Fresh off of collaborating on new DJ Khaled single “Sorry Not Sorry” with hip-hop rivals-turned-friends Jay-Z and Nas, singer-songwriter and general music multi-hyphenate James Fauntleroy has a lot to celebrate. “It was an early birthday present, it’s awesome to have an opportunity to do anything that gets heard by anyone,” he says. “It’s such a miracle to be a part of something that so many people can be impacted by or enjoy — it’s mindblowing.”
Fauntleroy’s humility is sincere, but alongside producer and multi-instrumentalist Larrance “Rance” Dopson, his song credits for Rihanna, Justin Timberlake, Bruno Mars, Kendrick Lamar and other luminaries has made his resumé the sort that producers and songwriters in the R&B and hip-hop lanes have long aspired to. Just last week, J. Cole dropped his latest album The Off-Season, where Fauntleroy was featured alongside Dreamville rapper Bas on final track “hunger.on.hillside,” Meanwhile, Dopson’s production was instrumental on Grammy-nominated albums from Nipsey Hussle (Victory Lap), Jay Electronica (A Written Testimony) and D Smoke (Black Habits) — and at the 2018 Grammys, he nabbed a best R&B song trophy for his songwriting on Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up.”
As peers and members of Los Angeles-based music collective 1500 or Nothin’ — named after how much the band originally charged to perform — Fauntleroy and Dopson have taken their knowledge as creators and industry insiders by co-founding 1500 Sound Academy with entrepreneur-philanthropist Twila True. Housed in Inglewood, the academy is a creative hub for artists who seek to study various facets of entertainment, from songwriting and engineering to the business side of the industry.
“We really want to make sure people know the value of learning as much as you can, but especially things that support whatever your dream is,” says Fauntleroy. “It just makes you more capable and more valuable.”
1500 Sound Academy students have plenty to learn from the combined five-time Grammy winners, especially as they bridge their extensive industry knowledge with introducing the next generation of artists. Below, Fauntleroy and Dopson take a look back on their musical ascension, their gospel origins, and their now-defunct supergroup Cocaine 80s (where Fauntleroy was joined by No I.D., Jhené Aiko and other artists) — as well as how they’re acclimating to the TikTok era of music.
You both formed musicianship through attending and performing in church. How has spirituality informed your work over the years?
Larrance Dopson: Church music is the secret to us making songs, us writing hits. First of all, it’s spiritual. By us being able to learn church music, we learn the chords that can affect certain emotions. In church, you learn the chords that make you cry, make you laugh, make you shout. By understanding that theory, you really control emotions through music and that’s super spiritual.
The whole objective of a business is to create and keep a customer. Because of the church training us [like] ‘I’m gonna sing this part, you sing this part’, church has kept us making sure that we repeat what the first person said. It’s just human behavior — ways to make you remember and love a song.
Fauntleroy: I didn’t grow up in church, even though I met Larrance in the church. Once I got there, I joined the choir. I was in a gospel group on the low-low and I sang at all these churches and I got a lot of important experience. Everything [Larrance] was talking about — call and response and what things make the audience feel a certain way. I feel like getting [to church] late gave me a different perspective on the actual experience of church, and what the Bible is talking about. It gave me a strong interest in spirituality and philosophy — studying that has another level of impact on the music I’m making.
Can either of you pinpoint the moment or the song in which word began to spread about 1500 or Nothin’?
Dopson: Locally, it was “Remember Me”. It was a song that Snoop [Dogg] put on his album [Welcome to tha Chuuch] that he wasn’t rapping on. Other than that, I feel like “Show Me What You Got” [by Jay-Z] was one of the main songs for us as a band where we could kind of make church songs cool on the radio. That changed the sound of hip-hop for a second.
Fauntleroy: As far as 1500 is concerned, [“Remember Me”] was it — I didn’t play on that song, but I was there. “No Air” was my first big song, but I feel like “Take You Down” was similar. From my perspective, the Chris Brown album [Exclusive] was when people were hitting me up and started to act like I was tight.
Act like you were tight?
Fauntleroy: I knew already, but I was waiting for everybody else to get the memo. [Laughs.]
How do you build a creative synchronicity with the artists you collaborate with? Or is it a natural process?
Fauntleroy: I think every situation is different and everyone has different goals. When we go in there, how we’re thinking about it — not only from the church experience because there’s certain ways people have to interact — is as a service. It’s a time to help this person with some kind of creative expression.
