When local music engineer John Stewart sat at his computer to re-master a classic mash-up album, he had no idea his late-night project would strike a worldwide chord.
The 25-year-old Stewart was listening to one of his favorite albums, “The Grey Album” — the 2004 Danger Mouse mash-up album that combined vocals from Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” and the Beatles’ “The White Album.” It’s the mash-up that made the style — where two songs are blended to create one — legit and put music producer Danger Mouse on the music map.
“I put (the CD) in and thought, wow, this could be better,” Stewart said.
The surface noise and scratchy vinyl sound from the sample of the Beatles bugged him. When the Beatles recorded the album, they likely had three microphones on the drum kit, which made for a weak sounding kick on the “The Grey Album,” Stewart said. He wanted to improve that. He also thought mega-star Jay-Z’s vocals could be cleaned up. Using a software music-editing program, Pro Tools, he removed the vinyl sound, gave the base more body, tweaked the high end, gave the drum more kick and cleaned up the vocals “to make it more modern sounding,” he said.
Stewart, a music engineer who co-owns The High Society record label and has worked with artists including John Legend, Chip Tha Ripper and Big Boi, often re-masters his favorite CDs just for fun. On Nov. 26, he put his version of the re-mastered “The Grey Album” on SoundCloud, a music-sharing site, and 48 hours later he was interviewed by Forbes Magazine’s music and entertainment reporter.
The re-mastered version was making the rounds on hip hop music websites including The Source Magazine, 2DopeBoyz.com and FACT Magazine. Stewart had to use Google Chrome to translate postings on dozens of international sites, including the German hip hop site, Itsrap.de.
The re-mastered “The Grey Album” was the talk on Twitter in the two days that followed his posting with thousands of tweets, most singing his praise. His project led to hundreds of hits on his website and inquiries from a half-dozen artists interested in his music engineering skills.
“It’s still overwhelming, the things people have said on Twitter,” Stewart said. “People have thanked me.”
Stewart, a 2005 Rampart High School graduate, started buying recording equipment after high school and saw the possibility of making money in the music industry. He attended a recording school in Las Colinas, an upscale suburb of Dallas, and before long was working with some of music’s best-known hip hop and R&B artists. It all started with a chance meeting with the R&B artist known as The World Famous Tony Williams.
He spotted Williams in the studio where he was taking his recording classes and introduced himself as a fan. Later, he found Williams on Twitter and Facebook and they started a virtual friendship.
Williams, an Oklahoma native who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, debuted on Kanye West’s 2004 Grammy-winning album, “The College Dropout,” and has been a songwriter for West ever since. He has performed with Jay-Z, Patti Labelle and written for singer Brandy.
In 2010, Williams tweeted that he was looking for an artist to finish the cover of his first solo project, a 27-track album, “Finding Dakota Grey,” which was released free online. Stewart answered his request saying he knew a guy.
“I had no idea who it was going to be,” Stewart said. But he figured he could find an artist.
“Somehow this will work,” Stewart told himself. “I was so hungry for an opportunity that any need I saw, I said, ‘Hey, I can do that.’ “
Williams liked the artwork and stayed in touch while working with West in Hawaii on his fifth album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
“He’s one of the most resourceful people I know,” Williams said about Stewart and recalling how they met. “As far as being able to meet a need, he’ll pull the strings together.”
Williams said Stewart’s re-master work on “The Grey Album” and the notoriety it has received is a perfect example of Stewart’s moxie.
“Who in the hell would have thought,” Williams said laughing. “It’s those ideas and I recognize those ideas . . . it’s the genius of it.”
In November 2010, Stewart visited his family in Colorado Springs over Thanksgiving holiday. He met up with his old friend Ian Lee and over the course of the night expressed his desire to start his own record label.
“His response was ‘let’s do it,’ “ Stewart said.
The next day they registered their business, The High Society, with the Colorado secretary of state.
“All right, we’ve got a record label,” Stewart said. “What in the world are we going to do?”
Stewart knew Williams was working on a second solo project.
“I was at a mark in my career where I was trying to establish a certain kind of autonomy,” Williams said. “I think, where I was going, I never was able to separate and get the respect as a solo artist.”
Stewart, who has a business partnership with brothers Ian and Nick Lee and a fourth partner in Dallas, told Williams they didn’t exactly know what they were doing as a record label.
“But we can guarantee you that we believe in you and believe in the product and we will put our entire efforts behind it,” Stewart told Williams. “We are Team Tony.”
Williams appreciated that attitude, he said. In December 2011, Williams signed with The High Society and released “King or the Fool” on Feb. 14, 2012.
“The plan was to sell the album completely digital with zero prospects of physical copies,” Stewart said.
Then, The High Society got an e-mail from New Jersey-based Redefinition Records.
“Heard it. Loved it,” Stewart said. “They wanted to put the record in stores around the world.”
The High Society and Williams signed a deal with them and physical copies of the album were released in June. Williams describes record sales as a slow burn.
“We thought if we could hit, maybe it wouldn’t be a big bang, but if we could maintain a steady pulse throughout two or three albums, the creativity that we have as far as marketing, we can stay relevant long enough to do something that makes a bang,” Williams said. “It’s a matter of staying alive — you’re always a hit away.”
When Stewart returned to Colorado Springs full time, he found himself in the middle of a young entrepreneurial renaissance. Stewart joined Ian and Nick Lee in their startup business Tins.ly, which designs QR codes.
Last December he helped the Lee brothers, and entrepreneurs Chris Franz and Jan Horsfall, launch Startup Colorado Springs — one of the groups behind the popular Pitch Nights and organizer of morning coffee meetings and upcoming speakers series designed to jumpstart the entrepreneurial scene and connect entrepreneurs with one another and potential investors.
Colorado Springs is a far cry musically from Dallas’ Deep Ellum music district where Stewart could attend a concert every night. Admittedly, the Springs has shortage of music venues, which can be tough on a music junkie like Stewart.
But he’s all in for the Colorado Springs quality of life; so, he does his music engineering on his computer in local coffee and hookah shops and travels a lot to Dallas and other cities.
“In the music side (in Colorado Springs), there is an untapped market,” he said. “I don’t think there is a shortage of talent.”
In recent months, The High Society signed its second artist, Daniel Lee — a 2005 Sand Creek High School graduate — and expects soon to release Lee’s first single of electronic pop music.
Stewart cannot predict what his spike in hip-hop blogosphere will mean for his work as music engineer or for The High Society. It’s already more than he imagined, he said. Even his mom was impressed.
“She wrote on Facebook, ‘Holy Crap, it’s not every day someone’s son is in Forbes,’” he said.