In His Own Words: Symbolyc One Breaks Down Producing Songs for Kanye West, JAY-Z, Lupe Fiasco & More
Veteran producer Symbolyc One has worked with everyone from Kanye West to Eminem to Gladys Knight. The veteran producer broke down some of the most memorable sessions of his long career.
“I really think there’s something lacking as far as giving producers their proper credit in today’s time.”
In a career that’s spanned over a decade, Symbolyc One, a two-time Grammy-award-winning producer, has written and produced for some of the most iconic figures in pop music. Just take a glance`Ï at his production discography and you’ll see names like Beyoncé, JAY-Z, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Lorde, and Madonna.
His big break occurred in 2010: when he was invited out to Hawaii where Kanye West was crafting his magnum opus My Dark Twisted Fantasy. Symbolyc One, who goes by S1 for short, was the main architect behind “Power,” the album’s eventual first single. Two years later, S1 would take home his first Grammy when Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy won for Best Rap Album. The following year, he won his second Grammy for his work on Eminem’s “Bad Guy,” the opening track on The Marshall Mathers LP 2.
Fast forward to 2018, S1 is still grinding. Okayplayer caught up with S1 in Los Angeles. There, the producer broke down stories behind some of his most memorable sessions, featuring stories centered around JAY-Z, Kanye, Raekwon, Gladys Knight, and more.
As told to Shirley Ju.
Kanye West — “Power”
It started with me being online. That was my first major placement, first major single with a major artist. Before that, it was just me always creating, trying to find the next one. I used to go on a blog site where DJs post records. They were just digging and digging, and they would go to all these different countries. Whatever they found, they would post on this site for us to download.
I came across this sample from a record by this group in Australia called Continent Number 6. I downloaded the album, went through it, and came across this one particular song that had these chants. I knew as soon as I heard it there was something special about it. I wanted to do something to it. I wound up not actually working with it for a few weeks because any time I would go to do something to it, it just wasn’t right. I’d chop it wrong. I was like, “Nah, I could do better.” One day I was in the studio and I took another swing at it. Everything started to come together on the song.
I actually did that beat for Rhymefest. He had already released his first album, and we started talking about ideas for his new project. But at that time, his first album hadn’t dropped yet. I never sent it to him, and it just kind of sat on my desktop. So after his album comes out…he hits me one day like, “I’m in the studio with Kanye, send me some beats. If I get the opportunity, I’ll try to play them for him.”
I sent him the beats, and I included that beat in the batch I sent him for Kanye. Two or three days later, he hits me back in a text saying, “Kanye is loving your stuff, he says he’s about to change your life.” I’m tripping out. A couple of days later, I get an email from Kanye’s manager saying, “Get to the airport, your flight leaves tomorrow morning.” So I went out to Hawaii. When I get there, the first place we go to is the hotel to drop my stuff off. This was like two or three in the morning. They were like, “Mr. West wants you in the studio,” so I wound up going to the studio straight from the hotel. When I went into the studio, it was Rhymefest and Kanye.
He introduced us. Kanye was like, “Your beats are amazing. You make me just want to write rap again. I already recorded to one, I want you to check it out.” He plays it, and it was the original “Power” beat. He had completely different verses on it, the chorus was completely different, but it was just super dope. The whole time, I was like, “Kanye is actually rapping to my beat.” That was my whole mindstate at that particular time, just in disbelief of that. After that, I stayed in Hawaii for a couple of weeks, helping him on the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album. I came back home, continued to send him beats. Every week, he was like, “Hold these two for me. Hold this one for me.” I went back and found out that “Power” was his first single.
Kanye says it took over 500 hours for that one song. When he first played it, everything was completely different. The way he works is, he brings people in to do different things, like there was 10 different choruses. He had Dwele come do a version, and had other people do different versions. As people are coming through, they’re laying verses to it. At the end he’s like, “I’m going to use this verse, I’m going to use this chorus.”
With ‘Ye, I learned to just be passionate about what you do. ‘Cause he’s always passionate and excited and motivated about what he’s hearing or what he’s saying or what someone else is saying.
The Throne — “Murder to Excellence”
I had the pleasure of going to London and Australia with JAY-Z and ‘Ye to work on the Watch the Throne album. We started that actually in London. Crazy story about that, prior to me playing that beat, I kind of was put on the spot by Kanye. The reason I say that is because the beat prior to me playing that beat was a sample I did. I played the beat and it was unfinished, and Kanye didn’t like it. I’ll just say that much.
The following beat I played was “Murder to Excellence.” They were both in front of me, and I remember Jay just looking up and giving me the stank face. They recorded it immediately. It was a pretty amazing opportunity. That record didn’t really take any time. Because the way they recorded it that day, they didn’t change anything. They kept everything exactly the same.
I learned so much being around them. With Jay, what he does is he goes with his first instinct. He doesn’t overthink things. With that particular song, as I was playing the beat, he literally would just walk around the room. He’d look around the room, he’s mumbling words for like 20 minutes, then he’s telling the engineer, “OK I’m ready.” That’s telling me he’s not over thinking, “Oh I could say this better, I can do this…” Whatever he’s feeling at that particular moment, that’s what he commits to.