1500 is a band and Larrance is the music director, so there’s a thousand ways we’ve had to learn how to fall in and get it together. I don’t know if they still do this, but people used to switch instruments on the stage.
Dopson: Yep, we still do. I mean, let’s be clear, last time we did a band show, James was the percussion player for Rick Ross. Nobody knows this, but that was him on stage.
Fauntleroy: I did a couple gigs, you know what I’m saying? How we get in sync is just by practice as a band, practice as collaborators, that’s our part.
Dopson: I work best with people that know the language fully, that really know the language to where they can tell me to change the chord, go minor or go major, and I actually know what they’re talking about. You can speed up the process for the song when everyone knows what they’re doing and we all got that mutual respect. It’s all the same to me — it’s really about the energy, if [the artist] is insecure — there’s different ways we come at the artist when we know certain things.
When me and James are in sessions, we’ll ask a bunch of questions when we first meet them. ‘What do you like? What do you wanna talk about? What are songs that you love already?’ When we’re doing all that, I’m just gathering information to where, when it’s time for us to do the song, I already know what key you’re comfortable in, I know what tempo you like — so we might do the total opposite. There’s a reason why we ask every question.
Can you recall the recording experience with Nipsey Hussle on Victory Lap? What sound was he looking for?
Dopson: We really grew up together, so it [was] literally us making the soundtrack for L.A. When you go to Slauson Swap Meet and buy a rolex chain, [Victory Lap] is literally the sound of L.A. Nipsey kind of wanted it to be the street bible of L.A. for people that can either be a gangbanger, or drug dealer that could end up being a venture capitalist. So he teaches you the steps and musically, we wanted to be the soundtrack around that.
You both have a diverse range of collaborators, but what commonalities have you seen between them?
Fauntleroy: One of the things I notice, a lot of really successful artists have a huge library of music in their minds. They know about so many abstract things — like all this old stuff — even if their music is super modern or simple. I’ve noticed that the biggest artists are huge music encyclopedias.
I sit there and pretend like I know what they’re talking about sometimes. “Have you heard of The Striped Curtains? It’s so crazy how they–” and I’m like “Yeah, that’s amazing — they’re great.” [Laughs.]
It’s been a decade since the Cocaine 80s EP series. I’ve always considered that sound to be enlightening. Can you describe the phase you were in at that time?
Fauntleroy: I’m still in the phase. The energy behind it was the idea of constantly focusing on improvement. That’s the most important quest — not perfection but constant growth. That’s why the first project is called The Pursuit, because it’s the idea of — you don’t even want to get to the end, because who wants that? The part that is exciting and important is the pursuit. By the time we got to that last project, I was already into philosophy, but by the time we got to The Flower of Life, I was fully off the deep end of studying religion.
I don’t know if I’ve said this publicly yet, but I’m going to start saying it now — if you go back and look at the songs on The Flower of Life, each one of them are the days of creation in the Bible. First song is [“Kuro to Shiro”] when God made light, the birds and the fish is “Fly Ass Pisces” and on and on.
I was really in philosophy and science mode when I was doing that, but more importantly was for [Cocaine 80s] to do what we wanted to do. That’s what it was about and that’s what it’s about now.
You should take a look at the YouTube comments under The Flower of Life. Some people that listen to it feel like they’re being initiated into a secret society for wokeness.
Fauntleroy: That’s literally what it is. We’ve got some things going on but it’s top secret as you know. It’s a secret society so everybody’s gotta pay attention, but the pursuit continues.
Your personal catalog and Instagram live streams have generated a cult following online. How do you determine whether a song is for another artist or for yourself?
Fauntleroy: I don’t — if it was up to me, everyone’s songs would be my songs. I would just be like, “You know what? You? These are gonna be my songs.” They choose, I just do the best I can do, and I try to do better every time. Either they realize it’s tight and they take it, or it was so tight that they didn’t get it. Those are the only two choices. [Laughs.] If you didn’t get it, it’s okay, I understand and I play it on Instagram sometimes.
What do you find intriguing about production and songwriting in the current era of music, specifically R&B?
Fauntleroy: I love it, man. If you study music, you’ll see all these cyclical trends — things going away and coming back. When R&B took a step back from the mainstream, the development got more advanced in some ways, and much less in other ways, as we tried to figure out how to reconcile R&B and mainstream music. Now that it’s more popular, you’re seeing this epic culmination of some of the things that modern music killed.
