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.

The 23 Most Emo Lines On Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak

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.

From the Web

More on Vibe

Mark Barboy

Interview: Suave House Founder Tony Draper Links With Celebs Like 2 Chainz, G Herbo and Nick Cannon To Feed Their Cities

The harrowing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately disrupted Black communities across the United States with cities like Chicago being among the hardest hit. Throughout the year, artists from the city have stepped up and held socially distanced food drives and PPE donations across the city’s South and West sides. With his deep ties to Chicago since the early 90s, Suave House Records founder/entrepreneur Tony Draper, alongside NBA veteran Ricky Davis, made the Chi’ their next stop as part of the nationwide Feed Your City Challenge this past October 17th at the Pullman Park Community Center.

The chilly, yet bright and sunny Saturday saw hundreds of people drive through the parking lot of the complex, receiving groceries from the many volunteers, gathered from across the city. Masked up with PPE in the trenches with the civilians were local natives and celebrity supporters like Chitown’s Grammy winning producer/music executive No ID, rap star G-Herbo, new rapper Queen Key, NBA star Jabari Parker to media/music entertainer Nick Cannon. Draper and Davis were handing off items and loading boxes of farm-fresh produce and meats in the trunk of cars, and offloading the 95,000 pounds of food to feed 7,000 residents. While they were not in attendance, Common with Jhene Aiko and Social Justice Collective donated funds for the free groceries.

“You can’t lead the people until you feed the people. We’re out here in the community in a real way. People always talk about what’s going on in Chicago and these are the things going on in Chicago. Positive things for the community during a time like this. People coming together and it’s a wonderful event,” said Cannon.

For Draper, bringing the Feed Your City Challenge to Chicago and being able to pull it off successfully was crucial because October 17th, marks the 24th anniversary of the death of one of Chi’s most influential DJs, Rapmaster Pinkhouse, who passed away in 1996. “It feels like myself and my partner [Ricky] Davis coming to Chicago and partnering with Common, No ID, Jhene Aiko, Nick Cannon, G-Herbo, Jay Allen, [local FM radio] Power 92 and Pat Edwards was a sign from God that it’s meant to happen on this day. Even though Pinkhouse is gone, he’s still influencing the south side of Chicago and he’s still sending us blessings. We had to pull it off, we had to,” Draper said with conviction. 

Meanwhile, Power 92.3’s DJ Pharris, DJ Nehpets, DJ Commando, DJ Amaris and Hot Rod were on the 1s and 2s while Parker, Hot Rod, G-Herbo, and community activists Joey G and Nico Naismith played basketball with the kids. A nonprofit Hoop Bus was set up with a small hoop with Black Lives Matter symbols and the names of victims who were killed by police officers. 

G-Herbo, who has been volunteering his time to the kids of Chicago throughout 2020 says that events like this are important to build and strengthen Black unity across the city. “It’s beyond just being able to feed and provide, it’s allowing people to feel unity in the city. This is the city coming together and a lot of important and powerful people coming from the city, all walks of life coming together for a positive reason and that’s what it’s all about.” When asked if this event defied the stigma of Chicagoans not being unified, Herbo exclaimed, “Absolutely! We unified right now and it’s only gon’ get better, so we’re just trying to lead by example and make this normal. This is not just an event, this gotta be the normal for guys like myself and for the city.”

And the people who showed up to receive their free groceries were more than appreciative. Takara, a mother from the Southside of Chicago says that while she found out about the food drive at the last minute,“It’s a lot of food out here, a lot of good people out here and it’s something that we need. Events like this are very necessary and it’s filling the need for families who can’t feed their children during these times. I wish I could have volunteered and done something more, but we need this.”

In a one-on-one with VIBE, the legendary Tony Draper talks about his connections to Chicago, the importance and impact of the Feed Your City Challenge, the role celebrities play in activism, and more. 

VIBE: Earlier you shared that Oct. 17th was also the day that Rapmaster Pinkhouse passed away. For the younger readers who might not know who Rapmaster Pinkhouse is, could you share who he was and why he was so important to Chicago?

Draper: For young people that don't understand how music was heard back then, there was no social media [in the early 90s], there was no Instagram, so you had to get your record to the hottest person in the city. That person had to make a decision about whether it was good or not. And if that person touched your record in Chicago, that person would spread, it was automatic. That’s what happened to a young Tony Draper with 8Ball & MJG’s first albums. He put his hands around it and he exposed it to the Chicago market. Every time I think about Chicago, I always think about Pinkhouse. Pinkhouse was the main reason why I even came to Chicago.

Talk about that. What was Chicago like for you when you first came here?

