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 !llmind, the Grammy-winning collaborator of artists including Jay Z, Beyonce, Kanye West, J Cole and Drake. !llmind also produced Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton mixtape and contributed to the soundtrack for Disney’s 2016 film Moana. World’s Greatest Producers is supported by Hipgnosis Song Management.
“Everything [in] life is a gamble,” raps Kendrick Lamar on 2017’s GOD.
Those five words, taken from 2017’s DAMN., may not be the most repeated or regarded lyrics in the rapper’s repertoire.
But they’re quite fitting for the life and career of producer Ramon ‘!llmind’ Ibanga Jr.
Around eight years ago, an !llmind co-produced beat, End of the World, appeared on SoundCloud.
It was taken from !llmind’s #BoomTrap Vol. 2 mixtape released on the producer’s own Blap-Kits platform – a sample library for producers launched in 2011.
One of GOD.’s co-producers, Ricci Riera, then took a snippet of End of the World, added some drums and made one of DAMN.’s standout tracks.
Because End of the World began its life as a royalty-free sample pack on Blap-Kits, !llmind missed out on an album credit. As is the way of the producer.
!llmind is more than content with that.
He’s more focused on “bringing people together, becoming a mentor to certain people and certain communities”, he says. And besides, his other successes means that missing out on a Kendrick feature isn’t, well, the end of the world.
!llmind is a twice Grammy-winning, ten time-nominated music producer.
His credits include Jay Z, Beyonce, Kanye West, J Cole and Drake, he produced Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton mixtape and contributed to the soundtrack for Disney’s 2016 film Moana.
With that, ordinarily, comes ego.
But !llmind is very much a producer who remembers where he came from; he’s still very much the kid who, he says, made beats in his “mom’s basement eating chocolate chip cookies”.
Today, his bedroom might be bigger, but his success remains entrenched in that mindset.
In 2021, Blap-Kits crossed the $1 million-per-year revenue mark, the company says.
Meanwhile, !llmind regularly dissects beat-making on Twitch and chews the fat on YouTube, two platforms that allow his self-proclaimed need to “nerd out about producer stuff.”
And, much like fellow producers Timbaland, 3LAU, and others, he’s entered the NFT game with his Squad of Knights project.
Squad of Knights is an NFT-powered music production community that integrates studio space, mentorship, and collaboration in the real world.
Below, you’ll find an edited/abridged conversation between MBW and !llmind that covers, amongst other things, the potential and pitfalls of NFTs, what he’s learned from producers having a bad day – and his career as one of the World’s Greatest Producers…
How has your role as a producer changed over the years?
I feel like I change and develop every year. Back in 2005-2006 when I really started doing this, I was the kid in my mom’s basement trying to sound like J Dilla and chopping up soul records.
Now, I’ve sort of stepped into a mentorship role, but I am still very much a music producer. That’s what I am and what I will always be.
“You never know what kind of song you’ll make or if something will become a hit, but it’s that thrill of not knowing that drives me.”
When you’re a music producer, one of the biggest thrills is when you create a beat for the first time. It’s so satisfying, and even though I’ve produced 10-15 beats a day for almost 20 years, I still get that same satisfaction.
You never know what kind of song you’ll make or if something will become a hit, but it’s that thrill of not knowing that drives me. It keeps me really excited for tomorrow.
How are streaming platforms like Twitch – where you stream each week – helping you grow your community beyond your music?
Twitch is the best at online fan engagement and providing the tools to keep people engaged. On Twitch, there’s been a recent exponential growth in the music community, and music producers specifically, because it’s just the perfect place to do it.
We’re sitting in front of our computers [for our jobs] just like gamers. Making music is essentially a gaming tool – whether it’s Fruity Loops or Pro Tools – but the difference is we’re creating music that can be monetized.
Twitch has helped me connect and open up my fan base, and it’s [enabled] me to collaborate with people. I’ll have some of my viewers submit melody loops to me, and I’ll choose one at random and we’ll collaborate right there on the spot..
What have been some of the most challenging projects you’ve worked on in your career?
There are definitely challenges sprinkled throughout my journey so far. I won’t say a name for this, but there was a project I was heavily involved with where I just couldn’t connect with the artist.
I was there making beats and collaborating, doing as much as I could, but I ended up not creating anything for the project after a couple of weeks straight. It was a huge opportunity, but I just couldn’t deliver.
“I have no expectations going into certain projects. Everything that we create is such a crapshoot.”
Another time, a while ago, I was in a room full of producers when a really big producer walked in.
I really respected and looked up to this person so much, but I just had a bad experience with them. They were really mean to everyone, and he basically kicked everyone in the room out. I don’t know if they were in a bad mood, but that session broke my heart.
