If you love good music, you’re in for a treat. Introducing McClenney, bringing all the vibes from his hometown in Maryland all the way to Los Angeles. The recording artist, producer, multi-instrumentalist, director, and photographer is a creative in every aspect of his life, creating with intention and absolutely no boundaries. With his art, he’s simply expressing himself and “seeing where it goes.”
Lending his talents in the form of a chord progression in Khalid’s 7x-Platinum smash, “Location,” McClenney is proudly credited as a co-producer and co-writer. Signing a publishing deal and moving to LA shortly after, he went on to co-produce H.E.R.’s “Gone Away,” which took home a Grammy for best R&B Album in 2018. A true music-lover if there ever was one, he even co-authored the 2020 Grammy proposal to change the Best Urban Contemporary Album category to Best Progressive R&B Album—a testament to his own sound.
When you’re under the wings of Quincy Jones Productions, you’re automatically destined for greatness. Now focused on his solo artistry, McClenney returns with the official music video for “Give Me Time.” Flaunt caught up with McClenney in downtown Los Angeles to discuss his sound, his upbringing in Maryland, attending NYU, landing with Khalid, the inspiration behind “Give Me Time,” spending time with Quincy Jones, working with Chika, telling his story visually as well as audibly, and more!
Talk about the type of music you create: alternative R&B with a pop spin.
Definitely emphasis on the alternative side. It’s funny because I grew up listening to a lot of R&B like Earth, Wind & Fire, funk like James Brown. When I first got into music, it was [Jimi] Hendrix and Foo Fighters that really made me want to start creating music. I was making R&B music when things started moving for me but more recently, I realize my music isn’t really on-the-nose R&B. It could be some of the guitar twangs I use, some of the textures I use in my voice, the arrangements or the chords. The chords are not necessarily always a standard R&B chord, it might be more of a pop chord with some color in it. Trying different stuff, not the standard this is R&B from the 80’s and 90’s. It’s a bunch of different influences, that’s how I like to create.
Being from Maryland, what was the household like growing up?
I definitely didn’t know I wanted to be a musician. I always did art so I always drew, and I played sports for a really long time. I played basketball, a few other things. Being from Maryland, there was no music industry at all. I was born in Baltimore, raised just outside of Baltimore. I went to school in Baltimore, so I saw a mix of different types of people. Times I was around people that looked like me, a lot of black people. Times where I was the only black person in a room with white people. I always felt I was able to be myself no matter where I was, the biggest thing for me. I was never necessarily completely influenced by only the culture of Baltimore. I’m grateful for that because it was hard being from Maryland. It’s not easy to get to Los Angeles, but it really forced me to focus on what I wanted to do as an individual and artist. Grew from there.
At what point did you realize you could do this for a living? That this was forreal?
I was 22, I’m 27 now. When I was 19, I started putting music on SoundCloud and started building a buzz. It was cool to see people were interested in and listening to what I was doing. It wasn’t a job, I wasn’t making money. My very last year in college, I got a chance to tour throughout the country DJing. Then I moved to New York and went to grad school at NYU.
What did you go for?
Music Business, which was a lot of money to be honest. [laughs] I went so I could live in New York and figure out what I needed to do to get to LA. It wasn’t “I love school,” I figured at least I’d have a better understanding about the business side of things. I was interning in studios trying to figure it out. At some point, I started getting one or 2 cuts producing for other people, that’s when it became tangible. Okay, I can turn this into a job.
How did your chord progression land in Khalid’s “Location”?
I was in college. I played some chords that ended up getting into the hands of one of the producers working with Khalid, Syk Sense. It became the basis for the song, they built it out from there. I found out about it later, the first big thing that gave me the chance to move to LA. I had one or 2 other things. I produced a song for DRAM a few months before.
I love him!
DRAM’s awesome, super chill dude. Super talented. I don’t think people realize how talented he is.
Did you think “Location” would blow up to what it was? It’s a hit.
