While Isaiah Rashad fans were waiting five years for The House Is Burning, Rory Behr was spending hours in the studio mixing what would become one of the best albums of 2021. He’s been around so long, he knows all the best songs you’ve heard and haven’t heard from the rapper.
“I remember we got this one beat pack one day, way back, and we found this Flying Lotus beat on it and Zay just spazzed on it,” Behr told REVOLT. “But, Isaiah ends up hating the record.”
In this installment of “Studio Sessions,” Rashad’s go-to engineer discusses the friendly competition that went into the MC’s “Wat’s Wrong” collaboration, his creative chemistry with SZA, and how the pandemic was a blessing in disguise for The House Is Burning. Peep the chat below.
How did you first connect with Isaiah?
It was about almost seven years ago now, he was in the middle of writing his album The Sun’s Tirade. I had met his manager Matt Miller at a studio awhile back, and at the time I was engineering for this other label and they didn’t really have their shit together, and then I was looking for a new gig and Matt hit me up at like three in the morning like, “Hey, hope you’re doing good. We’re looking for an engineer, let me know if you can come to the studio.” I said, “Hell yeah, just let me know.” He said, “No, like right now.” So, I got my ass out of bed and drove down to the studio, I believe it was Questlove’s studio because I was tripping off that. The first day me and Isaiah met, he’s looking at me like, “Who is this kid? Why is he in the studio with me?” But we started working and the first song in that session we did was “Free Lunch,” one of his bigger songs off that album. Our personalities connected and we kinda vibed and he just kinda kept me around since then.
What are some things that you and Isaiah had to work at over the years to get to the chemistry you have right now? What are some of the things you had to learn about his mannerisms?
The guy is one of the most particular guys to record. I been with TDE for seven years now, so I’ve got to work with Q, Jay Rock, and Ab Soul and they all have their weird little quirks. But, Zay is so picky and quick to get frustrated, I feel like I came in at a point in his career where he was looking to settle down with just one engineer because when we go to other studios, he’ll kinda roll his eyes ‘cause he has this thing where he wants everything to sound vintage and distorted like an old 70s record. Sometimes he can’t really express that but he’ll just look at me like, “Hey, do the thing (laughs).” So, I’ll just put a radio effect on. I’ve gotten to understand in the studio what irritates him and what doesn’t irritate him. A lot of it is keeping up with him because he writes quickly. So, if you’re slowing him down or slowing his process down, he’s going to get frustrated. Don’t get me wrong, there were times in the studio where we were productive, but we were going at it like cats and dogs. But we’ve learned to balance our emotions and respect each other’s problems in the studio, as well. The both of us have matured in a professional way since we first met. The first couple of years, we were turning up in the studio and partying and yada yada yada. But, now we’re like 30 and our priorities are different. He treats it really professionally and I respect that a lot. I like working with the guy.
What goes into an Isaiah Rashad record either effects wise or equipment wise? What have you noticed are mainstays and common amongst his records?
He’s got such a passion for old vintage soul music, and it sounds all crunchy and distorted. So, for a long time, he wanted to put the telephone effects on everything and the mixes were getting really harsh because a lot of the beauty of his voice is in his low-mid range because he has a deep, raspy tone. So, it’s like we’re just taking away from this but we gotta keep it somehow. So it’s been a development over the years. We’re both actually big fans of the Gorillaz and if you listen to the Gorillaz, almost all their shit, their vocals, at least, are run through some crunchy analog gear. So, we’ve just been experimenting with how we can tastefully make Isaiah sound like a vintage record while preserving his low-mid range too. So, personally the mic I use for his vocal chain is a Neumann u87, which you can find at any studio. But, for a lot of these records we were actually using my godfather’s [MXL] V67 from the ‘60s, which is an awesome microphone. It’s a little older but it’s a little brighter with a little bit more bite to it. Then, usually go in through a Tube Tech CL1B with a Neve 1073 Pre Amp, and you really can’t go wrong with that combo. And from there, we do a lot of the tonal stuff in the box. A lot of the distortion I use is Decapitator. I learned that from Ali and James Hunt. We all have similar mixing techniques that we’ve exchanged over the years. So, it really depends on what the sound of the record is calling for.
