You got back with The Hitmen to do Jay-Z’s American Gangster. What was that like for you?
We just did the Jay-Z thing under The Hitmen name. That was a project that we worked on with Puff. The American Gangster thing, LV and I are partners and what happened was Puff called Jay and told him to come by the studio to hear some music because he knew he was working on a new album. He got there in 15 minutes flat and when we played him beats, he looked around the room like, ‘What the hell? This is exactly what I’m looking for. Who are you doing these beats for?’ Everything just kind of matched perfectly.
What kind of involvement did Puff have in the American Gangster beats?
He brought Jay-Z to the table and he was also there in every session. He gave his ideas and definitely helped to shape the record. I definitely want to let people know who think he doesn’t do anything that it’s not true. He’s a producer in the real sense of the word as far as directing and putting his ideas down and pushing everybody to perfection. He’s a perfectionist. He’ll always push you to sound bigger and better. His whole thing is to make it sound really, really big.
DJ Swivel told me you sent Jay-Z a loop with drums and would add more instruments after Jay added his vocals.
Yeah. It was more than just the loop, but he would send his vocals and like on “Roc Boys”, we would have the musicians come in and play some live drums and we would send it back to him and he would be excited and change an ad-lib or change a line here and there. We were doing the album back and forth like that and because the album was being done at such a quick pace, the album got done in about two to three weeks, everything got done really, really fast and it was under the radar. He was working on “Sweet” and doing his vocals and we would be in Daddy’s House working on “Pray”. He would send it back and then we would change something. And while we were over there mixing the record he would send a new hook for the record. Both studios were working at the same time and both studios were working to the last day. Jay-Z didn’t even change his clothes. He had on the same clothes he had on for two, three days in a row. He said it was like he was hustling back on the block again.
How happy were you with the finished product of American Gangster?
I was really happy. I’m blessed. The record, it sounds like good music. I think it’s an album. It’s not like it’s just one record you like. Of course everyone’s going to have their favorites, but the album altogether really just locks in together.
You also produced “Can’t Knock the Hustle” for Jay-Z. What does it mean to you that you’re still able to work with him today?
A lot of people say that this album is going back to the way that he came in with Reasonable Doubt and it’s kind of ironic that I worked on both. I think that’s just something that you can’t control. I don’t know. There’s a reason why I worked on this album and the first album and they’re kind of similar. I guess it’s just that that brought us back full circle. It means a lot to me.
When you did “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, did you ever think Jay-Z would become the superstar that he is today?
Everybody wanted to be on Jay-Z’s first album. I think in the beginning he was looked at as someone who was on the cusp of being huge and everybody wanted to be there. I didn’t know he was going to become who he is and a multi-millionaire. We just knew he was hot and I wanted to give my beats to him because Jay-Z was nice. We didn’t think that far ahead that he would be a mogul and all that. We just wanted to get on his album.
How did you see Jay-Z’s recording techniques change from ’96 to 2007?
When we did “Can’t Knock the Hustle”, we gave him and Dame the track. For awhile, he was in the studio and they said he was writing. I don’t know if that meant he was writing or just driving around, coming up with the idea in his head. When he came to the studio, he just did it. The difference now is that the first thing we did this time was that we played him a bunch of beats. One of them he sat there mumbling to it like he did on Fade to Black. Then he went in and recorded it. He was writing then. I didn’t see him do that on “Can’t Knock the Hustle”. You could see him creating it right there.
Your production company Grind Music also did a lot with Ghostface Killah on The Big Doe Rehab. What was that experience like?
Of course Ghostface and Jay-Z are two different albums. Ghost was on the road a lot. A lot of times we were working in the studio without him because he was traveling a lot, but we would stay on the phone with him and get ideas and send it to him on the road and he would say if he liked it or if he didn’t. He’s one of those guys where if he hears a track a certain way, he’s just kind of married to it. When you’re making changes it makes you nervous if he’s married to a different sound of it. But we worked on his last album too. In this case, we would make changes and we would send it to him and he would tell us it was hot and to leave it like that. So that was the difference between working with Jay and working with Ghost.
You’ve worked with so many big names throughout your career. Do you take a different approach with each artist you work with?
We definitely have a system with the way that we work. It’s a little bit of both. We try to keep the environment in our studio real loose and not too sterile. We try not to overthink it because music is all feeling and emotion. That’s one thing that’s kind of a constant with us as a production company, but everybody works differently as far as artists so if we want to make a good project, we have to meet somewhere and that won’t make it seem like it was forced. You have to get with an artist that you haven’t worked with and we have to come in and figure out the vibe and get it right. We’re doing that with Jim Jones right now. It’s their project but it’s your music so you both have to come in and meet.
