“Honestly, I like to go fresh every time I approach my production,” says Toronto producer Tyler “T-Minus” Williams. “I like to hear everything brand new, so I can get inspired by that one sound that can take me to the next place.”
As the producer behind some of the biggest hits in all of hip-hop, clearly T-Minus’ freshness formula works. His early days (around 2008-2011), were characterized by epic cuts and killer drums for the Young Money clique: Drake’s “The Motto,” Lil Wayne’s “She Will,” Nicki Minaj’s “Moment for Life.” In more recent years, his trademark bounce has touched everyone from Young Thug to Eminem, Justin Bieber to Juice WRLD. Not forgetting his frequent collaborations with J. Cole, of course – when we catch up with T at Toronto’s Revolution Studios, he’s just come back from North Carolina, where he’s been working on Cole’s forthcoming album.
We got a taste of T’s production chops and talent for melodic layering, as he cooked up a killer beat for us on the spot. Despite being a longtime Native Instruments user, we asked him to use a lot of sounds and instruments that were new to him, including 40’s VERY OWN DRUMS and 40’s VERY OWN KEYS – our new collaborative instruments with fellow Torontonian and sometime studio sparring partner Noah “40” Shebib” – and the KOMPLETE NOW production bundle. Watch T-Minus craft a track from scratch in this video and learn some production tips, then read on below for more info about T-Minus’ production process and the stories behind some of his biggest hits.
“When I first got a computer, I got FL Studio. I’ve been using it for almost 20 years now, so I’m super great with the program,” explains T-Minus, who chose to use samples from BATTERY NOW as audio files inside FL for this Sketches beat. “Usually, I start with a melody almost every time. If I don’t have a sample, I’ll just go on the keyboard. Usually whenever I hear the melody, I know exactly where I want to go with the drums. Overthinking melody and harmony and trying to find the right sounds can take a long time, but just putting down some bass, hi-hats, and a dope snare is just so much fun. My favorite part of the production process is definitely building drums. It’s the most relaxing and therapeutic part to me.”
T-Minus is a longtime user of Native Instruments products, and had no problem rattling off some of his favorites. “I really like using KONTAKT because there’s so many sounds in this one program, I can pull out different things, even from third parties, easily: strings over here, bass sounds over here. I can get every sound I need from KONTAKT. One thing I really love in there is the Rickenbacker Bass – that’s been my go-to when I want a ‘real’ bass sound for the last four or five years. I also really like to use Lo-Fi Glow. It has these really trippy, synthy sounds. I like textures that are just like, ‘What is that thing?’ and it has a lot of them.”
“Definitely a big part of my sound is using Guitar Rig. It’s kind of crazy,” he continues. “Guitar Rig is so important to my process, all the way from the beginning. I throw it over the top of my leads, and sometimes my drums, and it will start to warp and bring my sound into a different direction. So how my process goes with Guitar Rig is I will start with like a lead. Let’s say I’m working on a melody and I find that the lead kind of just plays over and over with the same melodic structure. I’ll put Guitar Rig over top of it, and it starts to stretch it and pull it and add reverb, delay, and distortion. I might even have a little psychedelic on it, which will bring it up an octave, and it just takes it to a whole different place.”
As you might expect, KONTAKT and Guitar Rig come in handy when chopping, twisting, and flipping samples, which is a big part of T-Minus’ process. And the sample-verse is endless. If you’ve ever checked out Tyler’s Twitch streams, which he started back in June 2021, you’ve probably seen him connecting with sample makers from around the world. “Some of the samples I get are amazing – there’s so much undiscovered talent out there. There’s a guy in France that I use a lot of his loops, some guys in the U.S., and I’m like, ‘Wow, no one’s ever heard these guys before.’” These original compositions have even ended up in productions T-Minus has sent to chart-topping artists to write to, getting young composers (some of them 15 or 16) some nice name recognition and occasionally a tidy little check.
