With a high-profile production career and a reputation as one of the main aural architects behind Drake, Boi-1da—who has also produced for the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Eminem, and Kanye West—is in the enviable position of having the luxury to pick the projects he chooses to work on.
Recently, that has meant expanding his sonic footprint into the world of television. On the new CBC Gem/Hulu sci-fi series Utopia Falls (which debuted last month), Boi-1da serves as the show’s executive music producer and it's a role he clearly relishes. “At this point in time in my career, it means a lot [to work on the show] because it feels like I’ve accomplished a lot of things within the music itself,” says the multiple Grammy nominee. “So I’m just right now trying to have fun, go a little bit outside of the box, and keep my mind wandering and just challenge myself.”
Indeed, at first glance, Utopia Falls seems completely removed from something we’d associate with Boi-1da. Set 300 years in the future, the 10-episode first season is set in New Babyl, a city largely disconnected from our present 21st century reality. It focuses on a talented group of young performing teenagers recruited from the city’s various sectors who are selected to perform in a competition called The Exemplar. However, when some of the teenagers stumble on a hidden bunker featuring a talking repository of knowledge called The Archive (inimitably voiced by none other than Snoop Dogg), the group become exposed to hip-hop’s history of powerful beats and messages, leading them to question their beliefs and the nature of their existence.
Utopia Falls is the creation of R.T. Thorne, a Toronto director who established his name directing a string of notable hip-hop and R&B videos for the likes of Sean Paul, Kardinal Offishall, and the aforementioned Snoop Dogg, among many others. Thorne unapologetically incorporated that influence into the show with every episode of the show being named after a classic hip-hop track. “I grew up with hip-hop. It was like everything to me, it was my entry into the film world through music videos,” says Thorne. “So, it was really about projecting that culture into the future and what it would it look like and the idea of maybe what would happen to a future that was sanitized, that was curated very specifically, that was cleaned up? What would happen to that type of society that had erased knowledge and culture of the past? What would happen to that society if one of the most rebellious music forms in the world was reintroduced into that world and that’s where that kernel came from. How could hip-hop shake up a world in the future?” With music being an intrinsic part of driving the narrative of R.T.’s concept, the two Toronto creatives—who both share an affinity for comic books and sci-fi—were on an inevitable collision course to work together on the project.
“I knew about R.T. for a few years and I respected his creativity as a director, just his creative vision,” says Boi-1da. “And as a person, he’s a really down to earth amazing guy in all my encounters with him. So he approached me about working on the show and told me the concept and I told him I was down. I wanted to work on something with R.T. and it worked out perfectly.”
R.T. says the decision to work with Boi-1da was a no-brainer. “When it came to the original music that we would need for the show, I just wanted to draw on Toronto family,” says Thorne. “Toronto is on a wave right now with the music scene. Everybody’s looking to the city now as being the place and that’s super dope and one of the architects of that is obviously Boi-1da, you know, with all the success obviously with Drake, but with everybody else in the world that this guy makes music for. It just totally makes sense.”
While the second episode of Utopia Falls opens with the invigorating anthemic blast of Jay Rock’s “Win”—a track Boi-1da co-produced—the bulk of his contributions are original compositions created especially for the show. Working often in collaboration with fellow Drake collaborator Nikhil (who has also produced for Nicki Minaj, Kendrick Lamar, and Lil Wayne), Boi-1da was able to create music that was directly tied into the narratives of the show. “Working on TV is a lot different because you have to work with people and you have to work under direction, you know,” says Boi-1da about the process. “The show has a certain direction and there’s a lot of creative heads that want something to sound very specific, so it’s more instructional than making music with artists where it’s a little bit more free, which is cool. There’s a business and artistic vision that you have to help get across in a way that R.T. wants to get it across because he’s the director.”
Thorne affirms Boi-1da’s approach had to align with the meticulously planned nature of the show as opposed to being a creative process that favoured improvisation. “When it came to the original music, it was really sitting down with him and describing what the characters were going through and what the scene felt like and then he would go and work on it in the studio. I went in there with him there a few times to take it in and just spy, so I could see how he worked,” says Thorne laughing. “Then he would just play it back and forth. Sometimes I would go away and then he’d give me a temp track based on what he’d come up with and I’d kinda go with it to the editing room and put it to the visual to see if it fit. So that was the process.” The collaboration between the team behind the show’s music led to original tracks performed by characters like the passionate outcast Bodhi [played by Akiel Julien], who as well as effusively reciting Nas and Mos Def lyrics in his dialogue, performs rhymes over Boi-1da’s beats written by Toronto hip-hop artist Sean Leon.
“The show’s about rebellion and the theme was rebellious-type music and just free, open music,” says Boi-1da.
Asked if he thought he’d be composing music for major television series when he first started out in Toronto’s Battle of the Beatmakers competition, Boi-1da is quietly assured in his response. “I knew it would come eventually. I just wanted it that bad. I just kept on working and working on it and God blessed me to be able to be here and do everything that I dreamed of. I’m really just grateful and I’m just thankful that I have these opportunities. I’m really enjoying it.”
Despite his forays into television, Boi-1da is still cranking out music in the studio with artists. “Man, coming through the pipeline I gotta a whole lotta stuff, man,” he says. “But it’s so top secret, I can’t even talk too much about it, man. I can’t man, I wish I could.” However, given he is in ‘constant communication’ with Drake, we can safely assume some of that new material is on an upcoming follow-up to Scorpion. However, Boi-1da does reveal he may be prepping a project of his own. “Yeah, I’m currently in the works of working on a project myself right now,” he says. “I’m taking my time and just making sure it’s coming out good.” For Boi-1da, it’s all about enjoying the process no matter if he’s working in television or with an artist in the studio. “Yeah, I don’t stick to one thing,” he says. “I’m all over the place. Just like music in general. People like to classify me as a hip-hop producer, but I’m just a guy who likes challenges.”