Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
Don’t try to put Nesby Phips in a box. For the past decade, the New Orleans native has been on his grind as a producer, lacing heavy hitters like Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa, and Action Bronson with carefully crafted tracks (check out Spitta and Bam Bam’s “Godfather 4,” a personal favorite). And he’s been putting in work with the pen, too, making a name for himself as a sought after MC who’s always good for a solid project or slick feature. Whether you want beats or bars, Nesby Phips is fully equipped.
But that’s not all. Nesby’s a renaissance man of sorts, whose passion extends beyond the MPC and the M-I-C—he’s also an avid painter and well-respected (and connected) barber who’s been cutting hair since high school. In fact, that’s how he built relationships with many of the artists he’s worked with over the years.
For our latest In The Lab, we spoke to Nesby Phips about his first recording experiences, how he lost almost all his production equipment to looters after Hurricane Katrina, and what his current creative routine entails. And we discussed the eye-opening time he spent working out of Dame Dash’s famed DD172 gallery in New York City, collaborating with living legends like Ski Beatz and others.
Plus, we chopped it up about his recent contributions to Lil Wayne’s new mobile game Sqvad Up (download HERE)—which he produced all the music and sounds for. And much, much more.
Welcome to Hollygrove.
First Recording Experience
Nesby Phips: “To go to the very beginning, I used to use two different radios. This is before I had any drum machines, I was eleven. I had a dual cassette tape, and my daddy had the big Pioneer [stereo] with the big knobs. I used to beatbox into a tape on my dual cassette player, then put it into the Pioneer, blast those speakers, and then I’d rap my verse over my beatbox back into another tape on my dual cassette player, which had like an area mic on it that I would rap directly into.
“So in hindsight, that was my first studio. I didn’t even know what I was doing, but I guess at the time I did. I was EQing and engineering, just following the sounds.
“When I was 17, right before I went to college, I bought my first drum machine. I’m a barber, which ties into a lot of the relationships I have with other artists. And I bought my first drum machine with my barber money. It was an Alesis SR-16.
“I had no consultation on what I was going to go buy. I needed a drum machine, so I called the local music store. And this is before Guitar Center, when they would sell mostly instruments and pro audio equipment. They were limited on production stuff, they didn’t have MPCs and shit. So I told him I wanted a drum machine, and the shit he showed me I later learned is what bar piano players use as a backbeat. It was $300, but it was real basic.
“I banged on that until I graduated to a Dr. Rhythm 660, and I had a Yamaha keyboard that I bought from Circuit City. But they didn’t link up, and I didn’t understand MIDI at the time. So I would sequence in the drum machine and keyboard, and trigger both them shits live. And I’d record them into that same stereo I used to rap into as a kid—I took that with me to college. It was another fly-off-the-hip type production setup. I was actually performing live via keyboard and drum machine because the shit wasn’t synced. It was crazy.
“Then eventually, I graduated and got an ASR. My mom’s van broke, and I had a choice between getting the van fixed and keeping it or she was gonna buy this ASR that was for sale at the studio for $1,600. They both were the same cost, and I was paying for studio sessions with change at the time. I said, ‘Fuck the car. If I get the ASR, I can go buy a car.’ So she got it for me, and that’s when it got real.”
“The house got flooded, but my equipment was on the second floor. So nothing got messed up, it got looted. Right after the hurricane, people were sneaking back into the city, because nobody was supposed to go. And they were hitting houses for whatever didn’t get destroyed, taking anything they could find. I evacuated with my MPC and my Mac, but the rest of my equipment was at my homeboy’s crib, because I had just got married and approved to buy a house, and was in the middle of moving. And they looted it. They took all my shit—my turntables, my ASR, everything—only thing they left was the records, ‘cause I guess motherfuckers don’t know what to do with records.
“The Grammy MusiCares Foundation, they helped me before FEMA did. FEMA never broke no bread, they denied all my claims. But MusiCares, they broke me off with some change to help me take care of my family, and hit me with a credit and a discount at Musician’s Friend, and I was able to get my first full studio setup. I forever salute them for that, because I wouldn’t be where I’m at now if it wasn’t for them. And I’m proud to say it came around full circle, and now I’m a voting member of the Grammy Recording Academy.”
