Photo: Josh Moore
Isn't it funny how two totally different lines of work can sometimes resemble one another? Case in point: Nate Hills is a rather reserved guy. He's never been contracted by the mob to take care of any, ahem, problems. He doesn't carry high-powered firearms with silencers and infrared beams, nor does he lay in wait to finish off unsuspecting targets. However, he is paid top dollar to kill — tracks, that is. He's been responsible for mega-smashes by some of both hip-hop and pop's über-elite, including Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado, T.I., Madonna and many more in a list that is too insanely long to name in its entirety. Artists seek him out when they want to make their mark on the charts, and he has never failed to produce results. So while not exactly in the same vein as a cold-blooded hired gun, you can still confidently call the human phenomenon known as Danja a hit man.
With such a diverse list of clientele all clamoring for the privilege of being laced with one of Danja's sure-shot sonic creations, it wouldn't be altogether impossible to believe that by now he's bought into his own hype. Think again. The humble 26-year-old is just as meticulous when crafting his productions as ever, maybe even more so now. Half-assed efforts just to get a check are blasphemous. But just as it is for a contracted killer, the money doesn't make it an easier job. It takes a certain kind of mind to do what Danja, who many call the future of music, does.
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“People might think I'm loony or crazy or something when I tell you this, but sometimes I just look into a blank space and wait until an image comes,” he says. “I see music in shapes, sometimes in color,” he explains. “I see the sound. It's like a spectrum of things I see depending on the mood of the track. I hear it differently, too. I'll be hitting the keys or the drums and just see things. I like to take the weirdest, ugliest sounds and make them pretty or the prettiest sounds and do something hard with it. I do things backwards, but seeing the music is definitely real for me.”
FATHER OF REINVENTION
This synesthesia, if you will, could very well be the reason why so many artists see something different in him. Among the laundry list of current and recent projects, Danja says that he's been enlisted for several high-profile albums and some placements, including the first single, “Work,” from Ciara's soon-to-be-released, multidisc effort, Fantasy Ride. Then there's a nice chunk of work on Britney Spears' as-yet-untitled album, which he says will be “way harder than Blackout.” And he's also the man behind the boards of T.I.'s single “No Matter What,” placements on Danity Kane's latest, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and Cassie's first single, “Official Girl,” off her upcoming sophomore release. Not bad for a few months out of 2008, right? But what is it about the methods of this madman that keeps artists, and fans, coming back? He reinvents himself with every track.
“Sometimes [artists] will come for a particular sound that I had on a previous track and want to duplicate that same energy. But instead, I try to do what they should be doing, not what I already did,” he explains of tailoring his sound for different acts. “I do what matches them, matches their voice, what type of fans they relate to. I never try to take you out of your zone; I craft around the artist.”
With that being said, a good craftsman always depends on his trusty tools. For Danja, those mainly consist of his iMac with Logic and his ever-present MPC4000. “The MPC is always going to be the brains of the operation. That's what makes the beats knock like they're supposed to.” But this bare-minimum setup hasn't always been his core setup. Having upgraded nearly everything from his software to his hardware, he recently did away with a grand production scheme that he had built, only to go back to the basics. It's further evidence of the reinvention process that is a constant for both the man himself and his sound.
“There was a point when I just kept buying keyboards, every time I saw one. I had 13 keyboards all around me at once and my laptop going into a 24-channel mixer, going into an MPC,” he says. “I had mad keys: I had a Virus TI, a Motif, a few different Rolands…one was a [V-Synth] GT and a Fantom. It was crazy.”
It is this devotion to constant change that has allowed the superproducer to stay fresh to the ears of those around him. Painstakingly ensuring that there are no carbon copies floating out of his studio, he challenges himself to expand his artistry past that of the common beatmaker. Admittedly not proficient at playing too many instruments, he says that it's not at all rare for him to pick up an instrument that he's never worked with and play around with it, leaving space for the unexpected to occur. But most of all, he insists, it is his love for constructing a complete song, not just the music, that sets him apart from many of his peers.
