As Lil Wayne's label disputes continue, the notoriously prolific rapper has been forced to figure out new ways to get music to his fans. With Tha Carter V shelved for now, new verses have been coming to the surface through remixes and guest appearances on singles from longtime collaborators like Nicki Minaj and DJ Khaled.
The most recent Wayne sighting comes through a guest feature on a bouncy, tropical house-inspired song called "Like A Man" from recording engineer-turned producer ONHEL.
When we found out that Wayne's verse wasn't an old throwaway lifted from the vault, but was actually recorded within the last few months, we got ONHEL on the phone to hear more about Wayne's current situation.
While his output has slowed, ONHEL tells us that Wayne's old habits haven't died. He's still logging long hours in the studio: "That's all he does. He just works. He's always in the studio working. That's his passion. I've been in this industry for 13 years and I've never met anybody that works as hard as him."
ONHEL has produced over 50 songs with Wayne over the years, but the only tracks that have been officially released ("Glory" and "President Carter") were built around a traditional boom bap sound. So, with "Like A Man," ONHEL hoped to show his range and legitimize himself as a producer in his own right through a more uptempo, electronic sound—and Wayne was all for it. But more than anything, he wanted to help get more Wayne music out in the world.
"I'm a big Lil Wayne fan, too," he says. "So, I wanted to just put it out. I'm a fan and I want all of his other fans to be able to hear something."
Listen to "Like A Man" above and continue for our full conversation with ONHEL.
When and how did you start working with Lil Wayne?
I first started engineering with Swizz Beats in like 2004 or 2005. My boy DVLP was working with Wayne on Tha Carter II, and that's when I met Wayne. Then one time he came up to New York and he needed an engineer, so I engineered for him. Then every once in a while they would call me to fill in and go down to Miami. That eventually became a full-time thing and I was working with him a lot more down there.
In that time, I was nominated for a Grammy for Tha Carter III and all that stuff. So, the whole time I was engineering for Wayne. Here and there I would do beats for him, but I never took the production side of it seriously. I was happy just engineering. The last few years, I started making a transition to a producer roll.
Was engineering for Wayne pretty much a full time job or were you working with other artists, too?
When I started working with Wayne, it was just Wayne. Because back then—and he still does this—it was 20 hour sessions every single day. You can't even do anything else. That's why I don't even engineer anymore, because it takes up so much time. You're working 20 hour days, go back and sleep for four hours, then go back to the studio. And repeat. Back then, it was pretty nutty.
When I started engineering, being an engineer meant something and there was money behind it. Now, the way Pro Tools is and everybody has a studio, it's kind of died out.
You've recently made the transition from an engineer to a producer. Why'd you decide to make that move?
When I started engineering, being an engineer meant something and there was money behind it. Now, the way Pro Tools is and everybody has a studio, it's kind of died out. I've always loved creating music, so because of that, I wanted to make the switch and start being more on the creative end of it and make residuals as opposed to chasing checks for engineering gigs.
When did that transition happen?
So, back with Like Father Like Son, I did something on the bonus discs called "Brown Paper Bag" and it had Swizz on it. I had that thing that got leaked recently, "Dinnertime," which was supposed to be for Tha Carter III but we never finished it. So I always had little things here and there. I had something on the Young Money album and I did "President Carter" on Carter IV. I got little placements here and there, but because of engineering, I didn't have the time to focus on producing and own my craft.
After being set in your role as an engineer for Wayne for so long, was it difficult to convince him to rap on your stuff when you started producing?
Because I was his engineer, I would work on the beats before he would show up. And with the "Brown Paper Bag" beat, I waited for him to start walking in, hit play and pretended like I was currently working on it. And it was funny because a month or two later, he made a comment about it and joked about it. He was like, "Yeah, I walked in and he pretended like he was working on a beat." [Laughs] Then he was like, "I didn't know you made beats."
And then for "President Carter," I had the idea because he always mentions himself as President Carter, so I looked up the inauguration and worked on the track with my boy Infamous. I played it for him and he went nuts for it immediately and he bodied it. I believe—I'm not totally sure—but that might be the only record that he recorded before he went to jail that he still kept for Tha Carter IV.
