Frank Dukes is the Busiest Producer You Know Nothing About
He just made his dream Ghostface album from scratch, created a music library that can change sampling forever, and won a Grammy—but he's really pumped about a smoothie.
Photo courtesy of Kisha Bari
“I just won a Grammy for Marshall Mathers LP 2, but I’m really more hype off this dope smoothie I just made,” isn’t the typical reaction you’d expect to hear from a producer who just landed one of music’s most sought-after awards, but Frank Dukes isn’t your typical anything. “I’m not one for the limelight I suppose,” he says shrugging unapologetically as he sits in his custom-built studio, situated in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood. It’s from this studio that he supplies countless rappers with the production they need to create songs that their fans will hopefully love. Dukes’ sound is versatile and can quickly shift from a heavy boom-bap to a smooth video game gloss in seconds, something he picked up by studying every genre evenly. “I wanted to be a great producer so I studied great hip-hop producers, but also stuff beyond that: Phil Spector, David Axelrod, Gamble and Huff. They’re equally as influential to me as Dilla, Premier, and Pete Rock.” Dukes has now worked with everyone from Method Man to Macklemore, and was once jokingly told by 50 Cent to stay undiscovered so that Curtis could keep all of the music for himself.
His most recent endeavor is Sour Soul, a collaborative album between Ghostface Killah and BADBADNOTGOOD that Dukes made from scratch. “I brought the idea to the table. I thought it would be a good fit and that the live band/rapper record had never been fully done right. I felt like I could bring the grit that those old Ghostface songs have from sampling old records, but also have the dynamic of a live band with string and horn arrangements making it super lush.” The daunting—and at times gruelling—task of constructing his dream album took almost three years to complete, but it’s now set to be released on February 24th. Despite the long journey, Dukes is still giddy about the idea of it coming out, becoming uncharacteristically animated anytime it’s mentioned. “When I work with any of those guys it’s always a team effort. They’re good friends of mine and we have a really close working relationship. We’ve worked on tons of things together, it’s not like the traditional ‘I’m the producer! What I say goes!’ Everybody has input and those guys are amazing musicians and super talented.”
Dukes’ latest invention isn’t a single beat, but a library of them. The Kingsway Music Library is a system that allows artists to bypass the typical fiascos that come from sampling by providing them with a stockpile of affordable ready-to-go samples, all composed by Dukes himself. It’s the musical version of Getty Images, where musicians are able to pay for what they use, as long as they provide proper credit. “I come from the school of hip-hop where you just buy records and sample records all the time. Doing that is tough sometimes, because if you get a placement on a major record, your record could get shelved because of clearance issues. Or it gets placed on the album, but whoever owns the publishing wants to take all of the money. So I basically created the Kingsway Music Library as an archive of ideas for producers to access, knowing that they’re going to be able to sample something and get a fair split on the publishing.”
One of the most popular songs made through the Kingsway Music Library is Drake’s “0 to 100/The Catch Up”, which was nominated for two Grammys this past weekend. The single was produced by Boi-1da, who came across the sample in the Kingsway Library while having a studio session with Diddy. Dukes won a Grammy for his contribution to Eminem’s “Groundhog Day”, and received another nomination for Schoolboy Q’s “Grooveline Pt 2”. With such a hectic year under his belt, it’s great to see Dukes recognized for all of the work he’s put in. “It’s my first year being nominated. It’s cool, it’s not really something that matters to me, but you know, it will help my rate go up.”
Noisey: How did you find out you were nominated for a Grammy?
Frank Dukes: I was actually on vacation with my wife and kid in Punta Cana and my friend just texted me; “WTF dude you’re nominated for a Grammy this year?!” and I thought it was just crazy because it was really just originally a free song that we did that eventually we put on iTunes and made it an official single but it just shows the power of Drake. He can release a Soundcloud song that becomes Grammy nominated. It’s pretty fucking cool.
Did you personally work with Drake and Boi-1da?
Not with Drake on this one. A lot of the records I do with that camp is working with more cats on the production end. It’s funny because the reason I know Boi-1da is because we both used to work with Drake I want to say about 10 years ago? Before the label deal when Drake was just coming up.
Like Room For Improvement?
