Studio Session: Brasstracks Discuss Making Chance The Rapper’s “No Problem” and Lessons Learned From Flying Lotus
When Zane Lowe played Chance The Rapper's "No Problem" four times in a row on Beats 1 radio earlier this month, it was a moment in time. Chance threatened rap labels, 2 Chainz's whip interior looked like IKEA and Wayne said "Free the Carter" on the song. But everyone and their momma can agree it was the beat that made their soul stir.
Two kids, Ivan Jackson (age 24) from Manhattan and Conor Rayne (23) from New Jersey, made the beat as Brasstracks, a live music outfit that encompasses electronic, funk, rap, R&B and whatever other sound they feel like creating. With influences as wide-ranging as Kanye West, D'Angelo, Roy Hargrove and B. Lewis, it's no wonder they don't adhere to one genre. They've been jamming together for a few years, ever since they met at the Manhattan School of Music, but all it took was one tweet in Chance The Rapper's direction to get in the studio with the Chicago MC.
Fresh off the release of their "Good Love" single with East London rapper Jay Prince and ahead of a couple shows in Europe, the two New York-based producers/musicians sat down with XXL to talk about working on Coloring Book in L.A., who they originally had in mind when making "No Problem," and the sage advice they learned from the one and only Flying Lotus.
XXL: What instruments do you guys play?
Ivan: I play trumpet and Conor plays drums. We kind of play all the other instruments too but I came up as a trumpet player and Conor came up as a drummer and we met at music school and kind of just were able to cover all the other instruments ourselves.
How did you guys start making music together?
Ivan: Me and my friend Jonathan Stein, who’s a really fantastic producer and also taught both me and Conor pretty much everything we know, we opened a sort of DIY home studio in Brooklyn that we called Candid Music Group and we still run it. When we were first setting it up, we were super stoked on the fact that we had a new live room to record drums and stuff like that, so often Conor would come over and we’d just record drums and build songs around the drums that he recorded, which is kind of the opposite way a lot of producers work. A lot of producers make a demo and then they take the scratch drums off and they put the live drums back on.
So we were making songs around live drum takes and that kind of birthed the first Brasstracks song. We put it on the Internet not thinking anything would happen and then the next day we had like 30,000 hits or something. And for us that was crazy at the time, so we just decided to keep doing it.
Conor: The initial creation was based on the improvisation of takes. That was super cool and super fresh for both of us. I had never done that, Ivan had never produced like that.
Ivan: Now we produce in all sorts of ways, but that’s how it started. Just electronic and hip-hop and R&B production based off of live drum takes with a shit ton of trumpets on top of it. And by the time we were done with that first song, we didn’t have a name for the project so I was just like… I donno how I came up with it! I remember going to sleep and waking up the next day like, Brasstracks. That totally fits.
How did the Chance The Rapper collaboration come about for “No Problem”?
Conor: Uh…Twitter [laughs].
Ivan: I had tweeted from the Brasstracks account -- and this is true -- we cannot put out a single song without somebody saying Chance The Rapper should be on it. Because we were doing a lot of instrumentals at the time and you know how in SoundCloud you can see the comments people write. I shit you not, every single one is, “Chance The Rapper. Where’s Chance The Rapper?”
Conor: Five to 10 comments on every song we’ve done.
Ivan: Way more than that! 50 to 100! It got absurd so one day I was just like, I’m tweeting it and I’m tagging Chance The Rapper. I have no idea if he’s gonna see it. I made sure to put at the end, "I’m not mad though" [laughs].
In an odd event, he retweeted it. My phone blew up for awhile, Conor’s did too. Then we followed each other and he sent us a DM saying, "Yo let’s work, I’m in Chicago but I’ll be in L.A. soon." This was December 2015. We were actually supposed to get together in New York first and that didn’t work out so me and Conor were like, Man we really need to make this shit happen. So we found out that he had a two week studio session booked in L.A. and they were like, "Well if you wanna come out to L.A. and work on tracks for the project…" We were like, Hell yeah! So we booked flights that day. We just got out there and made it happen.
Conor: Spontaneously, like we gotta make it happen.
Ivan: We played like 15 beats for Chance before he settled on “No Problem.” He was looking for a specific sound and he totally nailed it. He nailed the whole project. Now that I listen to the whole project all the way down, I’m like, Ooooh, that’s why.
Conor: It makes so much sense when you listen to the full album.
A lot of people are talking about the gospel influence on the album and when everybody heard “No Problem,” that’s a standout example of that sound. So I thought he actually made that from scratch with somebody. That whole beat was already made?
Ivan: Well, we brought in more people and we built on it, but yeah that beat was ready to go. It certainly evolved over time, don’t get me wrong. He had comments and we listened to all them. We went back and forth with his production team. I talked to Peter Cottontale on the phone a couple times, we talked to Cam O’bi a couple times. Both of them are beasts. We went back and forth a lot just making sure the product was correct. We cared a lot about the record and they cared a lot about the record. That’s all you can really ask for.
It seemed like… I don’t want to say a family affair because we don’t know the SoX [Social Experiment] guys like that, but I definitely feel closer to them and their musical realm after this project, which is nice.
It’s interesting that he hasn’t released the production credits and as a nerd I’m mad at that, but it does lend this insular feeling of outsiders not knowing really who did the tracks.
