Interview: Swiff D shares insight into his production for Lil Wayne and Kevin Gates, and the incomparable genius of J Dilla.
Swiff D was the one kid in Ontario, California who was listening to Biggie growing up. "You could walk down the block and hear a whole Suga Free album from like 15 boom boxes simultaneously," he says of the West Coast fixation of his neighborhood. "My main thing was not wanting to sound like what everyone else did, but making sure people knew where I came from."
The producer has done a good job of balancing his origins and his infatuation with J Dilla, bringing him together with artists as diverse as ScHoolboy Q, Jadakiss, Anthony Hamilton, Kevin Gates, Lil Wayne, and Bryson Tiller. While his focus has always been hip-hop, his array of influences has given his production an R&B edge, bringing out the more melodic sides of his collaborators while always maintaining a knock that would make Dilla proud. "Since I'm a musical guy, I liked everything that Rodney Jerkins was doing back in the day," he says. "Stuff that had heavy drums, but was still musical and fun. It wasn't too pretty, but it was still something you could bounce to. I told myself that if I did R&B stuff like that, whatever I'll do, I still wanted it to sound like it's bangin'. I gravitated to that sound."
Swiff comes from a musical family where everyone sang or played an instrument, but as a shy kid he began with drums before vocals, which eventually brought him to production. He went to college with basketball as his primary focus, but music quickly began to take precedence as he earned placements for his beats.
"Bobby Valentino's first album - I had a song on there called 'Gangsta Love,'" he recalls. "I was a sophomore in college, and I though I was the man, it was so funny. I texted everybody and told them - cause the album was coming out Tuesday, I told them to go buy that album 'cause I did a track on it. A lot of people didn't really know that I was serious about it, but they saw in the credits that it had my name, and they were like "oh shit, this is for real." So, I went from there to going down to my first studio in LA, and started shaking hands with everybody. A little after that, I got on Anthony Hamilton's second album. Those were the first two big joints."
Linking with Pac Div
Some of Swiff's earliest collaborations came with his role as the in-house producer to Southern California trio Pac Div, who he has continued to work on-and-ff with ever since. He's contributed beats to both their studio albums, The DiV and GMB, as well as their many free projects. The beatmaker reveals that his first encounters with one of the group's emcees, Mibbs, was on the basketball court.
"I met Mibbs on a basketball court my freshman year. I saw him dribbling - it was kind of an insult how he was coming down the court, and I was like 'man, I need to know who this dude is cause he really think he the greatest dude.' And from there on, we had played on the same team together," he says."They always rapped, I didn't make beats at the time, but I knew kids at my school who rapped as well that I thought was tight. I would make Mibbs and LIKE battle everyone at my school, and they would just torch everybody, destroy everybody. LIKE was making beats already back then, and his beats were incredible, still are. Just off bouncing ideas back and forth, I got better and better."
While they became collaborators pretty quickly, Swiff recalled one hilarious story that more or less got things started. "There was one time they put me on the spot - this was the birth of it," he remembers. "They wasn't really rocking with me back then, but I had some new beats. LIKE wanted to hear 'em, and he told everybody to go outside to the car, and it was like 50 people. They all was trashing me, thinking it was gonna be garbage. And I made a huge change in that moment cause everyone started wildin' out. From there on, we decided we needed to team up, and I was their go-to guy. And it did what it did. To this day."
Producing Kevin Gates' "Paper Chasers" and "Time For That"
Kevin Gates' "Paper Chasers" from his 2013 mixtape, The Luca Brasi Story, has become something of a fan favorite. Swiff says he didn't actually know much about Gates when he did the track, but once he heard the final version, he was sold. "Kevin killed that joint!" he exclaims. "After that, I wound up meeting him, and he's a real cool dude, right. Real standup dude. The same way he talks on camera is the same way he is in person, starts dropping game instantly. He had everyone in there dying."
Swiff says "Time For That" was a beat he nearly trashed, but went back to one last time only to realize it had some serious potential. He decided to bring it to Atlantic hoping to place it with one of their artists. "The day I took it there, I played it, and they said "this is a Kevin Gates record. This has to go to Kevin Gates, I'm sending it to him right now." And then, probably a day or two later, he has the full song on his Instagram. And I was like 'Whoa, ok, this is happening.' And I had two joints he was doing for the album - the first was a single, and the second got squashed cause they didn't finish it in time. It was supposed to be the next single. I was just blessed cause a little time before then, I was gonna delete that beat. A little piece of advice, save everything."
