If you want a laugh, pull up the music video for Drake’s “Replacement Girl.” It’s 2007. The Toronto rapper is wearing a leather baseball cap, backwards, with enormous designer sunglasses and his necktie above the belly button—not unlike how Fred Flintstone does his. He double-time raps in front of a crudely drawn world map while women of various tint and confusion dance close by; at the video’s climax, Drake leans on the hood of an expensive car the director rented for the shoot. It’s not a bad R&B-cum-rap song. And the video went on to play on BET, a first for an unsigned Canadian rapper. But this Drake was, to put it kindly, not the cool, introspective, self-deprecating one we now know.
Something else happened at the “Replacement Girl” shoot. During a break, a wiry, white Toronto native named Noah Shebib showed up and played Drake ten beats. Shebib and Drake are both former child actors from the same hometown, but they were only meeting now, at the behest of a mutual friend. Drake didn’t buy any of Shebib’s beats that day, but he liked what he heard. He booked two days of studio time with Shebib at two hundred dollars a day, strictly to track new songs. Drake would rap, Shebib would hit record.
The session worked out better than either expected. By day three, Shebib told Drake he wasn’t going to charge him. Drake brought Shebib onto his team, first as an engineer and later as musical director for his live shows. As Shebib watched Drake going through the motions of the industry—listening to beats from top and up-and-coming producers that were never to the rapper’s full satisfaction—he slowly figured out, by process of elimination, what Drake really wanted in his music. “That was the first time as a producer I ever felt like I had a reason to do something,” Shebib says. “I wasn’t just sitting down to make music for no apparent reason.”
Working together now, Shebib and Drake first gave us the So Far Gone mixtape in 2009. The release reimagined R&B’s relationship with rap and what the two genres mixed together could sound like. Lyrically, it was deeply personal, quite different from Drake’s former bravado. Sonically, the hallmarks were eerie filtered synths, spare drumbeats, and lots and lots of space. Grammy nominations, Juno and ASCAP Awards followed their work for Drake’s official debut Thank Me Later in 2010, while “Best I Ever Had,” “Successful,” “Over,” “Fancy” and recently “Marvin’s Room” and “Headlines” have all spent time on Billboard charts, mostly at or near the top.
All of Drake’s music—every beat, every vocal take, every bite of studio banter—now goes through Shebib. He prefers not to work with other artists unless Drake is involved or approves. He doesn’t court the press, and rarely accompanies Drake on the road anymore. He’s a homebody; he’s also one of the most successful and emulated hit-makers in the business today. “That’s my brother,” Drake told me. “Within the realm of music, that’s the only person I’m related to.”
Shebib lives in a new, dormitory-like condominium complex in Toronto’s multiethnic Parkdale neighborhood. He is 28, slim but by no means brittle, with a clean-shaven head and a closely cropped beard. There is a large gold Rolex on his right wrist, and on his left is a bracelet of tiny saint portraits. Not one but two St. Christopher medallions are around his neck, and his grandfathers’ names, “Moses” and “Mavor,” are tattooed on his forearms. He has a slight scar over his left eye from a stint playing junior hockey. Put differently, Shebib looks not unlike what you’d expect a white guy from Canada who makes hip-hop records to look like. On the large, round, unfinished wooden table in his apartment, there is incense burning.
It’s after 6PM, but the producer’s been up only about an hour. As the delivery deadline nears for Take Care, Drake’s second LP due out October 24, the two of them have been working from nine at night to seven or eight in the morning. Shebib is a wake-and-baker, and rolls a long, meticulous joint at his table. ASCAP award plaques, including “Songwriter of the Year,” sit on the top of his kitchen cabinets—up high but not exactly eye level, as if Shebib still hasn’t decided how visible to make them.
Shebib loved R&B early on. “My favorite as a kid was DJ Clark Kent,” he says of the ’90s New York rap producer. “He would always have the illest R&B remix with a rapper on it. Those were always my favorite joints. Even as a kid, I’ve been trying to force-feed R&B to rap music. Make rap more musical.”
“Rap made more musical” is not a bad description of Shebib’s own aesthetic. Take a Drake song like the tired, wistful “Successful,” or the quietly menacing “I’m On One,” which 40 produced for DJ Khaled. The chords lead, not the rhythms, which is unusual for hip-hop. Shebib often favors closely voiced, four-chord loops, which create both a denseness and moodiness, more felt than heard. The synthesizer sounds he uses are built-in software pads that come with Pro Tools, but he manipulates them in peculiar ways: cutting out the higher frequencies so they sound muffled, like a churchly choir on “ooh.” Up until recently, you’d rarely hear a hi-hat sound on a Drake record—also unusual for the genre. Subtle moves like these let Drake’s voice sit almost literally atop the instrumental, but still sound connected to the music. “I let the center of attention be Drake,” Shebib says.
Another trick, which you can hear on Take Care’s “Dreams Money Can Buy,” is the way Shebib uses low-note synths to shake up an otherwise static hook. The song’s roomy vocal refrain, from Jai Paul’s “BTSTU,” is a naïve melody, something you’d see in a rudiments book. Shebib juices it with an ascending bass line, which gives the song its movement. When he incorporates beats from other people, like what happened with Boi-1da’s detuned horn fanfare for “Headlines,” Shebib performs EQ tricks to carve out space for Drake’s voice, beefs up the kick drum, does whatever it takes to make the beat more to Drake’s liking—or in this case to accentuate the indecision in Drake’s lyrics. In “Headlines,” the beat never fully drops.
Other times, Shebib just likes to break the rules. “Marvin’s Room,” in which Drake drunkenly lashes out on exes (and himself too), has massive dollops of sub-bass, which few home systems or iPod headphones can handle. An older Drake number like “Houstatlantavegas” has clashing harmonies all over the place, which Shebib left in “just for the sake of being an asshole.”
It’s uncommon for a producer who’s seen this kind of success to still track and mix every song. But Shebib thinks of himself primarily as an engineer, not a “producer.” There’s a potential arrogance to the term, and institutional confusion, since in hip-hop a producer is synonymous with “beatmaker.” Calling oneself an engineer denotes actual technical know-how, humility and professionalism. It means Shebib keeps his sessions running smoothly. No label people, friends, girlfriends, groupies or anybody else is allowed to hang around when he and Drake are at work. “I have to protect Drake from his own niceness,” Shebib says.