MIAMI—Straddling a quiet residential street in North Miami Beach lie two houses that are musical portals. From the mixing board in the guest cottage of one, you can look out on a curvy pool and see hitmakers—maybe Beyonce, 50 Cent or No Doubt—taking a dip. Pungent aromas of vegetarian cuisine waft out of the kitchen across the road, while members of the storied reggae band Inner Circle watch soccer on TV, rehearse, or tend to the business of Circle House, the top-notch, world-renowned studio they built.
Caribbean culture passes into urban America here—and vice versa. Some of the hottest records of the past 12 years—from “Who Let the Dogs Out” to today’s hit “Lip Gloss”—have been recorded by pop’s top musicians and producers between these brightly colored walls. If there’s one place responsible for making the region a top destination for lovers of hip-hop, reggae and R&B, it’s not a South Beach club, but this tropical, professional, homey studio.
“We like it so much—the vibe, the environment—we’ve booked it six months straight,” says Marcello Valenzano, aka Cool, one-half of the local production team Cool & Dre, who have crafted hits for Christina Milian and Ja Rule. “It feels like you’re home. The sound is the greatest sound ever. You come to Circle House to enjoy the great vibe and you leave with hit records.”
“You feel like you’re on an island making music,” says DJ Khaled, the local radio personality who recorded much of his upcoming second album, “We the Best,” at Circle House. “It’s got a home feeling. It’s family-driven.”
Then he pauses, and his familiar voice takes on an extra patina of hype: “But the best thing about that studio is the brownies.”
Some studios—like Circle House’s near neighbor, Hit Factory/Criterion—are known for their phenomenal acoustics and state-of-the-art technology. Circle House has those, but it also has brownies. They’re made by one of the local cooks who provide fresh gourmet cuisine nightly for whomever happens to be in one of the studio’s multiple recording and mixing rooms, which on a given night could be Nas, Kelis, Trick Daddy and Rick Ross.
“We try to create an atmosphere where people can get together and vibe,” says Circle House traffic manager Abebe Lewis. “We’re the ultimate networking spot; people come to work and network.”
That vibe is set by its founders. Along with Steel Pulse, Inner Circle is among the last of the great reggae groups. Brothers Ian and Roger Lewis formed the group in 1968. They were signed by Chris Blackwell to Island Records back in the `70s, alongside Bob Marley. Thanks in part to its use as the soundtrack for the TV show “Cops,” their song “Bad Boys” is one of the genre’s biggest worldwide hits. Their new EP, “Blazzin’ Fire,” available on iTunes, shows them still adept at their signature sound: conscious lyrics delivered with a fine ear for pop melodic songcraft.
“Coming to America to sing with Inner Circle was a mind-blowing experience,” says Kris Bentley, who, at a mere 12 years with the group, is still a newcomer. On the island, the expat group was not necessarily given its place in reggae history. “One of the bands that has done so much for Jamaica as a culture is unsung heroes.”
Inner Circle left their native Jamaica two decades ago, after the death of their lead singer Jacob Miller in a car crash, and came to South Florida. First at their Box studio in Hollywood, where 2 Live Crew recorded, then at Circle House, they’ve quietly become the hub of a musical community.
“We’re not trying to run a studio business, that’s not our thing,” says Ian Lewis. “We’re just vibing. How we look at it is, in the words of the great Bunny Wailer, it’s correct. It’s flowing.”
“We create a Jamaican vibe,” says longtime keyboardist Bernard “Touter” Harvey. “We create what we like, after working around the world and seeing how different studios are. We created something we felt comfortable working in. Consequently other musicians feel the same way we do.”
“We like the warm feel,” says Roger Lewis. “We can go play kickball outside, come back in and play some music. The kitchen is right here, the food. It’s an ethnic thing to be near the kitchen.”
Inner Circle’s decades of experiences as black musicians crossing over to mainstream culture have helped them create a nurturing environment for hip-hop artists. The studio has been a hotbed of local talent, helping launch Trina, Jacki-O, Ross, Pretty Ricky and Trick Daddy.
“To understand the urban culture is a whole different thing,” Ian says. “To understand what the needs of somebody is, it takes a certain level of education. That’s one thing I think is lacking in Miami, is an understanding of urban cultures. It’s not all craziness. It’s just like rock `n’ roll.”
Inner Circle also created a welcoming place for other immigrant cultures: Latin acts such as Christian Castro and Ricky Martin have recorded at Circle House.
“They created that atmosphere, they bring the island feel to the studio,” says Khaled, himself a Palestinian American. “By them hanging around the studio, they treat you like family.”
Circle House is a family enterprise. Ian’s son Abebe acts as liaison to younger acts. One of the most recent local groups the studio has nurtured, Bottom of da Map, includes Abebe’s brother Gamal, who raps under the name Lunch Money.
Like many Jamaican musicians, the men of Inner Circle are philosophical entrepreneurs and ambassadors who avidly consume news and proffer their opinions on political and aesthetic issues. They bring their postcolonial point of view to their business, educating by example, if not argument, America’s newest shapers of public consciousness.
“For me, I thank God every day that I was born and educated in the Caribbean, in Jamaica, that I got that Caribbean vibe of soca, carnival, calypso, reggae, different cultures, different ethnic peoples,” Roger says.
By creating a hospitable spot for local artists and producers, as well as drawing hitmakers to town, Circle House has elevated the South Florida music scene.
“Miami never had so many people with access to record deals. It opens up whole revenue streams,” Abebe says. “I feel like Circle House has changed the recording industry in Miami because I feel like we uplifted it to certain different standards of quality of sound and quality of comfort, and making the artist feel like they’re an artist: Not just a studio and a room, but I gave you an environment and a vibe to get your best work out there.”
CIRCLE HOUSE: HIT FACTORY
Some of the hits that have been recorded at Circle House:
Bobby Valentino, “Tell Me”
Ne-Yo, “When You’re Mad”
Blu Cantrel, “Hit `Em Up Style (Oops)”
Lionel Richie, “I Call It Love”
Jamie Foxx, “Unpredictable”
Pretty Ricky, “Grind With Me”
Puff Daddy, “Bad Boy for Life”
Rick Ross, “Hustlin’”
Christian Castro, “Lo mejor de mi”
Baja Men, “Who Let the Dogs Out”