Sonny Digital Details Travis Scott's Hawaii 'Astroworld' Sessions: 'It Was Like a Vacation'
"I don't want rap to feel so disposable. I want it to start lasting again," Travis Scott told Billboard earlier this year. La Flame formed a superstar team of collaborators in July to bring his anticipated Astroworld album to the finish line with a pivotal two-week stint out in the paradise of Hawaii. Sonny Digital was among the producers who flew across the Pacific Ocean to Scott's oceanside Airbnb mansion to offer up his talents for the cinematic Billboard 200-topping album.
"It was a crazy house right off the beach. We had a basketball court and a pool," says the ATL-bred creative. "It was a nice little vibe. Everything set up to work overnight." The dream-team conglomerate of creatives also included FKi 1st, Allen Ritter, Frank Dukes, Nav, Gunna, Cactus Jack newcomer Don Toliver, G.O.O.D. Music's Sheck Wes, Cash from XO, Wheezy, the talented WondaGurl and reliable H-Town legend Mike Dean.
It was mission accomplished for the veteran beat maestro upon his return after notching a production credit on the trippy album opener "Stargazing," which held the second-highest debut from Astroworld at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. Spontaneous work trips aren't anything outside the ordinary for Sonny Digital, who also teamed up alongside Travis in a similar collaborative environment at a Los Angeles mansion for Rodeo back in 2015.
Billboard caught up with Sonny Digital to go inside the Hawaii Astroworld sessions, producing the album-opening "Stargazing," small improvements in the business model for producers, calling Kanye West to action to help musicians, working with Travis Scott on Rodeo alongside a star-laden lineup a few years ago and much more.
How did you end up going out to Hawaii to work on Astroworld alongside a super-team of producers for Travis Scott?
For me, it's regular. I did the same thing on Rodeo too. I don't want to make it sound so basic, but I had my own producers out there. We were cooking up and Travis called me to come out and start working on Astroworld. They'll be recording while we playing the beats and record if they hear something they like. They were out in Hawaii for nearly two weeks and I got there the last week.
FKi 1st, Sonny Digital and Mike Dean cooking up with Travis Scott (WondaGurl was also there) -- pic.twitter.com/4r6H5CV6KO— Rodeo -- (@RodeoTheAlbum) July 8, 2018
Paint a picture for me of what the day-to-day creative process was like in paradise.
It was a crazy house right off the beach. We had a basketball court and a pool. It was a nice little vibe. Everything set up to work overnight. We were working every day. It was crunch time for the album. We were just finishing up records for the most part. Every morning as well, a lot of producers were out there. It was my first time only meeting Frank Dukes, I've worked with mostly everyone else before. He gave me some samples and I'd cook up on it. It was a collective effort and we'd smoke and make beats and enjoy it. It was like a vacation. It wasn't on some slave-type shit. We came up with some shit so Travis could run with it.
Were Travis and Mike Dean basically heading the entire operation?
Travis was running his operation. Mike Dean played a real pivotal role in everything. He trusts Mike Dean the most out of anyone there. I've worked with him in the past. He's real cool -- we just smoke and vibe out. I got all my weed from him out there.
With Astroworld being a concept album, did Travis Scott push you guys in any direction creatively or properly define what he was looking to accomplish with this project?
He explained the whole thing behind Astroworld and the park in his hometown. I've heard about it a long time ago but I didn't know that it could've been taken this far.
I believe that too. I always felt like that. When he works that hard, he really should be nominated. That's the whole idea anyway. It all comes back to crafting the best work we could create. [Travis] is in a different place [in his career] now. Even if he was making the same music as two years ago, he'd have a whole lot more eyes on him, so people could appreciate what we made back then. I know there's a whole bunch of new Travis Scott fans coming in and they may not know about the past.
Were there any one-on-one conversations you had with Travis in Hawaii?
I just told him I appreciate him for bringing me out here. Shit's like a vacation [laughs]. He's the homie. It's not like going to a job, the way I work it doesn't feel like a job. We're all young. N----s ain't supposed to even be here. Real shit. We probably won't have everyone together at the same time again.
