!llmind on Producing Nicki Minaj's 'Queen' Standout 'Hard White' & How J. Cole Challenged Him the Most Creatively

Jawad Mahmood
illMind

!llmind is more than a boom-bap savant. Besides watching underground elites such as Skyzoo, Little Brother and Joell Ortiz eviscerate his soul-grabbing beats, !llmind has tangoed with several rap heavyweights as well.

In the last four years, !llmind has showcased his dexterity along the likes of Drake ("You & The 6"), The Carters ("Heard About Us"), and J. Cole's gut-wrenching "Love Yourz." With a stout resume that would make any producer blush, !llmind kept his winning streak intact when he teamed up with Bo1ida to whip up Nicki Minaj's Queen standout "Hard White." For Minaj, "Hard White" finds the 35-year-old deftly flaying her adversaries. For !llmind, watching Minaj clobber her foes was a sight to see.   

"It’s Nicki in rare form," he tells Billboard. "It’s what she does best. She’s one of the few top-tier artists that’s left that’s like, really rapping. She’s not really built off of a gimmick or anything like that. She’s really respected as a rapper. I think she’s one of the illest, man. Not just for female rappers, but just rappers in general."

Billboard caught up with !llmind to speak on the origin of "Hard White," why Nicki Minaj is lyrically one of the best rappers out, J. Cole's "Love Yourz" and its lasting power, and his hopes of working with Cardi B and Adele. 

Let's talk about "Hard White," which has clearly blossomed into a fan favorite on the Queen album. How did that record come about with you and Boi1da? ‘Cause I know y’all hooked up on “You & The 6.” 

I think at this point, people kind of know me and Boi1da’s relationship. We’ve been collaborating for a few years, probably since I wanna say like 2014. That was when we really started collaborating heavy. “Hard White” is just basically another collab beat that me and Boi1da worked on that landed on her album.

From what I remember, I think Boi1da finished it like I wanna say summer of last year or maybe even earlier. I remember working on some of the melodies for that song back in late 2016 early 2017. When me and Boi1da collaborate, we don’t really know who the artist is yet, we kind of just work on beats. That was one of those beats that we worked on. He sent it over to Nicki and she used it and it came out crazy. I wasn’t able to be in the studio when she did it, but I knew it was coming out at some point. It’s funny because the original title of the track was different. It wasn’t “Hard White.” It was called “Half Back."

I do remember a snippet surfaced online and all the Barbz were going crazy like, “Yo, what is this?”

It was originally called “Half Back.” Then they switched it to “Hard White,” and the song came out crazy.

What was your initial reaction when you heard her over the track?

It’s Nicki in rare form. It’s what she does best. She’s one of the few top-tier artists that’s left that’s like really rapping. She’s not really built off of a gimmick or anything like that. She’s really respected as a rapper. I think she’s one of the illest, man. Not just for female rappers, but just rappers in general. She’s just got bars.

I was happy that the track ended up being just one of those songs that just showcases her rap abilities. She’s talking her shit. That’s personally my favorite version of Nicki, when she just gets on a record and talks her shit. I’m glad it was one of those, and it ended up being one of the few bangers where she’s just talking her shit on the Queen album. She did her thing.

What I’ve always appreciated about you man, you’ve been able to work with Cole, Drake, Nicki and ‘Ye, and yet your roots are still tied to the underground. You still manage to do something with a Joell Ortiz, or a Skyzoo. How have you been able to maintain that balance?

I don’t like to put any limits on myself or pigeonhole myself in any way. I’m just focused on making the best music that I can, and then collaborating with people who are on the same frequency, whether it’s Skyzoo or Joell Ortiz or Jared Evan or Travis Scott or Nicki or Jay. It’s really just good music and in my mind, I’m just trying to be the best producer I can. I’m trying to just make the best music possible. Sometimes, it’s with someone who’s really underground or it’s with a mega-star. I’m equally as appreciative for all of them.

In terms of just balancing it out, I don’t think it’s really anything I’m doing in particular. It’s really just working with people I know and really letting the pieces fall into place organically. One day, I might be with Skyzoo, and the same day, I’m on a Jay-Z and Beyonce album. I’m appreciative of all of it.

Which mega-star challenged you the most creatively, and which underground star challenged you the most creatively, and why?

Oh wow. You know what? I’m gonna go ahead and say J. Cole [as the mega-star]. Because the one song we did together was “Love Yourz” and it’s probably my favorite song I ever did. The way that it impacted people, and just sonically how it came out and how much people appreciate that song and what it meant for the culture [was special for me]. I’m really proud of that one.

But I say J. Cole because we made that song in 2014, and it’s been four years and I haven’t managed to get on any of his other albums. He’s released two albums already. Since 2014, I’ve been just feeding this guy. Batches and batches of beats. I’ll send stuff to [his manager] Ibrahim and I’ll send stuff to my guy Money Makin Matt.

At one point, I think it was late 2015 early 2016, I ran in to Cole at the airport and we were on the same flight. I literally had my computer and I dumped like 100 beats on a flash-drive and I was like, “Yo, Cole. Here. Get busy and I’ll talk to you in a minute.” At this point, Cole’s got more than a 100 !llmind beats, but yet I haven’t been on any of his albums, so I say Cole because it’s been a challenge to really figure out the timing with him. And probably just making the right stuff for him.

