When speaking with !llmind, it’s easy to forget his resume. The New Jersey producer has sold heaters to the likes of 50 Cent, Scarface and Little Brother; and he has limited edition clothing items with “legitimate fashion companies” in the works.
But it’s much easier to understand how he worked with high school students for two years as a music production teacher with Harlem Children’s Zone, or why New York University pegged him for another teaching position in 2010. !llmind brims with confidence, but he seems to still have the drive and humility he had when posting beats on a message board earned him a spot in The Beat Society, where he showcased his beats alongside Kanye West, 88-Keys and others. In an interview with HipHopDX Producer’s Corner, he talks about the importance of building relationships, why mixtape work is as important as album work, and the joys of teaching.
HipHopDX: Talk about The Beat Society experience. What made that moment in time so special, and how do you think production has changed since then? Do you think Kanye West and Just Blaze still carry that essence?
!llmind: Beat Society back then was a relatively new concept by the guys at Soulspazm Records and Hezekiah, in Philly. It was a showcase where you have four producers on stage with various equipment, and they showcase their beats for the crowd and people just vibe off of them. Back then, I was posting my music over at UndergroundHipHop.com, and one of the guys at Soulspazm was feeling what he heard, so he asked me if I wanted to do the Beat Society showcase. When I went out to Philly, I think in 2001, it was the third Beat Society show they were doing. I was on the bill with Kanye West, 88-Keys and Fury. Back then, I didn’t have any sort of production credits under my belt. It was a great experience to be up there with guys like Kanye and 88, playing beats and vibing off of them. it really solidified the fact that I shold be producing; really one of those moments that changed my whole outlook on the beat game and producing, and showed me how serious the career is. It was a life-changing moment for me, because from then on, I decided I was going to take production on as a career.
It was much different back then. Back then, there weren’t battles out there as much as they were doing it today. It was thet first live event to showcase producers. It had that excitement because it was new. I feel like nowadays, a lot of these producer showcases are taking their model. Beat Society is where it all started.
DX: Do you think production is more competitive now than it was then? Not in terms of who all can get involved, but in the aspect of trying to outdo other produces in the space of competition.
!llmind: That’s definitely there, and it was definitely there at the Beat Society events. But 9th Wonder really said it best in [a recent] interview: producers are like a fraternity. Like anything else, it’s competitive, but at the same time, most of us influence each other and there’s a level of respect. When you’re in that live setting, you want to be the best that you can be. But the Beat Society/producer showcase thing differentiates itself from the battle, because in a battle, your goal is to win over the crowd and have the best beats. But in the showcase, you’re there showing your art. It’s a little bit different, but I agree, that competitive nature is always going to be there to be the best that you can be.
DX: As a Jersey guy, what's been the impact of working so much with El Da Sensei of The Artifacts, especially early in your career?
!llmind: !Hooking up with El [Da Sensei] was a beautiful thing, especially being from Jersey. That was a great connect. Growing up, I’ve always been a fan of The Artifacts. Not only being from Jersey, but getting the chance to work with somebody like El was definitely a pleasure on my part. I feel like it was a great connect, we made some great music, and I was glad to get the feedback that we did from the one song we put out, the “Crowd Pleaser” joint. Hopefully in the future we’ll have more records coming out. That was definitely a big Jersey thing to me.
DX: You seemed to be accepted into the Duck Down and Justus League families as a producer. How should producers go about getting into close-knit, maybe regional squads like that, that have been around for years?
!llmind: First of all, you have to think about how compeititve the production game is nowadays. What you really have to focus on is how you as a producer can brand yourself and make your mark and find your niche. I was able to form a relationship with the guys over at Duck Down because me and Dru Ha had a few mutual friends, but at the same time, I was putting out records that were in that same lane. I started working with Little Brother early on; even before The Listening came out, I was down with Little Brother and 9th and Khrysis. That manifested itself in the Duck Down relationship. Me staying consistent and making the best music that I can, I was able to get with the guys over at Duck Down, and they liked the music I was making. We decided to keep that working relationship going, and we made some great music.
So it’s finding that niche and knowing where your sound is headed. At the time I knew my shit was good enough for Duck Down. I was familiar with what they were doing, I’ve been a fan of Black Moon and Heltah Skeltah for a while, so I knew what they were looking for. I did what I needed to do. The most important thing as a producer is knowing what kind of music you’re making, knowing your crowd, and knowing who to pitch your beats to. If you have some shit for Duck Down, do some shit you know that they’ll like.
DX: How did those relationships impact your career?
!llmind: Everything in the production game is about relationships. Who you network with, your relationships, and how valuable you feel your music is. My relationships with Little Brother, Duck Down, and various others have lead to other opportunities that you wouldn’t even expect. Relationships are everything. If you have a working relationship with one person, it can lead to something else, and the network grows from there. I credit my relationship with Duck Down to the fact that I was down with Little Brother early on. … Build relationships, and don’t burn bridges. That’s all it’s about.
