Views From The Studio: Producer P2J Discusses 'The Lion King: The Gift' Album
When P2J was 14 years old, he had an insightful moment that solidified his career. In school, he realized that spending his time with his head in a textbook was not the path for him. After his history teacher noticed his aloofness, the instructor recommended that P2J transfer to a music course to nurture his creativity. As an adolescent, the South London native never entertained a career in music but the class opened up his senses to a new form of expression that would lead him to work with today's leading artists.
“It’s crazy because there was a loud voice in my head that said ‘this is your calling, this is what you need to do,’” he says. “It was weird how everything happened. It was meant to be and I feel like God put me there for a reason. I always knew I wanted to make music from when I made my first beat and when I saw people’s reaction to it, I think that’s what drove me to really want to do this because the reaction gave me a buzz, a feeling like, ‘Wow, my sound is making people feel this way.’”
Paying homage to his Nigerian roots, P2J looked to pioneering musicians like Fela Kuti and Sunny Ade to order his steps behind the soundboards. He went from curating his “Hands In The Air” project with local kids to producing Stormzy’s “Bad Boys” off of the grime rapper’s debut album Gang Signs & Prayer. P2J’s production eventually landed him stateside where he worked on Chris Brown’s Heartbreak on a Full Moon soundscape and later traveled back overseas to produce for Burna Boy’s studio third album, Outside. Now, P2J can hang his hat on another momentous album: the Beyonce-executive-produced The Lion King: The Gift soundtrack.
For VIBE’s “Views From The Studio” series, P2J discusses his melodic contribution to The Lion King: The Gift, the sonic marriage between dancehall and Afrobeats, and making music definitive of the Diaspora.
Recently you responded to a tweet by someone who mentioned you went from making “Hands In The Air” to working with Beyonce, which must’ve been a major milestone. Explain that feeling from 2007 to now being an in-demand producer?
It’s been a very long journey. Where I started I was working with kids in the area. From there I moved into the Afrobeat world. When I started making Afrobeat music that’s when I realized the world needs to hear this sound. That was my goal for years, to cross genres and anywhere I could fit in an Afrobeat rhythm or a vibe or an artist I would try to cross it in my production and give it that feel. That’s always been my goal.
When I worked on The Gift, it was a big moment for me because everything I was working toward felt like it was for this moment right here. I felt like this could be the door to open up everything for this genre of music. Coming from where I come from, South London, to where it is now, it’s a big moment especially for producers over here as well. There are a lot of producers that are crazy talented over here that make Afrobeats or Afro-infused music. This could be a chance for the door to be open for everyone to flood through and show their talent. This is a big moment for me personally and a big thing for African music. My aim is to be one of the producers that opened the door for a lot of Nigerian producers or young producers that are coming through to do what you do. Don’t feel like you have to conform to anything. Do what you do and the world will hear. I’m just grateful and happy that it’s on this project. It’s not just a normal project. It’s the soundtrack for a huge film and a huge artist. It’s a great moment.
in 2007 p2j produced hands in the air...
in 2019 p2j produced 6 tunes off the lion king sountrack, by beyonce.
fam, are there even words? @p2jmusic
— 🎬 PROLIFIC 🏁 (@RayFiasco) July 20, 2019
What have you noticed about your talent and craft from that point on?
Sonically my sound has definitely changed and evolved. It’s a cleaner sound now, but I still feel like I kept my rawness, but it has a polished sound to it. I call it my groove, which for me is what drives my production. My style of playing, my melody and my chords compliment my grooves quite well. My groove is one thing I worked hard at my whole career and tried to master.
Your production is bright and makes you want to dance but can get gritty like Stormzy’s “Bad Boys.” Explain that diversity?
I’m a feels person. I go off of feels and energy. With Stormzy I produced that with my boy E.Y. The mood I had was very dark and sinister. I thought this could be something crazy. I feel like a lot of my feels and the way I play has a lot to do with the artist as well. The energy from the artist when I’m in the room, if I feel like this moment needs this kind of energy, then I’ll try to make that to be mellow, vibrant, dark. I don’t have a specific way of working but I know when I do create, especially when I make my Afrobeat stuff, I try to make a groove that people can move to whether it’s dark or vibrant. That’s my goal.
How’d you come on board for The Gift?
It started with “Brown Skin Girl.” It started as an idea with SAINt JHN. They heard it on their side and they liked it. They heard some of my other productions and called me to come and work on the project. From there it was creating, vibing, trying to hit the pocket of the film, making sure the themes were interlocked with the music and just trying to get the vibe and energy right. “Brown Skin Girl” was the first song that probably put me in the rooms and got me working on the project.
Beyonce said it’s like a love letter to Africa. Where did you pull your inspiration from to speak to her statement?
