OVO Producer Neenyo Talks 'P3,' Emotional Beats, and What It's Like to Play Michael Jackson's Piano
We also break down his beats for PartyNextDoor's "Things & Such," "You've Been Missed," and Drake & Future's "Plastic Bag."
Neenyo began his own journey in the rap world as a mixtape DJ back home ("I wouldn't call myself a DJ," he chuckles). He eventually veered into production under the tutelage of his brother and the stacks of "real" R&B records that inspired them, "a lot of Case, Jagged Edge, Jodeci." A placement with G-Unit's Lloyd Banks would provide Neenyo with his entry point into the American market and soon he was making beats for many more, including Jadakiss and a still wet-behind-the-ears Drake on his Comeback Season mixtape. The average rap listener has heard his work on Party's Disclosure-flipping "Sex on the Beach" and Drake & Future's serene strip-club ode "Plastic Bag." Despite Neenyo's respectable career, the 32-year-old is more concerned with the future rather than hoarding his past successes. "It's always the next one that comes out. I think that's part of being a creative person, it's that you're always searching for that next thing."
During our chat, Neenyo previews an unreleased beat that feels like a pool of molasses, reversed piano chords resolving in the weirdly triumphant mixolydian mode. He reveals that there's a secret to those chords the ear can't detect. "We're just in [Chin Injeti, a fellow producer]'s studio and there's an old dusty Rhodes piano there. I'm just hitting it, playing around. He's like 'that's Michael Jackson's Rhodes piano.' [Chin] got it in an auction, I guess he outbid Sheryl Crow to get this piano." Neenyo jumped at the opportunity to make use of this storied piece of hardware, and recorded the results of his jamming into this new beat. "I feel like the energy of playing his Rhodes translates into the emotion of the song and you listen to it a little differently. I was just really excited. After I found out, I stopped hitting it, I took a few pictures, I think I Snapchatted it."
Emotion is king in Neenyo's compositions. "I don't think there's a song that I don't make an emotion out of because that's my whole goal for every song I do," he says, "That's the only goal." It shows in his P3 songs such as the minimal-techno-meets-slow-jam vibe of "You've Been Missed" and "Transparency," an ominous, suffocating beat that's little more than a churning sub-bass line and pulverizing drums. "'Transparency' was one of the earliest tracks we did," explains Neenyo. "Earlier that day when we got into OVO's SOTA studios, before we had set up for the session, I ran into 40. We talked a bit about how he approaches making Drake's albums and that translated into how I approached working on P3 there out. The first beat I started making after that convo was the starting of this song, and actually the girl [Party]'s talking about in it was sitting right there." Read on for Neenyo's breakdowns of his most famous beats.
KEHLANI'S FREESTYLE / THINGS & SUCH
Neenyo: Late one night, I started this track with G. Ry. He also produces a lot of the Party stuff as well. I was having a really shitty day and a lot of things were happening. I'd recently lost two people close to me and I feel like this communicated what was happening in that moment. After G. Ry added his elements to it, Party heard it that same night, recorded it that same night, and put it out that same night.
Noisey: Does that happen a lot?
Not that quick. I think the whole thing behind this idea was–and I think why people connected to it–was this emotion that was in the moment.
So I'm hearing this R&B sample in there.
That's actually the amazing River Tiber singing there.
Did he record the sample specifically for this song?
Well since this, we've worked on more things and he's amazing at coming up with different melodies. This came in because him and Frank Dukes were working on an idea and we were able to make it into the full song. G. Ry is amazing at figuring out these drum pockets. It was very important to have him on the drums.
That's pretty cool, though: using your own sample and then sort of tricking people into thinking it's a 90s R&B track.
I saw that a lot of people were tweeting and trying to find the sample because they "knew" it. I think that's the magic of making something that feels comfortable and a little familiar but you can't pinpoint it.
What's the importance of creating nostalgia in a beat like this?
I didn't approach it from nostalgia. I was just having a really bad day and the mood of it was the best way I could put that into something constructive.
I'd just come back to Toronto from Miami and we were at SOTA Studios. I was there with Party and Drake had come through and he was going to Atlanta for a few days to work on some stuff. This is one of the instrumentals he had taken down to Atlanta with him.
What I've always loved about this beat and this song is that it's in 3/4 time, not 4/4 common time.
I'm glad you noticed that. A lot of other producers asked me about how I made these drums or how I found this bounce without realizing it's in a different time signature. I figured out later online that this was the first time Drake had done a song in… I think 6/8 time. It was a personal win because I think the last popular song in urban music that used this time signature was Kanye's "Spaceships." I don't think there's been a lot else afterwards. No one else will notice it but for me this is important.
When did you find out this was on What a Time to Be Alive?
That day, when they had the OVO Sound Radio special, I'd been out all day so we're just hanging out in the condo. My phone was dead most of the day so as soon as we got back I plugged in my phone. My messages went insane because I guess even before they played the song, Drake had mentioned and thanked me for helping on the project. I knew nothing about any of this, I just had everyone message me with congratulations and I had no idea what for. I was just as surprised as anyone else.
YOU'VE BEEN MISSED
This is one of my favourites. For me, my attachment to songs is based more so on the stories behind them. That was actually the last song added on to [P3]. The album was already done but I'd started that idea and played it for Party. He knew exactly what he wanted to talk about and he jumped in the booth and sang that whole song.
That song is another one that's not in 4/4, right?
Yeah, that one's in 3/4. I totally forgot about that, actually. [laughs]
That kind of gives it the feeling of a classic slow jam. Were you going for that?
That's an idea me and another producer, FWDSLXSH, were working on. He's in the UK. I really like his music and I wanted to bring him in on P3 as a fan of what he's able to do. We started it as one of those old-school feeling records but finding a way to update it and make it feel current, but it is a nod to 90s R&B. I was really excited to go back to where he went in on some Jodeci melodies.
So did you guys edit down Party's performance from something longer?
Well, I don't know if people will believe this. I played the track and before the drums even came in he just looked over at me and said "I got it." So I loaded it up into Pro Tools and he stepped in the booth and he just started. He didn't hear the full beat, he just knew the vibe. We've worked together so long that he knows my sensibilities as well as I know his so he's able to do that because he knows what I intended and where I'm gonna go with it. So he literally listened to a few seconds of the beat, jumped in the booth and started singing it right away. He did go back later to refine some words.
And that kind of goes with what you said earlier about providing a space for the artist to tell a story instead of overwhelming them.
More so this time around. He has a lot more to say and he needs more room to say that stuff. Like, "Sex on the Beach" was a very busy song. There's [arpeggios] that run throughout a lot of it and there's a lot of different synths that would pop in and out and there's parts with vocals from Sam Smith in the back. Compare the instrumentation of "Sex on the Beach" to something like... "Transparency."
Yeah, "Transparency" is a really spare beat. It's almost scary to me.
The song essentially goes into moments of silence at the end of the verses. Most producers would be scared to have those moments happen. You kind of feel like you need the drums to always be knocking and you need some bass but it's me being more focused on making the song and the story matter. It allows for those moments and for them to make sense.
Phil literally waltzes in the club to "Plastic Bag." Follow him on Twitter.