For Ricky Harrell, better known as producer Ricky Racks, his hometown of Greenville, North Carolina functioned as something of a meeting point for Northern and Southern rap. To hear Racks tell it, New York hip-hop dominated the airwaves, while southern-hailing artists like Yo Gotti and Gorilla Zoe caught his ear as he came of age when the car scene hit his city.
Paired with his family’s jazz, gospel, and rock tastes, plus his own experience growing up as a drummer, Racks’s disparate influences coalesced to inform his ominously melodic and experimental production tendencies. His signature rattle is best heard on Slime Season favorites like the robustly creepy “Best Friend” and the sparse-but-warped “Overdosin,” Migos’s club banger “Can’t Go Out Sad” and the CULTURE scorching rap ballad “What The Price.” More recently, Racks teamed with Lil Yachty for the softly spooky “Peek-A-Boo,” a quiet hit (with over seven million views in just one week) slated to appear on the Yachty's buzzed-about debut album Teenage Emotions.
Over the phone from southside Atlanta, the 30-year-old producer detailed how his move from Greenville to Atlanta changed his career, what it’s like working with Young Thug and Migos, and why after deciding to take a break from music early on in his career, he came back stronger than ever.
What was your upbringing like?
RICKY RACKS: I'm from Greenville, North Carolina. I grew up in the inner cities. My dad plays the guitar and teaches music over there. He’s in a band called One-A-Chord, it's a traveling band. They play jazz music and all of that stuff. I kind of got the musical side from him. My mom sings, she used to sing in a quartet group called Farfield Sisters. I have a sister; she's six years older than me, she was a cheerleader, she was more into sports school, she was smart. I played sports growing up, too, basketball — I never really thought I'd be doing music. It's funny how stuff turned out.
My dad was trying to teach me how to play the guitar, and I just didn't like the guitar for whatever reason. I learned how to play the drums when I was six years old, I liked that, so I stuck with it. Even though I was playing sports, I was always playing the drums for his band, or for whoever.
Why’d you make the switch from sports to music?
I just kept getting in trouble. I was a hardhead. I was smart but for some reason I just didn't like the authority of school, people always telling me what to do. Music is powerful, it gives you control. You can control people's emotions with music. Certain sounds trigger certain emotions, it's crazy, you can express yourself, and you can see how people react to it. There ain't no better feeling than that.
What did you listen to growing up?
Gospel music — my mom loves gospel. My dad played Marvin Gaye, Jackson 5, Willie Hutch, all that type of stuff. ’90's R&B. We had a real cultural house when it came to music. Even rock and roll like Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles — my dad listened to all that stuff, I didn't have a choice but to hear it growing up.
As you got older, what kind of music did you gravitate towards?
Up north hip-hop. New York was like how Atlanta is now. All the artists were there: Jay-Z, Nas, 50 Cent. That's where all the hits were coming from. People think, “oh, North Carolina is a southern state.” But we're so close to the coasts, we got a lot of influences, like D.C. Half of my friends were all from New York, part of my family lived there.
It was crazy, until I went down south, I didn't really understand the culture. We don't have clubs like that in Greenville, it's very tight-knit. We didn't get clubs 'til later. I didn't understand the club scene and the music scene 'til I got [to Atlanta], and I was like "Man, this city is about having fun, and turning up." Carolina is more chill, they like northern rappers like J. Cole.
And Yo Gotti, man, that was like my favorite southern rapper. All the Cocaine Muzik tapes. I used to have a system on 26's, and all that shit. It's crazy how I went from listening to nothing but the northern stuff, and at 19-20 years old, it was the complete opposite. It was Gorilla Zoe and all that other stuff, because the cars! Where I’m from it’s real big into the “old schools,” especially in the summertime, so once the car scene came to where I was from, my whole city took a flip. Southern country took a flip too, and everyone was gravitating to southern artists.
We got everything late. Before the internet, we didn't know the artists, because it was all hand-in-hand CD's and radio stations. Before internet marketing, I didn't really know the southern artists because all they played on the radio station where I'm from was northern artists. And when I moved to Atlanta, they didn't play northern music at all. It was crazy. The first time here when I heard Future in the club, I went crazy, I was like "yo, this shit's hard as fuck!" It just gives you a feeling, like “damn! This city knows how to party.“
When did you make the transition from playing drums to producing?
I was maybe 16 or 17 years old. I have a cousin, who’s also a rapper. His name is Young Cypher. He just came to my house one day and was like, "Man, come with me to this other guy's house, he has a studio." And they showed me his FL studio 5, it was crazy, I was like “what the hell is this?” I just kept messing with him. Then I got an MPC and Motif, but my house ended up being broken into, so they stole it, so it right on time, because I could make beats right on my computer, and I don't have to have any hardware. So I just kept learning how to use it.
I’ve been producing seriously for about four years, because I took a big break. I kind of gave up on it, like "eh I ain't making money." During the break, I just worked jobs, I sold cheap beats, I just hustled, did what I had to do to make money.
What made you get back into the game?
A friend of mine came back to my house. I actually had a beat CD, and he listened to the beats and was like "Man, why aren't you making beats, you're crazy. These shits are good!" I said, "Man, I ain't makin no money doing that." He came to my house and brought me a computer and said, "Look bruh, I got this computer, don't worry about where I got it from, just use it." So I started doing beats again.
One of my friends, Stafa, he went to school for engineering, and he worked Patchwerk. He's one of the biggest engineers there now. He moved to Atlanta first. He told me DJ Holiday was there, and he wanted some beats for [Rick] Ross, so I sent him five or six sample beats, and Holiday called me and wanted to sign me. So I was like "Fuck it, I ain't doing nothing here." I just dipped, and moved down to Atlanta, officially on May 6th, 2012.
