In the months leading up to Feb. 2011, Frank Ocean was a busy man. Searching for the perfect sound, he toyed around with different microphones and bounced around rooms in the home studio of production duo MIDI Mafia to make sure the energy was just right. He spread out photos of an orange BMW E30 M3 on a table in front of producer TROY NōKA to ensure his dream car would be dreamy enough for the cover of his debut project. He even watched Brandy cry over a “beautiful” song he had just recorded, only for him to re-cut it for the next six hours with his engineer.
By Feb. 16, Frank Ocean had almost everything where it needed to be. He was still missing two key ingredients for his introductory mixtape as a solo artist, though: the samples didn’t clear and, an even more difficult problem to shake, his label didn’t care. Neither of those things ultimately mattered, though. On that date, Frank still released Nostalgia, ULTRA. without clearances and without his label’s support, on a Tumblr page, under a completely different artist name, for absolutely free.
For his collaborators, it was a moment they’ll never forget. MIDI Mafia were relieved when Frank told them the project they helped fight for would finally see the light of day. Reggie “Red Vision”’ Rojo Jr. laughs now as he recalls the moment he spotted Frank’s Tumblr post, which contained a shoutout to the young engineer—who the singer affectionately referred to as the “raddest Mexican”—for working on what would be both of their first projects. TROY NōKA remembers it as the day he felt the stars aligning for Frank, who he had befriended years before, when the singer fled to Los Angeles from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
For the artist now known as Maejor, it took a plane ride and several nudges from friends to finally give Nostalgia, ULTRA. a try, before realizing that Frank Ocean was the same songwriter who he worked with on a track months before (which ended up on the mixtape). But the man he had known as Lonny Breaux—the detail-driven visionary who wrote songs for the likes of Justin Bieber and Brandy in the late ’00s—wasn’t Breaux any more. That winter day in 2011 marked the moment the world finally saw him as who he had become: Frank Ocean.
Ten years later, these memories serve as a reminder of the impact of Nostalgia, ULTRA. The surprise release was a paradigm shift, collaborators say, and one that set the stage for one of modern music’s most important figures. It boosted the credibility of Frank’s ride-or-die hip-hop collective Odd Future as a collection of creatives who were capable of, at that point, quite literally anything. And it helped set him up for a career of critically-acclaimed treasures, like his 2012 debut studio album Channel Orange, 2016’s label-exiting visual release Endless, and its immediate follow-up, Blonde.
On the 10-year anniversary of Frank Ocean’s breakout mixtape, we caught up with six collaborators, who shared stories about the making of the project. And frankly, we can’t help but feel nostalgic. This is an oral history of Nostalgia, ULTRA.