When our access to information, news and entertainment is virtually boundless, we can easily become desensitized to things that do not provide that instant fulfillment we are looking for. Like most businesses, the music industry has been aware of this issue; labels and their artists aim to create “hits” as their priority. Why? Hits instantaneously connect with the masses, and from a monetary perspective, they are more likely to generate profit.
The sentiment holds true in many cases, especially when the music is being perceived and utilized as a commodity. However, for a seasoned veteran like Ernest Dion Wilson – better known as No I.D. – he believes this is the incorrect approach for an artist who desires to build a legacy. Hailed as the godfather of Chicago hip-hop, No I.D. has been a staple producer and a mentor for other city legends like Common and Kanye West. Currently in position as the Executive Vice President of Def Jam Recordings, No I.D. understands how difficult it is to develop an authentic, yet successful artist in such a fast-paced society that places instant gratification as a priority. One can only imagine the challenges he faces in balancing the business and musical aspect of the company.
One of his most recent endeavors is mentoring Southern California’s Long Beach artist Vince Staples. With the 22-year-old’s discography spanning only a handful of releases, No I.D. has provided musical and psychological guidance during the growth of the young artist in the last few years. Holding high regards for the artistic values and authenticity of music, No I.D. aimed to calibrate Vince into someone who could represent himself as truly and as accurately as possible, instead of transforming him into a hit-generator.
Admittedly not the most profitable or business-centric method, No I.D. believes that a true legend is not created by hits, but rather a legacy that is reflected through consistent bodies of work. To him, a legend is essentially one who achieves the best of who they can be, and has his achievements recognized by the people who willingly identify themselves with him. Instead of force-feeding his audience, a true legend is championed by the people. Both No I.D. and Vince argue that a hit song cannot be planned out. Instead, it is something to be naturally selected by the listener; it’s a process that can only occur when the situation, timing and right people allow it to become a hit.
The learning process is mutual. As a veteran who has been successfully creating music for over 20 years, No I.D. possesses valuable information for burgeoning newcomers like Vince to help him survive and excel in the industry. He labels these as “cheat codes,” and reveals that their purpose is to prevent Vince from the possibility of making years of mistakes. Even though the trial-and-error method that many independent musicians succumb to makes for a great DIY learning process, they may not be the most time-effective. These codes are to aid him in paving a more refined and clear-cut vision, and in finding the proper pathway without wasting time.
Vince, on the other hand, has kept No I.D. updated with the mentality of today’s youth, as well as the cultures and technologies that come with it. No I.D. may already have had decades of experiences, but it takes a fresh mind who is immersed in the current youth culture to be able to fully grasp and translate their ideas into topics that speak to those of this generation. Musically and artistically, No I.D. was very hands-off with the project, focusing more on building Vince up as a person rather than as a musician. He explains that if an artist is truly good, people will eventually catch up and love him for who he is – a hit cannot be compared to that type of a legacy.
Vince, your debut album Summertime ’06 showcases a more mature side to you, artistically and as a person. What triggered this, and how did you formulate the concept for it?
Vince Staples: The album speaks on a time period where I shifted into adulthood. I explain the essence of when the story was happening, rather than what I've learned from it. The coming of age was significant to me. I tried to pick a sound and an approach lyrically and in production — everything else continues from there. After conceptualizing, I find a way to deliver the sound as well as the emotion I want to convey from it. My albums are all different from one another; I can’t do the same thing twice. I tried to be as creative and the most forward-thinking as possible so that it won't be like anything that I’ve previously done. If you compare Shyne Coldchain Vol. 2 to Shyne Coldchain Vol. 1, Winter In Prague to Stolen Youth to Hell Can Wait, they all sound completely different. As we get the older, we learn to do certain things better.
With this being your debut album, the themes you revisit must be very personal and important to you.
