Hit-Boy attends the 2020 GRAMMY Awards
Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Hit-Boy On Producing Big Sean's 'Detroit 2' And Nas' 'King's Disease,' Carving His Own Path As An Artist
Hit-Boy might be music's busiest person in 2020. Across a four-month timespan, the two-time GRAMMY-winning superproducer quarterbacked four of the biggest projects in rap this year. In May, he dropped the fourth and final installment of his The Chauncey Hollis Project solo series, followed by Also Known As Courtesy Of Half-A-Mil, his collaborative album with Dom Kennedy, in July. He followed up with King's Disease, the 13th album from rap icon Nas, in August, and Big Sean's fresh-out-the-oven Detroit 2, released Friday (Sept. 4)—both of which he executive-produced.
But for Hit-Boy, it's just another day in the office.
"It's too many artists trying to tap in for me to just work on one thing at a time, but I still am able to give my focus," he tells GRAMMY.com on the eve of the release of Detroit 2. "It's like quantity and quality. I don't know how to explain it right now."
With his mind on his music and his music on his mind, Hit-Boy is used to juggling a packed calendar in the studio. He's kept a 24/7-schedule since first breaking into the industry in the late 2000s. He's since become one of the go-to producers in the game, creating hits for everyone from Kanye West to Beyoncé to Mariah Carey. The versatile creative sees genre-hopping as a learning experience.
"I just get to learn more about different ways people make music," he says of his broad production style. "People in the pop world are totally different from people who make beats for Big Sean and JAY-Z … I honestly just like to learn, no matter what type of music it is."
Hit-Boy, who started off rapping before transitioning to making beats, is also busy carving his own lane as an artist. His new solo album, The Chauncey Hollis Project, and his team-up with Dom Kennedy, Also Known As, see him switching from behind the board as a producer to in front of the mic as a rapper. It's the latest progression in Hit-Boy's ever-evolving creative journey.
"I'm gonna just keep developing, just keep working, man," he says of his next steps. "It's a never-ending process for me."
GRAMMY.com caught up with Hit-Boy to talk about his creative process behind Big Sean's Detroit 2 and Nas' King's Disease, how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted his artistic approach and how he's paving a path as a rapper in his own right.
You've worked with just about everyone in music, from Kanye West to Jennifer Lopez to Beyoncé. Do you ever get nervous or anxious when you work with a huge superstar?
Earlier in my career, yeah. I definitely used to get a little nervous, but I always just believed I had something, even if all of it wasn't great. I know I have something in the batch that was going to catch people's attention. That's the same method I take on now, but I've just advanced so much at just being a musician and locking in on making beats ... Now that I got that science figured out, I'm just on damn near autopilot right now. I'm just getting placement after placement.
It sounds like you're in high demand. How do you juggle it all? Are you working on multiple projects at once? Or do you stay exclusively focused on one album or one project from beginning to end?
It's too many artists trying to tap in for me to just work on one thing at a time, but I still am able to give my focus. Like with Nas' album, King's Disease, we made time for our sessions, made sure there wasn't too many people around and locked in. My relationship with [Big] Sean—I've got a bunch of stuff on Detroit 2. I was able to still be in the zone, working on his sh*t, then also do a Nas album in the middle of that, and then work on Polo G's album and work on all this other sh*t I got going.
I feel like my method is like: Get to the studio before people show up, make as many tight beats as I can, all type of styles. Then whoever comes through that day, I'm going to have at least one or two that's going to catch your ear ...
It comes from me having my label deal and more so trying to focus on, I feel like, what was too many things at one time, which was trying to be an artist myself, signing a bunch of artists, trying to be a hot producer, trying to produce for everybody at once. That was too much, but now ... I work with whoever comes in my realm and respects what I do ... It's like quantity and quality. I don't know how to explain it right now.
You recently executive-produced Nas' latest album, King's Disease. Can you talk about the creative and production process behind that album?
