He has explained that he wants to use his platform to speak for the voiceless and use the momentum of the #FreeMeekMill campaign to spread awareness about our broken legal system. It’s a central message on his fourth studio album, CHAMPIONSHIPS, which is Meek at his sharpest, delivering street realism and untold stories about life in prison with a champion’s mentality. He’s made it out of the trenches and he’s here to celebrate his freedom.
Behind CHAMPIONSHIPS was Dallas Martin, senior vice president of A&R at Atlantic Records, who assisted Meek in getting an all-star lineup for his album. Meek raps alongside JAY-Z, Rick Ross, Cardi B, Drake, Future, and Young Thug, to name a few, and even brings the best out of Melii and 21 Savage. The production gathers heavy-hitters from the South and the East Coast, including Don Cannon, Bangladesh, Streetrunner, Wheezy, Tay Keith, Hitmaka, Hit-Boy, Cardo, and Papamitrou. Martin was there every step of the way.
"It was down to the wire, buzzer beater," Martin tells Complex about the album's last-minute finish. "The Drake vocals came in on the Tuesday before the Thursday of the release." With a laugh, he adds, "We got the JAY-Z verse the Saturday before the album came out [...] We been wanting JAY on the album since the beginning. With JAY-Z, you can't tell him what to do, when to do it, or how to do it. So you got to pray that the song that he send sticks, he likes it, and he wants to do it. Because nobody can move JAY-Z. When he sent back that 44-bar verse, man, we just all lost our minds. We couldn't believe it, man. It was definitely early Christmas for us."
Speaking on the long-awaited reunion between Meek and Drake on "Going Bad," Martin says, "Meek and Drake been talking obviously throughout since he got out of jail." He adds, "I guess Drake expressed to him that he's down to get on the record, so they were talking. Drake sent some shit over and you know how they get down. They're very magical together when it comes to the music."
Martin, who has been working with Meek since 2011, spoke with Complex about putting together CHAMPIONSHIPS, the impact of “What’s Free,” and why Victory Lap and CHAMPIONSHIPS are a tie for rap album of the year.
How soon after Meek was released on bail did you discuss with Meek the idea of putting out an album?
When he first got out of jail I think the main goal and focus was for him to get with his family, spend time with his son, and let him get into a space creatively where he felt free and he wanted to work.
I didn't really want him to rush the album process on him because he was sitting in jail thinking he was about to do two to four years. So when you get out of a situation like that on bail, I just want him to get a chance to get readjusted back to regular life, be in this place where he feels inspired to do music again, because he didn't feel no inspiration in jail. He needed to just get out, spend time with family and friends, and get his mind adjusted back to everything. He was out for a month before we even stepped in a studio.
During his time in prison, did you ever go check up on him?
Well, he doesn't like people to go visit him. He likes to talk on the phone, so we would always get a call from Meek, like, once a week. He just wanted to know what was going on outside or just check the temperature of the game. He wants to know about everything that he's missing, so you just gotta spend time with him, talk to him—make sure he's in good spirits and stuff, and just try to be available for that call for him.
May is when you got in the studio?
Yep. We started in the middle of May.
I felt like he got a second chance at life, and we really felt like we was in championship mode.
What were the conversations like?
Since we started our process has always been to just make music and see where the music takes us. Usually with Meek, as we get materials, the music starts letting us know where he's at in his life and what we're feeling like. We normally don't get a title of the album until we're halfway done or three-fourths of the project is done, because we know from the records what space we are in. We just kind of get that energy from the music.
He was just recording whatever was on his mind.
Yeah. The main thing with him when he got out, I wanted him to be able to link with all the biggest producers in the game. We went down to Atlanta and for like two weeks I just had all the big producers come through and sit with him, play beats, and just let him just rock out.
Honestly just with everything that was going on with him, the CHAMPIONSHIPS name came from having Wins & Losses on the last project. You know everything we went through from the past three years. Just the ups and downs. So, we felt like he was in a great space. I felt like he got a second chance at life, and we really felt like we was in championship mode. That's kind of how we came into the title.
As someone who works on A&R-ing all these MMG projects, what separates Meek from working with Ross or Wale?
