Cardi B on the set of Cardi B's 'I Like It' music video.
Cardi B on the set of Cardi B's 'I Like It' music video.
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Cardi B's 'I Like It': An Oral History of No. 1 Smash's Grueling Seven-Month Gestation

When “I Like It” landed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 (on the chart dated July 7), it marked several milestones for rapper Cardi B. The Bronx native, 25, became the first female rapper with two Hot 100 No. 1s in the chart’s history, following “Bodak Yellow,” and became the first female artist with multiple No. 1s from a debut album since Lady Gaga in 2009. Concocted between New York, Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles over seven grueling months, the genre-bender was a struggle and labor of love for all parties. Its nine key players -- including featured performers, producers, the team at Atlantic Records and Cardi herself -- explain how it came together.

Cardi B: For “I Like It” to be No. 1 in a country where the origin language is English…. It makes me happy that people are open to learn different languages. People say they don’t understand the Spanish parts of the song but they still love it. It just goes to show you if a song is great and it makes people dance and makes people happy, it doesn't matter what language the music is in. People will enjoy it regardless whether they understand it or not.

ORIGINS

Craig Kallman, chairman/CEO Atlantic Records: I couldn't understate the importance of not just having an album that had follow-up hits but an album that people really loved as an entire body of work from start to finish. We’ve all grown up on those desert island discs, those albums that stand the test of time and we’ve had really ambitious conversations about Invasion of Privacy. We wanted to try and make one of those true classics from start to finish and hold the bar up to where every song counts and every song matters. Sure we’ll have big hits, but we also wanted to get to her core and start to broaden and expand her horizons, showing she’s versatile and can do different things sonically. That was the definitely the goal and ambition, to not be pigeonholed into making records strictly in the vein of “Bodak Yellow.”

Edgar Machuca, director of A&R, Atlantic Records & Artist Publishing Group: J White Did It produced “Bodak Yellow,” which up until that point was her biggest song and the song that broke her into the mainstream.

J White Did It, producer: Up until “Bodak Yellow” I was the only one doing her tracks. From 2016 to “Bodak Yellow,” it was just me. I definitely felt that pressure (to match “Bodak Yellow”). Who wouldn’t, with that type of record? Being in that “Bodak” tornado and having that pressure.

Kallman: Cardi has a Dominican father and a Trinidadian mother and was born in the Bronx and raised in New York City. She had the roots where it made sense for me to pitch Cardi on a Spanish-Latin record on this album. Cardi was incredible in this process of being so open to trying things and experiment. She had definitive opinions and said no to tons of stuff that wasn’t right for her. She was listening to beats and track and song ideas. She also knew what spoke to her. So when I mentioned that she said, “Let’s go get it.” I was canvassing producers in that space; Reggaeton and Latin producers and put it out there we were looking for a Latin-inspired track. I just wasn’t really getting anything that I thought was a real missile and a real bullseye.

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WORK BEGINS

Machuca: Craig and J White happened to be in New York at the same time.

J White: I was at the Atlantic offices when we were celebrating “Bodak Yellow” in October. I happened to talk to Craig and he was like, ‘Hey man, come to my house to the studio and I want to play some records. I have an idea for Cardi.’ I was like ‘Okay, awesome.’

Kallman: Once in a while, I’ll go back to my DJ roots like when I produced the Lupe Fiasco “Daydreamin” record with Jill Scott which won a Grammy. That was the last record I produced to be honest. I thought I’d retire on that one, but Cardi inspired me to dust myself off. I have about 1.1 million vinyl albums, so I went back to digging in the crates. I used to DJ in NYC and used to play any genre of music. I was known to be the DJ that no matter what night it was, German Krautrock, salsa, punk rock. I had the biggest record collection. I have this Latin music collection and pored through it and put together hundreds of sample ideas. Pete Rodriguez was always one of my favorite artists. “I Like It Like That” and “Oh That's Nice” are two of my favorite records. I always felt like that could come back as an idea. The Blackout Allstars had done it as a dance record. I started in my bedroom with it, moved it to my own recording studio and starting looping up the samples. At that point, I needed a collaborator on the beat and started experimenting.

J White: I go to Craig’s house and he said he felt like he could split a Latino record. He thought it’d be big for her, the culture and the industry. I’m like “Wow, that’s a great idea.” Literally, I’m on no sleep, I’m tired, it’s 12:00 at night. Craig is talking to me about all of this and I’m half sleeping, I’m dozing off. He’s like, “J White, I’m going to play through some records.” By maybe the ninth record, I’m about to be at his house asleep. I heard the “Yeahhh, baby! I like it like that!” and I said, "Ah!”

Machuca: Craig was the one who came up with the idea of the sample originally.

