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Kanye West‘s Yeezus is far from conventional, and the talented team of musical masterminds behind its production are to thank for that. The lineup features artists from previous Kanye collaborations, such as Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) and Noah Goldstein, while making room for comparatively newer faces like UK-based Evian Christ. Read on for excerpts from Pitchfork‘s Ryan Dombalbe on conversations with the production headliners and visit Pitchfork for the full breakdown:
“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
GETTING THE CALL
Justin Vernon: After Twisted Fantasy, I kind of assumed that I’d get the call again at some point. I get along with Kanye really well and I think his musical decisions are exquisite. He feels otherworldly– he talks about being a god and shit, and his confidence in himself is inspiring. But at the end of the day, he’s a musician working in the lab. We have fun. So when the call came for this album, I was like, “Shit yeah!”
Noah Goldstein: When I was 17, I saw Dr. Dre’s episode of “Behind the Music”, and he was sitting at the console, looking through the glass. I was like, “That’s the dude I want to be!” Then, a few years later, I was working on hip-hop mixtapes at this studio in West Philadelphia, and it was a terrible situation, a really bad neighborhood. I almost got in numerous altercations there. So I quit there after a year and a half, and said, “The only way I’m ever working in hip-hop again is if I work for Jay-Z and Kanye West.” It was super tongue-in-cheek. Then, almost exactly 10 years later, Kanye hired me to work on Dark Fantasy. And four months after that, we were working on Watch the Throne with Jay.
Travi$ Scott: My manager Anthony Kilhoffer has been Kanye’s engineer/producer from the beginning, and he showed him my “Lights (Love Sick)” video during the Cruel Summer sessions. I was pretty much homeless when Kanye first flew me to New York. Later on, I was in Miami with ‘Ye and Will Smith– I was playing Will my album, he fucks with it. He’s like my homey now. Then ‘Ye’s like, “You gotta come to Paris.” I got a passport and went. It was just me, ‘Ye, and Noah Goldstein at first. We weren’t even doing actual studio shit. We were just chilling, running around A.P.C.’s offices, making music on my laptop.
Evian Christ: When Kanye’s camp was working on Cruel Summer, they were apparently listening to my mixtape Kings and Them a lot. So when they decided to come out with this industrial, electronic, dark vision for Yeezus, they hit me up. In January, they told us, “Kanye’s in the studio on Sunday, it’d be good if we could have some stuff to play him.” That was on the Friday before, so I had two days to make some tracks that were specifically tailored to Kanye West. I don’t think I went to bed that night. I just made track after track after track– nine altogether– and sent them over. A couple of days later, they were like, “This is great, we’ve started working on one.” That track eventually became “I’m in It”.
“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.
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.