DX: Perhaps your biggest work was on Scarface's album Emeritus. Talk to us about that situation. How did it happen? What did it mean to you?
!llmind: It was definitely a pleasure to be on [Emeritus ]. Everybody knows Scarface; he’s an O.G. who’s been in the game for a minute, and he’s highly respected. That came through being managed by Sha Money XL; when I was managed by him, he sent Scarface’s camp some of my music, and he liked what he heard, so he got down and that was it. It was history. It’s not that deep, it was pretty simple how that happened. But it meant a lot to me, and it was good to be on that album.
DX: Do you think it'll be Scarface's last album?
!llmind: Oh, definitely not. He’s working on another album, from what I’ve heard. He knew that from the jump. But that’s a good thing; more Scarface music, I’m not mad at that.
DX: You hadn't worked with a lot of 'Face's peers, so what do you think made you appealing to the Rap-A-Lot A&R's?
!llmind: One thing was being down with Sha Money XL. Him being my manager at the time. I was mindful of the types of artists that were out there looking for music. Both of those beats that made the album were beats I had G-Unit in mind for, so it kind of worked out. I was in a creative space at the time where I was making a lot of G-Unit stuff and doing those hard street records. I think it was just timing. That was the sound Scarface was looking for while doing that album, and he scooped two from me.
DX: You work frequently on mixtapes. When should a producer know a good opportunity from a free-rider?
!llmind: There’s producers out there that want to get paid for their work. Which makes sense, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But people ouot there have to understand that when you do a record with somebody, and you think that people will hear that record, there’s no reason you as a producer to not want that record to come out for the masses to hear. I’ll use Juelz Santana as an example. If Juelz uses one of your beats for a mixtape and he doesn’t pay you, that’s okay, because you’re getting promotion out of that. You’re getting your name out there as a producer, and you’re getting a production credit to further your career. The mixtape game isn’t bad. It’s promotion for you, and as a producer, you need to be smart about taking advantage of that in your own way.
Money will talk. But, there’s nothing better than getting production credit and getting your name out there in any way that you can. It’s all preference; you’ve got to pick and choose your battles with how that comes along.
DX: How do you dictate what art and effort goes into albums versus mixtapes?
!llmind: The whole mixtape thing is really saturated right now, and people are doing the whole mixtape before the album thing. People do their own thing and that’s cool, I don’t mind if. But when I do my shit, whether it’s a mixtape or a free download or a compilation, I’m thinking about doing album-worthy stuff. I don’t like doing the whole “Here’s a free teaser mixtape” thing, that’s not me. Any kind of music I put out personally, I want to be at a certain level of quality. That’s where it’s at for me.
DX: The 2Pac Nu-Mixx release got a lot of negative feedback for both its integrity and its sound, but your contribution some legitimacy to it. What were your reasons for submitting work, and was the experience a positive one?
!llmind: It was a blessing. At the time, Sha Money was managing me, and I was working with [G-Unit A&R] D-Prosper at the time. He said Koch Records was coming out with another 'Pac remix record, and he asked me if I wanted to take a shot at one of them. He sent me a few acapellas, I did a few remixes, and that was the version that made the cut. We cut the check, and that was that. As far as the legitimacy thing, it is what it is. There were a lot of great remixes on there—Jake One had a remake on there, and a few other people. At the time, it was an interesting project to work on at the time, and I’m glad I did it.
DX: What do you do with Harlem Children’s Zone?
!llmind: Harlem Children’s Zone is a nonprofit organization in New York, one of the biggest on the east coast. I’ve worked there for two and a half years. I got hired there, and I taught music production. It was an after school program for high school kids in Harlem, where they come in the facility for two hours two days a week. I taught them how to read music, a little bit about music business, some Hip Hop history. So it was a culmination of a lot of different things: history of production, history of Hip Hop, elements of Hip Hop, and a little bit of music business. It was definitely a fun class, kids enjoyed it, and I was there for two and a half years.
When I got hired, he literally had four or five decent laptops with Fruity Loops. I was able to bring it from that to 20 Mac computers with mini-keyboards, Reazon, Serato, etc. It was cool to work with the people at Harlem Children’s Zone to take that to another level, so that was really special to me.
DX: You start teaching at NYU soon also, right?
!llmind: Yeah. I start teaching at NYU in February. It’s a Saturday class called Future Music Moguls. It’s definitely a step up in my music production teaching career, and I’m looking forward to it. I’ve been planning the lessons these past few months, I feel like it’s going to be a great class, and I look forward to growing with NYU and seeing where it takes me.
