Producer Ben Billions on Making Hits for The Weeknd, Belly & Beyoncé: 'If The Artist Loves It, I Love It'

Ben Billions
Brian White 

Ben Billions

Ben "Billions" Diehl, the producer behind hits for The Weeknd and Beyoncé, among others, is a self-effacing beatmaker in a world that tends to reward a more assertive approach. Producers often stamp their work with a beat tag ("If young Metro don't trust you, I'm gon' shoot you," for example, lets you know that you are listening to a Metro Boomin production), but Diehl does not. Today's beatsmiths can be bigger stars than the rappers on their tracks, but Diehl keeps a low profile and barely does interviews.

"I like being behind the scenes," the 36-year-old producer tells Billboard on the phone from his home base in Miami, Florida. "Half the time, even my friends are like, 'You did that one too?' They don't even know what we're working on. I don't really gloat; I'd rather get your attention. I feel like hopefully I'm not going to oversaturate myself that way."

This modesty hasn't prevented him from quietly blanketing radio over the last several years. Not only has he crafted a steady stream of hits, he also tends to provide artists with trajectory-changing moments. Diehl produced The Weeknd's "Often," the first single from the crooner's 2015 chart-topper Beauty Behind the Madness, which signaled that Abel Tesfaye was shifting from critically beloved singer to pop star. Diehl also produced Yo Gotti's "Down in the DM," which gave the Memphis veteran a long-overdue moment of mainstream recognition when the track hit No. 1 on the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart; Belly's "Might Not," which introduced the rapper to American radio programmers, eventually reaching No. 1 on Billboard's Rhythmic chart; and Future's "Low Life," which peaked at No. 18 on the Billboard Hot 100 last May.  

Diehl has been involved in each of DJ Khaled's nine albums as either an engineer or a producer, which gives the We the Best impresario a unique perspective on Diehl's rise. "Ben is one of the go-to guys now," Khaled says. "There's a top 10, a top five [producers] going on right now; Ben is definitely, definitely, definitely in that category. If you don't know, he's gonna show you."

Diehl's hot-knife beats cut cleanly through the noise of a club, a traffic jam or a hurricane -- the result of his time working as an engineer, first at Circle House Studios in Miami and then with Khaled. "From engineering, I got really good at my sonics," Diehl explains. "Especially from being in Miami, where all they really care about is bass, I got real good at making everything hit real hard."

His years as an engineer also taught him the art of completion. "I really learned how to finish a record," he says. "There's a lot of people in the business that know how to make beats, but to actually produce, it's a skill to be able to know when the song's done. Even today, that's what I'm good at. It was at the point where even my two-track mixes would go right to radio."

"What's good about Ben is if something's missing, he has it," Khaled adds. "If there's nothing there, he has it. When me and him work, there's nothing that we cannot do."

Much of Diehl's production work can be divided into two threads -- one connected to Khaled from his engineering days, a tree that includes productions for We the Best, Rick Ross and Yo Gotti ("Down in the DM" was made in Khaled's studio), and the other connected to The Weeknd, whom Diehl met through Belly, who was writing in Miami at the time. "Abel kept on hearing the stuff that me and Belly had been working on," Diehl remembers. "And eventually he was like, 'I like your sound, I want to make some stuff with you.' He liked the way my sh-- was hitting." 

The first time Diehl and Belly wrote together in October 2013, Danny Boy Styles joined them and the trio came up with "6 Inch," which eventually appeared on Beyoncé's Lemonade as a song featuring The Weeknd. "It was originally going to be a Belly track with French Montana," Diehl says. "We got the word back that [Beyoncé] liked it, and we all were like, we should keep working together. I think we're on to something. We're gonna be good when this sh-- comes out." But he didn't know when that would be -- when Beyoncé arrived by surprise in 2013, he eagerly checked the track list, but "6 Inch" wasn't on there. "It all worked out," Diehl says. "We just had to be patient."

But he didn't just sit around waiting for "6 Inch" to see the light. Working with The Weeknd on other songs led to a swath of hits ("Often," "Low Life") and high-level placements (Travis Scott's "Pray for Love," Meek Mill's "Pullin' Up"). Discussing this run, Billions' modesty reasserts itself. "There's something about a voice," he says. "As soon as [The Weeknd] sang on my sh--, it made the beat sound more expensive. I didn't even have to do much."

Under the cover of this beat-enhancing vocal, Diehl enjoyed more creative freedom. "I can go in on [The Weeknd's] projects," he notes. "On a lot of rap songs, there's no room for effects and special ambient stuff. With his music, people appreciate the little intricacies. If you're doing gangsta rap songs, it's just like, 'Does that sh-- wham in the club?'"

But Diehl's beats also do well when evaluated by this metric: See "Down in the DM" and "Might Not." The startling ease with which Diehl co-produced these -- each was made in less than 20 minutes and became No. 1 hits -- was partially unsettling. "It kind of f---ed me up for a minute," Diehl says. "I was like, 'If I'm working on a beat for more than 45 minutes, am I putting too much into it?'

"The kids want to turn up," he continues, "but I'm always trying to sneak an element of something I would've liked from back in the day, whether it's a live instrument or a cool sample." He feels like he accomplished his goal on Meek Mill's "Off the Corner" -- "the instrumentation felt like an old hip-hop record, but the drums are strip club" -- and French Montana and Kodak Black's "Lock Jaw." "Kodak sounds extra Southern, gives it that fresh young appeal, but we would have jammed to that beat in '96," he says.

Like any producer with a hot hand, Diehl is getting plenty of inquiries now from artists who didn't know him before. But expect him to keep working with the close collaborators who helped him build his career: He refers to Khaled as a "big brother" and Belly and The Weeknd as "family." "I've learned to f--- with the people that f--- with me," Diehl says. "If I'm inspired by you and you're inspired by me, that's how we're gonna make the best stuff."

"Whether it's a hit or not, if the artist loves it, I love it. Sh-- -- I don't care what nobody has to say," he adds. "As far as critics, labels, A&Rs? I don't care. I did my job."