Ivan: Right now it’s just a streaming only on Apple Music kind of thing, but I think as time goes on those production credits will be released. Like on “No Problem” alone I can list Jonathan Hoard, Rachel Cado, Jaime Woods, Baritone Williams and Cam O’bi as vocalists. That’s what made up that gospel choir.
So that’s not a sample?
Conor: Nope. Nothing on that track is sampled.
Ivan: Well, we made it sound like a sample by pitching up the vocals because that was the goal.
There’s also Jake Sherman, who played organ and James Frances who played piano. I also played a lot of organ and piano on it. We did a mixture of live drums and programmed drums. I will say the programmed drums in the mix are more prevalent, but there are certain live drums in there.
What was the hardest part of making the record?
Conor: Maybe playing him all the beats, hoping he’d like one of them [laughs].
Ivan: That was probably the most nerve-racking part. To keep it a buck, the “Good Ass Intro” was a big inspiration for me to want to put a shit ton of trumpets over every track that we make. The first time I heard that I guess it was 2013, I was a senior in college and I hadn’t really embarked on the whole idea of being a producer. I was trying to ditch the trumpet and not play anymore, but I hadn’t thought of being a producer with trumpet in hand and making that a part of my sound until I heard a couple different records, and “Good Ass Intro” was totally one of those. So for it to come full circle a couple years later is kind of crazy, to say the least.
So when you were playing Chance beats, “No Problem” was one of the later ones?
Conor: I think it was the last one. That one was deep in the vault.
Ivan: After we confirmed the session, we were like, Alright, we’re gonna make tunes for Chance.
Conor: We spent a week working on them.
Ivan: He didn’t like any of ‘em! Honestly the original version was very demo-y but there was just something about it that he was into.
Were you guys getting discouraged when you kept playing him beats he didn’t like?
Ivan: It’s the name of the game. That’s why you come prepared. That’s why you’ve gotta come through with lots of stuff. I almost feel like we’d been preparing for that since the day we started Brasstracks. Making tracks on both of our ends and doing songs so when we get into this situation, we could be like, Okay, we have all of these. I feel like we’d been preparing for it without even knowing we were.
So the record comes out and Zane Lowe plays the record like five times in a row.
Ivan: I didn’t even know that was gonna happen. I called Conor and was like, “Dude, you know this is getting played right now?” He was like, “It’s out?”
Conor: Yeah, there was no warning or anything.
Ivan: We were working on it up until like three days before that, so for it to just be played, I didn’t expect that at all. Not even a little bit. It was crazy.
What other rappers are you working with or want to work with?
Ivan: I’m really stoked about all the S’natra stuff. We’re helping develop this Harlem-born rapper who’s really dope. He tours with us so I produced his mixtape that’s coming out soon. He has 11 tracks, so that’s cool and Conor’s gonna get involved on some live drum stuff on the mixtape too, so most of it will be produced by Ivan Jackson but we’re gonna have some Brasstracks features here and there.
We were talking to Towkio about doing some stuff a while ago and I just started talking to him again recently. He’s been at [Rick Rubin's studio] Shangri La finishing up his stuff. Hope to get something, something should happen, I sure hope so. We’ve been talking about it for long enough.
We did some work on Anderson .Paak’s Malibu on the track with Schoolboy, “Am I Wrong.” I played all the trumpets at the end of that because POMO, the producer from that, is the man. Again, Twitter’s cool. That track happened like a year ago, he sent me this disco track and was like, “I need some trumpets on this.” So I did some trumpet lines all over it and he sent it back like eight months later like, “Hey dude, so this is going on Anderson .Paak’s album and Schoolboy Q is on it.”
What’s the biggest thing you learned while you were out there recording with Chance?
Ivan: If people ask you to make music on the spot for them, I don’t think you’re ever obliged because people understand when you’re not in the right space. I’ll explain why.
So we’re in there for the second day, we roll up and it says, “Reserved for Flying Lotus.” And we’re like, “Holy shit!” He’s wearing the coolest poncho I’ve ever seen in my life. He walks in and plays a couple beats. They were all so fire. Very experimental but pushing the boundaries of hip-hop and live music, exactly what we as musicians and producers lose our shit over.
Conor: It was like looking at the Holy Grail.
Ivan: Chance was feeling the beats but again, he was looking for something very specific for the project and I don’t think any of those things fit the project. I’m sure if Flying Lotus listened to the projects all the way down, he’d see why Chance didn’t take the beats. If I was Chance, I would have taken every single one [laughs]. And Thundercat was clearly all over them, they were just so fire.
So after playing all those beats, Chance is like, “What do we need to do to get you to create something now?” And Flying Lotus was just like, “Man, I’m not making shit right now” [laughs]. He didn’t say it like he was being mean, he just said, “I gotta be in the bunker to make my music.” And it was like, “Oh my God!” I’ve been killing myself in sessions for the past two years trying to make artist’s music on the spot and this was the answer I needed the whole time.
If you’re a producer and you don’t feel comfortable with an artist making music on the spot -- and sometimes you do -- it’s hard. You need to follow your own path and if you need to say, “Nah man, I gotta be in the bunker to do it,” then say it.
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