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BTTF# 27a: Straight Outta West SFV: Tarzana's Legendary Can-Am Recorders Turned Death Row Records


Welcome aboard the Delorean! 

Marty McFly here to take you on a special journey to explore the former Can-Am Recorders located at 18730 Oxnard St #211 Tarzana 91356 (in part A) as well as investigate the origins of West Coast Gangsta Rap in the West SFV (in part B).  The Delorean has the required plutonium plus some random garbage in the Mr. Fusion reactor ready for this trip. The time circuits are set to September 1978 and the flux capacitor is......fluxxing. The engine is running (not stalled this time) so we need to hurry. Hang on, as the ride can be a little bumpy as we travel back in time.

Can-Am was first conceived by Lanny Williamson, Larry Cummins and Bill Wasson in September 1978 according to a 1978 Billboard article. There is very little history available on the internet regarding the opening of Can-Am and its history but I believe all three individuals were mixing engineers and obviously worked in the recording industry. The location just like Rumbo Recorders in Canoga Park (Winnetka) were both unique since they were located about 30 minutes outside of Hollywood/Burbank where a majority of the recording studios are located.

Back in 1978, Can-Am was nondescriptly located in a brand new industrial park surrounded by the single family tract homes that has characterized the SFV. Across the street was Southern Pacific's Burbank Branch running parallel to Oxnard (which ceased operations in 1991). The only nearest "landmarks" were the 101 Freeway, the Tarzana Ranch (former home of Tarzan creater Edgar Rice Burroughs), and the Red Barn Feed and Saddlery which originally was Reseda Feed. The best way to describe the Can-Am neighborhood was quiet, boring, and uneventful. A stereotype that has been abused by SFV-haters with every opportunity they can get.

However, Can-Am Recorders was the complete opposite which was an eventful and happening place where groundbreaking music was being recorded and remixed as the disco days of the 70's was ending and the 80's brought heavy metal, new wave, and rap by the end of the 80's. Artists included Megadeth, El DeBarge, Aerosmith, Guns N' Roses, Wang Chung, Chicago, Pink Floyd, En Vogue, Kiss, Madonna, Motley Crue, Barry Manilow, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kenny Rogers, Sheena Easton, and Bobby Brown to name a few according to Discogs.com. (Keep in mind that Can-Am was heavily utilized for re-mixing so I am not sure if the artists were present for mixing sessions).

The book, Mix Masters: Platinum Engineers Reveal Their Secrets for Success by Maureen Droney published on January 1, 2003 provides an interview of Brian Malouf taken place in December 1999 who worked as a Mix Engineer at Can-Am during the 80's working with many A-List artists including one memorable experience with Michael Jackson. Malouf's roots started at CSUN and now owns Cookie Jar Recording in Sherman Oaks, CA.
I left around '81 and went to Can-Am Recorders. The place was for sale; [owner] Larry [Cummins] was very disenchanted with the business and was ready to call it quits. Then I showed up one day, with all this energy and all these ideas for how to rework the room, and we set about doing that. We tore the whole studio apart and rebuilt it. I was the chief engineer, the assistant engineer, the gofer--I was everything and so was Larry. We built up quite a nice little clientele. 
Michael Jackson walked in one day with his brothers. That was a pivotal thing for me, because that's how I started working with Michael. He came to me on one of their sessions and said, "Hey Brian, I want to come back tonight and do my own stuff. Can you do it with me?" And that was the beginning of working with him for a year and a half on the demos that were the beginning of the Bad album. 
It was pretty heady stuff, very exciting, and it led to lots of other things. I remained at Can-Am for ten years, until in '91, I started doing more work at other places. 
80's rock bank, Phish, recording their 3rd album, "Hoist" sometime in 1992 - 1993 just prior to Death Row stepping in. Image source and date is unknown. 
Sometime in the early 90's (or earlier), the original owners of Can-Am disbanded with Lanny Williamson leaving for his native Canada and starting the The Beach Studios in Calgary and I am not sure what happened to Bill Wasson. According to a January 30, 2005 Daily News article, it appears that Larry Cummins continued to own the studio which I will discuss later as the next part is where Death Row Records story begins.

