Interviews by: Martin Bauman

In 2009, a young, hungry, and largely undiscovered emcee from Fresno teamed up with a Los Angeles producer with an ear for crafting albums and bringing an artist’s music to life. Fashawn and Exile were in the works on Boy Meets World, a project that would change their lives forever.

Hip-hop has long had an obsession with the debut album — perhaps more so than any other genre. They mark an artist’s introduction to the world and often live on as their definitive piece of work. Nas had Illmatic. Jay had Reasonable Doubt. Snoop had Doggystyle. Biggie had Ready to Die. On October 22nd, 2009, the day came for Fashawn to leave his own mark. He had lived 21 years and was anxious to tell his story — to let the world know what Fresno looked like, sounded like, and felt like.

The result was an album the likes of which had seldom been heard from someone his age. It was witty, heartfelt, and honest. His storytelling was captivating. The production was magnificent. XXL gave it an ‘XL’ rating and called it an album that “resonates a lot more than the work of some rappers decades his senior.” HipHopDX called it “perhaps the most heir apparent to Nas’ ’94 classic.” It’s only fitting that five years later, Nas would end up signing Fashawn to his Mass Appeal label.

Perhaps the greatest testament to the album’s significance, though, is the fact that it’s still as relatable and fresh today as the day it was released. We caught up with those involved in the making of Boy Meets World to hear the untold stories behind the album’s creation. Read the oral history below.

HOW IT ALL CAME TOGETHER

Fashawn: Exile had put out an album with Blu [2007’s Below the Heavens], and that album wound up in my lap. I was just really taken by his production, but I never expected that I’d get to work with him. That whole connection came about through an LRG photo shoot that my manager was at.

Aren “Hecktik” Hekimian (Fashawn’s manager and executive producer of Boy Meets World): I worked a lot with LRG at the time, when they were first starting in the early 2000s – a lot of my buddies were there marketing and deejaying their parties. One of my buddies told me about Exile and Aloe Blacc and how he grew up with them, and he put me in touch with Exile. I heard [Below the Heavens later] and was really amazed at how [Exile] pieced together the album. I called him and basically sent him the mixtape songs Fashawn and I had been working on, and he really liked it.

Exile (producer of Boy Meets World): The first time I ever heard Fashawn rap, my imagination just started going. I started thinking about the possibilities of his voice, and what [stories he could] spit over my beats. I could hear that there might be something special, so I wanted to get him some more beats to see what we could come up with.

Hekimian: He sent me a batch of four or five beats, and I sorted through them and picked the ones I really liked and [gave them] to Fashawn. The first song he did was “The Outer City” — which didn’t make the album, but ended up coming out as a bonus track. [Exile] kept sending batches, and I kept filtering through and finding records. I really just picked my [favourite] beats that I wanted to get on this album with Fashawn, because I had probably done five or six of his mixtapes before, so I knew his strengths, his songwriting ability, his story, and what could be done. I [envisioned Exile] taking it back to the Premo days where he was working with Jeru The Damaja, or [other music from] that era, where a producer would really go in and build an [entire] album for a rapper.

Fashawn: [Exile] sent a bunch of beats that didn’t work for another artist that my manager was managing, so [Hecktik] figured he might as well give them to me and see what I could do with them. Before we knew it, we had a whole album.

Exile: [We recorded at] a studio up the street from my house and my boy RECworm’s. He had a studio in his garage. He was one of my old roommates, but before he moved out, we would record at my house and over there as well. [We] also [recorded] at Hecktik’s studio in Fresno.

Hekimian: We actually had the album done six months before it came out, so he wrote that record when he was like 18, 19 years old. A lot of his stuff, right when he turned 20, I want to say we were almost done with the bulk of the album – we just didn’t have a label at the time to put it out.

Henley “Pro” Halem (founder of One Records and executive producer of Boy Meets World): I think I reached out to Hecktik online. I was like, “I’m a huge fan; I love what this kid’s doing. What do you guys have going on?” At the time, I had just locked in an investor [for] One Records, which was the original record company that I signed Fash to. We got to talking, and he shared a bunch of music with me, and we kept an open dialogue. We met face-to-face, and I put a deal in front of him, and we negotiated it, and it happened.

Fashawn: [I wrote most of the songs] within about a year, nine months. It happened really fast. Everybody in Exile’s crew was like, “that’s as fast as we’ve ever seen Exile do an album.” But yeah, it went by really quickly. I put my heart and soul into it, of course, but I was still in this rhythm of recording at the time; I was doing about three different projects: Ode to Illmatic, The Antidote, and closing up Boy Meets World.

Halem: Fash and Exile finished up the record, and I was completely blown away by it. First of all, the fact that he was young was nothing but a great thing. I’m completely into finding new talent and working with them – it’s the one thing I pride myself on doing. He wasn’t like anybody else to me. He wasn’t from LA; he wasn’t from New York; he was from Fresno, which was even more appealing to me. But ultimately, it was his talent that just shone out on every record that I listened to, whether it was his rhyme patterns, his subject matter, how he put things together, his choruses… everything [blew me away]. It’s an album you can put on and listen to every song front-to-back, the same way you can listen to A Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders or Low End Theory. Each song has its own synopsis, and from a production perspective, the beats were crazy.

Fashawn: The biggest thing [going through] my head was: I want to make something that gives me longevity in the music culture. That was the main thing for me. I wanted to make a piece of art that was timeless.

