Producer's Corner: The Olympicks
Detroit's production squad breaks down making big hits for Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, and provides a heavy dose of advice for bedroom producers how to get on-the-spot placements.
Whether it's via competition or teamwork, one of the most important messages in the biennial international Olympic Games is the concept of strength in numbers, and a similarly-named group of producers from Michigan has the same idea. Within a year of forming as a group and packing for business trips out of town, The Olympicks—the five-ring tandem of Michiganders Jay Fab, Knoxville, PC, Flawless, and BP—have nabbed placements with the likes of superstars like Lil Wayne (“Hold Up,” “All The Money In The World”) and burgeoning statesmen like Big Sean (“What U Doin? (Bullshittin)”), along with signing an in-house production deal with Rick Ross' Maybach Music Group. In an interview with HipHopDX, The Olympicks talk about expanding outside of Michigan's trademark sound, turning down co-production credit from Kanye West, and how other up-and-coming producers can make a name for themselves.
HipHopDX: What have you all been working on lately?
Knoxville: Lately, we've been working on [Young] Jeezy's album Thug Motivation 103, and his group U.S.D.A. We've also been working on [Rick] Ross' new album, Lil Wayne's [Tha] Carter IV, and even with other genres, we've been working on stuff for Lady Gaga. The year just started, so everyone's looking for music. We're trying to go across the board. Even some stuff for Kanye [West's] album, and for the Kanye and Jay-Z [Watch The Throne] album. … It's definitely a good look when you got open opportunity, and your network is good enough so you can do something and actually submit work to artists of that caliber. Everyone can't just say they want to submit a song to Kanye West or Jay-Z.
DX: The group has five different people. What do you each contribute individually, and how do so many people click on the same page?
Jay Fab: We get that a lot, [but] it's not as hard or complicated as people would think it would be. As far as being well-rounded producers individually, we weren't just in-the-box producers to start with. We always try to stay outside of the box and strive for different lanes and directions to take music. You've got five individuals with their own style, and they're doing everything they can, so that comes together and makes a big impact. We have good chemistry, and we're friends before we started a group, for two or three years. We go through the same connects, and we've actually been managed by one manager under one umbrella for a minute. So everything is cool, and there's never no egos, or trying to one up another.
For instance, Knoxville may be working on keys or a sample. He'll email it to me, I'll add some keys and redo the drums. I'll send it to Flawless, and he may play a live sax or add a different mix-up. Or I'll hit up BP. Sometimes we work in pairs, and sometimes we work all together in the studio. It's a joined effort. It's actually fun, and not as complicated as everybody thinks it is.
DX: Michigan, especially Detroit, has a very distinctive sound. It's known for it's boom-bap, and for it's soulful sound. While some of your songs have soul samples, it doesn't seem to be your M.O. Some of your stuff like Big Sean's “What U Doin? (Bullshittin')” is quirky, and stuff like Rick Ross' “Mafia Music 2” is more soulful. Where do all your sounds come from?
Knoxville: With the soul sound, we have so many sampled records, that some of them may not see the light of day. You're at a point in the industry where they're gung-ho about not using samples. They want to keep every single penny, not have to pay for clearances. People are really cheap now, it's really bad. Me and Fab are the oldest members of the group, and we bounce off of each other because we like older music. We can talk about Boogie Down Productions, Spice 1, MC Eiht, Nas. We can talk about early '90s, and even the '80s. And then, we also got the quirkiness of the [Big Sean] “Bullshittin” , we have the Young Jeezy type music, the Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, we've got all of that rolled into one. … We have so much soul, but it probably won't see the light of day because people want hits. People aren't concerned with making records anymore. Sometimes you've got to make records to make classic albums, and everybody wants hit singles and hit records. There's no doing it for the love; most artists want that hit single, and they're trying their best, so it's a supply and demand thing. But we've got any kind of record; our catalog as far as soul music is impeccable. But the industry is real messed up.
