We are in an era where producers are their own class of superstar. But for all his newfound success, Chicago producer Monte Booker does not move like a superstar. In fact, he does not even care to be famous. As he tells me over the phone: “That’s never the focus. Honestly, it’s different. I don’t care about being famous, but I do want the music to reach more people, so I guess with that comes fame. It’s not about personal fame.”
The producer best known for his work with Smino and the entire Zero Fatigue camp is all about music and growth. “I try to be as unique as possible,” he says. “To me, you can’t get burned out if you always trying something new, because you’re always challenging yourself.”
With that, Booker, 23, spends his time studying new genres of music, learning new instruments, and pushing himself to get as weird as possible with it. So long as Booker stays a student of the game, he believes his music will thrive, and considering the response to Smino's sophomore album, NOIR, he would be correct.
“From releasing that [album] alone, J. Cole reached out,” Booker recalls. “He Facetimed me randomly like ‘Yo, NOIR amazing, bro! I just had to look up who made the beats and it was you. What the fuck!’ I feel like that was kinda like, oh shit, that was the biggest moment from NOIR, for me.” And before you wonder, yes they linked at the Dreamville Sessions, and yes there is work under the artists’ belts.
For as prolific as Monte Booker can be, making beats for 24 straight hours or studying for the same amount of time, he is just as open to criticism. “I don’t look at that as a bad thing,” he explains. “Me being criticized, if that’s how they feel, then that’s just how they feel, you know? There’s ways to improve.”
That forward-thinking attitude is how Booker keeps his sound on the forefront of the Chicago music scene and keeps himself sounding like one of the freshest producers in hip-hop. Currently working on a new album with Smino, only time will tell what new directions the duo take their collaborative sound. Wherever they go, the good news is, only they will have been capable of taking music there. We can’t wait.
DJBooth’s full conversation with Monte Booker, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: I want to start by looking back on a 2017 piece by Kulture Hub. They suggested you were a major part of the “future of Chicago’s sound.” Do you think about the hip-hop landscape so broadly when you’re producing?
Monte Booker: Nah, I never think about that [laughs]. I guess I just make random shit, I guess. I try to be as unique as possible, I guess. People always draw their own conclusion, whether it’s weird or innovative. Me? I’m just being me. I don’t really look at that stuff, I don’t really pay attention to it, for real. But! It is cool that people think that, that’s what’s up.
Is it tough to get into a flow state when you’re working?
Not really, because usually I kinda just let it happen organically. I never try to force it. If I wake up, and I’m not feeling creative, I won’t create. I’ll just listen to music, go study, get inspired. Sometimes, I wake up and I’m like, “Alright,” and I’ll make music for the full 24. It all depends on the day, but I never force it.
How do you keep from burning out?
Not being repetitive, you know? Always trying to do something new. It keeps your brain moving. To me, you can’t get burned out if you always trying something new, because you’re always challenging yourself. It’s an ongoing “Awh, shit, let me try to perfect this.” It’s [about] always learning.
How do you challenge yourself?
Always trying something new. Like, let me learn how to play the guitar this year. Every day I wake up, I gotta practice the guitar. It’s challenging myself because it’s like, “Alright, let me pick up an instrument. Let me study this type of genre of music.” Just different shit to keep my brain moving.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to keep yourself creative?
[Laughs]. I think I’m always thinking of ideas; the creativity never stops to where I have to go do something random.
When people see Monte Booker produced a track, what do you want them to expect?
If they see that Monte produced it, they know that it’s gon’ hit hard. It’s gon’ feel good. I want all my music to at least feel good. So, people might not be familiar with the sound, or necessarily a fan of it, but I always want it to feel good. Like, damn, they can’t really ignore it. It’s undeniable.
Do you ever feel pressure when you’re making music to make that perfect product?
Never. Whatever I’m making, if it’s not it… Some days I make some ideas, and it may not be as good as the last idea, but it’s all about keeping the creative flow going. You gotta acknowledge that some days you may not be creating the best shit, but it’s all practice at the end of the day, you know?
How do you deal with criticism from artists? Say, Smi just doesn’t like a beat you made?
That’s why… We need that. In music, you need the honesty and the trust from somebody. That’s how you’re able to evolve as an artist as a producer. Me being able to tell him, “Hey, I wasn’t feeling that” or “You could do that better,” and him being the same way with the production, it allows me to advance myself and evolve and maybe hear something that I didn’t hear initially. I feel like that’s healthy. I don’t look at that as a bad thing. Me being criticized, if that’s how they feel, then that’s just how they feel, you know? There’s ways to improve.
As a producer, how does it feel to always be asked about the artists you've worked with?
I mean, [laughs], the artists I mainly work with, those are my friends. Outside of music, we actually kick it. We actually hang out, see each other’s families. When it comes to music, it’s actually a stronger thing. So, you know, I don’t really fault people who ask who I work with.
How has the relationship with Zero Fatigue evolved over the years?
It feels good to see most of the artists that I helped from the start, and vice versa, get to where we got now. I feel like it’s just a blessing, with the homies. It’s the same from the start. We got the same type of energy from how we started, just more people listening. That’s all.
Is that why you guys are so successful?
Yes! One hundred percent.
What’s the biggest growing point for you from blkswn to NOIR?
It’s more so just trying something new, just experimenting. We just never wanna make the same album. Me and Smi working on an album, and we working on a new album right now, and we never want it to sound like the last album. We just want something new, and NOIR was something new.
Were you surprised by the positive reception?
Yeah, I mean… I’m surprised with the people who was liking it more so than the amount of people. With new albums, there’s always growth with the amount of people showing love. I was more so surprised with the big artists that was reaching out and showing love. The opportunities we got from that album…
Biggest opportunity from that record?
From releasing that alone, J. Cole reached out. He Facetimed me randomly like “Yo, NOIR amazing, bro! I just had to look up who made the beats and it was you. What the fuck!” I feel like that was kinda like, oh shit, that was the biggest moment from NOIR, for me.
Did you guys link at the Dreamville sessions?
Oh yeah, 100 percent.
I can’t really say as of now, but just know we was working [laughs].
During a 2016 interview with Smino, he said that you two are focused on creating, not fame. Is that still the motto?
That’s never the focus. Honestly, it’s different. I don’t care about being famous, but I do want the music to reach more people, so I guess with that comes fame. It’s not about personal fame, ‘cause you can be famous off some random shit. Just the music spreading and reaching more people…
Last question, when it comes to music, what scares you most?
My biggest fear in music is losing the love for music. That’s probably my biggest fear: losing the love that I have now for it. I heard horror stories with music that people just wake up “I’m just not feeling it.” I hope I never lose the love that I have for it now.
I have that same fear with writing.
You know, yeah [laughs] it’s scary because that’s what you love. But people wake up one day and that’s not what you love anymore, and it’s like, damn. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen.
What do you do to combat that fear?
Going back into what I said earlier, always challenging myself and just learning. I’m never trying to be complacent. I’m trying to be a student at all times, even with success I’m still a student. I can’t never be like “Oh, I got here, so let me get comfortable.” Nah, this is my time to learn more shit about music, now that I’m more successful, it’s time to use my resources to learn more about music.
Okay, real last question. What’s the biggest lesson you learned in the last six months?
To me, as cliche as it sounds, just stay as you as possible. There’s a lot of ups and downs. One day you might be like, “Oh, this not working.” One thing I have learned is sticking to my guns. Following what I believed in, and eventually, others understood what I believed in. Spread my own vision. So, my biggest lesson is sticking my guns and always following my gut.