Beat Break: Boi-1da Shares the Story Behind His 5 Biggest Songs

The Toronto-raised producer breaks down hits for Drake, Kendrick, Eminem and Rihanna.
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Boi-1da production credits: Drake, Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna.

Narrowing Boi-1da’s discography down to just five songs is harder than his drums on “The Blacker The Berry.” Since producing Drake’s breakout song, “Best I Ever Had,” in 2009, the Kingston-born, Toronto-raised producer has scored hit records and stellar album cuts for Kendrick Lamar (“The Blacker The Berry”), JAY-Z (“FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt”), Kanye West (“Real Friends”), Rihanna (“Work”), Eminem (“Not Afraid”), J. Cole (“Deja Vu”), Lil Wayne (“Believe Me”) and Nicki Minaj (“Freedom”) — all while remaining one of Drake’s closest and most crucial collaborators.

Boi-1da’s glittering catalog is a testament not only to the quality and consistency of his craft, but his hunger to continually push himself and the envelope. “My mentality is to always evolve, move on and never be complacent,” he says over the phone. “Some of my favorite producers — like Pharrell, like Timbaland, like Dr. Dre — were never afraid to step outside of the box and do something unexpected. I like to take pages out of their books and apply it to myself.”

For all his success and influence—in particular, 2016's double dose of dancehall dominance, "Work" and "Controlla"—Boi-1da remains incredibly humble. When asked about his latest chart-topping, record-breaking hit, Drake’s “God’s Plan,” he’s quick to direct the praise towards the song’s co-producers, Cardo, Yung Exclusive and Noah “40” Shebib. And when our conversation shifted to the topic of where he ranks among aforementioned greats like Dre, Timbo and Pharrell, 1da politely dismisses such a notion.

“I still feel like I have a long way to go to catch up to those guys,” he says, modest to a fault. “Those guys are staples, pioneers, figureheads in hip-hop production. Myself, I feel like I’m still getting my feet wet.” Not that he isn’t striving to join that elite club, though: “I hope that one day I can be in those discussions. That’s what I dreamed about every day in high school, more than the glitz and the glamor. I’m just trying to be great.”

Here are the stories behind five of Boi-1da’s biggest records.

Drake — “Best I Ever Had” (2009)

Sample: Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds “Fallin’ in Love”

“When I was making ['Best I Ever Had'], I was living with my parents at the time. I forget my age, but I was just in the basement and a friend of mine had given me a folder of old school samples and what not. So I ended up going through the folder and finding the "Fallin In Love” sample. There was just something about the intro that stood out to me, which is what I chopped up and made the whole beat out of.

"I remember making that beat really quick. It was simple, I thought it was kinda just a skeleton, but it was enough for Drake to make a massive record out of it. He wasn’t with me at the time when I was making that — he was on tour with Lil Wayne at the time. I had sent it over to him and Drake did what Drake does best, which is make a hit song. He killed it.

"When I’m making beats, I always have Drake in mind first. Since we were young, I always thought Drake was going to be the greatest rapper ever. The majority of things that I make, almost all of them [are made with] Drake in mind because he doesn’t make mistakes. When he finds the right beat, you don’t even have to question what he does with it.

"[Best I Ever Had'] changed my life. It started my career and made people take my craft seriously — and Drake seriously, too. That was my most successful song I ever had at the time. I was able to feed my family and myself because at the time I was working a few jobs and living with my mom still. Actually, I think when that song I came out I had just quit my job. [Ed. note: Boi-1da was working at Winners, a discount store, in Toronto at the time.]

“I knew it was an amazing song, but not having made a huge hit before, I didn’t know it would be as big as it would be. I knew it was a hit, but I’ve never made a hit song so I couldn’t tell. I wasn’t like, “Oh yeah, this is gonna be a hit.” I just knew it was a very special song and it took off.

“Me and Drake met at a young age through a friend — a fellow producer named D10 — and we’ve just been working together ever since we were 17 years old. I just understood the vision of what he was trying to do. Great guy, one of my best friends, and I just wanted to be a part of making him the biggest artist in the world.”

Eminem — “Not Afraid” (2010)

Co-produced by Jordan Evans & Matthew Burnett

"It started out as kind of a dance beat that Matthew Burnett and Jordan Evans had worked on before. I really like the chords on the beat, so I stripped it down and left a few elements in there. The two beats were night and day; it went from a dance beat to a hip-hop beat. It was pretty cool. Shout out to Jordan Evans and Matthew Burnett. They’re very, very talented kids. What they’ve done with Daniel Caesar is nothing short of incredible. And Daniel will be around for a very, very long time. He’s special.

“My old manager has a relationship with Marshall and his manager, Paul Rosenberg. This is after producing ‘Forever’ for Drake, Lil Wayne, Kanye West and Eminem. It was while this was happening that the connection was made and that’s how [Eminem got the beat]. [I didn’t get in the studio with Eminem but] I ended up meeting Dr. Dre through my friend Stat Quo. It was like a dream come true meeting my favorite producer of all time.

