“February of last year is when we really started. That’s when Joey decided he wanted all the producers in one room together,” Kirk Knight reminisced as he retraced the beginning of the making of Joey Bada$$’s All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. The Brooklyn-born rap star had a vision of housing his entire inner squadron of producers in a studio like an MTV reality show, but with the purpose of crafting the sound of his sophomore album.
Fresh off a flight from New York to LA, the 21-year-old Knight spoke candidly about the process: “The thing with Joey, when he came out with 1999, is he got to pick the beats off the internet. They were already made. Imagine picking the sound you really want; not the beat, just the sound.” Kirk’s words echoed a statement that Joey had made in a recent interview with Pharrell Williams about how his previous projects were simply rapping over beats, but that A.A.B.A. allowed him to orchestrate the sound, flow and vibe based on what he desired.
Imagine being able to walk in the studio and vocalizing the exact sound you’re searching for; that was the dynamic of studio sessions for All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. When Joey had an urge for something in the vein of Mobb Deep, it led to “Ring The Alarm.” Knowing what he wanted to make allowed the producers to channel Joey's ideas. Kirk understands that hip-hop is based on grooves and capturing the essence of a sound—all music is—and being able to tap into the science of a record allowed him to twist the music to his will.
As a fan of Mobb Deep, Kirk knew the drum pattern had to be a little weird and dirty—a ‘90s Queensbridge kind of grime to bring out that East Coast feeling. Due to the studio dynamic, producer 1-900 (birth name Adam Pallin) was by his side and able to utilize his expertise to lay down haunting keys that perfectly complimented the drums. The two producers found a chemistry, evident in how four out of the 12 songs are a product of their union:
"1-900 is an amazing keyboard player and an amazing sound designer. He would design the sound, I would sample it, and give it the Pro Era feel. I would give it back to him and he would arrange it and bring the instrumental into his field. Adam's field is more techno and pop while I’m known for the hip-hop Pro Era sound. When you put that together you get music with range but still rooted in hip-hop." - Kirk Knight
“Land Of The Free” doesn’t feel like a relic of yesteryear, but it drips with familiarity. The reason is simple: Biggie was the inspiration behind it.
“Joey was like, ‘I want that Biggie "Juicy" vibe but I don’t want you to sample it,’” said Kirk to clarify the song's source. “I made a drum loop that was similar, same groove, but I didn’t sample it. Adam came and played the keys. Everything happened organically. This was a really fun time making this album because it didn’t feel like making an album. Joey was telling us what he ultimately liked in music and took those parts to make his own variation.”
An understanding of sound design presents the possibility to recreate any sound if you have an ear for it, and Kirk praises 1-900's golden pair. He made it clear during our call that the horns on “Devastated” aren’t from OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious.“ The sounds are similar but aren’t the same. In the words of Kirk Knight, “Imagine a producer with a dude who can make any sample that you want? That’s so much power to give a producer. Any sample!”
In an interview with Pigeons & Planes, Joey delved into how advice from Q-Tip inspired the album’s approach to production. Tip recommended creating a body of work only using one or two producers for a consistent, cohesive sound. When a living legend of Q-Tip’s stature gives advice it’s only natural to take his suggestion as wise words, especially when these words come an hour before the passing of Phife Dawg.
Joey heeded the counsel but went another route to achieve harmony. The usual suspects were brought in―Chuck Strangers, Kirk, Powers Pleasant and Statik Selektah―and outside of Joey’s collective of known names, multi-instrumentalist 1-900 also got the call to join the collective of producers responsible for shaping the album's sound. 1-900 wasn’t a complete stranger to the Bada$$ brigade, though, as he previously contributed post-production on a few songs from B4.DA.$$.
Joey’s manager reached out to 1-900 in March of last year to attend a few sessions and get onboard with the project, and the outsider turned out to be one of the most vital players to the album, as he told me over the phone.
