Guru and Anthony Cruz in the studio working on Meek Mill's 'Championships' album.
Brian Ngo

Young Guru And Anthony Cruz Discuss Engineering Meek Mill's 'Championships' Album

Guru and Cruz dissect select tracks on Meek Mill's album and address the use of samples.

It all started at the 40/40 Club and Roc the Mic Studios.

For Anthony Cruz, working two jobs to fulfill his passion was a path he didn’t mind walking for a significant amount of time. While working as an audio/video technician at Jay-Z’s New York City-based sports bar’s 10-year anniversary in 2013, Cruz received a call from a studio manager named TT to collaborate with Meek Mill as an engineer that same night. The Break It Down Entertainment captain was eager to say yes to the opportunity and after receiving the go-ahead from Roc Nation’s COO Desiree Perez, Cruz dropped everything and headed to the studio still dressed in a suit and tie.

“I have all of these Philly cats looking at me like I’m a strange kid, like, ‘Who is this weird looking kid with the suit on in the studio?’” Cruz says. This was around the time when Meek was fine-tuning his Dreamchasers 3 project. Despite his prim and proper look, Cruz left a lasting impression that garnered moments of growth with Meek and in present time, moments of triumph.

Through Meek’s ups and downs, Cruz has witnessed how the “Trauma” artist manifested his life stories behind the mic. A most recent notice of the Philadelphia native’s new demeanor occurred during the recording process for Championships (Atlantic Records/Maybach Music Group). Nearly three weeks after Meek’s late April 2018 prison release (and after wrapping up a string of press events to amplify his mission to reform the criminal justice system), it was back to business behind the boards for Cruz.

But they needed another set of skilled hands to guide the album. Cruz decided to place a call to Young Guru, one of music’s most accomplished audio engineers. The Delaware native refined his aptitude over the years to introduce a new way of listening to music by working with Jay-Z, Talib Kweli, Rapsody, Beyonce, De La Soul and more. Knowing his expertise first hand since working under his wing during his Roc the Mic days, Cruz told the famed record producer that he and Meek needed a veteran in the music industry to provide sonic direction. Guru excitedly entered the studio about a month before the album’s release date (Nov. 30), working with Meek and his team to whittle down the laundry list of songs in Meek’s arsenal. Then, it was time to make music magic and present what Guru and Cruz have referred to as Meek’s comeback album.

As the “frontline of the recording process,” Cruz, Guru, and a talented pack of engineers mixed and mastered Championships from Atlanta’s Astro Recording Studios to New York City’s Jungle City Studios. They toiled all the way up until the album’s arrival on streaming services. Production by Nikolas Papamitrou, Don Cannon, Tay Keith, Wheezy, Hit-Boy, Hitmaka, and many more added depth to Meek’s melodic canvas.

To discuss background on some of the album’s standout records like Jay-Z’s intricate verse on “What’s Free,” Meek’s return to form after the wrath of detractors, and the controversy on the use of samples, Cruz and Guru share their recollections in VIBE’s latest Views From The Studio.

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What was your experience like working with Guru?
Anthony Cruz: Guru and I met each other when I was this young intern at Roc the Mic Studios that would go make runs for him, grab his coffee, to being able to make a phone call and say “Hey we want you involved in this project that I’m working on.” It was such an amazing pay it forward moment for all the impact that he’s had on my career as an up and coming engineer. He’s got a lot of respect but he’s still relatively unappreciated overall in the game and doesn’t get the type of recognition he deserves. It was such a powerful moment for me to be able to call him, and the timing of him getting right off the tour with Hov and Beyonce. Initially, I reeled him in like, “Meek wants a beat that sounds like an old Shyne record.” He said, “I’m going to be home in a couple of days.” and Meek had conversations like, “we need that veteran energy.” Me, Meek and our A&R Dallas [Martin] were like, “if it’s cool with you guys let’s get Guru to mix the record.” They approved it and Guru came through immediately and was all the way onboard and excited about it.

In all of your years as an engineer, you've witnessed a lot throughout your career, but there seemed to be a different level of excitement behind Meek's album. How would you describe that feeling as compared to when you've worked with other prominent artists?
Young Guru: The feeling of excitement came from the fact that it’s one of the biggest comeback albums for him. Coming out of jail, getting back into the public eye with the social reform was great and people love that. At a certain point, people were saying, “Where’s the music?” For him to deliver, but not only just deliver but deliver at this level is an incredible thing to see. It’s the excitement of somebody that went through real trials and tribulations. The album is perfectly titled Championships.

On a few of the songs, like the "Intro," there's a lot of instrumentation that blares through. How'd you assist in making sure all of those elements were felt without drowning out Meek’s voice?
Cruz: In particular with the “Intro,” we have an in-house producer signed to Dreamchasers named Nikolas Papamitrou. Meek had this vision of flipping this Phil Collins sample. He always loved [“In The Air Tonight”] since he first heard the record in Paid In Full. It was something that was always near and dear to him. It was time for him to incorporate that record and we made it on the spot. Nik flipped the sample and Meek was able to tell him in terms of arrangements things that he was looking for with the build-up and the breakdown of the beat. Then we took it a step further and got Andrew Meoray involved on co-production to add live guitar, pads, and other live elements to make it even bigger. With the album in general, one of the things we were excited about was Meek’s willingness for us to do post-production. Normally we take the record as it is and just hand it in. It turns out amazing but there’s always in the back of your mind you want to take it to another level. For instance, when we got Guru involved, him and Dallas were adamant about if we were going to get any post-production involved. We got Rance of 1500 or Nothing from California to jump in and work on a few records to liven them up more like “Trauma” in particular. He worked on “Respect The Game,” “Championships” and “Cold Hearted II” and while that’s not a lot of the records because it is 19 songs, those songs that were touched in that way added to the overall body of work and made it bigger. That was amazing.

