Back in the mid-to-late ‘90’s, Chicago hip-hop production was arguably defined by two men: No ID and The Legendary Traxster. While No ID appealed to the hip-hop purist community, there was a man across town who was crafting some of the biggest street records to ever emerge from the Windy City. Whether it be Do or Die’s smash hit “Po Pimp” or his production on Twista’s classic album, Adrenaline Rush, Traxster was a creator of a sound that many producers still trace to this day. Last week FSD was lucky enough to chat with The Creator himself, to discuss his work on the aforementioned classics, the history of his sound, his trip to the Grammy’s as well as upcoming joint venture with his one-time competitor No ID.
You are definitely a pioneer of Chicago hip hop, and a major influence on the all around sound of the city. Tell us about coming up in the early days of the Chicago hip-hop scene.
Well for years we had an underground circuit, doing shows at clubs and basically trying to get our thing going. I actually started out in a group called D 2 Tha S, which stood for “Dedicated 2 Tha Streets” and at that point me and a couple of my homeboys started a label and opened a recording studio. A lot of the artists I was working with were recording in my studio and we started putting records out. The first major record was Do or Die’s “Po Pimp” which I produced and it happened to break – big. From there it went number one on the rap charts and ended up selling a whole bunch of albums. So that’s really how it began – starting an independent label, producing the tracks and getting them out there.
You were really young at the time, correct?
Yeah, I think I was maybe 21 or 22 when that happened.
Back in ’96 “Po Pimp” was everywhere – I remember having the CD single before the album dropped. Did you expect the song to catch on the way it did? It kind of came out of nowhere on a national level at a time when there wasn’t a whole lot of light on Chicago.
At the time when we put it out I wasn’t really looking at it like “We’re going to sell a bunch of records with this one” because that was kind of unheard of for Chicago’s market and artists. What we were really just hoping for was that people liked the song and be able to continue to make music. I knew it was something special when I was playing around with it in the office, because people who were around at the time kept wanting to hear it again – not to mention the chicks in the office were really fond of the song as well (laughs). But I kind of had to twist the groups arm, meaning Do or Die, to go in and do the radio edit of the record. They were treating it as a “street” song and didn’t want to do a radio version, so me and my partner at the time, Lucky, went in a made them do it and the rest is history. So I don’t think anybody at the time knew that was the record that was going to change our lives, but it did.
If my history is correct, didn’t you initially release the single independently and a short while later J.Prince from Rap-A-Lot Records came knocking…
Basically what happened was that we did a verbal agreement with them [Rap-A-Lot] which really wasn’t my idea, because from jump street, I was real conscious of paperwork. So we did a verbal agreement with them to release the single and later an album. But Do or Die had been trying to get on Rap-A-Lot at the time, so when Rap-A-Lot noticed that the song was taking off, obviously they were interested. But we owned the single, so what happened was Rap-A-Lot signed them to an album deal. They [Do or Die] kind of went behind our back and went down there [to Houston], and J [Prince] showed them a bunch of his houses and his cars and let them hang out with Scarface and the next thing I know, they come back and are they were signed to Rap-A-Lot. So we had to work out a deal to allow them to use the single and it worked out in the end. I don’t hold any ill will towards J Prince, because they were just being businessmen. But at the time, I had some people in my circle who didn’t understand that when success comes into play its hard for people to keep their word.
You mentioned that you were always weary of paperwork – you’ve been able to sustain your career for a very long time and you seem to have a keen business sense. Do you think this sets you apart from other producers or label owners?
It definitely sets me apart and is one of the reasons I’ve been able to stay in the business for so long. This is my 12th or 13th year in the business and even through my dry times when I wasn’t selling a lot of beats, it was my ability to create situations by being business savvy, that allowed me to stay around this long. Even when the Do or Die thing was winding down, I was able to get a joint on Mariah Carey’s last album and get a Grammy nomination. So I’ve always been able to stay afloat. I’m definitely proud to say that a lot of that has to do with being business savvy.
You went on to produce the bulk of Do Or Die’s debut, Picture This, but you really defined your sound with Twista on Adrenaline Rush which came out on your label, CWAL.
Well, Adrenaline Rush is definitely one of my greatest accomplishments. I’m proud of it, and when I go back and listen to it, I’m still challenged by the zone I was in at the time. The creative process was real natural, I would go in everyday and compose some tracks, Twista would come in every three days and go through what I had composed. He might pick one or two of the tracks and then write to them and then we’d go in and lay it down. That album took us like two months to complete and it was a real natural flowing process. The style of music that I had come up with and Twista’s reinvention just meshed together so well at the time. It was just chemistry, plain and simple.