Kallman: This record had the most obvious hook and one you could base the chorus around. The other samples were meant to be woven.

J White: Anytime you feel a record, anytime you feel anything like that in your system, in your bones. That was my Starbucks. I was ready to knock it out.

Lanre Gaba, general manager/svp urban A&R Atlantic Records: We were in a serious time crunch.

Kallman: J White, Peter Kim (my house engineer at my studio) and I started working on the track. We had a skeleton version of it, but it wasn’t quite right.

DREAM TEAM TIME

Machuca: I got a phone call one morning from Craig. He sent me the song and it was the Pete sample over a very rough instrumental and it had a Cardi verse on it. The sample wasn't chopped up yet. After that he sent it to me, I heard it and we said we should get Bad Bunny and J Balvin on this song. He asked if I knew where they were at and If I could get them on it and I said, "Yeah, 100 percent." Craig was just like, “See what you can do, go wherever you have to go and make it happen.”

Cardi B: I remember when I did my verse and my hook and we were talking about sending the record to J Balvin and Bad Bunny. I was so nervous, oh my goodness. I couldn't believe I was going to do a song with them.

Machuca: I’m really, really close with Balvin. I’m also close with Bunny and Noah (Assad), Bad Bunny’s manager. Whenever something Latin related comes to mind, I always think of them. Those are the first two people that came to mind, and on top of that they are the two biggest Latin American artists in the world who just so happen to be my friends. I called Balvin right away. I said, “Hey man, I have this song with Cardi B on it that I’m trying to get you and Bunny on. Would you be down to do it?” and he was like, “Yes, definitely. Anything for you always.” I sent it to him and as soon as he heard it, he texted me back right away and was like, “Yes, 100 percent. I’m about to text Bunny myself right now.” I literally got on a plane to Miami the next day.

Cardi B: They’re the biggest artists in the Latin market and for them to be on a record with me, I was super excited.

J Balvin: Making the song was amazing. The fact that we’re all Latinos in the song, Cardi B, Bad Bunny and myself showing our culture in the right way, which was in a cool way. Latinos (definitely have a) cool and beautiful culture.

Bad Bunny: Making this song was like making music with my family. Latinos are very united, and music runs in our blood so when it came time to do this track it was all about keeping it fun and energetic.

Balvin: Me and Bad Bunny worked together recording and changing the vibe. It was super dope.

Cardi B: When I finally got their verses, I was so excited out I was showing my family and my cousins. They’re big fans of them; like, “Look at their verse, I can’t believe it!”

Machuca: I called Craig and said, I got both Balvin and Bunny on the song and he was like, “No way, damn, you’re a magician!” Craig listened to it and he called me back and asked how I felt about it. I said I felt good but said I think we need to work on chopping the sample a little bit more and I thought the production needed to be beefed up. He agreed. So J White came to L.A. and we worked on the song for a week straight.

J White: All those little, "Ahh! Ha ha!"s on the record? That’s me, doing all of those crazy sound effects.

Kallman: The idea was to put as many little instrumental magic [elements] in the track, that would have constant hooks going on in the instrumental itself. I want the instrumental to be a hit by itself, without the vocal.

J White: When it drops, the 808 is mine -- that’s the same 808 I use on "Bodak Yellow." That’s my favorite 808 right there.

PERFECTIONISTS

Machuca: Me and J White were in the studio from 2:00 p.m. till 6:00 in the morning every single day working on production for the record, chopping up the sample, trying to find pieces of the original we could incorporate and trying to figure out the best way we can make the song sound better and cohesive and beef up the production.

Kallman: We had to get the chorus right and we went through tons of different choruses with Cardi writing different things, Cardi and myself getting the writing of that hook right, and we nailed it after thousands of tries.

Machuca: Cardi was working on a bunch of hooks and eventually she came up with a hook she was comfortable with, and that’s the hook we ended up going with. Then me, J White and Craig chopped up the sample even more. We looped the “I Like It” part, because we felt that was the catchiest part of the sample. Before, it used to say, “I like it like that, I like it like that, I got soul, I got soul.” The catchiest part was “I like it like that,” so we chopped it up and Craig thought it sounded amazing.

Gaba: Cardi went days without leaving the studio. She was pregnant and literally cutting vocals all night into the morning. The other thing I will say is that she was incredibly open and wanted to take risks and try different things. I don’t think we would have gotten “I Like It” if she wasn’t.

J White: Craig is such a perfectionist, switching out the kick here and there, changing every part of the song, every idea. Craig would go through every sound and tried to get everything out of the record and I appreciate him for that. Being around him made me a better producer. He’s a legend. I was frustrated by the 9th inning because we were working on it for so long, they flew me out to L.A. and he had three studios going on at the same time to get the record. We had so many different versions of this record.

