MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the greatest talents working in studios across the decades. The latest instalment features Malay, who has produced standout tracks for artists including Frank Ocean, ZAYN, and Lorde. World’s Greatest Producers is sponsored by Hipgnosis Song Management.
James Ryan Ho, AKA Malay, grew up in Bellingham, Washington, near Seattle. It was the 1990s, and Seattle’s grunge and alternative scenes were thriving.
In the pre-internet years, Malay was hungry to learn the ropes of production and break into the industry – but didn’t know where to look.
He eventually moved to New York, but the city chewed him up. Barely able to afford an apartment, he lived in a shower-less studio where, in his own words, he spent several years taking “birdbaths” in the sink.
Having gone without a dictionary-defined shower in three years, Malay’s first true industry contact came in Kawan Prather, an A&R for what was then Sony Music Urban.
Prather was moving to Atlanta to work on John Legend’s 2008 album Evolver, and invited Malay along. With little to lose, Malay joined him.
That’s where everything started to look up.
Malay earned album credits with John Legend and could finally afford a place to live.
But perhaps the best thing to come from this experience for Malay was a chance meeting with a songwriter called Lonny Breaux, who would later become known as Frank Ocean.
Ocean’s accolades are now well known. He’s an elusive artist who makes globe-dominating records; the Jay Z and Ye collaborator with a soft heart.
But then, as Lonny Breaux, Ocean was struggling like Malay once was.
Ocean was signed to Def Jam – a label relationship would later come undone once the Blonde artist became successful enough to make his own rules) – but his career looked uncertain.
Ocean and Malay decided to try working together.
Malay went on to produce Channel Orange, a Grammy-winning record that skyrocketed Ocean to the level of stardom that now affords him the freedom to leave fans waiting years for a new album.
Malay, naturally, has enjoyed his own subsequent success.
He’s now a two-time Grammy winner. He was tasked with producing Zayn’s post-One Direction reinvention album Mind of Mine. Records with Lorde, Sam Smith, Aminé and Lykke Li have followed.
Last month, Malay released the Malay Sample Pack, Vol. 2., a collection of loops and one-shot samples available for Splice users.
Here, in an interview with MBW, the producer talks working with Frank Ocean before and after fame, how classic rock formed his first musical love, and whether the music industry is close to implosion…
When you were growing up, when there were very defined music scenes. how did that influence you and how you came to be a producer?
There were no musicians in my family, but my dad came from Malaysia to the US in the ’70s.
Growing up, he was really into vinyl and stereos. We were working class, and my dad still works to this day – he paints and fixes cars – but that was just a hobby for him.
As a little kid I remember he was all about sound, different bands and artists, so I got exposed to really cool stuff.
“when I heard Jimi Hendrix at around 12 or 13, I was blown away.”
There were the classics – The Beatles, Pink Floyd – but I remember when I heard Jimi Hendrix at around 12 or 13. I was blown away.
I remember being confused that a guitar could sound like that. I was so curious. Within six months, I had my first guitar from the pawn shop.
I stayed in that classic rock realm for a long time. I was in a Pink Floyd cover band at one point, too. I’m a self-taught musician, so I was listening, learning and practising a lot.
I was obsessed with classic rock all through high school, but I leaned towards early-to-late ’70s soul as well. That’s still stuff I lean back on all the time. It feels like home when I listen to it.
Has that old school way of producing – where records were made in these huge, amazing studios with analog equipment – influenced how you produce now?
When I first started recording, the only possibility I had was using four track cassettes. It was all I could afford. Digital recording wasn’t really popping off in the ’90s to the average kid, so all my recording was done on tape initially.
It was very lo-fi, but I came up in that world.
“I feel like I’m doing an injustice to artists if I’m recycling the same sounds.”
When I got into digital recording, meaning when I could get a computer when it was affordable on a bootleg version of Cubase, I noticed there was a different sound. It was very clean, very digital and crisp.
As time went by, I always missed that hands-on type of producing.