Sometimes, a good beat isn’t for a specific artist, and I just haven’t been able to catch his frequency of creativity and what kinds of beats he’s trying to rap over. Obviously, hopefully that changes soon in the future. But I would say Cole. He produces too, and he’s really choosy with what he writes to, and I respect that a lot. That’s just a quality of a really good artist, knowing what you want. It’s been a challenge to try and get on his frequency -- but hopefully at some point, after 100 more !llmind beats, we can rock out again and we’ll see what the future holds.

In terms of underground, I’ll probably say my man Jared Evans. He’s super dope and I’ve been working with Jared since he was 17 back in 2009 when he used to intern for FADER. He’s kind of a hybrid artist. He produces, he raps, he sings, he’s very creative. When I started working with him, he was one of the few artists that took me out of my comfort zone and pushed me and helped me push myself as a producer. Every time we make music, it’s always just this process of trying to find the right pieces and being really creative, but trying things without being too left field.

He’s got a really nice pop sensibility with the way he writes. When we get up, I’m not just playing him 100 beats and he’s picking a bunch. We’re creating from scratch or brainstorming ideas and he’s adding stuff and feeding me ideas. With Jared, me and him are really digging into a bag and being as creative as possible. At times, that could be a challenge but the end product is really dope.

I love both picks. I love the J. Cole “Love Yourz” obviously because it’s one on my favorite Cole songs but I’ve grown to appreciate it more when I saw him perform it live. Has there ever been a track that you produced and you watched an artist perform live and that became an instant favorite of yours?

Man, so many. Of all the records I’ve seen live and all the records I’ve produced, “Love Yourz” is up there, big time. The live performance of “Love Yourz” is, again, another reason why that’s my favorite track that I’ve produced -- just because of the way that it touches people. I think Cole was also on record saying that’s one his favorite songs he’s ever done. Making that beat and making that song and being there for the process, we didn’t really know how deep of an impact it would make on people. Obviously, it’s been four years and it’s still deeply impacting people through the message.

I recently saw Kendrick and Schoolboy Q perform “X” from the Black Panther album, and that shit rings off, too. I think “Love Yourz,” once again, takes the cake because of the emotional impact of the record and when he performs it, it’s just that much more special.

Obviously, you’ve worked with a bunch of artists at this point in your career. Do you have somebody you’re dying to scratch off the bucket list?

So many, dude. I wanna work with Cardi B, obviously. Hopefully, we’ll be working on some stuff soon. She’s a new artist I’m excited about and her energy is just crazy. I love this kid Bazzi. He also reminds me of Jared. I wanna do more stuff with Jay and Beyonce. I wanna do stuff with Rihanna. And then -- kind of left field but not really -- I really wanna work with Adele. Adele and Sam Smith. Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran, those guys are pop icons and they have such amazing musical sensibilities. I feel like if I could work with them it could be something really dope and different.

There’s so many. There’s this group based out of Brooklyn I believe and their name is Son Lux. Their production and their vocal arrangement is phenomenal to me. If I could find myself in a studio with those guys-- I could go on and on. There’s so many people I want to work with.

I love what you’re doing with your franchise Pass The Aux. What made you go that route and give aspiring artists the opportunity to sit down with you in the studio?

I want to say back in 2010, I caught the itch of realizing I have this passion for being around creators, specifically music producers but any creatives in general. Since 2010, in addition to being a music producer myself, I'd kind of gone out of my way to do things to engage more with the creative community. That was around the time I started my podcast, back then it was called Blap On Radio. I did it for a few years, stopped, and I recently started up again. Now it’s called Blap Chat.

I’ve always just been doing things to engage in the creative community, like the podcast, and doing my drum kits and releasing sample packs. Pioneering that whole movement of the drum kit business. Curating live beat battles and beat showcases. That kind of evolved into going really aggressive with creating my YouTube channel, and creating weekly YouTube content that’s based off of talking about the process of music production, and anything I could do to help on that channel.

Back in early 2017, I was closing shop on this studio I built in Brooklyn -- I built it in 2015 and had it for 2 years -- during the last month of my lease for the studio I built, I was trying to think of a creative way to use the space. I told myself, “Why don’t I invite an upcoming producer to the studio every single day to hang out with me?” So, I did it for the first week and I had a new upcoming producer I would choose to come up to my studio and hang out with me for the day and watch me make beats, talk, ask questions... they would play their beats and I’d give them feedback, stuff like that. I just decided, fuck it. If I’m bringing one person, why don’t I bring five people next week? It turned from bringing one person, to five people, to 20 people. At one point, I had 20 upcoming producers in my studio hanging out. We’d hang out for like 4-5 hours. It was crazy.

After I closed the studio, I was like, “Fuck, that was fun. I still wanna do that.” I decided to rent out a studio in New York and do it again with another group of 20, and I’d charge for tickets to pay for studio time and all that stuff. It sold out and that sparked the idea to do Pass The Aux in different cities. Since last year, I’ve been to a number of cities around the U.S. We did Toronto a few times, Philly, D.C., LA, Houston, Dallas, North Carolina, Virginia, Connecticut, Boston, the list goes on. It’s become a pretty big passion of mine and every single Pass The Aux session that I’ve done, I’ve walked away with learning something about myself and been able to realize that I’m able to be an influence for the upcoming music producers.

It’s just been an overall positive experience, man. I’m super happy about it and I’m really glad that creatives all around the globe are getting into it and I’m discovering that there’s talent everywhere. I’m looking forward to continuing to do that.

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