MORE LATIN FLAIR

Machuca: We couldn’t get to a point where I was happy with it and Craig was happy with it. So I asked J White if he minded if I reached out to other people to help with the production. He was like “No, go ahead. I love collaborating with other people.” I immediately called Tainy. 

Kallman: Edgar introduced me to Tainy who’s a big producer in reggaeton. I needed someone who was really big to come inside this record and inject what it needs. J White was amazing letting me Frankenstein it.

Machuca: Tainy is another good friend of mine who is probably one of the biggest Latin American producers of all time. He’s only 28 but started his career at fifteen years old. The guy’s a legend.

Tainy, producer: I know J Balvin, he’s a close friend. He was in the process of doing his verse and that’s how I met Edgar. It was a rough idea and they left it there. Everyone said goodbye. After a while, I’m in L.A. and I see Edgar coming into the studio with Craig. I saw them both at the time and Craig was like, “Yo, could he hop on the Cardi track that we need to finish?” At this point, I didn’t even know what song it was. I went to the studio later that night to work on the Cardi track and that’s where J White already had the skeleton and Craig told me a little about what he wanted and what he needed on the track. That’s where I came in.

Kallman: When we put Tainy and J White in the room together, it started coming together.

Machuca: I told him the situation and gave him the notes and [asked], can he mess around with it? I sent him the files and the notes -- we sent a couple passes to each other back and forth -- and we still weren’t at the point where we were happy with it.

Tainy: He said, “Here are the files, and I want to make it interesting and not be boring. I want it to feel like it grows in the chorus.” I said, “Say no more.” I had the files J White had and I just started messing with the drums and the bass, cutting up and making it more interesting; adding breaks here and there. Craig was asking me about Bad Bunny’s verse. What if we do this? What if we do that? It was a constant back and forth. Then I had to fly back to Miami and then everything was over the internet.

J White: Tainy added the kick on top of it and the beautiful snare and high hat.

Machuca: Me and Tainy end up going to Atlanta because Cardi went to Atlanta to close out the album. We work on the song for three days, and still couldn’t get it to the point where Craig was all the way happy with it and I was all the way happy with it. So I said, “Okay, I always have a secret weapon for everything," and thought the best producer I’ve come across in terms of making reproductions is Invincible Beats. I called him and was like, “Look bro, 911. I need you to get this done, drop everything you’re doing, like please get on it!” I sent him the files and the notes.

THE HOME STRETCH

Machuca: That was one of the things we were very meticulous and focused, the drums and the bass. We needed them to hit in a way where you can feel that isn’t just a song. That’s when Invincible Beats came in. He’s a wizard and he drove the record home.

Invincible Beats, producer: It was a complete surprise when Edgar emailed me. I didn’t know he was going to be involved in the process. Everything I did was remote in L.A. and they were working on the album in Atlanta. It was two or three weeks before Cardi was closing the album, one of the last songs. He sent me over the session and it was pretty much already structured out. From there I started to tighten up some things sonically, basically improving the mix from what was already there. I got that into a good space, I added some extra elements: drums, piano and bass in the verses, transition effects. The Pete Rodriguez sample was there, it was pretty much drums and sample. They just needed me to kind of glue it together, play some real life instruments -- piano, an acoustic bass, to make it cohesive and blend the sample, to tie it all together. I was responsible for polishing everything.

Machuca: He sent it right back and his first pass was amazing, it was like, “Okay, cool. This sounds great. Now I gotta play it for Craig…” And Craig thought it was amazing, that it was the one. I was like, “Thank God!” At that point, we had been working on the song for a month, every single day.

Invincible: Every case is different, but this particular one I knew exactly what was missing -- especially when I saw there was no music added, I felt like it needed some keys, a guitar lick, a horn blast, things like that to amplify that was already there. It becomes challenging when you have a vibe that’s set you don’t want to comprise it by picking the wrong sounds. It’s a delicate process of adding to the vibe and making the vibe even bigger.

Kallman: I knew when it was done when every eight bars I was engaged and interested and surprised by musical details, whether it was a Cardi ad lib or instrumental detail, coupled with performances which were completely compelling and believable. You’ll also hear [Pete Rodriguez’s] “Oh That’s Nice” in the background.

Gaba: We had to bring in Nick Seeley to remake the small “Oh That’s Nice” sample that’s in there. The people who owned the sample didn’t have the stems.

"THANK GOD IT'S DONE"​

Kallman: We must have gone through so many different version of the mix. We mixed this over and over and over again. We wanted to make sure the low end was right and the clarity was right and the mid range was right, and it had real dynamic range and great stereo separation with the vocals just sitting right in the pocket. After the truly thousandth listen, I’m like, “This really works. There’s nothing more we can do to this to make it better.”

