Views From The Studio: Producer Key Wane Dissects Jazmine Sullivan And Bryson Tiller’s “Insecure”

The rich music history and soul of Detroit engraved its presence within Key Wane’s soundscapes the moment he decided to become a producer. Serving as the home of Motown, the Motor City has birthed some of music’s past and present forerunners like the late J. Dilla, Black Milk, Dej Loaf, Royce da 5’9″, Big Sean, Eminem, Tee Grizzley and more.

“You can spend three months here and be so influenced by the culture,” Key Wane says. “It’s one of the best cities ever, so much inspiration here. It’s a city of soul. It’s hard for you not to be soulful in any way with your recordings no matter what it sounds like.”

That melodic plate of soul food that Wane cooks up behind the boards continues to be the main ingredient in his creations. From Meek Mill’s “Amen” to Big Sean’s “Play No Games” to Jazmine Sullivan’s “Let It Burn,” Wane’s instrumentals are bound to leave a lasting impression, similar to his latest offering, “Insecure” by Sullivan featuring Bryson Tiller.

Wane said the song, which was featured on Sunday night’s episode of Issa Rae’s HBO series Insecure (Aug. 20), took “about a year-and-a-half to make it happen.” Sullivan freestyled her verses once she heard the track and later reached out to Tiller to lay his vocals. Then Rae was introduced to the melody and the rest is soundtrack history.

Read what else Key Wane had to say about that “sample” on “Insecure,” the importance of the piano, and the power of prayer.

VIBE: I read that one of the instruments you’re well-versed with is the piano. I think it was in Rolling Stone, that Prince told Beyonce if she learned the piano, then her artistry could reach new heights. What are your thoughts on that statement and how important is the piano in producing?
Key Wane: There are many people who are skilled without it, there are many people who are skilled with it, but I feel it is important to know an instrument because you can definitely raise your creativity, have you think about a whole set of new ways to approach a song. I agree with Prince. Playing the piano helps out your artistry especially if you’re trying to be melodic, harmonic or just different. A lot of my favorite songs are created by people who know the instrument. Pharrell is a great piano player, he’s one of my favorite producers. You can tell by listening to his beats that clearly the instrument makes his production stand out more evidently. The chords on almost every song on Fly or Die or In Search of… stand out so much. My ear connects more to the musical, melodic side of things, so Pharrell is a big inspiration when it comes to that. To tie that into what Prince said, yes, playing the piano should be something that people should be trying. Not just the piano, the guitar too, the trumpet, the drums. I feel like an instrument heightens, raises your artistry or creativity. That’s just me, I’m not speaking for everybody.

Which process taps deeper into your creativity? Songwriting or producing?
I write to every beat so it’s both. I have to put some type of direction on the beat before I send it to an artist. If they don’t like it, it’s cool because you still have the beat, and if you like what I said now you know where to go. I love writing and I love making beats. I haven’t written as many hit records as I’ve done beats but when artists are either stuck or having a hard time trying to advance on the record, I would always say, ‘Can I pitch you an idea?’ “All Me” happened just like that. Drake had called me one day and said, ‘The beat is ill, we’re over here killing it, but I don’t really have a hook. I don’t know where to go. All we have are just verses.’ I asked him, ‘Can I write a hook to it?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I sent them a hook and he ran with it and it worked. I feel I have a great point of view on both producing and songwriting. I’m still growing as a songwriter but I can’t really choose between both. Technically, producing does include songwriting too.

That’s interesting, how producing in a way influences you to write as well, even though you’re not the main songwriter for the song you’re producing.
Never the sole songwriter. I’ve had people ask, ‘What do you think you would say on this?’ They’d send me beats from other producers and ask, ‘What would you say on the hook or the verse?’ Other times people would say, ‘send me hooks’ or ‘send me beats with hooks,’ or ‘play me beats with hooks.’ I’ve had people say, ‘Just play me all your hooks with your beats.’ If I make the beat, I’m always thinking of something to say on top of it, whether I was inspired and just decided to put a song out or just give it to somebody. For the last few years, almost every beat I make I try to put an idea with it because I try to give the artist direction if they can’t find it.

