Studio Sessions | Ron Gilmore Jr. was Dreamville's secret weapon on Ari Lennox's 'Shea Butter Baby'
If you listened to Ari’s new album or any J. Cole album ever released, and wondered how they captured their timeless sounds, it’s partly because of Ron Gilmore Jr.
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.
If you listened to Ari Lennox’s Shea Butter Baby or any J. Cole album ever released, and wondered how they captured their timeless sounds, it’s partly because of Ron Gilmore Jr. The 34-year-old Nashville, Tennessee native is a multi-talented musician whose aspirations for greatness spills over into every song we hear him bring to life.
“I’m a cat who can read music, write music, compose music, engineer, play piano, sing a little bit, I can produce, I can write songs. The only people I’ve ever known to have all these talents and be as good as this are Quincy Jones and Dr. Dre,” Gilmore Jr. told REVOLT TV.
For this installment of Studio Sessions, Gilmore Jr. breaks down the frustrations and laughter while making Ari Lennox’s debut album, how J. Cole has evolved in the studio, and how his own album sounds like nothing that’s out now.
Ari tweeted that J. Cole produced the track ‘Facetime’ during their first ever session together in 2016. How long has this album been in the works?
That couldn’t have been 2016. It had to be before that. I remember when Bas and I were working on Too High To Riot. That’s when Ari and I did ‘I Been.’ That was 2015. That’s when she did that record with Cole… I remember because she was in L.A. and I hadn’t officially met her yet, and Cole had brought her in to write for these Rihanna sessions. That’s what it was. So, she was there in L.A., and it was funny because I had missed her in that session. We had already known of her from Omen. Omen is the one that got us all hip to Ari and he put her on his album Elephant Eyes. We’ve definitely have been working on Shea Butter Baby since 2015.
With that much time to make an album, I wonder how often Shea Butter Baby changed. How many different versions of the album were there over those four years?
There were different track-listings for sure. But, this is pretty much it. It was a long, tedious process to even get to 12 songs. There are more songs that are also good. It wasn’t one of those situations where we thought we had the album before. Nah, we pretty much worked on what we worked on and maybe a month before [the release], we came to grips with what was going to be on the album. I know the ones that we did in 2015 — ‘I Been’ and ‘Facetime’– kept making it through the cut lists. It would be a tracklist and it would be 20 songs. Then, it was cutting from there, and cutting from there, and cutting from there until we got to 12.
You mentioned ‘I Been.’ That is the only song on the album where you’re listed as the sole producer. It’s one of the barest songs in terms of production and the song is really anchored by her voice. How does her vocal stylings influence the type of beats you make for her?
It makes you feel like you can do anything. Not just her vocal styles, but her writing abilities. Homie can just get on the mic and come up with something that’s incredible. When we did ‘I Been,’ that was old school writing sessions. I was at a piano and she was literally sitting in front of the piano joking around. It was a joke when we first started. Then, it got serious. We looked up five minutes later and we had almost a full song.
The process gives you a lot of confidence as a producer because you’re working with a singer who, stylistically, can flip any style for you and as a writer; can come up with something amazing on the spot. As a vocalist, she can do anything she wants to do. It made me feel like how I’m used to writing — me being from Nashville. It made me know I can get back to that again. Normally, I just send tracks to singers and do it like that. With Ari and I, we sit down at the piano, come up with the piano and vocals of the songs, I come up with the track and then, she sings over it. That’s some Nashville shit. That’s a Nashville writing process. Being able to do that with an R&B singer in this day and age is everything.
How has Ari Lennox evolved as a recording artist since 2015?
Tremendously. Let’s just keep it real, Ari was a beast when we met her (laughs). Period. I think, personally, her maturity in the studio and her growth is a result of her being around everybody for four to five years. Keep in mind what I said, we did ‘I Been’ in 2015 (laughs). She was already cold. She got more mature in the studio with her choices. But, she was already good before we stepped up in there. She’s a natural talent. She’s not one of those artists we had to build up.
