The producer, singer, and songwriter ForteBowie has been working within the Atlanta underground for several years; The FADER first covered his solo work in early 2012. In the same year he worked with a rising Trinidad James, and since he’s released solo material and done some songwriting behind the scenes. Born Denzel Ayuk and now 25, Forte recently wrote 9 songs and produced one for Mood, the January tape from Atlanta teen R&B star Jacquees.
The core creative team behind Mood—producer Nash B, Forte, and Jacquees himself—crafted a classicist R&B record that sounds modern nonetheless. Unlike work from celebrated rookies like Bryson Tiller, the project doesn’t owe much to the looming presence of Drake. In spite of this, it won’t sound of out place on contemporary radio—a fact the icy single "Like Baby" has already proven.
FADER spoke with Forte about the R&B and gospel roots of Jacquees’ music and how he developed his own songwriting style.
What was your upbringing like?
I'm from the South Side of Atlanta. Clayton count, born and raised. Coming up my only thing was music. That's all I've ever cared about. My mom and dad are from Cameroon. I think when my dad came over here, he was either really into the culture or he was just trying to assimilate, but he just had videos upon videos of Showtime at the Apollo, Rap City, Video Soul. So I grew up watching those on the VCR, on top of CDs of Kenny Rogers, Exposém Bell Biv Devoe, Fresh Prince—all that stuff. I had no choice but to listen to everything because that's what we had—Janet, Michael, The Chronic. My aunt, when I went to her house, they would listen to B98.5, which is the soft rock station in Atlanta. They would play Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, and The Police. So I really got into soft rock and '90s alternative. I was into everything.
I always wanted to be an artist, but I never really thought I could sing until 10th grade. That's when I started making beats, too. My boy Tobias gave me Fruity Loops and it was over.
As a producer and songwriter, were you mainly self-taught?
Yeah, for the most part. Being in chorus from 6th to 12th grade probably helped my ear for melody and harmony. But as far as songwriting, I used to write songs when I was six, little stupid songs about the bathtub. As I got older—my songwriting really got crazy when T-Pain and The-Dream came out. It made sense. These are two guys from the South and they're saying what they want to say. They're talking like me and my friends talk and they're able to make it melodic and put it on a beat. And it sounds like some Atlanta shit but it's fire. That's where my songwriting came into play. I realized I can basically say whatever the fuck I want to say, as long is it's melodic.
How did you and Jacquees start working together?
I had seen Jacquees a couple times. We were around the same people. My boy Osose, he was like, "Yo, y'all should link up." He kept saying that and everybody else kept saying it. So I started calling Jacquees’ manager. I didn't really know if he wanted [his music] to be on some kid shit, or if he was like "Fuck that, I'm grown." Once we actually got in the studio, I got a feel and I'm like, “OK, I can just do what I be doing, there's no real boundaries.” We just meshed.
Tell me about how your songs with him have come together.
I'll come with the idea and he'll have lyrics, or he'll come into the parts that I didn't put nothing in there and he'll put his sauce in there. Or he'll already have an idea and be like, "Yo, I want to make a song about this," or "I wanna talk about this." Or it'll be one word, which will inspire him to make a whole song, and we'll just develop off of that. We just go off each other. I'll go in the booth, try some shit. He'll go in the booth, try some shit. Sometimes we'll go in the booth together, going back and forth. It's a chemistry thing.
What’s different about writing for another artist, as opposed to writing for yourself?
When I write for other artists, I remove myself. I still keep it me but I remove myself to a degree because I want it to match that person's feel and their vibe. I want them to hear it and think, "Man, I could do that." With Jacquees I just do me, because that's how we got together. It was kind of like: us doing us. I don't think, "This is what Quee would say." I just listen to the beat—whether Nash made it or I made it—and whatever comes, comes. I give it to Quee and he does what he does. We're from the same place, we're from the same area. We understand the same things, so what I write is going to make sense for Jacquees.
The song on Mood that you produced, "R&B Nigga,” closes with that crazy drum climax you wouldn't hear on a typical R&B record.
I made "R&B Nigga" last year. When I was making the beat, I didn't know where it was really going, I just pulled up the sample. The sample is the Clark Sisters, "Blessed and Highly Favored." I had chopped up two, three sections, then someone told me to reverse the sample. It sounded crazy as hell. I put drums on it and at the end, I was like, “This beat isn't gonna be fire unless people know it's a gospel sample. That's the only way it's gonna work. I'm just gonna play the sample normal.”