“Championships” stands out for a number of reasons. How'd you help make that song feel as if it's cutting through the speakers? The instrumental has a crisp sound overall from the horns…it reminds me of those ‘90s drama films like Juice, Lean On Me, that type of vibe. How’d you make sure the sound hit the listener more than the lyrics itself?
Cruz: This song, in particular, we did struggle in terms of trying to get it to a level of quality where it would cut through. It’s one of the main reasons we got Guru involved because the core of the album was a soulful, classic Roc-A-Fella feel. These are right up his alley. He went in and we got Rance of 1500 or Nothing to do some post-production stuff. Guru added his sauce and elevated the record. Me and him together getting the vocal to a certain level to be able to cut through a certain way and painting the sample to where it wouldn’t scream so much in certain parts and clash with Meek. That was one that we spent a lot of time on trying to perfect and get to a level that it would impact the way that I believe that it has.

Guru: The song was in one place when I came in and more than just mixing the song was trying to add on music. We’re making decisions on, “Do we need to get certain people to play on these songs to enhance them?” Doing overdubs and things of that nature, the drops and figuring out effects that would bring the album to another level. Sonically, it was just me trying to add on as much as I could to enhance the records. That’s what you hear the growth in and the difference. The sonics are going to get better because the tools have gotten so much better, and the amount of plugins we have available. I’m constantly studying new plugins and figuring out which ones I can apply to my process. I think Meek’s album is a culmination of the things I’ve been trying to implement for the past year or two.

Even though the lyrics help to convey a certain message, the samples have been discussed just as much. How do you think the samples help to promote Meek's messages on these albums?
Cruz: By the way, it didn’t happen on purpose, it wasn’t something we set out to do (Laughs). We weren’t like, “Let’s flip everybody’s classic and see how it will come out.” It just happened to naturally come across: [Don] Cannon gave us “Trauma,” Streetrunner came in and introduced the idea for “What’s Free,” Papamitrou was like, “I flipped this Hov ‘Dead Presidents’ sample" with Beat Menace, and we got “Respect The Game,” “24/7” came through and Amnija wrote this incredible hook. These were undeniable moments throughout the recording process and I believe it challenged Meek. In the back of his mind, he’s very smart. He didn’t have to communicate these things but you can tell his approach in terms of attacking these records elevated him lyrically. I remember when Guru first heard “Respect The Game.” He was floored. He couldn’t believe some of the things Meek was saying and getting across. That’s not an easy beat to tackle. I think while there is this controversy, he held his ground and showed you that he’s an elite lyricist in the game.

What made you stop in your tracks when you heard that song?
Guru: I liked the way he flipped it. It’s an original Lonnie Liston Smith sample, obviously something that’s been huge for Jay’s career, a staple in Jay’s career. The way that they updated it especially with the drums, just gives it a new flavor. I’m with that and I’m with his ideas of what he was saying on there in terms of respect the game. What he’s talking about is monumental. He’s trying to teach people that are actually in the game all of these life lessons he’s learned. I like to use the term Young OG. He’s getting to that point now where he’s still young but he’s got enough experience where he can talk OG status from putting out albums, from being locked up, dealing with street stuff, everything. He’s speaking from experience.

Some people felt there were too many familiar samples. I know you said that wasn’t a conscious decision, and even Guru tweeted about it. What’s your take on that sentiment?
Cruz: I believe what Guru said. This is hip-hop. People weren’t bashing Jay when he was flipping certain records or Nas or any other guys. I believe at the age that we are at, these particular records he sampled are 20-plus years old. Carrying on the tradition of hip-hop, why wouldn’t we introduce these classics? My most important thing is us having those records on there, if he was trash on the record or if he had weak lyrics I could understand people complaining, but he held his own and nobody has complained about lyrics or anything he’s said. It’s just the sonic piece, which is super confusing to me from so-called hip-hop fans.

Guru: I just don’t think we should ever get into a space where sampling is considered taboo in hip-hop. I’m of that era where people sampled. It’s good if you find a creative way to flip certain samples that have been used before. There are these rules that we used to have of not touching samples that had been done before, but if you do them in new creative ways, then I think you can re-introduce the music the same way that 70s music was re-introduced to us through hip-hop.

[The samples] gave him the right musical bed to talk about what he wanted to talk about. It also gave him the right field. He’s straddling both of those eras of being still relevant now but also coming from an era where you have to really spit. It gives him a perfect balance sonically.

Another record that utilizes a sample is “What’s Free.” Walk me through its process. That’s one of the most talked about songs on the album.
Cruz: It was recorded early on in the process. Streetrunner introduced this idea and Meek fell in love with it. It’s near and dear to his situation and things that he’s been through. I remember Rick Ross coming through to the session and falling in love with the record as well. They were going back and forth. Meek and Ross hadn’t vibed in a while with everything going on with Meek’s legal situation. He liked the record for Ross and initially was going to let him use it. As we were further along in the recording process, we realized on both ends, on the MMG side and in-house, it would fit way better on our project so Ross was like use this record and we put the play together for Jay.

Guru: Like he normally does in the 11th hour, Jay decided to get on the beat. I was supposed to be flying to South Africa the day that he called me to say he wanted to do it. I just pushed my flight back because I was going there for Global Citizens to do the show with him and Beyonce. Basically, we went in and did that verse. You get creative in terms of trying to do drops, trying to do interesting things with the beat and with the sample. And it’s being careful and being respectful. It’s one of the classic Biggie songs so you want to do it justice, but you also want to give it a new twist. I think it was a great verse, a great time, and the right placement of the verse for the topic of what Meek has been preaching and advocating with criminal justice reform. Just the title and concept of being free, I think all of them came at it from a different perspective but were very poignant in the way they expressed their vision of what’s free.

