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, we talk to Taiwo and Kehinde Hassan of Christian Rich, Nigerian twins out of Chicago who have been producing for over a decade and have adapted to countless shifts in rap sounds since their first placements. Their credits—which include beats for Lil Kim, Earl Sweatshirt, Vince Staples—are diverse for a reason.
How did you guys first get your foot in the door?
TAIWO: We've always been doing music together. We found out about hip-hop in 1990s—started hearing Tribe, Dr. Dre, Pete Rock, and all them, and we liked the beats. As far as getting in the game professionally, that wasn't until we were in college, so I want to say 2000, 2001. We got with a production company out in New York with Ez Elpee, the same guy that did "Oochie Wally" and "Get Money" and all that stuff. He hit me on my two-way pager. I got the Motorola one later, but I had the small Motorola joint. He was like, "Yo I like y’all beats. Send me some stuff." Back then you sent CDs; you didn't send emails. So we put some beats on a CD, and the first beat he ever placed was Lil Kim. The song she did with Styles P on the La Bella Mafia album. That was the beginning. That was like, I want to say, 2001.
How did Christian Rich start as a project?
TAIWO: The production stuff came first, so we were a bunch of different names: So Rich, Shawn Damon, the Beat Boys. But the Christian Rich thing as a group started when we lived in Atlanta, 06 to 07. At that time, people liked The Cool Kids and all that stuff, and being from Chicago, I started noticing that there was space to do more than just make beats. I know how to write, and we both taught ourselves how to write back then. I wrote this song for Shanell of Young Money; she use to be signed to Ne-Yo. His studio was right down the street from my crib in Atlanta, so I met up with her. I wrote the song, and I did the beat, and I took all of these ideas from George Michael, Cyndi Lauper, Genesis. I was like, "Man this song sounds dope; I should keep this for us." We stopped producing for other people. Cause at that point, it wasn't as lucrative. We were bankers at the time, so I was just kind of like I need to focus on my regular job and just be an artist and do shows.
It's not as much of a stigma now, but back then, people didn't take "producer rappers" as seriously. If you were a producer, you were expected to stay a producer. Did you guys run into that expectation?
TAIWO: Nah, because when we producing for Lil Kim, we didn't go hard as Christian Rich; we were producers. But when people found out, they would go crazy, like "Yo, you did my favorite song for The Clipse!" We did a song called "I'm Serious." I was super influenced from Pharrell's work. We took a page from Pharrell and Timberland, where they were producers, but they were super producers, where they would sing and rap. So I felt confident in doing it. When we came back to New York, we just got plugged in the scene. It was us, Theophilus London, Cudi, Wale, J. Cole; they said Drake was around, but I didn't see Drake. It was very comfortable, and we learned a lot of stuff as far as artistry in New York. We started DJing more and performing more. We used to perform with a 6-piece orchestra—we used to do it up.
How often are you in the studio with an artist for a session, and how often are you sending files? Which do you enjoy more?
TAIWO: That's a very good question. Well, for example, with Earl Sweatshirt, we were in the studio with him from the first day he started recording. We were in the studio doing "Chum" and the three or four songs we did on the album. It was very tedious, cause Earl would just want to talk and mess around with beats for eight hours and then record the last two hours. I'd go home after a while, they'd email us six in the morning: "Yeah, we just came up with this song." Even though we know Vince Staples very well—we met during Earl's album, and he's basically like our little brother—"Senorita," we did that shit on the kitchen table. We went back and forth like, "Yo should you add this, add that." Meeting an artist in the studio is cool if they on they A-game and they're ready to get down and record. But, for the most part, it's easier for us to send you beats and we'll talk via email or Skype, even if we're in the same city, cause we're in our zone.
Since you're a duo, you don't necessarily need a rapper there to have creative exchange.
TAIWO: Exactly. And also, we got in the game early, so we learned a lot of things from Ez Elpee, back in 2001—how to interact with people and all that stuff. So fast forward to 2015, a lot of stuff that's happening in the game we've seen it happen already, whether it’s artist ego or how to do a song and all that. So we don't necessarily have to be in the studio all the time.
Was the Future hook that's on "Senorita" a sample, or did you have those Future vocals before they were released? How'd that play out?