1. INTRO

Fashawn: [The opening skit] was a scene from my real life. It’s a transition from the street to the rap game – and not just a transition, but a personal decision to leave all that alone and venture off into something new. [As soon as I heard this beat], I immediately wrote to it. You gotta understand, everything was fresh. Even though I was giving you the history of my life, every rhyme was fresh out of the oven. This was one of the last songs I recorded [for the album], and I actually recorded it with Exile in LA. It was a moment, you know what I mean? As soon as he played it, I was like, that’s my intro right there. It was magic.

Exile: We were actually done with the album, and I knew that I had to make an intro for it. We didn’t have an intro; we had everything else. I tried a couple things, and I wasn’t really getting what I wanted, and then this was actually when we were doing the recording at my boy RECworm’s garage studio. He wasn’t home one day, and I just went in there like, I gotta make it right now. It’s do or die. Not only did the beat need to sound like an intro to me, but also to Fashawn – to make him want to spaz out and do something that’s powerful enough to be on the intro. Fash came out spitting, “Came out the womb, ’88…” and just spazzed all the way through. It’s one of my favourite tracks on the album, for sure.

“Coming from the bottomless pit to the top of the globe/ Santiago the prince; where the f—k is my robe?/ One minute ’til six in the morn’/ You know the area code: 559, enter my zone/ Went in Exile, emerged out the Blu/ A n—a with an attitude/ Who knew I would maneuver through the manure and come out clean?/ Still, I’m just a kid with the world in his dreams.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: The intro is the grand opening, man. It’s when the curtains come up. It’s the beginning of the show. I think at that point, it’s your job to grab the person’s undivided attention, and get them ready for whatever you’re about to tell them. Remember, an album or mixtape [goes on] for at least 30 minutes to an hour – some people go crazy with it and do two hours, but that’s just overkilling it to me – but yeah, intros always have to be strong. It’s like the first round of a fight. You gotta calculate it: you can’t give it all to ’em, but you gotta give them enough to let them know you’re here for the whole bout. So, I like to come out the gate powerful every time, just to let people know I’m not playing in here, and [so they’ll] stick around for track two, and track three, and so on, and so on.

2. FREEDOM

Exile: When I heard “Freedom,” I knew that he was much more than just a good emcee who could spit well over soulful-style beats; he could [also] rip into something grimy and be a lyrical beast.

Fashawn: I remember I wrote that while I was in high school in my computer class. That was the only [song] I had been holding onto [for the album]. I still have the sheet of paper in one of my shoe boxes.

Hekimian: We had a song that he did on a mixtape a few years before that called “Shoe Box of Rhymes,” where he basically did his own version of Nas’ “Book of Rhymes.” He used to literally come to the studio with shoe boxes filled with rap lines. [Fashawn] did the first verse, which was crazy, and then we were bouncing ideas back and forth, and he pulled that out, like, “maybe let’s try that rap on ‘Shoe Box of Rhymes’ and incorporate it into this.” It was crazy, the way it fit.

Fashawn: I just knew that I always wanted something on my album that was really hardcore hip-hop – maybe even two: that’s why you got that and “The Score.” I was always a big fan of that style of rap that Premo, Pete Rock, and Eric B. pioneered, so I wanted it on my album. I didn’t have the hook for years, but I always had those verses on deck for a long, long time. I love that song, man. It’s one of my favourite songs in my catalogue.

Exile: I basically just laid down some raw drums over a sample that will remain nameless, and it just felt right. It felt good to make, and I felt like Fashawn would be perfect for it. Hecktik laid the cuts for the hook, Fashawn did his thing, and that’s pretty much it. Meat and potatoes.

“Reach one, teach one, young to the old/ Histories and mystery, and lies were sold/ Poverty, reality, luxury homes/ Bentley, Ferrari, Jaguar, Rolls/ Royces, racism, royalty, gold/ Conflict diamonds, the world is cold.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: That’s just like a word soup in my head, and I’m taking all these words and just throwing them together – not even forming sentences, but still getting my point across. That was mainly inspired by a song that DMX put out when I was in high school called “Who We Be” – I think that might’ve been the original instrumental I wrote that verse to. I wrote in that [same] cadence [that he used], but I threw my own experiences in there.

Exile: We have two different versions of that song, actually. One of them, on the second verse, Hecktik was able to make it so that I could go live on the MPC and Fashawn could rap, and we could record them both at the same time. We were almost going to use it for the album, but we ended up not [doing it]. But if you go to the Dirty Science SoundCloud, I did this [Intro to the Outro] mixtape for LRG and threw on that version.

3. HEY YOUNG WORLD ft. ALOE BLACC & DEVOYA

Fashawn: [I hear the beat and] I’m thinking, this is amazing. This sounds bigger than rap. You could probably play it at a college graduation or a world meeting or something. I gotta do something classic on this. That was my initial reaction. I’m like, what the hell am I gonna say to it? So I had the beat for a few days, or a week or so, and I’m just sitting at my mom’s house, playing the beat, trying to provoke something out of myself. Then these words came: “Hold on to your dreams ’til they come true/ Don’t let ’em tell you what you can or can’t do.”

Halem: “Hey Young World” was something that was really [special]. For him, being a young kid at the time, he was talking to a younger audience. A lot of artists don’t do that kind of stuff. Fash wasn’t a dude who rhymed about braggadocious things and having cars and money and stuff like that, you know what I mean? He would paint you a picture when he did a record and talk to you about what he’s going through in his life.

