MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the outstanding talents working in studios across the decades. To kick off 2024, we get into it with a modern master of the game, the multi-award-winning producer of some of the biggest reggaeton hits of the last 10 years, Tainy. World’s Greatest Producers is supported by Hipgnosis Song Management.
Over the course of his 18-year career, Tainy has gone from being a teenage hopeful in Puerto Rico — an island which then had little in the way of a music business — to a six-time Latin Grammy-winning global hitmaker.
As a producer, he’s credited with having made an unparalleled contribution to shaping the sound of Latin pop as the genre evolved into a global phenomenon. (Its growth continues — in the first half of 2023, Latin recorded music revenues grew 14.8% in the US, according to the RIAA).
Tainy has made history by spending 116 weeks at #1 on the Billboard producer chart — more than any other person — thanks to work on songs for Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Daddy Yankee, Karol G and Dua Lipa, amongst others.
It all began in his early teens when he was introduced to production by older friends who went to his mom’s church. “I wasn’t really into music then, they were people I looked up to, that I wanted to be like,” he remembers. “Anything they were into, I was naturally driven to do.”
One of those producers, Nely el Arma Secreta, became part of the reggaeton explosion and a young Tainy was inspired. He asked his mom for a computer, installed DAW FL Studio and got to work.
“As soon as I sat down and started creating something that just came to me in my head and I was able to put it into music, that made me realize this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” he says.
At 15 years old, Tainy signed to the company of local production duo Luny Tunes, where he was able to further develop his craft. His first big hit was Pam Pam for Wisin & Yandel, which broke out of Puerto Rico and established him as a hit-maker in the local community.
A move to Miami in 2013 meant he was able to expand his horizons. There, he started working with non-Spanish speaking artists, like Selena Gomez, Justin Bieber, Cardi B and Shawn Mendes. Miami is also where Tainy met his business partner and manager, Lex Borrero, and the two set up multifaceted music company NEON16.
Last year, Tainy released his first solo album, DATA. The set is described as a “19-track love letter to Japanese culture, reggaeton and immersive sonic textures” and features a host of collaborators, including Daddy Yankee and Skrillex.
We caught up with him during some well-deserved downtime after spending a hectic month holed up in New York to finish Bad Bunny’s latest album, Nadie Sabe Lo Que Va a Pasar Mañana (which hit #1 on the Billboard 200 in October).
What, in your opinion, makes a good producer?
A good producer listens to the artist and has a balance between what they can bring and the ideas the artist has. Other than that, it’s about trying to push the sound each time and making you feel something different. It’s easy to repeat the same formulas and certain things that feel comfortable but I want the unexpected.
“I want something that makes me feel something I’ve never felt or heard before.”
I want something that makes me feel something I’ve never felt or heard before. The producers that put creativity and the art form before everything else stand out. You hear the attention to detail through the music, which is something I try to pride myself on.
How do you get the best out of an artist you’re working with?
Each artist is very different so you tend to learn by those different tendencies how to approach them. Everything is mainly conversations. You need to understand where the person’s mind is at, what’s been done and what can be different that will make this next project or next song stand out.
I’ve been able to work for a good amount of years and hear different sounds but maybe the artist hasn’t had the realization of trying it out, but I feel, because of their vocals, tone or style, there’s something that could work. Exploring and having a setlist or a mood board of ideas and then little by little, having a feel that we’re on the same page, is cool.
But also, pushing them to see where we can drive this is something I try to do. You get to hear that in the music, rather than just imposing what you think it should be or the artist, saying “It should be like this and there’s no leeway, there’s no playing around with it”. If there’s communication and understanding of exploration, everything else comes naturally.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in everything, everything is around art for me. Before I started doing music, I loved to draw and was really into painting. Then, getting into music, movies, cinematography and images… all of that catches my attention. Now that I’m older, I see that everything is an art form. I think movies have a lot to do with that. They help me think of ideas of which sounds could go behind images, moments or scenes.
I’ve always been a student of music. I try to listen to things that I have never heard before – different genres, different countries. I tend to go back to before what’s contemporary, to understand those types of songs and artists, how they were so special and how they approached music. That helps me get into a lot of different approaches today.
Do you ever get creative blocks? If so, how do you deal with them?
I do. I used to get really frustrated when they started happening. We depend on our mind and our creativity, but when it’s not there, the best thing is not to force it. I tend to just understand and let it stay there. I’ll try and be in moments or circles that feed me good energy, whether that’s in my household, watching movies, sitting with my family, being with friends or doing all the things that I really like, like basketball — I’m a huge basketball fan.
“When you force things, you hate it or you just waste a bunch of time.”
By the time I come back to work, things start to flow again. When you force things, you hate it or you just waste a bunch of time. I know there are times where it’s difficult because of deadlines and that sort of thing, but the best thing is to step away for a little bit and come back to it.
What are the biggest lessons that you’ve learned across your career?
On the business side, when I started we didn’t know anything, so there were a lot of early mistakes. Not just for me, but the whole genre, because it’s something that was new. It didn’t start directly with major labels, but kind of in the dark – and I was part of that growth. To be here today, understanding a lot more, has been great.
Also, being over here in Miami, meeting Lex [Borrero, pictured] and all the team has been really helpful to understand a different perspective, not just the one from Puerto Rico. It also helps everything else flow so you can focus on the creative side. I think having a team is really important.
