How the Young Thug and Elton John song “High” actually happened

Producer Stelios Phili outlines the unorthodox path he took to creating one of the year’s most uplifting rap songs.

September 24, 2018

Young Thug isn't the first voice heard on his new song "High." That placing belongs to Elton John, whose a capella for the 1972 single "Rocket Man" provides the key sample for the track, produced by 29-year-old New York City-based Stelios Phili. The song has been rumored for years. After Elton John expressed his love of Thug in a 2015 interview, the track was recorded early in 2016. Young Thug played a version of it for John when they met in London later that year.

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That was the last anyone heard of the collaboration until this past August, when an unmixed version of the song leaked online. Reaction was swift and rapturous: even in its unofficial state, "High" was one of the most heart-swelling rap songs of 2018, and a return to iconoclastic form for Young Thug. What should have been a death sentence for the song turned out to be just a hurdle, and this weekend, "High" was included on Young Thug's On The Run. EP

Stelios Phili, who recently produced "Challenge," a new pop single with French-American artist Lolo Zouaï and is currently working on a new Cruel Youth record with Teddy Sinclair and Michael Tighe, spoke with The FADER about the unlikely creation and release of "High," and what makes it such a special song.

Stelios Phili: As you know, and as FADER reported on awhile back, Thug is a favorite of Elton’s. This came out in a Noisey interview, and then two months later you guys wrote that Elton and Thug had gotten together. So in between that timeline, that’s when the song was created. After I read that initial interview, I was like “Holy shit, I need to do everything possible to bring these two people together.” So I hit up Young Thug’s A&R Geoff Ogunlesi, he’s done pretty much all of Thug’s projects since Barter 6. When I hit him up he was pretty open to the idea of showing Thug something that involved Elton’s voice.

I went through Elton’s entire discography and then eventually there was an a capella of “Rocket Man” floating around online. There were actually a lot of Elton a capellas, but that seemed to be the only one that worked just because of the lyric. So I built the beat around the a capella and added new drums, piano, and all that. I sent it to Geoff, sent it to Thug, and it happened. The song went into hiding for two-and-a-half years until it leaked a couple of weeks ago. They had always planned to put it out when the timing was right and the leak kind of expedited the timing of that. I don’t know when they would have wanted to put it out. At the time I made the beat, I was thinking it would be for Hy!£UN35 [HiTunes], which is an album that Thug’s been talking about since 2016. “I’m gonna be high” is the lyric, and the album is Hy!£UN35, it just makes so much sense. Then I was like, Oh, maybe it will come out at the end of 2016. Then 2017 came around and I said, “This’ll be the year.” Then at some point, I didn’t forget about it, but I was like, This is a mythical song that may one day be released, but I’m OK knowing it exists, even if I’m one of the few people who do.

Then once it leaked, I thought it might come out. The song wasn’t mixed when it leaked, so I hadn’t even sent in the stems. I know that Elton had heard the song and liked it, but in terms of the paperwork, that all happened around the time of the leak. Sometimes when a leak happens it can jeopardize the song and make it never come out, but in this case, it was beneficial because the reception was so positive. I was excited. At first I didn’t think it was real, because I knew people had heard about the idea of the song existing for some time,. When I played it and heard the first note, I was freaking out. I was on a plane, which is actually really appropriate. The internet was slow and it was taking forever to load.

I felt good that people liked it, because sometimes when you sample a holy grail type of song and you don’t do it right, it can look lazy or some people can get upset. But Thug obviously did [it right]. He sounds at home next to Elton’s voice. It’s a different take on the original, which has such a melancholy quality to it. Thug has a lot of songs that are super major in terms of the key and tone, and he can [also] do dark and menacing really well. If you’re able to capture that emotion, you should be able to do the total opposite, which I feel like he does in this song. It’s like how George Miller did Mad Max and Happy Feet. Thug is so experimental that I would expect he could do something that totally matches the vibe.

It kind of is an unorthodox way of getting a song made. It was probably only a matter of time before Thug heard Elton was a fan of his, but even if I didn’t end up doing the song I just felt like it needed to brought to their attention that Elton admires Thug. A lot of times a song just happens in the studio just messing around on a piano or playing a beat for someone, but this was tailored for this purpose. The beat was built around Elton’s voice and Thug’s verses and his melodies were built around it too, so it’s definitely informed by Elton. The sample wasn’t put in their after the beat was made. It started from him. I like when a song is built around a concept like that, because it can give you a lot of direction when you’re writing it. If you know the endpoint for a song it’s really easy to make. The Thug song happened when I was more interested in pitching stuff like that. If a song has a sample, you don’t know if it’s ever going to come out. So since then I’ve been doing projects that I’m super passionate about and that will come out. At this time right now I’m the most proud of what I’m doing creatively, so I like to put a spotlight on that.

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How the Young Thug and Elton John song “High” actually happened