Photo: Tyler Roi
Yeti Beats: From Punk Guitarist To Doja Cat's Go-To Producer
The Los Angeles-based producer chatted with GRAMMY.com about meeting Doja Cat, her appeal as a viral sensation, his creative process, musical evolution and more
Yeti Beats was searching for some inspiration when he sat in his then-studio in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles with his intern in 2013. The genre-blurring producer and songwriter caught a vibe once he heard the electro-soulful "So High" on SoundCloud by a local rapper/singer/dancer calling herself Doja Cat, and knew collaborating could work wonders for the both of them.
Turns out Yeti Beats' gut was spot on. The beatmaker, who became Doja Cat's co-manager and tour DJ, executive produced all three of the 25-year-old's musically adventurous projects, the 2014 R&B-flavored EP Purrr!; her 2018 major label breakthrough Amala; and her 2019 smash Hot Pink.
A musical chameleon himself behind the console, the musician born David Sprecher either co-wrote or cranked the knobs on "Candy," "Juicy," "Like That," "Tia Tamera," "Cyber Sex," "Go to Town" and the GRAMMY-nominated chart-topper "Say So." His creative direction morphed into an exclusive deal for him with Warner Chappell Music last summer.
But chasing success in the music business has been trial-and-error for Sprecher over the last two-plus decades. The Santa Barbara, California native started out playing guitar in a melodic/skate punk band, Slimer, while his ears stayed tuned into Al Green, The Cars, reggae and his sister's hip-hop tapes. When Slimer released its Adult Cabaret LP under Grilled Cheese Records in 1999, Sprecher knew the label and touring grind for a band wasn’t exactly for him.
By 2003, he started concentrating on producing records instead, carving out his niche in underground hip-hop and reggae. At his home studio, he booked sessions with Kool Keith, Sizzla, Junior Reid, The Pharcyde’s Fat Lip, late Geto Boys member Bushwick Bill, Kurupt, Ho99o9 and Rebelution. He opened his Echo Park spot, Himalayas, in 2010 before upgrading to another studio in Hollywood in 2015.
These days, the experienced producer has abandoned the state-of-the-art studio atmosphere in favor of his MIDI controller, speakers, laptop, guitar and bass in his house. He recently chatted with GRAMMY.com about how he met Doja Cat, her appeal as a viral sensation, his creative process, musical evolution, future projects, and how the dynamic pair would celebrate a GRAMMY win.
How did you meet Doja Cat?
I first heard her from an intern at my studio, Jerry Powell, a producer himself still involved with lots of Doja’s songs. He was just playing songs off of Soundcloud on the homepage, and he played a really rough home recording that Amala [Dlamini, a.k.a. Doja Cat] had done, "So High," and it immediately caught my ear.
I asked him who it was and we looked her up on Facebook. She happened to live in Los Angeles, we wrote her a message, and asked if she wanted to come in the studio to record some music. A couple of days later, she came in. Soon after recording with her, I just immediately knew that she had incredible raw talent. It was just something that needed to be nurtured. It’s just incredible to see how she’s grown over the years and evolved as an artist and a person is just beautiful to me.
"We try to make music as authentic to who she is, and each one of these records is like a time capsule of Amala as a person."
Is there a formula that you and Doja Cat have whenever you’re in the studio?
We try to keep the projects and creative process fun and lighthearted. Amala is such a unique talent, I just try to keep her inspired. The records have evolved over the years; we started on that dusty, slower, vibey R&B, and over time, we started changing it up, bringing in different sounds, adding elements of dance music and more melodic, quirky sounds that accent her personality. We try to make music as authentic to who she is, and each one of these records is like a time capsule of Amala as a person.
How has social media impacted Doja Cat’s success?
I’m not a social media expert, but I do think that Doja Cat’s music is particularly fun and sticky. She’s also a person that knows how to navigate the internet really well. She’s intriguing. Her sounds go viral, particularly on TikTok, because her music is authentic, and authentic music resonates with people.
How did you celebrate “Say So” becoming Doja Cat’s first No. 1 pop hit?
I was in Los Angeles at my house and in shock that Doja Cat had a No. 1. I talked with our team and the people that were involved on the project on the phone, and I was super congratulatory because it was her surreal moment. It was one of those “wow” moments; very, very crazy in a good way.
What did the Warped Tour in 1999 reveal to you about the music business?
I learned that you have to work really hard because every artist on the roster is out here working really hard. Traveling is not easy, and the lifestyle is not what people think it is. The rock star lifestyle is a different kind of work, which is exhausting. [Chuckles.] I understand the importance of touring, going out there, performing music in front of new people, and making sounds.
How did you go from punk musician to songwriter and producer?
I moved to L.A. to go to college. There, I was exposed to a lot more music. Through a friend, I ended up meeting another close friend of mine, Sam Stegall. He had a little home studio in Hollywood; he invited me to come over there. I watched him produce a beat and work with another artist. A light bulb went off. I was thinking I could do this; maybe I need to get ProTools or a MIDI controller.
I already knew how to play guitar and a little bit of keyboards, so I thought making beats would be fun. That was the beginning of a never-ending journey I would equate to a puzzle. I love creating music and had the realization that if I worked hard, then maybe I could turn that into a career. I already knew somebody who was doing this for a living, and I thought I was capable of it.
With each artist that I’m working with, I try to catch their vibe, have some fun, and not really focus on what I wanna make. I put myself in the artists’ shoes and really listen to what they want and make something that’s authentic to how they should sound. It’s about catching the moment; there’s parts of myself that enjoy the thrash of punk or to kick back and groove to reggae. I listen to uptempo music that makes you dance: funk, disco, house, jazz or pretty much anything across the board. I don’t wanna commit myself to making one genre of music or to just making rap beats. I aspire to be an eclectic producer.