"I’m an outsider in their world but I’m a hip-hop guy in the sense of being a fan. Hip-hop music was a real entry point for me to learn about crate digging and soul and jazz records. When I moved to Brooklyn, I lived right down the street from this record store. I was able to cop 20 records for $20 bucks. So I end up digging and digging and digging. So if I want to make a record like “Juicy,” a phenomenal record, what’s going on in that sample? What’s going on in that record is how I approached making tracks. Learning how to play that sorta stuff and catching those sort of vibes in my bank. So when he comes to me about doing something specific, I can present those vibes. I’m sort of an old school guy in those respects. The records that are sampled on these seminal hip-hop joints, I get it, because I’m a fan of the music that was used to sample it and I’m a fan of the record. I’m just a music guy who wants to know every component of it. When you're talking about making records capturing a certain spirit, I get it. I know the bass guy is doing this, I know the keyboard guy is doing this. I approach it from the perspective of 'what’s the band doing?' That’s how I like to operate creatively."
1-900 had beats to play when he first entered the studio but soon saw how limiting pre-made production was in a space that allowed creative conversation and natural jamming. Being Pro Era producers for years, Kirk and Powers have a natural flow, but thanks to his skill set and a willingness to conform to his surroundings, 1-900 was able to fit within their dynamic with ease.
“I really wanted to let that chemistry exist and be a facilitator for introducing ideas," he said, describing how easily the two found a common creative ground. "I can come up with ideas really fast, and Joey would know right away if he fucked with it or didn’t fuck with it. I became an idea bank. Kirk is so talented, I respect him so much as a producer. He can come up with ideas really fast, and I can come up with ideas really fast. If Joey comes in the studio feeling a certain tempo or vibe, Kirk and I could just knock it out swiftly.”
In 1-900’s first session with the Pro Era conglomerate both “Devastated” and “Temptation” were knocked out. The vibe was so right that Joey jumped in the booth and freestyled the verses without writing down a single lyric. This seems a bit odd for a lyricist, but the session wasn't about wordplay acrobatics, rather capturing the feelings inspired by the music and how he felt in the moment. There's a chance overthinking these songs would have drastically changed the final product.
"When we had 'Devastated' and Joey did his thing I knew that was a special record. Same with 'Temptation.' When you're making music and it feels effortless, when everyone is on the same page, it’s a great moment. That’s what you're going for every time. It shouldn’t be hard, it shouldn’t be a struggle. Most of the time it was a lot of fun. You're going to end up with good music if that’s the vibe in the studio." - 1-900
“I remember when Joey went into the booth and made 'Devastated,' he freestyled that shit. He didn’t write it down, there was no pen or paper. It was just a feeling, that’s how we knew it was a hit. He mumbled the chorus in the corner per usual, that’s something he does. Once he gets the line, that line, he’ll sprinkle the confidence on it. It’s ill to watch him do that shit. Once I set the groove for him, that’s when he gets into it. You can have someone who can play keys all day but in hip-hop you need that groove, boy! If you don’t got that groove, if that piano isn't hitting that pocket, it won’t click. 'Devastated' clicked for Joey. It’s a vibe, not his most lyrical, but his most vibey record." - Kirk Knight
Statik Selektah knew the second he heard “Devastated” and “Temptation” that they were going to be big. He wasn’t present in the studio on the day of recording, but he saw it live in front of 200,000 people during Joey’s Coachella performance last year.
“I missed rehearsal because my grandmother passed away, so I never heard the song until I was on stage," Statik told me. "I knew the second I heard it that 'Devastated' was a special record. 'Temptation' too, we did those two on the same day and they didn’t come out for another year." In the midst of coping with a loss, one of hip-hop’s most acclaimed and respected DJs and producers saw the power of the music. Interestingly, this revelation brings to light that Joey was sitting on the concept for A.A.B.A. for over a year, well before Trump’s election. All-Amerikkkan Bada$$ wasn’t just inspired by the presidential election, but by Joey’s views on all of America leading up to Obama’s departure.
“The album been done. It’s sorta like the Tribe Called Quest album if you listen to the album and hear how they’re talking about Trump they knew even if he didn’t win the perspective would still be relevant. America still made themselves look like assholes even before voting for him. I think both of the albums are very similar and how no matter the outcome they would still be relevant." - Statik Selektah
While Statik was around for most of the album, both songs he produced weren’t created together with the other producers. His contributions were made in his personal studio. As for “Legendary,” one of the first songs made for the album over a year ago, J. Cole’s feature wasn't actually added until November/December of 2016.
