‘There are so many people who make beats but don’t know how to produce.’

MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the outstanding talents working in studios across the decades. Here we meet T-Minus, a Canadian producer who got his first big break making beats for Drake and has gone on to work with many of the biggest names in modern hip-hop. World’s Greatest Producers is supported by Hipgnosis Song Management.

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Tyler Williams, who co-produced J. Cole’s recent mixtape Might Delete Later, which charted at No.2 in the US in April, never imagined he’d make a career out of what was once a hobby.

He set off on the rather less glamorous path of accounting, before a few chance meetings around the small Canadian town of Whitby, just outside of Toronto, where he grew up, changed his course.

One of those meetings happened to be a young Drake, which led to Williams, who is now better known as T-Minus, producing a beat for his 2007 single, Replacement Girl featuring Trey Songz. The young producer later came into contact with Ludacris via a friend and, after incessantly hounding him with tracks, one became the 2009 hit single How Low, which earned multi-platinum status and added rocket-fuel to Williams’ then burgeoning career.

A publishing deal with Warner Chappell followed and Williams decided to pursue music full time. Cuts with Nicki Minaj (Moment 4 Life) and T.I. (Poppin’ Bottles), both of which featured Drake, led Williams to work on the latter’s 2011 album, Take Care, which hit No.1 in the US and Canada.

Since then, he’s worked with a long list of artists including Kendrick Lamar, The Weeknd, Travis Scott, Justin Bieber and many more besides.

Growing up, Williams was inspired by Timbaland’s Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado era, The Neptunes, producer and DJ Just Blaze (Eminem, Kanye, Diddy) and R&B producer Bryan-Michael Cox (Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton).

“The thing that I’m constantly focused on is how do you separate yourself from the rest?”

Discussing his own style, he says: “The thing that I’m constantly focused on is how do you separate yourself from the rest? Or how do you make something that’s special and unique? I’ve gone through different eras of different styles but making tracks with different styles and different sounds is, to me, a testament of true creativity.

“I don’t want to be seen as a producer who just makes a certain style of beat. So it’s hard to pinpoint what my sound is, but what I will say is that it’s constantly evolving.”

Here, we chat to Williams about lessons learned across his career, seminal moments, working with Lamar, Cole and the biggest challenges that come with working as a producer today.

What makes a great producer, in your opinion?

Attention to detail and filling in the blanks when needed. When I’m working with an artist and they play me a song, I’m always looking for moments that could be missing and how to make things better. I think that’s a really good sign of doing great work as a producer.

Then, paying attention to the details of things, like the sonic value of what you’re creating. Whenever I listen to or make a track, I’m always trying to pick the right drum sounds, the right synth sounds or melodies and have it glued together really well. And be involved in the mixing process. It’s a multi-layer thing. Being a producer is more than just making a beat, of course, but I also think it’s all about staying through the process, through the entire recording and song.

How do you cultivate good and lasting relationships with artists?

I stay in touch and try to frequently send them tracks when I’m not with them. Most artists are being thrown into different rooms with different producers all the time. I might have a session with an artist next week, but then he’s going to have sessions with another producer and another producer. 

So it’s about staying on their minds and bringing value to whatever they’re trying to do. That could be helping them pick tracks or it could be listening to their music and giving critique. These are ways that I have good relationships with artists. It’s not just about sending beats anymore. It’s also about how can I make your songs better? How can I make you sound better or what can I provide that you need for your project?

You did a lot of work on J. Cole’s Might Delete Later. Can you tell me how your relationship with him started?

I met Cole back in 2017. I’d received his contact from a good friend of mine named Matt McNeal [VP of A&R at Warner Records/President of Money Makin’ Management]. I ran into him at a studio and he gave me Cole’s email. I started sending tracks to him and Cole asked me to text him, which is a better way to send beats nowadays because artists are not usually checking emails as much as they used to. 