How did “Wat’s Wrong” with Kendrick Lamar come about?
I’m super happy you asked that because it’s one of our craziest stories. Basically Isaiah and I had been working together for a couple months and we just kinda became homies to the point where he moved in with me, literally sleeping on my couch at my apartment on Fairfax. When we couldn’t get to the studio, we were literally cutting records in my bedroom, and that was one of the records we literally cut the first verse in my bedroom. Just a crappy little apartment on Fairfax, noisy, noise bleeds, I think I even had him record in the bathroom and I put up all these blankets and shit. After that day, we got a call saying a room opened up at Interscope if we wanted it. So, we flew to Santa Monica and, I don’t know if we were drunk, lit or turned up, but Zay was feeling really good off of what we just did. So he’s running around like, “Yo I’m the fuckin best rapper!!” He did that super fast verse and was like, “Im the fuckin’ one. I’m the greatest,” and [Kendrick] sticks his head out the door like, “What you just say?” Then, he’s like, “Let me hear this record you’re working on.” So I fire up the mic, he does that verse, and that’s how that one line comes about.
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I think his best collaborator is SZA. They make some of the best music. What is their chemistry in the studio like?
They’re so tight together. She’s obviously known Zay much longer than I have and this TDE shit is so much more than a record label, it’s like everyone is really a family here. It’s rare to get them in the studio together so, when they do come together, it’s a special thing. It’s not like they’re always cooking up and these records just happen all the time. We had “Score” for a while with Kenny Beats and 6lack, and literally it was down to the last week before the album came out and we were trying to get SZA on a record. So, she pulled up to the studio and she really liked “Score.” And she’s so cool, she’ll really break your comfort zone and do anything. I just think the combination of those two on record is a no brainer. Even when you go back to the Cilvia Demo days.
How have you seen some of these songs come together?
The only song I was really hands on with from the beginning of the record was “Score.” All of Isaiah’s parts were recorded, and then he came to her with the record like, “Would you like to re-sing the hook? Would you wanna just do ad-libs?” You gotta ease her into things, you can’t just throw, “I need a whole verse.” But, when they’re in the studio together, they’re just vibing with their part on loop, bouncing ideas off each other, singing to each other, laughing. But then Isaiah has to break down the theme of the song since a lot of his stuff is pretty cryptic.
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What’s a song that you added your sonic fingerprint to?
There are a lot of records that could probably represent some of my tastefulness but, if anything, there’s an overall approach I like to do, which is add clarity and depth to a record, and enhance however it can be. On the newest album, the one I consider my personal fave because I put so much thought and care into it is the last song “HB2U.” And it’s not really a radio record, it’s more of a B side. Another was “Wat’s Wrong.” That was one of the records where Isaiah tracked it and he wanted the voice super radio effected. So, the problem is when you radio effect everything, when you turn everything up and play it loud it starts getting abrasive and loud on the top end. So, that was one we fought tooth and nail on, and I’m like, “Hey man, let’s scale it back and bring some of your tone back.” Once we did that, we brought in all these players. We brought in a horn player, bass player, guitar player, keys, and we just made this incredible finale of a record. In terms of how we placed and arranged everything, and the tones we were going for, that one I was just like, “How can we make a song that sounds like it’s straight from the ‘60s but can still play it through speakers today and be like, ‘Damn, that still hits?’” So, I think that’s what we did with that “HB2U” record.
How many songs do you think were recorded for The House Is Burning? Were there different versions of the album over the five-year gap between that and The Sun’s Tirade?