Those songs you previously produced for him were more traditional sounding hip-hop songs, but your new song "Like A Man" goes in a different direction. I'm curious how that song came together and why you thought Wayne would sound good on a different sounding beat like that.
That was the whole thing. I have probably 50 records with Wayne through the years of working with him. They all sound kind of different, but the only ones that came out were "President Carter" and "Glory" which both have a similar boom bap type of feel. So when we did the original version of "Like A Man," I told him, "Let's just put it out there," because I wanted to get my name out there more. And he was like "Hell yeah, whatever you want to do." And I worked on the production since then and switched it up. The pocket was the same but I made it a little bit different. So I sent that to him and he loved it.
What was the timeline like for "Like A Man?" When did you make the beat and when did Wayne rap on it?
A few months ago, he started recording it. That's when we had the conversation. But I wasn't comfortable with the track. I wanted it to be 100% perfect. So I just kept working on it and tweaking it. I went a few different routes musically until I found something I was really comfortable with. Then it took me about a week to get it to him.
Was the song always intended for Wayne?
Yeah, that was always for him. I had started it with a friend of mine, Sirome, and he had a little sample that said "A" and I just took that and chopped that up. I made it for him and called it "Discount Double Check" because he's a Packer's fan.
the day 'Tha Carter III' came out, I went to visit him at Platinum Sound in New York City and he was in the studio. I was like 'Yo, the album's out,' And he was still in the studio. That's just what he does.
Did it take Wayne any prodding to get him to rap on a song like this?
His recording process is: He goes in, listens to whatever, and whatever he wants to do, we put the beat on loop. He just listens to it, goes in the booth, and starts rapping. So he chose that one and recorded the song before I had any say in it. So it wasn't like I told him I wanted to put out a song and gave him this specific beat. He chose it.
He's going through a bunch of label stuff and hasn't put out an album for awhile. You were around during the mixtape days when he was constantly putting out music. How important do you think it is for him to keep figuring out ways to put out music like this with these one-off songs and collaborations? What's his current mentality like when it comes to releasing music?
I have no comment on that. But for me—with that song—I'm a big Lil Wayne fan, too. So, I wanted to just put it out. I'm a fan and I want all of his other fans to be able to hear something. Obviously with the whole legal thing going on, I know nothing of the current situation. But it's one of those things where I want to help feed the fans, including myself.
I'm curious, is he still in the studio as much as he's always been right now? Even if his legal situation prevents him from releasing all of it? Is he still recording those 20 hour days like you talked about and building a big vault of music?
I've engineered for him here and there recently. Not much, but when I was around, he was like that. I can't speak for when I'm not there, but that's all he does. He just works. He's always in the studio working. That's his passion. I've been in this industry for 13 years and I've never met anybody that works as hard as him. I mean, the day Tha Carter III came out, I went to visit him at Platinum Sound in New York City and he was in the studio. I was like "Yo, the album's out." And he was still in the studio. That's just what he does.
Is this song going on any project or album or anything? Or is it a one-off?
As of right now, it's a one-off. Due to the legal stuff, I don't know what I'm able to clear and not clear, you know what I mean? But if possible, I would love for it to be a single for a project. I'm still going to keep on working on records, try to work with as many artists as possible, and utilize this as a stepping stone. For me, I've always been the guy in the background. And that's kind of what I was explaining to Wayne, that I want to put my name out there more.
But what happened was, when I sent it to him, I had uploaded the links to SoundCloud and YouTube, but I had never published them. And I text him the link and I was going to wait for him to reply. And he was like, "Oh no, don't put it up yet." So I deleted it and somehow within a half hour, the internet did what it was able to do.
Are there any other things you're working on that you would like people to know about?
With Wayne, we're always working. I always send him records and whatever he uses, I put to the side. Outside of that, I'm working on being as creative as possible. Working with songwriters and trying to get on as many songs as I possibly can. Obviously with the way "Like A Man" sounds, I'm trying to go in a little more of a pop urban route than the boom bap sound.