No I.D. is a music industry veteran who made a name producing for Common in the early '90s. And yet, you could argue the 44-year-old is just now hitting his stride. Although he produced classics like 1994's "I Used To Love H.E.R.," he truly rose to mainstream prominence in the late 2000s thanks in no small part to the fact that his one time mentee, Kanye West, had become a global superstar. Since then, he's been a studio stalwart, manning the boards to produce hits like Jay Z's "Run This Town," Big Sean's "My Last," and Kanye West's "Heartless." He also gotten it done in the boardroom; serving a stretch as the president of G.O.O.D. Music and now currently working as Def Jam's Executive Vice President of A&R.
But rather than be satiated by his accomplishments, he's continually pushing forward. In recent years, he helped shepherd the careers of now established stars like J. Cole and Big Sean. He's also signed Vince Staples and Logic, two young rappers who've both released impressive debut EPs and albums. He also recently signed Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra. Needless to say, he's got plenty on his plate. We caught up with No I.D. in his Hollywood studio to talk about working on Vince Staples new album, Summertime '06, as well as how he had to push Big Sean to release "IDFWU" as a single, and how he's ready to fight against the stigma of major labels...
Interview by Insanul Ahmed (@Incilin)
How did you first get connected with Vince Staples?
It was Joey IE. When he was still at Def Jam, I had a conversation with him that if I were to come to Def Jam, there’s a certain type of artist that I have to sign. I was looking for a Jay Z, a Nas, or a 2Pac. If you think about 2Pac, Biggie, and Nas, all of those guys were teenagers or in their early 20s when they got started. Everybody acts like young people have to be silly and lack perspective. Those guys had incredible perspective and everything that they said was before 25-years-old.
I don’t believe that those kinds of individuals don’t exist anymore. It’s just a matter of finding it. So I told Joey that that’s what I was looking for. One day he called me and said, “I’ve got something for you.” It’s crazy because it was a week before he left and went to Interscope. He kind of helped me close it out without anybody even knowing.
I met Vince one time, looked in his eyes, and knew that he was in the realm of what I was looking for. The smartest thing that I did was not jumping in and not trying to make it something big immediately. You have to let people come to it on their own. It’s about watching people develop.
Now that he’s is doing more press, people are really getting to see that Vince is such a smart, thoughtful guy with a very particular perspective.
It’s super particular. You know how certain artists mark an era? Well, he’s like the gangsta in the skinny jeans. He has a very hipster perspective. He likes a lot of different, edgy things but he’s from the streets of Long Beach. There’s no overkill in his presentation. It’s just a nice, rounded out blend that gives it a different perspective.
I honestly had to push Sean to go with the hit song and make “IDFWU” his first single. He might have felt that it was a little commercial. I was like, “No, it’s a great song. Don’t worry about that aspect of it.”
Vince is an artist who seems to constantly be growing. How did you help him grow?
If there’s a seed in the dirt, it’s got to get enough sunshine and enough rain to help it grow. That seed has to go through the seasons. With younger artists, sometimes we rush the seasons. We say, “Oh, they’ve got talent. Throw them on the big stage right now.” There were big records that I thought we could do for his album and Vince knew that we shouldn’t be making those records yet. He was right.
The tendency is to just put out the biggest records possible and go get the money. If you look at some of our biggest artists right now, a lot of them have backtracked a little because it got so big so quickly. Sometimes you can skip those stages where people fall in love with you and own it because nobody else knows but them. That’s where we are with Vince. His fans are his fans for real and they own it. People who are not really into music don’t know yet, that gives him a chance to experience this before it gets too commercial.
Is that something that worries you? Vince has a strong fan base but a lot of rap fans in general don’t know him.
That’s true. But another thing about him is that he’s very realistic because rap wasn’t his dream. I don’t think he has this billion dollar dream to take over the world. He just wants to tell his story, have real fans, and have longevity. He is a real artist in that sense.
There are a lot of artists that clearly are motivated by things other than the music. I’m not saying that they’re not real artists, I’m just saying their motivation is money. Vince’s motivation is to paint the picture right and tell the story right. He wants to be a voice for his generation.
You mentioned this idea of artists backtracking. Two people you’ve worked with in the past are Big Sean and J. Cole. They’ve both had good songs and good albums but I feel like with their latest albums they really stepped into their own and became the artists that we want them to be. How do you advise an artist like them and push them forward?
Sometimes it’s not about advice. Sometimes it’s about knowing when to pull back. You’ve got to know when to let someone walk on their own two feet. I’m not the artist, ever. I’m the producer. The players go play the game. I’m the coach. After a while, the players don’t need to sit and talk with the coach in order to play the game. There’s times when they think they’ve learned enough and there are times where they need more coaching.