I mean, obviously he's Nas. You know what I'm saying? Certain people know me—I'm Hit-Boy. But it's like, let's remove that and let's just try to make songs, let's just try to make records ... You could still pop your sh*t and talk about what you want to, but at the same time, let's just make this as enjoyable as possible. When we was going in, we just was letting the room lead the way and the energy was taking us to every next piece of the puzzle.
I just knew that it was a high standard with this project. People was going to really click play on this, and if it was whack, they was gonna let me know. So for so many people I respect, like younger producers like Metro [Boomin], like Pi'erre [Bourne], Tay Keith, and then I got people like Timbaland, Swizz [Beatz] and all these OGs also reaching out [and] just showing respect—that just shows me [that] this hit the core of music lovers. People who really listening, they understanding this is really quality sh*t.
You also executive-produced the new Big Sean album, Detroit 2. What sort of vibe or sound did you try to create on that album?
I just wanted everything to sound modern, even like some of the soulful [songs]. The song we dropped with [Nipsey Hussle], rest in peace, "Deep Reverence"—it's like a real throwback, Roc-A-Fella-ish sample vibe, but then the drums sound modern; they sound new. So I kinda kept that through the whole project. It's just remnants of music we enjoyed, but it's placed in a modern way, so definitely just trying to make sure it was just a fresh sound.
You mentioned a bunch of artists coming into your studio. Are you currently producing with artists in-person? Or are you working mostly virtually and remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic?
We started the Nas album before the pandemic hit. That's what's crazy: We named it King's Disease before we even knew about the corona. Giving us that time during the pandemic when it was super shut down, we got to really sit and just really produce the record like how we wanted to. That was a good thing.
I'm kinda doing it both ways. People been hitting me [up] crazy. I've been emailing stuff out, but we always get the better connection when it's in-person. Me and [Big] Sean, we worked on all our stuff just face-to-face. I'm cooking beats from scratch. We really just building it from the ground up, so it's always good to do it that way. But if you do have to email, there's nothing wrong with that either.
What do you lose and what do you gain from producing virtually and working remotely compared to working with someone in-person?
You just get more of a connection when you work in-person. You're able to get that instant feedback ... It just makes it easier to navigate. When you [send it], you're just kind of shooting blind and just hoping that the person connects with the beat you sent. It's just two different things. They both worked out for me, personally, I have to say. I feel like my best beats come when I'm just dolo, just vibing out, zoning out and just letting whatever come to me. But I also been tapping into just making a lot more beats with people, too. It's just all music at the end of the day.
Speaking of the pandemic, we've been in quarantine for a long time now. You're in and out of it in your studio. How has this pandemic and quarantine era impacted your creativity?
I honestly feel like I'm more creative than ever ... My son was born right when we went into quarantine, within a day or two. It's just been good for me to have his energy and be able to spend more time with him and not have to fly out [to] no places and doing even more than I'm already doing. I feel like it's just been a blessing for me, for real. It's just looking good, so I'm trying to keep the energy up.
In addition to your production work, you're also an artist. You're able to switch from behind the board as a producer to in front of the mic as a rapper. What kind of challenges come with that creative duality?
Man, it's kind of all just music to me ... Like sometimes, I might not even rap on my own beat; I get beats from other people. I'm able to just separate it that way. I'm not looking at it like, "Oh, I'm Hit-Boy. I'm about to make a song." I'm just like, "I'm about to say what needs to be said on [this beat]." Then when I make the beat, it kinda make me even more tapped in because I can get into the Hit-Boy bag and then just still give it that honest perspective.
What are you developing to carve a lane for yourself as Hit-Boy, the artist?
I'm just recording ... I put out The Chauncey Hollis Project. I did that in installments. I put out three songs at a time until it equaled 12 songs. That was just a moment for me, just being honest, just talking about my life, where I've been, where I'm going, what I'm on now. Just more of that, you know what I'm saying? More projects, more and more people featuring on my music now because I'm working with so many artists. They be hearing my sh*t. They like, "OK, I want to hop on this." I'm gonna just keep developing, just keep working, man. It's a never-ending process for me.
