INTERVIEW Part 1
I’m doing pretty good, man.
“Black Republican” with Nas and Jay really put you on the map as a producer. What was it like working with Nas on Hip-Hop Is Dead?
It was like a dream come true. Nas is a real hip-hop artist and he’s not saying what everyone else is saying. Me trying to make it as a producer, who better to help you than one of the top-5 of all-time?
You’ve done a lot of tracks with Nas where L.E.S. gets production credit as well. How did you link up with L.E.S?
It’s kind of crazy. I was discovered by a producer by the name of St. Nick. One of the things we liked to do a lot was bowl. One day we’re all bowling. My other homeboy, Lil’ Ronnie, who just produced “Flirt” for R.Kelly, was tight with L.E.S. I used to bowl a lot with St. Nick and Lil’ Ronnie. He brought L.E.S. to the bowling alley and we’re bowling. I just gave him a little copy of my demo which was a remix of The Black Album. That demo was out in Atlanta and Philly.
He said he liked it but someone stole it from him, so I guess that’s a good thing. Anyway, we linked up and exchanged numbers. He initially wanted me to help him with his website and I figured he’d want me to give a beat to Quan. He played some joints for Nas and the first song we did was “Death Anniversary,” which was going to be on the album until the Def Jam situation came. Once the Def Jam situation came, they moved those tracks over and pretty much started over. They were feeling my music and L always told me I was a cool person, so the relationship started from there.
For the record, who’s the best bowler?
I’m decent. I can bowl 200 every now and then. St. Nick, they guy who put me on, is the best. He has his own ball. He can bowl 220 consistently. Lil’ Ronnie is good too. Him and St. Nick go back and forth (ed. note – without the bumpers).
What do you think L.E.S. saw in you that made him want to work with you?
There’s really two things I’m thinking. I think he saw that I was real poised and real relaxed around a lot of big names. I’ve been around a lot of big names and I’m a cool cat. I’m humble and I don’t take the industry too seriously. I just try to have fun with it. I think that made him comfortable around me.
And I think musically, he saw that my sound was so diverse. We might be working on a beat for Quan and it will sound southern and then we can work on a hardcore beat. I take direction real good. My sound is real diverse. I don’t think there’s anything I can’t do.
“Black Republican” and “Money Over Bullshit” were done with L.E.S. How do you guys work together?
It’s crazy because we do it all different kinds of ways. One way is he can send me a sample and we’ll listen to it at the same time over the phone. I’ll hear something and start screaming. We can do it that way and there’s been times when he’s told me to re-play the beat. There’s times when he’s feeling something and he passes it on. Sometimes he might not do anything but help with the direction of the song. It really varies.
How does that work being that you both have different ears?
L’s always been known for having those smooth street joints like “Life’s A Bitch.” He’s always had those street joints as far as Nas goes. I think he has that real good ear for that smooth sample that he just adds some edge to. I really work on emotion. I wasn’t in a good mood when I did “Money Over Bullshit.” That’s why the drums were hitting so many times and the piano was kind of dark and eerie. I’m kind of weird when it comes to music, to be honest. If I’m in a dark mood and somebody says they want something for Britney, I might have to tell them I need a few days to get in the right mood. I’m really motivated by emotion and melodies.
Do you make a specific type of track for Nas or do you take whatever comes out to him, not knowing what he’s looking for on a particular day?
L.E.S. is a real good facilitator because he always knows what Nas wants and what Nas needs. If he tells me that Nas needs a street banger, then that’s what I’ll bring. But right now, with the new album, it’s open and there’s no direction right now. I’m just kind of shooting in the dark and it depends where I want to take Nas. He might not pick the beat that I think will be perfect for him. After awhile, you just have to go in there and do you, which is always good. I’ll give the beats to L.E.S. and Nas will pick what sounds best for him. I couldn’t believe he took the beat for “Death Anniversary,” but when I heard it, I was amazed. He has a different ear and I probably won’t give him what he wants. I’ll probably have to rely on L.E.S. once they’re deep in the project.