What are you hoping to accomplish with your exclusive Warner Chappell Music deal?
The main reasons I’m doing the deal is to make sure someone is collecting all of my publishing royalties and to also have a strong partner to connect me with other artists, producers, or people that maybe either Doja wants to collaborate with or myself. It’s showing to be a very strong relationship; they’re putting me in the room with a lot of cool people.
What projects are you currently working on?
BJ The Chicago Kid is an artist that I've known for a while. We've worked together before, and I think he's one of the most amazing singers. We're doing a project together with a band that has a vintage element to it. It's gonna be a really interesting project based on an old soul sound. I have so much love and respect for BJ; he's an incredible artist, and I can’t wait to work with him more.
I have the next Doja Cat album, Planet Her, and I'm most excited about that. I have some really exciting songs on there, and I couldn’t be prouder of the people who worked on this project.
How has working with Doja Cat made you a better producer?
Working with Doja has taught me a lot about life. She was 16 when I met her, and I recognized her unique talent. My main objectives over the years have been to protect, enable and shepherd her through the music business, which can be very hard at times.
It's been a crazy experience watching her grow up from a teenager to a young woman. She’s grown tremendously as an artist, creator, entertainer, live performer. The whole experience has been completely surreal and beautiful. I get goosebumps when I think about where we used to be versus where we’re at; it is just incredible. I feel thankful and blessed.
How would you and Doja Cat celebrate a GRAMMY win?
It's a pretty surreal experience being nominated this year. We feel super blessed to be acknowledged. Me and Doja have a pact between some friends all involved from the early stages going back to 2013; if she was ever to win a GRAMMY, then we'd have to get tattoos of cats on our butts. We'll see if it happens. [Chuckles.]
Here Are The Nominees For Best Rap Song At The 2024 GRAMMYs
Get a deeper look into the five tracks from Doja Cat, Nicki Minaj and Ice Spice, Lil Uzi Vert, Drake and 21 Savage, and Killer Mike, André 3000, Future and Eryn Allen Kane that earned the Best Rap Song nod at the 2024 GRAMMYs.
Rap music has changed a lot since the Best Rap Song category was introduced at the 2004 GRAMMYs. Most of the first year's nominees, even if they're still making music, now spend the majority of their time on things like making hit TV shows or running iconic fashion brands.
But the category, then and now, has its finger on the pulse; it gives us a cross-section of what makes hip-hop so important to so many people. The Best Rap Song nominees for the 2024 GRAMMYs are no different. The Category includes a pop princess taking a big left turn; two New Yorkers paying tribute to the greatest of all dolls; a Philly rapper taking us to the club; a duo who can't stop flexing on us; and a Dungeon Family reunion that spans generations.
Below, take a deep dive into the five tracks up for Best Rap Song at the 2024 GRAMMYs.
Attention" — Doja Cat
Rogét Chahayed, Amala Zandile Dlamini & Ari Starace, songwriters (Doja Cat)
"Attention" marked a new era for Doja Cat — one where she moved away from the pop sounds that made her famous, and into something harder and more aggressive.
In the weeks leading up to the track's release, Doja called her earlier rapping attempts "mid and corny" and referred to the music that broke her into the big time as "mediocre pop." So it only made sense that her big statement single would be exactly that — a statement.
The beat by Rogét Chahayed and Y2K has a drum loop that wouldn't sound out of place on Ultimate Breaks and Beats, and Doja lets the world see her inner hip-hop fan with some serious rapping — no mid or corny verses here. This is the Doja who can quote underground faves like Homeboy Sandman and Little Brother at the drop of a hat.
"Attention" finds Doja addressing her often-contentious relationship with fans and social media, as well as the controversies she went through leading up to the song's release. But the whole thing is playful and ambiguous. Does she want the world's attention, now that she has it? What is she willing to do to keep it? In this song — and even more so in its video — Doja plays with these questions like a truly great superstar.
"Barbie World" [From Barbie The Album] — Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice Featuring Aqua
Isis Naija Gaston, Ephrem Louis Lopez Jr. & Onika Maraj, songwriters (Nicki Minaj & Ice Spice Featuring Aqua)
Aqua's "Barbie Girl" was too sexy for Mattel when it was released in 1997 — the company sued the band, claiming that people would associate lyrics like "Kiss me here, touch me there" with their wholesome children's toy. So it's both ironic and, given the post-irony tone of the movie itself, somehow fitting that "Barbie Girl" is sampled in a major song from the new Barbie movie.
And who better to bring Barbie to life in rap form than the head of the Barbz? Soundtrack producer Mark Ronson said that there was no way to have a Barbie soundtrack without Nicki Minaj, and he was absolutely right. Nicki, with her career-long association with Mattel's most famous toy, was the perfect choice. Joining her on the track is the hottest rapper of the moment, Ice Spice. Ice's go-to producer RiotUSA did the music for the song, which accounts for both its aggressive drums and its sample drill-style use of the once-verboten Aqua hit.
Nicki and Ice have great chemistry in the song. Nicki doesn't treat the song like a movie soundtrack throwaway — her rhyming is clear, sharp, layered, and funny. And she gets extra points for referring to a bob-style wig as her "Bob Dylan."
"Just Wanna Rock" — Lil Uzi Vert
Mohamad Camara, Javier Mercado & Symere Woods, songwriters
Lil Uzi Vert took "Just Wanna Rock" from TikTok all the way to the GRAMMYs.
