Meet Focus..., in-house producer at Aftermath and integral member of the team that made Dr. Dre's "Compton."
It takes a village to make an album. Dr. Dre was the executive producer, bossman, and visionary behind Compton, and he had at his disposal a team of some of the best hip hop producers money could buy, including Dem Jointz, DJ Dahi, and entire crew of Aftermath in-house artists.
Among these producers was a man named Focus… (the three dots are a part of his name) who has spent 25 years in the music industry. You may not have heard his name, but you have definitely heard of the artists he's worked with -- Beyonce, Christina Aguilera, Jennifer Lopez, Schoolboy Q, Slaughterhouse, The Game, Busta Rhymes, and 50 Cent, to name just a few.
We called up Focus... at his home in Los Angeles to learn more about his prolific career and his role on Compton.
Focus...'s given name is Bernard Edwards Jr., after his father Bernard Edwards, bassist and founding member of noted '70s funk band Chic and creator of one of the greatest bass lines of all-time. Born and raised in New York City, Focus... launched his music career at a time when jazz was frequently sampled in East Coast hip hop, and he brought that jazz-heavy production sound when he moved from NYC out to Los Angeles in the early '90s. He drew inspiration early on from jazz musicians like Grant Green and Horace Silver and hip hop groups like A Tribe Called Quest. In our phone conversation, he listed Dr. Dre, DJ Premier, Prince, and, especially, Stevie Wonder as his biggest influences.
"Whatever color Stevie is trying to paint with his music, I try to listen intently and do the same thing with my music," he explained. "Because he had the most vivid sound and vivid color that he paints in his music, and I really want my music to resonate like his."
He caught the biggest break of his career soon after moving to Atlanta in 2000, when a few songs he made with an artist named Daks found their way into the hands of Dr. Dre. Dre was impressed with the production and eventually met with Focus... and signed him to Aftermath as an in-house producer. In the years that followed he would produce for a bevy of hip hop and R&B stars, but the most successful records of his career came from the most unexpected places.
The first was Mac Dre's 2004 classic "Get Stupid" -- perhaps the defining song of the hyphy movement (“I’m mister stupid, doo doo dumb!), a rollicking good time that has immeasurably enriched millions of functions across the globe. Mac Dre took the beat from from a beat tape because he thought Dr. Dre produced it, as evidenced in the lyric, “This beat pounds, cutty where’d you get it? Oh you ain’t know, Dr. Dre did it!” But Dre didn't produce it -- Focus... did, although it is true that the song's minimal drums, mischievous guitar, violin stabs, and descending piano plink evoke Dre's signature aesthetic.
The song was already a massive hit in the Bay Area before Focus... heard it or even knew about it. "A friend of mine by the name of Don Cannon was rocking the song in the Bay, and he was like, ‘Yo, you got a hit out here,’ and he played it," explained Focus... "He was onstage and I heard the people singing the song, and I was losing my mind. But I didn’t even know he did the record. And I never got to meet him because he passed soon after." Thizz in peace.
The best-selling record of Focus...'s career was the result of his collaboration with Spanish hip hop singer Mala Rodriguez. He produced the bulk of her album Dirty Bailarina, including "No Pidas Perdón," which would win a 2010 Latin GRAMMY for Best Urban Song. "She didn’t speak a lick of English. And the sessions were amazing."
Focus... rescinded full-time duties at Aftermath in '08 to start his own production company a.Fam Entertainment. There was no ill will towards Aftermath and Dre, only a desire to do his own thing.
"I was just making a lot of music, and we weren’t putting anything out over at Aftermath at the time," he explained. "So it was really one of those things where I wanted to hone in and do what Dre has taught me as a mentor. Everything he did from every label he was at, he always had an artist that he wrote for, developed, and brought out to the world with his sound, or their sound that he made for them. And I was like, I can do that."
He signed eight artists, which turned out to be overly ambitious, as he was felt he was unable to give each of them the individual attention they deserved. "I bit off more than I could chew, to be honest," he said. In 2014, he shelved a.Fam and returned to Los Angeles and rejoined Aftermath as an in-house producer.
