Before Ye, The World Famous Tony Williams had participated in the creation of every Kanye West solo project. So it came as no surprise when Williams received a mysterious email from his cousin, inviting him to head out to Wyoming a few days before the sessions began.
"It was very confusing," he says of the vague email. "I thought maybe 'Ye was doing a show in Wyoming. You know, before the Yeezus tour, I got a phone call literally two days before rehearsal started. It's always kind of been like that." He adds, "I had no idea what I was going to Wyoming for."
Once Williams made it to Wyoming, he found himself in a loose, in-the-moment creative setting that mirrored the fast-paced nature of today's music environment. Feeling most at home working on albums with a more classic sound like DAYTONA and Nasir, Williams contributed vocals to Pusha T's "Hard Piano" and Nas' "Bonjour."
Anyone who watched the live stream listening parties for these albums witnessed Williams celebrating with a wide grin in the middle of the crowd. As he explains, those listening sessions were just a peek into the creative process of these albums. "One of the biggest parts of our process is focus groups," he says. "They're amazing. There are hours upon hours that people show up to the studio and we play the records to just watch their responses. What you saw on those live streams is what had happened in the studio for days prior to the release."
Now that the five albums are out, Williams is preparing to release an album of his own called To Gain the World: King or the Fool, Vol II. But he also reveals that a tweet from Tyler, The Creator fantasizing about a seven song Kanye West-produced Tony Williams album might just manifest itself into reality. Continue for our full interview with The World Famous Tony Williams.
When did you first get in the mix for these projects that Kanye’s been making in Wyoming?
It started with an email. It was extremely vague, asking me if I was available three days later to meet up in Wyoming. It was very confusing. I thought maybe 'Ye was doing a show in Wyoming. You know, before the Yeezus tour, I got a phone call literally two days before rehearsal started. It's always kind of been like that.
So yeah, it started off with a crazy email. I had no idea what I was going to Wyoming for. I just ended up there. Then I understood the breadth of what was about to take place once I showed up.
A lot of people are in the room just for a certain energy. It's like, the session isn't right unless Tony Williams is at least in the room, you know?
How did these Wyoming sessions compare to all the previous eras you've been a part of in Kanye's career?
It's been an interesting evolution of process. Of course, you get more proficient with something the more times you do it, too. The process was totally different on these projects compared to say, Late Registration. Very few artists or producers have the longevity in the game at such a level as Kanye—especially now that music changes so fast. I thought it was interesting seeing the creative process married to the paradigm that music is in now and how fast it moves.
I've been around for all of Kanye's albums and my role at times is to be the person in the room just for energy sake. You notice my contributions on recent albums have become less and less, but a lot of it is just about having the right energy in the room. A lot of people are in the room just for a certain energy. It's like, the session isn't right unless Tony Williams is at least in the room, you know?
It's a role that I have accepted over the years, because music has changed and become more of a youth-driven game. I'm more than happy to step aside and let some of the younger artists shine, like Ty Dolla $ign and Kid Cudi. When I got to Wyoming, it was about trying to find what my place in the room was. I think I actually did find it through records that fit me on DAYTONA and Nasir.
When you talk about energy, what do you think Kanye is able to get out of you that he can’t get out of anyone else?
You know, people say that they miss the old Kanye. I personally miss the old Kanye, too. But from his perspective, you have to do what is fun for you. I personally think 'Ye at his best was the very classic soulful hip-hop 'Ye. I know he's been on record saying he's not what people thought he was. At one time during the Yeezus era, he discovered his inner punk, if you will. I think it's always been about him trying to not fit in the box that what we, the listener, want to put him in.
I think that's classic 'Ye, always evading the box that you want to put him in. So I try not to force him anywhere, but instead follow him and help him get where he wants to go. I try to be as helpful to what he's trying to do as I can. I'm very thankful I found my place on something like the Nas project, where I was more suited to an OG like that who is going to deliver a more classic presentation. I think I'm more suited to assist and throw the lob pass for someone like that.
