‘Kanye was like ‘Yo, who is this? I need this’: An interview with S1
Interview by Karan Teli
When I sat down, getting ready to talk to somebody who has worked with some of music’s biggest and best names, not to mention producing on my favourite album of all time, there was 4745 miles between the two of us. There I was; in London, while he was in Dallas, both of us in our respective living rooms; two rooms I can imagine that are very, very different in size. Even though our living rooms (and probably our lives) are completely different, as we began talking on Skype Audio, there was one clear similarity: a love of music.
Larry Griffin Jr. Symbolyc One. S1. Throughout our 37 minute conversation, we discuss how his upbringing channelled his love for music, his personal experiences from working with Kanye West and Beyoncé, the importance, or lack thereof, of the Grammys and from the huge catalogue of historic and legendary artists that he has worked with, any names which he wants to add to the list.
14HQ: So, we know that you, along with your cousin, came onto the scene as part of Strange Fruit Project, named after the classic Billie Holiday song. Why did you guys choose that name? Did you guys like the way it sounded or is there a deeper meaning?
S1: It kind of was both those reasons. We wanted a name that made a statement. That song, as you know, is powerful. We used that name to represent the struggle that we had as artists and as people.
Is that the type of music you grew up listening to? Who were some of the first artists you remember listening to where you fell in love with music?
I grew up listening to a lot of 70’s music. Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Earth Wind and Fire. A whole collage of different artists. They all had messages and substance within their music. My parents would be playing them and then give me an old record. Music was uplifting, but also manipulative, about how it can make you feel a certain way.
Around what age did you learn that music was your calling and what you wanted to do with your life? Did you ever have a backup plan or different career path in case music didn’t work?
Growing up I was always intrigued by music, but it wasn’t until I graduated from High School, or my senior year, where me and my cousin created Strange Fruit Project, where I said to myself ‘music is going to be my life.’ Before that, I wanted to be a physical therapist. I never had a backup plan though. I worked jobs, everything from retail to restaurants to mailrooms, in order to pay bills and get studio time. These jobs taught me I wanted to do music more than anything.
After releasing ‘From Divine’ in 2002, for 8 years, it was mostly working either on solo projects or Strange Fruit Project albums. Then all of a sudden, to most people anyway, here you are credited with producing one of the singles on what is widely known as the best album of the past 20 years. Simply out, how did producing Power for Kanye come around?
It was a process. Steps that lead to other steps. Strange Fruit was my foundation. I was getting better and better at what I do. The underground success of Strange Fruit led me to Ghostface Killah, and that led me to Rhymefest, to work on his album. Rhymefest played my beats for Kanye one time, and Kanye was like ‘Yo who is this. I need this’. Next thing you know, I’m on a plane to Hawaii. The whole flight I was wondering ‘man, what the hell is going on’. My brain was on 200 the entire time.
Were you in the studio with him while the beat was being created or he was laying down his verses?
The beat for Power was actually played for Kanye by Rhymefest. He already recorded some vocals by the time I got there. Completely different to what came out though. That was the original demo version.
Of course, on SNL, he performed the song with a completely different verse. Does he do this with a lot of his music, in your experience?
All the time. There are tons of verses that didn’t make it. For Power, there’s 8 or 9 version of the song itself. Kanye works in phases and stages. ‘I want it like this. No, I want it like this’. He works like that. People are always coming in to contribute. You never know what’s going to make the final cut. The he fine tunes and picks the best.
What was the vibe like back then working with Kanye? Public image and the media make 2010 Kanye and today’s Kanye seem so different. But you worked with him again for Watch The Throne and even Yeezus. From someone who knows and worked with him personally, has he changed?
Around the time when I was really working with him, it was just amazing. His passion is amazing and inspiring. I love throwing ideas at him. He’ll always ask ‘Yo S, what you think of this?’ He’s always tryna get the best from everybody. It’s been a while since we worked together, but it was amazing during My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne sessions. Hawaii was straight Dark Fantasy. For WTT we went to London and Australia. Then it got finished in New York. The song I did that ended up on Yeezus, I forget the name…
That’s the one. That was actually from a Watch The Throne session and Kanye was like ‘I’m gonna keep this for my album’.
Kanye is on a lot of peoples bucket list to work with. So is Beyoncé. You’ve ticked them both off. How did the Beyoncé collaboration come about, and what was that like? What was it like working on Pop, which at the time, seemed completely different to what you were used to doing?
The working relationship with Beyonce starting during Watch The Throne, because she was always there. It was just a natural progression for us to work together creatively. That led me to flying out to New York to work on ‘4’. I did around 4 or 5 songs, and Best Thing I Never Had was one that made it. For the approach, it’s always the same. I always wanted to keep some type of Hip-Hop foundation. I wanted my beat to still have a Hip-Hop presence, that’s why the drums are crunchy the way they are on that song. But the approach is the same. It was all about understanding the arrangement for Pop music.
You clearly seem to have a knack for it, as here you are 6 years later with an album of the year nomination for Melodrama. Congratulations by the way. As someone who has been in the scene for well over a decade, what are your thoughts on the Grammys? Do you see artists needing them for validation or has that long gone, or was that ever even the case?
I think it’s one of those things where it’s good to have one, but having one doesn’t reflect how good you are. There are great artists that have never won or even been nominated. That doesn’t reflect the music or the purpose behind the music. The Grammy is a trophy, everybody wants to win at something. It’s kind of a thing where people want it to solidify their music as having a trophy. The perception of having a Grammy is more than what it actually means.
I’m sure you would agree Hip-Hop is definitely the biggest genre in the world right now..
Yet, the new generation do seem to get a lot of slack from the ‘older generation.’ What are your thoughts on the current state of Hip-Hop and where the genre is at?
I think it’s in a good space. The difference is, are we talking commercial or not. There is lots of dope albums out there and people making real music, but when you listen to the radio, it’s overshadowed by the popular or typical sound. There are a lot of great albums out there.
Are you still signed to VERY GOOD BEATS?
I actually left in 2013. I’m not signed to anyone. Being signed was cool man. I wouldn’t change anything. I learnt a lot around Kanye, both creatively and business wise too.
Looking at your twitter bio I see a lot of names. Kanye, Beyoncé, Jay, Madonna, Drake, Eminem. I know you’ve worked with 50 Cent, The Game, Pusha T and Raekwon. There’s a whole list of legends there. But, is there anybody in your 15 years you haven’t worked with that you want to?
That’s a great question. Rihanna. Definitely Rihanna. I have no idea what lane I’d go with her. I’ll just vibe with her and see what happens. So many dope artists out there. Kendrick of course. I’ve got songs with Kendrick, but they’ve never been released on his albums.
In 2017 we’ve seen you on Melodrama and on one of the standouts form More Life. What have you got in store for next year? Anyone that you’re working with that is particularly exciting?
I’m working on a lot of pop stuff actually. MØ, X Ambassadors, they’re super dope. I executive produced the new Royce Da 5’9 album. I worked on some new Lupe Fiasco records. Dope stuff is coming. I’m bouncing around in different places, but I’m still urban.