Current Studio Setup
“Logic is my main go-to, but I use everything. Sometimes I’m in Ableton, sometimes I’m in Studio One, sometimes Reason. But I do the majority of my recording in Logic.
“Somebody stole my MPC, so I never got another one. But I got a Native Instruments Maschine that was given to me by Ski Beatz, he signed it and everything. He gave it back when we was all doing the dojo thing back at DD1172. He made a lot of the beats for Pilot Talk and other shit from that time on that Maschine. I got that in the crib.
“But usually I’m on the go, so typically I’m just using a little MIDI keyboard that fits in my backpack, and I rock out with that.”
“I was working with Curren$y at the beginning of the Jet Life/Fly Society transition. I first started working with him when he was with Cash Money. I would cut their hair, that’s how I knew them. Then I was living in Atlanta, and I gave Mack Maine a beat CD. And Curren$y wanted some beats off it—he actually recorded to two of them, and there was one more he wanted to use. He wound up leaving Young Money, and he hit me up for that beat, and it wound up being ‘Lost in Transit’ on the Fear and Loathing in New Orleans tape.
“So he and I, we sporadically would be working together. I’d bump into him or email him something. Then he got the call from Dame Dash, and he went up there. Two weeks later, I flew myself out there—he ain’t even know I was coming. It was the OnSmash showcase with Styles P and Raekwon headlining. I showed up at the venue, he rolled up in the Suburban with Dame and them. I walked in with them, he hit the stage, and after the show we went back to DD172.
“It was everybody coming through there. It was a renaissance if you ask me—for independents. Mos Def, Jay Electronica, Erykah Badu used to come through there. Even outside of music, from the videography and cinematography, DSLR standpoint, Creative Control was at the forefront of that movement. I mean, any and everybody would come through that building—Swizz Beatz, I saw Pete Rock in there. My first rap tape my momma ever bought me was Mecca and the Soul Brother, then you fast-forward to 2009 and I’m watching these documentaries made by Dame Dash and Creative Control on these big projectors in Tribeca sitting next to Pete Rock. New York turned me out, as far as music and culture was concerned. DD172 was like the Boys & Girls Club for independent rap dudes.
“It was like a big creative pot, with everyone putting their ingredients into the recipe to bake the same cake. Nobody was being selfish. If you walked in and a beat was on, you were welcome to get on it. It was creativity from the basement—which was where all the music was going on and t-shirts were getting printed—to the first floor art gallery with all the events and the ping pong table where Dame was busting everybody’s ass. Then the top floor was for video editing and all the meetings. It was a monsoon of creativity and business and all type of shit.
“I got snowed in the weekend we did the track for Pilot Talk. I was supposed to be there for one day, and ended up being there six days. So my first placement on a major album came out of me being stuck in New York at DD172 with no bread.
“And on my side of things, I did ‘Blue and Green’ and ‘Word To These Bo Jacksons’ with Ski Beatz there. We did the video with Jonah Schwartz, and I helped direct them. Those are songs people still know me for to this day, I just performed those songs at the Jazz Fest. It’s a plethora of shit that came out of there that’s monumental to me.”
“I’m a creative, so it’s not just music that happens throughout the day. And I’m a morning person—I literally wake up with the son every day. I get the children to school—I got a 14 year-old and an 11 year-old—and then it’s just me.
“I’m best in the morning when my mind is fresh, and the ideas are flowing. I get in there, and I have what I call ‘brain fart’ sessions. I tap on the boards, and the first thing I play I keep and add on top of it. Then the moment I start thinking about it, I move on to the next thing. I just try to flush out whatever’s in my head, it’s almost like taking a creative shit in the morning.
“I build up a whole catalog of stuff like that, then I just go back and open up sessions and keep working on them. It’s an ongoing thing, kind of like working on murals. Then I’ll be in sponge mode, and turn around and start painting and listening to the stuff I made.
