Adam Feeney sounds relaxed, even as he admits he’s a bit nervous about his recent ascension onto the A-list of rap producers. “I’ve been doing music for a long time, and so to be in this spot, I feel like I just can’t fuck it up,” the 32-year-old best known as Frank Dukes says with a laugh, while taking a break from a session at his Toronto studio.
In 2015, he produced or co-produced songs for Drake, Future, Drake and Future, Jeremih, Pusha T, Travis Scott, Mac Miller, Ghostface Killah, Wale, Freddie Gibbs, and even Selena Gomez. But the new year has already put his name in the most notable company of his career. He's on Rihanna's ANTI. And our interview occurs just days after Kanye West released “Real Friends.” Feeney and fellow Toronto producer Boi-1da contributed the song’s “sample,” a delicate piano loop that sounds like it’s lifted from a dusty jazz record, but that Dukes found without having to dig for anything, because he made it himself.
Manipulating his own compositions like they were somebody else’s is a technique that has brought Feeney—an avowed crate-digger turned self-taught multi-instrumentalist—from relative obscurity to a go-to producer for the industry’s elite. “I’m still using that traditional approach, but trying to create music that’s completely forward-thinking and pushing some sort of boundary,” he says.
With that in mind, he’s also turned his productions into a small side business in the form of the Kingsway Music Library, a digital collection of drum breaks, rare synths, keys, strings, brass riffs, and guitar and bass licks that he records with vintage amps and microphones, then sells for a fraction of the price of a standard sample clearance. And it’s catching on. Tinashe, Jeezy, and Young Thug have all released songs built on Kingsway samples; major producers like Hit-Boy, Ryan Lewis, and Don Cannon are customers. By reverse-engineering the art of flipping samples, Feeney is looking at the past, present, and future simultaneously.
Adam Feeney was born in Toronto long before the music industry’s microscope was placed on the Canadian city. By 13, skateboarding had turned him onto rap, and by 16 he was a DJ and obsessive record buyer. Before long, he bought an MPC and, like any nascent producer, began to learn the craft through imitation. “I started dissecting my favorite beats. Like, ‘What did Premier do here?’ ‘What did Dilla do here?’” he says.
Though Feeney says he had no intention to become a professional musician, he sent some of his early beats to Mo Jointz, a Toronto manager who then represented Feeney for short period of time. In 2008, Mo Jointz relayed Feeney’s music to G-Unit’s Lloyd Banks, and the budding producer had his first industry placement, to his own surprise. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, I might be able to make a career out of this.’ I was in my early twenties at the time, and getting paid $5,000 dollars to make a beat seemed like a really, really big deal,” he recalls. Though the song would take years to come out—it eventually appeared on the Raekwon-featuring “Sooner or Later” on Banks’ 2010 album Hunger for More 2—its initial sale earned him entry into the G-Unit circle, and soon he was making beats for 50 Cent. (Apparently 50 Cent also stocks a deep vault: the instrumental for his 2015 song “9 Shots” was a beat Frank Dukes made years prior.)
It was working for 50 Cent that changed Feeney’s entire approach to production and, to use his word of choice during our interview, began a creative "evolution." Unsurprisingly, a sample was at the root. In the process of making the song that’d go on to become “Talking in Codes,” he initially sampled the soul-revivalists Menahan Street Band’s song “The Traitor.” He couldn’t clear it, but he befriended the bandleader Thomas Brenneck and joined some of Menahan’s sessions in Brooklyn. “At the time, I didn’t know how to utilize live instrumentation to sound the way I wanted it to,” says Feeney. “You can’t just plug your guitar in your computer and make it sound like an old record. Menahan records like it’s still 1968—everything is straight to tape. They didn’t have a computer, so I had to use my ears instead of looking at a screen.” He ended up co-producing two songs with Menahan on soul singer Charles Bradley’s 2013 album Victim of Love. But more importantly, Feeney says, “Menahan opened me up to a whole different mentality.”
After learning how to recreate the sounds of the 1960s and 1970s, he had a new strategy: to make something new sound like something old, so he could make it sound like something new all over again. He stopped trying to “just make beats,” but instead create loosely formed “musical ideas” that were performed by himself or Toronto musicians like River Tiber and BadBadNotGood—with whom he co-produced Ghostface Killah’s Sour Soul LP—original source material, essentially, that he’d use to develop into something full-fledged later.
“The Kingsway Library was a product of all these ideas,” Feeney says, opening his process to all. The project was also a response to the increasingly restrictive legal and economic climate he’d experienced clearing samples. “When I got my first few placements and got back my publishing splits, I saw what I had to pay to clear the sample and thought, ‘Someone is getting the better deal here,’” he explains. “I didn’t create Kingsway for financial gain, it was just the road I was going down. It happened to line up on the business side of things.”
If you scan through the Kingsway catalog, you can hear how Dukes’ ideas have become hit records. The first few seconds of a track called “Vibez” became Drake’s “0-100,” while portions of one called “Wizardry” became Drake and Future’s “Diamonds Dancing.” On both songs, and with most that Feeney has been involved with as of late, he’s worked in tandem with a handful of other producers, including Boi-1da, Metro Boomin, Vinylz, Southside, and DJ Dahi—an increasingly popular way of producing that Feeney likens to being in a band. “In a band everyone plays their part, and I look at production the same way. When you look at most credits now, there’s usually a few producers working on something.” This collaborative model sheds the myth of the one-man superproducer, allowing multiple ears and skill sets to constantly breathe life into a song. “It’s taking what everyone’s good at, utilizing it and winning as a team,” Feeney explains.
What excites him most, he says, isn’t being a hitmaker-for-hire but developing young artists, which there are plenty of in his hometown at this moment. “There’s a ton of talent and people with fresh ideas and approaches to music here. And because we’re on the outskirts, we take influence from everywhere, and I think you’re really starting to see that in the new artists coming out of Toronto,” says Feeney. “I’m working with some young cats right now that are really raw, and it’s my job to get inside their head, understand who they want to be, and help them get there.”
This holistic approach is where Feeney draws a line between simply making a beat and producing. The division was crystallized during his experience working with Kanye: producing doesn’t always involve programming a drum pattern or playing a chord, but having a distinct vision and seeing that through to the end. “Kanye is producing in the true sense of the word.” Feeney says. “‘Real Friends’ was an idea started by me and Boi-1da. We passed it off to Kanye, and Kanye kind of stripped it down and had Havoc add some drums to it. Kanye had the vision. That’s really true-school production.”
It’s interesting that Feeney used the term “true-school,” as talk of authenticity usually intersects with conversations about sampling, a technique that’s often misunderstood as being restricted to a certain formalism. For someone who spent much of his musical life obsessed with the culturally dominant New York style of flipping soul and funk breaks, Feeney doesn’t crave nostalgia as much as he does a certain intangible feeling. “I think the difference between me and a lot of guys that came up around the same time as me is that I always loved the stuff the young guys were doing. I totally embrace the different transformations we’ve seen in hip-hop throughout the years. The reason I’ve been able to evolve is because I love hearing new shit. It’s more of a spirit or mentality than an actual sound.” At the same time, just because he may not dig for records like he did 10 years ago doesn’t mean Feeney’s offering his method as the end-all be-all of sample-based production. It just happens to work for him. “Someone is always going to do something fresh and innovative with a sample, whether someone wrote that sample today or yesterday or if someone wrote it 50 years ago,” he says. “It’s just what people choose to do with it. I wouldn’t say it’s the future, but it’s an evolution.”