“A track should be ever-changing, keeping you interested the whole way through,” he reveals. “The key to my style is that I'm a musician, and everything comes from a songwriting standpoint. Sometimes I'll want to change it up and put a bridge in a new place. Sometimes I'll do an intro, then go to a crazy drop, then to a verse. Just having flat-out loops to a vocal — I don't do that. I make the tracks build so that when you get to the chorus, you can really feel the record.”
GOING TO THE MOVIES
“Sometimes I pack sounds on top of each other. I'm trying to infuse rock more into what I do now, as well. I love the sound of the guitar, so I like to have a little bit of an electric vibe going on. I'll have my guitar and my drum set miked up, going into a mixer, and just sample live licks. I still love the synths and doing things like that, but I'm a drummer, too, so I want the rhythm of the drums to really come out. This is Danja stepping into new territory.”
That new territory means a couple of things for Mr. Hills these days. An avid lover of what he calls “the big sound,” he's hoping to soon begin a full-fledged foray into the world of film scoring. Having had a hand in the score for the movie Step Up 2, a project that he says he could have been a lot more involved in if his schedule hadn't been so tight, he's ready to go to the next step of his career. And if his work as of now is any indication, he'll be making movie goers weep from the sounds strategically placed at that pivotal moment in their favorite chick flick in no time.
“I like that cinematic sound,” he says. “I got a couple of tracks on Britney's [upcoming album] that sound like action sequences from The Mummy 3 [Tomb of the Dragon Emperor] or something, just bits and pieces of horn hits that make it sound dramatic. Long before I even knew what I was doing, I would have women tell me, ‘This is sexy.’ I'm in tune with certain chords that make you feel a certain way. I know how to grab your emotions. I know what to play in whatever order to bring those feelings forth. This is a universal language. I'm learning how to capture those feelings and inject them into my music. I'm learning how to make you feel what I feel.”
In addition to possibly having Academy Awards in his future, new territory also finds Danja playing the role of talent finder, signing his first artist, KC, to his own Danjahandz Musik/Jive imprint. Not a rookie to the game, KC wrote the hooks to the Rick Ross/R. Kelly collaboration “Speedin,” the Kells and Young Jeezy anthem “Go Getter” and Ace Hood's recent hit “Cash Flow.” But with pen skills intact, it had to take more than just good penmanship for Danja, who's worked with some of the biggest superstars in the world, to ink the new jack.
“I wasn't looking for an artist; that wasn't on my radar at all. He came to write, and I knew instantly this kid was a star,” he says of his protégé. “What I'm doing with him is a complete example of what I'm moving towards as a musician. I really came into my own as a producer on his project. He can compete with the Ushers and Justins of the world, and I'm excited for the world to hear what we've put together.”
More renaissance man than contract killer, the resemblance in the precision found in both professions is still uncanny. It is the honed techniques, the unorthodox methods and the essential accuracy that fuels both. Focus is key. Adrenaline creeps its way into the two worlds, giving each a rush at that moment when all of their work comes full circle. It's no coincidence that the man's moniker is Danja. He too knows the link between the two chosen fields. But more than murdering music for the time being, he's hoping to leave an indelible mark on the game long after his last big score.
“I want people to see that I bridged the gap between a lot of different worlds but that we all march to the same beat. I'm trying to take it back to the days when you hear a song and it feels and sounds incredible. I want people to know that I didn't follow the rules. I want them to know me through my music.”
PIECES FROM THE ARSENAL
Akai MPC4000 sampler
Alesis Andromeda A6 synth
Apple iMac computer with Logic 8
Apogee Duet interface
Digidesign Pro Tools
Korg Triton synth
Line 6 amps
Solid State Logic SL 9000 J console
KRK V8 monitors
Yamaha Motif synth, NS10 monitors