Tony Williams. You've heard his voice before, but probably won't be able to place the name. He's been a part of some of your favorite records, contributing vocals to classic songs off classic albums like College Dropout and Graduation, as well as singing the hook on Jay-Z's coming-out party for J. Cole, "A Star Is Born," and the smooth standout "Dreaming of Your Love," from Yeezy's stellar Can't Tell Me Nothing Mixtape. The Dallas native recently dropped his first solo mixtape, Finding Dakota Grey, is featured on Consequence's Movies on Demand mixtape, and has been back in the studio working on Ye's highly anticipated Good Ass Job.
In addition to Williams being a part of Kanye's G.O.O.D Music family, he's literally fam, being 'Ye's older cousin. They began working together after Mr. West admired his creativity as a writer and arranger, and talent for putting songs together. Complex spoke to Williams about his most notable studio sessions with Kanye and the stories behind the making of some incredibly memorable records...
As Told To Jordan Martins
#1: "SPACESHIP" FEATURING JOHN LEGEND, CONSEQUENCE, AND GLC FROM COLLEGE DROPOUT
It was actually my entry into the game. It was just kind of an accident. Kanye and I kind of have a tradition. During that time, when we weren't working together, we weren't seeing each other every day. It was back in that period where we saw each other when we could. We definitely saw each other on holidays. As a tradition, I'd pick him up from the airport—we'd spend all our Christmases in Oklahoma City at our grandparents' house. It's a short drive from me to get to Oklahoma City from Dallas. I get there early enough, and it was always my job to pick up Kanye from the airport whenever he flew in. Our tradition over the years on the ride from the airport to the house was to play joints back and forth. Sharing with each other what we had done since we'd seen each other last. On this particular Christmas he was probably about 95 percent done with College Dropout. Must have been December '03.
At that point, I wasn't even on the album. I had been asking him if I could be on the album. He was sarcastically like, "Everybody wants to be on the album." He's like, "I got this new guy that I'm introducing, that I just signed. He's doing all the singing on the album. His name is John Legend." I'm like, "Ah, man you're sure? There's nothing I can do on the album?" Whenever "Spaceship" came on, I just start ad-libbing to the track while we're driving and his eyes opened up. He was like, "Yo, man that's the feel that I've been trying to get for this track." John Legend's vocals is on there as well, there were some other things he wanted from John, but wasn't getting. A certain feel he wasn't getting on that particular track. That's when he's like, "I'll tell you what, next Monday (the following week after Christmas), I'm going to fly you out to LA, and I want you to do what you just did on this track." I get to LA, and he's 95 percent done. It's like two weeks before the album's deadline.
He got a car waiting for me in the airport. Get to the studio, it's walking into a real studio. It was like, "Okay, little cousin has made it." Before that it was recording on little ADATs and in bedrooms. I was like, "Okay, so cuz got a budget. It's going down for real." I get in, go in the booth, start vibing out on "Spaceship" and finished it up. At that point he was like, "Ok, Well let me see what you do on this song." I think that's when we did "Last Call." One song lead to another, and by the end of the weekend, I was on like five songs. Then we did the "I'll Fly Away" joint. "Spaceship" is one of my favorite Kanye joints.
#2: "CRACK MUSIC" FEATURING GAME FROM LATE REGISTRATION
"Crack Music" came out of a Puffy session. We were actually doing records for Puffy that he passed on. Puffy is known for passing on hits. It was an album that never really happened I guess. We worked on doing songs with him for like a week. It wasn't during Late Registration, it was a leftover track. I think [Game] had a verse on it. It was in the bag, we keep the juicy joints in the bag. It was probably eight to ten months prior to working on Late Registration. We worked at Record Plant in LA.
#3: "WE MAJOR" FEATURING NAS AND REALLY DOE FROM LATE REGISTRATION
"We Major" is a Warryn Campbell joint, although Jon Brion did put his hands in and added to the soup. Warryn actually played all the instruments on that. I love it when I get a track that really inspires me and speaks to me. It took me back to an Earth, Wind, and Fire, that's the stuff I came up on and was inspired by. I do remember Nas coming down and sitting there by the boards, and writing his verse right there at the boards. Really Doe did the hook that was originally a verse. Kanye was like, "Oh, man this is so dope we gon' make this the hook. We need to do this more than once." I don't think the session was very long.
