Writing Excuses 13.28: What Writers Get Wrong, with Wildstyle.
Key points: In describing hip-hop production, writers often forget there is an artist-producer relationship. The producer/engineer picks the beats, composes the music, mixes it, makes the artist sound the way you hear them. Artists and producers dabble in different areas in the music. In hip-hop, artists do the lyrical work, the rhyming. The producer/engineer composes the beats, the melody. There’s a collaborative interplay in the best relationships. Sometimes the artists ask for a certain kind of music, sometimes the producer/engineer composes something and thinks it would be perfect for someone. How do you make it real? Focus on the relationship between the producer and the artist. Twitter beefing, jealousy, and producers trying to steal artists? What makes a producer wild? Artists who know everything, who want to tell the producer how to do the composition and engineering.
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 28.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, What Writers Get Wrong, with Wildstyle.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star Wildstyle. Thank you so much.
[Wildstyle] How y’all doing?
[Brandon] We’re doing all right. We are live at GenCon.
[Woo hoo! Applause!]
[Mary] Awesome. So we’re so excited to have you on. Just to give the readers a… The readers? Hah. Just to give our listeners a little bit of a grounding in who you are, and so that they know you don’t exist along just a single axis, tell them a little bit about yourself.
[Wildstyle] Okay. So I’m a lifelong musician… I actually started out as a violist.
[Wildstyle] When I was 11. I also spent 15 years working on cars and equipment and such, and I’m also a community organizer, as well. I’m also a hip-hop producer and manager.
[Mary] So, of these various identities and professions, which are we going to focus on today?
[Wildstyle] We’re going to focus on the hip-hop production, producer and managing.
[Mary] Awesome. So…
[Dan] I’m so excited about this.
[Mary] What do writers get wrong about hip-hop production?
[Wildstyle] I would say writers normally forget that there is even an artist-producer relationship.
[Wildstyle] That’s like one of the most important things, even in the music that you hear on the radio. Like, I don’t know if y’all listen to Drake, but he has a producer/engineer called 40. That guy’s responsible for his sound. He is the one that picks a lot of the beats, and mixes it, and makes Drake sound like you’re used to hearing him. Without that guy… Drake wouldn’t sound like the person that you’ve ever heard.
[Howard] You’ve already… I majored in music composition and sound recording technology. A long time ago.
[Howard] Back before anything was digital.
[Howard] There we go. When I was doing this, there was the artist, there was the engineer, and there was the producer. The idea of there being a producer/engineer, at least where I was doing this, was not a thing. So you’ve already… You’ve already broken one of my rules in my head. Tell me how that works? How do you be a producer and an engineer?
[Wildstyle] Well, I mean, in hip-hop, in the early days, people were doing it, and I think still now, because we all don’t make that much money…
[Mary] Just like writing.
[Wildstyle] Drake… Yeah. Exactly. I see a lot of parallels. But there’s not a lot of money to be had, especially at the aspiring level. Which most people are. Therefore, if you only compose music and make beats for artists, you’re going to have a hard time. So most… Not most people, but a good portion of producers actually learn to record and engineer the artists. In fact, a lot of artists engineer themselves, or they can if necessary. Little Wayne was one of those who actually mixed himself as a rough mix, and then give it to one of four engineers in the world and let them play around with the concepts that he had come up with. So this is really common for artists and producers to dabble in several different areas in the music, so that they get the sound that they want, or just because they want to experiment. So…
[Mary] So, for me, because I come from classical music violin, the… What it sounds like, to translate for my own brain, when you’re talking about people adding beats and things, it sounds like they’re actually participating in the composition process as well?
[Wildstyle] A lot of times… And that’s another thing. I think on… When you see it in the movies and stuff, sometimes they overdo the artist participating in that process. I think with modern hip-hop, and I don’t think it’s a good thing, but that doesn’t happen as much. It definitely… When it does happen, it doesn’t happen the way it happens in movies. There’s… If their artist is participating and great things are happening with the composition as it’s happening, it is because they have a relationship and they have built that over time and they… The producer knows what the artist is capable of, not always what they like…
[Wildstyle] But what they’re capable of, and what they’re going to be good at, and that’s how that happens. That… It’s just not… People don’t see that.
