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sonny digital

Beat Construction: Sonny Digital

One of Atlanta’s hardest producers on why he used to hate Gucci Mane and how a lame label deal showed him what his ears were really worth.

Photographer Zach Wolfe
December 12, 2014

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.

23-year-old Sonny Digital is heading into 2015 Grammy-nominated, but he isn't exactly smiling. The Atlanta producer blew in 2011 with YC's "Racks," and has since played keys for Future, Gucci Mane, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz and Kanye West. But fate tapped his shoulder this summer, when he spruced up some rough demos for a wily young vocalist named iLoveMakonnen, and ended up with a pair of the most inescapable bizarro-rap hits of the year: "I Don't Sell Molly No More" and the Grammy-nom'd "Tuesday," featuring Drake. When we speak ahead of his DJ set at SOBs in New York, his first time in the city, Sonny's chill but crystal clear: feeling overdue on props and fatigued of industry politics. Oh, and he's also rapping now.

Sonny Digital"Good"

What's good man? What've you been up to? Shit. I've really been working on my own rap project. I can do what I want to in a sense, because I got a hit floating around. So I'm taking that time to really make it what I want to. You could keep going in with artists, but I've been doing that for so long, that shit gets boring. I can't really control what they do as artists. I can't just ride off producing people for the rest of my life. I gotta start producing my own shit. I'm just trying to figure if I'm going to do it for real, for real. If it turns to something, it turns to something.

That's a cool option to have. The shit is easy for me; I've got everything I need right in front of me. I can go do a track and put it out. I got enough people listening. That's an outlet for me. The thing is, I can't control what these other people do. I can't control what Makonnen do, like anybody.

I know the names Sonny Digital, Metro Boomin, Mike Will Made-It, and 808 Mafia mainly because of the drops. How did you make your drop? I forgot who I got the idea from, but I had my drop for damn near eight, nine years. I got it a long time ago, I got paid like $20 for that shit. I'm still cool with the dude that made it, too. I didn't tell him how to say it, I just remember first time he sent it back, he sent it, "So-nny, So-nny Digital." I told him to go back in and do it again and say, "Sonny Digital." But he came up with the whole little weird sounding shit, the whole little robotic shit was his idea. He came up with the 808 Mafia one too, though.

It's very important today to get tracks from the "right" producers. Have rappers proven more disposable than producers? It's just a proven fact. You know the records that Makonnen's putting out right now? Those are all old records. I don't know if you went all the way back, but all of our records have already been out. All of them. We just went back in and revamped them motherfuckers. We amped that motherfucker up, put it on steroids. It's going through a translation fucking type of thing. When you made it, we was able to understand it. Where it was at right there, we understood it. Since we understood it, we took it into our ways of translating to the people that we know. Drake took it and translated it to the whole motherfucking world, to make them understand.

ILoveMakonnen ft. Wiz Khalifa & Gucci Mane"I Don't Sell Molly No More"

What is it that you heard in Makonnen's early drafts of those songs that you liked? Shit sounded fun. It wasn't like no, "Let's try to get this perfect." It sounded like something cool to do. I'm pretty sure you know the rap game, man, and I don't want to be in this shit for the rest of my life. I don't like dealing with rappers like that. They make your day too difficult. The money ain't worth what you gotta deal with. Say you're dealing with the other side, at least you know you're gonna walk out with a big ass check. If you're dealing with rappers, you might not end up with shit. You might just end up with a motherfucking, "Oh you won this argument" type of thing.

When I first started listening to Makonnen's stuff, it struck me that the beats were all structured like typical Atlanta beats—like the same bounce—but the keyboard sounds were so much weirder. Future doesn't have beats that sound like that. You know what, I don't think anybody wanted beats like that before this shit. People forget, we are making damn near a thousand beats. You don't think one time out of those thousand beats, I tried something different? So when people are like "Oh, you doing that different shit," I be like "Nigga I been doing that different shit!" But this is the only time it's coming out. All this shit old to me, even the whole trap shit. There's only so far that shit can go.

