Interview by Robert Marriott (@Tafari)
Salaam Remi is one of the most versatile producers in the game today. He’s worked with The Fugees, Amy Winehouse, Spragga Benz, and has been one of Nas’ go-to producers since the Stillmatic era, crafting bangers like “Made You Look” and “Get Down” on God’s Son.
More recently Remi produced “Nasty” and “The Don” as well as unreleased tracks like “Black James Bond” that are likely to make the cut for Nas’ latest album, Life Is Good. As part of our special Nas Week festivities we had to get with Remi to talk about the new album and the special creative chemistry he shares with Nasty Nas.
Complex: I know you did quite a bit on the new Nas album. But you guys haven’t decided which records are going to be on it yet, right?
Yeah. Nas ultimately makes all the decisions about how he wants to shape the album, at the end. I just help in the creative process of whatever his vision may be, but he ties the package together, usually at the very last minute.
[Nas] called me, talking about ‘Nasty.’ He was like, ‘How are you getting it to feel so old and still so young and vibrant?’
You did “Nasty” and “The Don,” right?
Yup. I did “The Don.” Heavy D had given me the original record that we used for it.
OK. So he gave you the sample, or you structured the record around it?
Actually, Hev called me during July 4th weekend, last year. Over the years, we had always been talking about doing some stuff, but we always knew each other in passing. [Nas] called me, he was talking about “Nasty.” He was like, “How are you getting it to feel so old and still so young and vibrant?”
A lot of people do stuff that has that ’80s energy to it or that energy from when hip-hop made you feel like you wanted to go wilding, in the late ’80s and early ’90s. You feel like that New York overzealous B-Boy, like you’re ready to go. Usually, it sounds a bit old. So he was just asking me, “Yo, how are you doing it to make me still feel like a kid again?”
That’s funny, because that was one of my questions. How do you create the nuance of it, not sounding like a nostalgic record, but still having the feel?
Honestly, it’s kind of like…Well, I’ll tell you what I told him [Laughs]. It’s one thing when you’re able to copy something, but when you’re from there, it’s always within you. So a lot of how I was approaching a lot of what I do with Nas—and even with those records—I was approaching it like, “This is the stuff I would have taped off the radio.”
Like, there’s so many songs that I taped off the radio that I never had the record of, but I had to have it on my tape. And whatever I had on my tape was what motivated me to get up and finish high-school, because I was going to listen to my tape in my Walkman all the way up the Q4 to Hillside to walk up the hill to Edison. Every day—brick, sleet, snow.
Oh, you was doing the Q4?
I was doing the 4, the 3A at the time…
You wasn’t even doing the vans? It was before the vans?
It was before the vans. I graduated high-school in ‘89, before the vans were popping. I got on the vans toward the end of it, but I had the nickel bus pass, all that straight New York City, ’80s… [Laughs]. But at the same time, that was the motivation. You sat there during the weekend, you had your tape on pause, you taped what you knew.
So a lot of records I got up on through that energy, and that’s where you would hear Izzy Ice and DJ Majesty “Soul Man.” If you listened to Red Alert, you’d get some 45 King specials, you’d get some Jungle Brothers “Because I Got It Like That,” you’ll get all that type of stuff. You’ll get Chuck Chillout, Mix Masters… Yeah, there’s certain records. Chuck Chillout’s going to pay EST and Three Times Dope.
So a lot of times, that’s my mindset. If I’m listening to something, I’m like, ‘Yo, would I give somebody a dollar for this, right now?’ If I wouldn’t, get out of here.
Right, the Philly shit.
Exactly. He’s going to play Disc Masters, “Deuces is def, now say it louder,” Funkmaster with the Flex, when his name was… You know what you’re getting out of those. When you listen to [Marley Marl’s] In Control, come on, you have Juice Crew. You listening to Mr. Magic, Marley’s going to play “We Write The Songs,” the first version that he did at the crib. Let’s make a tape, they’re going to play it on the radio.
You had that energy. So a lot of times, that’s my mindset. If I’m listening to something, I’m like, “Yo, would I give somebody a dollar for this, right now?” If I wouldn’t, get out of here. I know the urgency that a lot of that music was made with.
Right, it’s not just what you listened to, but why you listened to it.