V: I feel like it’s an important album because it’s a story of what goes on in these communities. When you look at the way that urban situations are perceived, they’re not really understood. The most successful music is usually the most violent music; likewise with movies. When tragedy falls upon a person in real life, and they lack the ability to rise above it, then people say “they made a mistake,” “they’re stupid” or “they threw their life away.” Those outside of the situation don’t really know where it comes from. To them, there’s only one type of person in these environments. To them, there’s only one way to be, dress, talk and act, and everyone is a criminal and a problem. They don’t understand the truth behind what those people have to deal with. There’s a whole world out there that nobody cares about, literally. I know that because I come from it. Nobody’s ever once asked us “what’s going on” and “how’s your day.” No one’s ever asked us that at all. There are 300 cities in the U.S. and Long Beach is in the top 100 as far as being dangerous goes. It’s a beautiful place but I feel like the scenery hasn’t been painted well. It’s just all a depiction of “we do this over here because we’re crazy.” That’s not real, that’s sad for the people who have to keep going through all this because these cycles don’t stop until understanding comes about. I’m trying to bring understanding.
These themes are very real but unfortunately, not everyone will be able to see or understand this reality. In order to connect with your audience or bring in new listeners, how do you make sure such heavy themes are accessible? Are there particular traits you look for in choosing your singles?
V: There’s no such thing as a single release or a release date. Nobody cares about any of that stuff. Everything’s on the Internet; the best song will be the best song. The songs that impact the most are going to be the songs that impact the most. It’s really all in the hands of the people now, so I don’t choose – I let that take its course. We think about things that stand the test of time – the Michael Jackson and Tupac albums, not singles. If you put out a single and nobody likes it, then nobody likes it, period. There’s no way around it. I’ve never tried to put out a single and said, “This is the one,” because you can’t pick that, that’s not how it happens. What’s a hit? Was an Adele song a hit before Adele came out? No. Was a Drake song a hit before Drake came out? No. Was a YG song a hit before YG came out? No. There’s no such thing as a hit. If that was the case, we’d only be hearing the same songs. It’s something that connects with people, and I can’t really pick what connects with people. I just make songs that I have to make. I should feel like every song should potentially be huge. No one really ever knows what’s going to be big, they just choose songs that are reminiscent of something they once felt. It has to happen to the right person at the right time and situation for it to become a hit, so I don’t really try to focus on singles. I just aim to make the best body of work – no one is talking about the best single from 10 years ago.
No I.D.: I agree, I mean, a hit is just something that worked. Once it works, then everybody calls that a hit and try to make something that sounds like that. It’s like research; it’s not a hit when it didn’t hit. Adele wasn’t the biggest artist in people’s eyes before it worked. Now we have 50 more who try to be that. For me, it’s a connection with the most amount of human beings who are interested. That sometimes can’t be researched because it’s a new thing, and if that’s the case, then it’ll just go in a circle – which happens – but every now and then somebody has to break the cycle in order to make a new direction.
V: It’s the Internet age, there’s no way to not connect with them because they’re going to bother you all day – whether it’s Instagram posts, tweeting or just being around. You have to embrace people because we’re all people at the end of the day, nobody’s better than anyone else – being on eye-level with them is a very important thing, at least for me.
You’ve both been working together since Vince’s earlier releases. How did you two link up? What were your first impressions of each other?
N: He’s an easy one because he’s like a sponge. He didn’t walk in and say “I know everything.” He has a strong perspective but also two ears and one mouth; he listens a lot. At the time, when Joey Manda [ex-President of Def Jam] and I had a conversation, I said “for me to be in this type of position, there’s a certain type of thing that I need to do. We can make hits and this and that, but there’s a certain level of artists that I want to be a part of bringing into the new generation. Where are the JAY Zs? Where are the Biggies? Where are the 2Pacs? Where are the Nas’s? Joey called me one day and said, “I found one for you, it’s exactly what you were talking about.” I didn’t fully believe him. I knew Corey Smyth [Vince’s manager] for a while, and we would always see each other and say "we need to hook up and do something,” but it was just talk. Here comes Vince and he’s recording, sitting there and looking like he doesn’t care – that was my first impression. I don’t really do first impressions, though; I get to know them. I saw a personality and it matched the personalities that I wanted to be a part of. So, at first it wasn’t even about a hit song. I just felt like he was an artist with a perspective. And then it was about getting to know him. I didn’t really tell him to go to the studio to make some hits. I just said, “What’s going on? What do you think? What you eat? How do you live? What’s happening?” From there I got to somewhat figure him out. The process was organic.