I just listened to a lot of the music that was out at the time. A lot of music that was an inspiration to me was Fela’s music. I listened to a lot of music that makes people dance, Wizkid’s songs, Burna Boy’s songs, Tekno’s songs. I studied dance videos on YouTube to see what pocket they move and dance to. For me, I wanted to make people move and dance. That’s one thing I know Beyonce wanted, a lot of energy. She wanted people to have that feeling that it’s from Africa like the dance moves were from Africa. A lot of inspiration came from there, and sonically and production-wise my inspiration came from there.
Do you believe this album has the power to open up doors for listeners to research different artists from Africa’s many regions? There's an article on Okayplayer that outlined how East African musicians could've benefited from being featured on this album?
I think this is a big stepping-stone for people that don’t know about certain artists on this project to research their music. There’s a whole variety of Afrobeats that they never heard before. That person will link to another person and that person will link to another person and open up more doors. This is why this is a big project because the people that are on the project are going to open doors for other artists from Africa. Even Beyonce putting artists from Africa on this project is going to open up doors for listeners to then take in these artists. The other way around as well, being on a project with Beyonce is going to open up doors for other younger artists coming through to say, “These artists have done it so that we can come through and shine. We can put our sound out there and people are going to listen to our music because it’s growing.”
For this section of questions, I want you to give the background on the songs you produced on The Gift, starting with “Ja Ara E.”
I made the beat and I had Burna Boy in mind before I showed it to him. I met him in London and we had a melody idea but we didn’t work on it. I was like, “We’re going to come back to it because we have some time.” We linked up in L.A. He was working on something else. I remembered it and I played it. I said, “Remember this song we had from London?” I played it and he was like “This is crazy!” He wrote it in the session. The team heard it and was like, “This is crazy!”
You’ve worked with Burna Boy in the past, specifically on his track “Anybody.” What’s the process behind that melody?
Whenever I make a beat for him, I always have a feeling this one should be for Burna. I always make it and then hold it. When I play it for him he feels the same energy. Every time I make the beat, I put Burna’s name on it without him even hearing it. It’s a spiritual thing and we make what we make. It always comes out feeling amazing. The first song I’ve done with him is called “Koni Bajer” which is on his last project Outside. I was in session engineering for him. It was the first time I ever met him. He was like, “You got new beats?” I said, “Yes, I made a beat two years ago and I had you in mind.” I played it for him, he loved it, and then he recorded it and it ended up being “Koni Baje.” Ever since then it’s been the same process. I play him a beat and he connects with it. If he likes it, he lays it.
Also “Devil In California” possesses a different sound from previous songs.
I produced that one with Ari PenSmith. That was a different vibe. I felt like we wanted to experiment with different vibes, sounds, energy. That’s the good thing about working with Burna Boy, he has raw vibes.
Next on The Gift album is “Don’t Jealous Me.”
We started watching dance videos and looking at different energetic songs, songs that make you want to dance instantly. We started making the idea with who is featured on the song as well. We had a vibe and we did “Water” in the same day. We went in there and started jamming out with the energy.
It started that same way. I listened to a lot of Congolese music and got the guitar rhythm that felt vibrant. I got my guy to play guitar and he sent it over to me. I got a vibe straight away from it, the drums, the idea down and the rest follows.
“Keys To The Kingdom”
That song was a co-production. Producer Northboi [Oracle] started it and I came and added my sauce where it was needed, where things could be enhanced, I added extra drums, extra melodies. That was a cool collaborative process because the song was growing.
That was a collaboration as well. I started it with Ari. He started playing some keys and I was like “this is nice.” I just put a little percussion beat on top of it and had an idea with 070 Shake. She came in and did this crazy idea on it. From there my production was added on top of it and it was a good process.
“Brown Skin Girl”
I had a groove that started prior to that day and I had the snare and drums. Then I pulled out a piano but I wanted it to feel a certain way. I wanted it to feel like it was outside, chilling on a porch, a playground or the park, that’s why it’s very minimal. I wanted it to feel very intimate. The piano rift came to me instantly. I didn’t think about it. I just put my hands on the keys and God just guided me. That’s exactly what you guys are hearing. I didn’t want it to sound too clean. I wanted it to have a real rawness to it, to feel extremely intimate but have a vibe to it also. As soon as the idea was done I felt like it was very special. It was a crazy moment. I felt like this could be a beautiful story and I’m glad about the timing. I can’t explain how I feel about it right now, but it’s a beautiful moment. I can’t put it into words. The day we made it I felt that it was special.
So it was a conscious decision to produce with minimal instruments?
