[Interview] Elite talks “Level Up,” working with J. Cole, and the importance of humility

Interview by: Martin Bauman

To say things have gone well for Elite this year would be an understatement. The Dreamville producer/emcee moved from Byram, Connecticut to Brooklyn, co-produced four tracks on J. Cole’s highly-successful Born Sinner album (including the Gold-selling “Crooked Smile”), and just released his latest project, the aptly-titled Level Up. The free release tells the story of Elite’s past year, moving from a small town to Brooklyn and experiencing all that comes with it. We caught up with Elite to talk about his latest project, working with J. Cole on Born Sinner, the importance of humility, and much more. Read the full interview below.

TCUS: Let’s go back to the beginning. What was the first record that got you into hip-hop?

Elite: That’s a good question. [Laughs] You know, it might have been “Jam” by Michael Jackson, because it had that Heavy D rap part in it. I used to love Michael Jackson, and man, when that rap part came on, I remember always being like, “I want some more of that; I want to hear more of whatever that is.” I was just a little kid, you know.

TCUS: Speaking of Michael Jackson, what significance does Thriller have to you?

Elite: Pshh, I’ve got the poster of Thriller in my studio. It’s pretty much the most significant album in my life. I mean, it was the first album my father ever bought for me. It’s the greatest album of all time in my opinion. It influenced pretty much everything I do, more than any other piece of music. I mean, I’m a huge Michael Jackson fan, so that’s like the Bible right there.

TCUS: On a production standpoint, what about that album makes it special to you?

Elite: Ahh man, the sonics. The way every sound has its own character and lives in the most perfect place in the speakers. I read this book by Bruce Swedien, who was the engineer of that album and all of Michael Jackson’s major albums – he was like Quincy Jones’ right hand man – and learning about the techniques they used to come up with all these sounds [was incredible].

Back then, they didn’t have the plug-ins like we have now, where we just load up a preset and all these incredible effects come out. They had to go to pretty extreme lengths to create new sounds, by mic placements, and elevating drum kits off the floor, and putting different types of pillows and all types of objects inside kick drums to make the drums sound different.

The amount of creativity it took to develop sounds and do sound design in those days is just a whole other level, and it always fascinated me how they were able to come up with such incredible sounds. If you listen to the demo versions of the Thriller songs and then listen to the final produced versions of the songs, I think that’s when you can really start – from a production standpoint – to appreciate the amount of work that went into that album. It’s so polished and so perfect; everything is in the right place.

TCUS: Speaking of the production on that album, this is a Quincy Jones quote: “always have humility with your creativity and grace with your success or else god walks out of the room.” What resonated about this with you?

Elite: That’s just the key right there, because you have to know that you’re not the only one making [music]. It’s so funny, because I was just thinking about this right now. I get mad about this sometimes; I need to stop getting mad about it. I’ll come up with an idea for a video or a song or a concept, and a month later, another huge artist like a Pharrell or a Kanye will come out with the same exact thing that I was thinking of.

And I used to always be like, “Damn, what’s going on? How is this happening?” I started to realize that we’re all tapped into the same energies. We’re all pulling from the same places, and I believe it’s from the other side. It’s wide open for anybody to tap into, and these ideas are not necessarily all coming from you; it’s a collective thing.

When you start to realize that, you have to have humbleness and realize that you’re just a messenger, and all these ideas and creativity are just flowing through you. We’re getting kinda deep right now [laughs]. But that’s what I believe. I believe you have to accept that you’re just an instrument, and you’re not the man behind everything, you know what I mean? Once you can start to do that, then you can get out of the way and really let things flow, and that’s when stuff starts to get real special.

TCUS: That’s an interesting way to think about it. I want to go back to someone you brought up earlier, your dad, George Parrino. He’s a Professor of Visual Art. How did he influence you in terms of artistry?

Elite: [He taught me] everything. Art and any medium, when it gets down to the roots and the concepts behind everything, it’s all the same. It could be video, fine art, music… it all relates. He was able to pass on the things that he had learned as an artist, just in terms of me being able to deal with creative blocks or understanding what the most important things to focus on are during the creative process. [He taught me the] key fundamentals. He couldn’t necessarily teach me technical things – like how to get my mixes to be brighter – but he could teach me concepts that I think are the most valuable things to really learn as a creative person.

TCUS: It’s funny that with your dad being a visual artist, as a kid, you actually wanted to be a comic book artist. Tell me about that.