Bringing the beast out of Lil Wayne
The intro to DJ Drama's Quality Street Music features an exhilarating performance from Lil Wayne, one many have likened to his unstoppable mixtape streak in the 00s. Weezy doesn't sound that hungry as often these days, and Swiff's heavy, introspective beat surely had a hand in bringing out such a furious verse from the legendary rapper.
After playing the beat for both Meek Mill and Dr. Dre, Swiff got an exciting call from DJ Drama who wanted to know if the beat was still open. "So they put the phone to the speaker, and played me Wayne`s verse," he says. "I was like "What is that?" And they told me not to let nobody get that beat, it's the craziest shit, and it'll destroy when it comes out. Wayne seriously spat on that, and it meant a lot that it was just him on there."
According to Drama, Wayne took to the instrumental right away. "They were telling me that they were in the studio, and Wayne was down to do the first song on the album, but he wanted to hear something that he knew was the one. He basically said that as soon as he heard that beat come on, he knew it was it. He knew he had to go in, mixtape Weezy, and pull out his tricks. I'm just honored cause that's my third placement that I've had with Wayne - and he destroyed this one. And that beat is hot. It's like the perfect collab."
Taking inspiration from the church on ScHoolboy Q's "Studio"
Peaking at #38 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay charts, ScHoolboy Q's "Studio" is Swiff's biggest hot to date. While it has strong R&B tendencies, Swiff was sure he wanted a rapper on it, bust most importantly he wanted to capture a familiar sound in his life.
"I just wanted to make something you'd hear in church. Church has the best musicians," he reveals. "Somewhere in a jam session it happened - but I always envisioned someone rapping to it. So like I didn't play it for any R&B people - I didn't really play it for anyone actually. Schoolboy was one of the first I played it for - and I saved it for him. I didn't know it would be his joint, but it ended up being the perfect blend of everything."
Of course, the church can be found in many rap and R&B artists music, an element Swiff pays a lot of attention to. "I'm a real big fan of church chords. T-Pain is one of my favorite artists of all time - he incorporated the church in so much of his music. And I grew up in the church, so obviously a lot of that stuff is what I like to hear. I feel like any music with melodies like that will always win and always have longevity. Always. No ID told me that same thing. That's why Kanye always wins - he always has the proper melodies. He incorporates it into everything, and it makes Kanye who he is. Zaytoven is also the pinnacle of that. He has stuff in his beats that the average person would never think of putting in there. And that's why he's incredible."
Almost meeting J Dilla
Dilla is a great influence on many producers, but he holds a special place in Swiff D's heart. As someone with a drumming background, Dilla's gritty percussion is something to aspire to, and the otherworldy boom bap of his instrumental project, Washington Park, suggests he could be a worthy successor.
"Everything Dilla did was incredible," says Swiff. "Obviously there were some things he did that you could tell he was probably high doing that shit - he musta been too high, shit was too weird. His stuff had the perfect mix for every beat, perfect drum for every sample - he was the drum god. His music too - he could blend samples together so that their frequencies would hit a certain way and change the notes. I was like damn Dilla is making bridges out of samples. The actual sampled music wasn't even going that way.
Swiff regretfully recalls a time where he and Pac Div were scheduled to meet his hero. "He died in 06, and we were supposed to meet him that year - two weeks before he had passed, he says. "I thought this was about my favorite moment of my career. I just wanted to ask him what was on his mind when he made certain cuts. Not even how, I just wanted to ask him what he was thinking, and how can I get there. And when he passed, I cried like it was my own relative. I went to my mom and broke down cause that was on my bucket list. I'll never get to accomplish that. A lot of checks on my list - worked with this person, hit single with this person - but I never got to meet Dilla the master of it all. I met Slum but not him."
Bryson Tiller and future projects
With many successful collaborations under his belt, doors continue to open for Swiff, and naturally, there's many projects he can't can't speak on at this point. However, he does have some exciting new music on the way. "A lot of people I been working with as of late - Bryson Tiller for instance - I been working a lot on his album. Just tryna get in the groove of doing my favorite style - R&B shit. It's got some rock elements to it," he reveals, humbly as ever. "I'm just working, bro."