Producer Boi-1da Distills Dancehall Vibes for the Hip-Hop Masses

How the Kingston-born, Toronto-raised hitmaker keeps Drake and Rihanna at the top of the charts

🎨 Artwork: Autis Van Anonymous Personne

Can you imagine the global soundscape without the outsized influence of Canadian musicians this decade? Alongside the rise of sensitive and emotional raps via Drake, the ubiquitous, downtempo, synthpad-based beats from Toronto have left an unmistakable impact on the world of music production. One of the architects behind this evolution is producer Matthew Jehu Samuels, professionally known as Boi-1da.

Last year, millions of people dancing to the tropical vibes of Rihanna’s “Work” and Drake’s “Controlla” were following the vision brought by Boi-1da—born in Kingston, Jamaica, and raised in Toronto.

Drake’s latest record-smashing project, a “playlist” named More Life, features Boi-1da on the production of the opening and closing songs, respectively “Free Smoke” and “Do Not Disturb.” Three weeks ago, French magazine International Hip-Hop reached out to me to meet with 1da a few hours before his first DJ gig in Paris. For a good half-hour, him and I exchanged views about beatmaking, the global world of music, and his big next move: his very own label.

This is your first time playing in Paris.

Yeah, first time. I’ve been here before but I didn’t really get the chance to really explore, see the people, interact… I was in the studio most of the time. It’s going to be a nice experience.

Have you been listening to artists of the European scene?

Definitely been hearing some new stuff along the way. I’ve been on this tour across Europe. I was in London the other day, and was put on a lot of new rappers. I was put on J Hus, Giggs, Section Boyz… A whole lot of dope acts out there. Also, I heard some Booba, he’s really dope. And these two rappers…

PNL?

…I heard some of their stuff too. They’re pretty dope, from what I heard. I don’t really understand what they’re saying but I like the vibe of it, you know? What’s intriguing about everything over here is that there’s different cadences, different soundscapes, it’s very different out here. I’ve been living in North America for all my life. To come across upon in here, and hear something brand new, see how people react to it… I was at Skepta’s after party for the BRIT Awards, and I was just Shazaming everything. The way people are going off to these songs, the bounces of these songs… I’ve never heard anything like this. I was hearing stuff like Stefflon Don. There’s just a bunch of new sounds, of new people.

I think we all owe a lot to Drake for sharing his light on new and diverse scenes, such as U.K. rap, African and Jamaican sounds.

Of course. Drake is so diverse in what he listens to. His ear for music is so great. That’s why he’s such a great artist. He doesn’t just keep himself inside the box. There’s more to life than just listening to trap music, rap music, boom-bap — however you want to classify. There’s so much music out there in the world, so…

Produced by Boi-1da & Allen Ritter.

Do you listen to a lot of music? Considering that you’re a pretty busy and active producer. Do you have the time to listen to a lot of things outside of what you’re working on?

Yeah, I listen to a lot of stuff. Having Drake as a friend also helps. He puts me on a lot of new music. Sometimes, I don’t personally go out there and venture out looking for new things myself, but I have good friends around me that are playing me stuff, put me on new things. Traveling also helps as well. I always keep my ear open. If you listen to the sound of my production, I’m always willing to try different stuff, push the envelope.

I love how you use the samples from Frank Dukes’ Kingsway Music Library. Is that useful to you as a way to get around the frustrations of sampling and the legal situations it might create?

Definitely. That was a way of getting past sampling. As well as the feeling of sampling, I love it. I didn’t want to not sample things. Frank Dukes is one of the most talented producers in the world, having him and meeting up with him, working directly with him has just been a pleasure and made life so much easier. We just do records together, it comes out so effortlessly. It’s really fun, I really enjoy this. I get back to sampling without actually sampling.

Produced by Boi-1da & Frank Dukes, additional production by Allen Ritter.

When you make beats, do you think about the influence your decisions might have on the world of producing? If you decide this specific cadence or new snare drum sound is cool, the next day you’ll see 100 Boi-1da type beats on YouTube emulating this sound.

I really just go with the flow. I know my sound is very influential, but it comes from me being influenced by people like Dre, Timbaland, Swizz Beats, people like that. I’m always down to experiment, try something new. I’m actually trying to figure out something new right now. I’m trying to make 909s pop. You know, everybody’s been on these 808 sounds for a minute. I’m trying to figure out 909s… We’re gonna figure it out.

Do you ever search for Boi-1da type beats, to see what the copycats are doing?

You know what? I did, like, years ago. But I haven’t been looking up recently. I think I’m going to go look it up and see what it sounds like these days.

What do you think of this whole business of producers doing type beats, duplicating original identities of popular producers and creating a real economy out of this?

To each his own. Can’t stop the people that are going to do what they do. If you make a motion picture, somebody’s going to bootleg it. If you want to go to the movie theatre and get the best quality, you have to come to the source. You can’t stop the bootleggers, you can’t stop the copycats. I just live, I don’t worry about things like that.

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If you were 15 right now, and you were discovering FL Studio today, which producer do you think you would look up to the most?

If I was a new producer right now, I’d probably look up to Nineteen85 the most. I think he’s one of the most flawless producers out there. I’d also look up to Illangelo, Metro Boomin, Southside, 40… There’s so many dope producers, I can’t really pick one, so many different styles.

