The godfather speaks on his career, the creative process, and the secret of soul. Kids, take notes. Or better yet, you can borrow mines.
This feature appears in Complex’s February/March 2012 issue.
On His Job At Def Jam
How did you end up as the Executive Vice President of A&R at Def Jam?
I’ve done music for a while, but I was always an introvert doing music. I never had a PR person, ever. I never really did a lot of interviews. When I started working with G.O.O.D. Music, I was the president for a while.
That led me to meet Big Sean, and I developed a relationship with [Island Def Jam head of A&R] Karen Kwak and [Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Island Def Jam Music Group] L.A. Reid at the time. They got to know me and that led to them offering me a job.
What were some of those accomplishments that that made Def Jam want to hire you?
It was simple things, like being able to grab Big Sean and take him from scratch. I’m really good at taking things from scratch and helping develop them, versus chasing after the hottest thing going.
I came in when Watch The Throne was happening. It wasn’t like I was actively working on the project, but I came in with some insight that helped bring records like “Otis,” “Made In America,” and “No Church In The Wild.”
I come from an era where you just build something. Me and Common built what we built from Chicago from scratch. Then helping Kanye get to where he’s gotten. Being involved with helping extend the success of Jay-Z.
When people get to see me interact with the creative giants, they see the perspective and the respect. A lot of times, people don’t have that respect, from a music perspective, with the music people.
For example, I came in when Watch The Throne was happening. It wasn’t like I was actively working on the project, but I came in with some insight that helped bring records like “Otis,” “Made In America,” and “No Church In The Wild.”
Those were our creative discussions. Behind the scenes, you don’t see them, but when you can, it’s like, “Hey, it would be a good idea if we do this with a lot of artists. Let him have this position.”
Was that in the plan for you to be at Def Jam?
Absolutely. Once I was starting the Big Sean album last year, I did make the statement, like, “You know what? I’m gonna do this. I’m gonna go in here and talk to L.A. [Reid] and I’m gonna work for them.” It was a short-term plan.
But then L.A. Reid left. That kind of led to me being torn between going where he was going and going to Def Jam with Karen Kwak, who kind of was the person standing by my side during that process.
Long story short, I had a meaning with L.A., and I told him ‘I want to learn from you because I feel like I’m you. You’re a producer who worked with Babyface. I’m a producer and worked with Kanye. I’m trying to transfer into this executive place. You’ve done what I’m trying to do.’
This is what I mean about finding ways to not be satisfied with the simple things that our generation acts like is the pinnacle of success. I’m looking at people who have real success and longevity. They’re gonna have something for their children when they’re gone. They’re gonna have enough time to spend with their children.
It’s so hard to get everything, but I want it all. I know it’s a 40-year process, not a four-year process. You can make $100 million in four years, and don’t have it in 10 years. We’ve seen it.
What did L.A. tell you?
I asked Jay-Z one day what he thought I should do, and he told me, “Bet on yourself. Don’t bet on someone else.” Those words were the words that made me know I’m gonna do what I’m supposed to do and build my legacy.
What it led to was a situation where I was actually gonna go work with him at Epic. It ended up that Karen and [Island Def Jam CEO] Barry Weiss believed in and invested more into me. It kind of outweighed that relationship that I was trying to build with L.A.
I asked Jay-Z one day what he thought I should do, and he told me, “Bet on yourself. Don’t bet on someone else.” Those words were the words that made me know I’m gonna do what I’m supposed to do and build my legacy, whatever that is—be it big or small. I got this far not depending on anyone. I got to go further depending on myself.
What did you learn in your tenure as the president of G.O.O.D. Music?
Sometimes those titles are glorified. I can’t even say that things were set up so that it could really be constructive in that sense. I think it was more-so Kanye needed a break, and I was a competent guy that everybody could talk to and respect. I said, “Okay, cool. Take a break. Let me see what I can do.”