The track began as a snippet on the social media app, where it went viral, garnering hundreds of millions of views; even celebrities like Kevin Hart got into the act. When the actual song came out, at just about two minutes long, it wasn't much longer than a TikTok video. But it didn't need to be — the full track kept all the joy and danceability of the memeable excerpt.
"Just Wanna Rock" features Uzi acting as an MC, but not in a traditional going-for-the-cleverest-rhyme way. Instead, his voice is used more for its rhythmic qualities, darting in and out of the four-on-the-floor pounding of the kick drum with short, punchy phrases. "I just wanna rock, body-ody-ya" may not look like much on the page, but it's placed perfectly, and it's the kernel that blossoms into the rest of Uzi's performance.
He takes the rhythm of that initial phrase and plays with it throughout in increasingly intricate ways, while never losing sight of the source material. The song is heavily influenced by the Jersey club sound that has been all over hip-hop this year. As the most popular rap/Jersey club crossover of 2023, it makes perfect sense that "Just Wanna Rock" is in the running for Best Rap Song — even if it is unfinished.
"Rich Flex" — Drake & 21 Savage
Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, Charles Bernstein, Isaac "Zac" De Boni, Brytavious Chambers, Aldrin Davis, Aubrey Graham, J. Gwin, Clifford Harris, Gladys Hayes, Anderson Hernandez, Michael "Finatik" Mule, Megan Pete, B.D. Session Jr & Anthony White, songwriters
Simon and Garfunkel. Sam and Dave. Hall and Oates. To that list of great duos, it might be time to add Drake and 21 Savage. Seven years after their first collaboration, Toronto and Atlanta's finest finally got together for a full-length project in 2023, and Her Loss standout (and opener) "Rich Flex" is now up for an award on Music's Biggest Night.
"Rich Flex," like much latter-day Drake, has multiple beats. But in this case, that adds to the song's playful mood. Drizzy and 21 sound like they're actually having fun — Drake even playfully lapses into a sing-songy, nursery rhyme-esque melody on occasion. Savage, for his part, seems to be having a blast interpolating Megan Thee Stallion's "Savage" — a move which earned the Houston rapper a writing credit on the track.
Drake, as in a lot of his recent work, seems consumed with the costs of fame: haters everywhere you look, hangers-on who make your house feel like a hotel; women who won't leave you alone; unwanted attention from law enforcement. But he almost never sounds this engaged, even joyful, when addressing these topics. Maybe what he needed all along was a duet partner.
"Scientists & Engineers" — Killer Mike Featuring André 3000, Future And Eryn Allen Kane
Paul Beauregard, Andre Benjamin, James Blake, Tim Moore, Michael Render & Dion Wilson, songwriters
It was Andre 3000's first appearance on a song in two years that got all the attention at first. But there's a lot more to "Scientists & Engineers" than the fact that the reclusive half of OutKast shows up.
For one thing, it's what he shows up with. Andre's verse is smart, well-observed, poetic, and somehow manages to change focus completely in the middle and yet still hold together as an artistic statement.
But he's far from the only talent on the song. The track is a veritable all-star fest — not for nothing did Killer Mike call it a "hip-hop fantasy." On the music side, there are contributions from legendary producers No ID and Three 6 Mafia's DJ Paul, hip-hop's favorite singer/songwriter James Blake, and TWhy. Singer Eryn Allen Kane adds her gorgeous vocals. And Future, who lest we forget, began his career as a "second generation" member of the Dungeon Family collective that included OutKast and Mike, adds his patented boastful vulnerability.
Then there's Mike himself. He needed to bring a stellar performance in order not to be buried by all his very special guests, and he more than pulls it off. "I am Thelonius Monk in a donk," he rhymes, and the combination of the innovative jazz legend and the classic car with big rims perfectly describes not only him, but the entire mood he sets with this song.
The 2024 GRAMMYs, officially known as the 66th GRAMMY Awards, returns to Los Angeles' Crypto.com Arena on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, and will broadcast live on the CBS Television Network and stream live and on-demand on Paramount+ at 8-11:30 p.m. ET/5-8:30 p.m. PT.
The Recording Academy and GRAMMY.com do not endorse any particular artist, submission or nominee over another. The results of the GRAMMY Awards, including winners and nominees, are solely dependent on the Recording Academy's Voting Membership.
Photo: Dana Jacobs/Getty Images
5 Ways Doja Cat’s Scarlet Tour Flaunts Her Creative Versatility
Doja Cat lit up Halloween in San Francisco with the opening night of her Scarlet Tour. Ahead of her national run of shows, GRAMMY.com details how the Scarlet Tour shows off the height of Doja Cat's performing prowess.
There’s no better way to spend Halloween night than at a Doja Cat concert. Shifting away from Planet Her’s starry divine feminine theme, the rapper’s latest album, Scarlet, introduced a dark, more sinister aesthetic — perfect for kicking off her Scarlet Tour during spooky season.
For her spine-chilling tour’s opening night, the GRAMMY-winning artist touched down in San Francisco’s Chase Center, welcoming thousands of thrilled fans in creative costumes. Although Doja has expressed her distaste for pop music, the show remained holistic, representing all facets of her musical identity while also representing her creative crimson rebirth.
From the viral disco pop of "Say So" to the lovelorn hip-hop of "Agora Hills," Doja has proven herself to be a musical shapeshifter at the top of her game — and the Scarlet Tour exhibits Doja's reimagined artistic vision with full force. To celebrate the beginning of her 24-date tour, which ends Dec. 13 in Chicago, here are five ways the Scarlet Tour spotlights Doja’s mastery of performance.
