Studio Sessions I Elite recalls helping J. Cole make "No Role Modelz" better and working on 'Revenge of the Dreamers 3'
The Dreamville producer talks J. Cole’s work ethic and shares in studio stories with Ari Lennox and EarthGang.
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.
Anthony Parrino has been elite before millions had flocked to him and identified him as so. The Dreamville producer was working the Cradle 2 The Grave soundtrack with Ruff Ryders in 2002. This was years before J. Cole was shouting his name in the beginning of songs from his debut mixtape The Warm Up in 2009. Now, he is known as Elite, the man who has played an integral role in creating Dreamville’s sound. Recently, he was the executive producer to Ari Lennox’s debut project, Shea Butter Baby. For Elite, he provides better music to the label.
In 2002, the Dreamville producer was working on the Cradle 2 The Grave soundtrack with Ruff Ryders. This was years before Cole was shouting his name out at the beginning of songs from his mixtape The Warm Up (2009).
“I’ve become pretty good at problem-solving when it comes to music. That’s the role I play with Cole a lot. Songs don’t just come together perfectly from the beginning,” Elite told REVOLT TV. “I’ve become good at figuring out what it is that’s not working, fixing it, and [finding a way] to make it work. Whether it’s replacing a baseline groove or rearranging the order of the song and sequencing.”
On this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Elite discusses how the Revenge of the Dreamer 3 sessions came about, how impressive J.I.D is in the studio, and how he helped J. Cole make one of his biggest songs better.
What was your role in those Revenge of the Dreamers 3 (ROTD 3) sessions?
I was making beats [and] collaborating with other producers that were in there that I might not get a chance to work with otherwise. T-Minus and I got to build a good relationship while we were out there, which was pretty cool to me because he’s one of my favorite producers… I got to work with Smino, who is probably my favorite artist outside of Dreamville. Just like everybody else, I was trying to connect with people, soak up that energy and make music.
What was the most impressive thing you saw in those sessions?
It was collaborative and open. It wasn’t as competitive as you might expect. It was more of an embracing culture. I don’t usually enjoy sessions when it gets over a certain amount of people because it just gets to be people stepping on each other. This was not that way, which was very special.
Watching T-Minus work [and] watching Ron Gilmore [Jr.] play keys and put music together is always impressive. Cole’s work ethic always blows me away, for sure. That guy would go into a room with a beat and come out with two different songs written to it… Seeing Ari freestyle harmonies was pretty impressive.
I haven’t seen a time when people cared that much for 10 straight days about studio sessions. Did you plan on making it this big event or did it naturally become that?
I think we planned on making it special for us and it grew… for the people, organically. Dreamville has a great collective of people that come up with ideas, like Felton [Brown], Adam [Rodney] and Scott . They all come up with really cool marketing ideas, along with Cole and [Ibrahim Hamad]. I think they had the idea to release the invites on social media… that was a last minute thing. It wasn’t pre-planned or anything. We wanted to make it a special, creative environment and then the word got out and it became special for everybody.
Once the sessions became public, that did two things: it hyped up Revenge of the Dreamers 3 and it placed a deadline on it. Did you feel pressure in getting it out?
Sort of, but not really. We definitely see all the talk and all the comments about ‘Where’s Revenge of the Dreamers?’ We see it. But, I look at it like it’s a great thing that people want it so bad. We’ve built a demand for a product. A lot of our fans, don’t really have a realistic grasp on how long it takes to finish an album. There’s a lot of work that goes into this and a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes.
At Dreamville, we don’t just slap together music. I was telling IB [Ibrahim Hamad] the other day… this Revenge of the Dreamers album is actually coming together pretty fast. But, to the people, it seems long because they’ve been in on the whole process of it. They’re like, ‘What’s taking so long? Y’all were just in the studio.’ What they don’t understand is that it takes months of revisiting, mixing, sequencing… It doesn’t work instantly.
Yeah, no one on Dreamville really puts out albums every year. Ari’s album took four to five years to get made. In total, how many songs were recorded during that 10-day stretch of sessions?
I’m not even sure, to be honest. I never counted them up (laughs)… It was a lot of songs. What was great about that is, even the songs that aren’t going to be on this project might go on another artist’s project.
The vibe looked really fun in those sessions. Overall, who is the funniest person in studio sessions on Dreamville?
I have to give that one to Ari [laughs]. She’s a funny person… If you watch her Instagram Live, that’s how she is in real life. he isS always entertaining.
Speaking of Ari, you executive produced her debut album, Shea Butter Baby. What was Ari’s vibe in the studio when she made the song ‘New Apartment’? Did she know it was a banger?
Ari always really fought for that song, in particular. Every album you’ll get a song that the artist is extremely passionate about being on the album… That was Ari’s number one song that she was fighting for. That was her baby. She knew it was special.
Ron Gilmore Jr. told me y’all recorded 20 songs for the album, but only 12 made it. What was your role and mentality behind putting the final track list together?
If you look back at one of Ari’s earlier Instagram posts, there’s a track listing that was about 43 songs. That was when we first got into the studio. Cole came through and we all sat down and had a pow-wow about which songs were worthy, which songs go together, which songs can be improved, et cetera. We had an idea of what went together sonically. The thing is, when you start with so many songs, and so many of them are in demo form, the first step is to really produce the songs.
