Meet Boi-1da, The ‘Secret Genius’ Behind Some Of Drake’s Biggest Hits

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A report by Aaron Williams for Uproxx.

A weird thing that happens with music is that you can hear a song 100 times a day and never really know who’s on it. Back in the old days — less than ten years ago — when albums were primarily consumed by physically purchasing a CD, liner notes detailed each person who had a hand in crafting your favorite bops, jams, and singalongs. However, in the era of streaming, access to that information has been curtailed, and is often a wholly separate search from simply finding the songs on the streaming outlet of your choice.

Sure, you’d know who the performing artist is. Those beats would be instantly catchy, those hooks would reel you in. In many cases, you’d be able to identify the beat maker from an iconic tag — Metro Boomin’s “If young Metro don’t trust you, I’ma shoot you,” or Mike Will’s “Ear Drummers.” But who penned those hooks? Who’s really getting paid for instantly recognizable lines like “Didn’t you know I’m a savage?” Songwriters are often left out of the spotlight and off the top billing, despite doing a lot of the behind-the-scenes work that turns a few strains of melody and a handful of musical chords into a certified hit.

Spotify wants to change that. As of this month, the streaming service has begun to include songwriter and producer credits in the album information. Now, with only a couple of clicks or taps, users can see which songwriters are credited to a given track. In an era of unprecedented collaboration, this information is invaluable to music fans who want to follow not just their favorite performers, but also the masterminds who truly create the soundtracks to their everyday lives.

Spotify has also begun the Secret Genius program to highlight these creatorsand shine a light on the artists behind the artists with a podcast and a series of playlists on the app, as well as writing camps that connect some of the most important behind-the-scenes figures to share ideas and collaborate on their next big hits. Participants have included Starrah, the scribe behind the above-mentioned Rihanna quote from “Needed Me” and Camila Cabello’s “Havana,” James Fauntleroy, who recently won an Album Of The Year Grammy alongside Bruno Mars for his work on Bruno’s 24K Magic, and Boi-1da, the Toronto producer who’s crafted some of Drake’s biggest hits including “Best I Ever Had,” “Over,” “Controlla,” and his recent No. 1 “God Plan.” Boi-1da is also the man behind huge hits like Rihanna’s “Work,” G-Eazy’s “No Limit,” and “Summer Bummer” by Lana Del Rey.

I sat in on the most recent Spotify Song Shop writing camp to find out more about the Secret Genius program from close up and talked with Boi-1da about his writing process, his “desert island” songs, and what it’s like to have helped put Toronto on the map.

What can you tell me about this Spotify partnership?

The Spotify partnership is called Secret Genius. It’s about bringing awareness and putting a spotlight on songwriters and producers who don’t really get a spotlight. Just putting it out there that we need our acknowledgment as well, and a lot of the time producers and writers just get left out of everything. It’s a great thing that Spotify is doing with all of us. Just to put awareness on songwriters and producers. We have a lot to do with a lot of the songs and whatnot.

Why do you think that is that songwriters don’t necessarily get acknowledged as much as, say, the artist?

I think generally people just don’t care. People are just consumed already by the artist. It’s like the artist is there and they’re the selling point and whatnot. It’s like there are so many details when it comes to a song that an average listener really is not going to look into. It’s good that Spotify is doing something where they put it to the forefront.

So, there are a lot of good things going on for you right now.

Yup.

You have your first number one for Drake solo.

Yeah. Me and Drake together. First number one together.

What’s that like?

It feels great because we always wanted to get it. We both got it before without each other. You know what I’m saying? We were always just like, ‘We’ll get one.’

Did you think it would take this long?

No, but it did. It’s still just as rewarding. You know? It’s more rewarding than anything to be honest. That’s like my brother. We grew up together, we came up, we struggled, we had our ups and downs together. It feels great to be able to accomplish this with him.

When you’re doing something with, say, Drake versus doing something with someone else like Rihanna or whoever, what’s the difference in the process? I know that you and Drake go way, way, way back. With somebody new is there a concern like, ‘Oh, I have to do something for this person,’ or do you just start a fresh slate and just build something new?

It comes different ways. It could be something fresh that we start building. It could be an idea from the artist like, ‘I have an idea. If you could do something like this, flip this sample’ or another idea that they already had with somebody else that they want it executed a little bit differently. It can come from all different angles from creating a song but it’s different every time.

Really, it’s different working with somebody every time as opposed to somebody like Drake. He’s somebody that I already spent a lot of time with, I’ve known him for years. It’s easier to access and hit him up and be like, ‘Yo, let’s do this this way” and then talk about it and change things around in the songs and whatnot.

Because you have a relationship?

Yeah. Whereas I met Rihanna a few times. I don’t really have that kind of a relationship with her.

Yeah. She’s intimidating.

