Producer Ovy on the Drums Shares the Secrets Behind His Worldwide Hits
At the end of the video for “Cairo,” the recent mega-hit by Karol G and producer Ovy on the Drums, both artists stand side by side in the Egyptian desert, contemplating the pyramids at dusk. The moment is loaded with symbolism, capturing two young musicians from Medellín, Colombia who have made it across the world.
The scene also reflects a recent feat: Last month, Karol’s fourth LP, Mañana Será Bonito, made history as the first Spanish-language album by a woman to debut at number one on the Billboard 200. Ovy, who is currently in Europe working on his first solo LP, is still in a state of shock. “I live my life like a normal person,” he tells Rolling Stone via Zoom. “I’m having a hard time grasping the full dimension of everything that’s happening.”
Ovy, born Daniel Oviedo, has worked with a long list of artists who include Paulo Londra, Mau y Ricky, and Ed Sheeran. But it’s his creative partnership with Karol that subtly transformed the way Latin hits sound on a global scale. The pair began working together on Karol’s debut, Unstoppable, in 2017. Two years later, the empowered jam “Bichota” and the silky Nicki Minaj collab “Tusa” revealed a fully formed aesthetic. Like a visual artist painting with primary colors and bold, elegant brushstrokes, Ovy favors unusual rhythmic patterns that consistently defy expectations, feeling like sweeping cinematic moods marked by pristine, futuristic production. Last year, “Provenza” and “Cairo” signaled a commercial and stylistic apex for the duo.
Ovy’s own project will include guest spots from Quevedo, Ryan Castro, and, of course, Karol. He spoke to Rolling Stone about his creative process, his partnership with Karol, and his approach to making some of the biggest hits in the Spanish-language music industry.
The tracks that you’ve been recording with Karol are not only good songs — they also sound great from a technical perspective. What is your creative process like?
I don’t think anyone could possibly imagine everything that I feel in the recording studio. The world around me disappears — it’s just the music and me. I’m completely absorbed by the desire to do something new and fresh, something that hasn’t been done before. I call that the muse, and the truth is, she doesn’t just show up every day. But when I did “Provenza,” the muse was definitely there. I must have recorded the backing track in 15 or 20 minutes. When something like that happens, I feel it’s because it was already written. I feel like a painter, or a little boy playing with his toys. My problems are all gone; nothing else matters.
Something that fascinates me about both “Provenza” and “Cairo” is their huge depth of field. There are some really open spaces in those mixes, like a movie projected on a giant screen. How do you achieve that?
I don’t really think in those terms, even though I can clearly relate to what you’re talking about. There’s something very big about the way “Provenza” sounds. It has an ambiance, a certain something about it, that’s different. I think it’s the specific energy with which I connect to the work. I’ll tell you something about myself: I don’t really listen to that much music. My playlist is mostly instrumental, piano and guitar stuff. I look at the Global Top 50 only because I’m in the industry. I listen to the current hits so that I can avoid all those things and do something completely different. When I get to work, I don’t engage in thinking. I do it with so much love, there’s no need to plan ahead.
The beat of “Provenza” has this typical South American salteadito feel to it, a little jump, a skittish groove. How did you come up with that?
That salteadito effect started as a loop you would use in trap, like 120 BPM. I took that and performed surgery on it, adapted it to my liking. At that point, I realized that the downbeat couldn’t be dembow or straight-ahead reggaeton. It wouldn’t match. I replaced the snare with the sound of a tom, which of course plays a completely different role in percussion. I then added an electronica-like kick, and it was a match made in heaven.
On the new album, Karol’s voice sounds close and conversational. It almost feels like she’s sitting next to us, casually sharing stories from her daily life. How do you approach recording her vocals?
Since I met Karol, I’ve recorded her in a very particular way. Working with voices is not my biggest strength, but I feel a special connection with her. We have chemistry. The actual setup is basic: some reverb and compressor delay, minimal use of Auto-Tune. My advantage is that I created the tracks myself, so the ideas flow naturally the moment I start recording her. I can vary the pitch and try different things as the track moves along. On “Provenza,” there was the basic vocal track, to which I added another layer with her voice lowered down an octave, and then an additional track with the pitch really high, where she sounds like a chipmunk. It’s all mixed together really well, so you don’t notice, but it adds a special touch.
The main beat on “Cairo” is almost metallic and has an industrial clang to it.
I got some snares on the downbeat and changed them so that they emoted a tribal house vibe, like banging on a metal jar. The key to that song is the bass line [begins humming.] It’s funny, because the percussion on “Cairo” is really bizarre, something completely different. At the end of the track, I couldn’t resist and added some electronica to it, like an explosion of house music.
That ending is spectacular. But it’s not only the ending that’s surprising. It’s also everything that comes before and leads to it.
Precisely. I was in the studio finishing “Cairo,” when instead of following the logical development of the track, my mind decided to go against it. I wanted to chop up the track somehow. I left the vocals and bass by themselves, and at that point everything connected directly to that EDM outro.
Your music follows a Colombian tradition that was also embraced by artists like Joe Arroyo, Grupo Niche, and Carlos Vives: the creation of party songs that are perfect for the dancefloor, but at the same time have a minor key sadness to them. They exist in a perpetual state of nostalgia. Is that a conscious decision on your part?
It’s not conscious, but it comes naturally. I studied music at one point in my career because I wanted to understand everything that I was doing empirically. I knew that down the line I would work with great musicians, and I wanted to be ready when it happened. If I’m in a nostalgic mood, I use the knowledge that I acquired at college: scales, counterpoint and minor chords. When I wrote “Mamiii” with Karol, I was in a melancholy space. Sure, it’s a party song, but my inner feelings still came through, and the song grooves with that bittersweet combination. This is one of the reasons why I love music so much.