The Recipe: Sage The Gemini On Hitmaking Without a Cosign

Hits: How do you make 'em?

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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There is a science to hitmaking. At least, that's the theory.

For an article in The New Yorker last year, John Seabrook spent time with some of the artists—like producers Stargate and vocalist/songwriter Ester Dean—who work day in, day out, to turn a seemingly mysterious process into formula for artists like Rihanna, Pink, and Katy Perry. They've succeeded wildly. As Seabrook put it: "A relatively small number of producers and top-liners"—the vocalists who craft a pop hit's primary melody—"create a disproportionately large share of contemporary hits." Once, producer Ryan Tedder gave the same track to two different top-liners, which resulted in hits by both Kelly Clarkson ("Alone Again") and Beyonce ("Halo"). Few people seemed to notice.

It's a lucrative business. But as much energy and resources have been expended trying to figure out the shortest path to a hit song, there is still an element of randomness, of mystery, to the entire process. Ester Dean sings and composes a top-line melody because she seems to have tapped into certain quirks of melody, delivery, and lyricism that we find broadly appealing. Ninety-nine percent of America may not know her name, her personality, or the contents of her Instagram, the way many feel they do with Rihanna. But they know her artistic sensibility, and they really, really like it.

There's an element of luck, certainly—anyone can have a hit. Back-to-back hits, though? There's got to be something else going on. So it is with 21-year-old Dominic Wynn Woods, known popularly as Sage the Gemini. A Bay Area rapper, songwriter, and producer—he was born in San Francisco but reps Farfield, California—Sage scored twin hits—crafted entirely by himself—in 2013 with "Gas Pedal" and "Red Nose." The former even went top 40, peaking at No. 29. Both tracks have spent around four months on the Hot 100, at a time when hip-hop in particular has struggled to make as much of a popular impact.

"I think that the problem has been that you have a successful thing and you just assume everyone is going to figure it out. And, you sit back and realize ‘Damn, they haven’t quite figured it out.’"—Chioke "Stretch" McCoy

Even more impressive, both singles managed to do so without assistance from traditional hip-hop industry or press. "It didn't start with the blogs. It didn't start with a cosign," explained Sage's manager Chioke "Stretch" McCoy. Instead, they connected directly with fans, beginning in clubs in California, then jumping to video-based social media network Vine. But it took an extra push to make it national, says Stretch. "I think that the problem has been that you have a successful thing and you just assume everyone is going to figure it out. And, you sit back and realize ‘Damn, they haven’t quite figured it out.’"

Although Sage is now signed to Universal Republic, "Gas Pedal" had already sold more than 500,000 copies prior to the deal. "He was averaging between 40,000 and 50,000 singles a week," explained Stretch. "He was selling 70,000 singles a week between both records. And, another two or three thousand EPs a week. So, he was doing billing upwards of $90,000 a week." Part of his success, Stretch explains, was due to South California and the Bay Area's gradual aesthetic merge—think how the sound of NoCal's IamSu and Los Angeles' DJ Mustard aren't too far off. "It’s not as separated as it used to be," says Stretch. "Not just in sound, but as far as what the audience listens to." So California as a whole got behind the single early.

Even more notable for Sage The Gemini's success was that "Gas Pedal" actually crossed over from hip-hop radio to the format known as "rhythmic." In essence, rhythmic is Top 40 stripped of rock music. Its audience is diverse, female, often urban and club-oriented. Of late, in the wake of EDM's chart success, hip-hop has struggled on rhythmic, relative to the genre's commercial heyday in the early '00s. And now, with the backing of a major label and their ability to tap into the major radio networks, Sage's music has criss-crossed the country. While reporting on Chance The Rapper for Complex's cover story this July, we made a visit to a strip club in Detroit, where "Red Nose" was already in rotation.

But as popular and undeniable as both of Sage's songs really are, who he is remains a bit of a mystery. Even when compared to similarly impersonal club tracks like Tyga's undeniable "Rack City," there's an anonymity to Sage the Gemini. His success so far seems to rely on his ability to tap into a distinctive, undeniably hooky sound, rather than through a personal connection—more Ester Dean than Rihanna. Sage The Gemini came by the Complex office to let us get to know him a little better, to find out where his name came from, and how a 21-year-old kid from Farfield became one of hip-hop's most unexpected hitmakers.

Interview by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)

How long have you been rapping, and what kind of music were you into as a kid?
I would say since I was like eight [years old], but I started taking it serious at like 12 or 13. I was mostly into R&B. And, if it had a little hip-hop twist on it, then that was even better. But, I wasn’t a big hip-hop fan like that. Chris Brown, Usher. Robin Thicke. Umm, Justin Timberlake, Clyde Carson, Keak the Sneak.

I was a bad ass little kid. But it was pretty chill overall. It wasn’t as bad as where I lived in San Francisco. I still had that San Francisco mentality as a little kid. I didn’t have the most money. I didn’t have the most clothes. The flashy stuff. Whatever job I could I do. I been working since I was 11. I used to do newspaper subscriptions under the table. You had to be thirteen, but I looked thirteen, so I got away with it. I did anything to stay out of trouble. I did training for fighting. I did acting, modeling. Eventually I just went full-time in rapping.

