They recorded Miley, Kanye & Nicki Minaj: Philly’s hottest studio marks 25 years

The MilkBoy partners, who also own restaurants and produce movies, are celebrating two-and-a-half decades in the industry.

MilkBoy co-owners, Jamie Lokoff (left) and Tommy Joyner (right)

MilkBoy co-owners, Jamie Lokoff (left) and Tommy Joyner (right)

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY
layla

Philadelphians who hang out in Center City might recognize MilkBoy as the all-hours bar on 11th and Chestnut.

It’s the one with a rollup garage door that opens early for graveyard-shift medical staff and rocks late with performances on the second floor. Or Philly folks might know the similar tavern on South Street, which hosts indie bands and popular open mic nights while offering a great pre-game to cheesesteaks from Jim’s.

But to people outside the city, the brand has a different reputation: MilkBoy is widely considered one of the best recording studios on the East Coast.

The sound stages tucked off Spring Garden routinely draw top talent from around the nation, regularly hosting big names — Dave Matthews Band, Usher, Miley Cyrus, Nicki Minaj. The space is also home to Shake, a studio that does film and advertisement recording for national brands like NBC, Keurig, Toyota and a bunch others.

Tunes are obviously the common thread between the bars and the recording houses. But sitting in one of their warmly lit, wood and leather studios, MilkBoy owners Tommy Joyner and Jamie Lokoff want you to know they’re about more than just music, man.

Now passing the quarter-century mark of working together, Joyner, 49, and Lokoff, 54, have branched into other creative venues. They recently co-produced a feature-length rom-com called Slow Learners, opened a short-lived performance stage with the University of Maryland, and expanded their popular clothing line.

Sitting in their studio, the dynamic duo are clad in matching black but still manage to look starkly different. Stewarding all of these ventures takes a toll, and it shows.

When Joyner went to their Chestnut Street bar recently, his employees were pleasantly surprised. “People were excited to see me,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Wow, you never get out.’

The brand is undoubtedly better known than its founders. “Whenever somebody’s telling me a story…and they find a connection, the response is always, ‘Oh, I love MilkBoy,'” Lokoff told Billy Penn.

It all started 25 years ago above a now-defunct music store in North Philadelphia.

A MilkBoy neon sign greets visitors coming off the elevator

A MilkBoy neon sign greets visitors coming off the elevator

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The idea to create a lifestyle brand

In 1994, Joyner opened a small music recording business in a space atop an Olney record shop called Zapf’s.

It was a grungy punk and hip-hop studio, on brand with the times. Lokoff, a composer who studied theater and his hand at acting in the Big Apple, came on board four years later.

After establishing themselves in North Philly, MilkBoy opened a second, now-closed studio in nearby Ardmore in 2002. A few years later, the first ever MilkBoy coffeeshop and live music venue opened in Ardmore. A second in location attached to the Bryn Mawr Film Institute launched in 2007 (it’s still open, but has since changed hands).

The Ardmore cafe was Joyner and Lokoff’s first attempt to build and nurture a community of artists, they said. “It was a risk, but that’s what we do,” Lokoff recalled.

The idea came when a couple of kids off the street wandered into the Ardmore studio space to hang out and jam on guitars.

“I think we saw that we connected with a certain audience and that MilkBoy was more than a studio, it was kind of like a lifestyle,” Lokoff said. “And the coffee shop started to illustrate that.”

From the outside, the venture was a total success, with the relaxed couches and standing-room only performance spaces at the rock n’ roll meets hobo chic coffee shop often filled to the brim.

Social media bolstered the cafe’s impact. It got rolling just as Facebook opened itself to the world outside of college dorms, and email newsletters were all the rage. The duo printed a zine, received awards for their community and business involvement and created a vibe unlike anything Philly’s quiet suburb to the west had seen.

“We were winning awards, we were on the news, everybody loved us,” Joyner says. “They didn’t know what our numbers were like in Ardmore. They just saw all the people that were coming into our place.”

On the inside, though, the MilkBoy owners barely kept their heads above water. Businesswise, it would be the deepest valley of their careers.

Instruments piled in one of MilkBoy’s recording studios

Instruments piled in one of MilkBoy’s recording studios

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

The ‘varsity’ of Philadelphia recording industry

Nowadays, MilkBoy’s sprawling studio at 421 S. 7th Street has platinum plaques adorning the walls.

Joyner and Lokoff acquired the Spring Arts space in 2012, buying it from renowned composer, producer and arranger Larry Gold because they wanted to return to the city after surviving the economic downturn, a feat many outfits could not accomplish.

MilkBoy has now outlasted local industry peers like Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International Records, and Sigma Sound Studios, the spot famous for creating the Sound of Philadelphia.

“Some really good studios got hurt by the things we were getting hurt by — but they’d already established a lifestyle, so they folded,” Lokoff said, crediting the duo’s ability to just tough it out. “We’d been a guerilla-style recording studio for so long that we were used to it.”