[Howard] You’re using some shorthand here that may be going right past our listeners. When you say the artist’s participating, the artist, in a hip-hop album, they are responsible for the lyrical work, the rhyming, the part that our linguistic processors get. The producer/engineer is the one doing the beat composition. If there are melodic elements, that’s them.
[Wildstyle] See, but often times… In modern hip-hop, the artist will go… Not have as great a relationship, like the… Especially aspiring ones, they will find just like random instrumentals on YouTube or something, and start, and write a song to it. But when you… Most successful artist have good relationships with their producers, so that… They’re not going on YouTube and picking a random instrumental, they’re absolutely sitting down with one person, and they will either be in the studio with them, or they will have been in the studio and tell them, “Hey, send me this, send me that, I want something that’s dark, I want something that’s vibrant, I want something that’s tempo.” That’s… The stuff you hear on the radio, even the successful underground artists, they typically work with fewer producers and they all have personal relationships with them.
[Mary] So why don’t you… Because I think this will be useful for our listeners. Why don’t you walk us through the process of starting a new work? How does that go?
[Wildstyle] Well, depending on the artist… I have a handful of artists that I work with, and not much more than that. So I record… I engineer the music and I compose a lot of the music, so often times they may come to me and say, “Hey, I’m looking for this. A dark sound.” Or “I want this type of feel.” Or they’ll reference me other songs. Either I’ll come up with that or I will find something that I have already composed and I will send it to them or play it for them in the studio. Also, how this works is that I can be doodling and come up with this amazing composition, and I’m like, “I think this would be perfect for so-and-so.” Either I’ll wait until they get in the studio, which I prefer to do so I can see their real reaction…
[Wildstyle] Or I’ll take a chance and email it to them and hope that they’re not emailing it to everybody else to see what they think and check out what I’m doing. But often times, that’s how things get started.
[Brandon] Let’s go ahead and stop. You’re going to pitch an album to us, right?
[Wildstyle] Yes. This is an album that I executive produced for an artist named Pope Adrian Blessed, and you can find him on the web, popeadrianblessed.com. It’s only three tracks along, but I engineered and produced all of that along with my friend, Ares. He produced… He composed one of the instrumentals on their, and I actually mixed and recorded all of it. It’s probably different than what y’all have heard. It combines lyricism with a lot of sonic… A sonic sound that’s not common with lyrical rap. So it’s…
[Howard] What’s the album called?
[Wildstyle] Eastern Conference. You can find out on iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud, [tidal?], whatever you have. Apple Music.
[Howard] So what… Earlier, when I said you’d crossed the producer/engineer boundary that I thought was a sacrosanct thing…
[Howard] And then you’re describing your process and I’m like, “Oh, yeah, you also crossed the composer-engineer boundary…”
[Howard] “And the performer-composer boundary…”
[Mary] And the orchestrator boundary…
[Howard] The amount… When you… When I hear the word producer, I think of the guy who sits in the back of the studio and just basically is grouchy.
[Mary] Do you do that too?
[Wildstyle] I’m notorious for being that person, actually.
[Howard] But what you’ve described really is 90% of what people hear. It’s just… It’s like the whole process, and the artist happens to be standing out front and making meat noises with the face hole.
[Wildstyle] You know… That is…
[Howard] Doing it really well.
[Wildstyle] But I agree with you. Sometimes, in the past, not so much with my current artists, I have to remind them that this is all more like a NASCAR race, where I’m your crew chief and you’re in the car. You need me as much as I need you.
[Howard] You’re the crew chief and the pit crew and the tires and the car…
[Howard] And a large portion of the track.
[Wildstyle] Sometimes it feels that way.
[Mary] [garbled] running over you.
[Howard] I’m having a great time. I could… This is fun.
[Dan] Well, I… So I’ve been thinking about this, this exact topic as you’re describing this and realizing that it sounds like this is much more collaborative than the kind of author-editor relationship, which is what I assumed that it was. So I’m wondering, and maybe this is a weird subject to bring up, but I’m wondering a little bit about the issue of credit. Like, because you mentioned earlier, Drake, and I know Drake and I’ve listened to Drake. I had no idea who his producer was. Is that just me being an idiot, or…?
