Yes, I finally sat down to watch this documentary. I know, I’m late.
First, the film is so damn good, I wish I would have shot it myself. I’m mad QD3 beat me to it.
Second, the film contains ninety minutes of heavy, mind piercing ammunition and large atomic bombs of knowledge that fire in rapid succession, covering everything from the internal mindsets and attitudes necessary for success to the external situations and factors that rain down failure.
In other words, if you aspire to create success as they did (and avoid the trap of failure they ran into), reading this AND watching the film is very much worth your time (as you watch, you may mistake twinkling jewels of wisdom for mundane commentary as viewers tend to do).
If we’re smart, we use the lives of others to light a path for ourselves. With that, enjoy the unofficial CliffsNotes of the film.
“The integral part of Organized Noize is knowing how to trust your partner.” Ray (5:40)
“They believed in me and I believed in them”—Ray (11:42)
Interesting that at the very beginning of this film, we start with such simple, everyday concepts as trust and belief. Yet, if you have a production partner and/or are a part of a production team, both of these maxims, while simple, form the columns upon which aspiring producers can build something real and lasting. Imagine trying to get somewhere in this monster of a business without them. Unfortunately, many try.
And what about belief? Do you believe in your production partner? Do you believe in yourself? If you dare begin your journey without enough of that unassuming seven letter word, you’re likely to have your ass kicked by your own aspirations. Belief is integral for individuals, belief and trust are requisite for crews.
Documentarian: “What was it that you saw in them that made you want to invest?”
“What I saw was three young, talented people who were good people,” —LA Reid (33:57)
LA didn’t lead off with how much money he could earn, nor the number of hits he could make; he began with Rico, Ray, and Sleepy being good men, good men that he saw that he could work with.
We find ourselves in the chaos of creating music—we become self-absorbed in the process of creativity. Subsequently, it’s easy to forget the human elements of music: the relationship component, the vibe and energy that we cast about us as we progress through our careers. Seek to be a good person, infect others with your positive energy and aura, give off the idea that working with you is a wise decision—financially and emotionally. Morals, character, integrity—these things make up the unspoken elements of creating success in any industry, especially within music.
“A really great artist don't try to conform to what they think the people want to hear, they just do what they do, and people like it for what they are, for who they are…”—Greg Street (43:50)
Greg Street squeezes a wealth of industry knowledge into that brief statement when talking about the individual genius that Outkast and ON brought to the table separately and then the ensuing magic created through collaboration. His statement reveals a truth we understand, yet is often difficult to apply to our own creativity. Look at some of the artists we currently consider great—from Kendrick and J Cole to Gaga and Adele—these are some of the most unique, indifferent to the mainstream, “not giving a fuck about what you think is creative” artists who, across genres, continuously “do what they do.” And the consumers go batshit over them.
How do you apply this to music production? You first try to discover what it is that makes you different, then you plant that part of your music in soil, water it, give it sunshine, and let it grow until your sound diverges from the horde. In my upcoming book, DJ Khalil made mention of a similar idea, the notion of putting your whole self into your music, mastering the elements that make you unique, and then creating success because you are different, you are outside of the mediocre walls of mainstream. However, there is a balance in this, the shit still needs to be dope and the consumers still need to love it.
“Even though I had some knowledge of the business, I wasn't well versed in the business and I was making a lot of mistakes because at that point things began to pick up.” —Ian Burke (47:16)
First, it begins to rain lightly, then the drops fatten. Suddenly, thunder cracks, and it’s pouring buckets. Finally, the local rivers and banks overflow. This storm is a storm of success. The rivers and banks represent what happens when you are unprepared for that success. But instead of flooded parking lots, highways, and trapped residents, you’re trapped by ignorance and pay a heavy price as a result. Having a mindset attuned to success goes beyond simply hammering on your craft incessantly, it means educating yourself on the business before the levees of opportunity spill over. If you plan on hitting it big, you should have a plan for studying the elements of music business while you’re getting ready.
“We started growing as producers. Getting better at our craft and learning and working and growing.”—Sleepy Brown (52:09)
Craft: an art, trade, or occupation requiring special skill, especially manual skill...
