Anderson .Paak: How I Landed in the Studio with Dr. Dre and DJ Premier

The ‘Compton’ breakout star was nearly homeless before he caught his big break

By Anderson .Paak (as told to Cuepoint)

I grew up in Oxnard, CA and I went to a church called St. Paul, where I was playing drums. My mom had a strawberry company. The whole town of Oxnard is basically built on produce, and more particularly, strawberries. I stayed out there until I was about seven, and then I moved to Ventura and pretty much grew up over there and went to school. But I went back and forth because I was performing in the church. In high school, I wanted to go to other cities because there was not a lot of diversity where I went to school, as it was mostly white kids. By the time I was a senior, I wanted to get out and see different things.

I pretty much was set on not ever working a 9-to-5. By the time I was about 18 or 19, I had quit my job at Ralph’s supermarket, I had quit my job at Vans, and I had another job where I was watching mentally disabled people and that was probably the longest job I ever had. Once I got to L.A., I was about 25 years old and I had my son. Before that I was living with my sister, but I got kicked out of her place. I had nowhere to go, I was with my family — my wife and my son — and there was nowhere to take them. I had stopped selling weed and I had spent all of the money. I was trying to finish up my first project, OBE, under the name Breezy Lovejoy, and get things legit.

I needed to bide my time and there were a couple of people that really helped me out. One of them was Shafiq Husayn , another was a rapper named Dumbfoundead. They both opened their doors to me and let me stay with my family at their places and use their studio and figure things out. There was one point when we had to move out of Shafiq’s place too and I remember just having a U-Haul with my stuff and my family, like “Damn, what do we do?” My wife’s friend let her and my son stay at her house, and I would just kind of couch surf until I figured things out. We’d meet back up in the day, I’d give them the little bit of money I had, and I’d get back to it. Eventually I got my first real paycheck playing drums for this singer Haley Reinhart. I was able to put down on a small apartment, I went on tour after that and things just got better from there.

I had a project called Cover Art, which was the first project I did under the new name Anderson .Paak. I went through this process where I was recording new music for about six months straight. I wanted to change everything—I wanted to get a clearer vision of where I wanted to go with my artistry, I wanted to focus on bettering my life and improving things for my family. After I came out of that process, I had a bunch of music and I was ready to go by a different name, so I just chose my last name and my middle name.

I had to kind of lock myself in and not work with too many different producers. One of them Lo Def, who goes by Callum Connor now. We started linking up and he was sending me beats. I liked it because it was different than what I was doing. He sent me the beat for “Paint” and that was one of the first joints we did. It was cool, I didn’t have to worry about production, his beats were so hard-hitting and modern. I felt it was a nice change up from the way I had been going before.

I would take the train over to his studio and by the time I’d get to the studio, I’d have a song written for his beat. One of the first things we did was another tune called “Drugs.” We were both thinking “We might be onto something.” We kept building and we came up with my first real project under Anderson .Paak, Venice. It was going to be just a project with me and his production, but we slowly added a few more producers to it that fit. The vision I had for it was that we would explore range and dynamics and do a bunch of different styles, reflective of one long street, which was Venice. And then we’d take it to another location for the next one. Some of those songs I held back for the new album, Malibu.

It was a slow build. We definitely started to see traction with the song “Drugs.” We put that single out on SoundCloud a couple of years back, and that became a little underground track with a cult following. My buddy Nocando, who was running Hellfyre Club and DJ Nobody — who was one of the residents at Low End Theory — started spinning it. It started really getting a buzz around L.A. with the younger scene and people that were going to the club. It just started spreading. I had never had a banger like that, it just kind of took over the city for a little bit. Then we dropped a few other singles and they did well too.

But it was slow, I was essentially a brand new artist and hardly anybody knew that it was the same person as Breezy Lovejoy. I didn’t have a huge following before, but we knew that this project was going to be something to get the momentum going and the ball rolling. And that’s what it did.

I got a call from Ty Cannon, he’s the lead A&R at Aftermath. He asked if we wanted to come through and work on some production for Dr. Dre with DJ Dahi and DJ Khalil. I said “Let’s do it!” I was a big fan of both of those producers. I didn’t know how the Dr. Dre thing would pan out, because being around the city for so long, everybody says they have connects to Dre, Detox this-and-that. I didn’t know anything about the Compton album.

