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. Minneapolis producer Columbus “Rahki” Smith has been one of Top Dawg Entertainment's go-to producers as of late, crafting the lead singles for both Ab-Soul’s These Days and Kendrick Lamar’s not-yet-titled follow up to good kid, m.A.A.d city. He may seem like a new name, but he’s clocked in beats for Eminem, played drums for Aloe Blacc and won a Grammy with Lecrae. We caught up with him about his MN roots, his relationship with mentor DJ Khalil and of course, the story of how “i” came about.
How’d you start making beats? My family played mostly gospel around the house, like ninety-nine percent [laughs]. I learned to play music in church. Around high school, I was in a little group, but I knew I wasn’t going to be the one to rap or anything like that. So me knowing a little bit of keys and being a drummer, I figured I’d try [making beats]. We just mess around in one of my boy's basements who had a set of turntables. It started out like any other high school kids do. Then I would go to other producers' spots that had more equipment and would try to learn that way until I could afford to buy my own.
How did your music first start getting recognition? I had some friends that moved from Minneapolis to LA, and they were already in the scene the year before I came out. They were doing street promotion for different labels, and their boss was good friends with DJ Khalil. When I came out for a trip, I gave him my beat CD and he gave it to Khalil. When I came to LA again, they brought me by to meet him. We just exchanged info and kept in contact over the next year, nothing major. I don’t even think we talked about music. I’d just hit him up every once in a while to make sure he still knew who I was [laughs]. One day, I decided that I should try and really utilize this relationship. I was basically thinking, what could I do for him? So I called him and asked if I could intern for him. And he was like, "Yup, if you stay quiet you can come down for a couple months and intern.” It wasn’t like he needed me to do a whole lot, it was me just going in and learning.
Then eventually he started to work you in on his projects? After I was done interning, I moved back to Minnesota. I was obviously inspired by what I had just done for the past four months. I was making crazy beats—the beats I was coming up with were just stupid. I sent Khalil maybe four or five beats. He called me actually, which he never did, so at first I was like, why is he calling me? He was kind of stuttering like, “Man you’re dope. I want to do a situation with you, some kind of production deal.” That came out of left field for me. I was not expecting that at all, so I was just like, let’s do it. Next thing I know I’m headed out to LA, and that’s how the credits started piling up.
Out of everything he taught you, is there one thing that stands out? Really, the most important thing is his personality. Regardless of what happens and what someone does as a producer, we’re all human beings at the end of the day. So you don’t want to walk into a session and be an egomaniac. You want to come in humble, ready to put in your work in because at the end of the day, that's what it’s about. On top of that, backing up your music. You don’t ever want to be in a situation where you lose sessions or beats [laughs].
How did you start working with TDE? Through my manager Brock. I was actually talking to Punch the other day, and I'd actually been out there [to TDE’s studios] during my internship. A couple of my homies knew Punch, and they brought me to work with Jay Rock back when he was still signed to Warner Brothers, before TDE. So it was funny talking to Punch--I have this picture of me and Jay Rock when I was mad young. It came full circle, we had been working together and didn’t even know it. He didn’t even realize that that was me. It’s so crazy.
The first song you did with Kendrick was "Black Boy Fly." That instrumental is so layered but doesn’t come off overproduced, which is common trait with a lot of your beats. How do you strike that balance? The most important thing is the vocal. If you’re adding instruments and that instrument is in the way of the vocal, you’re doing too much. Over the years I’ve learned how to use instrumentation, but not to overpower or overbear the vocalist. There’s been times when I’ve absolutely overproduced, and done way too much to the point where I go back and listen and it’s like, this beat is dope but you don’t know where your vocals are. An artist might be scared to even jump on the beat because of it.
What’s it like working with Kendrick? He has a reputation for being very hands-on, almost to the extent of co-production. Absolutely. Hands on is a great term because he listens to every detail of everything that’s going on in the music, and we’re able to talk about it, which is important. We talk about the records, and talk about layering and what needs to happen. Another thing I like about Kdot is that I can tell him I have an idea, it might be just be literally a melody, and I can go, yo, you like this melody? I can build off of things with him. I can start a messy beat, and just through working back and forth with him, it gets where it needs to be. I love to produce that way.
Did “i” come about in that sort of process? It came about a bit differently. He flew my band out a couple different times. On the first trip, we had made a few records that sounded like something the Isley Brothers could sing on. Then Kdot decided that he actually wanted to do an Isley Brothers remake. So we flew the band back out, we did a replay of "Who’s That Lady" and we just went from there. We had the band aspect of it and there were a few things I wanted to add to just beef it up a little bit. And so it went from that to, yo, we could flip it towards the end, make it a little more bouncy. It was a process, the format changed about three or four times.
"Me and Kendrick talk about mistakes and being human beings. We wanted to keep the human part in the music."
In the sessions with Kendrick, is he leading it or do you take that on? When we were working on “i” we had two studios, so I’m going from room to room dealing with the band. Then I’m going to Kendrick’s room and hearing what he’s done on the rough draft we did. It was literally me running back and forth trying to produce both sides. With Kdot, he already knows in his mind the vision for his record, so I’m just playing follow the leader at the end of the day. I’m just helping him with his vision. That’s really what it’s about.
Who was the band you brought out? Keith Askey was the guitar player. Then my brother Chris Smith played bass. Sam Barsh played keys and Kendall Lewis played drums. Then towards the end of the record, about a month later when we were finishing it up, my brother wasn’t around but Thundercat was in the other room working with Sounwave. So I was like, "Yo, Thundercat, I need you to hop on this," and that's how the end part came about. We did it in one take. I freestyled the little drum part and had him do it with all the mistakes and everything. We wanted to keep it that way because me and Kendrick talk about mistakes and being human beings—how mistakes have been taken out of music and the feeling we used to get from certain records, when you hear a mistake but you love it. We wanted to keep the human part in the music.
Did you know the direction the song would take while you were making it? I knew it had potential to be a single when I was running back from Studio A to Studio B. One of the times I was walking up to Kendrick’s part, I could hear what he was saying, the first couple lines: I done been through a whole lot. I remember thinking like, “Yo this could be crazy!” I hadn’t opened the door yet—the music was bleeding through the door—and I remember thinking to myself, man, I wish I would’ve done that record, not even knowing it was the record we just did! I just knew because it gave me that feeling right away, and then when Kendrick came out of the booth we just kind of looked at each other, and knew that this was going to be something big.
And Ronald Isley is actually singing on it? Yeah, he gave us the blessing. I wasn’t with them when they went down to St. Louis so I can’t tell you the conversation that they had, but he sang on it. I look at that as a blessing in itself, you know what I mean?
“i” represents your development, blending samples with live instrumentation to make it your own. How do you feel about sampling? I stopped sampling years ago to be honest with you. I listen to samples for inspiration, but after that I don’t touch them. That started after I began to learn the business better. It actually helped me to get on the keys and learn how to play better and really understand live instrumentation. As far as replaying samples, I wake up with these crazy things in my head musically so much that I want to get down all the time. I have too much going on in my head to even sample.
Do you have any more work on the Kendrick album? I can’t say nothing, but I’m working.
Are there any other artists you’re working with with right now? I actually am finishing up Wale’s record. I’m actually at the studio now about to go in. To be honest it’s really just Wale and Kendrick right now. I got a couple records floating around otherwise.
Do you have any dream collaborations? So many [laughs]. Because I’m so melodic, I’m starting to lean towards working with more R&B types and singers. I’ve been blessed to work with Kendrick and Eminem, you know guys who are just incredible rappers. And so my next venture is going to be working with more singers.