About two-and-a-half years ago, Frank Dukes had a fortuitous run-in with Camila Cabello. The singer was in the early stages of making what would become her debut solo album, 2018’s Camila, and one of her collaborators, producer Benny Blanco, had invited Dukes -- then known best for his work with rappers Drake and Travis Scott -- to tag along to the studio. Cabello had been writing songs since she was 16, but as a member of girl group Fifth Harmony, she rarely had creative control. So when Dukes (real name: Adam Feeney) asked her what she wanted to say as an artist, it was likely one of the first times anyone in a session had done so.
Cabello and Dukes started writing more together, and eventually, she asked him to work on the entire album. “She was like, ‘These songs I’m making with you feel like real songs, not manufactured songs,’ ” he recalls. One of them began as a seesawing, Latin-inspired piano loop Dukes had created with Cabello in mind, after the two had discussed the importance of bringing her Cuban-American identity into the music. After months of tinkering with the track with the help of other co-writers -- including Louis Bell (with whom he shares management) and sometime collaborator Starrah -- “Havana” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in early 2018. “It was a song that only she could do,” says Dukes.
Helping artists achieve something singular -- even if it means taking a back seat or calling in extra help -- has helped turn Dukes into one of pop and hip-hop’s most in-demand collaborators. In the past five years, he has amassed writing or producing credits on a staggering 44 Hot 100 entries, ranging from shimmering dance-pop (Lorde’s “Green Light”) to throbbing hip-hop (Drake’s “Fake Love”). The 35-year-old describes his role in the studio, where he contributes instrumentation as well as melody and lyrics, as that of a co-navigator. “We know where we’re trying to get, but we don’t have specific directions, so we’re just walking around, getting closer,” he says from his home studio in Los Angeles’ Los Feliz neighborhood, where he’s playing around with some ideas. (At one point during our conversation, I hear what seems to be a guitar strum.) “We might take a wrong turn, or we might take a turn that’s a shortcut that fast-tracks the whole thing.”
Sometimes that means taking on the title of executive producer, hunkering down with an artist and “creating our own little world,” as he did with Cabello, or with The Weeknd on 2018’s My Dear Melancholy, EP. Sometimes it means coming aboard as a technical specialist, like when Lorde recruited Dukes to provide drum sounds and other production ideas on six tracks from 2017’s Melodrama.
And sometimes, he’s not even in the room. Dukes started Kingsway Music Library, a collection of evocative samples for other producers and artists to use, as a repository for his leftover musical ideas as well as an alternative to the long, frustrating and expensive process that is sample clearing. (Kingsway guarantees clearance following good-faith negotiation.) Though he typically does not take a producer credit on songs that use his samples, it has occasionally happened, as on Drake and Future’s “Diamonds Dancing.”
A Toronto native, Dukes fell in love with hip-hop as a skateboarding teen, and he started making beats based on samples of old, obscure records he collected before he realized he could create his own sample-like snippets. He signed with Sony/ATV in 2008 and by 2014 had placed beats on projects by 50 Cent and Ghostface Killah. But after an eerie guitar sample he had passed to fellow Canadian producer Boi-1da turned into Drake’s “0 to 100/The Catchup,” Dukes found himself orbiting the likes of Kanye West and Rihanna -- and embraced a new approach to creating that treats his music as a kind of open-source code among his peer group (and, in the case of Kingsway Music, the whole internet). “A lot of producers have told me, ‘Yo, you actually changed the way we collaborate; we send shit back and forth,’ ” he says. “I think [Kingsway] has made making beats way more collaborative.”
Unlike some of his peers, Dukes has no obvious trademark or musical signature, and his presence on songs can feel subtle, if not undetectable, perhaps because he works across so many different scenes. (In March, he contributed to Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker” and Rosalía and J Balvin’s reggaetón banger “Con Altura.”) But he doesn’t mind if he’s one of two or 10 in the credits, so long as the end result is a song that breaks through. “I look at the big picture and try not to create with ego,” he says. “No one fucking cares if you did it all by yourself. If you can make the best music ever but it requires bringing in a few different perspectives, I’d rather make the best music ever.”