"One of the main reasons we got Guru involved because the core of the album was a soulful, classic Roc-A-Fella feel." ~ Anthony Cruz

Cruz: Meek and Jay had a private conversation and Jay was like, “This is the one.” He made it very clear, “I have a long verse for you” and Meek had zero problems with that. I think he held his own with his 24 bars. He got a lot across. Ross did an amazing job. With having Guru involved he was very adamant about once we figured out which record was for Jay, he wanted to do his part as well to nudge him like, “I’m going to be the one to pull up and record you whenever you’re ready.” It was Thanksgiving weekend when I got the call from Guru that he was ready to go. He gave me one bar of the verse, those first bars “In the land of the free where blacks enslaved,” and he left it at that. I was like, “C’mon is that all you’re going to give me?” He said, “Don’t tell Meek but I’m locking down this date to go record him.” He pushed back his trip to go to rehearsals to catch up with Jay in L.A, and he said as soon as he landed he was ready. He went straight from the airport to Jay’s crib to record the verse. This whole time he’s telling me to keep it low with Meek but I couldn’t help it. I was telling Meek everything as we go and I said, “Keep it low because Guru didn’t want me to tell you yet. He wanted to make sure everything was solid.” We were both equally excited because we’re very big Jay-Z fans. I remember us all hearing the record together. We were all on a conference call. Nobody breaks down a Hov verse better than Guru. He gave us bar for bar, he would pause it, break down what he was saying, keep going, pause it, break it down, so we were all on this conference call losing our mind dissecting this verse. It was an incredible process.

You've seen Jay-Z zone in for a lot of memorable verses. Where do you think this one came from, and what inspired such a verse like this?
Guru: Jay pulls from real life. Wherever his inspiration comes from, it’s whatever he’s living life. I’m just as amazed as everyone else. I get to hear it first, yes, but I’m just as amazed when I’m sitting there recording it like how does this person come up with this? Or, how does he continue to do this after so many years? I definitely rank this verse high in his list of guest verses. I don’t think he’s ever given someone 44 bars before.

It is a long verse in terms of what hip-hop fans are used to hearing nowadays.
Guru: Right, but it’s not that type of song where you have to worry about…we’re not making a formulaic club song or the girl song, this is obviously a song where everybody gets to rap. You don’t have to be trapped into doing 16 bar verses or 12 bar verses. That’s the freedom again, another way of expressing freedom.

I’m sure people weren’t expecting Jay-Z to take to Twitter to clear the confusion about a lyric on the album.
Guru: In my opinion, it wasn’t confusion, it was just people going for click bait because that line is very obvious with what he said. He reinforced that with his tweet. But you don’t want that line to get misinterpreted and I think the line itself, to me, I don’t see how there’s any way that it can be taken as a diss. It’s literally saying don’t separate us.

READ MORE: Jay-Z Disses Billboard, Not Kanye West, And Proves His Point With Ease

And another major collaboration on there is of course “Going Bad” with Drake. Walk me through that one.
Cruz: Meek and Drake, like he mentioned in his interviews, had been communicating and mending their situation organically and natural outside of music and just having this genuine relationship again. It just so happens that Meek was the one actively working on an album once they got to a place of being back comfortable with each other. They had ideas of having different records. I remember we sent him an idea and he was so tied up on tour. He said, “Let me just finish this tour. There’s so much on me right now. Once I’m done, I got you.” That’s where “Going Bad” came up. Meek played his idea and that’s when Drake went in and did the hook. It all came together really clutch right towards the end of the process.

Even thinking back on their history, it seemed as if people turned their backs on Meek when he and Drake had issues. Being that you've been in his corner during that period and even before, what was his mindset like at that time?
Cruz: Meek came up in a ruthless Philly environment where he had to constantly defend himself. Him coming up as a battle rapper I believe strengthened him to another level. At the time of all the naysayers and everybody dogging him, he was successful. He still had money, was still living the life. So for him coming from nothing and being from this lower income society, it’s like, “I’m still winning as far as I’m concerned.” We as a team never faltered, we never looked at it as dramatic as everybody was making it out to be. You can’t kill us with memes, you can’t kill us with fake spam accounts or whatever it was that were coming through. It was all confidence on our end and Meek rapped his way through it. He was determined to prove himself through his music. I think he stood his ground and he’s gotten to this level where I’m amazed at how everything came together and how he came to the idea to name this album, Championships. That’s how it feels for everybody involved. For Meek, especially, he’s a champion, a hood legend, he came from nothing, he’s overcome so much in this industry, in his personal life with his legal troubles. I really am proud of him for getting to this level and going through all the things that he’s been through.

You’ve been on the frontline to witness Jay-Z and Nas resolve their issues. Did you ever think Meek and Drake would resolve their rift?
Guru: Yeah, and again it’s rap, it’s sport. No one is physically attacking anyone else. In this sport of rap when you have a battle and the battle is over, the two people that were battling can respect each other. I never thought it was beyond the point that they couldn’t talk to each other again.

How has Meek’s previous imprisonment affected his music? Is there a different spirit in the booth?
Cruz: There was a frustration of still having a looming legal battle. I think there was him being extremely grateful for the support and everybody backing him up to get him out this situation to be able to get this message across and get this album out. There was a lot of mixed emotions but overall he’s so happy and grateful. He feels like a winner, a champion and it came across really well on this record.

He’s getting to that point now where he’s still young but he’s got enough experience where he can talk OG status. ~ Guru

Discuss the emotional songs on the album, like “Trauma.” What type of tone do you think Meek had while in the studio when he recorded songs like that?
Cruz: He got the beat from Cannon. That one, in particular, was introduced to him separately. He has a history with that Mobb Deep “Get Away” sample. He did that as a younger teen with a group named Bloodhoundz that he used to run with in Philly, so he had this history and memories of the record. But being able to channel the aggression and frustration that he was dealing with in his situation and so eloquently destroy that record, but at the same time get across a message, I thought was amazing. There was definitely an energy that he had where he’s adamant about getting his point across. He was very zoned out that day and that moment and trying to get this idea across the way that he did.