“Understand, everything began with a vision/ Some hard work, and a thing called intuition/ That’s when you feel you’re at your lowest and about to collapse/ It lets you know you’re on the right track.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: I had just moved from First Street, which was my everything – this was the hood I grew up in — and started my rap career, professionally. At that point, I had given up all things that would hinder my rap career, so I was struggling at the time. I didn’t know what was going to happen in my life, financially or whatever. I didn’t know where my career was headed, I had a daughter on the way, and I felt like, I gotta do something; I have nothing at this point. I put my all into that music, and it became a success for me. And that’s what really inspired those lyrics. I remember sleeping on couches, just random couches, during that time. Fast forward years later, [and] I’m alright, living good. And it was all out of intuition. I didn’t know if I would succeed or not, but I had a feeling deep down.

Devoya: I really feel [the song is] timeless and inspirational. To take a look at what’s made available to you, and what you can do with that, and what you can create, the album itself signifies that and the song [too]. Even when I play it in my own presence, it really makes me feel like, step it up. Whatever it is that you need to do, just do it.

Fashawn: I really wanted to make something that I could play [for] my daughter when she was born, so it was really like an ode to my daughter and just children, period.

“There’s gonna be some ups and downs, there’s no question/ But the hard times you make it through teach the best lessons/ He who never tries, never fails/ But if you don’t ever try, you’re a failure/ I don’t know what to tell ya.” – Aloe Blacc

Exile: We all had the pleasure of working with Aloe on that one. Not only did he kill it on the hook, but he came through with a real solid verse on that. That’s my boy from way back – we used to have a group called Emanon together – so it was nothing to just call him up and have him come and knock that out.

Fashawn: Aloe Blacc was in a real transitional stage in his career. He started singing a whole lot more, and even then, it was pretty impressive if you could get [him] to rap. He came through in person – usually people sent stuff through e-mail – but he came by the studio, and we did that and “Stars” in the same night. He killed it on the hook. He laid some background vocals behind [my own] and just murdered it. Devoya actually came from back home [in Fresno], and [her verse] just fit like glue. I had to put that at the end of the track.

Devoya: I do a lot of poetry events, and his manager Hecktik and I have been friends since our college radio days. I loved the mixtapes that [Fashawn] had put out – I thought they were dope – and Hecktik and I were talking one day, and he thought that the album needed some spoken word on it and was wondering if I would be interested. I was a little shy about the whole thing at first, because I do a lot of spoken word here locally, but I had never done anything on a track per se – not in that kind of magnitude. But I heard that beat, and I was just like, what?!? It just all sort of came to me right after that.

4. STARS ft. ALOE BLACC

Exile: Fashawn was over at the crib, and we were going over the album, trying to figure out what was missing. We were going through beats. Sometimes, we’ll be going through beats, and it may not even catch the rapper’s ear, but if there’s a beat that I feel would [fit] really [well] on the album, I’ll just be like, “yo, kick something to this. I just want to hear what your voice sounds like over this.” Fash had the lyrics to “Stars” in his head – just some old shit that he had laying around, that he didn’t even really want to bring to the table to be part of the album – and he kicked [those rhymes], and I was like, “have you really been hiding these lyrics from me? Are you crazy?” It worked out perfectly.

Fashawn: “Stars” was my lullaby to sing to [my daughter] after she was born. That would actually become the song that I’d sing her to sleep with.

Exile: There’s this Sergio Mendes track with [Brasil 66] about stars: “So Many Stars.” I was just like, “wow, let me just see what this sounds like. I’m just gonna play this and play the beat,” and it fit perfectly over it. I knew that I had to make that work eventually, so when Aloe was over to record “Hey Young World,” I was like, “Yo Aloe, you gotta sing over this. It would be perfect.” Aloe can sing any style, and I remember that he had this kind of Frank Sinatra-ish style. I was like, “why don’t you try singing that Frank Sinatra-type style over this?” Man, I love the way Aloe sounds over that song. The idea just came from the sample that I was going to lay over it, but when it came down to Aloe, he sang it much better than [anyone else].

“When I was young, I figured if I became the stars/ Then maybe they wouldn’t seem as far.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: I figured if I became what I was chasing, then I wouldn’t have to chase it. I’d encompass it and personify it. This whole notion of stars being these mystical things that you can’t really touch… I figured if I could personify that fantasy through my existence and words, then I wouldn’t have to chase it any longer.

Exile: “Stars” is one of my favourite songs off the album. It’s just a dope, lovely song you can ride to. It’s some cool hip-hop shit that has heart, and the way Aloe sang the hook is really creative.

“I know I’mma shine, despite all of my hardships/ I consider them lessons instead of losses/ My old Nike’s wouldn’t fit, so I tossed ’em/ They wasn’t fit for the fire I had to walk through.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: All of the bullshit I’ve been through in my life, the turbulence and misfortunes – growing up poor, being embarrassed because you couldn’t have a pair of Jordans – I had to go through all that for a reason. It taught me a lesson. It taught me how to be humble, and how to empathize with people who have nothing. [I learned] to identify with the struggle. I knew I’d be able to use that in my favour some day, so they were lessons instead of losses. They weren’t misfortunes [so much as] blessings in disguise, you know what I’m saying? I learned growing up that God’s favourite struggle the most, and they test them only so [that] you can have a testimony. That first album was basically just my testimony in rap form.

5. LIFE AS A SHORTY ft. J. MITCHELL

“First fight, third grade, I was swinging from the shoulders/ With this kid named Dariah; he was three years older, and like two feet taller/ I finished it; he started it/ All over this chick named Barbara Johnson.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: There was this girl named Barbara. We’re not gonna say her government name out of respect, but we’ll call her Barbara Johnson, like I did on the song. And yeah, me and this kid named Dariah, we both liked the girl. Unfortunately for him, she was feeling me a little more, and I guess he got emotional. He was a bigger guy, too. He was like a fifth grader or sixth grader, which is like the equivalent of a senior to a freshman in that grade. And yeah, we got in a fight over it. He started it, I finished it.

