Meet the Man Competing Against Himself in Multiple Big Four Categories at This Year's Grammys

Kendrick Lamar
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS

Kendrick Lamar attends the 60th Annual Grammy Awards at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 28, 2018 in New York City. 

Mastering engineer Mike Bozzi is a nine-time Grammy nominee for his work with Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino

When Mike Bozzi heads to the Grammys this weekend, he’ll be competing against himself with five nominations across two of the Big Four categories. That’s because he’s the mastering engineer behind the Kendrick Lamar-curated Black Panther: The Album and Post Malone’s beerbongs & bentleys (both up for album of the year) as well as those projects' big singles -- "All the Stars" and "rockstar," respectively -- and Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” (all up for record of the year).

He’s been here before. Bozzi is a nine-time Grammy nominee for his work putting the sonic icing on tracks by hip-hop and R&B artists ranging from SZA to Snoop Dogg. He earned his first album of the year nomination in 2014 for Lamar's good kid, m.A.A.d city. “It’s always humbling, when you realize how much music worldwide is put out,” he says of this year’s nods. “It’s fun to be around for another cycle.”

A hip-hop head who grew up in Los Angeles and Ontario with a father in the radio business, Bozzi got his start assisting Brian Gardner, the lauded hip-hop engineer who mastered OutKast’s storied 2003 album SpearkerBoxxx/The Love Below -- the last hip-hop project to win album of the year. At the upcoming Feb. 10 ceremony, a win for the rap-dominated Black Panther soundtrack could end the draught, and the significance isn’t lost on Bozzi: “It would be bigger than just me.”

Just days before the big night, he tells Billboard how he met Kendrick, what it was like to hear Gambino’s momentous “This Is America” before the rest of the world and why he wants -- finally -- “to win a goddamn Grammy.”

You’re clearly a hip-hop guy. What was the first rap song that blew your mind?

“The Message" [by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five]. That was the first hip-hop song I ever heard. In those days, early ‘80s, everybody liked Journey or Night Ranger, you know? It was rock bands. Public Enemy, to me, was like heavy metal -- really aggressive, but saying a whole lot of stuff that blew me away as a suburban white kid. Run-D.M.C. and The Beastie Boys’ first albums were really like, "Oh, this is cool." At that time, N.W.A. wasn’t a national thing yet. But I do remember driving around in my friend’s Honda Accord, pretending to be the guys in N.W.A. as a teenager. 

What were you doing when you found out about your Grammy nominations this year?

I woke up, turned on the TV and checked Twitter. I had hoped that the Childish Gambino track was going to get a record of the year nom, because it was an impactful track. With that music video, it was a “holy crap” moment. So I really was only expecting that, and holding out a little hope, since they expanded the Grammy categories, that maybe Black Panther would slide in, which it did. They announced Post Malone last, and I just kind of chuckled -- not to be an asshole, but it was like, “Oh my gosh, this would be a dream. Is this a dream?” It’s kind of wild. It’s not lost on me that that doesn’t happen all that frequently.

You've mastered Kendrick's last three albums -- good kid, m.A.A.d city, To Pimp a Butterfly, and DAMN. How did your relationship with the rapper start?

Kendrick is the artist that got the spotlight pointed in my direction. I got a credit on good kid, m.A.A.d city because they had hired my mentor [Gardner] to master that album. My mentor was out of town for the weekend, but they needed to wrap things up, so I spent that weekend in the studio doing last-minute changes and remastering a few things. I think that [Kendrick and Top Dawg Entertainment] appreciated the hustle, because that’s who they are. They’re not ready to work at 10 in the morning -- they want to work at 10 at night until six in the morning. Knowing how great the project is, it’s easy to put in stupid hours. I think I proved to them that I was willing to hustle with them. I think that I’m part of their recipe. By the time To Pimp a Butterfly came around, I had already done a project for Schoolboy Q for TDE. Most artists and engineers have people they favor for their projects. Luckily I get to be that guy.

How did the Black Panther soundtrack arrive in your hands?

I got “All The Stars” just before Christmas of 2017. I literally left somebody’s Christmas party to come into the studio to master that song. I had done SZA’s [Ctrl]. When somebody calls you with a Kendrick Lamar or SZA project, you drop what you’re doing, and you go through that session. I don’t know if at the time I realized it was related to the movie or not. It was both the first song I mastered for the Black Panther soundtrack and the last song I mastered for the Black Panther soundtrack, because it came out as a single first, and then they changed the SZA verse for the album.

The soundtrack was very much a hip-hop album. I treated it like, "Here’s a TDE hip-hop project, just with a million features on it, and god, it already sounds good -- don’t screw this up. [Laughs.] The common thread of the drums from the movie and Kendrick being different characters really pulled that whole thing together. You have that Jorja Smith song that’s nice and mellow and smooth, but then you have a super aggressive banger after that. “Seasons” [by Mozzy, Sjava and Reason] just floors me because it’s different languages and a different mood. And after that you have another hype, lit track. It’s fun to make sure everything lives in the same world.

What sort of feedback was Kendrick giving you?

