In The Lab with Harry Fraud
Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
Surf’s up! Yup, that’s right, we’re about to go In The Lab with the waviest producer in the game, Harry Fraud. The Brooklyn-bred beat monster has been down in Florida this winter putting in work on various projects for his Surf School label, as well as cooking up new product with frequent collaborator French Montana and hip-hop all-stars like Juicy J and N.O.R.E. And with a lengthy resume that includes rewind-worthy projects from 2013 like Saaab Stories with Action Bronson, The Stage with Curren$y & Smoke DZA, and his own compilation mixtape Adrift which featured everyone from Rick Ross to Mac Miller to Kool G Rap, we already know that whatever he has in store for 2014 is guaranteed to be banging (see “88 Coupes” with French and Jadakiss for early proof).
During a smoke break at his Florida farm house last week, we chopped it up with Fraud about his come-up as a producer, his daily routine and creative outlook, and some of his favorite spots he’s worked out of, including Alchemist’s crib and DJ Premier’s Headquarterz Studios (where he recently recorded with Joey Bada$$) for our latest In The Lab feature. We also discussed his relationships with French Montana, Action Bronson, and Curren$y, and his dope new release Projection with up-and-comer Adrian Lau, which is now available for free download. Plus much more. Cue the “La Musica de Harry Fraud” drop in 3, 2, 1…
Harry Fraud: “My father is in the music industry, and my mother is a singer. They were in a band together when I was growing up. So I had a 4-track and a drum machine in my house when I was a kid, before I even knew what the fuck they were. Then that evolved from me playing instruments as a kid, to DJing, to getting little samplers and drum machines and pieces of gear and putting beats together.
“Then, I started interning at a recording studio right out of high school. That was my first exposure to real recording on Pro Tools, back when it wasn’t in everyone’s house yet. And I loved it. The guy I interned for literally threw me the manual, and was like, ‘Go sit in the back of the room, roll up weed and do whatever I need you to do, and read the manual. Pay attention, and you’ll pick stuff up.’ And my homie Fafu from BLESTeNATION—those are my big homies I grew up around—he would be across the hall banging out beats, and I’d be smoking weed with him, and he’d be showing me shit. And I started picking things up.
“Then, when I went to college—which was part of a deal I had with my mother [where I promised her I would go to school if she let me do the studio internship]—I got a Pro Tools set-up for myself. That was the best thing I ever did, because I just literally sat in front of the computer for the next year and did so much Pro Tools. But I didn’t do any work. I wouldn’t even go to class. It was terrible.
“Then, I got a job at a record label [with the guy I was interning at the studio with], so I [stopped going to school and] just went and did that. I would play beats, and people would shit on them. But I was around a bunch of music dudes, so I would play stuff for people, and slowly but surely I got my skills better. But the one thing that always helped me the most was that I always had my own studio spot. That’s how I wanted to learn.”
“Right now, I have two home bases. I’ve got the studio that I’ve had in Brooklyn for the past couple years in the Gowanus area, which I actually just redid. That’s the real flossy set-up, with the Nuemann [microphone] and the Avalon [compressor], the Pro Control, and this and that. That’s where a lot of the vocals for stuff that I’m doing get cut, because in the wintertime, I like to go down to Florida.
“I’m down in the Palm Beach area now, but out in the farm area. I live on a dirt road, I’ve got a pond, and a big deck. So I’ve got a big A-frame, open concept house, and I’ve got the studio set up right in the kitchen on the dining room table. We got amps next to the dishwasher, we got motherfuckin’ mics in the middle of the room. We’re just rockin’. I got my Pro Tools set-up, my laptop, and all my outboard shit. And I pull pieces out. So this is where I create and mix right now. But I go back and forth a lot of the time, and I work out in L.A. a bunch, too.
