Studio Sessions | Focus talks the making of Anderson .Paak's 'Ventura' and Dr. Dre's kingdom
Focus has been signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint since the year 2000.
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.
Most people can only stay humble for so long when their sonic fingerprint has touched Beyonce, Eminem, Marsha Ambrosius, Kendrick Lamar, and many others who have surely found a home in your ears over the last 20 years. But, 46-year-old producer Bernard “Focus” Edwards Jr. does just that.
“There’s only one king in the kingdom. If you try to usurp that king, you’re doing yourself a disservice. I want to learn what Dr. Dre has to give me,” Focus told REVOLT TV.
Since 2000, Focus has been signed to Dr. Dre’s Aftermath imprint and in addition to becoming a production legend in his own right, he has mixed Dre’s Compton album, as well as Anderson .Paak’s upcoming Ventura album side-by-side with the good doctor. For this installment of “Studio Sessions,” the 25-plus-year veteran explains what went into the making of Ventura , Beyonce getting all the credit she deserves on songs, and what it’s like helping keep Dr. Dre’s legacy alive.
You’ve been around Dr. Dre for nearly 20 years. What was the first session you did with him?
I only just started working with Dre in the same studio as of recent. But, I was working for Dre back in 2000. So, I used to go into the studio by myself and come bring him the beats I worked on. So, we never worked in the studio together. I think it was one time where it was me, Dre and Mike Elizondo, and that was pretty amazing. I always looked up to Mike and Dre.
You and Dre have worked together in the past. But, the latest collaboration is with Anderson .Paak. Why is he the most exciting artist to work with in the studio?
He’s entertaining. He’s truly a master of his craft. At the same time, he’s truly overly talented. When I hear his approach to music, it gives me a great feeling being an old school head. At the same time, his new school approach is different. I love the fact that it’s a very creative spirit that goes into the studio and goes into the creative process with him. It’s not all bent around, ‘Oh, let’s make a single.’
What is it like making music with him in the studio?
When it comes down to Anderson being in the studio, it’s all energy. If you could bottle up, and put thunder and lightning into one person, that’s what he is. That’s 100% the honest truth. So, when he goes in, he’s on fire for whatever he’s creating. So, once he turns up, either you hold on for dear life and you can hang, or you’re just on the wayside. Anderson is going to keep moving. I love that about him. He has such a rockstar persona.
Does he freestyle his lyrics?
I’ve seen Anderson build from scratch. Knowing that Anderson used to rap, it’s very easy for him to get into the mode of what he’s going to talk about. Melodies are effortless for him. I guess you can say he freestyles everything. It really comes from him vibing.
.Paak decided to drop a bombshell on the world by announcing this week that he had an album coming out in April. You mixed all of Ventura with Dre, right?
How is Ventura different from Oxnard?
Just the fact he’s singing more. It’s more soulful. The records and the approaches are going to feel a lot more like what he did on Malibu. It’s going to feel a lot more like what they’re used to with the transition from Breezy Love Joy to Anderson .Paak. His true audience will understand this album. I have at least four or five favorites on Ventura. I am very much in love with Ventura as a project.
How far into the making of Oxnard did he know he wanted to drop two albums?
I don’t think there was a decision to make two albums, we just started creating. Anderson was just making records. Let me take that back. I think he went into [making Oxnard] to make a double album. But, for the initial run of an artist, the first thing you want to do is not give your audience too much. So, I think he started to realize, ‘If I give them all of this right now, it might be too much.’ All of this was happening together. Oxnard and Ventura. There was a dry erase board in the studio with two separate albums on it.
Did any songs make it on Oxnard that were originally supposed to be on Ventura?
Plenty of them. I don’t remember which. You’d have to ask Anderson about that (laughs).
He had Kendrick, Pusha T and J. Cole on Oxnard. Is there a collaboration of similar caliber that will have people go crazy?
Yes, and that’s all I can give you. You know I can’t and you know I won’t (laughs). All I’m going to tell you is that this album is going to be talked about. This album is my favorite of the two.
You also helped with Oxnard. Before I continue, I have to ask: Whose idea was it for Dr. Dre to have that accent on ‘Mansa Musa’ from Oxnard?
I didn’t see Dre cut his parts for ‘Mansa Musa.’ It probably was Dre’s decision. Dre doesn’t do much of anything that’s forced on him. He might’ve thought it was really cool and gave a little texture on it.
One of the two best songs from Oxnard was ‘Cheers.’ It was co-produced by Q-Tip and Dr. Dre, along with you and Andre Brissett. What was that session like with those two legends?
The record was a vibe between Q-Tip and Dre. That’s what we were experiencing, Dre and Q-Tip producing together. The original record Q-Tip bought was a lot more raw. It was a lot more ‘hip-hop’ than the final version. We cleaned it up. Once Dre starts touching anything, it’s going to be bigger than life. All the beat was originally was the guitar lick you hear in the beginning and the kick drum. That’s what they started with. That was the entire infrastructure of the mood, and then we built up from there.
Just seeing the mutual admiration for one another’s legacy was the biggest thing because I grew up on A Tribe Called Quest. A Tribe Called Quest changed my life. That’s one of my greatest influences. Dr. Dre, too.
When you’re in that moment with legends, what is your role?