Jay Fab: We're from Michigan, but we don't always agree with what the statistic story of music that Michigan goes with. … We were really inspired by J Dilla, and he's one of the greatest producers to even grace the industry. But people hold onto that so much, that they don't allow their music to grow or evolve. The soul music that people produce now—and I'm not trying to down anybody—is sort of dated, and they try to hold onto and recreate that sound. Dilla didn't do that. Dilla was heavily influenced by '80s sounds, he just did it in a Hip Hop form. He fused soul with synth '80s, '70s bass or strings. In a way, he was ahead of his time. He made a sound for Detroit, and he never stopped. People try to recreate that sound, but they water it down by not evolving or challenging themselves to make different stuff. Gritty drums are cool, but it's not going to work every time. 9th Wonder switched it up; he's still soulful, but he's doing it in a different way. I think people need to grow as artists and producers when it comes to that sound.
DX: You said there's a lot of soul stuff you've made that hasn't seen the light of day. Are there any specific joints you guys produced, got everyone in the studio and it came out crazy, but it just never came out because of the clearances?
Jay Fab: To be honest, yeah. I don't think people understand the chances of you making a record, getting an artist on it exactly how you want it, and it comes out and it happens. When we did “Mafia Music 2” ...when we heard the sample, the first thing we said was that Ross was going to use it. We knew it off the bat. We sent it to him, got a phone call, and the rest is history. The next record we did off of that, we did a record on Birdman's record called “MP,” then a second one called “Every Summer.” He used them. The most recent record is Diddy and Rick Ross' “Fountain Bleu” track. We did that specifically for that. We didn't tell them or anything; we did it, spoke about it to each other, and it happened. It's a real blessing that those records really did come to life. That's like going to school in Detroit, going to college in Detroit, and playing for the Pistons. The chances of that are crazy.
DX: When you make it a point to expand outside of the Michigan sound, is that easier when you have a lot of different members, or is that easy with a lot of clientele?
Knoxville: The members don't really have anything to do with it. The number one thing is the networking. I don't care what anyone says; our grind is unmatched. It's five of us, but we all have the same drive and determination, and we're always moving. You can't limit yourself. A lot of artists limit themselves to Twitter, DatPiff.com, and a couple other sites. A lot of people are scared to take trips out of town and shake hands with people they don't know. They just want to email and that's it. You have to have a face to go with your music, whether it's producing, engineering, or whatever. You have to be out here. Everybody knows with music, it's more of a networking thing. Then comes the talent. You've got to know people, deal with people, see people, let them hear what you're about, and you have to show them you're not about your bullshit, but that you're about your business. … They can't see your character over an email, a couple characters, and an attachment. You have to really be out here. That's what I think we're doing to make Michigan shine as far as music for the state. That's what we contribute, to show we're grinding. We have visuals. If we're not in the studio [in Michigan], we're out of state. That's all we do every day.
DX: How did you all link with Ross?
Jay Fab: It was an off and on thing. We had an opportunity to make Deeper Than Rap, because we had gotten an email saying to send some beats for Ross. … We didn't know who he was, and he didn't explain who he was, didn't have a contact number or nothin'. But the contact we had through Folk said, “Oh, yo, that's Ross' manager! He does video work and A&R for Maybach Music.” … By the time we had worked on more stuff to submit, which was four or five days later, the album was closed. After the album was out for two weeks, he hit us up again. Knoxville was on the email, and he's like, “Bet. How many beats?” He said to send about 10, and Knoxville sent this muthafucka like 20. Next thing you know, I get a call from Knox, and he's like, “Yo, I just talked to Ross. He's fuckin' with our shit crazy! He loves our name, he loves our sound.” … He just broke down everything he did. I said, “Aw man, that's crazy.” Then he said, “Hold on, this is him right now! I'll call you back!” And he just hung up. [Laughs] I'm on the other line, jumping up and down, waiting. … We had a few occasions where we met him, going up to Summer Jam and performing out here. We chopped it up, he flew all of us out there to Miami to his crib. We signed the paperwork, and the rest is history pretty much.