I had this gut feeling he was going to be big, but nobody knew how big he was going to be. I heard that song, I remember thinking “holy shit, this is going to go somewhere. This guy’s going to be nominated for a Grammy, this’ll be a moment for my career too.” I didn’t think it’d happen that fast. The song blew up, me and the other guys got nominated for Best R&B Song.
“Give Me Time” out now, how are you feeling?
I feel great. It’s been a journey for the song to come out because I tend to write songs and they come out a year later. I wrote that song a long time ago. It’s about timing, which is so important in 2020.
No pun intended.
Funny enough, that’s what the song’s about: giving the time and space for things to really develop. We live in this age now where that’s not as much of a priority for people. This year’s reset things a bit, people paid more attention to that. I’m really excited it’s out because it’s a sound that’s really an extension of who I am.
What do you want fans to get out of the record?
I want them to understand that the song can mean to them whatever it means to them. For me, genres aren’t that important. Being a black artist, maybe it’s easy to see me as R&B or whatever genre. The song is what the song is. If someone wants to feel like it’s alternative, pop, or R&B, that’s up for their interpretation. You allow time to give yourself, you don’t have to make a decision about it immediately.
I love that you’re playing guitar throughout the whole video.
It was fun. I wanted it to really match the mood, the feel and the color of the song. Wasn’t too elaborate, wasn’t too narrative-driven. You watch it, hear the song, and take it in all at once. I hope when you saw it, that’s what you felt.
What do you feel when you play the guitar?
A challenge. I feel limited and free at the same time, because the instrument I feel most comfortable on is the keyboard. When I play the guitar, I find different ideas that I wouldn’t normally do. If we’re being honest, the guitar feels cool. When you see someone with a guitar, it looks really dope. They can stand, they can sit. There’s this energy, they’re one with the instrument. When you see the keyboard, that’s cool sometimes. You think of Stevie, you think of John Legend, but that’s a specific thing. When I think of the guitar, there’s a freedom because I can make it whatever I want it to be. If I want to play something really simple or do a melodic solo, there’s an option to do that.
What other instruments do you play?
I play the keys. I play the bass guitar. I play a little drums and I sing.
You mix, edit, direct all the elements of the video, talk about your production process and artistry.
Honestly, a lot of that comes from necessity over the years. Every aspect of the creative process is important. “Give Me Time” for instance, an idea will sit in my brain for a while. I’m not the guy that makes 500 songs and picks from the 500. I might only make a handful. I think about what’s inspired me. It could be a show, a movie, photography, anything. I try to let that ruminate for a while until there’s a breaking point where I feel inspired to go into the studio and let it come out. I do a lot of editing as I’m going. Rather than sitting there and finishing an idea I don’t love, I’ll stop myself in a way. Best case scenario, “Give Me Time” just came out. In my head, I really wanted something with that tone where there’s a groove to it and the bassline’s driving.
That day, finally it came out. It happened fast, really started with the bassline. I have a little drum kit at home, put the drums down. Usually a melody will pop into my head, then I’ll put some gibberish down. It’ll stay like that for a while. “Give Me Time” stayed like that for months but in my brain, I felt really good. I had the melody for sure and the chorus lyrics, but I didn’t know what the verses exactly were. It sat for a long time, I made other stuff and came back to it. Part of my process: I’ll let it sit for a while and come back to it. That’s how I know if it’s strong, if it’s something that really represents me.
I went in and cut the vocals, really felt it even more. I’ll get an idea and at the time I write it, I might not fully understand why I’m expressing it that way. When I remove myself, I’ll know why that was important to me. In this case again, the guitar tones, the sounds, the vocal style I was really excited about. I wanted the music video to have the right energy. The idea was for it to be a one-take.
It was one take?
One take. Well we did a few takes of it, but the idea of it being one long shot basically. We did 3 or 4 takes. It was awesome, exactly what I wanted. I went into editing and went from there. I wanted it to be very straight-forward.