Elite: [Laughs] You did your research! That’s crazy. I used to sell comic books and stuff when I was in middle school. I used to draw my little Ninja Turtle comics or whatever the hell they were and try to sell them. I went through many different stages. I wanted to be a video editor; I used to edit video when I was in like the 8th grade, and through high school I was in TV production. I didn’t start music until probably my senior year of high school, coming out into college. That’s when I really started to get into rapping, which is what started [me getting into] production.

TCUS: Let’s talk about college then. Tell me about SUNY Purchase.

Elite: Purchase is where my dad taught art, and I kinda grew up on campus there as a little kid. It’s an art school; they have a dance conservatory, film – Wesley Snipes went there – they have a lot of different types of art programs. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but looking back, going there was probably the biggest advantage for me in terms of developing myself creatively, because I was able to be around creative people at all times for four years.

You take it for granted when you’re there, but when you get out of college, and you’re around all these regular people in life, you start to miss it. Like, [in college], my neighbour was designing some crazy installation for an art project. Now, my neighbour works for Starbucks or whatever [laughs]. You take those things for granted and absorb it all. While you’re in college and around all those creative people, it does a lot for your palette, as far as making you a better creator.

TCUS: Interestingly, when you first applied to college for music, you were denied. How did you rebound from that?

Elite: Yeah, that was tough. [Laughs] It was tough because I hadn’t ever made songs before, and that was part of the application process: you had to have three original songs. I hadn’t made any songs; I was just writing raps and wasn’t that serious about it. It was something that I was doing for fun and my dad was trying to push me into [college].

It was good that I got denied, though, because it showed me that [pursuing music] was not going to be easy. You have to work for this; it’s not going to be handed to you. That resonates until this very moment. Nothing is ever handed to you, you know what I mean? You really do get what you put into it. So I had to really focus and get better and prove to the professors there that I was good enough. It was my first challenge, like, “okay, you don’t think I’m good enough? Let me show you that I’m good enough.” That’s the mentality that you have to have in any profession.

TCUS: When you were making those first songs as part of the application process, were you using Hip-Hop eJay at the time?

Elite: [Laughs] Yup! Hip-Hop eJay. It was so funny, because it had pre-made loops that you throw into this program, and they’d already sync up with each other and everything. It was really like cheating. I remember one of the professors in the interview, he was like, “so is that a sample?” I didn’t even know what a sample was. I was like, “what’s a sample?” which is like the most ridiculous question [laughs]. They [asked], “did you play that on the keyboard or did you steal it?” I was just like aww man, I don’t even know what I’m getting into. That was a moment of how far away I was from what I was [trying to do].

TCUS: Let’s talk a little bit about your previous work with Ruff Ryders. What’s your favourite memory from your time at Powerhouse Studios?

Elite: Ahh man, there was so much [going on]. Sometimes I forget how many incredible experiences I went through during that time. It was a whirlwind; I was so young, and it was so intense and different from what I was accustomed to. It was just a different world. Being around for the Kiss of Death album was pretty special; that’s still one of my favourite hip-hop albums. I might be biased because I was there for the creation of it, but it was pretty cool to see Jadakiss work on those records and the process [behind it]. Just being able to just be in the room for that whole process was pretty special.

TCUS: What’s the significance of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” to you?

Elite: That’s the first song I ever sampled on a major placement. [I used it] on a song called “Fireman” by Drag-On. I sampled it, made the beat, Drag-On liked it, and it ended up being in the movie Cradle 2 the Grave. Usually, when you get a song or a beat placed in a major movie like that, you can get a lot of money – that’s where a lot of the money comes from, movies. [The Temptations] took the entire song’s publishing. Basically, it was such a big record that they took all the money, so I made The Temptations a hell of a lot of money off that record, and I got next to nothing. That was my first lesson in music business right there.

TCUS: Now despite that, you’ve said before that you feel that sampling shouldn’t be shied away from, and that it’s still an important part of producing. How come?

Elite: Absolutely. I just think that even if you’re doing something original, you’re sampling, [the only difference is] you’re just disguising it. You’re always taking from elsewhere. Nothing is original; you’re just combining things differently, whether it’s a melody you’ve heard subconsciously, or whatever it is. That’s just part of the creative process, and if you find something that inspires you to create, being scared of not making money off it is the worst reason to not do it.

“Fireman” is a perfect example. Okay, I didn’t make any money off it, but I got my first placement and I had a resume after that. [From then on], I could walk into anybody’s studio and say I produced this major song for Drag-On. It changed my whole career. If I would have said, “no, I can’t sample ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ because I’m not gonna make any money off it,” I would’ve never had that placement, and who knows what would’ve happened? You can’t think that way. You have to just do what you’re inspired to do and let everything work out how it’s supposed to work out.

