MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the greatest talents working in studios across the decades. Here we talk to Noah Goldstein, the Grammy-winning collaborator of artists including Kanye West, Travis Scott, Drake, Nas, and Rosalía, amongst many others. World’s Greatest Producers is sponsored by Hipgnosis Song Management.
Noah Goldstein is a very positive guy.
Two minutes into the conversation he’s talking about the “beautiful day” he’s having in Los Angeles as the sunshine beaming through the window of his home studio.
He spins the webcam around his studio, taking 15 or so minutes to explain each piece of equipment that surrounds him and what it does.
He names models of speaker that sound like they could be the name of a charming new droid from a spin-off Star Wars TV series. Synthesizers the price of a mid-range Fabergé egg balance gingerly on stands. There are, quite frankly, far too many wires for any one person to use in a lifetime.
He sometimes talks in riddles, comparing working with producers to a “treasure hunt”, while discussing mutual creativity and finding inspiration in root vegetables.
Goldstein is not anything if not content in the life he’s built for himself. The life of a Grammy-winning producer for College Dropouts and surviving Beatles, that is.
He has credits on Blonde and Endless by Frank Ocean, Pusha T’s Daytona, Anohni’s Hopelessness, and Travis Scott’s Rodeo.
Some of Goldstein’s greatest, and most acclaimed work, comes with once being a right-hand man of Ye, i.e. the artist formerly known as Kanye West.
It began with his production work on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, considered by many as Ye’s Magnum Opus.
That led to Yeezus, The Life of Pablo, the joint Ye and Jay-Z album Watch The Throne and Kids See Ghosts, by Kanye West & Kid Cudi.
Goldstein co-wrote and produced FourFiveSeconds for Rihanna, Kanye West and Paul McCartney and co-produced the Ye stomper Black Skinhead.
Similar to how one remembers where they were when humans first walked on the moon Goldstein can recall exactly where he was when he heard that drum beat on Black Skinhead.
“After Watch The Throne [in 2011], me and Ye lived together in Paris for about six months. That was when I heard it first,” he says. “I thought…’Holy fuck, man. This is stupid.”
Since then, Goldstein has branched out. He was the Senior VP of A&R at Columbia Records. He’s an engineer. A mixer.
But, still, at the heart, he’s a producer.
In a conversation that covers his love of Icelandic music to nature being a “cheat code” for inspiration, Goldstein sits down with MBW as the latest inductee to our World’s Greatest Producers series.
You’ve spoken in the past about starting out as a DJ playing hip-hop when you were 14, to later living in Iceland to immerse yourself in its music. How did those experiences set you on the path of being a producer?
I’ve always had a really eclectic taste in music, but also in people. I always wanted to meet people that didn’t look or act like me. People that were very different from me. I grew up in a cocoon of whiteness, and it always felt really strange.
I’m always quite good at making myself comfortable in whatever place I’m in. I can be myself wherever I’m at, and be okay.
Music was such a helpful tool in understanding where I needed to go.
“When I heard Bjork for the first time, It was something otherworldly.”
Iceland being a good example of that. Growing up, I was into rap as a real young kid. I was born in the 80s and rap was just bumbling, and MTV was a real thing that played videos.
In my early teens, I was a skate punk kid listening to Nirvana, then I became one of those kids who ripped pictures out of Source Magazine and covered my walls with them.
People might think, how do these worlds collide? But for me, and it sounds corny, but they’re all one world.
When I heard Bjork for the first time, It was something otherworldly. I didn’t understand it, and every time I don’t understand something I have to try to figure it out. That was why I went to Iceland.
While there, I found out that [music] is all about environment. When you’re in Iceland for an extended period of time, you realize that Bjork or Sigur Ros is a regional sound. It’s the same way you have dirty south or Atlanta rap.
When it comes to music consumption today and curated playlists, it’s easy to understand why people might be into so many different genres at once. Did you enjoy the effort it took to go out there into the world and discover everything for yourself?
It was easy for me, as I’m a curious person. I think that’s what fuels all of us that are in creative fields.
You’ve got to stay curious.
I live in a nice spot in LA that has a nice backyard and I have my house. I could easily be holed up here and never do anything outside again.
That would be really easy. But I gotta force myself to stay in that practice of being and staying curious.
How do you do that today?
When I was younger, it was much larger brushstrokes.
I’d need to go to London to be inspired because I was experiencing a new city. Now, I don’t feel like that. I can be inspired by just about anything.
The idea of growing vegetables is super inspiring. That shit takes a long time, and then you eat it in two seconds. I think about the dumbest shit, but nature is the cheat code for inspiration for me.
You’ve worked with some very famous artists and legends like Paul McCartney, Rihanna and Kanye. Does the fame of an artist change how you work as a producer? Do you feel more pressure?
Short answer, no. But the longer answer is that I have to take everybody into consideration of who they are.
I would be failing as a producer if I didn’t recognize the person in front of me as who they are, whether it’s Ye or Rihanna.
“The people I’m dealing with are super dope. they’re incredibly talented and they’re mega famous, but I gotta be myself around everybody else.”