“I let things come to me. One thing I try to stay away from is forcing things. I don’t have great success with that, at all. Everything that you’ve ever heard has flowed out of me, like a smooth #2. [Laughs.]”
“I dig. I’m always open, so I always pay attention when I’m walking past stores or in restaurants, movies, shit I hear on people’s Spotify playlists and stuff like that. That’s the new type of digging, because there’s so much music that’s so accessible. Going into the record store and looking for vinyl specifically isn’t the only way to get into it now. You kind of just have to live and be open. I don’t go in record stores as much as I used to.
“I got this kid named DJ Teddy Ruxpin that I met back in 2012 in Detroit at a Jet Life show. He was like, ‘Yo, I be digging and putting together these folders. I’d love to send them to you.’ No lie, from the day I met him until now, he sends me a folder of samples every month. I would have to say that dude is a part of that production team. Sometimes they won’t be records, they’ll be like sound bits or old taxi cab interviews. And we build on that. So I dig all kinds of ways.
“I do still dig and sample, but I’m really getting into playing stuff live. I’m working with my band now, The Grid. And I can really get on my Adrian Younge shit with them. I get to refine my ideas because I have the accessibility of a group of musicians with a great skill set. The whole production process has gone outside of me just sitting with a laptop, because there’s nothing they can’t do.”
“I only smoke for input, not for output. Usually I’m creating sober. Then when I’m listening back to what I did, I’m smoking. So weed is not necessary for me to create, but it’s still necessary in the studio. [Laughs.]
“I love light. I don’t really like rooms that don’t have windows and shit. Only other thing outside of that is maybe something to snack on and some water. I’m big on water—staying up late that’s what really helps me—and fruit. And scents. I really dig aromas, so I keep an ill candle or incense in that bitch.
“And a clean space. Sometimes shit gets junky, but I really value clean spaces. With a cluttered space comes a cluttered mind and cluttered art. But that’s really it. I don’t need four big booty bitches and 40s or nothing like that.”
Working With Rappers
“Most of the time, I’m alone in the studio. Like all the stuff I did with Curren$y, I just made it and sent it to him. I don’t never hear the shit until the rest of the world hear it. Like The Legend of Harvard Blue, I got two tracks on there. He just put it out [before I heard any of it].
“Sometimes, when I have the opportunity, I do get in [the studio with artists]. Then, I’ll make the beat from scratch, or bring the shell of a beat and listen to the artist’s cadence or where he’s going with it. Then I can really start framing up the beat and adding more structure to it— breakdowns and elements to complement what he’s saying. There’s a couple different ways to skin a cat.
“But the majority of the time, I’m just in the crib hashing out ideas and sending them to people.”
“Before I write verses, I write cadences. If you listen to what I’m saying, there’s always a rhythm, without being super-duper melodic. It’s like how Miles Davis will have a style that he plays the horn with, I have a style in the way I deliver words. And once I have a mold, which is the cadence, I just pour words right into it. And it always fits.
“There was one point when I used to overwrite. There would be whole sentences, too many words, and I would have trouble with breath control and the whole nine. I learned to make the cadence and fit the words into it. I’m phrasing now.
“The cadence is no different than any other sound I put into the beat, it’s another instrument. So that’s my approach. Once I get the cadence, I let the mood of the beat dictate what words I choose. I find a match, or I contrast it. But it’s all custom, everything is a one-of-one.”
Recording Session with Wiz Khalifa, Curren$y, and Nipsey Hussle
“One of my best sessions I ever had was during Where Is Smokey Robinson? That’s when I did the ‘Mazaltov’ song with Curren$y and Wiz. And Nipsey Hussle was in there as well. I recorded him for something else. Keep in mind, I did not know how to use Pro Tools at the time—I totally winged that session.
“Curren$y is very fast with the pen. Considering he smokes weed as much as he does, his mind is one of the sharpest I’ve ever seen. It’s almost like he’s racing, but he’s not. He has an amazing mind, and you can tell from his conversations and how he handles himself. Ain’t nothing slow about that boy. That’s how he’s able to crank out content like he does.
