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The Real Story Behind 'WAP': Cardi B’s Business Partner Brooklyn Johnny Tells All

Cardi B ft. Megan Thee Stallion "WAP"
Courtesy Photo

Cardi B ft. Megan Thee Stallion "WAP"

"This song hit home with a lot of people. Whether they want to feel that way or not."

When Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released the audio and video for their smash hit collaboration "WAP," it took the nation by storm -- and set some impressive records right out of the gate. The song debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100 with the greatest number of streams ever for a song’s first week (93 million), the most weekly streams of 2020 and the biggest sales week for any song in over a year, becoming just the 42nd song in the Hot 100’s history to debut atop the chart. This week, "WAP" maintained its status at No. 1, becoming the first song since Ariana Grande’s "7 Rings" to spend its first two weeks atop the chart.

The song’s success had a lot to do with Cardi’s business partner and the CEO of District 18 Entertainment Brooklyn Johnny, who helped shepherd the collaboration, as well as the video, and was instrumental in the song’s ultimate success -- earning the title of Billboard’s executive of the week in the process. Here, Brooklyn Johnny explains the long, challenging story of how "WAP" came to dominate the charts.

So how did this all start?

Brooklyn Johnny: During quarantine, we were out here in Los Angeles working on Cardi’s second album. Quarantine was challenging; it came out of nowhere. Cardi and I are both from New York, and in a sense it displaced us, because we were in L.A. working on a few things and this happened and we were like, "Okay, do we quarantine in New York or in L.A.?" New York is a very tight city; in L.A. there’s more space and more favorable weather. So for the sake of productivity, we were like, "Let’s just be out in L.A. and work on this project." It had a lot of challenges because you’re watching the news all day, you’re looking at your phone all day, and you’re watching everything get closed down, and then it’s like, "Don’t come outside," then, "There’s a crazy rush at the supermarket." It just got so crazy and it really tested the human in you. You’re locked into the studio and you’re trying to create and be productive and be happy and sound confident on record, but then you have all this stuff going on in the world, and people are getting sick and people are dying and they’re showing bodies in the back of trucks. So that was really hard for all of us.

What month was this?

This was March, when it started, March and April. So myself, Cardi and our engineer, we got so tight during the quarantine because we spent so much time together just working, working, working. You know, a lot of times we would work on things and then have to revisit it because something would come across the television, or come across the phone -- that was a very challenging part of us working during the quarantine. Cardi kept her spirits up as much as a person could possibly keep their spirits up that’s going through something like this. Because you’re looking at it like, a lot of the opportunities that a lot of artists have when they’re successful are on pause -- touring opportunities, things like that. This is not just a Cardi B issue, this is an entertainment industry issue. Dealing with that is challenging. Spending a lot of time trying to get your mind off what’s going on with the coronavirus, you’re watching the news, you’re watching Netflix, you’re doing those kind of things, but at the same time, we’re watching The Weeknd drop his album, other artists, people are still dropping music. So that helps keep you motivated, like, people are still putting out music and still performing well. We’re on that top level, so there’s no reason for us to stop working, you get what I’m saying? So we locked in and we were just working on music the whole quarantine.

You said you were working on music -- was "WAP" already on the drawing board?

"WAP" was a record that we had worked on, and she was living with it over time -- one thing about her is that she’s a perfectionist. She’ll record her verses, then she’ll go back and listen to it and listen to it and listen to it and then maybe in a few weeks she’ll be like, "I think I want to put more energy on this part, I want to put more emphasis on this part." That’s just how she is. But with her, every day her voice gets better, if that makes sense. As she lives with songs, more ideas come to her mind. So we had tightened up and worked on certain other parts of "WAP" and she decided she wanted to add certain other things to the record, and she went into the booth and experimented and saw what she liked and what she didn’t like.

And then she met up with Megan Thee Stallion. Her stylist, Kollin Carter, and Megan’s stylist, EJ [King], they have a good relationship with each other; obviously, they work in the same space. And it’s funny, I’ve had a long business relationship with one of Megan’s managers, T Farris. He works with Megan and I work with Cardi and we would always be like, "It’d be dope for the girls to do something!" But with artists, it’s better to let that naturally happen so that there’s an organic connection there. So we never forced it.