[Wildstyle] I think… Well, I…
[Dan] You can say yes.
[Wildstyle] I’m not going to say that, but I think like most hip-hop aficionados and people that are really deep into hip-hop would automatically know that his producer is 40.
[Wildstyle] The sound they’ve crafted over the years… He’s been there almost from the very beginning.
[Dan] Wow. Well, okay.
[Mary] We have been schooled there. So, when you are… We’ve talked a little bit about the things that are annoying. What are some things that our readers could do… I keep saying readers. Our listeners could do for their readers to make it seem more real, to make it seem more grounded?
[Wildstyle] I would say, focus on the relationship, because the relationship is up and down. At the same time, especially if the artist is a big time artist, or they’re making a little bit of money, or they’ve got a growing fan base, there’s going to be plenty of other producers that want to come in and wreck that relationship, or get in so that they can take advantage and then they’ll have their work out there, they can possibly make money, or they can get bigger opportunities. That often can be a bigger issue. You often see, in the hip-hop scene, that the artists and producers will end up twitter beefing off of just the weirdest stuff. I don’t know how many of y’all listen to Future, but Future and Young Thug had a beef over their producer, Metro Boomin. They were all on Twitter, just acting crazy over this, and it was because of a little bit probably jealousy over they both have the same producer, and some felt that they had more, better hits with them than the other one.
[Howard] Glad that never happens with writers.
[Brandon] Well, they write for a living, so they know how to go on Twitter and always…
[Dan] [garbled] with a straight face. So can you point us towards some depictions? The media depictions in books or TV or movies of hip-hop production and that producer relationship that you think are accurate? That you think have done a good job? Or can you point us toward some that are terrible?
[Wildstyle] I would say, and this isn’t really hip-hop as you would think of it, but the James Brown movie about his… The bio-pic, Get On Up, was a… I don’t think they quite got it right, but Bobby Byrd was like a big key to James Brown’s sound, and he stayed with him, and when they finally fell out for the last time, James Brown’s career went down. It was very, very quick. For his late 70s, James Brown never did have another hit.
[Mary] So this producer-artist relationship is much older than I was realizing it was. Fascinating. So with… As we’re kind of wrapping up, since I do love watching people rant, pick anything that makes you kind of just flip the table.
[Howard] You’re asking him to go twitter beefing live.
[Wildstyle] Right. Which I do too much of.
[Mary] Not… He can pick a fictional example. He can pick out the pet peeve. Because one of the things that I think is very telling in fiction is when someone is doing a process that is so annoying. Like, what is it that is so annoying to you when you are doing your job that you just kind of want to flip the table sometimes?
[Wildstyle] Oh, as being a producer? Oh, I think it’s artists that think they know everything.
[Wildstyle] Often times, you will… People that you know, sometimes they get a little ahead of themselves and they want to tell you how to do your job as the composer, and as the engineer. They have all these ideas. Some of them have good ideas, and some of them have really bad ideas. Sometimes you’re expected to try to piece together really bad ideas. When it doesn’t work, it’s your fault.
[Brandon] Thank you so much, Wildstyle, for being on the podcast with us. Did you have homework, or a writing prompt, for our listeners?
[Wildstyle] I would say, if you haven’t seen the movie Get On Up, to watch it, because that’s… That gives an interesting dynamics of some of the things that… Not hip-hop, but hip-hop was founded on that… How artists have this tension with their producers and their management and everything else about the sound. I think that would help the writing and understand how hip-hop producers…
[Howard] If I can echo that, which we don’t usually do during the writing prompt. But the things that you are describing, it is impossible to write these things well without listening, without hearing the music, and learning to put into your ears and kind of into your heart, the sorts of things that you’re describing happening in the studio. That movie’s a… Movie’s really smart.
[Wildstyle] Yeah, it is. It is. I would recommend everybody watch that if they’re interested in writing about hip-hop or music in general.
[Brandon] All right. Well, thank you so much. And thank you to our audience.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go listen.