I tried to bring a business structure. The first thing I did was figure out who’s actually signed. I said, “Who’s signed? Okay, Big Sean is signed. Who’s what?” It led to me putting a lot of effort into Sean and Common, which as a producer, is something I would have done anyway. Working there gave me the authority to exercise those relationships without feeling like I’m stepping on toes.
You worked with Common on The Dreamer, The Believer. As a VP at Def Jam, is it a conflict for you to work with a non-Def Jam artist like Common?
No. I’ve got car routes in my deal, so there’s certain things I can work on that’s not in the system, due to long-standing relationships. Common is one of them. People that I’ve had long working relationships with that are at a certain level, [I can work with them]. I can work with gold and platinum artists outside, plus people that I’ve had those long relationships with. It’s not a conflict in that sense.
Is there pressure for you to produce on Def Jam albums now?
It is, but it’s not a pressure in all of the things that I was already working on. The situation worked well, because I was already working on Nas, I was already working on Sean, I could have worked with Pusha T. So that’s just me doing my job anyway. Now I can follow through a little better from an executive place.
Through your career, you didn’t always sell a ton of records. Is there more pressure for you to sell records now?
It’s not pressure because I’ve got 20 years of experience now. What I did when I was a teenager coming from Chicago that didn’t know anything about music and what I would do now are two different things. My understanding is seasoned and my experience is there. Because of that, there’s less pressure. I know what to do.
It’s not like I’m trying to guess or figure it out. I’m humble enough to ask when I don’t know. I know how to work with people and get help. It’s not about me proving anything. When you’re young, you’re still trying to prove you’re good. I’m not trying to prove anything, I’m just trying to get good results. That’s how you have a career. Keep getting good results. It’s less pressure now. It’s actually fun and easy now.
You’ve been around for a long time, but weren’t truly appreciated until the last few years, when Kanye gave you the shoutout on “Big Brother” and then Jay did the same on “D.O.A.” You’re one of the few people who got appreciated late in their career as opposed to early in their career.
A lot of that has to do with the fact that I never had a publicist and never tried to do anything to make myself get the credit. I really was just trying to grow as a human being and as a producer. I always had it mapped out in my head that it would go like that, but I never really knew that it would fully end up going that way. It was kind of amazing to see it happen.
I really mapped it out after [producer and Def Jam co-founder] Rick Rubin. He was my inspiration. I used to study who I wanted to be like, and it was [the late Atlantic Records producer] Tom Dowd and Rick Rubin. They had these really long careers, but they really did a lot for people and music that was not seen.
I like how Rick Rubin did a lot for hip-hop and then went off in other genres. He’s still doing humongous records, yet you don’t see him in the forefront. You don’t say, “Hey, Rick Rubin got the new Adele”—but he right there doing it.
Do you see yourself becoming the President of Def Jam one day?
I’ve heard some of that. That would be me looking ahead. I’m not looking ahead. I’m looking at where my feet are now. I’m gonna be a really good Executive Vice President. If I do this good, then I do this good. [Laughs.] Again, there’s no hustle in my actions. Let me do what I have, and be the best at what I do. If I do this really good, does it even matter who’s the president?
We talking about titles, but what do they even mean? You got more control to do what? You’re getting a little more money? Okay, well I got access to make money. I’m a producer. I have access to sell, grow, and develop artists. I have a label here also. I got everything that I need. I’m not worried about whether I am that or not.
How He Affected Watch The Throne
You mentioned bringing insight into Watch The Throne. In what way did you affect songs like “Otis?”
It was just conversation between me, Jay, Kanye, and a few other people. I think Q-Tip was there. It just came out because they were like, “What do you have for the album?” They played what they had, and I was like, “I don’t know if I have anything with this direction. It’s just not what I do. If I do it I’ve got to really think it out and make it creative—and I don’t have that right now. I don’t even know if I wantto have that right now.”
I was like, ‘The sample record that Kanye does with no co-producer, where is that? The record that’s not based on anything else that has that personality that he does.’ We challenge each other, so I was like, ”You’re just going to do an album, and you’re not going to do one of those? What’s up?’ Kanye was like, ‘Okay. I got that,’ and they did it a couple days later.
