MBW’s World’s Greatest Producers series sees us interview – and celebrate – some of the outstanding talents working in studios across the decades. This time, we meet Rob Bisel, a multi-Grammy nominee who has worked with SZA, Kendrick Lamar, Doja Cat, Don Toliver and Tate McRae. World’s Greatest Producers is supported by Hipgnosis Song Management.
Rob Bisel, who was nominated in three major categories for this year’s Grammys, had a pretty special start to his production career.
After graduating in music production and sound engineering from the University of Michigan, he moved out to LA, hoping to catch his big break.
While scrolling through the credits of projects he liked, he stumbled across Dana Nielsen — an engineer who had worked with Kanye West, Adele and Black Sabbath — and sent an email with the aim of making a connection.
Nielsen replied and happened to live a mile away from Bisel, who swiftly packed up his laptop, drove to his house and the two hit it off. That connection led to an internship at Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La studios, where, after working his way up from the bottom of the pile, Bisel eventually spent most days in a small room with the legendary producer, learning his craft.
“Being able to be a fly on the wall and observing him work his magic… I can’t imagine too many better opportunities,” Bisel says. “He was one of my childhood heroes and to say I’ve been able to spend lots of time learning and observing him is something that my 13-year-old self would never have believed.”
During that time, Bisel saw the likes of The Smashing Pumpkins, Santana, Neil Young, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Eminem, Harry Styles and The Strokes come through the door.
After he’d graduated to assistant engineer status, Rubin introduced Bisel to SZA, whose house he spent most of the COVID-19 lockdown in to work on her US No.1 album, SOS, which landed in 2022.
It’s that album that Bisel has been recognized for this year in the Grammys Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year (the latter two for Kill Bill) categories.
His work on Girls Night Out for Babyface has also landed a nod in Best R&B Album.
They’re not his first Grammy nominations (Bisel has eight to date for work with artists including Kendrick Lamar and Doja Cat) but they are perhaps the most meaningful. “These ones mean a ton to me,” he says. “I’m super appreciative to have been nominated in the past but these feel like I put more time into the projects that are associated with them. I spent a couple of years working on them and I know how much blood, sweat and tears went into the works that got nominated.”
Bisel describes working on SOS as one of his career pinnacles. “Working with someone who’s so fearless, down to try anything and isn’t afraid of what others might think of her… she just wants to do what feels cool and exciting. To me, that’s all you can ask for from an artist,” he says of SZA.
A tour of a local recording studio in Oakland, California in his early teens is what drew Bisel to production originally. He then started teaching himself and working with friends in the San Francisco Bay area.
Rock music was Bisel’s bread and butter and he frequently draws on the sounds of his favorite acts, like AC/DC, Green Day, Aerosmith, The Beatles and James Brown, for inspiration today.
“I’m frequently trying to find ways to work those influences into whatever creative puzzle I’m working on. That’s been a helpful thing for me because I’m working especially in the R&B or pop space and it makes me a little more interesting to draw from unconventional influences, instead of trying to remake stuff that’s already been made.”
He explains: “I’m frequently trying to find ways to work those influences into whatever creative puzzle I’m working on. That’s been a helpful thing for me because I’m working especially in the R&B or pop space and it makes me a little more interesting to draw from unconventional influences, instead of trying to remake stuff that’s already been made.”
Recently, Bisel worked on We’re Not Alike from Tate McRae’s second album, Think Later (which hit No.4 in the US in December). He’s also working with a new Spanish artist called Judeline who is signed to Interscope.
Here, we chat with Bisel about working with Rubin, his approach to production, the state of health of the music industry, and much more besides.
What did you learn from Rick Rubin?
Knowing how to direct the creative process, keep things on track and make artists feel comfortable to be themselves and feel comfortable to experiment and explore new areas they haven’t gotten into in the past. He’s the master at creating a space and environment that lets artists open up.
What are some of the strategies you’ve got for doing that?
Not to be cheesy but always being yourself. Whether Rick is aware of it or not, him just being himself with no filters, not trying to impress anyone, sets the tone for how artists can act themselves in the room with him.