Coming to Chicago was a very interesting moment for me because when I came, I had my hat cocked a certain type of way and I didn’t know the rules and regulations. And he told me, “Tony, man you gotta keep that hat straight (laughs). And I kept it straight ever since. So, for me, doing my journey as a young Black man from the inner city, raised by a single parent, establishing Suave House at 16 years old, seeing what I went through to establish [the company], and make it a force to be reckoned with. That was an accomplishment, but also I wanted to touch people I knew understood the music and understood where I was coming from and the importance of a young Black man that was a true, independent CEO and giving me the avenue to get my music heard. I’m from Memphis, raised in Houston, but Chicago is Suave House’s biggest market to this date. They supported everything Suave House did and I wanted to bless them [with the Feed Your City Challenge], the same way they blessed me.

With the conversation within the music business revolving around Black Lives Matter and supporting Black communities, what do you think it’ll take to get many of these CEO and executives from the major labels to support these communities like what you and many of the artists have been doing across the country?

I think they have to be involved with people they’re not comfortable with. Stop giving money to these organizations you think is giving the money to Black people, because they’re not. Nobody is holding these organizations accountable. Do business with somebody that has their finger on the pulse. A person that you know is in the music business that has been very successful in the business. Like right now, the Feed Your City Challenge, we’re in our ninth city. We’ve had eight of the top music artists host these cities without funding from the parent companies. [The artists] are giving the money themselves. Jhene Aiko gave money herself. Nick Cannon, himself. Rick Ross, 2 Chainz…Pee from Quality Control. 

Pee was on vacation in Mexico and he took a private jet back to Atlanta just to attend Feed Your City in Atlanta. He didn’t have to do that, but he did because he cares about where he’s from. He cares about the area. He wants to take [talent] from the area, but he also wants to give back to that community. See, white people want to come and exploit your community, but don’t want to build a library over there, never build a basketball court, never build anything. When an artist is dead, they say ahhh aahh ummm. If you wanted to demonstrate good character, you would have said, ‘I made a lot of money off that artist. Let me do something for that community as a token of appreciation for birthing that particular artist.’

I don’t think we’ve ever seen that before.

And you’ll never see it unless I do it and I am going to do it. That’s why I’m in Chicago. I’m going to every city that has blessed me and fed my family because every time I feed myself, I feed my family, my loved ones, it comes from my fans. My fans gave me the opportunity by buying my records. I had a dream, I had a drive, but without the opportunity, you might not have heard of Tony Draper. So, I’m always appreciative of people that have helped me, that’s why I want to help them. I’m in the best place I could ever be in my life. I’m 49 years old, I’m successful, I’m good. Bro, you want to know what makes me happy? Giving to somebody else. There’s another star out there that’s hoping and praying that they could get an opportunity and if I could give them that opportunity, I’ll give it to them. I don’t relish in the attention; I relish in the accomplishment. Let me help somebody. And if I help them and they become successful, they don’t owe me a quarter. I won’t sign them to a management deal or nothing. I just want you to acknowledge it and pass it on. See, we got to learn how to pass it on.

With the timing of this event brought on by the pandemic, how do you feel about it all?

I think it was God’s mission. With COVID that’s really unfortunate, a lot of people lost their lives during this pandemic. A lot of people have lost their jobs, their homes, their properties. My heart goes out to them. But if me and Ricky Davis can put a smile on a mother’s face, a father’s face and feed their children, that’s all I need. I remember me and my mother going to churches and food banks, walking with free government cheese, powdered eggs and we was happy. We were so happy, smiling and grateful. I think without that, I don’t think we would have made it to the following week. So, I’m always thankful for everything God blessed me with. I don’t think I’m special. I think that I had a plan and I stuck to my plan and made it happen.

Suave House has had a lot of artists who have always been outspoken about social and political issues, [similar to like an] Ice Cube recently. Considering that, and what you’re doing with these artists for the Feed Your City Challenge, do you think that the role of the celebrity today is to get in front of these issues or to fall back and support the people who're already doing the work?

I think it’s a choice. For me, I’m not a city official, I’m not a politician. I’m more comfortable with doing and getting my hands dirty on the ground. If I was in Chicago building houses for people, I would actually be there. I wouldn’t [just] send no money or send a crew there. I would be there. That’s how I feel blessed. I feel blessed by actually talking to the people and them seeing me out there distributing groceries. I feel good when a person drives up in their car and they pop their trunk and say ‘Draper?! You putting groceries in my car?!’ And they may be happy about ‘Space Age Pimpin’’ or ‘I’m So Tired of Ballin’’ or whatever, but just the mere fact that they were happy about me putting groceries in their car meant more to me than anything else. I think it’s a choice you make as an individual.