“Wiz is a great writer, and he does a lot with the melody, too. I’ve seen him work his cadence, and fill it in. He works it out in the booth. I love his process. He’s an artist that knows himself and how to use his voice as an instrument. He’s real abstract with it, but it comes together beautifully.
“Nipsey, he wrote his verse in the booth. He’d record a line, stop. Record a line, stop. His process took the longest, but here’s what I respect about Nipsey. He got out of the booth, and he came and fixed his own verse in Pro Tools. Pieced it together and shit.
“I was like, ‘I’m in the room with three monsters right now.’ That was one of the most impressionable sessions I ever had with rap artists. They are all very impressive.”
Working with Musicians
“They speak a whole other language. They know key tones and pitches. I’ll play stuff, and they’ll be like, ‘Okay, that’s E flat.’ And that shit sounds like Italian to me. But to watch that process, that’s a whole other side of the game. I’m enjoying that because I’m young in it. My mind feels fresh because I’m learning. Nothing makes me feel more fresh than learning something new.”
Making Beats for Lil Wayne’s Mobile Game Sqvad Up
“First of all, we’re all family. We all went to the same school. I know [Mack] Maine and Wayne from Hollygrove, I would see Wayne at the park a lot. He’s the one I know the least, quite naturally. But I still cut [his manager] Cortez [Bryant’s] hair when we’re in the same city. When Young Money was set up in Atlanta, I was living there and I was their go-to barber. I did the haircuts for the Young Money compilation album cover. And for Drake during So Far Gone when we were in the same city. I talk to Cortez pretty frequently.
“I recorded the band at the Jazz Fest and sent it to Cortez, and my message was, ‘My band is coming together. Put me in where I can fit in.’ And because he’s so busy, I’m very thankful for him always responding to me. Four hours later, he hit me up like, ‘Man, your timing is crazy. We’re working on a game for Wayne right now, we’re in the development stage, do you want in?’ I mean, who the fuck gon’ say no?
“It was really as simple as him putting me in touch with the guys from Utility NYC—which is the development company—and we opened up a Google Drive folder. They sent me the game, I downloaded it, and I played the game. Playing the game was fun. I let my kids play it, and was watching how they responded to it.
“Then I found some shit that I had and sent it to them, and made some new shit and sent it to them. And after about a week, they chose what they wanted for it, and now I’m a part of the game officially. And it came from me following up on my industry contacts. My timing was good, and it’s all about timing.
“I live in Hollygrove still. I made the beats when I was in Hollygrove, and the game is set in Hollygrove. So I ain’t even have to look at the game, I was looking out the window. The only thing that was different than making beats for songs is how long the beat had to be. That changed how I phrased the music. Before, it might take a couple seconds to get into the song with intros and yada yada. But this was more just a loop that they needed. So I restructured my format to think smaller— time wise—and how to set the tone. The ones they went with, they loved them. And I’m glad they did.
“The hardest part was choosing the sounds for when he dies. In the past, I did the music for a video game app called Mardi Brah back in 2013, and I used some sound effects. But I didn’t use sound effects for this, it was more like backing music for the dying sequence.”
“I’m working on my next solo project Simply Phips. And The Catch Up Pt. 2 will probably come right before that, to bottle up all these features. Also a project with DJ Fu, he’s part of the Eardrummers with Mike Will. It’s called Black Man For Sale. I did all the lyrics, and he did all the production. And I’m doing production for a bunch of people.
“Lastly, 0017 is a label I started with my cousin down in New Orleans. We’re coming out with another project too. And I have art for sale on my website, check it out. Art Basel fucked my head up. I went out there in December, and I came home inspired. I’ve been painting my whole life, but I’d never made anything available to the public. The revenue for artists is pretty dope, it gives music a run for its money.”
Download Lil Wayne’s Sqvad Up mobile game HERE.
Pics via Nesby Phip’s Instagram.