For Behind The Beat, Thomas Hobbs spoke with Harry Fraud about the making of “Shot Caller,” the song that made French Montana a star.
The biggest rap releases of 2011 highlighted just how far the pendulum had shifted away from New York City. Although Queens native Nicki Minaj left a Giuseppe footprint in the core of pop culture, most of 2011’s prominent chart successes were from outside of hip hop’s birthplace and associated with the melodic trap sound coming from Atlanta.
“It’s not that New York rappers weren’t having success [back then]… I just think the sound was starting to get lost in the sauce,” said New York City producer Harry Fraud. “The grittiness that East Coast rap was known for [previously on the pop charts] was less and we were hearing a lot of rappers from outside the city on our radio.”
He added: “With that particular song, it felt like we brought the feel-good Puff Daddy energy back to the City. Like, it was gutter, but it also had a drum with a shaker. We really caught lightning in a bottle and made the people smile again.”
The song Fraud is referring to is French Montana’s “Shot Caller,” a massive NYC hood anthem that administered an adrenaline shot to East Coast rap when officially released at the top of January 2012. Although the song was a moderate hit on the rap charts (peaking at no. 23), its popularity in strip clubs, online, and on radio stations like Hot 97 lit the fuse for French Montana to become a mainstream star.
Thugged out lothario Montana is backed by a smoky trumpet sample that feels like it’s moaning out in ecstasy, as Fraud’s beat sucks you in with galvanizing claps that melt into up-tempo 808 drum patterns. This seductive technique means that by the time guest Charlie Rock boasts about meeting a goddess “backstage at the Summer Jam concert” you feel completely immersed in the music.
“Whether it was your first or 100th time hearing ‘Shot Caller,’ I wanted to get you.” Fraud said. “Through layering the drums, I knew I could wrap the listener right into the bounce of the track and have their heads rocking so they can really take in what French and Charlie are trying to say. The song is about a beautiful woman who wants a baller. She wants a boss! It’s inspiring to get your paper and hustle up to try to attract someone special’s attention. That’s really what French stood for [on his block].”
Although Fraud was familiar with the “Shot Caller” trumpet melody from its 1993 appearance on Lords of the Underground’s “Funky Child,” it was its original source that left the deeper impression. The warbling brass first appears at the 3:42 mark of The Thom Bell Orchestra’s “A Theme for L.A.’s Team,” from the underrated 1978 basketball film The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. Just as this flamboyant theme music begins to reach its conclusion, the bombastic trumpet takes over and prompts one final roar from the crowd. Day and night, Fraud couldn’t forget about this audacious loop.
“When it comes to a trumpet or a clarinet sound, I’ve always been obsessed with those dudes like Herb Alpert and Benny Goodman, because their instrumentation has that elegant high frequency that lifts you out of your seat,” he said. “There’s a real showmanship to that. It was important I found a sample that gripped you so when you heard it you were like: ‘What the fuck is this?’ That’s exactly what I found [with the sample].”
Yet, despite finding the right sample, the beat went through many different iterations. “The original ‘Shot Caller’ was actually a dark trap beat. French walked in the studio and said, ‘This needs to be more up-tempo, take another shot at it.’ I’m so glad he pushed me to make the song better and to find the right flip. That’s how we work. We’re both perfectionists.” In fact, some of Montana’s triumphant, half-slurred underdog rhymes on “Shot Caller” initially appeared as a dubplate for the DJ Holiday-hosted Mister 16: Casino Life mixtape back in February 2011.
“People kept saying, ‘this is a fucking smash’ and ‘are you guys dumb?’ about the mixtape snippet, because, like, it wasn’t something bigger,” Fraud said. “We knew we had to flesh it out and that’s what ultimately led to the final song. ‘Shot Caller’ took a year to blow up. It taught me that sometimes with great records you’ve just gotta keep refining them and trust that they’ll eventually break through.”
By the time the final version of “Shot Caller” emerged at the start of 2012, French Montana had developed a buzz across New York thanks to a series of excellent mixtapes that bottled the euphoria of selling large shipments of drugs and using the subsequent funds to inject new life into the hood. Along with fellow Coke Boys-affiliated rappers like Max B and the late great Chinx, Montana was a cult figure among the city’s cocaine dealers, who played the Coke Wave mixtapes on the long ride out-of-town to meet up with their plugs. He might not have appealed to the lyrical miracle rap heads, but French Montana had an underdog charm and melodic sensibility that made even his ad-libs — “HAAAAAN” — sound like hits.
The producer, who provided many of the beats for these early releases, shared a friendship and artistic understanding with the Moroccan rapper. Fraud particularly admired Montana’s progression from street DVD guy to Bad Boy Records signee. “French had a buzz back then, but he wasn’t exactly the industry darling either. If anything, he was still looked down on as the ‘Cocaine City DVD guy,’ who ran up on people outside of clubs and did interviews. But when I saw those DVDs, I thought he was a genius. He goes and gets an interview with Young Jeezy and then, right after, stitches in a two-minute song of his own into the video. It was a futuristic marketing technique that a lot of the DIY internet brands have imitated in the years since.”
According to Fraud, the fact French Montana references Smif-N-Wessun, Busta Rhymes, Snoop Dogg and D.I.T.C. in his verses gave “Shot Caller” a cross-generational appeal. “French wanted to show off his knowledge. A 17-year-old doesn’t know ‘Rah, rah, I’m a dungeon dragon’ is by Busta, yet the guy who is 35 and above does. It means the 17-year-old kid loves the beat and the flow of ‘Shot Caller,’ but the guy who’s 35 is like: ‘Oh, this motherfucker knows his shit!’ I think that’s why the song was able to kinda get both sides. That’s a hard thing to do, especially in New York.”
