It's been a whirlwind 12 months for producers Nez and Rio.
A year ago, the Chicago-based duo earned three placements ("Gangsta," "Man of the Year," and "Fuck LA") on ScHoolboy Q's major label debut, Oxymoron. Producing the opening and closing tracks on the album's regular and deluxe versions, it's their sound—a carefully orchestrated Jambalaya of the bizarre—that shaped the album, to an extent. "Man of the Year," the album's second single, became a hit on the strength of them marrying a sample of Chromatics' celestial "Cherry," skittering hi-hats, and crisp snares. It's that experimental approach that caught other artists' ears.
Late last year, the duo supplied A$AP Rocky with "Lord Pretty Flacko Jodye 2," the "Pretty Flacko" sequel, which continues pushing the envelope sonically. The pair created a menacing ambiance that sounds like a car alarm blaring from the inner-circles of hell, and it's custom fit for A$AP to deliver his signature Harlem arrogance in staccato. This exploratory tendency is rooted in the breadth of their musical backgrounds.
During a candid a discussion, Nez and Rio—who attended elementary school, high school, and college together—discussed the magnitude of their Grammy nomination for their contributions to Oxymoron, augmenting their sound to fit different artists, and the benefits of relocating to L.A.
Let's address the elephant in the room up front—the Grammy nomination. What were your snap reactions to finding out about it?
Nez: It was exciting. I didn’t even know; my younger brother actually called me like, "Yo, you’re Grammy-nominated now." I was like, "What?!” So I went online and saw that the shit was real. It was dope.
Rio: I was asleep, so it was actually a good thing to wake up to. Our manager called me early in the morning and was like, "Congratulations on being Grammy-nominated." It feels good. You work hard and put countless hours into something, so it’s good for people and the Grammy board to recognize your work.
While it's a high honor, the Grammys haven't been historically respected within the hip-hop community or respectful of it. For example, Oxymoron is nominated for Best Rap Album along with Iggy Azalea's The New Classic. As a result, do you think winning a Grammy comes with an asterisk next to it?
Nez: We’re definitely appreciative of the honor, but it’s a mixed thing. You don’t do it strictly for awards, but you don’t want to sit there and act like you don’t want to win awards, either. It’s a two-way street.
Rio: Ditto. At the end of the day, we make music, and it’s great to know that people love it. I want to win, but if we don’t, it’s not going to stop the show.
Your production style is so off-kilter, which is a perfect match for Q because so is his approach as an MC. "Man of the Year" sounds the least like the other two beats you have on Oxymoron and your other work with Q. How did you craft that Final Fantasy-esque sound, and how did you know it would be perfect for him?
Nez: Just by fuckin’ around and listening to music. We came across this Chromatics song, and that just kind of inspired the beat from there—listening to it, and instantly wanting to chop it up and make something out of it. It was pretty organic.
Rio: Q is one of the few rappers who can pretty much rap over everything. I think what he chooses to rap on is more so a tip of the hat to him, because he has an excellent ear for picking beats, but after the work we did with him on Habits & Contradictions and just listening to his full body of work, you can kind of start to predict what an artist will sound good on. That’s our job; that’s what we love to do: give him a challenge, because it might just come out great.
He’s not the only TDE artist you've worked with. For example, you produced "SOPA" from Ab-Soul's Control System. What's the difference between working with Q as opposed to other members of that camp?
Nez: TDE is a very dope creative collective. They each have their own personal style, and they’re all different. There are just different vibes when working with Q versus Kendrick, or Ab-Soul, Isaiah Rashad, or SZA. They’re just very talented and creative artists so it’s always cool to kind of bounce around a little bit.
Rio: One thing people don’t get to see is that all of them work their asses off. They’re all studio rats. I can speak on Q and Soul in particular because people know us from working with them. Those two in particular, they work really, really hard. I’ve worked with Q in the past, and he was developing some of his records for quite some time. They don’t take their music lightly at all, and that’s kind of different than some of the artists that you see out now. It’s very admirable to see that they put so much into their craft.
There are just different vibes when working with Q versus Kendrick, or Ab-Soul, Isaiah Rashad, or SZA.
