Little Rock native Dondrae Vinson — known mostly to his friends as Dre and to his clients as Ferocious — doesn’t have to look far to see evidence of his early days honing his craft, days of scrimping and saving for each new piece of audio equipment. That’s because there’s a closet at his studio, Ferocious Productions, that offers testament to those memories: “I literally have every single drum machine I’ve ever purchased since I was 15,” Vinson said, passing a couch covered in throw pillows designed to look like Akai MPC 2000XLs and pulling their electronic equivalents from a clandestine cranny in the production room.
It’s a long history to archive. Vinson, now 35, sold his first beats when he was 15 years old. A friend of his older brother heard Vinson’s experiments on a Sony Playstation program, “MTV Music Generator,” and accompanied Vinson to what was then called Second Street Studios, where Vinson found himself welcomed — and subsequently mentored — by an older generation of Little Rock audio engineers. Now, his in-home studio, tucked away in a neighborhood just south of War Memorial Stadium, is the incubator for sounds from 607, Big Piph, Gina Gee, Duke Stigall, Arkansas Bo, BJ Soul, Bijoux, Dee Dee Jones, The Ridah God, Nex2C, Candysoul, Charlo Campbell, Lil Le, Dion Jonez and others. Vinson’s resume includes collaborations with R&B singer Case, Bishop Lamont and the late Pimp C of UGK, and he leads educational workshops on the four pillars of hip hop for kids at the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children’s Library and around the country.
Vinson uses a Studio One software setup now, complete with a MIDI controller and a mixing board, but before 2010, he recorded with almost exclusively analog equipment. Certain artists still ask for that styling — local emcee O.T. Ray Vizza, for example, “a real hip-hop head,” Vinson said. “He appreciates the retro sound.” That sound seems to ooze from the ’70s-era wood-paneled walls in an adjacent vocal booth, where a Slate VMS microphone stands on shag carpet. A wall hanging nearby reads “Love Is the Ingredient.”
There’s a vocabulary you’ll hear a lot from audio engineers, a sort of preference for staying out of the way and letting the live sound remain as unadulterated as possible. Despite ringing endorsements from clients who employed Vinson in hopes of couching their verses in Ferocious’ signature production style, Vinson says that practice of noninterference applies equally to what he does as an engineer and production coach. “Since I listen to a lot of old music, I try to get as close to the finished product in the recording process. Some people will record and it’s real raw, and they’ll be like, ‘We’ll fix it in the mix.’ ” Vinson mentions Marvin Gaye and Isaac Hayes as exemplars. “It’s really about just making the artist comfortable. To me, that’s the biggest part — getting them into the creative zone they need to be in, and then capturing the best performance. And then it’s really just about choices. Sound selection, certain breaks, things like that.”
I asked if there was anybody in the recording world who, for him, serves as exemplar. “Quincy Jones,” he answered, without a beat or a blink. “That’s probably so cliché.”
It isn’t, but it does make me wonder why, equipped with a skill set that includes multiple instruments, lyrical flow and a knack for sound styling, Ferocious isn’t working from the other side of the microphone. “I think I’m too much of a fan, if that makes sense. I’m too much of a fan of singers and performers to be one myself. … It’s kinda like if an artist just decided one day, ‘OK, I wanna produce.’ That might offend some people who really take it seriously. I just respect the craft too much. I know how much work it takes.”