Beat Construction: Noah Breakfast

In our latest Beat Construction column, producer/engineer Noah Breakfast breaks down his work with Ellie Goulding, Wet, Jeremih & Shlohmo and Big Sean.

July 25, 2014

"Producing is deleting and massaging in a weird way. It's more about reduction. That's the hardest and rarest part of it."

The producer is one of the most crucial yet anonymous figures in all of music. But still, there are others: writers, players, engineers, those who tweak and twist music long after the rappers have rapped and singers have sang. In this week's Beat Construction, we speak to Noah Breakfast, a Philadelphia based beatmaker formerly of rap group Chiddy Bang, who's latest career chapter has found him producing and engineering records for the likes of Ellie Goulding, Wet, Shlohmo & Jeremih, and Big Sean, as well as churning out DJ sets in a bustling Philly Club scene. We spoke to the young producer about indie-pop R&B, beatmaking vs mixing, Big Sean's new album and more.

You grew up in in Philadelphia. Were you involved in music at a young age? What was your background? I was born in West Philly at 46 and Spruce. That's where my mom and dad were living. First thing I can remember is playing the piano. We didn't have a TV until I was in high school so I was at the piano every day after school. I think the dopest thing that my parents ever did is they never made me take lessons. It was something I always wanted to do, it was like a reward. When you make a kid have piano lessons they're like "oh no do I have to?" But my parents were like "No, there's a piano in the house. Go nuts." My mom was really into folk recordings like Alan Lomax and jazz like Sonny Rollins, at the crib it was like lots of folk musicians, Sonny Rollins, and Sun Ra--normal soul and R&B shit. Just being in Philly you're exposed to so much.

So you know music theory? I never was good at reading, but I had an ear, where I could recognize the chords and write them down. I always thought reading music was wack as a kid and unfortunately I never really outgrew it.

At what point did you feel like you were shaping an identity as an artist? It didn't feel real until I met a rapper named Theodore Grams. He was playing at some high school talent show and I was the sound guy. He taught me Fruity Loops in like 2004 or 2005. It was right when Baltimore Club was popping off in Philly. There was this incredible laissez-faire attitude to making beats: it was like, do whatever you want. Get people super hype. We'd make beats all weekend and drive down to Center City and try to sell beats to dudes. That was the very first time I was aware I was doing things differently. I'd give a beat to Grams and through word of mouth people would ask for beats. My goal was always to be really busy.

You left your former group Chiddy Bang about a year ago. How does producing in a group compare to the stuff you're doing now? It taught me the difference between making beats and producing. If you make beats and you don't produce, you cook up your track and send it in and that's the end of your involvement. After a while that didn't satisfy me anymore. I wanted to see it through til the very end. I wanted to mix it. I had ideas. I wanted to be an editor and deleter in a way. In the same way that making beats is writing, to me producing is deleting and massaging in a weird way. It's more about reduction. To me that's the hardest and rarest part of it.

That reduction and minimalism is a huge part of your style, in the stuff you've produced and engineered. How did you approach those first projects? The first time it struck me that minimalism is powerful was when Ellie Goulding did that cover of the Weeknd. We had been homies through [record label] Neon Gold and she wanted to start doing covers. I always wanted her to cover "Shut It Down" by Drake and The-Dream. If Ellie covers that it's going to be out of control. She was really into it and we almost did, but she was already blowing up. She was like "I got some young fans." So we did the Weeknd joint "High for This." I remember her vocal was so good that I could just delete and delete and the more I deleted the more it felt good. I could connect with the song.

When I put it out I didn't think people would dig it but the response has been crazy, and that sound carried through everything I've done since I've worked with her, especially with Wet. Part of producing is making sure the band writes and writes, and then when those songs are finally ready, showing them off to the world. The Wet stuff I felt a lot of those songs were really strong too so I really wanted to keep it minimal, and in the end, the band wanted to do it too. We did that EP in four days. It was awesome.

"Our goal was, how do we increase the sonic quality of something while not taking away from how loud, fuzzy and raw the shit is?"

Ellie and Wet have this kind of sound that's R&B influenced, but it's still really shimmery. They take more chances with textures.

Is there a space for that? Bands using R&B in that way. I think there's a space for whatever people want to hear. I haven't intentionally been like "We're going to make some R&B shit." I'm just trying to make whats dope to me and if people see R&B, dope. There was a record label executive who put on some Wet stuff and said, "Yeah this is like Jodeci". To me I cracked up, but at the same time that's what he felt. No matter what range of experiences or knowledge someone has, their feelings are real to them. Whether or not they have all the musical knowledge to back it up is different person to person.

How did you end up doing the Shlohmo and Jeremih project? I'd been making some beats with Baauer and I mastered RL Grime's record for Fool's Gold and all of a sudden one day Baauer's manager hit me and said "do you want to take a crack at this Jeremih and Shlohmo record?" I said "absolutely, fuck yeah." That was how it kicked off. It was a much longer process than I thought. At the beginning it was like, "here's three songs."

It wasn't a full EP at that stage? It was, but there were songs coming in and out. It's an EP, collaborative process. You make one thing you strike another. The fun part about engineering is you never get into the label side. You just wake up and it's like "here's a new track, here's the parts, lets make it happen." Our only job was to really find a balance between what Jeremih wanted and what Shlohmo wanted.

What was that balance? Our goal was, how do we increase the sonic quality of something while not taking away from how loud, fuzzy and raw the shit is? There was a lot of cleaning up stuff that my engineering partner wanted to do that I told him to hold back on. Basically, whenever you put two songs side by side, whichever mix is louder is going to feel better always. Shlohmo makes some loud shit. He's awesome. He dives into emotion and is one of the dopest arrangers hands down. His pieces have movement and they're incredible. But yeah, increase the sonic quality, keep it fucked up and fuzzy and deep. Try to make a mix that's not distorting but feels just as loud. It was a mix gig, it was chill.

Mixing is a very centralized job, whereas producing for artists is more collaborative. If you make a beat for Big Sean his creative input will be as important as yours. For sure, reacting to your environment. At the end of the day you're just trying to make the best fuckin song possible. Sean is dope man. I think he's one of the dopest writers. He's just discovering how powerful that can really be, whether it's just for yourself or for other people. The last time I saw him he'd just spent three or four months tucked away in the lab in L.A., and he was at this point where a lot of rappers hope to be in. Do I keep this to myself or do I give it away? He's just making dope shit. I worked on some shit with him and RL Grime. He's got beats from everybody, a real diverse group of shit.

You've carved out small identities as a producer, DJ, and artist. Do you plan to put more music out or stay behind the scenes? It'd be cool to be in a band or make an EP with someone. But am I going to do press and tour? Fuck no. To me the ultimate satisfaction is just making the thing. I'm going to leave all the worrying about how it sells and promotes to an artist. I just want to make some beats, go home, cook, live in one house in one city.

From The Collection:

Beat Construction
Beat Construction: Noah Breakfast