Knoxville: It was crazy, because I was watching the Final Four game, and I just saw a number pop up on my phone. I'm like, “What the hell?” I hear [switches into deep voice], “Hey, this is Ross.” I'm like, “This ain't no fuckin' Ross. Yeah the fuck right.” We started talking, and I'm like, “Okay, this is him.” What's so sick is—and I think anybody who aspires to be in the music industry should pay attention. When we first started The Olympicks, we had two goals in mind. One of them I can't speak on yet, but the other one is to...get our name and our label poppin'. We started The Olympicks, and in less than a year, we were signed. Literally. So it's about putting a foot forward and making it happen. We met at PC's house, all sitting on the floor talking about how we were going to start a group, and nine months later, we're signed.
DX: What are some of your more memorable or important placements so far, as far as studio experiments or stories on how the songs ended up happening?
Knoxville: The Lil Wayne ["Hold Up"] placement was crazy, especially how we heard it. That's the most memorable one and the most important one to date, to me. … We were at the Hit Factory, because Birdman had flew us out to Miami. We were there for about a week, or four to five days. We would go to the studio, stay all night, leave at 11 in the morning, and come back at four. Lil Wayne's engineer, Mike Banger, walks in the room lookin' regular and bobbing his head. He's like, “So, do y'all want to hear the Lil Wayne track [over your beat]? Did y'all hear it?” I'm like, “What are you talking about?” We leave the studio and we're following him, and we go through a dwarf door, it's like a maze. We go into another room, to Lil Wayne's studio. He says that the song is supposed on be on his EP, and he played the record. We loved it, because he wasn't using the autotune. The record that was coming out, he was still using the autotune on. And he was killing it, and the feature he had, T-Streetz, killed it. And we already had Baby's attention, so we were like, “We have joints with Stunna and Wayne. We're super official now.” And he was USTREAM-ing while we were listening to it for the first time, and we didn't even know. I'm like “Come on, man!” [Laughs]
Jeezy was crazy, because we were in Atlanta to network and get in the studio with whoever. The last day, we had packed up and we were about to hit the highway. Our boy DJ Folk calls us like, “I'ma meet y'all at the studio, and y'all can follow me. Jeezy wants to hear some beats.” We've been emailing Jeezy beats since 2006. We get there, and mind you, it's The Olympicks and a couple of our friends. We get there, and it looked like a truck stop, it was a real hidden area. Jeezy is in there recording, and as soon as we get there, Jeezy can see us. And he's like, “God damn! How many Olympicks is it, like 10 of y'all mothafuckas?” He lightened the mood up, because it was real quiet, and we've heard about how some people are in their sessions. Jeezy doesn't really like people in his sessions like that. He came from out of the booth, we introduced ourselves, he knew we were from Michigan, and it was all love. We played a couple records for him. And two of the records we played for him were supposed to be on the U.S.D.A. [The Afterparty] album, and one of them was “I'm Just Sayin” , and that was on his Trap Or Die 2 mixtape. Just to be in there with one of the top tier artists from the south was really good. That's one of the most memorable to me.
Jay Fab: I've got a few, but I'm just going to pick the funniest one. This is before we linked up as a group. Me and PC were in Atlanta at Hot Beats Studio. … To sum it up, me and Mack Maine almost fought. [Knoxville laughs hysterically] He ain't say nothing to me, but the dude we were with that was our connect, he just bugged out and he spazzed on him. I'm in the reading room just looking at magazines and stuff, and he's just spazzing. So I just walk in between them, and I'm just staring at him. He backed up more and more, and I'm thinking, “If he does anything, I might have to drop Mack Maine.” That was mad long ago. If we chill with Mack Maine, he'd probably be like, “I don't remember that!” But PC was there, and he's like, “Man, you were about to drop Mack Maine!” I'm like “Man, I wasn't going to do nothing unless something shook.” But whoever you're with, you look out. That's definitely the most clowny [sic] experience.
