The Making of ‘Yeezus’ with Kanye West’s Team
Kanye West has likened himself to Steve Jobs among other legendary figures. One thing him and Jobs have in common is their ability to assemble a talented team of individuals working towards a common goal. Justin Vernon (of Bon Iver), Noah Goldstein (engineer), Travi$ Scott, Evian Christ, Anthony Killhoffer (engineer), Mike Dean (engineer), and Hudson Mohawke are some of the members that make up Yeezy's elite squad. They reminisced with Pitchfork's Ryan Dombalbe about the making of Mr. West's latest album Yeezus in this article. Read extensive excerpts of it below.
"There's no pedestrian fuckery on this album. People are
working their asses off to make the best shit, and
Kanye's leading the pack." -- Justin Vernon
Image by Leighton McDonald
"I'M IN IT"
Anthony Kilhoffer: "I'm in It" started out with a different sample and melody. Then Kanye removed the sample, and it lived as a six-minute arrangement for a while. Then Rick Rubin got ahold of it and structured it to flow as a three-minute piece. Oftentimes, songs start out at six minutes, then they get whittled down to the best parts over the course of months.
Mike Dean: We're all trying to push things to be weirder. I sometimes push for stuff to be more musical, and then Kanye pulls it back to hip-hop. "I'm In It", for instance, had these crazy guitar parts and all this stadium stuff, and then Rick, Noah, and Kanye pulled it back. I wasn't very happy with that at first, but it came out really well.
Evian Christ: That track is obviously very overtly sexual, and the production mirrors that. When I first sent it, I had some breathy sex sounds laid on the snares, and by the time Kanye was rapping over it, it definitely went into overdrive as far as emphasizing the sexuality. The first time I heard it with Kanye's vocals, I had to do a double-take on a couple of the lines. But if you’re gonna do a song like that, you may as well go all the way; if you’re gonna do a sex song, you may as well talk about fisting. To me, it was very definite-- he absolutely knew what he wanted to do on that track.
"Kanye's talking about a bunch of really stunningly visual sex shit
on 'I'm in It', but it's not like he's saying stuff like that to
his friends 24 hours a day." -- Justin Vernon
Mike Dean: Justin Vernon is one of the collaborators Kanye will always go to. He doesn't fit in with any genres-- you never know if he's gonna sing like the Bee Gees or some crazy distorted thing. And you don't know what he's saying half the time. He's kind of like Michael McDonald, like he's got marbles in his mouth. It's about the emotion.
Justin Vernon: I don't even know what I'm singing on "I'm in It"-- I'd have to look at it. Kanye's talking about a bunch of really violently and stunningly visual sex shit in there, but it's not like he's saying stuff like that to his friends 24 hours a day. I mean, sitting around the studio, we all have intelligent conversations about the state of women in the world-- I wouldn't say we had a conversation about feminism, necessarily, but we're sensitive to it.
The imagery of the song is definitely intense, but so is American Psycho. I loved that little American Psycho clip he did-- it puts things into context, because Kanye feels like a director, and I don't think everything he's saying in the songs is actually him saying it every time. It's like a movie, or a concept. On "I'm in It", it seems like I'm playing a character in the song, but I'm not necessarily guiding who that character is-- Kanye's editing creates the character. I definitely remember the "star fucker" section in the middle, though, just calling somebody out. That's my favorite lyrical content that I've gotten to do on a Kanye record so far.
Evian Christ: I love Assassin’s part in that song, too, he absolutely killed it.
Justin Vernon: I have no idea what the Jamaican dude [Assassin] is saying. At all. But it's fucking awesome as hell.
Noah Goldstein: Kanye figured out all those reggae voices on the album. Everything is him, to be real. Regardless of who additionally produced things, it's his curation. And this idea that he's not as hands-on in the studio now is bullshit. He is the consummate producer.
Image by Connor Tingley
THE KANYE WAY
Anthony Kilhoffer: Everyone’s given a song and asked to go produce on it and bring it back the next day, then we’ll all sit around and critique it. It’s kind of like an art class [laughs]: “This is what we did this afternoon, what do you think?”
Evian Christ: The atmosphere in the studio is very focused. It’s a room full of people who are working towards the same idea, and you just know that when you hand something over to Kanye, it’s gonna come back even better. That makes for a very easy working experience.
Anthony Kilhoffer: We get to the studio at about two in the afternoon, and then work until maybe 11 p.m., go back to Kanye’s house, play what we worked on, then maybe go back to the studio around midnight and work until three in the morning. A lot of people think, “Oh, it’s a Kanye project-- spend a couple of days in the studio and then go out and party in Paris.” But it’s serious work.
Evian Christ: Logic would seemingly state that an album with so many people working on it would sound disjointed, but what Kanye manages to do is get the best out of everyone working towards one sound. You can’t really overstate how difficult it is to do that.
"To work with well Kanye, you’ve got to be able to take direction,
and if you’re told your idea’s not good, you can’t
take it personally." -- Anthony Kilhoffer
Mike Dean: There's always some competitiveness. During the mixing process, people can get edgy. Like, me and Anthony Kilhoffer will be working on the same thing, trying to beat each other, but we're still good friends.
Noah Goldstein: If Kanye says "go," you just go. You have to be fast. Especially with people like Kanye and Jay, they’re really good at what they do. The best. You have to be as good as them at what you do.
Anthony Kilhoffer: To work with well Kanye, you’ve got to be able to take direction, and if you’re told your idea’s not good, you can’t take it personally. Because it is art, a lot of people do get upset, but nothing goes through 100% without some comments or critiques.