Well, with Meek, it's his hunger in the booth. One thing about Meek, he doesn't write his lyrics down. He writes his songs in his head. That's one of the most incredible things I've ever seen. He could write a whole verse in his head and go and spit in the booth, so I've never seen Meek take out a pad of paper ever. He doesn't have one notebook of rhymes nowhere. He's always wrote them in his head.
In what ways did you want to differentiate this album from Wins & Losses?
I think our biggest thing was make sure that we had a great balance on the project. With him doing a lot of the advocacy for criminal justice reform we wanted to make sure that we touched on stuff like that, but we also didn't want the album to be so serious that it wasn't fun. So, we wanted to make sure that we had elements of pain in it, elements of struggle, but also he got out of jail. He wanted to have fun, he wanted to party, he wanted to kick it with girls. He wanted to do everything that's just a normal way of life, you know what I’m saying? When you’re rich and you’re young and you’re having fun.
we wanted to make sure that we had elements of pain in it, elements of struggle, but also he got out of jail. He wanted to have fun.
As far as features, you had everyone from JAY-Z, Ross, and Drake to Roddy Ricch and Melii.
Yeah, I signed Roddy Ricch. Meek has definitely been a strong person that really helped raise the awareness for Roddy Ricch. I think our main goal was to work with the best artists in the game and get the best out of all of them. We weren't settling for anything mediocre on this album.
Meek says he recorded 200 songs for the album and cut it down to 19. How did you assist him with that?
Our whole process is we record two or three songs every session, then honestly it's really kind of the time. So if we like a song over time, and it keeps sticking with us and we love to hear it and we keep playing it, those are the songs that normally get slid into that folder. You kind of know the gems out of those when you keep wanting to hear stuff over and over.
Does he have any songs in the stash that will hear soon?
One thing about us, once we move onto the next phase, those songs just end up being in a hard drive, so maybe one day he will sell that shit, but there's definitely some smashes in that drive for sure.
When did you hear the JAY-Z verse on “What’s Free”?
Man, we got the JAY-Z verse the Saturday before the album came out. [Laughs]. Guru mixed the album. We been wanting JAY on the album since the beginning. With JAY-Z, you can't tell him what to do, when to do it, or how to do it. So you got to pray that the song that he send sticks and he likes it and he wants to do it. Because nobody can move JAY-Z. When he sent back that 44-bar verse, man, we just all lost our minds. We couldn't believe it, man. It was definitely early Christmas for us.
Meek says he heard the verse over the phone. Guru played him the verse, and then he was like, ‘Send it to me so I can actually hear it.’ Were you there with him when he got it?
Meek was in New York and Guru came to L.A. to record JAY-Z. I was in L.A. because I'm based out here. I went to the studio and Guru played it for me in person at the studio right before he mixed it and I went nuts. Shit was crazy.
Is this the first time Guru worked on a Meek project?
Yeah, that's the first time that we used Guru, and he was definitely somebody that we loved to work with. He did an amazing job. Meek is very particular about his mixes, so we wanted to get somebody in there early who could be around us. We were in Jungle City recording the album, and Guru was on one floor mixing, and we were upstairs recording the album. Meek could go down there, make changes, and Guru could do his mad scientist vibes to it, and he killed it.
I went to the studio and Guru played [THE JAY-Z VERSE] for me in person at the studio right before he mixed it and I went nuts.
He tweeted that he pushed his Africa flight four times to make sure this Meek album came out on time.
He was supposed to go to Africa, like, 20 times. [Laughs]. For sure. We were like, Guru, you can’t leave without mixing the rest of this shit, man! It was definitely down to the wire, buzzer beater. The Drake vocals came in on the Tuesday before the Thursday of the release. So, it was crazy.
What’s it like working with a veteran like Guru?
It's always a blessing to work with the legends. Honestly, you just soak up game and you just listen. You kind of take the guidance of your OGs. He listened to what we wanted, but also made sure that he put his own sauce on it.
“What’s Free” was supposed to be on Ross’ album? How did it make on CHAMPIONSHIPS?