“Shot Caller” consolidated French Montana’s fairy tale story from rough-around-the-edges hood rapper, armed with a camera and draped in Christ-like Egyptian cloth, to mainstream darling played every five minutes on Hot 97. The music video for the song felt like a coronation, with Montana — who goes from cleaning a bodega to taking beautiful model Yaris Sanchez out for dinner — welcomed to hip-hop royalty via dream-like cameos from the likes of Puff Daddy, Busta Rhymes, Fat Joe and NORE. Fraud has fond memories of the shoot, remembering how he borrowed a girlfriend’s Mercedes Benz so he didn’t look cheap (he was still balancing producing with a part-time job at the time) and also starting a conversation with Waka Flocka Flame, who quickly gestured to a friend, “Who the fuck is this white boy?”
Yet the success of “Shot Caller,” which spawned a remix with Puffy and Rick Ross that doubles as a Ciroc vodka commercial, meant Fraud’s face became more and more recognizable in hip-hop circles. In the years following the song’s release, Fraud cemented a trademark luxurious trap sound designed for drug kingpins with infinite access to super yachts and Cuban cigars. Breezy Fraud-produced bangers like “The Count” by Curren$y and “Stage Five Steamer” by Smoke DZA just sound better when you’re on the water, preferably because you’re so easily able to wash the sticky THC crystals off your fingertips.
However, there’s much more to Fraud than just kaleidoscopic weed anthems and ornate instrumentals that make you feel like you’re en route to a mansion shootout in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. A keen student of gangster movies, Fraud said he intended for his beats to tap directly into the grappling emotions often at the heart of films like Scarface. He says Benny the Butcher’s “No Instructions” is a great reflection of this ethos. “What I love about the Scarface theme is you feel despair and triumph at the same time. Even when it sounds relaxed, there’s danger,” Fraud said. “If you’ve ever been around people in the dope game, that’s exactly what they go through. I want my music to have those same emotions. I want those synths that puncture your soul like Kavinsky or Miami Vice. I make music for the moment you’re driving a sports car down a highway in the middle of the night, alone with your thoughts.”
Having grown up in a musical family with a father who booked acts for performances at Madison Square Garden, Fraud was exposed to songs from artists like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Marvin Gaye from a young age. “I had the kind of mom who would let me paint on the walls so I was lucky to have a turntable by the age of 13. I just kept practicing and practicing.” This vast musical education is the reason why Fraud’s samples are so eclectic, with the producer finding a way to implement Bronski Beat, Ravi Shankar, and Don Henley on gutter rap songs and it still sounds natural.
This year he produced Benny The Butcher’s The Plugs I Met 2, Jim Jones’ The Fraud Department, and Dave East’s HOFFA, each project a continuation of the rich, ostentatious instrumentation Fraud is now renowned for. It feels like gangster rappers make projects with Fraud when they’re in the right mental place to reflect, with many of his collaborative projects sounding like hood memoirs from guys who’ve made it to the other side.
This is particularly evident on East’s smooth “The Disappearance”, which feels like he’s sitting on a shrink’s sofa. The rapper talks of seeing “roaches fall in the toaster before the bread rise” and his struggle of turning dreams into nightmares. “My job is to evoke some sort of emotion and push an artist into a new space,” Fraud said. “I never want to be the middle ground: you either love my shit or you hate it. I always feel like I’m a bigger asset to someone if I bring them something they don’t already have and push them into a reflective place.”
Taking time out from surfing on a speedboat (a full circle moment given the subject matter of “Shot Caller”) and smoking blunts with his girlfriend on the lush beaches of Montua, it’s clear Fraud no longer has to borrow a Benz. Some of the producer’s first ever beats were based around looping A Clockwork Orange samples on an MPC, and he said the next career elevation is to try to turn his obsession of movies into something more concrete.
“I’ll be chillin with my girl watching movies and talking about how the bullet sounds are mixed,” he said. “I’m very analytical with the movie shit. My dream would have been to score a [Stanley] Kubrick movie. That’s the next step; I want my music to go to Hollywood. If they do another Scarface, I’d love to do the score.”
Wherever Fraud floats off to next, he’s just faithful for “Shot Caller” lighting the fuse. He said the reason the beat hasn’t aged is due to the love and care put into it. Unselfishly, Fraud’s biggest hope is that history will look at French Montana in a fresh light and start to appreciate everything he brought to the rap game. “I think French Montana is so good at making the hardest things look so easy. I think the way that he kinda carries himself in a bubbly, happy, positive way, especially now, I think it’s a little disarming,” Fraud said. “That dude came from nothing. But he’s not the one to tell you everything he went through to get to this point, or how hard he sat and worked on a song like ‘Unforgettable’ or ‘Shot Caller’ without sleeping. We probably have 40 or 60 mixed versions of ‘Shot Caller.’ Music created with that kind of care doesn’t age.”
Banner graphic: @popephoenix for Okayplayer
Thomas Hobbs is a freelance culture and music journalist from the UK. His work has appeared in the Guardian, VICE, Financial Times, Dazed, Pitchfork, New Statesman, Little White Lies, The i and Time Out. You can find him on Twitter: @thobbsjourno.