Why and just the feeling. A lot of times, at this point, people make records that are set for certain types of radio. I work off the feeling. The feeling that I associate with hip-hop is, soon as I got out of high-school—you know, my dad used to manage Chuck Chillout, and it was me and Funkmaster Flex. So we used to run around with Chuck, and Flex was in Deuces Wild.
So the feeling of popping the manila envelope open, putting the wax on the turntable, looking at it, backspinning and looking at the cover, while you see if—boom, is this record fit to be played? That’s the energy that I’m still looking for. The energy that you get being on 8th Street in New York, back in the days, on the first hot day, when all the girls would come out, and you’d be like, “I’m going to go by the store and catch me an NYU chick, real quick.” [Laughs.]
That energy of music. When the top came down or you’d open your sunroof, and you’ve got a Queens mix/blend-tape popping out of the sunroof, and you’re hearing that music popping, and you’re listening from a mile away, like, “Dag, I feel good,” that the music I associate with New York.
When I’m going there, I go there for real. That’s my perspective, personally. I’m doing it to motivate the DJ and to motivate the listener, and ultimately, they don’t have to know I exist. They just have to feel what’s coming out the other end of it, which is pretty much a mirror of my career, being a part of that.
[Heavy D] was like, ‘Yo, here’s this Cat record, “Dance Inna New York.” You ever heard it?’ I’m like, ‘Nah.’ He’s like, ‘Yo, I’ve never heard it before either. I’m going to send it to you. If you could find some way to flip this, I’m telling you, it would be crazy.’
So with “Nasty,” that’s what I told Hev. We were talking about the reggae stuff, and he was like, “Yo, here’s this Cat record, ‘Dance Inna New York.’ You ever heard it?” I’m like, “Nah.” He’s like, “Yo, I’ve never heard it before either. I’m going to send it to you. If you could find some way to flip this, I’m telling you, it would be crazy.”
I was like, “Alright, cool.” So he sent it to me, and I was listening to it, and Nas called me. So I was telling him what Hev said. He was like, “Wow, the Overweight Lover’s calling us about a record, and we used to be listening to him.”
So we were having that whole convo, and he was like, “What’s that? That’s Cat?” I was like, “Yeah.” He was like, “Damn. It sounded like Cat said my name in that record.” I’m like, “Really?” But he’s on the phone now, like I’m talking to you now. And he’s telling me it sounded like he said his name.
So I’m like, “Really?” I rewinded it a little bit. I’m like, “Yeah, I kind of hear what you’re saying.” But if you listen to the song, it’s not obvious. It’s definitely not obvious. But he heard something, then I caught on and heard what he heard.
So one day, I had a little time, I just took the record and started messing around with it, chopping it up and playing, and I basically came up with the chop of what you hear on the record, and moving it around. But it was still kind of light.
I love the staccato feel of it. It lurches.
Yeah. I was just trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents. I took the record, I chopped it up and that excitement that I love… And then I looked up who produced it, and I was like, “Ah, Jah Thomas, the reggae producer.
So I called him in Jamaica, sent Jah Thomas some money, he baked the multi-track, sent back the multi-track for me. So now, I have the 16-track of Cat’s song, that I’ve never heard before. So I call Hev like, “Yo, guess what I got?” He’s like, “What! Oh that’s crazy. I’ve got to come through and check it.”
For me, it’s definitely a cycle. Nas, when he was first signed to Columbia, used to be on promo tours and stuff with Cat. I remember going to see them at Hammerstein Ballroom, and going back, and how much weed smoke was in the bathroom.
So I played it for him, and he was like, “Yo, I don’t care if it works for Nas or it works for whoever. It would have been dope for me, but if it works for him, all good baby, I can do something different.” So I was like, “Alright, that’s what’s up.” So he went to London and hollered at me with some people out there.
Then, I was actually out in London working on an Amy Winehouse album, while he was there. It was the last one that came out. And then… doubled back, and by the time we got ready to release the record, he passed. So it was just something like, “Wow. OK.” And now, to see that record’s big and people appreciate it…
Then, after that we did that version and kept going. Nas had some other stuff he had some ideas for, so he got The Internz to add some sounds and different things to it, and there it is. That’s the record.
