My career in music - Chic's Rich Hilton

Although his own modesty would prevent him from saying it, Rich Hilton’s story is one of a child prodigy and a gifted musician who would never accept that he wouldn’t be involved in music for his entire life. He went on to learn many instruments, trying to find work as a gigging musician, before being accidentally fast-tracked into a career as a studio engineer. Then, one day in the 1980s a call from Nile Rodgers would change his life forever...Tell us about the early days and how you got started…

“The first love of music came upon me when I heard a few classical piano pieces when I was three years old. We had a piano in the house and I just started banging away on it on my own and at age five I was granted lessons. I was accepted by this lady who didn’t usually take on five year olds, but allowed me to audition at age five [laughs] and I was accepted.  

“She had a very unusual teaching philosophy that was championed by a guy from Columbia University NYC. It included a lot music theory and ear training straight away, which was quite unusual in 1962 and I guess in some sense, quite controversial. But I discovered later that, because of this method, by the time I was 12 and 13 years old I had learnt enough music theory and ear training to get through a few semesters of college. At the same time, early in my childhood, I started to play lower brass instruments, I picked up baritone horn, trombone, then the guitar and playing drums and so on…”

You were a bit of a child prodigy then?
“Well music just really interested me. I wasn’t necessarily the best player on any particular instrument. I just think that in some way, it was just what I was meant to do. I just really enjoyed it and it came really easily to me. Don’t get me wrong, it was a challenge but one I really enjoyed doing. Music has always been something that I could do, I just played really well with other people.”


When did you start earning a living from music? Did you get a regular job first?
"I started playing music for money, when I was 15 years old, but I also got my first ‘real’, paid-by-the-hour job working in a restaurant when I was 15 years old too. There were also times along the way later on where I wasn’t that interested in some of the musical opportunities that were being presented, so I sought to do other things. This is where I started to learn how to become a recording engineer, teach myself to use computers for music, and learn how do studio design and so on… This is all happened in a period where what people were doing with keyboards wasn’t really interesting to me.Rich+Hilton.jpg

"The funny thing was, I became the assistant engineer at a studio and I was running around making coffees and getting people lunch and so on. Then people found out I could play - and suddenly I was playing keyboards on people’s records. I had been trying to do that for ages and it wasn’t working out, so I went and changed roles to do this other thing in the studio, and now I was getting the opportunity to play on people’s records."

 How did you get that job as an assistant?|
“A friend of mine had attended a recording school in New York City, and when I moved back to New York from Boston in 1982, he was happy to share some of the job referral opportunities that he was being sent from that recording school. The first major studio where i worked was called Kingdom Sound Studios, and that was on Long Island in a town called Syosset. The owner and chief engineer there, Clay Hutchinson, was already getting major recording artists coming through, with tracks like Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” having been recorded there - and then when I was there we had artists like the Ramones, Blue Oyster Cult, Rainbow, and we did some radio commercials as well.”

Was this the first time that you had come into contact with this level of recording artist?
“Yes, It was by and large the first time I came into contact with famous people, as I like to call them [laughs]. I’m not intimidated by the fact that someone is famous and I never was. It’s not because I don’t respect them or what they have achieved, it’s just not something that is important to me, really. Although, I suppose there has been an occasion where I’ve been sitting next to somebody with an instrument in my hand and frozen because of it.” 

Go on…
“Ok, well the most notable moment where my hands just turned into a block of wood was when I was sitting next to Eric Clapton and we both had Stratocasters in our hands… I mean, I just can’t explain it. By this time I’d jammed with the Vaughan brothers and that was wonderful and this freezing of my hands never happened! Whereas later, I cried when I was on stage in 1996 playing “Gimmie Some Lovin’” with Steve Winwood. I mean that guy was so important to me as a kid, and still is now as a friend and as the incredible musician that he is. It gets emotional because you couldn’t dream this stuff up! I’m looking around sometimes on stage and the voice in my head is just like, ‘my gosh, just look at this!’”Rich+Hilton+and+Eric+Clapton.jpg

“Back at Kingdom Sound, the first track I actually played on was on a Ramones album. They were working on 'Subterranean Jungle' in 1982 and needed a simple organ part added to the track. The engineers just looked at me and said, ‘do you want to play it?’, and I said, ‘yeah, sure’."

