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.
Everything is large about Studio A at Different Fur Studios in San Francisco's Mission district. The elevated mixing console goes from one end of the room to the other; a wall-to-wall window looks into the massive isolation room; two 300-pound Westlake Audio monitors flank a flat screen TV hanging above the window. The room almost feels like a spaceship command center.
This is where Oakland producer Drew Banga (neé Andrew Arnett) sits by himself on a Wednesday afternoon. Arnett looks small amid these imposing surroundings, but he speaks with boss-like matter-of-factness, waxing philosophical about the music industry as he listens to a remix of Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” and eats a Pepperidge Farm cookie.
"This song is a stripper anthem,” he says, finishing the bag of cookies. “But it’s bigger than that 'cause she says she’s not strippin' anymore.”
The Oakland School For The Arts grad is modestly clad in black skinny jeans and a plain gray T-shirt, his buzzed hair dyed bright red. The hair is a subtle stroke of flamboyance for the usually low-key bass player and producer who, modesty aside, has worked with some the Bay Area's biggest rising stars. His credits include Kamaiyah’s “I’m On,” Rexx Life Raj and ymtk’s “What’s Up,” 1-O.A.K.’s “Lost & Found” (which he co-produced with Kuya Beats) and Caleborate’s latest single, “Bankrobber” (with Chose1). He’s also the musical director for Duckwrth, overseeing every aspect of his live show and producing for the the Republic Records-signed rapper and singer.
“There’s not an artist in the Bay I haven’t produced for, done a song with or gone on tour with,” Arnett says. “I'm a producer. I don't sing, but I write. I try to make whatever I put my hands on better than what I heard before. And I'm all about cultivating people's sound."
Arnett didn’t start producing professionally until a year before making the “I’m On” beat for Kamaiyah in 2015. “I just wanted to be a touring bass player,” he says.
He was making beats and “giving ‘em away” when he realize he could make the type of music he was actually listening to.
With “I’m On,” Arnett was kicking around a sample from LL Cool J’s “Loungin (Who Do Ya Love)" in a production session for Kamaiyah with fellow Bay Area producers Trackademics and 1-O.A.K. (In addition to "I'm On" from A Good Night in the Ghetto, the three of them produced much of Kamaiyah’s highly-anticipated, forthcoming sophomore album.)
“I used the original Bernard Wright sample instead,” Arnett says. “It’s a four on the floor beat, so this one had different time signatures. Everything is upbeat here. I knew what I wanted to do 'cause everything I do is dramatic, ominous and deep. I had the foundation and built on top. It was exciting to make it cause I didn’t think about it, just heard a tempo and then cut it. I knew how I wanted it to bounce.”
Generally speaking, Arnett says he shies away from samples because the tedious process of clearing them affects his creativity. But a Drew Banga cut usually has a throwback feel, with bass lines that leave a lasting mark. “I'm lucky 'cause I play bass, so I can hear sounds and then play them,” he says. Whether he’s cutting up a vintage sample on “I’m On” or playing the silky bassline himself in “Bankrobber,” there's an underlying raw, organic instrumental sound that makes Arnett's production stand out. His collaborators agree.
“I remember when he sent me the beat. I was like, 'Oh yup! We got another one!'” Caleborate says of “Bankrobber.” “It took me a few weeks to get hit with the inspiration. But once I did, it felt like magic. To this day I still get hit with the same feeling every time I listen."
Of all of Arnett’s creations, he’s proudest of his children. A father of three, Arnett still lives in East Oakland, where he grew up. His oldest daughter is already taking after her old man at seven years old: Impressively enough, she has her own arts organization called Faith Creations, which helps kids ages three and up explore their artistic sides. “She has her own art gallery. She does ballet and she likes to DJ,” he says with a smile. “It takes a village to raise children though.”
Now a full-time producer and musician, Arnett spends most of his time at Different Fur as an in-house producer for the studio-affiliated label, Text Me Records. He has his gripes with the lack of an industry infrastructure in the Bay Area but sees his affiliation with Text Me as a tipping point.
“I work closely with artists at Text Me and I'm gonna be able to put the spotlight on a lot of artists in the Bay. Kinda like A&R-ing, but I'm producing too. The artist can be nobody and the producer can have such a big name and the song can go platinum. That’s what I want to do.”
As we’ll examine later in this week’s series, the trend for successful hip-hop producers in the Bay has been to move to bigger markets -- primarily Los Angeles -- to take the next step in their careers. But for now, Arnett is home.
“I don’t want to say I wanna be like Pharrell, but that’s kinda what I wanna be like,” he says. “His name reigns in everything that’s artistic. Why can’t I just be that person to make sure the Bay gets noticed too?”
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
Support is also provided by Yogen and Peggy Dalal, Diane B. Wilsey, the Kenneth Rainin Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Helen Sarah Steyer, the William and Gretchen Kimball Fund, and the members of KQED