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. Read the previous installments here.
In 2015, Ben Falik, a.k.a. JULiA LEWiS, was unfulfilled with his job at an ad agency. When we sat down to talk that year, the Berkeley-born producer was hoping to quit his job to focus on a musical career. Falik had only a handful of production credits to his name back then, the most high-profile being a collaboration with former Zion I producer Amp Live. He spoke of San Francisco producer Mr. Carmack with reverence; his eyes lit up when he talked about his “dream” of collaborating with the Mad Decent- and Soulection-affiliated artist someday.
Now, two and a half years later, Falik is in his home studio in San Francisco, still beaming from the early September release of his track “On The Regular,” which he co-produced with Mikos Da Gawd (featured in an earlier installment of Behind The Beats), Oakland rapper-producer Elujay, and his dream collaborator, Mr. Carmack. He turns up the volume, bites his lower lip and bounces in his seat with pride.
“I connected to him through Mikos. We were here and he says, ‘Aaron (Carmack) wants to come over, you wanna hang?’” Falik says. “We did six tracks that one session, and now those tracks are developing into songs — the first one just dropped.”
Impromptu studio sessions like the one Falik describes are the lifeblood of a producer’s creativity, when artists get together and stay in the studio for hours, making beats and cutting tracks. In sessions like these, the rappers, singers and producers profiled in our Behind The Beats series forge musical collaborations and develop friendships that make major impacts on the current Bay Area hip-hop scene.
“There’s a level of unspoken trust, in that I can say these people are my friends and we make music together,” Falik says. “People come through and we make music and maybe hit up a bar. Music is my social life."
Falik notably produced more tracks than any other producer on Caleborate’s excellent album 1993 (one of KQED’s favorites of 2016). Throughout his five contributions to the album, Falik flexed his dynamic repertoire of styles from track to track, like the slow-burning “August 28th,” the glitchy bounce of “Mind Piece,” and the bombastic four-on-the-floor beat of “Consequences."
But no JULiA LEWiS production has showcased Falik’s unique vision quite like -- or garnered as much attention as -- Rexx Life Raj’s “Handheld GPS.” Falik's beat is syncopated, unpredictable — its buzzing effects emulate the thoughts scattered through Raj’s lyrics as he ponders feeling lost despite having technology to guide his every move. It’s that perfect moment in hip-hop when the production doesn't just complement the lyrics, but enhances them emotionally and allows them a deeper meaning.
“What I really like about his production is that there's always an underlying smoothness to it,” Rexx Life Raj says of Falik. “His chord progressions are super clean and the way he incorporates live instrumentation and samples is unparalleled. 'Handheld GPS' is still my most popular record to date and one of the records that's traveled the farthest for me. That's a testament to our chemistry, but also his talent."
Falik first took an interest in beat production in Fortaleza, Brazil, as a student at Occidental College’s study abroad program. While on a weekend trip to Salvador, a city in Bahia known for its samba music and seafood (think of it as the New Orleans of Brazil), Falik found himself in the historic Pelourinho district watching a performance by famed samba drum school Olodum.
Falik made a field recording of the drummers and brought it back to his host brother, who had a Brazilian guitar and wanted to record. “I put a Lil Wayne sample under Olodum drums and we did it,” Falik says with a chuckle and nostalgic gaze. “That rhythm of the drums and influence of Brazilian music -- that was the first time I started making beats.”
In addition to supplying beats for an upcoming Rexx Life Raj album, Falik has recently collaborated with Canadian producer Ryan Hemsworth and Bay Area rapper-producer P-Lo (also featured in Behind The Beats). But music is just a small part of his day-to-day. He does sales and marketing for Odang Udon, a fresh, pre-packaged Udon brand that he co-owns, as well as marketing and product design for Buena Vista pre-rolls, a cannabis company of which he also owns a small part.
“I took communication and product strategy from the ad world, but I guess I just didn’t want to enact someone else’s plan anymore as much as something that's yours that you give a shit about," he says. "Music is a similar hustle. It takes a certain amount of grit to keep going.”
While the full-time music career he envisioned two years ago hasn't overtaken his schedule exactly as planned, his production skills continue to rise to the top of the local hip-hop scene.
“I don’t have a finite image of success in my head. It’s not money and it’s not followers,” Falik says. “That being said, I continue to feel love from people who listen. The music I make isn’t mine: It’s like I’m picking up on a frequency... I can’t trace it back to anything but love. But it’s one of the only things that makes me feel like I can communicate and express fully."