Walk me through the process of “Insecure?” What were the creative steps like, when did you get the notification to produce the track?
I had three different versions of the beat before I ran with one. Usually, when I make beats I make at least four or five different versions of it. I’ll send you something that’s a little rough to see where I’m going then I sit with it. I don’t finish beats in a day, I have to work on it day after day after day. I probably had that beat for a year. I kept going through different versions. One version had drums to it. The way the vibe was I didn’t want it to be drowned out with drums so I kept it simple and put a very light drum track on it. I liked it, ran with it, put some keys on it, loved it. Me and Jazmine Sullivan have been working together for some years, probably since I graduated from college. We’re always sending each other records. I did the “Let It Burn” record, “Mascara,” “Dumb,” I produced a great portion of her Reality Show album. Recording with Jazmine Sullivan is so great. She’s the most talented person I’ve ever worked with as an R&B singer. When we did “Let It Burn,” I think she did it in one take. She was like, ‘It’s done!’ because she can sing really good. I’m used to being in the studio with people that’ll do take after take. She just went in there and did it. She’s amazing, gifted, blessed, she got it going on.

[Big] Sean flew me out to New York when he was recording the I Decided album. I did “Jump Out the Window” which is a really good song, one of his current singles right now. Sean went back to L.A. and my flight got delayed so I couldn’t make it. I thought, ‘I’m going to be out in New York for a whole day. Might as well get into something.’ I don’t like sitting down, I hate being lazy. I remember Jazmine said, ‘I stay in Philly. The best way you can get here is to take the train.’ I took the train, got to her crib and I was only going to be there for the night. I was going to take the train out in the morning. I played her five beats that day and she was just vibing. We were in the room for hours listening to a lot of ideas I made before I came there. She heard the “Insecure” song and immediately she knew… I knew the song was going to be crazy by her immediate reaction and what came out her mouth when she started singing, how she started off her verse. She freestyled the whole thing! I’ve seen Sean freestyle records all of the time. He hears a beat and immediately goes in on it. Jazmine, she does the same thing. I was sitting there like, ‘You have the song already?’ We were just vibing and she recorded a reference.

The reference that she recorded ended up being the song. I said let me get a copy of this so I can see how I can work it. She said let me know what else you do to it. I went back to L.A. and played it for a bunch of people and asked, ‘What do you think of this Jazmine Sullivan song?’ They said this sounds hard. I was telling her it’s about to be a dope record and she said she wants somebody on it. I asked, ‘Who do you want?’ She said, ‘Who do you think?’ I said, ‘Do you want a rapper on it or a singer because it’ll be good if you got a rapper on it.’ She said she really wants somebody with vocals to feature on it. Then she said, Do you know Bryson [Tiller]?’ I said I don’t know Bryson, but I know Bryson’s people. I know Neil [Dominique] is Bryson’s manager and he’s a really good guy. Neil and I have been working together since he used to work for Diddy. I got in touch with Neil and said, ‘Me and Jaz have this crazy record. She wants Bryson on it. I’m giving it to you. Let me know what you can do with it.’ He hits me back, and this is probably months after I left Jazmine’s house, when we did “Insecure.” He said, ‘I can get him on it, we’re literally recording right now.’ I think Bryson was finishing up his tour. They did the verse and sent it back to me. I sent it to Jaz and she really liked it. She recorded another verse to it. We were trying to figure out if we should let Bryson go either in the second or the third verse. We ended up getting that resolved then it was done. I remember going to her house again, this was a few months ago, and we were working on newer stuff because we have a few records that we haven’t put out that’s fire. My guy Tunji at RCA was hitting me up. He said they were about to release the record. I traveled a lot, nearly a year trying to work that song. We were trying to get that song finished. Hearing that the song was done I was really happy. We just had to do minor production at the end, fix some things around, add some color to it, basically put the finishing touches on it. They were telling me that they were with Issa Rae. I think Tunji played it for her, and she loved it and ran with it. It took about a year-and-a-half to make it happen.

Is that Pleasure P’s “Rock Bottom” that you sampled? How’d you come across that melody and what made you utilize the ad-libs?
It’s actually Jazmine singing. I took some vocals that Jazmine sang. I have a bunch of her vocals on my computer. I had her engineer send me some of her stuff. I sample a lot, so I sampled her vocals and turned it into a beat. If I played it for you, it would sound totally different.

