley. The encounter would prove life changing.
“About two weeks later I’m playing guitar while serving as an assistant on a session, just three months into my career, and I meet Teddy Riley,” he picks up the story. “I knew who he was, but I didn’t know he was Teddy Riley. He was playing the Hammond, I’m playing guitar, and I’m like, ‘you’re a bad motherfucker, man,’ and Tony goes, ‘don’t you know who the hell that is?’ I say yeah, some guy named Teddy. He says, ‘you dumbass, that’s Teddy Riley!’.
“But Teddy took a liking to me, but what I didn’t know was that he thought I was an engineer. I was doing a practice session and Teddy comes in and says they want me in one of the studios, when I was just a runner. Teddy hits play and I’m like, ‘oh shit I’m in trouble’. He says, ‘you hear those drums? That’s how I want my drums to sound’. And walks out. I had no idea what was going on. I’d just started a few months ago when I didn’t even know what an SSL board was, and now I’m engineering the Let’s Chill session from the New Jack Swing soundtrack. I was so nervous, but I did OK.”
Though his accidental stint as an engineer for Riley proved successful, nothing could have prepared him for what came next.
“Soon after, Teddy left and I didn’t see him for a while,” he says. “I hear through the grapevine that he’s got the new Michael Jackson record and moved to California. Then we move into May 1991, a year to the day that I started working there, and the studio manager calls me to say Teddy is coming back and he wants you to engineer a session. I’m scared. Then all of a sudden Teddy’s tech comes in and goes, ‘you Jean-Marie?’ I say, ‘yeah’. He says, ‘you like working here?’ I say, ‘yeah’. He goes, ‘you know why I’m here, right? Teddy wants me to pick you up and wants you to work for him’. That’s how my career started.”
The element of chance that brought Horvat into the orbit of the likes of Maserati, Riley, and Jackson, almost transpired to drop him altogether. After arriving in California from New York, news quickly filters through that his services will not be required on the sessions that would spawn Dangerous.
“I wasn’t supposed to be on that record,” he states with a smile. “Teddy started working at 10am on Michael Jackson stuff and told me they didn’t need any more engineers, and that I’d be Teddy’s tech. I came in the next day and what I’d usually do is make a slave reel. As I’m doing it René Moore comes in and asks who I am. I say I’m Teddy’s guy and I’m doing a slave reel and mixing it. He says, ‘let me hear it’. I hit play and he goes running out. I’m like, shit! Now I’m going to get fired.
“He comes back in, Thom Russo comes in, and Michael came in afterwards, and the song was Jam. I thought I was in trouble, but I see Teddy is smiling. Russo goes, ‘let me hear the mix’. I say it isn’t the mix but he wants to hear it. He hears the bass and goes, ‘oh my God’. The next thing I know, they say, give him all the tapes! To a musician who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing! That’s how I got on it. It was the most amazing experience I had. We were a bunch of renegades, and the music industry was actually interesting. There were so many great artists being individuals.”
The Solo 8 is a magic weapon. Dave Malekpour made my perfect speaker.
While there has evidently been a lot of being in the right place at the right time in Horvat’s career, surely there is more than just blind luck in how he got off the ground?
“I think I hear music and monitor things very definitely,” he ponders. “I have a heavy hand, I don’t give a flying fuck what the meters are telling me. I believe in different perceptions. I am a student of tones. I was doing the Ty Dolla $ign albums and I said I want my drums to hit like Dre but I want the music to feel like Pink Floyd. A lot of people go by rules… I broke every goddamn one of them.”
It was during this time that Horvat came into contact with Augspurger® Monitors and its owner Dave Malekpour. Hailed for their high-end clarity and powerful bass, Augspurger® Monitors have become the go-to brand for some of the biggest acts on earth. From Dr Dre to Jay-Z and a great many more, the fingerprint the brand has left on hip-hop and R&B is indelible.
“I come to L.A. and I hear these speakers and I’m like, what in god’s name is this,” he says. “From then I couldn’t work in a studio that didn’t have them. They played a major part in how I work. They are an amazing tool. As a musician it’s about what you feel. And those Augspurgers give you what you feel and I’m blessed to have a pair. My relationship with Dave Malekpour has been great for over 30 years. His redesign of that brand is probably the best I’ve ever heard.
“I built a studio and needed a big pair of monitors,” he continues. “So Dave visits me and says he wasn’t sure he had anything for me because I was working in such a small room. Anyway, right before NAMM that year, he said, ‘come to NAMM, I have a surprise for you’. He had made me a pair of baby Augspurgers! They were Solo 8s with two 18” subs, and when I tell you those motherfuckers hit, boy! I had everybody jealous of my room. Everything in that room was focused, hitting hard. The Solo 8 is a magic weapon. He made my perfect speaker.”
To this day, Horvat remains an Augspurger® disciple, and will consider nothing less. As he puts it, “there is nothing else like them”. And they’ve served him well, shaping his towering body of work and all the accolades that have followed. Conscious that we are about to wrap up, he’s keen to pay tribute to Malekpour not only as an audio expert, but as a person who can relate to artists and audio professionals like no other.
“He’s from the east coast, and he’s a no bullshit type of person, which a lot of the hip-hop clients really like,” he closes. “But he’s also a great businessman. And he cares about what you like and he doesn’t stop perfecting. That’s what professionals love. But I’m also a street kid and he knows how to relate to street people because of where he grew up. And he’s a musician. People love him because he cares. He comes up with great concepts and that’s how he created this monitoring system. And he helped me out when times were tough. He’s a wonderful human being.”
With a host of projects underway that he can’t yet discuss, we eventually call time on our conversation. Wherever he focuses his attention next, be it in rock, hip-hop, or elsewhere, there will be no shortage of stories to tell. To quote the man himself, chaos is the best recipe. And with a life story and CV like his, who would have it any other way?
You can read Headliner’s interview with Malekpour on how he and his products have shaped the sound of hip-hop here, or you can watch it in full below.
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