Speaking from a seat in Studio A, Lokoff said that despite all the hardship, he and Joyner are still good friends.

The largest of MilkBoy’s studios, the 1,200-square-foot studio with 14-foot ceilings smells like weed. A massive Solid State Logic recording console stretches across the control room, which is paneled with woodwork, two black leather stools, a well-worn black leather couch and a couple of swivel chairs. It’s not hard to imagine that Kanye West recorded “Flashing Lights” somewhere in this building. Because he did.

“The studios that you look at when you’re watching movies and record labels send artists to really nice studios, that’s MilkBoy,” says Armani White, a LA-based, Philly-raised recording artist.

Before he performed at Made In America, or was profiled by Billboard, or became a regular on Apple Music’s Beats 1 Radio, White recorded tracks at MilkBoy, which he calls the “varsity” of Philadelphia music recording.

White recorded at MilkBoy around 2014 and 2015. He worked with Joe “JoeLogic” Gallagher, a Grammy-winning engineer who’s been with the company since 2005 and has worked with Philly rappers like Chill Moody, Freeway and Meek Mill.

“Everything was very professional,” White said of his MilkBoy experience. “It wasn’t too much latency or room for error.”

Another thing that stood out about the MilkBoy experience: The volume. White remembers “song camps” organized by Charlie Heat, a producer signed to Kanye West’s Very G.O.O.D. Beats label. Camps were makeshift songwriting sessions and studio parties that featured beats blaring through orange-hued, subwoofer-stacked walls. “I’ve never heard music that loud in my life,” White recalled.

A golden record commemorates the sale of 1 million copies of Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz album which was record at the MilkBoy studios in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A golden record commemorates the sale of 1 million copies of Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz album which was record at the MilkBoy studios in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Tapped for early revitalization of East Market

One year prior to taking over the Studio, Joyner and Lokoff opened their first MilkBoy bar with former partner Bill Hanson, previously of Stephen Starr’s Continental Restaurant.

That came about because an intern at the Philly-based Reinvestment Fund knew the MilkBoy brand from its Ardmore cafe. The fund tapped Joyner and Lokoff to help revitalize the “donut” of downtown — what was then an underdeveloped hole in an otherwise revitalizing Center City neighborhood — with the multi-use storefront at at 11th and Chestnut.

“They wanted somebody to come in that could create some energy, create some vitality in that neighborhood, increase the activity and values of the other properties in that neighborhood,” Lokoff said. “Which ultimately happened.”

MilkBoy Philly opened in 2011 and has been booming ever since. It’s known as a place where up-and-coming acts like Cali rapper Buddy and R&B crooner Samoht perform to a packed venue on the second floor.

Visitors to the restaurant and intimate concert space laud its down-to-earth feel.

“I love the fact that little clubs like this still exist,” said one Yelp user who’d gone to see the Bottle Rockets there.

“Chill scene, great sound and good vibes,” wrote another concert-goer.

Expanding on the hit downtown location, MilkBoy South Street opened in 2016. Also a bar, restaurant and venue, a unique feature of the South Street location is the thriving Homegrown Open Mic.

The ongoing music competition replicates the grassroots feeling of the coffee shop, helps funnel potential recording artists to the studio and has grown exponentially since it’s first season began, said Joyner and Lokoff.

MilkBoy at 11th and Chestnut Street

MilkBoy at 11th and Chestnut Street

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Beyond the music and restaurant scene

The MilkBoy ventures beyond the music are what producer-turned-filmmaker duo want to cultivate as they look to their next 25 years.

In 2015, Joyner and Lokoff released their first film, Slow Learners, which they co-produced with Oscar-winning producer Tammy Tiehel-Stedman and Brian O’connor. The film premiered in April that year at the Tribeca Film Festival and was distributed by IFC’s Sundance Selects. It can be viewed now on YouTube, Amazon Prime, iTunes and Google Play.

The film is a coming-of-age sort of jaunt for two older characters who kinda suck at love. To remedy their sad dating life, main characters Jeff and Anne reinvent themselves as stereotypical “bad boy” and “crazy girl” archetypes. It cost about $1 million to produce.

“It’s a really good script,” Tiehel-Stedman said two years before the film was released. “It helps open doors that wouldn’t naturally be opened to you.”

Most recently, MilkBoy’s venture in College Park, Maryland, took the partners’ community concept southward and amped it with steroids. ArtHouse was an amphitheater venue, art gallery, restaurant and bar on the University of Maryland campus. It was incepted by a private-public partnership between MilkBoy, the university and local government, and showcases UMD staff, students, faculty and alumni. It closed just before the holidays.

“[MilkBoy is a] unique entity in the fact that we’re sowing,” Lokoff said. “We’re in the music scene, we’re in the food and bev scene, we’re in the ad scene and we’re in the film scene.”

The brand’s ventures have evolved quite a bit over the past quarter-century. But the spirit of “cool” they want to create — have created, are creating — remains unchanged.