TAIWO: Well that's a little tricky, so Imma just keep that a mystery. But we definitely came to the situation with the hook. The hook was done. A few other artists heard the beat before I sent it to Vince and them, and they were kind of lagging on it. Then Vince heard it and picked it and then the other artist tried to get the beat back. I was like, "Nah, it's too late." But yeah, we definitely had the hook already, by the time we gave them the beat. Everything's cleared: [Future's team] definitely got the duffle bag, they got paid. Def Jam is very efficient with that kind of stuff. So yeah, they definitely took care of that.
“If I’m the artist, drawing scattered stuff all over the place on a canvas, my brother would come in as a collaborator and make it make sense for the gallery to sell it.” -Kehinde Hassan
As a producer, you have to be able to put yourself in someone else's shoes. Do you think as twins, you guys are uniquely equipped for that?
KEHINDE: If we're talking on the subject of working together as twins, [our situation is pretty unique]. We moved from Chicago to Nigeria at four years old. A neighborhood that was different from Chicago. Not having any friends over there, we had to stick together and we got use to that. Then we moved back to Chicago at nine years old—again, new set of friends. So before we branch out to others, we start with each other. Even as musicians, we work with other people outside of each other, but it always initially starts with us together. So that symmetry, that alliance, has obviously helped us get to this point.
How would you describe each other's respective styles?
KEHINDE: Musically? The same, really. I like to get inspired, I like to hear ideas from all over the place–every genre. If you listen to the song we got with Vince Staples called "High," the drop sounds like a whole bunch of cars zooming by, because I heard cars outside. That's how I approach music—there's no limits in my mind. My brother does about the same, but the way he approaches music is more like, "Okay, let's take all these weird ideas and make it sellable." If we're talking about an analogy of painting, if I'm the artist and I'm drawing scattered stuff all over the place on a canvas, my brother would come in as a collaborator and make it make sense for the gallery to be able to sell it. That's pretty much our style: one all over the place, and the other one comes and tames it, so it works.
That comes across in how versatile your sound is. You guys aren't just making beats for yourselves. Producers can be very elitist, or even selfish about their style.
TAIWO: We've been around the game for like eleven, twelve years, so this is like Chase Bank to us. We're the owners of Chase Bank; we're Jamie Dimon. We're the CEO. The beats to us are checking and savings accounts and investment accounts and savings bonds and home equities and all that. If all Chase Bank did was sell checking accounts and savings accounts, they probably wouldn't be a big bank like they are. In order to be able to sell to all kinds of customers and all needs within the financial realm, they do home equities, they do mortgages, they do bank business accounts, they do personal accounts, and so forth. So that's how we look at music, as a business. So we treat each beat like a product. It is a product. And yes, it's fun to do.
That's where a lot of kids get music kind of messed up, right? They get it misconstrued. They think it's all fun and games and you just make beats and love what you do for a living. That's great, but you have to understand how to diversify your portfolio. You have to be open to all kinds of music. The kids that don't play music, they don't realize music only has 12 notes on a scale, so there's only so many chord progressions you can fit on top of each other. If you pick out all the drums on all these songs, rock, dance, hip-hop—it's all the same thing. Why would you put yourself in the box and say I only make hip-hop—I only make the soulful cool shit—when it's literally the same music? You're tricking yourself, you're taking money out your pockets. That's how I think.
What do you guys have coming up next?
TAIWO: We're really about to expand the empire. We're doing our first documentary, which is on Benjamin Wright. If you listen to Justin Timberlake's albums, starting from Justified to now, all the string arrangements you hear, and even his newer stuff, it's this black 72-year-old guy from Chicago, via Mississippi. He has a PhD in conducting, and we're doing a documentary on his life and his musical journey. He did the strings for Michael Jackson's "Rock With You" on Michael Jackson's Off The Wall. He conducted the brass section for Gladys Knight.
We're going more into television and expanding our viewership. If you're tired of hearing wack music on TV, we're about to change that. Music on TV should sound better. When I watch that show Empire, it annoys the shit out of me, cause I'm like, that's not real. Who listens to this? And then they expect you to go buy the MP3 after the show! Like, this is wack. And Timberland is doing it, which just boggles my mind. We're not dumb, we want to hear good music. It's a television show about music. Give us good music to back it up. So that's where we're moving into.
TV music is almost always bad. Like, the same people who work in TV offices go to concerts. They know what good songs actually sound like. How does that keep happening?
TAIWO: [Laughs] It's a big secret, and I'm not going to tell that secret, because that's why we doing what we're doing. We moved out to L.A., and we found out a few secrets. Just like any one of our other hustles: selling glasses for $380 and working on our own sneakers and all that stuff, like there's secrets to all that stuff. Some things you tell, some things you don't.