Something a lot of people may not know, or remember, is that around that time you also did some work on Mystikal’s Unpredictable album.
Right, I did “Still Smokin”, and I also had a couple other tracks for him that were out there, one was on The Corruptor Soundtrack and the other was for the Dangerous Ground Soundtrack
“Mr. Shit Talker”, right? Do people ask you about your work with Mystikal much?
Right, “Mr. Shit Talker”. As far as Mystikal, only the real heads know about my work with him. What happened was at the time of us doing the Twista deal at Atlantic, we were being courted by a bunch of different labels and one of them was Jive. When Jive approached me, they were trying to get me to bring the label [CWAL] over to them, so they were trying to bribe me with a production deal. We ended up going with Atlantic because Jive wouldn’t give us some of the rights to the music that we wanted. But I still had the production deal with them, so the first person Jive sent to me was Mystikal. That was a real powerful thing to me, because for once I had national artists coming to Chicago to work, you know? As opposed to having to go to them, which a lot of Chicago producers were doing at that time. So he came in for a weekend and we worked on the three songs, and it was a real interesting process. I was so used to working with Twista, where I’d have a genius off in the corner working and then he’d bring it back to me and we’d record. It was just crazy with Mystikal because he was saying his raps right in front of my face (laughs). Like I’d be making the beat and he’d be sitting over to the side and he’d be looking at me in my eyeballss yelling his raps, and I’d be like “What’s wrong with him?!?” (laughs). I wasn’t really used to anyone going at it like that.
Back in the ‘90’s Chicago was so polarized – you were doing the “Gangsta” stuff and No I.D. was doing the “backpacker” stuff. Now in 2008 you two are now working together. Can you elaborate on that?
Basically we always had a lot of mutual respect for each other. It goes all the way back to my days with Ill State and his days working with Common. There were two sides to it – Ill State was the street inspired gang-banging rappers and then there was the traditional hip hop purists guys. It translated into me working with Twista and No I.D. working with Common. The funny thing is, that I could count on two hands the amount of times No ID and I spoke in those early years. I would see him at a conference or something and we’d say “What up” but that would be it. One time I had a studio in downtown Chicago and he and Kanye came by and were asking me about my publishing deal, because I had done a big publishing deal at the time. It was kind of weird because we were two different extremes of music, but we’d always try to play around it.
So what happened was, I recently started touring the country trying to figure out what my next business moves were going to be. So I went down to Houston to vibe with Rap-A-Lot and J. Prince, I went out to LA and got with a lot of the A&R’s out there and a couple of the publishers, to rewrite my business model. Finally, I came down to Atlanta because I have some friends and family down here and I know there’s a strong music scene here. I ran into No ID a few months before that and he was like “You still making this hard on yourself, huh?” (laughs). So I went to his studio in Atlanta to check him out and we began discussing some of the upcoming projects he’s working on. Too be honest, I was kind of burned out with the Chicago scene because it’s so hard and there’s so much negativity and hating. So when I got down to Atlanta, it was something different and a breath of fresh air for me. So I was glad that No ID and I hadn’t spent a lot of time together until recently, because it has allowed our relationship to be pure. It really just started out with us comparing notes, discussing the Chicago scene and various techniques. He wanted to know how I did certain things and vice versa. So that lead to the business relationship we have now and that’s how it happened. I went down to Atlanta and opened up a studio, even though I still have my home and studio in Chicago. But he was one of the reasons why I made the decision to head to ATL, because he already planted his seeds down there, which made my transition very easy.
When I interviewed No ID a few weeks ago, he mentioned that you two were going to be working together. I really couldn’t believe it – I had to have him repeat what he just said (laughs)
Well, to let the cat out of the bag, me and No ID are starting a label together.
Wow. Can I release this info? (laughs)
Yeah you can print it. We’re actually about to launch the site, it’s going to be called “No ID vs. Traxster” and it will have all the content of the process of us putting this together. It’s going to be a very major event for Chicago and hip hop in general.
Another thing that’s going to make the company that No ID and I are working on so strong is that we have abandoned the current music industry model. We understand that there is a future to this and we’ve talked for weeks and weeks planning and strategizing on what we think the future of music is. So we’re going to come at this from a whole different angle as opposed to how the majors are coming. Different people have different pieces of the puzzle, but we believe that this concept that we’re coming up with is the right business model for the future of music. We have very creative people who understand the business, so it’s going to be a real big thing for Chicago.
Do you think this will be an independent label?
Well as you know, No ID is over at Colombia and he also works with JD [Jermaine Dupri] who is the President of Island. So they definitely know what we’re doing, but we have an iTunes deal, because CDs are a dying breed. Once we get these computers in place – “Skynet” – once I get the Skynet system in play, then we can go around these majors and they’re going to have to come and give us Presidential positions (laughs) because we’ve changed the whole model.
