Photo by Kaushik Kalidindi for Okayplayer.
This U.K. Producer Helped Noname Make one of the Best Albums of 2023
U.K. producer Gaetan Judd is the executive producer of Noname’s brilliant new album, Sundial. We spoke to Judd about producing some of the standout songs from the album and more.
At the top of 2023, West London-bred producer Gaetan Judd was preparing to head to LA for the Grammys. He had become a go-to collaborator for the Grammy-winning producer P2J and a touring guitarist for Afro-fusion sensation Burna Boy. Burna’s album Love, Damini had been nominated for Best Global Album and he had official credits on three tracks. Judd’s manager, Jesse Dickson, presented him with a list of possible artists to connect with in-studio while on the trip. At the top of that list was, by chance, Chicago rapper Noname who was compiling songs for her third album.
Fast forward six weeks later, Judd was headed back to LA for a seven-day stint for another gig that fell through. He almost decided to cancel the trip, but on a whim reached back out to Noname. They decided they would lock in for as many of the seven days as they could as she was putting the finishing touches together and sequencing what would eventually be named Sundial.
Elements of this sequence of events seemed to have an undercurrent of divine timing and fate. This energy bled heavily into the album-making process. “For this project, I just believed in it from the jump,” Judd said during a Zoom interview with Okayplayer. “So once she gave it to me, my faith just went up even higher.” Judd excessively described being moved into musical inspiration by “a vibe.” It could be said that a more accurate phrase is “a spirit” as Judd’s Christian faith and spirituality are at the core of his music-making. That said, without following through on his faith’s guidance, Judd doesn’t think any of this would’ve happened the way it did.
“You can’t have faith and just sit down,” he said. “I can't just sit here and be like, ‘Hey, God, put me in the studio.’ It's like, no, I need to work to get into that next stage. So [Noname’s] work ethic and my work ethic together is what made this possible along with everyone else involved in this album. But faith definitely plays a part in my everyday life. It's something that I have with me at all times.”
Faith led Judd to music in the first place. One of his earliest musical memories was watching his father play the guitar at church while his mom sang with him. “My dad would play every Sunday,” Judd said. “There were guitars everywhere in my house.”
His dad got him a guitar of his own and initially taught him Bob Marley and the Wailers’ “No Woman, No Cry,” which made him think he “was the greatest guitarist ever.” However, when Judd started with the church band in Notting Hill Gate, he started on drums as his first official instrument.
There was a four-pronged impetus that brought Judd back to the instrument he was meant to play: looking up to his father; seeing U.K. guitarist Aaron Forbes perform at his church; hearing John Mayer’s rendition of “Human Nature” at Michael Jackson’s memorial; and — maybe most essentially — wanting to impress girls. “At the high school I went to, some of the guys I used to hang around with always used to get girls,” he said. “I was like, “Why do you guys always get girls? I realized they all played guitar.”
Due to his dad’s tendency to “lose patience” and (funny enough) acquired teachers not being able to keep up with his perceived quick progress, Judd mostly taught himself guitar at Youtube University. Judd did go on to study guitar at BIMM Institute in Fulham under the tutelage of Jim Clark who he credits with giving him techniques he still uses in sessions to this day. However, the most important lesson he learned during his time at school was how much more essential making friends and networking was career-wise. During his first year at school, he received a call from an old friend, singer-songwriter Samm Henshaw, who he met when he was six. Henshaw told him he was looking for players to come to a rehearsal. That was in 2014 and Judd has been recording and performing with him since.
Playing youth church shows would also bring Judd to P2J which led to actually producing for Burna Boy and flying to LA to eventually meet Noname. Fast forward back to Judd preparing to meet with Noname. “The night before I was nervous, and I'm usually never nervous,” Judd explained. “I was like, I don't know what this is, but I need to shake this off. So I just took my laptop and made some ideas.” He prepared three instrumental ideas going off his gut spiritual feeling and again channeled that into work. The next day the first beat he played would eventually become track two on Sundial, “hold me down.”
There were other fate-like connections made between Judd and Noname in their first conversation that sparked a fruitful musical partnership. Noname explained that she had just returned from Africa full of inspiration which led eventually to ways Judd could instill Congolese rhythms and top lines into her music. (Judd’s parents are Congolese immigrants.) They spoke about London, about how Judd had been introduced to US hip-hop via its prominence in the UK, and about howBe by Common was one of both of their favorite rap albums. Common would eventually land on Sundial as the final voice you hear.
Gaetan Judd in the studio.Photo by Aaron Imuere.
As they progressed in their work, Judd extended his initial trip to LA from four to six weeks developing a multitude of tonalities and song structures. When Judd later came back to LA to help her finish the project and Noname officially asked him to executive produce Sundial, he kept it cool externally even though inside he was beside himself. “In my head, I was doing the Dougie, I was crip walking, I was doing the Harlem shake,” he said.
So much of the culminating final sessions were led by U.K. gospel-based ideas which you can hear splattered across Sundial. On “boomboom” and “oblivion” he brought in his friend Daija Anasa Ross to lay down gospel R&B-styled layered vocals to intertwine with the Afrobeat and jazz rap cadences. For the actual song “gospel?,” Judd recruited two more vocalists and arrangers, Olivia Williams (also from the U.K.) and Kadeem Nichols who are both LA-based. You can hear their gospel-filled harmonies at the beginning of the song lift quintessential church music filled with layered piano plucks and congregation snaps.