By 1991, Suge Knight had secured Dr. Dre from Easy-E, Jerry Heller, and Ruthless Records. The two would start Death Row Records with their first song bearing the same name for the film, Deep Cover, starring Lawrence Fishburne which would also introduce Snoop Dogg for the first time. Shortly afterwards, Death Row Records first album and Dr.Dre's first solo album, "The Chronic" was released in 1992.
SOLAR Studios in Hollywood. Image courtesy Loopnet.
The "Deep Cover" soundtrack and "The Chronic" album were recorded at Sound of Los Angeles Records (SOLAR) studios located at 1635 Cahuenga Blvd in Hollywood next to the famous Capitol Records building. SOLAR was started by Dick Griffey who also founded Soul Train Records with Don Cornelius. SOLAR thrived in the 80's which introduced The Whispers, Klymaxx, Shalamar, "Babyface", and Antonio "L.A." Reid and was instrumental in helping black R&B and rap artists like Dr. Dre succeed. . By the early 90's SOLAR was declining and Griffey was getting into rap and hip-hop by working with Death Row. The building was purchased by Babyface at one point and then sold on Auguat 4, 2011 for $7,252,072 to an LLC company bearing the name of the address.
Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg recording together. Not sure if this was Can-Am. Image courtesy Hot new Hip Hop
Death Row's next album, "Doggystyle" by Snoop Dogg was not recorded at Can-Am but was recorded at Larrabee North on Lankershim in NoHo and The Enterprise in Burbank along with some other studios in the LA area and released in 1993. I believe by 1994, Suge Knight and Dr. Dre had moved into Death Row Records and I am guessing leased the entire studio from Larry Cummins. The following quote from the book, Got Your Back: Protecting Tupac in the World of Gangsta Rap by Frank Alexander gives an interesting glimpse of the transformation of Can-Am to Death Row.
Tarzana is the last place anybody would expect to find Death Row's players. It's a  quiet, low-key part of the San Fernando Valley, surrounded by nothing but working class white people and Mexicans. I think Suge probably liked the anonymity Can-Am afforded him. Unless you knew what was going on, you'd never find out where they were.
Even if you did, there were two security guards on duty at all times, one stationed in the lobby, with a metal detector to wand people on their way into the recording areas. The other was in the control room, manning the security cameras, which showed everything taking place throughout the entire facility. Everyone entered through the lobby, and everyone got wanded before being allowed entry. Everybody except the artists, that is. 
Suge's office was inside Can-Am, and it was huge. He had it done up to suit him, with a big old Death Row logo in the middle of the carpet in the floor, and of course, the whole office was bloodred. Suge Knight displayed his gang affiliation to the Compton-based Bloods the way a doctor hangs his M.D. certificate for clients to view.  
By 1995, Death Row Records was well established having completed the soundtracks for Above the Rim and Murder Was the Case as well as Tha Dogg Pound with each album hitting at least #1 or #2 on the Billboard charts and RIAA certified 2x Platinum.

But 1996 was the explosive year as Death Row bailed Tupac out of jail in exchange for creating 3 albums with the first album, All Eyez on Me, hitting #1 on Billboard charts and RIAA certified Diamond. Death Row was riding high in fame, fortune, and envy. But like all things that go up, they come back down and Death Row crashed hard. During 1996, artists started to leave Death Row in frustration of lost wages and lack of work with the biggest departure coming from co-founder Dr.Dre who later started Aftermath Entertainment.
The February 1996 Vibe article marked the pinnacle of Death Row with Dr. Dre leaving shortly thereafter, Tupac dying, Suge Knight being jailed, and Snoop Dogg's second album was less successful and he started to distance himself from Death Row until the contract expired eventually leaving in 1998. 
By the end of 1996, Tupac was murdered in Las Vegas after a Tyson fight and died on September 13, 1996. Shortly afterwards, Death Row released Tupac's "Makaveli 7 Day Theory" and Snoop Dogg's "Tha Doggfather" which were both successful. Despite the chaotic year, Death Row was performing well but Suge Knight was incarcerated for parole violation sentencing him to 9 years in jail leaving Death Row without its feared leader. Suge continued to manage the company from jail but with the loss of Tupac, Dr.Dre, Snoop Dogg (evenutally in 1998) and others, the creative artistry and chemistry was lost. Death Row continued to operate with the sole remaining success coming from Tupac's albums released posthumously from more than 153 songs he recorded prior to death.

In 2006, Death Row filed bankruptcy after losing a $107 million judgement brought by Lydia Harris who claimed she was forced out from Death Row after financially backing Suge to start the company with her husband, "Harry-O" Harris who at the time was a businessman incarcerated on drug and attempted murder changes when Death Row was formed. In 2008, assets from Death Row were sold at an auction in Fullerton including the infamous electric chair prop that greeted visitors in the lobby. In 2009,  Death Row assets were sold to WIDEawake Entertainment group for $18 million which was later sold to Entertainment One in 2013.

Suge's release from jail statement on the office's billboard on Wilshire Blvd  on August 7, 2001. Image courtesy LA Times and here.
The history of Death Row Records at Can-Am records during the late 90's and 2000's is not known but I believe Death Row moved to 8200 Wilshire Blvd (near San Vicente) reportedly spending $5 million sometime in the late 90's while possibly still recording at Can-Am. However, the decline during the late 90's and early 2000's suggests there was very little activity going on. Its possible that Cummins regained control of Can-Am and opened the studio to other artists as demonstrated with the recordings of  Motley Crue's "Generation Swine" in 1997, two albums from The Game in 2004 and 2005 (surprisingly under Dr.Dre's Aftermath Entertainment company), and Maroon 5's "Song About Jane" in 2007.

