FOREWORD AND INTERVIEW BY NICK DONNELLY.
I’ve known Sermstyle for a few years now in music circles, we both are around the same age and represent the new generation of urban culture coming out of the North of England, so credit wise I always knew to respect him and his work. It wasn’t however until I came to his studio for the first time I really understood the real deal behind what I would call his hits, he would not.
Sermstyle is the English born and bred producer of Wiz Khalifa ‘Still Blazin’ and he also has a long list of other high profile artist credits both US + UK, but yet he still works from his self-converted studio in a garage in his small hometown; which is where I met up with him on a regular weekday: Walker, Newcastle, England.
UK: DO YOU ENJOY MAKING HIT RECORDS OR DO YOU JUST FIND IT A NECESSITY?
Serm: (Laughing hard) You just dived right in there. Well a hit record, you don’t know if it’s a hit record until it’s a (chart) hit, I don’t think I have a hit record yet, I think I have big records, I don’t think I’ve got a hit.
UK: OKAY, COMMERCIAL…
Serm: I love making commercial music…. I do now. I used to have the whole mindframe of sellout music, dumbed down to the masses and all that.
Then when I started to really study it, like other producers such as Dr Luke and Max Martin, people who been making pop for years before I knew who they were, I realised this is really technical. It’s been simplified, yet so technical at the same time and I think that was the key, to make something sound so simple yet its complicated, definitely love making commercial music over anything else.
UK: MORE OF A CHALLENGE?
Serm: Yeah I think that’s probably it. When I go back to making Hip Hop I have to restrict myself to make something more simplified, which is ironic because you would say pop is more simplified. You can make a hip-hop record with one note all the way through but if you tried to do that in the pop world its not going to work
UK: LET ME JUST CLEAR THIS UP FOR PEOPLE READING, YOU ARE SPEAKING STRICTLY AS A PRODUCER HERE?
Serm: Yeah just as a producer.
UK: HOW DID YOU START?
Serm: Sampled based Hip Hop, digging. Vinyl sampling. I started doing this stuff in the whole Just Blaze and Kanye West era when they were knocking out that soul sample over big, smashing MPC drums, I was emulating that because that’s what I enjoyed making, then I slowly evolved from that into more musical like playing things over samples. From that this transitioned into fully musical without any samples, occasionally once and then I will go back into playing things over samples.
UK: IS IT THE DANGER OF NOT GETTING SAMPLE CLEARANCE THAT PUTS, WELL AT LEAST UK PRODUCERS, OFF SAMPLING?
Serm: Maybe, I think you end up with more mixtape placements. With major projects it doesn’t really concern me because its up to the label to clear it, but then if they cant clear it it ends up on a mixtape, but I never think about that.
UK: WHAT”S YOUR FAVOURITE SAMPLE YOU HAVE DONE?
Serm: I’ve sampled Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston for a Kid Ink and Bei Major record, which is on his Daydreamer mixtape.
UK: SO HOW DID YOU GET INTO PRODUCING?
Serm: My Dad was a DJ, my parents are divorced when I was young so I would spend my weekends there, he had decks there and I would mix records all the time, this is when I was about 7 or 8. It progressed from there to playing with a Casio keyboard. I never thought about making music. It was always in my life, but never making it, it wasn’t until I started getting geeked out with computers that I found a programme called Fruity Loops and I was like shit you can make music with a computer?
UK: WHAT AGE WAS THAT?
Serm: About 16. My original plan was to be an IT technician but my grades sucked at school. I was like what can I do, I need to go to college, everyone else is going to college what can I do I don’t want to get a job. The year I was going to college was the year Newcastle College had the performance academy grand opening, brand new building, so I signed up for a course there on some sort of music production, I cant remember what it was now…. I ended up doing 6 years there (laughing) and getting a degree in music business.
Six years trying to stay out of the real world as long as possible, just accessed all the facilities and had financial support with the student loan… Being around musical people helped a lot as well.
UK: WAS THERE ANYONE ON YOUR COURSE THAT MANAGED TO SUCCEED IN MUSIC?
Serm: Without trying to sound too ignorant, I don’t know. A lot of them weren’t just musicians, a guy has gone into PA systems, but to be honest, I don’t know.
UK: UNDERSTANDABLE. SO WHAT DO YOU THINK OF LIVING UP NORTH MAKING MUSIC? IS THERE A LOT OF OPPORTUNITY?
Serm: I think with the internet there is opportunity. I think living up here there is opportunity but its just where you want to focus your energy. I was part of the Newcastle scene for a minute.
The unlikely base which produced Wiz Khalifa ‘Still Blazin’, Young Buck 50 Cent diss ‘Steroids’ and other major collaborations.
UK: WHY DID YOU MOVE AWAY FROM IT, YOU THINK THEY WEREN’T PROGRESSING?
Serm: I didn’t as such move away, I just progressed differently to where the scene is, the scene is doing something I no longer want to do, I still keep in contact with local artists. A lot still have CD’s with beats, so songs will keep trickling out from all over the place (laughing)
UK: SO CAN YOU REMEMBER YOUR FIRST BEAT?
