Since Jay-Z’s American Gangster album, you’ve been fairly quiet. What have you been up to?
I produced on Usher’s new album (“Best Thing” featuring Jay-Z). I did that and I’ve been working on Nas’ new album.
Your bio says the song you did with Nas is titled “Project Roach”. What can you tell us about that song?
The last version I heard of it…What he does is he puts different raps to songs. I heard his raps to another beat. Every rap that I heard on the track was really good. There’s another songs I’m working on called “I Don’t Wanna Be Right” with Jermaine. Everything I’ve heard has been classic Nas lyrics.
You have a wide range of beats that you can do. What kind of a beat did Nas take from you?
Oh, man, I would call it a vintage beat. It’s a beat that I would have gave Common between the Resurrection and One Day It’ll All Make Sense days. It’s soulful.
Were you in the studio with Nas for this album?
This time I worked with him two different ways. Me and Jermaine worked with him in Atlanta and I also flew out and worked with him in New York for a week. The way the process works is I’ll make beats and bring them down to him and he’ll write the raps to them and make a song. We do a lot of talking before and after, but he likes an empty room to really write and record.
Do you find that experienced artists like Nas still should record with the producer or should the producer let a vet like Nas go wherever he wants?
Every situation is different. Sometimes I want to collab in a certain way because I know what an artist is capable of doing and the direction that they can go in. At the same time, they’re artists and they have such an artistic perspective. Nas knows where he wants to go. I’m right in between of wanting to help but not wanting to tell him something that doesn’t go with him. It’s like a catch 22 in a sense. I mean, I would like to direct him and be a producer, but then every time I hear the raps that he’s using, I really like them so much that it’s hard to find a way to say that you could have did this better like this. Now as far as making songs more successful I don’t think that’s his goal. I think he wants to paint his art the way he wants to paint it.
How did you make Usher’s “Best Thing” with Jay-Z happen?
That’s me and Jermaine’s relationship. He’ll call me to work on something and we’ll work on it. I developed that relationship with him to not have to politic and not have to get in that position that’s so political. I don’t have the time, energy and strength to play the political game to do certain records with certain artists that are in the R&B world. I started out with artists that were in the hip-hop sense, but he’ll call me to work with other artists. That’s really how it happens. It’s really kind of effortless with him. He’ll do his part and I’ll do my part and we’ll know where the record is supposed to be.
You worked with Jay-Z on The Blueprint 2 as well as his latest project American Gangster. What was it like working with him on American Gangster?
I really wanted to work with Jay but it was nothing that I really was pursuing at the moment because I had worked with him. I was in my own world and in my own vibe. Jermaine wanted me to go up there. I went up there and I really just took my computer with me and just did the work right there. A lot of times, I don’t pursue a lot of projects because they just want you to send them some beats. “Send us some beats.” With my development, I’m not too interested in sending people beat CDs for projects when I don’t know where it’s going and what it’s going to sound like and I’m just supposed to have some hot tracks. I think that’s the problem with a lot of albums, period. They’re not made with a cohesive thought. It’s just made with name-chasing and it doesn’t have any value in history. It’s just about what’s going to be popular here and what’s going to be popular there and it’s not about the album being a whole work of art that’s really going to stand the test of time. So really, we just went up there. We watched the movie with him, sat in a couple of sessions, listened to the album and what he wanted and made it happen.
Did you make the beats for “Success” and “Fallin’” after watching American Gangster?
Those were on-the-spot beats. Neither one of us brought anything that was premade. He was telling us what he was looking for and he took Jermaine and me in there and we just came with what we came with. It just kind of proves my theory even more because there were so many people sending beats from everywhere, but if you’re just sending beats and you don’t really know what’s going on and what’s really needed and what the rest of the project sounds like…It was kind of an advantage to sit there and hear what he was looking for and what he had because I was smart enough to know what I should bring.
Is the music suffering because artists are sending tracks back and forth to each other instead of working together in person?
I got a theory that after Nas’ Illmatic it really became popular to believe that a lot of popular producers could make your album good versus before ’94 and ’93 most of the albums were done by one producer or one core producer. And I’m going back in the history of music to make that statement. Most of the classic albums don’t have 10 producers or eight producers. They mostly have one producer, two producers or a crew that makes up one unit and operate in one fashion. I think it’s definitely destroying our music. People are tired of hearing different albums sounding the same because they have the same group of songwriters and producers who don’t really care what the artist sounds like. They’re just doing their own sound. It’s the same thing I heard over there but with a new person on it.
