Vince Staples took a risk.
After working closely with veteran hip-hop producer No I.D. on his debut album, Summertime '06, Staples rolled the dice and found a new right-hand man: Zack Sekoff, a relatively unknown 21-year-old electronic producer from Los Angeles.
The two had known each other for years after meeting through Staples' DJ Westside Ty, a mutual friend, but hadn't ever worked on music together. Instead of collaborators, they were the kind of friends who swapped life advice.
Sekoff recalls waiting in line with Staples for the Riddler's Revenge ride at Six Flags as a 17-year-old. Itching to get his music career off the ground, Sekoff told Staples he was thinking about skipping college and jumping straight in to music. With his own rap career starting to take off, Staples encouraged Sekoff to go to school and take advantage of an opportunity that was never available to himself. He urged Sekoff to "follow [his] curiosities and think about things a little deeper."
Four years later, Sekoff is nearing graduation from Yale and Staples owes much of the success of his new album to Sekoff—who acted as an architect of Big Fish Theory's forward-thinking sound.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Sekoff came up in L.A.’s beat scene and was viewed by some as a prodigy, playing Low End Theory's popular experimental electronic music club as a teenager and collaborating with Thundercat.
When Staples began working on his sophomore album, he brought in Sekoff, who ended up serving as an in-house producer of sorts and landed official production credits on five of the album's tracks. Influenced by a semester abroad in London, Sekoff's interest in UK garage music and progressive electronic production techniques had a major impact on the album's inventive, dance-inspired sonic direction.
Read our interview with Sekoff below, in which he discusses working closely with Vince to find Big Fish Theory's futuristic sound.
When and how did you start collaborating with Vince on this project?
This all kind of came about at the end of last summer when he was about to drop the Prima Donna EP. Vince asked me to help him compose some music for his live show. Right around then, he said, "Yo, I'm trying to work on a new album. Send me a pack of beats." So I sent him like 10 beats and he picked the absolute weirdest ones. The ones that I would have not have guessed that he'd want.
When you're a producer and someone asks you for beats, you think, "Okay, let me think about their last record.” So I sent some beats that reminded me of Summertime '06 that were kind of "Vince Staples type beats" [laughs]. But then I realized that wasn’t what he was looking for from me. He really didn't want me to project any sort of idea about what he might want.
He was listening to Detroit music and house music and just electronic music of all kinds.
So, then I started going over and hanging out with him at Ty's house and played beats for him—going to the weirdest ones that I thought he wouldn’t like. And he kept saying, "Yeah, go in that direction." One of those was the beat that became "Crabs In a Bucket," which was kind of my take on UK garage with swing drums. Around September of last year, I realized that was the sound he was listening to. He was listening to Detroit music and house music and just electronic music of all kinds.
Why do you think this was the right time for you and Vince to work together after knowing each other for so long?
I think it mostly came out of a mutual curiosity about what a rap album could be. Thinking about what the limits of rhythm and tempo might be. I think we had built up a friendship where we were willing to suggest out-of-the-box things to each other. You know, he would say, "I need something that has this kind of tempo and makes me feel like this," and he trusted that I could explore that and see where it went. I didn't have any inhibitions.
You just mentioned the importance of tempo and I remember reading an interview where Vince’s manager said that “tempo was the driving force of this album.” Do you agree?
Vince and I were both talking about how there are so many beats that you could change to be a different style by just switching the tempo. It could start out slow and sound like a trap beat, but then you could speed it up and it would somehow sound like a footwork thing with really fast hi-hats.
Those kinds of conversations were already going on, then I did a semester abroad in London. So I headed out there for three months in the midst of us trying to figure out the sound of the album.
When I was out there in London, I got more and more immersed and familiar with the ethos of tempo and style that operates out there—and the long connections between grime and garage and dance music in general. I was looking back at the beginnings of grime and some of Wiley's stuff and how that was really about blurring the lines between dance music and rap and Jungle and whatever. So, when I was out there, I was listening to a lot of that. You know, Burial, Zomby, that kind of stuff. And listening to rappers like Novelist and Wiley and seeing how they would approach beats that no rapper in America would touch, to be honest.
