A good, solid hip-hop record doesn’t grow on trees or in a single studio session the way that most fans may envision it.
Every year, fans turn up the heat on their favorite rap artists to deliver fire albums, sell out stadiums and arenas and, ultimately, prove why he or she is a worthy contender in the ever-changing top-five conversation. For Toronto’s SoundSmith quad, occupied by studio-versed production talents Mac, Rebel, Y-Not and Richie, these industry standards are not important.
The four producers have been cooking up beats and serving them where they best see fit for over a decade. Keeping their main courses focused on hip-hop and R&B, SoundSmith has pinched other genres such as pop and reggae into their production taste as well. Of course, each of the men take to their own musical interests and industry favorites, but they build in silence. Nipsey Hussle, 2 Chainz and Eric Bellinger are just a few names that have the SoundSmith collective listed somewhere in their discographies on production credits. And even from their home turf way up in Toronto, the four producers found a way to craft the “American Dream” — literally.
Handpicked by Atlanta trap icon Jeezy himself for the “American Dream” single on his new Pressure album, SoundSmith’s beat is the stimulus behind one of rap’s most lauded, passionately debated moments of 2017: another J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar collaboration. As told by the album’s A&R DJ Folk to DJ Booth, Cole even spent a month constructing his verse for the collaboration occasion. The single features three verses from the artists, placed meticulously and varying in length to keep the flow of the “American Dream” alive. And in addition to the Snowman’s impactful orchestration of the record, Cole and Kendrick fans have the four-man strength of SoundSmith to thank as well.
BET Digital caught up with the producers to find out how it all came about, where it all came about and the burning question existing: who filed their first verse?
Talk to me about how SoundSmith came about. How do four creative, sound minds come together to represent one, producers collective?
Y-Not: We've been doing this for a while now. Chipping away at the stones and just looking for a way in. There's four of us: myself, Mac, Rebel and Richie. We've been together over 10 years. We're Toronto-based producers mainly focused on hip-hop and R&B. But we do a little bit of everything where we can, like pop, and reggae music, for sure. Our background is just a bunch of like-minded guys with the same passion for music who ended up connecting in a studio in Toronto. At the point that we connected, the chemistry was just crazy and we kept pushing with it.
Mac: Y-Not and myself met in high school. I met Richie when he was like 15 years old. Rebel, we've known him for over 15 years. We've been together for a long time man and we definitely are like-minded individuals who definitely have a strong passion to make some great music. We're able to do that together even though we all have our own individual likes and styles. The way the unit works is together, and we're able to make the best out of it.
How did Jeezy catch up with you for "American Dream"?
Mac: I have a relationship with Jeezy's A&R on this project, DJ Folk, over the last few years. I was sending him music and hoping we can get one on this project. I sent them the beats for "American Dream" and Folk really loved that record. He kept it in pocket and was able to use it when the time was right, and it just so happened to be right for "American Dream."
How long was he holding onto it before he assigned it to "American Dream"?
Mac: It wasn't something really recent that we had produced. But, I would say it's been a few years he had that in his pocket waiting for the right moment. He was trying to place it elsewhere, but timing is everything and it worked out perfectly on the "American Dream" record.
Speaking of timing, did you know how timely it was for Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole to be on a track together? Did you have any idea about that collaboration even happening for this track?
Mac: I was able to find out in private that they were the features. We were fortunate enough to know leading up to the song release that they would be on it.
Y-Not: I got the word through Mac, and it was kind of crazy. He told me that Cole was interested in. First of all, it was crazy just that Jeezy was interested in writing to it. Between that point and now, he found about Cole and Kendrick jumping on it and it was just unbelievable to hear.
Rebel: Mind-blown is not even the word. We were, like, out of our bodies when we heard who was actually going to be on the record. We have so much respect for Jeezy alone. But to hear Cole and Kendrick be on the same record, we were just outside in the cold running and jumping around. We couldn't believe that we'd done this. So we were definitely excited for sure.
We have to ask: Who filed their verse first?
Mac: Jeezy, then Cole, then Kendrick. The way it is on the song is the way they put it together.
Y-Not: The communication went through DJ Folk to us as far as what went on with the track, so we weren't even in the studio.
What were your initial reactions when you heard all three of them spit?
Y-Not: From the beginning, there was already so much excitement knowing the three of them were on the record. So, with three guys of their caliber on it, honestly I expected a lot. When I first heard Jeezy's verse, I was so happy to hear that he was touching on politics and speaking on how he's feeling. I felt that he wrote into the beat. It was just beautiful. Then, J. Cole coming in — he spazzed out. It was like a battery was put back in his back again. I know there's been a lot of speculation about what's going on with Cole, but he did improve himself on this record. I'm a huge fan of all three, but Kendrick is one of my top favorites. Hearing him do what he does — he's very creative. He puts his words together, and as simple as they may be sometimes, they come across powerfully the way he delivers them.
The Kendrick vs. Cole debate has been around for about as long as they have. Based off of this track alone, who do you think bodied it?
Rebel: This is a crazy question. I can't personally say one person bodied the record. I think they all added some spice and seasoning to the record that made it bubble properly. I don't know if I could hear just one of them on the record. Maybe I can, but because I'm hearing all three of them right away, they all added something to the record that it needed, especially with Kendrick on the end. I know a lot of people are upset, including me, that he wasn't able to put a full verse on there. But it was so beautiful, and it ended the record the way that it should've ended. It was the perfect icing on the cake. I can't say one person bodied it because they all killed it.
Mac: Individually, I've been a Jeezy fan from TM: 101 [Thug Motivation 101], and to have him on a track again after being fortunate enough to produce his "Streets on Lock" record from back in the day, which was produced by Richie, is incredible. But to have another song with him, especially a political record that's touching on things going on in the world, that's really special. I definitely feel like Cole delivered one of the strongest verses out this year, and we're also fortunate enough to have that on this record. For me, it's really a toss up between Cole and Jeezy. Personally, I love them both. Kendrick did an amazing bridge on it, I would say it is. I can't really decide because they're all special in their own way.
Y-Not: I agree. Each artist had their own way of delivering. They put in their own piece, and it played a huge part in how the record came together. For the most part, I'd have to say Cole really went in. He does what he does, and the way he did it on this record, he had a lot to say and a lot of energy to put into it. He went off on this one. I can't lie. [laughs.] But, of course, I have respect for all three artists.
What reactions have you all gotten back from the track so far?
Y-Not: It's been overwhelming! A lot of close friends and family have heard the record and all of them have shown their love for it. They love the beat, for sure. They've shown love to SoundSmith the same, saying we killed the production. They feel like history has just been made having all three — Jeezy, Kendrick, and J. Cole — on the record. It's just a huge accomplishment. Just a lot of love and support. It's been amazing.
Mac: Nothing but positive reception. Everyone I've spoken to or has hit me up loves the record. We're glad to finally have it out there for the world to enjoy.
Would you guys be down to produce that Kendrick and Cole collaboration album that the fans are longing for?
Rebel: Hell yeah! That's one of the things we were talking about. If that actually is going to happen, we would love, love, love to be apart of that. We have so much respect for them. With hearing them on the record and how they interact, to have them on a project would be so special. We'd 100 percent love to be apart of that.
Mac: Definitely would love to be apart of that whether it's the whole project or just one song. I feel like that would be something very special for hip-hop and we could do something very special on the production side for them. I would love for that to happen. It'd be another dream come true.
(Photo from left: Isaac Brekken/WireImage, Lester Cohen/WireImage)