I love it. She’s just her. It’s amazing.

Why did you want to be a songwriter/producer as opposed to an artist? Obviously, the artists get all the credit, the artist is out in front, they get all the pictures taken. As a songwriter, you kind of play the back. You kind of do a lot more of the behind the scenes work. Why did you want to be the producer, the beatmaker, the songwriter?

I wanted to be that way because I felt like I’m more confident in that element. I’m not really a person that’s like spotlight-driven. I enjoy the spotlight. It’s enjoyable sometimes but I don’t think I’m a person that could really handle a life that a superstar has. It takes a very particular kind of person to be able to handle that kind of stardom and that life. I just don’t think I’m that kind of person. I do love music and I love creating music so it works out perfectly.

It’s working for you. For the last 12 months you’ve just had a run. You’ve just been demolishing everything.

Yeah.

Can you list some of your accomplishments over the last 12 months and then say what they mean to you?

Last 12 months? I did a record with G-Eazy that peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100. I did those two records for Drake on Scary Hours. A collaborative effort but I was on both of those records. “God’s Plan” debuted number one. “Diplomatic Immunity” debuted number seven. All three of them were on the top 10 at the same time.

I did a song camp in October with Spotify. That was amazing. I had Frank Dukes, I had Starrah, I had Murda Beatz, Sevn Thomas, Bibi Bourelly, Diana Gordon. A lot of people were there that I always wanted to work with. We made some cool stuff there. I don’t know. I had so many things happen. I can’t recollect everything. It’s definitely been a great 12 months, the last 12 months.

Going back throughout your career were there any moments where you felt like a song should have done better or you felt like a song was… you had an idea but it just didn’t work out and you wanted to come back to it? Anything under the radar?

No. I’m pretty content with everything I’ve done. If it doesn’t go where it’s supposed to go, so be it. I basically enjoy everything I do. At the end of the day, this is art. For me, it’s art and it’s like painting. Making music to me is painting with sounds. Sometimes you like a painting, sometimes it’s whatever. Sometimes it’s abstract, sometimes it’s clear-cut. It’s just whatever. It’s like either you like it or you don’t. I’m not really worried about if somebody doesn’t like what I do or anything. I’m just going to do it anyways. I’m essentially an artist with sounds.

Do you have any stories about a moment you had a flash of inspiration and it just took off farther than you could ever have expected?

Yeah. With “Work” and songs like “Controlla” — I did “Controlla” for Drake too — it all just stems from missing dancehall music. I was born in Jamaica, grew up in Toronto. I have a really Caribbean influence. We’re heavily influenced by dancehall and reggae. I just missed the energy that it brought at a party and how it made people feel when you start playing dancehall.

Just executing those two songs the way they are executed that made me happy that people really enjoyed those songs. That was the kind of moment I wanted to bring back. Like when I used to drive around with my pops and he used to play dancehall songs and I used to wild out. Like back in the days, me and my whole family they used to have one dancehall station in Toronto that happened only on Fridays at 9 PM. We used to huddle around the radio waiting for it to air new dancehall songs.

Even with “0 To 100” for Drake, at the time I was listening to a lot of Mobb Deep, a lot of Wu Tang, and just that whole feel. If you listen to that song it
sounds like Mobb or like Wu or something like that.

I think that’s why it resonated with the older heads who probably didn’t really like Drake at the time. They were like, ‘Oh, now he’s on. Now he’s on.’

Yeah. I’ll be like trying to channel stuff from the past that I really enjoyed and I know a lot of these young guys haven’t heard or experienced and try to bring it to what’s going on now. Yeah.

Going all the way back, I think your guys’ first hit was “Best I Ever Had.” How did that come about? How did you get that sound? How do you see your sound having evolved over that time?

There was just a lot of energy going on with him. He had just met Lil Wayne at the time. He was working on a mixtape. Basically, the mixtape that he was working on was almost done. He was on tour with Wayne. He’s like, ‘Yo, let’s link up and make a couple more records for this tape. It’s going to be dope.’

I ended up sending him the beats. He was on the road so I ended up sending him the track for “Best I Ever Had” and “Uptown” on So Far Gone. It ended up being I think those were the last two songs. “Best I Ever Had” ended up being a smash hit. Kind of breaking out for him. It didn’t debut but it jumped all the way up to No. 2 on the Billboard [Hot 100]. The song was just everywhere.

Was that when your phone started ringing off the hook? People were like, ‘Yo, you got to give me a hit?’

Yeah. Everybody was asking for stuff that sounded like “Best I Ever Had.” I was like, ‘Come on, man.’

Do you have a favorite non-Drake artist to work with?

Favorite non-Drake artist to work with? I love working with this new artist I just signed last year, Joyner Lucas. I love working with Joyner Lucas. I love working with Kendrick Lamar. Who else? I usually have fun with everybody I work with. I work with Travis Scott. Everybody. I always find fun in anybody that I work with.

