T-Minus Describes How He and J. Cole Made "Middle Child" in a Day
Toronto producer T-Minus explains how he created "Middle Child" with J. Cole, and what's next for him in 2019.
Image via Getty/Eric Robledo
At the top of the decade, T-Minus was quietly one of hip-hop's most prolific producers. From 2011 to 2013, his fingerprints are all over crowd and club pleasers from your favorite artists. Many of the songs still hold up to this day, like "I'm on One," "Swimming Pools," and "Rich as Fuck," to say nothing of beloved album cuts like ASAP Rocky's "PMW." That's in addition to T-Minus' role as Drake's de facto third horseman: he was as important for The Boy at one point as Boi-1da and 40.
Then, T-Minus announced plans to step back—a move met with bemusement in an era where artists and producers alike typically churn, churn, churn until the mainstream tires of them. Many took it as a full on-retirement, something he laughs at today. He compares it more to the break some artists like a Kendrick or Frank Ocean take between projects. That confusion probably wasn't helped by Drake using his "retirement" as a punchline for romantic estrangement back in 2016 ("Last time I heard from Monique, T-Minus was making beats"), but just one year after that, they were back together. Liner note enthusiasts noticed T-Minus slowly but surely walking back into the spotlight, linking back up with familiar collaborators (he had two of the strongest songs on More Life) to landing placements on a wider array of projects (Lana Del Rey, Camilla Cabello, and 2 Chainz). Then there was "Kevin's Heart," a standout track on J. Cole's last solo album.
Subject matter aside, simply being a producer on a J. Cole album is a buzzworthy feat unto itself. After all, the No Features meme isn't limited to guests—Cole typically handles the bulk of the production himself as well. T-Minus was the rare exception, and now they've linked up again for "Middle Child," a new solo Cole song that seems to be throat-clearing the way for much more to come from the Dreamville honcho throughout the rest of the year. Complex hopped on the phone with T-Minus to talk about his return to prominence, how and why he and Cole work so well together, and what's next.
Congrats on "Middle Child." People seem to be responding to it very positively. How long have you guys been sitting on that?
We actually put that record out before the Dreamville sessions. We did that in a completely different session. Just earlier times, about a month and a half or two months ago.
Cole seemed anxious to put this one out, like you guys knew it would have a big impact.
Yeah, once we did the record, we just knew there was something special about it. I mean, he's addressing a lot of things that are happening right now, so you know, he wanted to get that record out.
Right, it feels urgent.
Yeah, definitely. But, it was right, it just felt right for the moment.
We actually put ["MIDDLE CHILD"] out before the Dreamville sessions. We did that in a completely different session.
You guys first linked up for one of KOD's standouts, "Kevin's Heart." How did you two come together in the first place?
Initially I was just submitting some tracks to him through this guy named Tim Glover, who A&Rs for Dreamville. Eventually just being in LA in the scene, I ran into one of J. Cole's old friends named Matt. He actually used to work for Universal, I believe. And from there, he just was like, "Oh you want me to put you in contact with Cole?" And then he linked me through email. I was sending beats to Cole through email and then we linked through text and then from there we'd just chop it up and send ideas.
So it pretty much happened just over text. I was sending him beats and he was on vacation, and he loved the "Kevin's Heart" beat, so we ended up recording to it. And then you know, it was out on the album, and that was it. But then we linked up and we just have a strong chemistry as like, producer and artist, you know? He has a great understanding of production, he's an incredible producer himself, so he knows good production when he hears it. He has a strong ear. Like, he knows what he can get out of me, 'cause he knows how to direct a record as well. So it just worked perfect and we just started linking up from then.
Yeah, I was gonna say, as a producer himself, I have to imagine he's very involved, even on beats that he doesn't make.
Yeah, very true. He was very, very much involved in this track, as well.
So, to that end, when you guys were cooking this up, what was he seeking? Like, was he vocal about what kind of vibe that he was going for?
No. Well, the way we work is we kind of just start from scratch, and we just brainstorm from there. Him and his manager had an idea to pull a sample out, so we went online and we found this really cool loop. The moment we heard it, we all reacted to it.
Cole fell in love with it, and I could tell he had the vision for what he wanted. So he heard the sample and we were like, "Yo, we gotta do something on this." So we started filling the track out. It all happened in one day. We filled this beat out, he started writing to it, he recorded it—it was pretty much done within that day. The whole record. It was just a moment and it was actually one of the last days of sessions that we did. We did like a five day run of just working, and it was the last day, so it came right in the nick of time.
Was this also in Atlanta, or somewhere else like his North Carolina studio?
Yea this was separate from Atlanta, this was with another session, at another time.
It's exciting to see you two working and clicking together so well, because he really doesn't stray far from his own beats especially on his solo projects. It's almost become a meme unto itself that J. Cole raps on his own stuff.
