A waft of weed trails Harry Fraud as the Brooklyn-born hip-hop producer strides out of a room in Phase One Studios on West 27th Street in Manhattan. It's just after nine in the evening. He's clad in combat pants, weighty black boots and a dark shirt, with his long hair tied back under a black baseball cap and a half-consumed joint in his left hand. He's just left a meeting he'll say involved a "monumental" career opportunity. He's in lively spirits.
As a producer, Harry Fraud is most often associated with crafting French Montana's 2011 breakthrough anthem "Shot Caller" (which spawned a remix featuring Rick Ross and P. Diddy), and prising the best out of cult rap figures Action Bronson and Riff Raff. Later on this evening, he'll head to Times Square to hole up in another studio and finish tinkering with the inaugural song on his own Surf School label, "Legends in the Making," which stars Generation Now stoner rappers Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y and Smoke DZA. His music usually comes prefaced with a female voice announcing "La musica de Harry Fraud" – a refrain that is now common rap parlance. Despite the gravity of the meeting he's just had, though, Fraud is fixated on humbler concerns for the moment: He's on a hunt for pizza and a triple iced espresso, ideally served by "cute hipster girls" at a spot he knows. He enters the elevator to exit the building and quips, "We're going downtown to go uptown."
During the ride, Harry Fraud is accompanied by an associate he calls Red Walrus – a childhood friend he jokes has earned the official title of his "life-force keeper." As we make our way downtown, the two of them ad lib their way through the opening run of songs on Cam'ron's latest mixtape, Ghetto Heaven Volume One. Nearing his favored Manhattan pizza parlor, Fraud starts trilling about "fresh mozzarella and ricotta" to the tune of Cam's song "Go Outside."
Fraud grew up in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn, back in the pre-gentrification days, when it still had the character of a staunchly Italian neighborhood. He recalls his father warning him not to act up in the presence of Sal, the owner of the local pizza emporium, and he mentions a social club and a funeral home as other block fixtures. His parents were both blessed with a musical bent, with his father managing a series of bands while also becoming what Fraud says to this day is a "top-notch" guitar player. (He's employed his father to play on his songs before, most notably an extended six-string solo on the rapper Eddie B's "Palm Trees.") "I was definitely raised to be a liberal thinker," he says. "My mother let me draw on the walls – like, seriously, that's the type of family I come from."
His first forays into music didn't involve production at all. "When I was a kid I was in bands," he says. "I remember we had to put together a school project and the name of the band was Cash Cow, like we were rebels – fuck the government – in seventh grade media class." He recalls Cash Cow playing a garage rock cover of "Mrs. Robinson," but soon his attention would wander over into the hip-hop scene: He'd dabble with fusing loops of Ravi Shankar samples to drum breaks, and he prided himself on messing around with melodies as much as simply hunting down classic breaks to sample. This striving towards a notion of musicality has come to define his hip-hop beats now: At their most persuasive, a Harry Fraud production has an appealing airiness to it as he pairs steely snare drums and cavernous bass tones with honeyed synth lines and bittersweet acoustic guitar riffs. It's a breezy blend that has become his calling card.
But the upper echelons of the rap industry are littered with hit-makers for hire. Big-name beatsmiths are added to an artist's album as much for marketing cachet as for improving the listening experience. Beats and verses are hurriedly sent back and forth across the Internet; often the artists never meet. Harry Fraud has made hits at this level – "Shot Caller" ruled New York City radio in 2011; he can list Pusha T and Juicy J in his production resume – but he insists the anonymity of the back-and-forth file sharing is not for him. He admits that hit records can be made this way, but reiterates that his best work comes about when he gets to forge a personal relationship with the artist. From that, the creativity flows naturally.
This belief means that sometimes Harry Fraud's music talk can veer towards the idealist or hippy side – but there's a sincerity in his words, and it's borne out in his music. It's apparent that he prospers in close-knit relationships when he talks about his most revered collaborators.
When asked about how he met French Montana – then a kid from the South Bronx peddling his Cocaine City series of street-rooted mixtapes – he goes into an endearing story that involves working on someone else's music at a studio based in Chinatown: it was raided by cops after the building was found to be manufacturing masses of bootleg Louis Vuitton and Gucci purses. French happened to have a guest verse on the song, and once he'd set up at a new spot in DUMBO in Brooklyn, they met and formed a bond.
"When I was trying to get into the rap music industry, it's not like everyone wanted to accept me off the bat," Fraud says. "I'm not your usual character of, you know, 'The Rap Producer.' I think French could relate to that. He was trying to create something different, and I had a different sound."
It continues: Fraud realized early on that Action Bronson, the chef-turned-gourmand rapper, is someone who likes to be challenged with complicated beats. For Riff Raff, the self-appointed entertainment entity of the Internet, Harry Fraud likes to record everything he says into the microphone, as he's prone to reciting a second or third take of a song that can be entirely different from the one before.
There's something old-fashioned and nourishing about hearing Harry Fraud's take on the potential of the producer. He sounds genuinely driven by creation, not commerce. (He admits that he's turned down offers to work with larger artists and, in one case, a project that he jokes would involve "bringing a legend back.") And he talks passionately and in detail about the grand effect a producer can have on an artist's music, using Dr. Dre and P. Diddy as examples of rap conductors who are able to create magic even if they don't necessarily touch a single button on the console. It's about teasing out the best performance from your vocal charge – rapport and kinship are as much tools as knowing your way around the boards.
After Harry Fraud finishes his final round of slices, he heads back uptown to Blast Off Productions Studios in Times Square. Inside, he nestles down in the small B room. He's booked time until 2 a.m., at which hour he will finally sign off on "Legends in the Making." (It's something of a sequel to Smoke DZA's "Ashtray," clocking in at a coy four minutes and 20 seconds, a stoner's magic digits.) He slouches into a chair in front of a mixing console and uses the compact end of an iPhone charger to tailor a fresh joint. With that, he turns to the monitor in front of him and cues up the song: It's a dramatic, bass-heavy number that he listens to with a feral bobbing of the head and gesticulations of his arms, with plumes of smoke rising around him.
"I think a lot of people aren't aware of the exchange that happens to make good records, and I think that's something nobody gets enough credit for," he says. "There's something to be said for that. I mean, I'm sure there are those hit records that come about when someone sends the guy the MP3 and they rap on it. But those are not for me personally."