When you’re making beats, do you know right away that you’ve made a smash or does it take time to sink in?
“Black Republican” was one of those beats where I just knew. I originally did the beat for this guy Good Fella. I met him in LA in ’05 and last summer, St. Nick told me to come down. I always like to bring new stuff so I brought that beat. I’m thinking that since this guy’s name is Good Fella, I would do a mafia track. I chopped up the track from The Godfather and I couldn’t get the drums right. I took a breakbeat that L had sent me and chopped it up. I thought it was hot but the dude ended up being a Southern rapper. The beat was hot but it wasn’t for him. I was like, ‘Oh, man, I just wasted a beat.’ I was holding onto it and then I sent it to L at the last minute of Nas recording Hip-Hop Is Dead and he said it was crazy and he was putting Nas on it. I knew that beat was hot but I didn’t know Nas and Jay were going to jump on it. I told my homeboy that it sounded real presidential with the big strings and the horns. L said it was crazy and then he went to the studio and Nas and Jay got on it. I was like, ‘Wow. Are you serious?’ Every now and then you get that. You make something and then it hits you. It shows you that you can’t be biased. Also, don’t mind playing something you don’t like because you never know if that track is going to be picked.
What does “Black Republican” mean to you today?
It’s so crazy. It hasn’t really hit me yet. I met Jay and he was really cool. It’s funny, I was just talking to Nas about how that song inspired him to write. The meaning is changing over and over when different people keep telling me how they interpret it. I’m hearing new things. Other people are really interpreting it to me and I’m like, ‘That’s kind of neat.’ They’re like, ‘You did the song.’ But if I get stuck on one song, then I won’t move forward.
Speaking of moving forward, how do you top a song like that?
(laughs) I don’t know, man. I think the only thing I can do is use that as the platform and every other beat that comes out just has to be such a strong beat. I established criteria, sonically. You’re not going to get two other top-5 rappers on a track because two of them are dead. I’m just trying to live up to that, sonically. Honestly, I’ve surpassed it with some of the stuff lately. I have some real big tracks where I’m trying to keep it real big and sonic.
Some people are asking L.E.S. for another “Black Republican.” Me and L talk about it. They’re not Nas and they’re not Jay. “Black Republican” is what they created. Some of those people had that beat on their beat-CDs. They could have had “Black Republican.” It’s crazy. You just have to try to stay consistent.
The original version of “Hope” leaked recently with your production on it. What’s the story behind that?
That was kind of crazy. That and “Money Over Bullshit” were two tracks that came in the last two weeks of the project, I think. The first version of “Hope” that I did has a sample in it and there really wasn’t time to try and clear the sample. I don’t know if he cut the vocals with no intention of trying to clear the sample. There was no time to try to clear the sample. We didn’t even try because there was no time for that.
What we actually did was L.E.S. got some of his players together and they came up with their own interpolation. I took some stuff out and added some stuff in and it probably sounded too close to the original. That’s the version Chrisette Michelle cut her vocals too. I think that was too close to the sample so they didn’t trey to clear that either. I think they would have just had to clear the publishing, but he did it accapella. He’s saying some pretty deep things so it worked out. That beat might pop up somewhere else. You may be surprised.
It’s been over four months since Hip-Hop Is Dead was released. Now that the album, as a whole, has had time to sink in, what are your thoughts on how the album came out?
It’s a great album. Hip-Hop Is Dead is a great album. Honestly, I don’t think that some of the people gave them their best tracks. I’m not going to name names, but I don’t think they gave him their best tracks or maybe he didn’t pick them. I wasn’t in the session so I don’t know. Sonically, I think it’s a great album, but I think that it could have been better. I think that with this next album coming out, it’s really going to show the world what Nas is about now. Nas was so sharp on the album and sometimes I wonder if people caught that. He was so sharp on this album that his next album is going to be crazy. I’d give him an 8 out of 10 on this one. His next album is going to be better.