She Can Shift Emotional Tone In The Blink Of An Eye
If there was one word to describe the Scarlet Tour’s opening sequence, it would be volatile. Impassioned, Doja spat opener "WYM Freestyle" with precision before diving into a popular Scarlet lead single. Even though she stood alone on a massive stage, the rapper easily filled the entire arena with a feverish, contagious vigor.
Although Doja split the evening into five thematic acts, the concert glided along smoothly, and its flow spoke to her monumental mood control. Even when she performed the most contrasting songs next to each other — for instance, shifting from the hypnotizing "Streets" to the enraged "F— The Girls (FTG)" — Doja managed to make the concert flow.
She’s A Master of Reinvention, But Never Forgets Her Past
Everyone loves oldies but goodies — and before the Scarlet Tour kicked off, many fans felt nervous about Doja excluding her older music from the setlist, following the artist’s statements about being disillusioned by pop music.
But to her audience’s delight, Doja delivered. After kicking off opening night with two Scarlet tracks, her third song struck nerves: "Tia Tamera." The fun fan favorite signaled that Doja’s setlist wouldn’t disregard her older music, despite how she might feel about the songs in retrospect.
Beyond spitting "Tia Tamera," Doja’s dive into her catalog proved to be more than just throwbacks to satisfy her hungry crowds: it also mirrored her ever-changing style. During performances of several earlier hits, the rapper altered the originals to idiosyncratic, contemporary versions.
Doja debuted a lovely tropical version of "Say So" halfway through her set, and she turned up the energy even further during the second halves of both "Woman" and "Streets," opting for more intense, fiery endings. Throughout the Scarlet Tour, Doja expertly demonstrated her ability to reinvent her older hits to fit her current musical style.
She Dramatically Executes Her Aesthetic Vision
Although Doja surprisingly didn’t have any costume changes or Halloween shoutouts, the concert expertly executed the rapper’s creative, unearthly vision.
From flickers of haunted houses onscreen to eerie apparitions cloaked in red, the show channeled the spine-chilling energy of Scarlet with lucid aesthetics. Immense, mysterious props were especially memorable; early on in the show, a massive metal spider hovered above Doja, and later, an unsettling bloody eyeball roamed the stage.
The stage involved other explosive surprises — there seemed to be no shortage of fireworks, and a ring of fire blazed around Doja for her most intense performances. If one thing’s for sure, the Scarlet Tour brought the heat.
She Gets To The Point
Even though the Scarlet Tour flew by in just an hour and a half, the concert still felt like a graphic representation of her reimagined artistic journey.
In total, Doja ran through a fabulous 24 songs in five acts, whisking her audience through lush hip-hop and lighthearted pop. Bending genres to her will, she offered striking performances with few breaks.
Though the concert was relatively succinct for an arena show, it felt intentional in its move through her versatile discography. Doja’s evolution as an artist has been anything but brief, yet the concert’s brevity still made for a strong tribute to the progression of her musical eras.
Her Stage Presence Is Unmatched
Anyone who sells out an arena is sure to have a renowned stage presence, but Doja’s is especially unforgettable.
Sometimes it’s easy for headliners to get swallowed on stage by fanfare and props, but Doja radiated the addictive confidence of a seasoned performer. Whether she was raging solo on stage or surrounded by her top-notch dancers, Doja was undeniably always the center of attention.
Her marvelous breath control earned her well-deserved clamor, especially during the whirlwind bridges from Planet Her’s "Get Into It (Yuh)" and "Need To Know." Doja also flexed her esteemed dance skills, moving fluidly and breezily across the stage in teetering black heels.
Some of the show’s best moments, however, were unchoreographed. Although Doja tended to stick to her darker persona throughout the concert, there were times when a blushing smile would sneak onto her face — and those moments of joy made even a massive arena feel intimate.
Photo Courtesy of Janell Shirtcliff
Catching Up With Mayer Hawthorne: How Love, Shrooms & Ethio Jazz Created His Sexiest, Most Psychedelic Record
In a career-spanning interview, the GRAMMY-nominated soul singer from Michigan details the creation of his recently-released fifth album, 'For All Time,' his origins in DJing, and collaborations with Doja Cat.
In the early 2000s, when Andrew Mayer Cohen was in his 20s, he moved from his hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a hip-hop DJ. He had been DJing clubs and parties in Detroit but was ready to take things more seriously.
At a party in L.A., the artist now known as Mayer Hawthorne handed hip-hop producer and Stones Throw record label owner Peanut Butter Wolf a demo: Wolf said the beats were no good but loved the soul samples in the background. When Wolf found out they weren’t samples — Hawthorne had created all the soul sounds on his own, playing all the instruments, to avoid paying to sample classic soul songs — Wolf suggested he pursue soul music.
Hawthorne has since released five albums — including For All Time, released on Oct. 27 — and continues to tour, pursue side projects and collaborations, and DJs parties and events. With his glasses, coiffed hair, and suits and loungewear, he’s like the Buddy Holly or Hugh Heffner of contemporary soul music.
GRAMMY.com spoke with Hawthorne recently over Zoom about his latest album, upcoming tour, his unexpected beginnings as a soul singer, and what he's learned from collaborating with younger artists.
Describe the plan going into this most recent album: How did this new batch of songs come together, and what did that process look like?
I did a lot of mushrooms and came up with a lot of super psychedelic sounding stuff. This is definitely my most psychedelic record. I was listening to a lot of Ethiopian and Turkish jazz and African funk.