When I told my parents I wanted to move, they were like "Yeah go ahead. Chase your dreams, go make it happen — now. Don't do it when you're 30, just make something happen, you’ve always got a place at home." My mother telling me to just go for it and not be afraid to fail encouraged me. I felt like I had my whole state on my back, my whole city.
Did your move change how you made or approached music?
In my hometown, it's very divided, and the only example of anyone in this entertainment industry as far as rap is like Petey Pablo. It's a lot of great artists and talented people, but they feel like there ain't no market for music. People do make the move, they make the move to Atlanta or New York, where there’s a market where they can get their stuff out and get it heard. It's like a hub here, all the producers are here, all the artists are here. Dope music is always gonna come out of Atlanta, always.
When I lived in North Carolina, I literally had to write music. I was writing hooks, sending the beats, recording and mixing, everything. When I moved to Atlanta, these artists were like "Give me the beats. I'm making a hit!" It's a lot of producers here, but the artists are so talented. Where I'm from, everybody's into sports. Everybody's passion, everybody's way out is about that shit. In Atlanta, everybody's into entertainment. They all wanna rap, do music. The artist is so seasoned at a young age. This city is a beast of it's own, it's crazy.
Your early songs were very sample-based, like Project Pat’s “Drank And That Strong.” How or why did you move away from sample-based production to creating your own sounds?
That’s a Willy Hutch sample, and I had it chopped up for a long time. I was up one night, bored as hell, made the beat real quick and sent it to my homeboy like "yo, give me a hook on it." The next time I heard it, it was Project Pat. I knew Pat would kill it, so I just gave him the beat.
When I was in North Carolina, the area I'm from, Eastern North Carolina, we listen to more New York-sounding music. I was a Dipset and D-Block fan. My favorite producers were Heatmakerz and Just Blaze, and that's what I loved to make. When I came [to Atlanta] and started meeting producers I was like, "damn, all this is 808-based production." I get it, in Atlanta they wanna have fun, they wanna move. They wanna turn up. I still try to integrate it, like for Migos’s, "Can't Go Out Sad." I used a sample, but I just put hard, trap drums behind it.
“Can’t Go Out Sad” was one of my favorite songs from last year.
[Migos] are incredible man, they're geniuses. A friend from my hometown that I grew up with hit me and said, "Offset from the Migos is my nephew, I need to link y'all." I get a phone call, it's Offset. I get the email, and that was it. Boom. Just like that.
Did that lead to your work on CULTURE?
Yeah, basically. Once you place that first record, that’s like the handshake. Like “cool, we know we can make hits. Let's keep going.
Tell me about working on “What The Price.” I’d heard the piano melody before on Bibby’s “Steph” and Swipey’s “Intro.”
With that song, it's three of us on that beat: me, Keanu Beats, and 808Godz. I kinda got it towards the end, so when I got it, the melody was on it, and I just added strings, piano, he did his thing on the drums, and we just put it all together. When the song came out the next day, I looked online, people were like "you guys stole this beat?!" I was like “huh?” I guess the piano in it is in a royalty-free kit or something like that, so that kind of explains why.
Your songs with Young Thug incorporate some crazy sounds, like those wild haunted “boings” on “I’ll Tell You What.”
The more sounds, the more creative you can be. I got a desktop computer here that's old as hell, but man, I got tons of sounds on that shit. On [Young Thug’s] "Overdosin." I used a sound effect, it was like a bat hitting a pole, I used that as the lead melody, and I put a lot of reverb on it. People thought that was really cool. It's about the artist too, so with Thug, you can send him anything. He's not gonna let the beat get him confused, he's gonna figure that shit out.
With “I’ll Tell You What,” me and Wheezy made that beat. We was up, hanging around, I ain’t gon’ lie, we were drunk as hell, it was late, it was nobody at the studio but the interns. Maybe a couple of engineers, that's it. We made the beat fast. See Weezy, he's another dude, we just got chemistry, like that's my dude. It's like water. We did "Knocked Off" for [Young] Thug and Birdman — we're talking about 5-10 minute beats. When it clicks, it just clicks.
Was “Best Friend” made specifically with Thug in mind?
“Best Friend” was in a batch of beats I sent him. Alex and Be EL Be hit me like "Thug, did this song, we think it's a hit." It's so funny, I thought that song was so cheesy when I made the beat at first. I just played the melody by itself, maybe for ten minutes, like "Damn, this shit sounds happy as fuck, who am I going to give this to?" The drums just changed it. Alex played a big part in that song, because I didn't like that beat too much. I was like "Don't send that shit." He was like "Nah, bruh, you're wrong. This is perfect." So I sent it, Alex played it for him, and the rest is history. I feel like [Thug and I] still have a good relationship, we got a lot of unreleased music.
Have you seen that whole YouTube channel that’s dedicated solely to unreleased Young Thug snippets?
Yeah! Thug, to me, is like when Lil Wayne was out working and he was everywhere. Everything he drops is quality, and he's creative. Nobody can deny that. People want the music. You give them a teaser, they'll remember those clips. I seen people piece it together and make the whole song. Yo, that had to take hours — they do that. But that's good though, it shows that people really appreciate the music. It makes me wanna take my time when I'm doing things, too. People notice every little thing you do. That's really what I like, I like to keep challenging myself. I don't wanna sound like anybody else. We all got our own minds. I want to separate myself, too.