Before, when R&B was — we’ll call it the Confessions era — R&B was the biggest thing in the world. Now, all the things that have happened in R&B and rap music and all these different ways it’s changed [all over] the world, to where people are starting to use complex chords with the 808s. Even if it’s one note, some of these patterns that come from more popular rap songs, it’s where I’ve always hoped it would go — and this is as a rapper. Whether you’re rapping or singing, it’s what you’re saying that has an impact on the audience.
Dopson: I actually love where it’s going, too. Now it’s just about keeping everything fresh, fun, new and exciting. Even co-producing “Boo’d Up,” that was something where if you can match the feeling where [listeners] would remember a moment from a long time ago with the new — if you can figure that out, I think it could work every time.
We’re in a time where platforms like TikTok have become the new A&R. What are your thoughts on TikToks that teach abbreviated versions of how to make a song?
Fauntleroy: I feel like TikTok is the next iteration of the audience. The Silhouette Challenge [reintroduced] “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” — that song is super old. I don’t know what era it’s from, it’s before all of us were born, but that song still has impact today in a way that the writer never thought it would be used. The same techniques that make a song catchy [can] cause an action in a person — that’s why it’s like magic.
People talk about TikTok songs like they’re less good songs, but I can have a whole other conversation about how people think their era has the best music — every era has had terrible music. I don’t think that this era’s bad music is any worse than bad music from the beginning.
Dopson: Usually, for radio, a song is like three minutes and thirty seconds, and now TikTok, they’re finding the phrase that pays — the most important part of the song to them. The fact that they’re just catching it and making it way shorter it just shows the attention span that most humans have.
Are you fearful about the attention span that listeners have now in terms of music and creating?
Dopson: James has taught me and a lot of other people the science of a hit song, and writing human behavior songs for people that don’t even speak English. They’re making it much easier for us, because James can write a song with 40 words or less. Normal people write a song with 100 words or more. If you pay attention to TikTok, they are saying the main phrase that matters, so I love what’s going on.
Fauntleroy: Everyone is always excited by sensational things, but the people who are having the highest level of success, they still have albums, they still have a story — they have a whole world that you can enter and an experience to offer you.
TikTok songs can come from whatever your best expression is, so I think the short attention span — it can only be good. If you have success from the TikTok perspective, that means you can get some attention and can turn that into whatever. If you have success from an album where you’re drawing a crowd, you’re having bigger touring revenue, people are buying your merchandise, you can’t get that from a fleeting thing. But you can have that huge moment and also be on TikTok.
For us, the goal is still to do the best thing we can do, whether we come up with the perfect, quick, simple thing that ends up on TikTok, or if we come up with some huge, global thing that ends up on TikTok. Whether people are paying attention for one second or two hours, if you get somebody’s attention in a world of billions and billions of people — that’s a miracle.
What made 1500 or Nothin’ transition into 1500 Sound Academy?
Dopson: It’s really us experiencing all the ups and downs of everything in the music business, from touring to studio to life, and us creating our own curriculum that helped us to get to where we are. There is no rulebook to this, or blueprint to how to be successful in the music business.
Fauntleroy: We thought about dealing with executives, dealing with collaborators, whose careers lasted however long, and what factors had something to do with longevity. We talked about it for years.
Before we started getting to the curriculum, we did a seminar where we were doing a live performance. First I would talk about creativity, brain activity and all these different factors that I had found from my research that helped me get in the zone. Then me, Larrance and the band would come up with music, a song and have the audience pick a topic. So we’ve written some really strange songs over the years.
There’s a lot of musicians who think that all it takes is a viral hit to become recognized as an artist. What would you say to those who are undecided on applying for 1500 Sound Academy and think they can become established on their own?
Dopson: You can’t. [Laughs.] I remember Quincy Jones said “If you wanna fight, if you wanna knock somebody out, you can’t knock them out with one finger, you gotta use five.” Those five fingers can make you stronger when you’re all on the same page. It’s not for everybody, it’s for people that want to be their best, and really for people that believe in them more than anybody else. We’re just giving you the tools for you to get to your highest self.
What knowledge do you want to instill in the next generation of music professionals?
Fauntleroy: We want to stress the importance of learning, period. Teddy Riley told me this when we were in our first sessions: “The more you know about your environment, the more control you’ll have over what you’re able to produce, and the more money you’ll make.”
Dopson: We need to bridge the gap between tech, film and music — it’s all one marriage. Everything is so separate, but for the world to work correctly, you need it all. Computer literacy at the highest level and the true foundation of music, between both of those — and being a good person — you’ll be alright.