'Hamilton Mixtape' Producer !llmind Talks Teaming With Lin-Manuel Miranda & Hints at Unreleased Material

Jessica Xie


Producer !llmind's portfolio includes beats for hip-hop greats like Drake, Kanye West and 50 Cent, but the New Jersey native (born Ramon Ibanga Jr.) diversified his résumé by helping produce Lin-Manuel Miranda's hefty Hamilton Mixtape, released last week.

Known for his hip-hop savvy, Miranda happened to be a fanboy of !llmind's 2015 project with Joell Ortiz called Human. Several brainstorming sessions later and !ll brought his talents to the star-studded set, placing beats for five records, including his own interlude called "Take a Break." 

Here, !llmind discusses teaming with the Hamilton mastermind in the mixtape's early stages, adding Disney to his résumé with his work on the Moana soundtrack and other projects coming down the pipeline. 

How did you meet Lin?

I met Lin through my manager. It's a funny story. Me and Joell Ortiz worked on an album in 2015 called Human, and that was around the time Lin was ready to roll out Hamilton. This was before it was actually on Broadway and so Joell got a phone call from Lin. So apparently Lin has been a big fan of Joell's for a while and so he invited him to the play. He went and they got to get to know each other. He was just telling Joell, "Man, I really love the Human album," and he obviously found out who did the production on it so he just became a fan from there. I got to meet him a couple weeks after that and we just hit it off. He was like, "Yo, !ll, I really love the production," so that organically turned into a working relationship.

He coincidentally was starting to brainstorm The Hamilton Mixtape. It was coming out on Atlantic Records, which was also a plus because of my relationship with the A&Rs over there so we kind of came from different directions. Shout-out to Riggs Morales over at Atlantic Records who A&Red [the mixtape]. The relationship with Lin started to grow and then Riggs started to reach out and that was how I was able to really be involved with the mixtape. It wasn't a phone call where it was like, "Do you want a record?" It was like, "Yo, !llmind, try this, do this, do this," and Lin calling me for certain things about the mixtape.
How would you describe Lin's hip-hop knowledge?

Lin is like a hip-hop dictionary. He's one of the few cats I've met that literally knows everything about hip-hop from the super underground stuff to the current stuff. And then he's just a genius when it comes to writing and poetry so like he's super hip to the lyricists, what they meant and certain hidden meanings behind lyrics. He's like a living breathing Genius.com when it comes to hip-hop. I super respect it. When you look at Hamilton and you listen to the lyrics, when you see the play, you can see whoever wrote that stuff was really deep and knowledgeable. That's just who he is.
What was your first reaction to the play?
The play was amazing. I understood why people loved it. I think it was an amazing introduction of hip-hop to that demographic because a lot of people that [watch the play] aren't hip-hop listeners. I think it opened up the culture of hip-hop to that demographic in a really, really cool way, an educational way, and an entertaining way. The play was amazing. The production value, the writing and the music -- the whole thing was crazy. 
What was the vision Lin really wanted per your conversations and working with him in those early stages?
I think the vision was to take what made the play great, and those concepts and those philosophies in the play and sort of bridge that gap between hip-hop and urban listeners and Hamilton fans and supporters. Taking popular themes from the play and then creating brand-new songs without going too far left, without losing the beauty of the original music. When you throw in superstars to perform the songs, you can't really go wrong. I think the goal was to try and breathe new life into the music without taking away too much.