Justin Vernon: Kanye's a world-famous star, but it's just like working on music with friends: You're trying to do the coolest shit. Just being around motherfuckers who have been doing this for a long time and are getting better-- like, there actually aren't that many of them in the world. There's no pedestrian fuckery on this album. People are working their asses off to make the best shit, and Kanye's leading the pack.
"Through the process of putting the album together, there were tons of slam dunks,
but rather than going for the hits,
he intentionally sidestepped the obvious route each time." -- Hudson Mohawke
THE SOUND OF YEEZUS
Justin Vernon: I assumed that he was gonna do the maximalist thing again with this album, but it's more like: "Boom! We just made a song, and it bangs, so fuck you." It's such an awesome contrast.
Mike Dean: For Twisted Fantasy, I probably spent 180 days in the studio. For this album, I only spent 30 or 40.
Anthony Kilhoffer: It was probably the fastest record we ever made. And instead of doing 30 songs altogether, we only did 20. Still, we would explore all kinds of options: different tempos or drums, whether a song should be synth-based on real-instrument based. A lot of younger producers just get a beat, put a rap on it, and that’s the song. There's no dissecting, or recreating, or considering the relevance in contemporary music.
Noah Goldstein: Part of my job is to be up on pop culture, but also keep track of what's going on in the depths of the music scene. I pride myself on my music library, which is so geeky, but it's true. I'm always thinking, "Are we doing something that's already being done?" If so, we should stop. One of my friends said the album sounded like Death Grips, and I was like, "I don't know what you're talking about, but OK." I know of them, but I can definitely say that we did not listen to Death Grips once the entire time we were making this album.
Mike Dean: People keep saying my guitar on "Hold My Liquor" sounds like Ratatat, but I don't even know them-- so I definitely didn't bite it. [laughs] I was doing some Queen shit.
"I can definitely say that we did not listen to Death Grips once
the entire time we were making this album." -- Noah Goldstein
Anthony Kilhoffer: We want to set ourselves apart from what is currently in rotation. A lot of times, Kanye sets parameters of sounds and styles that we can and can't use. For instance: You’ll find there’s no bass wobbles on this album. Dubstep is really big right now, but it’s not something we could use in our production styles. He’s always trying to not take the easy way out. So it's about achieving clubby, contemporary sounds while setting yourself apart from Skrillex or RedOne. We don’t want to follow, we want to lead.
Mike Dean: We met up with Skrillex, but he never made any contributions to the album. Actually, there's one song that's sitting around that's pretty good-- it'll be on something eventually. It had been in the running since last year. It's a work in progress.
Image by The Barrington
"I AM A GOD"
Noah Goldstein: The very first time I heard Kanye say "I am a God," we all were like, "OK, that's where we're going-- let's go all the way there."
Hudson Mohawke: "I Am a God" was one of the first songs he had for the record. It was like the blueprint. The original version was even more directly in-your-face and aggressive than the final, but given the song's title, it didn't need this fucking apocalyptic, earth-shatteringly massive production to get its point across.
Noah Goldstein: If you watch LeBron dunk in the middle of a game, you’re gonna get up and freak out. And it was like that when Kanye spit the first verse of “I Am a God”. It was really fucking early in the morning, and he just came downstairs, and was like, “Yo, let’s go.” It was the most emphatic performance. I was like, “Holy shit!” [laughs] I stopped and hit save really quick and thought, “Fuck, I gotta back up the drive right now, man. That was crazy.”
He does that shit a lot. He did it on “New Day” as well, from Watch the Throne. We were set up at the SoHo Grand, and he came in at fucking 9:30 in the morning and was like, “Yo, I got the ‘New Day’ verse, bring it up.” Then he spit it. I looked at him, like, “For real, man? That just happened? You just did that shit?” He just smiled at me.
"One of my favorite things about Kanye is that there's always
some personal flaws in his lyrics. He's not trying to portray himself
as some squeaky clean, perfect person." -- Hudson Mohawke
"HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN CROISSANTS" AND SUCH
Noah Goldstein: Sometimes I don’t realize which lines are going to really resonate, but Kanye always does. Actually, "hurry up with my damn croissants" was one where I was like, “Are you really sure you want to say that?” [laughs] And he’s like, “Yes! That’s staying in!” He literally has the best gut instincts of anybody I’ve ever worked with, as far as what music should be. So when he says a line has to stay in, I’m like, "OK!" I will not argue with the god.
Hudson Mohawke: There are so many classic lines. I tweeted this one yesterday: "Do you remember when we first met?/ OK, I don't remember when we first met." [laughs] They creep up on you, they're not obvious punchlines. And one of my favorite things about Kanye is that there's always some personal flaws in his lyrics. He's honest. He's not trying to portray himself as some squeaky clean, perfect person. It takes him out of the realm of so many other mainstream rap artists who only focus on the bragging side of things; you don't necessarily feel like you have any personal connection with a lot of those artists, whereas Kanye puts so much of his own personality into his music.
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
Hudson Mohawke: The last four months have been the hardest-going of my life. Actually, in the middle of the whole process, I died and was resuscitated-- I almost joined the 27 Club. [laughs] I just had a few silly nights out and overdid it with various things. So I spent a week in intensive care in the middle of making the record, next to people who were literally on their deathbeds. Then I got out of the hospital and got right on a plane to New York-- I was like, "I've gotta get on with this fucking record." It's character building stuff-- to get thrown into the deep end can be the best way to approach things. I wouldn't change any of it.