“It’s a pretty basic set-up. I keep my staple pieces of outboard gear that I need, and the certain mic I like, and I make sure I have them in every studio I work in so they kind of mirror each other. To me, It doesn’t really matter where you are, as long as you have what you feel comfortable with. I’m also more of an engineer than a lot of the producers these days. Seventy percent of the records I’ve produced are done in-house. Me or my man John Sparkz cut the vocals, mix the records, and master the records. So I [set things up] from an engineering standpoint, because that’s my background.
“I make my beats in Pro Tools. But I use whatever [to come up with the sounds]. I got an MPC, I still got a Korg Triton. I pretty much feed everything to Pro Tools, then once I got it in there, I start fuckin’ with it. But I’ll use anything, from anything. It doesn’t really matter where it comes from.”
“I’m a producer, but I also have an independent label that I’m running, with artists and producers under me. So I get up in the morning, and start crackin’. I jump on the phone, hit my lawyer, hit my manager, hit my assistant, and make sure everything’s good for the day, and see what I gotta do. It’s pretty regimented. Especially when I’m in Florida, I’m getting up early and going to sleep early. I’m in the country, and those birds get up at six in the morning and start chirping loud. When I’m in the city, I’m more on that vampire life.
“I usually have a bunch of things that I’m working on at once. I’m mixing a lot of records that I’ve been producing, and I’ve been getting into remixes. Like, I just did a remix for Sam Smith, and another remix for this band Joywave. I’ll drink two espressos, smoke some weed, and sit down at the computer and start attacking whatever I have to attack for the day, as far as deadlines. I’m pretty scheduled like that, because I always have so much going on at once.
“In there, I find my pockets to make beats, whenever inspiration will strike me. But a lot of times now, I have to set those days aside, like, ‘Okay cool, I just finished a mix for this guy, a mix for that guy, I sent the beats to this guy, I did this, I did that. Tomorrow, all I’m gonna do is make beats.’
“I’ll never make more than two or three ideas [on my beatmaking days]. And I never really sit down and listen for samples. I haven’t even really been sampling that much, but people still think I’m sampling, which is great. That means we’re doing what we need to do. But I’m always collecting ideas. I have a folder in my computer that has samples, and little riffs we played, or drum loops, and I go to that as my little inspiration folder and start plucking ideas. And I’m always listening for ideas. Yesterday in Panera Bread I heard a sample [I wanted to use]. I might be listening to your band’s demo tape, and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s cool. But let’s take track two and do a co-write. I’ll sample it and flip that up.’”
“I threw the hip-hop purist mentality out the window when I was like 22 or 23, and I was like, ‘I’m gonna make whatever beat I want that’s in my brain, and there’s no more rules. I’m just gonna make weird shit, I don’t give a fuck.’ And when I started doing that, everybody hated my beats. All my friends were like, ‘This shit sucks! It’s so weird!’ But those beats that I made back then get used all the time now. I swear, people jump out the window for those beats right now. So that’s when you really start getting good, when you throw out all those hangups.
“And it’s not a point like, ‘Yo, we’re not sampling anymore!’ One day I might wake up and only loop up vinyls. And the next day I might wake up and write my own music to sample from with the band I work with. Like ‘Bales’ and ‘100 Spokes’ with Curren$y and Young Roddy, those aren’t samples. It’s the band playing shit that we sampled up. ‘Legends in the Making’ with Smoke DZA, Curren$y, and Wiz Khalifa, there’s no samples on that either. I’m just in that space where I’m gonna do whatever I feel, because that’s where I think I’ve been having the most success.”
“Down here, I go to Goodwill and the Salvation Army. I buy records all the time. Me and my man Red Walrus, who’s like the musical director of the band and my right-hand man, that’s what we bonded on in college. We would go down to St. Marks and go all over Park Slope, and run around and dig. But I like the off-the-beaten-path record stores. I was never someone that would spend more than five bucks on a record, ever in my life. I would rarely spend more than a dollar. I used to be in all those records stores, though. Bleecker, A-1. My mother’s basement is full of vinyl. To this day, she’s like, ‘You know, when I move, you’re gonna have to come get all this vinyl!’ [Laughs.]
