Views From The Studio: Meet Songwriter Belly
Flight Klub Recording Studio sits on a sleepy, unassuming block in New York City's Garment District, hidden between an inactive thread and supply storefront and industrial scaffolding. It's a premier studio that artists and producers alike use as an escape, a musical getaway to create freely from the radio noise and static cling of the outside world. Despite its grandiose word-of-mouth implications, its front door is actually a riddled freight elevator, conveniently stained with a surprisingly glamour-free garbage stench and miscellaneous liquids puddling in its metal crevices. Nevertheless, it's just the kind of gritty ambiance that Canadian rapper and songwriter Ahmad Balshe, better known by his stage name Belly, works best in.
"I love it here," says Belly, who has spent a decade cultivating a name for himself in the industry, of New York City. While the Palestinian emcee recently rose to acclaim in the states due to amassing several co-writing credits on frequent collaborator The Weeknd's chart-topping 2015 LP, The Beauty Behind the Madness ("The Hills," "Earned It," "Often," among others), those further up north have known him as a solo star whose debut album and slew of mixtapes dating back to 2005, added JUNO Award-winning (basically the Canadian version of the Grammys) to his moniker.
On a balmy August afternoon, Belly is catching a vibe in the metropolis, having chose the dimly lit recording space as the haven to put his newest project on wax. Now, with a Roc Nation deal and his first project in four years pushing his solo career back to the forefront, there's much anticipation built around the wordsmith.
Here, Belly reveals how he climbed Canada's rap ranks, landed on The Weeknd's chart-topping album, and the one word that describes signing to Roc Nation nearly a year ago in VIBE’s latest edition of Views From The Studio.
You have a very diverse background, being born in Palestine and moving to Ottawa, Ontario before your teen years. How did you get into rap?
When I came to Canada, I would see videos on TV and stuff, and I was like, "Yo, this is me right here." My first two albums that I ever owned were Doggystyle by Snoop and Ready To Die by Biggie. I used those albums to learn English because I was still using broken English. Those albums shaped the sound and style of my music today.
That's interesting. Prior to forming your own musical taste, what were your parents playing in the house?
Honestly, Bob Marley and Michael Jackson. Aside from like Arab music, that was like the only foreign music at the time that we were listening to.
Would you say your background has influenced your music at all?
Growing up in the Middle East taught me to be hospitable and respectful. It gave me a lot of culture and made me very family oriented. At the same time, it taught me how real life actually is. By the time I made it to [music], it was like a whole different world. It was like a complete culture shock. I think all of my experiences kind of shaped what people hear today. I try to always include my actual experiences in my music.
Can you recall what sparked your interest in songwriting specifically?
When I was really young and in school, I used to write poetry a lot so I was really good at rhyming words my whole life. I think that was like my prerequisite into writing songs and making music.
What were those first bits of poetry about?
I was always trying to get some girl so I'm sure it had something to do with some girl I was trying to get or some poem for the prettiest girl in school or something like that.
Did you get her?
I always get her [laughs].
So, how did writing poetry in school service itself into a career?
Well, before [a career] I put out a series of mixtapes in Canada, which nobody was really doing back then, and we did crazy numbers with them. That's what really led to me even being known enough to be able to drop songs like "Pressure" and my early singles.
"Pressure" was one of the standout singles from your debut album The Revolution, which won a JUNO Award for the best Rap Recording of the Year. What do you think helped your rise?
I think it was something new to everybody. I kind of learned the game from this side. I was coming out here a lot, learning things and just watching the hustle was like the most eye opening thing for me to see the real street hustle that took place, selling CDs on corners and all that and having street teams really wilding out, making a difference. When you go somewhere presence-wise, people feel it. They just all walked in dressed the same. This is like the takeover, and I think I learned some of those things and brought it up north, and it was like unstoppable. Nobody had ever seen nothing like that before.
There weren't any other artists on that same wave at that time in the city?
Nah, I wouldn't say there was. When I first started doing that, there was nobody doing that or no one at least to my knowledge doing that. For me, when I was basically trying to reapply what I learned up north, I wasn't thinking about singles, and I wasn't thinking about mainstream or crossing over. I didn't care. I cared about making mixtapes. That was like the coolest sh*t to me when I came, especially coming to New York and seeing culturally how much impact a mixtape can have on your life, and that's really how I came in the game was with the mixtapes. By the time I did the mainstream stuff, it was like that's the only thing left for me to do. I had three successful mixtapes at that point, and it was time to do something else.
Many people today, mainly in America, were introduced to you through The Weeknd.
Man, he's a real one. He's one of the special souls in this thing, and he's been the same since I've known him. I've watched his life go from having nothing to having the ability to have whatever he wants, and he's still the same guy, and everything is focused on his music and how good his music is. Like the amount of genius that he brings to the table when he walks into a studio is like the reason why he's still here, and he's been able to put out so much music and people can still f**k with him on both sides. His songs can go number one and culturally he can still impact just as hard, which is something a lot of people lose. Like they have one or the other, but I feel like he still has both.
How'd you guys end up working together?
