Visionaries is a conversation series with key players in the music industry who work behind the scenes to make our favorite genres the rich wells they are today.
Che Pope has been at the center of some of the most important albums across hip-hop and R&B, from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, to Yeezus, and he’s still tapped into the game three decades later.
The Boston-raised music producer, executive, and A&R got his start in the music industry after studying under the tutelage of Teddy Riley when the legendary R&B figure took him under his wing as a junior at Hampton University. From there, Pope would go on to work with a laundry list of influential artists and producers in both rap and R&B, most notably Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, Hanz Zimmer, and Kanye West.
“Some people are just gifted and born with this musical ability,” Pope tells Complex. “I didn't have that. Everything I had, I had to train. I think I have acute intelligence in terms of learning ability. So I'm able to learn and understand something and that's what it was with music, I was able to apply myself and work at it.”
While working with Wyclef and Lauryn Hill, Pope co-produced “To Zion,” "Doo Wop," "Everything Is Everything," and several others off The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Following his work with The Fugees, Dr. Dre and Aftermath, and more, Kanye West reached out to him to help actualize the vision of his emerging music label, GOOD Music. As COO of the label, Pope helped produce some of Ye’s most influential songs from that era, like “Bound 2,” and was at the heart of his sixth studio album, Yeezus. Thanks to his contributions to the album, Pope also has a different perspective of other projects that borrow its industrial sound, most notably Travis Scott’s Utopia, which was getting heavy comparisons to Yeezus.
“So do I hear Kanye influences and things that I've been a part of in [Travis’] music? Do I hear Yeezus influences and other influences? By all means,” Pope says. “But to me, that is what he's supposed to do. He's supposed to take that influence, and then do his version of it. And he'll grow from that, and that's to me what he's doing. Of his generation, he's the one that does it. He's the one that pushes the production boundaries.”
Since his legendary work in the 90s and the aughts, Pope has shifted his focus to the next generation– more specifically helping nurture the future producers, artists, and creatives with his company Wrkshp that he handles alongside Dan Gilbert. What has allowed him to adapt to the times has been being open to new sounds and recognizing that music is meant to change and bend for different eras. “I'm constantly observing young people or young artists, and I'm constantly paying attention to the colors they paint with and what people are listening to. You have to stay engaged, you have to stay in the conversation.” Accomplishments aside, Pope recognizes that he can still be a student of the game.
In honor of hip-hop’s 50th birthday, we talked to influential music producer and executive Che Pope about his time working with legends like Lauryn Hill, Dr. Dre, and Diddy, his thoughts on Utopia and Yeezus comparisons, and what hip-hop and R&B will look like in the next 50 years.
You signed a contract with Teddy Riley as a junior finance major at Hampton University. What happens after that? How did you get started in music and production?
I think my interest in music production happened when I was 16. I think I was going into my junior year in high school. And I went to school from Boston, I was from the inner city in Boston, but I was part of a busing program so I went to school in the Jewish community called Brookline High. I went there from like, sixth grade, all the way to 12th grade. And so, when you start going to school with white kids, you start knowing about rock music and learning a little bit about their culture and stuff. So one of the groups I had listened to when I was in eighth grade or something was AC/DC. One of the first songs I heard had an AC/DC sample in it. So it just made me start listening to music differently. I started understanding what was going on. We all listen to music like a fan. We're not necessarily paying attention to what the drums are doing. And I had an interest in a friend of mine who was a DJ. And so I had turntables. And I don't think I was really interested in being a DJ. But I had turntables and I had records, so I think it's 16, all of a sudden,
I started hearing music differently. I started hearing like, what are the drums doing? What is the bass doing? What is the guitar doing? And then my school was right down the street from the Berklee School of Music. So just the proximity of Boston and all these colleges around there, five minutes from Boston University, 10 minutes from Boston College, 10 minutes from Northeastern, 15 minutes from Harvard. So by Berkelee, it was a bunch of music stores. I didn't have the money, so I couldn't afford to buy the equipment. So I would just go into the store and use the equipment. And sometimes before basketball practice, I would just go kill time in the music store. And that just happened over and over, and I started learning all the equipment. I went to college, they had a studio at my college at Hampton University. I wasn't a music major, but I knew all the gear in the studio. So I went to the head of the music department and was like, “Yo, can I use the studio?” And he was like, “You’re a finance major. Why would I let you use it?” But I was like, “Yo, I know every piece of gear in it. I guarantee you I know better than you, your music majors.” And so I went in there and was teaching him how to use everything, and after that, he let me just come in the studio. So that was big for me, [especially] as a person who did not own equipment. So I think when the opportunity came with Teddy [Riley], I can't say that I was taking college seriously. I think the only thing that I was taking seriously was music. And the rest is history from there.
How would you describe your production style, and how did you develop the skills to become this “hired assassin” as you’ve described yourself in the past?