It’s a beautiful story and a beautiful record, because it really tastes, and feels, and brings that energy back in so many different ways. Just hearing Super Cat’s voice brings me back to basement parties in Queens.
Yeah, straight across. For me, it’s definitely a cycle. Nas, when he was first signed to Columbia, used to be on promo tours and stuff with Cat. I remember going to see them at Hammerstein Ballroom, and going back, and how much weed smoke was in the bathroom. I came up through that, because me and Bobby Konders were doing enough things in the ’90s…
Are you Jamaican?
No. My dad is Trinidadian, and I’ve got Trinidadian and Bajan family, but I’ve been working with that side of it for years. Me and Bobby Konders did the “Don Dada (Remix),” which led to “Ghetto Red Hot,” which to me, is my best record to date, just because of the fact that it’s lasted 20 years and…
I still rock “Ghetto Red Hot.”
20 years later. So for me, it was just like a full circle: Heavy, Cat, Nas. That’s just what it is.
To me, it’s like Sean Paul heard that record and built an entire career off of it.
It’s just the energy, and like I said, that’s what I get from growing up in New York. I listen to the things that I want to make and that I want to incorporate. When I’m doing hip-hop, I just want to feel as I did when I was a kid that got to love it. And I got to love it by being so strong, in that way.
Right, and it’s funny, Nas was saying very similar things. What is it about Nas that allows you two to work so well together? I thought God’s Son was really one of his most powerful works—if not number two, number three of his whole body of work.
Right. Well, the thing is… First things first, prior to me ever working with Nas directly, the fact is that, from 1991, his first verse on wax made an impact on the people that came before him, like, “Wow. Shorty is stepping up.”
The reason why Nas is still here, after 21 years, I would give it to his instinct. There’s only three people that I can say have been around that long, and that’s Nas, Busta, and Mary. If you actually sit down with them, it’s not a coincidence why they’re still doing what they do.
And also, at the same time, he made an impact on everybody after him. So his influence, by the time I worked with him in 2001 on Stillmatic on “What Goes Around,” he’d already done his thing for 10 years and kept people going and guessing.
At that point it was Stillmatic and the “Ether” period, and all that other stuff was going on and building up while we were working on the album. So it was kind of like I was finally getting to work with him.
I’d remixed “Fast Life,” with him and G. Rap, back in the day. And there was always talk of, “Let’s do this and do that,” and I went to junior high with Akinyele. So it was always like, six degrees away from each other. We were always right there.
Your dad’s a musician as well?
My dad’s a musician, producer. He did everything throughout the industry: musician, managed Chuck, had a label position, A&R, promotion. And even now, he manages Alison Hinds, in Barbados. So he be in the clubs more than me [Laughs]. Snatching his paper. So at the end of the day, me and Nas, we have a similar come-up. It’s just a chemistry thing. When I be like, “What you want?” “Fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, candy yams and greens…” “I’m good. Get me a salad.” [Laughs] It can flow.
How did you feel when that “Story To Tell” came out? How did you feel when “Rebel Without A Pause” came out? Like, we have a similar energy, as far as music, at least on that side of it. So when I finally did get a chance to work with him directly, we clicked. But I had so much of a point about where I was trying to expand musically and keep it flowing, and he was looking for another muse.
I mean, the reason why Nas is still here, after 21 years, I would give it to his instinct. There’s only three people that I can say have been around that long, and that’s Nas, Busta, and Mary. If you actually sit down with them, it’s not a coincidence why they’re still doing what they do.
People may not love every minute of what their careers are, but they’re still really clear on what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, how they’re appealing to their core, who’s been with them for 20 years, and how they’re going forward.
Right. It’s a science now.
Even more than a science, it’s just who they are, but it’s also them knowing who they are to themselves and then knowing who they are to their fans. So within that, there’s always been a point where someone was like, “Ah, I don’t know about you.” But then you come back around like, “Yo, I knew you always had it.” [Laughs] Like, you get those moments.
So you’ve seen kind of the ebb and flow of Nas’ creativity. I feel like this is a new kind of rush for him. These last three records that I heard, which was the Rick Ross “Triple Beam Dreams,” “Nasty,” and “The Don.” It feels like a Stillmatic moment…
And it is. The thing is, to me, that it’s been brewing since he put out his last solo album. Being that I see it all, it’s always there. It’s just whether or not he feels like going out there. Some days, it’s like, “Ah, I feel like going out and talking to everybody,” and some days it’s like, “I’m going to sit in the house.”