The other big lesson is noticing that what you’re doing could seem fun at the beginning, but there’s also responsibility with it, because it’s an art form. It’s something that means a lot to a lot of people and people’s lives could be changed just by hearing one track that you make.
Having that as a thought, giving your 100% and pushing as much as you can while you’re here, is something that has to be done. I learned that and I apply it every day; to not just feel comfortable with what’s normal and easy, but to push and make things that are exciting.
Can you tell us more about the business mistakes you were referring to?
I was signed to Luney Tunes, but we didn’t really know what a manager should be doing with a producer. I was in the studio and was part of the label, so it was just me trying to find spots here and there to make music. I don’t blame Luney Tunes, because they’re producers so their mind is also in making music. It was that kind of thing — knowing who should be the best fit for a producer as a manager.
Then there was also the publishing side of your catalog. How high a percentage [of royalties] are you supposed to have for a song? Are you being taken advantage of because you don’t know the ins and outs? That sort of thing used to happen a lot and it’s part of the business. If you don’t know, it’s not the label’s or artist’s fault, it was just a part of growing up and understanding how it’s supposed to be, what is fair and what you are entitled to as a producer.
There were things that I don’t see as mistakes; I just felt like it was part of the growth and without that happening, I probably would not be in the same spot today. It was a learning curve and hopefully this next generation of producers who are coming from the same place that I came from understand a lot more. I’m always trying to be vocal and explain as much as I can to that new generation so they don’t end up making the same decisions and do what’s best for them in the moment.
You’ve worked a lot in the Latin music space. What do you make of the health of the scene right now?
It keeps getting to places or doing things that are new and different to what it was 10/15 years ago, but I feel this new generation needs to find that workflow. Sometimes you feel like there’s too much music or not that much thought going into making something last a little bit longer. I think that’s in every genre.
It’s about understanding this new era of music; how people can digest it and how you can make something that’s not just a song or a project that people hear on their phone; it has to come with something else to make it feel like a moment.
It’s also about being more attentive to what a project could be, not just a single or a couple of tracks, but more of a full album that fans can sit down and listen to and go through the story and understand the concept and the idea. That’s something that I really hope the newer generation keeps pushing forward.
It would be really important to keep this growing and not become something that dies out because, otherwise, you just keep listening to the same approaches and the same tracks and things that don’t really stand the test of time.
It’s better to do something meaningful that feels different and maybe when it comes out, doesn’t really have the acceptance that you want it to, because it’s uncomfortable or not the norm.
Those sorts of things make us feel something and later on, after you start to digest the music, you understand that and can talk about it and it’s probably ahead of its time. I think it’s worth the risk, rather than just going the safe route and being successful for those first couple of months and then people not really remembering.
What are the biggest challenges that come with working as a producer in the music business today?
There’s a lot of music out there and it’s a challenge to propose something new. That can get troublesome if you want to be in every project or work as quickly as possible. It’s also a challenge to sit down with artists and try to make them understand where the music should go and have more of a vocal presence in the project. It can get confusing with them having pressure from labels, fans or the media about what they should do. But being able to build that relationship and conversation is really important.
AI has been a big development in the music industry this year. Do you have any concerns about the impact it could have on what you do?
I don’t feel threatened or that it could change what I do. It could be a tool for whoever wants to play around with it and use it for creating a track and proposing an idea for an artist for them to listen to with their vocal. I’ve seen [AI] songs being successful, but it’s not something I pay that much attention to.
I’m probably a little old school in that regard — I want to see what a person has to offer and see the imperfections of a human working and making a mistake that sounds amazing. AI is something that has just come up that’s cool to talk about and maybe people can create tools with it, but I don’t feel it can replace a human’s emotions in music.
Do you have any favorite studio sessions? If so, what made them so good?
One that comes to mind is working in a Rihanna songwriting camp, early on in my career. No music came out of that, but it helped me see a different approach to how music can be created.
“Now, I can be in rooms with pop stars, ballad singers and different genres that don’t require me to just show a couple of instrumentals.”
Before that, my approach was always showing a CD or USB with five or eight instrumentals to the artist, who then just did their thing. At the camp, I saw how I could go to a studio that has three or four different rooms with songwriters, sit down and start to create ideas from scratch, try different chord progressions that work better for the energy of a track, that sort of thing.
That helped me a lot to be in different rooms. Now, I can be in rooms with pop stars, ballad singers and different genres that don’t require me to just show a couple of instrumentals.
Do you have any most challenging studio sessions and if so, what did you learn from that experience?
Sometimes it’s difficult for me to work with other producers. I think you need to have a synergy and connection with a different producer.
Some of those sessions where I’ve been with another producer haven’t clicked because the approaches would be different to how I would do it and didn’t keep you as engaged in the track. You can feel like the track isn’t getting to where it needs to be, but you also don’t want to make the other person feel uncomfortable or bad.
Now, I approach that by either going with a producer I’ve got a relationship with. Or, if I don’t, the session is more about getting to know each other rather than us having to create a track for sure.
What are your ultimate ambitions? Is there anything on the business side you’d like to achieve or any artists you’d really like to work with?
Both. There’s still a lot of artists that I wish to work with and one of the goals for 2024 is, now that I did an album with all Spanish-speaking artists this year, I want to dive into one that’s leaning more towards the English side, from a project point of view, not a single track.
I’ve already worked with her but to have Dua Lipa on the project would be amazing, as well as people like Frank Ocean, Travis Scott, Olivia Rodrigo, Kanye. I would try to go with people who inspire me and see what could come out of that.
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