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 2016, Phoelix pretty much etched himself into the fabric of the next generation of great hip hop and R&B music. In that one year, he executive produced both Noname’s Telefone and Saba’s Bucket List Project, and was featured on Smino’s blkjuptr. Just a few years earlier, he was faced with a choice: Does he make music or continue working at J. Crew?
“I moved to Chicago and was working downtown while in this band called Art of Cool. We all moved from the suburbs to the city. We had a show one day and I had to work [at J. Crew] the same day and I couldn’t go to work,” Phoelix told REVOLT TV. ” I realized doing that job was just perpetuating the cycle that was not benefiting my family or my people. So, I just quit my job around 2013 – 2014.”
For this edition of Studio Sessions, Phoelix spoke about the possibility of a joint album from Saba, Noname and Smino; a Noname classic that almost didn’t happen, and how the next wave of great music is being made.
Do you remember the first thing you produced?
I was watching Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory one night and I had this idea to create this remake of [‘Pure Imagination’], and I went into the studio, and made that beat. I was able to get it out my head somewhat the way how I heard it. I knew I was on to something when I knew I could do that.
You linked up with Noname and Smino through Saba in 2015, a year or two after you quit your job at J. Crew. What is Noname like in the studio?
She’s pretty calm. She knows what she doesn’t like. She knows what she likes when she hears it. She’s very quick, sometimes. It varies. There are times we’ll go in the studio and just drink wine, talk about a concept and maybe start something. Then, we’d come back to it another day like, ‘Man, we need to make something out of this concept.’ It varies, but, it’s all very feel based. For example, there was a time for a week and a half, maybe two weeks, where we made two or three songs. Then, there’s another period where we were there for four days and made five or six songs.
Which session from the Telefone mixtape was the most memorable?
For me, I’d have to say ‘Shadow Man.’ That was probably the most pivotal session in my life. That was probably the first time I was in the same studio and creative space working with Smino, Saba, and Noname. When we finished ‘Shadow Man,’ it was also the first day I met Cam O’bi in person. He and Monte [Booker] really showed me a whole lot about production, and sound in regards to layering, spacing, and pairing.
What’s the biggest difference between the making of Telefone and the making of her latest project, Room 25?
With Room 25, I was able to fully take the reigns with production and really translate it the way I wanted to. Noname really gave me that freedom to take my sound and really match it up with the concepts and the feelings she was going for. It was really a lot of fun being in the studio with myself, Brian Sanborn (guitarist) and Luke Sangerman (drummer) creating every day. I feel like I had control on the production on that album.
When did you and Noname know you were working on an album?
Noname is pretty precise when she knows she wants to work on an album. We’ll talk about stuff. Sometimes, we’ll just start cooking and come up with concepts after. But, when she feels like she needs to make an album or put out new music, she’s very precise. She’s like, ‘Let’s start an album. What are you trying to do?’ Or she’ll have an idea. When we did Room 25, that’s how it was. She was like, ‘I have this idea. We should do something like this, this and this.’ It’s very straightforward.
Out of all the songs you two have worked on, what’s the quickest one that went from no beat and no verse to a full track?
Honestly, ‘Blaxploitation.’ That’s like four tracks. Drums, bass, and vibraphone. That’s pretty much everything. Also, ‘Montego Bay’ was quick. But, she ended up rewriting a verse. But, we finished the song by the end of the day. We started other songs on that day. It was during that period I mentioned before, where we did five or six songs in four days. ‘Montego Bay’ took about six hours.
Smino hinted at he, Noname and Saba would be making a project together as a group. Do you know if they’re working on an album as a trio?
There’s definitely a possibility that there might be an album in the works. I don’t want to talk too much about it because it’s a lot up in the air. But, I think that can happen and I’m all for that happening.
What is their chemistry like in the studio when they’re together?
It’s organic. We’re all friends first, originally, and then, the music was second. So, being in the studio is never like a weird thing. I haven’t been in the studio with Saba for a while. But, I know when we get in the studio together, it’ll be like old times.
Smino told REVOLT that he and Earthgang made a song on the ‘Hoopti Tour’ you all were on. Did you work on any music on that tour?