One of the biggest questions for up ‘n’ coming producers is if it even makes sense to sample known records anymore, given the high price of licensing. “If I can give any advice for producers, when it comes to sampling, I say just go for it,” says T-Minus. “Most of the time, if the right artist is going to jump on it, they’re going to have the backing and the label that’s going to be able to pay for the sample and get it cleared. Honestly, music should be all about the creative process and not about the business. When that gets in the way, it really affects the art.”
“Another piece of advice I always give when I meet new producers is to always network and work with as many producers as you can,” Tyler continues. “This game is all about collaboration. It’s all about learning. If you’re in your basement by yourself all the time just making beats, you’re never going to grow. If you always stay in the studio alone, you’re never going to learn how to work with other people; you’re never going to learn new tricks.”
He says those skills of knowing how to communicate and work together are essential when hitting the studio with a rapper or vocalist. “You know, making a beat with the artist is a lot different than just cooking up at home. When you’re with the artists, you have this pressure to create something that’s specific for that person. So you got to think about, what is their story so far? What are the songs they already have on their project?How do they feel right now? Where do they want to go as far as their writing? You have to deliver the right kind of beat that’s going to tell their story at that time. But you know, if you usually if you stick it through and you communicate with the artists – asking them what they’re in the mood to do, what they’ve been feeling lately – you can figure out where you’re going to go.”
“The wave that I’m on right now is all about collaboration,” says Tyler. “I’m really feeling the energy of the people around me, the producers that I’m working with in the studio – I’m trying to get the best out of them and try to give the best of myself in that room. Most of my career, I’ve worked with a lot of guys that are on the come up. I always love working with the new talent because they always have a fresh perspective, and they’re the future. T-Minus mentions fellow Torontonian DZL (Future, Chris Brown, Miguel and Kehlani) and Alabama’s Wu10 (H.E.R., Jazmine Sullivan. Mary J. Blige) as producers to watch.
As you’ve seen in our Sketches video and on Twitch, T-Minus makes putting together a fire beat look easy – you’ll never see him sweat. But even after 20 years in the game, he still gets doubts and creative blocks like the rest of us. “The best advice that I’ve gotten recently was from J. Cole,” he offers. “His whole outlook is: just start somewhere. Sometimes when you’ve been doing something for so long, you start to overthink the process – you start to think you have to do certain things a certain way, or you have to deliver an amazing product every time you step into the room. But J.Cole always reminds me, “You got to start with the little moments. Just find a little spark.” Maybe you don’t have the music yet, but if you can get a cool little drum pattern going it might inspire the melody. So I always think about that whenever I’m producing now.”
While filming at Revolution Studios with T-Minus, we got treated to background on the making of his biggest chart-toppers. Read on for stories about Drake, Kendrick, DJ Khaled, and 40, of course!
J. Cole – Kevin's Heart
“Working with J. Cole is really fresh because I’m working with a great artist and a great producer at the same time. His process is very wide: writing, performing, producing. So finding my way into his world is where I come in: picking out the best moments for him in the production process, giving him what he wants for his sound. He really knows what he wants when he’s producing. When me and Cole get the studio, he usually has a sample that he’ll pull up – he’s got a huge rack of different samples and cuts, and he’s really great at chopping them up. So he’ll find something really dope and I’ll just start programming drums. He might have an idea like, “Yo, the bounce should be like this: boom, boom, click, ba-boom boom. He’ll beatbox it to me. I’ll just take that and run with it and I’ll pick really good sounds. That’s usually my strength is sonics – finding the right kicks, the right snares. It’s really helpful for him because he already knows the flows and the vibes he wants to rap over, and I just go there and support that.”
Drake – March 14
“About four years ago, I went to Miami to work with Drake for about a week. And it was kind of a difficult process figuring out exactly what he wanted for his project. I remember being in the studio, going through sounds, going through samples, going through beats, playing them for him and him being like, “This is not all the way what I want.” Close to the last day, I had a friend who was with me who played me a really cool sample of D’Angelo’s “My Lady.” So I put in reverse. I found the illest snare, the illest kick, and I was like, “Oh, this is perfect. It doesn’t even need much.” I remember playing it for Drake and he just kind of sat there. And finally he was like, “Oh, yeah, this is this is one. We got this one.” And I just left it from there, you know what I mean? A few months later, that ended up becoming “March 14,” which ended up coming out on the Scorpion album, which was super dope. The content of the song too was super dope, because he’s talking about his son, and I could relate at the time because I had my son as well. So it was a great experience.”