When reflecting on the time with Noname in the studio, Judd deduced that some of his faith-based centering led to his success as an executive producer. “There were times where it was a bit tricky and I didn’t know how we were gonna get through it, but (I knew) somehow God was going to make it work,” Judd said. “If you have a role like that, the responsibility that you have is very heavy. If the artist is panicking, and you're panicking, then the whole ship is about to sink. So if she calls me and goes, ‘Oh, my God, I don't know what's going to happen.’ And I'm like, ‘Oh, my God, I don't know what's gonna happen too.’ It's like a kid crying that they're scared, but then the dad is scared too. What happens to the kid? So for me, I was making sure I was bringing my faith and letting her know we've got this covered.”
Being led by faith and vibrations allows Judd to see visions for where he wants his production to go for a song. Judd shared with Okayplayer visualizations and processes that led to the making of some of his most well-known songs, from Noname to J Hus.
The interview below has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Noname, Jimetta Rose & Voices of Creation — “hold me down”
hold me downwww.youtube.com
Gaetan Judd: My friend Kevin Ekofo made the sample for it. I remember we were listening to it and it was giving me serious, but also happiness. The Neptunes are my heroes, Pharrell [Williams] and Chad [Hugo] are the best to ever do it. Hence why the four-count at the start. I don't normally do it and I didn’t even do it on purpose, but when I heard it back I was like, "Oh yeah, that's the Neptunes four count.” But yeah that one was just happiness and joy and when I gave her the idea of having the choir I was listening to “We Don't Care,” by Kanye [West], that first track off College Dropout. Hearing "Drug dealing just to get by," I was like, "Oh, this is giving me 'hold me down.''' I wanted it to feel like I was walking into a church on a Sunday and the choir was just there. Then Noname was like, "I'm gonna get a choir because I know someone in LA that's serious when it comes to their choir." When she sent me Jimetta and the choir for the first time I was like, "Oh my days!" I felt like I was in Georgia and wanted someone to hand me a tambourine.
Noname & Ayoni — “boomboom”
That one I told (Noname) we’re either somewhere in Africa or South America and it's a Friday. It's a beach and it's nighttime, but it's not pitch dark yet. But it's already set in the mood and you've got kids that are running around, people playing cards, people drinking beer, there's a salsa band, and people are dancing. But it's not a party, it's chill. Someone's putting a steak on the grill, uncles and aunties are there and everything. Then the band starts playing “boomboom” and then you're like, “Hold on, this is a vibe.” So then Noname and Ayoni go on stage. Ayoni starts singing and people are like, “HOLD ON.” Everyone puts their cards down, stops whatever they're doing and it just turns into a whole party. Even though the song finishes with the horns outro, in my head the song is still going. I see this being a song that when she goes on tour it has to be like the outro where people are going home still dancing to it. You don’t have to be the best dancer in the world, but you just need to move to that.
Noname, $ilkmoney & Billy Woods — “gospel?”
That's church. Shouts to my brother Waine who did the sample for that. When I was making the beat, I was like, “I want this to feel like the first time I listened to “Family Business” by Kanye. I don't want it to feel too complicated, I just want the message initially to be in people's faces. This is that old school 2000s when rappers used to collaborate with the gospel artists like Kirk Franklin or Donnie McClurkin. That's how I wanted it to feel but I also wanted to feel like it's a church song. I still want you to say whatever you want to say, but what it is for me is that I want someone to have their right hand up when they hear that. That beat didn’t take me that long to make. I was locked in. I want this to be a song where people sit down by the end of the song and feel it. That's why I wanted to get Livia Lovez and Kadeem Nichols to come and do some vocals towards the outro. That part should make you feel like you want to open your arms and intercede how you want to intercede. Whatever is in your mind, just lay it out.
J Hus & Drake — “Who Told You?” (Composer)
J Hus - Who Told You (Official Audio) ft. Drakewww.youtube.com
P2J started that song in 2020. Then last year we were working on the Burna Boy album and P2J called me and said, “Hey, I need instrumentation for this song I’m doing for J Hus.” So he played it for me and I was like, “OK, this is a vibe.” So I came up with this big guitar arrangement that feels like 2009 funky house. I didn’t hear anything about that song for a year then P2J said it was gonna be one of the singles on the album.
So (later on down the line) I was at my friend's wedding and he hit me up about coming to the studio. I felt like it was really important. So, after the wedding, I got to the studio and he was there with one of his friends and he said he wanted to play me the final version of “Who Told You?” He starts playing me the bounce and I'm like, “OK, cool. This sounds sweet.” Then out of nowhere, I hear a different vocal tone. I'm looking at him and he's not looking at me, which is making me feel more like, “You need to look at me.” I remember his friend was laughing. I was like, “Pause that. Is that who I think it is?!” He was like, “Who?” I was like, “Is that the guy from The Six?” He said “Yeah,” and I said, “Carry on, carry on pressing play.” (Laughs) I remember going home and I was like, “I got a song with Drake what!” It came out the night before my birthday. It was my first placement (to come out) this year. My big sis, not by blood, but I've known her for years got married and when the DJ played it everyone mobbed me and that was such a moment. Seeing the song on the charts, seeing it played on radio, seeing people send me videos, I'm super grateful for everything that it's done for me. That's definitely my first hit single.
Burna Boy — “Dirty Secrets” (Composer)
Burna Boy - Dirty Secrets [Official Audio]www.youtube.com
We did “Dirty Secrets” and “Science” right before Christmas. I don't normally work around that time because the labels are already closed. For “Dirty Secrets” I saw colors like purple and brown. It's that love song where you want to just hold on to the person. Whether you really love them or it’s someone that you've met in the club. I think that's the vibe Burna was going for. I remember him recording the vocals at the studio and I was like, “Yeah, this is sweet lovey dovey but not like cheesy lovey dovey.” It’s intimate because the instrumental is so simple as well. It had to have all the space where he wanted to go melodically with it. So that one's got purple and brown, but dark brown with glitter. It's not just purple and brown it’s purple and brown with glitter. The glitter is what makes it.
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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