I have in the studio a couple of times. I sent Earthgang a couple of beats. I was trying to get in the studio with them, but it was my mom’s birthday. Hopefully, I can get in the studio with them before the tour’s done. I know we have a chance to get in the studio in Montreal. I’ve played them some stuff and they’ve played me some stuff. We’re definitely going to make some music. I also made a few joints for myself in the hotel.
Are there songs from your work with any of those three that were really close to not coming out or even being made?
I know for ‘Ace’ (from Room 25), the beat was OK to me. Then, Noname said, ‘Let’s send it to Smino and see what he can do with it and maybe we can get some inspiration from that.’ Then, Smino put the hook and the verse on there. We were like, ‘Oh, this shit is hot.’ She sent it to Saba, he put his verse on it and we were like, ‘Oh my god. This shit is fire.’ It went from almost being cut to a hot song. And now seeing it live and the crowd [going] crazy, I’m glad that the song didn’t get cut.
What is it like being in the studio with guys like Smino and Saba who, like yourself, are artists who also produce?
It’s fun. It’s more collaborative. Smino grew up playing drums, so he’s a full musician before even a rapper. Him being a musician changes the whole dynamic. From the lyrics to the melodies, there’s a lot more input, and back and forth. Smino is like a bubble of creative ideas, melodies, flows, and jokes. There’s always something that’s in his head. Saba is the same way. He’s never out of ideas for beats. We would sit in the basement and make 10 or 11 beats, rap to it, and then, move on to the next one. The productivity level is a lot higher.
Who’s the funniest person in the studio?
Either Smino or Monte (laughs). I don’t know if I can say the funniest thing I’ve seen in the studio. It’s too many things to count.
Your album Tempo is a mixture of different sounds. When do you know a beat is for you, as opposed to someone else?
It depends. I feel like most of the times, I can tell if a beat won’t fit me. But, it’s some beats I’ve been kind of writing to for a while that Smino has asked me for that I’ve said, ‘Nah, this is mine.’ He’ll keep asking me, ‘Yo, bro, I don’t hear anything on this beat. You going to use it or nah?’ (Laughs).
Was there a beat that Smino, Saba or Noname used that was originally supposed to be for you?
Nah. But, here’s a funny story. The ‘Stoney’ beat (from Saba’s Bucket List Project) was what [Noname’s] ‘Diddy Bop’ verse was originally on. So, basically, we would make a beat, write to it; and between me, Noname and Saba, we’d be like, ‘Ahh, this shit is fire. I’m just going to roll with this.’ Then, it’ll be something we’ll all write verses to. But, ‘Stoney’ was a beat that the ‘Diddy Bop’ verse was on originally. It wasn’t a verse that was [recorded] on the song, it was just a verse she wrote to the ‘Stoney’ beat. She was just like, ‘I’m going to take this verse and make something else out of it.’
When you make your music, do you think about how it’ll translate live?
I do it a lot more now that I’m on tour than I did before. I definitely did take that aspect into it being on tour with Noname before and Smino now with Tempo. There’s a lot of moments that translate well live that I didn’t expect. I definitely took that into affect more with Room 25 than with Telefone because it’s literally all live instrumentation.
What’s the longest session you’ve ever been in for your own music?
I used to live in the studio I worked out of. When I came back from making Telefone, I was lowkey living out of the studio for a year or two. For one session, I’ve probably spent a full 24 hours.
How are artists able to stay in the studio for so long?
If you’re in a room with no windows, you can literally lose track of time and not know what time of day it is. The studio I used to work out of had no windows. So, you’d be in there working on something, making songs, and just cooking. Then, next thing you know, it’ll be like 4:00 a.m. I was basically homeless for a year. I had a little bag and I was in the studio all day.
Was there a project that really changed your living conditions?
I would say Telefone changed the perception of me. It allowed me to do different things and let me slowly get things back in order. It was a blessing.
What was the hardest song to get done?
I would have to say ‘Bathsheba’ (from Tempo) was one of them. It took me about three times to record the hook the way I wanted it to sound. I couldn’t execute it the way I wanted. I thought it was cool. But, I tried it again. It was frustrating because all I focus on is trying to take my idea and make it into reality. Once I got that down, I felt proud. That was a real accomplishment for me.
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