Since you are working with No ID now, does that make you wish that you would have gotten together back in the 90’s?
No ID told me that he always wanted to do some of the ventures that we’re just getting around to now, but he said he wasn’t sure that I was with it. Maybe it was just an ego thing where he didn’t want me to say “Nah, I have my own thing going on”. It really wouldn’t make any sense to someone outside of Chicago, due to the street politics of the city, why this wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago. But I’m glad that it’s happening now because we’re both older and a bit more mature. We can be comfortable coming together now, being who we are, and not trying to find our identities as producers or as individuals. Now we both have our own legacies so neither of us feel threatened by the other, you know what I’m saying? This could have only really happened now.
At any point did you secretly want to work with Common, or any of the more “conscious” rappers in the city?
I kind of looked at them as competition. So I wouldn’t say that I didn’t want to work with them, and I could get real deep here, but I knew that our survival, and our movement, was dependent on me making that the bigger thing. It’s not that I didn’t want to work with Common, it was just that he wasn’t on what I was on. I always respected the fact that they [Common & No
ID] were the first to really get out there. Even though Twista had a record out before Common, Common became a staple in hip hop.
It seems like the Chicago Hip-Hop scene becomes more united by the day, however, one group it doesn’t look like you will be reuniting with anytime soon is Twista & the Speedknot Mobstaz. Now FSD is not a forum for rap beef, at all, but I do give every artist an opportunity to speak their mind on an issue. I interviewed the Mobstaz a few weeks back and they made it seem like another collaboration with you was a forgone conclusion and a “closed chapter”, as they eloquently put it.
Actually what I said was that I closed with that chapter in my career and they were probably regurgitating my words with that statement. The whole situation with Twista goes a lot deeper than music – it goes into manhood, honor and respect. But at the same time, my creative side doesn’t have anything to do with me as a man. So there are still those impulses occasionally, especially when you have such a great creative vibe with that person, to want to go down that path again. To be honest with you, those that know me always say that Traxster is an underrated producer. The reason why I’m an underrated producer is that the people that I contributed my energy, time and power to, did intentional things to keep me in the shadows.
So they didn’t want you to become more famous than them?
Right. Because of that part of it, I don’t want to be involved with anything that’s negative. Because if I’m going to be negative, I’m going to be all the way “fight-negative” (laughs). I don’t want to work with someone who may be doing negative things to me behind my back, when I’m trying to build something positive. That goes for Twista, that goes for Do or Die, that goes for the Speedknot Mobstaz. But at the same time, I’m one of those guys who really cares about the opinions of my fans and I know that they would want nothing more than to see me work with Twista again. That’s the part of me, my creative side, that if the door is cracked a little bit, then I may want to go in. But now I have new opportunities to create a new future, so I’m very happy with the way things are going now. So to go backwards – maybe if they get their mind right and grow up.
I know a lot of Twista fans wondered how he could release Adrenaline Rush 2007 without you.
When you say Adrenaline Rush 2007, that’s obviously not it. Because what you’re trying to do is recreate something that already existed. When you said Adrenaline Rush 2007, what it’s supposed to be doing is to bring back that feeling of the original record. It probably wouldn’t sound the same, but ultimately, if it gave you that same feeling then it would be appreciated. It was flattering to me that something that I did 10 years ago, was something that people were still trying to recreate in 2007. But then they couldn’t accomplish it. I mean, I have 10 years worth of new tracks, you know? My sound has elevated since then. And I’m not trying to say something slick out of my mouth to create a problem, but what I won’t not do, is tell the truth. And here’s the truth – Twista basically hated his way out of the game with that record. Just because you wanted so bad to prove that you didn’t need Me or Kanye – that’s what The Day After was about – I don’t need Kanye And that attitude is why those two records sucked. So all of the negativity that happened between us is beneath me and I’ve moved on, you know? I want to make another classic. And there’s an artist out here that me and No ID are going to find and we’re going to make that shit pop.
Have you and No ID found a candidate for this next big artist?
Well, I have a couple of artists – E-Dub the Gangsta, which is a project that I’m working on right now and that I believe in. No ID is working with Mikkey and Milkkey has some serious heat. But right now there is so much positive energy and fresh opportunities that, even though we have these great artists, we’re looking for that one artist that is going to bring everything together.
Let’s talk about the solo record you have coming out on April 8th.