Exile: I chopped up the sample and made two beats out of it. I combined them together, and that was actually one where Fash and I were working on it together. He sent that one through, and I was real hyped on it.

Fashawn: [As soon as I heard the beat] I said, “this is gonna be fun” [laughs]. But I knew I had to tell a story that was real, so I decided to wade through my childhood and tell you about all the stuff I grew up with – all the drama I went through, going from school to school, always being the new kid, the girl I lost my virginity to – I got really personal on that joint [laughs]. But the tone of it was so happy and playful, it was kind of like that whole want to make you laugh and make you cry kind of mentality. Everything that I was talking about was the shit that made me cry growing up – getting my heart broken, getting beat up for the first time, and shit like that – but as I got older, and as I look back on it, I can laugh at it.

Exile: “Life as a Shorty” was the perfect storytelling type of rap that created a good vibe, even though he’s talking about some struggling times growing up. It showed his versatility as an emcee, and to me, I think versatility is a very important thing when it comes to be a well-rounded artist – not just an emcee. If you’re able to spit and just spaz out, that’s very important, but that’s only really effective if you’re able to be able to make a song that’s emotional or tells a story. [That’s what] creates the full package of when [someone] can go beyond just being an emcee and actually be an artist.

“Even though I’m young and I can’t see…/ The forest from the trees…/ Follow me.” – J. Mitchell

Fashawn: I actually had a different chorus originally for “Life as a Shorty” that I wrote, but it just didn’t fit well, so [Exile and J. Mitchell] came up with that on their own. J. Mitchell is probably one of the first ladies of the Dirty Science crew. Exile and her already had their chemistry, because she had done a lot of previous features. So that was a no-brainer.

Exile: We were trying to work out the hook, and I thought my homegirl J. Mitchell would sound perfect over it. She came through the crib, and we were going through a couple ideas until she nailed it. It was just one of those moments where you know that it’s going to work out really well, and you get really excited and give high-fives and hugs. You’re like, yes, life is wonderful. It was like adding the tie or the right jacket onto an outfit. It made everything come together and make sense.

6. THE ECOLOGY

Where I’m from, brothers die every day, sunny CA/ Understand the ecology on how we behave/ Baseheads, drive-bys, it’s just how we was raised/ Murder for capital, we gotta get paid/ That’s the mindstate that boosts the crime rate/ Just lost soulds tryna find their way.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: [This song was] just inspired by my neighbourhood, growing up and seeing what I was seeing. That was like me sitting on the steps and writing what I saw, and explaining the people who I came across every day. That was my personal ecology. I had to bring the album back down to life at that moment, you know? I wanted to bring [it] back to earth – to this young man and what he’s seeing – after “Life as a Shorty.” The dark violins and the heavy bass, it was just a perfect segue.

Hekimian: I’ve been around rap a lot, and to this day, I don’t know any writer as talented [as he was] at that age. He was way ahead of his time for his age, and he’s a songwriter. He’s a musician. He’s not an artist that’s just a gimmick, you know? He’s really who he is. He’s a pure soul; he doesn’t try to be something he’s not, and in those songs, he’s really giving his [inner thoughts].

Exile: Fash and I weren’t actually able to be in the studio together for this one. He sent that through, and it was up to me to try to figure out how to go about the hook with J. Mitchell. I [decided to] use her voice as music to go along with the production and Fashawn’s story, as opposed to having a wordy hook, you know? “Just trying to survive in these days and times.” It’s more like the end of his verse, but since he repeats it, it feels like a hook.

Fashawn: That’s another line that’s a definitive rhyme on the album. That whole album was like my survival – it’s a survivor’s manual to a lot of stoop kids. That’s basically all I was doing: making the album, and trying to pursue rap, and trying to make a career out of this. I had a daughter on the way, and I was living in a f—kin’ halfway house with my mom. I’d creep in every night and sleep on the floor at my mom’s crib. She was in a halfway house, and I was just a young kid running the streets and getting in the studio when I could. That’s how that whole album came about.

7. OUR WAY ft. EVIDENCE

Fashawn: I wrote that in the car on the way to Los Angeles, just looking at all of Central California – from Fresno, to Selma, to Bakersfield – and [thinking] about my whole life, the whole area that I represent.

Hekimian: [At] that time, we were going to LA, and Planet Asia was connecting us with Evidence. I just knew [that] Fashawn and his style, and what Exile brought to the table sonically, [would mean] that Fashawn kinda had to stay more within an independent vibe of an album. So I wanted to get with Evidence, because I just knew it would be an organic fit.

Fashawn: As soon as I got to LA, we got in touch with Planet Asia, who had done work with [Evidence] a lot, and so [he] put the bug in Ev’s ear about my music and me being in town. Before you know it, I’m sitting in Evidence’s living room in Venice, smoking bong rips and playing him my album.

“Cen Cal terrain, soak up game/ Where graff writers bomb trains/ And poets is smoked out with dope in they veins/ Need a toast to the post where we hang.” – Fashawn

Evidence: I was at the studio, and Planet Asia hit me like “yo, my homie from Fresno is coming over to your studio right now. I want you to work with him.” I was like, “I don’t want to meet anybody new right now. I’m tired. Another time.” He was like, “nah, he’s coming through.” I respect Planet Asia, so he can talk to me like that. He was like, “have you heard Blu?” That was right when Below the Heavens had come out, or just after. I was like, “I love Blu.” He’s like, “he’s nicer than Blu.” I told him, “I don’t know… I just go off my feelings.” He said, “motherf—k your feelings.” [Laughs] That was his quote. I was like, alright, I guess this guy’s coming through.

