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Studio Sessions | Producer Kid Hazel takes us inside the making of 21 Savage's 'i am > i was' album

Hazel produced 'out for the night,' 'padlock,' 'asmr,' 'gun smoke,' 'letter 2 my momma,' and '4L' on Savage's latest project.

John Canon

For 'Studios Sessions,' we delve into the stories behind the long hours in the studio and all that goes into making an album by talking with artists, producers, engineers, photographers, and more who are intimately connected to the recording process with some of the biggest artists in the world. These are the stories that rarely leave the booth.

Believe it or not, 21 Savage has Costco partly to thank for why a good chunk of his first #1 album, i am > i was, hits so hard. From 2014-2017, producer Kid Hazel was better known as Ahmar Bailey, Costco's employee. Then, in February 2018, he signed to Savage's Slaughter Gang record label after the rapper was impressed by his production skills on Young Nudy's "Since When," which features himself. But, it was those Costco aisles where Hazel's drive -- which powered six of the 15 beats on i am > i was -- was created.

"I was working at Costco before my music career started. I was a hard worker. I was always working," Hazel told REVOLT TV. "So, when I'm doing music, I look at it the same way. I'm looking at this as my job. This is my career, and I got a little girl. So, this is everything for me."

Hazel went on to produce 'out for the night,' 'padlock,' 'asmr,' 'gun smoke,' 'letter 2 my momma,' and '4L' on Savage's latest project. For the first installment of "Studio Sessions," Hazel discusses what it was like being in the studio for the making of every song, the Lauryn Hill sample that would've changed one of the album's standout tracks, how Drake inspired part of the album, and much more.

What is the mood like in a 21 Savage studio session?

Savage don't like it too bright in there. It can't be too bright, but it can't be too dark. So, it's kind of dim, medium to low light. He has to have his Gatorade. When he comes in, there's usually a Gatorade right there for him. Savage's mood varies. He might've had a good night playing [NBA] 2K, gambling, doing his thing. Then, he'll come in the studio like, 'Let's get it. Hazel, play some beats.' Some nights, it could be the opposite. Savage is a real intellectual person, so deep conversation and stuff that raise topics for debate also get him going. His mood increases when a topic pops up that's really debatable. It could be about music, it could be life, it could be about nature.

Were you in the studio with him for any of the songs you produced?

I was in the studio with him for every single song on the album, even the ones I didn't produce. I've seen the creative process of each one being created.

What was the earliest song that was recorded for the album that you were a part of?

I'd have to say the earliest one would have to be 'gun smoke.' We did 'gun smoke' around August.

What's the timeframe that i am > i was was recorded?

Between May and June, he did 'ball w/o you.' Then, August-October we recorded. We stopped for a minute, and came back in to finish it in November and December. So, between May and mid-December. The last two songs recorded were 'asmr' and '4L.' Those were recorded in December.

Kid Hazel (left), Metro Boomin (center), 21 Savage (right) during 'i am > i was' session.
Kid Hazel (left), Metro Boomin (center), 21 Savage (right) during 'i am > i was' session.

One of the most talked about songs on the album is undoubtedly 'a lot,' his collaboration with J. Cole. What was that session like?

J. Cole's verse came in a little after the session. When we were in the studio, he actually took the record back home with him. He came to visit us. He called Savage like, 'Yo, what studio are you guys at?' Savage told him, 'We're at Tree Sounds.' So, J. Cole pulled up and Savage had his kids with him. That showed J. Cole a different side of Savage that he hadn't seen before: the father side. Shout out to J. Cole, he's very 'woke,' per se. It was almost inspiring.

You made 'out for the night.' What was your mindset going into making that one?

My big brother was really into oldie records. Growing up, I always listened to a lot of Brenton Woods, Smokey Robinson, and stuff like that. I made that beat long before I knew Savage was going to like it. I knew Savage was ready to change to different stuff. The background that I come from, I'm into a lot of oldie stuff, and I love Carlos Santana. The original sample was a Carlos Santana song that I sampled the guitar from.

What was the holdup on the Travis Scott vocals for the 'out for the night (part 2)?

It was supposed to have gotten done. But, you know how it is in the studio. You get to talking, chilling, and that's what happened in the studio that day when it was supposed to be done. They ended up going out and having fun. By the time they came back to the studio, Travis had to head out because he had a show the next day. We were in Tree Sounds Studios in Atlanta. Whenever that first day was [when he was in Atlanta for the Astroworld tour], that's when they laid it down.

That was Nov. 13. So, he came to the studio before his show?

He actually came after the show.

Kid Hazel (in far background), 21 Savage (in foreground) during 'i am > i was' session.
Kid Hazel (in far background), 21 Savage (in foreground) during 'i am > i was' session.

Wow. When Travis came to the studio to lay down the song, he's listening to your beat in front of you. Do you remember anything he said about the beat or conversations he had with Savage, while listening to it?