In all fairness though, it wasn’t like I was better than this or that, or that what they were doing wasn’t good. It was just that, at that moment, that wasn’t a path that any of us had done musically, and I didn’t understand why we were going there. I still do records like “I Do It,” so it’s not like an “I’m better than thou” attitude. But at that point, I just felt like, “That’s not what I thought we were going to do.”
A lot of times I’m very outspoken with my opinion, respectfully. At that time, I felt like the album was missing those records—there’s a Kanye element that people want. We can’t get a Kanye/Jay-Z album without that.
Specifically “Otis,” that was the record. I was like, “The sample record that Kanye does with no co-producer, where is that? The record that’s not based on anything else that has that personality that he does.” We challenge each other, so I was like, “You’re just going to do an album, and you’re not going to do one of those? What’s up?”
Kanye was like, “Okay. I got that,” and they did it a couple days later. So I’m not taking credit for it, I’m just saying that from a business perspective, I heard a comment where Barry Weiss was like, “That’s real A&Ring.”
You’re still an outspoken guy…
Well, when necessary. I don’t speak out of place, but if you ask me, I will definitely speak the truth. Also, my opinion is my opinion. I don’t feel the need to force anybody to agree or disagree with me. But if you ask me, I do feel it’s important to speak with confidence about my feelings about whatever the questions are. That’s just being comfortable in your skin and being honest, no matter the outcome of your honesty. It just worked for me in life, not even just music.
Is there a specific instance you remember where you were very outspoken about something?
Yeah, I did it a little on Watch The Throne. Early on, I felt like Jay and Kanye were icons and I told them I didn’t agree, as a fan, with the direction they were going. Everybody’s looking at me like, “Who are you?”
I’m like, “I’m just me, but I want my feelings on the record that I want more from you guys. It’s not even about who does it. I just want more from you icons. I want you guys to push it forward. You’re going to sell, because you’re already big. But you guys are important to push this forward. Push intelligence and decadence and all of the above forward in a creative manner.”
What was their reaction to that?
With people like Jay and Kanye, the people around them have opinions, but their security is being around them. They saw me say, ‘I’ll just go do Big Sean while you do that,’ and it was more credible at that point, even though we had known each other and worked together.
Sometimes it was, “Yeah, whatever.” Sometimes it was, “You know what? You’re right.” Again, all these things aren’t to act like I made something. I just wanted to be a voice, and sometimes that voice was heard, and sometimes it was ignored.
I had been working with both of them a lot up to the point of making those statements, and then after I made those statements, I just kind of didn’t come around much any more. They were like, “Man, what’s up?”
I was like, “I told you, that’s not where I want to go, and I don’t think y’all should go there.” And I was like, “Yeah. I’ll pass up the money and everything, and I’ll go do something else, because I believe in what I believe in—right or wrong.”
A lot of times with people like that, the people around them have opinions, but their security is being around them. They saw me say, “I’ll just go do Big Sean while you do that,” and it was more credible at that point, even though we had known each other and worked together. It was like, “Wow, you’ll really just go work on that and make that really good? You know what, your points have been earned here.”
That’s interesting that for you it was more about the quality than the look.
I’m past the look. You know why? Because history is the look. The moment is not the look. There’s certain records I did that were really good, but no one talks about them. But I can still get a handshake off of “I Used To Love H.E.R.” I can still get a comment or smile from someone that says, “Man, I appreciate that.” It’s heartfelt and it means something. So those other things help pass the time and make a dollar here and there, but that’s not what I’m here for now.
Is that something you bring as an A&R, challenging artists to be better?
Absolutely. For a lot of these artists, that’s what it’s all about; bringing the fun and the challenge in the workplace, versus making it so calculated about sales and airplay. What about the pursuit of excellence amongst our peers? I like to challenge whoever I’m working with.