Like you said, the writing for ‘I Been’ started from her joking around and there’s lyrics about not having luck on Tinder. If you go on her Instagram Live, she’s very playful. What is her personality like in the studio?
She’s a blast to work with. Whether it’s me, Ari and Elite; or it’s me and Ari, it’s always jokes. That’s what makes it such a funny process. It’s like ‘The Office’ (laughs). Even if you listen to the beginning of ‘Speak To Me,’ you can hear us joking before she goes, ‘You recording me, Ron?’ That shit really happens in the studio all the time. It’s weird little interactions, but we all have a certain kind of humor. It’s actually a very, very funny, not serious vibe in the studio with Ari.
The album took four years make and it’s her first album. It’s happened before where artists get frustrated by how long it’s taking. Did you notice any frustration on Ari’s part?
Maybe not, but maybe. I think she handled it pretty well at times. Just being young, in this day and age, being talented in this day and age [is difficult]. We see everything now. We see everybody’s albums coming out — our peers. We see what everybody is doing and we look back at our lives, and we think our lives are supposed to be like that. That’s a culture thing we’re going through right now… Hell yeah, there was frustration and tension on everybody’s part. From homies having demo-itis to going through mix engineers. All kind of shits.
At the end of the day, I think we all expected that. I know I expected, There’s always stages to the process. There are the building and creation where they’re all good money, it’s putting the album together, and then at the end, it’s all artist freak out. Every artist has to have an artist freak out when their album is about to come out, and that’s when the tension is the highest and you’re the most frustrated. For me, it’s almost necessary to have that. If you don’t have that, [that] means you don’t have any fear in your heart and you don’t really put your all into it. It is what it is, man. It happens.
How involved was J. Cole in the making of this album?
(Laughs) You know Cole is big boss dog. Cole definitely did the track to ‘Facetime,’ and when we started to actually put the album together, there were definitely a few meetings where Cole was involved in, in terms of the structure of the album and the structure of ideas. As far as getting down in there and doing production like he did for Bas, he didn’t do that. But, he was definitely a paramount figure in the production and the making of this album. We would have these meetings and everyone knows that Cole always has his own perspective, and it’s always one that most of the times, nobody in the room has. It’s always good to have that person in the midst of you creating something. He wasn’t getting down and dirty like he was on Bas’ album, but he definitely was there.
What song would you say ended up the most different than when initially created?
‘BMO.’ It was done by Omen. Originally, it was just the drums and the sample. This is a good story. Ari recorded ‘BMO’ and we had that song for a minute. It was just sitting in the vault. Ari’s manager Justin [LaMotte] heard the song randomly because it wasn’t going to be on the album. Justin heard it and hit up Omen. While I’m working on Omen’s album, Omen is like, ‘You should come play on this track.’ When people ask me to go play on a track, I don’t just play piano on a track. I’ll go through the track. I’ll go engineer it. I’ll go mix it. I’ll beef up the sound. I might add shit, I might not.
But, when I got done with that song — as far as adding everything I added, mixing a little bit on it, adding a bass line, changing the drums up a little bit. By the time we got done with that song, that song was everything you hear today. That song took a leap. It went from not being on the album to being a smash.
Are you working on any music for yourself?
I’m actually putting an album out and dropping the first single on May 10. No one knows that in the press except you. We finished my album in 2016. Right after I finished The Maturation of Little Ron, we went to the studio and recorded a full-length album (laughs). It’s with all my homies I grew up with, it’s all live and I was reading Malcolm X’s autobiography when I wrote it. It’s very on the black power tip. I’ve been holding it for three years because I was waiting for someone to come out with something that’s better than this. Nobody has. Ain’t nobody talking what I’m talking about.
Your work with Ari originated from your longstanding relationship with Dreamville and J. Cole. How did you link up with Cole?
This is a complicated story and there are a lot of moving parts. I’ll start in Nashville in 2004. In Nashville in 2004, I’m playing keys in this band for this guy named Tim Dillinger. In 2007, he decides to move to New York. I start working with him again in 2009. By this time, he’s living in New York working with his group. They wanted me to come to New York and be the music director for the band. I did this for two months in 2009.
