Studio Session: How Producer John Cunningham Helped XXXTentacion Create ‘?’ Album From His Bedroom
This time last year, XXXTentacion was an enigmatic SoundCloud rapper with an expansive cult following, a Drake beef and an extremely controversial past. Now, he's a burgeoning rap superstar with a new album that debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart (?) and a top 10 Billboard Hot 100 single ("Sad!").
While he barged his way into mainstream consciousness with his aggressive debut single "Look At Me!" XXXTentacion has since proven to be a genre-fluid artist in the vein of few before him. According to John Cunningham, an A&R who executive produced the artist's newest LP, it's that multi-genre virtuosity that makes coining X any particular type of artist a bit reductive.
"People still use the term 'rapper' when they're talking about X, and I just think that's outdated 'cause obviously he's so much more than that," Cunningham tells XXL. "I feel like for us, the only time genre comes up is talking about good and bad. You know, it really doesn't matter."
Switching between varied audio textures and vocal approaches isn’t easy, but X makes it look that way on ?. On “I Don’t Even Speak Spanish lol,” the 20-year-old flaunts some flexibly emotive vocals as he glides over a smooth Latin-infused instrumental. On the Joey Bada$$-assisted “Infinity (888),” X slices into a hard boom-bap beat while showcasing some bars that would make rap purists proud. In the Oakland, Calif.-bred producer’s own words, “Sad!” is an emo teen pop song. All of these tracks were crafted under the watchful eye of Cunningham, who should be doing nothing but big things from here on out.
With their shared interest in a variety of musical genres, XXX and Cunningham came together to create a project unlike any released this year. X had the vision and Cunningham held down the execution. Now, the two are knee-deep in a partnership that should produce more audio gems for years to come.
For the latest edition of Studio Session, XXL phoned Cunningham for the backstory of his partnership with X and how they created the ? album.
XXL: When did you start producing?
John Cunningham: Technically, maybe like 10 years [ago]. I'm 24 now and I started producing when I was in my mediocre high school band with a couple of my friends. We were too poor to afford any actual studios, so I just kinda like torrented [music production software] Logic and started figuring it out.
How'd you meet X?
I was working for a guy named Ben Maddahi, who had a partnership with Ron Perry, who had a publishing joint venture. One day, Ron walks into an A&R meeting and was like, "Who knows who XXXTentacion is?" I was like, "I think he's a star. You should try and sign him." Ron ended up signing X to a publishing deal, and that's how I met X. I met him under the pretense of Ron telling him, "Hey, here's this kid John who's gonna make sure everything at this session goes smoothly."
At the beginning of ?, X says he wants to explore different genres, and he definitely does that with the album. During the project, he jumps from boom-bap to pop to Latin. How did you help him put together such a sonically diverse project?
Great question. The most important thing is everything you just said—they're all types of music that both X and I grew up listening to. He has all that stuff in his head, and I think the reason he's able to do the Joey Bada$$ song and then go to a Latin song and then go to a teen pop, fucking emo song is because he really has that all in him. And that's why it comes off as authentic whereas a lot of other artists try to do that and it just sounds derivative, you know? But I come in on the execution side. Like, for instance, there's plenty of times where like if there's a melody that I'm playing on guitar, maybe it was a melody that X had in his head at first, and you know, I just figured out the part, or figured out chords around it. Or if he says, "Oh shit, we should put violins on this," maybe he doesn't know how to produce himself right now, but that's where I can kinda come in and just execute the vision. It's because we both grew up listening to literally everything.
How much of the album did you guys record in person?
I'll put it this way: There are some songs we started when X was coming to L.A. in November, December. But the majority of the album, like 90 percent of it was done in January when I moved into his house, where I am now. So we did it all in his bedroom, basically.
"Sad!" was like—he recorded himself on "Sad!" [It was] me and him and his computer, and he recorded himself.
XXX has been in and out of court for some of his legal issues over the last year. Do you know if that affected any of his recording sessions? Did he ever seem more anxious, or maybe, more purposeful, at any point during the recording of this album?
Well look, I think no matter how intentionally or accidentally that situation found its way into the creative process—it's going to happen either way. Whatever's going on in your life right now will obviously affect maybe how you're feeling and maybe how you write. But I think when we're making music, the reason we love doing it is when you're doing that it's the only thing that matters and it kinda shuts everything out.
"Sad!" peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, making it easily X's biggest hit to date. Did you know it was going to be that big?
I think when we did this song we both knew it was really, really good—or at least, we thought it was really good. All you can do is go on your instincts and hope other people like it. But he was previewing the song in a couple YouTube videos before it came out. The reactions to that song were unlike anything we'd ever seen, so we knew people would like it, but we didn't know it would land at No. 7 [on the Billboard Hot 100 chart]. That shit's crazy.
The album also did well, landing at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart in its first week. Knowing how big of a role you played in the project, how does that feel?
It feels good man. The best feeling I get from working with X is the feeling of actually making the music. The next best feeling is seeing how it affects people. Just to know that many people latched onto it and found some comfort or solace in the album is a great feeling.
What are some ? recording sessions that stood out to you?
