It’s not everyday that you wake up to your song hitting one million streams online and without even realizing it. For Jimmy Duval, that hard-to-believe scenario about producing his first hit almost never happened. “Look at Me!,” the track that took Florida rapper XXXTentacion from SoundCloud to RIAA Certified Platinum was a beat that was never meant to land in XXX’s lap.
If left up to his late collaborator, the success of the record was also never meant for Jimmy to enjoy. Initially released on SoundCloud by Rojas, a former associate of Jimmy’s, the song not only left him off the credits, but he didn’t even know it existed until his manager happened to stumble upon the track.
The young producer wasn’t always destined for the path he’s now on. In high school, Jimmy played clarinet before eventually moving over to piano, bass and guitar. When a friend introduced him to production, Jimmy put the instruments down and honed in his new passion. Armed with an arsenal of beats at his high school graduation, he decided to apply to the University of Miami and landed a scholarship in their contemporary music department.
Billboard caught up with Jimmy in Los Angeles to discuss his musical background, the story of how “Look at Me!” came to be, and his thoughts on his slain friend XXXTentacion.
What was the first record you produced that you felt like, “This is what I’m going to do forever.”
That would be “Look at Me!,” me and X’s record. I hadn’t really done anything [before that song]. As a producer, a record that size will keep you paid for 10-15 years, but I wanna have another 10, 20, 30, 50, 100 of those records. It’s not my end game to get relaxed but it’s like that verification that, “You are a professional now. You do this. It’s not just a dream anymore.” The dream only gets bigger but it becomes a reality.
I think it’s interesting you come from a background playing the clarinet.
All music is melody and rhythm in any way you wanna think about it. If you play any instrument, there’s rhythm, but I was able to get my music theory. I know [how] things work musically. Anytime I hear something, I can decipher [it] and break it down, replay it, and recreate it which allows me to have a lot of control. [If] something’s off, I’ll probably find a way to make it just by changing the chord. I actually got rhythmically more well-versed when I start producing more. That was a big learning process where I had to push myself to really think like a drummer. It’s complicated. You think rhythm is easy [but it’s not]. Studying polyrhythms, knowing the difference between a triplet and a syncopation [is hard].
When people, especially of an older generation, look at hip-hop today they don’t expect the rappers and producers to have any kind of musical background.
I have some big pop projects coming out this year. When those records come out, they’re gonna go out all over the world and everyone is gonna be like, “My God I thought you did [rap]?” And I’m gonna be like, “No, that’s just the first thing that popped off.” That’s not even the thing that I’m the best at. I make everything from EDM to rock, to pop. I hold writing sessions [and] I’m a songwriter as well. It’s kinda good because I get to blindside people in the industry.
They think that [I only make rap] and then I come into any meeting and show them and they’re like, “Whoa. Ok, I need you now. You just blew my expectations away. I needed you for this but you got big songs. You’re curating songs and everything.” I think it’s good because they expect [rap] and I always get to come in and give them a bunch of other stuff, too.
What’s your favorite genre to work in?
Rock-n-roll. I just love rock.I love everything, but I’m a big grunge rock fan. I love ‘90s heroin rock. There’s something about that kind of music I love. It’s just so rebellious but iconic. Interscope Records had Snoop, 2Pac, Marilyn Manson, and Trent Reznor with Nine Inch Nails all signed at the same time pissing America off on both fronts. It was so cool because it was so different. That’s always my focus as a producer. You have to be breaking new music. “Look At Me” was a groundbreaking record.
I think what’s interesting about your production, and hip-hop production today, is that there’s very little to no sampling. Hip-hop is a genre that was built on sampling. It almost feels like its own rebellion inside of a rebellion.
I’ve been working with Scott Storch recently. That’s one of my idols. I think he was the guy that changed that in hip-hop. You had Dr. Dre and he kind of passed the torch onto Scott in some ways. Then, Scott started making hip-hop beats where he was playing (instruments). That’s where you get [50 Cent’s] “Candy Shop” and [Lil Wayne’s] “Make It Rain.” He really took the hip-hop urban beat to the mainstream market and said, “Now you can sing on it because this is just what we were doing before but with a hip-hop beat.”
It’s a song now. He’s not just playing around and guessing in here. I’m not saying that’s what sampling is, I’m just saying when you’re on the keys and you have a singer that knows what they’re doing? There’s nothing stopping you. We can change chords, we can build around your melody. You can change your melody around what I’m doing [and] we can grow together. Put some drums to that shit and make it hard.
Do you get to do these things in the studio with rappers now?
One-hundred percent. There is a sample in “Look at Me!,” believe it or not, but very rarely do I do sampling because it’s also just a risk. If you can play it and make good beats by yourself, you ain’t gonna have to pay anyone later when the record blows up. I was with [producer] Kerry Gordy — which was amazing — for like a bunch of hours in the studio in Miami. He told me that he did “[Tag Team’s] Whoomp! (There It Is)” and he goes, “We made $23 million dollars in record sales on that song and I never saw a dollar.” There were 10 different samples that were found it in or something like that.
