T-Pain: The EM interview


Technology has been an interesting gift to Faheem Rasheed Najm. Just three short years ago, you could have mentioned the Tallahassee, Florida-born singer/songwriter/producer by his more marketing-friendly stage name, T-Pain, and it would have gone largely unrecognized. Today, that moniker is practically a household item. It is synonymous with “must have” ring-tones among the kids and neatly defines the current ‘sound du jour'' for urban and top-40 radio programmers world wide.

That sound, of course, is the gimmicky and incessant vocal staircasing effect that seems to have tickled the funny-bone of artists from Snoop Dogg and Lil Wayne to Britney and Rihanna. Love it or hate it, the 23-year old T-Pain, and a bit of dumb luck, is to thank. Even the kindest of critics argue that he owes much or all of his fast-rising success to Antares Auto-Tune. A chance meeting with industry mogul Akon and his Konvict record label didn''t hurt T-Pain''s rapid career trajectory, either.

Bursting on the scene in 2005 with his debut album Rappa Ternt Sanga (2005; Jive Records), its massive lead single “I''m Sprung” introduced us to the signature vocal sound. It appeared throughout the 2007 release, Epiphany (2007; Jive Records), which sold more than a million copies. In 2008, T-Pain won a Grammy and multiple BET awards for his collaboration with Kanye West on “Good Life,” again, vocal trick in hand.

With that kind of success, it''s little wonder that the computer-generated vocal undulations are featured prominently on over half the tracks from his latest solo album, Thr33 Ringz (2008; Jive Records), a title that came from people telling him that he''s now running the ‘circus'' that is hip-hop, and the music industry as a whole.

Electronic Musician recently caught up with T-Pain at his Atlanta studio for a brief interview, just before he jetted off to a session at the Hit Factory in Los Angeles.

Describe your very early beginnings as a hip-hop producer, how it all got started for you as a kid?
I was pretty much in my bedroom. My dad found a keyboard on the side of the road that looked perfectly fine to him, so he brought it home and it was the kind of keyboard that didn''t record any MIDI or audio. So, I hooked it up to my little PA system and just started playing stuff along to songs on the radio. You know, I had no means of recording back then, so that''s pretty much how I learned to play and about putting notes together into melodies. Then I started upgrading keyboards and got this little bitty recorder that you could only record one track on it and started doing that, and finally worked up to a little workstation—a Kawai K5000.

A pretty modest setup. How old were you at the time?
Yeah, definitely modest. I had the first setup when I was around 10 years of age and the Kawai when I was about 17. I was producing tracks for myself and also friends by then, getting really involved.

Briefly tell us the story about how you met award-winning hip-hop artist/producer/label-mogul Akon and began working with him?
I''d just reworked one of his songs called “Locked Up.” He pretty much found my phone number from some place, I have no idea how. He kept calling because I kept hanging up on him; I didn''t think it was really him at first, you know? I thought somebody was playin'' with me on the phone and I didn''t know, so I just kept hanging up on him. We finally connected, sat and talked, and he just said that he wanted to sign me to his label. He flew me to Atlanta, I signed, and the rest is history.

He obviously heard something pretty unique in your lyrics and style from that one song to sign you so quickly. You''ve described your music as “Hard & B.” Could you explain that?
It''s just reality, pretty much. Reality is the thing that everybody can relate to. Hard & B is all about reality, you know? When I go in and write I just go from experience. While a lot of my stuff is talk about stripper girls and drinkin'', I mean, it''s what I do, you know what I''m sayin''? If I need something to talk about, I make it about my life, I don''t go in there and try to make up clever ways to make up songs. I don''t need that. I mean, if you''re trying to make a love song and you''re already in love, then you don''t need to go trying to make up a love story, just go in and talk about yourself, by divulging. That''s the hard way out. So, basically that''s why I call it “Hard & B,” ‘cause you''re not just going the easy way out and making up shit.

Describe your personal studio for us.
Actually, I''ve got three studios in my Atlanta house right now. The main room has a 48-channel V-Link hooked up to a [Mac] G5 with an Apple 30-inch screen, and that''s pretty much all it is to be honest.

You''re pretty much entirely in-the-box. You use Apple Logic Pro, right?
Yeah, I pretty much create the entire beat in there. Once I''m finished arranging it and I''ve got all my stuff together, my engineer bounces everything over to my Pro Tools HD rig for editing and mixing.

You also have Garage Band, I see. In what capacity do you use it?
I used to use it all the time. I made the whole Rappa Ternt Sanga album in Garage Band. But I don''t use it anymore. Same with my MPC. I used to use it a lot, but not anymore. Not since Logic Pro. I just didn''t switch from them until I had time to mess with Logic in between albums.

You travel a lot. Do you take advantage of time in the air to do much pre-production?
Yeah, I do! I just went to the Apple store last night and picked up a new Mac Book Pro, 49 key M-Audio controller, Western Digital USB Passport hard drive and a copy of Logic Express to run on the laptop.

What virtual instruments and plug-ins do you use the most?
I use a lot. I just go to every store I can and get all the synths and software I can find and use them all. I just go crazy and randomly pick, because I just don''t want to use the same sound every time. I mean, a lot of producers do that: They just find one of their favorite synths and you can hear it every time, they use it on every beat. So I just go around randomly and pick. As far as effects go, I think Sound Toys Echo Boy is the one I use the most. Actually, it''s about the only one I use consistently.