Hekimian: We went to Evidence’s house and sat with him, and played him a couple songs off the [project], and he was like, “this shit is f—kin’ dope.” And then he said, “let’s do a song.”

Evidence: We hooked up and did that song the first day we met. Maybe I took it and recorded it later, but I got the song that day.

Fashawn: I grew up idolizing this guy. Dilated Peoples are like my Public Enemy. And I’m telling him how much of a legend he is, and how I’d be honoured to have him on the album. He just said, “man, don’t even call me that. Stop playin’. I’ll definitely get on this, no problem.”

Hekimian: [That was a big record], because that was when we knew we had something on our hands that we could actually put out and get picked up [by a label]. Right then, we kinda knew that we might have a chance to put a real album together for Fashawn – independently, in our own way.

8. WHY

Fashawn: That song is just me really going inside and trying to figure out why I feel the way I feel, and why I am the way I am. I was in a transitional part of my life – I was only 21 and had a kid on the way – and was really making the jump from a boy to a man. Life was just one big whirlwind, so I wanted to try to make sense of it. The only way I knew how was [through writing] and asking questions.

Exile: [Making that one] was pretty cut and dry. I just laid down a little slapper, Fash got his pen game on, and he kicked some raw shit. That’s pretty much it. Fashawn was just speaking from the heart on some street shit, which fit perfectly with the rawness of the beat.

Fashawn: [When I heard that beat] I just wanted to talk back to it. I was having a conversation with that beat; every time it would say “why,” something else would pop in my head and I’d talk back to the music.

Hekimian: “Why” is when I really looked at Fashawn like, wow, he can really be one of the great emcees in music. He just really knew how to capture that moment. The sincerity of [his writing], it was real. I remember I had a little video clip at the time [where] he was in the booth in my little home studio, and I was just filming him while he was doing the chorus. I [remember thinking], this is crazy. This guy’s just doing a record about ‘I’m doing me, and this is the world, and I’m giving you this innocent and sincere perspective on life.’ You don’t see kids that are 18 years old in America writing records like that. The introspective views, and the way he’s putting the words together, I thought it was phenomenal.

“I swear life is a maze, I’m just trying to get it right before I fade/ but I keep hitting walls, every day is a battle/ learn something different every time a n—a travel.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: Life is a maze, you know? It’s something you have to figure out and navigate your way through, to try to find that gold at the end of the tunnel, or whatever’s at the end. I’m just trying to get it right before I fade away. I keep going the wrong way and hitting walls on the way to my destination, so in turn, every day becomes another struggle. But you gotta get through that shit, and I did. I had to learn that through traveling. I guess I was trying to find myself [during] all that time on the road. As far as I go, I still want to make the world understand that I’m representing Fresno, [and I want Fresno to know] that I can always come back to the city. But I never want to confine myself to just my city. I feel like I’m that artist who can make music that appeal to everyone and not have to change who I am.

9. SAMSONITE MAN ft. BLU

Fashawn: [My first reaction to the beat] was that I had never heard anything like it. I didn’t know what Exile chopped up to make this piece of music, but I was definitely impressed. I wanted to do something like Mos Def’s “Travellin’ Man” – an ode to that song in my own way. [I wrote the verses] before I even saw all these places. It was more of a prophetic song – it was me dreaming of being all these places. And yeah, in turn, that album took me [all around the world].

Hekimian: When he did “Samsonite Man,” that was [one where I was] just kind of like, “hey, I think this would be a great song that you and Blu could [get on] together,” and Exile agreed. At that time, Blu had just been on the cover of XXL. He hadn’t been on the [Freshmen List] just yet, but he had put out [Below the Heavens] and was really popular at the time. He was a part of Exile’s camp, but it wasn’t that easy to get him on things. We had to really track him down and wait to get that record from him. I remember when we [finally] got that song, I was pretty excited, because it was just a good feeling record. It wasn’t like anybody was saying the craziest lines; it was just a great song.

Fashawn: That was the first time me and Blu got on a record together, and he actually came through in person and laid [the verse] down. It was special to me, because Blu and Exile are like Gang Starr: Blu is Guru, you know what I’m saying? He taught me what to do with an Exile beat, just by making that [Below the Heavens] album. It was like, okay, so that’s how you can move to these crazy beats that Exile is making? Blu can murder any Exile beat. They have that chemistry. [So to] have him on there was [special].

Exile: This was over at RECworm’s. We brought Blu through, he wrote it on the spot, and just killed it. We smoked a blunt, got some Thai food, and that’s how it goes down sometimes. [Being in a studio with Blu and Fashawn] is like mixing orange juice with your Olde English 800 – and I don’t know why [laughs]. It’s two emcees at work. I almost feel like it’s a friendly competition, where you want to outdo each other, in a sense.

“I never thought that I would make it out the F…” – Fashawn

Fashawn: I just think of all my whole life in Fresno, man. There [was a time] when I really thought that, like, yo, I’m not gonna make it outta here and [succeed]. I’m either gonna be dead by 18, or I’m gonna be in prison, or something like that. I’m most likely gonna be a pariah or an outcast. But yeah, there were times when I really felt like that, so anytime I hear that line, it just takes me back to the 21 years prior to making that album.

10. FATHER

Hekimian: “Father” was a mixtape song that we had done together over James Blunt’s “I’ll Take Everything” – I did that record with him a couple years earlier. Exile really loved those lyrics, and he was like, “I want to use those on the album.” I was kind of hesitant, and he was like, “dude, trust me. It’ll be great.”