“A few days before ['Not Afraid'] dropped, somebody informed me that it was about to [be Eminem’s single]. It was surreal; I almost didn’t believe it — until it came out and I heard it. That changed my life in a sense, like, I took my career seriously. I really realized that I had a gift. It was really motivating and I just wanted to continue to do my best at all times."

Kendrick Lamar — “The Blacker The Berry” (2015)

Co-produced by Terrace Martin & KOZ

“That one came along from two producers that I was working with, KOZ and Zalezy, who ended up playing me a song. A lot of times, I’ll listen to tracks and hear maybe one element that I want to strip down and start something from scratch. I had heard these guitars from KOZ that he’d put on the song, so I ended up stripping it down and putting some breakbeat drums over it, which really gave it an aggression. That was really the whole process to it.

“I had a little bit to do with [co-writing the hook]. Me and another songwriter [Alexander Izquierdo] had an idea, like an aggressive hip-hop idea, and basically Assassin flipped our idea in patois, in Jamaican. It was dope. [Being a part of To Pimp a Butterfly] was another dream come true. Kendrick’s one of my favorite artists. It was a pleasure working with him. He’s a great guy and a great friend. I was just happy to make a very impactful record with him."

Rihanna — “Work” ft. Drake (2016)

Co-produced by Allen Ritter, Kuk Harrell, Sevn Thomas & Noah “40” Shebib

Sample: Richie Stephens & Mikey 2000 "Sail Away (Riddim)"

“That one came about by just having a conversation with a few producers that I work with, Allen Ritter and Sevn Thomas. We were talking about the vibe from back in the day, how dancehall music used to make people feel and make the girls dance. Everybody wanted to dance when dancehall music came on. Being in this era of trap-dominated music, I was like, 'Let’s make something that’s a little outside the box and makes you want to dance and be happy, and makes the women want to turn up.'

"That was really the idea when we were creating the track. That was the vibe. We were just having fun in the studio. We didn’t even care if it had anything to do with what's going on right now; we were just doing something that we thought was cool for ourselves.

“I wasn’t in the studio with PARTY. He was actually working with Rihanna. I was just at home, I wasn’t able to make it through so I sent them a bunch of tracks and she ended up picking two. They wrote two together — there was ‘Work’ and ‘Sex With Me,’ which was on the album [Anti]. I wasn’t there for the whole process of them putting the song together, but PARTY kept me updated.

“[Sail Away] was one of my favorite riddims coming up. I was born in Jamaica and I grew up on dancehall music. My dad would play only dancehall in the house. I really wanted to bring back the feel of how I felt when I heard that riddim, you know? I took a little sample from that and replayed the melody and worked it amazing.

“[The proliferation of dancehall in pop music] doesn’t bother me. I mean, it did before, but when you make music and you make the style, you do something innovative, people are just going to do it. You could get angry about it but I prefer to just move on and do something else.

“['Work's success] was a great feeling. It’s always a great feeling, because you just never know. Music changes so quick. It could be one day where the music you’re making isn’t connecting anymore. So to know that my music and my production is still appreciated, it’s always a great feeling. It’s really what I do it for: respect. I just love when people love my music. A lot of people do it for other reasons, and obviously music can change your life and feed your family. But for me, it all started with making good music.”

Drake — “Controlla” (2016)

Co-produced by Supa Dups, Di Genius & Allen Ritter

“That was made around the same time as ‘Work.’ There was just a time period where I was really on my island vibes. I just knew that it would be a special beat. I didn’t personally sample Beenie Man for the beat, but there’s a Beenie Man sample in the song. The beat was original with no sample in it, but the song had the little Beenie Man cut in there.

“I was in the studio a lot with Drake at that time. VIEWS is a really dope album because he went out of his comfort zone and tried something new. And basically introduced a new sound into the game with the afrobeats and the dancehall vibes. It was something fresh.

“My mentality is to always evolve, move on and never be complacent. I always want to try something else, experiment, push the envelope with my production. Some of my favorite producers—like Pharrell, like Timbaland, like Dr. Dre—were never afraid to step outside of the box and do something unexpected. I like to take pages out of their books and apply it to myself. I want to be great like they are. I want to be at the level that they’re on with their production.

“[Mine and Drake's relationship] has been the exact same. He’s just a great guy and he hasn’t changed since I’ve known him. I really appreciate that man. He changed my life, he changed my family’s life. I can’t sing nothing but praises for Drake, man. He’s just a stand-up guy and has changed the lives of many people around him.

“The secret [to Drake’s success]? Bugs Bunny’s Space Jam water [laughs]. There’s no secret, it’s just love and passion for music."

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