Yeah it will be out on my independent label, Traxster Inc., and it’s called The Return of Gangsta Music, and it’s what I’ve been working on the last couple of years. One time I had a conversation with Kanye and he was like “You know they say producers aren’t supposed to rap, right” and I said “well, you’re going to prove them wrong”, this is before he popped, and he said “Yo Trax, all you gotta do is save all the good beats for yourself” (laughs). So I did that with this album- I saved some of my best material and am finally putting it out there. I have a direct deal with iTunes for my label, Traxster Inc, which is also going to come into play with my new label with No ID, because now iTunes is the second biggest retailer in America. I’m rapping on almost every song, but there is one track that I let E-Dub do the whole thing. Also, I lost my brother [Dun D] a couple of years ago, so I actually gave him five songs on the album. It’s a 23 track album, so the last five songs belong to him. It’s the classic Chicago sound – lot of Midwest cats are on it.
The concept of the album is this: I’m not knocking any of the other “gangster” rappers out there right now, I’m just saying that, where I’m from and the groundwork I laid with Adrenaline Rush and Picture This has been forgotten. So this album is the return of the gangsta music that I make. With all the new artists coming out of Chicago, be it Lupe or Kanye, I wanted to show the other side of the city, for the people who didn’t grow up listening to Adrenaline Rush or Mobstability I want to show them the side of Chicago where I’m from. So that’s why it’s the Return of Gangsta Music.
You were nominated for a Grammy a few years back for your work on Mariah Carey’s last album, The Emancipation of Mimi. How did that come about?
I never did beat CDs – that was something I never understood at first. I was working with so many artists hands on, that I’d never really shopped my music that way. I usually work with artists from the ground up – helping with the song, laying the foundation and then decorating the track. So when the whole beat CD phenomenon caught on, my production manager who was out in LA, passed the CD around and it somehow got to Mariah. It just so happens that Mariah was a fan of this style of music – the “Po Pimp’s” the Do or Die’s and it was so flattering to hear that because Mariah has sold 10 million records a couple of times, you know (laughs). But somehow she knows about the sound that I made on 71st Street, so that was c
razy. She wanted to get Twista on the album and she was smart enough to know, that if you use Twista you need to have him on a Traxster beat. So that’s how the record came out.
It’s really funny because, and I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone this story, but I watched the Grammy’s back in 2004, when Kanye got his first nominations. I remember looking at the TV and saying “Man, I’ve got to be at the Grammy’s next year”. And when I said it, it seemed so farfetched in my mind because I make that street, shoot-em-up bang-bang music – how am I going to end up at the Grammy’s next year (laughs). So from my TV, to being on the red carpet the next year was crazy. I was like “Wow, god is amazing like that”. It was a miracle to me – the planets we’re aligned and it just kind of happened. It definitely wasn’t a calculated Traxster endeavor. I know producers go their whole career and never get nominated for a Grammy. Now they have to say that before my name, “Grammy Nominated Producer”. That made me feel better about all of the contributions I’ve given to the game.
This is something I’ve always wanted to ask you as well…If you had to, could you name five of your favorite productions. Me personally, at the top of my list, I have to go with “Overdose” [from Twista’s Adrenaline Rush]
Just a brief note on “Overdose” – when I did the track it was more of an experimental song. When I did the beat, it definitely wasn’t a track that I thought Twista would pick. It was an experiment really and I didn’t necessarily like it at first, but after Twista wrote to it and we brought it together, I was like “Damn!” (laughs)
But if I had to pick five of my favorites, I would definitely pick “Adrenaline Rush” [Twista], a song by the name of “Time vs. Life” by Psychodrama. “Searchin” by the Snypaz was a banger. “Still Smokin” [Mystikal] – which is something that I came to appreciate over time. After that I would have to pick “Legit Ballers” or “Front Porch” from Mobstability.
Well, if we’re talking Mobstability, then how about “Motive 4 Murder”?
I look at beats as if they are certain kinds – like I put all of my beats in separate folders People may not get this, but “Motive 4 Murder” goes in the same folder as “Po Pimp” to me, because they have similar bass and drum sounds. To be honest, and I know this will cause a lot of debate from those who read this, but I personally think that Mobstability had better production than Adrenaline Rush – but Adrenaline Rush was the better album. When you listen to the intricacy of the beats on Mobstability – you could tell I was really trying to prove something (laughs).
Mobstability definitely sounds cleaner and maybe a bit more polished, The album also has a “lighter” feel to it as opposed to Adrenaline Rush which was a bit darker
I agree. Adrenaline Rush hit harder too. I was using a drum machine at the time, it was an R8, which was used all over Adrenaline Rush. When I got to Mobstability, I was a bit more artsy. So I understand why people will debate that, but when I talk musicianship and experimentation, I think Mobstability was a bit more advanced. As a student of production, if you look at that body of work, it was very innovative as opposed to Adrenaline Rush which was just raw talent.