Jay-Z even challenges me. He’ll walk in and be like, “What you got? You ain’t got nothing.” I’ll be like, “Oh yeah? I really don’t? What about this right here? What you got for this?” So that’s just an energy and a spirit that really is part of the producing that we don’t get to do in this era, because there’s so many beat tapes. It’s like, “Send me the beat. I’ll just lay something.”
In your new life as an A&R you have to work with artists who might have big egos as their fame grows? How do you manage the egos that you have to deal with?
To really do this you’ve got to have people skills. You’ve got to deal with human beings. That’s just a part of that job and task. It’s no different than if you have to work at any job. It’s still people skills that let you advance. If you’re working where you are, and somebody in your office or system has an ego, how do you deal with it? If you deal with it well, it’s going to lead to success.
I don’t really make much of myself. I don’t have enough ego to care about somebody else’s ego. It really doesn’t matter to me. I’ll come in the room, and I won’t even say who I am, much less say what I did. I’m just Dion. I’m in the room, “Hey, how’s it going?”
If you’re bigger than me, great. If you feel the need to let me know, that’s fine too. When it comes to doing the work or the job, I know what I’m doing, and I’m humble enough to not be the biggest guy in the room all the time. I’m just cool, and I’m comfortable in myself.
His Relationship With Kanye West
A lot of the late resurgence of your career has to do with Kanye. He would bring it up all the time, like, ‘No ID’s my mentor and I learned from him.’ How has your relationship with Kanye affected your career?
I’ll be the first to say it helped me, period. The one thing, being humble enough to tell you, is even if you help someone or teach someone, that doesn’t mean they can’t help or teach you. It’s just not like that.
He always gave it up to me, in my opinion, because I’ve never tried to claim anything or ask him for anything or take anything for what I did do to help him. I think he went through so much with people and people felt entitled. For me, I never felt entitled to anything. I always just gave.
The law of life is, you give and you receive. It didn’t surprise me that I would receive. It surprised everyone that he would give to me like that. It’s just the energy of the universe. Everything is what it is. I give to people when I don’t even have a reason to give to people. I gave to him and never asked for anything.
I never wanted to even say that I was his mentor. I never once even said that. When you think about it, I never said, like, ‘Yeah I taught Kanye West’ This is what he says. I always thought of myself as the male figure that he didn’t have growing up because his father wasn’t around.
Music stuff was there too, but a lot of the things we’ve always talked about was more about life than just music. With music, we was competitive but were helping each other. It just so happens that when I met him, I helped him get to a certain level before he could help me see things.
Since then, it’s just been back and forth with any talented people. Nobody really ever asked me what I thought. They just say, “You mentored him and taught him.” If you really want my word on the record, I helped him early and he helped me later.
No one ever asked me that. They always say we know you did this and we know you did that. Maybe I did, but I never once used that as a platform for anything. Anything I ever did was out of pure giving at the moment, and it was never planned.
You say ‘I helped him early, he helped me late.’ You’ve known him a very long time—since way before he was famous.
Absolutely. He was a young teenager, maybe 14 or 15 years old.
What was he like as a teenager?
The same way he is now. [Laughs.] Not too much different, just a younger kid with less responsibilities and stress. A little less chasing the girls.
I once heard a story about him getting up on a table…
Well I wasn’t there. I’m not gonna act like I was there. He told me about it too. But it was just so many different things that happened. The stories are endless. Earlier on, I actually co-managed him with this guy Peter Kang, that was Common’s A&R. After a while, I said, “You know what man? We’re gonna stay friends and I’m gonna help you, but I can’t do this. I’ll go crazy.”
Why is that?
Just because that’s a hell of a personality to manage. I only have so much capacity as a creative person. That would’ve been a full-time job and I’m a producer. I wouldn’t cheat him by sitting in some position trying to make some money off of him, when I can let capable people step in and help him get where he needed to get.
You mentioned there’s a million stories. Is there one you can tell that comes to mind?