I’m on my computer all day when I’m working, but having access to a few pieces of analog gear always helps the creativity. I’m from that space, and it’s just a comfortability thing of being able to turn knobs.
Obviously Frank Ocean is someone who you’ve long been involved with. How do you get someone like Frank to trust you, both as a producer and someone he’d want to work with for long periods of time?
We both met at a crucial time.
My stint in New York was pretty rough. I never actually got an apartment, I had a little recording studio space that I lived in because I couldn’t afford both. I was really hustling.
After a few years, I finally made a connection. Kawan Prather, who signed John Legend at Sony, was working in A&R for what was Sony Urban Music.
He was part of an entourage that got let go in a corporate transition. He, in a sense, gets fired, and is moving to Atlanta. He stayed on to to A&R John’s album, Evolver, so that’s how I got involved. I ended up moving to Atlanta on a whim, just because I saw an opportunity.
In that process is when I met, at the time, Lonny [Breaux], who later became Frank [Ocean].
“It was maybe that approach of not really expecting anything from one another. We just started jamming together. It was super organic.”
He had just written a song in L.A. for Brandy, it somehow got into John Legend’s hands, and it became a duet.
They ended up inviting him [Lonny, to Atlanta], and in the meantime, me and him kind of clicked. We started writing and pitching songs in Atlanta…with no success.
Fast forward to 2010, when I moved to L.A, I reconnected with him, and he expressed that he was over the writing thing and he’d been working on creating an artist for himself [i.e. Frank Ocean] quietly for a long time.
Like most artists, he was lacking a little self confidence.
He’d already been signed for a few years to Def Jam – a lot of people didn’t know about that – and he kind of fell through the cracks.
It was maybe that approach of not really expecting anything from one another. We just started jamming together. It was super organic.
Did that relationship change between Channel Orange and Blonde?
The biggest difference was when we were writing Channel Orange, 99% of the music that you hear on that album was how we started the songs.
On Blonde, the music is 1,000% different from the demo.
We were writing in the same way [on Blonde], but as things were evolving, it’s almost like every song got a completely different bed of music and arrangement. It was a lot more calculated, but also slight madness.
There were years of different versions, different attempts and different ways. It became a lot more challenging.
He also had so much more access at that point. People knew who he was, and everybody wanted to [work with him].
He had a million people involved with Blonde, which was great, but it got a little tedious at points when we were trying to go through files from two years ago. It became a lot.
After a huge album like Channel Orange, where there is a huge gap of time between albums, do you also have to be patient for that next big album to come along?
It wasn’t like I was just only ever working on Blonde.
Maybe, quietly, I was learning and it’s a big part of the process now when I’m working with artists, but it was honestly really healthy, because I was coming in and out.
If I was sat with him for four years, I think it would have been a nightmare.
He’d be off doing stuff, I’d be off working on different projects, and then we’d reconvene for a couple of weeks every now and then.
I never asked him, ‘when are you gonna wrap this up?’, something I still apply now.
Currently, I’m probably working on about a dozen things. I do a good stint of work, and then do something else. People go to the studio for years, but you’ve got to live life a little bit.
What are you writing about if you’re sitting in the studio for a year? That space away is what gives you a real perspective of what is and isn’t working.
Sometimes you’re so close to something that your mind starts playing tricks on you. You’re not making good decisions at that point.
Do you think the role of a producer has changed from when you first started?
I’ve never really been successful just giving beats to people, or having a beat pack that people can buy. That’s actually never worked for me. I almost feel out of place.
“It’s one thing to make beats, but you’ve got to be able to make records. How do you finish stuff?”
I thought that was the only way to be a producer. I tried for a long, long time, and nothing really popped until I was physically in the studio with John Legend years later.
But leading up to that, that’s all I was doing. Pitching beats to people and making beats.
That’s still a huge thing now. If kids are becoming producers, typically they have Ableton or Logic, and they’re making beats. It’s one thing to make beats, but you’ve got to be able to make records. How do you finish stuff?