Looking at Meek’s intros specifically, the "Dreams and Nightmares" intro which feels as if it’s still new, do you think that intro stands supreme above the rest? What made it special?
Cruz: There are certain things in terms of hip-hop history that are undeniable and that are very hard to compare to others. With Meek’s “Dreams and Nightmares,” I believe that it’s such a moment in history that he doesn’t even make it a point to try to top it. That’s just a moment in history that he can never repeat. I had no involvement in “Dreams and Nightmares,” so shout out to Beat Bully and Finis “KY” White who engineered that record, but I do believe that’s still his strongest intro. It’s had an impact on sports culture and music history, but not to say he hasn’t had amazing intros like this Phil Collins intro we had for the Championships album.

The song "Uptown Vibes" has parts where the beat pulls down. It reminds me of a house party where all you can hear is the bass or the drums are that loud. Walk me through the engineering process for that song?
Cruz: It was Papamitrou that brought this idea to the table and Meek was really excited about it because he’s been on this Spanish wave. Even right before he went in, he was up on Bad Bunny and he’s been hanging around a lot of Spanish girls, so this was an exciting opportunity for him to flip that sample that had that feeling to it. Once we laid down the initial idea, Nik and I went in and worked on arrangements. Once we got Anuel AA on the record, we added that dembow area, that reggaeton breakdown to make it even more of that Spanish vibe.

Yeah, I was going to mention the reggaeton breakdown as well. What was it like working with these melodies? As listeners, we’re probably not used to hearing Meek Mill on those types of beats.
Cruz: As a Latino, I was excited for us to present this idea to Meek, for him to embrace it and say I’m willing to put this on my record because like you said, it’s so left from what we’re used to from him. For him to embrace it and say I’ll allow that to be on there because I do appreciate the culture and I love Spanish music, was amazing.

What was the greatest challenge engineering this album?
Guru: I don’t know if it was a huge challenge, I just think it was more about trying to find a good balance. That’s the big challenge for someone of Meek’s stature that comes from Philly, that comes from that era of being a spitter where we naturally watched him grow, and his whole maturation you can follow on YouTube. In terms of him having to find that balance of doing all types of records and servicing all types of people, I think that’s the biggest challenge.

Since Meek has promoted this balance beam of dreams and nightmares, have his dreams been realized on or through this project?
Cruz: He’s at an amazing place now. He’s endured a lot, and we’re really just getting started. He appreciates this moment but trust me when I tell you, once he settles down, he’s going to be ready to go right back in and continue to work and speak out on these issues that he’s passionate about—with justice reform and getting his voice heard on these platforms that we’re not used to seeing him on—which is amazing. I don’t think he’s going to get comfortable, per se, but I do think he’s in a dream state as of now.

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Smino Talks Outer Space, Soulja Boy, Braids And The Elements Of His Would-Be Biopic

Smino is not your regular rapper, but he might be your favorite. Born Christopher Smith Jr., Smino is the same St. Louis kid he was back in ‘08, before the money started picking up. Starting out as a drummer, music has always been ingrained in his DNA. Off the cuff, Smi found himself through music. At the impressionable age of 18, he left home and moved out to Chicago, where he ultimately grew as one with his sound.

“You could be out on your own in your city, but when you’re out on your own in another city, it feels different,” he says over the phone from Chicago. “I had to make a new family up here, trust my own instincts, learn who to trust, learn how to trust, learn how to let motherf**kers go and sh*t like that. I had to learn how to still be passionate, I had to learn how to do something with that passion, and I had to be doin’ this on my own all in the same time.”

Now, almost 10 years later, Smino has found his niche. A prince of eccentric flows and funk-infused beats, Smi relies on his spontaneity to keep him grinding. “I'm a drummer, so I just make music,” he says. “It could be anything, anything, anything. (Laughs) It can come from anything.” And that’s exactly how we like it.

Smino doesn’t stress the process. A super chill and laid back dude, the “LMF” rapper is a Chicagoan at heart–– and way too real for the industry he’s in. “L.A. hella industry as f**k,” he says. “It’s not really home, so I’m just like sh*t, I’ma just fly out there to work with people, but I can’t stay there. Plus they don't even got the wintertime, I was missing the cold and sh*t.”

This past November, Smino released his sophomore album NOIR in all its crooked and playful perfection. Boasting a run time of a little under an hour, NOIR features verses from some of ZERO FATIGUE’s finest, including Bari, Ravyn Lenae and Jay2.

Lighter than blkswan, his previous release, NOIR captures the 27-year-old at his happiest and most carefree state. Standout track “Z4L’ describes Smi to the T, as it captures his quirky ingenuity and play on words in lyricizing the horror of Smi realizing his girl got makeup on his brand new ACNE tee.

“make up on my acne like I’m tryna hide a zit” - Z4L (tru story) pic.twitter.com/uv7EaYc524

— Smi (@smino) November 15, 2018

“My life has always been a movie,” Smino says, giving us some insight behind his album title. “I say that my life is a black a** movie with this album because all the funniest things I can imagine are from black films and different things I find a way to relate to my life.”

An album that speaks truly to him, NOIR gives fans something fun to sit back and vibe to, which is exactly what Smino was aiming for. “I think I did what I wanted and came to do,” he admits. “I listen to my own music a lot, so I'm always waiting on new me and I kind of wanted to hear some more bright music. Happier, you know what I'm saying? Just vibes and lighter artist sh*t.”

Both an open book and grounded soul, Smino gave us an animated rundown on his album’s cinematic title (despite not considering himself a movie buff), how he envisions a biopic of his life and the role Soulja Boy would play on the imagined movie’s soundtrack.