Sometimes stuff like that happens, and I’m kind of numb to it. By that I mean, I have no expectations going into certain projects. Everything that we create is such a crapshoot.
You can have one track that you’re not a huge fan of that then becomes your biggest record. Meanwhile, you’re working on a record for two weeks straight, and you feel like it’s ‘the one’, and it ends up sitting on a hard drive.
You really can’t be jaded by things [in the music industry]; I’ve learned that over the years.
what are some of the key things that need to change to make sure more producers are being properly paid?
We need to open up communication. I don’t want to use words like ‘movement’ or producer union, but maybe we do need one.
For writers, music producers and musicians, the percentages we get, it’s pretty clear that we all see it’s unfair. I don’t know the answer to that, to be honest.
When I look at Web3, maybe that’s the solution. We’re approaching a time where Web3 technology and blockchain is a solution, technologically, for storing information contracts, getting people paid, getting people splits and distributing funds in the snap of a finger.
Web3 can do those things for you. Then there’s Web2 there like, ‘Hey, we’ve been doing it this way for 60 years, and a lot of people are making a lot of money, but you guys aren’t.’
How do you get those two to communicate? Is there a conversation that needs to happen? And who’s going to curate those conversations? We have to figure out a way for these two things to speak and coexist.
It’s a strange time for Web3 at the minute. We’re understanding the possibilities of Web3, but we haven’t seen the effects and what it can do on a mass scale yet. Even SPOTIFY is ADVERTISING FOR A NUMBER OF WEB3 ROLEs.
It’s a gift and a curse. All of the traffic is on Spotify, Apple and the big DSPs. They’re creating a service, but they’ve decided to say that this service is going to come at a cost.
If it were my choice, I would prefer not to go to war with them.
I would prefer a world where Web3, Web2 and DSPs could work together to solve this issue. That may be a little bit ‘Kumbaya’ for a lot of people, but fuck it.
Do you want to go to war with people who have billions of liquidity and billions of dollars and can hire the best lawyers? They will eradicate you. They’re not going to just sit back, see Web3 take over and go away.
We need to be realistic and approach this in a way where we ask, how can we fix this? We have the power, but they have a level of power too. And they have money. So we need to figure something out.
What do you think about artists selling fractional ownership or a percentage of their streaming royalties as NFTs?
It’s a good start. I love what 3LAU is doing with Royal. [But] I don’t think that there is just one answer. We’re in a phase of exploration and trying things.
My personal opinion of it is that it’s awesome that fans get a piece of the royalty, but there’s also some issues with that. Is that adoptable by the masses? I don’t think so.
I don’t think that there are enough music fans who really give a shit about paying extra money to get royalty. A lot of fans just want to hear the music with one click on their phone, and they want to buy a ticket with one click.
It’s awesome that we’re exploring different ways for those fan interactions to happen, but I don’t think we’ve found one thing yet that’s going to solve all of our problems. But I think we’re headed in the right direction.
Where does your NFT project fit into all this?
Squad of Knights, my NFT project, sorts out the issue of, how do I find people to work with? How do I find my community?
If I’m a rapper, how do I find beats? If I’m a music producer, how do I find my Drake? The way those success stories happen is by people meeting people, so how do we meet other people?
We have finished our public mint, and the community is growing every day.
We have a reward token called the Knights token; any time our community members collaborate, or win challenges, we reward them with Knight tokens.
We’ve partnered with some music studios in Los Angeles as a starting point where our community members can use Knight tokens to book actual studio time, meet each other, and make music together in a room.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about progressing in the music business, what would it be?
Keep going and don’t overthink. And put all your money into bitcoin in 2011!
In 2013, I started selling sound-packs on my Shopify page.
At the time, they had rolled out an app where you could accept Bitcoin as payment. I activated it, and we made around $1,000 in Bitcoin. But there was an option where I could convert it and pay it directly into my account, or keep it in Bitcoin.
I put it into my bank account. If I had kept that wallet, I would have had well over $1,000 in Bitcoin in 2013. How much would that have been today? Maybe a couple of million.
Finally, if you could change one thing about the music business, what would that be and why?
I truly believe that the business of music would benefit if it utilized blockchain and Web3 technology.
All of these methods of collecting royalties and payments, distributing money and having long contracts, it can all be solved.
This feels like when people were using a horse and buggy, and then the car was invented. I think it’s a pretty obvious transition.
Web3 can fix most, if not all of the music industry’s issues when it comes to finances and business, but we’re yet to see when and how that transition happens.Music Business Worldwide