There was 4745 miles between the two of us when I sat down to get ready to speak with somebody who has worked with many of the biggest names in music. I was in London whilst he, Larry Griffin Jr, Symbolyc One, S1, was in Dallas. Both of us in our respective living rooms; two rooms that I imagine are very, very different in size. Even though our living rooms, and probably our lives, are completely different, as we began talking, there was one clear similarity. A love of music.
Throughout our 37 minute conversation, we discuss how his upbringing channelled his love for music, his personal experiences from working with Kanye West and Beyoncé, the importance, or lack thereof, of the Grammys, and if there are any names he wants to add to his roster of legendary artists he has worked with.
SO, WE KNOW THAT YOU CAME ONTO THE SCENE AS PART OF STRANGE FRUIT PROJECT, NAMED AFTER BILLIE HOLIDAY. WHY DID YOU GUYS CHOOSE THAT NAME? DID YOU LIKE THE WAY IT SOUNDED OR IS THERE A DEEPER MEANING?
It was kind of both reasons actually. We wanted a name that made a statement so we used that name to represent the struggle that we had as artists and as people.
WHO WERE SOME OF THE FIRST ARTISTS YOU REMEMBER LISTENING TO WHEN YOU FELL IN LOVE WITH MUSIC?
I grew up listening to a lot of 70’s music like Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday and Earth Wind and Fire. They all had messages and substance within their music. My parents would be playing them and then give me an old record. Music was uplifting, but also manipulative, with how it can make you feel a certain way.
AROUND WHAT AGE DID YOU LEARN THAT MUSIC WAS YOUR CALLING? DID YOU EVER HAVE A BACKUP PLAN IN CASE MUSIC DIDN’T WORK?
Growing up I was always intrigued by music. But, it wasn’t until I graduated from high school, or my senior year, that me and my cousin created the Strange Fruit Project. It was at this point that I said music was going to be my life. Before that, I wanted to be a physical therapist. I never had a backup plan though. I worked jobs, everything from retail to restaurants to mailrooms. Just to pay bills and get studio time. These jobs taught me I wanted to do music more than anything.
FOR 8 YEARS, YOU WERE MOSTLY WORKING ON SOLO OR STRANGE FRUIT PROJECT ALBUMS. THEN ALL OF A SUDDEN, HERE YOU ARE CREDITED AS PRODUCING ONE OF THE SINGLES ON WHAT IS CONSIDERED ONE OF THE BEST ALBUMS OF THE PAST 15-20 YEARS. SIMPLY PUT, HOW DID PRODUCING ‘POWER’ FOR KANYE WEST COME AROUND?
It was a process by which one step lead to another. Strange Fruit was my foundation, and I was getting better and better at what I do. The underground success of Strange Fruit led me to Ghostface Killah, and that led me to Rhymefest to work on his album. Rhymefest played my beats for Kanye one time, and Kanye was like “Yo who is this. I need this”. Next thing you know, I’m on a plane to Hawaii. The whole flight I was wondering ‘man, what the hell is going on?!’. My brain was on 200 the entire time.
WERE YOU IN THE STUDIO WITH HIM WHILE THE BEAT WAS BEING CREATED?
The beat for ‘Power’ was actually played for Kanye by Rhymefest. He had already recorded some vocals by the time I got there. Completely different to what came out though. That was the original demo version.
OF COURSE, ON SNL, HE PERFORMED THE SONG WITH A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT VERSE. DOES HE DO THIS WITH A LOT OF HIS MUSIC, IN YOUR EXPERIENCE?
All the time. There are tons of verses that didn’t make it. For ‘Power’, there’s 8 or 9 versions of the song itself. Kanye works in phases and stages; “I want it like this. No, I want it like this”. He works like that. People are always coming in to contribute. You never know what’s going to make the final cut. He fine tunes and picks the best.
WHAT WAS THE VIBE LIKE WORKING WITH KANYE? PUBLIC IMAGE AND THE MEDIA MAKE 2010 KANYE AND TODAY’S KANYE SEEM SO DIFFERENT. FROM SOMEONE WHO KNOWS AND WORKED WITH HIM PERSONALLY, HAS HE CHANGED?
