For Grammy-nominated producers Nez and Rio, the recipe to making a beat stand the test of time simply rests on their faith in God. “A lot of musicians want to sit there and act like they can take the credit for it, but when you’re really connecting with the music and you’re making the best music you can make, you’re really just being used,” Nez says.
This has been a testament to the duo’s success within the industry, starting with their higher education careers at Howard University in 2004. The Chi-town natives worked with a fellow student/artist named Brandon Hines, and after selling Hines’ album independently, they let the higher power guide their path in the industry. But speaking of a high power, Nez and Rio eventually found themselves in the company of TDE, the West Coast based entity that hosts a Monstar roster which features Kendrick Lamar, Ab-Soul, Jay Rock, SZA, Isaiah Rashad, and Schoolboy Q.
Etching a now cemented relationship with Q garnered Nez and Rio a Grammy nomination for their production credits on Oxymoron, namely “Man of the Year” and “Gangsta.” Their ability to easily assimilate to an artist’s sound or mindset also comes natural to the duo, but they manage to leave their imprint on every instrumental they create. “As an artist and a producer, you have to make music that people can relate to and understand within the times,” Rio says. “But it’s finding the part that’s unique about you that stands out that’s most important.”
Within this Q&A, Nez & Rio dish on their rise in the industry, their time in the studio with A$AP Rocky, Tinashe and Travis Scott, and what they have planned for their future in the latest installment of Views From The Studio.
VIBE: Do you remember the first instrumental you created?
Nez: It was a Shirley Bassey sample and we made the beat on Fruity Loops and we didn’t intend on making music when were hanging out. We were just chilling and we ended up making a beat, it sounded cool, and it was an ongoing thing from there.
How’d you guys get involved with TDE?
Rio: At that time we were back living in Chicago producing local acts, and we knew that we had to switch up our game plan a little bit to break out and start working with larger acts. At the time, TDE was really well known on the West Coast, but not so much nationally. They had just gotten to the point where Kendrick [Lamar] started getting recognized nationally. We had been listening to his Overly Dedicated mixtape like crazy and we felt like he was going to be one of those next ones to go. We decided to try and set up a session when he had a show in Chicago. It was super small at this club called The Shrine. It wasn’t even full, it was really early on and for us just trying to forecast who was going to be hot. We got a session with Kendrick and it just so happened that Schoolboy Q was there as his hype-man. We got a chance to meet all the guys in TDE and play them some beats. They liked them and we kept that relationship alive until we worked on Habits And Contradictions with Q.
What’s a day in the studio like with TDE?
Rio: It’s cool, they really liked the sound we created. You can imagine being fresh out of college it was really difficult to find a job. Nez and I were basically spending most of our time working in the studio, trying to perfect our craft because we really wanted to be professional music producers. We walked in fully armed with all of these amazing tracks at the time, and our best stuff at that period. TDE, they walked in looking like West Coast guys (laughs) wearing a lot of red and it was cool because they had a totally different vibe from what we knew as Chicago.
In that session, it was probably about four other producers or acts that were playing music for them and Nez and I went in second to last. We played music and they loved it. Heavy nods and constantly gesturing like, “Yeah I need that one.” They took like 20 beats. At the time, Q was on this song called “Michael Jordan,” and he was featured on that record with Kendrick. That was one of Kendrick’s big songs at the time and we knew that they were moving as a record label and there were going to be more people to work with. In that room before we left we made sure that we talked to Q as well like, “Q if you need something too, let us know.” At the time in Chicago, this is pre-Chance the Rappers, pre-Vic Mensas, pre-Chief Keef even, this is pre all those acts and we didn’t have anybody outside of a Kanye [West], or a Common, or a Lupe [Fiasco], guys who were long gone and famous to try and work with. We didn’t have anybody on a local level that really had the national appeal yet. We were trying to figure out an out, trying to figure out how to make it happen and make your dreams come true. This is an opportunity to work with somebody that’s about to get a national look. Fast-forward, Kendrick starts working with [Dr.] Dre, TDE blows up and Schoolboy Q signs to Interscope along with TDE and he has an album. We have a great relationship with all those guys and it put us in a really great position.
]How’d it feel when you found out you guys were nominated for a Grammy for Q’s Oxymoron?
Nez: That was cool just because with things like that you don’t really know when or how it’s going to happen. Both of us were surprised to hear the album was nominated. It was a good feeling because you always work for stuff, you want to be recognized for your work in some kind of way. It’s cool when people like that nominate you for Grammys.
With ASAP Rocky, you guys did “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2 (LPFJ2).” What was the studio atmosphere like for that?
Nez: Real chill, Rocky is cool, he’s one of the homies. He’s just like us, trying to make good music, just sitting there talking about culture, art, design, and fashion. We just kick it so the atmosphere is chill, and positive vibes and energy.
