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.
Elton “L10” Cheung has worked on every Smino album since 2015 and got his start with Chance The Rapper’s breakout mixtape Acid Rap. “Coming off Acid Rap, he was rubbing shoulders with the Joey Badass’, Mac Millers, and Tyler, The Creators,” Cheung told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the engineer speaks on helping Chance make classic projects, being the first person to record Noname, and Smino’s new album. Peep below!
How did you connect with Chance the Rapper for Acid Rap?
I was interning at Classick Studios in Chicago. Chance was looking for an engineer in Chicago at the time to really just lock in. We had done one-off sessions here and there. They remembered me and my work ethic. I had a friend who vouched for me. Chance has a really good memory of people’s faces and was super welcoming. He was moving around with so many other people in the city, I thought I was just going to record him and send out the sessions to get mixed. He approached me like, “We were hoping you would do it.” I was like, “Oh snap, let’s go.” Acid Rap was the first project I ever worked on.
What was his creative process?
It was so community-driven. Everyone was in it for the love of music and wanted to be a part of something special. Chance and his team were open to it. I thought that was beautiful, especially at a time in Chicago when things were going crazy. Everyone knew what was going on. I would have weekly sessions with Chance — one or two per week. I would advise him to come to the studio early so he could write because we had this extra production room. He would write in there for a couple of hours, and then our sessions would only be four-hour blocks... He was so locked in and focused. He was so vulnerable about certain topics that he’d write about it. He’d ask around the room for input like, “Should I say this?”
You mentioned how the Chicago artistic community was in those sessions with BJ The Chicago Kid, Noname, and Vic Mensa being a few to appear on Acid Rap. What was the camaraderie like in the studio?
That was like one of the first times Noname was rapping on a record. I was honored to be a part of that. When she laid down her verse on “Lost,” they were running so late. There were probably about 10 minutes left in the session and I had to finesse this specific time for them to get in, and do it. She knocked it out in five minutes — maybe one or two takes. Fast forward, I ended up working on Telefone with her. That project took years to make. I think she came through during the Coloring Book session, saw what I was doing, and was like, “I have this album and I don’t know if you want to rock with me or whatever. But, it’d be dope if you would.” I was like, “Bet.” I told her, “I was the first one to ever record you,” and she said, “Yeah, I remember that (laughs).”
Chance’s “Cocoa Butter Kisses” sounds like it was a big production. How did it come about?
I have to give that credit to Cam O’bi. He has such a vision for his music. The original producer of “Cocoa Butter Kisses,” I think, accidentally sold the beat or something, so all of the rights were lost. But, Cam was in town and they showed him the original version. Then, Chance asked Cam if he could do something with this. I think it was up to Cam to finish the song because they were still touring pretty crazy at the time. They left me with Acid Rap for three months to mix it (laughs).
There’s an unreleased version of “Cocoa Butter Kisses”?
Yeah. It was very different. It wasn’t like how it came out. I think I still have a version of the original version.
After Acid Rap, Chance’s star rose considerably, and then he started working on Coloring Book. How did his new stardom change sessions?
The budget got a little bit bigger (laughs). I felt the same amount of pressure with Acid Rap as I did with Coloring Book because Chance was like the chosen one from Chicago during Acid Rap. Everyone was behind Chance. Coming off Acid Rap, he was rubbing shoulders with the Joey Badass’, Mac Millers, and Tyler, The Creators. Three years later for Coloring Book, it becomes, “Oh, Justin Bieber’s a really close friend of mine. Kanye is a close friend of mine now. They’re one call away. We’re waiting on Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz vocals.” I’m like, “What?!” He does a lot of recording in Chicago, but at the time, he was moving around a lot. He spent a lot of time in L.A and Atlanta.
On Acid Rap and Coloring Book, are there any songs where fans can hear what you added?
