Producer's Corner: Cory Mo & Steve Below
In honor of Pimp C's "The Naked Soul of Sweet Jones" releasing this week, we interviewed his two production proteges, and the torch-carriers of the UGK sound.
It's almost standard for any successful emcee or producer to take young talent under his wing, but it's not as common for that young talent to have a sound or vibe that maintains individuality from their mentor. But that's exactly what Pimp C did by placing Cory Mo and Steve Below under his tutelage. Cory Mo had already turned down an artist deal with Scarface and nabbed beats for Geto Boys and Devin the Dude, but working with Pimp C enriched his sound to the point of getting calls from Talib Kweli, Chamillionaire, Z-Ro and others. And this year, Steve Below produced the bulk of Bun B's celebrated solo album, Trill O.G.
On the eve of Pimp C's posthumous album The Naked Soul of Sweet Jones, Cory Mo and Steve Below exchange memories with and lessons from the southern legend, and discuss current and future projects.
HipHopDX: You were mentored by Pimp C. How did you first meet him?
Steve Below: I first met Pimp through one of the CEOs of Trill Entertainment, a label that houses Lil Boosie and Webbie. One of the CEOs is named Mel [Vernell, Jr.], and he was close to Pimp [C] and Bun [B], so when UGK would do shows in Baton Rouge, [Louisiana], he'd stop through and holler at them from time to time. One night, I was working on some music over at Mel's house when Pimp and Bun came over, and they came back in the room that I was working. They liked what they heard, and from then on, me and Pimp kept in contact, because he was basically the musical brain of UGK. That's how it started; he took me under his wing and we went from there. … This is in late '97 or early '98, when they were going off the Ridin' Dirty album.
Cory Mo: I met Pimp C through my brother. My older brother, Mike Mo, is a mix engineer as well. We've been running the studio for 10, 11 years; I do more of the production, and he does the mixing. Way back in the day, maybe in '94 or something, my brother was in college in Beaumont at Lamar University, which is about 10 minutes from Port Arthur, where Pimp and Bun are from. My brother was pretty popular on campus. He bought Pimp C's Cadillac from him, and they became good friends. So once Pimp comes to Houston, of course, my brother is like, “My brother does beats, so when you're in town, you should come by the studio.” Pimp came by the studio, and the first day I met him, we made a song. Since then, we just clicked, and he became like a mentor/big brother type of dude.
DX: I know it was a minute ago, but do you remember what that song was like?
Cory Mo: Oh yeah! There are a couple of leaks out there on the Internet. It's called “Get Ya Money.” I did the beat, and I did a hook called “Get Ya Money.” When I played it for Pimp, he loved it, because it sounded like some old UGK type of Funk. Nice little jam. He ended up getting Bun on it. [launches into an impeccable Pimp C impersonation] “Yo Bun, I got this new lil' nigga, mane, you gotta come check him out. Come fuck wit my lil patna Cory Mo, this nigga tight, mane!” Ever since then, whenever Bun and Pimp needed to record, they would always come to me and my brother. Basically, our recording studio was UGK's home recording studio. From 1999, up until when Pimp passed, me or my brother probably recorded 75% of all of their features and all of their records.
DX: What do you think Pimp saw in you, to make him take you so seriously and take you under his wing, as opposed to just getting a few beats from you and leaving it at that?
Steve Below: You know how you just meet somebody and y'all just click, whether it's on a friendship level or business? I think what he heard from me was a lot how he was doing things. It didn't dawn on me till the chance I got to go to his house and thumb through the musical collection he had, and I saw that we were listening to a lot of the same stuff. I hadn't met anybody else who was listening to that stuff until I met him. Just one of those musical connections, I couldn't really explain it.
Cory Mo: He would always say I reminded him of himself, because I wanted to do it all. I didn't just want to rap, and I didn't just want to produce. I couldn't afford to purchase beats from anybody, so I learned to produce. Me and my brother both went to school for digital audio technology, learning about mixing boards, Pro Tools classes and all kinds of mess. Pimp digged [sic] my sound because it was so similar to them. I like that Funk. I like bass guitars, wah-wahs, organs, organic keyboards; I like real music. I don't just listen to 808s and synthesizers. I think Pimp was drawn to that, and he couldn't believe that I was doing all of that shit at a young age in my own little studio. I guess he seen it in me, and he kept on giving me game and telling me what to do, what not to do, and how to do it. I still use some of those tips today.
DX: What was it like working with him on a regular basis?