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VIBE: You said that NOIR was about your life being “a black a** movie,” so how would you say your life has changed since your career really took off? Smino: Sometimes sh*t be hella raw. Like sometimes I be over in Japan and other times I wish it was still me not having sh*t in the basement, just making music and having nowhere to be, you feel me? It's definitely a lot more business goin' on these days, but it's definitely dope. It's a blessing. I guess a lot more people notice me or recognize me when I'm out now, but it's all the same. I'm still the same motherf**ker, same friends, same all that sh*t. I tried to move to L.A., but I moved right back in like two weeks.

Would you say your life felt like a movie before everything started with music? Mhm. My life has always been a movie. I'm just always into some sh*t. (Laughs) I always got either some cool sh*t or some wild sh*t goin on in my life. Even when I was a lil’ ni**a I was making money over motherf**kin’ music. Drums, producing, doin that sh*t.

In this sense, I say that my life is a black a** movie with this album because all the funniest things I can imagine are from black films and just different things I find a way to relate to my life. That’s why we did them posters ‘cause I feel like we did a lot of funny a** sh*t. Like the whole “Z4L” song—one time I had makeup on my shirt and I made a track out of it, you know what I’m saying? (Laughs) A lot of the Bill Bellamy a** sh*t that happened in How To Be A Player happens to me, so it's like a really just like funny ass movie.

NØIR is bout my life bein a black ass movie. So I reimagined some if my favorite covers with da homies . ALBUM out errwhere. pic.twitter.com/NptqtRhLdL

— Smi (@smino) November 9, 2018

Are you a big movie person? Hell naw I ain't no big movie person, I just like my movies. I'm not like a big anything person, I just make music. But if I like something, I super like it. I go all the way with it.

Well since you went all the way with the posters, have you ever thought what a biopic about your life would be like? If I had a biopic I'd say it'd look like The Wood, (Laughs) 'cause the ni**a from that movie moved from where he from to somewhere else and it made for a whole different experience, but the n***a ended up feelin’ it way more than he thought he would and was way cooler than what everybody thought was cool already. That’s damn near me. And he got the shawty he wanted, you know what I’m sayin’? The OG blood ni**as was f**kin’ with him. (Laughs) It was some funny sh*t but it was just really ironic. I feel like the movie really reminded me of myself.

We're gonna get really hypothetical now, but where would you set the movie? Would you set it in St. Louis and then move to Chicago? Or would you keep it in one place. If it was a biopic of my life I'd probably make it some whole wild sh*t and put it in outer space, but make the outer space like damn near alien ni***s. Like they doin' ni**a sh*t, but they just aliens. So it'd be like the alien St. Louis, the alien Chicago, my alien ni**as, you know what I'm sayin'? I wouldn't want it to be no regular ni***s playin' me, so it'll have to be like some kind of wild sh*t, or a cartoon or something.

Who would you want to play you? Uh, nobody for real (Laughs) but if I had to pick somebody... What's that n***a name that was Shaolin Fantastic dude a**?

Shameik Moore from The Get Down? Yeah, The Get Down! Shaolin Fantastic. Either him or my ni**a Dushane [Ashley Walters] from Top Boy. One of them. They'd be me, they just have to get some hair.

I was about to say they gotta have the hair to keep it authentic. Nah, but people grow hair. Ni**s be growin' muscles all type of sh*t for movies, man.

Well, people grow hair, but it’s hard to maintain it. You do a good job, but other people don't know about that. They gotta throw a wig on that ni**a or somethin' man. Who they threw them braids wig on? What's that lightskin ni**as name? That ni**a that used to wear that braid toupee?

Shemar Moore? (Laughs) Yeah, Shemar Moore and Shameik Moore. You gotta get the Shemar Moore hair and put it on a Shameik Moore and then you good.

 

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NØIR out errwhere. (Lincoln Bio) 🍷

A post shared by Smi (@smino) on Nov 7, 2018 at 9:01pm PST

You listen to your own music a lot, but aside from that, what artist would you include on the soundtrack in order to capture the different eras in your life? Let me see. Alright. I'd say like—damn, it's a lot. I'd say at the beginning of the movie it would start off with goddamn Herbie Hancock or some f**kin' Al Green. I used to listen to a lot of jazz and soul music when I was a little kid, so it'd start off with a lot of that sh*t. Then it'd go into like Braxton Cook type jazz. Then it'll start turning into like Ludacris sh*t, then it'd turn into––

Okay, so my early life, like 1-10 would be all the jazz sh*t. Then from 10-16 I'd say a couple gospel artists like Tye Tribbett, Hezekiah Walker, Kirk Franklin. I don't know actually who wrote a lot of the songs with Kirk Franklin, but whoever was doin' that music. Then it'd go to rap sh*t from 16-22. I'm 27, so I'm tryna like scale it out for you. But from 16-22 it’s Wiz Khalifa and Drake, ‘cause that's when I started really, really, really, really smoking weed. Fourteen was my first time finishing a blunt, but by the time I was 16 I was like ‘yeah, I got this down.’ I was hella like Wiz age and all that sh*t.

Then from 22 to now, it'd be just everybody that I listen to from Chicago. Right now I'm stuck on the Mick [Jenkins] album and Jean Deaux sh*t. It's all saucy a** smooth sh*t. It's a lot of people, cuz. It's a soundtrack, so it'll be a bunch of people. Kendrick have to be on there somewhere but he'd have to come on like a custom song and sh*t. And then Soulja Boy would have to be in there, too, though. I used to love Soulja Boy, bruh.