V: It was easy; we have a good, natural environment. The best things come out when it’s natural, so we’ve just been hanging, and music happens over the course of the conversation. That’s how ideas build. When we got to the latter half of the process and saw how many songs we had that were good and could stand on their own, that’s when I knew we could do something more. It was cool; I’m a very calm person, he’s a very calm person, so it’s a very calm situation. There was just a lot of conversation on what I wanted to do. He was asking me questions more than telling me what I should or could do. My perspective has evolved a lot from the talks and it led me to have realizations that I didn’t have before. There was no biggest lesson; everything matters in the grand scheme of things. It’s not about having the most vital piece of information because you never know what is going to help you discover more or figure things out; everything is important to me. Everything that I’ve learnt from No I.D. has played a big part of what we have now. You always have to think that you’re working on something special or you’ll mess it up. We’re always working on music. As a creative person, you stay creative and I feel like just having a vision and a direction, and once you come up with that, it’s more of a filtering process so it’s not really a start or stop type of thing – it’s a non-stop process of actually creating because that’s the name of the game.
What is this filtering process like? Are we talking musically or deeper than that?
N: As a producer, I’m merely scoring a human being. It’s always different to me because I got to figure out what makes him reach where he’s supposed to reach – not above and not below. It was always a different process; it’s a reading process – knowing when to fall back and when to push forward.
V: There’s a different way to make everything, there’s not a specific way to make a song, whether it starts with an idea or a tempo, I just learn how to vary the way I approach records. The first year was mostly just conversation to figure out what the goal was and what the trajectory should be on a realistic level. Everyone’s like, “Let’s make a hit record!” That doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as a single; there’s just an artist. We took the time to figure out what we were trying to do. Most conversations didn’t revolve around music, it just revolved around life because you’re scoring reality at the end of the day and that’s what we were trying to do. There were a lot of conversations and a lot of ideas building.
N: My favorite track is “Jump off the Roof.” That’s one where we did everything at one time, it wasn’t an “I got this beat that you should do,” or “let’s start an idea, we’ll finish it later.” It was more of an “I like that, let’s do that” – a back and forth, collaborative process.
You and Vince definitely fall into the theme of generations, being talented artists of your respective eras. How do you make the most of this collaboration, and why is this generational teamwork beneficial for both of you?
N: I’m 20 something years away from doing my first record. First of all, being able to still do music at this level is not just a blessing but a challenge. It’s a cheat code. My passion right now is to be able to go to a person like him, tap into where he is, but give him the cheat codes so he won’t have to make five to 10 years of mistakes just because technology eliminated the need to work with people who know things. So many people can just pick up their laptop and make a record and put it on the Internet. It's already around the world before they even got a chance to think about what they’re doing. To me, this is a whole other reality, and with me stepping into a new reality with a new person that’s going to represent his next 20 years, we must be able to take the bits and pieces of information from each other and multiply it.
What’s the most valuable piece of advice that you’ve told Vince then?
N: As an artist, you have a lifespan in people’s ears. If you start off on top, then where are you going? I’d just start off as a kid. The first mixtape we put together has no famous producers. People walk into the game with Bugattis and Ferraris. Okay, so where are they going? I don’t know, because they’re already there, they became big. They have bricks, millions, all the women, and all the cars. Alright, cool man. Now what? What do you have next? Jets? It’s not even about being humble, because I want Vince to have edge – people should have edge. It’s more about discovering your ownership. If you’re the man before you discover it, who can champion that? It’s about letting people champion you to be the man instead of proclaiming that you’re the man. It’s like “cool, I don’t have to vote for you, you’re already the man.” Compare that to “he’s like me, look at him grow; I’m rooting for him.” I think I help him retrieve the confidence needed to let him be himself and not to overdo it, that’s my focus. I tell him to not worry about who produces his records, and not to worry about what he does. I tell him to just let the people catch up, and pretty soon he’s going to have a group of people that loves him. Not who did your record, who you’re standing next to, or how much money you’ve got. Just you!
V: I understood my place. I understand that I might not ever be the biggest, most successful artist. That I might not be able to sell a million, a thousand, or even 50 records ever in my life, but that’s not my job. My job is to shed light on the realistic aspects of where I came from, because at the end of the day, that’s what matters, nothing else. When you’re dead and gone, nobody is going to talk about how many records you sold. They’ll talk about what you’ve done to change things, and if you’ve never changed anything you’ll never matter.
Words by Nicholas Cheung
Photography by Theonepointeight
Grooming by Celina Rodriguez
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