I think those guys found their niche. They’ve gotten past making hit records and chasing numbers. I honestly had to push Sean to go with the hit song and make “IDFWU” his first single. He might have felt that it was a little commercial. I was like, “No, it’s a great song. Don’t worry about that aspect of it.” When you’ve got a good body of work and great songs, you just have to go with it. It was all organic. It wasn’t calculated. It just happened to be big.
I think Cole just found his groove. He’s found what he believes in and he can put it in his music. He’s grown as a producer and as a rapper. At that point, I’m like, “Okay, you guys are good. Where’s the next?” That’s where Vince comes in. I’m always looking for the next batch of youngins that need to be given the tools.
Is that what happened with Vince?
Vince and I found a groove on this album, but we didn’t have it the whole time. It wasn’t until the end of the album that a lot these records happened and it ended up becoming a double album. We caught an understanding. That’s when it became fun because we didn’t have to guess. We knew exactly what we were doing.
That situation is different than working with Sean or Cole because they already knew how to do certain things. We didn’t necessarily find perfect magic on a production level when we worked together. It was more like guidance, information, and direction. Sean and I might have caught some of that magic on the first album but I think that all of it was for him to find himself. Vince and I have found something that may be hard for him to do with other people.
When you hear the album, he and I and DJ Dahi found a zone that I’ve never been in. The production is not typical No I.D. production. It’s not typical production for anybody. There are a couple tracks that marry what we found and what I was but the bulk of it is all him. It’s stripped down, it’s empty, industrial, cold steel hip-hop. It’s very fitting of what he’s saying.
Not a lot of people do double discs anymore. It can be really hard to pull off.
Yes, but it’s a new era. When you hear the music, it doesn’t drag on. It’s a concise double disc. It’s not like every song is five minutes. I don’t think anyone has done a debut double album. I was like, “Let’s change up the game.”
With all the new streaming services, it only works to our advantage to have more records out. Streaming is a whole different financial situation. It’s not like you’re giving away songs, you’re getting more streams. If you do a 10 song album, you get 10 streams. If you do a 20 song album, you get double the streams. What are we being so precious about? People put out a mixtape to put out an album. Why not just put out a bigger album?
Summertime '06 is a concise double disc. It’s not like every song is five minutes. I don’t think anyone has done a debut double album. I was like, “Let’s change up the game.”
How do you feel about the way that rappers have been using mixtapes these past few years?
What makes it a mixtape? It’s not mixed and it’s not on a tape. What makes it an album? It’s not on vinyl. We’re dealing with playlists now. You make a playlist of your favorite artist’s songs. You don’t treat it like an album when it’s on your computer. If it’s not laid out in a way that feels like a real body of work, then it’s just a playlist.
Then the question becomes how many of the songs are worth anything in your playlist. If you make an album with three good songs, people are just going to take the three good songs out of there and put it on a playlist with the other good ones. I don’t even talk about the downloads anymore. Downloads don’t have a future anymore. It’s not about downloading a single because every record is a single. It’s literally a single song that you can get. All of these terms are outdated but we’re still wrestling with them.
Switching gears, I’ve heard that your wife is also pretty involved in ARTium. What’s her role within the brand?
We invented that brand name together. I already had a situation going with Def Jam, just from working with Sean and being the former president of G.O.O.D. Music, but we came up with that brand name together. I was doing ARTium Recordings and she ended up working at another company. She has another section of the company. She kind of runs more things than me.
I have the one record label with Def Jam and she brings her own stuff to the table. She does all kinds of things. She manages and publishes and consults with majors. She’s really in her own mix, as well. It’s a good combination because she’s actually from Sweden so she has a different perspective, our perspectives complete each. Sweden is traditionally very involved in pop, from Max Martin all the way back to ABBA. With me being more from the hip-hop world, it’s cool for us to be able to bounce off of one another.
My wife says that there are two different categories: “popular culture” and “fine culture.” My perspective has always been to start with fine culture and see if we can make it popular. If not, you find a way to infuse a little bit of pop culture into it. That’s what makes me a fine culture creator.
It can be hard to work in the realm of fine culture and still be big and make money. It requires a certain patience.
I understand that people want those things but how many people in our business, who were really big, got to be 60 or 70-years-old and had some money and weren’t on drugs? There are so many ways to lose. I don’t care if you make $500 million. There’s a chance that, over the course of 40 years, you can mess it all up. If you can really work and generate a million dollars for 40 years, you might have a very comfortable life and have something at the end of the day. You might end it all as a sane human being. It really just depends what your goals are.
I think a lot of people don’t have a long term perspective when they’re making choices. I’m not trying to outrace anybody. I’m just trying to keep going. Hopefully, when I’m done, people will look back and say, “I can’t even believe that he did all that.” With everything I’m doing, I was still able to be comfortable, go to the movies, and be respected where I want to be respected.
You’ve also done a lot of work with Logic, another guy still working towards his full potential. How did you start working with him?