Steve Below: When I hooked up with him, Ridin' Dirty was already completed, and it was out for a year. But I got to see him in action on Dirty Money, and various projects he would work on with people, like when he was making a beat for somebody's album. I got to see what it was like to really be a producer and know what you want. Pimp knew what he wanted when he came to the studio. He wasn't one of those producers who let the engineer control the session. He knew how he wanted his sound, and he had no problem expressing that.
DX: With someone who's that charismatic, I can imagine things getting real crazy. Cory, what's the funniest thing you can think of that's happened either while you guys were touring, kicking it, or recording?
Cory Mo: It was always retarded. I remember one time, Pimp was at the airport in Houston and I was at the studio. He calls me like, “I'm picking up one of my patnas from the airport, I'm on my way.” He gets to the front gate, and he says, “Open the gate, mane! I got a surprise! It's goin' down!” I open the gate, he pulls in in the Bentley, all happy and shit, and Too Short hops out the car with him. Man, I lost my mind! I took pictures with them in the studio, I recorded them doing a couple songs. I was like a little kid in a candy store, because I had never met Too Short. And that's Pimp's O.G.; Pimp looks up to Too Short. That was a hell of a memory.
I've got another one. Right when [Jay-Z's] “Big Pimpin'” came out, and Pimp had that hot ass mink jacket on? He came to the studio in that jacket, and he had some matching mink tennis shoes! I'm like, “Man, you need to stop, cuzz!” He's like, “Man, they can't fuck with these, mane! They ain't fuckin' with this!” This is when “Big Pimpin” was at number one on BET and all of that. Man, I'll never forget that shit. That dude's off the chain, it never stops. Every day, it was something new.
DX: Did you see any changes in his work as he got more successful? Did he ever seem more confident, or change his vibe?
Steve Below: He was confident the whole time I knew him, and that's one of the things I learned from him. Don't let nobody dictate your sound. You know what you want, so go in and produce it, and always know how to express how you want it. That way, it's going to come out the way that you want it. From the first time I saw him work, he was always that guy that knew. You could tell that there was no question in his mind as to how he wanted to sound. He would ask for opinions every now and then, but for the most part, he had the wheel.
DX: What about any memorable sessions closer to when he passed?
Cory Mo: When him and Bun B were doing the song ["The Pimp & The Bun"] with Ronald Isely. Him and Bun were in the studio that day, and it was a cool moment, because to get both of them in the studio was super rare. Pimp would show up at two or three in the morning wanting to work until six, while Bun is more of a family guy, and he calls me at 10 in the morning with some house shoes and newspaper. I'm like, “God Damn, Pimp just left, can I get some sleep?” They were working on a song called “Here We Go Again,” with Ron Isely. That was cool to record. And the “Welcome To The South” record. It was always fun, because you never knew what was going to come out of Pimp's mouth, and Bun would always complement. They were the steak and the shrimp, just like Pimp said. It was always fun to hear what the hell they would say, because I'm a fan first.
DX: Cory, Scarface tried to sign you when you were 16, right?
Cory Mo: Yeah, as an artist. I didn't start producing till '99. I think it was Interface Records, that he had did. He signed Devin The Dude and a couple more cats. Remember the song “The World Is A Ghetto” by Geto Boys? My partners were the cats that sang the hook on that record. We were real good friends, and I ended up bringing them to the studio to do that record. Scarface ended up hearing me and one of my partners rap; he signed them as a R&B group, and he wanted to sign us as a Rap group. It never worked out, because I was too young, and my family was telling me to chill out and that I needed to grow up a little more before I was signing contracts. But I talk to 'Face every couple of weeks; we're partners. Just childhood shit, man. Trying to figure out who the hell you are. I think I took the best route just being independent and doing everything myself.
I'm actually about to drop a mixtape in a couple of weeks, too. Next week, for the BET Awards, I'm going to drop a production mixtape. … Every record on the CD is going to be a song I produced for other people that's already out, that people don't know that I did. Records I did for UGK, Geto Boys, Devin, Slim [Thug], Chamillionaire, Paul Wall, Z-Ro, Talib Kweli. I'm going to drop that as a buzz record next week, and maybe the first of November, I'm going to drop my record with me rapping on it. That's going to be hosted by Bun B and DJ Don Cannon. And that one is featuring Talib Kweli, Devin, GLC, Mistah FAB, B.o.B, I can't even think of all the names. But I'm gonna bust they bitch-ass, so just be on the lookout. … I've already shot four videos with it, and I'm taking my time. So when the record drops, I'm going to drop a video eery week to step that Internet presence up and trying to get a few shows around here. The production mixtape is called Check the Stats, and the album/mixtape is going to be called Been About Time. Bun B came up with the name. He said, “Shit, it's been about time, nigga. That needs to be the album. Come on with it!”