I have to recognize the fact that they have fame in their life. That is a huge part of their life, and you can’t get around that.
I always recognize the person in front of me, but does it influence the work? Sure, because the person influences the work. But I don’t think that it’s the fame that influences it as much as it is the whole person.
Do I feel pressure? I stopped feeling pressure a long time ago, because I really don’t give a fuck.
Not to sound like a douche bag, but in the forefront of my mind is that…none of this shit probably matters that much. That sounds depressing, but it’s super freeing for me.
The people I’m dealing with are super dope. They’re incredibly talented and they’re mega-famous, but I gotta be myself around everybody else.
I assume people bring me to work with them because they want to work with me, so I got to be myself around them.
If I start thinking otherwise then the line gets blurred. In the sense of, who am I to them, or who am I in this process?
When you’re working with these people who have a very clear vision of what they want to make as a musician, how do you work with that as a producer?
That was never a concern of mine. If there is a stamp, I just want it to be quality. ‘I’m not going to have a sound’ was something I started out my career saying, but I think what happens is that you end up having a ‘sound’ no matter what.
A good A&R is somebody who doesn’t try to inject themselves too much into the process – they’re asked to do so. Somebody that, logistically, helps put everything together – the recording sessions, the album as a whole, making sure they’re updated on credits.
You got to make sure engineers and studios are booked out, and you need to be on top of collaborations.
Sometimes, you need to know when you have to get out of dodge, creatively, so you go to Jamaica for a week, but also when you have to work in a basement in New York. You have to create the environment necessary to yield the best results.
you’ve seen both sides of the music industry, the business and creative side. How have you grown to become an A&R person? And what makes a good one?
During my time working with Ye, I ran GOOD Music with my homie Che Pope, then Steven Victor and Pusha T came in a few years after I started working with Che on the label.
The way Ye was [with me], was that if you do a good job in one role, he’ll start piling other things on you. It was a natural progression, which later became me and Ye being the main people running the A&R for the label.
But the terms have changed so much over the years. A good A&R has the same mindset as a good producer. Some of that is to help facilitate the creative vision of the producer and the artists. Particularly the artist, because that’s who we’re all there for.
“You might be in the studio and Drake’s just come in with the ghost of John Lennon. If the artist doesn’t want the label to know, you keep that to yourself.”
Being a great bridge between the label and the artist is also perpetually difficult. With a great A&R that divide doesn’t have to be nearly as painful. It can be painless.
A great A&R is somebody who’s able to be in the studio. Sometimes the artists don’t want a lot of people in the studio, or more specifically, [someone from] the label. They might see them as a leak of information to the label, and I understand that from an artist’s perspective.
But that’s where a great A&R can manage and navigate that: an artist should be able to trust the A&R, and trust them as a building block to all relationships.
If the artist doesn’t want anything to be said to the label, it’s the A&R’s job to not say it, as difficult as it is.
You might be in the studio with Drake and the ghost of John Lennon. If the artist doesn’t want the label to know, you keep that to yourself.
You’ve got to believe in the work and the artist, and be a trusted companion on that journey.
In terms of producers getting paid, where do you think the NFT and Web3 hype fit into that?
Anything that could potentially allow somebody to do what they want to do in life, then they should get it. But time will tell. Somebody has to do it right and figure this shit out for others to do it.
In the past few weeks to months, the value of NFTs and Bitcoin has tanked in value. Do you think that this says something about the state of the music industry, where in order to make money producers are putting a lot of their faith in these very fragile ecosystems?
My general thought process behind these things is that if there’s a lot of billions invested in this, nobody is trying to lose billions. They’re going to try and make this shit work.
Even if it doesn’t work out, I hope that motherfuckers make money now. If you make $10 million right now on NFTs and it was all just a novelty thing, good for you.
It’s real in that sense. It’s as real as people making money to help themselves get to the next stage in their careers. In a capitalist society, finding financial freedom is damn near freedom, period.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about progressing in the music industry, what would that be?
Stay confident in your original idea, and pay attention to time and timing. By that I mean when to make moves.
There have been moments in my career where I should have made a move differently that would have benefited me, but I didn’t and most of the time it came down to my own loyalty for a specific person, or feeling like I really needed to be there for that for others and I forgot about myself for a second.
I don’t mean be selfish. I know it’s really cliché, but you got to look out for yourself in order to progress.
If you could change something about the music industry today with the click of a finger, what would that be?
Jesus Christ. I’m grateful to the music industry, but it’d probably be the way writers and producers get paid.
I’ll work on a record, the record comes out, and I might not get paid on that record for another year to two. But everybody else can get paid.
No disrespect to anybody, but there’s a lot of people who’ve made money from all of the work that we’ve done, and I might be waiting to get paid for two years. That to me is unacceptable. It’s almost stealing.
I get paid eventually, but they took my time and my energy. I’m not pointing fingers at the artists here, it’s the people who are benefiting from outside of the creative process. And benefiting a lot.
I try hard not to have any animosity towards that, though. If money was really the most important thing then I should have just been a manager!
That’s not the choice that I made, though. I am the choices I make.Music Business Worldwide