In The Lab with Troy Ave

Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)

There’s been a lot of discussion recently within the New York rap scene about minor and major league artists, and who deserves spins on radio stations like Hot 97 and Power 105. Well, one rapper who has catapulted into the majors recently is Brooklyn’s own Troy Ave. A few years back, Troy was on the come up, putting out his own projects, releasing songs to the Internet, doing collabos with local artists, and making a name for himself as one of the most promising young talents in the five boroughs. Fast-forward to 2013, and Troy’s latest project, New York City: The Album (available now on iTunes), hit No. 47 on the Billboard charts independently, and his songs can be heard regularly on New York radio, including during Funkmaster Flex’s Hot 97 primetime slot, bombs and all. It’s a testament not only to his grind, but the quality of his product. That boy’s got that powderrrrrr. But you already know.

For our latest In The Lab, we caught up with Troy Ave before the Thanksgiving holiday to talk about his first recording experience as a teenager, his writing process, his home studio set-up, what the vibe is like in his sessions, and why he often likes to engineer for himself. In addition, Troy broke down the stories behind a few of his most notable collaborations, what to expect from his upcoming mixtape White Christmas 2 which is due out December 24th, and much, much more.

First Studio Session

Troy Ave: “My first ever studio recording was in Bed-Stuy in a fucked up little apartment, and the booth was in the closet. It had roaches and all that shit. Shit was crazy, B. I had to be like sixteen. I used to be with my friends, smoking weed and freestyling. And one of my friend’s brothers, he was into music and artist management, and all types of shit. So he got a studio for us, where his peoples were doing production and shit like that. I used to just freestyle when I was smoking weed with my friends, but none of us [ever recorded before]. So the real test was when I actually went to the studio, and you got other people [in there] who are aspiring to do shit. And I was mad nice amongst them, too. So I was like, ‘Oh shit.’

“[I was rapping over] regular beats, shit that they had. The [songs] ended up in CD players in the hood, and that’s basically it. Nothing really [came of it]. I wasn’t working towards a project, I was just rapping.”

Inspiration to Start Rapping Seriously

“What made me get interested in [taking my rapping seriously] is someone from my neighborhood got a record deal, and they got some money from it. He was a nobody, I won’t give him no light. But that’s when I took it from smoking weed in the hallway [and freestyling] to going into the studio to try it [for real]. DipSet and G-Unit mixtapes [also inspired me]. They had the mixtapes crazy. And Master P and Lil’ Flip. Master P was the first independent grind I had seen.”

Studio Set-up

“I got three spots I record out of. I got my old studio at my mom’s crib in the basement, I got a studio in my apartment where I do most of my shit at, and I got this other studio in the hood that I fuck with, too. It depends on the vibe. I might be in the city, and want to record after we come from a club, so I’ll go to [the studio in the hood]. I got the Pro Tools, and the high-quality mics [at my home studios]. I got the Nuemann at my mom’s crib, I got the Yeti at my crib. I got everything that people use. The big speakers, the Macbooks, and shit like that.”

Studio Essentials

“I gotta set the tone. Have some Patron and lemonade, or some Imperial Moet, or the Cristal. It depends. I don’t really smoke when I’m recording. I don’t do the high raps. But I’ll be around smoking, that’s cool.

“I just be on some regular cool shit. I got a young lady with a fat ol’ ass here right now. You hear me smacking it? You hear that? Listen. [Smacks ass repeatedly.] But that’s about it. I’m sipping lemonade and tequila, and I got Kool-Aid ice cubes.”

Self-Engineering/Studio Vibe

“I record anytime, twenty-four hours a day. It doesn’t matter. It’s whenever I catch the vibe, there ain’t no set time to record. It ain’t nothin’. I know how to work everything, because I don’t have no patience. I can’t be waiting, and stopping. I hate that. I like to do it right myself, the first time, instead of being aggravated with someone else fucking up. That’s why I only go to another studio when I feel like taking that headache on. Like, ‘You know what? I don’t even feel like recording in my spot right now. Let me go get another vibe.’ Or if me and the whole B$B is recording and I’m doing features, I’ll bring everybody through.

“Shit be cool [when we’re all in the studio together], niggas just be cracking jokes. They like to drink a lot, so niggas just be drinking, smoking. I like to drink smooth shit, but they drink champagne and hard liquor. I’ll drink a smooth mixed drink. Other than that, they might have some bitches come through. But it’s more creative, lots of ideas going back and forth, mixed with a lot of stories, like, ‘Yo, this shit happened today…,’ and a lot of laughing. We be having fun.

“But when it’s just me, I’m more just in my creative space. My sessions are more calm. I don’t really have mad people in there when I’m recording my own shit. I don’t want no one pulling out no fucking ideas, like, ‘You should do this shit.’ No, no, no. I’m gonna do what I wanna do. I don’t want your ideas or opinions unless I ask for them. That shit be more of a handicap.”