He’s one of the dopest people on earth. I say that because even at his status, you can still have a conversation with him. He can converse or communicate with anyone, on any level. Jay is an amazing human being.
[The My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne sessions] opened my mind to a whole different way of creating and just seeing. That whole period was so many greats coming through, being in the room and everyone contributing to one piece of work. In a sense, that was probably the greatest experience. Just seeing how other people work, it was confirmation for me about how creative I can be and what I can do. It just opened a whole different vision for me.
Beyoncé — “Best Thing I Never Had”
I met [Beyoncé] being with Jay and Kanye, during the Watch the Throne sessions. She was out in London and Australia with us. That’s when I was able to build a working relationship and build rapport with her. She’s definitely one of the hardest working people in show business — and the results show. She wouldn’t be at the top of the food chain without her work ethic.
She’s definitely Texas. Even the first time I met her in London, it was like we’d been knowing each other. ‘Cause she’s just super down to earth. We laughed, we talked, we had great conversations. With that, it just made making the music more authentic.
[Making “Best Thing I Never Had”] was probably one of the most stressful [experinces.] Beyonce is amazing at what she does. She holds a certain level of quality and expertise when it comes to her craft. And I love it because it pushes you. I think because she was like that was the reason why we made the album. Because it pushed me, and it pushed everyone else who was working on the song. I had the honor of going out to New York to work with Beyonce on the album. She invited me to come out, and I went out there for about a week. I wound up working on four songs. Two made the top 20, and “Best Thing I Never Had” was the one that made the final album.
Raekown & A$AP Rocky — “I Got Money”
That’s actually [my son Vohn] and my other son on “I Got Money.” On the hook. They were in the studio with me when I made it, of course. That beat was pretty old. Usually, when I create, I have these themes. At that particular time when I was making themes, I was doing them on the hook for most of it. We had a hook called “I Got Money.” They were very young, I’d say seven or eight years old. They would always be in the studio with me, so I had them doing some hooks. I would take them, chop them, and process them as I’m creating. I wound up sending that beat to Raekwon, and he loved it. He jumped on it and got A$AP Rocky on it. I worked closely with Raekwon on the album.
Lupe Fascio — “Blur My Hands”
I worked real close with Lupe on the Tetsuo & Youth album. That joint was a song I produced with one of my good friends, M-Phazes, incredible producer from Australia. I was just feeding Lupe beats. I would send him a beat batch every week or two. He’d gravitate towards that one and two [others] that Vohn and I did. (Edit: “Little Death” and “Body of Work.”)
[Lupe’s] just super dope, man. He’s always forward thinking, and just always creative. I love working with artists like that. That allows me to be creative in the studio. Because I don’t have to limit my creativity; he’s thinking the exact same way.
Gladys Knight — “Just A Little”
I had the honor of working with Gladys Knight. That was amazing to me because she actually drove her tour bus to our house from where she lived. She stayed for two days, and we worked on the song. Just the conversations in the studio — I gained so much wisdom by the stories she would tell about the Motown days. That was so amazing to me. It was surreal.
In addition to that, I was able to go on the road with her and do press. She did The View, we did Sway together, we did all these different shows. I was actually on the road with her to do that. It was an amazing experience. That’s the type of stuff you really can’t make up.
Drake — “Ice Melts”
I work quite a bit with this up and coming producer named Super Mario, he’s doing very well right now. We were just working together, and we got a lot of songs together. That was one of the songs we actually did together. What’s crazy about this, Young Thug wanted it from us first. It was actually Young Thug’s song. It was supposed to be his single for his album. A few weeks later, we found out Drake hopped on it, so it was going to be Young Thug’s single featuring Drake. A couple weeks after that, we found out Drake wanted it for his More Life album. It went through a few phases before ending up on that project.
Eminem & Jessie Reyez — “Good Guy”
I’m a composer as well. I compose loops, melodies, and samples for other producers I work with. In this case, it was for a producer by the name Fred Ball, who I work with. I sent him some of my samples, and he wound up having a session with Jessie. He pulled that sample from it and started creating. He hits me up one day saying, “I’ve got a song for Jessie’s album.”
He sent it to me, I checked it out and thought it was dope because it was actually a full Jessie song. She’s dope, super talented. A couple weeks later, he hits me like, “Yo, Eminem wants the record now.” What happened was, Jessie actually got in the studio with Eminem and played some of her songs. When she played that one, he was like, “Oh, I want that.” She wound up taking her second verse off. She had the first verse, kept the chorus on, and he wrote for the second verse. It was one of those things where I do what I do, then passed it onto him.
There are a couple of artists I haven’t worked with, that I’d love to. Rihanna being one. I think she’s just a dope artist. Definitely Kendrick[Lamar.] I worked early on with Kendrick, he was featured on “Push Thru” with Talib Kweli. I actually did songs with him that never came out, I sent him beats. I would love to get something official with Kendrick, as an artist.