At the time, he was away on vacation and that’s when I landed the track Kevin’s Heart. Then we decided to link up one time in LA and from that point, we kept in touch and I started getting more involved in his production and his artistry. J. Cole is known for being a producer, artist, engineer, he wears many hats, but one of his greatest strengths is songwriting and when I came in to produce, he was able to focus mainly on his artistry and his pen.

Your work with Kendrick Lamar, and on the track Swimming Pools, in particular, is another seminal point in your career. How did that happen?

Back in 2011, I linked up with Kendrick and Schoolboy Q and played them tracks and I remember him taking the Swimming Pools beat. One of the A&Rs at Interscope was like, ‘Kendrick is at the hotel, he’s writing to this track,’ and played me a voice note or a video recording of him writing to the Swimming Pools track, which was really cool.

It was such a great process because I never imagined that song was going to blow up. I didn’t think it was going to be that big of a hit song and one of his first hit songs. The track itself was for another artist but the other artist was debating whether to take it or not and they ended up passing on it.

That beat was actually a remake to another beat that I’d already given to another artist. So they didn’t like the idea that it was a remake. They wanted the original, not this original, but I loved the new track I made and I was like, maybe it could have a life somewhere else. It was a testament to somebody valuing your work the way others won’t and being able to take it to a whole new place.

What would you say are your biggest career-related failures and what did you learn from them?

Taking a break when I took a break. Late 2012 to maybe 2014, I took some time to myself. I was stressed, I wasn’t managing myself the way I should have been. I was overworking and not putting the necessary time into other aspects of my life.

In that time, so much had changed, so much had happened. Although I was still producing, I was still making tracks in the basement, and songs were still coming out that I produced from years prior, it wasn’t the same because I wasn’t in the studio with artists in the same way, I wasn’t collaborating, I wasn’t networking.

It definitely had an effect on my trajectory and the potential I had in my career. Early 2015, late 2014, I got back in with Drake, I did some stuff on More Life and got back into it. But that’s one of those things I wish I played differently.

What are some of the things you do now to make sure you don’t reach a point where you’re so burnt out that you need to completely step away?

For the most part, balance is so important. People think that you can just go hard on one thing and then neglect the other aspects of your life, but I don’t think that’s good. I don’t think that works. Not for the long run, at least. For me, I try to make time to make music every day. I try to make time to send tracks to people every day. I try to make time to stay in touch with artists.

It’s a balancing act. I could spend months just making tracks but not sending them out and then all my relationships become distant. Or I could just be sending tracks out and not focusing on making new material of the times or of the culture. I’m a family man now and I have two kids, I’m married, so there’s also that that I have to balance. That’s been my focus in my thirties.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?

Don’t overthink the process. In the studio, when you’re creating, don’t get too wrapped up in your mind around what you’re doing. Try to be free with the creative flow. We titled 7 Minute Drill, which I produced and unfortunately has been taken down from the J. Cole project, because we were doing what we call a seven minute drill where we work on a track for seven minutes or I make a beat for seven minutes and I move on to another and then another. 

J. Cole would put a timer on and I have to make a beat as quickly as possible. It’s nerve-racking but it takes you out of your brain because you’re forced not to overthink your decisions. He would let me know when there’s four minutes left, three minutes left, two minutes left, and the pressure is on to just keep rolling and then I’ll do it again. Eventually, you catch a flow where everything feels very natural and decisions you make have less to do with what you think is good as opposed to what feels good.

How do you feel about the fact that the track has been taken down? [It was a diss track to Kendrick Lamar which Cole later said he was ashamed of.]

I can’t say I’m not disappointed. It was fun creating the track but at the end of the day, it’s J. Cole’s music and it’s his decision what he wants to do with it. It’s fun for the history of it. Looking back, there aren’t many songs that reached No.6 on Billboard and then are taken down.

I heard that changing key is one way you deal with creative blocks. Do you have any other strategies?

Another strategy I like to use is taking another person’s track and then trying to remake it in your own way. So grabbing an influence, which could be pulling up a track and copying how the drums are or pulling up a melody or chord progression and turning it on its head.