Soulja Boy just recently signed a new deal so he's bouta put out music again. Oh yeah. I just thought Soulja Boy hella hype. When he started doin' what he was doin' I peeped, I'm like damn this ni**a damn near like me. When he used to have his vlogs and sh*t, you would see artists that you f**k with—‘cause Soulja Boy be around hella people—and you would see artists that you f**k with in the way that you never really get to see 'em ‘cause he was just pullin' up on they a** with like a camera on some vlogging sh*t. But yeah, you also gotta have Noname, Ravyn, Monte, all them [Zero Fatigue] ni***s.

Of all those years you broke down for me, which ones would you say was most important? Eighteen to 23 is the most important.

That was when you moved, right? Yeah, I mean in a way. You talking about most important to you actually being on the phone with me right now? Then yeah, 18-23.

What do you mean by that? You’re talking to me right now because of what I was doing between the ages of 18-23 years old. Like all of this discussion sh*t was me grinding from 18-23 in Chicago. It was damn near dead out there, but when I turned 23 sh*t started lookin’ up, then I turned 24 and I was just gettin’ hella money.

So that was the most important for your career, but what would you say was the most important for yourself in terms of character development? Eighteen to 23. That’s when I really got out on my own for real. You could be out on your own in your city, but when you out on your own in another city, it's feels different. You really just feel dolo. I had to make a new family up here, trust my own instincts, learn who to trust, learn how to trust, learn how to let motherf**kers go and sh*t like that. I had to learn how to still be passionate, I had to learn how to do something with that passion, and I had to be doin’ this on my own all in the same time. I had help from people, but I really didn’t have a choice on whether or not to take it. You gotta take the help and all these different things, you know?

It sounds like music really drove you to figuring that part of your life out. With music being such an important part in your life, do you have a specific way you go about laying down a track? That's an impossible question. I don’t even know. I cannot answer that.

So it just happens organically? I'm a drummer, so I just make music. It could be anything, anything, anything. (Laughs) It can come from anything. That's why I'm so sporadically creative in the way I say sh*t in my songs. It's because it kind of just comes from something as simple as like, you know, f**kin' pourin' water out in the cup and the ice crackin' and that's a bar, you know what I'm sayin'?

Okay so let’s picture a cut to the studio. When you’re in the studio, what’s essential to that process? To get me going at the studio?

Yeah. For a session to be productive for you, who or what do you need to have there? Just Dylan. All I need is Dylan, Dylan, Dylan and Dylan, dassit. You know Dylan?

(Laughs) Should I? (Laughs) You don't know who Dylan is? Where you from?

Jersey, but I stay in New York. You should know this. It’s from Makin’ Da Band– it’s some other sh*t, but anyway it was this ni**a named Dylan from Makin' Da Band and he was like "all I need is Dylan, Dylan, Dylan, Dylan." So yeah, all I need is Dylan in the studio, and all the engineers, of course. All that sh*t.

I love having all my homies in the studio, but I actually make better sh*t when I'm alone in the studio. I think I make my best sh*t in solitude. Little weed, little bit of trees, you know what I'm sayin'? I’ma need it. Little brain food, like some herbs or some chicken. Sh*t, just a f**kin' mic. Not to be heada** (Laughs) but I don't really need much to get goin' in the studio.

What do you think is your best project to date? It's NOIR. That's my favorite sh*t right now, but it changes by the day. My favorite song that I’ve made is probably not on that album, though. It’s a song called “Red Velvet.” I love that song cause I wrote it on a notebook and I don't ever write on notebooks.

With Monte? So this how sh*t like that go: it’s our song, because it’s 50/50 if somebody produces it, but he just released it—that's it. It's my song, though. I wrote the song and he made the beat, so it just depends on who's talking. He'd say it's his song, I say it's my song. It's cool.

Do you ever produce? Hell yeah I produce hella sh*t. I produced “Krushed Ice,” I produced the intro to “Kovert” and I produced “MF Groove” with Ravyn.

• @smino really sampled his own voice for "MF GROOVE" .

sheeeeesh !

#NØIR #SminoNoirhttps://t.co/u7scN28S3u pic.twitter.com/LBpw50cGHS

— —- (@saucyfbaby) November 21, 2018

You work within your crew at Zero Fatigue a lot. Who over at Zero Fatigue would you say is essential to telling and/or making the best Smi stories? My ni**a Bari.

You have any idea what he would say? Off the top of my head? Nah, no clue. That ni**a got a million stories about me. Oh damn. I don’t even wanna know. We did hella sh*t together.

Like what? Take me through a day in your life. Oh sh*t. It depends on the day man, (Laughs) I don't know, that's what I'm sayin'.

Let’s start with a regular day. When I'm not on some rapper sh*t and I'm just chillin? Alright. I wake up, I take a sh*t, tell my shawty roll up– hopefully she do it by the time I'm done sh*ting, if not then I'm probably gon' roll up– then I muhf**kin’ smoke, order some food, sit on the couch play Spiderman or watch hella T.V. and not do sh*t. Then I’d probably call one of my managers and be like "What the f**k, what the f**k, what the f**k," you know what I'm saying? (Laughs) That's how I talk to my managers. Not to lie like that but, "What the f**k, what we doin' bro? What the f**k." All that sh*t. Then I’d probably see some of the homies. All the homies always pull up on me, so some of them probably pull up on me, you know what I'm sayin’. Do something’ with my partner, then sh*t, go to sleep.

How would that be different if you were working? I'd wake up in the morning, take a sh*t, ask my shawty to roll up—hopefully she do before I'm done takin' a sh*t, if not I'ma come out and roll up—then my manager gon' call me, and I’ma be like "F**k, we gotta go. What the f**k!" Then I’ma find a ‘fit—that's gon' take me three hours ‘cause I'm very indecisive—Before I leave I’ma change about four times. Then I’ma go where I'm goin' and realize I ain't ate all day, and I’ll get on a plane and be mad ‘cause I ate the plane food, but I’ma be happy ‘cause I got first class. When I land I’ma go rap and then be like damn, I still ain't ate. By the time the show over I’ma eat like three pieces of chicken, go to sleep, smoke some weed probably, just live that unhealthy rap lifestyle, you dig? That's all. Unhealthy sh*t, man. But I’m tryna get better, I'm finna get on my meal prep sh*t. It’s lit.

