Superman wears a gold S and a red cape; DJ Quik graces the Row Hotel lobby with a white tee and a 5-foot durag. The Compton-bred, L.A.-based superproducer is rarely discussed these days, despite his decade run of hits for nearly every West Coast rapper who's ever mattered, including 2Pac, Snoop Dogg, Nate Dogg, Xzibit, and Game; plus career-long affiliates Suga Free, 2nd II None, AMG, and falsetto wingman El DeBarge.
Last week, while he was in New York City promoting his ninth studio album, The Midnight Life, out today, we sat with Quik to discuss his favorite soul singers, his outlook on hip-hop and R&B, and, broadly speaking, the cosmos. This was after Quik snuck a peek at my rather candid notes on the advance copy of his new album. We talked about that, too.
How long were you working on this project?
The oldest record started in 2012 with “Life Jacket.” So “Life Jacket” kind of started the whole momentum of the records. But all the songs after that came really fast, like the beginning of this year.
The guys that are actually featured on it: Were these live sessions, or were they emailing tracks to you?
As a producer that’s kind of bad for the synergy; it never sounds real when you do that. You have to get people into the studio, to vibe. So people came out, I made a dope little studio vibration. We're all close together, so it's not like they had to drive that far.
Why did you want to do a record in 2014?
What, with the music industry being what it is?
Because I haven’t finished my music legacy yet. It’s just not done. Eight albums isn’t enough in a 23-year career with as much production that I have done for people and being responsible for other people going multiple platinum—it's just I didn't do enough for myself. I need to finish my 10-album legacy. I got one more to go after this.
There are points in the album (chiefly, "Pet Sematary") where you have these commentaries on the state of gangsta rap, the state of R&B. What do you think your overall impact is on the culture at this point?
“Pet Sematary,” with the reaction that it's getting right now, I hope that it just puts some more light on R&B music and gets people to start back to doing fucking real R&B. I can't stand where R&B is. I don’t get where R&B is. Why is it so not important now, like why are all the fucking R&B people doing these crappy-sounding songs?
I don’t get where R&B is. Why is it so not important now, like why are all the f*****g R&B people doing these crappy-sounding songs?
What's R&B to you? If you had to define it through an artist who's hot right now.
The Weeknd. Frank Ocean. That’s good R&B music. It's incredible. More of that. People try to define Frank Ocean as an "alternative" artist, maybe because of who he is, with his image and sexuality. I get it. I can see how people can say that. But why do people have to put you in the box all the time?
So you’re generally not feeling most new R&B.
I don’t think it’s the new R&B. I think that it's no R&B. Like, where is R&B. It's just new music. It's new hip-hop-based, dance-based, and club-based with a little melody. There are no more harmonies. R&B used to be about harmonies. Now all this stuff is monotonous. It's monotone and root note. It's just all based on the root note. So, hey, if that’s where R&B is going now, but that's not what R&B is.
What's your favorite track off this project?
It keeps turning out to be “Pet Semetary,” because it's just funky, simple, and raw. My band is just nailing it like a band. “Life Jacket,” “Puffin the Dragon,” ”Fuck All Night," and I like “El's Interlude 2,” too. El DeBarge is just doing some Marvin Gaye shit.
Do you think that rappers and singers benefit more from doing live studio sessions?
I think it's good for music. I’m still into recording albums. I still think of it the old way, even though albums sell the least now. I still think in music, describing music as an album is what you come across as to make your point; you know you can’t do it with one song. Nobody knows the hit song formula because if everybody did then everybody would have hit songs.
What’s your favorite of all your albums?
The ones that I keep in my car are Quik Is the Name and The Midnight Life. I listen to my first album and my last album, and I compare. If it wasn’t for all the samples, Quik Is the Name would be my favorite. Rhythm-al-ism is technically my favorite record because it's when I went through the most bullshit, and it was my first album on Arista (Records). But with Quik Is the Name vs. The Midnight Life, I see the linearity right to even my voice being back the same as back then, or at least having a tone that’s my natural tone.
Again, I go back to your question about why put out a record in 2014. I don’t know why. This is all I wanted to do; I love doing music. I played all of the pianos on “Broken Down.” All of the music, I want it to sound like some sloppy, funky shit, and I do a commentary about how we don’t have Soul Train anymore. Why the fuck don’t black people get together and be in the park like we used to just 20 years ago?
I'm curious about “Trapped on the Track.” I cannot wrap my head around how you end up with that beat.
It's kind of retarded. What happened was, I'm watching a train wreck.
You got this lady stuck on the tracks, and the train is bearing down on her, but she cares more about her raggedy-ass wagon than she cares about her life, so she gets deer in the headlights and still tries to outrun this train, and BOOM, it hits her, knocks her into a pole, and the news lady was like " . . . trapped on the tracks with a train barreling down on her, this 37-year-old woman . . . " and I’m just like hearing, " . . . trapped on the tracks . . . " And the Doppler effect makes it change, and the train passes, so I heard both chords, and I just started sampling.
