Friday, December 23, 2011
Noah "40" Shebib on GQ
Drake's music isn't complex, but it is complicated. Steeped in warm, deep, dense beds, it's closer in spirit to R&B than almost any hip-hop ever recorded. Wet, slapping drums; hazy synth tones; delicate, enveloping chords—it's a sound that's added a gravitas to the Canadian MC's music. Drake feels important because his music sounds important. The primary architect of that sound, Noah "40" Shebib, has worked closely with Drake, creating an unusual partnership. 40 is credited with production on only eight of the 17 songs on Take Care, Drake's second full-length album, but as an engineer and sounding board, his fingerprints are everywhere—the expansive palette, the patience, and the dramatic flourishes at song's end. They craft albums together.
The 28-year-old Shebib, a Toronto native with a background as a child performer, like Drake, has been beside him during the biggest moments of his career. I talked with 40 on the eve of the highly anticipated Take Care about their history and the stories behind some of their best songs.
GQ: I want to talk specifically about the songs you worked on together. But how did you guys initially connect?
Noah "40" Shebib: Good call, what was the Aha moment? We musically connected first with R&B. So, it was a couple years we had worked together and I think when he started venturing into R&B, the first one was "Brand New" which I didn't actually write, D10 wrote the beat for it, but I worked heavily with them and helped him produce the record. As far as me and Drake were concerned, we started experimenting with other songs that were very R&B. I think, you know, "Successful" was the most significant turning point where he took one of my beats and worked on it, and that as well as the "Houstatlantavegas" moment where we discovered that sound, that abstract world we were taking rap music to, between me and him, and that was all pretty transparent. The crazy thing about Drake's career is it happens quickly. "The Motto," a new single he leaked on the Internet, I finished mixing 48 hours ago. That song was created last weekend. The immediacy of how fast we create the music and it goes to the world, that's never happened before, ever. That's the result of technology. There's a transparency there where as soon as we discover the sound, the rest of the world heard it. It happened very quickly. The timeline is laid out in the releases.
GQ: If the reaction had been negative, would it alter the way you pursued this music?
Noah "40" Shebib: 100%. To have that much confidence in something and say I believe in this so much no matter what anyone tells me is very difficult. Both of us were so nervous when the song was coming out and the dark, somber music was being released. The way it was received, and people loving it so much and the feedback we're receiving, that was overwhelming and we knew at that point we had something special to embrace and develop.
GQ: Did it feel like a risk at first?
Noah "40" Shebib: 100%.
GQ: What were some of the records you listened to and shared together?
Noah "40" Shebib: I could go on forever, you know? I had a very distinct taste for R&B music, growing up listening to it my entire life and I love producing it first and foremost. It was everything from SWV and Jon B to Silk and Playa and any you could possibly think of. Even Tank, that intro off Sex, Love, and Pain, that kind of slow R&B vibe that lasts, somehow a line came out of "Best I Ever Had." We're always surrounding ourselves with music like that. Even on Take Care you'll see a lot of '90s R&B samples, you know? A lot of different artists from the R&B world of the '90s—we're trying to keep that prominent, like the last album with the Aaliyah stuff. I've been an Aaliyah fan since I was a kid—me and my sister—so that stuff comes up as well. That Timbaland/Ginuwine era, too.
GQ: At what point did you start introducing your sound to Drake?
Noah "40" Shebib: We started working together strictly on an engineer/artist basis. I didn't step forward with my stuff for a very long time. We'd dabble here and there, but that wasn't my place. What happened for me was I didn't know what—I was tired of hearing a Jermaine Dupri record and going home and trying to make a beat like that and make it as good and not understand why I [wasn't] a successful producer. I think you'll find that in a lot of people's emotional reactions to the industry, if you have talent and are good at what you do. At some point I stopped producing and focused on engineering before I met Drake because I like the technical aspect of it and being hands-on and the recording and mixing and electrical engineering behind it, like the mathematics. I focused on that. It came to a point where Drake, in summer of 2008, while working on Thank Me Later, which became So Far Gone, but by September we decided let's make a mixtape and we turned it into So Far Gone between January and December of 2009. That summer, 2008, when we were working on the beginnings of the album-to-be, he was looking for producers and he looked so far and so wide. We must have been listening to thousands of records with him trying to find the answer. Of course, nobody had the answers and we'd come back to the drawing board. And at the end of the day, it was us sitting there, going What do we do next? After a while, I had just said no so many times, there was one option left. I knew what I had to make. I had seen him say no to so many people, there was only one thing left he could say yes to. He said no to everything else in existence. So I started making that one thing that no one else had played yet, and that ended up being So Far Gone.