I met him through an A&R that I worked with. My immediate reaction was, “Does the world really need another white rapper?” Then he’s like, “But he’s not white. He’s black.” I was like, “What? I’ve got to meet him.” I knew he was good but I feel like white rappers actually feel more pressure from the hip-hop community. I thought it might be too much pressure. When I found out that he wasn’t white, I realized that we had a story. It made me erase all of my preconceived notions.
The funny thing about him is that the minute we got into the studio I was like, “Oh, you’re a producer.” He’s like, “No.” I’m like, “Yes, you are.” I didn’t need to produce for him, I just needed to produce his thoughts a little, give him the tools, put him with some of the musicians I’ve worked with. I try to make sure that he has access to everything that he needs but, again, I know when to step back and when he needs to be pushed to another level. It’s another one of those things where I knew he was special. I just had to figure out how to market an artist that everyone is going to want to dislike because they think he’s white. How crazy is that?
Most of these major labels started as independents. When you talking about Atlantic, Def Jam, Island, these are companies that were started by visionary independents and then corporations purchased them.
On his mixtapes, Logic always fronted about the Def Jam deal. He even had a skit where he said that he would never sign to a major label. What did you think about him trying to combat the stigma of signing to a major label when he was already on Def Jam?
Yeah, we kept it quiet. It was a big thing because he was already with Visionary. For a while, there was the question of whether or not he should join ARTium. Then, he was considering whether or not he wanted to get involved with Def Jam. We went through all of these things. My concept for ARTium isn’t about everybody putting a jacket on. Like, who cares what it is? Visionary within itself was a brand. What difference does it make? We’re cousins.
I’m glad you asked this question. I’m here to break the stigma. Everybody always talks about what major labels try to do. It’s not about major labels, these tech companies are the ones that control everything right now. Major labels aren’t taking people’s money anymore, the tech companies are taking the money.
Most of these major labels started as independents. When you talking about Atlantic, Def Jam, Island, these are companies that were started by visionary independents and then corporations purchased them. What are you supposed to do? Run away from really good brands, systems, and tools to start over because what? I don’t get the fight. It’s like fighting to stay out of a mansion, just to prove that you can build a treehouse. Yeah, you built it. So what? It’s not big enough. You’re supposed to take this bigger, imperfect situation and rehab it.
I’m here to fight that fight. I’m not here to put my music out on the Internet with no support and then say I got creative freedom. I’ve got creative freedom wherever I go, I don’t create anything that I don’t want to create. That’s freedom. Since when does a company force you to make something that you don’t want to make? If they do that, you leave.
That’s not always true though. I think when you look at an artist like Lupe Fiasco and his issues with his label Atlantic Records over the years, you kinda see why the fans perspective has changed. He complained a lot about them forcing him to make music he didn’t want to make.
I’m not saying that they don’t do that. I’m saying that, when you get into a situation, you get an understanding with the people that you’re working with. If they switch up, you get out. If you can’t get out, you just put the music out and get out.
I was a rapper, the reason I stopped rapping was because I realized that people wanted guys like Puff Daddy. That’s not what I do, I quit. That was it. I had to sacrifice for my choice. I said, “Forget it. I’ll be a producer.” Nobody was going to make me do anything.
The first thing I do when I talk to a new artist is ask, “What do you have that you want to put out? Let’s go.” I’m not here to tell you what to put out. I’ll give you my opinion but you can sink or swim with what you believe in. If you sink, you sink. If we sink because you sink, then we shouldn’t have signed you. That decision was already made. People should never do what they don’t want to do.
If you’re being told to do things that you don’t want to do, then you’re in the wrong place. You’ve got to work on getting out of there. There’s always a way out. If your way out is to hand in seven albums and get out of there, then do it. You’d give away seven albums on mixtapes anyway, so what difference does it make? “I don’t wanna be judged by my sales.” Yeah, but you’re judged by not coming out either.
I’m here to fight for an independent state of mind in the major system. I just got off a call with Big K.R.I.T. and Adrian Younge. They’re working on a project and I want to put it out. They’re like, “We want it to have an independent spirit.” I said, “Me too. That’s why I want to put it out on Def Jam.” That’s what it meant in the first place. A project like that is what I’m into, let’s do it. “What is the label going to think?” Who are we talking about? I’m the label. There’s not too many people to talk to in this equation. I’m telling you let’s do it.
That’s what got to happen. Otherwise, all of the great artists are going to be independent and they won’t be on the Grammy’s stage, the AMA’s stage, the VMA’s stage. Kids are going to grow up misunderstanding what music can be. This is a real fight for the minds of kids who follow music as if it were a religion.
We can’t just let a different message get out because we don’t want to fight the fight. I’m going to fight the fight. I’m not going to give up and run. I’m not going to put my music up on some little corner of the Internet or give it away for free. What does that do? That’s just giving up. I’m not giving up, ever. They’ve got to shut it down for me to give up.