Then that started becoming more regular thing?
“Well what happened was that it then became clear to the owners of the studio that I could play. I mean I was at the studio like 15 hours a day like any assistant, and I’d occasionally sit down at the piano and play. Then the owners and engineers were told that the assistant can play keyboards and they were like, ‘yeah? Does he work cheap!?’” [Laughs]

“So, I came on board as the assistant and worked hard over the next nine months and learned as much as I could to become more and more like a proper assistant engineer. Early on, they’d hired an a more experienced engineer on the suggestion of a valued client, so I’d already got pushed back in line at the studio. But then, for reasons you could never predict, that new engineer decided to go on the road to do FOH sound. So nine months into the job, when Clay and his partner that co-owned the studio broke up their partnership, I was left as the only guy in the building who knew how the studio worked. In a very short time, I became chief engineer and director of operations of a major recording studio in the New York area.”
Rich at Kingdom Sound Studios with David Olivier, who gave Rich the referral to Kingdom Sound a year earlier.
What’s next?
“Well, I’ll explain to you the whole story of me at Kingdom Sound. It’s September in 1982 and I’m hired as an apprentice with absolutely zero compensation. But back then, this was how you learnt about audio. So I was there to learn, and had no quarrel with any of that. Fortunately to me the owner of the studio and chief engineer was also a musical guy - a player. He’d played in bands with people like Gloria Gaynor and so many more. He taught me so many incredibly important things. Things that affect every single aspect of how I approach my creative work.”

You just had to say yes and make it work?
“Well, I think you have try and recognise and make the most of the opportunities when they come up. I really don’t know why this happened for me, but all of this was so important to me education and my career. I knew I was qualified to do it.

“After that, Clay decided he was going to build a studio in the basement of his house and wanted me to work together on producing some music. He was willing to put up some money to buy the gear we needed, and had some artists lined up that interested me too. So while I was chief engineer at Kingdom Sound, I was also pursuing this new studio built around using synths and drum machines, making some modern electronic pop stuff with Clay. You have to remember that in 1983, nobody was really doing the whole ‘home studio’ thing at all so this was quite an investment and a bit ahead of its time.”

So was it more of a development thing rather than a commercial studio?
“Yeah the idea was to get the artists signed and then fight to get the label to allow us to produce the artist fully. It was about getting artists developed and creating new ideas.”


So was there a conflict of interest?
"No it was all out in the open. Everybody knew what was going on. The job in the studio only lasted another six months or so, and culminated in a difficult situation between the owner and me where i had to take action to collect my pay. There was a really nice crossfade actually between the other studio failing and the production work at Clay’s. But I still had to get a job to pay the rent and the bills, so I was working installing home theatres, doing audio wiring on existing and new construction, and designing audio systems etc. I learned to do some electronics repair, and was able to put my experience with tape machines to good use there. Again, I was just supporting my music ‘habit’ with whatever needed to be done to pay the rent. I actually don’t know anyone who hasn’t had to do that at some point in their career."

It must have felt genuinely new and exciting doing that electronic studio stuff back then?
“Yeah, I mean it was sometimes like pushing rocks uphill from a programming point of view, but it was really fun and exciting. Some of the people who designed the gear made some nice comments to me about how i was using their stuff in ways they hadn’t imagined.”

So any artists of particular note that came from this studio and project?
“Actually, no. I mean, there’s people and they’re out there and I love them dearly, but they’re not going to be people that you’re likely to have heard of.”

What happened next?
“Clay decided to design and open a new commercial studio in 1986 with a different partner at a different location, and I was fortunate enough to be able to walk through some of the design aspects with him. This really informed me about what that process of designing a studio was all about. Clay had a lot of construction experience along with the engineering and music background, which made him a very smart and creative designer. As he became engaged in that process and the new studio began to take shape, our music production projects took a little back seat, but I continued to learn on my own how to produce with machines and computers, particularly with the emergence of MIDI. Then in 1987, I started teaching Sound Recording Technology and Electronic Music at a college in Long Island and spent my brief ‘drive-by’ teaching career there, where I met a lot of really nice people including my wife of 28 years. In March of 1988, I got a call from an english-accented voice that claimed he was representing Nile Rodgers and had gotten my name from New England Digital, and that they were looking for someone who could play keyboards and program Synclavier. I nearly dropped the phone. I honestly did not believe what I was hearing.”