But I had this feeling that Vince not only was willing to go to a place where he was willing to rap over things that most people weren't willing to rap over. I think that he's got such a distinct voice, flow, and perspective. He's so good that he can attack things that most people couldn't.
WE WERE TRYING TO FIND THE MIDDLE GROUND BETWEEN STRETCHING OURSELVES PAST OUR COMFORT ZONE AND STILL MAKING SOMETHING THAT WE COULD DANCE TO, NOD OUR HEADS TO, AND FEEL GOOD ABOUT DRIVING IN THE CAR TO.
I play jazz music too, and it kind of reminded me of an idea where you can prove yourself as the ultimate soloist by playing over really fast chord changes and harmonic environments that most players couldn't be themselves on. I was just thinking about how talented Vince is at what he does and how we could apply some of the same logic and push the music to be faster and more complex—but still try to make it work. And still land it and not just be out there on some "oh they tried something that was really weird." So we were trying to find the middle ground between stretching ourselves past our comfort zone and still making something that we could dance to, nod our heads to, and feel good about driving in the car to.
Leading up to the album, Vince had been dabbling in electronic music and working with producers who rappers don't normally work with, like GTA. Did Vince or any of you guys have a clear vision for the sound before getting started on the album? Or how did that sound emerge?
I think what Vince wanted to do was take a risk and to explore something that he had never explored before. Him working with James Blake and GTA kind of opened his palette and allowed him to realize that he could rap over beats that most people wouldn't want to rap over. And this is stuff that he really enjoys listening to in his own time. So I think he had a template of where he wanted to go with it.
But he was really open to see what would happen, too. We did a lot of trading beats back and forth and had a lot of conversations about the sounds he heard in his head—because he's kind of a producer in his own right in the fact that he has these visions. He has a vision for what things should sound like, even when you don't get it right away. So I decided to follow where his head is at and try to match him with some stuff that I really like and see where that middle ground is.
The sounds emerged out of the way that he picked the beats I sent him. Then I would respond and make new things that I thought were furthering that sound: more synthesizers, heavy bass, and a tempo that was propulsive. Something that was urgent. Because Vince has got a manic and urgent energy. Knowing him for so long, I've always known that was a part of his personality.
Were you guys ever worried that people wouldn’t understand this album, since you experimented and took so many risks? And now that it’s out, what does it feel like to have the response be so overwhelmingly positive so far?
It feels really good to take a risk and have people understand it. There's almost nothing better than that. I've felt over the last few years that there's been this idea that everything’s been done already. And with everyone on the internet doing everything, there's nothing new under the sun. Vince and I just didn't buy that. We didn't buy it and we realized that a lot of our favorite stuff happens when people do the unexpected and do something that pushes things forward.
I was never concerned, because I knew that Vince's vision was so strong. His personality comes through so clearly on the music that I knew it would all tie itself together. You know, we didn't set out to make an avant garde noise music record with no tempo, either. At the end of the day, we wanted to make people dance and we realized that's kind of a universal language: rhythm.
At the end of the day, we wanted to make people dance and we realized that's kind of a universal language: rhythm.
It was definitely a risk, but it wasn't something we were very worried about. We were more excited about being creative and trying new things. And for myself, I was excited to push my own production to a new place that I wouldn't necessarily go if I was by myself in a room. To hear what I think is one of the best rappers in the world right now try to rap on these beats and make it make sense—I was always excited about it. I like when you hear rappers try new things. My favorite André 3000 record is A Love Below, where he's singing the whole time. And I love 808s and Heartbreak and I love Yeezus. You know, I could keep listing more of these albums that go outside of what's normally expected from an artist. Those are always my favorite, so I thought, why not try to do that?
I heard "Crabs In The Bucket" came pretty early on in the process and it ended up being used as the intro to the album. Did that song help inform the direction of the project for you guys?