Kendrick Lamar – Swimming Pools
“As far as my favorite production, it’s a tie between “Swimming Pools” and “I’m On One,” by DJ Khaled, Drake, Rick Ross, and Lil’ Wayne. I love both those beats just because they’re somewhat of an entryway for my sound, and the energy of those songs were just incredible when they dropped. Kendrick is amazing. And I really love “Swimming Pools” because the content of what he wrote is completely different to me than the production. When I made the beat, I was thinking more of, you know, a club vibe. It actually started as an R&B track initially for Trey Songz. And what Kendrick did with it was something very conscious, so I love the content. It was nominated for Song of the Year at the Grammys, which was also amazing.”
DJ Khaled – I'm on One
“The production and the sound choices on this one were awesome. I definitely used Guitar Rig on this record, and on “She Will” by Lil’ Wayne. It always takes what I created to a whole new level that’s kind of incomprehensible – or hard to just play out on a keyboard. It’s like it’s stretching and pulling the sound and you can’t just do that with a synth. I remember when “I’m On One” first came out, and the reaction that it got in the clubs was crazy. It was just an impactful record at the time – definitely the joint of that summer.”
Ludacris – How Low
“My first breakthrough hit was definitely “How Low”. Back in 2008, I connected with Ludacris through a good friend of mine named Brendan, who was somewhat of a manager at the time. Luda was just looking for beats and he was honestly kind of a big bro in a way; I was maybe 18 at the time and Luda was already a huge, established rapper. I was always, in the back of my mind, thinking about what kind of joint I could give Luda. I found the “How low can you go” sample and put together a beat on it and, you know, the rest is history. That was pretty much my intro into the game.”
Nicki Minaj – Moment 4 Life (feat. Drake)
“I had a lot of pressure on myself after “How Low Can You Go.” I always heard that producers will come and go so quickly, so now I had to deliver something that was just as good or better because labels and publishing companies were like, ‘Yo, we want another “How Low.” Six months later, I was just cooking up a vibe that I felt was right and I ended up delivering “Moment for Life” by Nicki Minaj. When I made that beat, I had no artist in mind. I was actually thinking it was going to be for a pop group, like a Pussycat Dolls or something. But my creative direction ended up going into a whole new direction when the right artists took it. Drake actually took the song, he wrote his verse, and then he gave it to Nicki – so it was kind of a package deal when she got it. That was definitely the icing on the cake when it came to my solidification as a producer in the game. Once you can come with another one and it’s a great record, it’s boundless from that point on. Actually, to this day, me and Nicki have never actually even met, and we have a plethora of records together. “
Drake – Under Ground kings
“I think I met 40 back in 2010. Sometime during the Lil Wayne “She Will” phase in my career. I met him through Drake – that’s the connection. He’s a genius at what he does. Anytime I’m in the studio with him, I’m always watching what he’s doing – his process is just next level. I can’t play piano, I just program and click things in, but he’s amazing on the keys – he just lays down stuff so quickly and easily. His leads and sound textures and melodic choices are just incredible. He’s very R&B. My favorite vibe that 40 brings is when he throws in some synth leads and he filters out the music. leads, and he filters out the music. When he did “Cameras” for Drake on Take Care – the leads he added and how he reversed the sample. That’s one of my favorite Drake songs ever. “
40’s VERY OWN KEYS & DRUMS are out now – create by Noah “40” Shebib, the legendary, award-winning producer of Drake, Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Nas, Sade, Alicia Keys, PartyNextDoor, and Action Bronson. Grab the pair for 99,00 € until May 30th.
Words: Vivian Host