What’s the story behind being discovered by TDE president Punch?
Back in the day, every Sunday at my parents’ house in Compton, we used to have basketball tournaments. All the kids that we knew—all the homies, all the family members—would come to our backyard. We had a little half court, and there was no three-point line, but Punch was always one of the closest family members who used to come and hoop every Sunday. I remember one day I lost [in basketball] and I was hot. So I went in the house and started making beats on the MTV music generator, which is a video game. Punch was going to the bathroom, and he actually heard me walking by. He was like, “Hold on. What’s that?” I said, “That was me. I make beats on the side. This is my passion right here.” He was like, “Let me hear something.” I played him a few things. So he said, “I got a cousin starting up his own label. He’s looking for a producer.” His cousin happens to be Top Dawg, so I was like, “All right, bet.” He drives me to this studio, and [Top Dawg] plays me music from an artist that he’s working with. He’s like, “Punch says you’re pretty good. I want you to take these vocals and just create a song from it.” I looked at it as a challenge. About a day later, I sent it back to him and he was like, “Yo, this is better than their original,” and that’s how I locked in Punch and TDE.
What were some of the early challenges as you found your sound and your place in the industry?
My first placement never came out. I was 18, straight out of high school. I had an amazing friend of the family, a manager named Cassandra, and she just saw potential in me. So she took a chance. She was managing KeKe Wyatt at the time, and I’m 18 not knowing anything. I’m nervous, but we locked in and created three amazing songs. One of them was featuring Ginuwine. I was freaking out, like, “Oh, I made it. I’m doing what I want to do.”
Fast forward, [Hurricane] Katrina happens, and at the time, KeKe Wyatt was signed to Cash Money. When Katrina happened, everything got paused, so the album never came out. I didn’t realize I was supposed to be out there grinding, instead of waiting for this to drop so I could blow up. I should have taken advantage of the situation, but I just laid back and chilled instead of creating relationships. Because of that, I didn’t get my next placement until I was like 25 or 26. That was just a lesson I had to learn. It’s all about who you know. It’s all about relationships. I learned that early on, and ever since then, I know the importance of getting in these rooms.
“[The goal for Mr. Morale] was just raw emotion. Don’t hold nothing back.”
What does a studio session with you look like? What are your routines and rituals?
I’m simple. There are two aspects of my creative side. There’s one where I’m going in with a new artist, and I just want to have a conversation—a good 35 or 45-minute conversation with you to pick your brain, figure out where you coming from, and where you want to go. Then at that point, we can just start throwing paint at the wall. It’s nothing complex.
But the other side of me is where my brain never turns off the music. There’s gifts and curses in that. The gift is that the majority of my sounds and sonics all come from the same dream. It’s me driving in my car. It’s me turning on the radio. It’s me hearing the song I’ve never heard before. I say, “Oh, my goodness. I wish I had made this song. This beat is amazing.” As soon as I say that, I usually wake up and realize that it’s my brain working overtime, and my dream’s creating melodies. So I grab my phone and I hum the melody, or I beatbox it however it was playing. When I’m fully up, I go and try to recreate it as close as possible. I don’t know how that happens, but it’s usually the same dream, at least once a week. It happens that way. My whole Notes app is basically my dream beats.
And I guess the curse is that it’s a never-ending cycle.
Yeah, my life is just music. The homies and everybody say, “Bro, just stop. Just enjoy the moment.” It’s like, “Did you not hear that bird squeak? It sounds amazing. I need to record it.”
What’s your first memory of meeting Kendrick Lamar?
It’s a quick story. I was in a hole-in-the-wall studio in Gardena, California. This guy, he would basically just round up all of the talented artists that were in the city. He wanted to create a super label. I had been working with them for a couple of weeks, and I remember him vividly coming in and saying, “I got this new guy from Compton.” I’m like, “Oh, bet, I’m from Compton.” He was like, “He goes by K.Dot. Never heard of him, but he’s coming in today. I heard he’s supposed to be really, really dope.”
Kendrick pops up with Dave [Free]. He had this tie-dye hoodie on and he didn’t say a word—literally an oversized hoodie, and didn’t say a word to nobody. I remember Dave looking up and saying, “Hey, so who’s going to play the beat?” So I had this beat with “Rock ‘N’ Roll Gangster” that I was chopping up. I put that on, and I see him in a corner, mumbling, going back and forth. 10 minutes later, he goes in the booth, and I kid you not, he raps for at least 15, 20 minutes nonstop, freestyling off the top of his head. Hoodie never comes off. Everybody in the studio is going crazy. I’m going crazy. I’m like, “Yo, who is this mystery kid? This dude is sick.”
He comes out of the booth. Everyone’s like high fiving. Fast forward, me and Kendrick are the only two out of the whole 10 or 12 people who were there who didn’t sign, and we go our separate ways. A year passed, and this is where Punch introduced me to Top Dawg. The next week, I go in there, I see the same kid, same hoodie on, walking in. I’m like, “Yo, I’ve been looking for you.” He’s like, “Man, I’ve been looking for you.” We’ve been rocking ever since.
What’s the most rewarding experience to come out of your relationship with Kendrick?
The family friendshipness of it. We do just about everything together now. He comes to my kid’s birthday parties. I go to his kid’s birthday parties. We travel together. It’s like basically traveling with your best friend, who just happens to be Kendrick Lamar. I’ve been rocking with him since he was 16, so we’ve grown very fond of each other.
What is your favorite album of Kendrick’s?
Ooh, you’re trying to sneak that one in there. At the moment, I want to say Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers. It changes, though. One day it’s Section.80, the next day it’s good kid, m.A.A.d city. Next day, it’s To Pimp a Butterfly. But just at this very moment, it’s Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers.
How has your creative process with Kendrick evolved over the years?
It’s mainly just having no boundaries anymore. The fact that we can do whatever we want, whenever we want, however we want it, that allows us to think bigger. We can get any type of instrumentation we want and make it our own. It just opens your eyes to a completely different world of things that kids coming up from Compton can never imagine.