Production Duo Mike & Keys Talk Grammy Nomination For Nipsey Hussle's 'Victory Lap'

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Money Mike & J-Keys

The Los Angeles production duo of Money Mike and J-Keys have been here before.

Back in 2013, they received a best rap album Grammy nomination for their contributions to Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor II: The Great American Rap Album, Pt. 1. Six years later, they find themselves recognized again for their work on Nipsey Hussle’s vibrant debut studio album Victory Lap.

But this one certainly feels different.

For one, Mike & Keys are responsible for shaping the sonics of Nipsey's entire album. The highly anticipated LP, which was five years in the making, not only met but exceeded the lofty expectations of fans -- thanks, in large part, to the magnificent production that backed Neighborhood Nip’s concrete-thumping lyrics.

“This nomination is definitely different because of the amount of work we had to do,” Mike tells Billboard in the days before the 61st Annual Grammy Awards. “For his debut, Nipsey gave us full control creatively. We’ve been working with him since 2013’s ‘Crenshaw’ mixtape and he trusted us 100%. That means a lot.”

The producers formally known as The Futuristiks sat down with Billboard to explain why winning a Grammy this year would be the equivalent to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavs downing the Golden State Warriors in 2016, the many iterations of Victory Lap’s lead single “Rap N---as,” getting cold-called by 2 Chainz, and what 2019 has in store for the duo who are responsible for reshaping the sound of the West Coast.

Out of curiosity, how many songs did you record for Victory Lap?

Mike: Like, 50?

Keys: Yeah, there are a lot of songs that are locked in the vault. Some of the songs ended up being the Crenshaw mixtape. But he has a song with Future and there are songs with other people that I can’t mention.

Will those songs see the light of day?

Mike: We make music with the intention of it coming out, but you know how the music industry is. Things change and we’re on to the next one. 

Victory Lap was an album that took five years to finally materialize -- did it test your patience as producers, because in today’s climate, an artist can complete and release an album in five days?

Mike: Yeah, but with the anticipation of the album we just wanted to prove everybody wrong. Nipsey felt the pressure as well, and we just wanted to let him that we were going to finish the album and it would be great. We were the ones who told him that this could get nominated for a Grammy, because he was that good. I think he believed in us and we believed in him from the beginning.

Keys: Even before the album came out, we lived at Paramount Recording Studios. Literally. They said that we were the first people to book out the entire studio for two months and actually live there. Seriously. Nobody went home. We actually lived there. We were really trying to tap into the energy and vibe. We felt like if we didn’t stay there, we would lose it. We needed that vibe to finish the album.

2019 also saw the release of Buddy’s Harlan & Alondra, which you also had a heavy hand in producing. It was another album that garnered critical acclaim. Do you feel that you are finally getting the recognition you deserve as producers who are molding the new West Coast sound?

Mike: I definitely think so. We got a lot respect from different artists and producers. They tell us that we’re responsible for the sound of the new West Coast. Ever since we worked with Dom Kennedy on Get Home Safely -- [that] was when everything changed. Nipsey started paying attention to us. We created a sound for Dom and everybody saw that.

Keys: We spent a lot of time with Nipsey and Buddy. It was a family thing. We met Buddy while we were working with Nipsey. Buddy is like our little brother. It was easy to do Buddy’s album and work with Nipsey. We’re just happy people enjoyed both albums.

About a decade ago, the West Coast was going through an identity crisis and lacked a distinctive sound that once defined it. What have you brought to the table to help change that?

Mike: Young energy. We’re the next generation of the Dre and Snoop. All the young cats out here grew up listening to those guys. We always wanted to be like Dr. Dre. We get inspired by them but we want to have our own identity. We discovered our own sound.

Keys: When we came into the music industry it was at a time when you really had to make dope beats. It wasn’t how it is today where you can just put your beats on YouTube for someone to hear. If you walked into a room with a 50 Cent or Eminem, you had to be able to make a beat on the spot. As for the West Coast, our whole theory is quality over quantity. We may not have the No. 1 most popular single, but we’ll make the music that people will be listening to for years and years.

You mentioned that you told Nipsey that he could get nominated for a Grammy off of this album. When it happened, were you surprised?

Mike: In 2016, the year that LeBron’s Cavs beat the 73-9 Warriors, we said we were going to get to the Grammys off of Nipsey Hussle’s album. We were motivated by that. But we didn’t think we were getting nominated this year, just based on how many people dropped albums. To be nominated in this climate when everyone was trying to tell us what we should be doing and what kind of music to make -- to stick with our guns, and make it, is the best feeling ever.

“Rap N---as” set the tone for the album when the single dropped. But I understand that the song went through many different iterations before it was finalized.

Keys: “Rap N---as” is really an old song that he did. The original was a different beat from somebody else. Nipsey gave us the vocals and we kept stabbing at it. We made five different versions until Nipsey said, “That’s the one.” It took a minute to make that song. It took about two years just to make that song.

Was the original version as aggressive from the production side as the final version? Because that version makes you want to tear things up.

Keys: That’s what we were trying to do that from the jump! Nipsey will never say this but we asked to put gunshots in the beat. He’d say no. But if you listen to that beat, we were so mad from doing so many versions that we decided to make the hardest version we could, and he’d have to like it.

Has this album, the Buddy album and now the Grammy nomination opened doors for you to work with other people that you may not have expected to work with?

Mike: Yeah. It was crazy because we got a call from 2 Chainz. He called out the blue and asked “Y’all did ‘Rap N---as?’ That’s all I need to know!” The ironic thing was that when he called us he already had a song that he did to one of our beats so it was basically getting acquainted. I didn’t know who it was when he called. French Montana reached out as well.

What does 2019 have in store for Mike & Keys?

Mike: Our goal is to put out our own music and artists. We want to showcase what real producers do. It’s not just making beats. We want to create a new lane for producers. We did a few songs with 2 Chainz so hopefully one of those stick. But you know how it goes. You never know.

2019 Grammy Awards

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