Studio Session: Honorable C.N.O.T.E.’s Brush With Death Leads Him to Atlanta’s Producer Promised Land – Exclusive
One of the biggest songs of the year so far is A$AP Ferg's Future-assisted single "New Level." The song is undeniably infectious and will get anyone out of their seat. The man behind the beat is none other than 35-year-old producer Honorable C.N.O.T.E.
The Benton Harbor, Mich. native has been putting in work over the years and his catalog is pretty sick, having worked with Future, 2 Chainz, Rae Sremmurd, A$AP Rocky, Migos, Meek Mill and Lil Bibby plus a ton with Gucci Mane.
But getting into the music industry wasn't an easy road for C.N.O.T.E. After discovering the drum machine as a kid, the Midwesterner thrust himself into the creative process, spending hours of his time crafting beats. As he got older and his personal life took a rough turn after a brush with death, things changed for him when Gucci Mane rapped over one of his beats. Seeing the brighter side of life, C.N.O.T.E. would pack up his things and move to Atlanta to commit to music full-time.
The move down South worked in his favor. After immersing himself into the ATL hip-hop scene and linking up with artists such as Shawty Lo, Short Dawg and 2 Chainz, Honorable C.N.O.T.E. began to make a name for himself because of his beat variety and thinking outside of the box. His versatility was his trademark. He could make a beat that sounds like the hardest trap record in the world and go on to create another beat that sounds like it belongs on an Usher album.
For the first installment of XXL's Studio Session column, Honorable C.N.O.T.E. got on the phone to discuss his come-up, his breakout moments and the five favorite beats that he's created in his career thus far.
XXL: How did you begin producing?
Honorable C.N.O.T.E.: Music was something I always wanted to do when I was a little kid. My mama had bought me a little Casio keyboard so I could make little melodies on them but I couldn’t record. Later on down the line we had moved out the hood for a minute. My big brother got shot like five times and she didn’t want that bull. So we moved to a predominately white neighborhood and it was nothing for me to do.
She bought this computer for us and I went and paid for this little magazine. This magazine they had games that I wanted to play. I didn’t know that it had a beat machine and it was ReBirth and I had found that on there too. [I] downloaded on a CD, it was a demo, and when I found out that that shit made beats, man, I spent night and day on the thing. It was crazy.
I eventually got into some trouble out there and I moved back to where I’m from -- Benton Harbor, Mich. -- and from there on I just started hustling. I got a [Boss] DR5, then I got a QI70, then I hustle up to a Motif 6, then I ended up leaving Benton Harbor after I got stabbed in my neck. It was like god was telling me just to go to Atlanta. So I moved to Atlanta and started to get into beat competitions and winning those and it’s been on ever since.
How old were you when you first got a ReBirth?
I had it when I was about 14, 15.
How did you develop your sound?
My style is versatile. I can make any beat in the world and that comes from being… when you grow up in the hood, we used to throw these parties. Lil Jon had the party going crazy. When my shit comes on, the whole fucking floor empty [laughs]. We had a little record label back then, self-made records, when our shit comes on the whole floor empty out. I be looking at them like “Oh, I'ma make these bitches dance, I'ma make y’all do something.”
It came from a little bit of that and picking up a little bit of everything. I was a big Just Blaze fan... a big Kanye West head and I messed with all of them. From the South I rocked with Shawty Redd, it was all that mashed together. West Coast, Dre used to have the most poppiest drums so I always used to make sure my drums were crisp. It’s a mix of all that.
How did you get your name?
My brother gave me the name C.N.O.T.E. Then when I started getting better at the beats, my brother would say, “Yo, man, you’re doing whole albums and they don’t sound the same. We going to call you honorable C.N.O.T.E," so it just stuck. So one of my brothers gave me C.N.O.T.E and another one put Honorable in front of it.
What do you consider your big break in your career so far?
My big break? I don’t know, man. What made me leave Michigan was Gucci rappin’ over one of my beats. That made me feel like it was in my cards. But that Flo Rida and Lil Wayne [track “American Superstar”] introduced me to people but my big record was probably around the time when I was hangin’ around Short Dawg 'cause it got me away from being in the industry system and actually floating around and working with artists.
From Short Dawg, I met 2 Chainz when he was Tity Boi then I started to get into the circle to actually move around with artists and give them beats then just having to submit it to a manager. Those were game-changers to me, especially when 2 Chainz took off. Also Gucci, working with him was like game-changing to like seeing his work ethic and he helped mine like 10 more. A lot of it had to do with those opportunities that made me change and evolved to what I am.