I’ve been really obsessed with the song “Mot Adèladlogn” by Tèshomè Meteku, and music from Mulatu Astatke. I remember buying a Mulatu LP at a record fair in the mid 2000s for like $10 and now it's a thousand-dollar LP. Ethiopian music can be dark and mysterious sounding, and that really hooked me.
But the really big thing is that I met someone and got married. This album is a lot about finding real love that is for all time.
Congratulations. That’s a big milestone.
Dating in L.A. is brutal. It can be a very lonely place. I’m so unbelievably grateful to the universe for sending me my wife. I definitely went through some dark times, so this album is a celebration of love.
So much of your music is about love and romance. What’s different or unique with this new batch of songs?
It’s definitely the sexiest album I've ever made. I'm predicting a baby boom in 2024. Music about love is the music I probably love the most, like Isaac Hayes and Barry White. All the best Beatles songs are about love.
I think prior to this record, I was known for bitter, angsty breakup songs. My (2016) Man About Town LP was all about frustration and loneliness and the inability to find love and happiness. They are still fun songs, but I was trying to hide the sadness in the fun. This new record is like a 180 from that.
Typically, where do new song ideas come from for you?
My best ideas come when I’m in the car. When you’re driving you switch off part of your brain, and something else pops up, and it frees up something in your brain. Mayer Hawthorne songs just come out of the sky. It’s more about me trying to reverse engineer out of my head and get it on tape. I don't usually come up with something on the spot like I might when I work with other artists. Mayer Hawthorne stuff is more personal.
Sometimes I come up with demos that I think would be cool for another artist, and they’ll listen and say well this is amazing but you are the only person who could do this song. I have my own unique style of songwriting and the only thing that matters with music is that you do something unique and original that can cut through the noise, and that’s not easy.
You produce and write for other artists, including Doja Cat. What’s your approach to producing? When other artists come to you and want to collaborate, what do you think they’re looking for, exactly?
I’m at the point where I have some experience under my belt and something to offer when I work with younger artists. Sometimes they don't know the difference between a pre-chorus and a bridge or a major triad and a minor 7th chord. Some don't play an instrument, they just do everything in FruityLoops. It’s very liberating and so much fun. It's inspiring for me.
I love being around the energy of young people, it keeps me young. Blu DeTiger played bass for me on my record, and I’m in awe of her playing. She’s incredible. I worked with Jordan Ward a lot, and his writing is so instinctual and creative. I get more out of these sessions than they do. It helps me so much to not become that old cranky guy and say music now sucks. I don’t ever wanna be that guy.
You were nominated for a GRAMMY Award for the special box set of your 2013 album How Do You Do, and nominated again for your work on Doja Cat's Planet Her. How have those nominations affected your musical career?
It’s always cool to be recognized by your peers in the business, people I have tremendous respect for. It feels cool to be part of something. We’re all out here working hard, but you never know what will be a hit or what will have an impact. You do the best you can all the time and cross your fingers, and if you're lucky, some shit really goes.
To have started the way I did, as a DJ from Ann Arbor who moved to L.A. and tried to make hip-hop music, and ended up sort of accidentally having a career in soul music, and now still being here and being involved with someone as cool as Doja Cat. It's so cool to stay relevant in that way and have so much fun doing it.
You started off as a DJ, and you still DJ for parties and events. How do you approach DJing, and how has it evolved over the years?
I’ve been DJing since high school. I still consider myself a better DJ than a musician or singer. I can DJ with my eyes closed, it's like second nature to me at this point. So much of it is just reading the room. You have to know instinctively what to play at the right moment to make people move.
I DJed a pool party for Kourtney Kardashian and she wanted only 1950s music. That was so much fun, playing doo wop and sock hop jams. I love things like that, I had so much fun. I did a Star Wars disco party for Disney recently, and got to pull all my Italian disco, spaced-out vocoder jams, and electronic shit. That was so cool. I love doing that. DJing is still my number one love.
Your vinyl collection has been described as "insane." How so?
That is accurate. I listen to so many styles of music, and I collect everything from Doris Day records and the Chordettes to Sun Ra and British psych rock. I’m all over the map.
Siamese Dream from Smashing Pumpkins is one of my favorite albums of all time. I used to set my alarm clock in high school to Helmet because it was the only way to get me out of bed. I recently got on a plane to Toronto just to go to this crazy record convention for super vinyl nerds like me. It’s an expensive ass habit, but vinyl is my thing.
You live-streamed “Wine and Vinyl Hour” DJ sets from your house during Covid. How did that come about?
It’s something I do anyway at home, just spinning records and having wine, so my manager said why not just turn the camera on and let other people in on it?
It turned into this thing and became bigger than me. People started showing up just to talk to each other. It was something to look forward to every Thursday and it turned into this big community I was not expecting. It was amazing.
Since 2015, you’ve collaborated with producer Jake One on the boogie funk group, Tuxedo. You’ve released three albums and done multiple world tours. How did that project come about? How is Tuxedo different from your solo work?
Tuxedo is just Jake and I making songs we want to ride around in my 87 Benz and listen to for fun. Jake and I both have successful careers without it, so Tuxedo is just icing on the cake. That's why it's good. It’s a celebration of having a good time and dancing and being happy. It’s about joy.
You told the Detroit Free Press in 2009 that Mayer Hawthorne is a character torn in time between 1965 and 2009, heavily influenced by Motown and '60s soul, but moving the music forward and creating something new. How has your character evolved over the years?
Over the years, Mayer Hawthorne has definitely become less of a character. It comes much more from a genuine place of my real life, as I get older and experience things and live life.