I think initially, I was just relentless. I always think I had a really strong work ethic. I got that from my grandfather, when there was something I was passionate about. Some people are just gifted and born with this musical ability. I didn't have that. Everything I had, I had to train. I think I have an acute intelligence in terms of learning ability. So I'm able to learn and understand something and that's what it was with music, I was able to apply myself and work at it. I loved records, I loved vinyl, and I loved the cats that were digging in the crates and all that like Lord Finesse and Showbiz. I met them early on, and they fascinated me.
Growing up in that era, one of my favorite producers at the time was Q-Tip. RZA, they were big samplers, I was always acutely aware, even [Dr.] Dre worked with a lot of live musicians, but all of the songs would still be from samples. So, I think samples were a big part of me. When you didn't have instruments, and you didn't have all these things that you could use, samples were my instruments. I think that became my weapon, initially.
Between working with Wyclef Jean, Dr. Dre, Hans Zimmer, and Kanye West, what did you take away from each of these experiences and arcs in your life that helped or taught you something for your career?
I'm not gonna say too much because that's actually what my book is gonna be about, like what I learned and experienced in my life. What I learned when working with Teddy, what I learned working with Dre, what I learned working with Lauryn [Hill] and [Wyclef Jean], what I learned working with RZA, what I learned working with [DJ] Kay Gee from Naughty [By Nature]. What I learned from Quincy [Jones], what I learned from Hans [Zimmer], what I learned from Kanye [West]. I'm going to write a book about, the various periods, it's going to be called “What I’ve Learned.” But in a nutshell, the two that I will, speak on specifically, are the perfectionists of the Dre’s, the Kanye’s, and the Diddy’s of the world. That's one thing that I took away from those three.
I work with Diddy now, and [there's] still a very manic attention to detail and perfectionism. Dre—a maniacal perfectionist. Kanye—a relentless perfectionist. That's the one thing I will say. They spare no one's feelings, they spare no expense, and they spare nothing in the pursuit of trying to make what they deem the best version of a song. And that's what I would say I took from them.
"I work with Diddy now, and [there's] still a very manic attention to detail and perfectionism. Dre—a maniacal perfectionist. Kanye—a relentless perfectionist. They spare no one's feelings, they spare no expense, and they spare nothing in the pursuit of trying to make what they deem the best version of a song."
What I took from Quincy, and you see it in Kanye, Dre, and Puff’s organizations, is using the best tools for the job. I really got that 100 percent from Quincy Jones. Quincy Jones had an incredible skill set on piano, but when he made Thriller, he had the best person at every position. The best bass player, the best songwriter, the best keyboard player, the best engineer. I would say that's what I took from Quincy.
Later in life, I took something different from Rick Rubin. What I took from Rick Rubin was a definitive opinion. Like, not being in that gray area of “I don't know.” It's having a really strong opinion on if I like something, or if I don't like something. Not being ambivalent, because it's very easy to be like, “Yeah, whatever.” That's Rick Rubin, a definitive opinion, which forces an artist to defend their art.
How have you been able to adapt over the years and make your production style fit so many different and unique types of music, from classic R&B to new era industrial rap?
Me and Puff just had a conversation about this, and we were talking about Sylvia Rhone. Because, for instance, Sylia Rhone was already a big music executive when I came into the game. And she's still the CEO of Epic Records. And how is she the one black woman executive that's been able to really transcend these different eras. For me, it's actually easy. I work with a lot of young people, I'm not naive to it. I've never taken the opinion of like, “I'm just the OG and I have all the experience, and you should listen to me.”
What I've always taken the position of is I have information to share. I'm an open book, feel free to tap any information that I might have that you think might be useful. But I'm also learning from you. I'm constantly observing young people or young artists, and I'm constantly paying attention to the colors they paint with and what people are listening to. You have to stay engaged, you have to stay in the conversation. The conversation of relevancy is literally just that, if you're not in tune, you're out of tune. Right? It's the exact same thing. I think of tuning a guitar, if you ain't tuning that guitar, you're just out of tune. And out of tune might as well be metaphorically saying out of touch.
"What I took from Rick Rubin was a definitive opinion. Like, not being in that gray area of “I don't know.” It's having a really strong opinion on if I like something, or if I don't like something."
So for me, I might be on a Reddit page paying attention to what kids are talking about, I might be in a Discord. I might tap into what Kenny Beats is doing and tap into his audience, just because I want to hear that, even though obviously the internet is a dangerous place. Because there’s a lot of shit talk and a lot of trolls, but there’s also still a lot of discovery about young artists. You might discover someone before the pop, a lot of young producers you might discover because one of the things I do feel like is the producer world got stagnant. When I came up it was repetitive. If you were repetitive or if you sounded like somebody, that was hated on. Now, that's like applauded. That shit is corny as fuck to me, using the same drum sounds, using the same sound pack. It means to me they're not doing the work.
Travis Scott’s most recent album, Utopia, sounds like it borrows a lot of production inspirations from Yeezus. Have you got a chance to listen to the album yet, and what are your thoughts on the comparison?