Would you rather work on complete albums versus placing a track on a few popular albums?
Definitely. I want to work on projects. I’m not interesting in just shopping beats. Period. I’m interested in helping to direct projects and help come up with sounds for artists and helping artists come up with a vision and helping them translate that vision. It’s proven that people with the biggest singles don’t sell records because nobody cares about them as an artist and they don’t hear anything about them that sounds distinctive. They come out and they don’t even have a sound anymore. They just have a bunch of sounds from a bunch of different producers and I’m not interested in that. I’ll go here and there to make one track on an album but that’s not my passion.
You’re most known for your work with Common early in his career. Will you guys work together again?
Actually me and Kanye were going in with Common this weekend but something happened and the session got cancelled. We’re definitely going to go in there again.
Common has always tried new sounds, but Common said his new album is inspired by electro music. Have you heard the album?
No. I just heard the one song.
From what you did with Common and where you had him early in his career, are you happy with the direction his career has taken?
In an overall sense I am. Of course I’m going to find certain things that I don’t necessarily agree with here and there, but his artistic freedom allows him to experiment here and there. But I don’t think there are too many people who have as strong a body of work when you look at all of his albums. It’s one of those things where if we would have kept working…And not necessarily with me doing the whole thing, but of course I think I could have had some thoughts and suggestions that, in my eyes, could have helped take a better shape, but at the end of the day, we have to look at everything he’s done and really understand hip-hop and realize that he’s been incredible. I’m more realistic that everything is never going to be the way that one person thinks it should be. There are certain things, like when I told Kanye when he was doing “Stronger”, that it wasn’t a hit. It was a hit in a certain way. That was just my opinion and I don’t want that to be misconstrued from what he achieved in seven albums, which is incredible.
When Kanye said you were his mentor on “Big Brother,” what did that mean to you?
I think the one thing people don’t fully see is that the mentor part was not just music. It was a younger guy having an older guy that could tell him things about life and music. I think most of the things he’s said about me attribute to the music and the success he’s had, but our relationship wasn’t just music. I just appreciate the fact that he’s having success and he’s doing everything he can to acknowledge his footsteps. That’s a big character. I think that’s big of him and his character to even say certain things he doesn’t have to say, whether they’re true or not. That’s really what I get out of it the most. Thanks for acknowledging me. When you try to help people and you don’t really do it for the money, it’s just good that it can work out sometimes.
When you first worked with Kanye, did you think he had the potential to be where he is today?
I’m definitely surprised by how far he took it. I never really thought that he could have did everything he did. We laugh at it all the time. One of the funniest things is when I was managing him and I took him to a meeting and in the meeting he said he was going to be the next Michael Jackson and then after the Grammy’s, he said he was talking to Michael Jackson. We were like, ‘Okay, you did do that.’ Who would have thought that? Who would have thought a guy with his character would have got on Rocafella and be as big as he’s gotten?
When you were working with Kanye, did you think you were preparing him for a bigger platform or were you just working with him because you got along well?
I didn’t work with him like, ‘I am now your mentor.’ He was just a persistent kid that was coming around. There were times when I didn’t want to teach him and I didn’t want to talk to him about songs. I would be like, ‘Go do this.’ I was older and he was a young kid, like 14 years-old and I’m 20. So my thoughts weren’t to take this 14 year-old and work with him. I was working with Common and was focusing on what he was doing. He was like, ‘I’m going to be big.’ I was like, ‘All right, let me help you.’ Eventually, over time, I did take him under the wing and all of that, but I would never discredit his own drive and work ethic to take the information and make it have any signature. I think for anybody to ever try and take full credit for anybody is just not correct because it takes a person to get up there and really deliver whatever’s instilled in them and not everybody can do that. I did mentor him but he eventually received the accolades for what he did and the sacrifices he made in his life and for making it.
You mentioned that you and Kanye were going in the studio with Common. How often do you guys work together?
We were talking about me working with him on his new album coming up. Because it was never based on that and I never really…We kind of do the same style of music and it’s kind of hard to work with somebody when you do the same thing. It’s not like we could both hear a sample and chop it differently. I might come across something and give it to him to chop or he might ask for something I had and want to chop it. But once we got to a different level and I started working with Jermaine, it became more opposite of what we do. Our skill sets are different.