One day, me we took Kanye to meet [former Sony Music Chairman] Donnie Ienner, and Kanye danced around singing this song and saying, ‘I’m gonna be the next Michael Jackson.’ To us, it was like, ‘This is hip-hop! What are
you talking about? Are you kidding me?’
I’ll tell one story. One day, me and Peter took Kanye to meet [former Sony Music Chairman] Donnie Ienner, and Kanye danced around singing this song and saying, “I’m gonna be the next Michael Jackson.” To us, it was like, “This is hip-hop! What are you talking about? Are you kidding me?”
A bunch of other things that were kind of outlandish at that stage in his development was when we met with [former Columbia Records president] Michael Mauldin and he said “I want to be better than Jermaine Dupri!” I’m like, “Are you crazy? That’s Jermaine’s father! Why would you say that?” [Laughs.] Just a lot of silly things happened that day.
After that meeting, that was the day I said, “You know what? I’m gonna fall back.”
Years later, Michael Jackson called him and asked him about his jacket that he wore in “Stronger.” I said, “Oh my God! This dude got Michael Jackson calling him!” It was just the irony of it all. I was like, maybe this is this generation’s “that” guy—in the sense of Michael Jackson with the beaded jacket and the Billie Jean socks.
So if you and Kanye don’t have a mentor relationship, what kind of relationship do you have?
I’m not saying we don’t, I’m just saying that I never would have said that word. I don’t know what it is, because I don’t try to access it. It just is. I felt like he was a younger guy, so he wasn’t like my friend like the way Common was my friend. We have a different friendship from a younger-older guy sense.
He says Jay is his big brother, but I feel like a brother. I don’t know if I’m big, little, equal, or whatever it is. We’re more like brothers—fighting when we want to, arguing when we want to, be there or not be there, don’t talk for six months or talk every day. A brother, more than a big brother or the brother. That’s my brother.
You mentioned fighting. One thing about both of you guys is you definitely don’t bite your tongue for anybody. It seems like there could be an epic clash there.
Nah, because I know how to fall back. I don’t think he falls back. [Laughs.] There was a lot of times where I was like, ‘Okay. Alright. Anyway…’
What was one of those times?
I don’t know, but it could be like when he’s dating. I’m like, “Why are you doing that?” He will voice his opinion to the fullest and sometimes he doesn’t even believe what he’s saying. He’ll say it to test it, and then come back later to say you were right about this or that.
If I know I’m right I just fall back and say, ‘Okay, cool. Nah, do that.” Then later he’ll come back, like, “I know, man. I just had to see.”
Has dealing with Kanye, who’s got such a strong personality, been training for dealing with all the other personalities you have to deal with nowadays?
Oh, absolutely. From dealing with him, I’m a master. No one can get to me! [Laughs.]
Life as a Producer and A&R
People refer to you as the “Godfather of Chicago hip-hop.” Do you covet that title? Or is it just something that people say?
I never said it. [Laughs.]. My motto, and it’s a real motto that I go by that keeps me in a good place, is I treat everything as if I’ve never done anything. When I sit down to work on something or someone, that’s what keeps me in a humble place. I don’t remember what I did. I don’t even think about what I did. I’m absolutely not going to name what I did.
I view myself every day as someone who’s trying to make some good music to impress this year’s 17-year-old or 27-year-old or 37-year-old or 47-year-old—who isn’t yesterday’s 47-year-old and so on. So it’s just always a new, fresh challenge. You get caught up into what you did and you’re out of here. I’ve seen it.
I’m one of the few, if not the last—depending on how you look at it—people from my era that can still make relevant records. You have Dr. Dre falling back and Jermaine Dupri going off and doing something else. That longevity is priceless, and it comes from not dancing in the end zone after you finally score a touchdown.
What kind of knowledge do you impart on the young guys like Big Sean or J. Cole when you work with them?
Quality and cohesion. Just being able to make a project that makes sense as a whole product. That’s hard nowadays because that’s not the corporate view. That’s not what the company will say. They’ll say, make a smash around the world.
