Views From The Studio: Meet Producer Sonny Digital
On a warm, late October afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia, Sonny Digital is quietly tilted back in a swivel chair, greenery in hand ready to light a spliff and get back to work after a pit stop to Smoothie King for a banana-tasting concoction.
The 24-year-old Grammy-nominated music producer is reflecting on all of his accomplishments to date and even some of his mistakes along the way that all worked out for the better in his case. To his right, a guitarist named Josh sits on a futon, as he plays back a recording brimming with just the right amount of bass. This same small, carpeted room in Sonny's humble abode quietly nestled in the heart of the city housed numerous hits like "Tuesday," Makonnen's 2014 breakout that took him from virtual unknown to OVO Sound's starting five roster. Today, like many others, Sonny clocks countless hours behind production equipment cooking up dope beats. However, instead of supplying the perfect tempo to capture the mood of Future or Wiz Khalifa's latest club banger or deep cut, he's perfecting his own soon-to-be hit.
"It needs to be heard," he says contently nodding to the beat. "I need to get out that [trap] box. I ain’t motherf*****g regular. This sh*t is old news, I been making crazy sh*t for a minute and been to every damn spectrum. I just want people to f**k with the talent and stop holding a n***a back because I didn’t show y'all everywhere I could go with it."
Here, the music producer dishes on his grand foray onto Atlanta's then bubbling music scene, broadening his horizons beyond trap beats, and his thoughts on being underrated in the game for the latest installment of Views From The Studio.
How'd you get your start in producing?
Sonny Digital: The initial reason was that my friends and I rapped and there weren’t enough beats for everybody. So I just started making beats myself.
Who were some of your musical influences?
SD: Production-wise, I was listening to Shawty Redd. That n***a was getting it man. He changed the whole sound. I also was big on getting my hands on anything that wasn’t necessarily mainstream in Atlanta. People always forget about André 3000's importance too. Everything we have in the city is real diverse. You can go in so many directions. I was just the first to go in all those directions and kind of check it all out. If it wasn’t for Shawty Redd, I could guarantee there would be no me, no anybody. Those guys influenced a whole new sound, which turned into something else, which turned into something else, which is what it is today.
What was the first song of yours you heard on the radio?
SD: YC feat. Future “Racks on Racks.” That’s when my name kind of went industry. It was already moving around in Atlanta. You know, when you go to every city you got that one guy who’s on the brink of making it out, but ain’t made it out yet. That would’ve been me if I had never got “Racks.” If you think about it for real, we did shift the whole Atlanta music scene, took the steering wheel and just turned it.
True. “Racks” was a big hit for Atlanta, it was like a resurgence of the city's dance and trap roots combined, and it introduced a lot of people to Future too. How did it come about?
SD: I just emailed them beats. I used to hang with Gorilla Zoe and he used to be at Block ENT, and YC was signed over there. I just happened to send YC a beat and a couple of months later he started emailing me from some weird email asking about the beat. I honestly ain’t know who it was. I don’t respond to nobody I don’t know. He kept on hitting me though so one day I just hit him back because if someone is persistently hitting me then I know it’s serious. I hit him back and I found out who it was and that was that. I sold that bih for $300 though.
Wow, that’s crazy.
SD: Yeah, I mean, technically, they gave me my credit. See where I messed up was that I didn’t put my tag in there. People didn’t hear Sonny Digital so they didn’t identify me with the song. A lot of people today are just now finding out that I go back that far and I produced that song. It’s the same thing with “Same Damn Time” because my tag wasn’t in there. So it’s been like a catch up game with everybody. They’re just so far behind when it comes to me. People honestly just don’t know, although I feel like they should know.
A lot of people stamp producers with a certain sound, but would you say that there is a specific Sonny Digital sound?
