Beat Construction: Blood Diamonds
Inside Madonna’s new album with the LA producer and Grimes collaborator.
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. Today, in a special Beat Week edition of the column, we caught up Mike Tucker, bka Blood Diamonds, the LA-based producer who's best known for the rave-ready dance tracks he's dreamed up with close friend and collaborator Grimes. But Blood Diamonds' blissed-out sounds are echoing beyond his inner circle; the 24-year-old's productions have turned up on Charli XCX and Tinashe records, he's crafting beats for nascent rap stars Rome Fortune and Little Simz, and he's part of the core team—that also includes Diplo, DJ Dahi and Ariel Rechtshaid—working behind the boards on Madonna's as-yet-untitled 13th studio album. Tucker talked to FADER about how "Go" was almost a Rihanna song, and what it's like going from his parents' basement in Kansas to big-budget studios with the biggest names in pop.
When did you started producing? When I was 16 or 17 in my parent's basement in Kansas City. At the time, I didn't really have any direction, I was just doing what I could. I guess you could call it "pop." I was definitely using the free demo version of Ableton. I would have to make new emails every week to keep getting the one week trials.
What were you like back then? I was definitely the weird kid with the headphones. I was going to this weird school at the time; I think the whole middle school had 100 kids. It was super small and nobody listened to rap or anything. I got exposed to that music, but I couldn't get my head around how to make it. I knew older musicians and stuff, but no one could give me a straight answer. I was like, How the fuck does Daft Punk do what they do? What are they using? They responded: "They record it in a studio." And I was like, That doesn't fucking mean shit to me.
What made you move to Canada? I decided I needed to get out of Kansas City, so I took out a massive student loan and went to the first video editing school I could go to, and that was in Vancouver. I was in Vancouver for three years and then I moved to LA. Vancouver was when I really started producing. As I learned how to use instruments and software, [my production] became more high fidelity. That was a good time for a lot of emerging music; I put a record out on this one label called Transparent. I really had no idea what it was at the time but all the artists on Transparent were great. I was like, Where are these people? How are they making that? Are they in their bedrooms too? Are they in school?
How did you first meet Grimes? I met Claire at my first show as Blood Diamonds. I think it was Claire's first show in Vancouver, and she played a set before me. There was probably, like, 15 people there, and we just hit it off. I was kind of nervous because I couldn't decipher her age. I was like, Is this weird to talk to someone much younger than me? But it turns out she was older. I met her dad. We did a few more shows together in Vancouver after that, just randomly. Around that time, while she was wrapping up Visions, we recorded "Phone Sex."
What environment are you usually making beats in now? I'm usually in studios these days. I have a studio in Burbank and I live downtown, so I drive here to make beats every day. Or, I go to someone else's studio. I can't really decide if it's really better than a bedroom. Studios are pretty sterile.
But are you still enjoying yourself? Yeah, I still have a lot of fun with music, I learn so much from every person I meet, and I feel like I'll never know everything. There are dudes who have been working for 30 years and they're still making records and changing their sound and advancing. That can be overwhelming, but also exciting. I met DJ Dahi a year ago, and I've learned so much from him.
You two are working on Madonna's new record together, right? Yeah, we have been working on that for the last month. It's been a lot of fun, definitely a big project. It's me and Dahi, Diplo, Ariel [Rechtshaid] and Jimbo. I think it's definitely going to be a good Madonna record. There are moments when you're like, Oh this is definitely fucking Madonna.
Are you guys aiming for something really contemporary sounding with it? I wouldn't say were trying to nail 2014. With most artists, Dahi and I try to approach it from a longevity standpoint. Especially if we're pitching beats to someone its like, Is this fucking hot this month? Because this record won't be out for another year. That can be stressful, but the bottom line is like making room for the song, because the song is really what stands the test of time. I feel like right now a lot of pressure to get that single, and get that dance tune. That's probably the coolest thing about Madonna. She has been doing so many records for so long, it's kind of irrelevant to try to fit into the now.
"There are moments when you're like, Oh this is definitely fucking Madonna."
Charli XCX used your song "Grins" for her album True Romance. Did you like her version? Yeah, I loved it. I went to her show last year in LA and it was so cool to see what her band did with it, like recreating the instruments. I was stuck in traffic for ages, and I walked in right as they were playing it and was like, Shit. That was kind of crazy. I made this in a bedroom as a student, you know?
What comes next? I did this track with Big Sean, I don't know what's gonna happen with that. It's called "What's Up, Bitch"—or I think it's just called "Salutations" now, which is a better title. DJ Dahi and I are working on a full-length, that'll be out sometime in 2015. It'll probably have a feature on every track. The people we really want, we have working in it. There's this one girl who's just murdering tracks: Little Simz. In another year she's gonna be massive. She's like 19 and she's a fucking rap genius. I've done some tracks with her for her shit. Have you heard of Rome Fortune? I've been working extensively on his record. Rome and I have probably made like, 12 tracks. I definitely see a star quality in him.
Did you and Grimes write "Go" specifically with Rihanna in mind? Yeah. That was just another night where [Claire] was in town and was like, Do you want to hang out? We made a few thing, and one song ended up being "Go." We sent it off to the Rihanna camp that night because we heard they were looking. They got back to us immediately and loved it apparently. But it was just out of her register, I guess. Claire was like, "We should just put it out then." It's kind of weird because it wasn't approached as a Grimes and Blood Diamonds track sonically. But Claire was really into it, so we put it out.
How did you guys feel about the mixed reaction? "Go" was never destined for a clean response. At the end of the day I believe everyone should do what the fuck they want. If you like to dance to something, somebody else might, too. If your friends, your team, and whatever community you have like it—that means something. If you let go of that, what do you have left?