There's two. One was the day we did that song "Pain = BESTFRIEND," which ended up featuring Travis Barker on drums. That was like the first song where I really felt X be as diverse and more versatile than I've ever heard anybody. It's the fact that he has so much versatility just in that one song, going from the verse to the chorus where he's like, screaming. When he did that, I was like, "Holy shit dude, I didn't even know you could do that." And then it kind of begs the question like, "What else can you do that I don't know?" [Laughs]
The day we did "Sad!" was insane. The way his brain was working that day. He found flow and he did "Sad!" we did, "Before I Close My Eyes," which was the last song on the album. We did "Going Down!" He wrote "Going Down!" we didn't record it though. And that was maybe in the span of like an hour and a half. Like "Sad!" "Before I Close My Eyes" and "Going Down!" He wrote all that shit, and like, the first melodies that came out of his mouth were what you hear on the song. When that happened my jaw dropped.
You guys wrote those songs in under two hours, but you didn't record them?
Well, he writes all of his lyrics, all of his melodies—that's all him. Those songs were ones where we had tracks. We were at his computer and we were going through beats, and he even clicked on the "Sad!" beat, which I personally wouldn't have played for him because I did not know that he would fuck with that. But he clicked on it, and it was called, "Sad Banjo," and he was like, "Banjo, what the fuck?" So he clicks on it, and like I said, within 30 seconds he had the chorus done, basically. Then I played him the TM88 beat, which became "Going Down!" Then I played him that little guitar thing, which became "Before I Close My Eyes."
What are some of X habits you've noticed from being in the studio with him?
I just noticed that when he's in the studio and he's kinda found his stride, that he's in this mode of like supreme focus and any little thing that comes in to affect that just kinda needs to get shut out. And I've noticed that when he's in the zone, he's totally untouchable, like, what I was just talking about with "Sad," "Going Down!" and "Before I Close My Eyes" being written so quickly, there are so many days where we record four songs. And I just think that's because his work mode is like no one I've ever seen.
What's your favorite track on the new album?
I think "Numb." "Numb" was fun.
You began working with X a bit on 17. What's the biggest difference between the two albums?
Honestly, I was just taken aback by how much he gets better and how much he grows every fucking day. When he was doing 17—I met him maybe halfway through that album—and helped him finish some of it in L.A. It's like, the next couple months, every time we worked together, he was maybe starting to play the guitar, or the piano. The kid learns so quickly, it's almost scary [laughs].
What's the best part about working with somebody like X?
To me, it's that he's inspiring, and, you know, everything I make with him feels honest and it feels important. If he has something to say, I wanna be a part of that. I really couldn't name any other artist right now that is doing things as uniquely as he is. As soon as I found his music—before I even knew him—I was affected. It helped me get through shit. To me, the best thing about working with him is just that you know if you nail it, it's really gonna help people, and that's kind of a good feeling. That's kinda why we do it.
Who are some artists you've worked with besides X?
A small handful. There's a couple other people I've been working with for a while, really just working on developing, we're kinda making a lot of stuff. But, not too many, and it's kind of intentional. I really don't find many people that I just fall in love with creatively. And right now X is the only person that has affected me like that.
Why do you guys think you have that connection?
We speak the same musical language. Even though both of our backgrounds and upbringings were probably completely different, and maybe even polar opposites. We clicked musically within the first 20, 30 minutes of meeting, and we were jamming out to some Fray song or Taking Back Sunday song. We just have the same taste musically. I know where he's coming from—or at least, I know what about his art I think is so special, and I feel like I'm able to help him execute that, because I really, really love where he's coming from and how he wants to work.
Who are some artists you would compare to X?
In a weird way—and I'm biased because of growing up in Oakland—Tupac has always been somebody who anybody in the Bay Area felt was an important artist. I was friends with Tupac's babysitter and I just followed him as a person. I watched every interview he's ever done. And when I hear X talk, I find similarities between them. But of course, musically, using Tupac doesn't totally apply to everything X does. Then you have to go to someone like Kurt Cobain, who, writing-wise, has pain in his writing like X does. But, honestly man, it's just tough because I don't know anybody that's that versatile. Like, the only other band that I've found that does everything the way he does is the fucking Beatles.
You've mentioned that X's shown abilities you didn't know he had. What do you think he could pull off in the future?
I'll tell you what, I think a lot of people, the reason they latched onto this album is because he really did something different, and I can't point to an album any time recently that was so diverse. And people kinda looked at it like he was doing something forward-thinking. All I can tell you is that his next album is going to push that even further.
So you're producing X's new project? When's it going to drop?
Well, I can't tell you when it's gonna drop—as you know—but I can tell you he hit me up a couple days ago to come back here and start working on the next one. So that's what we're doing today.
What's something that producing for X taught you about yourself?
I really just learned that making music I really love with artists I love like this is what I'm supposed to do and what I'm gonna have to do [for] the rest of my life. Anybody who writes or produces or creates will tell you that the best feeling in they'll ever feel in the world is [the one] you get when you're making something. And making this album with X, I've tapped into that more in the past couple months than I really have in my whole life, honestly. So, I think it was just confirmation for me that this is kinda what I have to keep doing [and] I don't really have a choice [laughs] because if I stop making music for a couple days I just find myself feeling anxious and depressed and feeling like I don't have an outlet.
What are your plans for the rest of 2018?
My short term plans are to find a new apartment in L.A.—I need a new place [laughs]. My musical plans are to continue to build what X and I have started in whatever way possible, and whatever that means. Just keep getting better and just continue to spread what I can do. My goal is not to work with a dozen artists. My goal is not to try to get another single with a bigger artist. It's really just to keep doing what my gut tells me to because that's what got me here, and I'm glad I am where I am.
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