Exile: Fashawn’s lyrics on there are much more than just a mixtape song. To me, as powerful as those lyrics are, they deserved a home, and that wasn’t a proper home for them – even though it sounded great. I felt like he needed an original piece to back up those words that he was saying – and it needed to be produced by Exile, and it needed to be on the album. Court adjourned [laughs].

Hekimian: Fashawn’s the kind of guy who usually only does a song once – he doesn’t want to do it again. So he literally went into this little studio – we were in Echo Park at the time – and he did it in one take and said, “I’m done.” And then he walked out.

Fashawn: [This song was inspired by] not having a real father – one that has a direct blood link [to me] – but already knowing that I’ve got a father in heaven, if you will. There’s a God that takes care of me and watches over us all. I wanted to speak about that father who’s been present in my life, as opposed to the one who wasn’t, you know? I started off [the song] by speaking to my mother, which [in this case] is Mother Earth. Eventually, I get to my father. It’s just really wrestling with the Earth and the mystical sky, and what’s out there. The thought that there’s someone out there watching over us all, that protects us and nurtures us from afar.

Exile: Blu was chilling when I was making that. That was made in Long Beach, and that was back in the time when Blu used to really hang out and just watch me make beats. It was a dope beat, we all thought it was funky fresh, and I think we were just saving it for the day the song “Father” could be made with the homie Fashawn.

“I’ll take the pain and the strife/ I know it’s not in vain; the struggle relates to everything in this life.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: All the stuff that I’ve been through, the lessons instead of losses that I speak of, it was an important process for me to go through so that I could speak about it and change someone else’s life, just as much as it changed mine. [Everything in life] has to do with struggle and progression.

11. SUNNY CA ft. CO$$ & MISTAH FAB

Fashawn: I’m a big fan of both [Co$$ and Mistah F.A.B.]. Co$$ is another guy Exile brought to the table. He was on Below the Heavens as well. I wanted to have somebody reppin’ LA on that song and somebody representing [Northern California] as well, because I’m reppin’ Central California.

Co$$: [Exile] told me there was a joint on the album that he thought I might fit over, so he hit me up and asked me to come down to the studio and lay a verse. I came in and wrote it on the spot – I think it took about 20-30 minutes. Ex put the beat on loop, Fash was laying on the couch, and I just kinda sat there and banged it out. I tried to make my verse more relevant to the LA scene, because Fash was repping for Cen Cal. I wanted to make sure to rep for Southern California and the whole Leimert Park type of LA vibe.

Fashawn: Co$$ [did the verse], and it was perfect. And then one day, I was at Alchemist’s house and Mistah F.A.B. came by and really kinda bogarted the album [laughs]. Before I knew it, he was in the booth laying a verse on my album, and I don’t think I even asked him. He was just like, “yo, let me rap on that,” and I was like, “you’re Mistah F.A.B., man! Do your thing.”

Hekimian: That was a vivid memory: being at Alchemist’s, and Mistah F.A.B coming with his manager, like, “I have to get on this.” Within like 15 minutes, he wrote it and just did it. That was a dope record. That was one of those givens, that when Exile sent that record, you knew it’d work out.

“Where I’m from, life’s a gamble: grab the dice.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: Every day is like shooting craps, man. You could throw a 7 and be having the greatest day – you’ve got a girl, you come up on some really good weed, you might even cop a chain or a car – you never know how the dice will tumble. You might throw a 3 and everything could go [wrong]. You could lose everything. You never know. Every day you wake up, it’s like throwing a hand.

12. BO JACKSON ft. EXILE

Fashawn: [The title’s] just a funny play on words. The song’s called a duet, and we kept saying, “do it, do it, do it, nah, you just do it.” Just Do It was the Nike phrase, and that automatically came to stand for Bo Jackson [laughs].

Exile: I was like, “you’re not going to get away with doing an album without me rapping on it, bro” [laughs]. We just made that for fun. We wrote it real quick and just spit it. Definitely, some 40s were being drunk.

Fashawn: All of it [was improvised]. I would’ve never thought that I’d do a song like that on my first album, but that was all spur of the moment. That was after we did “Stars,” “Intro,” and “Hey Young World.” We were just being silly in the studio, drinking 40s, smoking weed, and talking crap – and that’s what came out of that conversation. [Freestyling with Exile] is the funnest thing ever. I’ve never had an easier with chemistry with someone I just met on the microphone. He’s such a talented emcee, I had no idea. He was hanging with me, just really killing it on the mic. He has one of the craziest senses of humour in the world, and he’s a really unorthodox guy, so it came together really organically.

Exile: We were just clowning, having fun, laughing off of lines we came up with. It was just a party, really: drinking, spitting out raps, and then going back and doing overdubs of us just chilling and having a good time, so you can kinda hear the party vibe [on the record]. It was just a good time. Good chemistry. We had fun.

Fashawn: I don’t think [people give Exile enough credit as an emcee]. He’s a really incredible writer, man. He comes from the era of dope emcees. I don’t know why people underestimate him. Probably because his beats are so incredible, they think that his rhymes can’t equate with that.

13. LUPITA

Fashawn: [Laughs] Very true story. The girl’s name wasn’t Lupita – I did that out of respect for homegirl’s privacy — but that was me growing up. Fresno’s population is [largely] Mexican, so I was always either the only black kid in class or one of [very few] black kids. There were a lot of beautiful Mexican girls where I grew up, and this one in particular [I called] Lupita. I actually ended up dating Lupita in high school. [The song’s] story is from middle school, but I had a crush on her for so long.

