When the rest of uptown is sleeping, Frank Parra can be found in a home studio at his Washington Heights apartment, experimenting with drum patterns. He paces from keyboard to laptop in search of the perfect sound; his music has a throwback vibe, mixed with the energy and grit of city life. He works best at night.
Everything seems set in its proper place—no tangled cords or scraps of paper. A guitar case sits propped against soundproofed walls covered in foam. The space is filled with countless sets of speakers, two keyboards, an iMac, a laptop and, on the floor, a crate of $1 records purchased from a thrift shop.
Frank Parra has three jobs: He’s a content manager at iStandard Producers, a production company that showcases up-and-coming producers. He’s a tutor to a Harlem second-grade class and he’s one of the best-known music producers uptown, with a resume that includes time at Island Def Jam and Atlantic Records.
“The producer makes the beat; the music goes to a songwriter, then it finally reaches the artist,” he said, explaining the music-making process. Without someone to manage the audio development, he says, a song lacks structure.
“I had never heard of him before I went to his studio,” said Audubon, another Washington Heights musician who frequently collaborates with Parra. “What made me say, ‘let’s work,’ was how fast he could play on the keys. When I gave him an idea, we made a lot of music in a small period of time.”
Parra started early. During his senior year at State University of New York at Oneonta, a music business major, Parra sold a beat to rapper Juelz Santana, who then recorded a song called “Get Down.”
“He didn’t even know who I was,” Parra said. “But he liked the music enough to want to rap over it, so I knew I wanted to pursue it full time.” He did, and “once music took over, it really took over.”
In the music industry he’s a rising star at 26, but in the Heights, as he refers to his neighborhood, he’s just Frankie P—a local guy and enthusiastic promoter of the uptown lifestyle.
Parra spent his last few years producing music, sending beats to various record labels without knowing if anyone actually heard them. Tired of waiting for artists and A&R representatives to recognize his ability, he decided to take matters into his own hands. His debut solo album, “Hazy Nights in the Heights,” was digitally released a few weeks ago.
Its 16 tracks offer what Parra calls an instrumental ride though the mind of Frankie P. “It doesn’t need vocals because it tells a story on its own,” he says. “I wanted to do something that wasn’t trendy or what’s popping, something to play 10 years from now.”
Photographer Nelson Salcedo, who shot the album art, says Parra’s work goes beyond passion. “Frank is constantly on,” he says. “Constantly working, but to him it’s not work. He’s just always creating music and thinking of ideas for how to bring his music to life visually.”
Parra likes to work alone, “without too many chefs in the kitchen.” He sat at the mixing board one recent night, preparing for a 10 p.m. studio session with one of his artists. He nodded as the music blared from the speakers at a volume sure to have caused a few noise complaints. He wore sneakers, black sweats and a t-shirt that revealed a left arm covered by tattoos. He stands 6 feet, one inch tall, with a goatee framing his face.
His favorite song on the album, he said breaking into a smile, was “To Amy,” dedicated to the late Winehouse, who died while he was completing the project. “It felt like something she would have sang over,” he said.
He was born to a Dominican father and an Ecuadorian mother in 1986. The family left the Bronx when he was two and moved to upper Manhattan, where “just leaving my house, I heard bachata, merengue and hip- hop,” Parra said, “just a mixture of a lot of different cultures.”
His musical preferences are so diverse he doesn’t like to label them. His style fuses jazz, salsa, techno and R&B. He rarely listens to hip-hop although he produces hip-hop music. On his playlist, soulful music of the ‘60s and ’70s alternates with punk rock and artists like The Doors, Anita Baker and Janis Joplin.
“Frank listens to a wide array of music,” said Audobon. ”I do the same thing. So when we put it all together we get some interesting music.”
Parra’s major placements include licensing synchronizations with MTV, MTV3 and VH1. (Photo by Myeisha Essex)
Parra works with local artists of all genres from rap to dancehall. When producing for an artist, he is very selective. “I get the best vibes off of great artistry,” he says.
Parra recognizes that music producing is a tough, competitive industry. Even with countless contacts, it’s hard for him to get his music to the right people. “Out of frustration, many producers just give their beats away,” he said. Instead, he’s decided to focus on artists he believes in and to build his brand, focusing on creativity.
He made his album available for free online to create awareness and “to give my audience a taste of what I can do,” he said. “What got to me the most is the people that heard it I didn’t expect to hear it. The response has been amazing,” he said. “Even people in their 50’s.”
In five years he hopes to have the luxury of making music full-time. Although New York City has been a catalyst for Parra’s music, he’d rather live more quietly. If he could, “I’d have a house somewhere in Wisconsin, making music,” he said.
After dozens of songs and late-night studio sessions, Audubon is certain Parra’s career will endure. “In five years he will be what you hear in the speakers in Wal-Mart, in hoopties through out the hoods, on the radio and somewhere on the TV,” he said. “Provider of our life soundtrack.”