I love that Sleepy used the word craft here. That’s a keyword that will pay dividends if you adopt it into your vocabulary and learn to approach the art of making music as a craft. Because crafts take time. Craft’s require training, learning, growth. You become something when you seek to master a craft.
As a producer, especially when you’re starting out, you should be obsessed with development and evolution. It should be sickening. It should annoy the people around you. They should think that you need help. And then when you rains of success fall, you don’t stop. You don’t rest. You keep going. There are world class musicians who, in their fifties and sixties, still practice every day for eight hours to continue mastery of their craft.
Are you learning, working, getting better, seeking uncomfortable experiences that force growth? Or are you doing the same shit that you always do (and doing it half-assed at that)?
“I couldn’t believe that there was a bass. And I’m like, ‘Who’s playing that bass?’ Because I didn’t hear that kind of instrumentation, and that kind of musicianship on records… To be able to do that and make it sound like a high-quality recording, c’mon, that’s what Quincy Jones does. That’s also what Organized Noize does.”—LA Reid (52:45)
“These guys were doing it differently from a lot of guys. They weren’t sampling. You had a lot of sampling going on on the East Coast, whereas Organized, they were playing a lot of their own instruments.” —Shanti Das (53:24)
First, let me say this, I love samples. Love them to death. But, ON’s musical prowess stemmed from their ability to step outside of the sample box and develop incredible records with real, live instrumentation. We talked earlier about honing in on those elements that make you unique amongst the crowd. This was ON’s secret sauce. Does this mean that every producer needs to drop what they’re doing and learn to play trumpet? Not at all. But, my question to you is this: what happens when you practice your ability to coach a trumpet player to recreate the sounds you hear in your head? If you want to get literal, that is actually what production really is. Playing instruments or coaching musicians are elements that you can add into your creativity, creating new musical abilities that turn you into a musical monster and help separate you from the pack.
“...musicians come in when you just need somebody to do something better than what you would be able to do...—Joi (55:26)
The fiery combination of ego and ignorance keep many producers from seeking help—hell, I was one of those producers back when I was attempting to make music. You are not superman. Nor are you supposed to be. Growing beyond your own sense of self-importance and rugged individualism can go a long way toward knocking your production level up a few notches. As you evolve as a music creator, it becomes crucial to outsource parts of your production to people who excel in those parts. But it cannot be done if ego and pride block the way.
“I had to really say that was totally not what I saw, but totally what needed to be. And so I gotta appreciate your genius on that because I would have done a safer thing, you feel me, if it was coming totally from me. Because we have three minds working together, we are able, most of the time, to be outside of where one person can be and actually appeal to more people.”—Ray (1:02:58)
Here, Ray describe a joint he was working on for an MC that Sleepy came in and heard and suggested that it would be a far doper record if En Vogue got on it. Without Sleepy’s interjection, Ray would not have envisioned such a radical song. The record in question turned into a Grammy nominated, platinum selling record—an R&B classic from the 90s. As DJ Khalil said in my book, what we experience today is not true production. Today’s version of production is an aberration of a process that was inherently collaborative. But see what someone’s else's musical perspective can do to a song, how it can push the creativity into an unintended direction and turn into an everlasting piece of sonic genius?
“...and let everybody know that they wasn't just hip hop producers but that they produced real records...”—BIG BOI (1:03:14)
You have a member of arguably the greatest hip hop duo ever using the word “just” before the phrase “hip hop producer.” Think about the other phrase used too: “real records.” Well, the truth is, there is a stigma behind being a hip hop producer. It’s subtle, but it’s there, like a hint of vanilla baked into your favorite chocolate cake.
Is there something wrong with being “just” a hip hop producer? Not at all. But know, many within the industry environment may pass judgement, may decide that being a hip hop producer isn’t enough, that making hip hop beats does nothing to make you unique as a creator of music. You may not earn their respect until you can go in the studio with a Future and a Bruno Mars. But, you have to decide if that’s a part of your vision. If only working within hip hop, or working solely with rappers, or only working in trap is your vision, then by all means, live it out, and fuck a “just.” If you aspire to work with Future and a Bruno Mars and an Ariana Grande, then be annoyed by the word “just” and do what you must to add those dimensions to your ability. But first and foremost, you must have a vision for what you want to be.