The Statik-produced “Super Predator,” arguably the most powerful track on the album, wasn’t made for the album. The song was almost released last November, but Trump won the election: “We had done 'Super Predator' right before the election. It was the last record for the album. It wasn’t really for the album, we were going to drop that if Hillary won. The song originally [included] the Hillary Clinton speech where she was referring to young black kids as super predators. That’s where the song gets its name from, but we had to take it off because they couldn’t clear the audio. She lost, so we didn’t put it out. Joey wanted it for the album and put Styles on it. He surprised me with the Styles feature.”
Fellow Pro Era brethren Chuck Strangers also stated that Joey came up with the album's concept all on his own, that no one pressured him to make a politically charged album. Chuck saw a bulk of the album being made, was a part of the collaborative process, but his sole placement on the album was also created outside of the studio. “Rockabye Baby” is a beat that he was surprised Joey picked: “I remember playing him a million beats but he said I only played the one. When I was making the beat I was trying to go for like a rock sound. I don’t know if it comes off that way but originally with the guitar, I was thinking like a rock song―rock-influenced. 1-900 took it to another level.” Jake Bowman is credited as well; the bass player is the first person he took the song to after looping the sample. Jake laid down some strings and a light mix before Joey heard the record in LA.
Like “Devastated” and “Temptation,” “Rockabye Baby” was created without the benefit of Joey writing down a single lyric. Chuck described Joey showing a focused face and stepping into the booth to record, another example of the vibe inspiring the emcee to let the words flow naturally.
While back in New York to do some drum programming, Chuck and 1-900 collaborated on a handful of records that didn’t make the album, but there’s always a possibility they’ll service other projects. When asked about Joey’s role in the studio, Chuck likened his position to a producer despite not technically making the beats.
"Joey is like a producer. He doesn’t make a beat but he produces what he wants to hear, he’ll direct it. He’ll be like, 'make a beat at this BPM.' He’s very hands-on, you’ll give him the stems, and he’ll make his own tweaks. He’s the point guard, he's our Westbrook, Curry or Kyrie. Doing shit for him is not hard, he’ll tell you the idea to build from. Joey had a vision and trusted it. To me, it’s his best project, sonic-wise and rap-wise." - Chuck Strangers
1-900 had a similar perspective but used a different analogy to describe how Joey's sense of direction help to dictate the album's flow. "It’s like he’s the executive chef and we were the guys who cooked it up," he said. "We added the ingredients for the dish he envisioned. There were no egos; I wish it was like that all the time. A great process."
Joey dabbled in producing during the early stages of his career, but now the role of a conductor is fitting for an artist who knows what he wants and has access to those who can make it. Whether you see him as a point guard or a chef, it's the team surrounding him that is most important. He sought out to make a project that’s both cohesive and able to spread a message, crafting an album for the world and not himself.
When asked if the new soundscape would continue into the future, Statik replied: "The next one might be a return to the more grimy, hip-hop sound. I can’t call it, I know some of the stuff that’s been done is impressive. He said it on the interview with Pharrell that this album isn’t about [him], it’s about the state of the country. There’s a few songs where he gets personal about himself but it’s really about the overall message."
When asked the same question about the future of Joey’s direction, 1-900 had a slightly different answer. “We did take some risks, we pushed things a little forward, and he’s straddling two worlds. On one hand, he’s going to grow, he knows that—it’s a part of the evolution of being an artist. At the same time, you have to acknowledge what you’re stepping out of. We were conscious of it without being overly conscious of it. This is just the beginning of an evolution.”
1-900 is right, no matter how much fans may want an artist to revert to who they were, evolution only knows how to move forward. It takes a fearless artist to have such a powerful message and change from the safety net of his favored sound. Joey and his team took risks for the greater good, using music as the medium to spread awareness, trying to open minds and also make an album that sounds great.
What all the producers unanimously agreed upon, though, is how much fun they had creating All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. Each and every producer spoke highly of their collaborators, applauding each other's work ethic and dedication. They are proud of what was made and how it came to fruition. Egos didn’t clash, respect was given, and powerful music was made in the process. Ideally, this is what every producer seeks from a project―to find fulfillment and satisfaction at the end. And getting paid, of course.
“The best music is always made collaboratively. Whether it’s Drake, Kanye or Dr. Dre, it's a bunch of great minds focused on one thing,” Chuck Strangers told me before our call ended.
Music is rarely made alone, and when you have the right minds focused on the same objective, magic happens.
By Yoh, aka Statik Yohlektah, aka @Yoh31