J White: I always knew we’d deliver but I didn't know it’d be this record. I knew once it was done it’d do something, but I really didn’t know. I was so frustrated with the process of making the record, I was like, “Thank God it’s done.”

Gaba: We started the record in October and didn’t finish until right before we turned the album, which was early April of this year.

J White: It was a dope collective, it was dope just to create something so special. With samples, it’s so hard to do samples justice. If I’m the original person and you sample my record, I want the re-do to be just as good, if not better. I feel like we captured that moment for this time in music.

Machuca: Cardi’s first single was “Be Careful,” and they were already working that at radio, so they were giving that song a shot to peak and do what it was going to do before they pushed “I Like It.” It was going to be the follow up but what happened was completely unexpected. We all knew the song was going to be a hit, but Cardi wasn’t all the way sold on the record to be honest. She didn’t think it was going to do as well as it did. And honestly we didn’t think it was going to come out of the gate as strong as it did.

Tainy: When I heard it, I knew it was probably going to be one of the good ones on the album, but I didn’t hear anything else from the album, so I didn’t know what to expect from it. It’s something totally new.

A SMASH MATERIALIZES

Gaba: [I realized the song was special] at the video shoot. We were still finishing the album and were under pressure to turn it in. She shot the video for the song in Miami in between recording sessions. I don’t think the song was even mixed yet. But to see the video unfold in front of me with her, Bad Bunny and J Balvin against the backdrop of the record blaring on set, I knew we had something really special.

Cardi B: I remember when I was six months pregnant doing the music video for the song, I was getting so sick but the video had to be amazing. I wasn’t trying to tell people I was pregnant at the time. It was so hard. I was doing the record in the Miami streets, and didn’t want people to see me. There was paparazzi everywhere. But the outcome of it all was beautiful.

Invincible: I remember driving to the mall and hearing it on Power 106. It was just surreal. It was like a dream come true to hear a record that I knew was a hit.

Machuca: We felt that we needed to wait for it to be worked before it fully hit, but it just hit organically. As soon as Cardi dropped the album, "I Like It" was No. 1 on iTunes, then all these articles started coming out about it. Nobody expected the reaction to be as big as it was off the jump.

J White: When “I Like It” came out and we debuted at No. 8 [on the Hot 100], Craig called me and said, “Now you’re a proven hitmaker. You have two hit records.” And then when we went to No. 1 he called me and congratulated me. It feels good to have two No. 1 records within a year of each other. Now I have two summers.

“I Like It” makes Cardi B the first female rapper to score two No. 1 songs in Hot 100 history and the first female artist with multiple No. 1s from a debut album since Lady Gaga in 2009. It’s also the first No. 1 for both J Balvin and Bad Bunny.

Kallman: Pretty incredible stat right? It’s really amazing.

J Balvin: Getting the No. 1 on the Hot 100 was more than a blessing.

Bad Bunny: I think when you do what you do from the heart, life pays you in blessings. Cardi B, J Balvin and I keep it 100 percent real and that’s what makes this collaboration a success. I admire both Cardi B and J Balvin for breaking so many barriers in culture, music and the industry.

Tainy: I think it’s a combination of everything; good artists at the peak of their careers, a good track, and good music.

J White: You have to think about this. Millions of people are trying to do what we’re doing. For us to be just a little speck on a piece of paper and for us to be played like that, it’s gratifying man.

J Balvin: I think it’s just the beginning of the Spanish crossover.

Machuca: It’s a blessing. To get a chance to be a part of such a big record and make it come to fruition. It’s unbelievable to see what had work and dedication can put together.

Kallman: Cardi really is such a special artist. To a large degree, what was so inspiring was to put the kind of work into the record as well all did. I know how much she inspires all of his from J to myself and everybody involved in the record and the album. She really is a one of a kind and we’re so fortunate and privileged to have her on Atlantic.

J White: What’s so dope about it is that Cardi is such a dope person and I love to see dope people win. People with that type of personality, people who are fighters, watching them win. And she’s a female making history, she just came into the game like this and she’s already made history. It’s crazy. And for me to be in the car with her is another notch. Like, wow, I feel like we’re Bonnie and Clyde right now.

Gaba: I’ve just never witnessed an artist work harder than her. She has the eye of the tiger. That is why she is successful.

Invincible: I’m just grateful for this whole experience and this chapter of my career, it’s just amazing. No other way to describe it.

Tainy: It’s just crazy. I’m so grateful to have this and hopefully thing keep going well in my career, but just to have this is amazing.

Bad Bunny: I’m just the new kid on the block who started his career two years ago. Being able to achieve a success like this has only made me think about my next steps and next goals. It has giving me the ambition to continue dreaming big.