Mikkel S. Eriksen and Tor Erik HermansenA Norwegian production duo probably isn’t the first guess that would come to mind when trying to figure out who did one of the biggest rap anthems of 2010. Not because Stargate (Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel S. Eriksen) aren’t known. But more because they’re known for producing pop smashes like Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” Rihanna’s “What’s My Name,” and Katy Perry’s “Firework.” However, for Pittsburgh’s Wiz Khalifa, they made perfect sense when it came time to find his first single. Linking up in New York last spring, they ended up working on seven songs (four of which will be on his major label debut, Rolling Papers dropping March 29) including his top five Pittsburgh Steelers-reppin’ smash, “Black And Yellow,” as well as his second single, “Roll Up.” We caught up with Stargate earlier this week at Roc the Mic studios in Manhattan to talk about the process of working with Wiz and why they haven’t worked with more rappers in the past.
As told to Toshitaka Kondo (@ToshitakaKondo)...
On Producing “Black And Yellow”Tor Erik Hermansen: “We first heard about him from [our manager] Tim. I don’t know where Tim heard about him, but one day Tim came in and played us some mixtape stuff. We were just blown away by his flow, and also his musicality. I think we heard instantly that he had a melodic sense in his approach to writing music, but also in the tracks he chose, and that they had some movement in them. He came through last spring, listened to some tracks, and he was like ‘Yup. I’ll get on that.’ And he was honest with us. He said, ‘I need that radio shit that you guys do.’”
Mikkel S. Eriksen: “Tim was talking about Wiz way back, at least a year before we actually worked together. ‘Black And Yellow’ was the second song we wrote. Even back then, just listening to the hook and the beat, we could tell that this was something great from the beginning.”
Tor Erik Hermansen: “He came with his crew, and they all had a blast. The whole Taylor Gang. There were people in and out of the room, but he had a good sense of himself. When he needs to work, he’s on. He stayed here all night and finished up his verses. We stayed, and made sure that the hook was 100 percent. We worked three or four days I think. We did probably about three or four songs the first session, and then two or three others the second session. ‘Black And Yellow’ took probably about a day. 12 hours. He wasn’t in the booth for 12 hours. He wrote everything here, but who knows. He may have had that idea, and just waited for the right track. I think he did the hook on that one first actually. And we kind of went back and forth a little bit, on the structure, but it was all him pretty much in one go. And he did his verses. I don’t think he even went back and re-recorded anything. What you hear is what he did. We didn’t necessarily understand the scope of how big ‘Black And Yellow’ was, and all it meant. We knew he was from Pittsburgh, and we knew he had a black and yellow ride, but it took us a moment to really get that this would become an anthem for Pittsburgh. Obviously, the fact that the Steelers are in the Super Bowl doesn’t hurt the record either.”
On Producing Wiz’s Second Single, “Roll Up”Mikkel S. Eriksen: “That was the second session.”
Tor Erik Hermansen: “He came through and he was like, ‘I need some more.’ Sometimes we have artists coming in, and they get one hit, and leave. But Wiz said, ‘I need that sound. I love what we did together on ‘Black And Yellow,’ and I feel good about it. So let’s see if we can knock another one out.’ I don’t remember the order, but he did write everything in one day. We tweaked the hook a little bit, to make sure it was tight, and that was it. It’s easy when you have someone like Wiz, who knows what he wants to say. He knew why he wanted to make that record and why he had picked that beat.”
Mikkel S. Eriksen: “He heard the track, and said, ‘That’s perfect, I want to make one for the ladies,’ and that’s what he did.”
Tor Erik Hermansen: “I think he likes surprising people. You see that title and you think ‘Roll Up,’ oh, of course. But you hear the record, and it’s not what you think it is. Same with “Black and Yellow.” He adds a couple layers to his records. The reason I think why he’s going to be successful, in addition to his flow, is that he wants big records. He wants to be on the radio. He wants to be on the big stage, not just the little clubs. That’s what excites us. Someone who’s not afraid of, ‘Fuck it. I’m going to go for it, and be as big as I can.’ Also, a lot of people would maybe take out that bridge, and be like ‘Nah, we can’t have a bridge. This is rap, we don’t use bridges.’ He was like, ‘That’s another exciting part. Let me fuck with that.’ And the fact that he kind of sings a little bit, and uses his melodic voice, makes it interesting. And I also respect him, because instead of having someone else singing his hooks, like a lot of rappers would do like, ‘Yeah, let me get this star over here, or get this established artist,’ he’s like, ‘No, I want to do the whole record myself.’ He’s pretty versatile. And that’s one of the trademarks of an artist that can go far. He’s not afraid to branch out and try different things.”
Mikkel S. Eriksen: “Yeah, because he was laying harmonies. He was doing all that shit. Very open. If you give him a suggestion then he’ll go in and try it.”
On Making “Stoned”Tor Erik Hermansen: “‘Stoned’ was a quick one. I love the fact that the record is just telling a story. It’s personal, unfiltered, and real. I always think there’s something special about an artist’s first record. I mean, he’s had the mixtape shit out, but he’s never had a real album out. But to listen to that album that was written before he became a star, that’s always fascinating, whether it was Jay-Z’s first album, or it was a Tracy Chapman album. That album was made when he was still poor, when he was still struggling, still trying to come up. He remembers it fresh. He knows it, because he’s in it right now. So after that, you have to kind of re-live it to keep it real, but right then it’s who he is. And he’s doing Coachella this year, which I think is going to be great. And by the time Coachella is here, I think he might have had another big record, so he’s going to go there looking like a star. After we did ‘Stoned,’ his label got real stressed, and they were like, ‘This is not what we need. This is too this, and this is too that.’ His A&R Zvi, who signed him, and has been our point person the whole way, he’s got a great sense for Wiz, and where he needs to go. He’s a real guy with good ears. But he came here to get a hit, so when he didn’t hear a hit within the first 30 minutes, he got a little nervous. [Laughs.] We were like, ‘Chill out. This is the get-to-know-you song. This is the one where we feel each other out. We’re just playing around having a good time. Don’t panic, don’t try too hard. It’ll come.’ And sure enough, on the second record, when he started laying that hook down, we knew we had something special. And everyone else heard it too.”
Mikkel S. Eriksen: “You never know, ‘Stoned’ might be a hit too. It’s a great record, too.”
On working with rappersTor Erik Hermansen: "Obviously we’ve got the Rihanna and Drake record so we’ve dabbled in it, but we haven’t made full-on hip-hop records until Wiz. We’ve done some Nas stuff (‘Not Going Back’ and ‘America’), back in the day, too. We have such versatile tastes. I’m just as excited by making a Rihanna record, or a Beyonce record, as I am by making a hard rap record. It’s all music to us, so we always felt that we could do it, but no rapper came through our door looking for us to do a song together. We’ve done some stuff with Norwegian groups, but to make real hip-hop you’ve got to come to America. We always wanted to do it, but all we needed was a break. I think a lot of the established guys, they have their own people that they’re comfortable with. I think what we needed was to get with someone new, that was open minded and excited by what we do, and that’s what Wiz did. He’s a smart guy. We’re excited. We have people coming to us all the time now. Jay-Z actually came up to me the other day and said ‘I need one of those ‘Black and Yellow’ beats for J. Cole.’ [Laughs.] And then he said, ‘Shit, I need one of those ‘Black and Yellow’ beats for myself.’ So we were like ‘You know where to find us.’”