Working with Producers

“I don’t make beats, but I’ll tell the producer what sound I want. Me and John Scino, we got a great relationship like that. I’ll play it out in my head, and I might beatbox what I want, and add melodies, then send him some shit that I record on Pro-Tools like, ‘Aiight, make this into a beat.’ And my manager might send me beats, my A&Rs my send me beats. King Sevin, he goes through a lot of the beats that people submit through email.

“I’ve made beats before, though. I had a song called ‘BK BK,’ I made that beat. I made a few beats. But I ain’t calling myself a producer. I’m a producer like Puff Daddy is a producer. I’m an executive producer. I got my own sound [in mind]. I did a song with Ryan Leslie, and it sounds like nothing Ryan Leslie has ever made in his life. And I got my own producers [on my team], and we’re growing together. Me and my homies.

“The crazy shit is [every producer] that I recorded in the studio with [for New York City: The Album], I didn’t even end up using the song. I gotta be in my vibe, and my setting, to do the recordings. I like having my own vibe. I did ‘Hot Out,’ ‘Hurt,’ and some other shit with Scram Jones in his studio, but I ended up re-recording it at mine because that’s where I feel most comfortable at.

“I’m mad hands on with the creative process, because I’m real meticulous about how I like my shit. I don’t really take the direction from somebody. I structure the songs myself. I know the sound that I’m looking for. Once [the producer makes] the beat, I tell them, ‘Okay, take this out of the beat,’ then I arrange it on my own with my engineer, like, ‘Okay, put this here, this part will be the hook.’”

Writing

“I write to the beat, because I got mad flows. Besides having incredible lyrics, the flows are important to me. I write right in my phone the majority of the time, unless my phone dies, or I’m in somebody else’s studio, then I’ll write on paper. But mostly I write on my phone.

“A lot of hooks I’ll just do in my head, because hooks are quick and easy to remember for me. But I do my verses in my phone. But a lot of times, if I get a beat that’s crazy, I’ll put up my Photo Booth on the Macbook, and I’ll do the melody of the hook and record it [as a video], then get back to it.

“The shit I write about is my regular, real life shit. It be everyday shit. So I might start out with whatever I’m doing for the day. Right now, I got four ice cubes in the fuckin’ tray. I might start the rap off like that. ‘I got four ice cubes in the fuckin’ tray/I lost fifteen hundred dollars just today.’ Know what I’m saying? Shit that just happened. And I write my songs in one sitting [most of the time].”

Recording

“I make sure my shit is perfect, but it don’t take me mad long. And with my ad-libs, it’s all about me placing them there, because no one got my shits. They’re all me. So I’ll lay the verse, then go back and do the ad-libs later. But I ain’t got no crazy idiosyncrasies.

“I do need the lighting to be a certain way, though. I need it to be bright when I start recording, then as time goes on, after two or three songs or if I’m working on multiple songs in the second phase [of my session], I need the light to get a little dimmer. I get more tired, so the light gotta change with my energy. It can’t be bright when I’m mad tired, it’ll fuck me up. But I start off bright.”

Rapper Collaborations

“Prodigy was in the studio with me for ‘New York City.’ Rae sent me his verse, and N.O.R.E. sent me his verse because he was in Miami. I had did a joint with N.O.R.E. prior to that, and N.O.R.E. always showed mad love. He’s a stand-up dude. And I had met Rae at Kay Slay’s show, and he told me he fucked with me. He was like, ‘Whatever you need, I fuck with you young God. I got you.’ But I didn’t want to just get him on whatever. I wanted to wait ‘til the time was right, and get him on the right record. And I felt like getting them all on a song together would be perfect. And Pusha T sent me his verse, too [for ‘Everything’]. He records out of VA.

“I did a record with Fabolous, and we were in the studio together. Me and him were just kickin’ it. Fab just be on his chillin’ shit. Cool, calm, and collected. Certain beats he’d be like, ‘Oh, that shit’s crazy!’ He’d get excited, pause. He might sip a little, too. But it’s a calm setting, not too many people, like how I record. On some cool-out shit.”

Working with Harry Fraud

“Harry Fraud smokes too much weed for me. I was too high fuckin’ with him. I wasn’t smoking, but he was. I actually went to go get on a record for him. He had this project with Scion. It’s me and Mistah F.A.B. on this record. So we just swapped it out. I did a verse for him, and he gave me a beat. I think Fraud played me like two beats and was like, ‘This one is crazy for you.’ And he was right. I gotta give him his credit. He said it was crazy, and it was crazy.

“I got a song with me, Harry Fraud, and Action Bronson. They both smoke mad weed. They had me mad high. I don’t know who smokes more weed, Bronson or Harry Fraud. I think Bronson. But they couldn’t get the sample cleared, so the song didn’t come out. It’s actually me, Harry Fraud, Action Bronson, and Smoke DZA. Shit is crazy.”