Give me your five favorite beats and why they deserve a spot in your top five.
One, Future’s “Long Live the Pimp” featuring Tre Tha Truth. I was on YouTube one day looking for inspiration and I came across Trans-Siberian Orchestra, they was playing this Christmas carol. The way that the bells mixed with the strings, it just captured me. I just listened to that for like the whole week. I started to incorporate the bells with the 808s and the chains so if you listen to “Long Live the Pimp” it got scenes to it. If you were watching an orchestra, it’s scenes; it’s not a loop [imitates orchestra playing over the phone]. I was just feeling like If I was the modern day Mozart, what was his shit sound like and it became that.
Two, A$AP Ferg’s “New Level” featuring Future. “New Level” is like a grandchild of “Long Live the Pimp.” It falls under that orchestra-type thing, it got trails in it; when it first comes on, I like to do intros that mess people up. You don’t even know what’s coming after. It listens like you’re in a scary part of a movie and you’re drowning by snakes or something or something is coming to get you. It’s the same sound. If I was like a conductor, that’s what I imagine. I’m a conductor and you’re sitting down and you’re listening to this.
As an artist, you’re sitting down and listen, it’s not really a beat, it’s a piece of work, just from the buildups and the things that’s going on with it. “New Level” with the bells, I’m really picturing and focusing myself like with a 50-piece orchestra doing whatever I do, just with an 808 though. It’s updated with the trap drums, but it’s really like classical music.
Three, 2 Chainz’s “Goodnight.” It started with the organ, you hear the [imitates organ sounds], I don’t know what the fuck happened that night. That was just one of them beats I’m in the studio and I was just listening to it for like four hours. I couldn’t believe I made that shit. It was like 4 o’clock in the morning and I finished it. I seen 2 Chainz tweet something like looking for beats. I said, “Bro, look at your email” and I promised you he texted me back “You ain’t shit.” I asked why and he said “I was finna go home but now I got to stay here and work on this shit” [laughs]. The same night I made it I sent it to him.
Four, Gucci Mane’s “Hell Yes.” Really I didn’t try to give Gucci that beat, but the thing is, here’s why I like working with Gucci. If I give him 30 beats, I am going to hear 30 songs. He’s going through every one of those muthafuckas. He’s going to rap to everyone whether he like it or not. So when he had did that shit I was like, “Yo, that’s like a R&B beat.” He said, “I know I sung to it.” I was like, “Gucci, I ain’t putting you on no Auto-Tune.” He said, “I’m tellin’ you, it’s a hit.”
I went to the studio and I heard it and I just started laughing cause you know Guwop funny as hell. I was just like, “Yo, man, that shit is hard.” So we took it to the studio and melodize over the shit and put more Auto-Tune on it. I added more shit when I went to the studio to mix it. The thing with me is that if I give you a beat, it’s just a skeleton. But after I heard the song and the vocals lay down I’m going to go back and lay some strings. So that was one of those songs.
Five, Migos’ “Freak No More.” At that time I was going through… producers go through transitions. When you first start making beats you make beats to impress other producers. Like, "I’m doing something. You can’t do it, nigga." But you expect the artists to hear it and think it’s the greatest thing in the world. So many times I done made these big beats but niggas be like, “Damn, that shit hard but I can’t think of nothing to it.” I went through a phase when I sent batches of beats around and no one really rapped to it. So I said, “You know what, I’m finna make this simple as shit, I’m going to get it my own way. I'm finna put one piano and I’ma have a rapper rap on it on time and somebody is going to rap to this and make it a hit." And when I heard the song, I was like, "Yup, I knew it."
It was just you know what, C.N.O.T.E. you’re just putting way too many sounds in your beats. You got to leave enough room for them. You can tell producers that but to actually experience it is a whole another thing. I got to just get out my own way. “Freak No More” was real simple. It was just 808s following this piano. Then I cut a scene.
What are the mistakes that young producers make?
I think young producers come in making an Honorable C.N.O.T.E.-type beat or a Metro Boomin beat. When I came in I looked up to Kanye West, I looked up to Just Blaze but I didn’t want to make a Just Blaze-type beat or a Kanye-type beat. I wanted to be better than them. I wanted to have my own style I wouldn’t say it was a mistake but it’s just different from generation to generation.
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