GQ: Tell me about some specific songs on So Far Gone. "Bria's Interlude" has always fascinated me. Drake doesn't even appear on the song.
Noah "40" Shebib: [Missy Elliott's] "Friendly Skies" was one of my favorite songs from high school. I used to have a car with a system in it in high school, and it was one of my favorite things to play, driving through my neighborhood listening to that record. I had it on wax. We were at Remix, a place for high-priority neighborhood kids and at-risk youth in Toronto. That was our day job back then because we were trying to get on and poppin'. I had my records and players and I found that vinyl and just pitched it all the way down on the 1200 and it sounded so crazy! Right away, I just sampled and slipped it, and we sat on that beat for six months or so and at some point, leading up to So Far Gone, that record was produced and recorded in the hotel room at the Beverly Wilshire, which is where I released, mixed, and mastered So Far Gone. It was the January '09 Grammys and at the Beverly Wilshire, that was when Wayne cleaned up and we posted there for seven or eight days and had a room there and posted there with the Wayne tour. I have video footage of us in the room making the records. There's a cool picture of Drake standing in front of the curtain with a microphone and it's right out of the hotel room. Omarion was at the hotel at the time and dropped some vocals in the hotel room. I must have released that song like ten days after. Just vibes. Vibin' out and smoked out in the Beverly Wilshire. Makin' music, you know?
GQ: What else was made at that time?
Noah "40" Shebib: A lot of stuff was done in the Beverly Wilshire. The Peter Bjorn & John record ["Let's Call It Off"] was done in there. Vocals, track, and record, all done. Four or five records were recorded there. Every single song on So Far Gone was mixed and mastered in Room 713 or 718 of the Beverly Wilshire hotel on a pair of AKG 240 headphones and a iHome clock radio.
GQ: Was that a totally unique experience?
Noah "40" Shebib: Most of our music is made—sometimes when we're doing the big hits and pop stuff and we get a rush when we do it, but at the end of the day, we just kick back and do some R&B and that's when we have the most fun and enjoy ourselves. There'll be a moment like that on the album, but that's what we truly enjoy.
GQ: It just seemed like a modern innovation on the sound. It makes sense that's what you love. You can hear it. What about "The Calm"?
Noah "40" Shebib: He rapped that story out a couple times. Lyrics can be interpreted as you want, but his life is transparent through his lyrics, and it's pretty brutally honest and it's scary how much is there. He explained the story a couple times, briefly about this album. It was a crazy, crazy night. That was when we were living in an apartment building in Toronto, downtown, Apartment 1503 15 Fort York Boulevard. He says 1503, two couches and paintings, and he goes on to talk about that apartment where we did all that music, on the new album. He was distraught one night and showed up with $1,000 worth of champagne and I'm cussing at him because we're all broke and trying to make this shit work! Meanwhile, he's renting Phantoms and shit. It's all documented. He shows up with all the liquor and he's drinking and we're trying to start working and he gets into a real argument with his uncle, and he went out on the balcony and started yelling at his uncle and I'd never seen him that distraught or emotionally beat up about something. He just came back in the room and said, I need to rap. Make me something. In 45 minutes, I made "The Calm" and he wrote those bars as I made the beat. Over the next five or six hours, that record unfolded in its entirety.
GQ: Are situations like that when the best stuff comes?
Noah "40" Shebib: 100%. What was interesting and unique about that record is I saw how upset he was and I made it as a palette for how he could express himself. That was a special moment for both of us, I think, and I didn't even know what was going on until after the fact.
GQ: What about "Lust for Life"?
Noah "40" Shebib: It came a little bit later when we were figuring out the direction of the album. When it started to take shape, this song just slipped into the mold. Kanye had put out that record at the time, anyway, he sampled "Tears for Fears" in it and there was this melody and Drake became crazily obsessed with this melody. "Coldest Winter!" I think Kanye wrote it, and found out it was Tears for Fears. That pushed me to pay attention to Tears for Fears and this idea of an opiate song and the drum loop and so I grabbed the drum loop. And went to work on it in the vein of all the other things I created. I was just going fucking haywire with it, you know? I got this! It was like finding a pot of gold.
