Just before chatting with Billboard, Louis Bell was informed his collaboration with Post Malone, the angsty 21 Savage-supported “rockstar,” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. “When you first start out, you’re like ‘I’d die to have a No. 1,’” says Bell, who co-produced the track with Tank God and also co-wrote on it. “Then when it happens, it’s surreal. You get numb. Getting a No. 1, so many weird elements have to come into place. It’s all about timing.”
It was indeed timing that put the writer, producer and engineer on a collision course with Post Malone, quickly becoming the rapper’s right-hand man on a multitude of tracks, from the Justin Bieber collaboration “Deja Vu” to the equally moody “Congratulations” alongside Quavo.
When it comes to the origin of “rockstar,” it was last year when Malone texted Bell a video of a song he was working on. “I knew it was a smash through the phone,” he says of the song that would eventually top the charts. “A few months later, we got in the studio and I wanted to really build it up to make it really full and musical. It’s a very droney, vibey piece. I wanted to add a long outro with a guitar, but it can’t be an actual guitar because it’s 2017. We went with something futuristic to give it this nice cool and dark vibe.” For Bell, an overarching issue was to make a song called “rockstar” not become a parody of itself. “The records that work are the ones that feel authentic and real,” says Bell. “We weren’t thinking of the Hot 100 at all, which gives it its magic I think. There was no intention of ‘Let’s make a hit!’”
It’s that mindset that ironically boosted Bell from recording studio operator in Boston to in-demand hitmaker. Growing up in Quincy, Massachusetts, the future producer took piano lessons when he was 13. It was a skill that came in handy when he set out to become a rapper years later. “I got into rap and started recording myself on the computer. Because of the (piano) lessons, I was making my own beats with a keyboard.”
Eventually, Bell decamped for L.A. in 2013 and crossed paths with Malone’s manager, Dre London. “He came to the studio when I was working with another artist. I was dying to work with Post, but wanted to let things happen naturally. I wanted to prove myself in any way, shape or form.” At one point, London played Bell a track Post recorded with 50 Cent, 2015’s “Tryna Fuck Me Over.” “Right before Post’s verse came on (London) said, ‘I can’t let you hear this, it’s not right yet. It needs some work.’ So I was like, ‘Well, let me hear it. I’m a producer.’ So he played it and I said, ‘This sounds amazing, I can tweak it.’ I did a few things and some vocal production stuff, and that’s how it really began — just doing vocal production.” Once Bell met Malone himself, the two clicked. “I could tell based on the way we work and our vibe that it was one of those things that was going to last a while,” remembers Bell, with the two becoming close just as Malone’s star-making track “White Iverson” was peaking in late 2015. “We had chemistry right away and I could tell that he was a superstar by his energy in the room. Even when he’s playing the guitar for five people, he’s in his own world and it’s like he brings you into it.”
The two also share the same speedy creative process. “Post doesn’t waste time, he knows it when he has it and bangs it out,” says Bell. “He doesn’t want to go in and do it eight times or whatever.” It’s that brevity that was in full effect on a day in January 2016 when Justin Bieber visited Malone in the studio, a session that would soon transform Malone’s career trajectory. “We were halfway through (his debut album Stoney) and ended up renting a house,” explains Bell. “Post started bringing me in to pull together every song he was working on, so on the first day Justin came in and we played him a track that (fellow producer) Frank Dukes had done.” Bieber immediately took to the beat and the group concocted what would become “Deja Vu.” “He ended up freestyling the whole song in the booth, and him and Post went back and forth with ideas. The whole time I’m engineering and recording it, which kept me on my toes.” For Bell, it was a “high pressure situation. Overall, it was an amazing moment because they both knew the power of each other. Justin saw Post for what he was and what he could be, recognizing that from day one. He ultimately took him on tour that summer and it was a big career moment for him.”
It was also a big moment for Bell himself, who managed to continue to help crank out Malone hits. “Congratulations,” Stoney’s debut track, was a similar smash that also became a Top 10 hit. “Recording that song was one of those experiences where everything came together,” says Bell of the track that features Migos member Quavo. “Metro Boomin’ was FaceTiming with Quavo and Post was like, ‘Hey, come through.’ He was there in a half hour and there was an energy in the room. Post went in and started singing a freestyle, came out and had maybe eight minutes worth of melodies. The ‘Congratulations’ hook was part of the freestyle.” Oddly enough, Bell likens “Congratulations,” with its story-like approach to its lyrics and laidback demeanor, to a country song. “Post sings, ‘My momma called, saw me on TV,’ so it’s like another genre hidden in there. It tricks people into not knowing why they like the song. For Post, country is one of his influences.”
Aside from his work with other artists (Bell is credited as a co-writer on Camila Cabello and Young Thug’s current hit “Havana,”) he’s hoping Post’s Stoney follow-up Beerbongs and Bentleys will drop by the end of the year. “He’s on tour now and will be back for two weeks, so we’ll try to get it done then,” says Bell, while also noting the crew doesn’t want to rush anything. “We have a lot of great ideas mapped out and can realistically get it done. But we want to push things to the next level and not push something out just to get it out.” Overall, Bell is eager to jump back into the studio and continue their creative partnership. “Post is probably the most authentic artist I’ve ever been around. He knows himself so well and knows exactly what he wants to do. It makes my job easier.”