For a lot of people, some celebrities end up causing harm because their celebrity and actions might overshadow the actual issue.

You know what though? Without you being a celebrity, you might not be heard. So why not use that platform to be heard? I think LeBron James is phenomenal. I think Ice Cube is phenomenal. You don’t have to agree with him, but you have to respect him for speaking his mind and trying to get something for Black people. Nobody else did it! Nobody else took the initiative to write a Black America contract and present it to both [Biden and Trump] camps. So, I think that was a phenomenal move, whether I agree with it or not, it was still a phenomenal move. We got to stop with all this goddamn talking and do some action.

Draper and Davis’s Feed Your City Challenge will be arriving in Compton, California as their next stop on November 21.

Continue Reading
T.I.

Interview: T.I. Talks Activism, Verzuz Battle, And His Desire To Produce A Biopic On His Life Before Fame

Although Tip "T.I." Harris has earned some very respectable stripes as an emcee for his successful rap career, the self-proclaimed “King of the South” moniker really began to take true form once he stepped into his community activism calling. He’s acted in blockbuster films opposite Denzel Washington, Paul Rudd and Kevin Hart, but his willingness to speak truth to power has shown an unwavering commitment to being on the good side of history, as opposed to choosing silence to secure a spot on the good side of Hollywood.

During this recent conversation, Tip talks about his upcoming Verzuz battle with Jeezy, politics, the Trap Music Museum, and his desire to make his TV/film directorial debut.

Be sure to check out his newest album, L.I.B.R.A available on all streaming platforms.

Continue Reading

Ziggy Marley's First Time Voting In America

No more long talking from politicians. Today, the people have their say at the ballot box. Judging by the number of voters who showed up early this year, the 2020 election is going to smash all records for voter participation. With a deadly pandemic, wildfires, floods, economic pressure, and a struggle for survival playing out from the tweets to the streets, the stakes have never been higher.

If you're reading this right now and you haven't voted yet, it's not too late. Get up get out and let your voice be heard. As Samantha Smith recently discussed on her IG Live, this year's election is too important to sit out.

Snoop Dogg will be voting for the first time this year—and he's not the only one. Ziggy Marley voted for the first time this year also and documented the process on social media. "I decided to vote and I wondered to myself why," Ziggy wrote on his IG. "Then I thought about those who came before, the price they paid. In part, I am voting in honor of them and to honor them, to not belittle their many sacrifices and struggles with my high jaded righteousness and indifference. Many brothers and sisters from numerous backgrounds and origins marched, bled, and died to give people like me basic rights in 🇺🇸 , the right to be treated like a human being, the right to vote."

As the eldest son of the Robert Nesta Marley aka the King of Reggae, Ziggy is part of a mighty musical legacy, but his father is more than a musical legend.  The new film Freedom Fighter—part of the 75th anniversary series "Bob Marley Legacy"—examines Marley as a symbol of human rights with a voice more powerful than any politician.

Ziggy has continued his father's musical mission as a solo artist and part of the Grammy-winning family group Melody Makers. His 2018 album, Rebellion Rises opens with a song entitled "See Them Fake Leaders," leaving no doubt about his views on the institutions of government. Still, Ziggy remains engaged in the political process, doing his part and encouraging others to do the same.

"Imagine if Martin Luther King Jr, John Lewis, and others thought, 'Voting rights? Civil rights? Who cares? What difference will it make?'" Ziggy wrote on IG. "Just imagine what the world would have looked like now if not for their sacrifices. Go ahead, imagine it. Can you see it? Well, what do you think?"

"To be clear voting is not the end-all," Ziggy Marley added. "It is a small piece of a puzzle and just one of the tools in our toolbox that we must use as part of a larger effort to bring positive beneficial changes for all people. The work must continue at maximum effort after elections regardless of the outcome." Ziggy emphasized that he was not voting for a party or a person for an idea. "Even though we have differences we can be better human beings, more united human beings, more loving human beings, equal human beings, just human beings. The politics will come and go left right and center but still through it all the humanity that we must show to each other is not negotiable."

Ziggy voted by mail this year, but for those of you standing in line today to exercise your right and let your voices be heard, Ziggy curated a special playlist for Tidal's "Hold The Line" campaign. Music to vote by—from Ziggy and Bob to Fela and James Brown, not to mention Public Enemy and Rage Against The Machine.

Ziggy Marley’s new album, More Family Time, is out now on all music streaming platforms.

Continue Reading

Top Stories