GQ: You've stayed tight with Drake ever since—you almost never work with other artists, and when you do, Drake's involved.
Noah "40" Shebib: That's my own personal prerogative. The Jamie Foxx record ["Fall For Your Type"] or Alicia Keys record ["Un-thinkable (I'm Ready) (Remix)"] I did, Drake wrote. The record I did for Trey Songz was a Drake song. The record I did for Wayne was for Drake at first but Wayne hijacked it. They're all related to Drake. I've never, thus far, gone outside of working with him. I'm a pretty loyal person and I feel like we have a lot of work to do and when we get an opportunity to rest and when I can go other places, I will, but thus far, I've focused on Drake and we just haven't stopped working, to be honest. When it comes to this project, one ended and the other started. So if Jay-Z or Alicia Keys is knocking on the door, I would work with anyone who wants to work with me and humbled by the opportunities I've received, but I've been stubborn to finish Drake's new album first. This is my responsibility and I take a lot of pride in that.
GQ: Does people imitating your sound frustrate you?
Noah "40" Shebib: Never. I'm humbled, embarrassed by it, I hide my face when I hear it. That's the last thing on my mind. I've never been the one to accuse someone of stealing. I'm very naïve and Canadian that way. I don't care to explore those waters, it's not worth the time or energy. All creativity is lent and borrowed from somewhere. We grew up in society and hear things and are predetermined to like or dislike chord structures or scales. I'm into all that stuff, so for me to be naïve enough to say, "I invented that"... it's all circumstantial. I don't go there. I'm thankful and humbled that people have embraced it. The one time I do get pissed off is when I'm in the studio is when people send me beats that sound just like mine and try to get Drake interested. I'm like, Really?
GQ: Is there a clear break between the recordings of So Far Gone and Thank Me Later? They're fairly seamless, sonically.
Noah "40" Shebib: The only break ever was after So Far Gone because we were still on tour with Wayne. We were on tour, traveling together, sharing hotel rooms. We went on that So Far Gone [tour] and I was production manager, stage manager, stage tech, keyboard tech, I was everything. We had Niko, Drake's assistant, Future, D10, and Drake. Trucks driving across America. We did that for three months and started working on Thank Me Later after that. I feel like that was one of the biggest gaps we took ever. That was just us keeping up with him exploding—"Best I Ever Had" was #1for 14 weeks.
GQ: What's the first song you recorded for Thank Me Later?
Noah "40" Shebib: "Shut It Down," maybe.
GQ: How does something like that work, are you getting a record from [the song's co-producer] Omen or is it all done in collaboration?
Noah "40" Shebib: Omen's my homie, he showed me how to use MP3 in Toronto back in the day, and he used to work with a rapper called Jelly Stone who had a record deal with Warner America which got us to another deal with Universal Canada and he had been through the market in Canada with a budget, and I was engineering and tracking Jelly's stuff. Omen was in town and we were working on records together, and he gave me a look before anyone else. No one had ever done that for me before and it started a bond with me and Omen and that's someone I care about and love dearly and influenced me and taught me and gave me the opportunity to be around studios and artists. That's someone I owe a lot to. When it was So Far Gone, let's just make a record. Start some drums! Drop some pads! Chop it up, reverse 'em, flip 'em.... It just started like that. Me and O would create the basis of the tracks and I'd just run with it and call it a day from there. The stuff I did with Omen, nobody else other than T-Minus, is like that. T-Minus and Boi-1da are from Toronto, too, and they're pretty consistent through Drake's entire career, too.
GQ: You often "co-produce" songs with other producers—how does it work with producers like Boi-1da, or Swizz Beatz on "Fancy," do you run the changes by those guys?
Noah "40" Shebib: Swizz was great, he just sent over the beat and it was pretty much as is, but I added the bass to the beginning section. Other than that, the sample was all there. We sent it over and I hit him back and asked if I could add bass and he just said, "Yo, family, I love what you do. Do what you do." I was trippin'! I was like, are you sure? He just let me go in on it and I did what I did. I beefed up the beginning and put the mix on it and just made sure it was what we wanted to be. A lot of the time with the Boi-1da stuff, we work closely together. The honest stuff is, a lot of the stuff I do on their records, I'm making Drake happy. I'm producing in Drake's name. He's a producer on a couple of records on Take Care. Sometimes, like on "Miss Me," he'll ask to flip the hook or something. Drake knows what to do a lot of the time. Me and T have worked together and had a great time on the record. It's everything you can imagine. Outside of Omen and T-Minus, I've never been in the studio with a producer to that extent.
