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.
In less than 10 years, producer Bongo ByTheWay went from working at a car dealership in Jacksonville, Florida to having his work praised by the likes of Dr. Dre, Nipsey Hussle, Chance The Rapper, Jazmine Sullivan, and Jeremih among others.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the Grammy award-winning producer explains getting praised by Dr. Dre, communicating with Jeremih while the singer had COVID-19, and working with Kanye West. Peep below.
What was your first session in the studio with a major artist?
Musiq Soulchild. The song was called “Radio.” It was one of the first songs where he was trying to do the Atlanta rap thing. In hindsight, what I took from it was being able to bring different worlds together.
That Jazmine Sullivan “Girl Like Me” collaboration with H.E.R. you produced is my favorite song. How’d that come about?
She had the music for that for a long time. I’m looking at one version that says “Jazmine CLM New String Reference” and that was on the 30th of January 2020. So, I probably gave that to her in 2019. After I heard Anderson .Paak’s verse on the album, I was talking to him and told him, “You blacked out.” He was saying, “I’m just glad it made it after all this time.” She was working on this project for a long time. We had different versions of this record. There’s a version with strings on it. We went back and forth to make the right call. I love how it turned out. That was a blessing. It was hard trying to keep it low because she’s a huge artist and this is a collaboration that brings together another set of words. Every now and then I would pull out that record and think, “Hmm, one day (laughs).”
Two other worlds you brought together were YBN Cordae and Roddy Ricch on “Gifted.” It felt like the union of two rising stars entering their peak. What went into that?
Shout out to Ray Keys, Kid Culture, and Tarron [Crayton]. I like to work with really amazing people and that helps bring it all together. I had recently got a crib in The Valley, I had a baby grand piano in the living room, and Ray would come over to make our own samples... One day we did that and it ended up being that song. I pulled up on Cordae randomly one day. I put drums to the sample and Tarron came to put a bassline on it. Cordae started rapping to it that moment and putting the whole shit together. Later on, unbeknownst to me, Cordae was like, “I have to get Roddy on this.” It wasn’t a reach. It was still authentically Cordae. It was like he brought Roddy into his world. We had a whole bunch of different versions. I made the beat in early 2019, had my laptop and hard drive stolen over summer 2019, and I lost five years of music — pretty much everything I had done since I got to L.A. We worked on that. There were real man-hours that went into that and the different ways we could add different elements to make it just right.
How did you first link with Cordae?
Gary Leon from Atlantic Records put it together and told me, “I know you’d be perfect for this dude.” Also, Success was an A&R at the time. They had foresight. When I met Cordae, I was taken aback... in a good way. He had a vision, which is the best thing for me as a producer. Everything we did on The Lost Boy was revisited. For “Family Matters,” we added the choir on it and built it out with live sounds. The song with Meek Mill (“We Gon Make It”) was a Hov interpolation. At first, there were no drums. Shout out to Kid Culture, who added the drums. Everything starts with a vision, but we all collectively see what it’s supposed to be at the end.
Let’s go back in your history a bit. How did you get to L.A. in order to work with these artists you have?
While I was working at a car dealership in Jacksonville, Florida for roughly a year; my homie Andrew Castro and I produced the track “Free From It All” off the Lecrae album Gravity. That album ended up charting on Billboard on the Gospel and Hip Hop charts, and it won a Grammy for Best Gospel Album. I let that whole situation happen passively. I was still working at the car dealership. When it won a Grammy, I knew I had to take it to the next level. There was no more motivating factor than getting a Grammy. That was early 2013 and later that year, I moved to L.A. The first time I ever got to L.A. was when I moved there.
One of the first people you worked with in L.A. was Jeremih. What was your creative process with him?
I’m not going to lie. Working with Jeremih changed my life, my approach to music, and how I write. He’s so outside the box, but something about everything he does in his delivery brings everything back to earth. He believes less is more. I learned so much from working with him. My choices changed. It made me realize all the weird stuff I do isn’t weird, it just has to be with the right vessel. He’s so versatile. There are songs we did where you’d be like, “That’s Jeremih?” This man has 17 different voices and 1,000 pockets. It made me want to know how to make the best song for that moment and knowing when you have a phenomenal songwriter and artist, you don’t have to overproduce. Sometimes it’s just getting the right sound and staying out of the way.
