Focus... on Producing With Dr. Dre, Making "Compton" & Finding His Own Path - DJBooth

Focus... on Producing With Dr. Dre, Making "Compton" & Finding His Own Path

We spoke to Focus... about working with Dre, "Compton," and growing as an artist.
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Imagine walking into a restaurant and seeing a legend sitting at your table.

What would you say? How would you introduce yourself? Would you hug him? Shake his hand? Would you tell him about how you idolized him? Maybe play it cool? Maybe you should ask Bernard Edwards, Jr., better known as Aftermath producer,  Focus… for advice.

Or maybe not. 

The first time I got to meet Dre. I was in fan mode the moment we got there but he was really cool. All about the business. He said "If you're ready to work there's a place for you here" and I told him I was ready.

You know the rest, right? Immediately, they hop into Dre’s car, rush over to his home studio, and together start recording hit after hit after hit.

Wrong.

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For any producer, signing to Aftermath and getting to study with arguably the greatest producer in hip-hop history is a dream come true. But the reality, the simple fact you are there, working right next to a legend, is a challenge in and of itself. How do you go from “Fan mode” to being able to focus on doing your job, all while a legend is watching? It’s a double edged sword that in the case of Focus...cut a little too deep.  

Honestly, the whole first year I was at Aftermath, a lot of the stuff I was doing at that time, I was just looking to impress him. I know that he is the ambassador when it comes to the gangsta sound and was the soundtrack to L.A. at the time. Me being from New York I was doing my best just to learn how to chime into it. The first year was really hard, I wasn't being myself or true to what I knew. I wasn't using what I had learned to impress him, I was too busy trying to be mini-Dre and it never worked out. That's why a lot of the music that I did in the early parts is still in my hard drive.

Dre would listen to the stuff and I think he saw potential. That's one of the things I really see as a blessing. Dre saw potential where I might not have been performing to the fullest. He saw that and said, "I didn't hire you to be me. I don't want you to be me. I hired you to be you. Just do you and let's see where it goes from there”. That was the conversation that sparked everything.

Focus... did his best to really let that lesson soak in and it worked well, for a while anyway. Focus… produced for the likes of The Game, Stat Quo, ScHoolboy Q and many more, but there was one thing hanging over his head. One big thing.

Detox.

The history of Detox is well-documented (even in t-shirt form). As fans we were frustrated, annoyed, and hungry, we wanted music and we just weren’t getting any. But there was also frustration from within the camp. Night after night Focus... was in the studio cooking up beats, working hard, and seeing nothing come from it. 

We were working a long time on Detox and there wasn't anything coming out. I'm sure he was frustrated not getting what he needed from me and I got frustrated because I was making a lot of music and it wasn't coming out. How do you tell somebody you're frustrated with the way somebody does things when that's the way you want to do things? I want to be that meticulous. I want that much attention to detail. I wasn't frustrated with him, but I was frustrated with the situation because I want my music to be out.  I got the point where I learned a lot from Dre and I wanted to show him that everything I learned from him wasn't in vain. I was just trying to get my life back in order.  I left I got myself back together mentally physically, spiritually, and with my family. It took about four to five years.

Four to five years later, after he first walked away from Aftermath, he had a meeting with Dre that sounded oddly similar to their first encounter. Again, he was ready to work and this time it all clicked, which had a lot to do with his new, more collaborative approach. It was an approach which is executed to perfection on Compton

I was working in Atlanta originally and I had my own team at the time. To come back in 2013 and work closely as part of the team for the past two years has been a huge blessing It’s been humbling as well because now instead of me working by myself I'm working with some geniuses and it's different music coming out.

As soon as he said he was “part of a team” my mind went to Compton standout “Deep Water.” I remember looking at the credit's and gasping. Sure the song features Kendrick Lamar, but I was more interested in the production side. Producing the track, you had Dre and Focus… of course, but behind them waere Dem Jointz, Cardiak and DJ Dahi. Five major producers on one song? How does that work? What's that like? How does a song like "Deep Water" come to be?

I had a music bed that I was building, that's the initial thing you hear at the top end. It's just a little sound I put together and treated. I played it for Ty and I told him where I wanted it to go, but I know I can't do the trap drums or that aggressive trap sound, so he told me to get up with Cardiak. He came in did the drum bed, I grabbed the sessions from Cardiak, married the two, and starting doing certain little tweaks like glitching. Dahi and Dem Jointz came in and added to what we had there and Dre came in over all of that and just orchestrated where he wanted what piece and how he wanted it to sound. It literally happened in a matter of hours.

Deep Water will always hold a special place for me because I was working with some of the youngest, most talented people that are in music right now. For them to be humble enough to work with me and allow me into their cypher and give me their best and me give them my best. For Dre to see us working together, no egos no publishing splits. Nobody was tripping over that. We weren't there as individuals, we were there as a team and lead by the coach. For us to make the sound that he wanted, that was the triumph, that was the victory.

If that was the victory, his trophy (aside from, you know, having his name all over Compton) is a new perspective on both what it means to produce and how to go about crafting truly great music.   

I think that collaboration is a necessity. There are certain textures I'll never be able to get. No matter how much I learn, look at a tutorial or sit down and work on it,  It's never going to be something that’s innate for me because I'm not from this school. I don't understand the trap stuff. I don't' understand the atmospheric stuff but it's all cool to me and I love the textures. If there's somebody I know that does it, it's one of those things where I'm not close minded and won't work with other people. If it's going to give me just a little bit more life in my career why wouldn't i?

To be honest, I was kind of surprised to hear that. Artists often present themselves as superheroes - they can do anything and everything they do is amazing - yet here we have an artist who has the second most credits on one of the biggest albums of the year accepting and embracing his own limitations. 

It wasn’t the “I can’t do this” thinking that the early Aftermath Focus… might have felt, the one who was trying so hard to fit in, but more of a “let’s all do this." Before Compton I think Focus… was in some sense going through the motions, making music only to have it be stuffed away on a hard drive. That kind of work with no output has to be frustrating. I can't imagine writing an article and just shelving it. When he talked about that era, I could really sense his frustration, his disappointment. That frustration became even more clear when in contrast he started to talk about working with so many different talented artists and what it was like to make Compton; I could hear his genuine excitement for the album and the future. In terms of that future, after a quick, well deserved break, he's back at it, working with Marsha Ambrosius, Busta Rhymes on E.L.E.2, and crafting a project of his own, Analog In a Digital World, which is due out December 7. 

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Focus... ended our interview gushing about how honored he was to be a part of Dre's legacy, but in a way, he is Dre's legacy. In all likelihood, we won't get another Dr. Dre album, but musically, he can be heard through the work of Focus..., who has taken the lessons learned and turned it into one hell of a career. 

Dre recognized something in Edwards' early on and over the years really brought it out of him. Now it's his turn to not only stand on his own but stand with other greats, perhaps even inspire the next great producer to say, "I wanna be like Focus..."

[Lucas Garrison is a writer for DJBooth.net. You can also tweet him your favorite Migos songs at @LucasDJBooth. Image via Instagram.]

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