Even though he’s going in a different direction musically, there’s more opportunity and it makes more sense now than for us to just say that we’re going to work together. We don’t really just work together to work together. He doesn’t really need me and I don’t really need him to do beats. So it’s always just been whatever’s natural and I think this is just a natural opportunity for us to work together. But he has a lot of pressure as an artist and no time to really just sit around. I think I’m going to step up to the plate in the future and do more work with him, not that he can’t, but when you do such a big tour and you do so much and then you have to prepare for the album, he’s going to probably just be strapped for time just to do what he does and I told him when we talked that it was important in my eyes that we get Common and Lupe and certain people that really hold a certain style of music to still keep it relevant and to make sure that we all stay as successful as possible.
It’s not uncommon for producers to have their own artists signed to them. In your case, have you just not found the right artist?
No. 1, I’m picky. I’ve found artists and I have artists that I work with, but it’s really just a matter of putting the projects together and making them work. A lot of people say they got projects coming, but in my eyes, it’s really just a matter of making it work. When you put those records together, then you find more people telling you about what’s going on with it and putting more pressure on it and the hype is rising and then there’s the disappointment. There was a time period where I said I didn’t want artists, but now I want to do the right projects with the people who can really deliver it. I don’t have any expectations. I have a criteria and I have to find the right person with the right work ethic to make it and it really just is what it is.
There’s too many. There’s too many people saying, “I got my own artist and I got my own label.” This whole “movement” thing is out of control. Everybody has a movement. It’s out of control. There’s a lot of talking and not a lot of delivering. There were projects that I couldn’t believe in or they might have gotten to the door and didn’t make it, but I’m not going to talk about it just to be talking. I really want to see what these things are going to be. I think that’s really what the Kanye thing was. He talked about it and it came to be.
How has being managed by Jermaine Dupri helped you?
Oh, it’s helped a lot. Honestly, my reason for linking up with him was me humbling myself and saying, “Man, this guy knows a lot to have this long of a successful track record and to have such an effect on pop and in popular music” and I really wanted to learn, more than anything. I really wanted to learn. And a lot of things I learned working with him I apply to what I do and I think he’s just a great model. Working with him made me more of a complete producer and there are forms of music that maybe I didn’t understand before.
How do you guys work together on music?
It’s simple. Usually when I work with him, if he has a vision, he’ll tell it to me and he’ll give me an idea and I’ll pass it off to him and then it’s done. But he’s such a strong songwriter, which most people don’t really pay attention to. He’s a really good visionary and songwriter in order to come up with what the artist should be singing about. That’s really got something to do with the record being what it should be. Usually we just accept what it is. We’ve had some heavy situations and he’ll ask me about my visions and what I want to achieve and I’ll tell him what I want to achieve. It’s a pretty smooth process. It’s fun. Working with him has been one of the easiest things I’ve ever done in my life.
Has there ever been a time when producing with Jermaine Dupri when you didn’t get the credit you deserved?
There might be some times when the credits don’t get applied properly, but I never walk into a situation ghostproducing. My credits are usually on there. He may have stronger publicists putting his name out there, but you can really go back there and look at most of the credits and besides one or two records, my credits are there. “Ghostproducing” is just something that people say and I just let them say what they say. We don’t sit down and he doesn’t say, “Hey, I need you to ghostproduce for me.”
It doesn’t seem as though you seek out the spotlight the way other producers do. Why is that?
I’m cool with my life the way it is. A lot comes with that spotlight. This is my 16th year and I haven’t peaked yet and I haven’t overstayed my welcome and I’m still appreciated for what I do. There were people who were popular when I first started working around the time of Resurrection and those producers are not even in the game or they’re there but they’re not even in the relevant projects. I feel as though I went through a few “generations” of producers being relevant and I’m still here. The spotlight don’t really mean as much to me, personally as much as I would rather have a career and have something to do my whole life and enjoy it without the pressures of being held to some standards that really don’t have nothing to do with the equipment and making a good song. That’s what I want to do.
There are now time periods where I say I’ll do something more than I have done it because I just see the need, but a lot of people need the spotlight for a lot of personal reasons that I don’t really need the spotlight. I like going to the movie theater. I like going to the mall and I like being me. I don’t like people approaching me when I’m walking down the street. I like not being known like that. I have people talk to me sometimes about me not knowing that I’m me. It’s cool. I like it.
