In the basement of her outwardly unassuming home, Aliyah Stephens runs local record label and recording studio Manhattan Mob Records.
Aliyah’s love for music began at the age of just 4, when her parents put her in piano lessons. Over the years she picked up a bunch of other instruments, including guitar, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, tuba and drums. Since then, she has attended Berklee College of Music online, where she gained many of the skills necessary to run her own studio.
As a musician and producer, subpar recording experiences with other studios in the past played a part in inspiring Aliyah to start the label about five years ago.
“I have had the heartbreak of saving up money and getting ready to go record, and you go record and the engineer doesn’t really take you seriously … that’s kind of when I started doing this stuff myself,” she said.
When she first set out with her own business, Aliyah was already known for teaching private lessons and doing shows, but she said things really took off when she started introducing recording, mixing and mastering services.
“Everybody bit on the recording … I only got called for recording, mixing, production, and I wasn’t expecting that because there aren’t studios around here that do that kind of thing,” she said.
Originally known as Madame Groove Records, after her artist name, Aliyah decided to change the studio's name after branching out into doing more work with people in the community.
“Madame Groove has been my artist name for my hip hop stuff for the longest time, but this became Manhattan Mob Records a couple years ago, because I wanted the title to have more sense of community,” she said.
While many recording studios charge by the hour, Aliyah charges by the song, allowing artists to come in for multiple sessions if they need to.
“If you’re new to recording, then it’s really good because that means you get a chance to practice, and go listen, and come back in,” she said. “They love that, you know, knowing what to expect when they get here and not wondering how much they have to pay.”
As the general manager, sound engineer, producer and video editor of the label, Aliyah wears many hats. She isn’t in it all on her own though; her assistant manager, aspiring producer/performer and younger brother, Benjamin Stevens, helps her run the show.
Along with their dad, Benjamin assisted in renovating their studio in the previously unfinished basement just last year, which he said was tiring, but a fun experience.
“We’ve been doing studio work for a couple years, but we haven’t, until we put all this together, we never had an actual studio, with a separate booth and all that,” Benjamin said. “It’s been really satisfying, and it’s definitely paid off.”
While the pandemic has had a significant impact on many small businesses, the studio has weathered it fairly well.
“[Our operations] actually didn’t change very much; they stopped for a period, but we started doing specific measures like everybody else is doing, wearing masks ... hand sanitizer,” Aliyah said.
In fact, this has been one of their busiest years. When everything ground to a halt earlier this year, a lot of people were left with extra time on their hands.
“The recording hasn’t really stopped, it’s actually going up because this is a good time for artists to make new material for when stuff does go back to normal,” Aliyah said.
(Photos by Rebecca Vrbas)