When I spoke to Pharoahe Monch on his remake of “Welcome to the Terrordome”, he said that was a difficult track to remake because you couldn’t use all of the samples that PE used in the original. How did you approach the beat to that?
The Pharoahe Monch “Terrordome” thing, LV gave him the joint. The “Terrordome” idea was actually his, to do it over. He decided to do it. I guess the beat gave him that feel. Public Enemy is like my favorite group of all-time and that’s one of my favorite records. I used to cut that record all of the time. I knew everything that was going on in that record. I knew the beat was different but I added stuff in. We couldn’t add everything in because the sampling laws are different today, but we added a lot of the same sounds in. Pharoahe did the Flav voice and certain voices he’s good at and it made it still sound like it was authentic.
You worked closely with dead prez on their R.B.G. album. Will you do more work with them?
Yeah. They’re one of my favorites. Them and Big Pun are my two favorite acts that I’ve worked with. I would love to do more work with them in the future. I was on the phone with M1 a few days ago. I would love to go back with them. Those are my boys. They’re very creative and headstrong in their creativity and with everything that they say. Everything that they say has to have meaning. Working with them and other artists, there aren’t too many that are similar that get their creativity out like that. They won’t say anything just for the sake of saying it.
You’ve worked with a lot of the best lyricists in the game from dead prez to Jay-Z to Pharoahe Monch. How important are lyrics to you?
Really, I like lyrics, but I would never, as a producer, tell an artist that they should say this or that they shouldn’t say that. We all want to work with people that are successful. I want to surround myself with people that are successful. If you’re selling records or even if you’re not selling records and I feel your vibe, we’re willing to work with you.
What was it like working with Big Pun?
I A&R’d all of his albums as well. That was an experience. He was a star like nobody that I’ve ever met and he had a big personality. He had a huge personality. He was mad funny. All he would do was crack jokes all day and pull gags on people. He had somebody go under the boards and then somebody else came in and he told them to go turn it up. He made the person jump out from under the board and grab the person’s legs. He did this one to me – he put shampoo in my beer. (laughs) He was real funny, man.
And his creative process was real cool too. You know how nowadays, well even then too, not just now, but a lot of times, artists get tracks and they write their verse and then they gotta figure out a way to come up with a chorus. Pun was the opposite way. He would hear the beat and he would either have a chorus idea already in his head or the chorus would just start coming to him. He always felt like the verses were real easy. It was nothing – he could come up with a rhyme. But before he even recorded, he had a bunch of songs and a bunch of beats. If someone came in, he would play the beat, do the chorus and do the bridge and maybe the first eight bars of the verse and then go in and finish it. He probably had eight songs like that. It would take him five minutes to write the rhyme in the studio.
Will there ever be another MC to match his lyricism?
I definitely think he’s underrated as an artist. He’s very underrated. People don’t give him the credit he deserves. Listen to Capitol Punishment. It’s incredible. There’s nobody to me that can match the way he was coming at it and putting his words together.
You’ve also done a lot of work with Fat Joe and Terror Squad. What’s it like working with Fat Joe?
Joe is family. LV is Joe’s DJ. He was Pun’s DJ. I was Pun’s A&R and Remy’s A&R. Most of the members, me and LV have worked with. That’s the fam right there.
How do you and LV work together on tracks?
Two MPC 4000’s in the studio. He might load something up or I might have something in mind. He might start playing a sample or I might start something. That’s how we roll. I might have a musician come in and take the sample out and we use a lot of keyboard players and live musicians. We used a lot of live musicians and percussionists on American Gangster. I had a dude came in who had a suitcase full of percussion. He brought out all these toys so all the percussion that you hear on the American Gangster album, it’s all live. It’s not from a machine. It’s live horn players too.
You’re using more live instrumentation today than you did in the past. What made you want to bring in more live instrumentation?
In the past, I didn’t have the resources to get those people. Now I’m fortunate enough to be able to call a whole horn section and have them come in the studio and add on top of the sample just to make it sound bigger. When we did music we always tried to keep it organic and soulful sounding. Even if we sampled, we wanted to make it sound bigger. Now we wanted to get the musicians who actually played songs and now we can actually keep that vibe.
The live vibe offers a different element to hip-hop music. What elements do you get from live instrumentation that you can’t get from anywhere else?