Hekimian: I remember when he did it, I just felt like it was a good feel: the Latin salsa type of record. I always felt like it was a good vibe to paint the picture of Fash and where he’s from.

Fashawn: I wanted to talk about that in a song, because I felt like that was an issue that was going on in the black and brown community throughout the world, not just in my city. I figured any black kid anywhere or any Mexican girl would [relate to] that song.

Hekimian: If I’m not mistaken, [that] was a song earlier in the recording process. That was like one of the first little batches we got from Exile that we worked on.

Fashawn: “Lupita” was probably the birth of Boy Meets World, to tell you the truth. That was one of the first songs that I sent to Exile when he was like “okay, let’s make an album. Keep telling your story. It’s really in you.”

Exile: “Lupita Lupita!” That was a perfect, dope, classic girl song. I had flipped some Brazilian song for that, and I got J. Mitchell to help sing on that as well. It’s a classic little song for the Latina ladies.

“Mama said there’d be days like this…/ When the clouds are grey, and the sun don’t shine.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: [The interlude] was just a perfect segue to “When She Calls.” That was another beat that Exile had that I [wrote to], not knowing where it would end up. I really loved that track, and it ended up being the glue that [connected] “Lupita” to “When She Calls.” It’s really setting you up for the story I’m about to tell, which is grey and dark. It’s a really dark story, so I needed a [sort of] sweet entrance and go from a light concept like “Lupita” to a more serious concept of love.

14. WHEN SHE CALLS

Hekimian: The first time I heard the beat, before I played it for Fashawn, I had goosebumps from that vocal sample.

Fashawn: When I heard “when I am sleeping” and “when she calls,” and I heard those chords, I knew it was something that I couldn’t take lightly. I knew I had to tell a story in the same vein as [Eminem’s] “Stan” or [Common’s] “A Song for Assata.” Something dark and scary, but it still has that arc in there, and it’s a full story from beginning to end. Whatever spirit was in that song, it provoked me to talk about what I was talking about. I just saw the friend I grew up with as soon as I heard the chords. His whole story came out of me – I didn’t even know it was buried in my brain like that.

Hekimian: Instantly, I knew that song – to me – was going to be one of the songs that would stand out in his career, because of the topic, what he was saying, the production… even though that’s just a two-track [recording]. Exile lost the files to that beat, so when we got into the mixing process, we had to use the two-track that we had. I remember there was a hum and hiss in the beat that was pissing me off, but we still ran with it. It was so powerful.

Exile: “When She Calls” is funny, because I have mixed feelings about [it]. I had a song with Johaz of Dag Savage for that beat first, and I really liked the song that I had with Johaz to it. It’s hard to separate me from something that I like at first, but then eventually, I was like, “whoa, this Fashawn song here is really dope and fits with this beat.” I actually ended up finding a beat for the Dag Savage song that I thought fit a lot better, which is actually on the Salvation mixtape – it’s called “Dream Sequence” – but those lyrics were originally to Fashawn’s “When She Calls.”

Fashawn: Joanna Newsom’s “Cosmia” is a phenomenal record, and one of the first samples I’ve ever gotten cleared – shout out to Joanna Newsom. “When She Calls” [is] a lot of people’s favourite record, you know? It’s a really touching record. It’s a song about relationships – not the bright side of them, but more of the serious side, the stuff you see on A&E. My friend committed suicide when I was a youngster over a girl, and nobody really understood why except me, because I was the guy he’d come talk to all the time, and I’d listen, as opposed to everyone else who’d call him a loser for even being in love with a girl.

Hekimian: I always knew that record was going to be something that stood out – not just on the album, but in people’s lives. I think that’s why I [knew that] Fashawn would be personable to the world, and people [from] all walks of life would be able to relate with him.

15. BOY MEETS WORLD

Fashawn: It’s my magnum opus. I’ve never put that much of my life into a record. That’s a definitive record in my catalog. That song right there is me saying goodbye to my old life and hello to my new one. Goodbye to adolescence and hello to manhood. It still leaves room to grow for the next album. It was an exploration of who I am, but also about who I wanted to be – and that’s why I wanted to end the album on that note. If you’ve only listened to my music and you feel like you don’t know me, listen to that song and it’ll bring you right into my living room – through my childhood, adolescence, and becoming a father.

Hekimian: For me, personally, [this song was the most meaningful]. I arranged the whole second half of that outro. It was based off a mixtape record that we had done, and I always felt like it would be the perfect ending for an album. It had a real theme song feel. The song he rapped on, the production that Exile brought, I felt like that was an amazing song as well. The girl that Fashawn had brought in to sing the chorus and ending just worked, and I was like, “you know, I think I can bridge something to elongate the album and end it in a big, powerful way.” [I loved] The College Dropout and classic Kanye, classic Jay-Z, classic Nas, and I wanted to bring the stuff I loved into Fashawn’s element, so I had players come in and emulate that mixtape record and change it up to make it our own original piece of music. When Fashawn laid that part, I sent it to Exile, and at that moment, he was like, “wow, this album’s gonna be amazing. I think this is something special.”

“Dad was never around, I ain’t even trip/ Cause I had a stepfather when Randy ain’t bothered/ Was in the late eighties when him and my momma split/ As soon as I was born, he winds up in the pen/ I wind up with a pen, a paper, and a dream/ Before I realized this is where my life begins.” – Fashawn

Fashawn: That was my life. As soon as I was born, my dad ends up in prison. So I didn’t have a father in the world to teach me how to be [a man]. I’m surprised I didn’t wind up in the pen, you know? But the pen that I did wind up [with] was my salvation. It led me to something bigger.

