This Sunday's Grammy Awards will reveal if Kendrick Lamar finally gets his Grammy -- a possibility that could change producer Columbus "Rahki" Smith's life forever. Last year, Gimme Noise spoke with the Minneapolis-bred producer about his production involvement in Lamar's Good Kid, M.A.A.D City for his work on the track "Black Boy Fly." This year, Lamar and Rahki's collaboration "i" is up for Best Rap Song and Best Rap Performance, to talk about his whirlwind year.
"I don't throw this term around a lot, but he is a genius," Rahki says of Lamar. There is immense anticipation for Lamar's follow-up album, especially after Macklemore swept the 2014 Grammy awards and awkwardly apologized for his win to Lamar via text and Twitter. In a new conversation, Rahki compares Lamar to Kanye West, discusses his work on Aloe Blacc's breakout album, and gets inside the Grammys process.
Rahki produced Kendrick Lamar's "i"
"It has definitely opened a lot of doors for me," Rahki says of "i." "It's about me trying to capitalize off the single. It takes one song to really put you on a pedestal, and this is the song that did it for me, the song that made my career," he says.
He pauses, thinking back to a year ago when he produced "Black Boy Fly," a bonus track that made it onto Lamar's first album. "I remember literally telling myself at the Grammys," he says, "I'm blessed to be in this position, and I'm blessed to have this bonus track, but next year I'm going stupid hard. I'm gonna have more than one..."
Rahki says he flew his guys out to L.A. for the sessions that shaped "i." It was a two-month process trying different elements to find the right way to handle the mid-song transition. "We were kind of doing something that was similar to this '70s throwback feel, something groovy, funky," he says. "We had this one idea that was kind of similar to the Isley Brothers song, and [Kendrick] just said, 'Well, let's just go ahead and replay it, and see what happens.'"
Kendrick Lamar has said that "i," which uses a guitar sample from the Isley Brothers' "That Lady," is about dealing with depression. He told Hot 97, "I wrote a record for the homies that's in the penitentiary right now, and I also wrote a record for these kids that come up to my shows with these slashes on they wrists, saying they don't want to live no more."
When it comes to the social and political implications of hip-hop, Rahki feels that his musical endeavors aren't necessarily relevant to to any current events. (He didn't write the lyrics for "i," just produced it.) Nevertheless, the conversation ties back to his years studying at the University of Minnesota.
He remembers, "...being a black man, growing up in Minneapolis, being stopped numerous times [despite] not having any warrants, not having any tickets, not having anything but still being stopped and asking why I'm being stopped."
"I've been in a situation where I was in college studying and I needed a snack, so I was going to the store," he remembers. "We got pulled over and roughed up because they said there were two black guys who were robbing cars, and I was like, 'I have a student ID on me!."
He believes in more stringent gun restrictions on policemen, or at least less force exerted. "I feel like some of the policemen are too trigger-happy," he says. "It's like, pull out a taser, or just wait a second."
Since "i" became a top 40, Grammy-nominated song, the heat has been on Rahki almost as much as it has been on Lamar for the follow-up to Good Kid, M.A.A.D City. "Everybody wanted College Dropout," he says, comparing Lamar's situation to the start of Kanye West's career. "And then when he comes out with Late Registration, they're like, 'Oh no, we wanted College Dropout."
With critics and fans alike placing such high expectations of the album, Rahki predicts a similar phenomenon with Lamar. "Kendrick had an incredible first album," he continues. "Everybody was expecting something in that vein. You'll see that when the second album comes out... what he's on right now is nothing like the first album."
Though he isn't able to say much more about the rest of the album other than that he did contribute more production work to it, the success of "i" has had a huge effect on his career. He's helped create Grammy-nominated work elsewhere too.
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Rahki played studio drums on Aloe Blacc's Lift Your Spirit
Rahki contributed studio percussion work on Aloe Blacc's album Lift Your Spirit, which is up for a 2015 Grammy in the Best R&B Album category. Playing studio drums gives him a chance to step away from producing and fulfill another enjoying role, being on the other side of the glass.
"It's a totally different process," he explains. "I can't do both; I have to do one or the other. When I'm in the hot seat and I'm playing it's like, I'm actually looking for the producer to tell me that to do!" He laughs. "I would have a totally different vision if it was me as the producer, so I let the producer produce me."
Lift Your Spirit became a smash hit with the singles "I'm the Man," and "Can You Do This." Radio, advertisements, and TV shows have all made use of the material. The album was produced by Rahki's mentor and close friend DJ Khalil. "It's dope, being a part of that album," Rahki says. "It's such a big record."
Recently, he's also done production work for overseas girl group M.O., R&B icon Monica, Destiny's Child vet Kelly Rowland, and rapper Rita Ora. "I've been getting a lots of pop sessions, and urban R&B sessions, things of that nature," he says. "It's fun because I can still stay musical and do what I do working with bigger artists on a bigger level now."
Since last year, he's become involved in Grammy Association now, and has gained an understanding of the voting process for the awards. He shares that he doesn't think there are enough people voting in each category, and therefore it's harder for certain artists to win in some categories. "If I have producer friends or writers or people and they're part of the association and are able to vote but aren't voting, then of course there isn't going to be anyone winning," he theorizes, "There's going to be upsets. That's one big thing -- you have to vote."
Regardless of whether "i" wins or not, Rahki looks forward to the release of the rest of the new Kendrick Lamar album. "It's a special piece of work, it really is," he insists. "I'm not just saying that because, you know, I'm around there, but it's really special. It really is."
Watch the Grammy Awards at 7 p.m. CST on Sunday, February 8 on CBS.
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