Serm: Yeah I sampled (then starts humming some classical song)
UK: WHAT IS THAT? I KNOW THAT?
Serm: Its some classical, I think it might be Sunderland’s (football club) walk out music. I chopped that up and put drums over it.
UK: DID ANYONE USE IT?
Serm: Ah nah, this is just me. That was the first time I remember. I probably made some before that but it’s the first one I remember being proud of. This was probably like early 2000s, then I remember listening back in late 2000s and thinking that’s terrible, but at the time I was really proud so I class that as my first production.
At first I thought I could just sample what I had access to and then discovered that I could look for them, so I knew more what to look for, rather than just taking what was around me.
UK: CAN YOU REMEMBER THE FIRST BEAT SOMEONE USED?
Serm: Yep, it was an artist from America. I didn’t know anyone up here rapped, I was a young teenager I was just locked out from the world in South Shields. I knew nothing but the internet, I used to put beats on Soundclick. I got in touch with an artist from Pittsburg called J Fever, he recorded to one of my beats and I remember that being my first real record and I remember being amazed by it.
UK: THAT’S REALLY INTERESTING, YOU HAD THE SAME MINDSET THEN AS YOU HAVE NOW.
Serm: Kind of, basically, I was a geek. I only knew the computer and that’s helped me throughout my life because now the whole world has had to become geeks to survive.
UK: I’M SURE YOU ARE AWARE OF A LOT OF PRODUCERS IN THE US. WHEN WE SPOKE RECENTLY TO LONDON BASED PRODUCER SHIN DUMB BEATS, WE SPOKE ABOUT MAYBE THE UK NOT BEING RESPECTFUL TO THE PRODUCER, THERE ARE NO NAME BRANDS HERE THAT ARE REPRESENTED BY A LOT OF THE ARTISTS.
Serm: I’d say Labrinth.
UK: IN HIP HOP THOUGH, IF YOU HIT COMMERCIAL IN OTHER GENRES YOU ARE FINE, FOR INSTANCE CHASE AND STATUS…
Serm: That’s right, what about Alex Da Kid.
UK: ENGLISH, BUT ONLY KNOWN WHEN GOING OVER TO US, AND A LOT OF BRITS STILL DON’T KNOW WHO HE IS. THE SLICK RICK SYNDROME.
Serm: It’s a very tough question, it’s a very good question… Why don’t we have brand name producers, well we do but they had to branch into different markets. Specifically urban UK? We are still very young in our whole lifeline, it’s at very most a decade if you go back, now we are banging out all over Radio 1, we are still early stage. I don’t think we have had enough national exposure for the public to associate producers yet, maybe we’ll see in the next 5 years.
UK: DO YOU STAY IN TOUCH WITH ARTISTS AFTER PRODUCTIONS?
Serm: Yeah I keep my relationship with as many as I can, it’s hard… I tend to keep tighter relationships with the A+R’s and managers because the artists have big circles of people around them. I’ll eventually cross paths with a lot of the artists.
UK: THAT SAYS EVERYTHING YOU DON’T NEED TO DO THIS CLIQUE NETWORKING, MUSIC SPEAKS FOR ITSELF.
Serm: That’s why I like the US scene, its more business structured, they don’t care who you are, if you got a hot product that will do well for their product then match made. I think its easier to break into the US scene than it is in the UK, UK seems to be a lot more clique associated than it should be.
UK: DO YOU FIND YOURSELF IN CONTACT WITH OTHER PRODUCERS?
Serm: Yeah, Im in contact with a lot of producers from all over the world, I love networking and bouncing ideas, being in touch with creative people is the key to anything, people that do similar to your trade, and see what your competition is as well and learn where you need to progress.
UK: WHAT OTHER THINGS DO YOU HAVE IN THE PIPELINE?
Serm: At the moment everything is coming off the back end of the Wisin and Yandel album, which is number 1 on the Latin Billboard and been there for three weeks now. We came in at number 6 on US rap albums, the only debut to beat us was Rick Ross Maybach Music compilation. That’s my first ever Billboard stuff so that’s helping a lot of the moment.
I’d love to tell you everything but until the record is out there, its never confirmed, you can even have the cheque cashed, contract is signed and it still might not even happen. Basically Im working with a lot of great writers from Roc Nation, Universal, and many of the other major publishers.
UK: THE BRITISH AREA OF ROC NATION?
Serm: American. I work with a small handful of British writers, Jaycee Payaso being one. Mainly stateside though, that’s all I can say working with them and projects associated to them labels, a lot of big things in the pipeline though.
UK: WHAT HAVE YOU DONE IN THE LAST 12 MONTHS?
Serm: Made fuck loads of records (laughing). The last twelve months I been focusing more so on myself and where I’m gonna be within the next 12 months publishing wise. Been talking to a lot of major labels, been talking to a lot of management, I been surrounding myself with the right sort of people.
A collection of plaques on the wall in Sermstyle’s studio: ranging from Young Buck and Wiz Khalifa, to Newcastle independent names The Projekt and KC and more.