TCUS: In another interview, you offered some advice for producers. You said that the only time producers should reach out to people above them is to learn from them. Can you elaborate on this?

Elite: Well… In the [music] industry and in any profession, there’s status, and when you’re on the come up, trying to get higher than where you are, and you’re looking to someone you view as being in a higher place than you, you should never go to that person asking for that person to bring you up to where they are. First of all, they’re not going to do it. Second of all, you should want to get there on your own merit.

I think the best way to approach it is to come as a student. If you see somebody who’s where you want to be, instead of running up to them [and going], “hey, take my demo, listen to me,” go up to them and say, “hey, do you have any intern positions? Can I learn from you?” That’s such a more respectable approach and an easier in, because people might actually accept you if you’re coming to them like that.

If you’re coming to them like, “I want to learn from you and help you,” that’s a much easier way to get in the door, and it makes more sense. You’ve gotta humble yourself. You’ve gotta realize that you’re not there yet, so how can you get there? I think the best way is to learn from someone who is where you want to be.

TCUS: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned when it comes to producing?

Elite: You know, you never stop learning. Every time I make a song, I try to implement something new or take a step forward. One of the main things I had to start realizing as a producer was that it’s about the song and not about the beat. Sometimes when you’re working with other artists, for you, it’s about the beat and nothing else. As a young producer, that was my thing. It was like, how hard are the drums hitting? How incredible does the sample sound? How big is everything? Because you want people to say, “that beat is incredible.” As a producer, that’s what you crave: that reaction.

Artists don’t really like that [laughs]. They have their own ego, and they want it to be about the song. As a producer, you have to take a step back and realize that it’s a collaboration. It’s about the song; it’s not about the beat; it’s not about the writing; it’s about everything combined and what makes the entire thing as good as it can be.

I learned that through making my own songs, because then I took a different position. I just wanted the song to be great; I didn’t care whether the beat was crazy or the writing was crazy. I just wanted the experience of the song to be great. If you can take that [approach] when you’re working with other artists, then you’re going to be much more successful, and artists are going to want to work with you more.

TCUS: That connects to another quote of yours: “The best melodies, lyrics, or anything creative comes when you get out the way and let God take over. I firmly believe that… You can replace the word “God” with whatever you want, but it’s not just you.” Can you elaborate on this thought?

Elite: Yeah. God, the Universe, whatever you want to call it… I think [it comes down to] just allowing what’s trying to happen to happen – that’s the hardest thing to do. It kinda goes back to what we were talking about before. It’s about being confident and at ease enough when you’re creating to just let what is supposed to be happening happen. The very first thing that you become attracted to, the very first kick drum that you find and like, just go with it. Trust that it’s good enough. Then go to the next sound, and trust that that’s good enough. Before you know it, you have something.

When you first start, you want to control everything so much that you can [actually] get in the way of what’s supposed to be being created. Basically, it’s [about] confidence; having the confidence to just allow yourself to be guided to the right thing, and having the faith to know that it’s right. I guess sometimes you think “it can’t be this easy; I’m not that good,” but if you allow yourself to be, then you [will be].

TCUS: Let’s talk about Level Up. What inspired this project?

Elite: My first mixtape that I had put out, Awaken, I had put so much into, just in terms of the songs and everything – I probably made like 25 songs and trimmed it down to 17. [With] this one, it was a much more organic process. I had just moved out to Brooklyn from Connecticut.

I’m from the suburbs, moving into the heart of Brooklyn and changing my entire lifestyle around. Basically, the first year of my life in Brooklyn, I was just making songs periodically. I was living life a lot, because there’s a lot of life to live out here, but I was making songs like journal entries – just writing down what I was going through at the time, being totally honest and writing as I went along.

I made a song called “Game 7,” which is the second-to-last song on Level Up, and I never had any of these songs really pinned to a project until I made that song and realized that all these songs were a story, and it was the story of my life of the last year. To me, “Game 7” was the theme that made everything make sense and made it an interesting story.

Before I knew it, I was like, “wow, I have a mixtape here and there’s a story behind it.” The story is me coming out to Brooklyn, being newly single, having fun, living a crazy life, and then meeting a girl. There’s about four or five songs that are just the dynamics of this relationship with this girl, you know, the ups and downs, and then it all blows up in “Game 7.”

The last song, “Level Up,” basically, the concept was how anytime you go through what you perceive to be a low in your life, it’s kind of like the universe preparing you for an ascension of some sort – a next step of growth that you’re about to take in your life. It’s funny, because right after I made that song “Game 7,” which is really emotional and kind of gut-wrenching, we had just finished the Born Sinner album and turned it in to mastering.