How’s the new album coming so far?
(laughs) I don’t really have a sneak peek yet. Right now we’re just talking about the direction. Nas says that ready to go and that he needs more crack. Hopefully we’ll get a couple more tracks on this album. One of the things that I’m always going to do is keep that edge. I’m not going to give Nas the poppy tracks or go right to the club banger. I’m going give Nas emotions so he can write a meaningful song. That’s what I always try to do. This next one, if everything stays the same and we get a couple more tracks on there, it’s going to be crazy. If my favorite producers in the game like Just Blaze, Dr. Dre and Timbaland do beats for it, it’s going to be crazy.
How’s Quan’s album Until My Death coming?
We’ve done a couple of joints. We did a song with Nas that is really, really crazy. I don’t even know the title of it. I think he just finished his mixtape. He’ll probably put the mixtape out and then he’ll keep working on the album. I’m not sure when the album is going to come out, but Quan is still working. L.E.S. is real key in that whole process. L.E.S. is a vet and I think that when he’s ready, they’re going to put him out. Quan is from Virginia and they’re right there in the middle to me. They can go either way to me and I think that is beautiful. They can go East Coast with it or they can do the Dirty South thing. And Quan is an MC. He’s not a rapper. I think people are going to be very happy when his album comes out.
How have you seen Quan grow as an artist from when you first started working with him?
“Just a Moment” was originally his song. I think he showed you guys what he was about with that first song. He’s a great MC and he can sing. There are a lot of different directions that he can go. I’ve heard a lot of his new mixtape and a lot of it is over other people’s beats and he kills it. Quan is constantly growing and with Nas as your mentor, you really can’t go wrong with it.
How involved are you with Tre Williams’ project?
Hopefully very involved. L.E.S. put the bug in my ear to get in the R&B mood. I know he has one song of mine that he’s writing to. I’m really in the hip-hop-soul mood. Not the neo-soul mood, but something with really hard drums. If I can get two or three songs on there, I would be real happy and I would be giving people a new look at R&B.
You also play live instruments. How important is that skill today?
That’s very valuable. That’s how I started. I played the violin, keyboard and the guitar. For me, it kind of started like that. When I hear a sample or an instrument and I hear a chord…I’m really motivated by a sound. That’s part of my unique sound. I don’t just loop a sound and put drums on it. I play over it. People don’t always realize it, but sometimes 60-70% of the beat is me playing in the background over the sample. There are other times when I won’t sample anything at all for complete originality or because I have to get something out. Sampling costs money and you can’t always sample. Unless they really love your sound, you can’t always rely on it. There are a lot of songs Kanye had to do without samples that people probably don’t remember.
Should other producers learn how to play instruments?
It really depends on the sound they’re looking for. Right now, I would say it’s pretty necessary because I feel like we’re going back to the synthesizer sounds of music. I think a good example of a producer who’s really doing it now is Danjahandz, who’s with Timbaland. He’s crazy. I love his stuff. I never met him, but I love his stuff. He doesn’t just hit one key here or there. He’s doing chords, but since it’s a synthesizer, it sounds so crazy. Right now there’s a lot of synthesizer sounds. The rave and techno music is getting more into the hip-hop sounds of music.
Of course I’m in the South and that has a huge effect on hip-hop. I’m not hating on that. You have to keep those beats going too. Sample beats are cool, but if you know how to play a little bit, you can at least crate an interpolation and keep that energy going.
There’s such an advantage to being able to play because some artists are very involved in the process. Let’s say you’re fortunate enough to work with Beyonce and she’s giving you input on a song and if you can’t understand what she wants, it may never get done. It’s always a plus and never a minus. Dr. Dre is a great example. I read an article where he’s getting lessons from a legend. If Dr. Dre sees that he can improve with playing, then I definitely think it’s a great idea. It’s not a knock if you don’t play, but it’s definitely a plus if you do.
CHECK BACK TOMORROW FOR PART 2!