Sometimes, your life can change dramatically for the most unlikely of reasons. For Sean Solymar, all it took was some XLR cables to get him from spinning Justin Bieber songs for wedding-goers to being in recording sessions with the most elite rappers on the planet, playing a key role in the recent series of game-changing G.O.O.D. Music releases.
Solymar, a 22-year-old San Fernando Valley native who grew up in Van Nuys and Granada Hills, was bitten by the music bug early. By the time he was in high school, he was playing percussion in the school band. He took it seriously enough that he changed schools, moving to CHAMPS Charter High School of the Arts after his freshman year, and performed in the school’s jazz band.
It was during that time that Solymar began composing and producing—making music for some friends’ short films and, he says now, “trying to learn the beauty of being able to use multiple instruments on your laptop.” One of his earliest inspirations? Mike Dean, particularly the veteran producer/engineer/mixer’s work with Kanye West, Scarface, and the Geto Boys.
After high school, Solymar spent two years at California State University, Northridge studying music. He also started DJing, mostly as a way to continue learning his craft.
“I started DJing on the weekends to make a little bit of money, and also hone my skills,” he tells me. “There’s a value in being able to mix and being able to keep a crowd up. So I wanted to learn that as well as the fundamentals of mixing, mastering, production.”
After a six-month training process with the company Vox DJs, Solymar started DJing events—mostly weddings and birthday parties—under the name DJ Precision.
“It was a great experience, but it definitely made me realize I didn’t want to stay there forever,” he remembers of his time begrudgingly playing Justin Bieber tracks (“All the little kids would die for it”) and dodging requests for “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae).” (“I would straight up refuse, like refuse,” he laughs.)
As a way of continuing to learn and staying in the mix, Solymar got a job making cables at Pro Audio L.A. And that’s where things took a dramatic turn. At the same time, he was interning for free for the British producer Jess Jackson. Solymar was helping Jackson set up his home studio, when one day Jackson let a bit of news slip: Mike Dean was moving from New York to Los Angeles. From there, things moved fast.
“When [Mike] moved to L.A., he obviously needed to set up his home studio,” Solymar recalls. “Jess was like, ‘I know this guy—he makes cables, he’s trying to learn to produce, mix, engineer, so on and so forth.’ Out of the graciousness of his heart, [Mike] took in a stranger. He was like, ‘Come and help me, and in return I got you.’ By the time we got through building his studio, he was like, ‘Go ahead and quit your job. I want to hire you. You just come here and work every day now.’”
Solymar was “dumbfounded” that one of his biggest influences was offering him a job, and jumped at the opportunity. His first projects with Dean were 2 Chainz’s Pretty Girls Like Trap Music, Travis Scott and Quavo’s Huncho Jack, Jack Huncho, and Migos’ Culture II. In addition to fond recollections of Chainz’s now-famous dog Trappy, what Solymar remembers most is the relationship between Dean and Scott. “Mike is close with Travis,” Sean tells me. “Watching that dynamic is really inspiring.”
But it was a few months ago that things really got crazy. Solymar was called to help build and wire up road cases that were making the trip from L.A. to Jackson Hole, Wyoming for sessions that would lead to G.O.O.D. Music’s spate of albums from Pusha-T, Nas, Kanye West, Kid Cudi, and Teyana Taylor. Mike Dean was headed out to the sessions, too. Not long after arriving, Dean gave his protege a call.
“He was like, ‘I need you to come out here for a few days,’” Solymar remembers. “So I packed a backpack with like three days worth of clothes in it and I jumped on a plane first thing in the morning. I got to Jackson Hole, and it’s just like the most beautiful place ever. And I can’t find Mike—I don’t even know what’s going on. Then I finally linked up with him and he was like, ‘Yeah, so I think we’re gonna be here for a month.’”
The underpacked Solymar quickly got some new clothes (including shoes directly from West), and thus started what he calls “a dream come true.”
While Sean had plenty of experience in a recording studio before his Wyoming trip, he had never engineered a session by himself. So he was surprised when Dean “shoulder-bumped” him into engineering vocal sessions for one of the albums—and even more surprised when he found out who it was for.
“[I was] thrown into the position of engineering Nas’ album,” he tells me. “Just being in a room one-on-one with Nas for three weeks, 12 hours at a time, every day. I recorded every single word he said on that album.”
Even stranger than being in charge of recording vocals for a hip-hop legend’s new album was the fact that a rapper Solymar refers to as “the coldest of all time” had moments of self-doubt.
“I went back and forth with him,” Solymar shares. “He was like, ‘Yo, do you think this is tight?’ And I looked at him and was like, ‘You’re Nas, bro. You can’t doubt yourself like this. This is exactly what people have been waiting for.’ Pusha-T is in the room like, ‘Nas, you’re tripping. You gotta release this shit. People are going to lose their minds.’ He’s a perfectionist.”
Solymar was also behind the boards for what many consider the breakout moment of Kanye West’s Ye: Shake 070’s haunting performance on “Ghost Town.” He bonded with the singer over their shared new-jack status—and their shared ambition.
“I was at the listening party and when they started lifting her up into the sky and chanting her name, I’ve never been more proud of someone,” he says. “It was so surreal and unbelievable how she’s 21 years old, I’m 22, and we’re just here soaking all of this in. We hear Ye down the hall—our biggest inspiration—and Mike Dean downstairs putting everything together. It was like we were both on the verge. We both had goosebumps. I was like, ‘Just watch: In 10 years, we’re gonna be at this same table and we’re gonna be the ones that are in charge. I know it for a fact. I foresee that.’ And she was like, ‘Yes.’”
Looking back on his month of 16-18 hour workdays in Wyoming, Solymar is full of gratitude and praise for West, Dean, and everyone else involved. Even more than that, he’s thrilled to have had a hand in creating music that is, in his words, “important to people.”
Looking forward, Solymar plans, like his mentor Dean, to continue being a jack of all trades.
“I want to be able to help the future of music, and you can’t do that by only making beats,” he explains. “You have to be able to record a vocal and mix a record and master a record. It’s all part of lasting.”