He’s always playing unusual, unexpected references for people. He asks really amazing questions and builds incredible relationships with the artists that he works with. Getting to absorb that… there was a lot that I took away for sure.
What are the traits or qualities that make a good producer?
Patience is extremely important. Knowing that you’re not going to walk out of every single session having been super productive or having made a crazy hit. I’d say work ethic is even more important. There’s not too many extremely successful producers I’ve seen that don’t have an insane work ethic. That to me is number one.
“There’s not too many extremely successful producers I’ve seen that don’t have an insane work ethic.”
Being a fun person to hang out with, as simple as that is, is an extremely important quality. Secondary to all of those is talent. Talent is important but it doesn’t make up for any deficiencies in those other areas.
What’s the best career-related advice you’ve ever been given?
The first is just be yourself. Never act like you feel you have to impress anyone in a certain room or act differently depending on who you’re with. I think people really respect and appreciate authenticity in any given creative environment.
The second thing is in this industry, it’s easy to plough through your accomplishments and have this mentality of onto the next task, onto the next mission. Learning to enjoy the ride, appreciate the experience and make music as it comes is a really important thing to keep in mind. Having an appreciation for what goes on every day makes the process a lot more enjoyable.
Without naming any names, do you have any most challenging studio sessions? And if so, what did you learn from that experience?
The sessions I tend to enjoy the least are the ones where, and this doesn’t happen super often, there’s someone in there that’s shooting down ideas before you’ve gotten the chance to try them out or to let someone fully illustrate that idea for the room.
“A lot of times, an idea you might think is super dumb, could actually crack the code and you don’t really know that until you try implementing the idea into the song.”
It makes everyone walk on eggshells a little bit. It makes me second guess every idea that comes to mind.
A lot of times, an idea you might think is super dumb, could actually crack the code and you don’t really know that until you try implementing the idea into the song, whether that’s rearranging a song structure, changing a lyric or a note, adding a new instrument or changing an instrument. You just never know until you try everything.
What makes a really great studio session?
Sessions where, number one, you’re doing it with people you love. You can make a great song and you can make a horrible song but if you spend that day with people you’re friends with or that you enjoy being around, you can always count it as a win. That’s a crucial ingredient right there.
Sessions where I feel like we get to explore new territory. For an artist to try something they haven’t done before.
“You can make a great song and you can make a horrible song but if you spend that day with people you’re friends with or that you enjoy being around, you can always count it as a win.”
Those always feel super rewarding to me, especially if it’s pursuing a sound or an influence that an artist felt was very special and personal to them but they didn’t feel they were able to crack the code on, or didn’t think there was a way they could bring that influence into their own world. Anytime you can do that with an artist is always really fun and special.
You’ve done a lot of co-producing with Carter Lang — what goes into a successful co-producing partnership?
Some of the world’s greatest producers aren’t necessarily the best collaborators. That’s definitely not a given. Going back to what I spoke about a second ago, feeling comfortable to share your ideas and not feeling worried of stepping on someone’s toes because they might shoot down your idea. It should feel like playing a game of tennis, you’re just hitting the ball back and forth. You feel comfortable that you’re being heard, and that the other person is being heard too.
“Some of the world’s greatest producers aren’t necessarily the best collaborators. That’s definitely not a given.”
It’s not always easy to find those symbiotic relationships. Carter and I work extremely well together because we both always feel free to say anything, try anything. We’re not afraid to look like idiots in front of each other. It’s definitely a trial and error thing of working with different people and seeing how you guys operate together because you never really know until you get into the room with someone.
Kill Bill was a big hit for SZA. The track was a bit different and went against the grain versus other songs that came out at the same time. Can you tell us the story of its creation?
I’d just bought this new Prophet-6 synthesizer and was jumping around the different presets on it a couple of days after I got it and seeing what was on there. I found this one sound that reminded me of a flutey mellotron and it caught my attention because I didn’t know the Prophet had sounds like that.
I was jamming around on that and made a little chord progression and started a baseline on it. I thought it was kind of cool and had been sending ideas back and forth with Carter around that time quite a bit. I sent him that one and he immediately lit up and tried a couple of different variations of drums and other instruments.