As far as his creative process, he goes and writes, and writes, and writes, and writes, and writes… And what he wants to stick is going to stick, for that particular album. But he will have wrote 500 verses by the time he gives you that 36 on that album.
The fact is, with Nas, unlike most other people, he’s had a chance to live his life in between doing all that other stuff, and he hasn’t gotten caught up in entourage, show-business, a, b, c, and d. He just be on some real regular, regular shit. So a lot of that, even those songs, they start at my crib chilling with all my records and my 1200s.
I’ve got a room with just mad records in it, my SP1200, my records, a screen on the wall, and that’s my little zone room. A lot of that starts there. We just be in the crib, chilling, and then—Oh yeah, it became “Nasty”… Oh yeah, it became whatever record down the road. It’s just us doing what we do.
Like I said, that’s a passionate, creative space to be in, where you can actually create and look back at it. So as far as his creative process, he goes and writes, and writes, and writes, and writes, and writes… And what he wants to stick is going to stick, for that particular album. But he will have wrote 500 verses by the time he gives you that 36 on that album.
My sense is that your approach is music first, and feeling first. How do you keep the commercial ends—the demands of music and time—from affecting how you make music?
For me, it’s just been a long haul. So I’ve been doing records forever-ever, and I always keep in mind of course whoever the person I’m playing the music to is. But on the flip-side, I also keep in mind, Do I like this or not?
During his writing process, Nas gives me a lot of ideas… He’ll be like, ‘I want to do something like Bessie Smith.’ So we’ll listen to some, and we’ll make some. ‘Yo I want to do something like Miles Davis.’ I’ll listen to Bitches Brew, “Alright, cool. Let’s do it.”
Yeah. If nobody likes this, right now… Would I spend my money on it? Would I do it? Would I go, “Oh, well, y’all crazy. I’m spending my own money on it?” Sometimes I have to. Sometimes I have a record, and it’s like, “Oh, y’all not feeling it, right now? Alright. I’m going to go do what I want to do with it. Y’all will be back.” Like, right now, I’m just instrumentally inspired. I’m actually scoring a movie now. I’m in the orchestra mode, since Rush Hour 3…
Yeah. I just heard you did the orchestra record with Nas.
Exactly. That was “Black James Bond.”
That was gorgeous.
It was just us doing what we do. Like I said, the music’s there, and it’ll start in a simple place, and then it’ll just keep going, but once again, it’s hip-hop for the love of just making music. It gives me an emotion. Somebody will never know where it came from, but they can appreciate it, at the end. That’s the way I look at it. Like, we’re just cooking at all times.
During his writing process, Nas gives me a lot of ideas… He’ll be like, “I want to do something like Bessie Smith.” So we’ll listen to some, and we’ll make some. “Yo I want to do something like Miles Davis.” I’ll listen to Bitches Brew, “Alright, cool. Let’s do it.”
He’ll just name something. “I was listening to this Billy Joel record. Listen to that. What you think?” There’s certain records, like “Suicide Bounce,” on Streets Disciple, where he’s like, “Yo I want to do this. I want to use this.” And I’m like, “Alright, here. Here you go. Let’s go. Let’s get it done.”
Are you of the mind that music was better in the ’80s and ’90s than it is now, or is it just different?
I can’t say that music was better, per se, because I can’t look at it that way and expect anything to come out of it that’s going to grow. What I will say is that it was more individual.
Like, you don’t have Slick Ricks coming out now, in that way.
Well, lyrically and then also musically, in the way they approach it. So in the ‘80s, we lived off the Break Beat volumes that Street Beat Lenny would put out. So when the Break Beat volumes would come out, everybody would be like, “Yo, you got the new Break Beat?”
So you had synthetic substitution of “Funky Drummer” or all these different records that were pretty much a beat or the same samples, but the way The Bomb Squad would attack it would be different than how E.T. would attack it. King Of Chill would be killing them with the MC Lyte records and all that.