GQ: Do you have a favorite song on Take Care?
Noah "40" Shebib: There are 21 songs.
GQ: Is there one most memorable to you?
Noah "40" Shebib: [sighs] Um... it's like trying to pick your children. "Look What You've Done" is a memorable moment for me on the album—it's about his mother, his uncle.
GQ: How did that come together?
Noah "40" Shebib: It was produced by Chase N. Cashe.
GQ: Will you know when he has to get something off the chest? Or will he just go in the booth and do what he does?
Noah "40" Shebib: I'll probably know.
GQ: Do you guys ever figure it out?
Noah "40" Shebib: 100%. There's always a conversation. Wait, "Marvin's Room" is my favorite off the album! It came from the same place I've been talking about, where we make a real fuckin' R&B record and do what we enjoy. It was a cool, different sound and had a different edge to it production-wise and pushed him musically and the writing was phenomenal and the concept and the feel of the conversation. I enjoy creating a moment and treating it like a film does, you want to say "Fuck you," but yeah, you want it to take you somewhere. That type of fury and emotion, there was something about that record that captivated me. That record is gold as of today, half a million singles of a record like that in today's day and age is impressive. That's an important record for me, if I'm going to push my chest out, yeah sure, I love that record.
GQ: Do you see yourself ever trying to step forward and work more visibly with other artists?
Noah "40" Shebib: No. One thing I'm interested in doing and one thing only.
GQ: What's that?
Noah "40" Shebib: Developing software and plug-ins. It's been a passion of mine for a long time and I'm already under way with all that and developing my own plug-ins and all that. Trying to do everything from processing to creation of music. The name is TBA. I know what the plug-ins do and what to bring to the table, I just haven't got as far as naming the entire package. I'm in a good position as far as a lot of people put my name with being an engineer as well as a producer. I work with a guy named Les Bateman here in Toronto and Gadget, and between those guys I have such a wealth of talent and plethora of ideas that I want to be able to make available to the rest of the world. I'm focusing some energy on that and on music.
GQ: It seems like this is an exciting moment for engineers in music. On Watch the Throne, we hear Noah Goldstein's name on a few tracks—to an engineer, does it feel like an engineer's moment?
Noah "40" Shebib: Is it happening? I'm not in a good position to know. Well, okay. There is the one notorious hip-hop engineer: Guru. Everyone knew Guru. Everyone knew Jay had an engineer named Guru. Of course, you aspire for that at some point and it's a combination of things. My name, 40, this nickname I got, it was cool to say. It was a tough one, and my name is awesome ironically enough, though I'm Lebanese, not Israeli. It was a cool name to say. Quick, easy, cool thing to say. And really as far as Drake shouting me out all the time, it was just me and him. It's not too often that an artist comes into the game with an engineer. We had this bond between artist and engineer that not a lot of people had. I knew how to mix records but I was willing to go the extra mile as far as, "Just me and you, let's do this." I guess he embraced me as an engineer which is unusual. I remember running into Ice-T one time and he's there with Coco, and we're walking up and he sees Drake, and this is the first time we met them, and they gave him mad respect and then Ice-T goes, "Yo. 40." [Laughs] "The love you guys show each other all the time, I fucking love that. I fucking love you motherfuckers." There was something about that, something humble and honest about our relationship and how long we've been together, and then my name, sure. People knowing who engineers are these days, shit... Guru is the coolest motherfucker in the world. Other than that, it's a matter of technology and the world we're in today and we live in the world where a laptop can create a career for somebody. We made "Best I Ever Had" on a laptop in a hotel room. When that becomes a reality, artists realize the solution might not be a record label or a manager, they need someone who knows what the fuck they're doing on the programs and then they can distribute it on the Internet. The bond between engineers and artists is really valuable for both of them. I produce, but I'm also interested in physics and I play the piano. I think a lot of engineers are shortcutting these days, but if you find someone who knows what's up, that's all you need. They'll take you from 0-100. The cost is the cost of a MacBook and making sure you're happy and they believe in you.