I hooked my drum machine up to the DirectTV box and sampled right into the drum machine, and kept rewinding the news and just took the bits of the train, broke it up, took the trapped on the tracks and the lady going "Ahh!" I just started hodge-podging that shit and turning it into a rhythm, then my daughter came in and was like, "Daddy, I like that beat," and I’m in there [beat-boxing], I don’t know what this is. I called Bishop Lamont and said, "See if you can't rip this shit." This motherfucker came on and started shitting on that track.
I just wanted to try something. You have to shoot. Even if you miss, at least you shot at it.
Do you think a lot of producers approach making beats like that?
I don’t hear that kind of thought going into some of the new music. I hear a very direct approach to making music now. I’m not dissing anybody; it's just that nobody is going that far out the box anymore, and I think that’s what made some of the best records in the past. Look how obscure those samples were that Wu-Tang did.
There is a very direct approach to the way music is made now. It's drag and drop, just pull the same samples, use the formula, if it's not broke, don’t fix it, ride that horse until its legs fall off, then get on another horse. What I’m doing is [seeing whether] I can impress my 12-year-old daughter with a beat. When she gets it, and she’s bouncing to it, then I think that I’m still pushing into that creative unknown.
Are there any young producers who you do check for?
Believe it or not, I check for [DJ] Mustard. Not just because he’s hot; it's because Mustard is, even to himself, he's the unlikely hero of music. He’s got tons of number ones. He just got put on with Jay Z and Roc Nation. And he’s still in awe of it. I just like to see his, I'm so glad to be here, Mr. America, I can't believe it's me—that’s a wonderful thing, to see someone get newly rich.
Pharrell came back and shocked the game. I took issue with Pharrell once; he was just so stand-offish with me. Dude, I never sued you for sampling my fucking “Get Naked” in your fucking “Hot in Herre” with Nelly. You ripped my line, I never sued you for that, and I never will. I’m appreciative that you like my shit enough to borrow it. I love Pharrell, his album GIRL. Pharrell has a weird style of production; sometimes it's straight R&B, other times it's really nouveau, avant-garde, over-the-top different. This album is accessible more so than some of the N.E.R.D. stuff. N.E.R.D used to throw me. I used to think I was losing it.
Oh, man. I loved the N.E.R.D. jawn that had "Wonderful Place" on it, which sounded like proto-R&B Pharrell.
"Proto," exactly. See, that’s Pharrell that thinks outside the box, into the cosmos; he likes the stars, he like to watch aliens—shit like that. Just look at the name of his group: The Neptunes. He’s thinking out in space, and I've been thinking that way too, lately.
I still like what [Dr.] Dre does, even though he doesn’t do much of anything anymore. He did one thing on 50 [Cent]’s new album called “Smoke.” It's still fun to hear Dre punching drums. He’s the godfather of this whole West Coast music. I still like to see Pete Rock jam live on the turntables and punch beats. He sends me beats, and I get motivated.
I’m just trying to get back to having fun, man. I went through some issues with my voice. Anybody that uses their voice all the time, sometimes you go through it, people even have surgery. I went through some sinus shit where my sinuses was fucked up, and they start fucking with—you know, ears, nose, and throat are all connected—so I couldn’t hear, and my left ear is like, “Oh, I’m over if I lose this.” So I went to the doctor, got some tests done, found out what was going on with my nose, treated it, got it under control: sinusitis. My hearing came back. You don’t understand how happy I am. I got the things that you can’t buy with money.
You don’t understand how happy I am. I got the things that you can’t buy with money.
How long was your voice blown?
About a year. While I was working on Book of David, I couldn’t hear in my left ear. That’s why I mixed that record, it's mixed all loud for nothing. Just a loud, angry-ass record. When it could have been toned down, pulled back; but I was rapping loud just to hear myself.
With this record, my hearing got fixed, I got to hear what music sounds like again and finally got some real, new fucking technology. The good thing about technology is that it gets better and cheaper. So we got new good headphones, new keyboards, smaller shit that gives us these bigger sounds that we used to have that we don’t have to bring an Escalade full of equipment to the studio. Now that shit’s in your laptop. It’s a little one drum machine, one little controller midi trigger keyboard, and it’s back to that. Hopefully the next record that I want to do is the answer to this record; it’s called The Morning After. This is The Midnight Life, being drunk; and then there’s The Morning After. I see the album cover being me looking up at a big, gigantic toilet.
Morning after, baby. Just fun again, man. That's the album I want Dr. Dre on, Ice Cube on, and me and my musicians are going to write them some not-no-cornball shit. We're going to write some big, heavy music. If you listen to this record again, too, you’ll notice I stayed away from them gangster claps. I’m over that shit. That’s it, bro. I ain’t got nothing else to say. I’m just glad you like “Pet Semetery.” And I’m glad you hate “Broken Down” because I fast-forward that motherfucker, too.