Q&A: Jeff Bhasker Remembers Producing On Kanye West’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’
If you don’t know Jeff Bhasker by name, you most definitely know the work that he’s done. His first major beat placement was on The Game’s The Documentary album with the cinematic song of the same name. He’s gone on to work with some of music’s most talented—Emeli Sande, Alicia Keys, Bruno Mars, Pink, Beyoncé and Lana Del Ray. He even produced fun.’s entire 2012 hit album Some Nights, but he’s always kept his hip-hop roots intact: His very first coproduction work was with Goapele.
The Grammy-winning producer was an integral part of the production team for Kanye West’s seminal LP 808s & Heartbreak, which celebrated its fifth anniversary last month (Nov. 24). We got on the phone with Jeff to discuss the process of recording that album, how Kanye inspired people around him at the time, and what kind of impact the project has had on hip-hop and music at large.
VIBE: The five-year anniversary of 808s & Heartbreak was just over a week ago, November 24. What do you remember about Kanye in the studio during such a difficult time in his personal life when his mother passed?
Jeff Bhasker: He was very focused, as he always is. That’s an interesting question because he wasn’t so much out of the ordinary, but I think he had a painful source of inspiration to draw on for the album and I think it resonated with a lot of people. It’s been written and talked about how it’s his most personal album, so he always has a sense of purpose but it was such a new time in his life to go through the death of his mother.
We did it so fast, so it was very clear to him what he wanted to do. I think it was therapeutic for him, we did that in the shows too leading up to 808s. We were on tour when he got the news. He didn’t cancel the tour. He went on as a tribute to his mother and in the months leading up to that album, I think he mapped out a lot of the emotions and the message that he wanted to communicate through that album. Not to speak for him, but it was many months that lead up to him putting that piece together and we did it so quickly.
Do you remember the moment when he received the news on tour?
Yeah, I do. It was early on in my relationship with him, so the impact was like… surreal. I’m sure it was surreal for everybody to feel for him and what he was going through. That was the first time I realized how strong that motherfucker is. We sat there and created the show and went on with it in full force, so that was really inspiring and it gave me a clue that I didn’t have before about what that guy was made of.
Was there a specific moment during the recording of 808s & Heartbreak that you can recall Kanye inspiring people in the studio?
He always inspires people with his passion for what he wants to do. More than anything, [he taught me] to stick to your guns and win people over with your passion and enthusiasm. This wasn’t such a passionate need to sell kind of thing. A lot of people were scared of what was happening. This was a very unusual [musical] turn for him to take. His team of people around him, we’re already sold. He doesn’t need to inspire us. There were guests on there, but it wasn’t so much a collaborative album. He’s usually the mastermind of putting, like, Bon Iver and Rick Ross in the same room. He can always mix the culture and he knows what at the time will go together really amazingly. On 808s, it was less about that and more about his true expression, so just the fact that he was going down that road. It wasn’t so much different from the other times of just having the bravery.
“Love Lockdown” for sure was an inspirational moment. When he was just tapping on his MPC making that bassline [hums the melody] for like an hour straight. It wasn’t so much inspiring as like…you could feel it. Maybe it was a different form of inspiration. It was palpable. You could feel in the room that something strange and different and wonderful was happening. That’s what he does over and over again.
And then taking it from that to performing it on the MTV Music Awards. It’s a long ass song, like a lot of lyrics, and especially when you’ve just written something. To sing it and get up there and just murder it. He’s had so many amazing performances, and he always comes through with [his performances]. He’s the master of achieving his dreams. There’s one thing I’ve learned about him over the years: you do not bet against him. That’s his superpower. If he decides he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it. If Vegas made odds on Kanye West accomplishing something, you don’t want to bet against that.
Kanye recently did an interview about how drums were his Achilles heel until Yeezus and I remember reading that you and Ye were looking for tribal drums for “Amazing.” Where did those drums come from?
That was actually the first track [I did for him]. He used to say the same thing about my [drums]. I’d play something and he’d be like, “Aw man. Don’t ever play anything like that again for me.” And that was always my Achilles heel too. “Amazing” was the first track I ever placed on his album that I brought to the table. I had this new sound library called “Storm Drum” which was more orchestral and for film scores. I just put together that beat and a little piano thing and he was like, “Man, those drums are so fresh!” For me to hear him say “I like those drums” was such a good feeling! That was an amazing moment. But that was just me trying to bring something to the table after failing a couple times and he actually liked it.
I learned so much from [Kanye] and Plain Pat, who we worked with and who has worked closely with Kanye since the beginning of [Kanye’s] career. [Plain Pat is] kind of an undercover producer in his own right. He’s always been more of an A&R role, but he’s actually an amazing producer.
Do you think 808s & Heartbreak has shaped the sound of hip-hop today?
I don’t think there’s any question. After that album, the way that hip-hop sounds now… the album definitely opened a door sonically. But even more than sonically, it set an example of how to be brave and try something different, out of the box. Especially in hip-hop, there are so many possibilities. The emo factor, diving into yourself, besides all of the sonics and the way a lot of hip-hop artists now. [808’s & Heartbreak] has undoubtedly influenced this [music scene]. It’s amazing that it’s five years now. Digging into yourself, expressing emotion, dropping the false bravado and getting down to who you really are and showing the bravado that isn’t false but real. All the great artists have a combination of vulnerability and confidence. If you have the right mixture of that, that’s when listeners and fans say, “Damn, I believe this motherfucker.” They can sniff that fake shit out in a second.