After a couple of different versions, he sent me back one that he was really excited by. That ended up being the version that we played for SZA. She loved it and a few weeks after having heard it, she asked me to pull it back up and the rest is history. She locked in that night and wrote the song and couldn’t have taken any more than an hour. Off the cuff, it felt super exciting and natural.
I guess that’s when you know you’ve got something special – when it comes together quite quickly.
I think so. I like to think that if a song comes naturally and instinctively to you, listeners can tell and it’ll feel natural and instinctive to them too in terms of how they hear it. That’s not always the case but in my experience, most of the time, that tends to be how it goes.
What are the biggest challenges that come with working as a producer in today’s era of the music business?
There’s just so much content out there. There’s something like close to a million songs a week uploaded to Spotify [Luminate reported that there were 112,000 per day in H1 2023]. So the challenge is finding ways to do something different but still impactful. That’s not an easy task — not trying to recreate things that have gotten you success in the past, just because it’s so easy to lean into the things that have worked before, but constantly challenging yourself and finding new sounds and directions.
It’s hard but it’s also really exciting. It’s like a puzzle, where as soon as you’ve got the thousandth piece of this 1,000-piece puzzle, you realize the puzzle is just a little corner of a puzzle that’s suddenly doubled in size. It’s never-ending and you’re always finding new ways to reinvent yourself and new sounds and styles to explore.
Where do you find inspiration and new approaches?
Songs and albums but I also try to push myself to find inspiration in non-musical things. I enjoy reading interviews with successful startup founders and things like that and trying to see how someone’s approach in one industry can be brought back into mine.
Musically, I’m all over the place. I go on deep-dive YouTube rabbit holes and I’m constantly clicking around on Spotify or other streaming services, trying to stumble on something that feels cool and exciting to me.
What’s your assessment on the current output of the music industry? In what state of health do you find music these days generally?
Despite the unsustainable amount of music that’s being put out, right now, I think music is actually in a really good and exciting place. I have this funny feeling that when we look back twenty, thirty years from now, this is going to be a period of music that we really romanticize, in the same way that we look back on the ‘60s and ‘70s and say, ‘Man, wouldn’t it have been cool to be alive during that time’.
What music or artists do you think people will look back on in particular?
There’s so much but I truly think SZA is one of those artists. It’s a long list but I feel super lucky to have worked closely with someone like SZA, who I think is going to stand the test of time and be one of those people that gets listened to for decades, if not centuries.
What would you change about the music industry and why?
There’s a long way to go in terms of gender and racial inclusivity across all the different jobs within music. There’s a lot of room for growth there. One other issue that comes to mind is payment for songwriters, I think the structure there is pretty unfair in terms of songwriters versus producers. There could be a much more level playing field.
AI is an ongoing conversation in the music business. Do you have any concerns about the impact it could have on what you do?
I’m definitely both scared and excited by it. I think there are amazing tools that we need to embrace and find ways of using in our day to day workflow.
“If I were entering the music industry now, it would be a scary time to try to find a foothold with everything going on.”
If I were entering the music industry now, it would be a scary time to try to find a foothold with everything going on. I feel very fortunate to be a little bit more established. I don’t think it’s going away so there’s no point in trying to shoot it down or run away from it. It’s kind of inevitable at this point so you’ve got to find a way to benefit from it.
What advice would you offer to young producers starting out in the business today?
Try to find ways to be of value to other people, to be of service. Whether that’s being a studio intern or showing up to be someone’s assistant, any way you can get yourself around the action is beneficial for you.
Regardless of what that role is, everyone’s got to start somewhere and if you can get yourself within proximity of cool music, good things will come from that if you have a good attitude, try hard and people enjoy being around you. It’s a foolproof recipe for success.
Final question: what are your ultimate ambitions?
To keep making impactful music that people enjoy for long periods of time. I’m not trying to contribute to the kind of music that gets listened to and forgotten a day later, I’m trying to make stuff that sticks around, which is really tough to do in today’s musical climate.
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