That’ll take mad time, though. Nah, I got an assistant that's helping me.

That's that rapper sh*t. (Laughs) You got the privilege of having people do stuff for you. Yeah, yeah, yeah! You gotta have people do sh*t for you as a rapper, ‘cause you gotta rap, what the f**k? The world is dependent on these raps. I gotta get these rap songs, I need someone to help me get my food together and all that sh*t. (Laughs) But on some real life sh*t, the way some people say the music helps them and sh*t has me feelin' like– it makes me wanna stay in it and kinda like help motherf**ker through some sh*t. That’s how I really be feelin’. I like to be a quick motherf**kin’ lil’ blip, quick lil' blip in some motherf**king time and sh*t.

Stream NOIR below.

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VIBE/ Mark Braboy

For 2018’s New Music, Shorter Was Sweeter

Being a music fan in 2018 meant feeling like there were literally too few hours in a day to keep up. Blockbuster albums like Culture II, Tha Carter V, and Scorpion dominated charts and conversations with runtimes that crept well past an hour. It’s hard to blame the creators when more tracks equal more streams, which equal more zeros on a royalty check, even if quality control slips. Yet, some of the year’s best releases deliberately bucked this trend, opting instead for short runtimes and maximum impact. Rather than queue up an album that risks fading into sonic wallpaper around minute 65, why not opt for two plays through a concise collection? Call them albums, EPs, or projects, but the best hip-hop of 2018 kept it brief.

Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music conglomerate defined itself through short albums this year, and label president Pusha T kicked off five weeks of releases with his third solo album, DAYTONA. At just seven songs and 21 minutes, Pusha returns to the essence of his music: the grit and glory of selling cocaine. He drops quotables like ”This is for my bodybuilding clients moving weight, just add water, stir it like a shake.” In an interview with Vulture, Pusha described the G.O.O.D. Music strategy as an antidote to bloat, saying, “I only like two songs off of each album these days anyway.” From the exhilarating guitars of opener “If You Know You Know” to “Infrared” lurking at the end of the tracklist like a jump scare closing out a slasher flick, DAYTONA is utterly unskippable.

Pusha also popped up on a remix for Chicago rapper Valee, one of G.O.O.D. Music’s latest signees. Though his project GOOD Job, You Found Me arrived before the label’s whirlwind summer, it anticipated their brevity with six songs in 14 minutes. Split between new songs and years-old singles, GOOD Job shows off Valee’s loping whisper flow over subterranean beats, a style that is already infiltrating the rest of the culture via various loosies. Short songs are a key part of that style. The rapper told Billboard that he took notice of friends’ short attention spans when they started talking over the second verses of the top songs on Worldstar. “People don't have three minutes to listen to one song by one person,” he said. “You get a minute and a half because they need to give the next person a minute and a half.”

G.O.O.D. Music continued their seven-track album streak each Friday this June, to mixed results. Teyana Taylor emerged from label purgatory with K.T.S.E., showing her soulful voice’s skill on moody sample noir and brassy runway house. Kanye and Kid Cudi made good on their decade of collaboration with Kids See Ghosts, indulging their psych-rock influences without overstaying their welcome. The less said about the releases from veterans Nas and West himself, the better, but the fact that all five albums dropped as announced is impressive enough.

Other marquee names reaped more successful work with short runtimes. The Weeknd dropped My Dear Melancholy, six tracks in 21 minutes, without warning two weeks before his headlining Coachella slot. The singer born Abel Tesfaye successfully fuses his widescreen pop ambitions with the influential dinginess of his early Trilogy on tracks like “Wasted Times,” which teeters on the edge of an all-out house beat but prefers to luxuriate in the tension of anticipation.

In October, Usher released A, 27 minutes of eight tracks produced entirely by Zaytoven. The producer’s gospel trap piano is fertile ground for the singer to salute their shared Atlanta roots, bolstered by features from Future and Gunna. Mr. Raymond sounds transcendent doing heartbroken vocal acrobatics over twinkling keys on “Say What U Want.” Remind me again why the Pepsi and NFL brain trust picked Maroon 5 for the halftime show in Atlanta over a homegrown hit factory like this man?

Up-and-coming artists also took advantage of short runtimes to show off the depth of their work while keeping streamers’ attention. Hammond, Ind.’s Vince Ash dropped his debut Do Or Die this spring, and he only needs 21 minutes to convey his reality in the modern rust belt. Denzel Curry dropped TA13OO, his first album since his inclusion on XXL’s 2016 Freshman Class, this July. Though the final runtime surpassed 40 minutes, the Floridian spitter released his latest in four- or five-track portions over three days in order to reinforce the album’s three-act Light, Gray, Dark concept.

No artist epitomized the short album trend more than Tierra Whack, whose debut album Whack World is 15 songs in 15 minutes. Whack ping-pongs between genres, making room for country twang kiss-offs and TV channel metaphors over organs and 808s. Each minute-long song was accompanied by a music video, and taken together, they’re a window into a world equal parts influenced by Missy Elliott and “Dr. Seuss.” Whack World is perfectly formatted for Instagram, which Whack has acknowledged, and it’s impossible to succumb to other distractions while watching. “I’ve seen people drop their first projects where it’s like 17 songs, and I don’t want to hear that sh*t,” Whack told Pitchfork. “And, to be honest, when I’m listening to new albums, I’m only listening to the first 30 seconds before I know if I like it or not.” By shoving a surplus of talent into a short span, Whack has garnered spots on numerous best of 2018 lists as well as co-signs from legends Lauryn Hill and Andre 3000.