Sometimes when you start, especially in R&B, you might get a song that’s just a beat loop and Ari singing. That’s where it was my job to take it and add dynamics and make sure it had a beginning, middle, and an ending. That’s where we came and added instrumentation and production from Ron, instrumentation from Theo Coker, who’s an amazing trumpet player who is on ‘Chicago Boy’ and ‘Static.’ Carlin [White] did some live drums. Joey Lopez added some guitars [on ‘Static’]. We just went in, got our favorite songs and started that process. Once you start that process, you can weed out which songs are improving and which songs are at the height of what they can get to. Certain songs take the lead over other songs.
Was the album always called Shea Butter Baby?
That came after the song got made. That song was made about a year or a year and a half [from May 2019]. Ari and I were just at my crib in L.A. messing around and made a bunch of songs in that time. That song was actually forgotten about. That was one of those songs that we did. [We] really liked [it] but, we sent it out and didn’t get much feedback from our team. It was positive but, it wasn’t one of the ones that people in our team were talking about.
We went back through everything and played it in the studio on the big speakers and the whole room stood up like, ‘Whoa. What is this?’ We were like, ‘We forgot about this.’ When Cole heard it, he was like, ‘This is special,’ and he wanted to hop on it. That took it to a whole other level. It got in the Creed II movie and kinda promoted the album organically. It just took off.
So, around when did y’all know the album would be called Shea Butter Baby?
I guess about a year or six months [from May].
One of the standouts from that album was J.I.D on ‘Broke.’ What is it like in the studio with J.I.D?
That guy’s incredible. He has a super high work ethic and skill level. He’s definitely going to be a top tier artist for many years to come. When we first started working at The Shelter, it was almost startling. He would not let you sit down and watch TV. Anytime he saw an opening for work to be done he would come up to me and be like, ‘Hey, can we record something? Hey, can we do this?’ His work ethic and drive is non-stop. He’s another guy who’s super impressive.
How did his song ‘Tiiied’ with 6lack and Ella Mai come together?
I made that beat at The Shelter just messing around and I sent it to J.I.D. It was a simple loop I sent him. He sent me back the beginning of the song. We linked up again a few months later, did a bit of post-production, gave it the dynamics. Ron added some music. Once we took it to that level he started getting excited. He had 6lack do his verse. J.I.D had the relationship with 6lack and Ella Mai and had the vision to have them come in and do their part. That was a long back and forth process. He really made it a super song of up and coming artists.
You did work on EarthGang’s ‘Stuck.’ How did that come about?
That’s actually something I started by accident. That was a whole different beat with a different sample and it just had the drums. It was one of those things where I was about to leave the house. So, I muted the sample and I played the little bass line on the keyboard, it sounds like some old [A] Tribe Called Quest. I played that on the keyboard by accident, just jamming around. I opened up the session a few days later and I was like, “That’s nice.”’ So, I sent it to Olu [Johnny Venus’s first name]. He was in the studio with Ron. Venus laid down the hook and Ron added some chords and stuff. Then, Wowgr8 came and added his verse. It grew from there.
What is EarthGang like in the studio?
They’re probably one of my [favorite artists] to work with because they’re so open. I feel like I could be working on something that I would never think an artist would get on. Something that you might make because you think it’s cool but, you can’t really expect an artist to tackle because it’s so out of the norm. They look at those as challenges and they go for it. I produced a song on their album called ‘Tequila’ that’s actually one of my favorite songs I produced for anybody. I never thought that anybody would ever get on.
They said Mirrorland was going to come out in February. What’s holding it back?
They’re on the road a lot. So, sometimes it’s hard to finish the album when you’re on the road. Ari dropped, Revenge of the Dreamers is next and then probably EarthGang. It’s just a matter of mixing and finishing. It’s not that anything’s holding it back. These things take time. Especially, when you’re dealing with artists of their stature where it’s not just a simple beat loop and raps. This is real music and complicated arrangements. It just takes time to mix, finish and to get things sounding professional. It’s pretty much done.
What’s your favorite session from the Mirrorland sessions?
Definitely for ‘Tequila.’ We started at The Shelter in North Carolina. Doc came in and started singing this hook and I was like, ‘That’s incredible.’ He laid it down. Venus came in. He sat down silently for 30 minutes. I was like, ‘Are you going to write to this?’ He was like, ‘I already did.’ I was like, ‘Oh.’ Then, he recorded one of the most amazing verses I’ve ever heard. I didn’t even realize he was writing because he was sitting there in silence. It looked like he was meditating (laughs). Apparently, he was writing.
What is your greatest talent?
That’s hard to really say about yourself. I don’t really like to think that way. I think I’ve become pretty good at problem-solving when it comes to music. That’s the role I play with Cole a lot. Songs don’t just come together perfectly from the beginning… I’ve become good at figuring out what it is that’s not working, fix it, and how to make it work. Whether it’s replacing a baseline groove or rearranging the order of the song and sequencing. Whatever it is, I’ve become pretty good at listening, identifying problems and coming up with solutions, which is a key part of being a producer.
What song did you specifically help fix?
On ‘No Role Modelz,’ originally he had the sample in the song, the main melody of the song that’s in the hook, going through the whole song. I suggested, ‘You should remove the sample for the verses so people can tune in to what you’re saying more and give you more room. So, when the hook comes back it’s bigger and more impactful.’ When he did that we both looked at each other like, ‘Whoa. That made a big difference.’ It really changed the feel of the song and took it up a level.
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