If you’ve tuned on a radio station in the last few years, there’s a very high chance you’ve heard—and loved—a Hit-Boy production. The Californian producer has manned some of rap radio’s most defining hits of recent, such as Kanye West and Jay-Z’s “N—– in Paris,” G.O.O.D. Music’s “Clique” and “Cold,” and Nicki Minaj’s “Come on a Cone“; on top of that, he’s a rapper in his own right, having released the HITstory mixtape earlier in 2012. Last week, I met with him in the Universal Music office to discuss how he went from being a 16-year old on Myspace to a 25-year old on Kanye West’s speed dial, and where he’s trying to go after accomplishing so much in such a short amount of time.
I was wondering if you could literally start at the beginning and talk a little bit about how you got started.
When I was growing up, my uncle was in a group, [Troop], when it was the early 90s. They had a few hits, so I was always inspired by music just being around him. I used to live with him, him and my mom, so I got to see the lifestyle on top of him just being famous. I always was dabbling in it from like 7 years old to 12 but when I turned 13, all these child stars were blossoming like Bow Wow, Lil Romeo and all those kids that were my age and becoming stars. So, I just picked up a pen and paper—I didn’t know how it was going to happen, I didn’t know to write rhymes but I started writing rhymes. A couple years later, I met this other kid. He made beats and he had his own set-up to just record in his room. And that was the first person at that age who I knew who could just make music as much as he wanted.
We started a group and we made music for a while. I just started taking more of a liking to the production and slowed up with the raps, and really was just making beats every single day from seventeen years old on. I started a Myspace page when I was 19 and got hit up by a really prolific producer, Polow da Don at the time in ’06 and that’s where I got my real start.
Um, there’s actually one thing—I was going to ask this later, but it almost seems natural now. Your Wikipedia Page is so unsubstantiated, and it claims—this is like one of the best things I’ve ever read on a Wikipedia page. It said that you got your start when you got a message from Polow da Don, it said that the message specifically was “Let’s get this paper.”
Exactly, that was the first–that was in the subject line. It said “Let’s get this paper, pimp.” [laughs] I mean, you know, I had been around some industry people before, and nobody had ever talked money. And for his first words to be about getting some money, I was super intrigued, I was super interested to see what this guy had to say. He was in Atlanta that day, and he said he would be in LA the next day and wanted to meet me. I went to Record Plant later that night, the next day, and played him like 60 beats. And he just told me he wanted to sign me on the spot.
What year was this?
It was 2006.
And by this point, I assume, you had decided you wanted to do music full-time if you could?
From the time I started, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I always made music. I always skipped out on parties. I maybe went to three parties in high school. My friends would just be like, “Man…,” laughing and telling me that I should come out. I just was focused. I always knew I was going to be successful someway somehow and even coming from the Inland Empire where there wasn’t much to model after for success, I still just knew I was going to make something happen.
Did you have any formal music training growing up?
Not at all. I just always feel, feel. Whatever I felt is what was real to me.
Obviously, you have your own sound now. Do you remember when you were starting out what albums or musicians were you influenced by?
Mary J. Blige, What’s The 411? album. I just remember my mom playing that one over and over and certain songs like “Real Love” like all those types of records made me feel a way. And they still make me feel that way, like I can go back to being a three year old, four year old kid when I hear those songs. Definitely just a lot of R&B stuff. I was really heavy in that.
And you worked with Mary J. Blige right?
I actually did.
So how was that, stepping in—It was one of the earlier songs in your career, right?
How did that work for you to step into the studio still relatively young with you know, someone who literally inspired you to get into it?
Definitely just an amazing feeling. I always referenced back to me being a kid, you know what I’m saying?. Anytime I’m in the studio with any artist, it’s just a blessing to me.
So you still live in California full-time?
What’s a typical day for you?
Man, it could be random. I could wake up and have to go fly. I could wake up and be like, “You have a flight in how many ever hours” or I could wake up and be like, “Okay, you got a session or you got an interview.” I can’t really say one specific type thing. It’s just however the wind blows.
So what projects are you working on now?
Definitely I’m working on more rap stuff for myself. That’s a really important thing for me right now, to just buckle down and really prove myself. I only wanted to use HITstory as an eye-opener to the fact that I can rap, that I am a rapper, and now it’s time to really just bust the door down and let people know this is serious, that I’m a force to be reckoned with.
After producing for a few years, when did you decide to do your own rap thing?
The rap stuff actually didn’t start as serious, I always did verses here and there. Even with the Surf Club, we would do songs and put them out. But I started making my own songs, just having my fun. And I would have my friends hear them and they would tell me how good they are. But I was still like “Eh,” but as more people heart them, they were like “Yo, you should just do a project to just let people know.” And all those songs are just really my thoughts and my ideas from the last year and a half of my life. That’s why I make references to Watch the Throne and Kanye and Jay-Z because you got to understand that a kid from the Inland Empire to be working with those guys, it’s not heard of, it’s a dream come true. And to actually make real hits, you know what I’m saying? I just wanted to get out my thoughts and ideas and inspire the kids that it was meant to inspire.
How did you first get set up working with Kanye?
I originally met Kanye in ’07 at Record Plant with Pharrell. I knew Pharrell because I was doing Teyana Taylor’s stuff and she was signed to him at the time. So I was at the studio and I went to go hear some N.E.R.D. stuff, Pharrell invited me to the studio.
