Boi-1da has been a crucial part of Drake's braintrust ever since he helped craft the rapper's first hit, 2009's "Best I Ever Had." In 2014, Boi-1da co-produced "0 to 100," the first SoundCloud loosie to garner a Grammy nomination; in 2015, he oversaw Drake's turn towards belligerent and brawling as executive producer on If You're Reading This It's too Late; in 2016, he soothed Drake's transition into dancehall, producing the Number One Rihanna collaboration "Work" as well as Views' "Controlla."
Boi-1da managed to one-up himself in January, when another song he co-produced, "God's Plan," debuted at Number One on the Hot 100. It's Drake's second Number One hit, but the first to debut at the top of the chart, where it has sat comfortably for four consecutive weeks, shattering several streaming records.
And Drake is just one artist Boi-1da works with. He's also produced showstoppers for Kanye West ("Real Friends") and Kendrick Lamar ("The Blacker the Berry"); last year he appeared on releases as disparate as Lana Del Rey's Lust for Life, G-Eazy's The Beautiful & Damned and Romeo Santos' Golden. Rolling Stone caught up with Boi-1da to talk about his path into production, meeting Drake, his longtime love of dancehall and the success of "God's Plan."
When did you first start making music?
When I was 15 years old. I was told by a friend about the program that I use to this day, FruityLoops. One summer I was really bored, and I ended up taking my mom's credit card and downloading it. I started to work on it from there and it kind of became an addiction. I just kept playing around with it until I got really, really good at it. I entered a beat-maker's competition and ended up winning it a few years in a row.
You hadn't done any music-making before FruityLoops?
Yeah, I didn't do music at all. My mom had bought me a Casio keyboard when I was younger, but I wasn't really into it. I didn't go to piano lessons; I didn't know anything formal.
Did you listen to a lot of music?
My parents were big listeners as well as my sister. So I was always in a house with music playing 24/7. My dad used to play a lot of dancehall music, so that's what I was into really early.
When you took up Fruity Loops, were your friends into it as well, or was it just your thing?
I really started off myself just toying around with the program. Turning knobs and seeing what they do on my own. At the time there was no YouTube to look up tutorials. It was really about figuring it out.
A lot of producers start on one program but then move to others – why did you stick to FruityLoops?
I thought it was the easiest and most comfortable for me to use. It's easy to get your ideas out, your ideas across. The concept is basic. I'm the kind of guy, I don't like to sit there and waste hours trying to make a song. If it doesn't come out when it comes out, you're forcing it.
When did you decide you were ready to enter Battle of the Beatmakers?
I had really honest friends around me. I would play music for some of my friends in high school and they would be like, This is trash. They'd tell me straight up if it was garbage. Eventually it got to a point where they were like, this is starting to sound good. But I still didn't think I was ready for the competition – I entered it and I was terrified; I was the youngest person in the competition. I didn't go in there with an expectation of winning. The competition was like, you come in with your best beats, and it's your best beat against the other person's best beat. There's three judges and a crowd, so the crowd reaction on top of the judges' scorecards determine if you move on to the next round. Once you use a beat, it's over, you can't use that beat again. So you have to plan it out.
You were making dancehall at this point or hip-hop focused?
I was really hip-hop focused. After my whole dancehall era, I fell in love with hip-hop. That was my thing.
And how many years in a row did you win the competition?
Three years in a row. Almost four – I made it to the finals for the fourth one. It was going to be my fourth and my last one, but I think they got tired of seeing me one.
Did that event raise your profile locally?
I started meeting a lot of people when I first went to that event. I ended up meeting guys like Saukrates, one of the first rappers out of Toronto to represent where we're from, and I ended up meeting a producer by the name of D10 that I ended up working with a lot. He was actually the one who introduced me to Drake. I met a lot of key people that I'm very close with today through those competitions.
What was your first official placement?
Kardinal Offishall's album Not 4 Sale. I ended up doing four songs on that album. I was 18, 19 – I was really excited to be a part of anything.
How did you eventually meet Drake?
I was working with D10, an amazing keyboard player and producer. He would always talk about his friend Drake and how good he was. I never really paid attention to it until he was like I'm gonna hook you and Drake up; I think you should guys make music. We ended up meeting up and the chemistry was there from the jump. I understand the vision, where he wanted to go. From the jump, I was like, this guy is going to be one of the greatest rappers of all time.
So his talent was already apparent?
Um-hmm. Everything was pretty local back then. Locally, he was exceptional, better than everybody.
What was the Toronto scene like at that time?
When I was coming up it was very gangsta hip-hop dominated. We have Glenn Lewis, we had Kardinal, but at the time 50 Cent was like the biggest artist. Hearing Drake's music and seeing that it could stand up next to someone like 50 Cent and he's not even being gangster was pretty dope. It was really relatable, especially to somebody like me – I'm not a gangster.
Was production your full-time gig then?
No. At the time I was working at Winners, a retail clothing store. I was working factory jobs. I would go to work then spend all night doing music, go to the studio, go to work in the morning. At a point I was like, I need to quit because this job is draining my creative energy. I would get all these ideas for beats and songs in my head at work, but by the time I got home, I was too tired to do anything. So I got tired of that. I took a chance on myself.