“Classic Feel”

That was the last song I recorded for the album. I was at my mom’s house, trying to catch that Bricks In My Backpack part one vibe. So I was working on multiple songs I was trying to finish, I think one was ‘I’m Dat Nigga,’ and another one. It might’ve been ‘Piggy Bank’ or some shit. And I tweeted something about being in the studio. Then my man Mally The Martian texted me like, ‘Yo, I just sent you some heat. Check it.’ I texted him back like, ‘Mally, the album’s done, man.’ I had the order of the songs and everything, already done. I was just filling in certain bars, tightening shit up. He said, ‘I know it’s done, but trust me.’ So I go check my email, and I check this shit, and I’m like, ‘What the fuck is this?! This shit is crazy!’ So I’m sitting down, and I start saying some flows to it, like, ‘This that Brooklyn shit, this is not the norm/This that safety off, with the engine on.’ That’s all me.

“The way the CD was supposed to start was with ‘Cigar Smoke.’ But since I already had the order, it was either gonna be a bonus track at the end, or it was gonna set it off. So I put it first.”

White Christmas 2

“If you heard White Christmas, it was an event. Part 2 is gonna be twelve tracks to signify the twelve days of Christmas. Another person would say that it’s crazy to be doing some shit after they just put out a big ass album like I did. It’s like a big risk to double back. A lot of people, they put their best work forward, then they have nothing else. Like, anything I put out after, they’re gonna be judging it [against New York City: The Album]. But I’m fearless, and I know my capabilities. I told people I was gonna put out a classic before, and I did that. Bricks In My Packpack 3 was a huge album. It was critically acclaimed. Then I dropped White Christmas, which was a mixtape, and that shit was amazing. It birthed songs like ‘Concrete Jungle’ with Pusha T, it had ‘Blanco’ on it, ‘Only Life I Know’ with Fab, and a bunch of shit.

“So for this shit, I’m gonna spread my wings more, and do collabs with the people I didn’t work with on the last album. It’s powder to the people. I’m giving them some shit for Christmas. I’m gonna fuck this shit up. On the album, you heard all the members of the B$B only one time. This one, they’ll be on there more than once. And mad big rappers have been reaching out to me, so I’m gonna get up with them and have them on this shit. It’s not gonna just be regional. It’s gonna be whoever the fuck I want to put on there. I can’t say no names though, it gotta be a surprise. Like a Christmas gift.

“It’s the same approach [putting a mixtape together as it is putting an album together] as far as work ethic. The mixtape shit to me is like playing at the Rucker and then [making an album is like] playing in the NBA championship. You’re gonna put on for both, but at the Rucker, you’re like, ‘I’m gonna go out and score 70 points, and I’ma show off, between the legs, off the backboard dunk. I’m gonna still show my ass.’ But the championship game, you’re gonna be like, ‘I’m gonna do whatever I gotta do to leave with this ring, and I’m gonna still do my thing.’ With the mixtape shit, there’s more freedom. I get to rap on [other people’s beats] and do a few keymixes and have fun with it. Fuck around more, and not be so serious.”

Heavy Rotation

“If it ain’t my artist, I don’t listen to other people’s music [while I’m working on my projects]. We got our own sound, and we sound unique. A lot of people put out good music, and it’s catchy and it gets stuck in your head, and I don’t want to subconsciously make a song like that. Just because I like it doesn’t mean it’s a song for me [to make for myself]. I might like a chick’s pair of pink Jordans, but that don’t mean I can wear them.

“I listen to a lot of old school, smooth, soul shit. I listen to the Ohio Players, The Spinners, The O’Jays, and shit like that. Shit that puts me in that zone. That reflects me, because they always made music that was about something. A majority of the R&B shit that be out now, it’s just about a bunch of love, but there ain’t no substance. But The O’Jays, they got a song called ‘Backstabbers.’ That’s some real rap shit. ‘They smile in your face/All the time they want to take your place/The backstabbers.’ But now, it’s all about singing about a chick, and all types of corny shit. I like to listen to music with substance. That’s where I draw my inspiration from.”

Radio Love

“I was in my crib, and Flex played my shit [for the first time], ‘Red Cup’ or some shit, and dropped some bombs on it and all that. I was mad excited. That’s a dream, having Funk Flex play your music. I’ll never forget that feeling.

“DJ Camilo, DJ Enuff, Kay Slay, they all be playing my shit. That’s a blessing, to hear yourself on the radio. There’s a bunch of different levels that people have been trying to get to for years that they’ll never get to for whatever reason. I don’t know why they didn’t, but I know why I did. I can attribute all my success to hard work. But not just saying, ‘I’m working hard.’ Recording songs every day is not working hard. I still go out and sell myself to people. Another person will just be lazy, like, ‘Yo, I’m on MTV, I’m on the radio,’ and they try to play too cool for that. I’m selling my music to you with $2,000 in my pocket that has nothing to do with my music, kna’ mean? I ain’t ‘too cool for school,’ as they say.”

The Future

“What I’m gonna end up doing is taking one of these major label checks, and showing my shit to the world. My album charted on Billboard, it was No. 47. And this was all out of my pocket. So when I get the machine that the majors have [behind me, it’s gonna be on].”

Pics via Troy Ave’s Instagram

Previously: 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