Kanye has done that since the beginning of his career, but [808s & Heartbreak] was another level of saying, “I’m gonna sing these songs.” There’s been singing in hip-hop before that too, but to take it to the extreme and really throw down that gauntlet… A lot of the tracks on 808s & Heartbreak are truly songs, they’re not really straight up the middle hip-hop that happens to be melodic. It’s a lot more song-based and personalized. It’s not posturing. To cry, to show your vulnerability and then triumph over it. That’s that inspiration. The first thing I ever said to Kanye when I worked with him was, “Man, you’re an inspiration.” That’s the simplest way to put what he does. It’s misunderstood what he does; he fights the good fight. He’s not fighting for anything else but the hard truth, not the truth that looks good in the paper or sounds good on your soundbites and is gonna keep your endorsements and all the shit he’s talking about with corporations. That’s real. Sticking to your guns and doing what you believe in. That’s what you’re supposed to do. When you have a stage and a platform to express ideas, that’s who you need to be.
Before 808s & Heartbreak dropped, the whole album leaked. Do you remember that?
I remember “Robocop” leaking. I don’t remember the whole thing [leaking]. We worked the most on “Robocop” to make it right and then it leaked and Kanye was like, “We have to change it now because it leaked.” So we were all like, “Aw shit. We finally got it perfect.” I think we were in Brazil when that song leaked.
That was the other interesting thing about 808s & Heartbreak. We kinda finished it while we were on world tour. We were in China tracking vocals and figuring out the time change, like okay we gotta get on this plane and we’re gonna be on there for 12 hours so I gotta get this out now.
I heard a story that Beyoncé asked Kanye to put “Pinocchio Story” on the album. Is that true?
Yeah, I actually have heard that. “Pinocchio Story” was in Singapore while we were on tour, and he murdered it that night, he was just on fire. We had played basketball in the 100 degree heat right before the show, and I was exhausted. I could barely even stand up at my keyboards for that show. When [Kanye] gets in the zone, it’s like a Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant. He can’t miss. He goes out on a limb sometimes and when you take a chance you don’t always nail it but that was just a night of bullseyes.
You mentioned that many songs on 808s & Heartbreak had a lot of writers. Did you notice Kanye growing in terms of songwriting during the recording of the album?
It’s hard for me to answer that because it was the first time I had ever worked with him, so I didn’t know what it was like before. He didn’t write anything down until Dark Twisted Fantasy. Another thing is no laptops or smartphones. Write it with pencil and paper. There’s a different connection that comes from that. If you must write it, please use a pen or pencil. Knowing in your brain and organizing it and not commiting it to a laptop or a piece of paper, then you really have to know it. And it’s not that hard. You can remember something. On paper it looks good, but you’ve gotta sing it. Like the mumbling thing, a lot of writers do that, Mick Jagger, The-Dream, Lionel Richie. When you listen back to it you’re like, “Damn, what was I saying there?” You can build on that. Like “Love Lockdown” had around eight writers on it. It’s kind of like, “Okay, everyone get in the room. Listen to the mumble. What am I saying there? What are we trying to say?”
It’s a process that’s expanded to his DONDA group of ideas and having this collaborative, best idea wins approach. More brain power in the room. We wouldn’t leave the room until the song was done. That was the approach that you need to have. At least try, until everyone’s passed out on the floor. You need to give it that amount of effort to get it done. But it’s always so fun working with him. He’s the most open person to ideas. Sometimes you have to just open up the floor to the craziest, dumbest idea because it just might be the winner. You have to create that environment. Please self-edit yourself and don’t just say every goddamn thing that comes into your head. But people should feel free to say something without being judged. There’s a broad spectrum of ideas that can live. It’s not like we can’t talk about this or that. Its’ a true culture.
People and press love to jump on Kanye saying “I Am A God” and then at this point in the show he did his egomaniacal song. Like, we’re writing these songs so that everyone can sing it. It’s just funny how so many people don’t get that disconnect. It’s for everyone to sing “I Am A God” and feel like you are a God. It’s not exclusively his song, we make these songs for the world. Equal opportunity Godship.
So now you’ve got the Billy Kraven project up on SoundCloud. What are you trying to achieve with your new music?
Billy Kraven was a moniker that I came up with when I started writing songs. Actually interesting that we talk about it in this conversation because a lot of that music came from the era of 808s & Heartbreak, and one of the [Billy Kraven] songs “Negative World” was actually the first song I ever was brave enough to play for Kanye and he actually liked it. I think it was partially because I was singing on it with this weird voice and I think it brought us together a little bit, like “Wow, Jeff likes songs too and he’s finding ways to bring songs into a hip-hop world”, because I had a foot in the hip-hop world but I was getting more interested in song writing. A lot of those songs are an exercise in becoming a songwriter and mixing Diane Warren, Burt Bacharach-level songwriting with a cool contemporary hip-hop aesthetic.
Somewhere along the way it took a turn into being focused on the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and a soldier’s experience of what’s going on. I was trying to take up a new topic other than love or money or bottles and creating this kind of story about what it means to be a soldier, what it means to put your life on the line and be asked to kill people. It’s just something I’ve had for awhile and I’ve wanted to put that SoundCloud up for awhile to get the music out to the world and give people an opportunity to hear it. So that’s out for people to enjoy and I’m gonna do some shows actually doing that music and maybe some of the music I’ve produced.
I signed my first artist, we’re working on her album. Her name is Cam and she’s actually a country artist living in Nashville. I found her through the first producer that I signed.