That was originally supposed to be my song but management wasn't really fucking with it. So I gave it to Quee, like "What you think?" He said "I fuck with it." He recorded it. For a while it was gonna be me and a him, a duet. But Quee kept saying, "If you don't put this shit out, I'm gonna put it out." It came time for Mood to drop and I was like, "Man, just put 'R&B Nigga' on there." He was like, "Bet."
The whole Mood thing was supposed to be an EP. This was early 2015. Then we was like, “Fuck it, we're just gonna do the album.” Then literally a week before this came out [in January], he was like, “I'm about to put out the mixtape.” We put this whole shit together in a week, probably less than that. We had the songs, we had the name, and we had the cover art just sitting. But Quee was like, “Fuck it, it's 2016. Let's go.”
“My songwriting really got crazy when T-Pain and The-Dream came out. These are two guys from the South and they’re saying what they want to say. They’re talking like me and my friends talk and they’re able to make it melodic and put it on a beat. I realized I can basically say whatever the fuck I want to say, as long is it’s melodic.”
What’s special or likable about Jacquees' style?
There's nobody in his lane. We haven't seen that in awhile: this young black guy with all this sauce just really singing. Jacquees is just an East Side dude that can really sing. He's really passionate about this shit, it's all he ever wanted to do, and I think people can really see that. On top of that, this nigga built his fanbase up since he was 12, 13 years old. It's not false. Those million followers on Instagram is real. You already have a million followers and they're not even really playing you on the radio like that? Can you imagine what happens once they start putting this shit into rotation? Of course the Cash Money shit is like—Birdman scooped him up, and now everybody wants to see what's really good. I think we delivered with that Mood project.
You expect him to be doing what everybody else doing—rappy, hip-hop singing. That's what he looks like, but he can really sing, and we're really making real R&B records. We pride ourselves on making R&G music—rhythm and gangster shit. On "B.E.D." we say 2015 Wanya, as a shout-out to Wanya [Morris] of Boyz II Men. That's the original R&B runnin'-ass nigga, doin all the vocal runs. We have a lot of respect for '90s R&B and we just really want to make real R&B music. But Quee doesn't always have to be singing on some, "You broke my heart, I love you so much, come back to me" type shit. He's on some, "21 with no kids, I'ma rain on a bitch!" Some funny-ass shit. We put that on a record and made it melodi: Rollie wrist, I'm the shiiit/ 21 with no kiiids/ I'ma rain on a biiiitch. It's so funny to see people really sing it.
Trey Songz, on “Good Girls vs. Bad Girls" from one of his last EPs, completely took the beginning of [Jacquees’] "Come Thru." Trey Songz sang some shit that I wrote in my mother's basement! We didn't really get mad, we took it as a compliment. Like, Trey Songz really see what we doing.
How did Jacquees build that big following when he was so young?
Dropping his mixtapes and doing his tours. All the little girls loved him. He was just the cool little nigga from Atlanta, putting out mixtapes, being in the city. There's a real market for the young black kids in the industry. It was like OMG Girlz, Jacob Latimore and all that. I'm proud of Jacquees because he's really stepped out of that teeny bop ship.
Tell me about Nash B, the producer who you two have worked with most.
When the whole Jacquees thing started, [Me and Nash] were both signed to [Atlanta-based label] TIG. He was managed by TIG as an artist, and everybody kept saying that we should link up. Nash is a versatile producer. He can make a really R&B track and do some really bounce-y radio rap shit. But what stuck out to me were the chords and progressions he chose. He structures his beats like songs are already on them, it's not just a loop. I can feel the gospel influences in the beats, I can hear the R&B in the beats. They deserved songs.
When you were young and coming up, did you have any mentors?
The closest thing to a mentor I've ever had in this industry is Count Bass D. He was sampling all the right shit. When he would rap it would just be all over the place, but for some reason it was still in pocket. We met him at A3C one year, and he was like, "I live in Decatur!" We just got cool, we would go over there, he would come over to our crib and make beats. It was crazy because it's like, “This is Count Bass D! What the fuck are you doing here?” But we got really cool.
As a solo artist, you’re not bankrolled by a major label. In pursuing your own career, what’s the main challenge?
The challenge for me is myself. My influences are all over the place, my music was all over the place. I felt like I was trying to prove to people that I was that good, and that I could do whatever the fuck I want. I feel like it took me a minute to understand how to really focus and really develop my own sound, develop something that people can attach themselves to. Because when you have a project that's all over the place, it damn near patronizes your fans. You split your fans up—some people like this, some people like that, some people like that. Everybody likes different shit. That's why with my new music, I'm focused on one kind of sound, one world I'm gonna be in. That's when everything is gonna make sense.