Music producers play a crucial role in cultivating an artist's sound even though they're rarely in the spotlight themselves. In this five-part series, KQED Arts contributor Adrian Spinelli goes behind the scenes with the Bay Area's most innovative and influential up-and-coming hip-hop producers.
Miles Douglas walks up Bernal Hill on a brisk Tuesday afternoon when something catches his attention. Douglas, more commonly known by his production moniker, Mikos Da Gawd, stops his stride and turns to face a memorial for Alex Nieto, the 28-year-old Bernal Heights resident who was shot and killed by four San Francisco police officers in 2014.
“I have to say a prayer real quick,” Douglas says before bowing towards the makeshift shrine.
“He was a close friend of mine.”
The 29-year-old Douglas was raised in a Buddhist household in Bayview and met Nieto through Soka Gakkai International, a diverse Buddhist center of which both men were members. Soka Gakkai says it promotes “peace, culture and education through personal transformation and social contribution” and Douglas’ stoic, calm nature emulates this maxim. He talks about a Buddhist retreat he went on with Nieto and four other friends a while back. Two of them are now dead, he says. When he mentions an aunt who took her own life when he was younger, he speaks with gravity but maintains an aura of serenity.
“I dealt with death early,” he says. “It’s a trip how life goes.”
Despite life's ups and downs, poise seems to be Douglas' constant. As one of the Bay Area's most prolific producers, he’s trusted with providing a musical canvas for singers and rappers, allowing them to showcase their vocal talents by grounding their projects in a unified aesthetic. Douglas first gained recognition when he was featured on one of the first White Label releases from popular L.A.-based collective Soulection in 2014; that same year, he produced a cut on budding superstar Anderson .Paak’s debut LP, Venice. The track, “Already,” was recently featured on HBO’s hit series Insecure.
Douglas also co-produced San Francisco nerd-rapper Watsky’s hit “Whoa, Whoa, Whoa” with fellow local Mr. Carmack, his high school classmate. These days, Mikos Da Gawd is a go-to beatmaker for some of the Bay Area’s best rappers, including Caleborate, Zion I, Jay Ant, Rexx Life Raj, and Elujay, as well as R&B singer Rayana Jay.
Among his credits with Jay is her 2016 break-out single “Sleepy Brown,” perhaps one of the most fluid productions to come out of the Bay Area that year. It features a soulful groove, clean bounce, sticky break beat and whirring keys spinning around Jay’s blissful vocals. Jay says their collaborative process was natural and that Douglas just went to work. “I was looking for a sound and without explaining what that sound was, he just had it,” she says.
Ask any vocalist and they’ll tell you a producer’s role is tantamount to theirs, but Douglas' emphasis on old-school musicianship is refreshing. He breaks down the “Sleepy Brown” beat with an orchestra conductor's vernacular.
“I started playing piano when I was 19 or 20 and I learned how to compose funky, sophisticated chord progressions,” he says. “Those combined with that bounce -- it's hip-hop, but also deep house, just slower. There’s sub-bass underneath each chord and legato and staccato beats. In a way, that song was kind of a coming out party for me. 'Cause the Soulection stuff had died down, so it left me super hungry to continue to grow.”
Playing piano sets Douglas apart from producers who primarily work with Ableton Live or Logic, but his obsession with production software began at A.P. Giannini Middle School in the Sunset district.
“There was a DJ club at school and they were teaching Fruity Loops [production software]. It was like a bomb went off in my brain. I didn’t even look outside for a while. I was trying to learn how to produce and DJ for so long.”
Douglas still relishes that time indoors, tucked away in the studio -- except he’s not always by himself anymore. Just as producers and vocalists need each other, fellow producers can drive one another's creativity. Douglas is part of a loosely formed Bay Area collective of hip-hop producers, many of whom we’ll be profiling this week as part of this series. "In producer culture, we stay in a room and work," he says. "It’s about bringing people together and creating these collages.”
As we descend back down Bernal Hill, Douglas points to San Francisco General Hospital in the distance. "I was born right there," he says. On the lower part of the hill, the cold wind chill dies down and a warm breeze sweeps across his open black hoodie. He stares at the building where his life began and ponders his purpose.
“People lose sight of the fact that you can make a huge impact while remaining mysterious," he says. "That’s kinda why I got into producing.”