Artists from different genres contributed to the mixtape. Did you recommend certain collaborations to Lin? 
There are a handful of really crazy collaborations that are in the pipeline. I can't say who, but he announced there was more coming. I don't know when [the songs will be released] but I know there's more music, and there's definitely more music that exists with some crazy collaborations. Then, you know, I have my own dream collaborators in my mind that I have yet to pitch to Lin, but we will see what happens.
How did the "Take a Break" interlude come about? 
Back when we were working on The Hamilton Mixtape, this was probably late 2015, I got a phone call from Lin out of the blue. I was in the studio. He was like, "Hey !ll, I'm doing this #Ham4Ham contest and we have this amazing dancer that's going to dance for the people who are trying to get tickets and we need a beat for it. I have this song that I want you to remix, and I really want you to make a turnt-up version of it." I told Lin, "Hell yeah, I'll do it. Let me know when you need it and what you have in mind." So we got a couple ideas going back and forth and I literally just stopped what I was doing. I spent the next three to four hours working on the track and I sent it back and he was like, "Yo this crazy, I love it." So he actually ended up using it for one of the #Ham4Ham episodes on YouTube. He loved it so much that he decided to put it on the mixtape.
Did you have to tweak your creative process in any way for this project?
I pretty much kept it the same. I'm the type of producer where I really like to just live in that world if I'm producing for it, so when I was working on The Hamilton Mixtape, everything was happening at the same time -- watching the play, working with Riggs, and then bouncing ideas back and forth and then just being in that world and knowing who we're expecting to put collaborations together with. I was just really trying to put myself in that world as much as I could so I don't think it was any different from working with any other artist. It was more of just being in Hamilton mode, and really just feeling that energy. I think that's what helped me a lot.
Do you think you're somewhat of a historian now that you've worked on the Hamilton project so much?
I don't know If I would say I'm a historian, but I'm definitely humbled to be working with historians like Lin, Questlove and all of the legends that are on there. It's an honor to be on the track list. 
Was that your first time working with Questlove?
Yeah, it is the first time I've worked with Quest. I've known him for a long time, more than 10 years. I met him a long time ago when I was working with Little Brother, 9th Wonder and all the homies. He was involved early on. When we were working on it, I wasn't in the studio with him. It was more of hearing what he was doing and kind of seeing what he was involved with and working from that angle. 

Were you working on each song?

I ended up producing five songs on the record. I did the Nas record, I did the record with The Roots and Common. I did the !llmind interlude and then I did the drums on the Kelly Clarkson song. And then there's a spoken-word piece for one of the interludes that I produced a beat for, so it was about five songs. I think it was more of a process of working on one thing and then getting a call from either Lin or Riggs over at Atlantic [about an idea for a song or to remix a track]. It was a lot of back and forth, brainstorming, trying things, and some things worked, some things didn't. I have a whole folder in my hard drive which I guess are throwaways or just like music that I made [for the project] that didn't make the cut. 
You weren't necessarily in the studio with each artist?
Not with everyone. A lot of it was recorded in L.A. I was in the studio a few times with Joell Ortiz and Black Thought from The Roots. I was in the studio with Lin a few times for some of the records and Ingrid Michaelson
What was the vibe like for those studio sessions?
Great. Black Thought is amazing at what he does. He's one of the best and one of my favorite rappers of all time. Ingrid Michaelson was amazing. She knocked that hook out the ballpark. She's a pleasure to work with. Lin's energy is just great. He's like a kid in a candy store. He's super excited and all about the music. He'll never do anything to sacrifice the quality of the music, so feeding off of that energy is what I vibe on and that's why it was a pleasure to work with him.
Beyond Hamilton, what else are you working on?
Lin and I worked on another record for Disney called "You're Welcome" with the amazing Jordan Fisher [for the animated film] Moana. It's on the soundtrack and it's also the song on the ending credits. That song was really fun to make because it's just working with Lin and Lin wrote the original. Jordan Fisher is such a talent. He's a born entertainer. Recently, he was chosen to be in Hamilton on Broadway. That's a little coincidental thing so he's doing the next 10 shows on Hamilton. And then just everything that's been happening for me. I'm mostly known as a hip-hop producer but I'm sort of heading into a direction of showcasing more of me as a producer across genres. A lot of working with new artists, a lot of working with pop artists and artists you really wouldn't expect me to work with.
Anybody you can name?
I really can't say any names honestly, but Apl.De.Ap from the Black Eyed Peas. I was just with him at the White House a month ago and we spent a lot of time. I was honored to be there. Me and Apl.De.Ap are working on a little project that we are going to announce soon and the Black Eyed Peas are obviously working. I've been kind of involved in that so that stuff I'm excited about. And then the hip-hop stuff too. I'm still working with J. Cole. Drake is working on his More Life project. We will see if I get on there. Kendrick Lamar is working. All these guys are working right now so me being the music fanatic and producer that I am, I like to kind of go around to all the people that inspire me and see where I fit in.