I saw that you guys re-tweeted someone who said they played “Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2 (LPFJ2)” nine times in a row. What’s the recipe to creating that melody that’ll make a person hit the repeat button continuously?
Nez: Keeping your ego at the door and letting God in and let him work through you. That’s the best recipe. A lot of musicians want to sit there and act like they can take the credit for it, but when you’re really connecting with the music and you’re making the best music you can make, you’re really just being used.
It seems like you guys definitely work with people who you share a lot in common with and those same people turn into your friends. But what’s the most intense studio session y’all ever had?
Nez: I wouldn’t say intense. We’ve had some hilarious studio sessions.
Rio: We usually try and keep it as relaxed as possible, everything to make people relax is usually better. When people get relaxed we have a lot more fun. It doesn’t feel like work. You just sit there trying to catch a vibe. That’s usually what creates the best music.
Nez: We were in a session that we didn’t want to be in one time. That was pretty hilarious. There was a rapper that won’t be named, but he decided to try to sing Country Western vibes over the beats. He was scatting over the beats in auto-tune that was out of key. That was pretty funny. It’s always funny when there are different kinds of energy in the studio or people that are either feeling themselves or out there to make the sessions pretty interesting. But for the most part we have really chill sessions.
You also worked on Tinashe’s track “Something To Feel.” What was that studio atmosphere like?
Nez: We had the chance to meet and work with Tinashe before she really blew up like that. We connected through my homegirl, Brittany, who works at Global Grind. She also went to Howard. She said that Tinashe was trying to link with us because of the work we did with Q for his Habits And Contradictions album and that’s how we linked with Tinashe, which was years ago. We worked on a mixtape and that led to “Something To Feel.” Being in the studio with her is cool too, it’s like the same type of thing where she’s really chill, very talented, she knows what she wants and she goes in there and just vibes out with us. We’re just sitting there cracking jokes. It’s real cool and family-like.
You also mentioned you worked with Travis Scott. With him being a fellow producer, describe the brainstorming session?
Nez: Travis is really dope. We actually got a chance to do a little bit of work with him. He’s really talented. He has a lot of ideas and he’s full of energy, so for us at this session particularly, we were playing him some beats and we were trying to come up with ideas to make songs out of beats, and ideas that we had already created and try to build on those. It was a lot of fun with Travis because he has ideas for days.
How do you stand apart from the sound that’s on the radio?
Nez: Rio and I really try to stick to our sound. All the experimenting that we’ve done up to this point have helped cultivate our sound and we take pride in not sounding like anyone else. That’s a big deal for us. In the times where everyone is being championed for sounding like the stuff that’s out, we really try to keep going in this monotonous industry with some new unique styles and sounds. We’re going to try to keep pushing the boundaries because that’s how we look at art, and that’s how we look at culture.
Rio: There has to be a balance between being current and being yourself. As an artist and a producer, you have to make music that people can relate to and understand within the times, but it’s finding the part that’s unique about you that stands out that’s most important. In this day and age with the Internet and how music and information is passed around, everyone listens to the same music, everyone basically listens to whatever type of genre and artist that they’re into. But for the most part it’s not based on where you live anymore, geographical location anymore. It’s very important for us to stick to our guns and our sounds and certain trademarks that we have. You have to stand firm sometimes because if people don’t necessarily know or whatever, creatively you have to force that a little bit.
Do you gather inspiration from listening to other producers’ work? I see you guys were fans of the Social Experiment’s Surf?
Rio: Those are our homies from Chicago. A lot of times we’d talk music or developing where things are going, but for the most part, Nez and I cook solo dolo. Of course just being human you always pick up things that you like, just naturally being a creative person, you’re always going to pull from different things, but for the most part unless it’s a collaborative project, song, effort, you typically pull from people that are in other generations. I might pull from Curtis Mayfield, or Fela Kuti. There’s a ton of different artists that we might look to for inspiration, but typically it’s not artists that are out right now.
If you weren’t producers, what would you be doing now?
Rio: I don’t know (laughs), I’m just glad we’re producers. If it came down to it, both of us would probably be doing something else creative. Our plan B was making plan A work. It goes to show when you put your effort in, and as a musician when you go so hard at something, you force yourself to find other ways to make it work. I’ve met people in the past or aspiring musicians who said, “If music doesn’t work out I’m going to do this, that and the third,” and I’m like it doesn’t work like that. Everybody that you know that’s on stage or that has fans is 100 percent in it for what they’re doing because there’s no other way that it works. There are too many people that want to do it. For us that was the best way to go about it, putting all you eggs in one basket and saying “If this is how I’m going to eat, I have to make these beats hot.” Those beats are going to be hot as hell.
If you could EP anyone’s album, who would it be and why?
Nez: Our own album just because we know ourselves the best so I think it’s going to be the freshest. We are progressively working on our own project right now. We’re going to introduce ourselves as artists, musicians and show our own perspective on this thing.