Havoc Breaks Down His Production Work on Kanye West’s ‘The Life of Pablo’ Album – Exclusive
Two months into 2016, and the rap world has already received one of the biggest gifts of the year: Kanye West's long-awaited seventh solo album, The Life of Pablo. The project, which came after a number of false starts and one of the more unique marketing plans in the history of music, has been the big topic of conversation as of late, prompting everyone from fans on social media to critics to speak their piece on Yeezy. And while Kanye is undoubtedly the man of the hour, another person that deserves a healthy heap of praise is none other than Havoc of Mobb Deep.
Roughly a decade before Kanye had to fight to be able to make the transition from producer to rapper, Havoc was doing the opposite, building his portfolio of classic, bone-chilling beats while also serving as one-half of one of the most respected rap groups of all time. With a resume that includes cooking up classics for the likes of the Notorious B.I.G., Nas, LL Cool J, Eminem and 50 Cent, as well as credits on projects from Faith Evans and Travis Barker serving as a testament to his versatility, Havoc, 41, remains one of the most prolific -- yet unsung -- beatsmiths in the game.
So when rap nerds read the T.L.O.P. credits and found his name attached to fan favorites like "Famous" and "Real Friends," it made sense as to why those records rate high on the Richter Scale given Havoc's Midas Touch and knack for sprinkling his signature brand of grime over the most pristine soundscapes. We got the Queensbridge, N.Y. native on the phone to speak on his production work on The Life of Pablo and how the album has been a victory lap in his already decorated career.
XXL: Describe how you first got involved with producing for Kanye's The Life of Pablo.
Havoc: I mean, first, for like a year and some change, I already was sending tracks to Kanye, like, periodically without them even asking for tracks. I was just sending tracks to their management, but nothing ever came of it. And then maybe a little less than a year back, I got a call from their management saying Kanye wanted to work with me on an upcoming album that he was doing and it was just simple like that. Management got in touch with my management and they hit me up and next thing you know, I'm out in L.A.
"Famous" features some great production from you. How did this song come together with yourself and Kanye?
Well, basically I had sent the tracks over there and I didn't know which ones they was gonna use. So then when I got over there, they was letting me hear references to some of the things that they did on some of my tracks. It was a few and "Famous" was one of 'em. And when I heard it, it was just a reference; it wasn't finished or nothing like that and I was like, "Oh shit, this is kinda dope" and it was just in its beginning stages and he had the idea for how he wanted to go. And he was asking me what did I think about it and I just told him "This shit's kinda dope" and we just started working on it more from there and he just took it to another level.
What was your creative process with that beat?
Pretty much, I was just there. It was just me, Kanye, his engineer, Noah [Goldstein] and we was just going through mad songs and listen to stuff. We would settle on certain songs and that was one of the songs that we settled on. And like I said, he already had the inspiration for the song, I was just included in the process, thankfully and I just did what I do, you know, the gritty sounds, the drums or whatever. Crazy snares. But he had already had the vision for the song.
A lot of times, if it's a song that he has and if he's gonna ask to collaborate with somebody, he already has a vision. So you just wanna jump into the vision, you don't wanna kind of, like, change it. But he do ask for you to be like, "Yo..." if you wanna take it somewhere else 'cause it just opens up all kinds of ideas. But I was already feeling the vision that he had for it so I just tried to enhance it in any way that I could
Did you have a hand in bringing in any of the samples on this record?
The sample that I had was the main one that he's rhyming over. It's not the Jamaican sample towards the end, it's the main one when the song first comes on when the beat drops. I don't know when the other samples was done but the one that I did, that was there first, originally. So I chopped up a nice little record and did that, so that was the main one. And then I didn't hear everything else he had done to it upon the final release, but when I heard it, I was like, "Oh shit," you know what I'm saying. He made a collage of it and it was dope.
Why did those particular samples stand out to you?
These days, I like to really fuck with a lot of progressive sounds so whenever I hear something progressive, that just jumps out at me. I can't do just normal samples that everybody else is doing, I just like to hear a lot of progressive, old '60s, '70s-sounding type sound and then make them sound current.
What did you think when you first heard the Taylor Swift line, "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why I made that bitch famous?" on that song?
I just was laughing 'cause that's Kanye [laughs], you know what I mean. He's just outspoken about shit and I just was laughing 'cause I ain't expect nothing less 'cause he always speaks his mind and it wouldn't be him [not to]. Imagine if he wrote that part and he was like, "Nah, fuck it, I'm not gonna say that." He's not worried about what people gonna think, he's just gonna say how he feels so when I heard it, I thought it was dope. I'm not a fan of censoring anybody [on] how they feel.
Did you think it'd get the response it did?
When I heard it I did kinda think that it was gonna be kinda controversial 'cause that was kind of some shit to say. It wasn't like a normal lyric line, you know what I mean, that's something that jumps out at you soon as you hear it so I wasn't blind to it. I felt that it was gonna be kinda controversial and I was just kinda feeling pretty glad that it happened on my song or a song that I had a part in [laughs].
You also co-produced on "Real Friends." Did you work on that before or after "Famous?"
The "Real Friends" was second because the "Famous" beat was one of the first ones we started working on when we first started working on it. And we worked on several tracks, but those were the two that ended up making it so, you know, I ain't mad, I'm just glad I made it on the album at all 'cause they got a lot of dope material over there and they could have definitely not even used those two and still have a great album, you know what I mean.
So the "Real Friends" beat was second. I remember hearing the track and getting it and was asked to do whatever to it. So I tried a couple of things and what ended up being on there is just the drums of what I did. And that was kinda dope because the drums are pretty hard and a good element tot that track.
Did you and Frank Dukes work on the song together or separately?
It was at separate times and I definitely gotta say that Frank Dukes and Boi-1da are two producers that I highly respect in the game. I was glad to be working alongside them too. I worked with Boi-1da and I worked with Frank Dukes before so I already knew their capabilities. I didn't even know that it was them that did the music on that track at the time. I didn't even know who did it I just got the track and started doing stuff to it.
So when I found out that they was involved with it, I was like, "Oh shit, that's dope." So we definitely did it at different times, which was kind of cool 'cause now you're building something. Listening to the song now, I would say Frank Dukes and Boi-1da's parts must've came first 'cause whatever they did is what I received. But from what I can hear now, their stuff was on there first.
Did you draw from any of your personal experiences with past friends while working on the track?
When I heard the song and I was listening to the lyrics, it's, like, something that I can relate to, about "Real Friends." We're always like "Who the fuck is our real friend." And when you ask that question, it kinda puts you in a dark place sometimes and that's how I heard the drums. So I drew from my own experience while listening to it and I just had this dark feeling and that's how I was able to create those drums to it.
What are your favorite beats from the album other than yours?
"Fade" 'cause it just brings me back to the '90s. On some club shit, like back in the days when they was really wearing the Doc Martins. And "30 Hours" because the beat is crazy and I can relate to driving far as fuck to go see some chick that ain't even worth it [laughs]. So those two jumped out at me.
How does it feel being an integral part to an album of this magnitude, possibly the biggest side project you've worked on, after 20 years in the game?
I mean, I feel blessed, definitely for sure. Definitely humbled and a little vindicated somewhat 'cause they always labeled me underrated or this, that and the third, but just to show people "Look, I'm still doing my thing." It's just an indicator for things to come.
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