Yeah, that one kind of set the tone for both of us because it was a beat that I was stretching to make in a lot of ways. I've always liked swingy drums. Like, J Dilla or Madlib or whatever. Things that swing and feel kind of floaty. When I realized that Vince was really liking that track, I felt like it gave me a license to go even further and to explore that.
But it wasn't like Vince said, "Okay, I want a UK garage beat." I think it informed a lot of the decisions that came later on in the album—just the fact that he was open to it and hearing how he could be himself in that strange environment and how he could tie together some some of the out-there stuff that I was doing.
You think a Vince Staples album is going to be one way. You think working with Justin Vernon will go another way. But music is so vast and we can really do anything if we're open to it and willing to try it. That was really inspiring to me.
That went all the way to songs like “Homage." I think "Homage" was the beat that I was most surprised to hear what he came back with. That beat was just so—there are no rap beats out there right now that have that kind of tempo. But it's not like it's unprecedented either, in the genre. If you look back and think about some things that OutKast have done, particularly. Even going back to "Bombs Over Baghdad" or some of the things on The Love Below. There's a history of it, going back to the beginnings of hip-hop where people were listening to Kraftwerk and a bunch of different electronic music.
One of my big references for making electronic music with a rapper right now was thinking about how electronic music and dance music kind of started in the U.S. in a lot of ways. In cities like Chicago and Detroit and even L.A., there were big scenes of jungle and house music and party music. For some reason it just felt like, more and more, it was either interesting stuff that was happening in the United Kingdom and Europe. Or it was American dance music that was all about Coachella, big raves, big production value, and the big drop. Kind of not as nuanced, you know? I was curious: Is there no room for that anymore? Is it only big room house music? Or can we make electronic music that's new?
I see Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has co-production credits on “Crabs In A Bucket.” How did he get involved and what did he contribute to that song?
Justin was interested in working with Vince for a little while. Vince and his manager Corey had mentioned that he was interested in working on some stuff. And I was thinking, you know, Bon Iver... I was thinking about his solo records and the acoustic guitar stuff he's done. And I thought that couldn't be further from what we're doing on this album, which is so electronic and synthesizer-based.
But then I thought about his history of working with Kanye West and his work on Yeezus and how much I love that stuff. So, basically, the beat was pretty much done. Then we sent him the stems to it and he did some stuff on his tour bus and sent back a bunch of synthesizer work. So some of those chords that happen in the bridge were his and he did some sound design on the beat.
It was a really cool, unexpected perspective on it. We were like, "Whoa, this is different." That's kind of the story of the whole album. You think you're going to do one thing. You think a Vince Staples album is going to be one way. You think working with Justin Vernon will go another way. But music is so vast and we can really do anything if we're open to it and willing to try it. That was really inspiring to me.
You mentioned that Vince almost acted like a producer himself on this project. I was wondering how closely he worked with you guys and how much input he had on the production side of things.
Vince always goes for a feeling that he wants to get. He knows what he wants to rap over and what he doesn't want to rap over. It's really important for him to have a say in that. Vince has a real specific idea about how he wants to present his work and what kind of palette he envisions.
that's what we were going for with the sound of the album—seeing what happens when you put the same fish in a bunch of different ponds.
He's definitely very hands on. During the recording process, I had a little beat making station upstairs above the studio where we were recording. So there was a lot of me running down and helping Vince finish vocal takes, then he would come up and listen to what I was messing around with upstairs. And he would give his input on the beats I was making. But it was always quick and manic because we're both kind of manic people. We move very fast and talk a lot. So, we kind of talk a bunch to each other, then go off in our own corners and then come back and see what we got. But he's always very involved and always wants to think about it and talk about it. I feel really lucky to have that.
You guys used part of an Amy Winehouse interview at the beginning of “Alyssa Interlude.” I heard she was a big influence for Vince. Do you know why he wanted to include that specific clip on the album?
