Carter Lang Talks Crafting 'CTRL' With SZA, Working With Vic Mensa & Why Chicago Keeps Winning
"It's a very communal environment, where everyone is pushing each other to make higher-quality music and to see each other win."
Carter Lang may not be a name you recognize just yet, but he's fine with that. The Chicago resident is quietly building a stacked résumé, while having worked behind the scenes on some of the premier albums released in recent years. He refers to himself as a "performance-based producer," but the Chicago native is much more when it comes to his musical expertise.
Whether it's tunefully playing bass or hopping behind his MPC drum machine to produce beats, the multifaceted 26-year-old embraced his diverse set of influences before enrolling at Loyola University New Orleans to hone his craft, which he looked at as "one big laboratory to make as many mistakes as I want."
The Metallica-inspired artist has since collaborated with some of the best Chi-Town has to offer, where he still lives to this day. Carter has a deep appreciation for the Chicago artists he grew up with, creating a fervent bond with Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and Knox Fortune, just to name a few over the years, and it shows in their music together.
Back in 2015, Lang was luckily introduced to SZA, which he called "the beginning of something special that I didn't really know was about to happen." After performing together at Lollapalooza that same year, the duo along with producer Tyron "Scum" Donaldson began to develop a rapport on the road to crafting her debut album. With studio sessions across the country from Los Angeles to Chicago and even setting up shop in Carter's Michigan home last year, where they constructed the Travis Scott-assisted ballad, "Love Galore."
The Chicago native ended up notching production credits on eight tracks from SZA's intoxicating debut. Lang is currently finishing up the accompanying CTRL Tour, where he's played in over 60 live shows. Billboard caught up with Carter over the phone to delve into his creative process as a producer, developing friendship with SZA, discovering his hip-hop roots, and what's next for the emerging artist.
Could you explain your childhood introduction to music, as well as your influences growing up?
I'm from Chicago -- still live there. I started off playing classical piano as a kid. I got pretty good, but I never got into it as something being cool. It was a very challenging thing and felt good to accomplish it. When I got to middle school I quit piano and I loved to draw. I picked up bass as well, because I really liked rock music. I dug into my rock influences at the time, which were Metallica, Red Hot Chili Peppers and System Of A Down and heavy metal bands.
When I got to high school I found my hip-hop sensibilities a bit, linking up with a rapper named Zack Wicks. I bought an MPC1000 and we made a lot of music together. I started making beats and the usual going through my parents' vinyl collection for samples. That started my beat-making wave and I put bass into it. I was also pretty heavy into jazz already. It began the process of understanding myself as an artist and producer and the future began taking shape.
When did you get your break into the music industry and begin taking this seriously as a career?
In high school I was in a band and we began doing [SXSW] and Battle of The Bands. I went away to college at Loyola University New Orleans for four years doing a music industry program. When I got back, Chance [The Rapper] and Vic [Mensa] just released their albums and I was pretty close with them and we all kind of grew up together.
I realized there was a lot going on right now. I've been honing my craft in New Orleans making tons of beats in my dorm room isolating myself and playing in bands. I look at New Orleans as one big laboratory to make as many mistakes as I want, and when I got back it was a whole fresh slate. I wanted to take it serious right from the get-go.
I started working doing snow removal and landscaping. I was doing analytics and bar-back after college for a year and a half. I was doing that and working heavily with artists around Chicago. I just wanted to push it to the limit as far as the hours go. Working with Towkio and Cam O'bi -- a producer who is a great friend of mine, became a peer mentor as well.
I began researching music for more than just being a name and wanting people to hear your shit. Eventually, I quit my job as a year and not really having anything going for me besides playing for Towkio, Saba and did some performances with [Chance The Rapper]. At that point I opened myself up to working with different people and being available. I was traveling with instruments in my car and working with Mick Jenkins.
What about Chicago has it producing so many young talented artists, especially on the hip-hop scene?
It's a very communal environment, where everyone is pushing each other to make higher quality music and to see each other win. We all kind of grew up with each other. Everyone would see each other at different parties and were always working. It's very producer based. Even if artists moved to Los Angeles we always found a way to make music and be present.
How do you categorize yourself as an artist?
I feel like I'm a performance-based producer. A lot of how I produce is how I perform.
When did your relationship with SZA begin?