Like, what in the world is “Paper Thin?” Am I just sitting here letting this song chop me up in my head? The way Lyte would flow on top of it. You’d be like, “Yo what’s really going on, right here? I don’t know, but I just want to wild out.” And then, that would be different from everything else. Like, everybody had their own way that they would approach it. You take it to the west coast, then they were telling their stories.
So it was all about the story. Bomb Squad was layering it. Like, who knew Marley was going to take it to another place and give it his swag? It wasn’t the same studio, the same board, the same keyboard, with the same conversation.
I think right now it’s good, because a lot of people are getting through it, but there’s a lot of the same, and then there’s people who are original within it, and those people are standing out. The people that aren’t original and are just copy-cats, you can’t even hear them.
There’s too much volume now.
There’s volume, yeah. The way I take it, from working on reggae—they’ll be 25 people on one beat, and the best song, the best voice is going to stand out.
That’s how I feel, when I’m in hip-hop mode. Like, if I’m going to do some hip-hop, I want it to be something that a mumble-mouth rapper can’t rap on. You better have something to say and be speaking up.
The cream rises to the top.
All the time. That’s how it works.
I think that’s what makes Jamaican music so cutting-edge, in a lot of ways, because everybody gets a chance on the riddim, and it fosters creativity. It just adds more to the pot.
And also, you ain’t got no time. “Yo, nobody waste no studio time. Go in the booth… We no like your voice. Come out of the studio. Who’s next?” Ain’t nobody playing this back and forth. It’s the whole idea of KRS going in the studio and recording a record in a few hours.
I’ve seen it. Record it in a few hours, and that’s it. “That’s it? Oh.” He did it, and if it’s on, it’s on. If it ain’t, “Oh well. What’s tomorrow?” That’s the whole idea: just keeping true to individuality and building. That’s what I feel like is missing from a lot of music, because you can see it coming.
Right. There’s no surprises. It’s almost like Mad Libs sometimes. You know what rhyme is coming next and how they’re going to cut up the record, or whatever it is.
But you reminded me of when I heard “Rebel Without A Pause” for the first time, I thought something was wrong with the radio, but it was sounding good!
Actually, before that, “Public Enemy No. 1” set you up. So “Rebel Without A Pause,” by then, it was already like, “Wow.” And it had those voices definitely louder than the noise, but on “Public Enemy No. 1” it definitely sounded like, “Yo there’s something wrong with my box. What’s happening with the radio? Fix the antenna.” Like, you were Fred Sanford slapping your radio when that music blows your head. And then you were like, “Yo, for real?”
Yeah, man. And that’s what you mean by like, the mystery of what would be next.
Yeah, because it wasn’t all so… It wasn’t all the people that we remember that were on top that made the community. The community was dope, because every block that you stopped on, what the Divine Force record meant to them, at that time… It was a dope record. Everybody knew “Holy War,” but then out of that crew came Melquan, Shabazz, RZA. It was an early Wu record, really.
That was them like, “Them my peoples, we got that record on. Now, let’s go back and do another one.” So it was all those different things that helped the community. There were so many records that came out that had everybody going. The Izzy Ice and DJ Majesty—big up Maj and Izadore, Da King & I—but they had that “Soul Man” record, and it was one record, but it made everybody swing.
Super Lover Cee and Casanova Rud had the “Romeo” record, “Do The James,” “Super Casanova.” Paul C contributed enormously to hip-hop, the Ultramagnetics contributed enormously. So that’s when music was in a particular place and they got it out, but like I said, that’s just one side of it.
I’ve gone to the other ends of the Earth and created stuff that had nothing to do with it, but when I go home, every once in a while, I’ve got to stop by the old-school favorites. I ate a White Castle not too long ago, just because I remember when I could barely afford it [Laughs.], just because.
You’ll forget it later, but you’re like, just because it reminds me of when I was… It’s just a little thing. It’s like going back home. So that’s how I feel, when I’m in hip-hop mode. Like, if I’m going to do some hip-hop, I want it to be something that a mumble-mouth rapper can’t rap on. You better have something to say and be speaking up.
Everything is written, and we’re just living it through. It’s a chemistry thing… With all the artists that I have bodies of work with—whether it was Nas or it was Amy or it was Jazmine Sullivan. Whoever it is, it’s effortless.
