In the fall of 2010, October 29 specifically, Kanye West hopped on Twitter to share his excitement about a project.
"I can never get use[d] to this!... This sh-- we doing is so modern, so hood, so club, so hip-hop ... all of the above!"
At the time, the "Power" rapper was busy putting the finishing touches on the official follow-up to 808’s & Heartbreak, utilizing the inaugurated "G.O.O.D. Fridays" series to promote My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But the subject of this tweet was far more bigger. "Sitting here in the studio two hours out of London," West wrote. "It's really setting in on me that I'm actually doing a rap album with Jay-Z." At that moment, what was once a rap dream soon became reality. Originally planned as a five-song EP, this "rap album" mentioned in West's 140-character max tweet, was none other than Watch the Throne, a pairing of both iconic rappers that had been previously teased via collaborations like "Monster," "So Appalled," and the official "Power" remix.
Although MBDTF was penciled in for a November 22 release, work on Watch The Throne had already been underway. "So it's like we're working on the album and then [we’re] pretty much almost done but then I get the, "Yo we about to start this project, we going to London. Can you come out?" That was the conversation producer S1, who worked on MBDTF's lead single "Power," recalled having before heading out to London to work on the colossal project that, at this point, had the entire world buzzing. Talking to REVOLT, S1 noted, "They started production on Watch the Throne before [MBDTF] had even dropped. So it was in the midst of working on that album, that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out."
So as MBDTF, unarguably the most compelling body of pop music of the 21st century, positioned Mr. West as our era's most dynamic artist, the work on the follow-up landmark release with Big Brother Hov only took things a level higher. And so together, they became "the new Black elite."
As today (August 8) marks the album's five year anniversary, REVOLT hopped on the phone with the ever-talented S1 to discuss working on Jay Z and Kanye West's collective masterpiece Watch the Throne and the recording process behind the standout track, "Murder to Excellence."
Before Watch the Throne arrived, you worked with Beyoncé on 4. How did that session coincide with working alongside Jay Z and Kanye West?
S1: So I met Beyoncé working on Watch the Throne with Kanye [West] and Jay Z. We went to London and then Australia with 'Ye and Jay, and she was out there with us. So it was like we built a relationship and when we went to Australia, we had this mansion that they rented out. We had the the production studio set up, so we all in this building everyday and then she was like, I might as well work on my album. So they built her a studio in the media room on the third floor. I would always go in her room and so one day she pulled me in her room to play some of the 4 album joints for me to give feedback and I gave her [my critique] on one. I was like, "Man, this song is dope but the drums could be better." So she was like, "Why don’t you take the protools session and go redo the drums." So I took it down and redid it and she was like, "Man I really love this. Will you come out to New York with me on January 2 to help me with my album." So that January 2nd, I got that call. I went out there for a week and did like six songs with her and "Best Thing I Never Had" was one of them.
So when did work on Watch the Throne actually begin?
It was basically a situation where, after I did "Power," I was working with Kanye a lot. So, I would be with him a lot at his sessions, whether it would be Hawaii, New York. And [one day] he told me, "Yo me and Jay thinking about doing this collaborative album, we want you to come out and we just gonna go to some random countries and record it." I was like, "Man, just like me know." He’s so spur of the moment, so I get an email one day like, "Fly out to London with me and Jay tonight." [Laughs]
So we went to London the first week to start the album and it was like me, No I.D., Mike Dean, and Kanye. The first two days, Jay hadn’t made it, he walked in like two or three days later so we were just like getting tracks together and making tracks and things like that. When Jay came through, that’s when we started playing stuff for both of them and they vibe out and start recording verses and things like that. After that week, it was crazy because everyday we would like eat lunch together, eat dinner together at this big table, so at that point I was starting to kind of build a relationship with Jay, but by the time we got to Australia, it was like first name basis. We were cool then and that’s when started building a relationship with Jay and actually Bey too. That’s how I got on Roc Nation.
Let's talk about the beginning of those sessions. At the same time you began working on Watch the Throne, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy wasn't finished, right?
"So [Kanye] starts [WTT] before My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy comes out. So it's like working on the album and then [we’re] pretty much almost done but then I get the, "Yo we about to start this project, we going to London. Can you come out?" And My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy hadn’t even dropped yet. They started production on Watch the Throne before [MBDTF] had even dropped. In the midst of working on that album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy came out.