When we did Rodeo, we actually did the same thing but in Los Angeles. We were out there for 30 days. That was the first time we locked in. Everyone was there from Metro Boomin, Southside, TM88, Mike Dean, French Montana, and Big Sean. That house was crazy. We made Rodeo then that house burned down. Travis was blowing up and he was coming through to Atlanta. He was signed to T.I. then so he'd be around a lot. He wanted to work with us. Now, it leads to us all coming together in Hawaii, which is a really hard thing to do. He just knows what he wants and what he doesn't.
What did you think about the entire project overall after listening?
I didn't hear it until it officially came out and it was dope. I know for a fact that one of the songs I produced was the first song everyone heard, which was cool. The album is pretty tight and my favorite song on there is definitely "Coffee Bean." "Stargazing" wasn't all the way done when I was working on it. We brought it to where they want it and just left it there for them to finish up. That's the process, keep on cycling back around to each track trying to find the best version.
Did you have any interaction with XXXTentacion prior to his death? You produced the XXL Freshman cypher he was in last year.
Yeah, we have always been in the same circles chilling. We got signed by the same person when I signed to Atlantic Records. When I go to Miami, I'll be with Orlando and he'd be trying to link us up together. When we did the XXL Freshman cover, he requested that the beat drop. We had a conversation before to drop the beat for him after two previous takes he wasn't feeling. I see where he was going with it now. He was the first one to ask.
With more producers speaking up about the issues in music business practices, do you feel like there's been any change in the industry with things being brought into the light?
Yeah, I feel like shit changed just a little bit. I don't know if it's because of something I said, but I do feel like that's the one that's always brought up when they talk to me. They feel like I'm the producer savior. I've dealt with a lot of major companies and I feel like they're [watching] from a distance. It's coincidental to see when I start yelling, a couple things begin changing. Even as far as the [producer] crediting on streaming services, just some little stuff like that. They're not going to give me the praise for it and make it look like they're doing it off the rip. It's happening slowly.
A report was published by Citigroup last week saying that artists only make up 12 percent of the $43 billion music industry's revenue in the United States.
Yeah, I saw that but I gotta do my own research when I see something like that. I find it hard to believe. When we talk about these labels and stuff, they're the people putting up a lot of the money going in.
It made me think about a Kanye West quote during his interview with Charlamagne Tha God earlier this year."You know, like the music industry is set up for you to have just enough money to afford a car, pay for your kids, a house, and be on tour for the rest of your life till you die."
That's on them. These people are rich and they got a whole lot of power. They're making a lot of other stuff happen though. If you're knowledgeable and know this much Kanye, use your voice and your power to make something happen, bro! Clearly, I'm saying something that's resonating with a lot of people, so it's the same thing. And I'm not nearly as big as [Kanye]. If you're feeling that passionate about the money being made in the industry, then go hard. They're not going hard because they're super-rich. That's a broke man's problem. They can talk about it and have a recollection of how they used to feel even though they're not going through it right now.
They're gonna make you feel like they're saying something, but once they got done tweeting, they're going back to their mansion and a California king-sized bed. The only people taking the hit are the people making a living off of only music. Not the people that already here. Someone like Kanye, he's got the Kardashian's. It's cool, they make money just by blinking. [Kanye's] got nothing to worry about. I fuck with Kanye, too. It's just hard for me sometimes to understand them when they speak from another standpoint.
“It ain't set up for you to literally go buy and album- uh uh- island, like Phil Knight. It ain't set up for the artist to win. It's like boxing. You know, more people end up retarded than rich.” @kanyewest pic.twitter.com/8VNTJJba6d— TeamKanyeDaily (@TeamKanyeDaily) August 8, 2018
How did you end up linking up with the Pardon My Take guys at Barstool Sports to make the spoof "Drink Paint" video?
Atlantic Records put that together. At first, I didn't know who that was. Then, I went over there and [Big Cat and PFT] were really cool. I sent them the beat a day or two before and they already started writing and recording to it, so by the time I got there, the record was almost done. We shot the video for it right after, maybe the next day. It was funny.