But styling is a very sensitive thing. A lot of people may not know that, but it is. They spend a lot of time on ideas that visually have to do with the stylist. So the two stylists had a good relationship, and they were like, "It would be dope if y’all would communicate." And Cardi, she’s a good spirit. So anybody she feels got good vibes, she’s like, "Sure! Let’s kick it!" And Megan, it’s the same thing on her side, "Let’s kick it!" So they kicked it one day, they had a good vibe, and after that evening, I asked, "How was it? How’d it go?" And she was like, "She’s a sweet girl, I got a very good vibe from her." Cardi’s very intuitive. She was like, "I like her, she gave me a really really good vibe. Maybe we’ll do something with her."

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Was this over the phone, or on Zoom?

I think they did like a socially distant hang. I’m not sure exactly where it took place, but it was out here in L.A. But however it happened, it happened. So we get back to working, and Cardi’s like, "Maybe we should do a song together." So I was like, Okay, let’s think about what we have in our arsenal that might be good. And she was like, "What about this one? Let’s just see how this one will work, send it to them." So I said, Alright, cool. Mind you now, we’re going down a path that’s top secret, something we don’t want nobody to know, and this is about to happen. 'Cause Cardi got her fan base, Megan got her fan base, and if you’re attempting to create a moment, even in the infancy stages, discretion is everything. It has to be. So I called her manager, "I’m about to send you something. Don’t let nobody hear what I’m about to send you except for Megan." He says Okay, I got you. I send it to him. He calls me back and says -- and they from Houston, and you know everybody has an accent, but he’s from Houston -- "Man, ol' girl finna knock this out!" [Laughs] So I’m like, shit, aight.

So Megan knocks it out in like a day or two, maybe three days tops. And she sent it and I was like, "Oh, shit." You know, it’s almost like when ketchup met French fries. Like cereal and milk. Like, "Oh, shit! This is it!" They complement each other. Two different flows, two different energies, two different accents, two different dictions, two different deliveries. In that moment, it just reminded me of old school hip-hop. And I was like, these two girls are about to create history together. You don’t usually see things like this happen. Artists don’t usually do things like this when they’re on the top of their games. This type of thing usually happens with one person tryna pull the other person up, or if the other person is on their way down, that’s the time you’d see that. But for two people to look at each other eye to eye like, "Yeah, we’re contenders, but we’re about to do this together." I would say that from inception -- and this is a quote straight out of Cardi’s mouth -- It was like butter. The whole experience was like butter. It was dope.

I sent him the track, they sent it back to me, and then we started editing, mixing vocals, changing things in the beat, changing the arrangement and certain things like that. The arrangement of the song, if you really listen to it, it doesn’t really have a hook like that. So the challenge that I had -- and honestly it was driving me crazy -- was I had to figure out how to make the song feel like it had a hook, where you didn’t feel it drop off or you didn’t feel like some part of it lost you or anything like that. So when I finally got it to a place where I felt good about the arrangement, I went to [Megan’s] house to play it for her. And the reason I went to her house to play it for her was because I switched around the arrangement of her vocals. People, when they’re hearing Megan’s second verse on the track now, it was actually Megan’s first verse. But the way it flowed, it didn’t flow like butter yet. But I’m talking about, without exaggeration, maybe 50 different versions before I arrived at a place like, "Oh shit, I think I got it."

So as soon as I had it, the first person I let hear it was Cardi. Cardi is one of them people like, "Alright, well, let me hear it! Let’s see what you got!" So when I played it for her, I honestly thought her response was gonna be like, "Nah. That ain’t it yet." Because the thing you’re making sure you do is that they complement each other well, that they sit well on the track together and that, to the listener, it feels fluid to your ear. So she listened to it and she just goes, "Yo… This shit is fire." [Laughs] I was not expecting her to say that. And when she said that, the first person I called was her mix engineer Evan Laray and tracking engineer Leslie Braithwaite and was like, "Yo! She liked that shit!" It was kinda like, "This gotta be the one because she liked it so quick!" So that’s one part of the battle down.

So now, I have to take care of the next part of this battle -- I have to make sure that Megan is good with how these vocals sound. Because for me, and for Cardi, and for all of us that’s involved, it’s very important that we respect the integrity of the artist, to respect how they feel and what their thoughts are about the record. When you’re doing something like this that’s unheard of, you have to make sure that the two artists are on the same page the whole time or you’re gonna get conflict. And it might not be conflict necessarily started by any of the two of them, but let’s say I was to do something that one of the two of them didn’t agree with and it caused the two of them to argue with each other. It would be my fault. So I said, "I’m not gonna send this to them, because if they listen to it without me explaining why I did what I did, it might not get received the same way."

