When Travis Scott failed to earn a Grammy nomination for 2016’s Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight, “that was a real dark day,” says Sickamore, the rapper’s longtime A&R, who now works at Interscope Records.
Scott returned on Friday with Astroworld, an imposing LP that’s at once baroque and bludgeoning, sludgy and slick. The rapper harnessed an army of vocalists, producers and writers, more than 50 in total; guitar parts from John Mayer and harmonica riffs from Stevie Wonder; and samples from Goodie Mobb, Three Six Mafia, the Beastie Boys and legendary Houston producer DJ Screw. Sickamore was the man helping Scott make sure all those moving pieces came together. “We went back and wanted to make an album that was undeniable,” he explains.
Sickamore spoke with Rolling Stone about the creation of Astroworld, the importance of good transitions on an album and paying homage to Houston.
When did the idea for this record first come together?
We started this album before Birds [in the Trap Sing McKnight]. Rodeo was supposed to go, and then Astroworld. The first album, Rodeo, was kind of his journey from Houston to L.A. This album is like, what do you do after you get the whole world? You go back home. The concept was, this is his journey back to Houston. He wanted this whole thing to be a Houston album; he felt like Houston never really got its just due. He wanted to put it not on the map, but put the light on it.
Do you always talk about the game plan before an album, or does it develop as you go?
The big idea first. We built out the concept of Astroworld, then we try to fill it in. We know what the end game looks like first. I love concepts, and it’s easier to work within an overall concept. Concept albums are the shit.
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A real driver on this album too was when we got snubbed for the Grammys in 2016. That was a real dark day for us. We felt like we really worked hard and we really made a great album with Birds and we just got snubbed. We were like, man, are they not respecting us? That’s when it was like, “no, y’all got it fucked up.” We went back and wanted to make an album that was undeniable. The Grammy snub was probably the best thing that happened to us. It gave us a chip on our shoulder.
Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, that’s a straight narrative. It starts here; it ends here; everything in between is the hero’s journey. Travis is more like a David Lynch movie.
In what ways did you want to specifically honor the Houston sound other than the DJ Screw sample?
A million. “RIP DJ Screw” is pretty obvious. Big Hawk, a Houston artist, is on “Sicko Mode.” “5% Tint,” that’s Houston lingo;.”Can’t Say” has Don Toliver, a local Houston artist; “Yosemite” was produced by a local Houston producer [June James]; “Houstonfornication” obviously; “Coffee Bean” is all about his trip back home to Houston. Almost every song has something dealing with Houston on it.
Don Toliver’s feature was strong.
That’s all Travis. Somebody put Travis on to him. He called me one day like, “Yo, we got to get this kid Don Toliver.” We had a Hawaii trip and we were trying to figure out where to go to finish this album. We were thinking about different places to go, and we decided a lot of great albums we like are finished in Hawaii. “Yosemite” — Hawaii. “Who? What!” — really in Hawaii. “No Bystanders,” all Hawaii. And a lot of songs were finished in Hawaii.
With Travis’ process, he’ll do 50 sessions on one song. That’s the trick of great producers like Dr. Dre or Kanye [West]. It’s not that they’re better at making music than other people. It’s that they put more time into it. 10,000 hours into each song. Keep chipping away until the final second. We were mixing the album until Thursday. It came out Thursday night.
Anyway, Don Toliver came out there [to Hawaii] and started killing it. He did pretty much a whole album out there. I think he has like ten “Can’t Say”‘s. He’s like the breakout star of the album.
How do you envision your role as A&R when you work on Travis’ projects?
I’m air traffic control. Get everyone bought into the goal. Dealing with all these people is a lot — there’s so many producers on every record, so many artists. But they all come into our world. It’s like doing a movie where a lot of the big stars take less money and do it for love because they believe in a director.
For this album, from Birds, we improved the transitions. A lot of classic albums, the transitions are really great. So we didn’t want people to have to hit the skip button for this album. We’ll do it for you. Mike Dean, Travis, they really locked in to make sure it was really flowing from song to song. It’s like a movie — a lot of the movie is in the editing, how it’s paced. There are different kind of films. Some films are straight plots — think of Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, that’s a straight narrative. It starts here; it ends here; everything in between is the hero’s journey. Travis is more like a David Lynch movie. It’s dreamy; it goes in and out; he might pop up in different places. French New Wave, a Fellini film — in the way the plot is structured, it’s a different kind of film, and we want people to be in and out with us.
What’s the process like usually — are you involved with all of these records, or do they record a lot and bring it to you to listen back?
I’m in every session. This is our third album together, so we’re in a good rhythm now. We get it to a certain point, and at the end, we get it to Mike Dean, and he’s the closer. He’s Mariano Rivera.
For Rodeo, we did a lot of the records because of the people who were on the records. But they didn’t have a lot of staying power, some of the songs. With Birds, it was a really tight album, but overall, conceptually, it could have been more cohesive. Mix those two, you probably get Astroworld — a big, dreamy album, but the features are tighter, it’s more about the song than the feature. That’s what we wanted to nail.
