Evan LaRay Brunson
Engineer Evan LaRay Brunson Goes Inside Cardi B’s Pandemic Recording Routine, The "WAP" Backstory & More
“If anything comes out of this quarantine, we’re going to have an album. We’re going to have a hit. Something is going to come out of it,” Evan LaRay Brunson, Cardi B’s longtime engineer, told GRAMMY.com.
Four years ago, Cardi B was a long way from being taken seriously by the music world, and her engineer Evan LaRay Brunson helped turned those scoffs into cheers. By the time Cardi’s music video for her song “Wash Poppin” came out in March 2016, the name “Cardi B” elicited thoughts of "Love & Hip Hop" antics and Instagram virality before the brain ever registered it as the name of an artist, if it did at all.
Brunson engineered that song and nearly every piece of music Cardi B has breathed on during her unprecedented four-year run that has included a Best Rap Album GRAMMY Award, $28 million of revenue in 2019 alone, and the most No. 1 records on the Billboard Hot 100 by a rapper who is a woman in history.
“She treats music sort of like a work shift. She’ll be like, ‘Alright, I’m waking up, coming to the studio at this time, and I’m going to make sure I’m going to get a song or idea done so I can go home and see my kid,'” Brunson remembers. “Quarantine actually helped her with that. Since there’s no shows or anything, all she’s been doing is spending time with her family.”
So, it’s no surprise that for the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cardi physically saw a mic more than she physically saw her own daughter. For the first three months of the pandemic, up until mid-June, Cardi B, Brunson, and members of her team rented out a house at an undisclosed location in California, outfitted it with the studio equipment that has helped make Cardi a star, and went to work. Brunson remembers Cardi’s daughter Kulture being in New York City with her grandparents during the beginning of the pandemic as “Cardi was afraid to even see her because she wasn’t risking flying.” Outside of going home to see her husband Offset, Brunson doesn’t remember Cardi being outside of the studio house much over the three-month recording period.
“We were in the studio every day. Even if we weren’t recording, we were just in the studio. We weren’t risking traveling back and forth and getting corona. We were like, ‘Yo, we’re going to buckle down. Get all the food, snacks, and clothes, bring it over to the house.’ We’ve been locking in there,” he said.
Brunson spoke with GRAMMY.com about the sacrifices he and Cardi made to record during the pandemic, how Cardi and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” came about, and how personal Cardi is getting on her next album.
To record as Cardi did over the pandemic, all you’d need would be Neumann U87 and Sony C800 microphones, Vintage Neve 1073 preamp, Tube-Tech CL1B compressor, Apollo X6 interface, and a MacBook Pro. Antares Auto-tune, Universal Audio plugins, Fab Filter plugins, and Waves plug-in, which Brunson calls “essential tools to use an engineer,” are also in the mix. But, to really do what Cardi has done during this pandemic, you’d also need an engineer like Brunson who is able to technologically adapt to unprecedented times.
“As far as the recording process, it’s sort of the same," Brunson said. "The only thing different is the artists weren’t in the studio together. But, now, people send verses over. We’ll be on FaceTime coming up with ideas. We can do Zoom recording. That’s what we’ve been doing. We’ve been at the house recording.”
Each piece of equipment has a purpose that helps build the star that is Cardi. Brunson uses the Sony C800 mic is for when Cardi gets into pop and needs that “high-end crispiness.” The Antares Autotune gives her that pitch perfect sound when she needs to cut through a beat. Even still, the equipment is secondary, the ears are the core of the music-making because if you’ve spent just 30 seconds watching a video for Cardi B, you know she can spout off song-ready phrases at a lightning-fast speed. Creating music with Cardi is like trying to capture lightning in a booth.
“I’ll just pick her brain about her emotions; what mood she’s in. She’s always in drama, so I try to write things down whenever she says some crazy, spontaneous thing. Then, I’ll go through beats and go, ‘This fit that and fits that.’ Then I’ll start it, send the pack over to her and she’ll immediately listen to the ones I started and go through the whole pack.”
Before “WAP” satiated a summer thirsting for an anthem, it was an afterthought. Brunson remembers Cardi recording the first verse to “WAP” a year ago and moving onto the next idea as was common inside of Cardi’s hit factory. If there wasn’t a pandemic, there would be no “WAP” “We had that song since last year. Since COVID-19 happened, we were going over songs, and she was like, ‘I like this.’ She caught the vibe again and laid the second verse down.”
Evan first heard Megan thee Stallion would be on the track around late April/mid-May after Cardi B’s stylist suggested putting Megan on the track and connected the Bronx chart-topper with the Houston hottie through Megan’s own stylist. Revisiting a year-old song, deciding to add another artist to it, and taking months to plan it, all without the intention of creating the defining single for Cardi’s as-of-yet-untitled sophomore album, would have never happened if she was recording the song for her debut album Invasion of Privacy two years ago.
The album that would solidify Cardi’s superstardom was recorded on a strict deadline to be finished before Cardi gave birth to Kulture. Brunson feels they had to rush to complete the album, previously noting Invasion of Privacy was mostly recorded in the two months after he learned she was pregnant in January 2018. As an artist, you are supposed to spend your whole life writing your debut album, as your introduction to the music world is often predicated on your life before music. Cardi had two months and, outside of the tearful “Be Careful,” Invasion of Privacy doesn’t dig deeper than the surface of Belcalis Marlenis Almánzarv we’ve all spent summers dancing on.
But, this time, they have more time to explore. Cardi has already hinted at her album having “my Lemonade moments” referencing Beyoncé’s confessional album. “We have two personal ones right now. One is a real R&B one and one is a little more uptempo,” Brunson revealed. “Both the songs are really her experience as far as motherhood, being on the shows, wanting to come back, marriage, media pressure on her family, she makes it really personal.”
During those three months, Brunson estimates Cardi has cut 15 complete songs including one undeniable smash hit that was done before W.A.P came out. “She was like, ‘We’re going to save that until we feel we’re ready for the album to come out.’” Ever since the middle of June, Cardi’s been out of the studio home and spending more time with her family, including flying Kulture, her aunties, and everyone to her place in L.A. Cardi might be insulated in wealth that affords her the ability to turn a house into a studio for three months and then fly her family out to her multi-million-dollar palatial estate, but she never fortified her heart from the world.
“[The protests] affected us a lot because, throughout the whole George Floyd situation, she was sad. She wanted to protest,” Brunson remembered. “She was like, ‘I don’t want to promote happy, club music and everyone is feeling down, going through it, losing jobs and family members.'”
As for Brunson, he couldn’t spend time with his family in South Carolina for his 29th birthday last month due to being cautious with their health as he’s spent extensive time in a state that reported a record number of COVID-19 deaths in a day just weeks ago. Still, he’s seen how the music industry has been decimated by the pandemic and devastated artists’ incomes and can find gratitude in a country still searching for a way forward.
“I’m happy I’m out here working. I’m happy recording didn’t stop and it’s not a nine to five, and I thank God for that.”