Other than Antares Auto-Tune, of course. Which brings us to the inevitable question, What originally turned you on to that effect? What was the decision for using it?
I had to do a remix of a Blackstreet song and I couldn''t have done it without finding that effect. At that time, I was using a PC and Cakewalk Sonar, and I had my friends just find me a bunch of cracked plug-ins to try out, and so I found Auto-Tune. I just loved the effect it gave. The next song I did after that was “I''m Sprung” and after the success of that, it stuck and I kept using it.

Step us through your Auto-Tune process. Some people have hinted that you''re secretively inserting vocoder in there as well. What''s the effects chain?
It''s just Auto-Tune, there''s no vocoding or anything else in there at all.

It sounds like you have it set for “slow tracking” and “fast tuning.” Are any parameter changes drawn in and automated?
No, no, I just know how to ‘play'' Auto-Tune. There are no secrets really. I just know how to use it to get the right response. But they are pretty much different settings every song.

What do you think about the trend that your vocal effect has sparked, now with so many artists trying to copy it. Do you view it as watering down your signature sound, or is it a form of flattery?
Well, it''s only flattery when it''s done by somebody bigger than me. (Laughs.) You know, a Lil'' Wayne, a Kanye, a Diddy, or Snoop.

But, you''ve also ended up collaborating with those artists, so it must be a mutual agreement between friends to experiment with the sound?
A little, yeah. Kanye flew me to Hawaii to work on his album just to show him how to use Antares. Then Lil'' Wayne told me I''m the only reason he''s even singin''. (Laughs.) And Diddy gave me points off of his album just for using Auto-Tune. So I mean, that''s when it''s flattery.

Do you see yourself ever abandoning Auto-Tune, perhaps in re-defining T-Pain down the road?
No. I think I''m going to stick with it. It''s all about who originated it, you know what I''m saying? I mean, I brought it all back from the original vocoding days.

Walk us through one of the more interesting tracks, from conception to tracking, that you produced off Thr33 Ringz.
Well, the big hit “Can''t Believe It” (featuring Lil Wayne) is interesting in that it came together so quickly and has only about four tracks to the beat. There''s like nothing on that beat at all.

Basically, from the pressure of not having a first single, I pretty much just had to come up with something real fast. So, I had my keyboardist in the studio with me and I started twiddling around with the (sings downward celesta hook) and I was like “Oh man, let''s just add something to this.” So I put that down, and then he came up with all these different kind of chords. Then I was like, “Man, I don''t know if this needs to be pretty or if there needs to be some kind of hard Atlanta beat on top of this.”

I pretty much worked up six different drum patterns but it eventually came out as it needed to, as that Atlanta thing -- tough. There was a really hard snare on it originally, but I made a breakdown out of it instead, and I just left a snap on there and I was like, “Man we just need to leave the snap like that the whole time!” So, we took the snare out completely, left the snap in there. I actually wrote the song in my head as we were making the beat so I was already at it. As soon as we''d finished the beat, I just went into the booth and I pretty much had to wait on them (the engineers) to put it in Pro Tools before doing my thing. It was that fast.

You say you were coming up with the song in your head during production. Are you the kind of rapper that jots notes down, or do you go with the flow, so to speak, once you step into the booth?
Never. I never write nothing'' down. Nah, I just go in there and if I don''t know what I''m about to say I mumble it, and whatever it sounded like I was trying to say as I was mumbling, well that''s what I go back in and record.

The production value on Thr33 Ringz seems fuller sounding than on the first two albums.
It really is, yeah, you''re right on, thank you!

What would you say accounts for that? A personal development musically ,as well as technologically?
Both. You know, I didn''t have a keyboardist on the first two albums, and on Thr33 Ringz I had a keyboardist and a guitarist, which helps out a whole lot. It makes everything sound a lot fuller to bring in those elements.

“Change” is another interesting track. It''s absolutely beautiful. How''d you come up with the concept to do your own take on the Clapton classic, “Change The World”?
I actually wrote that song for Michael Jackson, but he said that he doesn''t do samples, recreations, and that kind of stuff. Well, if he couldn''t use that, I was like, I''ll take it! (laughs). You know, I was trying to do a new “We Are The World” type of thing for him, ‘cause he was kind of aiming for that. So, that''s pretty much what it was. I mean, it was just something I was trying to make for him, and it came out as mine.

And, around that theme is naturally why you brought in friends like Diddy, Akon, and Mary J Blige to be on that song?
Yeah, that''s right.

Particularly for outside artists that you work with, do you approacheach song from scratch or do you have a stash of beats like a lot of producers do?
Nah, if they come to me, I want to give them something fresh. I don''t want to give them something I''ve been sitting on for a long time. So, I make it right in front of them, that way they know every element that''s in the track. You know, only they know what they want out of it, and what they don''t want in it. Yeah, they know every element''s got to be cool.

Jason Scott Alexander is a regular contributor to Mix and Remix magazines and runs a world class mix/production facility in Canada''s capital, Ottawa.