Roosevelt Harrell III was the real life Devon Miles, Nick Cannon’s character in the movie Drumline. In the late ‘80s, Harold was known in his native Virginia as Bink Dawg, the DJ who acquired New York’s hottest records first. But at the core, Bink was Devon, a talented young drummer who made it onto school bands despite being unable to read music by memorizing cadences. He was even in love with a majorette. An affinity for percussion drew Bink to the drum machine. Wedding a good ear for samples with his mean stick talk unearthed a natural talent for pre-production. The new skill was ripe enough to impress Virginia legend Teddy Riley with a sample of DeBarge’s “A Dream,” which a few years later gifted Bink with his first placement and the world with Blackstreet’s infectious “Don’t Leave Me.”
Fully invested in his dream job, Bink moved north to NYC then New Jersey in 1995. He’d spend the next two decades building hip-hop’s most decorated, yet unheralded production catalogue. His R&B roots allowed him to compose lush, robust sonics for all artist types and needs — from the wildest pop stars (Missy Elliott) to the gentlest songbirds (Tamia); whether a hit for Kurupt (“Girls All Pause”) or Mr. Cheeks (“Lights Camera Action”), or an epic for Drake (“Jodeci Freestyle” Featuring J. Cole) or Kanye West (“Devil in a New Dress”), Bink supplied.
Providing heat rock for Beanie Sigel’s debut earned Bink spots on Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia (“1-900-Hustler,” “You, Me, Him and Her”). That put him in play for Jay’s most acclaimed album, The Blueprint, a rap classic bookended by his beats. On the classic’s 15th birthday, we spoke with the habitually taciturn Mr. Harrell about cultivating hip-hop’s new millennium soul-sample trend along with Kanye West and Just Blaze. He also has some choice opinions on the artists laying the blueprint for tomorrow.
When did you make your first hot beat?
When you start [producing], you swear your s**t is hot until you get around real hot n****s. In Virginia, I was kicking a**. I remember going [to New York] with Mr. Cheeks and we went to Unique Studios. One day Pete Rock and Clark Kent came through and pressed play. I still got my little shine because that was the session I was doing “Beasts From the East” [Lost Boyz Featuring A+, Redman and Canibus]. But as far as any other beats compared to theirs, when they asked for mine I was like, “Nah, I ain’t got my beat CD.” [Laughs]
But by that time you already had an R&B classic under your belt with “Don’t Leave Me.”
[Teddy Riley] made it R&B! It was originally just drums and a sample. With Teddy being a monster on the keys, he already knew what he was gonna do to that sample. We brought it to the studio to reprogram it and I just watched him add all this stuff to it. It showed me how much I had to learn. Teddy’s production is what I call “Uniform” –– it’s airtight, but big. Trying to get my music as big as his took years. But knowing where I needed to go is what gave me the edge.
Interesting that you describe Teddy’s production the way I would describe yours: big, cinematic.
Please tell Hollywood that. That’s ultimately where I wanna be.
Have you scored any films?
I scored the intro to the Hard Knock Life Tour. That opportunity is how I got into doing records for Roc-A-Fella. My manager at the time, Jay Brown [current co-founder and CEO of Roc Nation], had a relationship with Jay and Dame — he did a lot of consulting for them back then. So he set up a session and the rest was history. That beat ended up becoming “Ride 4 My” for Beans.
Let’s talk about you making The Blueprint production team. Take us back to that time.
Anticipation for The Blueprint was so crazy. Everybody was trying to get on it. They used to do this thing called “Keep It Real Thursdays” or Tuesdays, where all the producers would come through and play beats on a boombox in the front lobby. If they liked what they heard on the boombox they would take you in the back and play it in the A Room. This particular night, I came to play my joints and they were already in the A Room. Jay was playing songs he already did like “Takeover” and “Song Cry.” The room is packed and everybody’s in there — Ty Ty, Beans, Freeway, Juan. So Jay’s like, "Now you know you not supposed to come back here without starting out in the lobby. So don’t make an ass out of me." I played five beats. That was “Rulers Back,” “Momma Loves Me” and “All I Need.” The other two went to State Property. To know that as soon as they took the plastic off [the CD], the first and last joint they was gonna hear was [my production]…I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited for a release.
Were you shocked at how fast Jay was recording?
Nah, because I had worked with Missy. I seen her do three songs in a day — like wrote it and recorded it. The thing about Jay is once he hears something, he just goes. No paper. No pen. He’ll be walking back and forth sounding like he’s whispering but he’s rapping. After an hour or two he’ll tell you to turn the mic on and it’s one-take Jay.