Yeah! I think that’s the album? I definitely have a song on one of those early mixtapes, and that’s how I know 1da. The first time I heard Drake was over this track I did for him called “Money” probably from 2007. So me and Boi-1da kinda knew each other loosely, and then maybe in the last year and a half or so we just reconnected and we’re doing a lot of work together.
And you still want to stay in Toronto to do your work?
Definitely! I feel like it’s definitely something different as far as a creative hub. As opposed to New York and LA which I feel have become a little over saturated over the last little while. Also the talent pool here is great! You’ve got bands like BADBADNOTGOOD, producers like Boi-1da, Nineteen85 and myself. I have a family as well, I’m not going to uproot them and move my life. I love Toronto it’s a great city and I’m proud of all the shit that’s coming from here. I’m proud to be from here.
What was the sample you created called? Was it called “0 to 100”?
No it was called something really generic and stupid like, "Vibes" or something. Originally it was a three minute idea that had all these different parts and I didn’t really write it with any intent of it being used for Drake or for anyone in particular. I just kinda wrote it and gave it to Boi-1da, who was in session at the time in Miami, this was with Diddy. This was like the whole controversy of the incident. From what I understand he made the beat on the spot, played it for Diddy and Diddy passed on it, he said it wasn’t life changing enough and that was that. Then fast forward, “0 to 100” becomes this huge hit and then there’s this weird… whatever happened there? I don’t know, but as far as I understand that’s how it went down.
So you created it and then you sent it to Boi-1da?
Yeah. Me and Boi-1da work in the studio most times but sometimes he’ll just be in session somewhere and I’ll just send him an idea sometimes the ideas are very concise like “This is what the beat is.” Sometimes I just send him a piece of music that I wrote that has multiple parts and is written like a song, then he’ll sample it like he would with any other song.
And that stuff won’t go on the Kingsway Library?
No. Kingsway is just an archive of ideas that I’ve written over the years.
Do you know who buys stuff off of there?
Sometimes! For example I actually connected with like Ryan Lewis and and Macklemore through him buying from my library. And I’ve met those guys before but it just started this whole conversation where I began to work with them on other stuff. Sometimes people reach out. Sometimes I have no idea and a record will pop-up or someone will reach out when a records about to come out.
How did you, Ghostface, and BADBADNOTGOOD come together?
In 2010/2011 I was doing a lot of beats for Ghost in general and I DJ’d for him on tour, so me and him had a really good working relationship. Fast forward maybe a year or two, I was having a conversation with his manager and he was talking to me about doing a full length project with Ghostface, and I think around that time I was getting more into recording live music. I had met this band ‘The Menahan Street Band’, and Thomas Brenneck who's the brainchild of the band and taught me about the process of recording music from scratch with bands and it changed my whole approach to music. Leading up to that I was really just sampling records and making beats all on my own. Something just clicked. I approached everyone about the record and everyone was down. I think we recorded all of the initial instrumentals in a five to six day period in New York at my friends studio. Then we continued to chip away at it over the next two-and-a-half years. A few verses here, a few verses there, doing the string arrangements and horn arrangements were the final touch, then mixing it.
It was definitely a long process, so much so that some of the original instrumentals we ended up cutting because, a lot of times you record in a time and place and it’s kind of like a snapshot of where you were at musically at that point and I think we just felt some of the stuff could’ve been done better. Two-and-a-half years later we deconstructed some of the songs and re-worked them for the better.
There was Aaliyah and Timbaland, Drake and 40, Big Sean and No ID, do you have an artist/producer relationship with anyone?
Probably with BADBADNOTGOOD the most out of any artists. I met them when they were really young, like nineteen/twenty. When I met them I felt like going in a different direction and I feel like my influence on them has been positive and likewise it goes both ways. I’ve learned a lot about playing music from those guys and my approach to music has rubbed off on them. It’s a pretty symbiotic relationship.
Would you consider yourself successful?
I’m working towards it. I’ve definitely achieved a certain amount of success and I feel like it’s only the start. For me success in music would be twenty years from now looking back at everything I’ve done and just being proud of it. Whether it’s a huge hit or sold five copies, as long artistically and creatively I can stand by what I did, then I’ll feel successful.
Meron Gaudet is a writer living in Toronto - @M_3rcy