“It’s intoxicating...it’s seductive...it’s alluring...it’s what you dream about...it’s what you fantasize about and then to have it. And you’re about 25?”—Joi Gilliam (1:07:10)
To maintain the same work ethic that brought success in the first place while modestly enjoying that success is a difficult feat, one that requires unbelievable discipline, discipline that Sleepy, Ray, and Rico could not maintain at the same time.
Some of you reading this piece will inevitably climb the peaks of your own mountain, encountering your dreams at the top. And you will remember the story of ON and dig deep to increase your level of discipline so that you are up to the difficult task of maintaining the appropriate balance. To continue:
"When everything really got cracking, it was a lot of work to do… I was a little overwhelmed.”—Ray (1:08)
“Once we started making a lot of money, we stopped being around each other and working together a lot.”—Rico (1:08:05)
“I wish we were a little more focused, or, I was a little more focused.”—Sleepy (1:08:23)
Their success spawned a seductive hydra with heads of drugs, women, ego, separation, disorder, and neglect, with each of those heads combining to extinguish their flame much sooner than anticipated.
I think the quotes speak for themselves and I think those quotes isolated above as they are will make you pause and think should you one day find yourself in a position of “making it.”
We spend so much time watching for failure that we overlook the dangers of success. Everything can be an enemy.
“When you're doing this work and you're working with your head down for 10 years making great music, you never, not once for a moment...think that that moment is gonna end. But one day the phone stops ringing… You're only gonna be significant for so long and that's just the way it is.”—Dee Dee Hibbler (1:23:50)
The mortality of the production career. Being who I am and the nature of my subject material—creating success as a producer, the ingredients to the recipe of longevity—I struggle with this subject. But maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe it's ok for the wave of success to reside. Maybe music production is more like the NFL where the average career is 3.3 years. If you can go for five, or ten, excellent, but eventually you have to retire and move into the next phase of your life. Not something I want to type; not something you want to hear, but maybe this is really what it is.
On the other hand, there are many who manage to keep the ball rolling for years, some high profile, many low. To do this, observe the lessons from those who’ve come before you. Avoid the traps that snared ON and never be a willing conspirator in shortening your time in the game by adopting a weak mindset and/or poor habits.
Which takes us to a related point:
- “The way we make music changed”
- “....when all that music sped back up”
- “...the challenges of trying to recreate yourself, stay relevant...”
I dedicated an entire chapter to this phenomenon in my upcoming book. As you escape the traps, understand that the evolving nature of the music industry will always be your enemy: the change in sound, the evolution of technology, the young producers who used to look up to you who unintentionally make you obsolete.
You must maintain relevancy from musical period change to musical period change. Because for many, changes in tech or in the tastes of consumers will signal the end of your era. But you put yourself in better positions to succeed by absorbing information like this so you can meet the wave when it rises. Master your craft, focus on what makes you unique, have a plan for the inevitable evolution of popular music.
In Ray’s final commentary before the credits, he dropped two bombs before metaphorically dropping the mic:
“Learn how to read what the fuck you're signing… To get in, you have to give away certain shit...”—Ray (1:38:04)
The first part, well, no commentary needed there. You know this. Whether or not you’re going to whip out a few books or interview a lawyer or two, that will be entirely up to you.
The second quote… Every transaction in life is exchange. I want your sandwich, you want my money. Getting in the door of the business will many times require you to give something away, which doesn’t bode well for many of you who hold your beats tight to your chest, white-knuckled and paranoid. If you’ve educated yourself, if you have a long-term vision, you’re in a better position to gauge which sacrifices make sense for your career, whether that be ghost-producing or giving away beats or entertaining a suspicious song deal. But without knowledge and vision, how do you know what’s worth the exchange, worth giving away to get inside? I leave you with that question. I hope this was helpful.
Do dope things.