There’s so much talent out there now, especially in the younger generation.
It’s almost unlimited at this point, so the one thing that I hope continues is that, as kids have access to be making beats all the time, that they will continue their own personal growth of making records.
There’s a lot of music out there now. Thousands of songs are uploaded to Spotify a day. Tracks are being made, and people do top lines over those tracks. Which is cool, but there’s a lot of that.
What’s separating all this stuff? None of it sounds bad, but it all sounds pretty similar. That’s why when something stands out nowadays, it’s really unique.
I always tell people that if you’re making music, it should be something that people either hate or love.
If you’re pursuing the record or song making process, more than just making a track, that’s when magical things can happen. It’s more than a beat with a top line.
When you say there’s so much music out there at the moment, what role do beat marketplaces have in this unlimited amount of music? Anything that means a producer gets paid is obviously good, but like you said, can someone who makes beats make a record?
I’ve worked with Splice for a while now, and am about to release my second sample with. When I first got introduced to Splice they had approached me to make a sample pack. And at that time, I honestly didn’t even know who they were.
In the midst of working with them, I started using the platform myself. I thought, oh my gosh, this is insane.
If you’re a kid with a computer, you can literally make a beat in two seconds, just drag and drop [drum beats] instead of physically having to play anything, almost like a DJ style.
It almost makes me respect kids that are getting noticed out of that world, because now it’s even a bigger playing field. You have to have some really good taste to make something creative at this point when there’s so much content.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about progressing in the music business, what would that be?
It’s so hard to think about that now because the world has changed so much.
I always tell people, younger kids, to not be afraid to go after and pursue relationships.
When I was younger, I wouldn’t say I was shy, but now you can just DM people. I signed an artist through a DM.
In this business, you will potentially hear 10,000 ‘nos’ before you get a yes, so get used to that. The more times you’re getting no, you’re just getting closer to that yes.
If you could change one thing about the music business today, what would that be and why?
I wish the business could be a little more transparent between the major labels, the way we get music now with the DSPs, and how the money is getting distributed.
It feels like there’s a lot of information, you get x amount per stream, but being deep in the business, I hear about major blanket license deals with Universal or Sony. I feel like there’s more money being passed around than at any point in history.
I know a lot of incredible artists and songwriters who are doing sessions every single day, they’re working with A list people, they’re working with new artists and major label artists all the time, but they’re struggling.
“No longer are we discovering talent, nurturing that and developing it.”
Basically, what’s happening is that if they don’t have a number one or top 10 hit, then they’re not making any money.
They have a catalog of hundreds of songs that are generating a lot of streams, but maybe just because they don’t have a billion streams, they’re struggling.
How is the money truly getting split up from all the streaming? It’s a work in progress, but I would love for that to get resolved sooner than later.
It’s unfortunate knowing the level of talent that’s out there who are putting in the work, but they’re not really reaping any benefits. If you’re making hamburgers there’s hopefully some sort of fair wage set up in that industry. Why is it not the same for a songwriter?
I’m a little more fortunate as a producer. A lot of times, we can work out production fees to sustain [myself], but if you’re a songwriter, all of a sudden you’re not making much income.
It baffles me. There’s not much happening on Spotify without songs.
But it’s just one of those things.
Historically, anything by nature, when it becomes so big, it self-implodes. Are we heading that way now? Where major labels are becoming dinosaurs and they’re going to self implode at some point?
Right now at labels, nothing against any of my friends who work at labels, but they’re kind of like finance companies.
The business model has changed. No longer are we discovering talent, nurturing and developing it. It’s trying to find something that’s already got something going.
Maybe it’s a kid who has gone viral on TikTok. They get money thrown at them, almost like it’s a stock. And if it doesn’t work, there’s no second chances.
I don’t know how long that business model can be sustained. Within the community, you start losing credit when artists are really just a product and there’s no soul there.Music Business Worldwide