The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. Every now and again we aim to illuminate these under-heralded artists with Beat Construction, an extension of our column in the magazine. For today we spoke to Boi-1da, the three-time Grammy winner who's best known for his work with Drake. Here, the 26-year-old, Toronto-based dad talks about Drake's growth, dancehall's importance in rap and scavenging for windshield wiper sounds.
When did you move from Jamaica to Toronto?
BOI-1DA: I was born in Jamaica and came to Toronto when I was three. I lived with my grandma, my mom, my dad and my sister. You know, it was nice. Our area was pretty bad, but my parents kept us out of trouble and told us to do the right things and we would always listen because we were new to the country and we didn't know much. I was always pretty obedient to my parents. My parents always listened to music all day. My grandma used to actually play the organ. She had an organ in the house and she would just play it sometimes—it was kinda creepy. But it was nice.
Growing up, what was your perception of the difference between Jamaica and Canada?
My dad would always tell me stories about how they'd have to run from gunshots and all sorts of badness going on down there, so that's why they moved up here, cause you don't want to raise teenagers down there. Jamaica is a beautiful place, but where we used to live because we never had much money, it gets really ugly.
How did you get into music?
When I was about eight my mom bought me a keyboard. And I would always play around with it. I would mostly play around with the drums because I like drumming and wanted a drum set. We couldn't afford it, but my mom got me this little keyboard. I actually started getting into production in high school, at the end of ninth grade, when my friend told me about FruityLoops. In school, I wasn't like the super popular kid. I was just there. Everyone in school did something—you were good at basketball or baseball or whatever. I was the guy who didn't do anything. And then I became the guy that beatboxes, like if anyone wants to freestyle battle, they'd be like, Yo, come beatbox for us. I was the only kid in my school making beats. I was always fascinated with how music was arranged— would hear it but wouldn't know how this was done and how these sounds were happening. It was a mystery to me. When I got FruityLoops it taught me everything is track-based and is looped over and over again. I became really addicted to making beats. I couldn't stop. I downloaded the program at maybe two in the morning and I was up till like 7AM.
Does your mom really make beats?
My mom is like the craziest mom ever. She finds things to do. She literally picks things up and takes them home and fixes them up. She tiled the floor in her basement by herself, and dry-walled the wall by herself. She bought some adventure game for Xbox and beat the whole thing. One day she just picked up doing beats. She'd be upstairs for hours and call me up like, Listen to this one. She knows how to use Reason and is showing me this stuff. I was just like, Mom. you're showing me this stuff and I don't even know how to use it. I think Pharrell used Reason too—she found some Pharrell stock sounds and started using them.
Are you that kind of person too, someone who's game to figure out anything, like how to tile a basement?
No! I would be on that World's Worst Handyman shit. I'm terrible. I had to build a birdhouse in high school and that shit looked like—my birdhouse was terrible.
Is production a solo or team sport?
It's always about your vision, but no one does anything by themselves. I mean, sometimes—I think Miguel produced "Adorn" and wrote the whole song and performed it himself. But most songs, and a lot of hit songs, are a collaborative effort from a lot of people: producers, songwriters, everything. Your favorite producers—Timbaland, Dr. Luke, Max Martin, all these people—they work with a lot of co-producers. Producing is definitely a team sport because not everybody has the blessing of knowing every aspect about music. I have certain aspects that another person doesn't have and what I have complements what he has.
What's the ideal environment for a studio session?
Sometimes I produce alone, but sometimes there will be 13 people in the studio. The best things can come from ideas from other people. Just go in there and have fun, let loose, talk about whatever, put up videos, while somebody is playing the keyboard at the same time. There's just always music going on, but we're having fun at the same time, which is what we like to translate into the music.
Are you a quick worker, or do you tool around with something for a long time?
A song I did for Meek Mill's last album called "Tony Story Pt. 2" took like two days. I took like windshield wiper sounds and all sorts of crazy stuff, you know. "Up in Flames" for Nicki Minaj, that took days because we got live choirs, live piano, drums, sequencing. You can make a ten-minute beat, but I like to just put a little more effort into my stuff. "Headlines" for Drake, I made that in ten minutes. That's a ten-minute beat.
In the case of a beat like that Meek Mill one, how do you research and scavenge around for your sounds?
That beat started from an idea Drake gave me. He wanted something that reminds him of driving through the night, like he's driving through the night and he's rapping it to you. So I was going through a bunch of sounds. I found this one windshield wiper sound but it was really bad quality. So we put a bunch of wiper fluid on the windshield and we tried to record it, but it didn't come out good enough. I was trying to be like real creative. We ended up combining the original sounds with the real windshield wiper recording. The beat just came alive when we had the proper windshield wiper sound.
The arpeggios in "Headlines" sound sort of like Philip Glass. Are you a fan of his work?
Really? I ought to look him up. I don't think I've actually heard anything from Philip Glass before. "Headlines" was made after I sent the windshield wiper beat to Drake. He didn't like it. So I said, I'm just gonna make another beat and send it to him. He took that one and put it out as his first single and it went like three times platinum. His song brought more into the beat, and 40 [Drake producer Noah Shebib] added that outro and the lead, so I was content with the final product. Even if for me personally, that beat was like—I didn't really want people to hear it because it was so simple.
"Best I Ever Had" spawned a lawsuit because of its samples. Is the difficulty of clearing samples making them unpopular?
I don't think people have moved away from sampling, but it's treated differently now. People now are taking the energy from a sample, replaying it and scrambling it up so you don't have to clear it. The sampling that was big with Kanye and the Diplomats, I think it'll make it's way back.
In the time you've known Drake, how have you seen him grow?
He's more aware of the fact that he's a worldwide superstar now. He went through a transition of not realizing that when he first started blowing up. Now he's more in tune with himself. I remember I was in a studio session with a lot of people and Drake came by. He was gonna go get a water, and he was like, "Yo anybody want water?" and got a tray. My friends were really surprised that this guy was just carrying in water. They expected him to act like somebody rich and famous would act. He's really humble and does nice things for people all the time. He's the same old guy, still cracking jokes all the time. A lot of people don't know that he's really hilarious. He says a lot of funny stuff.
What kind of themes is he grappling with on Nothing Was the Same?
He's talking about his life now and the different things he's going through. Sound-wise, I feel like 40 evolves every time as a producer and he's on another level right now. It's just like the album title says, Nothing Was The Same. It's a whole new Drake.
You've called the OVO sound "emo." Do you have an emo personality?
Sometimes, you know? I went through a little rough patch in my life last year. We all have those times. People just think that people like us are just happy all the time, but things happen.
This year you produced an entire album for Bizzle, a Christian rapper. Are you active in the church?
I started going to church after high school, around the time I started doing stuff for Drake and he started blowing up. My family, we never went to church every Sunday, but like my dad would always read the Bible and relate stories in the Bible to my life. Later, I took it upon myself to just get up and go to church. I'd pray and fast. My church ended up moving to a further location and, I mean, it's no excuse, I could still drive out there and go, but I haven't been back in a long time.
You still live in Toronto. Why does it feel like home?
I have friends everywhere, but all my friends that I grew up with I still hang out with. I relate to everybody there more. My little daughter is there too. Anytime I leave I always end up missing her. She's like a daddy's girl, and we can't leave each others' sides. Toronto's not like LA where parties get shut off at one. It's more caribbean-based, they play a lot of dancehall. In LA you never hear that. That whole sound that I brought with Drake, with the snare breakdowns, that's really dancehall-esque.