That’s one way I see a lot of producers that I’ve worked with have done it. It’s really effective because you’re essentially drawing inspiration directly from a song but making it your own. I find that really helpful if there’s a creative block or if I’m trying to learn how to create something or a style of some sort.

What are the biggest challenges that come with working as a producer in today’s music industry?

The biggest challenge as a producer is being valued in the room as a producer. We’re not in the 1980s or 1970s anymore where producers were such a huge and crucial part of the entire song. Now it’s become, ‘send me a pack, send me beats,’ and when you send beats out, you never know if the artist is listening to them and you never know if they’re going to prioritize them because artists are also in the studio with other producers. A big thing for me is being present, being in the room as much as you can be and being involved as much as you can be.

What do you think has led to the fact that producers aren’t as valued as they used to be?

I think there has become such a saturation of producers in the last 15 years, there are so many people who make beats but don’t know how to produce. Artists will find kids that make beats and just get packs from those who don’t have any experience in the studio on how to make a song.

That’s what they’re relying on so that’s what they’re used to. And when they do pop-off and blow-up, they continue with the same formula. They get in the studio and they’re like, ‘Well, I got here on my own, I know how to get here, I didn’t need a producer to help produce my music so I’m going to continue down this road.’ It works for some — Drake is a great example of someone who doesn’t necessarily need to be produced. He’s a producer himself, he writes and creates all these ideas and has his own vision.

What would you change about the music industry and why?

There’s the constant debate of songwriters not getting their royalties or the right amount of pay from DSPs. That’s something I would change. I think more money should go back to the creators, especially the writers, who most times don’t get paid a fee for creating the track and they don’t get many royalties because the split is so low.

“As producers, we get some points on songs, which is great, but most songwriters don’t. That’s a huge thing I would change.”

It’s sad to watch because songwriters are the heart of the music, they come up with the ideas, the content, the subject matter. All the weight that’s in the song is what comes from the writer. As producers, we get some points on songs, which is great, but most songwriters don’t. That’s a huge thing I would change.

Do you have any concerns about the impact AI could have on what you do?

If AI does blow up and becomes this great source for creating music, there’s always going to be people that want human music, there’s always going to be the need for that. It’s like anything, even in fashion, there’s something to be valued about someone who hand-makes a piece of clothing. It has more value because it’s human to human and it’s special, it’s unique.

I don’t see it destroying jobs because we work in such a creative field. [Making music is] not a menial task, it’s not just carrying something from A to B. We’re creating something from emotion, ideas and concepts and we’re putting it together to make something that’s very creative, very artistic.

I think AI is only going to be used as a tool to make things better. Kind of like how programmes are used nowadays. Guys in the 1960s or 1970s would probably look at what we do as cheating because we have computers and all of our sounds and plugins but hey, if it gets the job done, and it feels good in the process, why not?

What are your future plans and ambitions?

I would love to put out my own project in the near future. I want to release my own music, whether it’s instrumental or an artist-featured project. One thing I hope for in future is that producers have a little bit more spotlight.

“I almost dream of a world where producers are featured on every song that they make, like an artist. I think the way of thinking of an artist as being on the main title of a song is very archaic.”

Producers are so important to the creation of music and they don’t get enough credit for it. I almost dream of a world where producers are featured on every song that they make, like an artist. I think the way of thinking of an artist as being on the main title of a song is very archaic. A producer is just as important because they’re creating something or making something and it’s a big part of a song. If you were to take out the beat, no one would want to listen to it.

What advice would you offer to an up-and-coming producer today?

Network as much as you can, work with as many people as you can. Collaborate as much as you can, learn as much as you can. Producers are often making music by themselves and it’s not always good to just be creating alone. It doesn’t force you to grow, it doesn’t get you out of your comfort zone, it keeps you in this bubble in your mind and in front of a computer and that’s not great for growth.

Networking, even with the guys that you know, hooking up with them or creating with them a lot is super valuable and super important. It will cause you to change and grow in ways that you wouldn’t be able to were you by yourself.

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