How was working with the legendary Quincy Jones?
Amazing, honestly. It’s hard to put into words because he has so much wisdom. I’ve gotten the chance to spend time with him a few times, which is awesome. The first time, “shit what do I…?” There’s so much to take away. The second or third time, I got to really understand how to absorb. Because he’s literally seen everything, he’s done so much. It’s overwhelming at first. I never felt intimidated per se, I wanted to make sure he knew that I really respected his legacy and everything he’s done. I was really appreciative of his time. He really got a chance to see me as a person. I always try to be me and be respectful of other people, he thought that was cool. [laughs]
What did you learn from him?
One of the things most important to me is something he’s really valued his whole career: you treat people the right way. He always says “your music can only be as good as you are as a person,” something I really took to heart. I try to really understand people, not to expect things or feel entitled. Do what I do and really see the positives in all those things within other people. His whole career, he’s magnetic because he has this understanding of people. It’s not just about art. Most of the time it’s not about talent, it’s about what you’re able to share. There’s a lot of talented people, but not all of them are necessarily pleasant people you’d want to be around. When you think about Michael, he was this very compassionate person. With Quincy, they were able to click in that way because of that.
You have a Grammy win, right?
I’m really particular about that stuff. I worked on the H.E.R. album, it won a Grammy and I got a Grammy certificate. To me, I haven’t won a Grammy because I didn’t get the trophy. The Khalid case if we would’ve won then I would’ve won a Grammy.
Khalid didn’t win a Grammy for “Location”?
No, Bruno took it home that year.
Talk about the record you have with Chika, that’s my girl!
She’s amazing. I met her almost 2 years ago, we’ve been good friends since. We’ve obviously made music together, I have her on one of my songs as well. She’s a star, she has all the qualities. She really knows exactly what she wants to do and how to do it. She’s got this undeniable talent and everybody sees it. It’s been really inspiring because she’s younger than I am, but she knows exactly what she wants. She’s such a compassionate person that the people she has around her, she really values them. I felt valued from a friendship point of view, not even the music.
I extremely believe in her, but as a person, as a human being, that’s what’s so amazing about her. At the end of the day, whether she has a #1 song tomorrow or in 2 years — inevitably it’s going to get to that point — watching where it’s going is amazing. Getting to know her as a person, I understand how hard she works. How important it is to her, what she stands for and being able to move things forward. It’s an honor to work with her. We’re obviously going to keep working, there’s more to go.
What can we expect from your new EP?
More personal stuff about me. My goal’s always to create songs and different sounds, diving more into alternative. You know what it is? People getting to understand who I am as a person and artist because there’s a lot of people who know different parts of me. Some people know me as a producer, they might know the Khalid work and H.E.R. Some people know me as an artist because right before Khalid, I had a project I put out. It was getting some love from Spotify, that put me in a position where I wasn’t just a producer. I had a growing thing of my own going on. Some people don’t know I produce for other artists.
Do you want them to know?
Yeah, I’d say so. I’m not screaming it from the mountaintops, “hey I did this!” That’s the exact same reason why you won’t see Grammy-nominated or however many Platinum in my bio, because that’s not what’s important to me. I’m not a flashy guy.. I don’t look down on the flash, just not who I am personally. But I want people to measure my work based on my work, who I am and what I’ve done rather than plaques or certifications.
People are able to see the clear picture of who I am, rather than a piece of me. Another piece of that is the visual side of things. I only have a few but the projects I’ve done, I creative direct my stuff. I really know what I want visually, it’s as important to me as the music. This music video was a step in that direction of sharing what I see, in addition to what I hear. Being able to on this project, tell this story visually in addition to sounds.
Some artists recently I’m really excited about: I’ve been working with Chika. Been working with Mereba, one of my favorite artists hands down. I’ve started to work with St. Panther, who’s also a really awesome artist and a recent favorite.