Do you have a favorite beat that you’ve made or a favorite song that you wrote that just that’s your song?

Yeah. I think it’s going to come out this year. It hasn’t come out yet.

Hasn’t come out yet? Who’s it with?

Dude, this is classified information.

Classified information? Aw, man! If you were stuck on a desert island and you only had five records you could play for the rest of forever what are the five records that you are going to play?

Damn. That’s tough. One of them would be “Fear” by Drake.

“Funny how money just changed everything.”

Sick song. So vivid. So vivid. I would probably play “Kill You” by Eminem. That’s one of my favorite songs. Don’t judge me. That song is pretty misogynistic and violent but I love it. I love Em. Whitney Houston, “Your Love Is My Love.” K-OS, “Man I Used To Be.”

That was an underrated banger.

Yeah, it was. Maybe Cocaine 80s, “Tell You The Truth.”

Big Fauntleroy fan?

Oh, yeah.

As a writer myself, sometimes I’ll be working on a piece and I’ll get jammed up. Everything I write is trash and then I have to go play basketball. What do you do to get out of that block type situation?

When I’m in a block I just go live. I go watch movies, I go play. I have a seven-year-old daughter. I go play with my daughter, do things with my daughter. I go just do something else. I travel or just do something out of my comfort zone. Yeah, there’s just lots of things to do. When you’re having a mental block it just means you’ve got to get out of your house. You’ve been doing something repetitive for too long and it’s messing with your brain so you’ve got to be off that until you get the itch again. That’s what it is for me.

Go live your life. Go play some video games, go watch movies, go hang out with friends, go out, go party, whatever. Hang with your family. Do whatever.

When you get that eureka moment … That’s going to lead to the next question. I have this little notebook and I write in my little notebook. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and I’ll have to write in my notebook, right? You don’t have a notebook as a producer, as a songwriter, as a musician. How do you get that out when you have that eureka moment? How do you keep track of your ideas without losing them when they hit you?

I just try to remember them. It sounds pretty bad. I don’t ever write anything down. If it’s a eureka idea usually I remember what it is and I just try and execute it.

Who are some songwriters and producers that inspire you?

Producers that inspire me: Pharrell, Dr. Dre, Timbaland, Dark Child, Nottz, Havoc. Songwriters that inspire me: Babyface, obviously. It’s crazy that he’s here. I like Ne-Yo, James Fauntleroy. Who else? PartyNextDoor, Drake, Chantal Kreviazuk, Starrah. There’s too many to name, you know?

You’re such a big inspiration on the Toronto scene. I know that you have your fingers in all the pies out there. How do you see the Toronto scene changing and growing? How do you think that you’ve influenced that? What does that responsibility feel like?

It’s already changing and growing. There’s people doing fantastic things out there, crazy things. For instance, that kid Daniel Caesar just totally killing it independently. Just him and his small team, just crushing it. They’re nominated for two Grammys, seven Junos. Platinum singles. Just all independent.

It’s changing up there. People are really figuring it out. There’s so many artists. That’s just naming one of them. Yeah, it’s definitely changing. I’m glad that guys like Drake, 40, The Weeknd, myself, other producers from up there, we’re able to pave the way and give the city confidence. You can really make it out of here. Before this happened it was really scarce. It’s like, damn, we’re just going to be stuck up here in the cold.

Kardinal.

Yeah, Kardinal.

Choclair.

Yup. Yup. They’re legends. They’re legends.

Out here you can’t just throw out the name and people know who it is.

Back home where we’re from, Kardinal and Choclair, they’re like legends. Those guys are the first guys that me and people like myself, Drake, I’m pretty sure a lot of other people were looking at when we were kids, ‘Damn, these guys are in our city and they’re really doing it. They’re on BET.’

We were shocked by that and amazed by that like, ‘Wow. You can actually make it to BET from Toronto.’ We didn’t think it was realistic. It was like making it to Mars.

Man, you guys really went from making “City Is Mine” on Room For Improvement to No. 1 on the Hot 100. Do you ever just sit back and just look and think about how far you’ve come? What would you be doing if you didn’t produce?

Shit, I don’t even know. If I wasn’t producing I would have no idea what I would be doing. Probably be working somewhere, somewhere getting yelled at by somebody. I do look back and I’m just blessed. We’re all blessed. I just thank God every day and as much as I can that I’m able to do something that I love. I’m able to influence people. I’m able to motivate people to accomplish the same things that I’ve accomplished. Man, I’m just blessed. I’m just thankful and grateful for it. As for knowing what I’d be doing, I don’t know. I couldn’t tell you, bro. It wouldn’t have been easy for me. I’ll tell you that.

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