"Best I Ever Had" was your first big hit; did you feel like that was going to be a big record?
I liked that beat a lot. But I didn't think it was going to be part of a hit record. It wasn't the best thing I've ever done. But after hearing what Drake did it, I knew that a lot of people would like it. But becoming a worldwide hit, we could have never called that.
Did you start getting more calls overnight?
The phones started ringing off the hook. Publishers start calling. I was on MySpace at that time, a lot of artists hit me up to get tracks that sound like "Best I Ever Had." I hate that – I already made "Best I Ever Had."
A lot of producers, once they have a hit, try to work with as many different people as possible. But for most of your career, you've kept your circle pretty small.
I enjoy working with Drake. He's my favorite artist to work with. We have crazy chemistry when we work. My motto is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I've always stuck with the game plan. I've worked with other artists as well, but Drake has always been my main focus. He's the greatest to me.
It's been almost a decade now that you've been making hits, and mainstream hip-hop has changed so much during that period – how do you adjust?
Keeping my mind open, not sheltering myself musically. I want to get in with a lot of people, and I listen a lot – to what's new, to what people gravitate towards. Even if I don't agree with it, I keep listening until I figure out why people like it.
Was there anything recently that puzzled you at first but you eventually figured it out?
I'm not gonna call anybody out. But when you're introduced to something brand new, sometimes you just don't know what's going on. For instance, the first time I heard 808s & Heartbreak by Kanye, I didn't get it. I listened to it a year after, and I was like, this is completely genius. Sometimes things don't register immediately. Now it's one of my favorite albums – to this day I listen to songs from it every single day. Still. But I was a year late on it.
It's interesting you mention that album: A lot of people talk about Drake's early sound relative to that record, but around If You're Reading This It's Too Late, he shifted towards something fiercer, and you're often credited with helping that transition.
Drake gave me the opportunity to executive produce that album with him. I love hearing Drake spaz out and just rap – I feel like he's the best when he does that. Just the best. It was a time when we wanted to make a lot of energetic music, and that's what we did – we locked in, and it was all energy.
On the other end of the spectrum, you're also credited with boosting dancehall in the mainstream. How did you make it back towards that sound which you loved when you were younger?
That was such an early influence, my first love musically. I didn't know anything else outside of dancehall when I came to Canada. My dad would only listen to dancehall and reggae. That was the only thing I knew about. My family and I would huddle in front of the radio every Friday to listen to 88.1 'cause that was the only time in Toronto they played reggae and dancehall on the radio. I'm Jamaican; dancehall is basically in my blood.
At that time, there was a lot of trap music going on. I had a discussion with my friends – I really want to make something different. I missed how dancehall used to make people react. It would make girls want to dance. I tried to bring that whole feel back, and then people like it. It was another thing where it was like, this might work; it might not. But I just wanted to do something that made me feel a certain way when I was a kid. Maybe it will make someone else feel how I felt. I didn't know it would pop off like that. But when I heard [Rihanna's] "Work" and [Drake's] "Controlla," I was like, this is gonna work. And they did work.
In the last year, you got more into the pop radio lane – a Lana Del Rey credit, a G-Eazy credit. What's it like working in that space vs. rap?
That was dope. Working with Lana, I really got to step outside of my comfort zone. I learned a lot about different structures with songs. We're going to continue to work. We also have great chemistry and the songs just flow together. It was a great experience to work with somebody outside of hip-hop. Then I brought my world into her world and vice versa. It was a nice little blend. We made that record from scratch, started from nothing. We began with a piano and her signing and it turned into "Summer Bummer."
Obviously "God's Plan" is your latest hit – how did that beat come together?
Drake had that halfway finished already. I just came in and added to it. The record started with him and [producer] Cardo. I came in and changed the whole bounce to it. I can't take credit for the whole record – it really started with Cardo. It came together pretty well.
You were credited on both "God's Plan" and "Diplomatic Immunity" – is it ever difficult when one of your records outshines the other?
They got attention on different levels. "God's Plan" is a massive, catchy, radio-friendly song that can easily be played in the club. "Diplomatic Immunity" was a record where Drake got a lot off his chest. That's a statement. People love "Diplomatic Immunity" – some people love it just as much or even more than "God's Plan." I'm never mad that one record does better than another because they're done for different purposes. The purpose of "Diplomatic Immunity" was to feed the hardcore rap audience. "God's Plan" was to feed everybody.
Has your relationship with Drake evolved over the decade plus you guys have been working together?
We've both grown musically. But we're always on the same page – we're always ready.
What is next for you in the coming year?
This year I'll be putting out a compilation album with a lot of the different artists I work with. And other than focusing on working with Drake, I've been working with Joyner Lucas, the first artist I ever signed. We're working on his debut project; he's another amazing talent – a spectacular rapper and visionary director. I believe that his project is going to be well-received.
What led you to start signing acts and putting out your own project?
It's time to start doing stuff for myself. I always felt like I wanted to. Now it's the right time.