Some businesses don’t need to advertise. The Kitchen Studios over in Lakewood has a well-earned reputation as a full-service recording studio, earned since opening in the 1990s. The low-key creative suite is almost always solidly booked from open to close, based solely on word-of-mouth and good old-fashioned networking. Their client list crosses genres, and includes Erykah Badu, Pimp C and Betty Wright.
Founder J.P. Painter says The Kitchen originally began as an add-on to the garage behind his house, but business quickly outgrew the space. So Painter packed up his gear and moved into a commercial use space in Deep Ellum. “We got really lucky with some big stars and it kind of launched us," he says.
Painter says the '90s were a "wild time" filled with late nights, the occasional brawl and, you know, submachine guns. “Back when Pimp C was alive, he did a lot of sessions with me. We had some pretty crazy nights where people showed up and pulled Uzis out,” Painter says. After one night in particular though, he recalls, “[Pimp C] wrote a song about it, mentioned us and put it on his album,” referring to the song, "I Know Ya Strapped."
Painter is also quick to give a nod to Badu for helping support local music business. According to Painter, he met Badu in Deep Ellum. The two struck up a working relationship, which blossomed into a friendship. The fruits of that friendship came in the form of multiple A-list connections, a painted self-portrait of Badu and even a spot on Universal Music Group’s studio vendor list.
“She’s been a real blessing. She’s turned me onto a lot of major-label work like Wiz Khalifa, Andre 3000, George Clinton,” Painter says. “Once, she brought in Betty Wright, an old-school R&B singer. It was the most incredible experience I have ever heard. She had the best mic technique and just the most professional attitude of anybody I have ever seen.”
After a few years in Deep Ellum, Painter’s landlord wanted to get out of the music business, so Painter moved once more to Lakewood, just across the street from Hypnotic Donuts. He says the neighborhood is the best place he’s been so far, with a strong, supportive artistic community — and donuts, of course. Then, somewhere around 2000, Painter picked up a new weapon for his creative arsenal: audio engineer Christopher "O.Z." Billik, who had recently graduated from the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences.
For O.Z., music has ruled his life ever since he received his very first guitar at the age of 10. “By the time I was 15, I was working at the music store and buying equipment. After that I worked at radio stations, doing audio editing — I pretty much taught myself how to do it,” he says. Laughing, he adds, “I mean, I'm glad I went to school for it, but it was really just a way to appease my mom at the time.”
Painter says he’s always been hesitant to bring on new employees, simply because he worries about the newbie’s ability to maintain the studio’s high expectations and attention to detail. However, with O.Z., he says that worry has never crossed his mind. “[O.Z.] never discourages anybody. I’ve had a lot of engineers through the time I’ve had the studio, and he’s really the only one that’s ever totally dove in and gave people what they want,” Painter says. “I can always count on him to do the right thing.”
Since taking up residency at The Kitchen, O.Z. has produced and engineered for some of the area’s favorite artists. Some of his credits include Sam Lao’s West Pantego and SPCTRM, EB Rebel’s Trance, Blue, The Misfit’s Child in the Wild and upcoming its followup, and countless tracks from Ignatius.
“Being an audio engineer is like being a regular, old, house-building contractor. Like, as the seasons change, the styles change; it doesn’t have anything to do with you or what you want," O.Z. says. "If people want pink granite counter tops, just do it right. Put in the pink granite counter tops and be the best guy at it.”
For the moment, business in The Kitchen seems to be booming. Painter says he is grateful for his East Dallas neighborhood, the jam-packed schedule and the new and exciting talent that always rolls through the door — and he hopes he can continue to attract more like-minded individuals.
“First of all, we’re not going to try to define their art. We’re going to help them explore their art and expand on it, not try to make them change it. Second of all, we’re going to deliver a quality product that’s radio-ready," Painter says. "They’re not going to have to worry about whether or not they’re going to be able to compete. We pride ourselves in that. We want it to be an atmosphere that you feel totally comfortable in — like going home.”