Yeah, for sure. But like I said, he is a producer at heart, so he knows what he wants when he's producing. But also when he's working with other producers, so sonically, I think he's in touch with my sound, he likes the sonic quality of my sound, he likes how my stuff hits. So it just works perfect, because he has a great vision of where he sees the record going, so when we click up, it's easy, because I can just start building a beat, and he knows exactly what he likes. He gets very technical. It gets to the point where everything is meticulous, where like, BPMs are changing by one, or keys are changing, we're changing the key of the track and we're very much perfecting it together.
You were prolific at the top of the decade. Then there was a minute there where you chose to take a hiatus, or sabbatical and pull it back.
Right. I was chilling, yeah.
And Drake even has that one line on Views, "The last time I saw Monique, T-Minus was making beats ..."
Yeah, yeah. [Laughs]
To look over all your credits though, it really doesn't look like the retirement ever actually stuck.
That's true. Well, you know what, a lot of people still think that I retired. I never actually "retired." I was just taking a break from the music for a bit and... I shouldn't even say taking a break from the music itself, just taking a break from the business. I just needed to chill and just come from an organic place. From like, the roots. You know what I mean? Like, how it all kind of started?
So I was just making beats. And naturally, I was still getting placements, because I had beats floating around. Like I had the record with Big Sean on Dark Sky Paradise, I had cut a record with Bieber, on Journals. I had a record with Sia. I just had stuff just popping out, all over the place. You know what I mean? But this is just while I was breaking. I don't know, I guess there's still this illusion that I retired. But no, I wasn't in a retirement. I was more kind of like how an artist would make an album, and then chill for like, two years and then come back out. But mine was just more of a three year stunt, you know what I mean? I was gone for a bit. But I never truly left.
How did you get into the headspace of feeling refocused and refreshed then wanting to come back full time?
It just felt like the right moment, because you know, music is something that is very much a part of my life. Like, I can't stop being creative, because not only is it my livelihood, but it's also my therapy. So naturally, I'm still making music in all this time, while I'm breaking. So I just felt like the time was right for me to start sending tracks out to everybody. And you know, I reconnected with Drake and I was reconnecting with all my old business people, and sending beats out. It was a gradual thing. From More Life, then it went into other stuff that I was doing, and now we're here.
You linking back up with Drake gave us what I consider one of his most underrated songs, in "Sacrifices."
I appreciate that, thank you man. That one was special to me too. It's not one of the hits on the project, but it's definitely one that I love. It's one of my favorites, too. Especially Thug ['s part].
Yeah, he killed that. And you also scored what might be one of his rawest, most vulnerable sides to date, with "March 14."
That was crazy, just how that whole record came about because I had no clue what the record was gonna be about until the actual album dropped. All that content was supposed to be under wraps. Nobody was supposed to know about that whole situation, not even myself. That was really a situation where he had a beat, and it was left in his hands and he just handled the rest.
How did it feel when you heard it back? When it was finally finished and the album was out?
You know, it wasn't that shocking, because Push came out and you know, he made the mentions of his son already, but it was still dope to hear the record after. I could relate, because I'm a father myself. It just connected with me, and just the fact that he was so vulnerable on this record, it felt great. And that was the last song on the album, so it was a closer. It was cool.
It's interesting because I would say the early years of you and Drake working together yielded a lot more hits, and now it seems like he's going to you for more contemplative tracks.
Well, I mean at this point, you just never really know. A lot of my tracks, they could be diverse at times. So you can write those kind of records, you can write hit records. I just never know what I'm gonna get at the end of the day. As long as the music's good, you know?
How would you say your skills and your sound have changed from the time that you first hit the mainstream to now?
I think that my understanding of just sonic qualities has improved over time, as a producer, just knowing what sounds good. Or knowing what's gonna hit hard, or what's gonna make a great impact. When I first got into it, it was a lot of raw creativity. But in my opinion, my craft wasn't really mastered as well as it is now. I've been doing it for an additional seven years, since I had that run back in 2012. I've had time to just improve my skills as an engineer and as a producer, overall. You know, directing artists and all that stuff. This time around, things are gonna be different, so as far as like, the quality of the music.
Going off that, we saw you in the Dreamville sessions. You mentioned earlier that you and Cole had been working before that even. Is it fair to say that you and him have more heat in the chamber?
I mean, we can only see. We'll see. I mean, I can't speak on it. That's up to him to talk about. We've been working, though. Definitely. I'll send him tracks, we'll do sessions. So only time will tell.
That's exciting. What else are you working on this year overall?
I got some stuff with Rich the Kid that I've been cooking up. I got some stuff with Young Thug as well. I'm just trying to get it in right now, man. I love to just connect and see what I can do with an artist. I have no bias as long as the music's good. As long as the music's quality, I have no bias. I love to always work with new people. I just want to see what I can bring out of them and they can bring out of me, because that's what makes the whole experience enjoyable. I'm just working with a bunch of people, and I'm down with whatever.
Is there anyone that you've been a fan of, or just kind of clocking, who you want to get in with, who you haven't yet?
Definitely Frank Ocean. That's one guy who I definitely want to connect with. I feel like me and him would create something crazy in the studio, that's something I'm looking forward to doing.