Since you were in the studio with several other producers, how were the recording sessions for the album conducted?
So the way we would do it, it was me, No I.D. was there, Ryan Leslie was out there, Mike Dean of course — so once Jay and Ye were there, we were all in one room, we would be along this little platform with our little workstations up there and we would just be creating. 'Ye and Jay would be in the middle, where they have two mics facing each other, and they would just sit there and ask, "Yo y’all got some stuff." So we would just play beats and then whatever they were feeling or vibing to. I remember when I played the "Murder to Excellence" beat, I remember this certain face that Jay gave me. He looked up at me like, "Yo, what is this?!"
What was his immediate reaction? How soon did he and Ye record their verse?
"The way Jay sculpts his ideas and lyrics is so crazy because as soon as I play it, he's like mumbling and then literally like 10 minutes later, he grabs the engineer, like "Yo I’m ready." He comes to the mic and just breezes through it. Like he's writing in his mind as he's looking around, it's so brilliant. [Laughs]
So I got the witness that on so many songs. It's definitely a gift. And then Kanye is the same way, because basically he would get to the mic and then just start freestyling certain patterns and then he'll go back and fill in certain words. What's dope is that in his freestyles, he'd be saying dope stuff, so it would be like, words would tie in together perfectly and all he'd have to do is fill in the words that's mumbled. They brilliant at what they do. I learned a lot from working with them.
What makes "Murder to Excellence" so special is that, besides the relevant subject matter, the song is split in two between production by you and Swizz Beatz. Whose decision was that and how did it come together so seamlessly?
These were two separate songs, which is crazy. So Swizz Beatz did the first half and the name of that song was actually, "Black on Black Murder." And then the second half that I did was actually called, "Black Excellence." I remember this like it was yesterday and we were all in the studio together and Kanye is playing both of these songs and he plays the Swizz Beatz song first, and then my version. We’re in the studio wilding out, listening to it and jumping around, and then he was like, "Yo what if we merge these two together?" So the engineer did it in the session and I remember us playing it and that transition happened the way it immediately went into the other song and we were just going crazy in the studio, like this is it. So they merged the titles, "Let’s just call it "Murder to Excellence." The transition was so powerful because it flowed so smooth and it sounded, with the samples that Swizz and I chose they were very familiar but different, so it just blended so well.
Subject matter wise, these two carved out a true gem that speaks on topics that is as relevant today as it was back then. What does it mean for you to be a part of such a special moment like that?
Being a part of that record means everything. Just to be a part of a legendary record like that. The substance on that record is so real and like you said, it's so relevant. It's awesome to be a part of that. What's crazy is that, and this is an extra bonus for me, my parents were even able to listen to that record because that's the one song on the album that they didn’t use any profanity or anything. When I got it and I listened to it, I remember seeing Kanye at No I.D.’s wedding and I was like, "Yo, how’d the joint come along." He was like, "Man, we kept it the same. We didn’t add anything." So when it came out and I heard it, I was like, "Yo?!" And I got to play it for my parents and for them to love it that meant everything to me. This is five years later and it's still relevant. The same things they talking about is still relevant today, so it was a blessing to be a part of that.
Where were you when WTT dropped and what's your take on its legacy five years later?
When the album dropped I was home here in Texas and I remember going to the store and bought six to seven copies of it. I always do that when I’m on an album, I go to store buy six to seven copies and then I just love, as soon as I get in the truck, putting it in and opening the credits while listening through. I still do that. There’s nothing like it. It was just one of the moments where, at that point in my career, I was on The Throne album. I’m a huge fan of Kanye and Jay, always been a huge fan so, at that moment to be working with them and them respecting me for what I do and loving what I do, it was just such a blessing. These are people that I used to buy they’re albums with the dream to work with them one day and to be in that moment of like, Okay I worked with them and this album just came out that I produced a song for them on? It’s a powerful moment and so emotional, like it actually happened. [Laughs] It's a blessing and I don't take any of it for granted.
It's so crazy because five years later, we’re all here waiting on Watch the Throne 2
Yeah, so we’ll see what happens on that. [Laughs]