Why do you think you’ve been able to have the longevity that you’ve had?
My ability to look at it every single day as if it was my first day. I don’t really put the pressure on me like, ‘I’ve done this and I’ve done that.’ That doesn’t even matter to me. That’s irrelevant in the sense of usually the new hottest person is not caring about what happened 10 years ago or what the person said about what they did. It’s just really about sitting down and doing a record right now and paying attention to what you’re doing now. A 17 year-old doesn’t know about A Tribe Called Quest fully. He just heard about it. 2Pac and Biggie are old school now and they came out after I was producing. Not 2Pac, but they peaked at a time when I was well into my career.
I think what it is is I’m not afraid to do any type of music that I feel like I want to do and I’m not afraid to work on things as if I’m a new producer and just humble myself and just work. There are a lot of people living off what it was and they’re still trying to protect that reputation and live up to that old standard that’s not even the same standard anymore. It used to be about who found a sample and who used this beat. That was an artistic discussion that’s not really relevant to this stage of hip-hop and I can recognize that and adapt. As a matter of fact, me and Hip-Hop was talking and he was cracking a joke about how NBA players don’t want to play no more because the European players are shooting too many three-pointers. Well, learn how to shoot three-pointers. It’s basketball! Just be the best regardless of how everybody’s playing. And that’s how I stay in the game. I’m just adapting every single day.
How has your approach to sampling changed over the years?
I grew. I always had a certain approach with sampling. Sometimes I think people look at sampling as taking a record and using it the way it is and that’s what it is where I use it like it’s a creative tool and I know how to do more than just sample. It’s really just inspiration that I have and it’s an artistic part of my production. I really, honestly, look at production in a whole bigger way where maybe in the last year, I just feel like I learned how to produce to the point where I can look back at my legacy and I can say that I’ve learned how to make any sound in my head exist in music which is not really relying on samples and not really relying on a specific keyboard or a specific preset in a keyboard. James Brown had a drum kit and not too many producers can make a drum kit sound like James Brown’s sound. They’ll say the engineer needs to know that. Well, a producer should know how to put that together and that’s the whole thing.
Now sampling is just a part of what I do. I use it to get an idea going and I might not end up using any sample. Sometimes I use it just to inspire me. It’s no different than a musician listening to some of his favorite music before he gets down to playing and sometimes he might use what he’s listening to into what he’s playing and that’s really what it is now versus back in the day when it was a different artform. It was bout digging in the crates and finding a real break and using it before somebody else used it. That’s not the thing anymore. Now it’s about being creative.
Do you want to rely less on samples when you’re working on tracks that you know will get out in a major way?
Financially, of course you get more money coming original, but I just look at it artistically. If it’s good, it’s good. They can say I used someone else’s thing to make it good, but 400 people covered The Beatles. Producing and writing are two different things. Technology made it so producers can write so easily. At the end of the day, it’s a frivolous argument to me. It’s about songs being good. I know a lot of people who don’t sample and their beats are terrible and I know a lot of people who sample and their beats are incredible. What’s the point? I thought the point was making good music that we can enjoy.
What equipment are you using today?
I use Logic. It’s a computer program. That’s all I use. I don’t really use too much else besides other instruments. But I pretty much do all of my beats in Logic.
How do you show growth as No ID without losing your signature soul sound that fans love?
I think what made me popular was my ability to put music in my production that had a certain melody and emotion to the melody. I think that’s always going to be a good thing to the people that it’s good to. A lot of music just has different emotions and it’s about taking the sounds and the feel and the rhythms in different places. It’s like how Stevie Wonder kept a certain feel to everything he did even though technology advanced from the ‘60s to the ‘70s to the ‘80s when he got real electronic. The passion and emotions of my songs, I think I do have certain characteristics and qualities that influence me and that’s always going to be there. It’s about expressing my ability over time. It’s about looking back on my whole body of work and that’s what it is. That’s all I’m really going to do.
What’s the next move for No ID?
Moving ahead in music and just expanding to another level. It’s just growth. And understanding the business and the internet being a wide open music market and understanding it, I’m trying to find some new things to achieve. I feel like especially with a certain number of pioneers in Chicago, we always have to stay in that position and do what other people are not doing and make other people realize that that’s what they need to do. That’s really what I want to keep my eyes focused on.