DX: One thing with you, and a lot of Michigan producers, is that no matter how many placements you get with major label artists around the country, you never stop working with artists from Michigan. Every so often, I see you work with Big Sean, Cold Men Young, P.L., etc. Is this a conscious decision, or does it just end up that way with who you happen to be working with?
Jay Fab: It all depends on the talent. It has nothing to do with being from Michigan. It does in a sense, because we do want Michigan to grow and be one of the music capitals again. But it's all about good music with us, whether you're from Little Rock, Arkansas or from New York. If you're dope, you're grinding and you do good business, we're always down to work with you. But it goes back to what I said—you can't work with everybody who wants to work with you, because they may not have the same work ethic or or capability that you do. But business is business, whether it's buying music from us or whatever. But it depends on those factors.
DX: One thing about Ross is that he has great producers around him in general. He works with J.U.S.T.I.C.E. League, Kanye, The Runners, etc. Is there any pressure in your submission process to him, considering all who he works with?
Jay Fab: Not at all. We have our own sound, and we have similarities to other people in the industry as far as making big music, but there's no pressure. We're cool with J.U.S.T.I.C.E League, we've chopped it up with The Inkredibles and The Runners, and they're all cool peoples and excellent producers. But we zone in when we do a record for Ross, so it's whatever.
We actually enjoy pressure, because ice breaks under pressure. We love it. And coming together, you've got to prepare yourself as a producer to be under pressure. You may have to make a beat on the spot for these artists. You're going to make a beat on the spot for these artists, coming into the industry. It's a real adrenaline experience. When we're about to go into the studio, it's like we're about to go into a fight or something. Pressure is good for us, it's healthy.
DX: If you guys could co-produce a track with a different producer, who would it be?
Knoxville: It's crazy that you say that. Big Sean's “Bullshitting” track, after Kanye heard it, he wanted to add more to it and co-produce it with us. It was a good gesture, but that record isn't something we'd just want to send away and say, “Hey, do whatever you want to do with it.” We'd actually have to be in the studio. It was a good gesture, but we couldn't go with it. But it would be good to work with Kanye, and come together and brainstorm. It was bad timing with that record, but I'd love to work with Kanye West.
DX: A lot of producers would go nuts as soon as hearing that Kanye wanted to work with a beat they made. That speaks to where you guys are at—to hear an opportunity like that, but be composed enough to turn it down.
Knoxville: There's a lot of big opportunities in this industry. You have to weigh your options, and you have make sacrifices. One may not be the best one for you. It may be for that moment, but in the long run, it doesn't capitalize on your career. If that were to happen, the main focus would've been on 'Ye. No disrespect for 'Ye, but we're trying to make a name for ourselves. Sean's a big artist, he's from Detroit, we work with Sean, he does great music, we do great music. It just felt right—like that's what it's supposed to be, and that's what it's supposed to sound like. The record has generated so much clout everywhere. I think it was a good decision.
DX: And you also said you're submitting tracks for Kanye's album now, right?
Knoxville: Yeah. We submitted tracks for 'Ye's [My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy] album last minute, and we were jumping around with different contacts, and it was a real big album. … It was kind of chaotic. But hopefully, with the next project, we can probably get a shoo-in on that.
Jay Fab: He's supposed to be dropping another album in the summer, so we have to see how everything is going to pan out with with.
DX: One more question, for all the up-and-coming producers that read this section. You said that you were signed within a year. What are five tips for a producer to succeed quickly like that?
Knoxville: One, for people that sample, make sure that when you sample, you have the complete information on the person you sampled. The album, the real name, the publishing company, everything. Because when they decide they want to get it cleared, they need everything. And the label doesn't do the footwork; you have to have it ready to go. And you have to know who you can and can't sample. Some cats don't want to let you sample them at all, and if you do, they want 100% publishing off top. When Just Blaze did “Breathe” for Fabolous, they didn't get any money off of that [because of a Supertramp sample]. There's a lot of sites on the net, but you have to be self-sufficient and look it up instead of asking everybody.