Around the time when I was really working with him, it was just amazing. His passion is amazing and inspiring. I love throwing ideas at him. He’ll always ask, “Yo S, what you think of this?”. He’s always trying yo get the best from everybody. It’s been a while since we worked together, but it was amazing during ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and ‘Watch The Throne’ sessions. Hawaii was straight Dark Fantasy. For WTT we went to London and Australia. Then it got finished in New York. The song I did that ended up on Yeezus, I forget the name…
That’s the one. That was actually from a Watch The Throne session and Kanye was like “I’m gonna keep this for my album”.
KANYE IS ON A LOT OF PEOPLE’S BUCKET LIST TO WORK WITH. SO IS BEYONCE. YOU’VE TICKED THEM BOTH OFF. HOW DID THE BEYONCE COLLABORATION COME ABOUT, AND WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
The working relationship with Beyonce starting during Watch The Throne, because she was always there. It was just a natural progression for us to work together creatively. That led me to flying out to New York to work on ‘4’. I did around 4 or 5 songs, and ‘Best Thing I Never Had’ was one that made it. For the approach, it’s always the same. I always wanted to keep some type of Hip-Hop foundation. I wanted my beat to still have a Hip-Hop presence, that’s why the drums are crunchy the way they are on that song. But the approach is the same. It was all about understanding the arrangement for Pop music.
YOU CLEARLY SEEM TO HAVE A KNACK FOR IT, AS HERE YOU ARE 6 YEARS LATER WITH AN ALBUM OF THE YEAR NOMINATION FOR ‘MELODRAMA’. CONGRATULATIONS BY THE WAY. AS SOMEONE WHO HAS BEEN IN THE SCENE FOR WELL OVER A DECADE, WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE GRAMMYS. DO YOU SEE ARTISTS NEEDING THEM FOR VALIDATION OR HAS THAT LONG GONE?
I think it’s one of those things where it’s good to have one, but having one doesn’t reflect how good you are. There are great artists that have never won or even been nominated. That doesn’t reflect the music or the purpose behind the music. The Grammy is a trophy, everybody wants to win at something. It’s kind of a thing where people want it to solidify their music as having a trophy. The perception of having a Grammy is more than what it actually means.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON THE CURRENT STATE OF HIP-HOP AND WHERE THE GENRE IS AT?
I think it’s in a good place. The thing is though, are we talking commercially or not? There are loads of dope albums out there and people making real music, but when you listen to the radio, it’s overshadowed by the popular or typical sound. People need to discover that there are a lot of other great albums out there.
ARE YOU STILL SIGNED TO VERY GOOD BEATS?
I actually left in 2013. I’m not signed to anyone. Being signed was cool man. I wouldn’t change anything. I learnt a lot around Kanye, both creatively and business wise too.
LOOKING AT YOUR TWITTER BIO I SEE A LOT OF NAMES; KANYE, BEYONCÉ, JAY, MADONNA, DRAKE, EMINEM. I KNOW YOU’VE WORKED WITH 50 CENT, THE GAME, PUSHA T AND RAEKWON. THERE’S A WHOLE LIST OF LEGENDS THERE. BUT, IS THERE ANYBODY IN YOUR 15 YEARS, THAT YOU HAVEN’T WORKED WITH BUT WANT TO?
That’s a great question. Rihanna. Definitely Rihanna. I have no idea what lane I’d go with her though. I’ll just vibe with her and see what happens. So many dope artists out there. Kendrick of course. I’ve got songs with Kendrick, but they’ve never been released on his albums.
WHAT HAVE YOU GOT LINED UP FOR NEXT YEAR? ANYONE THAT YOU’RE WORKING WITH THAT IS PARTICULARLY EXCITING?
I’m working on a lot of pop stuff actually. MØ, X Ambassadors, they’re super dope. I executive produced the new Royce Da 5’9 album. I worked on some new Lupe Fiasco records. Dope stuff is coming. I’m bouncing around in different places, but I’m still urban.
Symbolyc One is available on Spotify
words by Karan Teli | @karanteli24