So I called her manager and said, "T, listen, where Megan at? I’m not sending this shit to you, I’m only going to play it for you in person." And he was like, "I’m gonna set you up, I got you, tomorrow pull up around noon." So I pull up, I get in there, we get to talking, I eat a cup of noodles -- I’m just trying to make sure the vibe is good in there! -- and I said, "You ready?" I plug in the aux, I play it, she’s like, "I love it." I said, "Oh my God, this is incredible." She was like, "It flows well, I love it." So I called Cardi and said she loved it and Cardi was just like, "Yes. Aight bro, let’s get to the video!"

Before you get to the video, can you tell me about the genesis of "WAP" itself? Was it something that Cardi had thought about a while back?

So Ayo and Keyz, they made the beat and sent it in. Unfortunately, we kept the record so private with the way it was being developed with Cardi and Megan that we didn’t let anybody hear it. So even the producers didn’t hear the song until it came out. And this was top secret. It didn’t leak, nobody heard about it, nobody had the visual -- we did a big shoot, the production, you could see how big it was. We did a shoot over two days, Megan and Cardi there maybe 12 hours, 16 hours each day, and this thing didn’t leak. We would have liked to have people involved, but it just couldn’t happen because we couldn’t trust that anyone would be able to keep it a secret and we couldn’t afford a leak with something like this, when we’re trying to make history. But it just came together so well. We’re happy with what it did.

The subject matter falls in line with what Cardi’s been known for.

Exactly. You know, Cardi’s outspoken, she’s in a lot of ways fearless. She’s willing to say what everybody’s thinking but they can’t say! And I think that people really buy into her and listen to her because they see it’s coming from an innocent place. She’s like, "I ain’t saying anything that you ain’t saying!"

You wanna know why "WAP" did so well? And everybody has their mixed feelings about it? I’ll tell you something, I’m keeping it all the way 100. There’s a lot of kids in the world, right? What you think, these people just got together and said, "Well, this is gonna be like a business transaction, and we’re just gonna have a child"? No. What happened was, somebody in that equation felt like they had some wet ass pussy! And then they got together and the wet ass pussy resulted in them having a child! So whether you want to call it that or be like, "Oh no, I don’t call it that, I want to be respectful, it’s a vagina, it’s not a wet ass pussy, it’s a vagina." Give me a break. People go to clubs, people enjoy themselves, people go on vacation, sex stores do well. The point I’m making is, kids come from intimacy -- and love, but you can’t have one without the other. When you bear a child, if it’s not transactional, it comes from, at some point, some of these women had to feel like they had wet ass pussy.

So that being said, this song hit home with a lot of people. Whether they want to feel that way or not. And yes, certain people may take some kind of offense to that. And that’s fine! What they also gotta remember is, when you were 20 years younger, would this have been something you would have enjoyed to listen to? And they might be like, well maybe yeah! "But now that I’m a mom, and this and that" -- that’s cool! There are people that are currently 20 years younger than you that are enjoying listening to this thing. And women empowerment. Men can talk about whatever the hell they want, they aren’t getting scrutinized. They were being confident, and I think they did a good job with the video. It’s just a dope vibe. It’s just great.

How did the video come together?

As soon as Megan said she liked it, Cardi was like, "Alright, I gotta start rehearsing." It was funny because, in my mind I was like, "That’s the first thing you wanna do?" And she was like, "Yeah, I gotta get my dance moves!" So we used JaQuel Knight, he’s a choreographer, and we worked out of a private studio. But Cardi probably rehearsed maybe three weeks to a month for that. It was something that I hadn’t seen in her, at least in a while -- maybe ever. It was kinda like, "I’m comin’ back and I’ma kill it." We asked Megan to come down and rehearse with her, because the song has a lot of both of them so we knew they would probably be in a lot of it together. And Megan showed up and rehearsed with her as often as she could, and I thought that was amazing, because I’ve worked with a lot of artists in my career and that doesn’t usually happen. You’ll get them when they can, but this was something that they both were like -- it was just like butter, like Cardi said. Her camp, our camp, it just worked effortlessly together. The rehearsals were just dope. It was just such a good vibe.