Jay Fab: Whether it's sampling, key heavy instrumentation, the talent has to be first and foremost. You have to be on a level to be heard or be presented. You can know everybody in the world, but if your talent's not there, then it's not there. A lot of people hit us up and ask us questions on Facebook, Twitter, emails, and in person. I tell them, “I listened to your stuff, and to be honest”...I think a third or fourth of your connects will come to you based off your talent. You may produce a beat for somebody's mixtape, it may get to this person, that knows this person, that knows that person. Good music carries. A third of your connects will come based off that. Us individually coming up, there were times we were in front of artists and they never pick the joints, and we wondered why. They liked them, but they wanted to hear more. The fact is that you weren't ready at that moment. It's hard to deal with at that moment, because you're like, “Why not? I'm right here! All I needed was to be in front of this artist.” You get to that breakdown point of, do you keep going, or do you stop? It's all about you being ready or not being ready. So you have to work on your craft.
Another one, if you are a sampler—I'm not saying you have to go into classical music and study keys, because if you do and it works out, that's cool. But I do think you have to be real key-heavy to have longevity. You can sample and get crazy placements, but as far as being wealthy off of it, you have to pay these people and those people. Some artists don't even like samples. You have to be key-heavy, and have a great ear. We make our own samples by just playing tracks out and mimicking what we heard on old songs. Those three tips are important as far as musicality to come up in the industry.
Another one, what Knox said earlier in the conversation: network. They have to see a face with the name. You can have 1,000 beats, and have 200 more on another hard drive. But if nobody hears them, there's no point. You have to go outside of your state, shake this person's hand, research, so who's phony and who's frontin', see their position with the label or whatever company they're a part of. You have to network and get out.
Knoxville: They say your network determines your net worth, so you have to be out here. One more that's a small one, but it's very important. David Banner told me this, and I will use it until the day that I die. "Whatever you play for an artist, make sure you have the files with you if you're in a studio session." If they say they want to get it, make sure you're prepared for it all the time. … Sometimes, they want it. They know. Make sure you're ready. And another one, a lot of producers want to tag their beat. Artists will pass up on that; they want something they can record and two-track to. You have to look at your music like you're selling something that's valuable. If you know your music is good, then they'll be back. The people that's the wackest, they have tags running all through the beat. I'm like, “You're not using your brain, guy.” These people want to record on the spot. They don't want to call you back and ask for the regular version. They want to record it, and once they cut the record, if they like it, they'll get in touch with you.
Jay Fab: That's passing up on opportunities. Always have the sessions and the files on deck. A lot of artists, when they're in their mode, they're in a mode. If you don't catch him in that moment, that's an opportunity you miss. They might hear the beat a week later and hate it, because they were inspired that moment they first heard it. Have the sessions. That can be a big placement, a check, and a life changing experience.
DX: A lot of these producers have either heard stories, or been the subject themselves, about producers whose beats were stolen without payment or credit. How would you respond to them?
Jay Fab: Your tag has to be unique, and make it stick out. It can't be a kid saying your name, and your beat jumps in. you have to be creative, because you are your own name, product, and craft. Make a tag that represents you, and put it in the beginning of the beat so you know who it is. But not through the whole beat.
The industry is all about sacrifices. If Wayne used five of our beats on a mixtape and our tag is at the beginning and we didn't get paid, I wouldn't care! If I'm a starting off producer, that's an opportunity to build your name and build your credit up. The next thing you know, just like Ross, Lex Luger did two on Rick Ross' [The Albert Anastasia EP ] mixtape. And “B.M.F.” and “MC Hammer” made the [Teflon Don] album, and “B.M.F.” was the biggest single of the year. Lex Luger didn't get paid off a mixtape track, but now he has the single of the year. The game is about sacrifices: which ones are good, which ones are bad, and when to take them. That's what a lot of producers have to know.