An inside joke helped longtime buddies Jesse Rankins and Eddie Smith III name their duo WatchTheDuck. The Alabama-bred artists says they laughed for five to ten minutes straight upon deciding their band name, inspired by ducks vigorously paddling their webbed feet to keep afloat, a metaphor for making it in the music business and a nod to their shy guy demeanor.
“We’ve never been big fans of being front and center,” Eddie tells Billboard. “For us, it’s about the sound. It was our way of saying like “a dog in a pony show.”‘
After spinning remixes to Beyonce hits like “Me Myself and I” and “Crazy in Love,” WtD earned their first “hundred thousand” fans online with the music video for their 2012 party jam “Poppin’ Off,” an extended, high-quality Snapchat of a good time they had with their homies.
“That’s what the video was — just weird shit that you weren’t expecting in happen in Atlanta that happens,” Eddie continues. “When we threw those parties, we would sneak songs in but we wouldn’t be like, ‘That’s us! That’s us! What you think about it?’ We would just play it with whatever else was out. We didn’t have a name at the moment. We would throw these parties, like every other Sunday, and people would encourage us to film it. The neighborhood, the homies were our first fans.”
Their jam sessions fuse EDM with hip-hop (also branded on the Internet as “trapstep”), weaving in soulful hooks and high-energy production meant to evoke emotion. See: their recently released Trojan Horse EP. It’s no wonder why musical architects like Pharrell, Steve Aoki and rapper T.I. have given their stamp of approval on dance tracks like “Stretch 2-3-4” and “Don’t Blame Luv.”
WtD recently strolled down memory lane as they discussed how they snuck their records into house party playlists, making beats as a way to win over the ladies and how they wrangled big names for their Trojan Horse EP.
Who were your musical influences growing up?
Jesse Rankins: Soul, gospel, hip-hop. When we met in junior high school, we got exposed to the Nirvanas, the Alanis Morrisettes, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and all those kind of people. We’ve always been musical sponges because we met in a symphonic band. We’re like two dudes from our neighborhood in tuxedos playing on drumlines. The influences were everywhere. And then, church. I had one of them families where I had to go to Sunday school every morning, had to be in the choir. Now I’m grateful that I had to do it. My dad loved Bobby Bland, Johnny Taylor, and Earth, Wind, and Fire. Listening to marching bands growing up really gave me a new love for all the old school music. You love “September” a whole lot more when you hear Alabama State play it. It was just those kinds of influences. Everything from [Prince’s] Purple Rain and Michael Jackson to Blues Traveler.
Eddie Smith III: Prince reigned supreme in the house. My mom was a huge Prince fan and Parliament. The first movie I ever watched was Purple Rain because my mom had that around. Those are the two things, I had an interesting, weird start because I had to understand why this guy walking around with these heels on and these purple jackets. But he felt so free. I remember seeing Purple Rain and being like, “Yo, I gotta do that, whatever that is.”
Did you know you would take on a musical career in junior high?
JR: I can’t say I did. It was a dream of mine but I was like, ‘How am I gonna do this? How are we gonna get from Alabama? I gotta go on Star Search? Get found in a mall? ‘Cause those were the stories [at the time]. People found you at a park or something. It didn’t get serious for me until college. I linked up with [Eddie]. I had never been in a music studio before. I never had interest in learning how to make tracks, I just liked singing. It was just fun. But when I saw people doing it — it became real to me.
ES: As soon as Purple Rain went off I was like, “Where’s the drum set?” I started getting into instruments at an early age. My dad was a drummer so we always had a drum set around the house. In junior high, I started exploring things outside of drums — I was into keyboards, guitars. I did stuff like cut grass to buy my first professional keyboard where you can record stuff on it. It was a Yamaha EX-5. I still got that keyboard, too. I was hooked early, I couldn’t see anything else.
Do you remember your first fan outside of your family?
JR: I don’t remember the first person because we released it online. We went to sleep and woke up and it was like, “Whoosh.” Our first fans there were probably a hundred thousands of them. You go from throwing parties to shooting a video that was a house party [of] you just having fun with your homeboys.
ES: You know this whole thing was a way for us to get women, right? Let me give you the real shit. This was what we figured out. At the end of the day, we are behind-the-scenes, producer studio rats. That’s where we really cut our teeth. Any time some woman came into the studio, we would make a beat in the studio on the spot. In lieu of having a Bentley, make a beat. Shit worked like clockwork.
How did you finesse the big names on the Trojan Horse E.P.?
JR: It started off as a songs that we had with Tip — we were gonna do a whole E.P. together. Then it turned into WatchTheDuck with Friends. At first, we had this record “Can’t Help It” with Pharrell. It’s a jam. But then we stepped up some of the other songs and made them bigger. Then Pharrell heard the project and was like, “Yo, we can do better.” At the time we were kinda annoyed because we were just starting to fall in love with “Can’t Help It.” He played that the first session we ever had with him. Then he was like, “Man I got something better.” We came by that night and he played the beat for “Stretch 2-3-4.” We were like, “Oh… Okay.” The song was done in 15 minutes while we were shooting the video for “Hustler” with Tip. Steve Aoki came to the video shoot and he was like, ‘Yo guys, I love the project. I have a track that I wanna play y’all.’ Then we got Schoolboy Q on “Six Shots.” All this happened in November. We thinkin’ we done. By this time, we arrived at the title The Art of Making Love to the Beat. [Organized Noize producer Kawan Prather] comes into our studio, we presented it, he looks at it [and goes], ‘Why don’t y’all call it The Trojan Horse?’ We knew it was right.
ES: When he said it though, it was so perfect. it was honestly what we wanted to do the music. It was exactly what we wanted to do to the culture, and bringing them into our world, expanding everybody’s comfort zones, sneaking everything through the gates. Nothing describes it better.