UK: ON YOUR WALL YOU HAVE PLAQUES PUT UP, YOU HAVE WIZ KHALIFA ‘KUSH AND OJ’ NEXT TO NEWCASTLE RAPPERS…..
Serm: Yeah this is my mixtape wall at the moment, this isn’t even a quarter of them, there are 18 there, that’s nowhere a quarter of them.
UK: YOU SAY YOU’RE DONE WITH THE MIXTAPE STUFF?
Serm: Yeah I have a few songs on artists hard drives that might come out. My mixtape stuff is kind of in the past, my main focus is on album and singles. Mixtapes is what started what I was doing, its all hip hop. A nice diverse on my wall though from multi platinum selling artists to complete unknowns.
UK: DO YOU THINK YOU HAVE FOUND YOUR SOUND YET?
Serm: Nah I was saying that the other day, I’ve had periods of sound. I’m quite diverse at the moment I think they all have a similar tone and feel to them but not evident enough that if I played a collection you would say they were all Sermstyle records. I think the name has more of the brand than the sound does at the moment.
UK: ARE YOU WORKING ON IT?
Serm: Not really no, I just want to make music. Music is so fast these days and are so diverse that what’s hot now isn’t in a couple of weeks, so quick, products are consumed so much quicker so I think the times may have changed from having a go to sound. You can here a Lex (Luger) record but I suppose that’s a niche subject, that trap sound, myself I have chucked myself into all different aspects to underground hip hop artists to Latin to commercial, so I think it’s a bit hard at the moment for me to define a sound.
UK: I DON’T KNOW HOW NECESSARY IT IS, SOUNDS DIE OUT BUT FOR INSTANCE KANYE, HE ADAPTS AND EVOLVES WITH HIS MUSIC AND YOU WOULDN’T SAY A TRADEMARK JUST A QUALITY.
Serm: Kanye is a good example, you can hear its quite Kanye but nothing like his old work.
UK: YOU HAVE YOUR SONG PLAYED IN THE CLUB BUT YOU DON’T GO INTO THE CLUB?
Serm: I have no social life, I will just sit in here. My routine I wake up come in here, work see my girlfriend a couple of hours that’s it, my brain is on repeat, my life is in the studio 24/7 I have no other hobbies just make music.
UK: A LOT OF PEOPLE WOULD LIKE THAT HOBBY THOUGH….
Serm: (laughing) I’m not complaining…
UK: YOU DID A MIXTAPE ‘SING CITY’ WITH JAYCEE AND DJ ROCKSTAR, THERE WAS A LOT OF HIGH PROFILE COLLABORATIONS ON THERE FOR A SINGER FROM MILTON KEYNES. YOUNG MONEY DID THE MUSIC VIDEO FOR THE COLLABORATION WITH LIL’ CHUCKEE ON THAT, HOW DO YOU FEEL THE TAPE WENT DOWN IN THE UK?
Serm: We didn’t really aim for a UK and US audience, just the internet. I think it was received well but not as well as it could have been. It was more to just sort him a profile as a songwriter rather than some unknown songwriter. Helped both of us basically.
UK: YOU SAY YOU WORK CLOSELY WITH A LOT OF SONGWRITERS, A LOT OF UK RAP DOESN’T KNOW THE ROLE OF THE SONGWRITER, DO YOU FEEL THIS IS A MAJOR HAZARD TO THEM MAKING THE SONGS THAT WILL GET THE MASS AUDIENCE?
Serm: Maybe a lot of them that aren’t on a major, I know that the artists who get signed to majors have the right teams, I think on the come up they don’t understand that because it’s a close doors thing, I think if they did understand this it would help. It all boils down to make good music and if you can get in with as many songwriters as you can it will help. When you sign to a major they will put you in with songwriters.
UK: I THINK OFTEN THE PROBLEM WITH UK MAJOR URBAN ARTISTS IS THAT THEY HAVE ARTISTS WHO JUST GET HITS PLACED TO AND YOU KIND OF FEEL THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND THE MUSIC. A RAPPER IS SUPPOSED TO NARRATE A MESSAGE, BUT THE COMMERICAL ETHICS IS SOMETIMES OFF, LIKE WHEN SKEPTA PUT THAT TRACK OUT, JIMMY IOVINE HEARD IT FROM INTERSCOPE AND DECIDED HE WANTED TO BUY IT AND TAKE HIM OFF THE TRACK. NOBODY WAS TRYING TO TAKE SKEPTA OFF A GRIME RECORD. WOULD YOU WORK WITH THE UK RAP SCENE AGAIN?
Serm: Yeah I’d work with them, I’d work with anyone that is doing anything I like the sound of and they like the sound of what I’m doing so I don’t discriminate.
UK: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE OTHER PRODUCERS WANTING TO GET IN?
Serm: I wouldn’t even say I’m that far in to give advice but I’d say to constantly work on the music, more than anything if you make good music and work hard. I put in twelve hours work minimum and when I started probably even more, when I first started I would play it like a game, instead of my Playstation, just sat and played making music like a game, go hard on that instead.
Once you perfect your craft then you can slowly tie networking into that, and over time it merges together: if you got a good product, you working hard and networking, they are the three keys, just work hard basically.
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