Focus... returned to Aftermath and started making music with the label's core production team, which in addition to Focus... comprised of Dre, producer Cardiak, and Aftermath producers Trevor Lawrence, Jr, Ron Feemster, Curt Chambers. Focus... regards all of his collaborators as "geniuses."
It was like this for the better part of two years, coming into the studio whenever Dre requested their presence. For the first year and a half, there was no mention of anything project, and Focus... believed that they were simply getting acclimated to each other. But things started to ramp up earlier this year, around March, when the music they were making on a daily basis began funneling into what Compton would become. "We really started seeing cohesion and consistency in what we were putting together," Focus... said, "and it just really started to come together on its own," Focus... said.
Compton was truly a collaborative effort. Only three of its sixteen songs credit a single producer, and some songs credit several producers. Focus... helped mix the album and contributed to five songs (plus the intro), the most of any producer except Dre, and his role varied based on what the song needed and what Dre wanted.
"Medicine Man," for example, is chiefly a Dem Jointz production. Focus... came aboard at Dre's behest to add some piano work and orchestration on the second verse.
"Dre wanted the record to change, he wanted the record to be anthemic, and he wanted the record to have a certain feeling," Focus... explained. "So when he said that, me and Dem Jointz went in and we stripped the entire second verse, and Jointz really gave me carte blanche, he was like, 'Look, go ahead, I trust you, just go ahead.'"
The Compton song most near to Focus...'s heart is "Deep Water," which began as an idea he liked but wasn't sure what to do with it. Aftermath A&R Ty Cannon told him to take it to Cardiak to help him flesh it out into a mature beat. "I call Cardiak, we went into the studio, Cardiak heard it and was like, 'Okay, cool.' He did the drum programming, and he killed it. And then I started putting glitching and adding little stutter edits in there. And then Dem Jointz and [DJ] Dahi came in and helped us build the song even further."
Dre then entered the fray and started directing traffic, giving notes, and and helping his team add the finishing touches. "It was all of us together in one room and really just became something that was amazing, there’s no other word for it, because it was just something that I’d never done before," Focus... said.
Before Compton, Focus... had never worked with Dre hands on or even collaborated with and anyone, and he attributes the album's quality to Dre's steady guiding hand, deep well of musical knowledge and talent, and the willingness of the production team to relinquish their individual egos.
"I think that what Dre has taught me is that it’s okay to collaborate," he said. "It’s a humbling experience, and it's awesome at the same time."
Focus... doesn't listen to music at home. He strives to compartmentalize his life and keep music in the studio as much as possible, and also in the car where he can bump his beloved Prince and Stevie Wonder. Once he gets to the studio, he simply obeys whatever creative impulses he's feeling that day.
"I try not to go in there with a mindset, because my mind is all over the place," he explained. "I really just go in there and decompress for the first half-an-hour to an hour, and then I just go off of feeling... As a whole, I try not to overthink it. I don’t sit down and make a track for an artist. I make what feels good."
Focus... is firmly entrenched in what is considered these days as "old school." He doesn't have a mind for "computer stuff." He likes to get hands on with the MPC, bass, and piano. He takes pride in his old school-ness and sees a major distinction between "beatmakers" and "producers."
"I think that beatmakers jobs are getting way easier than we had it when we were growing up," he said. "These newer beatmakers, they’re dope, but they don’t know how to follow a song from beginning to end. It’s very rare when you can see a kid in the studio that knows how to track out, knows how to mix his records, knows how to do vocal production, knows how to arrange the record, knows how to go in at mastering and tell them what he wants, knows how to articulate what’s in his head."
Stronger than Focus...' disregard for beatmakers is his admiration for the sort of producers he worked with on Compton, for whom he clearly has the utmost respect.
"If Dre will have me at Aftermath, I told him that I’m willing to ride out the rest of my career with him," he said. "That’s where I want to be, that’s where I’m taken seriously, that’s where I’m appreciated, and that’s where I appreciate the people I work with."
And despite my prodding, he wouldn't reveal what's next on the menu for Aftermath.
"Look at what they did with Detox," he said. "It’s one of those things that I’d rather people be pleasantly surprised than utterly disappointed. Just keep listening, because we definitely have more music in store."