Yeah. That's a crazy story. The first sessions we did I think “What's Free” was recorded in that first week we started recording in Atlanta. Ross came by the studio. I think Ross just fell in love with the record, so after Meek recorded his vocals, Ross recorded vocals. Two days later I get a call. They're like, ‘We think this is going to Ross.’ I was like, ‘What?’ Ross is the OG. He did so much for all of our careers that it's like you can't really veto Ross.
It was more of a situation where he took it then JAY-Z heard the record I think later on down the line and he expressed his interest in the record, like getting on it. Ross gave us the record back so we could get JAY to get on the record and knock it out. But it definitely was going to go to Ross at some point and we got it back, which was a blessing.
When you heard the JAY verse for the first time, you must've heard the Kanye mention, you must've heard the Donald Trump stuff. Did you know when you were hearing it that it would have such an impact today?
Honestly, I was overwhelmed by the feedback. I definitely thought it was a dope JAY-Z verse, but I'm a big JAY-Z fan, so I'm going to love anything JAY does. He never really lets me down, so the fact that the people and the fans just took to it like that, that was awesome to see.
JAY had to clarify his lines on Twitter too.
Well, the dope shit with getting Guru he gave me a line by line tutorial. [Laughs]. So he played me the verse, then we went through it, like, three or four more times. He dissected each line for me. He was like, ‘Just to make sure.’ He was like, ‘Yo, this is the crazy one right here.’
You said that the Drake vocals came in close to the album getting turned in. When did those conversations with Meek and Drake start?
Well, Meek and Drake been talking obviously throughout since he got out of jail. Drake brought him out on stage in Boston and in Philly. They definitely were building their relationship back up, so it definitely was a Drake-Meek thing for sure.
I guess Drake expressed to him that he's down to get on the record, so they were talking. Drake sent some shit over and you know how they get down. They're very magical together when it comes to the music.
Did Meek ever tell you the motivation behind getting Drake on the album?
I think as an artist he's maturing. I think he just wanted to kind of dead all the bullshit, all the wack beef. I think he wanted to express himself as a leader now, especially what he's representing. He just wanted to show he's a different man and he's in a different space in his life. He don’t want to carrying on no beef that wasn't really over anything serious.
CHAMPIONSHIPS has iconic samples from Phil Collins, JAY, Beyoncé, and more. It must’ve hard to clear all of these.
Definitely. We have a good relationship with JAY-Z, Puff, and all those people, too. And Roc Nation did a good job on the management side helping to clear stuff, along with Joya [Nemley] from Atlantic. She does all the A&R admin stuff. She went really hard for us and she got everything cleared.
Meek says with the samples he wanted to show these records to a younger generation who might not be familiar with them. And they also represent what inspires him.
Yeah, definitely. I think he was already in love with the songs previously, and once he heard those instrumentals I think it just kind of took him into a different space. He got really inspired and he made some dope, dope records to it. I think everybody is inspired off that Phil Collins sample. Just makes you feel ambitious and hustling and gives you that spirit.
Since we’re closing out 2018 and you worked on this album and Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap... Which one is rap album of the year? CHAMPIONSHIPS or Victory Lap?
Oh, man. I would never do that. It's a tie. I think they both served their purpose for the culture. With Nipsey and Victory Lap, I think he had one of the strongest projects of the year, and what he represented for the culture. I feel the same way about Meek. They're my favorite artists, both of them. I think they're both classic albums.
Was the CHAMPIONSHIPS process similar to the Nipsey album?
No, everybody works different. I think Nipsey is one of those people that he might work on one record for a week to get it the way he wants to. Nipsey's all about production and post-production. He's very into that. Meek, he creates more records. They just have their own style the way they do stuff, but they're both efficient. One thing with Meek, you got to have your beat packs on deck. He goes through beats like a monster, so you have to be in there with a whole bunch of heat. He'll go through three or four packs a day, for real.
Some people had early listens to the album. What were their initial reactions?
Everybody that came to listen to the album, they gave us great feedback. I think everybody was telling us that it was going to be great, but you never know until you finish everything and the music really touches the streets, because anybody can say whatever in the beginning process. Because it is really your friends and your peers that are coming through, so obviously they're going to be honest, but they're definitely going to tell you everything is dope for sure in the beginning. They just want to keep pushing you, but once the fans get to hear and it hits the streets, that's when you really know.