Well, I’m a student of the game at all times. When you listen to Dre and how he orchestrates, he’ll say, ‘Yo, we need a drum loop.’ So, I’ll try to turnaround and tap into what his thought process is, and nail whatever directive he gives out. I don’t ever try to overplay myself. There’s only one king in the kingdom. If you try to usurp that king you’re doing yourself a disservice. I want to learn what Dre has to give me. I want to learn whatever Q-Tip has to give me. It was one of my favorite experiences.
Were Q-Tip and Anderson in the studio together when they recorded those verses for ‘Cheers’?
These were two emotional verses that discuss the deaths of Mac Miller and Phife. Did they have any conversations about those topics?
Yes, they had conversations. It was a heavy moment because Mac died, I think, four to five days before we recorded the song. It was really heavy for Anderson. Then, to see Q-Tip want to touch on that subject was ridiculous. We got a moment in hip hop history.
Oxnard wasn’t your first time working with Dre in the studio. You also worked with Dre on his album Compton. When did you link with Dre for Compton?
If I’m not mistaken, it was 2013. I came back to L.A. in October . He was like, ‘Yeah, I just want to create music, I just want to make music.’ Then, he told me about the movie. Then, just creating music moved to us working towards a real project. It was really fun. There were no ceilings, no floors, no walls. We got to create off the rip and make some different stuff.
Clear this up for me. Was Compton the album we were supposed to get for Detox? Or, is Detox an entirely different album?
No, Compton is not Detox. Compton is Compton. The album Compton is not really a soundtrack for the movie. It was just Dre in a creative place and the inspiration the film gave him was us creating from his creative place. As far as Detox is concerned, there’s a lot of music from it from the past. So, I never know what is really going to happen with that. It’s an urban legend now.
You put your foot into a few beats on Compton. None more, to me, than ‘Medicine Man’ with Eminem. How did that song come together?
Dem Jointz produced the main chunk of that record. The person that was doing the hooks for us at the time, Candice Pillay, did the hook for the song. [Dem Jointz] knew that was something he wanted the world to hear. So, he just pieced together old verses of Em’s and Dre was like, ‘This is a dope idea.’ When he played it for Em, Em was like, ‘I want to do a whole new verse.’ I believe Em did two verses. When he did the verse, Dre was like, we got to make it sound cinematic, make it sound like a movie.
OK, wait. When you say Dem Jointz pieced together old Em verses to present to Dre before Eminem even started writing to the song, you mean verses that have already come out, right?
I have no idea what songs they came from. They were unreleased verses.
So, Dr. Dre just has all these unreleased acapellas that you can just go through and make new songs with and all?
We’re allowed to. We just have to clear it with him. His vault is deep. There are super, super songs in those vaults. When Eminem sent the verse for ‘Medicine Man’ in, we all lost our minds. Dre was the one who pressed play on it. I think he called Em after he played it for us. Dre told us, ‘This is it.’
You have such a varied history. You also worked on Beyonce’s first ever album, Dangerously In Love, on the song ‘Yes.’ Beyonce has a co-production credit on it. Why is that and what did she produce on the record?
Beyonce vocally produces herself and she did all of her arrangements. That is production. When she first came out, her father was adamant she got all of the credit she deserved. That is important because it made her what she is today. She’s a perfectionist. It’s just like working with Dre. It was super dope. When I came in, she was working with a bunch of producers. When I came in, she heard mine and said ‘It was perfect.’ Tony Maserati mixed it, so she was super happy with the way it came out.
What is the studio dynamic necessary to make great music?
If everybody is on the same page, then you’re going to make great music. I think everybody comes in with preconceived notions and that messes up with everything, like, coming in and going, ‘We have to make a hit.’ When you put barriers onto a session, you’re killing yourself. I don’t think a lot of people don’t see they’re doing that to themselves.
Do you see that happen with major artists?
All the time. All the time. The biggest thing that kills someone’s creativity. If the first thing you do is tell yourself you have to do this, if it doesn’t come out in that moment, you’re going to feel like you’ve failed. That’s the worst thing you can do to yourself.
Different producers have different roles in the studio. What’s yours?
Just because of my seniority and how long I’ve been at Aftermath, I try to make Dre’s job easier. I have to teach him that what he taught me isn’t in vain. It’s easy to sit here and be like, I work with Dr. Dre. But, when you turnaround and show him, ‘I was worth all that time. I was worth the energy,’ that means a lot to me.
What is an example of Dre’s work ethic in the studio?
Anybody that knows Dre knows he’s passion-driven. I watched the inception of Beats headphones. I got to be around for that. That was one of the most amazing things in the world. He just mentioned it in the studio like, ‘Man, I’m about to get into these headphones.’ The way he said it was like, it was a regular thing. Then, it became the biggest thing. I’ve also been in the studio where he’s been in the studio three to four days straight and not dosed off. His work ethic is infallible.
What is your proudest moment in the almost 20 years of working with Dre?
Compton. That was super, super dope for me. On top of that, to turnaround and Dre gave me the opportunity to work on the mixes. For him to trust me like that is probably the biggest thing, to me, ever. That’s his fingerprint. Your mixes are everything. When you mix for the person you look up to, it holds a lot more weight. He allowed me to flex my creative muscle on Compton in more ways than one.
Who do you want to produce that you haven’t?
I want to start scoring. I want to find new artists that make me excited, so I’m doing anything I can do to do passion projects. If there’s anyone I would love to work with, it’d be someone like Kim Burrell. I’d love to also work with Brandy. I’ve worked with her family before and I helped her out on tour. But, I’ve never worked with her in the studio. I just want to do stuff that makes me excited and work with people that are really creative.
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