Kendrick is at his mastering sessions -- like, every one of them. To me, that says a lot. [Producer] Sounwave, who’s also nominated a bunch, is in the mastering sessions. Their attention to the detail, all the way up until it’s really finished is amazing. You can tell that, with the inner circle of engineers and producers that he works with, there’s a trust built between them. But Kendrick is kind of quiet in what he’s looking for. He might just want to turn a word up, or turn a line up, or turn something down -- last-minute, smaller detail things that don’t seem significant but are totally the right move. He’s so much more than a rapper, it’s ridiculous. He’s an artist on many fronts. If you’re just superficially listening to his work and saying, “Oh, that’s just another rap album,” then you’re not paying attention.

At mastering, normally we get things that are already completed, and there’s not a lot of revision done to a mix. For him to be able to make a call in the 11th hour before we turn something in in the morning is amazing. That’s truly an artist knowing and not second-guessing himself -- making the decision to do something and doing it. And every time he’s done something like that, it always works. I think on the To Pimp a Butterfly album, he and [producer Derek] Ali took an iPhone into one of our other studios and were just yelling some stuff into the phone. That ended up on the album. Who does that at mastering? That’s not really a normal thing. 

Let’s switch gears to “This Is America.” What were your first impressions when you heard it?

I was kind of expecting more of [“Awaken, My Love!], and then to hear what was delivered was like, "Oh, okay, now we’re talking. We’re not trying to go for smooth, soulful, warm ‘70s vibes. This is an aggressive track. Let’s make it aggressive. There are parts in it that are very quiet and beautiful, and then it just gets crazy loud, so let’s do that." But I don’t think I really, fully got the whole thing until I saw the video. When I watched the video, it was definitely a “holy shit” moment.

Did you have any inkling of how impactful it would be?

Not really, until I saw the video. I’ve been lucky enough in a very short period of time to have a couple things that I think transcend just music. Like [Lamar’s] “Alright” track being a Black Lives Matter anthem for that summer. I’m not saying I made it an anthem or anything, but to just be involved with things that are bigger than an album release is really cool. I’m proud to work alongside these people with these messages.

“This Is America” has so many beat switches and sonic elements. How did you approach that from a mastering perspective?

I always want to honor what the mix is and the things that have musicality -- like the African chanting, the drumming in that song. The quieter section reminded me of ‘80s Paul Simon. I wanted to keep the beauty of those instruments as clear as I could keep them. But when those beat switches come on and it gets more aggressive, there’s a lot of anxiety and tension. The message of the song is unsettling. So, to amplify that a little bit with mastering in any way that I could was a goal. My cue is to pull out the elements that give you that unsettling feeling. Later on in that song, the bottom end comes in a little bit more, and you want to feel that fullness. But that song probably would’ve been great unmastered. A great song is a great song.

Was Donald Glover -- a.k.a. Gambino -- in the studio?

Nobody came in for that one. That was a standard case of, “Hey, I’m going to send you this track, you send it back to me to hear.” I’m sure Donald Glover had something better to do that day. [Laughs.] It’s really flattering that people trust you with their art, and I feel honored to work on all these projects, but I would also love to meet these guys, so there’s a face to the name.

What was the process like for beerbongs & bentleys?

The Post Malone people, I’ve never met anybody in that whole camp. But we’ve mastered two albums, and they’ve been relatively successful. Manny Marroquin mixed both those albums, and Manny’s a great mixer, so I didn’t have to do a lot. I did “rockstar” way before the album came out, and then “Psycho” was the one after that, and sometimes you don’t know: Is this going to be an album six months from now? Or are these just one-off singles? Who knows anymore? And then it was like, “Well, here’s 14 more songs, and here’s the sequence -- do what you do.”

I’m super nitpicky and critical of my own mastering, and I think most good engineers are critical of themselves, so I might listen to it a few times myself and then make little adjustments and let somebody hear those. I’m constantly going back at it.

The Grammys don’t have the best reputation when it comes to recognizing hip-hop. What do you think needs to happen for that to change?

I think hip-hop gets a bad rap. I want hip-hop to win an album of the year Grammy. It’s no longer, “Hey, is this a fad that’s going to stick around for this industry?” Hip-hop drives this industry. But hip-hop gets passed over a lot. The only way to change that is to become a member and vote for it. I encourage people who are involved in hip-hop and who have enough credits to be a voting member. It’s $100, but you have a say. It’s like voting for president. You can bitch and moan if you voted for the other guy and lost, but if you didn’t vote at all, then I don’t want to hear what you’ve got to say about it.

What would it mean to you to take home a Grammy on Sunday?

I know there’s a lot of people who don’t put any stock in winning a Grammy. But I want a goddamn Grammy! I’d especially love to win one with the TDE people, because they brought the attention to me. Personally, it would validate 20 years of wondering if this is worth doing. Before I got the opportunity to run this room, there was a lot of, “Am I ever going to get a shot?” I was raising a family and paying my bills. And I’m a three-time junior-college dropout. It would validate all that time of questioning whether or not I had what it took.

On a bigger level, it brings attention to the genre that I love. I master every genre, but I tend to do mostly hip-hop and R&B, and I’m perfectly happy with that if it’s all I ever do. It would be bigger than just me or a Kendrick album. We’ve been waiting around for [a hip-hop album to win album of the year] for years. That’s not to discredit any of the other nominees --- those are all amazing albums. I just feel like it’s been hip-hop’s time.

2019 Grammy Awards


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