Eventually Peter Cottontale introduced me to SZA in Chicago and that was the beginning of something special that I didn't really know was about to happen. That came up pretty quickly, I started working on a performance level after meeting her in the studio with Peter. We got on the road and started working. I did my first show with [SZA] in 2015 at Lollapalooza.
It was being in the right place at the right time. Rihanna called on her to bring her some music and we had made "Consideration" at that point -- pretty much the entire song. [Tyron Donaldson] was the drum guy and I was the music guy and then having the opportunity at night to put it all together with SZA, who wanted to create. It was a vibe, naturally.
Moving on to CTRL, which you produced eight tracks on, what was the creative process behind that album like?
As far as the process goes, it was me, [Tyron Donaldson], [ThankGod4Cody] and a few different producers challenging each other by playing different music and sending each other different stuff to make higher quality music. That sort of intrigued SZA too, so she'd hear our music and want to create off of that. We'd find ourselves in unique places like my Michigan home outside of Chicago where we created "Love Galore" -- I brought all my studio equipment and set up in my mom's office.
We were working downstairs and each of us would be like "I have this." We did "Broken Clocks" there and "twoAM." "Drew Barrymore" was done at my studio in Chicago, while SZA was at a hotel sleeping. [Tyron Donaldson] and I were working on stuff and she wanted to hear the music we made and that's how it goes. This is early 2016.
It sounds like you all spent a ton of time together to build camaraderie to help create.
We definitely like to have our nature and hikes outside of studio time. That's also a very important part of the creative process. I remember us on Los Angeles and Michigan hikes between studio sessions. Just being happy to go with the group, while developing a friendship.
What's the grind of being on the CTRL Tour been like so far?
I've been on tour with her since August and I haven't done a full tour until this year. We've probably played over 60 shows, mostly with Smino opening for us. We've also done a lot of television commercial opportunities and it's been a great experience. It's definitely difficult to adjust to moving around so much. I love being with everyone at once, it's such a good vibe. The music is so much fun to play and there's so much great energy around us, so whatever might feel difficult doesn't at the end of the day. You're very much appreciative of the people around you. It's been crazy.
Knox Fortune says you were heavily involved with his debut LP, Paradise, as well.
I worked on a handful of tracks -- wrote a lot. A big part of that was working at Rick Rubin's Shangri La studio out in Malibu together -- learning about all those sounds and chain stuff together to make our own vibe and miniature studio. [Knox Fortune] is very much a producer, but we push each other to create cooler sounds. He provides some amazing platforms of music where I'm like "let me add something to that?" He'll send it to me and then I'll add to it and that kind of ended being across the entire album.
I love that project and I also had a chance to perform with him the last few shows -- I'd come out as a guest on the guitar solo. We've made so much music together. I can't wait to work on his next project and get him involved with SZA's music as well, we all think alike and push each other sonically.
You also worked with fellow Chicago native Vic Mensa on The Autobiography. How has that relationship cultivated over the years?
I spent a lot of time at [Vic's] crib in Beverly Hills for about a month. It was me, Smoko Ono, Papi Beatz, and Knox Fortune came up there for a little bit. I worked on [The Autobiography and There's A Lot Going On] during that same period of time. I met a lot of great people through working on that project, even though I didn't fully produce anything. On "We Could Be Free" I added instruments and MPCs. He actually sampled my old band on the intro to The Autobiography. It's me singing during a live-stream performance during 2010. That was a great time.
Do you feel producers or instrumentalists get enough exposure or credit for their roles in projects?
I think it's starting to change, I really do. I definitely experienced that a lot, starting off my name wasn't included in this article or something and I'd be bummed about it. I think we're all starting to come together and realize making music is a group process and not taking advantage of any one person or avenue.
It's definitely tough because there's a lot more producers and ways to make music. You need to get yourself out there and find different ways to get in people's ears. I like doing that in a behind the scenes way and just let the artist put the music out. Eventually, I want to put my own music out, whether that's under Carter Lang or another band name. I'm learning from every artist I work with and pulling from these experiences.
What's next for you?
It's been tough because I've been on the road a lot. I've been over in Los Angeles in the studio working with Smoke Purpp, which was pretty fun. I'm just looking forward to what's going to come my way in the future. It's usually the face to face connection is what does it. I really want to work with King Krule. I want to find myself musically, that's the next step.