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NPR series 'The Formula' explores hip-hop's spirit of collaboration

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Some of the biggest hits in music are the result of a perfect pairing. Match a singer or a rapper with the right producer, and what you get might be way bigger than what either of the two talents could have created on their own. The Formula is a series about hip-hop from NPR Music and NPR Video, and Season 2 focuses on these producer-artist collaborations. NPR Music's Rodney Carmichael is the host - good to have you here.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey. What's going on, Ari? Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: You know, there are collaborations like this in so many different genres of music, whether we're talking about pop or techno. What makes these partnerships in hip-hop distinctive?

CARMICHAEL: I mean, collaboration - it's really, like, the crux of hip-hop culture. You know, you go back to the beginning, when you had DJs and emcees rocking apart jams. You know, an emcee just always needs somebody to provide that beat, you know, even if it's just, like, his homeboy beatboxing next to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #1: (Beatboxing).

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST #2: (Rapping) Now throw your hands in the air. Now wave them like you just don't care.

CARMICHAEL: The rapper-producer relationship is really, like, the industry equivalent to that, you know?

SHAPIRO: The first episode of this series gives a perfect example of that. You've got Rico Nasty and producer Kenny Beats, and they each bring something out in the other that feels really new and different.

RICO NASTY: He was pulling up more melodic stuff. And I was like, no. Like, just give me something crazy.

KENNY BEATS: She said, do you have any heavy metal? I was in Slipknot cover bands when I was a kid. Like, I have a metal side to me. I'd never thought I was going to be asked that question by any artist I was a fan of at the time.

SHAPIRO: Give us some insight into what's going on here, Rodney.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. So Rico - I mean, she's pretty much thought of today as, like, rap's queen of scream.

SHAPIRO: Right.

CARMICHAEL: You know, but a lot of that punk metal sound that she's so synonymous with now - it didn't really come about until she linked with this producer, Kenny Beats. So in this episode, they both kind of tell us the origin story, really, of their first studio session, when they were still basically total strangers and how that same night, they ended up creating this song that really became, like, an anthem for her and really created this sound that really still defines her today.

KENNY BEATS: I'm just thinking distorted guitars, something mean. And I found that little chug sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KENNY BEATS: I put one snare on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMACK A B****")

RICO NASTY: (Rapping) Since a baby in her tummy, mama knew I was great. They can't play me like a dummy. They know what not to take.

SHAPIRO: Rodney, you mentioned the origin story, and so many of these videos have two people describing the way they linked up almost like it's some kind of a courtship or a first date. Like, all this romantic language comes into it. Like, here's Isaiah Rashad and Kal Banx.

ISAIAH RASHAD: I met Kal at a party. I got his number because it seemed like his music might be cool and needed some drums. And I got a girl's number that night - tried to text the girl, ended up texting Kal.

KAL BANX: He texted me, hey, with a winky face.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: And from another episode, here's Tierra Whack with her producer J Melodic.

J MELODIC: I didn't think I was uncapable of making the type of music that I make now, like, listening to it now. But it's like, who was going to give me the chance to be able to do it?

TIERRA WHACK: Right.

J MELODIC: And who was going to pull that out of me? Nobody.

WHACK: He always had it. It's just he didn't have a need to really use it, you know?

J MELODIC: Like, it changed my life, like, seriously.

WHACK: I love you so much. I do love you. Wow, I just realized that. We've been working a lot, but, like, I just realized it now.

SHAPIRO: Rodney, that's such a moment.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. It was - you know, things got a little sensitive.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: But does it feel like a courtship, a romance? I mean, like, how do these collaborations usually take shape? I sort of imagined it was like, my agent will call your lawyer, and we'll hammer out a contract. But no, it's like, two guys shared a joint, and then one's texting the other like, hey; want to link up?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. I mean, you know, every collaboration pretty much starts out as strangers, right? And this season it really runs the gamut, from cats that are genuine friends to duos who've been working together and, like, orbiting each other for years musically to pairs that are in some ways still getting to know each other but they just click musically. What's the equivalent to love at first sight - love at first sound? You know, you hear something from somebody, and even though you don't know them, you know, man, I can really spit over this track. I got to get in touch with this person.

And - but they are rooted in relationship. And, you know, they're working relationships. They're love relationships. And at the core of them, you know, a lot of times they all work in the same ways. They require trust. They require that kind of, like, safety to experiment and jump out of bounds. And all of that stuff is essential in these relationships.

SHAPIRO: There's a moment in the episode with Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist where Alchemist talks about being intimidated to work with Freddie. And he just says, I can just do the best me. Do you see these collaborations as someone helping transform an artist or helping reveal an artist?

CARMICHAEL: Oh, that's a good question. I mean, I think it's both, right? And oftentimes, it depends on where an artist is in their career, you know, and where a producer is in their career. For Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist, their collaboration was coming on the tail end of - you know, of another very classic collaboration between Freddie Gibbs and the producer Madlib. You know, they have two albums together that are, you know, definitely already considered classics over the last decade or so. And, you know, The Alchemist in that quote is really talking about being intimidated to work with Freddie because of Madlib's prowess, you know, as a producer.

SHAPIRO: Can we hear what The Alchemist brought to Freddie Gibbs that was different from what Madlib brought to Freddie Gibbs?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. So "Skinny Suge" is the name of the song that we had Freddie Gibbs and The Alchemist talk about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SKINNY SUGE")

FREDDIE GIBBS: (Rapping) Put down the crack, bet on myself like I went back to the future with a rap almanac, had powder on my table. The label called for they offer back.

CARMICHAEL: You know, like, a lot of Alchemist music is very kind of hypnotic and moody. You know, Alchemist is known for creating these loops that really can just put you in a zone.

SHAPIRO: And that's very different from what he sounded like when he was working with Madlib.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Well, Madlib's soundbeds - you know, like The Alchemist says, they're really dense.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAKE NAMES")

GIBBS: (Rapping) Dream team legal, I never take an L. Courtroom, funeral fresh, Givenchy my lapel. Pouring up, foreigned up, three bricks - I'm a hundred up.

CARMICHAEL: Madlib is a sample king, too. But he also adds a lot of texture and layers and live instrumentation to a track that he's playing live on the spot. So while he might be playing with loops, it's just a different kind of ride. But, you know, at the end of the day, he knew, hey; my sound is distinctive. And whatever I do with Freddie is going to sound different than that. But that doesn't mean that it has to, you know, be better or compete or whatever. It's going to be something different.

SHAPIRO: You've covered hip-hop for years. Was there anything new you learned about the process from hearing all these different collaborators talk about how they work together that surprised you?

CARMICHAEL: The best thing about any collaboration is how it impacts each artist individually, you know, how doing a joint project with the right producer can sometimes send an artist off in a totally different trajectory with their career. And being able to kind of see how that relationship works and started up close and personal, you know, is, you know, I think, the thing that really makes the difference.

SHAPIRO: That's Rodney Carmichael of NPR Music. He hosts the video series The Formula, and Season 2 is out now.

Thanks a lot.

CARMICHAEL: I appreciate it, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY UGLY")

WHACK: (Singing) Don't worry about me. I'm doing good. I'm doing great, all right. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.