When was the last time you heard a track and you thought ‘I wish I was the producer behind this one?’

Oh, man. Recently, I heard a track by Future called Mask Off. I don’t know who produced that beat, but I love it. The flute — it reminds me of Bobby Valentino, when he had these Asian influenced beats.

How does it feel to know that the Toronto sound you pioneered might leave an even bigger mark on hip-hop history than the G-funk California sound, the DJ Premier New York sound of the 90s…? The sounds of Toronto and Atlanta are lasting so long that I believe they might eventually become the new blueprint of the hip-hop sound.

It’s incredible. As a kid growing up, I really looked up to Dr. Dre. I looked up to the fact Dre was a man who had eras in music — the Snoop Dogg era, then the Dr. Dre era, the Eminem era, then 50 Cent era, the Kendrick Lamar era… Decades of music. I was really influenced by Dre, he’s my favorite producer and I think he’s the greatest of all times. To be a part of something, from where I’m from, pioneering this Toronto sound… It’s amazing. I literally dreamed of nothing else but to do something like that. I’m glad I was able to accomplish something. I feel like I still got more to accomplish and things to do in my life.

That’s crazy to think of how influential that sound is. We’ve always had talent in Canada. All these artists you’re now hearing in the mainstream — The Weeknd, Drake, Justin Bieber, PartyNextDoor… So many producers, Frank Dukes, T-Minus, Wondagurl… There’s so much talent. God bless the Internet, it helped us out a lot. It’s been a long time coming.

You’ve been producing for the most important artists of your time — Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj. Besides Beyoncé, who do you have left on your producer’s bucket list?

As much as I’d love to work with Beyoncé — I love Beyoncé — right now, I want to start a label. I actually signed my first artist. His name is Joyner Lucas, he’s a rapper. First time I ever heard of him, I was like, yo, I need to work with this guy. So, me and him almost have an entire project done.

Produced by Boi-1da & Vinylz

You produced the whole thing?

Majority of it. I executive produced it, me and Joyner. It will be coming out soon. It’s a great, great body of work. It’s going to be a breakout to him, and a lot of people are going to notice Joyner Lucas. There’s this artist I really love named Snoh Aalegra. I’m doing a whole project with her too, I think she’s really amazing. Same way I feel about Joyner, I feel about her too. I want to take my time, keep things simple. I’m just worried about the quality of my music.

Did you ever produce a track that you were sure would end up being a smash, and it didn’t work out the way you thought?

Honestly, you know what? I knew “Best I Ever Had” was a great song, I just never thought that was going to be the massive hit that it was. When I feel like something’s going to be global, it’s usually good.

I’ve read somewhere that the first time you’ve heard Drake’s One Dance, you told him you knew this was going to be his first #1 record. How could you know?

How could you not? When I heard the first 10 seconds of One Dance, I told him this is a hit. From the first 10 seconds. When I heard the ‘baby I like your style.’ Then I heard all the way up to the chorus, and I told him to turn it down. I told him this is it. Then I asked him to rewind it from the start. I just knew it was a hit. And it was a hit. Great song, undeniable.

In a lot of your interviews, you mention that you like Drake as an artist, but also as a lyricist. Do you have a favorite Drake line or verse?

My favorite Drake song is Fear. I was around when all the stuff he’s talking about in the song was going on, and that was marvellous how he was able to put what’s going on in his life and exactly how he’s feeling onto a song. When I heard it, I was like, man… This is sick that you can do that, you have a serious gift. A lot of people can’t just put out how they feel completely in a song. That was exactly him at that moment. It doesn’t get any realer than that song. That whole song is top to bottom amazing to me.

Produced by Dj Khalil.

What would be the first track of yours you’d play to me if we just met right now?

We just met right now 😂

Right — I mean, if we met and I had no idea what your music was.

I’d ask you what you like first.

Let’s say I’m into very melodic music.

Then probably “Controlla” Or “Work.”

Produced by Boi-1da, Sevn Thomas & Allen Ritter.

You were born in Jamaica and grew up in Canada. How does it feel to witness something mixing your origins becoming such a huge influence and phenomenon?

It feels great, because I grew up listening to dancehall music. I actually listened to dancehall before I listened to hip-hop. That beat in particular came from being around my dad, he used to play dancehall. He listened to Beenie Man, Sean Paul… That beat was literally a 90s dancehall moment in 2016. I wanted that same feeling I had when I heard “Get Busy” by Sean Paul. On “0 to 100” you hear that and it sounds like Wu-Tang, you know? I’m just trying to create nostalgic moments that I enjoyed in my past and modernize it.

Nostalgia can often sound dusty, yet you managed to find a way to make it sound new and fresh. Do you think some people go back to the influences you bring to the table? Do you think kids who listened to “0 to 100” went back to the Wu-Tang?

Probably not. But as long as they’ve got the same feeling I got when I heard the Wu-Tang, Mobb Deep, Sean Paul, that’s my job done.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment to date?

I don’t think it’s happened to me yet. I don’t think I’ve accomplished to best thing I’ll ever accomplish yet, music-wise. I feel like things just got started.

Produced by Boi-1da, 40 & Allen Ritter.
💽 Enjoy the playlist on Spotify — my 20 favorite Boi-1da songs.