What you get is you can do much more variations. You can chop a sample and you can do different variations, but with the live thing, you have the freedom to tell a guy how you want it played. It’s nothing to chop samples all day and you can have a live musician play the chops and you can think it’s a sample. By no means am I trying to say that one thing is better than someone else’s. To each his own. We did a record for Cassie and it doesn’t sound nothing like American Gangster. The Fat Joe record that’s out now with J. Holiday, you probably wouldn’t expect that to be us. We’re still trying to keep it real varied.
Do you ever find yourself getting stuck in a rut with your beats?
Nah, not right now. Everybody goes through a little period where you might get a block. I think every creative person goes through that. It’s like with the Cassie record. The Cassie record doesn’t sound like the stuff we did with Ghostface or on American Gangster. It doesn’t sound nothing like that and the Fat Joe record doesn’t sound nothing like that. We have to keep the range wide.
On “Damn”, Fat Joe said, “LV on the track, hell of a bassline.” Do you and LV ever worry about getting individual credit?
Nah, I don’t think so, man. To me, it’s a family thing, so it’s no big deal. L’s going to be doing things. For example, you’re interviewing me and it’s still a Grind Music interview. We represent each other. Whenever we’re talking and whenever we’re doing anything, it’s Grind Music. That’s never a problem for us. We work together. One person may start it and the other person may finish it or we may start a track together. There’s always something from both of us in the track. It’s us together.
How have you grown as a producer over the last 10 years?
I think right now I look at the broader picture as far as music. Hip-hop is in everything, but I look at just making music, not like I’m only going to make certain tracks, like only hardcore hip-hop beats. We can make music for Beyonce. We can make music for Usher. We can make music for Ghostface. And sometimes they can maybe even be the same track. It just depends how you develop it for that artist. I may sit down with the machine and I might feel like making a hard beat and it may end up being an R&B beat. The way music is now, it’s all merged into one thing. I think the categories are getting blurred with the way Timbaland has bounced back and forth from being pop and hip-hop and now there’s the dance and electric style of records. We’re going back to what the house thing kind of was and you have hip-hop artists going there also. Look at Kanye. His range is so wide with the kind of records that he makes, but he’s still hip-hop to me, regardless. He’s still hip-hop because we sample all different kinds of music and hip-hop embodies all types of music.
Do you look at it as a bad thing when fans say, “That’s not hip-hop”?
I never want to sound like a hater. I don’t want to hate on everything. If a person wants to say someone isn’t hip-hop, that’s fine. You can define what hip-hop is to you, but hip-hop is broad. I mean, there’s definitely some corny records and some might be better than others, but hip-hop is a feeling that you get from certain records. You have 16 year-old kids who think what is hip-hop is something different than somebody who is 26 or 27 and it also depends on where they’re from. If you’re from a certain place, you may envision hip-hop as something different than someone from Queens or St. Louis. And if you’re from St. Louis, you may think hip-hop is something different from a 30 year-old living in Atlanta. And people think they can own hip-hop. People are very selfish when they’re describing what hip-hop is.
What equipment do you and LV use?
Two MPC 4000’s and the Phantom X8. That’s really it. The rest is done by musicians.
What’s the next move for Grind Music?
Right now we’re working with Busta and we’re working with the Clipse. We’re working with Cassie and some new artists on J. We did one for Nas. We did something with Jim Jones. There’s some other things that I’m doing that I’m forgetting right now.
How’s Nas’ album coming?
I haven’t heard the album. I haven’t heard it. We did a song awhile ago and I don’t know where he’s at with the album now. We did it right after American Gangster. We did it actually in that same month. I don’t know where he’s at with it now.
What kind of music are you giving the Clipse?
I’m real excited about working with them. I think they’re underrated. We gave them some street joints and one or two joints that could maybe get played on the radio as well.
You also work very closely with Aasim. What’s going on with his album?
It’s coming real good, man. Real good. He’s nice. He’s a real MC but he can also make songs. His album is going to be real music and that’s not a diss to anybody else making music. We’re going to do what we do with him.
You’re also involved in Sha Money XL’s One Stop Shop Producer conference. What made you want to get involved with that?
Sha asked me to get involved in that and last year’s was very successful so I was interested in getting into it. I know that it was very successful last year and I didn’t get a chance to go. From what I heard, it is definitely something that you need to be involved in so we made it happen.
Where do you want Grind Music to be in a year?
I want to surprise everybody when they see the artists that we’re working with from Ghostface to Beyonce to Christina Aguilera to Lupe.