The beat is pretty minimal like you said the vocals drove the beat.
Cool & Dre made the song “Rock Bottom.” They had a guy reference, I don’t know who wrote it, I wanted to ask who is the guy. Tunji said, ‘Listen to this.’ It was the original, original version of “Rock Bottom.” It wasn’t Pleasure P’s version, it was the one Cool & Dre had. Cool & Dre asked, ‘What do you think about this?’ Tunji said, ‘See what you could do with this’ and I did what I could with it. I chopped up a portion of it. I couldn’t really fully chop up what Cool & Dre sent me. I had to combine what I did with the Cool & Dre chop with Jazmine Sullivan’s vocals and it came out really well. Kind of like when you cook food, and you chop things up to make it taste good is basically what I did. It came out right. I’m a minimalist. I don’t think you should flood beats with instruments. You need to let the beat breathe sometimes and that beat was for sure breathing.

How does that method of being a minimalist allow for your creativity to shine?
I don’t wake up and say, ‘Let’s be minimal,’ but some of my favorite songs have the most minimal sounds but have the biggest impact. “Amen” is a very minimal beat, but it’s hard because it’s filled with melodic sounds and a bright vibe. “All Me” is very minimal, the beat is simple. I f**k with beats that give the artist enough room to breathe. I can’t drown a beat out with sounds. That might be the most minimalistic beat I’ve ever made and it sounds so good. “Memories” by Big Sean, that beat is just a drum and a key. The stuff I did for Beyonce, the piano intro on “Mine.” I’m not trying to be minimalistic on everything, but it just sounds really good to me. It helps the people who hop on my records, it gives them enough room to breathe and not be cluttered or drowned out by the beat. But I do have a lot of songs where there’s a lot going on like Big Sean’s “Guap,” “Dumb,” “Mascara” by Jazmine Sullivan. Being a minimalist isn’t what I aim to be on every beat, but I always believe less is more.

9th Wonder said samples in hip-hop or R&B for this matter can serve as an educational tool. When you select your samples, what teaching purpose do you hope listeners will take away?
I definitely believe sampling is very educational because you learn techniques that people were doing back in the day that sounded too good to just leave it there. I was with Diddy, we did a record that’s coming out soon, and he feels the same way. Sampling is a lost art. He says it at the very beginning of the song. People aren’t making stuff like this anymore. I was with Royce da 5’9″ who feels the same way. I listen to everything, but some people say the whole vibe of boom bap doesn’t exist like it used to. That’s why I love JAY-Z’s 4:44 album because that goes right up my alley; raps and beats. When it comes to sampling, I try to follow in those footsteps of 9th Wonder, J. Dilla, No I.D. and Kanye [West]. I grew up off of that. Some of the best records on earth are sampled. R&B, funk, everybody sampled it. When I look for things I try to look for stuff that either you never heard of that’s not on YouTube. I go crate digging at the record stores too.

I don’t sample everything. A lot of my songs are original music, but when it comes to sampling stuff, I try to sample something unique, that you will feel in your soul. Songs like “4th Quarter” by Big Sean, if you listen to the sample at the end you’ll feel that. I try to get something that you would just feel. I sample old and new sounds. It’s weird to explain the thought process of crate digging and sampling. I’m just looking for if the art cover was dope or if I’ve heard of it before, or just curious and grab something and go home and cook. A lot of songs happen like that where I just go to the record store, didn’t know what I was buying and it just came out good. When it comes to sampling, I’ll just take a Saturday, nothing to do, go to the record store, usually every Saturday out of the month and just buy records, just see what catches my attention. If I bought 100 records I probably will find two or three songs that are fire. I’m still going through records that I bought years ago, hopefully trying to find something. I do believe in being versatile too, but I’ll still play the entire song out for you like “Eternal Sunshine,” and “Mirrors” from Jhene Aiko are all original records, just me sitting in front of a keyboard playing chords, seeing if it’ll work. I try not to be or stay the same, I try to be versatile as much as possible.

How do you select your samples? What do you look for in that process?
It’s really the vibe I get listening to it. If I hear something in it and say, ‘This is going to be deep,’ usually when I’m listening to stuff… I really just go into it. I don’t sit and say to myself, ‘I’m going to make an R&B song today’ or ‘I’m going to make the biggest trap record,’ I don’t do any of that. I just see if it sounds right. I flip it and turn it into a crazy rap record. Usually, with sampling, I just don’t know if it’s going to be the next biggest R&B record because [Beyonce’s] “Partition” I gave to Wiz Khalifa first. I give a lot of R&B beats to rappers first. I gave “Let It Burn” to Meek Mill first. A lot of my beats usually are rap beats. It’s really who catches the vibe. I can go into the beat thinking it’s going to be a hard rap record and then it turns into being the biggest R&B record. I can go into it and it’s the biggest R&B record turning into the biggest rap record. I sent the beat of “Mascara” to Drake because I thought that would be a really good record for him. He said, ‘I love this record, this sh*t is dope,’ but Jazmine ends up making it the greatest song for a woman. I don’t have a thought when it goes into making the beat. I just don’t sit in the front of the keyboard like, ‘This is going to be the biggest rap record.’ God will laugh and say, ‘Oh you thought it was,’ and then it be an R&B record. “Insecure,” I think I gave to Sean first. When I sample I just see what works, see where it goes. I don’t pressure myself like, ‘This has to be the biggest.’

