When most people think about their favorite song, they often think about their favorite artistic qualities—the rhythm, the lyrics, the melody. But how are these elements pieced together? How do they come to coexist alongside one another? And who makes all that happen?
For Nick Phillips, the producer and multi-instrumentalist known as Beatnick, one half of the production duo Beatnick & K-Salaam, the science of organizing and constructing a song is as important as the artistic idea behind the track itself.
“I think you need the scientific part of it in order to express the art that’s in your head,” he says. “Just because you know how to run Pro Tools doesn’t mean you’re going to come up with something someone wants to listen to. And on the other side, you might be a genius musician and know all this theory and be able to play every instrument, but if you don’t have anyone who’s going to put it down for you on a hard drive, then it doesn’t really exist yet, at least in recorded music.”
Phillips has been mastering this balance between art and science since 2004, when as a senior in high school he stumbled upon a music production gig after Brent “Siddiq” Sayers, Co-Founder and CEO of Rhymesayers Entertainment, was impressed with a CD of beats he dropped off at Fifth Element. Since then, he and K-Salaam (Kayvon Sarfehjooy) have produced music for artists like Ms. Lauryn Hill, Yasiin Bey, Bun B and K’naan—not to mention other music they produced that ended up in official promotions for the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil.
“I owe a lot of things to Siddiq [Sayers] for hooking me up with [Sarfehjooy], which led me to the trajectory I’m on now,” he says.
Back in 2004, Phillips and Sarfehjooy hit it off almost immediately, collaborating on a compilation that led to the development of their longstanding production team. As a duo, they’re able to bounce ideas off of one another and play to one another’s strengths—one of the reasons they’ve been working together for nearly 14 years.
“He’s a DJ, so he thinks about music from sort of a different angle than I do,” Phillips says. “I look at the whole thing under a microscope, and sometimes it’s hard for me to stand back a little bit. So he’s given me a whole other set of tools to play with.”
As a production duo, Beatnick & K-Salaam do a wide variety of things, from crafting beats and remixing songs using live instrumentation, to sound design and scoring for film and television. One thing that Phillips says they realized early on is that because they operate behind the scenes of the music, they had to come to terms with the fact that the artists for whom they produce will usually absorb most of the spotlight.
“When you’re a producer, you’re not the focal point of the song whether you like it or not,” he says. “You’re there to be the bed for the artist to lay on, and we realized that.”
Working for another artist has its benefits and its challenges, Phillips says. When making a beat, for example, a producer can dictate where the chorus goes, when the verses show up, and how the bridge ties it all together. On the other hand, having this much authority can lead producers to fall into the same patterns.
Phillips says he’s found a balance between producing songs for other musicians and remixing songs on his own that helps keep his production habits honest and not repetitive.
“Usually when you’re making a beat for an artist, since it’s often the first step in the songwriting process, you have the freedom to dictate the structure of the song by the chords you use, the tempo you use, the ebbs and flows of the song,” he says. “What I really like about remixing songs is that you have a structure already there and you’re limited to the key the song is already in and the tempo they recorded to. So you have these parameters you have to stay in, which oddly enough, opens up your creativity and allows you to come at the track from a totally different perspective.” It’s become a method he now incorporates into scoring for television at Asche & Spencer, a Minneapolis music house responsible for ads with McDonalds, Mercedes, and Google.
Phillips’ experience producing music over the years has led him to a formula of sorts when it comes to crafting songs. He discovered this formula early on in his production career when he recognized that he was making some songs that were right on the mark, while others were lacking a certain je ne sais quoi.
After listening closely to some of the better songs he created and comparing those to his favorite music by other musicians, he realized that they had one consistent theme in common: an “emotionally rich chord structure.”
“If I have a nice set of chords, everything else—melody, harmony, and rhythm—all falls into place,” he says. “The chord structure then kind of dictates where the song goes.”
This is a formula that can surely be heard on the next Beatnick & K-Salaam release, an EP scheduled for release in early fall 2017 titled “Give Love,” featuring reggae legend Junior Reid, which is a precursor leading up to the duo’s next hip-hop compilation titled “The Bluest Flame,” featuring artists like Bun B, Big K.R.I.T. and Talib Kweli.