I would say, “Look at the people you like the most, who sell the most over years and years and stay around. Are they the people that make the biggest smashes around the world? Or are they the people that put their heart and soul in their music and made a cohesive presentation of that?”
What A&Ring should be: helping set-up a process, a template, in order to get the best out of the label and the talent. What a producer is, it’s like, “Okay, let me take that and take it to the fullest extent that it can be taken and make it fit at the same time.” A lot of times people will say, “Do you have a beat?” I’m like, “No. I don’t have any beats. Lets make some songs.” It’s a process that’s long been left out of our music.
Rock-n-roll and country, they make songs. They’re not passing instrumentals around. They don’t do that. They don’t say, “Hey, write to my beat?” I don’t even know what you call it in country. [Laughs.] It’s like, “You got a song? Produce that song.”
It seems like you’re hinting at the difference between being a beatmaker and a producer. A beatmaker may make some sounds, whereas a producer is actually in the studio and works almost in the capacity of an A&R.
Absolutely. I’ll say this: I bet Quincy Jones never gave anybody a beat in his life. That’s really not the role of a producer, to give somebody an instrumental and say, “Write a song.” I’m sure he didn’t say, “Yo Mike, I got this beat. You should put a scary guy at the end and it’ll be something like ‘Thriller.’” That’s just not really the historic way records are made.
It’s a process that should really be discussed, envisioned, and executed in stages—not just, “Here’s the beat. Write a song. Okay, there it is,” and then all the other songs, the producer didn’t have anything to do with the process. I think that’s why albums don’t sound as good today.
If you were in the studio, and you met with a rapper for the first time, and they asked for a beat, would you not give them one?
It depends on the situation, but I would frown upon it. A lot of people I work with don’t understand it and they think maybe I’m Hollywood. They walk out afterwards and they say, “Man, this guy didn’t even give me no beats.” But the people that I do work with and exercise these principles with, we get the best results—all the time.
I’m not trying to work with everybody anyway. I’m just trying to work with who I can work with. It’s not like I’m trying to get a beat to everyone who’s popular. It doesn’t matter. It’s like, “Do you want to work with me, and discuss music, and try ideas, and spend more than a day or two?”
You get a lot of people, like, “Okay, this person, they’re big time, so you’ve got two days. What you got?” I’m like, “Okay, well, maybe that’s not for me. I’m not trying to put some music in your hands, and you walk away with it for a year and a half and decide to put it out, and I haven’t touched it since and it hasn’t grown.” There’s just a lot of silly things going on in the way that we have it set up.
Why do you think hip-hop ended up in this weird situation?
I always joke with Nas and tell him it’s his fault, that Illmatic caused a problem. Before that, when I started doing music, there wasn’t a concept of, “I could work on a Public Enemy album,” It was a closed issue. You didn’t submit a beat to Pete Rock and CL Smooth. When Nas didn’t have a DJ-producer in his set-up, he reached out to some of the better people and they respected him enough to work on it. That was the, “Oh wow. You can work with these guys?”
Country music artists and rock artists, they’re just interested in the quality. They’re not even worried about the first week sales. They’re doing what they do, and they’re cool with whatever the results are because it’s really what they want to do.
In urban music, there’s a lot of, “Damn, man, I’ve got to figure out how I’m going to make the most money, get the most cars, the most this, and the most that.” It doesn’t have anything to do with creative anything. It’s a pure hustle.
It’s like, “Who’s the hottest person? We need them. Let’s go find all the hottest people.” It’s not, “Hey, I’ve got a vision for this music, this album, and this product, and what it’s going to represent, and how it’s going to sound, and this person can bring that out the best, whether they’re the most famous person or not.” My favorite albums, and classics, most of them weren’t done by a lot of producers anyway.
Right, the era of the super-producer. In the 2000s there were a lot of records where you had to get a big name guy for your single or else it didn’t really work out for you.
