When you’ve crafted a record for East Coast hip hop legends Raekwon, Busta Rhymes, and French Montana, where do you go next? If you’re Blank, you extend your East Coast run with two placements on one of the biggest albums of 2018, Nicki Minaj’s Queen. The Toronto producer and DJ is harnessing some of the attention her latest success has attracted in order to give back to the Toronto producer community by launching her own education series, Night School, alongside Gray Hawken (Locals Only) and Waves (Kingsway Music).
Native Instruments sat down with her to find out more about the series, get an insight into her KOMPLETE KONTROL M32–powered creative process, and find what exactly Bob Ross has to do with music production.
Your style really evolved between doing “Wall to Wall” with Raekwon and “Coco Chanel” with Nicki Minaj and Foxy Brown. Has that come from a specific focus or just experimentation?
I like to watch Bob Ross, for the positive things he says while he’s painting. He really reminds you of how free you can be creatively and that you should take your time with your ideas. I think we sometimes forget to slow down and say “who says the sun can’t be purple?” He reminds you that In your world it can be, and that mentality has really helped expand my approach to production. It’s made me more unapologetic. My growth and evolution comes from that mentality and experimentation. I started out in my music career chopping up samples and just sticking drums over them, so the samples would really dictate the energy of a record. It would make my production really linear. Now I have access to talented session players so I am able to slowly pull away samples I may have had inside of an idea for more freedom within a record. It’s the difference between a beat maker and a producer. Because there is a difference. The more freedom you have with music, the easier it is on you to make a sun purple. I did that with “Coco Chanel”, I experimented.
Is it difficult to make something for a specific artist and try to push them out of their comfort zone?
I don’t sit down to make music with someone in mind anymore. I usually consider what artist something might work for after I’m done creating it. I find that it takes the pressure off of creating and it allows me to be myself in the music rather than thinking, “Oh, I have to make beats for so and so.” When an opportunity comes up to send an artist a record, I’ll send them what I think works not what I’ve heard has worked before with them in the past.
Your production style has a strong Caribbean influence that you can hear through the tracks you made for Nicki Minaj. What’s your approach to getting this sound authentically?
Well I wouldn’t say that my entire sound has a Caribbean influence, I’d just say that I can execute it well. I execute it well and it comes off as authentic because I grew up with this music – every Sunday, every family barbecue or celebration, dancehall and reggae was booming. My authenticity comes from understanding and respecting the culture I’ve always been a part of. That’s why when I am doing a dancehall or reggae influenced record, it doesn’t sound like cheesy tropical house. That genre is so far off of authentic that it can literally only be called “tropical house,” ‘cause it’s definitely not anything else. Tropical house is like the island resort you stay on when you’re afraid to see the real life and culture of the island.
You’ve just had the biggest placement of your career with Nicki Minaj, why focus on starting up Night School rather than building off the placements?
On almost every album that comes out, there’s at least one Toronto producer. We have a responsibility to pull newer producers forward and give them the knowledge to maintain this excellence. We are a producer city, and I believe in order to keep that level up we gotta groom the next. I’m still very much focused on my career and getting the next big placement, and it doesn’t take much to give back. I don’t think you’ve gotta hit grammy status for your knowledge to be valuable to people.
Do you think there is a lack of mentorship in the industry at the moment?
I know of producers who aren’t famous and don’t have a single credit to their name working with producers who do. I think that relationship is sometimes based off of, “Okay you’re talented and we can both benefit from this situation,” rather than, “I’m giving you this without asking for anything in return.” So yes there’s probably a level of mentorship to that dynamic, but I wouldn’t say it comes free.
There’s a ton of information available to producers online, what is Night School doing differently, other than being in person?
Nothing beats the hands-on approach, you can look online all you want but I’d say it’s more fun being with a community of like-minded people in a room learning about techniques on a subject you’re passionate about than on your own in front of a screen trying to figure it out. As producers we spend a lot of time in front of a screen trying to ‘figure it out’, and Night School is a space where you don’t have to do it alone, where you can plug yourself into our community of producers who are on the same learning curves as you. You’re in a space where you can get close to different successful producers and build a relationship with them rather then trying to catch them in passing at some random event you see them at. It’s about community and growth of that community via knowledge sharing. It’s about closing the gap between a grammy or platinum producer and a producer without a single credit to their name. We’re just producers period, nobody’s above creativity. If you’re veering away from that because of a few trophies then you’re probably missing the point.
The curriculum for those attending is well-rounded in regards to sound design. Was this something that was important to you rather than just focusing on one individual aspect of producing?
Yes, I mean you can’t shoot an effective jump-shot without first slowly going through the mechanics of how to shoot one. It’s about the fundamentals – the few things you need to know in order to thrive and get to the level of creativity you aspire to reach. Fundamentals and community are important to me, and the Night School courses will always be a reflection of that.
With lots of people focusing on the marketing side of being a producer, why was it important for you to concentrate on the craftsmanship of it?
I’ve just never really been into social media or fame. My thought process is that the more you accomplish, the more people will gravitate. Let my work speak for itself. I like things to be real and organic. With me you won’t have to question what you see when it’s time so see it.
You move around Toronto a lot from session to session, what is your current setup for music making?
It’s literally just my interface, portable hard drive, laptop and M32 keyboard. I still use FL11 and have a wired mouse. I get comfortable with things and don’t want to change too much. For VSTs, I use a lot of Kontakt and Massive. I’m learning Battery and enjoying that but also FM8. Those are usually the ones I’ll open first when working out an idea.
When you sit down to make a track, what is the process?
I usually start with chords or a melody and since I got the M32 it’s been easier to just sit down and create an interesting chord loop. I don’t really know how to play keys, and I’m usually limited by that. The M32 has definitely helped me get the ideas out with a different level of accuracy. It’s one thing to describe what you want to a session player to play, but it’s another thing to just be able to do it yourself. Next I usually do drums and percussion and then sit with it until more ideas come – or not.
You’ve been collaborating with a lot of producers in Toronto. What advice can you give regarding working with other producers?
When you’re going in to work with someone, you’ve got to trust them. When you bring a record, you have to trust them to do their thing with it. You bring a skeleton of a track, show them what you’re thinking, and be open to their opinion. It’s also important to learn to be quiet and let them get their ideas out. You can’t just interrupt them while they’re ‘finding it’. Also I’d say be careful with who you collaborate with. You’ll want to work with people who share the same business values as you, because if something does land that you two have created, you’ll be stuck doing business together.