Kanye and Just receive most of the credit for Blueprint’s soul sample trend, but you were sampling soul way before that album. Does the lack of credit bother you?
It used to be frustrating back in the day, but it is what it is at this point. Naturally Kanye is an artist so, of course, he’s going to be in front of the camera. Just Blaze had tags. Plus Jay-Z was shouting him out, so he kind of gave him a brand. I’m just the guy behind the sound who nobody really knew was behind the sound. But I always tell ‘em, if you really wanna know where that sound came from you can go as far back as you want on my Wikipedia. Can’t say the same for other people.
What made you feel those soul records would make the best rap records?
RZA. 36 Chambers was like that super Dirty South soul. At the time, a lot people were following Q-Tip with the jazz and orchestra samples. But nobody was really in that soul bag other than, like, No I.D. and Dilla. But RZA really pulled people’s coattail to those real soul samples with the vocals still in it. People wasn’t doing that! I just made it a point not to do anything verbatim of RZA. No using the same sample. That’s just the level of integrity I got with mine.
Do you feel you’ve been bitten off of?
Absolutely — to this day. I guess you can say influenced, but as a producer your sound is all you have. Back in the day, people were getting shot and beat up behind that. Even jazz guys were fighting over people taking other people’s riffs and chord progressions. It started with the “You Don’t Know” record. People would call or text me and not ask me if I [produced] it]. They would congratulate me, like “You killed it!” And I’m like, “Killed what? Nah bruh — that’s not me.” I love being inspired by other producers. I just don’t have respect for people who recycle other people’s sound. I respect your hustle, but I don’t respect you as a producer. That’s what’s missing from music now. Producers are so comfortable sounding like another person. Being creative is a lonely place.
Have you and Just Blaze had any conversations?
One, almost three years ago. There was a discrepancy with a certain sample. Something that he produced. It was cool.
It’s been told that you, Ye and Just would lock yourselves in separate rooms trying to out-do each other. How stiff was the competition?
Eventually I was like, I’m going to work from the crib and just bring my joints up here. [Roc-A-Fella] was making dudes who came in there playing wack beats wanna kill themselves. Abusing these guys. It was brutal! I can’t say any names but one producer pressed play and they immediately was like, “Get the f**k outta here! That s**t is wack!” They didn’t care if you had a name.
Which is your favorite Blueprint song that you didn’t produce?
Probably “Song Cry.” Dope sample.
How did you and Kanye reunite a decade later on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?
I kept hearing about everybody going out to Hawaii. So I emailed Kanye, messing with him, like, “I heard you got everybody out there, but that n***a.” He was like “Nah man, the budget already been exhausted. We flew a lot of people out.” I was like, “Alright, well hold this,” and just started sending beats. He shot me back an email, “Yo they ‘bout to hit you about travel.” [Laughs]. All the joints I sent through email got used by like John Legend with “Who Do We Think We Are,” the “Pride N Joy” beat with Fat Joe and Kanye, “Jay Z Interview” with Hit-Boy. I already had “Devil in a New Dress,” but I didn’t think Ye would like it. I was playing beats on my laptop, not even through the speakers, and it caught his ear. He put it through the speakers and went right in the booth. First thing he said was “I love it though!” When he leaked it for G.O.O.D. Music Fridays, they was calling it “The Magic Hour.” I guess he wanted to enhance it and give people something different for the album. That’s when Mike Dean played the guitar part over top.
You’ve worked with the best in rap and R&B. So who’s got next?
Nipsey [Hussle]. I’m doing a few things with Nipsey and Mike & Keys. Mike & Keys are like my favorite new producers now. And Mars (of 1500 or Nothin’). I like Young Thug’s music too. I like the way he approaches his music. He’s got a good ear, doesn’t mind trying stuff. What do you think of Young M.A?
I’m in Brooklyn and she’s on fire.
Yeah, but she’s a female MC that’s not on any sexy s**t. It’s never worked as far as history is concerned. Your Jean Graes, your Bahamadias, Rah Diggas come out and do like 8,000 [first week sales]. She got bars, though. She just did a freestyle to “You, Me, Him and Her.”
What did you think?
Can’t front, she went in. Her last couple shows I saw on YouTube were jam-packed, sold the f**k out, chicks screaming grabbing at her. It was some weird shit to look at. It’s definitely a different day.
(Photo: David Kithcart III)