“I’m a big fan of vinyl. And that’s something that I want to do with Surf School, too. I want to put out vinyl, because I do think shit sounds the most high-fidelity on vinyl. It’s not just 1s and 0s, it’s actually sounds hitting something, and then getting replayed to you. That’s some deep shit. And the 7-inches are popping right now, too. We did some vinyl for the single for Scion I did with French and Action, like 300 copies, and also of the EP. I just gave them out.”
“I like to eat healthy, but really strong coffee and strong pot are the two important things I need. And my laptop. If I don’t have my laptop, I feel weird. And engineers are always bugged out because I always bring a cheap travel mouse to hook up to my laptop. All that new shit is too crazy for me. I need like a old PC mouse with the little wheel in the middle to maneuver.”
“One thing about me and the studio is I keep it very mellow and laid-back, but I don’t like a lot of people in there. If I’m working with you, you can’t bring ten people. I like to be kind of intimate. Me, the artist, and one or two of their homies at most. As few people as possible, so we can be as focused as possible. I don’t like to sit around and have listening parties. When we’re in the studio, it’s time to work, because I got too much shit to do. So I keep a pretty mellow but serious vibe going.
“But we’ll be doing drugs, and drinking. You can party, it’s cool. You can fuck your bitch, I don’t care. Just don’t have twenty goonies standing over my shoulder while we’re trying to work, filling up the room with cigarette smoke. I can’t do all that extra shit. I did too much of that shit already. I’m off all that.”
Working at Alchemist’s Studio
“Someone who’s got the home studio thing on lock is Alchemist. He’s got the spot in Southern California that’s paradise. I’ve worked with Bam Bam there, and me and Al are homies. Anytime I’m in Cali, I always plan to have a couple of days at Al’s house to go crazy at Rap Camp. Al’s got the coolest spot, period. You go there, and you never want to leave. Straight up.”
Working at HeadQuarterz Studios
“I was working recently in Showbiz’s room at HeadQuarterz with Joey Bada$$. We got some fire shit, oh my god. It’s crazy working over there. It’s history. You know, DJ Premier pops his head in the room and says what’s up. But the whole thing that bugs me out is the fact that those type of people know anything that I’ve ever done. DJ Premier, man. I’ve listened to so much of his music, and idolized him. When you’re around those dudes, and they’re so humble, they really live up to what you expect. They give love, and they’re just cool. It’s just an honor to be in their presence.
“Joey’s dope. He’s got a lot of young energy, which I think comes through in his music. He’s got a strong, youthful spirit. That record that we were making at that particular time, I went through three beats, he picked the beat that he liked, played it for a while, came up with the idea, and put down the hook and the first verse. So we were vibin’, listening to it for the second verse, and he was like, ‘Yo, I gotta go for a bike ride real quick.’ [Laughs.] Him and his friend had the fixed-gear bikes that they were riding around, and they just wanted to go for a ride. You know, you’re trapped in the studio, and he’s a younger guy, so he’s got a lot of energy. So he went for a bike ride for like a half hour or forty minutes, and I made another beat in the studio. He came back, and he was rejuvenated, and he knocked out the song. And that song came out really well. I really hope people get to hear it. It’s fucking dope.”
Working with French Montana
“First off, French is a music lover, in the truest sense. On his laptop at any time, he’ll be listening to an Al Green album, a Florence and the Machine album, The Weeknd, Marvin Gaye. He just loves music so much, and I think that works in his favor.
“He’s got an incredible ear for beats. And then, with me and him, he saw the potential in what I could do way early. And I saw it with him, vice versa. When we linked up, we weren’t in the space that we’re currently at artistically, so we kind of sharpened our swords to where they’re at now. And he’ll put in the work. French is a guy who will sit in the studio for twenty-four hours, for real, and knock out ten records. No joke, I’ve seen it done.