The work is the exploration, and I just saw this criticism of Travis’ album. You can criticize him in terms of like, does he have the substance or lyrical content or song subject matter of a Kendrick Lamar? No, but you don't look to Travis for that. You look for Travis for these hyper-produced records and pushing some of the production boundaries. Does he copy Kanye? Yeah, he's the 2023 version of emulating Kanye. So do I hear Kanye influences and things that I've been a part of in his music? Do I hear Yeezus influences and other influences? By all means. But to me, that is what he's supposed to do. He's supposed to take that influence, and then do his version of it. And he'll grow from that, and that's to me what he's doing. Of his generation, he's the one that does it. He's the one that pushes the production boundaries.
"I do think there's a space in the game for Travis and I think he still elevates. And he challenges other artists to make better music. I don't think he'll ever be a great rapper. I think he's a performer and he's an energy."
I do think you're gonna have people that are going to be original and create their own territory. Like an ASAP [Rocky], he might be a New York artist that was influenced by Houston. That alone is unique. Right? I don't knock what Travis is doing because I do think there's a space in the game for Travis and I think he still elevates. And he challenges other artists to make better music. I don't think he'll ever be a great rapper. I think he's a performer and he's an energy.
So for me, it's just tapping into that, but I also listen to a lot of different music too. I think that's the advantage I have. I'm not one-dimensional. I don't just listen to rap music or just rap and R&B. I listen to EDM, I listen to African music. I listen to house music, I listen to music from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I listen to classical, I listen to Brazilian.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill turned 25 in August. When you think back to your work on that album, what is the most surprising thing that has persevered?
I think when you’re doing stuff and you’re in it, you never know what it could become. The fact that [the album] has become this thing has been wonderful, to be a part of something that has become something [like this]. But I do feel like when you make good songs, a good song is just a good song. When you think of songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s, and even before that, that people still play, it's just because they’re good songs. I’ve always just tried to make good songs and be a part of making good songs.
So going back to what I mean by that, say on the Travis album, I think there’s a lot of style over substance, and that’s Travis and that’s fine. I don’t necessarily think Travis makes good songs, meaning an actual song. Does he have a good record for today’s generation, yes.
"Kanye has gotten lazy with making a good song. Kanye used to be really good at making a good song, and later on it became style over substance."
But this is also the difference with the latter Kanye records. Kanye has gotten lazy with making a good song. Kanye used to be really good at making a good song, and later on it became style over substance. “Let me do producer theatrics, let me get all these other features.” Versus, “Let me also make sure I’m making a good song.” “All of the Lights” is a good song. “Heartless” is a good song. There are records where, if you strip them down you can play them acoustically, you can play them on piano. They’re a good song, and that still resonates with me in terms of how you make an average record or something that’s disposable. I think a lot of the Travis records you’ll play again because you like the music or you like the vibe. That’s different, and there’s nothing wrong with the vibrations, versus a good song.
How do you think this shift from substance to style speaks to the sonic landscape that rap is in now?
There’s two things, first is that technology allows for greater access, so you have more people making music than ever. The other thing is that the internet allows for instant gratification. If someone does something, they think it’s ready to go versus really spending the time to perfect their craft. One of the things about Travis is that Astroworld was a tragic event, but he ended up having more time to spend on the records in terms of making them. I had a conversation with a friend of mine about Travis’ records and I asked him what he thought of the album, and he said, “It sounds expensive. The production on the records sound expensive.” He spared no expense, he had more time to spend crafting these records. Did he make better songs? Maybe not necessarily, but he still made high-level productions in terms of what’s going on sonically.
What trajectory do you see rap heading toward in the foreseeable future?
I think that the one thing that’s occurring right now is there was a time when rap was dominating the charts. Now we’re seeing the rise in pop, Latin, and country music again. Now the superstars of rap, the Travis, Drake, Kendrick, and J. Coles, they’re at that critical mass moment where they are leveling off. The younger guys now have the challenge of being able to make hit records. We’ll still have rap music and it’ll still be popular, but as far as the hits outside of the trendy records, there will be less of them unless people step up and meet the challenge or some new players emerge.
"I see the second coming of Michael Jackson and Prince and the next Beyoncé and Whitney Houstons, I believe they’re here. Now is harder for them to get here, yes because there’s 100,000 songs being uploaded daily, but they exist."
I do think that’s on the horizon, though, because there might be a kid right now in music school that does it all. They might rap as good as Kendrick, but might be a Donald Glover who can sing and write comedy skits. But then they can produce like Kanye and have this education and influence. That hybrid kid is out there somewhere and they’re going to be dangerous. I see the second coming of Michael Jackson and Prince and the next Beyoncé and Whitney Houstons, I believe they’re here. Now is harder for them to get here, yes because there’s 100,000 songs being uploaded daily, but they exist. They might be in your church, they might be on your block. And when they get through, no one will be able to stop them.