When you’re young you don't have much experience, so you have to make stuff up. Then you live and you can tell your story for real. As I get older, it’s much more the real me you’re getting, which is very cool, and scary at the same time. There’s less to fall back on.
And how do you make '60s soul sound new?
I never want people to hear my records and wonder if it's new or not. When you listen to this new album, it's clearly influenced by the Delfonics and Isaac Hayes and Steely Dan, but there’s no way you're confused and think it's an old record you missed from the '70s. I’ll never do classic '70s Philly soul better than the Delfonics. Plenty of artists do regurgitation of something old, but I’m all about putting my new spin on it.
I grew up in the Detroit area, but Motown had long moved to California and there was nothing really left. I grew up listening to J Dilla and Slum Village — that was my music, not my parents' music. Classic soul music had a profound effect on me, but I learned more about it from hip-hop producers who sampled it than the actual artists.
Your debut album, Just Ain’t Gonna Work Out, came out in 2008 on Stones Throw. It was soulful and fun and also very youthful; it sounded retro and modern at the same time. You were 29 then.
I just really wanted to make it as a rap producer in LA, and was so excited to meet Peanut Butter Wolf. I met him at a party and gave him my rap beats. He said they were terrible, but asked about the soul samples. They weren’t samples; I had made them on the side so I could sample myself for free and not have to pay for royalties. He said you're not that good at making rap beats, but youre good at making soul, so you should do that.
I thought for sure it would be a side project. I didn't think there would be a possibility of that being my trajectory. But then it just connected with people. I was like holy s—, now I have to perform these songs live, and I had never sang in front of an audience and I didn’t have a band. I was like how does anybody do this? It was so unorthodox.
How did you get into hip-hop initially? What/who were you listening to? What was the appeal?
Rap music exploded in Ann Arbor around 1993. If you didn't have Black Moon's "Enta Da Stage" or Snoop Dogg’s Doggystyle on cassette or CD you were wack. My friend's high school rap group needed a DJ, so I saved up and bought two used turntables off eBay. I had about a dozen 12" singles from Nas, Pharcyde and Wu-Tang, and I practiced scratching and mixing in my bedroom all day, every day.
I think I was mostly drawn to hip-hop because it was different and rebellious. My parents hated it, so it made me love it more.
Did you always want to pursue music seriously or were there other pursuits you had considered?
My dad is a bass player and he taught me to play when I was 6 or so. I wanted to play drums but my parents didn't want me banging on s— all day in the house. I would do my own Michael Jackson performances just for my family with the one sparkly white glove.
I was in a bunch of bands throughout middle school and high school, including one experimental rock band with Andrew WK who was my neighbor growing up. I studied computer science in college but it was mostly to please my parents.
I always knew I wanted to make music, but I never imagined I would be a soul singer. I never sang in any of the groups I was in, I was always the bass player or the DJ somewhere in the background.
You’ve had a great 15-year run so far.
I wake up every morning still unbelievably grateful and thankful that I get to do this for a living. Part of the reason I’m still here is that I always expected one day it would be over. I just try to have as much fun as I can while I'm doing it. I just never want to be boring, or middle of the road, that’s the worst.
I’m still learning so much. Every time I do a session with a 19-year-old from the UK, I learn so much also. I’m supposed to be the veteran in the room, but I learn just as much from them as they do from me.
You’ll do a short tour in January and February. What do you have planned for those shows? How has your live show evolved over the years?
The tour is called Hawthorn Rides Again. We will switch things up with new band members and live drums. I’m not the same 20-something guy I was when I first started touring. I feel like I'm a different person, so I want the show to reflect that.
It will sound as close to the record as possible. I can't stand it when I see a band and it doesn't sound like the record. Mainly I want the tour to be a joyous celebration of love.
Looking ahead, what’s next for you in 2024 after the tour?
I'm really looking forward to writing and producing more with other cool artists like MAX, Eyedress, Aaron Frazer, and Blu DeTiger. When you're working with other artists you just gotta cross your fingers and hope that the songs actually get released.
I've been working on so many cool projects behind the scenes and a lot of them are finally coming out. It's an exciting new frontier for me. I have so many artists on my dream list to work with. Rosalía, if you're reading this, call me.
Westside Gunn On How Virgil Abloh & "Coming To The End" Of His Rap Career Inspired 'And Then You Pray For Me'
A self-proclaimed "super-vet" of the rap world, Westside Gunn knows his time as a rapper is nearing its finale — but first, he wants to "give you a journey" with his new album, 'And Then You Pray For Me.'
When Westside Gunn refers to himself as "the king of the underground," it's not hyperbole. The veteran rapper has spent the last decade-plus providing hip-hop with a streetwise, neo-boom-bap style that echoes heavily in the music of today. And as the founder of independent hip-hop label Griselda (and its related rap collective), Gunn's influence is felt through stars like his brother, Conway the Machine, his cousin, Benny the Butcher, and the enigmatic Mach-Hommy.
But Gunn considers himself more a curator than a musician. He is obsessed with fashion and high art, more prone to mention going to see opera or buying a painting than jumping into a rhyme cipher.
All of Westside Gunn's obsessions come together on his new album And Then You Pray For Me. The rapper is positioning the project as a sequel to his 2020 LP Pray For Paris, which was inspired by Gunn attending a Paris Fashion Week runway show as a guest of the late Virgil Abloh. Abloh was the art director for both albums, which feature figures from iconic artworks laden with Gunn's signature chains; And Then You Pray For Me uses both the Mona Lisa and Caravaggio's The Entombment of Christ.
