Arthur McArthur Is The Unknown Architect Behind the Sound of Toronto

The Toronto producer went from making Drake's "Uptown" to literally living in the studio, but now he's Grammy-nominated and basking in the LA sun.

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Feb 3 2015, 4:45pm

Although he’s moved out to Los Angeles to work with artists like Big Boi, Rick Ross, and Wiz Khalifa, Grammy-nominated producer Arthur McArthur frequently finds himself flying back to the place he calls home. “Toronto is my favorite city,” says McArthur, who grew up in "the six" and has seen the city reach a musical apex during the past decade, opening the doors for artists in the process. Having quite literally started from the bottom with Drake, he became a part of the city’s musical ascension in landing a spot on the 2009 mixtape So Far Gone with “Uptown." “I had nothing but support, I am lucky in that way where everyone encouraged me and told me that I was going to make it.” After a long time of grinding to get where he’s at now, McArthur is still figuring out what it really means to have “made it.”

McArthur’s first musical inspirations came from the unlikely pairing of Bach, Beethoven, and Debussy. After years of formal piano training and reaching the level that comes just before professional certification, McArthur dropped out. “I went through a period of consciously trying to forget everything about classical music, I started smoking a lot of pot. I wanted to be alternative Jimi Hendrix.” Realizing that Bob Dylan or Hendrix didn’t need the approval of formal training to be professional, he started to grow his hair long, picked up Guitar for Dummies and revisited a love for hip-hop found in the old faithful album The Blueprint. While trying to unearth a more innate connection to music, and playing around with Garageband in his high school’s mini-lab, he discovered a talent for producing, something that brought his musicality to the surface.

But as an 18-year-old leaving high school and facing the question, “what are you going to do with your life," McArthur steered off the producing route and spent a year studying Western Civilizations. After his apartment burned down, which he took as a sign from above telling him to get his shit together, McArthur left academia and found his way back to music in jazz piano at Toronto’s Humber College, which is known for its elite music program. In all his uncertainty of his future, McArthur stayed in touch with other producers in Toronto, including one of the most prominent, Boi-1da, who he faced head to head at Battle of the Beat Makers, resulting in a friendly rivalry. Despite their competitive spirit, Boi-1da called McArthur into Toronto occasionally for studio sessions‚one of which combined McArthur's knowledge of the keys to create a Billy Joel-esque inspired beat of New Orleans for Lil Wayne. Distracted from school, McArthur stopped attending classes to take studio sessions in his dorm room, which caught the unfortunate attention of the keyboard department head. “If you want to pass your grade, you have to practice eight hours every single day,” the teacher threatened. In the same week, McArthur received a break that clarified his perplexed and liminal state. Drake loved the beat they had made for Wayne so much he kept it for his own mixtape. It then became clear that he had to drop out of school to do what he was best at and get paid; “fuck playing jazz piano on a cruise ship, I can make my own music.”

Hyped on the adrenaline of finding his passion, McArthur left everything to return to Toronto only to find himself at the most deprived point of his life. Choosing whether to develop his art or live comfortably, he decided to rent out a studio while sleeping on a couch and sneaking into hotel gyms to shower. “It was a formative period, I was doing a lot of work on myself too, in addition to music.” It was in this time that McArthur was able to exert his own musical limits by broadening his sounds and incorporating his own formal training, as well as challenging his own physical limitations in having a lack of necessity. Living solely on broccoli, every dollar earned would go to the studio rent so that could always have a place to make music, regardless of the instability of his situation. He began to send beats to local artists, and one by one, people began to take notice of his distinct ability to musically chameleon in a diverse range of genres. With a positive reception to his work, he began earning enough money off his beats to move into what he affectionately calls “the octagon,” a tiny room just big enough for a bed, shared with his long time friend and collaborator Addy Papa, manager of Toronto rap artist, Rich Kidd. Staying thankful even living in tight quarters, McArthur developed his art with a holistic mindset of combining his formal training in classical and jazz piano, a love of hip-hop, and his own introspective wind in rising from hardship.

In affording a place to rest his head and pushing himself out there with some of the country’s rappers, JD Era, Son Real, and Rich Kidd, McArthur’s name reverberated in the music industry and echoed back with work flooding in. Not only focussed on local projects, McArthur expanded to Los Angeles to assist with production for a few emerging artists at the time including the track “My House” on Big Sean’s debut album Finally Famous. “I knew it was time for me to move out. I love Toronto, but work-wise, everything is in LA.” With support from his frequent collaborators Addy and Boi-1da, McArthur reached out to Juan Madrid, a publisher from Warner Chapell. Madrid immediately recognized McArthur’s potential, and before the ink was even dry he had set McArthur up with four placements, loaned him the means to move out to the west coast, and plugged his beats to Rick Ross’ camp getting him featured on two tracks on the 2012 mixtape, Rich Forever: "Mine Games" and "MMG Untouchable." What Madrid saw in McArthur’s prospect was above and beyond, “most publishers act like the bank, they give you an advance and disappear, but I was lucky enough to find a publisher that believed, works really hard and still works with me.”

After working with Rick Ross, he found himself playing piano for one of his childhood idols, Big Boi, and producing the track “Raspberries” on Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors. McArthur developed an ongoing collaborative relationship with Wiz Khalifa while working on the intro to ONIFC which unfortunately didn’t get cleared due to a Beck sample, but still fostered an ongoing energy between the artists. The juxtaposition of going from living nomadically in Toronto to working with the most established hip-hop acts in LA is something that McArthur always draws back on. “Drake opened the doors, and now, there are people in Toronto really going for it. I’ve had meetings with people in LA who have told me it’s because of Drake. They told me that they wouldn’t have been taking this meeting with me if I wasn’t from Toronto.” McArthur’s diversity in the repertoire of artists he’s worked with comes as a result of his classical training, as it’s resulted in him working with everyone from Kevin Gates to Kelly Rowland.

The musical relationship he cultivated Wiz Khalifa flourished in 2014, when the McArthur-produced track “The Sleaze” garnered the nominated of one of music’s greatest accolades, a Grammy Nomination this year for “Best Rap Album” on Blacc Hollywood. This year, McArthur takes on the role of executive producer as well, coaching Toronto’s L The 12th Letter as he creates his debut album. McArthur began working with the artist after he was inspired by the determined attitude of the young rapper, especially in resemblance to his own, “L’s putting everything on the line. He’s so committed, and not only for himself, but he wants to make a program for kids to educate them of what they’re passionate about. He can also rap his ass off.” McArthur retains his humility by taking a step back to constantly reexamine his own pursuits as a producer. “This year, I had the feeling that I wasn’t doing what I wanted. The Grammy nomination was a great reminder that I’m on the right track, but I wanted to refocus back on some technicalities of music and do my own thing.” 2015 marks a new chapter in McArthur’s endeavors. He’s onto the polishing stages of his own EP, described as “gorgeous turn up music,” a new instrumental project which he garners full creative control of, and positivity for the future ventures. “A lot of producers release stuff out of a place of frustration with the industry – I don’t want to be that guy. I want to present something I’m excited about and that I love.” In retrospect, McArthur doesn’t live in regret, but rather reaps all of his experiences into a fruitful journey towards independence. “I don’t want to just be along for the ride as a producer, I want to be there. I want to change the tone of hip-hop, politically, and make it a positive for everyone trying to make it.”

Evelyn Kwong is a writer living in Toronto - @EVWHOS20