So, after we got back from tour in 2017, it was around spring, and we just hit the ground running right back to the studio. And there really wasn’t a blueprint. People are like, “Oh, you took five years off, What was happening?” It’s like, no, we were literally killing ourselves going to the studio to like six in the morning everyday. We really went to hell and back in terms of our personal lives. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail with that, but me and Isaiah were having differences. We resolved those. Of course his sobriety was a game changer. So, once he got sober, it was like we had clear headed, productive Isaiah. It wasn’t until the last two years that we were in hyper drive with finishing this record. Between The Sun’s Tirade and now, I’ve got to have hundreds of Isaiah’s ideas and stuff.
In the sequencing part of the album, we were definitely considering around 40 records and there are still a bunch on ice where I’m like, “Damn bro, I don’t think this will ever see the light of day.” I remember we got this one beat pack one day, way back, and we found this Flying Lotus beat on it and Zay just spazzed on it. Craziest shit, Isaiah on a Flying Lotus beat. I was freaking out just being a fan of both. But, Isaiah ends up hating the record. He holds himself to such a high standard that he’ll hate certain records even though I’ll tell him, and he may even know this too, that the fans will love this one. But it’s not expressing what he needs to get off, and I’ve had to learn to respect that decision, especially on this last album.
Photo credit: Hadas
Now [about] your other question about were there any records that sound differently… So, the song “From the Garden” posed the most problems out of anything. This was one of those songs when we were in sequencing, and we’re going through his old ass bounces in a folder and then Kal Banx was like, “What hell is this?” We did the whole project with Kal, thank God for Kal. The way TDE works, Kal is like the producer and the sound direction, and I’m the technical guy and we ride around through everyone’s projects together. He’s a beast. It just worked, me, Zay and Kal with Kal being the producer, me being the engineer and Zay being the artist. Anyways, Kal came into TDE a bit later than us. In 2016 or 2017, Isaiah and I flew over to his mom’s house in Chattanooga. We stayed there for three months, I stayed in his mom’s basement and I brought all my gear. And that was one of the records we cut that summer, but it was on a different beat. It was on a Thank God for Cody beat, and our friend Free P.
So, the beat was nostalgic, kinda spaced out, it was just a cool ass beat. But it wasn’t the southern blown out 808 beat that it is today. So, Kal was like, “Let me get the acapella and play with it.” So, Kal went in to recreate this beat, but this song at that point was already out of Isaiah’s radar — he didn’t want anything to do with putting that song out. We had it for years. But, Kal makes this beat and we listen to the new version and it’s hard hitting 808s, simple with this grimy bassline, which really makes Isaiah shine. We start playing it for everyone and they’re like, ‘This shit hard!’ Isaiah’s like, “Dammit why does this song have to go crazy?” It was such a back and forth. There were some days where it wasn’t going to be on it, some days where it was. A lot of arguing and a lot of compromising with it. We tried three different mixes with it too. James Hunt tried a mix, Ali tried a mix, I went with a mix. We were pulling our hair out with this record. That was one of the ones where we were like, “I don’t know if this one is gonna go.” But, once Lil Uzi Vert got on it — one of Isaiah’s favorite rappers — it was over. Uzi doesn’t get on the song until 2020. The song was originally made in 2017.
What’s the earliest and the last songs that were made?
We were aimlessly recording during that period I was telling you about, we were just going to the studio to do anything. Then, we were at Interscope and he did “THIB.” Top was even in the room making sure we were getting shit done. When Top’s there you have to be productive — he’s paying for the studio, so you gotta work (laughs). And I thought it was just gonna be one of those songs where we record it and get out of there, but we sat with it and, to be completely transparent, it wasn’t one of my favorite records of his just because I know all the other records he has, but he was like, “This is the one! This is gonna be the direction,” and from there that was the foundation that catalyzed the theme of The House Is Burning and that’s when he came up with the title and everything. That had to be 2019. The oldest song on the record is definitely “From the Garden.”