While the 21-track album features plenty of Gunn's trademark neo-boom-bap sounds, he updates things a bit by including some songs that have a trap music influence. It contains stellar guest turns from old friends like Conway, Benny, Stove God Cooks, Rome Streetz, and Boldy James. But there are also surprising appearances from artists you might not normally associate with Griselda — Jeezy, Rick Ross, Denzel Curry, and Ty Dolla $ign.
Gunn has recently referred to And Then You Pray For Me as his last album, but don't expect him to slow down. He's making movies, planning big moves in the fashion world, and continuing to guide the careers of other artists.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Gunn as he was, naturally, shopping in New York City's SoHo neighborhood ("I'm over here on Mercer [Street], so it's Lanvin, Balenciaga, Marni, Bape — it's all right here," he boasts). We discussed his creative pairing with Abloh, why he's really a curator at heart, and his views on underground rap's evolution over the past decade.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Not to start on a super serious note, but as I was preparing for this conversation, I realized that we just passed the 17-year anniversary of the murder of your cousin, rapper Machine Gun Blak. If he could see you now, and if he could hear the new album, what do you think he might say?
First of all, he'd be all on [the album]. But he'd be super proud, man. Even when he's not here, he's one of my biggest fans, I feel like. His energy is Westside Gunn. Westside Gunn is a perfect example of Machine Gun Blak — just the raw, the grittiness. The grimy part of Westside Gunn, that's Machine Gun Blak. That's his spirit.
But I think he would love this album. It's a great piece of work. It's my favorite that I ever worked on. Out of all my projects ever, this is the most fun I ever had making one.
Does it feel like it's been 17 years since he died?
Nah. It doesn't seem like 17 years, honestly. And it's crazy because I just went to his grave site. I remember [the day he died] like it was yesterday. I vividly remember that day — what was going on, what I was doing, where I was going, everything.
Where were you when you found out?
See, back in those days, that's when we were still in the streets. So I was just about to go make a move. I was talking to him on the phone, and I was like, "I'll hit you when I get over to Atlanta." Because at that time, I was making moves. That's before all of this. It's the things I rap about now. When you hear the lyrics, these are those days.
He called me, and it was a situation. He was talking about it, and I was like, "Sorry to cut you off, but I gotta go handle this. When I get there, I'll hit you back so we can finish talking about it."
At that time I was still catching the Greyhound from Alabama to Atlanta. But it was crazy because I missed the bus, and I never miss the bus. So I was on my way back to the house in Alabama, and my grandma called me.
This era of your career, which this album is a cap to, began in 2012 when you realized you had to step up and be an artist because Conway The Machine had gotten shot and you weren't sure he'd be able to rap anymore. I've always been curious about your state of mind at that moment.
Even then I was still in-the-streets Gunn. We was working so hard, man. I was acting as his manager and investing my bread, my time. I really wanted Conway to be the biggest artist in the world. Unfortunately, when he got shot, it was a devastating blow.
Of course, that's my brother. That's the number one thing. And it was also like, the streets is crazy. I thought, I'm a smart guy. If I just put in my effort, I could really make this happen. At that time, I was really in the streets, and I felt like the [other] rappers weren't. It was like, you're really rapping about us.
It was that kind of mentality — that if I come in this game, can't nobody touch me, because I'm as real as it comes. I just put my hustle skills from the streets into this, and it all worked out.
During the heyday of that era of Griselda, you guys released a flood of projects — dozens and dozens of mixtapes and albums.
It was a flood. It was the craziest flood since No Limit [Records].
What was a typical day like for you when all that was going on, circa the mid-2010s?
Just being at [producer] Daringer's house. Getting high, eating f—in' Franco's pizza, drinking Loganberry, and Daringer cooking the craziest beats you ever heard in your life. The rest is history. Just having fun, man. Everybody had they hustles. Believe it or not, even Daringer was hustling! We from Buffalo, man.
You've always been someone who understood the importance of branding. Even on early Griselda projects, you'd promote GxFR [Griselda by Fashion Rebels, Gunn's clothing line at the time].
Yeah, because that's the thing: Griselda Records comes from Griselda by Fashion Rebels. I had the clothing brand first. I was already doing a clothing line and it was just like, What am I going to name this record company?
I've always been into fashion. I actually do more fashion-related things than hip-hop-related things. I'm a true designer. I've been designing since I was a kid, and that's the thing that I want to get into more.
I've been rhyming since '12. That's over a decade. If we're looking at NBA years, NFL years, I'm already a super-vet. I'm not trying to be one of them dudes that went from averaging 40 a game to now I'm averaging five, looking crazy and old.
I know when to gracefully bow out. And I know I'm coming to the end. I don't want to keep rapping forever about the same things, because in my life I'm maturing. I'm doing other things. I'm collecting art. I'm going to see operas.
But it's not the end right now. Right now, I just want to give people the best music. And I also want to let people in. I've been doing these [YouTube] episodes for this album where I've been letting people into my life for the first time in my career. Everybody has been loving it.
For the first time, people are actually getting to see the inside of Westside Gunn's life. I think that's one of the things that I lacked on, was letting people in. If I would have let people in a long time ago, I'd be way bigger. But everything is about time, and I'm not tripping.
Before I hang up the mic, I still want to kind of give you a journey with the music. This new project, it's a super different vibe. I've never made an album sound like this. It's the perfect art piece that I could have possibly created.
It's just the space I'm in in life. It comes with maturity — traveling the world, kids getting older, things like that. You can hear the music has matured. It's still raw though. That's the thing about me. I'm still gonna give you that Griselda Westside Gunn. That's never gonna change. I'm not going too far out of context.