SD: No. You know, that’s a gift and a curse though because every time I put something out people can’t identify it quickly. The way people are, they lazy, they don’t want to go do the work and find out where it came from. But then again, it’s a good thing too because there are some people that do, do that and go look and then they’re like ‘aw sh*t, I f**k with this n***a’ and check out your entire catalog. At the same time though you have a lot of people whining, saying you've got to do something different, but as soon as you do something different, they say, ‘what the f**k is this, where the other sh*t at?’ It’s like dang man, what the f**k do y’all want?
Since there isn’t a consistent sound, would you say that there’s a formula to your creative process?
SD: I just be chilling and really going off of vibes. I just go in and f**k around and might find a cool ass sound that I personally like. It’s interesting the way I look at vocals because I don’t necessarily look at vocals as f***ing vocals. I look at it as an instrument and I’m just finding that one thing that’s missing to make it all sound good. It could be the difference between a beat sounding good and great. That’s just how I look at it, as far as when I’m making beats and stuff.
I heard you made Makonnen’s “Tuesday” in your house.
SD: Yeah, we made it in this room. I’m still here [laughs]. It’s more cost-efficient and it just makes more sense, especially if your neighbors ain’t tripping and you don't require a lot of people around, which I feel like if you’re working then you shouldn’t have a gang of people around anyway. Then again, you got to think about it, I’m young too. I don’t have a girlfriend, no family, nobody to really answer to so I can stay at home and really just get all my work done. We’re in two-thousand-fu****g-fifteen, going on 2016, all you need is some head phones and your laptop now. We don’t need no major studio, let’s be for real. You can record it here, in numerous places. It ain’t no place where you can’t record it.
One of your biggest placements to date has to be Beyoncé ‘s "Bow Down / I Been On." What was that experience like?
SD: That all came about when I linked with Polow Da Don after hearing that he was interested in what I was doing. It always shocked me though because I was never like this big producer, so I was wondering why’d he be worried about what I got going on when he’s like one of my favorite producers. But when I went down there and met him, he was cool. The first day we met we worked on that “Bow Down” track, which was supposed to be for Rihanna but she had a deadline for her album and we didn’t meet the cut. So then he told me that Beyoncé had picked it, the song came out, and that was the song that came out and that was that. It was just a quick little play; it ain’t anything that I really glorify. Hit Boy actually did the “Bow Down” part, and I did the “I Been On” part where it’s the slowed down Texas sh*t.
Do you feel like people fully understand the importance of the producer today and respect their influence? Or do you feel the term is used loosely, although everyone has to start from somewhere?
SD: That is true but I think people should look into what they’re doing before they actually start initiating a name and taking it and running off with it. Because a lot of n****s, they not producers. A lot of n****s be temporary producers, taking up room. N****s be hot today and be gone tomorrow. So it’s like man, make sure you want to do this before you call yourself that. You can be a beat maker first. I ain’t going to downplay it, nothing like that, but I feel like before you actually hop in, you need to figure out and make sure you want to do this. Are you going to innovate this? What’s going to make you a producer? You sounding like me ain’t going to make you any better my n***a. Do your own sh*t.
So tell me about your friendship and working relationship with Metro Boomin. It unfortunately seems rare these days to have two producers who are killing the scene constantly collaborating.
SD: That’s the bro, that ain’t no friendship. That’s all it really is and we just make beats together from time to time that just happen to be fly. We first linked when he hit me up a long time ago. Then he ended up going to school down here at Morehouse. We ended up linking after that and we just became real cool. It’s always been love. Ain’t nothing like he wanted something or I wanted something from him. He looks out for me and I look out for him. I look at him kind of just like my little brother. I really f**k with what Metro doing right now. He really pushing the culture.
Speaking of the culture, I feel like there's a definite void of female producers in the game. Man, what's good?