For sure. That’s why I’m so proud of Acid Rap. Not only was it my first major project, but I was also given a lot of creative freedom. I was doing any and everything creatively. Chance would come back and be like, “Hey, can we dial that back a little bit?” On “Acid Rain,” I put a little echo when he goes “wooo” near the end of the song. Chance was riding around in the car on the session and he came in like, “Yo, what you did on the end of ‘Acid Rain’ really fucked me up. I was listening to it and when that ‘woo’ shit came moving left and right, I was tweaking out like, ‘What is that?’” I felt so good off of that alone.
You previewed a version of “Juke Jam” from Coloring Book on your Instagram that had extra guitars and sounded new. What was that?
The thing about Coloring Book is I mixed half of the album, but I was also mixing these alternative versions of the songs. I was mixing the re-arranged versions and what I posted was a re-arranged version of “Juke Jam” that we had. I wish it could’ve seen the light of day.
What do artists like Chance and Smino get from you when they’re in a session?
I’m the catalyst. I’m the difference-maker. You just have to trust me. I’ve helped build so many careers off of engineering. Once I understand your vision and we talk it out, I start to have the same vision and take it there. My entire thing is to make sure we put out the best art possible.
I heard you mastered Reaux Marquez’s No Roads album. He has a vibe similar to Smino’s.
He’s fire. I heard the raps and how well they were put together and I was like, “Yo! This is insane.” It was the attention to detail. The project flowed flawlessly. That Reaux Marquez album sounds amazing.
The one artist you’re tied the closest to is Smino. How did you connect with him?
It all came through Classick Studios; it’s a magical place. Smino has been coming here since he was in college. I was interning at the time. We would just kick it on some chill homie shit. I think he moved back to St. Louis and then moved back to Chicago a few years later. We were homies for a minute and then he asked if I’d be his engineer. I was like, “Let’s get it, man.” That was after having Acid Rap under my belt. We’ve been working since 2014/2015. He had two EPs —- S!Ck S!Ck S!Ck and blkjuptr — I worked on those.
What was Smino’s creative process?
He’s always creative. He’s always flipping words, even in conversation. He has hella wit. I can't wait until people finally wake up, listen to some of these songs, and read some of these lyrics because he has so much to him. He’s a drummer, so his cadence and timing are crazy. Go back to some of the stuff he’s saying because he’s flipping the hell out of some words in his raps. He’s definitely a legacy artist. He’s had it this entire time.
What is your favorite session from blkswn?
“Anita.” Management was asking for the album. Being a creative, Smi felt like doing one more song. This was when we had to start mixing the album. Montee [Booker] was working on something. Smi walked in like, “What’s this? Let me grab this.” I think he still has some of his voice memos. So, he was doing the “Aniiitttaa” on the voice memo and all of that. I think he wrote that shit quick that same night. He just locked in.
What is the creative connection between Smino and his primary producer Montee Booker in the studio?
I think the first time they met each other, they started flaming each other (laughs). It goes beyond music. There was a lot of hanging out when times weren’t sweet at all. There was a whole ‘lot of Harold’s Chicken and mild sauce. There was a lot of music and time... These guys are bros for life. They really built this Zero Fatigue thing together. They are both 10 years ahead. Think about it, “Kolors” popped off and went viral last year. That song came out in 2015.
What about Smino did you have to learn to record him?
By hanging out and nerding out about music. We made a lot of mistakes. The workflow has changed a lot. He lives in L.A. now and he’s a completely different artist. We’re working on the album now, he’s a 100% different artist. Montee is a different producer now. We’ve evolved so much over the years. I’ve learned a lot of new things. I’m mixing completely different than I used to.
What’s the biggest difference fans will hear on this new album coming?
Stay tuned, it’s really crazy. Have you heard “Rice & Gravy”? That song sounds so futuristic and it was done last year. Imagine all of the newer stuff.
How did the pandemic affect recording with Smino?
Montee, Smi, and [myself] all have our own setups. Smino has his setup at his crib and he’s recording himself. He gets the job done really well. It didn’t really affect things too much. I think Smi was leaning towards recording himself anyways. He’s always been super self-sufficient. The scary part is when we all come together. We have this ongoing joke when we say we come together and form Voltron.