How old were you when you started recording? Who gave you your first opportunity to record?
I asked everybody for everything at one point. They all told me no or pay, so me and my brother did some little jobs like mowing the lawn, cleaning garages for a little money. I bought my first microphone—my first real condenser mic—at Gordon’s in Fairfield. I bought a little Behringer mixer and then recorded on a Acoustica Mixcraft. And, just taught myself everything. I was like 12 or 13 years old. I taught myself how to do the reverb and compressor and all that stuff. So when I go in the studios now, real engineers look at me and go, "What are you doing?" They're like, "That’s hella weird. It looks like you are doing it wrong, but it sounds good."

Once I upgraded some of my studio equipment, I was like, "Dang, my room looks like a real studio." Even though it didn’t—but to me, it looked like a real studio. I started learning more. Having more fun. My beats started progressing. I started tripping like, "Oh my god, this is tight." I always wanted to rap but I felt like I couldn’t do it because everybody would laugh at me. And, then I started getting better and people started looking at me like, "Dang, I actually like this song." I started getting better and better and better. I put out "Gas Pedal," when I was like 18 years old. I got like 10,000 views in the first week.

When I go in the studios now, real engineers look at me and go, "What are you doing?" They're like, "That’s hella weird. It looks like you are doing it wrong, but it sounds good."

Had you recorded many songs before that one blew up?
I recorded a lot of songs. I wasn’t like always in the studio recording songs like, boom, boom, boom. It’s a lot of people who say you not a real rapper if you're not in the studio like that. And, I be like, "Well, y’all really in the studio and where y’all hits at?" You can’t tell me that. It makes you retarded. I will punch you in your mouth. [Laughs]. I’m a perfectionist. If it doesn’t sound right I will erase the whole thing and just sit there like, "All right, let me try again." I personally think I just make straight hits. Like, not even trying to be cocky. I don't know what it is, but I've been thinking about it, and I've been trying not to be cocky for as long as I could. But I just think personally, I make straight hits. I think I‘m going to have a successful career. So, that Complex front page will be cool. [Laughs]

What do you think it is about "Gas Pedal" that took off? What makes it different from your other songs, or your peers, who are releasing same kind of stuff in a similar style?
I mastered my craft before I did anything. Plus the feature with IamSu. He has a good part of Gas Pedal blowing up. He does to—[points to his brother, sitting next to him]—he’s a dancer. He made the dance up. It’s not really me rapping lyrically, I’m not Nas and Jay Z put together on a song. I just said everything that was creative, the stuff that was going to hit peoples' ears, that people were going to be like, "What'd he just say?" I just made it catchy. I thought about it before I did it. Same thing with "Red Nose." I made a song about a dog. Who thought it was going to be big like that? And, I’m about to go perform on 106 and Park about a dog. Dog and booty. Booty dog. [Laughs] Who would have thought? It’s all about mastering your craft. Actually putting work into what you are about to do. Don’t just go in there like, "Here, I just made a song. Play this on 106 and Park."

Other than YouTube, how did "Gas Pedal" start to take off?
There was a guy named DJ Exile, and they started playing it at City Nights, a big teen club in San Francisco. And then it started circulating in there. People were like, "Yeah, it’s a cool song. I haven’t heard this song." And then by like the second time, it was like, "Yeah! Okay." And the third time it was like, "AHHHHH!" It blew up so big that when somebody got involved, they had to do a little bit. The little bit that they could do. Because I already did a lot. It just helped it a little bit more. Labels were just like, "Who is this kid, who is this kid, who is this kid?" They finally got ahold to me. And I was doing shows and now I'm signed.

Do you feel like there is pressure on you to deliver another hit on the level of those two?
Those aren’t real—I mean they’re hits. I don’t want to make another hit. I want to make a smash. I put “Gas Pedal” out there, and I hit them with “Red Nose.” But those are like the bottom of what I can do. And I got a whole album coming out that is ten times better than those.

What has been the craziest thing that has happened to you since you blew up?
The VMAs. The red carpet. We were walking, and you come down the stairs and do your interviews. This is cool. Somebody was like, "This is Sage The Gemini, you guys." They're like, "Oh yeah, hey, how're you doing. Can we take a picture?" I took my pictures, and I came around a corner. I seen Sway. We shook hands and stuff like that. And then there was a big ass crowd, right here [gestures], all around. I’m standing there. I'm talking to Sway, I look at her, I turn and then everything went in slow motion. Someone says, [drawls in slow motion] "Is that Sage the Gemini?" And they said, "AHHHHHHHH" [laughs]. And, I was like, "Damn!" That was my first time there. I told her to put it on Instagram—[gestures at his PR person] but she messed it up [laughs]. I was tripping, but it was tight though.

Miley Cyrus came on after me. I was acting funny, because they filmed her and I was right next to her. She pulled in and I was like right there. And she hopped out dancing. And, now I see it on TV—I was right there and they ain’t put me on camera. I was pissed off [laughs]. I was hella mad. She hopped out dancing and shit.

What'd you think of her performance at the VMAs?
I mean...[pauses; his brother starts laughing] It was tight. It was tight. [sincere, but he laughs afterward] It was fucking beautiful. I fucking loved it. I love Miley.

Where does your name come from?
Umm, I was born, and my mom was like...Nah, I'm just playing. Birth certificate. Sage was the color my eyes turn sometimes. And I’m a Gemini.

It made me think of some early '90s rap artist name.
[Laughs] Everybody says that. When they heard this, they thought i was gonna be on some poetic-type..."Skippadepedeba—put the peanut butter up on the—jelly." 

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