He actually really liked the song. When he came in the studio that day, that's when the talking began and Savage began to play what his album was, so far. He played him 'a lot,' 'break da law,' 'gun smoke,' and then when he got to 'out for the night,' Travis was rocking. 21 looked at Travis and said, 'Yeah, man. Only thing I'm waiting for to finish this album is you.' Travis said, 'That's what I came for, brother' (laughs). The verse had actually got in about two to three hours before the [album] release. We were trying to work it in. But, unfortunately, we weren't able to code and [have] everything in on time.

You also produced 'letter 2 my momma.' That's one of the more emotional songs on the album. That was a very personal song. What was Savage's mood in the studio recording that?

Oh man, we were on tour. We were in Ohio at the Bulkey House [Creative Space]. It was me, him, Meezy, [and] Pierre Bourne. [Savage] said, 'Hazel, I want to do a song like a letter to my momma. I want to name a song on my album 'letter 2 my momma.' So, I had a bunch of ideas pop in my head and from then on, I had started creating beats with that vibe and that heart. I called my mom to talk for a minute, and get that emotion and energy, and then I'd work on something. We had about four options, at first. One was a Lauryn Hill sample. But, unfortunately it wasn't able to go through. So, I ended up going back and redoing everything.

What Lauryn Hill song did you sample?

It was 'Ex-Factor.' It was hard. The final 'letter 2 my momma' came out right, though. I feel like it's a little more touching than what the 'Ex-Factor' one would've been. But, the 'Ex-Factor' one was hard, though.

What was the quickest song that went from him hearing the beat to him recording the song?

For 'padlock,' I wasn't there. Right before I came back to Atlanta, I had sent the 'padlock' beat. He had told me he was listening to that Drake album and was rocking with it. He was like, "I like the vibes on that Drake song 'Jaded.' Cook up something around that wave." That's when I did the 'padlock' joint. I sent him that one and he recorded that. But, I don't know how fast he recorded that one. But, I'd say the one I saw him knock out as soon as I played the beat would have to be 'gun smoke.' He did the first verse, came back, and did the second verse later. But, he did that first verse instantly. It probably took him less than 20 minutes to do that verse and the hook.

Were there any songs on the album inspired by deep conversations in the studio?

Yeah, the 'asmr' one. That's actually one of the beats me and Metro Boomin cooked up. About two or three days later, Metro came back and we had this big debate about how influential R. Kelly was at his time, comparable to Chris Brown for this generation. We were talking about that and then, Metro had played some beats and he played a couple of the ones we did. He played the 'asmr' beat and he was already fired. So, when we put that on he was like, 'Yeah, pull that up.'

What was the longest you've been in a studio session with Savage for this album?

We did a 10-hour session. We also had booked time in Tree Sounds from 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Savage would come in, do two or three songs. Then, he'd say, 'Hazel cook up.' That's when I would work on my own craft and work on new songs with Savage.

Who were some celebrities or artists who were in the studio who may have made the album?

DJ Akademiks came by. We chopped it up with him. We finished '1.5' in L.A. and Offset came through. Khalid, the American Boy, he came through. He showed us some songs from his new album. He's a very talented young man. Project Pat, but...

You were in the studio when Project Pat recorded his verse? What was that session like?

Yessir. Project Pat was one of the most grounded legends I ever met. He went in the studio, they played the song, and it didn't take them no time to lay that verse out. He freestyled that verse. Honestly, it took him less than 30 minutes.

What was Savage's reaction watching Project Pat record his verse, being that Savage grew up on him and Three 6ix Mafia?

Unfortunately, Savage wasn't there. He was actually on the way back. Project Patt came, and Savage didn't know until last minute. He knew they were setting it up. But, he didn't know [when it was happening]. By the time Savage got done with what he was doing and got back, Project Patt was heading out.

How many songs would you say got recorded for i am > i was?

At least 100. Just from my time being around, I've seen him record 100 songs.

How many beats did you submit to Savage before he picked the six that made the album?

We got about 30 songs done, recorded together. On the tour, we were knocking them out. When I got there [in August], we did a couple other beats. Every day, Savage would come in the studio, and depending on his mood, he'd be like, 'Hazel, play some beats.' Some he might like and tell me to put aside. But, the ones that really [did] catch with him, he [would] tell me to pull it up right now. Everything that we did that's on the album, they were those 'pull it right now' songs.

What are some collaborations that did not make the album that you hope comes out one day?

Oooh. Let me think about that one. Oh, man, there's a Ty Dolla $ign, 21 Savage song. I hope that one comes out.

What songs did he record on tour?

He did 'ball w/o you,' and really that's it. Most of the songs came after the tour. We had a lot of songs done.

What is your role in the studio once Savage already has the beats?

Once he already has the beat, I like to sit there and absorb the energy. I'm real big on energy, especially with Savage, since I'm signed to him. I want to make sure our chemistry is always going to be impeccable. Being that it's my first year meeting him and locking in with him, every time we in the studio and he says, 'Hazel play some beats,' I go into work mode.

What do you have cooking up in 2019?

I got something on Yo Gotti's album, I believe. Savage is keeping it moving. I can tell you that Savage is getting ready for the next one.

Hazel (foreground), Schoolboy Q (background) during 'i am > i was' session in Los Angeles
Hazel (foreground), Schoolboy Q (background) during 'i am > i was' session in Los Angeles

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