Next thing I know, Kanye walks in. And it’s crazy because I’ve always had this beat I’ve wanted to play him and had a beat CD in my pocket with that beat on it. So after they were done playing N.E.R.D. stuff, I was like, “Man I just got to stop this and let you guys know I have this beat I have to play you, Kanye.” So, I played the beat. From the time it came on to the time it came off, he was just freestyling rapping all super excited, but nothing ever happened. He was just like, “Man, your stuff is good.”
But maybe in 2010, I met his cousin Ricky Anderson and I would always just send him beats because he would always be with Kanye. I was trying to get on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album and work on that but that juts didn’t happen because Ricky would tell me that Kanye really likes your stuff but it doesn’t fit the model for what we’re going for this album. And I thought he was just talking. We ended up doing “Christmas in Harlem” in 2010 and that just kind of popped it off.
And I saw something on your Twitter feed, something you said today that you hate remixes of “Paris.”
Aw yeah, when people remake the beat, you know what I’m saying? It just sucks, but then for someone to take a fake remade beat and then just rap on it, that’s just whack.
I remember when it came ou, people said this was Kanye’s dubstep song. What part of that was your direction?
No, it was a collective. I provided the bed, the track. He just, through his ideas and everything, he came up with the Will Ferrell thing. Mike Dean put in his input and we just took it to another level.
I also read somewhere that you’re working with Mariah Carey on her new album.
I can’t really confirm that, but we have spoken and she’s interested.
There’s another detail on your Wikipedia that says you got noticed in a Brandy message board when you were younger, called Brandy’s Horizons.
I don’t know.
Okay, maybe scratch that one from the list. But this had claimed that you started your name because it was your username on the Brandy message boards.
Aw hell no. I got my name—actually, it used to be “Hit Boys,” there was two of us and it was just this other kid from the Inland Empire. We just made beats together, and the situation just didn’t work out. I started a Myspace page, and it was “Hit Boys” at first and I just took the S off and it just stuck.
Did you spend a lot of time on message boards when you were younger?
No, not even, I don’t really know where that came from. [laughs]
So you grew up in California and you mentioned that your uncle was in the R&B group. How often were you around him or the band?
All the time. Me and my mom lived with him at their peak, at their height. I remember we lived in Burbank, California. I remember certain people just being over at the house, people he was friends with like Bobby Brown. I remember walking in the house one day and Eazy-E was there and Ice Cube. He was just friends with a lot of people, you know what I’m saying. It was just a dope thing.
Do you remember a specific moment of being in the middle of that that stuck with you?
[pauses] Definitely when they were shooting a video in Pasadena one day, them putting me in a scene or something like that. That was dope.
Cool. Do you remember the first production you ever sold?
I remember the first beat I ever sold, I was 15. I sold it for 20 dollars, just to some kids around the grid. Actually spit the money with my partner who didn’t even have a hand in the beat. But I was just so loyal that I split the money anyway.
Did it turn into a song or anything?
No, I definitely don’t remember anything about that.
So, you were doing all this throughout high school. You said you didn’t go to a lot of parties — did the other kids you went to school with know you were just chasing this the whole time?
Oh yeah, sure. I had CDs that I would just sell at school and people would – some people would be supportive and some people would just laugh, you’re never going to make it type shit. Just the typical. Like I said, being from a place like that, there isn’t really much to model after people who made it from there. To a certain level, I understand it. But I always felt like whatever I had to, I was going to make it. I would go to the mall and sell my CDs and I would go to school and play my beats for people. Anyone who was willing to hear my music, I was trying to give it to them.
Is there anything you can speak about the differences of working with different people? Like someone like Kanye vs A$AP Rocky vs Lupe.
I definitely say that when I’m working with Kanye is the most I learn, because he pays so much attention to detail. He always pushes me to be better than I ever thought I could be. Every time I feel like I go up a few notches just by being around him, just because nothing is ever right the first time or the second or third time. And you just have to keep pushing yourself for the best product possible. Other people pay attention, but it’s just hard to match up to what Kanye’s mind is on. It’s just another level.
So you’re saying you’re working on a new album now. Is that your primary thing?
Definitely getting an album out, a real album out this year. Right now I’m just making songs, about to go do some tours and really get this still continue to promote this HITstory and let people know my story.
When are you heading out to do that?
I’m working on some stuff now. Within the first few months of the year, I’m definitely going to be hitting some different markets to do some shows.
Do you know what kind of venues you’ll be playing at?
I’m not exactly sure, but I definitely got my team working on it.
I imagine it must be a challenge to distinguish yourself between the producer and the rapper and step out from behind the studio.
Yeah, definitely, but I definitely feel good about it. I did a couple shows, I did a really big show with Power 106. Big Sean was on the bill and Lupe Fiasco, just the fact that I went on earlier and there was still a bunch of kids. It was pretty much packed out in there. Just kids in the front row knew some of the words to the HITstory songs. It was all the inspiration in the world for me to continue with this.
Are there any people you’re going to try to bring around for your record?
Yeah, I can’t say right now.
Okay, fair enough. In the future, what else are you trying to do aside from your own record. It seems like you’ve accomplished already so much at a relatively young age.
Being a label owner. I got these young kids, Audio Push, I got K Roosevelt, developing them, and they’re just becoming really great artists. And just trying to have a movement — I want to take it back to the Bad Boy days, the days of Roc-A-Fella, the days of really having a team that was not only just like fresh on the underground level but also made hits, so I got HS87, Hits from 87 [the name of his label], and that’s just where I’m building. I’m looking to tape that and look for a deal and really do some major things.
All those groups are known for specific images. What would you want yours to be? Aside from making hits, obviously.
Definitely just having a youthful presence, you know, just like young energy but just being fresh, you know what I’m saying? Being respected on an artistic level and making great music.