16. BONUS TRACK: THE SCORE ft. PLANET ASIA

Fashawn: [Having Planet Asia] was like Nas having Rakim on his first album. To have a fellow Californian – from Fresno at that – was legendary, [especially] to have Planet Asia doing a style that he made acceptable for West Coast cats to do – the scratching and that kinda backpacker-esque, East Coast feel. Planet Asia really introduced me to that growing up, coming from Fresno, so I wanted to have him on that. That’s one of my favourite songs because of that: the King of Fresno passing the torch and telling me, go ahead. That was a big deal to me.

Exile: “The Score” is one of my favourite songs on the album. That’s just some raw, dope, hip-hop shit. I like my scratch hook on there, and I really love how I chopped up that beat. I had always wanted to chop up that sample and make it work in a way that hasn’t been done before – rearrange it and make it my own. That was actually the second beat I made – I still have another version of that beat – and Fashawn just came with the perfect raw verses to go over it. Of course, Asia did as well, and then I laid down the scratches, and the rest is history.

Hekimian: I remember [Fashawn] was writing that one, and [he found it] really hard. Obviously, if you’re a hip-hop fan, you know Alchemist has used that same sample with Nas.

Fashawn: I just remember recognizing the sample, thinking, that’s that one song, but I’ve never heard it chopped up like that. I’m like, yo, this is crazy; I have to write something to this. The first thing I wrote wasn’t even dope to me. I was like, it’s good, but the beat is way better than my rhyme [laughs]. I needed to go back and write something more potent, because I was so taken by this track. Before you know it: “Shatter your brain like a window pane, too much pressure/ But y’all don’t hear me though, like a lecture…”

Hekimian: I just remember when he spit that, I was like, “holy shit.” His raps were just extraordinary. He did two verses on it, and we were going to keep it to two verses. At that point, it was like, “man, if there’s anybody that could work with what you did and flip it, it would be Planet Asia.” Asia killed it too, and it was just a really dope record. I felt like that was something that hip-hop purists were going to love.

17. BONUS TRACK: BREATHE ft. BRAVO

Hekimian: I really love that beat – that Doors sample. I think we were out of town in LA at the time, we were in the car together, and he might’ve had the first verse down. Bravo is his cousin. They were in a rap group growing up, and I was like, “I think he would be perfect for this.”

Fashawn: I wrote a lot of my early rhymes right next to Bravo. A lot of people don’t know that, but I grew up with this dude. He heard my worst rhymes, my best rhymes, my best freestyles you guys will never hear, all that stuff. He was my engineer before everyone [laughs]. I always respected his skills as a lyricist. He was just as deadly or even deadlier than me. To have my family on the album and another Fresno native is a big deal to me.

Hekimian: We really wanted that on the album, but because it was a Doors sample, and we couldn’t get that cleared – there were a bunch of [hoops] to go through – we decided not to put it on the album. But Bravo’s voice is dope – he’s got a really deep tone – and Fash’s storytelling on that is crazy.

IN RETROSPECT

Exile: I’m thankful for having another classic record under my belt. Looking back at it, I just feel nothing but appreciation for me being able to do an album like that with someone like Fashawn. I feel like it’s a manifest destiny thing, you know? It’s something I’ve always wanted to do since I was a little kid, and I’m just happy that I was able to do that.

Devoya: There’s nothing about [the record] that I don’t like. It’s like watching someone grow into themselves in such an organic sort of way, [without] dumbing down hip-hop and pandering to what was current at that time. It just solidified that it was smart of me to say “yes, I’d like to take part in this,” because it was perfect.

Halem: This project led him right into the Freshmen List with XXL, which he was on the cover of. At the time, the Internet wasn’t what it was today. [The artists that made the list] already had a lot more recognition [from] radio-driven records, where Fash wasn’t that kid, but [he] was still being recognized amongst those [artists]. I mean, you had J. Cole, Fashawn, Nipsey Hussle, Wiz Khalifa, OJ da Juiceman, Freddie Gibbs, Big Sean, Jay Rock, and Donnis. Nipsey is still doing his thing, Wiz Khalifa is a huge star, J. Cole is a huge star, Big Sean is a huge star, and Jay Rock is part of the whole TDE family. That was a pivotal year for Fash to be a part of that.

Co$$: I think it’s a dope record, man. It’s definitely a staple of Dirty Science and the more modern West Coast hip-hop era. I’ve always really been a fan of the actual title – I’m big on little things like that: titles, artwork, and shit like that – so I just really admire it. I think Fash took it and came with his own identity, [especially] coming after such a colossal release like Below the Heavens.

Evidence: He was like the little homie. I got to bring him to Europe for his first time and let him open up; I got to introduce him to Alchemist… I’m not normally the big brother type; I’ve always been the young one in the crew, so that was fun for me to put somebody on without any kind of ulterior motive or vested interest. It was just, I like this dude. That whole time was dope. I remember him putting the record together and really liking it, having this guy making these jazzy hip-hop beats and having him spit shit about coming from the streets, but not dwelling on it too much – kind of a more worldly [perspective]. The marriage of those two things [worked] really good together. I remember when we were finishing the record, he recorded some of it at our studio. He was actually living with me for a little longer than a summer, so I was there for the whole process. It was dope.

Hekimian: The fact that people are still talking about [the album] five years later, and the fact that it touched a lot of people’s lives [is significant to me]. I know for me, my satisfaction from it is being able to help produce something for Fashawn that will be special for him forever: his debut album.