We went over there and the first two people I met were Dre and the D.O.C. They were real cool, super chill. We shook hands and I went into the studio and met some of the other producers and they said “We’ve been listening to your song ‘Suede’ and have been hooked on it for the last two or three weeks. We got some music and want to know if you hear anything in it and want to get you on it.” I was all about it.

They played the first beat, for “All In a Day’s Work,” and I was just hooked. I already had ideas in my head. Before I laid anything, they called Dre back in and wanted him to listen to my song because he hadn’t heard anything yet, so I was kind of nervous. They played the song for him and he was like “Okay. Run that back. Okay, run that back again.” They played it three times and after the third time he was like “Let’s work.” It was on after that.

“I got on the mic, closed my eyes and freestyled, and when I opened my eyes back up, the whole room was going crazy. After that we were just always working.”

The recording process took place over a few months. I came in at the top of last phase of the album. They were well into the album, but were still making music. Looking back on it now, it seems like I was the finishing piece for the album, the way they threw me in there. We only had a few months before it was out.

“Animals” was one of the tracks that I brought to Dre when I was working with him. I got the beat from DJ Premier and BMB Spacekid after a show we did in Russia with my group NxWorries. It was a Boiler Room show with DJ Premier and Spacekid on the track where I would be the vocalist. We did one track there and recorded it and it came out. They sent the other beat that they did and that was the beat for “Animals.” I told Premier when I got home I was going to write something to it. I had the line “These old sneakers / faded blue jeans” for some years now. When I heard that beat, I thought it was perfect for it. And this was before I had any intention of making it about the riots or anything that was going on. But all of these things were happening. I was laying that part that I had, and I remember seeing little shots of the riots and stuff. I was trying to write the verse and it just hit me that this is what it would be.

I cut it and went to the studio that night with Dre and my manager said “You should play him that Premier track.” I was kind of apprehensive at first, but I played it and he loved it. Right when I heard it, he was like “I gotta put a verse on this.” He threw a verse on there and called me the next day and said “I know this is your tune, but I want to know if I can use this for the album.” I got to see him develop the track. Premier flew out and they worked on the record together. I watched Premier pick out records to scratch for the hook. That whole moment was crazy, because I know they are big fans of each other. It was a special moment to be a part of something that these two longtime friends put out together.

After I brought him the Premier joint, Dre pulled me in the room and said “Yo, I fuck with you. I think you’re going to be great and I really appreciate your work on this.” He kind of broke it down that he was adamant about working with me and wanted me to be around and help with the process of the album. I was all for it. They would be working on tracks and would be like “Yo, can you write a hook for this?” I would just come in on sessions and would just jump in and help where I could. Some of the stuff I laid down just ended up staying. I had no clue what I was going to be on. It was definitely a decision that Dre saw through. I was just hoping to get one joint on the album. It was not until the pre-order was out that I knew all of these records were making it on the album. It was dope.

Sometimes it was a long rigorous process, like with “All In A Days Work.” We spent weeks finishing that up, mainly because the song was just outside of my vocal range. A lot of times, we’d be doing the track and I’d be losing my voice. So we’d come back a few days later and finish it up. Other than that, it was pretty quick. The way our relationship started, was me coming in with an idea and we’d fine tune it from there. I think that helped, rather than me just being a complete vessel where he is like the puppet master and I’m not having any input. It was more us building on something together. That process doesn’t take long to do, which got us excited about working together.

You hear people say “Dre’s a super perfectionist” and he is. He knows what he wants, he’s going to grind to get it, but I feel like he is in a different mode right now. It’s cool to be able to work with him and his level of artistry. He doesn’t seemed pressed for making that million dollar hook, or anything but making good music, creative music. It allows you to open yourself up to just do things that you might not normally do and push for something different. I definitely can see the difference in the vocal production working with him versus working by myself. When I listen to “Animals” or “All in a Days Work,” you can tell there’s a difference in the energy and that’s the main thing he likes to get across. I had never heard myself like that before.

I tell people a lot of times, if you want to be a part of something, you never know, you kind of just have to be around. A lot of people don’t really have the patience for it and they don’t stick around. Dre and I are still working together and we have plenty of music for the future.

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Anderson .Paak’s new album, Malibu, is available January 15th, 2016 courtesy of OBE / Steel Wool / Art Club / EMPIRE. Listen or stream online via iTunes, Amazon, Spotify and other services. Select tracks are streaming now via Soundcloud.