DX: What other things have you learned from him in the studio that you use in your own music?
Cory Mo: Some stuff I can share, and some I can't, but he would always get on me about my drums. As far how as how thick and layered they're supposed to be, how they're supposed to hit when you get in the car. How not to overuse certain instruments, just to give it a balance. When to add guitar licks, and when to take them out. He'd say, “Yeah, that ain't right, put that right there.” And when I do get something right, he says, “Yeah, that's what I'm ta'um'bout.” He instilled it in me, so over the years, when he wants to hear some beats, I know what to play and what not to play, what he likes and what he won't like. He'll take me on the road with him, and I do his background vocals onstage. Bun still hits me up today. “Cory Mo, let's go, we've got to go to Norway for the week, I need you to do my adlibs.” It's still that family, brotherly situation. It's more than music with us, because we know each others' families.
Steve Below: I learned the basic idea flow, how to get into your song and fall into it. How to make your hooks match up to your music, and how to make it all make sense. On the technical sense, he taught me how to work his secret weapon, which was the Roland R8. When you listen to a lot of UGK songs from the past, you hear this particular sound when it comes to drums. Nobody else was using this sound; this drum machine had been out for ages, and he used it on a regular basis. That was the key to his sound, he knew how to use that drum machine. When I talk to people that knew him, they're like, “Wow, he taught you how to use that? I tried to get him to show me, and he never would. He must've really saw something in you to teach you that.” That really showed me how much he believed in me. To this day, I still use that drum machine, but at the same time, I really don't as much. When I listen to his music with that drum machine and I listen to mine, he had mastered the thing and made it sound like nobody else can make it sound. I feel like there's no use in trying to duplicate what he did, because I won't be able to do it, and there's no use fooling myself into thinking that I can.
DX: Many producers in your situation, of being mentored by more established producers, go through stages where their material sounds exactly like that of who brought them up. How did you create a unique sound while being mentored like that?
Cory Mo: I had a buzz before I met Pimp and Bun. Pimp would just put me on his projects. I rapped and produced on Pimp's first album, I rapped and produced on Pimpilation, and I'm rapping and producing on this new one as well. So he always let me rock with him. A lot of people try to emulate the sound of the people they're running with, but I always kept my own identity. It's defintiely hard to do, coming up with some cats like that. But if it's written, it's written in the stars how it's supposed to go down.
The most important thing that Pimp would always tell me, try not to make records on purpose. “Don't make radio records, or make club records. Just make classic records. Make them make sense.” I think that separates me from a lot of other people. … I just make records that I like to listen to personally, that I think are jammin'. At the end of the day, if you're original and creative, you can't lose. So he would teach me to make classic records instead of club or radio records.
Steve Below: One of the biggest things that Pimp taught me was to stay in my own lane. A lot of people don't realize, Pimp wasn't bound by one sound, or one type of production. When he would seek out producers or people he wanted to work with, he was looking for a new sound, as opposed to the sound he already had. He was just that flexible. He was good at what he did, but he didn't always want to rap to that music. That's why on his albums, you won't see him hogging the production; he'll do 25-30% of the production on UGK's albums, but on the other end, the rest of it is done by other producers. He wanted to show the flexibility they had. They came up at a time where it wasn't really about being from one coast, but about gaining the respect from other coasts. It wasn't about beef or anything, because the south came in last, so we had to fight hard to get respect and props to be legitimate players in the game, as far as making legitimate-sounding Rap music. He sought out other producers and different sounds. So it's easy for me to do something different from what he did, because that's what he'd want me to do.
DX: Are there any joints that you've done, either for him or in general, that you remember getting a really crazy reaction from him?
Steve Below: Yeah, that would be “Swishas and Dosha.” That's a song I did on the Underground Kingz album, the double CD that came out after he got released from prison. At the time, I was working nine-to-five. So I'd go back to the crib, make beats and mail them to him. Back then, this is before email became relevant, so I was mailing CDs. That “Swishas and Dosha” beat, when I first heard it, I couldn't imagine anybody rapping on it. I didn't have any intentions of sending it out; I put it on the CD just to fill it up, because when I heard it over and over, it was so crazy. Not that I didn't think anybody could hold that beat, but I just couldn't fathom it at the time. I put six or seven songs on that CD, and when he told me he picked it, I was interested to see what he would do with it. Because he was crazy about the beat. When I heard the end result, I was like, “Wow.” That showed me what working with true artists like Pimp C and Bun B was like. Somebody who can take something that the person who made it couldn't see, take it to a whole 'nother level, and make that person see something in the track that they couldn't see themselves. That boosted my confidence and made me want to work harder and come up with even better stuff. If they can come up with something like that to something I couldn't even see anyone rapping to, just think what they could come up with to something that was really made for them.