How did the pandemic affect the making and release of this album?
We were about to drop! We were literally about to drop. There was no one at TDE that was ready and we were like, “Damn, this is our window.” We were literally putting everything together and then the COVID shit hit. Everybody thought we were gonna die and didn’t know what the music industry was gonna do, so we pumped the brakes hard. LA was completely shut down and I didn’t see Isaiah for months. We started easing our way back into the studios. It was kinda crazy because one of the first things to start opening in the city was the music studios…under tight cautionary standards. You could only have like eight people working in the studio at once. So, TDE had me working with Zay and the eight people one night, and the next night I had Ab Soul, and the next night I had Jay Rock. So, I’m thinking, “I’m for sure catching this shit (laughs).” It was a weird time trying to finish the album. But, once we finished the album and turned it in, at our final listening party, everyone caught it.
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So what other adjustments happened to the album thanks to the COVID break?
If anything, it may have been a blessing in disguise because it made us sit back and process and rethink. Because when you go four or five years without putting a record out, especially with TDE where they have these die-hard fans where they have this shit tattooed on their chest, it’s so much pressure building. You should have seen my DMs. People being like, “Where the fuck is Zay’s album?! I know you got it on his hard drive. Why are you holding it?!” It was crazy! So, it was scary. The album exceeded all my expectations in terms of how it was received.
I was more so asking how did the pandemic affect the original album?
For instance, we put Doechii on “Wat U Sed” during that time period. She came on and just murdered that verse. She is so crazy. She can do anything in the studio, she’s a beast. So, she spazzed on that one, and now her and Zay have a good chemistry with writing records together. I would say a lot of post-production stuff too. Once we finished the records, that’s when Kal and I brought in post-production players. We pretty much went into post-production with almost every song. To me, it sounded like this epic instrumental and it was just really musical. But, I think we went a bit too OD for that and Zay asked us to strip it back, so he only kept certain elements like some of the parts of “HB2U.” There’s a version of “Claymore” that Kal and I had all these crazy things on. The transitions were done by Aaron Bow and Teddy Walton, his friends are just so trippy and creative. We were at the end of the album like, “How can we put the cherry on top and make this album really special?” Zay had the idea to hand off the records to Teddy and Aaron, but they had already been mixed and mastered. So we’re kinda like dude do we really need to do this? But, we finally heard it and knew this shit is gonna go crazy.
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A lot of Zay’s songs are very personal and emotionally driven. Are there any conversations that you can remember that turned into songs?
I can’t put a finger on that one exactly to be honest. But, basically when we had to turn the lyrics in for the DSPs, I had to transcribe all the lyrics basically. And it wasn’t until I started writing everything out on paper. You sing along to songs, but once I wrote it down and processed it I was like, “Damn, that’s what he was talking about.” There’s a line on one of the new releases “Donuts” where he’s like, “I think I’m losing friends, but ain’t nobody dead/n-words be quick to call you brotha.” He’s talking about one of our close friends I feel kinda gave up on the prospect of being a producer and he was with us from the jump. He was sleeping on couches with us too. I feel like that’s one of those lines only me and Zay know who he’s talking about there.
What do you got coming up for 2022?
First, me and Zay are about to hit the road again for Canada, so we’re gonna start the year off there. I assume we’re gonna do some festivals and some more shows going into the summer. But, for the most part, Isaiah and I have been back up in the studio writing songs again man. The tour was crazy! We were like, “Damn, people are going crazy for this song?” So, we already got like three or four new ones that are banging on some southern rap shit. And he just wants to rap, straight bars. But, we’re definitely just working with the squad and our in-house artists. I’m pretty close and tight with Zay, but I’m working closely with Ab-Soul and his new project. He’s in a new zone right now. Our newest artist signing Ray Vaughn, I finished his project up and he’s really exciting. So, a lot of new moves coming from TDE this year.