DX: Who’s going to be easier, the kids or the NYU students?
!llmind: NYU, I already know will be a hell of a lot easier. I love my kids in Harlem, but they’re pretty crazy man. When you’re a high school kid, there’s a lot going on. Sometimes you’re in class, and you don’t really know what you want, so you’re just kind of in there feeling it out, so there’s not much discipline there. Whereas at NYU, there’s a screening process and everything. It’ll be easier, but there’s definitely going to be some challenges, but it’s all good.
DX: 9th Wonder teaches a college course also, right?
!llmind: Yeah, I believe he taught Hip Hop 101 over at North Carolina Central University. But I heard he’s teaching at Duke now.
DX: I was asking because I figured you guys may have had conversations where you trade tips about teaching.
!llmind: We spoke a few times about it really early on, but that’s probably a conversation we should have in the near future. But 9th’s a busy man, it’s hard to get on the phone with that guy. We’re both doing our thing, and we’re all the way out here. But that conversation needs to take place.
DX: Are there any specific music teachers or mentors that you’ve had that you think of when you’re teaching?
!llmind: I’m going to be honest, man: not really. I went to college for something completely different. I did computer information systems and networking, so the computer technology realm was where I was at. When I was going to school, I didn’t have music courses, I didn’t have a production teacher to show me the ropes. But that’s what I think is special about the NYU program and the Harlem Children’s Zone. It’s giving these kids an opportunity to have classes like this that I didn’t have years ago.
But one dude that inspired me the most and got me moving forward with taking production seriously was definitely J. Dilla, rest in peace. He wasn’t my mentor, but listening to his music sparked something in me back in ’97, ’98 when Slum Village's Fantastic Vol. 2 came out and the Pharcyde records and [A Tribe Called Quest] records. Really, if it wasn’t for Dilla, I wouldn’t be doing production like that.
DX: What you said about producers being a fraternity made a lot of sense, because on your Twitter, you interact with a lot of other producers. Who would you say is in your inner circle of producers, whether it’s personal friendships or just producers that you really respect?
!llmind: There’s a handful of cats. There’s people I’ve known for years and years who have been nasty on the beats, and so under the radar. There’s M-Phazes over in Australia, I’ve known his shit as long as I’ve been posting on UndergroundHipHop.com, since 2000. He’s been ridiculous on the beats, and I’m glad he’s getting some shine now. DJ Khalil, Needlz, Slop Funk Dust from Florida, Frank Dukes from Toronto. Justus League, Tha Bizness, Khrysis, Marco Polo. These guys have been had crazy beats for a minute. These are the guys that keep me on my toes. They make quality shit, and they’re bringing that fresh sound to the game. That’s the stuff I like.
DX: On your Twitter page, you said you wanted to expand the !llmind sound outside of Hip Hop. How are you doing that?
!llmind: Right now, I’m working with this ridiculously talented new artists named Jared Evans who just signed to Interscope and Polow Da Don’s Zone 4 label. I’ve been in the studio with him a lot lately, and we’re making shit that’s not just the regular Hip Hop shit with beats and rhymes. We’re meshing the kind of music that we grew up on and the music that we love and the music that inspires us the most. And we’re embodying that feeling and that energy, and we’re putting it in the music. It’s really a culmination of Hip Hop, Rock, Electro, Pop, Soul, all meshed into one. It’s hard to explain, but this is the type of music we’re making.
I can make Hip Hop beats all day, and that’s my bread and butter and that’s what I love, but I’m ready to take my music outside of that and apply my music to other genres. Nothing is forced. I’m not going to sit here and tell myself to make a pop beat and copy what’s out there; tha’ts not what I’m going for. I’m reaching out and taking risks and doing other things. Working with musicians, using different drum kits. I’m working with some pop artists that people have definitely heard of on some major labels. It’s a good thing, and I can’t wait for people to hear it. Some people will go, “What the fuck is he doing?” But I think some other people will appreciate it.
DX: Are there any beats you’ve heard that you wish that you made?
!llmind: I like that question, because there’s definitely a handful. I won’t even take it back, because there’s too many to name from back then. But nowadays, the newest shit…a DJ Khalil beat, the shit he did for Game. I think the name of the song was “Da Shit,” on [The Doctor's Advocate]. That shit is fucking retarded, that’s one of the most retarded beats I’ve ever heard. And I’m going to name one more. There’s a beat that Nottz made that hasn’t come out that I heard back in ’03. He gave me a beat CD and it had the beat on there, he sampled the fat dude from Coming To America. The guy singing, “You’re my queeeeeen to be.” He sampled that and added some synths to it, and some crazy Nottz drums. That beat is seven years old, but I swear, if people heard it come out today, they’d go crazy. That’s definitely another beat that I wish I made. And 90% of the shit Dilla did, I wish I made.