We actually didn't work together for like the first three, four years we knew each other. We were just homies. We were friends. I was doing my thing; he was doing his thing. When we worked for the first time together, it was just naturally. Just walked into the studio like, "Oh sh*t, this is hard. Let me jump on this." That's how we came together. We never forced it.
Haven co-written many platinum and number one songs, is it ever hard to find that balance of what you should give away to another artist and what you should keep for yourself?
I think nowadays it's a lot easier for me because I know who I like to work with and who I don't like to work with, and then I know when I make something that kind of feels like me, [where] I have too much of my personality in it to give it to somebody else, that's when I know that I got to keep this. I honestly don't really do songwriting sessions anymore if it's not with people I actually f**k with.
What would constitute somebody that you f**k with because there are some people who treat it solely as a business and keep it pushing.
I think just someone that I have a real relationship or at least like a real friendship--even if it's not a friendship--like a real connection with because it's going to translate into the music. As good as you can be, if two people with stank attitudes walk into a room and want to make music, they can both be geniuses, and they're going to make sh*tty songs. That's just gonna happen because the vibe isn't right, and the energy isn't there.
What's your writing process like?
I think for me, I write my best songs when I'm tormented. Even with songs and songwriting and stuff like that, I can't sit there around a bunch of people and do it. Like I have to be by myself in my own feelings, in my own thoughts and then I think I can express some of the sh*t that I don't feel like I want to say around everybody. Once it's in a song, it's in a song. It doesn't matter.
How does that lend itself to The Weeknd's multiple chart-topping hits?
With him, it's all him. I'll be honest with you. Like it's all his vision. It's his creativity. It's his conceptualizing. That's his baby. That's his masterpiece. I've been blessed enough to be thought of when he needs me and when I can complement something he's doing, but I could never take credit for the stuff I've done with him.
Earlier you mentioned your best work is done when you're tormented. Do you ever get writer's block or feel like you have to go and live life to really hone in on what you're saying?
My schedule doesn't allow it. I've been trying to take a vacation for two years. I just want to go somewhere for like four days, but just doesn't happen. This is all I do. Every day I walk in here, I know I can create something. I'm confident, and that's why I never feel no way about trying to hoard my music because the minute you do that, subconsciously you're telling yourself that you can't deliver something like that again. With me, I'm so open with giving away music because I feel like I can walk back in here and do it again.
That's interesting, especially after the whole world waited for Frank Ocean's album for four years. You also had a similar time lapse between your most recent project.
I can only speak on myself and for me, but I did have people waiting for a long time, I can't lie. Sometimes people have to realize it's more than just songs and putting out music. It's mental health involved a lot of times, and a lot of artists go through personal s**t. A lot of artists are emotional and, again, I speak from my own experience and my own views, but that's what caused me to not even want to be in the spotlight anymore. I was loving the fact that I was just writing songs behind the scenes, still getting to make money and make music, and that was cool for me, but this is cool too so this is the part of my life I'm living now. If I decide one day I can't handle this mentally no more or whatever the case may be or this is taking too much of a toll on my family or whatever it is, what's to say I'm just gonna be able to pump out music for people every day? We do have a certain obligation as artists, but we also have certain responsibilities as human beings to ourselves and to the people we love. It's a hard line to walk. I'm learning that right now with just so many things changing for me recently and just seeing how [I'm] losing certain people along the way and just things that you've never expected. My music is only half of it.
You've been signed to Roc Nation for almost a year now. I'm sure that was a full circle moment for you.
It feels amazing and it felt amazing to know that Jay Z personally was the one who wanted to make this happen. [He's] someone I've idolized my whole life so it's still crazy to me.
Your most recent release was Another Day In Paradise, which was your foray back into the spotlight as a solo artist after having lots of success behind the scenes, ultimately leading up to your signing to Roc Nation. How did you feel about its reception?
Working with everyone on that album was incredible. Honestly, it was just really dope getting to work with [Lil] Wayne. I wasn't actually in the studio with him, but just to know that he was on one of my records, that's like a dream as a young rap guy coming up like, "I gotta get Wayne one day," and I got that. I think the reception, like I said, I don't make music to try to be like, "Yo, this one is going to crossover for me." I make music that I know my fans are going to love, and in doing that, I know they're putting other people on to my s**t and that it's growing like that, and every year it gets a little bit bigger, and it doesn't have to get crazy. It just has to grow, and it's grown. That's exactly what the project did. When I dropped it, my fans loved it. They thought it was one of my best pieces of work ever. That's the most I could ask for. That's who I cater to.
Is there anything you feel like as an artist and songwriter that you haven't gotten that you deserve?
I'm humble man. Honestly, I can sit here and tell you what I expect. Just to even be able to do this--the most important thing for me is to be heard. To a lot of people, they want to be seen. I rather be heard. As long as people hear me, and I have that platform, and I have people's ears, what more can I ask for? I'm going to sit around and complain that someone has it better than me or people look at somebody in a different way that I feel like I should be looked at? What am I going to do? I'm going to make music for the people who love me for it. That's who I'm here for.