According to those closest to him, Durham, North Carolina-bred producer Groove has been trying to find “the groove” for as long as he’s been alive. “Anyone older than me, who has known me since birth, will tell me stories about how I’d always make a rhythm out of anything,” Groove said. “So I guess it’s always been in me.”
Groove has been on this rhythmic quest for over a decade. It’s a journey that saw him go from producing for local rising artists in North Carolina — while still in high school and college — to helping craft intricate instrumentals for major artists like J. Cole and Maxo Kream. What becomes clear when speaking to Groove is what separated him along this path, an unspoken internalized code: can’t force it or you’ll fuck up the groove.
Groove never technically learned to play any instruments, but when he was introduced to FL Studio in 6th grade it broke his world open. “It was a little more accessible than I expected it to be,” he said. “I was thinking I needed to learn an instrument so I could learn how to actually program things myself. But through research around the Little Brother era, and finding out what 9th Wonder was doing, (I learned) you could actually do it through software.”
Once Groove began to lock into the craft he loved he made friends with an older crowd. This blossomed into his first fruitful collaborative relationship with artists as their main producer. For six years, ranging from the end of High School through attending a local College in North Carolina, Groove produced for the rap duo Wreck-N-Crew. They made enough noise in the Carolina scene for Groove to receive recognition from the man who initially inspired him to find his sound. “9th Wonder wrote an article on his blog talking about who he thought was the future of hip-hop,” Groove said. “Wreck-N-Crew was on that same list with the likes of J. Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Kendrick Lamar, and Wale.”
Though acknowledgement from the legendary Carolina producer was validating, mentorship from a family friend gave Groove the vision to see a bigger impact in his future. Henny Tha Bizness, producer of “My President” by Jeezy and “Every Girl” by Young Money, was mentoring Groove from Atlanta during this time. “Henny would tell me, ‘There’s only so much I can do for you in North Carolina. The moment you venture to Atlanta is the moment you’re welcomed with open arms and new opportunities,’” Groove said. “I knew that I had to make a move.”
Groove lied and told his parents he had a secured job in Atlanta and, right after graduation, and left his hometown. Once he saved up enough money to get a car, Groove was pulling up at whatever sessions he could access. He reignited the spirit he had in Carolina and found his way into spaces with artists who needed him as much as he needed them. Henny introduced Groove to Childish Major who introduced him to EARTHGANG who introduced him to J.I.D, and all of a sudden he was dead in the center of the new Atlanta rap scene.
Groove’s biggest early impact, however, was with producer and rapper Childish Major. Groove acted as a creative consultant on Childish’s 2017 Woo$Ah project, and was also a part of the studio support system during the recording process.
During this period, Groove also helped Childish craft his first full-length album, Dirt Road Diamond. Groove would end up with three co-production credits on the project. Groove found that his tempos and tonalities lent well to Childish’s conversational specificity. The first two tracks deal with love’s gray areas, but the final credit for the track, “Dream Went Bad” feat. Tish Hyman, locked Groove and Childish into their most poignant collaboration. Over an ethereal soul sample chop and rolling percussion, Groove leaves the perfect space for Childish to ruminate on the circumstances of his youth and how they’ve affected his adult relationships.
On the route Groove was headed it felt only right that, eventually, his path would cross with Carolina’s most prominent rapper J. Cole. Groove was called into a session with Earthgang, as they were wrapping up production for their Mirrorland album. Cole just happened to be in the room, and he asked for Groove’s number. Cole noticed he had a local area code. The Carolina connection was made. “He automatically just gets happy as hell like, ‘Bro you from the crib?,’ Groove said. “That solidified him fucking with me.”
Then right as Groove entered 2019 he found himself in Atlanta when Revenge of the Dreamers III sessions were about to commence. The advantage of being in Atlanta early is that Groove and Childish entered Tree Sounds studios the day before the sessions were even going to start. This meant they were blessed with their own room to manage. The room name was “222” and Groove was told it was the room Whitney Houston used to record in.
Early arrival granted Groove the opportunity to see what energy was overtaking the studios, and he knew he had to offer an alternative. “We were in Atlanta and it was just a lot of hard trap shit going on,” Groove said. “In my mind, I was like, “This is a Dreamville album. Ain’t no way they are about to put out a whole trap album. I took it upon myself to be the one person that’s making feel-good soul shit.”
