From Viola Trills to Chicago Drill, Meet D. Brooks Exclusive, the Hip-Hop Producer with a Classical Ear

The producer, who's rubbed shoulders with both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and some of the hardest drill rappers in Chicago, breaks down his best beats.

Oct 20 2014, 3:53pm

A few weeks ago, I talked to Dreezy, one of Chicago’s most exciting new rappers, and learned about D. Brooks Exclusive, the producer who was almost solely responsible for the beats on her first mixtape, Schizo. With a background playing viola, D. Brooks had the distinction of being the rare artist who has rubbed shoulders with both the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and some of the hardest rappers in Chicago. The 26-year old has produced for a list of rappers that includes King Louie, Lil Herb, Lil Durk, Common, Do or Die, and Benzino. He also handles the bulk of production work for Dreezy and Chicago's KD Young Cocky, who have joint agreements with his new music group, The Winners Circle.

D. Brooks Exclusive, or Wadell Brooks, grew up on the South Side of Chicago but moved around a fair amount, spending some time in Norfolk, Virginia; Orlando, Florida; and Jackson and Natchez, Mississippi. He comes from a musical family: His mom sang in a music group when she was young, and his dad plays the piano and saxophone. Brooks, too, has a deep aptitude for music. Around the age of three, he began playing the piano, and soon after he picked up the drums as well, learning both instruments by ear. When he was in high school, he received his first formal training in string instruments and learned how to play the violin, viola, and cello. He was first chair for viola—for those unfamiliar, first chair means you’re the best—and along with a few members of his class, he was invited at one point to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Brooks started making beats in high school, but he didn’t take his production work seriously until Kanye West released The College Dropout in 2004, which, according to Brooks, became his driving force. After high school, Brooks went on to study audio production at Chicago’s Columbia College for two years. While at Columbia College, he studied some music theory, which helped with the technical side of music, teaching him how to read and write all the things he could already do by ear.

Every aspect of Brooks’s background factors into how he views and creates beats. Moving around in his youth helped shape his conceptual outlook on making music, exposing him to new sounds and people. He uses his classical training and understanding of musical theory as a tool when he’s producing, creating sounds that speak to the lyricist’s mood. Recently, Brooks worked on KD’s new project, Smoking Right Now: Worst Enemy, which came out in August, and the two are now working on the upcoming follow-up, Smoking Right Now. I called Brooks up in Chicago to learn more about his music and background. I also had him explain some of his beats for Dreezy to me through more of a theory lens and break down how, musically, a beat might make you listen more closely to what the rapper is saying.

Have you ever used your viola on a track?
Once, a long time ago, but I don’t think it ever came out. I want to get into using it more, but I haven’t really because I haven’t moved into my new studio yet.

I think what was so good about your work on Schizo is that you’re able to mold your sound around her lyrics.
That’s about being able to be in different places and see different things and hear different kinds of music. I knew I didn’t want to just get sucked into one type of sound because working with Dreezy—her music and what she talks about, it speaks to a lot of people, it doesn’t speak to just one culture or one type of person. I wanted to make sure that that was shown in the beats too, and make her message and portray her story the right way with each song.

It’s unusual for a hip-hop producer—even if it’s once—to play with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. How do you relate your classical training to producing beats?
It just depends on what kind of song I’m doing, but like different songs have different moods to them. If it’s a song with Dreezy, for instance, that she’s getting real personal on, I’ll try to make sure that the mood of the music will fit that. Usually songs like that have some type of classical feel to it, just because of how the song will feel in general.

Do you see any connections between hip-hop and classical music, in Chicago and in general?
Yeah, definitely. A lot of the drill music, trap music, a lot of that comes from classical strings and forms, like the hard bass. It’s definitely a similarity between classical and hip-hop music, whether the producers know or not.

What would you say is the difference between a major and minor chord?
Usually a song that’s in a major chord, you’ll feel happier and want to dance to it. Minor chords, it’s kind of like a darker mood. A song in a minor chord, I put it like this: You’ll probably want to listen to the lyrics more and listen to what is being said. Songs in major chords, you’ll probably want to dance to them more.

Walk me through the process behind the songs off Schizo.

One of my favorite songs was “Bad Habit” because the music was all real, so when we went into working on it, we didn’t just sit down like ‘let’s put something together. ‘It was more like that’s how she was feeling at the time. You hear me say the mood of the music a lot because I try to make sure that everything is on point; I believe music is about feeling. When you listen to music, you should feel it. I wanted to make sure that the mood fit the actual mood that she was in at the time, that she really felt that way.

So it was like that: I used minor chords because that’s kind of like a darker sound. I think that song was maybe in the key of C, C minor. The minor chords fit the story she was saying.

“All The Time,” that was a little more open. That was minor chords too, but it was a little more open and less dark—it was kind of dark, but it wasn’t sad dark. I don’t remember what key that song was in, but it was kind of monotone. One chord all the way through, just to let her get off on the lyrical side. I didn’t really want to do too much with the beat because what she was rapping about, I wanted people to really take away her lyrics from that song. She says a lot in it.

Do you listen to what she says and then make a beat around it or do you guys work together?
Usually when we make a song, we’ll be in the studio and ask, like how is she feeling right there? Right then and there, that’s what we’ll make. I wouldn’t say I listen to the words, but I just have a feel already for what the song is gonna be like, and we’ll make it together.

“Schizophrenia”? That was dope. That’s how she was feeling at the time, and I wanted that to sound a little more...I don’t really know the right way to explain it, but it’s like you can make people feel a certain way with different chords. You can make somebody feel happy, sad, aggressive. I wanted people to not feel sad but to feel where she was coming from with the chords. Not really so much depressing or sad but just like, what she was saying was real heartfelt. It was a minor chord. It was a lot of like minor sevens, so that it wasn’t so dark.

That was more like a monotone, minor chord all the way through. Just one chord all the way through with maybe one other transition chord. And there was like hard, aggressive sounds in there, so the point of that was just to show that she can go hard with anybody. She wasn’t just a female rapper, she’s a rapper.

On a different note, I did “Heard It All” in a major chord. It gave it like a happy bounce feel.

The main thing that I like to encourage with an artist, when I’m part of a record, is that it’s got to be authentic to them. That’s the main thing that I want to portray in my music, is that it’s authentic. It’s not representing nothing that the artist is not really about. That’s what I take pride in with my music because then it’s real.

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