SD: I don’t know. I be stressing that too. I be telling people, like if there was a female producer(s) that came through right now with some hard ass, crazy beats right now, that sh*t would go crazy! WondaGurl is really holding down that lane right now and doing her thing. She’s extremely crazy and amazing on the beats. A few of us stayed with her for a month or two when we worked on Rodeo and she just stayed in the room all day just make beats all f****g day. She just be cranking new b*****s out all day like on crazy. And she young too. She getting it in though. But if there were more female producers, not saying taking her spot or anything, but just to really solidify the female lane, it would be crazy. You know history repeats itself for real though. It ain’t no Missy Elliott of our time though. I'm waiting.
Do you feel that you are underrated at all? What do you think is going to be able to change that in your mind?
SD: The problem right now is that people got me boxed in. They want to put all of us like Metro, TM88, Southside, and Zaytoven in the same category. It’s crazy because that’s really all of the producers in Atlanta, but everybody got they own box, they own indefinite sound. You can’t compare Zay’s beat to a Sonny Digital beat or a Metro beat; it’s that different. But we are placed on the same projects though, so people hear it on the same frequency. I understand why it happens. With me personally, I been on so many different spectrums. I don’t know if people underrate me though. I think it’s more of people not knowing. If they knew. A lot of my records, I just caught the short end of the sticks of all my records and stuff. But right now, I’m starting to get a little more recognition for all the work that I’m doing. If I can tell every single person right now, all the records that I’ve done, from way back when, letting them know I been had y'all rocking. Like when I do my shows and I run through my hits, I see all these people eyes light up like damn, this that n***a that we've been looking for.
You DJ'ed during Makonnen's "Loudest Of The Loud" Tour, did that help your producing skills at all or make you think of producing in a different way?
SD: I’m not going to lie, it did. It gives you an idea of how crowds move, how to move a crowd, and what specific songs always move a crowd. It opened up my eyes. It’s like making a beat live, testing it out in front of the people and seeing how they react to it. And it helps you put together songs and stuff too. You just got to analyze a lot of things as you play songs. I don’t know. It teaches you a lot though.
Has your production style changed since you first started?
SD: It ain’t really changed, it just elevated. I’m real open minded. You see my boy in here with the guitar, and I’m supposed to be a trap producer, right? Come on now [laughs]. We just going up. I still got the same outlook and I stay true to the trap sh*t too. I mean, I make that stuff, but at this point it’s second nature, it’s something I’m never going to forget how to do. Right now I’m dibbling and dabbling into new, next level stuff.
Which I'd assume as getting back to rapping since you've been putting out songs here and there lately...
SD: Yeah. Something lately has me thinking that I want to do this artist sh*t all the way. When I put it out, I didn't even really know how to describe it or what to even call it. Off top, when you hear Sonny Digital or anything affiliated with that, it just affiliates with trap automatically. And as soon as the song comes on, you hear something that reminds you of some guitars or some electric guitars or something rock. So the general public just been putting stuff together and calling trap rock or trap metal or whatever. It's actually kind of hard. And it makes sense though and it’s really a open lane. My boy Josh brought up a good idea that the music I'm making doesn't sound like something you just go and rap on stage. I think it might require a band or something like that and we put on a real show. So that might be in the works, something like that, some crazy sh*t like that.
Did you have any reservations of stepping in the booth because people have this thing against producers-turned-rappers?
SD: Yeah, man, that's weird as hell and f***ing backwards. It don't make no sense though because if a rapper is making beats they get praise for that, but if a producer is rapping on his own beats, it’s like ‘why you doing that?’ It's funny because most of these producers be telling these artists what to do. Basically, a lot of these songs you hear today are products of the producers so people self consciously already be liking them. I don’t care though, it’s a community for this though now. It’s a whole other realm for that sh*t. When music is good, you can’t deny that, period. I’ve been making music for a long time now, and now I feel like it needs to be heard. Like I told you already, people been f*****g with what I been making for the last couple of years, knowingly or unknowingly. And that’s the good thing about it. A lot of people f**k with me and they don’t even know it.