Are you listening to any music outside of hip-hop? All the time I been running around out here, I don't listen to no hip-hop shit. You know who I really fuck with right now? Fucking Spooky Black man. I just reached out to him to do some work. He hasn't hit me back, though, but I feel it from what I been hearing. He cool, he cool, but he different. I think he cool where he at, and I really like that. If he don't want to work with me, that's all cool because I like the music were it's at, there ain't too much more I feel like I could put into your career.

What got you into doing music in the first place? How'd you start producing? I've been in that for almost ten years now. I was in sixth grade, at the time everyone was going to be rappers. When I first started listening to music, when Gucci Mane and Young Jeezy was really beefing, and Jeezy had just come out with Trap Or Die and he was on his street shit. I was a hardcore Jeezy fan back then, so when I heard Gucci Mane, I hated him. The first line I heard from him was, "I get high like giraffe pussy." I'm like who the fuck is this man? I was walking home and my buddy was like, "bro, this nigga cold." I was like "I don't know about this," because I was so into Jeezy at the time. Subconsciously too. I didn't know how much I liked the beats on it. I was a big fan, still a big fan, of Shawty Redd and D.Rich. The BeatBangers shit when that was around, that was my shit. If I could sign to anybody, I would sign to them. To this day, if it was right, I'd probably still go over there.

Are you signed right now? I am, but I don't wanna pump that shit up [ed. Sonny Digital signed to Universal Publishing in 2011.] I feel like I could've been in a way, way, way better situation than I'm in. People don't really work for you, all my shit I got by myself. My name has never been attached to anything. It is contractually to these other people, but as far as me, you only know me for what I do. It's good in a sense, but not when you gotta pay folks for not doing nothing.

"If that happened to him, what makes me think it won't happen to you, you, you or you? That shit can happen to anybody. Niggas barely keeping afloat out here."

For the people that don't know, what is a producer deal like? Even the most ideal. Let's do a comparison with a artist and a producer: An artist gets a record deal, producers get publishing deals. You can get your publishing deal, you can do a co-publishing deal or an admin deal. Then on top of doing that, you can do a song deal with every label and get some more money. It's a lot of ways you can stretch it out. It's a lot of money in it, but people have to be interested in doing it with you.

So you'd get a publishing deal, and get an advance. And the label would recoup that advance from the beats that you place. Let's say you got 100K deal flat. You gon' get 50K upfront, you gotta recoup that money to catch your backend. If you didn't catch your backend, you have to make the requirements of how many songs you're supposed to turn in. Songs get broken down into percentages. Producer is supposed to get 50%, artist supposed to get 50%. The way shit goes nowadays, you got all these miscellaneous people coming into the mix saying they added this and that. So you might end up with 26.5% or some weird number. Every song on your pub deal, they want 100%. You put out a whole full song, but you only got 26% of that motherfucker. You only got a quarter of a song on that motherfucker. Shit get deep, though. It used to be based on how many songs you put out, but now they doing it a way where they can cover their ass and shit. But it's covering their ass too much, because when they're not putting in work for you to get placements. Ain't nobody pushing me nowhere, cause everything's coming out of my house!

Does it ever bump up against the music? Like, you link with someone, make something dope, and then have to figure out how to split it up? The business shit fucks up a lot of things. Like how you look at someone and shit. Like, "Damn, I didn't even know you was greedy like this!" When that paperwork come in play, you gonna see how people is. You want that, that, that, and that? Damn my nigga, I thought we was cool. I done seen numbers do some dramatic flips.

"Racks" blew up when you were 21. I'd imagine you're looking at things differently since you've been there and back. Been there, done that. All the shit that's going on, and all the hype that's around a lot of people... You got to understand, the first record I had, which was one of the biggest records, I seen the nigga come and go. We didn't see YC after that. So I done seen this on the first go round on a big record where everyone could've capitalized and ate off of it. If that happened to him, what makes me think it won't happen to you, you, you, or you? That shit can happen to anybody. Niggas barely keeping afloat out here.