Yeah. I always joke with Nas and tell him it’s his fault, that Illmatic caused a problem. Before that, when I started doing music, there wasn’t a concept of, “I could work on a Public Enemy album,” or an Ice Cube album, or A Tribe Called Quest, or Gang Starr. It was a closed issue. You didn’t submit a beat to Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth.
When Nas didn’t have a DJ-producer in his set-up, he reached out to some of the better people and they respected him enough to work on it. That was the, “Oh wow. You can work with these guys?” Then you had Puff put together The Hitmen and have success, and I think that’s when it turned into, “Well, using a lot of people might work better.”
Through the 2000s that was pretty much what you saw. There were hip-hop albums where every song had its own producer.
Yeah. I really think that’s the worst thing for albums ever. If you look before the ‘90s, you might not find many—if any—albums with multiple producers. It just didn’t exist in the history of music.
That would have been like Michael Jackson telling Quincy Jones, “Look man, I know we did well on Off The Wall, but I’m hot now, and I need to see some other producers for Thriller.” It just doesn’t make sense.
There’s great producers he could’ve worked with, but that’s why it sold 100 million. He made a commitment and a decision with a vision, and the writers came together and worked and put these things together, and the producer coordinated and put it together and made it cohesive.
You once said, “Being humble doesn’t always equal the highest level of success.” You’re a humble guy—how did you attain your level of success?
I wasn’t afraid to take the slow road. I was never competing to keep up with anyone. I was always concerned with growing. I think over time success just occurred, versus me pursuing it. I mean, there were times when I did pursue it, to be honest. But I learned over time that that wasn’t my best work.
For a lot of us, when we entered this game—and we don’t have an education alongside our efforts—we’re just trying what someone told us or what we saw or thought we saw. I don’t think you can be successful at anything in life without an education, so it’s an on-the-job education. Some people don’t educate themselves. Some people get success and money and don’t think they need to learn.
I’ve just been humble enough to learn a lot and take my time and learn how to apply it. I always had an internal belief that most of the people I ever saw in the music industry ended up broke, dysfunctional, drug addicted, no steady family, or something wrong. I didn’t want to go there, and I knew that the spotlight wasn’t necessary for me to have a successful career.
What is it about the spotlight that destroys people?
Fame is like a drug. It’s like liquor. The more you get, the higher you are, the more surreal and unreal your life becomes. Everyone smiles, everyone helps you, everyone gives you something. Then the pressure mounts and losing that high is the most fearful thing once you’ve had it too much.
Then it’s the fall. You want that high back, but you’re not really hot. So you go to something else to get the high. When you do drugs or you drink, you feel like everything is great, no matter what. You’re in the club and you’re drunk, and you don’t care what the response of the girl is when you’re talking to her. When you’re sober, there’s a little more thought, a little more fear, a little more challenge.
When you’re famous, you don’t care. That’s what it all boils down to. We think fame equals money, which it does, but it also comes at a price. I learned early on that I didn’t want to pay the price. I don’t want to be famous. I don’t have any desire to try to attain more money off of promoting myself, when I could just be good at what I do and get what I’m supposed to get.
How did you learn that?
I once had a record deal [as a rapper when I was called Immenslope], and when I realized they wanted me to say and do stuff I didn’t want to do, I realized at that point, “This is not for me to do.” The way I was raised and everything I studied told me, “You don’t have to do this to be successful in life and don’t gauge your success by the moment.”
“I Used To Love H.E.R.” from Resurrection is the perfect example. When we put it out, nobody jumped up and down and said, “Classic!” They said, “Oh man, that’s dope.” It didn’t sell, but over time it was the most important work I had did. I learned right then and there, that I don’t need the moment to gratify my efforts.
That’s another thing that people forget, you had a former life as a rapper. Why didn’t that work out for you?
I don’t know. I just quit. I saw that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I’m a different person. I’m not going to do all those things to try and get the attention of pop culture. It’s not my lifestyle. I’m a fine culture guy, not a pop culture guy.