While doing that, they had lost their original bass player and the third bass player named was Nate Jones On Bass. Nate went to SUNY Purchase with Elite (a Dreamville producer). So, Nate Jones On Bass uses me to play keys on his open mics, his gigs, and also studio sessions. So, Nate Jones brings me to a studio session with Elite. I do a session with Elite and he’s flipping out like, ‘Ahh, this guy is the greatest.’ From there, Elite and I build up a relationship. I was living in Nashville, but decided to move to New York in 2010.
When I moved to New York in 2010, Elite brings me to Roc The Mic [Studios] while him and Cole are working on ‘Who Dat.’ Now, keep in mind, I had just met Cole that night. I met him and I was sitting in the lobby while they were in the studio finishing up ‘Who Dat.’ I’ll never forget that shit. This was at the time when The Warm Up had already come out. I remember Elite sending me a physical copy of ‘The Warm Up’ to learn it because we’re going to do sessions with Cole. I didn’t even know who he was when I started working with him.
So, you were around for his Friday Night Lights run in 2010. What was the impact you saw that mixtape have on Cole’s career?
In 2010, we were already in the middle of a tour when he released Friday Night Lights and I’ll tell you, in a day, it was a night and day difference. We were doing gymnasiums and little small clubs, and he was hoping to sell out 300, 400, 500 people. That Friday Night Lights dropped, we did a show in Boulder, Colorado [at The Fox Theatre on November 17, 2010]. For us it was like, ‘Oh my god. We sold out 600 people.’ That was the first thing that came out that I had played on, I played on the intro. I think that was it. I can’t remember if I did anything else besides that.
You worked on every J. Cole album. But, the one where you’re credited as a producer the most on is Born Sinner. What was the making of that album like compared to his other albums?
It was growth. When we did Sideline Story, Cole was very much so — in terms of people working with him — coming into his own of trusting people with having input as valuable as his. For me, that album was the chance to prove to myself that I can do this on a major level. Cole put a lot of faith in Elite and I. It was everything you can dream of for making an album and how it came to be. I tirelessly worked on that album.
How has Cole evolved from the making of Sideline Story and Born Sinner to last year with K.O.D.?
Honestly, it’s choices. It’s choices and confidence. Having the confidence to make decisions to know that’s the best decision. In the past, it was a lot of conversations and trying different things. But, his confidence, as far as knowing what he wants to do, that’s what has changed. It’s really grown. He’s still as good as he was in the studio. People don’t know, but K.O.D. was essentially done in two weeks (laughs). He did most of them beats by himself and in two weeks. That could have never happened before K.O.D. Where he was at in his confidence with K.O.D. has been a major turning point in his career.
What’s the most impressive thing you’ve seen in the studio?
A comedian came in the studio once. He asked a musician what was the first song he ever learned and the last song he ever learned. So, the comedian made the musician play, on the spot, the first song he ever learned and made him merge it with the last song he ever learned. When the musician was done playing, the comedian went and literally told the musician about his whole life based on what he was playing, and the comedian was spot on.
Who was the comedian and the artist?
The comedian was Dave Chappelle and the artist was me (laughs).
Wow. That’s crazy. See, you’re in some rooms where stars can pop up whenever. What was the most star-studded session you’ve ever been a part of?
That night it was Cole, Cozz, Dave Chappelle, Flying Lotus and Thundercat in the studio (laughs). I was sitting around like, ‘Damn, there’s some heavy hitters in here.’
What is the status of Revenge of the Dreamers 3?
They’re finishing it up right now. The status where it’s at in terms of being completed? I don’t know. I can say there have been sessions where songs have been put together and there have been meetings about tracklisting. But, I don’t want to say too much because it’s not my place to say. I’ll say this, that album is going to change a whole lot of things for a whole lot of people. Every track on that bitch is hard. On some tracks you’re going to be like, ‘Oh my god, who is this person?’ Those sessions were legendary and changed my life for sure.
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