After that, obviously things started taking off with “Crooked Smile” and all the production work I did on Born Sinner, so that was like my level up. I made the song “Level Up” right as all of that was happening, and it was kind of like me saying, “hey, it was all worth it. I’m the man right now.” It’s about going through all that turmoil to reach the next step in your life.

TCUS: That idea seems to connect with another line of yours from “Something Beautiful.” You rap, “had to shed weight to fly.” Tell me about that line.

Elite: Yeah, well that was kinda referencing my relationship. I was in a relationship for so many years before I had moved out to Brooklyn, so that [line] was me saying [that] sometimes you have to free yourself of anything you feel like is holding you back – and not to say that the relationship was necessarily holding me back, but it can be, whether it’s a relationship, or a living situation, or [sometimes even] anything of comfort.

We get so comfortable in life that it makes it hard for us to grow, and sometimes we have to shed some of that comfort in order to move up and fly – however you want to put it. Some people are content with getting comfortable and just gliding through, but then sometimes you’ll have an urge, like, “I want to grow; I want more,” and you have to make sacrifices in order to get to that next level.

TCUS: For people who have listened to both Level Up and Born Sinner, they’ll quickly recognize a connection between “Do She Got A Friend Tho?” and “Let Nas Down.” Yours actually came first. Tell me how that came together.

Elite: “Do She Got A Friend Tho?” was a song that I made when we first got out to Brooklyn. Bas – who’s another Dreamville artist – was just over at the studio with me in Brooklyn, and it was a really late night session. We had Nate Jones, our bass player, who played an incredible bass line on that song, and we were just jamming. It was literally like 3 o’clock in the morning and I made that beat out of nowhere, Nate played the bass, and we made the song. It’s like a fun party record; we’re talking about girls and just wildin’ out and being ignorant [laughs].

I sent it to Cole, just so he could hear it – you know, we send our music back and forth to each other all the time, just to get opinions and creative input – so I sent it to him and he had it in his laptop, and one day he called me – this was a month or two later – and he was like, “yo, I sampled your song.” I was kind of confused at the time, like, “what do you mean?” I didn’t understand how he could sample a song that was already complete. It was a hip-hop song that had already been done, so I was like, “how [could] he sample it?” He did that before with “Work Out,” so that’s something that he’s learned to perfect.

Anyway, I went to the studio to hear [Cole] record [the song], and when I heard the beat that he made out of it, which was “Let Nas Down,” I was blown away. If you listen to both records, it’s two completely opposite emotions. “Let Nas Down” is this dark story that kinda pulls you into this emotional zone, and “Do She Got A Friend Tho?” you can put on while you have girls in the crib drinking. It’s two totally different vibes, so that was pretty impressive to me that he was able to pull something completely different out of the song and make something so groundbreaking. For such an impactful song, it was cool to be a part of in any way.

TCUS: You had your hand in a number of tracks on J. Cole’s latest album, Born Sinner: the title track, “Runaway,” “Let Nas Down,” and “Crooked Smile.” “Crooked Smile” recently went Gold. What does that mean to you?

Elite: Man, it was crazy how “Crooked Smile” went Gold on the day that I dropped Level Up, which really bugged me out. I remember when I woke up the day I was going to put out Level Up, which was Wednesday, and I saw a tweet saying that “Crooked Smile” went Gold. I was just like, if that doesn’t signify level up, I don’t know what does. You can’t write that in a movie script. It was too crazy. I mean, it’s incredible to be a part of a song that was able to have such a large audience.

Sometimes, we make songs that we may consider as important or [meaningful], but they don’t have the stage. I was blessed enough to be a part of a song that was going to have such an incredibly big audience, and we both knew that going in, so it was like, “how can we make this as good of a presentation as we can?” Because the message in “Crooked Smile” was so important, I just always felt like it deserved the most production care. We just had to make it as good a song as possible so that as many people as possible could get that message.

TCUS: You’ve worked closely with J. Cole for several years now. What impresses you most about him?

Elite: A couple things. One would be his work ethic. I remember when we were working on Born Sinner one night, he was in the back room while we were mixing in the control room, and he had this beat that he was writing to. At the end of the night, he comes into the control room, and he was like, “I wrote this song to it, but also wrote another song to it, so I’m gonna rap both of them to you and you tell me which one you like better” – and he said it so nonchalantly. I was like, “hold up. You wrote two songs to one beat in the same night?” That just blew my mind.