What were they trying to get you to do and say?
I started in the early ‘90s. Once Puff got popular, they were like, “Hey, you’ve got to be like Puff.” I was like, “Nah, that’s not me.” I’m more like, “Hey, I came to New York and met The Beatnuts and underground rap people. I like Pete Rock, Guru. I’m not about to do that.”
So I said, “If this is where it’s going, I don’t have any intentions of being a part of this. Let me readjust.” When I got my record deal, I had no concept that I was really going to be a producer. There wasn’t money really involved in those early records that was anything of value. It was crumbs.
It was an independent deal—no advances. If there were advances, they were so small I called them no advances. With two beats right now, I could make everything I made off of the first three albums I worked on with Common.
It was purely for the love of the music and the art of trying to be the best and to get out there and be something. So today, I can look in people’s eyes and know what their intentions are and where it’s going to end up, because I know the difference.
Speaking of “I Used To Love H.E.R,” when we did “The Making of Common’s Resurrection” it revealed deep-seeded rivalries between you, Common, and Twilite Tone—guys who I assumed would be friends.
Yeah, but you know, steel sharpens steel. That’s why we’re still here and that’s why you’re talking about us, because the people that were also with us, the rivalries might not have fared in their favor. Meaning, that’s what made us good at what we do, that internal competition.
Even to this day, Kanye is a super competition-based guy. If I walk in with a really good beat, he’s not just going to say, “Wow, thanks. That’s a really good beat.” He’s going to say, “Oh yeah?” That kind of revived my career, being back around him.
I try to avoid the spotlight, so we weren’t around each other a lot after his career took off. I didn’t want to be around a lot of what was happening. But after his mother passed, I kind of went back around a little more.
That competition just sparks something in you. It made me excited about music again. It made me do a lot of things that I wouldn’t have done if I was just sitting in my house.
I didn’t realize that when Kanye started to get really famous, you didn’t want to be around that level of fame.
Right. It was a lot, and I knew it was going to be a lot for him. At the end of the day, I like walking down the street, going to the movie theater, and going to the mall. I’ve got a lot of famous friends, and I’m not really trying to live the life that they live. It’s not really fun for me.
One thing I heard you say was that Common had been working on his last few albums with producer-rappers, and you felt like working with somebody who was also producing for themselves hurt him because they weren’t inclined to give him their best stuff.
Yeah, that was my opinion. This is one of those opinions that could be interpreted however, but it really is how I feel. If I was an artist, there are times where I’m gonna say, “No, I wanna keep this for me.”
There are times when I wanna say, “I don’t want to compete with this record on another person,” or “This will help me in another way over here. I got to spread out my effort.” I don’t have to do that, and it just makes for a better result sometimes.
Has being outspoken ever gotten you in trouble?
You can never be in trouble telling the truth. If you’re in trouble for telling the truth, then that’s not trouble. That’s just dealing with the truth. I’m never gonna view it as a problem to be honest. To answer that question, I haven’t gotten in that much trouble for telling the truth.
I am the guy that if you catch me saying something, I don’t do the, ‘Don’t tell anybody I said it.’ If I said it, I said it. I’m gonna stand right here and say it again to whoever—the end. What’s the trouble? Where’s the problem?
It seems like getting shout-outs on records has been key for you, as far as the level of fame and appreciation from fans who aren’t up on reading the credits. How has that affected your career?
I think it’s affected it great. I’ve never peaked and still haven’t peaked. People don’t get tired of me. I don’t have people rooting against me because I’m there too much. It helps me a lot because it makes my efforts spread out. Pretty soon, by the time you look up, all of these accolades and comments really came from a genuine review of events.
None of it was planned out; it all occurred organically. I’m cool with whatever it is happening because at the end of the day, no matter what you go through, you’re gonna come down. If you can’t handle coming down, then you lose.
I’m not trying to push myself higher. I’m cool with just where I’m at. You never know what anything brings. You got be able to mentally and spiritually handle that. That’s most important to me.