For this album, you've introduced the alter ego "Super Flygod." What does that name mean?
Listen, man, Super Flygod right now is talking to you with a ponytail. I'm on another level. Super Flygod is what I've always been, but times 10. I'm super bougie. I love five-star meals. I love five-star hotels. I love wearing $10,000 outfits. I love getting massages. I love smelling good. I love just looking good. That's Super Flygod.
It's just a different energy. It's something the game never seen before. I did the unthinkable at least 100 times already. I'm still doing it.
What was it like for you to see Conductor Williams — a producer who has worked with Gunn and Griselda for many years — land a single on a Drake album?
Beautiful. That's what we do it for. He did exactly what he was supposed to do, and that's be on the No. 1 album in the world. He deserves all of that. That's what we're in this game for — to be able to leave a legacy and take care of our babies. So for him to be on the No. 1 album, that's a super blessing.
That's the thing about Conductor — it's just gonna be the beginning. He's on my new album a few times. So he's gonna have a hell of a month. It's the biggest month of his life. Business is booming for Conductor.
You've used the word "curation" a lot over the course of your career, and especially in regards to this album. What does that word mean to Westside Gunn?
First of all, that's my favorite thing to do on an album. Curation from me is me. I can curate for you, I can curate for MC Hammer. It's you, but it's me.
When I curate a project, that's me naming every song, that's me picking every beat, that's me doing the sequence, that's me making the art cover, that's me doing the merch. You see what I'm saying? It's you, but it's me. All you're doing is showing up and rapping. That's all you gotta do.
Virgil Abloh is credited with art directing this album's cover. What did that mean, specifically?
When I went out to Paris [for Paris Fashion Week in 2020], I really wasn't going to make music. I just felt the energy from Virgil having me out there. When I hit him and told him it was done, it was just like, "There's only one person that can do this cover." It had to be him.
Virgil was an icon. So to have Virgil cooking up for you is already legendary. This don't happen to nobody from Buffalo, man. But when he was cooking, he was making me multiple pieces. At first, the idea was, I'm gonna do a trilogy [of Pray albums]. I was gonna have the Mona Lisa be the picture that represents all three of them together. I was thinking [of a] box set, with a Mona Lisa front and three different covers inside.
Once he passed, it changed what I wanted to do with it. But we were already talking about dropping [a second Pray album]. We were already going to re-release the first shirts we did, and I was going to do new ones. But when [his death] happened, I put everything on a standstill and I didn't really know how I wanted to approach it again.
It was like, Damn, should I do the trilogy, or should I just make it a part two? I had different options. At the end of the day, it was just like, I think I'm just going to finish it up. I really want to give the people the work we created together before I throw in the towel. I felt it was only right. That's something that I want the world to always see and remember — what me and him cooked up together.
You say in your new YouTube documentary series that this new album will probably go over people's heads. What aspects of it do you think people might not get initially, or take a few years to catch up to?
The same reason why they're catching up now to the s— that I was doing five years ago, and everybody acts like it's new. I've always been ahead of my time. Always. I probably get copied off of the most in the industry. But you see that I've always gotten respect from everybody: from the Drakes, from the Tylers, the Rockys, Kendricks, Coles, anybody. I'm a one-of-one. It's never been seen before.
The respect I get, it could be on a mainstream level, but then I could still be on an underground level. I can do something with an Estee Nack, but then turn around and do a song with Mary J. Blige. That's who Westside Gunn is. I got songs with everybody you can possibly think of, rhyming-wise or production-wise. All the legends, even our fallen legends. I can't even think of no other emcee that got a record with Sean Price, Prodigy, DMX, and MF DOOM. It's impossible to name another one.
Westside Gunn is so cultured, people don't even understand. That's what I mean about [being] over people's heads. People still don't even get it. They're scratching their head, like, "How is this guy on [Kanye West's] Donda? How is this guy on [Travis Scott's] Utopia?"
There's a big part of underground rap now that can be traced directly to what Roc Marciano began doing in 2010, and what you guys started doing just a few years later. What do you think when you see a lot of your aesthetic from that time in the current underground scene?
The current underground scene, I'm loving it. Because you gotta think — at that time, like you said, it was only really Roc Marci, Action Bronson — a couple heads. That's in the space that we come from. Of course, we still had the J. Coles and Big Seans and all that, but that was another lane. We're in the same neighborhood, two different streets.
But on our street, people on the block was Roc Marci and Action Bronson. Danny Brown, he lived on the block. People like that. When I came on the scene, that's all it was. But I took the bull by the horns. Like I said, I'm a hustler. I was still hustling in the street. I had a hustler mentality, and once I told myself I had to quit cold turkey, I never looked back. I just went extra hard.
With the new heads, I'm proud of them. At the end of the day, I'm happy that I was able to be somebody that they could study. That they could see these vinyl deals or how this merch is played — I'm kind of like the blueprint. I'm not going to say I'm the king of the underground, but I'm the king of the underground.
Even though I'm the king of the underground, I'm still on Donda. I'm still on Utopia. I'm still making all these big songs and these big records. And even yesterday, we put up the Post Malone clip saying if he could work with anybody, it'd be me.
I'm the one that put the most points on the board, in every way possible. But this is also showing the new heads, If I could work hard, I'm gonna be the next Roc Marci, I'm gonna be the next Action Bronson in that space.
What is the possibility of getting the original Griselda trio of you, your brother and your cousin back together for a project?
That's coming in '24. You don't even you got to ask twice. That's already done, my brother.