Right, right. So do you see it as a spiritual thing? Is it something beyond the material realm that connects you and Nas and all of you? Like, this idea that your fathers were almost linked and the music too…
You know what I say? I mean, of course all those things… everything is written, and we’re just living it through. But it’s a chemistry thing. It’s just simple down to that. With all the artists that I have chemistry with, I’ve had bodies of work with—whether it was Nas or it was Amy or it was Jazmine Sullivan. Whoever it is, it’s effortless. It’s still putting effort into it, but it still comes down to “that’s the record.” They just stand up, and that’s what y’all have heard. Now, the other 500 that y’all have never heard, it just keeps going. I’m like, “I want to do this.” He’s like, “Nah, I want to go this way.”
I’m like, “Come on, man. Put that out.” He’ll be like, “Nah.” Or I’ll be like, “Yo, go with that record.” He’ll be like, “I don’t like it.” I’ll be like, “Then go with that record.” He’ll be like, “I don’t like it.” We have that ongoing conversation forever-ever.
It’s just always the ability to create when necessary. It’s not hard to do. But that’s also me not being just a beatmaker, but being a full-fledged producer where somebody can actually say something to me in words and I can bring it back in music form not too long after.
Some cats are really stuck in their drum machines and whatever samples they found that week and how hard they can bob their heads, and they haven’t really gotten that far outside of it, but I can literally hear something and say, “OK. That’s what you want to do? Boom.” And still make it feel like that. So when I decide I want to make everybody in New York go, “Don, Don, Don.” Then, that’s what we get.
Nas is his hardest critic, in general. He normally has to write something, leave it
alone, and then come back to it. Most of the time, he’s not going to write it tonight and be like, ‘Yes.’
Nas is a virtuoso.
Yeah. But Nas is his hardest critic, in general. He normally has to write something, leave it alone, and then come back to it. Most of the time, he’s not going to write it tonight and be like, “Yes.” But even right now, like, if you look at him, you can tell. Look at him now and look at a picture of him from seven or eight years ago. You can tell, like, “Alright, cool.” He’s conditioned to do what he’s on.
It’s so interesting to hear you talk about the ebb and flow of it.
Right. I mean, the reality is there’s so many layers to what Nas can be, creatively, that even most people working with him wouldn’t necessarily see what I see. But then also, we talk a lot. Dealing, over the last ten years, with whatever was going on—not even just records, just in general. Me and him have kept up a lot.
So by the time we got to make the record, I already had… I knew what they lay of the land was from the last set of records, but I also remember, “Oh yeah, remember such and such idea you had?” He’ll be like, “Oh yeah. That’s right.” I’ve got a mental catalog of things, but that’s good when you have that flow and you can do that. I’m happy that this Life Is Good project is feeling as good as it is, because it’s a good time to do it. There hasn’t been a summer album from Nas in a long time.
So did you work with No I.D. on this record, or was Nas doing kind of separate work with you, and then separate work with No I.D.?
It was separate. I mean, at one point, No I.D. came to the crib, so we were all hanging out, and then No I.D. has a spot here in L.A., so I go through there. So we were hanging out and seeing what’s what, but it’s always there. On this album, not so much, because I’ve been running around doing a lot of stuff, but on a lot of the early albums I would be around, a lot of times.
Even on God’s Son, basically what happened was, when he called me, he was like, “Yo come through.” I was in Miami with my feet up, chilling, and I hadn’t done anything that year except for Amy Winehouse. I had just moved to Miami. So I just drove up to Orlando, and then I was just riding, like, “What up? Another week? Alright, cool. Whatever.”
So that’s why our chemistry, just as far as being able to get stuff done, really just flowed. And then, I was always the person reaching out, whether it was other producers—like me and Alchemist in the studio, me and Large Professor. If something comes up, Buckwild sends me some stuff or whoever it is.
I be hitting Pete all the time. There’s this one beat I heard from Pete like 20 years ago. I’m like, “Come on, Pete. Find the disc” [Laughs] I’m that dude, as far as that situation. I was always just trying to keep the community flowing, like, “Whatever. Alright. Cool.” Put it in his face like, “Yo you like this? I like it. I think it’s crazy.” Straight up, however he wants to deal with it. Like, “I love that record. Play that again.”