Behind the Boards: S1 on Kanye’s “Power,” His Album With Lupe, Samples & More
"Kanye is loving your stuff. He says he's about to change your life'. The following day, I get an email saying my flight leaves for Hawaii in like three or fouir hours. I look up and I'm on a plane headed to work with Kanye."
For Texas native Larry D. Griffin, better known as Symbolyc One (or S1 for short), there's no question Kanye did in fact change his life, but the 38-year-old producer had a successful career in music long before he co-produced "Power," Kanye's lead single from 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In addition to forming his own successful group, Strange Fruit Project, and releasing multiple solo albums, S1 has worked with the likes of Beyoncé, The Game, Little Brother, Ghostface Killah, Erykah Badu and Behind The Boards alum !llmind, just to name a few. He was making music when Kanye was still in college.
"My cousin and I started a rap group back in 1996. We were rapping and writing and would rap over other peoples instrumentals, and I made my first beat in 1998. It was a group called Symbolic Elements which gradually turned into Strange Fruit. With Strange Fruit Project that was my introduction into producing albums. I produce and executive produced all the albums, so I would consider that my learning process of how to put an album together; what do do, what not to do, creating a specific sound for a group. They are my family so it was easy to do. We were having fun."
It was his ability to grow and experiment that lead to the success of Strange Fruit, which in turn led to meeting emcees like Supasition and Rhymefest, who ended up opening the door to Kanye. Success is never overnight, even if it may seem that way from the outside. Every open door comes from a door that was walked through once before.
"I was working with Rhymefest on his album. Finished his album up and a couple months later he was in the studio with Kanye and hit me up. He told me to send some tracks over and ended up playing them for Kanye. A couple months later I got a text from Rhymefest saying, 'Kanye is loving your stuff. He says he's about to change your life.' He's incredible, he's one of my favorite artists to work with. He's a very unselfish person in the studio, like he's always asking for feedback and always trying to find something better to make the track. Seeing that, I realized that's part of being great, not having too much pride in your art where anybody or anything around you can't do better than what you've already done. I've noticed that from him a lot."
You co-produced "Power" with Kanye, what was the beat like when you brought it to him?
"The drums were there, the sample was there and the siren was there. There was a solid foundation and he took what I did and added his vision to it. He added some colors to it and made everything sound bigger. When I first heard the actual song it was way different. Along the way he just kept messing with it and kept recording verses and different hooks until he got what he wanted."
Did you know that the record was going to be as successful as it has been?
"I knew it the second time I flew out to work with him. That's when he pulled me aside and told me that it was going to be his first single. He kept thanking me for it (laughs). Everyday in the studio he would say, 'Thank you for this track. Thank you for this.'"
What does that mean for you as a producer when someone like Kanye picks your song to be the single?
"It's very exciting because that's something that we as producers work for; we want to be heard. I remember prior to the 'Power' joint wanting to showcase my talent and creativity to the world. So that was my first introduction to that world, where the whole world is going to hear what I'm capable of doing."
"We want to be heard." As badly as they want to get their music into the world, sometimes for a producer it isn't always easy. You might think that after a single as massive as "Power" that S1 has a clear path to fame and fortune, but even for an established and talented producer there are so many pitfalls and clouds of uncertainty.
Obviously producing for a major artist is lucrative, but trying to balance clearing a sample with making a living isn't always easy. I asked him if having to clear samples effects his approach to sampling.
"Now it does. Early on, with 'Power' and the Watch the Throne song I did, the samples killed us publishing-wise. Now I only sample if it's undeniable to me and I have to use it. Most of the time I'll have it replayed and chop it up so it's very unfamiliar. I think, 'How can I create something original and make it still feel like a sample' so I'm not giving up any publishing for what I use."
Of course, a sample only matters if that's what the artist wants. Often S1 has to cater his work to the framework of the artist. A big part of being a producer is figuring out how to fit your own vision into the artist's.
"When an artist has an album, they have a specific vision or direction for the project, so we are basically fitting into the idea they already have. I don't have the same control as if it was my own project. I'm going to do what I do, but at the same time, they give me direction like, 'Okay, this is how the album should sound.' Once I have a clear understanding of their direction, that's when I give my perspective of what they show me to fit into the theme but doing me in the process."
Still, even if you give the artist what they want and say, get flown to Hawaii, it doesn't guarantee a placement on the album. No matter what, there are still some very tricky waters to navigate from the time a song is produced to when that song (hopefully) lands on an album.
"Most of my placements come because of the relationship I've formed with the artist. It's still no guarantee though - I worked with Beyonce on a few songs, but they didn't make the album - but it does help because they know what you're doing and what you're capable of. There's a relationship there where I'll get a call from a Kanye like, 'Yo, I'm working on the album in Australia. Come out and work,' but if I didn't know him that wouldn't be the case. The fact that I'm around more gives me more possibility of making the album as opposed to me blind sending, trying to guess the sound of the project. My biggest joints have come from being in the studio with the artist."
So what happens to those songs that don't make it?
"Most of the time, they say, "Don't sell these songs," meaning they want to use it on a soundtrack for a movie or the next album. In some cases, if they don't use it, I'll just take that and use it for another project. For instance the song 'Guilt Trip' off Yeezus, I actually made that for Watch The Throne. It didn't make the album, but he pulled it and put it on Yeezus."
A producer's beat is like a producer's child. Imagine figuring how to interpolate that soul sample just enough for a project you have been working on directly with the artist on for weeks, and still not knowing if it will be heard by a million people or nobody but you and the artist. "Guilt Trip" came out two years after Watch The Throne; that's two years of just waiting and hoping. While having so little agency seems frightening, Symbolycrelishes in the uncertainty.
"I think that feeling is really exciting. I think of it like planting seeds. For instance I'm in the studio grinding and working really hard for a week and I make five incredible beats and I don't where they will end up or who is gonna use 'em and just send it out and where ever they end up they end up. It's an exciting feeling just knowing the possibilities of where it can end up."
Some may say it's crazy to be so excited about uncertainty, but to to me it says the man genuinely loves making music. Just the fact that he is willing to pour his soul into something that may never be heard says enough. So too does his continual work with independent artists despite achieving success at a major level.
"At the end of the day I just love making music. It's not a situation where I'm only going to work with major artists because I have a few big songs. I love music and if I really like and respect the artist and can work with them I still want to do that. The major placements, that's where I can really make a living and indie artists are great because there's more freedom in the creativity. They aren't trying to chase a single or what's popular. There's more freedom for creating something new and something fresh."
Well, it sounds like even at a major label level he is working on some fresh music. I asked him what he's excited about, and I have to say, now I'm pretty pumped too.
"Everything. I'm excited about everything I'm working on now. I have like two joints on Logic's [debut] album that came out really dope. Working on the new Kanye album. Me and Kendrick did a couple. Oh I was in the studio with Madonna for like two weeks which was so crazy to me, I'm really excited for those.
I also have two songs on the Lupes album. Lupe and I, we actually formed a group called Black Vietnam, you'll probably start to hear more about that soon. It's a producer emcee group just me and him; we've been working on an album together. It's gonna be a really dope conceptual album."
A collaborative album and group with Lupe? Did he really just tell me that!?! Funk Flex, I believe that's your cue.
To stay up to date on all things Symbolyc One, be sure to give him a follow @SymbolycOne and check out his website symbolycone.com. If you want to hear more about Black Vietnam (and how could you not?!) that's the place to do it. And producers out there, keep pushing. You never know when that call that will change your life will come. You just have to earn it.
[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. His favorite album is “College Dropout,” but you can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth.]