The first build of Nile's Le Crib studio.So how did that happen?
“It turned out it was Kevin Jones, the brother of Mick Jones from the band Foreigner, who had been doing some work for Nile as a programmer and also doing some other technical and administrative things. I played Kevin some of the music that I had produced with Clay and he was impressed enough to suggest that I should to come back and meet Nile. That meeting went quickly and well, and three weeks later I was on the Paramount lot in Hollywood working on Coming to America with Nile, using his Synclavier and racks filled with gear. When I got that phone call, like I said, I nearly dropped the phone, It was such an unbelievable turn of events."

And there was no Chic as such at this point?
“From about 1982 to 1989, there was no active Chic band. Bernard Edwards and Nile had parted ways to pursue other production projects individually. But in September of 1989, they played together with the original singers for Nile’s birthday celebration at the China Club. Towards the end of 1989, they started working together on a new Chic album, which became Chic-ism, which was the first Chic studio recording that I had the chance to work on.”

Nile+Rodgers+and+Prince.jpgWas it constant touring from that point?
"The touring was delayed another five or six years. We did a memorial concert for a friend who passed in New York in late 1995. Then there was an event in Japan called JT (“Japan Tobacco”) Super Producer in April of 1996. They wanted to honor Nile, so he and Bernard agreed to play a short tour there with some guest artists that had connections with Nile’s career. This began what became the revival of an active Chic live band. Then, sadly, Bernard passed away the next day after the final Tokyo show on that tour."

I don’t want to dig-in too emotionally, but did you think “that was it” for Chic and specifically you and Chic at that point?
“First of all, I was and remain absolutely heartbroken about losing Bernard. He was an amazing and immense human being and I loved the guy. But I wasn’t originally hired strictly as “a member of Chic”, so it wasn’t like my role depended on there being a Chic band. My role was mostly about making records, so this event wasn’t felt to be a threat to my position. It affected everything in the company, of course, because this was Nile’s best friend and cherished musical partner. Nile Rodgers Productions continued and I was still going to work every day, as the work was constant and there were always so many things to do. Production styles and methods change, and as we got into the early ‘00s, computers were involved much more heavily and files were starting to get passed back and forth. So this added a whole new layer of data-management, file security, and compatibility. The dark underside of my job, which not everyone knows about, is data management. We have projects that date back to the mid 90s. These are all available and ready to be used.”

Nile's 'Le Crib' studio with the 1971 Neve 5302 Melbourne console pictured on the left“We’d be working in various major recording studios across New York and Los Angeles from 1988 to 1994 when Nile went into Rehab - which is all documented in Nile’s book. After that, it became desirable for Nile to be working at home. So a former bedroom was designated to be a recording studio. This became the ‘Le Crib’ studio, version one, and was a hybrid studio based around a large Mackie console, and using computer software and digital tape to record until 1999, when we started recording completely in software.”Was all this out of commercial facilities or out of Nile’s studio? 

“A little over 10 years later, we re-vamped “Le Crib Studio” around the treasure trove of wonderful vintage gear that Nile had acquired over the years, and that had been sitting idle for some time. The 2.0 version of the studio is centred around a gorgeous 1971 Neve 5302 Melbourne console, with some really nice vintage microphones, input paths, and instruments.”

What’s a typical month of work like for you now?

“It’s beyond my wildest dreams. I always feel so honoured to be playing these shows and this music with these people. Nile especially - he’s just a gargantuan level musician. I’ve been hearing Nile play 'Dance, Dance, Dance' for 20 years, and the song has only two chords, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard him play it the same way twice, and it’s always great. Nile is the only guy I know who can walk in the door, play guitar on your track and completely transform your record. I could go on for days about the amazing people in this band, it’s just an extraordinary group of really talented musicians that I’m so lucky to work with.”

“At this point in my life, the satisfaction I get from music production work, from my family, and from the incredible opportunities I still get to perform live with Chic continue to surprise and amaze me. Chic has been touring quite frequently in recent years, and playing the concerts is an incredible feeling of sharing great happiness and joy with lots of other people. I am so proud to be with my amazing band-mates. My gratitude is boundless, and I’m still just as excited by new musical possibilities as ever. Long may we groove!”


Rich and Chic will be performing with Nile Rodgers on the 23rd December 2016