With that said, how is the dynamic you just described different than how you work with artists such as A$AP Rocky, Travis $cott, Tinashe, or the Treated Crew?
Rio: Most of the artists give us a bit of a creative window to operate within. I think Q and Rocky probably trust us the most out of everyone, it seems. Those two stick out in terms of giving us our own creative freedom to go crazy and bring them some wild shit, which is probably why the records kind of sound like that.
You two hail from Chicago but have your own peculiar sound, i.e. not drill music. How did you develop your musical ears and craft that individual sound?
Nez: I think it’s a combination of the music we were raised on, the influences we got from our family, and our own interests. That’s gospel to jazz, funk, soul, African music...everything. We just take it all in. Basically a lot of what you’re hearing is just stuff we feel or think is dope, and it’s just a big mixture of things we love. That’s why I think our sound is a little different: We’re pulling from different influences, not just what you hear today. It might be some shit from 30 years ago, or might be something that’s not even in the genre we’re making. We might be making something for a rapper, yet we might be pulling from some rock shit or something else. I think that’s what’s different with us and our sound.
Rio: To elaborate on what Nez said, our music is a reflection of who we are. Nez is half-Kenyan and grew up playing drums in his church. I’m a choir kid, so if you hear choirs or certain strings and arrangements, that’s me. We’re just pulling from a lot of different sources, for instance, everything from funk and jazz, to different rhythms that might not be from the U.S. given Nez’s background. Sometimes vocal arrangements or orchestral builds, they’re things you wouldn’t get from your typical hip-hop producer. We like to think that we’re simply musicians a little bit more than just hip-hop producers, which is what people know us as right now. We’re actually working on more material to show that we’re musicians, and have a lot more to offer.
You've relocated from Chicago to L.A. Did you feel like it was absolutely necessary in terms of opportunities and exposure?
Nez: I think L.A. was definitely a necessary move for where we are in our careers at the moment. We want to expand, and you have to be where the people are. Right now, the music industry is in L.A. A lot of the creatives, your songwriters, your artists and producers, and even a lot of the labels are in L.A. You have to be where it’s at, and that’s just where we felt we needed to be, and it’s been beneficial so far.
Rio: Timing wise it made sense, too. We made the decision to go to L.A. when we had an opportunity open up to send music for ScHoolboy Q’s album. We felt like it was important to be in the studio working on that album, as opposed to doing guess work from Chicago trying to figure out what Q really wants. As a musician, it’s always easier to be hands on and have direct communication with the artist. It gives you a better perspective on what to make for that person and what they’re really looking for.
Both of you guys, like myself, attended Howard University. I imagine the "art of the finesse" that you pick up at Howard has helped you in the entertainment industry, particularly in L.A., no?
Nez: I think in general, we learned a lot about how to maneuver from Howard. Howard teaches you a lot of life skills, like how are you going to get that A when you didn’t study? I’m just kidding. [Laughs.]
Rio: Yeah. Study, kids. [Laughs.]
Nez: Yeah, stay in school. But yes, Howard definitely teaches you the art of the finesse for sure.
Rio: Howard is a very unique school. There are so many different personalities, and I would agree: You learn how to finesse and how to make something out of nothing. Being in L.A. with so many different personalities, and so many different fake opportunities, you have to be able to see things for what they are. Howard taught us how to see those things clearly. You really know how to avoid the fugazi after going to Howard.
You mentioned how you’re known now exclusively as hip-hop producers and expressed an aspiration to branch out and be recognized as musicians. In light of the success that you had in 2014, do you have any plans to make your own compilation or things outside the genre of hip-hop?
Nez: You’re definitely going to hear some music from Nez and Rio as artists. It’s not rap-based—well, I shouldn’t say “not rap-based,” but it isn’t rap. I think a lot of what we do is going to be somewhat rap-based, but it’s not rap, necessarily. Then definitely also working with other acts outside the genre of hip-hop, so pop, alternative, R&B, and just getting out there, opening up and showing people what Nez and Rio are really made of.
Julian Kimble is a contributing writer. Follow him @JRK316.