"People can't make the drums sound how we do. They can't do what we do."

Essentially a rapper can get credit for having a huge song, but can't replicate that success without the producer. Niggas be losing the whole sight of making songs. Music ain't about what something sounds like. Music is really just feelings, bro. Feelings transmitted into the microphone. Feeling is what sells shit. Adele, she makes music that touches your feelings. Everybody don't feel like killing people all day, that's why this rap shit ain't selling, bro. Everybody ain't got that feeling, man. Give somebody some regular emotions. Everybody ain't no goddamn killers. Even "Tuesday," that's a feelings record, it gives you the feeling of going up and having a good time.

There's so many home studios in Atlanta. People are recording 24/7. We did "Tuesday" at Metro's house. We didn't put no mix on it. We had the engineer come through, but we didn't have all the shit they had. We just had a regular computer, recorded it in a open room. The shit y'all hearing came straight from Metro house. The "Molly" record we recorded at my house with nothing on it. Even that "OG Bobby Johnson" song—straight from my house.

Is it worth the time to mix something these days? Do people hear the difference? I'm not gonna say they don't hear the difference, but everybody hears things differently, bro. That honk outside that you just heard? I probably heard that in a different way than you did, in a different frequency. So this whole "going by the book" shit, getting shit matched up, who says that is the right way? Who decided that was the right way to listen to some shit? That's not the right way in my eyes. With music, it's so much freedom in that shit. It's no rules to this. You could put out a wack sounding song, but it might sound great to you,and that's all that matters. Even Spooky Black shit, it's not the best recording, but that fits him. The sound or the mix might fit his situation. People feel a certain way when they hear you a certain way. Nigga might hear you sounding all gritty, nigga might feel that shit, like, "I know where this came from." You go into them big studios and… I don't fuck with them shits, bro.

What's next? I want to show people all the shit that I can do, I feel like I'm so boxed in. I want to show people like "this ain't it." Once I show somebody the other side of me they'll respect it on a different level. Dudes like a Hit-Boy, I feel like I could get that same level of respect, or more respect.

I feel like he did a similar thing, stepping out on his own getting a crew and making his own little world. But let's be real though, we haven't heard no hits from him.

That's true, but he could be somewhere making beats for Ye all day, and nobody would know him. Now this is what I don't understand, because you got all the outlets, you got the artists, you got the name, why don't the people you choosing have major hits? You not breaking artists. I've been doing that shit subconsciously for the past two years, out of my house, with no money involved. Where's my fucking respect for that shit? All these other people getting glorified for what I see as a easy win. I fuck with Khaled, but you don't think you're gonna win with a song with Drake, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, all on the same track? That's an automatic win my nigga. Go get somebody that don't nobody know, and make that shit win. I'm not saying they ain't done it, but I haven't seen it. If you gave me all three of them on one song, I have no choice but to win. People go in there with winning combinations. I feel like people ain't winning organically.

People who don't follow closely might lump all the Atlanta producers together. Like there's no difference between a Sonny and a Metro and a Spinz, from a distance. If people think like that, it's fucked up. Because all these people come and grab artists off from us. We the risk takers, we ensuring that this shit gon' work, and when the shit work that's when everybody else want to step in. And people be slick, contacting us but not putting that out to the public. We the creative people, we are the creativity in this shit but they not giving us credit. People reach out to us to get our sauce. People can't make the drums sound how we do. They can't do what we do. But they won't put it out there. I feel like they don't want us to get the shine.

You've had major artists that everybody knows reach out to you? Something like that, but cases happen all the time. They try to do it subconsciously, or in a way that you don't notice. If somebody major calls you and asks you how you did this, they're thinking that you're going to be starstruck and just give all your skills up. It probably would've been like that two or three years ago. But now, if you want to know—fly me out. We'll show you how to do this.

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Beat Construction
Beat Construction: Sonny Digital