That was Vince’s suggestion. I think for all of us, there are these shining examples of artists that really stick to their vision. That's really difficult sometimes. Especially with her. I can't speak for Vince about how that resonated for him, but it resonated for me—especially that clip. She's talking about the way that her real life interacts with her music-making and her songwriting.
She’s talking about how you want to create something that's raw and real, but you also want to distance yourself and make something that you can control. That really felt like what was happening when we were making the album. We all brought a lot of different emotions to it, and we were all very honest the whole time. But we were also very careful to make the record that we wanted to make. It's the balance between trying to keep your sanity, but also trying to be raw and emotional when you're making music. You can put yourself out there sometimes and it can be crushing. For me, it was just an inspirational moment when he brought that up. It was a way for me to hear where his head was at, through her. It was kind of haunting.
This came out right after I came back from an electronic dance music festival, and a lot of the sounds reminded me of what I’d been hearing out there… but through a darker lens. Were you guys listening to a lot of electronic dance music when you put this together or how much influence would you say those sounds have?
As a producer that uses the computer and synthesizers to make electronic music, there are certain sounds that sound good and resonate. But I think we're in a weird moment where the idea of electronic music became synonymous with a kind of hedonistic release in our culture that doesn't really have much to do with anything.
I've been to some of those festivals and there's a weird lack of emotional or even societal context to any of that. But when you go to London, it means something to be a fan of jungle. It comes out of a certain lineage, from Jamaican music. And it relates to the movement of people and history and community. You know, real people stuff that I think is more pressing in our moment right now than ever before.
Vince and I are both looking at the same thing in the world—and it looks kind of dark sometimes.
But it's bizarre that, especially in American culture, electronic music has come to be a place for a mindless release of energy with build-ups and drops. I think people feel pretty pent up and there's a lot of energy and frustration. But when you look at groups from Detroit like Underground Resistance who made techno music in the 1990s, they had a real project about community, politics, and urban space.
When you go out in the desert to Ultra or music festivals like that, people just want to be there and feel the energy. I understand that, but for some reason in America, we want to de-contextualize all of it. Whatever the trend is, people are down to go there. Not to be preachy about it, but maybe the reason that you feel these sounds are recognizable but made darker is because Vince and I are both looking at the same thing in the world—and it looks kind of dark sometimes.
How would you describe the sound of this album to someone who hasn’t heard it yet?
Ooh, that is a tough one. For me, it's just a reexamination of all these different sounds and rhythms that I've encountered in a lot of different settings. To me, when I listen to garage music with that swing, I think of super uptempo jazz—that hi-hat that happens on the upbeat reminds me of swing. It reminds me of jazz. And when I hear something like "745," it reminds me of how much I love synth bass. It makes me think of how much I love Stevie Wonder's synth bass and Parliament Funkadelic. When Vince talks about bassy sounds, I think about how much I love Sun Ra. I can't put a genre on it, because that's kind of the point. We just went for what felt right and thought about what it was later.
What does the "big fish theory" mean to you?
That's something I've thought about a lot. For me, it's all about context. It's about big fish in a small pond and small fish in a big pond. It’s about how your conception of yourself in different contexts really shifts and can be dizzying.
What kind of ponds can Vince go into and what will that tell us about who he is?
Growing up in L.A., there was a certain context that I was used to. Then, going across the country to school, it was like: “Whoa, no one here is trying to be a beat maker. There are people trying to be global health workers and foreign affairs correspondents.” So I felt like a very different kind of fish in that pond. And going to London, I felt like a very different kind of fish. For me at least, that's what we were going for with the sound of the album—seeing what happens when you put the same fish in a bunch of different ponds. Does that make it harder to see what that fish is? Or does it kind of illuminate what that fish really is?
That's something I think about in my own life, about how shifting context and shifting environments challenges you to think about who you are without the trappings of, “Oh, this is my community and this is my place.” That's what I was thinking about with genre and tempos and sounds and context.
What kind of ponds can Vince go into and what will that tell us about who he is? That goes along with a lot of the experiences that both Vince and I were going through at the time—being in different places that were unfamiliar and trying to stay true to who we are and what we believe in.