Yes, I didn’t want to add a lot of production to it at all. I wanted to keep it as minimal as possible because the message is so beautiful and strong that I want it to cut through. Sometimes when you hear ballads it’s just keys and it’s just a moment. You don’t need anything. You might have a string here or there but it’s just a moment. I want it to have that same feel but I still want it to have a groove to it, have people dance to it, and it still have a message. You can cry to it, you can dance to it, you can do whatever you want with this song but it’s still a moment that’s why I wanted to keep it as minimal as possible. I didn’t want to overproduce it. I felt like it would’ve taken away and I did try a few things, but I felt like it was taking away from what I originally had in my head. On this song, less was definitely more. It’s funny because somebody tweeted me saying, “I’m upset that P2J didn’t add to the production at the end but I’m so happy that he didn’t.” That’s the feeling I want you to have, to feel like should it have more but, “No, I love it the way it is.” Feel the song’s energy, you know what it’s supposed to be doing.
Were you aware that Blue Ivy Carter was going to be on the song?
Me and my friend spoke about it and we thought it would be cool, I didn’t know she was actually going to be on it. Maybe the idea trickled up and trickled down and put her on it. That was a huge moment in itself.
Out of all the labels associated with Afrobeat, like Afropop, Afrofusion, Afrohouse, what purpose does the music seek to amplify despite the subgenres?
The purpose of it is a wide scope. Even with certain artists like artists from Ghana that do a genre that’s like afro-reggae, there are artists that cross genres with reggae or R&B and house music as well, which is a big scene in South Africa dance music. It’s a thing where all these genres are coming to light now. The purpose it’s serving is big because there’s a lot of collaborations happening now. Chris Brown and Davido, those are two artists from two different worlds that have done a song together. That’s the R&B, Afrobeat fusion. It’s all for the greater good. Wizkid, Beyonce, another big collaboration there. I feel like we’re in the age of collaboration and this sound is carrying onto the world. People are taking to it and want to learn about and soak in and be a part of.
That’s interesting you mentioned the overlap with certain artists. I know you worked with GoldLink on his Diaspora album which is a blend of genres. One song you produced, “Yard,” is reminiscent of that blurred line between Afrobeats and dancehall. How do you think the genres can overlap?
In London, those genres are very intertwined. It’s growing out of London as well and getting exposed to where a Jamaican artist or a Nigerian artist come together to do a collaboration. Sonically as well, the rhythms and the vibes are very close and connected. That’s an amazing thing because it’s almost like a genre that’s not there, it hasn’t been created. That’s a beautiful thing about music because you can express yourself and not be pigeonholed. Even if it’s intertwined and one mash of everything, I think that’s amazing.
What was it like working with GoldLink?
It was an amazing and beautiful learning process for me. One thing that I got a lot of feedback from was that it felt energetic, that you want to have a good time. That’s exactly what we felt in the studio. It was enjoyable. We were trying to figure out which songs would fit this moment but everything played its part, everything happened for a reason. This project will stand out for years to come and people can enjoy it in years to come as well.
“Zulu Screams” is a standout on the album. How’d that song come to be?
I started that beat in 2014. I was working on my own project at the time. I had a guitar riff and percussion idea on top of it. When I met GoldLink he showed me a song he wanted to try a flow with. It was an Afrobeat. I said, “I think I might have something for you.” We went to the studio the next day, I showed him the idea and he was like, “This is crazy!” That session was like a party. GoldLink was writing, going in bar for bar as the beat was playing. Ari came in and wrote the hook and it felt amazing.
“Maniac” and “Coke White” don’t have those same vibes. Both melodies are more geared toward hip-hop rhythms. Can you explain that switch up?
Before I was making Afrobeats music I was making rap and grime, that heavy and gritty sound, stuff that people can do flows on. That’s something I’m very close to. This is another avenue that I can shine and show I can do it in a different way. OBR sent me a sample and then I took it, flipped it and made a beat around it. The same thing with the second half of “Coke White,” Goldlink’s part. It was a sample from Kurtis [Mckenzie] and [Sean] Momberger. I got the sample from there and flipped it again and made the beat around it. I went in my rap bag and tried to create something energetic and something people could go crazy over.
What does Diaspora mean to you and how do you translate that into your productions?
It’s drawing sounds from all around. We tried to hone in on black people and black music. Before that, every black person essentially is one but we draw from different energies and sounds. We try to do the same thing musically and draw from the Afrobeat world, the reggae world, the hip-hop world and merge it into one and make something that’s fun and cool and have a good time. We want it to have depth as well and hone in on the fact that this is a black album. That’s what it means for me in this project and that’s what we tried to do production-wise, sonically. For example the Wizkid song (“No Lie”), it’s not an Afrobeat song but he’s singing on a really mellow sound, trap-influenced beat. It’s a completely different vibe, different energy from a different world. It’s essentially one world.