“French doesn’t write in the traditional sense. When you work with him, it’s all about a feeling. The other day, I played a beat, and the main part of the beat wasn’t what he keyed in on. He keyed in on some four bar bridge, and was like, ‘Yo Fraudy, let’s take that, and maybe exploit that and turn it into more of the beat.’ And we’re at that level of comfort where we can just sit and work [and talk openly with each other]. So I’ll be cooking that up, and he’ll be sitting there singing a melody, and he’ll go into the booth with just the melody in his mind, and rough out the melody, and put words to it as they come.
“And it’s the same with the verses. He’s more about getting the feeling of the cadence, and how it’s gonna work on the beat. That’s why you love his records. It’s about the melody, and the feeling. American artists that sell huge worldwide, it’s not about what you’re saying, because they don’t know what the fuck you’re saying. They understand the melody, and how your words are coming across. And I think that’s what French is really incredible at.
“And he never comes on a record sounding out of place, or like he’s trying too hard, ever. He’s versatile. He can do a record like ‘88 Coupes,’ where it’s just bars, and then turn around and do ‘Ain’t Worried About Nothin’ or ‘Paranoid,’ where it’s more about the feel of it. He’s so talented, one of the most talented dudes I’ve ever been around in my life. And I think part of the talent is how effortless he makes everything look to the outside world. That’s a talent in itself.
‘88 Coupes’ was the last song of a twenty hour session, where he had already knocked out nine records. We were just playing around with stuff. It was such a loose feeling, like, ‘Play whatever you’re working on.’ I might have ran through like six beats or something, and that was the last one that I was kind of just playing in the background. And he was mumbling, and he caught it. And that’s all French needs to do. He gets the first two lines, and he’s outta here. He did that whole record in the booth! He caught the feeling, and he was gone. Not freestyling, but kind of writing it and putting it together in his head. French, Smoke DZA, Chinx Drugz, they don’t really write lyrics down. Smoke DZA, I might have seen him write one lyric down in my whole life. They’re just writing in their brains. But you know what? They never sound like they’re reading.”
Working with Action Bronson
“We’re tight homies, and two guys that relate. Bronson doesn’t like to go into the studio late. He’s up early. He’s like to be up in there by like 12 or 1. And most of the joints we’ve made together, I make the beat right there. We’ll be going through samples or whatever, and nine times out of ten, I’ll make the beat in front of him. He’ll be writing, and it will be me, him, Red Walrus, Big Body or whoever’s around, and we’ll sit in there the whole day and just bullshit, and end up with one or two [songs done] for the day. And it’s like, ‘Do that, repeat. Do that, repeat.’ [Laughs.]
“With [Saaab Stories], we only got to put out seven songs. And we had recorded thirty plus. I hope he gets to put out more stuff, because there’s so much good shit. [With ‘Heel Toe’], we put the album out with Atlantic, but they couldn’t clear the sample. So we were like, ‘Fuck it, let’s put it out.’ Same with ‘Water Sports.’ [We put those out so fans could add them to Saaab Stories on their own], that was the idea.”
Working with Curren$y
“Smoke DZA was who brought him in, because we were gonna get him on a song for Rugby Thompson. Spitta is an enigmatic type of guy, he’s hard to pin down. So when you get him, you get him. So he was in the city, and Smoke went and got him and brought him to the studio, and we did the song. Then he was like, ‘Yo man, play me some beats.’ And I played him the five beats that became Cigarette Boats. He was like, ‘I ain’t gonna lie, I want all these beats. Don’t play me anymore. I see where we’re at. We’re just on the level. I fuck with your shit. Just give me those five.’ Then the next beats that I sent him were Bales. Then the next beats I sent him were the shit for him and Smoke.
“I love his rapping, from before I was working with him. But then, when you watch him work, he’s like stream of consciousness with it. He writes so quick. It just comes out of him. He even says it himself, ‘I’m Uncle Spitta because I still write with the pen and the pad.’ He won’t write on his phone. He just wants a yellow pad and pen. And he doesn’t need to hear the beat a million times in advance. When he’s ready to record, he tells you to loop the beat and play it, it takes him three takes max to record, and that’s it. He’s effortless in the studio. I’ve never seen him hit a block of any sort. Straight free flow.”