How did you first connect with XXXTentacion?
Me and X, we got brought together for [“Look at Me!”] because I had made that beat and actually sent it to a different artist. It just found its way to him. Then, all of a sudden, you look back and it’s already at a million plays. I was obviously a fan right off the back, as well as just a fan of one of our songs. He’d play that shit 5-10 times a show. He’d play some other songs when he was blowing up, but he just rocked that. I’ve never seen people go that crazy. We just kinda clicked through that whole scene. Shit just moved so fast.
We always had plans to do more music, but he was on tour [and] I was out here [in Los Angeles]. I had a very busy last couple of years. I was finally just back in Miami and reconnecting with him and everyone back there. We had talked to him and he had told us, “I don’t wanna do anything hip-hop. I want all live instruments.” So we had actually just finished doing like 10 tracks that we had only guitar players, drummers, and bass on that shit and it was crazy.” The day that [he was killed], I looked at my hard drive and the first folder is the one we were working on.
Who was the unlucky artist that passed on the “Look at Me!” beat?
Retchy P. Actually, it was like a minute [ago]. I made that beat, and then, five months later, that record came out. It’s funny because I [co-produced] it with Rojas and most people already know how that went down. I’m a real producer and Rojas, I lean on more as a promoter that works in the business. I actually had my manager call me and be like, “I have a feeling I heard a record out that you produced.” He comes up, plays it for me, and I’m like, “Ok, yes I did produce that beat,” and I didn’t see my name on it, which is always funny.
[That’s a] fun little piece of information between me and Rojas, but he’s always been very easy to get in contact with. I told him he better make a smart decision right now and give me my credit. He’s an intelligent enough person to make the right decision for himself to give me that credit. He made the right decision about two minutes after I called him. At the time, I was mad because it was already at a million plays and I’m like, “Oh my God, I got my first million plays and no one knows I did it.” But it’s going to be at 150 million soon so it’s like, “Alright, now I’m not that mad.” We didn’t know at the time [that] it was gonna go like that. Either way, me, Rojas, and X made history together. There’s no bad energy.
What was your time like with XXXTentacion?
He was just a very powerful person. X is the center of the room, especially when he was just getting that energy. In the beginning, he was just so untouchable for a little while. He was my boy and I loved watching him, seeing him, chilling with him, but he was just a wild dude, man. I’m a little more of a calm guy. Really, my producer I signed, ArnoldIsDead, they were really getting close. Because I’ve been working in L.A. so much, and they’re in Miami, my goal was to get that locked in with them. He was in such a positive place. He was inspiring the young kids around me. [ArnoldIsDead] called me the day he passed and said, “I’ve never seen someone change their life so much.”
And that’s what I think people need to focus on. It’s not even that he did anything wrong, but he was a young kid, bro. There’s so much to learn when you come up that fast. There are so many mistakes you’re gonna make. Everyone is going to make mistakes but so few people will even take the time to say, “Hey, I need to put the time in to become a better person right now.” He had really accomplished that.
No one deserves to be taken in that manner but with his legacy now, his past actions will always be talked about when he’s mentioned. X made music that millions of people were able to connect to, but at the same time, before he could make amends, there were these things that he had done…
Let me hop in right there. First off, it’s not like he’s guilty. He didn’t even get to get tried for his past so everyone could see what the truth was. There didn’t even get to be an actual debate. It didn’t even get to the amends process because a lot of people, including myself, don’t even know the truth. Anyone can say anything in this world and if they say you did something really wrong, I can’t believe you did it until I hear it from a judge.
You didn’t even get to go answer for your sins if there were [any]. I’d like to hope that stuff ends up leaving over time because no one knows what really happens in anyone’s personal life. There are some crazy people in my personal life that would say some crazy shit to get me stirred up. When you’re popping, anyone will say anything to take you down.
I would pose the question that at what point does speculation meets reality? True or false, we may never truly know because we weren’t there, but at what point does society take a step back and challenge what they believe and what they don’t believe? Let’s say X was just a random guy, do you look at him and give him the same benefit of the doubt if he wasn’t a celebrity?
That’s a hard question to answer. It’s just the truth that the sad thing about being an artist at times is that the world is not gonna [do a] double take and think, “Is this true?” I’m not saying I know anything. It’s never good to see something like that come out on anybody. It’s not good for people’s opinion of them because a certain amount of people will say that’s it. The truth, at the end of the day, is that we don’t even know what’s what. I think of X as a groundbreaking, talented artist. I saw him do a lot to change himself for the better, regardless of why or what he was doing that for. There’s no way to look at [his murder] as something he deserved.
What was your last conversation with X about?
Music. I talk a lot about music with artists I work with. It was about what kind of stuff he wanted to create and that was nothing that he had created before. Shit, I wish I got a chance to talk to him a little more, but you just don’t think that something like this can happen when you’re both busy.
Are there plans to put out the unreleased music you did with him?
We didn’t even finish it. I don’t know. I don’t even know whose decision that would be which is kind of interesting.