I mentioned longevity earlier. At what point in our lives are we willing to face our own mortality? 'Ye is more of a personality that will defy that. He's that Peter Pan artist who will say, "My favorite artist is Cudi." You know, that's more youthful and in tune with the kids. Where I want to be more of a classic artist. I want to be the kind of artist that can still perform in Vegas when I'm 65. That's the artist that I want to be. So I think what 'Ye finds in me is—when he wants to demonstrate the old 'Ye, he can. He can always go to me and instead of using an old sample, he can actually record a Tony Williams vocal and get the same energy in the session.
Kanye tweeted about these sessions and said, “We’re here creating in real time just having fun. We’re trying new ideas without the fear of not being perfect… It’s just a gut feeling sometimes… just making stuff with your friends…” It sounds like you guys were really loose and free.
I think that was a beautiful statement. I come from that. At my core, I'm an indie artist. We throw that term around a lot, but I think true indie artists don't find themselves in situations where they have to be confined by the rules and formulas of commercial music. I think that's where 'Ye is coming to as an artist. And I don't know if he ever actually did—he always kind of blazed his own trail—but I think that statement sums up relieving himself of certain pressures and just wanting to make good music.
On the 'Ye' album, it felt like every little detail wasn't stressed over, which gave the project a nice raw, human feel. Was that intentional?
That was definitely intentional and by design. The crudeness of it. I can't say what sparked that, but it was definitely by design to take all the beautifulness of the production, then throw dirt and mud on it and scratch it up. [Laughs]. It was definitely intentional.
I remember in an interview years ago—I think it was following My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—he basically said it was his most perfect album from a critical standpoint, and it was something he could do blindfolded with a hand behind his back. He said he knows how to do perfect, but his goal for his follow-up albums was to do something different. I always keep that in mind. I just think that's where he is in his new state of mind with fashion and tech and the art he's creating today.
I finally realized I'm in these sessions because he's looking for something he can't get anywhere else.
You have vocals on “Hard Piano” with Pusha T. How did that come together?
I had worked with Rick Ross before on "Live Fast Die Young." That was Twisted Fantasy era and that song was birthed out of those sessions. So it was very exciting that "Hard Piano" features Rick Ross. That was my first time on a Pusha T record, too. The whole concept of what they represent as artists is interesting, with the dope boy raps. As a hook writer, I always try to mesh with what the artist represents and try to help them tell the story. I don't come from a dope boy background, but I was able to bring soul to the song.
You also sang on Nas’ “Bonjour.” What’s the story behind that?
It's interesting because after that came out, I was approached by a producer who asked about the character that I was portraying on "Bonjour." That's not a character, though, that was Tony Williams the artist. After all my years in the game, I think I finally have a signature sound. That's the maturation of The World Famous Tony Williams as an artist. I have a signature sound and I've become more confident.
You know, with Kanye's sessions, I went through a period around the era of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy where I would be in the sessions just kind of stuck. I was falling into this thing where I was always thinking, "What would 'Ye want to say if he were me?" Or, "How would he want to sound?" I was always overthinking what he wanted. Then I finally realized I'm in these sessions because he's looking for something he can't get anywhere else. I can't contribute that unless I tap into who Tony Williams the artist is. So that's what I think I offered to Nas, which he became impressed with.
When you think back to that time working on The College Dropout compared to where you’re at now, what do you think has been the biggest change in you as an artist?
Before The College Dropout, I was an indie soul singer. College Dropout was my first commercial look. I was used a few different ways on there. Other than the "Spaceships" record, there was "I'll Fly Away," a couple skits, and "Last Call." I think I was utilized a few different ways and that sparked me trying to find my artistry and where I fit in commercially with mainstream music.
That led to my first project, which was my Finding Dakota Grey mixtape. That tape was actually birthed out of some writing sessions with this artist Dakota Grey, which helped my evolution as an artist. I realized I was versatile as a recording artist versus just a singer. That brings me full circle to my next release, "Everybody Knows," which I think is a perfect follow-up to "Bonjour." It's very similar sonically and vocally. There's also a remix that features Wale.
We're just seeing if there's some potential for maybe even a seven song, Kanye-produced project that could take priority.
Will that song be part of a bigger project?
Yeah, there is an album: To Gain the World: King or the Fool, Vol II. That will be the follow-up to my 2012 album King or the Fool, Vol. I. The project is packaged and ready to go. The first couple singles were dropped earlier in the year: "Money" and "#1 Fan." Then we had some changes in the direction of how we were distributing the music, which delayed it. But the album is finished and ready to go. "Everybody Knows" is a record from the project that will be coming really soon.
