If I've learned anything about the music industry in two years of writing it's that nothing is ever, ever set in stone. Whether it be an interview, a guest list at a show or sometimes an album (cough cough Detox cough cough), never expect something to happen until it's literally happening. The unexpected isn't unexpected, it's the norm. And I'm just a rap blogger; I can't imagine being an artist and having to deal with that level of unpredictability and demands.
Think about it...
You have fans hitting you up on Twitter; you have to make time for fan interaction. Your manager is hitting you up about a gig four weeks from now. A publicist is setting up interviews for rap bloggers (like yours truly) to ask you a bazillion questions as you drive to three different appearances. Your spouse just called and asked if you can pick up the kids from school; artists are people too. Oh yeah, there's also that whole make new music thing too. That's kind of important.
And that's just one artist. Imagine the moving parts when two artists want to create together.
When I hopped on the phone with Philly emcee STS and super-producer RJD2 to talk about their collaborative project, STS X RJD2, I couldn't wait to hear all about how insane this album was to make. I expected stories about how close they came to shutting the studio down and conversely, I figured they had some amazing insight into memorable recording sessions. I mean, these two in the studio together? It just had to be insane.
I think I've been watching too much TV.
What I learned in our chat was just how easy this came to them. It doesn't take away from the quality or character of this rich, colorful album, if anything it makes the endeavor all the more impressive. From the very first second their partnership was natural, organic. After working together on "See You Leave" off RJD2's solo album, More Is Than Isn't, the pair decided to do more songs and as RJ put it, "see what comes of it." That's it. No marketing plan, no grand vision. They enjoyed working with each other once and wanted to try again. Turns out it worked, but it wasn't made the way you might expect.
When I hear songs like "Tennessee Whiskey Revival" or "Hold On, Here It Go" I picture two mad scientists in a lab mixing chemicals and bubbling substances until the early hours of the morning trying to find the perfect formula. The closeness between STS's cool, southern braised flow and RJ's vibrant, rich beats could only be the result of a literal proximity and closeness, right? Wrong. Turns out, for most of the album, they weren't even in the same state.
RJD2: "It was a back and forth thing. I'd send him rough sketches, just loops of different variety to see he'd want to take it. He'd write to it, cut, and send back demos. From there, we started to get an idea of what to do with the songs. I would take his full songs - the lyrics, the melodies, everything - and rework the demo beat to make it a full-blown song."
STS: "That's kind of what made it even better. I'm not a sit-in-the-studio-all-day type of dude. Most of my time is spent writing, so I would write, lay it over the loop and send it back. On the first record, "See You Leave," seeing what he does after it, knowing that's the process, makes it easier. I can make the whole song off the loop knowing that he'll take it to another level and that makes me want to take it to another level too. We didn't have to rush. He's not sitting over my shoulder waiting for me to write. It made it fun. You got to take your time to figure it out."
If it sounds easy, that's because it was. When I asked them what the biggest challenge was, they agreed that it was figuring out which songs to keep. That's the definition of a good problem to have. When I asked them if there was a point where everything almost came crashing down, where they thought this album wouldn't happen, they couldn't give me an answer because there wasn't one of those moments. Perhaps that's because they weren't thinking there was even an album to lose for most of the process.
RJD2: "One thing I don't like to do is go in thinking were going to make an album. It's an inherently uncreative mental space. To make a record as good as it can be you have to be excited just about making songs. If you are trying to fit a quota, that's not an exciting, creative space. There has to be a curiosity and an excitement. When I would send STS beats, I would be excited about what I'd get back. Every time I got a demo in my email it was a little bit like Christmas. That was the context in which this project was made. We were just thinking about the songs."
STS: "I knew this was going to happen. When the music there and everything's going, you know its going to happen."
Even though STS knew there was something from the get-go, it's crazy to think they went in without a clear mission. We think of albums as these incredible, mysterious feats full of twists and turns, but STS and RJD2 prove sometimes it's nothing more than having fun, music being made because they're musicians. As RJ said, "We had seven or eight keepers. At that point it's just obvious...This shit was too fun to stop doing," and the album reflects that attitude. There's a understated charm that comes from how naturally it came The album just flows, it feels good. Though on the phone they may sound different - RJ has a very collected, earnest demeanor and STS has a charismatic yet smooth voice - the excitement in their voices was there. When they praised each other to no end, STS even said "RJ is at a level that I'm not at" and credited the producer with the idea of a collaborative endeavor, it didn't feel contrived or rehearsed, it felt like honest mutual admiration.
Though they had fun, there is some serious artistry at work here. RJ said, "It's a 50-50 effort." It doesn't feel like a rapper filling space on an instrumental beat and conversely these beats have too much life to simply feel like the supporting cast. The way the vocals and the beats seem dance with each other, moving and reacting to each other is a result of that chemistry. It's also why they plan to work together in the future, though naturally no plans are set in stone. Although STS did admit to having an eye on the future, "If this goes diamond, I'm done," he said laughing.
Not every great piece of art is driven by struggle, happiness can create greatness too. RJD2 and STS are proof.
[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]