So they started the rehearsals and then we had the conversations with the building, with Atlantic, letting them know that this was going to be the first single. When we’re deciding to roll something out, my conversation starts with, 1. My business partner, Darrell Jones, and with [Atlantic co-chairman/CEO] Craig Kallman. I like to get all Cardi’s ideas out first, so that when I speak to the building, I can explain to them what she’s thinking, because it’s important for them to understand what the artist is thinking. And they care about what the artist is thinking. Craig Kallman, [Atlantic co-chairman/COO] Julie Greenwald and [Atlantic president of Black music] Michael Kyser, before I get on the phone with them I like to make sure I have her ideas together. If you come with a plan, then they’ll back you up; you come with no plan, you probably won’t get out the starting line. So my partner was excited about it, we let Craig know what’s up, and Craig was like, I’m on board.

Obviously there were some challenges in trying to put out such an explicit song, but in the end everybody was all hands on deck and they really supported us through this, so I have to give credit to Atlantic Records. [Atlantic senior vp urban marketing] Marsha St. Hubert and [Atlantic publicist] Ashley Kalmanowitz, we all came together and really just put this whole thing together.

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Did you think the explicitness would be an impediment?

Me and Cardi, we didn’t. The reason why is we have an attitude like, "We don’t give a fuck, do that shit!" [Laughs] But you also have to remember, they’re a record company. I mean, listen -- any person with common sense can understand the challenges that a record like this would have. But they were like, "If we’re doing this, we’re doing it!" And we just did it. We got the budget together for the video. Another one of our teammates who works very closely with us, her name is Patience Foster, she was going through visual ideas with Cardi and we collectively came to the decision of using Colin Tilley to shoot the video, and she initiated the conversation with Tilley. It was dope. Cardi was so gung ho -- it was funny, I went to her house to talk to her about something and she was like, "I think we’re gonna use Colin Tilley," and I was like, "Alright, well let’s just figure out what he wants to do," and she was like, "I had him come by." [Laughs] I’m telling you, when she’s locked in, she’s locked in.

We were working on a real time crunch, because we were trying to get it out as fast as possible. Because the type of song it was, we didn’t want to come out of the summer without it out -- it’s like a summertime anthem type of song. You don’t want to put this out when the kids are going back to school in September, you know what I’m saying? You would have missed that moment. We’re from New York, so end of September it’s gonna get cold. "WAP" gonna hit differently at the beginning of October if we had put it out then. It’s like a fun, summertime kind of feel, so we wanted this to come out in the summer time. That was a big deal for us.

What was it that Colin Tilley brought to the table?

The majority of the things that Cardi wanted, he made her feel confident that he could get it done. And that’s very important. Because, listen -- we really didn’t give Colin any time to pull off anything. He had a very short window. That man damn near pulled a rabbit out of a hat. I remember, when we arrived on the set on the first day and they were building all the sets, we were like, "Oh, yeah. This is gonna be good." You know when people tell you that they’re working, but you don’t necessarily see it, but then you show up -- we showed up and we were like, "These people have really been working."

What other critical decisions did you make that you think helped cement the record’s success?

I think the most important part was the arrangement. The arrangement and the post production of the record after they were both on it. It had to sound good to Cardi and Megan. And they’re two totally different individuals. And then, the hurdle after that was figuring out, 1. How do we clean up this record enough so that it could play on the radio -- because that definitely was a challenge and not make it sound wack. And 2. Make a clean version that they could possibly TikTok and people could listen to that are behind the age barrier. Those things posed a lot of challenges, because the Billboard [charts are] based on audience. And Cardi is an over-achiever. So with her, she’s like, "I want my record to chart top 10 when it comes out." I know that’s the way her thoughts are. So this thing cannot be excluded from any medium, you get what I’m saying? Because if it is, then we’re not going to get that audience that we need. So that was one of the bigger challenges. Getting the arrangement so that both girls loved the record, and then making sure that I made the edits that I made to it so that it could live everywhere.

And the other pressure was keeping it away from the internet, keeping it away from leaks. You’re talking about two completely different camps, so many moving parts in between it. We shot a whole video. I’m not saying that people usually tell, but this is Hollywood. Things get out. And we did a really good job of keeping it tight. So my hat goes off to my camp, Megan’s camp, Colin Tilley’s camp, Atlantic Records. We did a really good job. We had code names for this and people didn’t really even know. Everybody had a code name, nobody had possession of the music, and we just did a really good job that way. And so fast forward, the record comes out and it’s been received so well and debuted at No. 1 and we were just like, "Wow. We didn’t climb here, we started here." It’s amazing that we’re talking now and the record is at No. 1 for a second week.