No I.D., the legendary hip-hop producer that helped shape the careers of Kanye West, Jay-Z, Vince Staples, and many others, now finds himself as an elder statesman of hip-hop. He was appointed executive vice president last year and is in charge of bolstering Universal Music Group’s urban branch of music.
The producer finds himself in an interesting space, occupying both the business and artistic side of contemporary music.
In an expansive interview with Variety, No I.D. talked about his new position as an executive, producing the entitreity of 4:44, and being an old head in a young man’s game.
On finding inspiration
No I.D., who is now 46, spoke to Variety about continuing to seek inspiration in his art as he ages. Not only is I.D. way past the typical age of popular hip-hop producers, his position as an executive means that he doesn’t really need to make music at all anymore.
So, in order to capture some of that creativity, he had to basically act as if he were starting from scratch.
“At my age, it’s supposed to be over for me. So I had to treat it as though it were over, and then approach it as though that were an advantage. ‘If I didn’t have a career, what would I do?’ I would try to learn.”
For inspiration, No I.D. looked to the work of Thriller producer Quincy Jones, one of the most important record producers in modern music.
“I started studying his career. I was trying to figure out how, at that age, he made the best albums of his [life]. And he wrote that in his mid-40s. He decided he wanted to get better, so he went and took piano lessons. He did all these things, and his only goal was to get better as a musician.”
Relearning production techniques and the relationship between artist and producer
When No I.D. took on the project of producing 4:44, he told Variety that part of this process of starting from scratch was to examine how he used one of the hallmarks of his style, the sampler.
One aspect of this was envisioning the sampler as an instrument, like a guitar or drum, as opposed to a machine. In this sense, he was able to make his samples a part of the music, as opposed to an outside component.
“I tried to embrace the concept of the sampler as an instrument, looking at how to take it artistically to another place where it can be appreciated, more than just taking someone’s song and doing a 4-bar loop.”
Another feature of No I.D.’s relearning process was to examine the relationship between producer and artist. On 4:44, he tried to get out of Hov’s way and supply the necessary blueprint to make his best music.
“Part of it was learning that a producer needs to get out of the way and let the artist have the spotlight. There’s the way modern music is produced, which is ‘Here’s a piece of music, and I’m the producer, so pay me and make sure my credit is right and get me my splits.’ But I’m trying to go backward. Now, it’s more like ‘What’s the texture? What’s the over-arching story?’ There are more things to pay attention to than ‘Is this the right snare?'”
Developing a ‘telepathic partnership’ with Jay/making that song
Although No I.D. ended up producing the entireity of 4:44, he says he and Jay never specifically decided that would happen. Instead, it just organically came together as I.D. sent new stuff to Jay daily.
“He says he and Jay never actually discussed the idea that he would produce the entire album — ‘we didn’t talk about credit, didn’t talk about money.’ Instead, he simply kept sending the rapper a daily stream of musical ideas.”
And, as a result, I.D. and Hov, “Developed… what [No I.D.] describes as an almost telepathic partnership, with [No I.D.] aiming to alternately inspire and provoke.”
As for “4:44”, the now-infamous titular track on which Jay-Z discusses his extramarital transgressions, No I.D. says he simply showed Jay his sample of Hannah Williams’ “Late Nights & Heartbreak” and left it up to the rapper to do the rest.
“When I made the song, I knew what I wanted him to say, and I knew we’d purposefully avoided it on every other record. So I just put [the sample] there and said, ‘Whatchu gonna do now?’ and looked at him. He looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘You know what I mean. Whatchu gonna do?’ I put that intro there on purpose, to box him in. And he said, ‘All right, I’m going home.’ And there was a song after that.”
Wise words from a living legend.