Do you have a favorite sample that you’ve used thus far in your career?
The best song I’ve sampled my whole career, there’s three: the sample I used on “Higher” for Sean which is a John Legend song, then there’s the “All Me” sample is great. Every time I do interviews they always ask me how I chopped up the “All Me” sample which is one of my favorites. Another one of my favorite samples that I’ve used, it’s a song that didn’t come out yet but it is so good! I cannot wait for it to come out.

You also hail from Detroit, which was home to Motown Records for a while. Given that label’s legendary roster of R&B artists, did your upbringing in Detroit play a role in how you approach your productions, or the use of samples today?
Motown and Detroit play a huge role in everything that I do because there’s so much soul, history, some of the best musicians are from here. J. Dilla is from Detroit, one of the best producers, period. It’s impossible for you to not soak that in. You can spend three months here and be so influenced by the culture here. It’s one of the best cities ever. So much inspiration here. I would drive downtown, listen to Jazz and get inspired and make something dope. It’s a city of soul. It’s hard for you not to be soulful in any way with your recordings no matter what it sounds like. You’re going to catch some type of soul that you can feel from anybody doing music in Michigan and that’s a proven fact from Eminem to Royce to Sean to Dej Loaf to Payroll to Tee Grizzley. Even producers from Black Milk to J. Dilla to even my little self. It’s real soulful here, the music sounds like a plate of soul food. I don’t think my music would sound nothing like this if I was from another city.

You utilize 90s R&B or even older songs as samples. How do you keep the spirit of those times alive or sound fresh in your productions?
Through a lot of chords that people were recording back in the day. I like how they crafted their chords. How do I feel about bringing the 90s into today’s music? Sometimes by sampling, making something that feels like it’s inspired by something from back in the day. A lot of stuff George Duke created is so good, I haven’t heard anybody use those chords in music today. He has a song called “Just For You” and I haven’t sampled that but the vibe of the song is so innovative, just to make something that sounds like that today…If the kids now knew what certain stuff in the 80s sounded like? That’s why I try to at least do my part and still hold onto that vibe in some of the songs that I produce. A lot of this is timeless from the 80s and 90s so I just love that time period. I’m mentally there sometimes so it’s hard for me not to make a beat and not have some type of 90s influence on it.

Anything you’d like to add?
On IG or when I run into people,  they say, ‘I’m in college too, how do I continue to do this?’ Because I was doing a lot of these songs during college. Some say they’re lost or uninspired, ‘do I quit my job but I don’t know how I’m going to continue to get the money,’ all these questions that people ask me that I go through and I tell them the only thing that’s going to change anything around is prayer. I say this all the time. I used to work at a car wash, at a daycare, at a telecommunications place, and those places weren’t for me. I just prayed every day. I didn’t take a shortcut. I said, ‘Lord, please make this happen for me. I feel like you gave me a gift. If this is the gift you gave me, help me tap into it. Help me see the light behind all of this.’ I tell people all the time, ‘I had a job like you and I quit. I was broke like you. My boss fired me three times,’ and I still didn’t let any of that stop me. I went to studios broke, I had no money. The way “Amen” happened is a prime example of God being real. I went to New York with no money. I was stranded in Times Square, didn’t know how I was going to get to the Greyhound to get back to Detroit just to hop in my raggedy car to drive back to school hoping that the car would make it. I’m thinking if I graduate this year with nothing I’m going to feel like a failure like I was lazy and I didn’t achieve anything. I’m going to have to graduate and go right back to working these jobs. I just prayed, ‘Lord, change my situation if you feel like my situation needs to be changed.’ Then I ran into Meek Mill and gave him “Amen.” To bring my point home, a lot of people don’t need anything. They ask, ‘Do I need all of this expensive studio equipment?’ I say all you need is prayer. You need to have a relationship with God and everything will fall into place after that. I remember when nobody emailed me for beats. Prayer changes everything.