That’s like something as a creator that you would think to do, but you won’t do it, because you’re just too lazy to actually go through with it. But he actually did it, wrote two complete songs in one night to the same beat. That just blew me away, just in terms of his work ethic and desire to have the best possible [finished piece]. That was a moment to me that stood out, like, “wow, this guy is serious.” He didn’t even use [either] of the [songs]; neither song ended up making the album, but it just showed his will.

TCUS: Production-wise, what have you learned from J. Cole?

Elite: A lot. He’s such an underrated producer. I think he taught me a lot about what we were saying before, in terms of leaving room for the artist, you know what I mean? He’s an artist and a producer, so he was able to communicate a lot of that with me. I remember when we were working on Friday Night Lights, and we were doing the track “See World” – which we co-produced together.

I was making the beat and he was guiding me through it in terms of what he wanted, and as we were making it, my style back then was still very heavily Ruff Ryder-influenced, and I wanted the big explosive [sounds]. I remember one moment, I was like, “yo, let’s put some toms in there! [mimics tom solo].” He was just like, “No! No toms! You’ve got to leave room. I’m gonna be the toms. I’m gonna come in with the raps and that’s gonna be that element.”

I remember holding on to when he said that, like, okay, you’ve gotta leave that room so that somebody can come in and give that last punch and that knockout blow. It’s like that with everything. You have to leave that space. So that [moment taught me] amongst many other things. He’s a great producer; he has lots of gems, and in the last however many years, he’s been around so many other incredible producers. He’s learned so much from the No ID’s and Salaam Remi’s and all these people, and I’ve been able to hear all those stories and pick his brain from those experiences, so it’s been absolutely priceless, the stuff that I’ve gotten to learn through him.

TCUS: Here’s another quote of yours: “So many incredible things happen by accident.” Can you talk about this?

Elite: It always seems that way. It always seems like when you do something really, really, really good, it almost forces you to not take credit for it. Somehow that always happens. It’s like you have to say, “well, I don’t know how that really happened, it just did.” I remember I had this beat one time that was so crazy to me, but it was all an accident, because I had this drum pattern that was a completely different tempo, and I loaded up the wrong patch or whatever, and it started playing these whole other drum patterns to this new tempo.

It was a complete accident, but it sounded so crazy, and I was like, “man, this is amazing!” Everyone was like, “how did you do that?” I was like, “well actually, it was an accident.” It’s kinda like, if you just work [hard], sometimes you just stumble across things. You need to recognize what’s good and what’s special and what’s not. That’s your job, just recognizing that you have something cool.

TCUS: You keep a journal of notes on your favourite artists and goals you’d like to accomplish. Tell me about this.

Elite: Yeah, I do [laughs]. How do you even know this? That’s crazy. I have a couple [journals]. I think most artists have places where they keep things. I have this one journal where I wrote down all my favourite artists and things about them that I admire, just in terms of getting it out there and setting the intention. That’s the key to all of this; you have to set clear intentions for yourself, [in terms of] what type of artist you want to be.

Sometimes just writing it down or saying it out loud can be so powerful, and a lot of people, when they ask artists “how do you see yourself,” or “what kind of artist are you,” that’s like the hardest question for an artist to answer, because most artists don’t take the time to sit down and just set the intention of “this is what I want to be.” They just go with the flow. That’s something I’m trying to be more conscious of now, and I don’t have the perfect answer yet either. I don’t think we ever do; I think it always changes, but that’s a key. You’ve gotta keep trying to set intentions and that way you can be moving yourself towards the right direction.

TCUS: With that in mind, what direction do you see yourself heading in?

Elite: Right now, my main goal is just to continue to develop as a complete artist – and when I say artist, I don’t mean just a rapper; I mean the whole spectrum of creation, whether it’s making beats, or mixing, or rapping, or performing, or videos, images, just the whole package. I’m just trying to develop every step of it and make a bigger and better product. If I’m going through things in life and I’m putting it into my art, I’m trying to make it as powerful and accessible of a message [as possible], so that everybody who listens to it can relate to it, and it can inspire them and help them through what they’re going through.

We all go through the same things in life, it just manifests in different ways through different circumstances, but the emotions behind it are all very similar. So if I can put my true emotions into my art, I think it can help other people. I know when I listen to other people, or see other people’s passionate artwork, it helps me go through what I’m going through, so I kinda feel indebted to return the favour.

TCUS: Is there anything else you still want to add?

Elite: For anybody [reading this], if you want to hear the mixtape, it’s called Level Up. It’s on elitethatsme.com. Follow me on Twitter @Elite, it’s pretty simple. I appreciate you having me; it’s been a good interview – a great interview. I appreciate it.