That whole Late Registration album is my favorite. Not only is it my favorite to listen to, but the experience of it, it was the most memorable. It was the first project I was involved with from conception to the end... Like College Dropout I was really just there for the last weekend. The whole experience working with Jon Brion and everything was just really a memorable experience.
#4: "GOOD MORNING" FROM GRADUATION
We were in Detroit for the Super Bowl when Pittsburgh played Seattle [in 2006]. We did a show for the festivities. We booked a studio while we were in Detroit, snow on the ground. I remember doing "Good Morning," singing over the sample. "Good Morning" was the first song we started for Graduation and it's interesting it survived as long as it did. Normally we do an album, the first songs you do, by the time you're done with the project, aren't good enough to make the album anymore. The project takes on it's own life as you work. It evolves and grows. What you thought was going to be the best song doesn't even make the top 15 by the time you're done.
#5: "CHAMPION" FROM GRADUATION
Did I get credit for that? There was an oversight on the credit. But yeah I did write on that. I wrote the bridge. I remember greedy ass Steely Dan got all the publishing on that. Steely Dan don't play with the sample clearances, they take everything. We wrote that in L.A.
#6: THE 808s & HEARTBREAK SESSIONS
A lot of it was done in LA. It was really interesting too because Kanye was writing, but because he was singing... I remember it being kind of awkward. Usually I'm writing what I'm singing, or writing hooks. This time, he's singing, but he's singing his rap basically. It's really hard writing for somebody like Kanye, he knows what he wants. You really have to get inside of his head. For every line that I written for him, there were probably 100 lines that I was able to keep and use for something else. It was good stuff, but you got to be able to get in his head. That was a challenge. He was writing with so much introspection into his situation. You had to wait on him to come up with the concept, and piggy back to what he was doing. Pretty much it was him.
#7: JAY-Z "A STAR IS BORN" FEATURING J. COLE FROM THE BLUEPRINT 3
We were in Hawaii. We went in with the intent of doing the entire Blueprint 3 album. Kanye was going to do the entire Blueprint 3 and then present it to Jay like here's your album. The writers outside from Kanye were Cudi and myself. I think Jay commissioned him to do two or three tracks. Ye came up with his own idea, "I'll go above and beyond and bring you your whole album." The other joint I did with Jay "History" [Obama endorsing record] spawned out of the same session.
There's a really funny story that I'm almost embarrassed to tell about that record. I'm listening to it for five days before I'm convinced that's me singing on it. "A Star Is Born" actually had Cudi singing on the hook. But typically with Kanye or Cudi, I'll do a vocal, and I'm mixed in singing hooks. Basically I just kind of sung the same stuff Cudi sung. Put in the mix, kind of behind his vocal, underneath to smooth it out a little. The last thing I remember of hearing that song, it was Cudi's vocal, and me kind of mixed in. Fast forward to the release of The Blueprint 3. I was in Atlanta and went to a Common show when he was on tour with Maxwell, and remember running into my guy Omar Edwards backstage who actually musical directs for Jay, and also for Common. He's like, "I love what you did on the "Star Is Born" track." I was like, "Nah, man that's not me." He's like, "I know your voice." I was like, "No that's actually Cudi."
After about four people heard it and congratulated me, I finally got the record. The album said featuring J. Cole and at that point I didn't know who the hell J. Cole was. I'm assuming Jay got somebody else to sing the hook. We do a lot of Common stuff and a lot of artists have preference to certain voices. Kanye likes my voice on his stuff. Common likes Bilal on his tracks. Even when I do it in the studio, if Kanye and I are working on a song for Common, I'll reference a hook, and he'll get Bilal lay it. So I thought Jay-Z wanted J. Cole to sing it, because his name is on it. I didn't get a credit for "A Star Is Born" which is an oversight. All this time I'm thinking it was J. Cole singing. It was me though. I listened to it for five days thinking I was J. Cole. [Laughs.]
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