He had a crazy COVID-19 scare. Were you two working on music around that time?
When COVID had started, I actually did a project with Jeremih and Ant Clemons. We were just bored (laughs)... We literally did a whole project right when COVID hit. When he was going through what he went through, I was devastated. I kept in touch with the family. As soon as he got a phone, I was at BJ The Chicago Kid’s birthday party and my phone started ringing with a Chicago number. I picked it up and he was like, “Yo, what’s up?” I was like, “Who is this?” He was like, “Damn, my voice changed like that.” My spirits lifted. I called him when I got to Chicago after he was first admitted to the hospital and we were FaceTiming while he was in the hospital bed. Then, there was a minute when there was no contact and I was talking with the family. When he called me again, it let me know everything was going to be better and fine. I thank God for all of that.
Do you two have plans to get in the studio?
This nigga does not stop. He’s already hitting me saying, “Remember that beat you did? Can you send me that? I’m about to hit the lab.” He’s already been back in the studio. The last time I saw him, he was still on bed rest. But, I know if we were in Chicago together, we’d be working. Next time I’m in Chicago with him, we’re probably going to pick up where we left off musically.
You also worked with The Game on The Documentary 2 in 2015. What did those early sessions teach you as a producer?
It’s actually funny. When I first got to a Game session, I didn’t have any studio etiquette (laughs). I didn’t do anything wild, but when I walked in, they were working on a song and he had like 30 chicks all over the place. I was sitting for damn near two hours because I didn’t know anyone. I think Murda Beatz was there. I was waiting for someone to say something to me. After a few hours, I grabbed my shit and left (laughs). Later on, I would find out that’s how he is when he’s making music. He locks in and when he’s done he’s back to being the life of the party. When I went back, the first beat I played for him was this song “Made In America” that made it on The Documentary 2. Every beat I pulled up had Game like, “This kid is crazy.”
What were some surprisingly star-studded sessions you were in?
Working on what was originally Yandhi and turned into Jesus Is King. That was a movie of a time. Shout out to Ant Clemons. Some of those sessions were insane. Kanye had a studio set up in the middle of this warehouse in downtown Chicago. Ty Dolla $ign pulls up, Desiigner pulls up, 2 Chainz is pulling up, Big Sean is pulling up, Kid Cudi is pulling up. That was around the time ‘Ye was doing all of those albums back to back with Nas, Teyana [Taylor], and Pusha [T]. It was amazing seeing his process, and being a part of it, and seeing all these different huge energies humble themselves and write the craziest verses. Everyone respected Ye so much.
You’ve also spent time in the studio learning from Dr. Dre. What did he teach you?
Dre’s a perfectionist. When I did The Game and Nipsey joint (“Welcome Home”) around 2019, it was done but when we got to Dre, he loaded up my sounds on the board and with his hands on the mixing board, he was eq’ing and turning everything up. When I heard it after he was done, I was like, “Yo, this is night and day.” He brought life out of the track. It was dope watching him do it. He wasn’t trying to step on my toes. He asked me, “Yo, you rock with that?” I was like, “Yeah. You’re Dre (laughs).” There was a moment where he told the engineer, “Stop the music real quick. Turn Bongo’s tag up in the beginning.” When that happened, I was like, “I’ve arrived.” That wasn’t even that long ago. When we did The Documentary 2, he took it to everybody — Diddy, Wyclef, will.i.am. El DeBarge was in the studio. He also played it for Dre. I have this on tape, but Dre said, “I didn’t know what to expect, but I was pleasantly surprised. Bongo got it.”
You’ve worked with so many people. How do you balance being a super-producer with your family life?
Without going too much into my father’s situation, it caught our family by surprise, but we were ready. If I needed to on a moment’s notice, I would drop anything, drive to them, pick them up, go to LAX, fly to the hospital and fly back in the same day. There was a week where that happened. I was in session after session back to back. I was working in the studio, but then my people hit me like, “Yo, we have to go make sure dad is straight.” By the grace of God, he pulled through and was better than ever.