Electric chair from auction. Image courtesy Kokyprik.com
Memorabilia from auction. Image courtesy Kokyprik.com
Sometime in the late 2000's, Can-Am became Ironworks Studio. Sometime afterwards, veteran mix engineer, Chris Lord-Alge (Tarzana resident), who has worked with every major artist, acquired the studio and renamed it Mix-LA. An interview with Brian Petersen on March 21, 2012 describes Alge's decision to gain control of Can-Am.
It started out as a simple process of logistics. I lived in Tarzana and I’d commute to Burbank and Hollywood to work. I was not in my own studio, I was in a studio owned by someone else. After all this commuting and not being able to actually get home to my family because of the traffic… I had worked in Cam An in the 90’s – I mixed the Damn Yankees and John Wetten (Asia, King Crimson), I mixed a few records here back in 90’ – 91’. One day I drove down here to see if it was still here, and sure enough I walked in, and of course it was in disrepair and it was under some new ownership. I came in and looked at it and wow, I talked to the owners and said “Hey, I’d like to check that room out”. I started by leasing it, basically renting the room from the guy, and in one day, I’m like : “ I’m not renting the room, I’m buying the place. Let’s get this guy out of here.”  After a few days I said this renting thing is not going to work, I’m just taking the whole place over. Screw it! I started by taking over the studio B side, and soon as there was a chance to buy Studio A, I bought it. There were a couple of other people interested in buying it, but I just steamrolled over it. My business manager said : “Look I don’t care how you do it, I’m taking over the studio.” It was a no brainer. Then though I didn’t really need both studios, I needed to have control of the whole facility because I needed to make it mine and under my control. The best thing about it is that it already came with the console I wanted. It just took me some reverbing. I am completely happy about.
Image courtesy NilsBryant.com
Image courtesy NilsBryant.com
Image courtesy Loopnet
Image courtesy RoccoGuarino
Image courtesy RoccoGuarino
I believe Alge continues to own Can-Am but looks like he is recording elsewhere these days as Can-Am is currently available for sale at $750,000 or sublease according to Loopnet with the following listing description: 
Incredible Legendary Studio for Sublease. There are four studios on the Premises - Studio A is comprised of approximately 3,800 Sq. Ft. and features a large live room, three isolation booths, contorl room, live room, kitchen, rivate entrance, main lobby and office. Studio B is comprised approximately 4,100 Sq. Ft. featuring its own private entrance, two deluxe lounges, dining room, full bath with shower, live room, three isolation booths, and large cotnrol room. Studio C is comprised of an approximately 800 Sq. Ft. space with control room, booth, bathroom, lounge and kitchen. Studio D is comprised of an approximately 600 Sq. Ft. space featuring its own private entrance, conrol room, and live room. The spaces are available together, or separately. Equipment and Business for Sale (OPTIONAL) - $750,000 - and includes taking existing lease at a better rate - Excellent Location in Tarzana adjacent 101 Freeway
While Can-Am exists in some form, its glory days are in the past where Guns N' Roses recorded their pioneering "Appetite for Destruction" album in 1987 to Death Row gaining control creating a new genre and winning fans over worldwide. In total, Death Row sold 50 million albums generating about $750 million in revenue which is quite spectacular for an independent label managed by a thug with very little to no music experience. The good times lasted only so long as Suge's mafia style management tactics, depriving artists of their dues, and a high turnover of the best talent led to its sad demise. Fortunately the studio still exists and the music is still as popular and influential today and it all happened in a tiny studio in Tarzana. 





This picture was taken on January 26, 2013 which it appears that the studio was undergoing some kind of renovation. 
You can read more BTTF series here

Videos:

Tupac at Can-Am Recorders for Good Life & Hit 'Em Up


Tupac at Can-Am Recorders



Small glimpse inside Death Row 



Sources: 

Death: Catalysing Chemicals - Suge and Tupac November 29, 2011; Clashmusic.com

Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang published on April 1, 2010. 

Trouble Funk by Jonathan Gold on Spin Magazine February 1997

Tupac Shakur: 'I am not a gangster' by Chuck Philips on Los Angeles Times on October 25, 1995.

Can-Am Studio with 24 Track New in Tarzana in Billboard Magazine on September 23, 1978.

Got Your Back: Protecting Tupac in the World of Gangsta Rap by Frank Alexander on January 10, 2000.

Discogs--Can-Am Recorders

Knight Moves by Sam Gideon, Andson and David Cogan on Vibe Magazine on October 2001

Loopnet--Can-Am Recorders

Sound of Los Angeles Records (SOLAR

NWA: Straight Outta Compton by Terry McDermott of the LA Times on April 14, 2002.

Death Row Records founder out of prison after 5 years by Chuck Philips of the LA Times on August 7, 2001. 

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Marty Mcfly

Anything and everything about the San Fernando Valley. This blog will take you back in time when the valley was covered with dirt and orange groves to a leader in the space race to its current status as America's suburb. Come along and join me on this adventure, I guarantee you have been influenced/impacted by the San Fernando Valley in one form or another even if you have never visited or heard of the SFV.

1 comment to ''BTTF# 27a: Straight Outta West SFV: Tarzana's Legendary Can-Am Recorders Turned Death Row Records "

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