Then for the follow-up, we're trying to figure out where we want to go in relation to the energy that's being created from the five albums that I was just a part of. We're just seeing if there's some potential for maybe even a seven song, Kanye-produced project that could take priority. So we're just weighing things out right now.
It's funny you mention the possibility of a seven song album with Kanye. Tyler, The Creator recently tweeted about how he wanted a Tony Williams and Kanye project. Rumor has it Kanye saw the tweet and showed it to you. Is that true?
I don't know where you got that information from. [Laughs]. But about two minutes before Kanye walked in the room, someone actually texted me a screenshot of Tyler's tweet. Then two minutes later, 'Ye walks in the room, hands me the phone, and shows me the tweet.
Tyler, The Creator represents the youth. So, the youth has spoken. I think if that's something the youth is asking for, you have to oblige. Man, shout out to Tyler, The Creator. I never would have thought the biggest representation of the youth actually wants to have a Tony Williams album. So that means everything to me.
In 'Ye's strange way, the fact that he walked in and showed me the tweet, I'm feeling confident that if we can find a direction that makes sense, that was the co-sign we needed to get a Kanye-produced seven song Tony Williams album.
Tyler, The Creator represents the youth. So, the youth has spoken. I think if that's something the youth is asking for, you have to oblige.
What would you want out of a project like that?
It's funny, out of the five albums that were just released, I almost have to go to the Teyana Taylor project as my favorite. I think an artist like that is more of an artist that is subject to what a producer gives you and what they make you up to be. With me, you know, the reason I was on College Dropout is because Kanye was a Tony Williams fan. He was a fan of what I was doing as an artist. Then he brought me into a world where I built this fanbase based on my affiliation with Kanye-produced music. That was not what attracted him to my music in the first place, though. So it's been this evolution for me to get back to that artist that I was.
I have this saying now: My new sound is my old sound. It's about me going back and being featured as this indie artist with a sound that's hard to pigeonhole. It's not soul music, but it's extremely soulful. It's not anything, but it's all of everything. What I would envision for a Kanye-produced Tony Williams album is him taking my sound and putting the Kanye touches that bring it into that realm. But it would still represent my artistry. That's all I could hope for.
These listening parties have been really interesting to watch from an outside perspective—just seeing you guys go and play the albums for a bunch of people right after finishing them. What has that been like?
I think it's revolutionary. It makes me think of the Yeezus album artwork. We were coming from previous Kanye material, which was million-dollar, MTV-level, polished ideas. Then it turned into—we're just going to simplify things and go totally against the grain. Just when we got the rest of the world overthinking everything, let's just dumb everything down and show everybody how much we're actually overthinking.
At the end of the day, it's just a rap song. [Laughs]. You know, we used to say that. Kanye, John Legend, and I were working on this horn section once. I was giving insights from almost a musicologist perspective and Kanye's response was basically, "You know, at the end of the day, it's just a rap song." [Laughs]. That always just stuck with me, because we put him on a pedestal of being this god, but I think at the back of his mind, it's always just a rap song. I think that's dope. I think he hit it out of the park at the Madison Square Garden Yeezy Season 3 show when he just put the aux cord in the phone. You don't get much more simplified than that. We're at the point now where music is consumed on a phone. It's not about the hi-fi system in your house. At the end of the day, everybody is listening to your music on their phones. So, I think it's appropriate and effective.
What you saw on those live streams is what had happened in the studio for days prior to the release. It was the same thing—just putting in the aux cord or playing from the Pro Tools sessions for a room full of people.
What about the live stream listening parties themselves? What role did those play?
I think those were an extension of the process. One of the biggest parts of our process is focus groups. They're amazing. There are hours upon hours that people show up to the studio and we play the records to just watch their responses. What you saw on those live streams is what had happened in the studio for days prior to the release. It was the same thing—just putting in the aux cord or playing from the Pro Tools sessions for a room full of people. I just think those live streams were an extension to what we were experiencing every day leading up to it. I thought that was great.
Is there anything fans can look forward to from you soon?
Yeah, the single and video for "Everybody Knows." I think we're a couple weeks away from that. I'm really excited about it. I think it's some of my best work to date.