Groove took the lead of “222” and held it down for the duration. On day five, everything seemed to click. Groove had stayed overnight and woke up early to keep crafting ideas. Cole walked in with Monte Booker, Smino’s main producer, whom Groove had met a few months prior at a show in New York City. Groove hadn’t told Monte he was a producer so after the two reconnected, Monte inquired about what Groove was doing in the room. Groove “pressed play on his ass.”
Later in the day, Monte and Smino pulled up. Groove started playing beats from a pack he had made the day before. The first beat he played was a groove he had crafted beneath a soulful guitar loop sent to him by his longtime mentor Henny Tha Business. Smino’s eyes lit up and he demanded they pull the beat up on the speakers. As the beat began to blare from the speakers suddenly Olu from EARTHGANG and Chicago MC Saba entered the studio. A community of whispers of lyrics began to form as they lost themselves within Groove’s heart-centered rhythm.
“Then Olu was like, ‘Alright imma go first,’ Groove said. “I’ll never forget ’cause I had never seen somebody record this way. Olu’s like, ‘I don’t want no headphones, just turn the beat as low as you possibly can and play it through the speaker and I’ll record, just trust me.’ He said he had just learned it from a documentary or something. So he pulls up and comes right on the song with that energy. That, ‘Yeah yeah yeah yeah!'” These are still the entering ad-libs on the standout closing track “Sacrifices,” from the Dreamville Grammy-nominated compilation album.
Groove left the room for a bit, then came back and noticed Cole sitting in the corner quietly on his phone while the other trio laid their verses. The two later met in the hallway and Cole asked Groove to airdrop him the beat. Cole would later find Groove again and tell him he was “almost done” with his verse.
Later that evening, Groove heard noise coming from a larger room across the hall and as he entered, he saw what he thought was around 50 people. He says a few of them exclaimed something like, “Ohhhh we gotta play that shit back for Groove!” The engineer quickly sequenced the original three verse song into Cole’s verse. It reverberated through the speakers as an over two-minute ode to Cole’s wife displaying his emotional gratitude for all she had sacrificed in support of his dream. “The only reason why I didn’t cry was because it was 50 motherfuckers in the room,” Groove said. “I was so floored. It seemed so surreal.”
Upon release, the song was the statement Groove needed to thrust himself into his next chapter, but it was still really the community he extended within those studios that has carried him forth. “That song is really how I was living but I had no participation in writing any of the lyrics. It was just God, it was the spirit of what we were all going through at the time,” Groove said. “It allowed a community energy to be created. That song will never not mean everything to me. It was the key that opened all the doors.”
More than any other connection since the Revenge sessions, Groove’s producer relationship with Monte Booker and Smino blossomed into what has become his main focus. Monte told Groove in the sessions that he wanted him to help make Smino’s next album. According to Groove he, Smino, Monte, and producer Phoelix have made five Smino albums worth of music, three of which are already mixed. That crew of four has become referred to as “The Yout,” according to Groove, referring to the Jamaican patois for the word youth. Groove maintains only a few other artists have seen the crew at work together, one being J. Cole during sessions for his looming release The Fall Off. “Cole shed a light on it to me,” Groove said. “He was like, ‘This is actually a thing you guys should embrace. Tap into how powerful it is when all of you guys come together.’”
Groove, over time, has secured his role within the tandem by filling a unique need. There was a solid structure to Smino’s sound before him, but when Groove arrived it created an opportunity for this independent business to expand and franchise. “When I think about Smino and his sound musically, if I had to put it in context with the production, there is Monte which is completely left. Then the other side of that is Phoelix which is completely right,” Groove said. “Phoelix has a super musical background, classically trained in the bass, keys, drums, and like every instrument. On the other side, completely left, is Monte who’s gonna throw you a curveball every time. He’s gonna bring you into his world and never step foot outside of that world to even see what the fuck’s goin on anywhere else. Which is beautiful. I took it upon myself to be the centerpiece in that spectrum. The balance of the left shit and the right shit. The middle ground. What I think that is, is the left creativity but the simplicity of the right.”
Miki Hellerbach is a freelance music and culture journalist from Baltimore, whose work can also be found on CentralSauce, Euphoria Magazine, Notion Magazine, GUAP Magazine, and Complex. He also regularly co-hosts the In Search of Sauce music journalism podcast highlighting the top tier work of other writers.
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