DX: Cory, I've got to ask about this because of the song title alone. What was recording “Hairy Asshole” like?
Cory Mo: [Laughs] Yeah, man! “Hairy Asshole!” Pimp was in jail when I made the beat to “Hairy Asshole,” because it was a remake of an old UGK record from Super Tight. I think it was “Pussy Got Me Dizzy.” Pimp originally did the track, and I went in there and sampled it and kept it in the vault. I was just going to wait till Pimp got out of jail, and play it for him. When he got out of jail a couple of weeks later, I had it playing when he walked through the door. That fool went straight to the sound booth. “Put the mic on! Cut me on!” He got a kick out of making that record. He knew just what to do when he heard it.
DX: It seems like most producers work with a few unknown names early on, get a big break with a big name, and go in reverse. But Cory, you've seemed to go in the opposite direction. You were almost signed to Scarface when you were 16, and since then, you've worked with Devin The Dude, Geto Boys and UGK.
Cory Mo: Well they weren't legends back then. This is in the '90s, so we were all still running together. They're legends now, because of all the records that they've done. So I just look at it as a young nigga just trying to kick it with the big dogs. I was around them, and a closed mouth don't get fed...so I stayed in their face, got them beat CDs, see them at the club, and niggas start getting familiar with me. I've put out about seven mixtapes already; I've got my hustle bag, so I'm always giving away something. So whenever Devin, Slim, Paul, Chamillionaire see me on the block grinding, they're like, “Man, I always see him on the block! I might need to go to his studio and see what he does.” They would always see me on the block hustlin', so they can't help but work with me; shit, I'm everywhere.
We've been running the studio for 11 years in Houston, and we just started the one in Atlanta last year. I'm trying to get that same following here in Atlanta by taking the same route, and the same formula.
DX: How does working with cats like that help you as an artist, as opposed to just as a producer?
Cory Mo: I learn so much by watching people record. I do more than just rap music. I've recorded with Mya, done records for Raheem DeVaughn. Seeing how they record, how they write their lyrics, how they want them tweaked, every session I might learn something new. It makes me more seasoned, and makes me more of a perfectionist when it comes to my own personal projects.
DX: Steve, you produced most of Bun B's Trill O.G. Did you guys have a clear direction for the album?
Steve Below: Yeah. We were hitting each other up, and his first thing was, “I want to make an album like I've never made before. I want an album that's a classic.” So I would do things like go through my mind and get the albums I thought were classic, then send him a list. He would do the same, and I would sit there and compare them. That's how I wanted to see if we were on the same page, as far as what a classic album really is. It broke the ice in giving us an idea of what we wanted to do with the album. We wanted to make music that was big and on a grand scale. We went to the studio every day and just went in. Coming up with ideas, it kind of molded from there. We fed off the energy from other producers that had great material to add to the album as well—J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Big E, DJ B-Do, DJ Premier, Play-N-Skillz. I did most of the tracks, but I feel like every track is relevant. It makes it what it is.
DX: Bun B gets beats from other producers, but he usually only works with Pimp C, in terms of being with a production partner. Was that any pressure for you to be the first producer he works with consistently like that?
Steve Below: That thought crossed my mind when the project first started. But I had to come to the realization that I'd never be able to fill those shoes. I had to have a conversation with myself. “What did Pimp see in you? Whatever that is that he saw, that's what you need to use.” Evidently, he saw something in me that he could benefit from. I tried to use that energy to pull that out. He had confidence in me, so who would I be to not have confidence in myself? I got that out of my mind, came to peace with it, and kept it moving.
DX: Were there any specifically memorable studio sessions from Trill O.G. that really stuck out for you?
Steve Below: There's no one specific day, I don't think. Around the time we were recording the Pimp C, 2Pac and Bun B song ["Right Now"]. That was one of the more memorable moments of me, for recording, as far as this album goes. I was in a daze. At first, this was a song that really intimidated me. These were legends I really looked up to. There were no three cats I wanted to work with more. Being blessed enough to work with Pimp was one thing, but being blessed enough to work with 'Pac was another thing. I didn't get to work with 'Pac before he died, but he was one of the main cats I wanted to work with. Just watching that whole process come together, then sending it to Trey Songz, and someone of his caliber getting on a song like that, it's really a blessing.