Is it hard to achieve that cohesion when you have so many features, especially on the first half of the album?
The songs are laid out and the guys just do their parts. You walk into the studio, and there’s a script there waiting for you. Travis knows what these guys do best. A lot of these guys went and took it to another notch — that James Blake feature is like, what the fuck. Stevie [Wonder] on the harmonica [on “Stop Trying to Be God”]. Frank [Ocean] going crazy on “Carousel” — you’ve never heard him like that, with some hard rapping. They’ve been cool for a long time; they did a couple ideas for the album.
We also put Swae Lee on songs back to back; the Weeknd on songs back to back [to add to the cohesion]. That’s not an accident.
We felt like Travis wasn’t getting respect from the rapper community. Every time you read an article, there’s always a ton of backhanded compliments on him — “curator,” they try to write him off as some person who’s just good for features.
How did you get Stevie?
Travis did Stevie’s kid’s 16th birthday party. The conversation just started from there. Stevie came to the studio one day and it was magical man. He came at 11 p.m., 12 p.m. with the harmonica and just played on a bunch of records. That was the one that really stuck. That might have been the peak moment of my A&R career watching that.
The credits have John Mayer producing on here — is that right?
Yeah. John came through last second. The album came out Friday; he came to the studio on Tuesday or Wednesday, came with his guitar, he was like, let’s do this. He actually played on three records. Spotify credits don’t have additional producers, backing vocalists, instrumentalists. I really want to talk to them about expanding the credits. Credits are way more than what they have on there. John played guitar on two other records. They’ve been talking for a long time; they’ve always been cool; they’ve always wanted to do something. Travis hit him up like, “Yo, I’m finishing my album.” John came right away. He came ready to get on the album. He even said, “I like coming out at the end of albums, ’cause then you know it’s gonna stick.” He’s cool as fuck. A musical genius.
You mentioned the Goodie Mobb sample; how about the Three Six Mafia homage on “No Bystanders?”
That’s all Travis. He wanted the ultimate raging song. All he thought about that song was mosh pits. All the music we think about how it’s going to perform live. You always gotta think about that. Is it still gonna be a movie live? We did that song last night at Hard Summer — oh my God. It was one of the top songs of the night. There were huge mosh pits going crazy.
What about Tame Impala — you’ve talked about being a fan of them in past interviews.
I’m a huge fan. As far as my contributions to the album, I think that’s one of my favorite moments. My friend linked me with his team. He came to the studio and played beats. Travis told him he was a real fan, and then [Kevin Parker] played “Skeletons,” just the beat. He came back a couple more times and came back the week of release to really listen to the album. Currents is one of my favorite albums, and “Let It Happen” is one of my top five songs. Watching how into it he was was really cool.
It took a village to really make this album. We got Earth, Wind & Fire on there. [Lead singer Philip Bailey on “Stop Trying to Be God.”] Tryin’ to get that Grammy! Stevie, Philip, John Mayer, Kevin Parker, James Blake — none of these guys are hip-hop artists. Travis doesn’t really look at himself as a hip-hop artist. He just looks at himself as an artist. Genre is something just for labels.
The sound of “Coffee Bean” is not a sound listeners typically associate with Travis.
I think he hit that zone before with “90210.” You start the album out so crazy with “Stargazing;” that’s as spaecy as you’re going to get. What do you do after you go around the whole world? You come back home. We wanted to have a very stripped version of himself. On Instagram, a lot of people are posting that — 2 Chainz posted it. In his comments, Puffy wrote, “that’s my favorite song.”
In the last album, we felt like Travis wasn’t getting respect from the rapper community, you know what I mean? Every time you read an article, there’s always a ton of backhanded compliments on him — “curator,” they try to write him off as some person who’s just good for features. We got something for you guys. He’s rapping more than ever on this album.
You haven’t work with Nineteen85 before.
He was new. We loved the stuff he did with Drake. We feel like that song doesn’t really sound like the stuff he usually does either. We have another song with him that we think is gonna be huge. It didn’t fit this album, but it’s still a great song. He came down and rocked with us for three days.
How many ideas total do you think you made while putting this album together
Maybe around a hundred? You’re just throwing spaghetti at the walls to see what sticks. Then something sticks, and slowly but surely, things start moving and tightening. The record we worked on the longest is “Stop Trying to Be God.” I think that was the oldest record on the album.
We had a lot of great minds in Hawaii. Cash from XO [who manages the Weeknd], Brock [another Interscope A&R], a lot of great music people. They gave input about how things flowed.
What does getting a Grammy mean to you?
We came for that respect. That’s the mission. It looks like we’re gonna do five times what we did last time first week — that’s a testament to the music. The Grammy is the biggest thing you can get making music. That means a lot. That’s validation. We want to show people we can do this at the highest level. We are doing this at the highest level.