Freddie Gibbs came up dropping lengthy mixtapes full of major label recordings in the early ‘10s, but this year he opted to release two shorter projects instead. In June, he released Freddie, 10 songs in 25 minutes. Though the Pendergrass cover and informercial announcement promised smooth R&B, they only foreshadowed the hilariously profane “FLFM (Interlude).” The rest of the project is dope dealer slick talk over unstoppable beats designed to shred speaker cones. “Hundred kilos in my trunk, I might get death row,” Gibbs raps over a riff on the “Boyz-N-The-Hood” beat, with incarcerated L.A. rap hero 03 Greedo sneering like Eazy-E in his prime.

This Halloween, Gibbs released Fetti, nine songs in 23 minutes of collaboration with Curren$y and producer The Alchemist. The trio says they recorded the album in just two days, and the result feels comfortably low-stakes. Alc’s murky sample chops are a perfect middle ground for the two MCs to flex upon. Fans have been clamoring for more of this trio since 2011’s “Scottie Pippen,” and Fetti justified the wait with cuts like paranoid pop “The Blow.” “You look at where music’s at right now and if you get a project that got like 17 tracks on it—and it’s not takin’ away nothin’ from nobody—but 95 percent of the time I’m only gonna like like six or seven tracks on there,” Gibbs told Complex last year. “I want you to have somethin’ that you could hit repeat, I want you to keep playin’ this sh*t back-to-back-to-back-to-back.” On Freddie and Fetti, Gibbs has never sounded more fun. The question isn’t whether to replay his projects, but which one to start with.

Long Beach rapper Vince Staples leapt into rap’s upper echelon in 2015 with his double-disc debut Summertime ‘06, but last month’s FM! fits 11 tracks into just 23 minutes. The album is designed as a broadcast, with voiceovers from L.A. radio legend Big Boy and his Neighborhood and interludes teasing new songs from Tyga and Earl Sweatshirt. The songs swirl together like collapsing waveforms as uncredited features from Ty Dolla $ign, Kamaiyah, and Jay Rock play for a scant few bars.

The beats on FM! draw from summertime strains of West Coast hip-hop dating back to NWA and E-40 (another uncredited guest). It’s jarring at first to hear Vince spit his brittle street raps over these textures, closer to radio rap than ever before, until you realize that the tropes of street life are already dominating airwaves. Vince is telling the same story, he’s just skipping the superfluous window dressing that gets rap singles played on actual radio stations. It adds up to a commentary on the voyeurism inherent in hip-hop’s popularity, exemplified by the Google Maps surfing white teen in the “FUN!” video. In that regard, FM!’s quick runtime may be a sly self-deprecating punchline, like even he can’t sustain the fantasy of ubiquity any longer.

In the three and a half years since his last album, Earl Sweatshirt had only dropped three verses. His interlude on FM! was tantalizing for fans, 20 seconds of Earl showing off a newly jiggy flow. When Some Rap Songs dropped last Friday, it was immediately clear that the FM! snippet was a feint. Rather than ride Vince’s rap radio knocks, Earl submerged himself into a stew of loops ripped straight off wax. He emulates MCs like MF DOOM and Mach-Hommy as he wades through a stream of consciousness made murky by 24 years of life. “If you lame and you broke and you waiting for co-sign, I take a plate to go, bread I could break with my bro,” he raps. “Noose on my neck is gold, tell me how you been faking the whole time?”

Because Some Rap Songs is 15 tracks in 24 minutes, the only dissenters from its critical acclaim have been fans who had hoped for more music after years of waiting. But it’s ridiculous to feel slighted by an album this deliberate. In an interview with Vulture, the rapper explained that, like the understatement title, the album’s length is part of its artistry. “I hope what people take away is…I guess just brevity,” he said. “I’m always trying to whittle this sh*t down.” His latest is like reading a poem scraped together from a novel. You can feel the music pass through you in less than half an hour, or play each track five times over just to catch each syllable against the lurch of the loop.

If Billboard’s top 200 albums are any indication, behemoths like Scorpion and Culture II aren’t going anywhere. For artists of a certain popularity, feature-film length albums are an easy way to mine the streaming royalty gold rush. Of the shorter projects of 2018, only The Weeknd and West managed to crack the top 50. Releasing short projects this year was evidence of an artist’s faith in their vision and in their audience’s taste, even if it means sacrificing easy commercial gains. Whether incorporating brevity into a high-minded concept or simply trimming the fat, the best albums this year showed that shorter is sweeter.

RELATED: 25 Hip-Hop Albums By Bomb Womxn Of 2018

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Genres Aside, Here Are Our 25 Favorite Songs Of 2018

Keeping up with all of the music from 2018 was a full-time job, with loads of songs releasing every week and not enough ears to keep track. But the volume of music comes with an advantage: there’s something for everybody. Fittingly, our list of the 25 Best Songs of 2018 represents the multi-genre mayhem that is in everyone’s playlists this year.

Some of the entries on our list, like cuts by Drake, Travis Scott and Childish Gambino, were at the forefront of the conversation in 2018, dominating streaming services and radio around the country. Indie darling Saba made waves, and he’s included here as well. Jazz wizard Kamasi Washington dropped some of the best protest music of the year. But there are also some songs on this year’s list that spoke to the VIBE Tribe in a different way. Cardi B had hits all year, but an album cut impressed us most; Usher and Zaytoven’s new album didn’t make a huge splash commercially, but one of its songs appears here. And Beyonce appears on one of the best songs of the year that never even saw an official release–but that didn’t stop us from including it here.

Music broke the rules this year, and so did we. Read below, and tell us what surprise choices are making your songs of the year list.

READ MORE: Debate Us: The 30 Best Albums Of 2018

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