As a producer, you're switching from producing harder rappers like Travis Scott and Clipse to pop stars like Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez. Creatively, what do you gain from jumping around genres like that?
I just get to learn more about different ways people make music. People in the pop world are totally different from people who make beats for Big Sean and JAY-Z and stuff like that, for the most part. There are some people that can hop in multiple lanes, but not everybody can do that. I honestly just like to learn, no matter what type of music it is.
What are some other genres that you are curious to explore that you haven't explored yet?
Like some hardcore rock 'n' roll sh*t. Who knows, man? Country, I haven't done no serious country records. I'm down to just try whatever, as long as it makes sense and I could still really feel the music.
We're almost at the end of the year, which is crazy to think about. What do you have left in the pipeline for 2020?
We've got, obviously tonight, that Big Sean, Detroit 2. Then I got an album with Benny The Butcher that's dropping; we got some dope features on that, some dope, soulful production. I feel like that was the thing with the Nas album. People saw I was producing that, they was like, "He known for club records and 'N****s in Paris.' But what can he give Nas?"
And then once people heard it, it was like, "OK, we get it now." I feel like with the Benny project, it's going to be [an] even deeper thing. He's a new artist, so it's just a blank canvas to be able to paint something that could be something crazy.
How do you compare working with newer artists like Benny The Butcher and superstars like Beyoncé and Kanye West?
They both hungry for this sh*t. Beyoncé, she work like a new artist, too. But Benny, he got some crazy, hungry—just really coming from the streets and coming from his background. For him, coming to the studio, he be like, "Man, this sh*t fly that we in the studio together." I feel the same way. He really taking advantage of the moment. When we in there, when I'm playing some sh*t, he understands what's going on. He just attacking everything with the highest intensity.
So we should keep an eye on Benny The Butcher is what you're saying.
You released the fourth and final installment of your The Chauncey Hollis Project solo series in May, followed by Also Known As Courtesy Of Half-A-Mil, your collab album with Dom Kennedy, in July. What do those two albums offer as separate entities?
The music I make with Dom has just got its own specific feeling. And I went for just soulful, just giving people an honest me on my project. That's what I always try to do on every song. But with [Also Known As], we always just kind of create a vibe, something that females can mess with, and then you can just ride to it ... We always just creating music. We always just recording ...
Those two albums put you directly in the artist seat. Where can we expect those two artist projects to go next?
Honestly, I can't even call it, bro, because I was just moving off instinct. When I decided to drop the first installment [of The Chauncey Hollis Project], the first three songs, it was the night before. I just had recorded the songs, started mixing them, and I was like, "Man, I want to drop this sh*t." I made the decision [to drop it] Wednesday, [then] dropped it Thursday ...
I still got people hitting me, people DMing me daily, listening to The Chauncey Hollis Project, listening to [Also Known As], people in they ride playing it. It's like, "OK, we headed in the right direction." So I can't even call it, man. You never know how this thing is going to go. But I'm just going to continue to make the music that I feel, and hopefully people connect with it.
Go with the flow.
Yup. We one song, one project at a time.
Are you always thinking about music, 24/7?
I am, man. That goes back to when I said I had my artist [deal] and I was working with Kanye and I was working with Beyoncé and JAY-Z. I had a point where I was like, "Man, I'm definitely not even taking no sessions if it's not Kanye, JAY-Z or Beyoncé." That's a crazy thing to be able to say within your lifetime. I'm not going to say it hurt me, but I feel like I should have been spreading my sound out a little bit more, especially with not having a tag and not having my brand all the way up where I needed it to be.
Now I feel like I've been playing catch-up. That's why I was able to do a bunch of songs on [Big] Sean's sh*t, do a bunch of sh*t on [Nas'] King's Disease, because I'm seeing the field different now. Once I catch that connection with an artist, it's over—we just tapping in. It's something about the type of grooves and the type of beats I'm making right now that makes people want to make songs, so [I'm] really trying to take this sh*t to a different level.