Recording with Rappers
“You have to treat every situation accordingly, and look at the psychology of what you’re doing and who you’re working with. First off, how comfortable are they with themselves? It’s a vulnerable spot for a rapper to be recording in a booth in front of people. I want to make this person feel as comfortable as with what they’re doing right now as possible. Sometimes, with certain artists, that means clearing the room out. I know artists that literally ask everyone to leave the room when they record. I know artists that only want to listen to the beat in the booth, and want to write their rap away from everyone. And I know artists that want to sit around in a room full of people and ask everyone, ‘Give me a line. What do you think of this rap? What line should I change?’
“The most important thing is, it’s not about me. It’s about them. So, how am I adapting to them, and making them feel comfortable? You don’t want to ever force an artist into something. I’ve been in rooms where a producer is straight selling an artist on a song, and you can tell deep inside [they’re not feeling it], but they’ll go with it because they like the producer. Sometimes it comes out hot, but sometimes it comes out super-trash. So I might give you a couple ideas, but for the most part, I’m trying to make you feel comfortable.
“Now once they’re in the booth, if it’s one of my guys like French or Smoke or Action, I’m gonna talk to them like they’re my man. But if it’s somebody I don’t really know, and we’re making a record together for the first time, I’m gonna try to put it a different way. I’m all about straight positivity. My ego goes out the window. It’s not about me, it’s about me getting the best out of you. But I also think it’s the producers duty to produce. And there’s a couple producers still out there, but for the most part, it’s beatmakers and beat emailers. I’m off that.”
Projection with Adrian Lau
“Adrian was coming around my studio in Brooklyn a lot, and he approached me about doing some music together. And I saw a young kid that was talented, and had the extra drive that I know it takes to do this. Talent is great, but it takes more than talent to make this happen. And every time he’d play me a song, it would be exponentially better. And I was like, ‘Wow, you’re killing shit. Let’s work on some more music.’ I don’t care who’s the most famous or the least famous, that’s not what this is about. This is about music at the end of the day, and I just liked the songs that were getting made. They were dope. So over the course of the last eight months, we worked on songs, and it developed into a project. It’s a body of work that’s solid.
“I think people are going to hear a real airy, open, stripped-down [style of my production on this project]. Like with any artist I work with, I cater to them. So it’s a trippy feel, but with real hip-hop drums. Good hip-hop music, with a futuristic soundscape.”
“I’m executive producing Mac & Cheese 4 for French, that’s gonna be crazy. We already got a bunch of records put together that are classic. Me and Juicy J are doing a bunch of work. Me and N.O.R.E. just did some crazy New York records. Meyhem Lauren was just at the crib. I’m working with a bunch of people. And I’ve been enjoying doing [the remixes], just flexing my muscles on shit, and going wherever I want, into different spaces. Hip-hop’s got its structure, and sometimes I don’t want so much structure. [Laughs.]
“I’m gonna do another version of the Adrift project I put out last year that had ‘Morey Boogie Boards’ and all that on it, and it’s gonna be twenty tracks, all unreleased. And it’s pretty much all crazy collabs. There’s an Action Bronson and Freeway song that’s crazy. Yo, Freeway raps for like 48 bars. Destruction. There’s a French and Mavado song that’s really wild. There’s gonna be a lot of French on there.”
Previously: In The Lab with RATKING | In The Lab with The Alchemist and Evidence (Step Brothers) | In The Lab with Thelonious Martin | In The Lab with Troy Ave | In The Lab with Marco Polo | In The Lab with Black Milk | In The Lab with Oddisee | In The Lab with Pete Rock | In The Lab with Party Supplies | In The Lab with Mac Miller | In The Lab with Roc Marciano